From Great Basin National Park, in eastern Nevada, a long drive south took us to southwest Utah, during which we lost nearly all our elevation and the geology changed dramatically, with the appearance of spectacular red sandstones, colored by hematite (ferric iron oxide). Just outside St. George, we visited The Nature Conservancy’s fascinating White Dome Preserve, which protects a gypsum badland harboring two rare plants, one of which we found – Dwarf Bearpaw Poppy (Arctomecon humilis). We next turned east to the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This is always a lovely area to visit, and we enjoyed exploring new portions of it. We especially liked the view of the canyon from the beginning of the Thunder River Trail, where we recorded bats for two chilly nights. We were conveniently camped within walking distance of the viewpoint, at Indian Hollow Campground, with all of three sites, which we had entirely to ourselves!
Yet another long drive took us east through the striking Vermilion Cliffs area, south to Flagstaff, AZ, and then west to the Aubrey Valley, west of Seligman on Old Route 66. Here we easily found Gunnison’s Prairie Dog, our fourth and final species of prairie dog in North America north of Mexico. But despite extensive effort with the thermal scope after dark, we were not lucky enough to find the very rare Black-footed Ferret here. Finally turning east toward Albuquerque, we spent a couple nights at Sunset Crater National Monument (NM), a great place to see a variety of volcanic features. While there we found three new plants, one of which, Cinder Phacelia (Phacelia serrata), is known from only one other place in the world. In the campground we spent quite a while following and photographing a beautiful Tassel-eared Squirrel.
We next visited El Morro NM, which was very interesting. El Morro features a cuesta (like a mesa but with a sloped top) with dramatic vertical cliffs on which many early travelers inscribed messages. There is a lovely perennial pool at its base, fed by water cascading off the edge of the cuesta. Because the top of the cuesta is sloped, it is subject to erosion by water, and it has been hollowed out, forming a striking box canyon. A partially excavated pueblo on the rim of the cuesta, overlooking the box canyon and the surrounding lands, can be seen on a fun loop hike. We also spent a day hiking in the adjacent El Malpais NM, on the 5-mile El Calderon Loop Trail, which for one mile coincided with the Continental Divide Trail. We had an amazing 8 new plants on this trail; apparently we have not sampled this region or these habitats well so late in the season. We also saw Cinder Phacelia again, at the second of its two world occurrences, which was nifty. For the finale, fifteen minutes before sunset we watched, from just off the trail and at close range, about 2000 Mexican Free-tailed Bats exit from appropriately named Bat Cave, a very special experience.
Our last major stop before Albuquerque was Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The campground was fully booked, so we boondocked just outside the park for the first few nights, finally snagging a site the last night. Chaco Canyon is well known for its outstanding pueblos dating back to the period 900 – 1150 A.D. One day we hiked the 5-mile loop to Pueblo Alto, which involves a bit of a scramble up a scree slope and slithering through a couple of narrow clefts, with the result of reaching the top of a plateau, from which several pueblos can be seen from an aerial perspective. Pueblo Bonito is the largest ruin and we found it especially interesting as it is possible to walk through a series of the ancient rooms. On our last night, in the campground, I recorded bats, hoping for something interesting roosting on the cliffs. I was rewarded with several good recordings of Big Free-tailed Bat, which we previously have encountered only a few times, all in Big Bend NP.
We spent three days in Albuquerque, visiting with Eileen’s sister and brother, Kathleen and Tommy, and her niece and nephew, Claire and Thomas. Kathleen organized three forays to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the most photographed event in North America. Although fog prevented the majority of balloons from taking off the first morning, conditions were good that evening, when tethered balloons were illuminated after dark by their propane burners, and fireworks were set off. The next morning conditions were good and we experienced the remarkable mass ascension, in which about 600 balloons took off during a several hour period. Attendees stand right among the balloons as they are inflated and lift off, sometimes having to move to make room for the balloons as they fill with air. It was lovely to spend time with Kathleen, Tommy, Claire, and Thomas, and we had a wonderful time at the Fiesta. On our last night in town, we had dinner with John Parmeter, with whom Eileen and I birded many times while John and I were graduate students at CalTech. John has worked at Sandia National Labs since his post-graduate work, and has the top bird list in New Mexico. It was great to see him again!
Our last night on the road was spent in the Manzana Mountains southeast of Albuquerque, briefly and unsuccessfully looking for an endemic cottontail that some authorities split off from Eastern Cottontail. However, we had a beautiful walk through a high-elevation forest at the peak of the fall color of Bigtooth Maple, Acer grandidentatum, a serendipitous and fitting final experience in our splendid 2019 odyssey.
In total, we were on the road for 7.5 months and traveled over 23,000 miles, covering an average of 102 miles per day. We passed through only 11 states and 4 Canadian provinces and territories, though in the three years since retirement, we’ve visited all but five states and five provinces. The map below shows coordinates of places we camped and/or added natural history records to our database in 2019. The camping this year was of especially high quality, with over one-quarter of the camping spots being dispersed sites (not in campgrounds) and most of the remainder being in small, quiet, picturesque campgrounds. It was also an especially good year for canoeing; we paddled 167 miles of flatwater in 22 locations.
I added 260 species to my total this year, an average of 1.14 per day, quite a bit lower than in the previous two years (1.7 per day), but not unexpected given the areas we visited and diminishing returns. I finished the year with 10,038 lifetime, worldwide, native species of plants and animals. It was an excellent trip for birds, with Eileen adding 5 North American lifers: Bar-tailed Godwit, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Falcated Duck, and Cassia Crossbill (the latter three were new for me as well). New mammals this year were Pacific Jumping Mouse, Washington Ground Squirrel, Keen’s Myotis, Muskox, Northern Bog Lemming, Northern Red-backed Vole, and Gunnison’s Prairie Dog. Among many, many high points, I think Nome would have to take first place this year …
Next time: Madagascar!