All My Critters… Part 3

Great and Small on the Preserve

the american white pelican

Sometimes, but not always in a V-formation, a flock of black wings appears overhead in winter. Then suddenly, as they turn, white wings flash through the sunlight.

These wings belong to the American White Pelican, one of the largest birds in North America. These pelicans rarely winter inland, however the Salton Sea* (in Southern California) is an exception. They often travel and forage in large flocks. They soar gracefully on broad, stable, black and white wings, high in the sky between thermals of warm air. (allaboutbirds.org)   *The Salton Sea is about 50 miles southeast of the Coachella Valley Preserve.

en.m.wikipedia.org

According to an April 26, 2019 article published online at nbcpalmsprings.com, many bird species, once abundant around the Salton Sea, are rapidly leaving. As the water increasingly evaporates, salinity increases and kills off the fish  upon which the seabirds thrive. The most pronounced desertion involves the American White Pelican, whose numbers reached about 20,000 in 2008, but, at the time this article was written, have dwindled dramatically to below 100.

The story of the Salton Sea, could be appropriately titled, “From Paradise to Purgatory”. What’s strange about this accidental tale of how an inland sea became the largest lake in California, is the fact that it is located in the middle of the Colorado Desert, the hottest portion of the Sonoran Desert. In 1905 the  Colorado River swelled, breached its levees, and flooded a portion of the desert valley known as the Salton Sink. For 2 years the water continued flowing in, creating a 15 x 35 mile lake dubbed the Salton Sea. Shorebirds flocked here, fish thrived, real estate developers built homes, hotels, yacht clubs… creating a tourist mecca along its shores. By the 1970s, however, what was too good to be true began rapidly falling apart. With no drainage outlet, 5 inches or less of annual rainfall, and runoff flowing in from nearby farms, the Salton Sea became polluted with pesticides and saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Periodic flooding pushed the toxic water further ashore. Depleted oxygen in the Sea killed fish, dragging their rotting bodies onto the beaches once lined with sunbathers, to shrivel in the hot sun. The sand became coated with layers of fragmented fish skeletons. (slate.com)

allthatisinteresting.com

atlasobscura.com

americansouthwest.net

atlasobscura.com

atlasobscura.com

(Check out my post Seeing is Believing to learn more about our visit to the Salton Sea in 2018.)

But let’s get back to the American White Pelican…

allaboutbirds.org, courtesy of Gordon Dimmig, MacCaulay Library

The American White Pelican dips its pouched bill to scoop up fish, then raises its head to drain out water and swallow its prey, unlike the brown pelican that dives upon its  meal from above. These pelicans also forage cooperatively. Groups of birds dip their bills and flap their wings, driving fish toward shore corralling them for synchronized bill-dipping feasts.

Females lay 2 eggs but only 1 chick usually survives. Another strange but true fact of nature reveals that one chick will harass or kill the other, a behavior known as siblicide.

Predators of the American White Pelican include coyotes, ravens, and great-horned owls.  (allaboutbirds.org)

Finally, one last fact about this large, graceful bird that majestically soars through the air: During mating season a yellow plate, called a nuptial tubercle, forms on the upper bill of breeding adults. This fibrous plate falls off after the birds have mated and the female lays her eggs. (nhpbs.org)

allaboutbirds.org


Mallards

Ducks have returned to Simone Pond since the restoration project has begun!

The Mallard is the ancestor of nearly all domestic duck breeds. The male has the dark green iridescent head and bright yellow bill. Females and juveniles, however, have orange and brown bills and their body feathers are a mottled brown. (allaboutbirds.org)

allaboutbirds.org

These large ducks with rounded heads and wide, flat bills can live in any wetland area, and may even hang out around your pool in the summer.

They are “dabbling ducks”, which means they feed in the water by tipping forward as opposed to diving.

Generally monogamous, mallards pair off in the autumn and court throughout winter. Only the female incubates the eggs, cares for the ducklings, and makes the familiar quacking sound of a duck. The male produces a quiet rasping sound. (allaboutbirds.org)

Another “Cool Fact“ from allaboutbirds.org…

Like other ducks, mallards shed all of their flight feathers during the summer molting season. They are flightless, vulnerable, and secretive during these 3-4 weeks as their body feathers slough into a concealing “eclipse” plumage that can camouflage their appearance.

commons.wikimedia.org

This spring, 10 ducklings with their Mama paid us a visit at Simone Pond. (A very good sign that the waters are healthier after eradicating the invasive fish.)

courtesy of Ginny Short, CNLM Preserve Biologist/Preserve Manager

courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent

courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent

courtesy of Mary McKay, Preserve Docent

Unfortunately this “paddling” of 10 ducklings kept dwindling almost daily, until only 2 survived. Ah, the cycle of life… We suspect our great-horned owls, barn owls, and red-tailed hawks may have scooped them up.


GreaT-horned owl

The palm grove around Simone Pond, known as McCallum Grove, is a favorite nesting place for this thick-bodied gray-brown owl with a reddish-brown face and 2 prominent feathered tufts on its head that look like horns, but are not.  (allaboutbirds.org)

audubon.org, courtesy of Christopher Schwarz

The Great-Horned Owl is the most perfect embodiment of what I picture when I think of the phrase, “the wise old owl”. Its piercing yellow eyes stare right through me as if this bird can read the story of my soul, my most intimate and raw thoughts.

One of the most common owls of North America, the Great-Horned is equally “at home” in deserts, wetlands, forests, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the Tropics. (allaboutbirds.org)

On Easter morning, Mary (docent) and Frank (bird hike guide) visited the Pond with our Preserve Manager, Ginny, to assist her in setting crayfish traps. Mary found this “Easter Basket” of 3 Great-Horned fledglings up in the palm tree fronds and sent me these pics…

Last spring 3 owlets or nestlings were born in McCallum Grove and we watched their furry faces peak out of the nest, Mama Owl sitting nearby, of course.

Owls, like other modern birds, do not have teeth for chewing so they eat their prey whole and later regurgitate pellets of undigested material. (nwf.org)

Here’s a close up of one of these owl pellets…

And here’s the palm tree in McCallum Grove under which all these owl pellets were found…

Owls feed mostly on small mammals and other birds, but did you know that they are one of the only animals that will include skunks in their diet? They also have some unique adaptations that earn them their reputation as birds of prey. For example, their sense of hearing is so acute that they can detect a mouse stepping on a twig 75 feet (23 meters) away. And their eyes are so large in proportion to their head that they cannot move their eyes back and forth like humans, having to turn their heads up to 270 degrees (a 3/4 turn) to look in different directions. (nwf.org)


Long-Eared owl

These long and slender owls with tall ear tufts, orange faces, and yellow eyes roost in the palm trees along the boardwalk over the oasis on the Preserve. They appear in winter and are a special treat to look for and observe.

windowtowildlife.com, courtesy of Jim Edlhuber

This past spring our bird gurus spotted a pair of juveniles which was a special thrill.

And from Jeff’s pics…

Below are pictures of these same 2 owlets watching Jeff and me pull and trim rushes along the boardwalk. They just stared at us with their piercing yellow eyes, their heads following us as we moved to and fro. What an incredible experience to be in their presence for such a long time!


Barn owl

allaboutbirds.org/Darren Clark

Barn owls live all over the lower 48 United States, parts of southern Canada, and in much of the rest of the world… basically in any open habitat with an abundance of small nocturnal mammals to eat. In the desert this includes rats, mice, bats, and rabbits. (Fortunately, the round-tailed ground squirrels and white-tailed antelope squirrels are diurnal mammals and are relatively safe from the clutches of hungry barn owls.) Besides possessing excellent low-light vision, barn owls have an amazing ability to track and locate their prey by sounds alone. (allaboutbirds.org)

My first introduction to the barn owl on the Coachella Valley Preserve was out at Simone Pond. Jeff and I were newly vetted Preserve Hosts in the fall of 2018. We took a personally guided hike with Harlan who shared his vast knowledge of the Colorado desert… it’s flowers and shrubs, birds and reptiles and mammals, and of course the geology of the oasis created by the San Andreas Fault. We hiked the mile to Simone Pond and stopped briefly under the shade of palm trees in an area of the grove known as “The Citadel”, when suddenly large white wings sailed overhead and I felt something hit me lightly and splatter down the front of my t-shirt. Owl poop! A shit show! My baptism to the desert!

Barn owls are not particular in choosing where to place their nests… holes in trees, cliff ledges, cliff crevices, caves, burrows in river banks, and many different human structures, including barn lofts, church steeples, houses, haystacks, and even drive-in movie screens… or even in your own backyard in a homemade nest box. On the Preserve, we see them nesting on the ledges of the palm skirts.

