Mojave National Preserve, CA
We took our usual route to the Mojave Desert National Preserve - through Las Vegas. An early flight out with our friend Todd was routine. With the AC blasting, we tore out of Vegas to the desert. Driving into the preserve we noticed all the wildflowers blooming on the sides of the road - mostly Rabbitbush, Creosote, and Sacred Datura. We pulled into our normal camping spot by early afternoon and met Tim and Beth, who arrived in the dead of night and had already established camp.
The sun beat down on us as we hiked the old jeep trail. Side-blotched Lizards and Whiptails scampered away upon our approach. At the springs, the water was flowing well. In the heat of the day, there was not much bird activity. But few Red-spotted Toads were calling from under the rocks near the spring.
Back at camp, Tor and I stayed while everyone else left for a night drive to patrol for snakes. We took a quick night walk along the road. A Common Poorwill and a Great Horned Owl called in the night. Many Kangaroo Rats rustled in the brush. A few bold Kangaroo Rats explored the campground to search for any fallen bits of food. A Packrat explored the underside of the rental car, perhaps looking for a new place to call home? We weren't sure.
The dark cool desert night was filled with pinpricks of light, a few shooting stars, and a sense of adventure on the horizon.
Down from the shack, the wash funneled into a deep cut through the gray rock. The 30 ft high and 50 ft long mini rock canyon was smoothed away by the periodic rushes of water. A Say's Phoebe built a nest in one of the crevices and desert plants hung to cracks in the vertical surface.
Back at camp, we all packed up and drove down to the Kelso Dunes. Along the way, two hitchhiking Packrats dropped from underneath the carriage of Beth's truck. The rats looks stunned in the middle of the road before scampering off. I had to wonder how many rats dropped of the rental car we were driving. At the dunes, we meandered around the creosote look for Desert Iguanas and Fringe-toed Lizards. Desert Marigolds, skeletons of Birdcage Evening Primrose, and Desert Dandelions littered the sandy ground. Horned Larks were the only birds I heard and saw. In the washes, Zebra-tailed Lizards flashed their colorful sides before speeding off into the underbrush.
When we reached the bottom of the dune, several college students were running up to climb up the face of the dune. The crazy kids were dripping with machismo as they egged each other on to climb to the top of the dune.
We wound down the evening back at camp with a surround sound chorus of 4 coyote groups.
The owlet was still perched on the same branch as we left to go back to camp. From our camp, everyone packed up and headed out to Cima Dome to the Teutonia Peak Trail. Around Cima Dome the wildflowers were even more impressive. The roadsides were covered in Evening Primroses, Desert Paintbrush, and Desert Marigold. The trail to Teutonia Peak was peppered in the brilliant reds, blues, pinks, oranges, and yellows of the desert wildflowers.
From the peak, we could see Cima Dome to west and the Ivanpah Mountains to the east. We soaked in the desert sun and scenery from the top as Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks flew lazy circles around us. And a few White-throated Swifts chattered away in their rapid flights.
Our next stop was the lava beds along the Kelbaker Road to look for Chukwalla and Collared Lizards. We found a good sized male within a few minutes. Then while poking around the lava cliffs, Tor found two Speckled Rattlesnakes sleeping next to each other. And a few more Chuckwallas crawled out of the cracks.
After dinner in Baker at Big Boy (where apparently no one, but me, orders a plain hamburger), Tor and I headed back to camp while Todd, Tim and Beth went on the evening road patrol. As the sun settled in, Common Nighthawks soared low over the desert scrub and in front of the car. We didn't make it back to camp before nightfall, so we witnessed some roadkill carnage within miles of our camp. Our first sighting was a Sidewinder trying desperately to slither off the road, but its tail was smashed into the pavement. We also saw a Gopher Snake and a Long-nosed Snake both freshly hit and still writhing. We felt sorry for the creatures - their only goal was to cross the road or to warm up for an evening hunt. But instead people carelessly or even purposely run them over at night - their goals were to go gamble or just to cruise. Those three dead snakes in the span of 10 miles was a sad and sobering realization of the impact of humans.
When the rest of the gang met up with us at the springs, we set out to hike up to the top of Silver Mountain. The hike up the wash and old mining road was slow going and steep at times. The sun was beating down us, but the occasional breeze was refreshing. A Collared Lizard was out on the rocks sunning itself and Scott's Orioles sang its warbling song. An unfamiliar song rang out and I was happy to see a Black-chinned Sparrow singing from the mountainside. It was a refreshing change from the abundant yet melodious Black-throated Sparrow trills. Closer to the top of the mountain, I saw a flash of bright red approach. A male Summer Tanager perched in the juniper allowing me long looks at his flashy plumage before flying over the ridge.
We hiked back down the mountain and returned on Cottonwood Wash to get back to camp. Tor and I found a pocket of Horned Lizard in the wash. They were very cute hunkering down close to the sand in an effort to blend in better.
Back at camp, we relaxed as there was one more night patrol. I tried digascoping in the evening, but the birds seemed widespread and uncooperative. The abundance of food this year seemed to have dispersed them throughout the desert. The evening winds picked up making it quite chilly. We retired early to the relative warmth of the tent.
After goodbyes, Beth and Tim took off early. And the rest of us stayed for a bit to walk around the wash. Tor and I found a Patch-nosed Snake sunning itself in the early morning and a Greater Roadrunner was patrolling under the catclaws where we saw the Horned Lizards the day before.
We finished packing up our stuff and made a stop at the Kelso Depot before heading back to Vegas. Driving out, we remarked on how the wildflowers we saw 4 days previous had now died down to nothing. The timing of the trip was remarkable - both with the cooler than average temperatures and the peak of the wildflower. It was a great trip with fantastic wildlife sightings and an overall good time in the desert. It wouldn't have been the same without friends to make it more memorable, fun, easy, and enjoyable.
Mojave National Preserve