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Mojave Desert
May 2011

    Mojave National Preserve, CA


Friday 5.20
Given our continued lack of spring in the Pacific Northwest, I was excited to get some sun and warmth in the Mojave Desert. Dare I say I was looking forward to being too hot even! After the dolldrums of a half a year of cold and rain, a little heatstroke didn't seem so bad.

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.

After settling in, we hiked out to the middle springs to set up the game cameras. I was soon immersed in the old familiar sounds and sights of the Mojave Desert. I tired to clear the cobwebs off my desert knowledge to identify the trill of the Black-throated Sparrow, the whistle of the Phainopepla, and the chortling of the Cactus Wren. The names of the plants came back more slowly, but the lack of knowledge didn't take away from the beauty of the blooming Bladder and Desert Sage, Desert Paintbrush, Beavertail and Hedgehog Cactus, and Wallace's woolly daisies. A closer look at the desert revealed all the small splashes of color that were tucked away in all the spines and thorns of the desert.

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.

Saturday 5.21

I awoke before dawn the next morning to the calls of Gambel's Quail, the persistent song of the Northern Mockingbird, and the buzz of Costa's Hummingbirds chasing each other. Tor and I walked down the road and dropped into the wash to explore the dilapidated miner's shack. There wasn't much to the shack - a single room with a fireplace and a couple of windows in the walls. An old woodshed and two outhouse stood in the back.

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.

In the evening when the temperatures were more reasonable, we climbed up the Kelso Dune. It was a somewhat arduous climb in the heat and on soft sand. But the continuous wind along the ridge cooled us down. Streams of sand poured over the ridge top pelting us and covering up our tracks. At the top of the dunes, we looked down at the Devil's Playground that surrounded us. Then we started the 600 ft decent down the face of the dune. As we marched down the sand, we felt the beginnings of the singing sands. Beneath our feet the sand felt like it was pulsing. The quicker we moved down the face of the dune the louder the singing was. The sand hummed and vibrated under our feet. Listen to the singing sands:

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.

Sunday 5.22
The predawn chorus of Mojave desert birds awoke me to the familiar glow of red behind the mountains. We hiked out to Cottonwood Spring to see what birds were hiding out there. When we approached I heard the shrieking of a raptor from the boulder strewn mountain side. Upon entering the juniper and cottonwood glen that surrounded the flowing spring, I flushed a Long-eared Owl was from its roost. I followed it up the spring and could see it watching me from behind the pines. I then looked back at the tree from where I originally flushed the owl and saw a gray fluff ball with yellow eyes staring back at me. The Long-eared Owl brancher stared intensely at me. Occasionally it would blink, but it remained rooted to its spot.

I took a seat on a rock away from the owlet and watched the treetops to see what migrants would show up. A Warbling Vireo, a female Townsend's Warbler, and a Orange-crowned Warbler showed up within moments of each other. A Bullock's Oriole and a Western Tanager also stopped into the cottonwoods.

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.

Monday 5.23
In the morning, Tor and I headed back to Cottonwood Springs to see if we could find the Long-eared Owls again. We didn't see any sign of the owls so we went to the middle springs to wait for the rest of the gang. The spring was quiet again, but I did catch a glimpse of a female Hermit Warbler. The game cameras didn't pickup any mammal life. But it did capture a Turkey Vulture coming in for a drink and a Western Scrub Jay poking at something.

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.

The trail stopped at the mine, which was not on top of the mountain. We scrambled up the loose rocks and dirt to reach the top, where there was a nice view of the dunes to the north and the Providence mountains to the east. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was quite upset when Todd sat in what was shade to him, but to the bird was too close to their nest. The gnatcatcher chattered away, until he noticed the tiny cup nest on the ponderosa pine branch.

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.

Tuesday 5.24

I spent the morning trying to digascope again. But the birds seemed to fly circles around my head in a taunting fashion. A Loggerhead Shrike seemed to know when exactly to fly off right before I could focus on him. We finished packing up in the morning. It was time to head home.

