The Compost Lizard

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(  Top picture is one taken of one of the house lizards a while back – 2nd picture is one of the house lizards sunning himself today (his mate disappears every time I go to take a picture but she’s out too), and the 3rd picture is the little compost lizard in his lair taken at noon. All are sunning themselves as I write!)

 

There is a wily sagebrush lizard

peeking out of star dry flowers

sunning himself on

brittle decaying leaves.

All but two of his

kind have disappeared

since the night freeze settled

kindly,

blackening few tender plants.

How brilliant that he

should choose such a practical

abode, a circular container

warmed by an autumn sun,

full of rotting greenery!

Assured of food from insects

for a while yet,

his eyes are narrow slits when

he slumbers, dreaming his next meal.

Imagine

the variety of bugs

who still visit this

compost heap in

wild abandon,

buzzing madly

at high noon,

oblivious to Lizard’s

canny presence in their midst!

 

It is mid October (10/18) and the mountain peaks wear snowy hats. Here in the valley we have had more rain in the last ten days than we have had all year … the first flakes swirl. The dark eyed juncos have arrived. For the last few days I have been noticing the absence of my house lizards who seem to have vanished with the heat. There are only two left out of the original 6 and these two hide behind the slat closest to the door, slipping out to sunbathe when the sun warms my adobe walls.

 

When I first met the “compost lizard” I knew he wasn’t one that lived here all summer. Earlier in the season I had a large compost lizard that moved to the south wall as it got cooler. So where did the small compost lizard come from, clever little fellow? A compost heap is a lizard heaven of sorts with all the leftovers watered routinely to keep the worms happy, and with heat trapped in a round plastic cylinder the wind is kept at bay. At noontime I go out to visit him noting his blue belly hoping that he will stay around a bit longer, perhaps fattening himself up for an intermittent winter sleep. I would like to think that he will find a safe burrow in this mountain of debris, and that we shall meet again in spring.

 

I recently read that adolescent lizards are more active in the fall, this might account for the sudden appearance of the compost lizard. I also learned that occasionally lizards will “hibernate” together… I wonder if this might be true for my two house lizards who are currently hunkered down behind the slats and the house… I will be watching to see how long they stay there.

 

Lizards are not active during winter; they enter a state of dormancy called brumation which is not the same as hibernation. With both, metabolic processes slow down but with brumation the lizards alternate dormancy with activity. They need to drink water to avoid dehydration. Lizards build up a high level of glycogen (sugar) that can be used for muscle activity. They also need less oxygen to breathe and this is a good thing because some dig holes in mud where oxygen levels are lower. Other lizards will hide underground in old burrows, in a hole in a tree or under leaves. I love knowing that my lizards will still be around even if I don’t see them!

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The House Lizards

When I moved into my adobe house the first of June two Sagebrush lizards were already living here. Delighted to make their acquaintance I named them the “house lizards” as an act of faith, hoping they would stay here for the summer.

 

Every morning a little after dawn I was out watering my hummingbird garden and tending my nasturtium patch on the east side of the house while these two followed my movements with apparent fascination. It was hot in June, unbearably so, even in the morning, and I noticed that the lizards favored this time of day. They especially appreciated the water that puddled around my nasturtium patch. They also liked to hide under the nasturtiums’ large deep green umbrella -like leaves.

 

I always struck up a conversation when the two appeared, asking how they were and often one or both would bob their heads up and down in response to the sound of my voice. One was a bit larger, so I assumed he was the male. And when I glimpsed the cobalt blue under his chin I knew I was right. Bobbing is normally part of the mating process but it must also be used as another form of communication because both lizards used this gesture when responding to the sound of my voice. The male was a beauty, dark with sharply etched scales, and lots of cobalt blue on his underbelly and the little female was cream colored, her markings less distinct. Since they were almost always together I assumed they were a pair. I hoped a clutch of eggs might be hidden somewhere nearby and that one day I might meet one of their offspring.

 

There were three more sagebrush lizards each with different markings that also lived in this immediate area, and I could tell the difference between them too. Two were males and one was a female. The male and female liked the curved garden wall but I was never certain that they were actually a pair, and there was another, almost gray, male sagebrush lizard that hung out around the compost heap out back.

 

I loved the way all of them watched me with those slanted lizard eyes often turning their heads in my direction as I passed by. I could get within inches of them if I didn’t move quickly, but they would dart away the moment I tried to stroke one.

 

The lizards appeared to have distinct territories. The pair of house lizards hung out on the eastern or southern wall, the other two chose the area around the curved garden wall also on it’s east and southern edge, the fifth lived out back zipping around on the ground or lounging on the wire that covered the compost barrel.

 

Sometimes one of the house lizards would cling to one of the house screens, a habit that reminded me of Shadow, my first lizard who actually lived inside the house I was renting until an arrogant insensitive woman who was always in a hurry crushed him in the door, killing him instantly. This tragedy happened two years ago just after moving here. The worst thing about this story was that I had warned her moments before she squashed him that he was clinging to the inside of the screen.