The female prepares the nest by collecting her regurgitated pellets. She shreds them with her feet and molds them into a cup shape. About a month before laying eggs, her monogamous partner begins to bring hunted prey to the nest to both nourish Mama Owl and store for later when the babies hatch. (allaboutbirds.org)

I  could not find a suitable picture of a barn owl’s nest in its natural habitat. Apparently the popularity of attracting barn owls on one’s property has led to the abundance of homemade nest boxes. The one below at least gives you an idea of what the contents of the nest look like with the shredded pellets, the Mama, the owlets, and the yummy anticipation of a meal.

freedomok.net, courtesy of arkive.org and Christophe Perelle

Last spring (2019) we discovered 2 baby owls along the boardwalk oasis who had fallen out of their nest. Ginny rescued them and took them to the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center, another non-profit organization, for the care and rehabilitation of injured, orphaned, or sick birds who will eventually be released back into their habitats. We just say, “Ginny took them to Linda.” … as in Linda York, the Executive Director.

This spring no one fell out of their nest. Here are some photos of the newest juvenile barn owl on the Preserve:

The wind kept blowing the palm leaves in front of the owl, so I just kept clicking pics…

All My Critters… Part 2

Great and Small on the Preserve

gambel’s quail

Gambel’s quail have round bodies with a feather plume on their heads. These ground-hugging desert dwellers prefer to run than fly. Gathering in groups, called coveys, we see them strutting along bushy washes as they run between the cover of one bush to the next. Sometimes they will suddenly break into flight  to hop up across a barrier or post a lookout on a low shrub. (allaboutbirds.org)

I’ve never been quick enough to get a picture of these guys before, until we heard their distinctive clucking/crowing calls while “streaming” (pulling tamarisk seedlings and pulicaria along the stream of the Coachella Valley Preserve), and I saw one fly up onto a nearby smoketree branch to assume a lookout position.

Gambel’s quail tend to live in washes and wetland areas where there are dense thickets of honey mesquite, cat’s claw, arrowweed, and four-wing saltbush. Their diet consists of plants, leaves, seeds of grasses, and seeds from coyote scat. Newly hatched chicks, however, only eat insects for the first few days of their lives.

Females build their nests on the ground, concealed and shielded beneath a shrub, clump of cactus, or other protective vegetation. Mom lays 5-15 eggs (clutch) and after 21-31 days the eggs hatch. Upon hatching, this brand new brood of baby quail are able to leave the nest and follow their parents. (allaboutbirds.org)

The male’s plumage is more vibrant and distinctive than the female’s plumage. After all, the females benefit from a more camouflaged appearance to protect her brood when laying her clutch of eggs and incubating them until the babies hatch.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

audubon.org

I read this “Cool Fact” on Cornell University’s website, allaboutbirds.org:

Just before her eggs hatch, the female gambel’s quail calls to the chicks, who cheep to each other from inside the eggs. The eggs hatch in synchrony, with the chick cutting a neat hole in the largest part of the shell and leaving an intact piece of membrane to serve as a “hinge” — the chick pushes on the shell and opens the “door” that it has created.


white-winged dove

Medium-sized with a small head and short, square-tipped tail, these doves are pale brown overall with a white stripe along their wing. In flight, this stripe becomes a large white patch on their inner wing. (allaboutbirds.org)

allaboutbirds.org, courtesy of Ted Bradford

I only recognize white-winged doves by their long hooting call, “whooOOO-oo, ooo-oo”, which sounds like, “who cooks for you?” 

That’s why I know this is a white-winged dove sitting on this dead palm tree. I heard the distinct call and looked up and there he/she was…

One evening, when Jeff and I were walking through the palm grove toward Squaw Hill, we heard “who cooks for you?” to the right of us. A few seconds later a second dove to the left of us responded, “who cooks for you?”. This banter continued for several minutes without resolving the issue of who cooks for who, however…

Stevie Nicks introduced millions of Americans to the white-winged dove with her 1980s song, “Edge of Seventeen,” which hit #11 on the Billboard charts.

 bestclassicbands.com


Mourning Dove

Plump, long-tail, short legs, small bill, and a head that looks small in comparison to the rest of its body… It’s the mourning dove.

allaboutbirds.org

I also recognize this dove from its call… “who-OOO-oo-oo-oo” and not by sight.

According to en.wikipedia.org, “This species’ call is a distinctive, plaintive CooOOOoo-woo-woo-woooo, uttered by males to attract females, and may be mistaken for the call of an owl.

The mourning dove is one of our most abundant birds with a U.S. estimated population of 350 million. Perhaps one reason these doves survive in the desert is that they can drink brackish spring water (up to almost half the salinity of sea water) without becoming dehydrated the way humans would. (allaboutbirds.org)


Eurasian Collared-Dove

This relative of the mourning dove earns its name from the black half-collar at the nape of the neck. With a flash of white tail feathers and a flurry of dark-tipped wings, the collared-dove’s call is a shorter and more frequent who-OO-ooo.

Not native to North America, these doves were introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s where a pet store burglary allowed several birds to escape, or so the story goes. The owner of the store then released the rest of the flock of approximately 50 more. Around the same time, flocks of collared-doves were set free on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe when a volcano threatened eruption. From these sites, the birds made their way to Florida and now live happily all over the continent. (allaboutbirds.org)

allaboutbirds.org


desert iguana

This picture is from my first sighting this year, back in late February or early March, when Ginny and I were pulling Sahara mustard in Moon Country.

Desert iguanas are native dwellers of the Sonoran Desert of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico and the Mojave Desert of the Western United States.

courtesy of James W. Cornett

They are terrestrial animals but are capable of climbing 3 feet above ground in creosote bushes, one of their favorite habitats, to find food. (animaldiversity.org)

James W. Cornett

(We have his book (Desert Lizards, 2006) as a reference resource in the Palm House Visitor Center. A professional naturalist and desert ecologist, James W. Cornett who lives in the Coachella Valley, is a prolific writer on a variety of desert subjects.)

amazon.com

Desert iguanas like it hot! Extremely heat tolerant, they are active midday in the spring, summer, and fall when temperatures average 104 degrees Fahrenheit/40 degrees Celsius. Most of the day they bask in the hot sun, less fearful of predators who are not able to withstand the high temperatures. (animaldiversity.org)

Desert iguanas are primarily folivores, leaf eaters. Over 90% of their diet consists of buds, leaves, and flowers, especially creosote bush flowers and leaves. They will occasionally eat insects such as ants and some beetles. (animaldiversity.org)

These medium-sized lizards seem to be attracted to the color yellow as evidenced by their spring diet of yellow flowers, especially those of the creosote bush.

abdnha.org

They have even been observed eating yellow flagging tape! Captive desert iguanas will eat dandelion flowers and yellow mealworms, which are the larva of the mealworm beetle.  (animaldiversity.org)


Zebra-tailed lizard

Quite possibly the fastest reptile in the desert, the zebra-tailed lizard raises the forepart of its body completely off the ground and only uses its back legs for running up to 35 miles per hour. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

Here’s what they look like when they run…

sabinonaturalist.org

The black-and-white bands, more pronounced on the underside of its tail, give this lizard its name. When lying on the ground with a flat tail, it is almost invisible, camouflaged with the desert sand and gravel.


WhipTail Lizard

This guy has a pointed snout and extremely long tail that breaks away when pulled by a predator. Sensing humans, whiptails will run beneath the nearest bush at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, making them extremely difficult to photograph. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

I finally snapped a quick pic of this whiptail heading for cover beneath the skirt of the California Fan Palm Tree.

Here’s a better view of its long tail from a professional nature photographer.

abdnha.org, courtesy of Gary Nafis 

Most lizards use a “sit and wait” hunting strategy, that is they rest with forelegs extended to observe a broad area and then rush in and snap up their prey. Whiptails, however, are active hunters, scampering from bush to bush, digging beneath leaf and frond litter, poking their snouts into crevices, and even climbing in shrubs. They constantly flick their tongues to smell prey they cannot see. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)


Side-Blotched lizard

burkemuseum.org

This little reptile is the desert’s most abundant lizard. Because of its small size, the side-blotched’s body heats up quickly so it can remain active during the warm fall, winter, and early spring temperatures in the Colorado Desert of the Preserve. (The Colorado is the hottest portion of the Sonoran Desert.) So while other lizards need to hibernate in these cooler temps, the side-blotched lizard can breed throughout the year in the southern desert.

Brownish in color, this lizard gets its name from the dark blotch on each side of its chest, just behind the front leg. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of James W. Cornett

I, however, have never caught a good glimpse of the side-blotched’s blotch. All I know is that if I see a lizard that is not a desert iguana, whiptail, zebra-tailed, spiny, leopard, or chuckwalla, it has to be a side-blotched. (And then, as I learned more about Uta stansburiana, I read on the National Park Service’s website, nps.gov, that this blotch is sometimes faint or absent.)

