A Tale of Two Deserts

[Written Match 20]   Last night, it rained steadily at our dispersed campsite at 2700 feet elevation, with the temperature dropping into the thirties. This morning, when we woke up with the first rays of sunlight, we were treated to the splendid sight of the mountains ringing our valley, being covered with fresh snow, to within a thousand feet of our elevation. It was a glorious way to start the day, and a little glory was welcome, to help compensate for the stresses related to the coronavirus. While on the road, we are subject to nearly all the same difficulties facing everyone else, but in addition, we have concerns about campgrounds staying open (those in national parks and state parks in about six states have already closed), and being able to obtain gasoline, propane, and fresh water reliably.

Petroglyph, Signal Hill, West Unit, Saguaro NP, AX
Above: Petroglyph, Signal Hill, Saguaro NP, AZ

Our last blog post was in November, after Madagascar. The winter passed as usual in El Paso. I spent a lot of time planning out our travels this year, though we’ll have to see if the plans can be carried out. We are slated to spend close to six months primarily in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, followed by a swing east, including some canoeing in Minnesota, to offset the sub-par paddling opportunities in the aforementioned states. We also planned out the next few years of international birding, though these plans may be affected by coronavirus fallout.

Monoptilon bellioides, West Unit, Saguaro NP, AX
Above: Mojave Desertstar (Monoptilon bellioides), Saguaro NP, AZ

I also did a lot of work on improving our database of plant records, by increasing consistency with the taxonomy of the on-line Biota of North America (BONAP). BONAP is the best source of information on distribution and classification of vascular plants continent-wide (north of Mexico). Now all our plant records use not only the genus and species adopted by BONAP (accomplished back in 2016), but also the trinomials (subspecies or variety). In addition, I ran a computer search for species split out by BONAP, but possibly lumped with other species in books we used to key the plants. This involved manually tracking down about 830 cases, which took a solid week. But now I feel I occupy the moral high ground.

Pied-billed Grebe, Imperial NWR, AZ
Above: Pied-billed Grebe, Imperial NWR, AZ

I should also mention that using the BONAP Floristic Synthesis software (2019 version), I was able, for the first time, to get accurate, modern counts for the number of vascular plant taxa in North America north of Mexico. The results were 239 native families, 2167 native genera, and 16105 native species. I’ve seen about 95% of these families, two-thirds of the genera, and one-third of the species.

Eremalche rotundifolia, Death Valley NP, CA
Above: Desert Five-Spot (Eremalche rotundifolia), Death Valley NP, CA

We left El Paso on Feb. 20, exactly one month ago. We were delayed from leaving for eight days by sinus infections that appeared the night before our planned departure, just after we had finished putting everything back into storage. So we spent the week in a pretty empty room. Since I was sick and miserable anyway, I took the opportunity to convert all the coordinates in our records database to a single format, specifically, latitude and longitude in decimal degrees. This is our preferred format because it is the simplest (just two signed numbers, and no letters or special symbols) and it drops right into Google Maps. This involved converting around 8000 records in formats such as degrees-minutes, Universal Transverse Mercator, and Military Reference Grid System, usually chosen to match whatever maps we were using at the time.

Bighorn Sheep, Valley of Fire SP, NV
Above: Bighorn Sheep, Valley of Fire SP, NV

Some of the coordinates were based on the North American Datum of 1927 (NAD27), to cross over with paper topographic maps from the U. S. Geological Survey, and these were converted to the more recent and accurate NAD83. (A datum is an assumed ellipsoidal shape of the earth, and a defined reference zero point, which affects computed coordinates.) Google Maps actually uses the World Geodetic Survey of 1984 (WGS84) datum, but it is based on essentially the same ellipsoid as NAD83, the difference being the reference zero point. NAD83 tracks with the North American Tectonic Plate, while WGS84 uses a worldwide landmass average. They were identical when WGS84 was defined in 1984, but because of subsequent continental drift, they are now about three feet different, which I can live with.

Fire Wave, Valley of Fire SP, NV
Above: Fire Wave, Valley of Fire SP, NV

Like last year, our route first took us west, staying within a hundred miles of the Mexican border, to take advantage of the lower elevations and more southerly latitudes, hoping for warmer weather and some wildflowers. We visited many of the same locations as last year (about which I will say little, to avoid duplication of information), but were less successful than in 2019. It was only an average year for Sonoran Desert wildflowers, and I think the 2020 season was significantly later. But after having lunch with our friends Connee and Bob in Tucson, we took the opportunity to visit both sections of Saguaro National Park, where we found seven new plant species, including a new plant genus, Herissantia, in the mallow family. By coincidence, in the entire remainder of our month of travel, we had exactly the same result: seven new plant species plus one genus (Pediocactus, in guess which family). Our best mammal so far was Western Red Bat, recorded along the Colorado River, and our most exciting bird sighting was of large numbers of wintering Chestnut-collared Longspurs in southwest New Mexico.

