Author Archives: Fenton

About Fenton

Fenton Kay is a retired biologist with aspirations to be a published novelist. He has 50 years of experience as a field biologist in most of the SW U.S., Mexico, Belize, and Puerto Rico. He's also visited Ireland. His novels and kid's stories are built around his experience as a biologist and places that he has worked. He gardens, remodels/renovates historical-age homes, and teaches online, as well as writing.

Le Cochon Volant: The Flying Pig

I finally got it done! It’s published! It’s available on Amazon as a Kindle E-book.

Le Cochon Volant: The Flying Pig


Fenton R. Kay

A petroleum pipeline under construction across California and Nevada is killing desert tortoises. Millions of butterflies are migrating across the pipeline route. Global Pipeline hires Sean O’Flaithearta and his team to monitor the pipeline route to prevent the tortoise mortalities. Sean is testing a new system to record bats’ ultrasonic calls and simultaneously photograph them as they drink at a desert spring. Among his ultrasonic recordings made at the spring are unusual sounds that are not made by bats, but by vehicle brakes. The ultrasonic squeal produced by a vehicle is showing up at both the desert spring and at the pipeline operations yard. Why is someone leaving the pipeline yard and going to an isolated desert spring late at night? Someone is killing tortoises and digging up rare cactus along the pipeline route. Pipeline headquarters in Oklahoma has demanded that a pig launcher be installed on a hard-to-access ridge along the pipeline trench. A mysterious man is watching the pig launcher installation work. Sean’s equipment at the spring records two brake squeals and two gunshots. The newly-hired Cajun heavy equipment operator that is preparing the pig launcher site is found dead – murdered – in the hole he is developing. What is going on?


Strings and Harps

Recently, while watching the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year concert on PBS, I had an epiphany. No, it’s not earth-shaking and is probably pretty banal in actuality. But, here’s what happened and the background for my calling it an epiphany.

I am a music lover. However, I have absolutely zero ability as a music maker. In fact, when I was a kid, my mom dug deep to get me accordion lessons. They were for a 10-base, I think it was called, accordion. A guy came by the house and demonstrated the accordion to us, and I begged for the lessons. Well, I was a very lazy kid and didn’t practice at all. Couldn’t read the music and that never sunk in either. At the end of the lessons, they asked my mother to not bring me back again.

Back to the epiphany! While watching the concert, I was struck by the fact that close-ups of the harpist clearly demonstrated that she did not touch the strings except to pluck them. That sure is different from a violinist or a guitarist. The string-instrument player uses one hand to change the length of the strings as they play with the other hand. The harp’s strings are all of different lengths. I also realized that the strings of the harp are all of pretty much the same diameter, whereas the strings of a guitar or violin, or viola, etc. are of different diameters. Epiphany! The harp’s strings are all set at given note values based on their length. That’s why there are so many of them. Other string instruments achieve the wide variety of notes of which they are capable by having strings of the same length, but of different diameters.

Furthermore, the variety of notes can be and is achieved by the performer changing their lengths. The performer accomplishes that by pressing them against the neck. Why has it taken me all these years to come to that realization? I mean, it’s really obvious. Musicians have known forever. I have no clue why I had no clue.

As I thought further about my epiphany, I realized that there is a reason why the strings in a piano are held in a “harp.” Although the strings are of different diameters, they are also of different lengths. The piano “hammers” the strings to achieve the various notes – that’s why it’s often referred to as a percussion instrument rather than a string instrument. The length never changes. The wide variety – several octaves worth – of notes is achieved by a combination of different diameters and different lengths of strings – but the performer has no control over the length. There are pads that the performer can bring to bear on the strings, but they don’t change the length, they dampen the vibrations effectively changing the amplitude/loudness/duration of the notes produced.

So, a piano is basically a really big harp in a box. Hmmm – does the hammer dulcimer function like a harp or a guitar? I’ve never really looked.

That is Not the Sound of One Hand Clapping!