Male side-blotched lizards are very territorial. If another male enters its domain, the male whose territory is being violated approaches the intruder, puffs up its torso, and bobs up and down as if doing push-ups. If this behavior does not send the interloper away, a very short battle ensues, lasting only a few seconds. The loser is chased away, most likely with a missing tail.

Female side-blotched lizards can store sperm, enabling them to lay more than one clutch without having to mate again. Their high rate of reproduction (up to 6 clutches of 2-6 eggs per year) also accounts for the side-blotched lizard’s widespread presence in the southern desert. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)


Desert Spiny lizard

We see them scooting along the boardwalk across the oasis as we cut down overgrown reeds pushing through the slats and flanking the railings.  Another one frequents the bushes near the front of our RV. I mean, with the naked eye you can see this bigger guy scoot across the parking lot or bask for awhile in the sun. With binoculars we have positively identified him. All of our efforts to take his picture, however, have failed.

So, all I can offer is this photo from the internet…

americansouthwest.net

There are 7 species of spiny lizards in the deserts of the southwest. The spiny is covered from head to toe with spine-tipped, overlapping scales that often, but not always, serve as protection from predators. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

californiaherps.com, courtesy of Gary Nafis

In addition to the sharp scales, a second defense mechanism has evolved among spiny lizards and other lizards as well. It’s a breakaway tail that wiggles violently after being pulled off. The predator becomes so focused on the wiggling appendage allowing the lizard to escape. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

But wait! Last week I took this pic of a spiny lizard behind the Palm House Visitor Center. As I moved in closer, he took off… But at least I got the picture!


Leopard Lizard

Jeff spotted, (pun intended) this leopard last year on the Preserve. The name, leopard, suits them physically from the dark spots on their scales, powerful jaws, and their voracious preying behavior. The leopard lizard sits and waits for another lizard or large insect to come into view and quickly rushes in to seize its prey. This lizard has been known to devour small mice and snakes as well. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

californiaherps.com, courtesy of Gary Nafis

During breeding season, the female develops reddish-orange spots and bars on her body and the underside of her tail turns this terra-cotta color as well. After laying her eggs, the colors slowly disappear. (James W. Cornett, from his book Desert Lizards, 2006)

californiaherps.com, courtesy of Gary Nafis 


And finally…

This little guy/gal, playing “king of the rock”, was sunbathing and I just had to take its picture. When in doubt, just identify the lizard as a side-blotched and people will be impressed. 😉

All My Critters… Part 1

Great and Small on the Preserve

Coyote

A member of the dog family, Canidae, desert coyotes weigh about 20 pounds as compared to their 50 pound cousins who live in the mountains. And because of the cooler temps in higher elevations, mountain coyotes have longer, darker hair and a bushier coat than the desert coyotes of the Coachella Valley Preserve  who are usually tan or gray with a black-tipped tail. (desertusa.com)

At night we look forward to hearing their quavering howls which in coyote language translates into, “I am here. This is my space. Females, you are welcome to follow my voice and join me, but males, you need to stay away. Please answer me to let me know where you are so we don’t have any unwanted conflicts.”

Sometimes we hear a series of short high-pitched yelps. This noise may be from young pups playing or a pack of coyotes arguing or celebrating.

Coyotes will bark when protecting their den of pups or protecting the prey they just killed.

Canis latrans is the scientific name for coyotes and it means “barking dog.” I think our dog Casey was part coyote. (We miss you love-love dog… I hope you felt how much we loved you! We rescued you and you protected us.)

Very rarely will you hear coyotes huff. This subdued noise is reserved for calling to their pups. (desertusa.com)

Coyotes, of course, have excellent hearing for detecting prey and avoiding danger. The movement and position of their ears communicate mood and rank.

Coyotes roam alone, in pairs, or in a pack. Like dogs, they mark their territory with urine. And they can easily leap over an 8 foot fence or wall.

In desert habitats, coyotes live and hunt within a range of 10-12 square miles. In the mountains they have both a summer and winter range as heavy snows drive them to lower elevations. (desertusa.com)

Hunting both day and night, coyotes exist on a varied diet of mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels, insects, lizards, and the fruits and berries of wild plants. (desertusa.com)

On the Coachella Valley Preserve they enjoy the fallen palm fruit from the California Fan Palm trees in the autumn and winter.

northamericantrees.com

Coyote mating season begins in January when several lone males gather around one female with the hopes of courtship. The female, however, will form a relationship with only one of them. The new couple will then travel together for awhile before mating.

The female bears one litter of 3-9 pups a year in April or May when food is abundant. The gestation period is 63-65 days. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

The pups are born blind. Their eyes open when they are 14-days-old and a few days later, they emerge from the natal den. (desertusa.com)

Coyotes prepare their dens in rocky crevices, under dense thickets, or by digging a burrow in the ground. After the pups are weaned the new family abandons the den but often return to it from year to year. (coyotesmarts.org)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

Pups suckle for 5-7 weeks and start eating semi-solid food after 3 weeks. Dad supports his new family with regurgitated food, but Mom does not allow him to come all the way into the den. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

The pups live and play in the den for 6-10 weeks until Mom starts taking them out with her to hunt as a group. Gradually the family disbands. By autumn the pups are old enough to hunt alone and before their first birthday coyote pups are ready to go their own way to stake out their own territory. (desertusa.com)

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve

courtesy of Ken Mix, co-host on the Preserve


Pocket Gopher

This elusive little guy popped up one day so unexpectedly between the Palm House Visitor Center and the restrooms. First he dug a tunnel and plugged it up from underneath with a large mound of sand and dirt. Then within minutes, he suddenly opened another hole behind the original mound (a patio maybe?) and closed that hole. I was mesmerized so I stood still and waited. Sure enough, he emerged again, in front of the original mound (a front porch maybe?) and then escaped into one of its extensive underground tunnels, burying the opening once again.

Active all year round, these heavy-bodied animals measure about 9 inches long and weigh 6-8 ounces. Desert pocket gophers have very small ears and eyes, a short naked tail and large forelimbs with long claws… (The better to dig with, my dear.) Their lips close behind large incisor teeth so that dirt doesn’t get in their mouths while they dig.

Pocket gophers are found naturally throughout the Sonoran Desert region where there are easily dug soils, such as those in riparian areas (wetlands), washes, and mesquite groves. (desertmuseum.org)

Pocket gophers are very shy and timid and seldom leave their underground tunnel system. They prefer to pull plants down into the tunnel from below. These animals are vegetarians and their diet consists of roots, tubers, grasses, green plants, and prickly pear cactus. Occasionally they will open a hole to allow some air exchange in the tunnel or to let tunnels dry out after heavy rains. (desertmuseum.org)

These gophers are solitary critters and only get together for mating once, maybe twice a year, with 2-6 young born 19 days later. In 3 months these youngsters are sexually mature. (desertmuseum.org)


Roadrunner

The Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, is probably the most famous bird in the southwest, featured in folklore and cartoons (Beep! Beep!) and known by its long tail and shaggy appearance. It walks and runs on the ground up to 15 miles per hour, only flying when necessary.

Roadrunners eat insects including tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. They also catch lizards, snakes, mice, young ground squirrels, and small birds such as sparrows, hummingbirds, and young quail. (audubon.org)

According to allaboutbirds.org, a website created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, roadrunners kill rattlesnakes by pecking them repeatedly in the head, and from what I have gathered in my research, they most likely work in pairs with one roadrunner distracting the attention of the venomous viper. After snatching lizards, mice, and birds, roadrunners slam this larger prey against rocks or the ground multiple times to break down the bones and elongate the victim for easier swallowing.


Raven

The Common Raven, Corvus corax, is a massive, bird the size of a hawk, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a heavy, dense, extremely powerful bill. This bird is entirely black including legs, eyes, and bill, and is often confused with a crow. But there are no crows in the Coachella Valley according to Anita K. Booth, an accredited bird biologist with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the author of the bird guide, Birds of the Coachella Valley, published in 2009.

Typically foraging in pairs, these bold birds will work cooperatively to flush out prey and search for nests to eat the eggs, hatchlings, or nestlings. Ravens are opportunistic omnivores and will eat just about anything including insects, lizards, rodents, berries, and garbage. The majority of the diet of these scavengers, however, consists of carrion, the decaying body of dead animals. (audubon.org)

Noisy and playful, ravens will put on an aerobatic performance of sudden rolls,  wing-tucked dives, and playing with objects by dropping them and catching them in midair. (allaboutbirds.org)

A large group of ravens (known collectively as an unkindness) starts descending upon the California Fan Palms on the Oasis Preserve in October to eat the fresh palm fruit and catch whatever treats they find within the fronds. After all the visitors are gone, a a raven or two will strut through the parking lot looking for dropped bits of food left behind.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the reason there is a large group showing up in autumn is because these ravens are too young to start pairing up yet. This makes sense because as winter approaches spring, only one or two birds delight us with their antics.