Salvia dorrii dorrii, Gold Butte NM, NV
Above: Purple Sage (Salvia dorrii), Gold Butte NM, NV

Our first paddle of the year was on Martinez Lake in Imperial National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), AZ, from which we should have been able to reach the Colorado River. But a mile into our paddle, a ferocious wind came up, blowing us into the reeds, where waves bounced us around and deposited quite a bit of water in the canoe. We tried once to cross the lake paddling straight into the wind (to avoid capsizing or taking on too much water), but the wind was too strong and we were pushed back. Our second attempt, perhaps 45 minutes later, was successful, but was exhausting. Fortunately, our next canoe outing, a few days later, was entirely idyllic. We paddled six miles around an oxbow lake located in part of the original Colorado River channel, on Eileen’s birthday, enjoying a nice picnic lunch.

Sagebrush Lizard, Gold Butte NM, NV
Above: Sagebrush Lizard, Gold Valley NM, NV

Leaving the Sonoran Desert, we headed north for the Mojave Desert, starting in the southern portion of Death Valley NP. Here we drove the length of the West Side Road, a dirt road that often is closed, and which we had not done in entirety before. There was a decent selection of flowers at Ashford Mills Ruins, but few flowers elsewhere. We also visited classic scenic spots like Dante’s View (a remarkable vista!) and Artist’s Drive. From here we crossed into Nevada. Despite having traveled very extensively in the U.S. and Canada, we have spent very little time in Nevada, so nearly all destinations in the state would be new to us.  But our first few stops would be exceptions.

"Little Finland", Gold Butte NM, NV
Above: Eroded sandstone, “Little Finland”, Gold Butte NM, NV

We began at Ash Meadows NWR, which is said to have more endemic species than any other area of similar size in the country. We were too early to see much (March 2), though we had visited in May of 2003, and so had some idea of the potential of the area. Next up was Desert NWR, the largest NWR in the Lower 48. We had visited its Corn Creek area in 2003, and again walked all the short trails there. We then drove the 42-mile Mormon Well Road, a dirt track, camping in patchy snow at the high point (elevation 6600 feet), much the highest campsite of the trip so far. There are a few Ponderosa Pines here in the pinyon-juniper woodland, which is an unusual species in southern Nevada. The highlight in this area was a male Williamson’s Sapsucker, which we have not previously seen in such open habitat.

Dithyrea californica, Gold Butte NM, NV
Above: Fruit of Spectacle Pod (Dithyrea californica), Gold Butte NM, NV

Looping to the south, we visited Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Though heavily visited because of its proximity to Las Vegas, this is a worthwhile destination because of the superb examples of cross-bedding, which show that the sandstone was formed from dunes rather than ocean sediments. The latter always have parallel strata, because deposition is mediated by gravity, whereas the former can exhibit abrupt changes in the inclination of strata, because the deposition is controlled by wind. Our next stop was another crowded tourist destination not far from Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park (SP). It has even more spectacular scenery than Red Rock Canyon. A highlight there was a group of four fine Bighorn Sheep that slowly foraged past our vehicle over the course of about 20 minutes.

White-tailed Antelope Squirrel, Snow Canyon SP, UT
Above: White-tailed Antelope Squirrel, Snow Canyon SP, UT

Our next destination was well off the tourist circuit: Gold Butte National Monument. There is a roughly 80-mile round-trip lollipop-shaped drive, with some side trips as well, that has nice scenery and good back-country camping. Within the monument, there is a small area of remarkable sandstone formations, called “Little Finland”, that are apparently eroded by wind (which is much rarer than erosion by water). Continuing northeast, we crossed over into Utah and stayed at Gunlock SP. We paddled on the reservoir the following frosty morning, enjoying a flock of Common Mergansers and four Bald Eagles. We spent a couple nights at Snow Canyon SP, which has a very interesting and challenging set of hiking trails, and represents the northeasternmost extent of the Mojave Desert (which barely enters the southwestern corner of Utah). A calling Peregrine Falcon at our picnic lunch spot on a day-long hike was a highlight.

Pediocactus sileri, White Dome TNC Preserve, UT
Above: Gypsum Cactus (Pediocactus sileri), White Dome TNC Preserve, UT

We left in a cold, hard rain, making for the city of St. George, UT, to have our truck diagnosed for a fluid leak. It turned out that the water pump sprung a large leak and sprayed nearly all our coolant through the engine compartment. We were lucky to get it fixed on a Friday. Our truck, now at 80,000 miles, is starting to have occasional failures like this. In addition to the water pump, in the last year it has needed a new battery and a new rear pinion seal, but everything else has been normal maintenance. While in town, we took “advantage” of having a signal to catch up on news, discovering that: the stock market had melted down; and we had lost a not insignificant fraction of our net worth; but that we might recover some by selling our last half-roll of toilet paper. Oh, well …

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