There I was, leaning back in my recliner, legs stretched out, hands behind my head, starting to drift off into nap-land. Then my brain took a left turn and started thinking about the effects f sound – noise really – on people’s ears. It started with my thinking about my own loss of the higher frequency parts of my hearing, then shifted to thinking about a friend of mine that did a series of biological surveys along the main LAX runway. All sorts of big, loud jets coming and going regularly. My friend claims that he has lost virtually all of his high-frequency hearing. That’s too bad, too because he had really great hearing when we were young. He could hear the lower end of the calls of spotted bats, which produce frequencies right at the edge of human hearing. Of course, thinking about the spotted bat calls got me to wondering about what the impacts of loud sounds – noise – are on critters other than people.

Some folks are concerned about underwater noise impacts on the physiology and biology of marine animals, especially whales and dolphins.  They cite noise from boats, sonar, oil exploration explosions, and similar sources. However, I have heard a lot less about the potential impacts of terrestrial noise.

I know there are studies on the effects of off-road vehicle engine noise (loud pipes – motorcycles) on kangaroo rat hearing. Kangaroo rats’ hearing is sensitive to very low frequency, low amplitude (faint) sounds. Apparently, kangaroo rats can hear the sound made by owls wings in flight.

There is evidence that birds have to modify their songs to accommodate urban noise. Urban noise is affecting breeding success in some bird species. I wonder if anyone has studied the impacts of urban noise on bat foraging behavior? When I was a young person, I observed that if I whistled loudly and shrilly the bats foraging around streetlights in my neighborhood would respond. When I whistled, they would make abrupt turns in their flight – they would jink. The response was very predictable, and I used to do it whenever I wanted to impress someone with my arcane knowledge of biology.

Another friend of mine was doing a biological survey on the Air Force bombing and gunnery range near Las Vegas. He and his partner were contracted to do the studies for the Air Force and had explicit permission to be on the range. There were not supposed to be any flights or training exercise that day. As they were working, an aircraft flew over at near ground level and going somewhere above Mach 1. The resulting sonic boom deafened the pair for several hours afterward. They recovered, but I have to wonder what the effect was on the critters that live in and on the ground. Snakes have no ears, but they can sense ground vibrations. Could such a low-level sonic boom cause sufficient ground vibration to affect them? Lots of lizards and rodents also live in the desert there.  Would they be deafened – temporarily – permanently? Would the kangaroo rats lose their ability to hear their predators approaching?

If exposure to aircraft noise along a major runway damaged my friend’s hearing, what might it do to the biota along the runway? My friend was there on several occasions, for several hours each. The local critters are there 24-7-365. What happens to the critters’ community organization when auditory signaling no longer works? I wonder if whales and dolphins will have to learn sign language?

I have no answer to my questions. Biologists studying the impacts of noise are only beginning, I believe, to understand some of the ramifications of noise on our ecosystems. I guess sound is just one more of the insults that humanity is heaping on non-human systems as well as on our own.

Mexico – 1965

Here’s another fragment from an uncompleted effort – a memoir of sorts.

I had been in the biology program for about a year and had heard all of the stories about the Mexico trips.  Excursions into Mexico to do biology with Brad, that had the feeling of magic. Imagine, if you can, a 21-year-old male with a romantic leaning. Now give him the opportunity to go on an expedition into the wilds of Mexico that will last about a month.  Ah, lordy, what magic; what wonder; what a concept to stir the blood of a young adventurer.  Indiana Jones had nothing over me; notwithstanding that Indiana Jones hadn’t even been invented at that time.  The word was, among the troops, that Brad was planning a trip to Mexico and that he would invite a chosen and select few.  Jeez, how could I get asked?  Well, I could just tell Brad that I was interested!  But what about all of the people who had been here longer, that had juice?  What the hell, I’ll just tell him that I would like to go, all he can say is no!

Can you believe it!  Brad asked me to go on the trip! God, it’s like a dream come true.  I’ll get to go on a real biological collecting expedition into the heart of Mexico.  Not only that but Al Gardner, the high priest of Mexican biology is going along as guide and expedition co-leader – ah lordy – it couldn’t get any better!  All I have to do is come up with enough money to cover my food down and back and while there.  Brad estimates that about 50 bucks ought to cover it.  Boy, that’s a bunch of money to a starving undergrad, but I think I can do it.