Ravens and crows look a lot alike, but their are subtle differences.

Ravens are larger and make a low croaking sound. They usually travel in pairs, except when they are still young. Crows are more gregarious and favor the company of a larger group. Their call is more of a cawing sound.

A crow’s tail feathers are usually all the same length, so its tail opens like a fan. A raven has longer middle feathers in its tail, so it looks more like a wedge or a triangle. The crow has a smaller bill while the raven has a great big chunky-looking  beak. (birdnote.org, Ravens and Crows – Who’s Who?, adapted by Dominic Black from a piece by Frances Wood and Dennis Paulson)

Below is a picture of a crow, left, and a raven, right:

birdnote.org/Tom Grey

And finally, ravens are more graceful and agile in flight, with light wingbeats and occasional soaring. Crows often appear to be swimming across the sky. (allaboutbirds.org)


Costa’S hummingbird

The costa’s is the hummingbird I am most familiar with in the Coachella Valley. When perched and at rest, this bird is small, short, and stocky-looking. Like most birds, the female is blandly colored…

audubon.org/Joan Fox

…but when the light hits the male just right, his crown and throat shimmer in a vivid iridescence that appears bright blue or purple…

audubon.org/Joan Fox

The costa’s diet consists mostly of nectar and insects. While hovering, it extends its bill within the flower to extract the nectar. Insects are often caught midair or plucked from foliage. (audubon.org)

These hummingbirds nest in late winter and spring, with one male mating with several females. Nests are 2-8 feet above ground, placed on horizontal or diagonal branches of sparsely-leaved shrub or small trees. Sometimes the females build their nests in yucca or cactus. (audubon.org)

Female costa’s typically lay 2 white eggs per clutch, the total number of eggs laid in one nesting attempt. And according to Anita K. Booth’s Birds of the Coachella Valley published in 2009, the eggs are laid 1-3 days apart.

Incubation lasts between 14-23 days (Anita K. Booth) and 15-18 days (audubon.org).

Within 3 weeks, give or take a few days, the newly hatched youngsters are ready to take their first flight with Mom. (audubon.org)

Quarantined in the Desert

Staying Put During the Covid-19 Shutdown

On May 1st Tom, our neighbor and co-host leaves for Utah.

From left to right, Tom, Ken, Rebecca, and Jeff gather to say goodbye as I take a picture.

Be safe, Tom, and know you will be missed…

Ken opens and closes the parking lot gate for Tom and takes a video. We all hope he will return in October. Fingers crossed.


So now it’s just Jeff and me on the Preserve.

What are we doing to keep busy? Besides reading, eating, binge streaming Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, eating, getting on each other’s nerves, eating, and missing our family and friends? And of course, eating!

Well…


First, we finish lining a trail with rocks that starts at the Pushawalla Loop Trailhead parking  area and heads south along Bee Mesa.

There are so many washes in this area and established trails are confusing to follow, especially since rains that cause flash flooding constantly wipe away the original trails.

As always, our hard work pays off.

After laying the final most perfect rock to complete the hiking pathway, I walk the trail to admire our contribution to the greater Coachella Valley Preserve for future visitors’ hiking enjoyment. (And yeah, to remind guests to please stay on the trail.)

This amazing Sand Blazing Star, with its 5 satin-like pale yellow petals and serrated leaves, smiles up at me in gratitude.


We hike the Indian Palms Trail loop clockwise and counterclockwise pulling Sahara mustard and to establish a possible trail through the wash to line later with rocks, pending our Preserve Manager, Ginny’s approval.

We discover that desert holly turns a pale pink.

And these huge rocks with pock marks and layers… I mean, we have walked by these guys many many times, but today we notice them!


At the south grove of Indian Palms, Jeff is convinced that we can head back through the wash to reach the old Indian Trail. I’m not one for saying, “I told you so,” (fingers crossed behind my back… ) but I know better. I find a steep descent into the wash and…

…a sunbathing speckled rattle snake blocking the hazardous pathway. Jeff thinks the snake is dead because of the bees buzzing around it. I wait and watch. Sure enough, its  tongue flickers in and out and then it curls its head toward the end of its body.

Jeff now agrees that this grove is an in and out trail. (You know I told him so!)


Ginny, grateful and impressed with our Sahara mustard weed-pulling skills, shows us the summer weeds that need constant attention: tamarisk and pulicaria. 🥴😱🥴

Tamarisk

According to usgs.gov, tamarisk is an invasive, non-native shrub or small tree. Also known as saltcedar, tamarisk thrives in alkaline soils where water availability is low. Ah, this means the streams of the Coachella Valley Preserve, created by the aquifer and the San Andreas Fault, are a perfect home for this unwelcome guest.

Tamarisk grows in dense, nearly impenetrable thickets, hoarding light, water, and nutrients that are precious to the desert ecosystem by replacing native cottonwoods, willows, and dry land plants that provide habitats for animals and birds. The plant’s  foliage and flowers offer little food value for native wildlife. Tamarisk also increases wildfire hazards. (discovermoab.com)

selectree.calpoly.edu, courtesy of W. Mark and J. Reimer 

selectree.calpoly.edu, courtesy of W. Mark and J. Reimer 

Here’s a young shrub blooming on the Preserve. The pink flowers are quite lovely, however, don’t be fooled. Each plant can produce as many as 500,000 seeds a year. Seeds are small with a tuft of hair at one end enabling them to float long distances by wind and water. Seeds are short-lived and can germinate within 24 hours after dispersal, sometimes while still floating on the water. (discovermoab.com)

And here’s a better pic from the internet.

invasive.org courtesy of Steve Dewey, Utah State University, Bugwood.org

So, where is tamarisk from and how did it get here in the desert?

Originating from the dry areas of Eurasia and Africa, tamarisk was introduced to the Southwest in the 1800s, predominantly as a windbreaker along railroads and riverbanks. Of course it’s tolerance in dry climates made it a popular ornamental landscaping plant. (discovermoab.com)

Pulicaria

Another non-native flowering weed is Pulicaria, also known as Spanish false fleabane. (calflora.org)

calphotos.berkeley.org/Keir Morse at keiriosity.com


We follow the stream as it runs under Thousand Palms Canyon Road.

A Rush Milkweed is in full bloom.

This plant is also called Skeleton Milkweed because of its tall slender gray-green rush-like stems. Native to California, asclepias subulata, releases a sap that has been analyzed (way back in 1935) and found to contain natural rubber. This toxic milky juice was used to induce vomiting in some native cultures. (desertusa.com)

And I remember reading somewhere in my milkweed research that Native Americans chewed on certain species of milkweed like chewing gum. No, they couldn’t blow and pop bubbles…

Milkweed is crucial to the life-cycle of the monarch butterfly. Female monarchs search for milkweed to lay their eggs as the larvae will only feed on leaves from the asclepias family. The leaves contain cardiac glycosides which, when ingested by the caterpillars, protects them from becoming prey to birds. This protection continues when they become butterflies as well. Predators learn to avoid monarch larvae and butterflies because they taste bad or make them vomit. (swmonarch.org)

swmonarch.org


We continue down the stream toward Washington Street feeling confident in identifying and pulling tamarisk.

So far we don’t think we have seen pulicaria until we recognize the red stems… Wow! We hit the mother lode of a patch…


More pics of the stream…

And some surprises…

I stumble upon the only Ghost Flower I have seen this season!

So beautiful and precious a find…

Gamble Quail squawk and scatter along the wash. And then I look up and am so surprised to see a quail calm and settled in a Smoketree.

Speaking of Smoketrees…

They are blooming!

Datura or Jimson Weed grows abundantly in the washes. Notice the round green spiny seed pods of this healthy guy…

And the blooms just barely ready to open…

The stream dries up and we make our way to the stone-lined trail that crosses the road to Willis Palms on the west side, leads to Hidden Palms on the east side, or makes a right angle turn leading back to the Palm House Visitor Center along the base of Bee Mesa.

As we head back to the Visitor Center, we notice something rusted and abandoned toward Thousand Palms Canyon Road. We leave the trail, (only because we can as we volunteer and work here…) and walk toward this heap of an old Volkswagen Bus riddled with bullet holes…

The bus, not the bullet holes, reminds me of Jeff’s son, Andy… When he lived with us in Cincinnati he was working on restoring one.


On Fridays Jeff and I take the Preserve truck and drive out to the pond which is still closed for the restoration and eventual reintroduction of pupfish.

