A Year of Profoundly Uncomfortable Camping

After finishing up Southeast Arizona, we spent a few days in New Mexico looking for genera before a break in El Paso. We stayed a couple nights in nifty City of Rocks State Park, where we found three target genera and recorded bats, documenting three species not listed for the park (Pallid Bat, Fringed Myotis, and Big Brown Bat). We continued northeast through Gila National Forest, along Route 152, and were almost unable to make it across Emory Pass at 8200 feet elevation because of a hail storm that left several inches of slippery slush on the road. On Aug. 28 we looked for one of our four remaining vascular plant families, Anacampserotaceae, which contains only a single species in North America north of Mexico: Talinopsis frutescens. With a limited U. S. distribution (just eight counties), a brief flowering period after good monsoonal rains, and a predilection for remote areas, this can be a tough plant to find. Our first attempt involved a steep off-trail climb in the Bishops Cap Hills, between Las Cruces, NM and El Paso, TX. We had no luck here, and we believed our remaining four locations involved lower probabilities of success, and in three cases, even more difficult access, so I was not sanguine about our future chances.

Campsite, City of Rocks SP, NM
Above: Our lovely campsite in City of Rocks State Park, NM

After ten days in El Paso to cool off, we headed out on the last loop of our road trip in 2021, which would sample more of New Mexico, the Fort Worth to San Antonio corridor, the Edwards Plateau, and Big Bend National Park. One of our first searches was for Talinopsis near Anthony Gap, in the Organ Mountains, just north of the Texas line. There was a specimen record there, but it was 33 years ago, and the coordinates given disagreed completely with the written description of the site, making the location highly uncertain. But with advice from a New Mexico botanist regarding prime habitat for this species, I felt I could recognize from satellite photos where we should search. It was absolutely one of the highlights of the year when we found a dozen plants, half in flower, just as we were about to give up! This site was an easy walk, which we greatly appreciated given the relentless heat. A nice bonus were singing Cassin’s Sparrows, enjoying the lush growth of grass following the monsoonal rains. Additional areas visited in New Mexico included Dripping Springs Natural Area; Soledad Canyon; a dry lake north of Las Cruces; White Sands National Park; Oliver W. Lee Memorial State Park; Cloudcroft; and gypsum deposits in Eddy County. Gypsum is hydrated calcium sulfate, and it hosts a number of plants that are not found on other substrates, so it can make for interesting botanizing. In total, New Mexico yielded ten new genera.

Talinopsis frutescens, Anthony Gap, Organ Mtns, NM
Above: Talinopsis frutescens, Arroyo-Fameflower, in new family Anacampserotaceae, Anthony Gap, Organ Mountains, NM

Continuing into west Texas, we spent extra time at lovely Monahans Sandhills State Park because the flowers were so excellent there. We added one obscure genus there, but also eight other new species of plants that occur in deep sand, an impressive haul. Heading east, the climate and vegetation changed abruptly as we left the arid Trans-Pecos and encountered high humidity and starting seeing some eastern plants. After a stop in Midland, we reached the greater Fort Worth area, where we spent four days. We had hoped to meet up with friends in Dallas, but we learned that three family members had tested positive for COVID just four days after we saw them, so we self-quarantined. We spent one frustrating day in Abilene trying to get tested, but were unable to arrange it; nearly all sites allowed drive-through testing only, for insurance reasons, and our vehicle was too tall.

Prionopsis ciliata, I-20 Wildlife Preserve, Midland, TX
Above: Prionopsis ciliata, Spanishgold, I-20 Wildlife Preserve, Midland, TX

While in the Fort Worth area, we found 13 of 17 target genera, with all four misses being grasses. A contributing factor to our difficulties with this family may have been the very dry summer. I am generally unenthusiastic about grasses, because such a high percentage of those encountered turn out to be non-native. In contrast, I like sedges and rushes, two other large families of challenging monocots, which are composed almost entirely of native species. Some of our more exciting finds in the Fort Worth area were: Mitreola petiolata, Lax Hornpod, in the small family Loganiaceae, from which we had seen only one species previously; Fuirena simplex, Western Umbrella Sedge, our only new sedge genus for the year; and Eryngium leavenworthii, a spectacular purple-flowered and purple-bracted member of the carrot family. We next visited a series of locations within an hour and a half of Austin, many of which we had explored this spring. Drought continued to hamper our success a bit, but not unduly so. In Inks Lake State Park, we saw the inconspicuous Tripogon spicatus, Five Minute Grass, known from seven counties in central Texas and nowhere else in the world. A cold front came through while we were camped at Bastrop Lake, and for a few days we had what I believe was the only really comfortable weather we experienced all year, except for brief periods above 7500 feet elevation. We celebrated by spending a day in camp and paddling on the lake.