The planning seemed to go on forever, but finally the day is approaching.  We have packed Brad’s panel truck with our gear and traps and food and equipment and skin preparation supplies and – jeez – everything.  Brad bought a jeep with a hard top, and we have that jammed full of stuff too.  Not the least of which are extra wheels and tires strapped onto a carrier on the top.  Tomorrow morning – early- we leave for Tucson to pick up Al.  It’ll take us the better part of a day to drive there.  We’ll spend a day or so in Tucson and get to see the Univ. of Arizona campus where Brad did his grad work.  That’s sort of like visiting the Vatican.  We may even get to meet E. Lendel Cockrum, the mammalogist, and Chuck Lowe, the herpetologist.  I really want to meet Dr. Lowe, because I am to be the herper on the trip.  (I’ll think about this years later when I walk up to Lowe and introduce myself at a Desert Tortoise Conference).

Lizards Do: A Brief Look at the Life of Lizards

Here’s an excerpt from a children’s book about lizards that I am working on between other things – started this one back in 2002.


You have just walked out of your summer cabin in the mountains to enjoy the early morning sun. On fallen tree trunk near your cabin, you see something moving up and down. It is a lizard that looks like it doing its morning exercises, doing push-ups on the tree trunk. Now what, you wonder, is going on.  The lizard stops doing push-ups when you stand still and flattens itself against the sunny side of the tree trunk. Well now, you think, the lizard is also enjoying the morning sun, that I can understand – but doing push-ups? You sit on the porch to enjoy the morning sun yourself, and you wonder about those push-ups. Why was that lizard doing push-ups? Do lizards need their morning exercise too, or were those really push-ups? Maybe the lizard was looking for food, or maybe it was trying to scare me away or maybe it was checking for other lizards or for something that might be looking for a lizard for breakfast. You look over at the tree trunk and notice the lizard moving about on the ground. Now, what is the lizard doing? For that matter, what do lizards do and why do they do what they do? I wonder if I watched that lizard all day what I would see. And with that, you get up and go back into the cabin. You won’t be able to watch a lizard all day today because you are going to be fishing and it’s time to get your fishing gear and head for the lake.

If you had spent the day watching the lizard, what might you have seen?     On the planet earth, there are about 3,000 different kinds, species, of lizards. Most of those live in tropical areas of the world. There are about 115 species of lizards in the United States. A few more than half of those are in the western half of the country. Lizards are found in all kinds of places from high in the Rocky Mountains to the swamps of Georgia and Florida. Some lizards swim in the ocean, and there are lizards that swim in the sand. Some lizards burrow in the ground, and others burrow through the grass. Some lizards live in cracks in rocks in the desert and others glide from tree to tree in the tropical rainforest.

So almost anywhere you might be, if you look around real hard, you have a good chance of finding a lizard. But if you want to discover what lizards really do, you will need to spend a bit more than a day following one to find out. Some people who are very interested in lizards have spent their lifetimes trying to discover what lizards do. Luckily for us, the serious lizard watchers, who call themselves herpetologists, write books and articles about what different kinds of lizards do. By reading those books and articles, we can learn a lot about lizards without spending our whole lives watching them. But – if you do spend some time watching a lizard, you too can learn something new about what they do.

Now let’s talk about what kinds of things that herpetologists know about what lizards do. Lizards do a lot of the same kinds of things that we do. They sleep; they eat; they disagree with one another, and they make baby lizards. Many kinds of lizards spend a lot of time sitting in the sun. No, they’re not working on their tan, they need to sit in the sun so that they can do all of the other things they do. You see, lizards are dependent on the sun and the temperature around them to be warm. We, on the other hand, make lots of heat inside our bodies and don’t depend on how warm the air around us is to be warm enough to do things. Both lizards and people make heat inside their bodies as part of being alive. People make lots of heat and have ways to keep it inside. Lizards don’t keep their inside heat very well. So, when it gets cool, most lizards slow way down and if it gets very cold, they stop. Because lizards need outside heat to be warm enough to do things, people have thought that they must be cooler than us and have called them cold-blooded. Lizards aren’t really cold at all. In fact some lizards, like one called the desert iguana that lives in some of the deserts of the southwest have temperatures that are warmer than ours when they are going about their normal business. Some other lizards live in tropical areas or spend most of their time in shady places. Those lizards may be cooler than us. Tropical and shade-living lizards don’t spend much time sitting in the sun. Some lizards that burrow may never see the sun at all, so they live in places where the air or the soil is always warm enough for them to do whatever they do. Getting warm by sitting in the sun is called basking. Lizards that bask can live in places where the air is cool and may even freeze in the winter. Sun-loving lizards are called heliotherms, which means sun warmers. They get warm enough to do their thing by basking even when the air or soil is not very warm.