Our job is to clean up the piles of dead reeds, that were cut down and pulled from the pond last spring and summer, and all the other piles of debris that were removed to fence the area in to protect wildlife from the restoration project.

It’s a slow process. We rake and fill the truck bed with a load of debris. Then we drive it back to the dumpster in our parking lot at the Palm House Visitor Center. The garbage  gets picked up on Thursday, so Friday is a good day to fill it up again with 2 truck loads.

Jeff jumps in the dumpster and tampers down the stuff we unload to make room for the weekly garbage of Ken, Rebecca, their daughter Megan, and us.


Of course we still take care of the Palm House even though it is not open. The mice still leave their little mouse poop and sand piles and the surfaces get dusty.

Outside the Palm House and behind our RV, we rake up fallen fronds.


Once a week we cut back the reeds growing along and under the boardwalk of the oasis. No visitors + infrequent foot traffic = lots of reeds needing a haircut.

No foot traffic does not prevent air traffic from enjoying the oasis, however… Look whooooo is supervising our work!

Two Long-eared baby owls!


Is this not the perfect place, except for the hot summer temperatures, to be sheltered in place? We have 880 acres in our immediate backyard surrounded by the rest of the 30,000 acres of the Coachella Valley Preserve.

I mean, look at this view from a bench on our Preserve. Imagine yourself sitting here.

And when you leave, you turn around and notice the words engraved on the bench…


So… We have decided to hunker down in the desert during the uncertainty of these times; the Covid-19 pandemic and now the racism pandemic.

Please everyone… Stay safe. Keep safe for others. Pass kindness forward. Look for sameness instead of difference. Ask questions to understand. Let’s love ourselves so we can love another. Reach out. VOTE! Vote for our children and our children’s children.

Before it’s too late…

The Day the Lights Went Out

And Everything Else…

Jeff and I wake up to no electricity. Our co-host, Tom, greets us with an explanation. A car swerved off Thousand Palms Canyon Road, in front of the Preserve, and knocked over a utility pole. No one was injured, luckily.

Okay, but not… The temperature is going to rise to over 100 degrees today!

Luckily, our RV generator, which we are supposed to run for 30 minutes every month (and we don’t) still kicks on. For the next 9 hours we rely on it to keep us cool. Tom relies on his generator as well.

Our other set of co-hosts, Ken, Rebecca, and their daughter Megan live in a trailer RV about a half mile south of us on Thousand Palms Canyon Road. Unfortunately they do not have a backup generator. Fortunately, their power was restored by 10 AM because the power company could reroute the transfer of electricity to their power source.

But Tom and Jeff and I aren’t so lucky. A new electric pole has to be installed in order for us to get back on the grid.


Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon we notice a lot of equipment arriving and activity happening along the road. Jeff and I take the parking lot trail to investigate and take pictures.

A brand new utility pole is being hoisted up. The connecting pole’s wires reach across Thousand Palms Canyon Road. Apparently we are connected to this broken power line.

(But hey, I’m not complaining! We are in the middle of the desert and we have full RV hookup, WiFi, and an on-site washing machine and dryer… one of three spots reserved for Preserve Volunteer Hosts.) And since we have a motor home and Tom has one too, we both have built in generators to supply all of our electrical needs.

It’s fun to watch…

The guys above wave down at us as they wait for the new pole to be positioned correctly.

This disconnected loop of wire runs across the street to the next utility pole. The new wires are ready to be attached at the top.

Lots of big equipment… each truck has one worker wearing a mask, I might add.

Notice the pole equipped with a new set of electrical connectors. Did they build that and add it to the pole today? I am going to guess, yes… I mean how many ready-to-connect poles are needed on a daily basis?


The crashed pole splintered at the base.


The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) is the public agency that provides water and energy service to the Coachella Valley south to the border of Mexico.

iid.com


Now the wires get attached.

Tom watches the trucks leave and we quickly check to see if the electric meter is running. Nope… ?

We find out through Ginny, the Preserve Manager, that it will take another 45 minutes until the power returns. I guess someone somewhere has to pull a switch.

By 5:00 we are back on the grid! Ah, the beautiful buzz of electric energy…


Meanwhile, we can only speculate on what happened for a car to crash into and wipe out a power line…

Driving too fast? Cars, trucks, motorcycles speed through the curves of Thousand Palms Canyon Road all the time. Impatient drivers cross the double yellow line and pass 2 or 3 cars at a time before heading back to their lane.

Texting while driving on a curve?

Drinking and driving? …as in hot coffee… We did notice a takeout cup of coffee lying in the road.

We’ll never know. What’s surprising, however, is that there aren’t more accidents on this stretch of road between Ramon/Washington and Dillon.

google maps

The Perks of Pulling Mustard Part 5

Beyond Indian Palms

On our official trail map, the Indian Palms Trail is an almost 2 mile out-and-back hike to 2 small palm groves.

But there is an old Indian trail leading out of the wash of the second grove, the southern one, that takes you into the wash leading to the Pushawalla loop or beyond to Willis Palms along the trail beside Bee Mesa OR  to the stone-lined trail leading back to the Indian Palms Trailhead and across Thousand Palms Canyon Road to our parking lot.

My point is, this off trail path eventually leads to several marked trails and our Preserve Manager, Ginny,  would like to incorporate this old Indian Trail into a connecting loop.

I am excited to discover this loop and, as I hike it, I combine work with pleasure by pulling and bagging Sahara Mustard along the way.

I think I went out 3 or 4 times myself before enlisting Jeff’s help. We hike the loop several times filling and carrying out 1 bag apiece and then 2 bags each.

I hope you enjoy these hidden splendors I encounter as I snap pictures while I work alone and with Jeff.


There is no actual trail leading out of the south grove of Indian Palms to the old Indian Trail which ascends beyond the wash. So, you can either backtrack to the wash and cut over, or backtrack and find a path of least resistance across the wash. Jeff and I do both as we pull and bag Sahara Mustard.

So, I’m hot, tired, and discouraged by the amount of mustard that still needs pulling… (Honestly, if a dumpster could somehow be dropped down here and somehow follow us along that would be so wonderful. And, if with a twitch of the nose or a sophisticated app, it could be magically picked up and sent to the Big Dump in the Sky, that would be even better.) We can’t get too tired or thirsty or hot because we still have to carry bags of mustard weeds out with us for another 1.5 miles! But I am not complaining. It’s actually a rewarding chore as I discover…

Mammillaria dioica, Nipple Cactus

I don’t even begin to understand the nuances of descriptions of the various cacti that sparsely grow in the Coachella Valley, but this is the consensus of my authoritative sources, namely Ginny, Harlan, and Jon Mark Stewartfrom his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers.

This red pepper protrusion is something I have never seen before. (Duh, like I’m an expert!)


My bag/our bags full, we ascend out of the wash. Luscious wildflowers line the old Indian trail leading out of the south grove.

Hidden hills smile over the rocks.

A secret canyon folds into the hills.

A Barrel Cactus hangs out among the rocks, perfectly posed beside Creosote Bush.

A Desert Dandelion and Chicory share this selfie among the thorns.

The only White Rhatany I’ve seen this season is along this trail.

Krameria bicolor, also known as Krameria grayi, is a member of the Krameriaceae Family, named in honor of the father and son Austrian botanists Johann Georg Heinrich Kramer and Henry Kramer.

Native to the arid regions of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Baja California, and Mexico, White Rhatany are root parasites that depend upon nearby plants such as Creosote Bushes for part of its nutrition. (southwestdesertflora.com)

(According to britannica.com, “A parasitic plant is a plant that obtains all or part of its nutrition from a host plant without contributing to the benefit of the host and, in some cases, causing extreme damage to the host. The defining structural feature of a parasitic plant is the haustorium, a specialized organ that penetrates the tissues of a host and absorbs nutrients and water.“)

Instead of nectar, White Rhatany produces oil that attracts bees of the genus Centris which have specialized hind legs that enable the bee to scrape up the oil. Black-tailed jack rabbits rely on White Rhatany during the winter. As a browse plant, White Rhatany provides fodder for livestock, Mule Deer, and Desert Bighorn Sheep. (southwestdesertflora.com)

A sky full of pelicans erupts over the hills.

A group of pelicans has many collective nouns, including: brief, pod, pouch, scoop, and squadron. (identify.whatbird.com)

And when they swoop and turn, the sun catches their white wings causing bright flashes…

On the ground, a robust Woody Bottle-Washer Primrose starts to bloom, the only one I have seen this season!


The old Indian Trail ends. I can see the trail leading up to the top of Pushawalla Ridge and the electric poles extending across Thousand Palms Canyon Road to the parking lot trail.

There is no established path here so we head toward one of several washes and eventually “mark” a trail with memorable landmarks, such as this healthy patch of Chia.