Eryngium leavenworthii, Tandy Hills Natural Area, Forth Worth, TX
Above: Eryngium leavenworthii, a striking member of the carrot family, Tandy Hills Natural Area, Fort Worth, TX

Now turning back west, we crossed the Edwards Plateau, enjoying an afternoon in the beautiful Lost Maples State Natural Area. We’d have stayed longer if there had been any campsites available. In Del Rio, we walked a ways along San Felipe Creek to see the extraordinary Shinnersia rivularis, an aquatic member of the aster family. It occurs in only three counties of Texas, and two Mexican states. We found it in fast-moving clear water, mostly submerged, but with occasional flowering stems sticking up out of the water. Despite having seen over 800 species in the aster family, this is the first truly aquatic one we have encountered! In Lake Amistad National Recreation Area, we finally saw truly wild Hesperaloe parviflora, Red-flowered False Yucca, a very popular ornamental plant in the Southwest.

Dayia havardii, Wash W of Hot Springs Rd, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Dayia havardii, Alva Day Skyrocket, Big Bend NP, TX

We wrapped up the field work for the year in Big Bend National Park, where we spent four nights. The highlight of our stay was hiking the famous Window Trail to the striking viewpoint at its end. Here Oak Creek pours off the lip of the Chisos Basin, through a gap called The Window, after which it falls about 220 feet. The trail is about 5 miles round-trip, with slightly under 1000 feet of gain on the way back. Butterflies were numerous along the trail, with over  a dozen species present. Our best find was Batesimalva violacea, Purple Gay-Mallow, known in the U.S. only in the immediate vicinity of the pour-off. It seemed a miracle that we saw about seven individual plants of this species, one with several fruits, a flower, and a flower bud – what luck! The majority of the plants occur below the pour-off, in terrain that is very difficult to navigate, so we were fortunate to see it right along the trail above the pour-off. We added three other new genera along this trail, so it was a very successful hike.

Guaiacum angustifolium, Wash W of Hot Springs Rd, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Guaiacum angustifolium, Texas Lignumvitae, Big Bend NP, TX

Our last search of the year never happened. We were heading to Closed Canyon, in Big Bend Ranch State Park to look for Holacantha, when a violent thunderstorm engulfed us. The hail was the biggest we have ever seen; I carefully estimated the diameter as 11 to 15 mm, or about half an inch. The hail landed with such force on the road that it bounced back up five feet or more. The noise was fearful, and the hail left subtle dents in the hood of the truck and no doubt on the roof of the camper. The road started to flood and we turned around at a long, steep hill that was covered with sediment from a cascade flowing down the road. It was a dramatic finish to the year.

Texan Crescent, Window Trail, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Texan Crescent, Big Bend NP, TX

To summarize the year, we began our travels on April 2 (late because our 2020 road trip did not end until February due to rampant COVID in El Paso). Our last day was Oct. 1. We took two breaks, one lasting a month during the midsummer botanical doldrums, and one of ten days in early September to recover from the heat and prepare for more. In total, we were in the field for only 140 days, about half the average since we retired (275 days). We drove about 15,000 miles during this time, and as relatively little of this mileage occurred during our breaks, we must have averaged just about a hundred miles per day while traveling, similar to our first year of retirement, but more than in subsequent years. I’ve included a map showing the locations where we logged species and/or camped.

Batesimalva violacea, Window Trail, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Batesimalva violacea, Purple Gay-Mallow, at its only known U.S. location, Big Bend NP, TX

Our primary goal this year was to track down new native vascular plant genera in North America north of Mexico. We began the year with 1499 out of about 2108 possible genera (71%). We performed 244 searches, of which 143 (59%) were successful. This compares with 45% when we were looking for new genera in California in 2012. Back then, virtually all target locations were gleaned from specimens in herbaria that had digitized their label data. This year, essentially all sites were obtained from iNaturalist, which was organized in 2011 but had few records back in 2012. I thought we should have much better success this year than in 2012, because nearly all iNat records are very recent and have latitude and longitude coordinates. It’s true that 59% is higher than 45%, but I expected even more of a boost. One significant mitigating advantage of many specimen records is a list of closely associated species, a huge help when trying to find the right microhabitat.