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.


Pictures (click on thumbnails)

Bird List
Gambel's Quail
Chukar heard only
White-faced Ibis 1 flying over Baker sewage ponds
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk 1 flying over wash near old mining shack
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Prairie Falcon 1 outside of preserve
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner 1 in wash
Great Horned Owl heard
Long-eared Owl 1 adult and 1 fledgling at Cottonwood Springs
Common Nighthawk flying over road on Kelbaker Road
Common Poorwill heard only
White-throated Swift
Anna's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird heard only
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Empidonax sp.
Say's Phoebe 1 nesting in canyon wall
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Western Kingbird 1 near lava beds
Loggerhead Shrike
Warbling Vireo 1, Cottonwood Springs
Western Scrub-Jay 2 heard in wash
Common Raven
Horned Lark Kelso Dunes
Mountain Chickadee Silver Peak
Bushtit Cottonwood Springs
Cactus Wren many families seen with fledlings
Rock Wren heard
Canyon Wren heard Cottonwood Springs
Bewick's Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest seen on Silver Peak
Northern Mockingbird
Crissal Thrasher 3 in wash near camp
Cedar Waxwing 4 in wash near corral
Orange-crowned Warbler 1, Cottonwood Springs
Townsend's Warbler 1 female, Cottonwood Springs
Hermit Warbler 1, middle springs
Wilson's Warbler
Yellow Warbler pair near corral
Spotted Towhee 1 singing at Cottonwood Springs
Black-chinned Sparrow heard singing, 1 seen going up to Silver Peak
Black-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow near corral
Summer Tanager 1 male, near top of Silver Peak
Western Tanager
Great-tailed Grackle seen outside of preserve
Brown-headed Cowbird seen near camp
Bullock's Oriole 1 male, Cottonwood Springs
Scott's Oriole many singing
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch 2, seen going up to Silver Springs
House Sparrow many at Kelso Depot
Mammal List
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Desert Cottontail
Coyote (heard)
White-tailed Antelope Squirrel
Panamint Chipmunk on top of Silver Peak
Merrium's Kangaroo Rat
Desert Woodrat
Bat sp.
Bug and Herp List
Blister Beetle
Darkling Beetle
Desert Spider Beetle
Common calosoma
Desert Spiny Lizard
California Whiptail
Side-blotched Lizard
Zebra-tailed Lizard
Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard
Desert Horned Lizard
Great Basin Collared Lizard
Desert Iguana
Long-tailed Brush Lizard
Speckled Rattlesnake
Gopher Snake
Patch-nosed Snake
Long-nosed Snake
Leaf-nosed Snake
Glossy Snake
Red-spotted Toad
Blooming plants and wildflowers
Barrel Cactus
Beavertail cactus
Bladder Sage
Blazing star found on dunes, blooms in evening
Blue-eyed Grass
California Buckwheat
Checker fiddleneck
Coyote melon
Creosote bush
Desert canterbury bells
Desert chicory
Desert dandelion
Desert larkspur
Desert Marigold
Desert milkweed
Desert paintbrush
Desert rock pea
Desert senna
Desert star
Desert trumpet
Desert willow
Desert woollystar
Tufted evening primrose
Grizzlybear pricklypear
Hedgehog/Calico cactus
Indigo bush
Mojave aster
Mojave lupine
Mojave mound cactus
Mojave Yucca
New Mexico thistle
Notch-leaf Phacelia/scorpionweed
Prickly poppy
Rock live forever
Sacred Datura/Jimson Weed
Sand verbena
Scarlet bugler
Seep Monkeyflower
Silver cholla
Spiderflower bladderpod
Wallace's woolly daisy
White ratany
Whitemargin Sandmat/Rattlesnake Weed
Wishbone bush


Mojave National Preserve


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page updated: 5/29/11