A member of the Mint Family, Salvia columbariae has tiny lavender to blue flowers clustered in several balls along the stems. The velvety leaves lie along the base of the flower stalks and apparently smell a bit skunk. (Hmmm… Next time I will be sure to get down and nosy…)

Dried seeds were harvested by Native Americans and ground into a flour called pinole. A type of porridge or gruel was made by adding water to this powder. Steeping the dried seeds in water produced a thick gelatin-like liquid.

This is one of the few species of Salvia used as an energy enhancing nutrient. The most popular health food chia is the Mexican Salvia hispanica. (wildflower.org)

This mummified Cat’s Claw is another desert marker we use to navigate through the various washes off the old Indian Trail.


As I wonder and wander through the wash, I see bright orange patches ahead, lighting up the way contrasting with the blue sky, green shrubs, and light beige desert sand.

Desert Dodder is a slender-stemmed pale yellow to orange parasitic annual twining around and through shrubs, bushes, and herbs in the Colorado and Mojave’s Deserts. And yes, even some of the Sahara Mustard I pull is all tied up in strands of Dodder.

It starts from a seed. As it sprouts it weaves itself counter-clockwise around a plant’s stem or branch, tightening its grip on the host and pushing little wartlike bumps, called “haustoria”, into the stem. Now, the Dodder’s connection to the earth has been broken, and since it cannot make food on its own, it depends on the host to draw its nourishment through the haustorium. Dodder does not usually kill its host plant, but a heavy infestation in times of drought may cause significant damage. (calflora.net)


And then a perfect pop of pink! Desert Five Spot, a precious gem of the desert…

Eremalche rotunddifolia is a member of the Mallow Family and is native to the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. When open, each of the 5 pink petals has a large dark red blotch at its base. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

Last year, during the superbloom, we barely caught a glimpse of opened Five Spots!


Checker Fiddleneck, with its curled tails, loves hanging out in the washes.


Bladder Pod greets us along the trail back across the street to our parking lot.

A member of the Caper Family, the yellow flowers give way to an inflated pod that contains several seeds. Yep, this plant is related to the commercial capers you buy in a jar in the grocery store. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

Another Bladder Pod lies along the base of Bee Mesa.


As I continue through the wash along the base of Bee Mesa I notice a white canister hanging out of the side of the hill. At first I think it’s a water bottle and wonder who would leave one here. Upon closer examination, I realize this has something to do with a science activity. A few weeks later I notice more of these devices half buried, scattered throughout the washes, and marked with a pink flag near the Pushawalla Loop. Placed by geologists, they measure earthquake activity.


Further on, a young Cat’s Claw bush  starts blooming.

A member of the Pea Family, Cat’s Claw Acacia, or Acacia greggii, has sharp curved hooked thorns resembling the claws of a cat. (southwestdesertflora.com)

Also known as “wait-a-minute” bush, this common shrub abundant in the washes of the Colorado Desert is nearly impossible to navigate through as the claw-like thorns catch, hold, and tear clothing as well as lacerating the skin. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers AND southwestdesertflora.com)

More mature Cat’s Claw bloom in fragrant bundles of sweet smelling deliciousness…

Later, the fuzzies turn into curly pods…


Just beyond, a “field” of wildflowers on the slope of Bee Mesa catches my attention.

This is amazing! I mean, this is the mini desert superbloom of 2020!

Among the Little Gold Poppies, Lupine, Notched-Leaf Phacelia and Chicory, I notice a flower unfamiliar to me with leaves that remind me of parsley.

I share this pic with our Preserve Manager, Ginny. She suggests this is Earth Smoke, a non-native desert wildflower.


Walking further south along the base of Bee Mesa, an “Avenue” of Smoketree lines a  wash meandering to the west. In the background you can see the Indio Hills that are being squeezed up by the 2 strands of the San Andreas Fault: Mission Creek in front and Banning behind.

Patches of Pignut pop up.

Hoffmannseggia glauca, also known as Indian Rushpea, Hog Potato, and “Camote de Ratón” or mouse yam, this plant is a member of the Legume Family. (southwestdesertflora.com)


As Jeff and I continue pulling Sahara Mustard along the trail beside Bee Mesa, I discover desert dandelions towering over Frost-Mat. (Well, I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I sent these pics to our Preserve Manager, Ginny, and she identified them for us.

Thick greenish leaves and tiny white flowers, Achyronychia cooperi is a member of the Carnation Family.


Finally, Jeff and I head back home with 2 trash bags apiece filled with Sahara mustard. We look up and I immediately put my trash bags down and grab my phone from my pocket to take this pic of this Smoketree and  Sweetbush. It’s only later after reviewing my photos that I realize that I captured Squaw Hill and the palm groves around Thousand Palms Oasis in the background.


As we head back along the trail that leads across Thousand Palms Canyon Road, I smell a subtle and familiar fragrance and barely notice the flowering bush of pastel purple flowers.

Desert Lavender


Finally…

I wish you could see the amazing blazing yellow color of these Desert Dandelions!

And the yellow-orange glow of these Little Gold Poppies  mingling with the bright white Chicory

And this, my favorite pic of all… the “token” white among the yellow.

I have entitled it, ACCEPTANCE.

I invite you to read Tana French’s novel, The Secret Place, to discover why.

Shutting Down

A Gradual Process…

Covid-19 impacts the Coachella Valley Preserve, especially the 880 acres privately owned and managed by the Center for Natural Land Management.

First we shutdown the water station in the Palm House Visitor Center in early March. For environmental reasons we are no longer supplying single-use plastic bottles of water for visitors who either forget to bring water or need more after hiking. Instead we set up a water station of three 5 gallon jugs of water atop crocks with spigots. Of course, we can’t count on every visitor carrying a water bottle, so we provide paper cups as well. At least it’s a start. Our concern with the water station has to do with the spigot that easily touches the rims of empty water bottles that need refilling or the rims of cups for a second and third refill.

On March 13th we run out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, so we close the 2 bathrooms as we cannot replenish these supplies.

A few days later the Palm House Visitor Center closes as docent volunteers call Ginny, the Preserve Manager, expressing their concern for putting themselves at risk.

Docents can still volunteer but they are only available to welcome and talk to visitors outside of the Palm House.

Scheduled guided hikes become optional as well. By March 17th all guided hikes are cancelled.

California Governor Gavin Newsom issues a statewide “Stay at Home Order” on March 19th. Hiking is still allowed as long as people maintain appropriate 6 feet apart social distancing.

As Riverside County requires face masks to be worn in public in the latter part of March, we do too…

The Bureau of Land Management  brings us a sign to post about enjoying outdoor activities in this time of Covid-19 while practicing safe precautions…

And finally on April 1st, no fool’s day joke, we are officially closed.

We don’t know when our 880 acres will reopen for hiking. Check our website for the latest updated information.

Meanwhile…

Stay safe. Stay home for the most part and when you do go out, maintain social distancing and wear a mask. Even if you don’t like the idea of face masks, wear one out of respect for others, respect for their right to feel as safe as they can amid this strange virus. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Check the source of information first. Stay strong. We are sharing this surreal experience together. We got this!

The Perks of Pulling Mustard Part 4

Wandering Through the Wash Along the Rockettes Trail…

Behind Squaw Hill there is a trail lined with rocks leading across Thousand Palms Canyon Road. One day in February I accompanied Ginny, our Preserve Manager, to post habitat signs to discourage visitors from wandering off trail. We then started lining one side of the trail with rocks, and with a broom we swept away any evidence of footprints off trail.

Since then, I continued the project of lining one side of the trail with rocks from the road to the intersection of Smoketree Trail. Mary, a docent volunteer, decided she would help me with lining the other half of the trail with rocks. Well, of course we had to christen this stretch of a desert path with a name. After brainstorming some ideas, Harlan (our local authority next to Ginny who leads hikes, repairs trails, and shares a wealth of information about the history, geology, flora, and fauna of the Preserve) came up with the name Rockettes and it stuck.

Parallel to the Rockettes Trail and further west is the off trail wash and stream.

As the San Andreas Fault system enters the Coachella Valley in Indio, it splits into 2 sections: The Banning Strand and the Mission Creek Strand. The hills that tower over the wash and stream are being pushed up as a result of being wedged between these 2 strands which eventually meet up again as they travel northwest. (Harlan)

The stream is run-off from fault water propelled by gravity. The boardwalk oasis and pond result from the underlying aquafir water hitting the Mission Creek fault strand. The water cannot pass through so it has to go up, the path of least resistance. (Harlan)


As usual these days, I am mining for invasive Sahara mustard.

And of course I am enjoying the scenery and flowers I find along the way.