Eileen at The Window, Window Trail, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Eileen at The Window, Big Bend NP, TX

We found 41 genera this year serendipitously; all were genera that were targeted this year, but they were found when not explicitly searching for them. This gives a total of 184 new genera during the year, bringing us to just below 80% of possible native genera in the continental U.S. and Canada. We missed 40 genera, so we found 82% of the genera for which we were searching, a very satisfying result (and essentially identical with our 81% in 2012). Of particular note, four of these genera were in new families for us (Talinum in Talinaceae, Peganum in Nitrariaceae, Amoreuxia in Bixaceae, and Talinopsis in Anacampserotaceae), leaving just three native families out of 239 to go.  Over the course of the year we saw a total of exactly 400 new species of plants, as well as five new reptiles, three new mammals (White-sided Jackrabbit, Manzano Mountain Cottontail, and Arizona Myotis), and one new dragonfly. Eileen added an additional bird (Berylline Hummingbird) and mammal (Western Spotted Skunk). Our average number of new species per day was 2.9, far above our previous post-retirement high (1.75 per day in 2018), a result of having so many targeted searches, and spending the whole year in an area of high botanical diversity. My lifetime numbers of species seen, world-wide, are now 6473 plants, 3463 birds, 432 mammals, 209 butterflies, 178 herps, 72 odonates, 42 fish, and 64 others, a grand total of 10,933.

Arizona Sister, Window Trail, Big Bend NP, TX
Above: Arizona Sister, Big Bend NP, TX

Finally, a few musings on 2021. We had long planned on 2021 being a completely different type of year for us. We were anxious to see a number of international locations while our health was still good, and some of these were best visited during months when we would normally be on an extended road trip. So we planned in 2021 to be based in El Paso for the year and had signed up for a series of five international birding trips to northeast Brazil, Bhutan, Borneo, South Africa, and Oaxaca, Mexico. As it became clear that some of these trips might not happen (in fact, the first four were cancelled and the last is still in limbo), I scrambled to plan a year’s itinerary where we could stay relatively close to El Paso in case a trip did go. As we had found all but a few of the vascular plant families in the continental U.S and Canada, the possibility of moving that project down to the genus level, as we did in California almost a decade earlier, seemed appealing. This worked well because the region from Southeast Arizona to Central Texas had such a high concentration of unseen genera.

2021
Above: Sites we visited in 2021. Most regions were covered in May-June and again in August-September, except the Houston area (April) and northern New Mexico (July).

The challenge, though, was that this would involve field work and camping in heat and humidity that we would normally avoid. We ended up having quite a number of days with temps above 100°F and blazing sun. We also had nights that did not dip below 80°F, and many mornings where we woke up to find every surface in the camper wet with condensation due to many nighttime hours at temperatures below the dew point. We normally try not to have more than one month per year of truly uncomfortable camping; we find that an acceptable amount if it allows us to experience interesting areas. This year we’d rate the camping as seriously uncomfortable about 70% of the time, over three month’s worth, so we greatly exceeded our guidance. But we experienced an outstanding monsoonal season, saw marvelous plants, learned a lot more about botanical diversity, enjoyed excellent spring migration of songbirds and shorebirds, spent quite a lot of time in scenic areas, and had some fine campsites. For a year that went totally off the rails, it turned out quite well!

3 thoughts on “A Year of Profoundly Uncomfortable Camping

  1. Great to hear from you and so pleased you had a good year despite the heat & humidity. Never mind – that will be good training for the upcoming – we hope – international travels. I love that Eryngium leavenworthii – what a colour! City of Rocks must have been a unique spot – I’ve never seen anything like it. Also the Window – nice pic of Eileen. We have to get to Big Bend one day.

    I’m beginning to feel we might actually make it to Oaxaca. I think it might depend on FG being able to find a convenient way to get us all tested so that we can get back home. Flights for us will be an issue but not insurmountable. We’ll have to use an overnighter I think – ugh!

    Our monthly waterbird surveys started up again in September. We have two this weekend for Oct. Not much else to report for local birding as we missed the hawk watch. The folks who did that saw several Broad-winged Hawks – unusual here – and a NOGO.

    Happy Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend!

    Rhys

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  2. Hi Brian, survived another year, don’t think I could take the heat you did, even with the nice finds. Glad you escaped covid, we have also. Bought a new truck Toyota Tacoma crew cab last week and Karen a new Subaru forester yesterday. Loon celebration tomorrow at Paul Smiths College, Old Forest Ranger afternoon at Paul Smiths today, stories. Fringed Gentians and my dahlias are super this year. Stay safe, Gary

    Sent from Mail for Windows

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