So, to do all of the other things that they need to do, lizards have first to be warm enough. Lizards have to be careful, however, not to get too warm. Just like us, if lizards get too warm, they can get sick and die. The business of staying the right temperature, as it turns out, plays a big role in what other things lizards do and when and how they do them. Lizards, like us, do different things in the spring and summer than they do in the fall and winter unless they live in a tropical place. In tropical places, lizards do different things when it is raining than when it is not.

You see, most tropical areas don’t have hot and cold and in-between seasons, but have dry and rainy seasons or wetter and less wet seasons. Many lizards do their thing during the day. A few do their thing at night. Some don’t care if it’s night or day. Well then, we know, from reading about and watching them, that lizards do whatever they do if they are warm enough, but not too warm. They do different things at different times of the day and different things in different parts of the year. Just think about all the different times and seasons there can be in different places.  Whew, no wonder some people have spent their whole lives trying to find out what lizards do.

Spring Has Sprung

One of the reasons that I moved back to Las Cruces from Tucson was spring birdsong. Tucson was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I spent hours staring out my patio door watching three species of dove, house finches, and hummingbirds, among others coming to the feeders I had installed. I learned an immense amount about the differences in courting and aggressive behavior between the three doves that came to my feeder. They all, Inca dove, mourning dove, and white-wing dove, used a very similar wing-flashing behavior to warn off others of their species and dove of the other species. The differences were in timing, extent, and frequency of the wing flashes. Fascinating, but I want to get back to why I moved back to Las Cruces.

Cactus wrens – yes, cactus wrens, were a big part of why I moved back to Cruces. Yep, there were cactus wrens in Tucson, but my experience of them was completely different than in Las Cruces. I suspect that part of that difference had to do with the vegetation around where I lived in Cruces vs where I lived in Tucson. In Las Cruces, my house had cholla cactus planted and growing naturally all around the house. Hmmm – I wonder if that had something to do with the street name? In Tucson, there were cacti in the neighborhood, but not right next to the house.

Cactus wrens, as their name implies, prefer to nest in cactus, particularly cholla cactus. The erect and branching stems provide great places to build nests and the sharp thorns and rather dense stems deter would-be predators. My house had a cholla growing just outside of the front porch. It was on the north side of the house, so it received a lot more shade than cactus growing out in the open – it was sheltered and relatively cooler during the heat of summer. OK – let me mention another thing about cactus wrens – they use their nests for sleeping shelter year-round. There was a cactus wren nest in that cholla nearly every year.

Spring springs early in Las Cruces and one of the first pieces of evidence of that is birdsong. Male birds setting up their territories in preparation for the breeding season and rearing of young like to get up in high places and sing their song – letting other birds know who lived where. One of the first birds to start singing in the spring around my house was the cactus wren. Every morning, starting in March, the guy that owned the front of the house and the cholla next to the porch would sit in the top of the tree in front of the house or the garage roof and announce his ownership.

That distinctive song of spring is embedded in my memory. Every morning as I headed out for work, I would be regaled by that song. That cactus wren singing in honor of a new year meant there would be pleasant days ahead. That’s a big part of why I moved back to Las Cruces.

I tried to publish this Haiga about a year ago on an online Haiga page. Editor and I couldn’t agree on whether it was worthy and strong enough, or not. My take away on this one was that there is a tendency for editors to try too hard to form what they publish in their own image. That’s not necessarily bad, but it sure can result in some potentially good stuff going unseen – not that I think this is that good or that bad – but … So, if anyone out there in the blogosphere wants to let me know what they think – well, I’d be happy to hear from you.

By-the-bye, the photo that this image came from was taken at Monterrey Bay, not too far from the aquarium.