A splash of Arizona Lupine

What tickles me about lupine are its unusual leaves that look like flowers themselves.

calflora.net



Checker Fiddleneck

The yellow flowers are arranged in spikes that resemble scorpion tails, unfolding as new flowers open. But don’t be fooled. The long white hairs give the plant its fuzzy-wuzzy appearance, but can be quite irritating to the touch. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)



Heart-Leafed Primrose

Similar  to yellow cups, the leaves are shaped like hearts, hence the name, instead of lobes.


Desert Trumpet

I love this unusual desert treasure because it has 3 distinctive segments to enjoy.

The inflated stems grow 1 to 3 feet tall. In contrast, the tiny ethereal yellow flowers are only 1/16 inch long.

The hairy rosette of leaves at the base of the plant have slightly lobed edges with long stalks and measure about 2 inches across. The swellings on the leafless stems were thought to be due to wasp larvae living inside. More recent findings, however, have put that explanation to rest. These inflated pods are the result of a buildup of carbon dioxide in the stem. (americansouthwest.net)


Brittlebush

Bright yellow flowers hover over this pale green bush as they burst open on long wooden stems. A member of the Sunflower Family, a brittlebush will shed its leaves in drought conditions to conserve water. Additionally, insulating white hairs cover the light blue-green leaves to help reduce water loss. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)


Indigo Bush

This purple flowered shrub is a member of the Pea Family and attracts butterflies. In the spring, it’s not uncommon to see pieces of purple petals scattered around anthills as busy ants carry them home.


Sweetbush…

A member of the Sunflower Family, bebbia juncea, is a scraggly looking aromatic desert shrub easily ignored by casual observers until the tiny yellow-orange florets pop up. The plant is a haven for butterflies and moths and an important host plant for bees. Chuckwallas are known to relish sweetbush so it’s no surprise that this shrub is also known as Chuckwalla’s Delight. (southwestdesertflora.com)

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a chuckwalla lizard here… yet.



London Rocket

Introduced from Europe, this aggressive weed is a member of the Mustard Family, but unlike the Sahara mustard, we don’t actively pull it on the Preserve since it is not nearly as abundant or invasive.

Also called “tumble mustard”, the scientific name for this tall, slender-stemmed annual with yellow flowers is sisymbrium irio. Following the Great Fire of London in the 1600s, this plant made a comeback in such rapid abundance earning its most common name, London Rocket. (southwestdesertflora.com)

According to the database, Native American Ethnobotany from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, several uses for this herb have been identified: (naeb.brit.org)

The Cahuilla who lived on this Preserve boiled or fried the leaves and served them in salads. (Bean, Lowell John and Katherine Siva Saubel,  1972,  Temalpakh (From the Earth);  Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants,  Banning, CA.  Malki Museum Press, page 140)

The Mohave roasted the young shoots and ate them as famine food. (Castetter, Edward F. and Willis H. Bell,  1951,  Yuman Indian Culture,  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press,  page 201)

The Pima stored the seeds for winter to prepare a gruel by grinding the seeds and adding water. As a medicine, dried seeds were placed under sore eyes to induce tears. (Curtin, L.  S.  M.,  1949,   By the Prophet of the Earth, Santa Fe.  San Vicente Foundation,  page 84)

Check out this article by John Slattery, “Urban Foraging for London Rocket” posted February 29, 2016 on desertortoisebotanicals.com for modern day kitchen and medicinal recipes.



Broad-Leafed Gilia

A member of the Phlox Family, this desert annual stands out with its dark green leaves and pink flowers.


A bouquet of purple Notched-Leafed Phacelia and Desert Poppy…


A vibrant patch of Desert Poppy…


And my favorite cottonwood tree leading back to the boardwalk, a favorite hang out for our feathered friends.

Leave No Trace

Preserve Etiquette…

As we spend time outdoors, in the natural world and wilderness, it’s important to be aware of the effects our individual actions may have on plants, animals, other people, and entire ecosystems. By practicing the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, we can minimize our impact while still enjoying our outdoor experience. (nps.gov)

nps.gov

These principles were established in the mid 1980s by The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, LNT.org, and built on work by the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management. (nps.gov)

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.

Our Preserve Manager, Ginny, knows how much I enjoy organizing, labeling, and creating signage so when she meets with our team of hosts and we discuss a need for communicating important information, I get to design a poster for Ginny’s approval.

Since we are a privately owned Nature Preserve and not a National Park, no overnight camping is allowed here. So I adapted the 7 principles to fit our environmental needs. Below is the poster I created:


Here are some examples of the “traces” various visitors have left behind this season:

Three pair of shoes left in the parking lot…

I guess they changed into hiking boots and then forgot about them. 😱


Leftover “props” from a photo op…

Here’s a good story…

A younger woman and older man walk in carrying a dress on a hangar. Now, this is not as unusual as you may think. We often have professional and amateur photo shoots on the Preserve. We prefer that the photographers or picture subjects give our Manager a heads up so we can expect them and let them know the etiquette of the Preserve, yadda yadda.

Something about this couple alerts Tom, our co-host, and me to check out what is happening. So, we take a quick walk on the Smoketree Trail and almost fall over them. The She is posing on a cooler in the middle of the trail. Her back is arched back and her legs are seductively exposed through the slit in the halter dress she obviously changed into. The He is standing off-trail on restorative habitat taking pictures. Strewn around the cooler are red and yellow flowers and green leaves. Before Tom and I can even open our mouths, she tells us not to mind them; they are just having some fun. They brought the flowers in and they will pick them all up. Dumbfounded, we just remind him to stay on the trail and leave.

Later our Manager tells us that blocking a trail is a “No-No”, I mean, can you imagine someone in a National Park sitting in the middle of a trail or someone coming on your property and making you walk around them to enter your house?

Anyway, She and He didn’t do a very good job of picking up after themselves… 🤨


A tennis ball to knock down palm fruit…

Here’s another good one from Tom.

A family is leaving the Preserve and Tom hears a loud raucous so he goes to investigate. Apparently a father just happens to have a tennis ball in his pocket.  Really? In front of his son and wife he repeatedly throws the tennis ball up into a palm tree to try and knock down the palm fruit. His attempts prove unsuccessful but for some reason he leaves the tennis ball. Tennis anyone? 😧


Orange peels that will not break down in the desert heat…

Organic litter is not okay!

We ask people not to feed the wildlife so what gives with leaving apple cores, and peels in the desert? What critters will eat it? Or will it just evaporate into thin air?

Leave No Trace has done experiments. Banana peels can take up to 2 years to decompose. In arid environments orange peels will last indefinitely. Citrus contains a natural insecticide. Even ants won’t touch orange peels. Chewing gum contains rubber, so it won’t rot.

Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? So, why would a squirrel or desert critter? An apple core is edible, but if it is not part of an animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food.

Desert animals have a special difficulty. Many of these critters have no ready source of water: They get moisture from the food they eat. They cannot flush salt from their bodies, and excess salt will kill them. (hcn.org)


This busy ant actually picks up some litter in the parking lot… 🥴

It looks like a petal from some kind of flower not found in the desert, a trace someone else left behind maybe. Where is he or she taking it and why?


A swarm of bees “camps” here for several days before buzzing off…

We don’t confront them, however. 😳

According to perfectbee.com, when bees swarm, a single colony becomes two because the colony needs more space to raise brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae), and store honey and pollen.

To prepare for swarming the queen bee lays an egg in a queen cup. A queen cup is an enlarged wax cell built by worker bees in case the queen lays an egg for her heir. Bees may build one or dozens of these throughout the hive. The empty cups are sometimes torn down so the wax can be used elsewhere, or empty cups may just be left alone in anticipation of the need for swarming. (honeybeesuite.com)

honeybeesuite.com

When a queen lays an egg in a queen cup, she plans to leave and is preparing a new queen to take over for her in the existing hive.

Up until this point the old queen has been busy laying eggs (not in a queen cup) and is heavy and not in a position to fly well. To lighten up for travel, she stops laying eggs and the worker bees reduce her feedings, leaving a gap in the egg-to-adult timeline of the colony.

The swarm starts with the old queen and 50% – 60% of her offspring leaving to relocate to a new home. Tens of thousands of bees will stream out of the hive together and choose a nearby location as an intermediary place to rest because the queen is not a great flyer at this point. (perfectbee.com)

Here’s what’s crazy though… Ginny, Harlan, some docents, co-hosts and I walked through this Arrow Weed lined path of the Smoketree Trail earlier to assess rain damage. A few hours later the swarm of bees chose to set up camp here. I can only imagine what it looked liked to observe tens of thousands of bees landing here!