 

After Shadow’s death I was so heartbroken I wasn’t sure I wanted to make another lizard friend… but here I was in my new house with two lizards in particular that seemed to be developing an attachment to me, as I certainly was to them. All during the month of June many Whiptail lizards raced around here in the tall grass but the two house lizards had a penchant for clinging to the walls of the adobe structure. This behavior made me very happy because I believed they might escape predation by snakes and birds.

 

I also dug a small rock pool into the ground just beyond my garden for the lizards and hopefully to attract a toad or two. Oddly, the solitary compost lizard often sunbathed on the warm pink sandstone around the pool before returning to his territory behind the house.

 

I think it was in mid July that I realized that one of the curved wall lizards was missing. This was a little female. The other is still around but the remaining lizard now keeps to himself and scurries away whenever I get too close.

 

In late July I had a house lizard scare. The female developed some kind of white growth on the back of her neck. I tried to remove it but she resisted my attempts to touch her so I was unable to dislodge whatever it was. Then she disappeared. I was bereft, thinking I had lost her, and was it my imagination that her mate seemed to follow me around as if he needed a friend? I had never seen one of these lizards without the other being visible somewhere nearby until now.

 

A few days later she re-appeared much to my relief, and although there was still a white mark on her head, almost like a scar, the mass or growth was gone.

 

By mid August my nasturtium patch had mushroomed into a huge lizard friendly canopy, and when I would go to water the flowers at noontime (the plants wilted in the heat of the day, just like me) the two house lizards would suddenly materialize on the wall above the vines under which they had been hiding. Apparently, they didn’t like sudden cold showers!

 

One morning in late August I was inside the house and thought some kind of bug had attached itself to the screen. Going to the window to investigate I was startled to see that the tiniest sagebrush lizard clinging to the wire with spidery feet. I rushed out the door, and surprised both house lizards who were basking on the sill just beneath their offspring. This couldn’t be coincidence. Out of perhaps 9 or 10 eggs one little guy had made it. Now I had three house lizards, much to my delight! Lizards aren’t supposed to be attentive parents but why else did that one inch baby lizard stay so close to the adults?

 

When the baby disappeared about a week later I wondered if he had left to find his own territory? I missed seeing him – a lot – probably more than the house lizards who continued their normal routine, spending their days climbing around on the walls, preferring a southern exposure now that the sun was less intense, at least for the morning hours. Each afternoon they still retired to the nasturtium patch for a nap. Sometimes I couldn’t resist peeking in at them!

 

A few days passed and then the baby lizard surprised me by materializing on the steps that lead to the porch on the south side of the house. So he was still around after all. Since then, he appears irregularly but often enough to suggest that he is still using his parents’ territory at least the area around the porch. I last saw him yesterday. The literature states that young lizards practice dispersal. Perhaps this little one had siblings that had also survived and moved on? Around the same time tiny whiptails were scurrying around in plentiful numbers, but in the two years I had been here in New Mexico I had never seen a baby sagebrush lizard before this one.

 

I’ve read that males and females defend separate territories except during mating which would have occurred in early June, but my house lizards don’t seem to be following the rules because now it’s mid September and these two are still together. And yesterday afternoon the little one was on the south porch railing sunning himself, a perfect miniature sagebrush lizard.

 

Lizards are not supposed to develop attachments to humans, but I believe this assessment is wrong. In my life experience any wild creature will befriend a human that cares about them.

 

I was with the dogs on the east porch having my coffee in the warmth of the early morning sun today thinking about finishing this narrative when I glimpsed the male house lizard peering over the edge of the roof. In seconds he rushed down like a reptilian spiderman to cling to the wall next to me, and sure enough, just behind him the female appeared too. With September half over it won’t be long until the lizards find a safe burrow or debris to hibernate in, and I shall miss them dearly…

 

Hopefully, next April they will emerge from their winter’s sleep along with the little lizard to join a woman who loves them. And together we will celebrate another season under the heat of a warming spring sun.

The “Uncommon” Sagebrush Lizard

 

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Above: Leo

One of the reasons I love living in the desert is because I share half the year with lizards. Although the sagebrush lizard is “common” in that it can be found in most western states, I have had a couple of uncommon experiences with them.

The first occurred last summer after I moved into a (former) rental. One day about a week after we moved in a sagebrush lizard appeared in between the slats of the screen door on the inside. Had he been living in the house before we arrived? Each day he appeared in the late morning, seemingly from nowhere, to bask on the stone windowsill inside the house. He spent most afternoons on the inside of the screen door somewhat hidden behind its slats. A house lizard has come to live with us, I thought, with pleasure. I’ll call him Shadow.