And this squawking raven… 🤫

These hawk-size members of the crow family, or more technically, corvids, are everywhere in Southern California, the center of a Common Raven population boom plaguing the American West. Raven populations in the Mojave Desert have increased more than 700 percent over the past 40 years. Often considered the raccoons of the bird world, ravens are opportunistic feeders willing to feast on everything from trash to other animals. Because they will feast on the eggs and young of other desert animals, raven predation has been detrimental to many desert species. (audubon.org)

During the winter months, ravens enjoy wreaking havoc through the palm trees to eat bugs among the fronds and pick off the palm fruit. Coyotes enjoy the dropped purple berries the ravens leave behind.

According to mentalfloss.com, the collective noun for ravens is an “unkindness” of ravens. Ravens aren’t exactly friendly as they will often gang up on their prey or animals. And because of the impression that they are an ominous presence, an unkindness of ravens can also be called a conspiracy.

All I can say from firsthand experience is that these magnificent black birds appear in a noisy cloud of flapping wings rustling through the air and palm trees, calling out loudly to each other as they show off their acrobatic flying skills. They are not considerate guests. They are boisterous and not only drown out the melodies of the other birds, but completely take over the canopy of palm trees on the oasis. They’re the thugs, bullies, gangstas of the bird world. But they mesmerize me!


So… a birds’ eye review of how to be a VIP Visitor of the Preserve:

  • Check our website for our hours by going to coachellavalleypreserve .org
  • Leave your dogs at home.
  • Bring water, lots of water, and drink it.
  • Stay on the designated trails and respect the areas that are off limits. We are a Wildlife/Nature Preserve, not a park or playground.
  • I don’t care if you need to smoke in the parking lot. Just please take your butts with you, okay. I am the one who picks them up… along with dirty diapers, beer cans, straws, discarded water bottles, etc.
  • Walk, enjoy, listen, look, and take pictures. Stacking rocks into cairns serves no purpose. Spelling names or messages with rocks or sticks in the sand might be meaningful to you but no one else gives a hoot… seriously. Enjoy nature and get over yourself.
  • Plants and wildlife, even anthills, have the right of way. We are the visitors and we respect and enjoy their habitats.
  • And finally, but most importantly, know that your acts of respecting the environment and other visitors do not go unnoticed. From all of us volunteers, we thank you for sharing this magically special and spiritual space with us!

The Perks of Pulling Mustard Part 3

Pushing Through the Pushawalla Washes to Pull and Pause…

On a Sahara mustard mission, the bag lady strikes again! And once again I am not disappointed with the treasures I find…


Cholla…

Silver or golden cholla is a highly variable member of the Cactus Family. The spines on the stems can be silver or golden. Flowers are usually greenish-yellow but can age to dark red. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

These shrubby cacti have cylindrical stems composed of segmented joints. The stems are actually modified branches that serve several functions including water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production. (desertusa.com)

Later I spy more cholla… an open blossom this time…


Desert Tobacco

A member of the Nightshade Family (nicotiana trigonophylla), desert tobacco is related to domestic tobacco (nicotiana tabacum). The leaves are dark green, very sticky, and ill-smelling. Although extremely toxic, Native Americans often smoked this plant during religious ceremonies. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)


Jimson Weed

Another member of the Nightshade Family, datura meteloides is also called moonflower, a reference to the fact that the flowers usually open later in the day. (Not here in the desert, though.) Georgia O’Keeffe enjoyed painting its huge blossoms. She said, “When I think of the delicate fragrance of the flowers, I almost feel the coolness and sweetness of the evening.”

Jimson weed is also known as “sacred datura” and has been revered as one of the sacred visionary plants among almost all cultures around the world that have encountered it. Daturas have been used as poisons, medicines, and ritual intoxicants since the beginning of time. Some scholars believe Delphic oracles in Ancient Greece used datura to induce their legendary visions. The Aztecs used datura as a painkiller in initiation rituals and as a narcotic for ritual sacrifices. (fs.fed.us)

The plants produce large white trumpet flowers tinged with purple.

There are 9 to 12 known species of datura, each with its own characteristic narcotic tropane alkaloid, making datura one of the most dangerous and poisonous plants known. Jimson weed is a major cause of accidental poisonings and death by those looking to get a cheap high. (fs.fed.us)


I come across a new wildflower that resembles desert milkweed and I send pics to Ginny, the Preserve Manager, to identify it for me.

Pignut…

Hoffmannseggia glauca, also known as Indian Rushpea, Hog Potato, and “Camote de Ratón” or mouse yam, this plant is a member of the Legume Family. (southwestdesertflora.com)

[I just found out how to add an accent mark over a letter on my iPad, DUH 🙄 and I am so excited 😆!]

But the more research I do, I discover that the leaves of the hoffmanseggia glauca…

southwestdesertflora.com

and the leaves on the plant below are different… 🤔

So, maybe this is Desert Rock-Pea, a common perennial shrub found in washes and on rocky hillsides. (Yep, that’s where I found them: along the side of Bee Mesa and the wash.) A member of the Pea Family, the flowers are yellow and turn red with age. The plant is somewhat woody (not sure about that), multi-stemmed, and less than 3 feet tall. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

Perfectionist as I am, I am just not sure…


Then I get even more confused. I spy another plant with similar yellow and orange flowers, but the stems and leaves look different. As always, I lean on Ginny, the Preserve Manager, and Harlan, the desert professor, for answers.

Heart-Leaved Primrose

Camissonia cardiophylla is a member of the Evening Primrose Family.

Most of the leaves are found at the base of the plant with the flower stalks rising leafless and growing to about 16 inches. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

The younger flowers are yellow, but as the blossoms age, they turn red and give us a plant with 2 beautiful colors. (Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, abdnha.org)

The seed pods remind me of mustard but are thicker.


Rock Daisy

A common wildflower on rocky slopes and in sandy washes, peristyle emoryi is a member of the Sunflower Family. The flower heads are the size of dimes with white fringed rays and a yellow center. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

These tiny daisies pop up in low growing clumps of dark green, crisp white, and brilliant yellow-orange:



Desert Poppy

This common little poppy resembles the California poppy but has yellow flowers instead of orange. The flower stems grow to 1 foot and can either be leafy or naked, like the one below. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)


The displays of wildflowers I encounter today are pretty spectacular for this season’s scarce rainfall. And now I know why; I have reached the stream that flows under Thousand Palms Canyon Road, the literal dip in the road…

In the picture below, the palm trees in the distance surround the boardwalk and Visitor Center along the San Andreas Fault separating the Pacific tectonic plate from the North American. The hill you see is part of the Indio Hills separating the 2 strands of the San Andreas Fault: the Banning strand and the Mission Creek strand. The line of palm trees, parallel to the Indio Hills in the foreground, grow along the stream seeping up from the fault strands.

I’ve never been here before but I have driven past more times than I can count.

You can hear the water trickling as it ripples along.

The stream snakes it’s way south to Washington Street.

My trash bag is almost full of mustard weeds so I head back to the Pushawalla parking area via the road, pulling more mustard along the way.


I am hot and getting tired, until I look down at this perky patch of purple.

Notch-Leafed Phacelia

Phacelia crentulata is a member of the Waterleaf Family. The violet flowers are arranged into a tightly coiled scorpion-tail. The plant is ill-scented and the foliage is known to cause a rash similar to poison oak on some people. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

I find this picture of purple poison quite pleasing to partake…


Arriving at the Pushawalla parking area, I set my bag down and decide to double check if the trail to Indian Palms is clearly marked from here. (Since the 880 acres of the Coachella Valley Preserve we live on is privately owned by the Center for Natural Land Management, CNLM, I often direct disappointed visitors to park at Pushawalla on Mondays and Tuesdays when we are closed and suggest they hike to Indian Palms.)

So I pretend I have parked here and want to hike to Indian Palms to make sure there is an appropriate trail marker. As I leave the parking area and take the rock-lined trail, I discover a pale pink flower growing on a slender green stem.

Annual Mitra

A member of the Sunflower Family, stephanomeria exigua is a common late season wildflower. Because the plant is light green and it’s branches are spread about, it’s easy to walk by without noticing it. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)

Indeed, during last year’s superbloom, I never noticed this delicate pink flower.


After taking pics of annual mitra, I look up and see more mustard weeds. I can always cram a few more in my garbage bag and, as I proceed to pull, I come face to face with red spiny thorns and yellow blooms.

Barrel Cactus

Bisnaga, ferocactus acanthodians, is California’s second largest cactus, (the largest is the saguaro). The stems can grow up to 9 feet and are usually solitary, but it’s not uncommon to see plants branched at the base. The flowers are produced in a ring at the top of the trunk.

A popular myth suggests that lopping off the tops of these cacti will produce life-sustaining water. This is not true, however, as lopping off the top ruins the plant for life.  Due to increased poaching, barrel cactus is now fully protected in California and Arizona and cannot be removed legally from the wild. (Jon Mark Stewart from his book Colorado Desert Wildflowers)


Have I convinced you that the perks of pulling outweigh the mission yet?