My Chihuahuas were astonished by this small creature that snapped up ants, and moved at lightening speed from one end of the house to the other! Shadow befriended Hope and Lucy tolerating their curiosity when they nudged him on his stony plateau. Lily B, my dove kept a sharp eye on him too, sometimes flying down to inspect the floor after Shadow streaked by.

Whenever I saw the lizard during the day I would speak to him telling him how happy I was that he joined our little family. During our “conversations” Shadow peered me with bright almond shaped eyes, cocking his head from side to side and behaving as if he understood what I was saying. Perhaps he did. He certainly responded to my attention.

Researching Sagebrush lizards I soon learned that males had two bright iridescent cobalt patches on their undersides. When I went outside to peer at Shadow clinging to the screen from the inside, I saw the astonishing blue patches. Shadow was a male.

Alas, three short weeks later, the property manager who neglected to respond to my warning, twice, crushed Shadow in the door killing him instantly. I was totally bereft. After his death even the female lizard that unexpectedly bowed to me as I buried Shadow outdoors under his window made me sad… Later, I wondered if the little female had been Shadow’s mate because she stayed around the house and often basked in the same window that Shadow did (only on the outside) until the cool temperatures and a sun slipping low on the horizon sent her into hibernation in October.

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Above: Shadow on the inside of the screen

It was a steamy April afternoon four months later when I went out the back door of our little river house (having moved in February) to sit and to shell some Redbud pods.

When I sat down on a little wooden bench near the door a Sagebrush lizard appeared out of one of the wooden slats of a square slatted plank that served as a bottom step. I held my breath as I looked for blue patches and saw none. But he seemed like a male. When the lizard started bowing to me I stood up and bowed back while calling to him (?) softly. The lizard regarded me with one beady eye. “I’m glad to meet you” I said, delighted that my voice didn’t scare him. I had a sudden pure burst of joy as he and I conversed, me with words, him by using his body to respond by bowing to me after I spoke!

I recalled the little female who had made this apparently formal bowing gesture towards me as I buried Shadow under the window with some Prairie sage last fall…

This was the second lizard I had met that liked wooden slats I thought to myself, surprised by the apparent coincidence. I decided to bring him some water. After making sure he had plenty of stones to reach into shallow the water-dish, I bid him good day. “Please stay,” I finished, before rounding the house.

When I lay down to take a nap that afternoon a name popped into my head “Leo” I heard myself say. Perfect!

Later that afternoon I went out to see Leo, and sure enough, he was still basking in the sun. I saw a flash of blue although he disappeared when I took a picture. He’s going to stay, I thought, and believed it.

The next morning when I came around the corner there was Leo basking on one of the slats. “Hi Leo” I spoke softly. In truth I had no idea if this lizard was male or female (because a female could have pale blue patches too in some cases) and at that moment I didn’t care. I returned to the house for my camera and snapped a picture. Suddenly, A smaller lizard appeared out of the out of one of the slats and Leo bowed to the little lizard first, and then turned to bow to me! Absurdly happy but still stunned, I stood there gaping. I named the smaller lizard Liza.

Bursts of pure joy flooded me. Just knowing that I might have two lizards moving into this outside space was enough. My gratitude overflowed because their presence was also a healing experience that allowed me to fall in love with Sagebrush lizards again.

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Above: Liza and Leo – from left to right

Working notes:

After this second lizard experience occurred I did more in depth research on Sagebrush lizards, a common species throughout the Southwest. I was fascinated by the bowing behavior and wondered if it might be part of the sagebrush mating ritual. Sure enough, head bobbing (a single bob) and shuddering (repeated head bobbing) are part of the male’s mating behavior towards a female. (A male might do head bobbing 24 – 60 times an hour while courtship is in progress). Males are territorial and mate with more female, although they have a preference for certain females and court them frequently. Lizards also use chemical and visual cues to select a mate. The brilliant blue patches on the undersides of the male attract the females, and sometimes the female rejects a male suitor for unknown reasons. After the male impregnates one female she develops an orange belly indicating that she is carrying eggs. Her mate then moves on to another chosen female in his territory. Mating usually takes place in May or June, and one or two clutches of 2 -10 eggs are laid about an inch underneath the base of sagebrush in June or July. Incubation lasts for 40 plus days and sometimes the young appear as early as late July. I saw many very small Sagebrush lizards last August.

Sagebrush lizards are very eco – friendly eating ants, beetles, termites, grasshoppers, spiders and scorpions.

The males are bigger than the females.

Lizards are diurnal and are most active in the late morning and afternoon. They are fond of open spaces where they can bask in the sun, but are never far from some form of protection. Roadrunners love to eat them and many other animals and birds like the badger, snake, and hawk do too. If fortunate, a Sagebrush lizard will live about four years in the wild.

Although fascinating from a natural history perspective none of this information explains why any Sagebrush lizard would spend time “bowing” to me!