Posted by: Renee Owens | October 7, 2010

The Desert Southwest: Awe and Inspiration, or Just Lizards and Sh**?

A Pisces flounders in an ocean of sand.

Until recently I’ve been a luke-warm fan of the desert. With fair skin and Welsh grandparents, I’m not natural desert material. Don’t get me wrong, I find the landscape intriguing, but when given the choice I head to the forests and cool water to explore.  Besides, the thorny landscape makes it challenging for those with canine kids to enjoy camping without constantly whipping out the tweezers.

The desert is no place for wimps.

However, the past three years I’ve been spending many hours  surveying and exploring parts of the Imperial Valley and Mojave desert, and I’m learning to deeply appreciate that je ne sais quoi that all my desert rat friends extol. That’s not to say the desert is for everyone, and it is no place for wimps.  San Diego may have the world’s most enviable weather (subject to debate, especially for those of us who really enjoy variety? Changing seasons? Thunderstorms?) But just two hours away is the land of extremes: unforgiving sun, freezing winter nights, winds that whip you with a fine layer of stinging sand, or a stifling blanket of heat that leaves you begging for a breeze to cool the sweat that is purportedly being “wicked away” by your recently purchased REI triple-layer 300-count fiber hemp and titanium blend NASA tested Patagonia Extreme Expedition shirt.

When the sharp, bright skies finally close in with rain clouds, the flash floods are truly exhilarating.  It is an amazing thing to watch a river pour in where one didn’t exist moments before. Simple precautions and common sense go a long way in keeping you safe, but if you aren’t paying attention Mother Nature can sneak up behind when you and goose you in an unforgettable show of power. Who can forget Aron Ralston, the guy who became famous for cutting his own arm off when he was trapped by a boulder in a Utah desert crevasse, now a major motion film?  He was no slouch, but he had trotted off on a hike by himself, without telling anyone where he was going. Ever been guilty of such? (Not to worry, Mom, I never do that.)

I’m reminded of the time my cohorts and I were returning from a working birding trip. We were traveling through the desert in northern Baja, Mexico, after a big thunderstorm had washed half the dirt roads away. Every hour or so we would encounter a group struggling to extricate their vehicles from the middle of a fast flowing river; ones less than a foot deep had people seriously stranded. One such family sounded particularly alarmed, we stopped to see if everyone was okay. Their vehicle was mired up to axles on both sides, but the family was on the bank of the wash, seemingly healthy, but looking stunned. They told us they were all fine, except for their 6-year old daughter. We asked if she needed first aid, and they said they didn’t know. She had disappeared when the flash flood hit their camp during the night.

If risk of heat stroke, hypothermia, dehydration,  heart attack, and snake bite isn’t enough for you  urbanites to contemplate, check out this fun-filled website titled “Most Popular Ways to Die in the Wilderness“.  But when you do, keep in mind that Interstate 5 in California takes many more lives annually than any desert anywhere combined, and over 90% of all the snake bites in the nation happen to participants of rattlesnake roundups and other runners-up in the Darwin Awards.

The desert is more than a shooting range or an Off Road Vehicle (ORV)  theme park. Just ask the lizards.

It goes without saying that the desert is way more than a playground for the Bud Lite swilling, weekend off-road vehicle addicts and target shooting fanatics. I remember coming home several years ago from a government hearing regarding future land management of the Algodones Dunes, a desert dune habitat and wilderness unique to the nation. The local ORV coalition was hell bent on parceling out what was left of the federally protected wilderness for their own recreational purposes. Well over half of the dune system had been sacrificed years ago for use by ORVs, but the 200 plus attendees from the coalition kept yelling that us environmentalists  – all five of us ‘greenies’ as they fondly called us) were greedy for wanting the remaining dune ecosystem to be preserved.

Of course none of the foxes, birds, lizards, snakes, bats, or other creatures were available to speak in defense of their home, so we five had to. As I left the meeting, two coalition gentlemen bade me farewell yelling (and I am not making this up)  ‘yeah, why don’t you go home, stop wasting our time, because you know what, the desert is just a buncha STUPID LIZARDS AND SH**!’ (Emphasis theirs.)

I didn’t reply, at a loss to match such profundity. But the story doesn’t end there. The universe has a sense of humor, because soon after this hearing one of these classy guys became my neighbor. Upon seeing me outside holding my bright yellow Bearded Dragon ‘Puff’ – a small-ish laid back lizard and grade school mascot – my nosy neighbor fell in love. (In lust? she was quite pretty as Beardies go.) He kept hounding me to give him one of my lizard’s babies, remarking “That is like, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Dude, does she get really big?” or ” What does she eat? When can I get one?”, etc. I was harangued by these questions for a while, despite repeatedly telling him I wasn’t breeding my Beardie; that she is a non-native and that much as I enjoy her company, she was a rescue and I wasn’t in the practice of breeding anything (beyond the contempt of some select anti-environmentalists, though that goes without saying). I’d let him hold and admire her but he kept pestering me for her first born. I was seriously tempted to ask him, ‘why bother?  After all, she is only, you know… just a stupid lizard and shit.’ But I didn’t. I just let him stand there, petting my lizard before he went back to cleaning his candy red 4-wheeler.

In search of sidewinders, stargazing, or flower power? Apply here.

kit fox 2It doesn’t take a hugely discerning eye to discover what is so mesmerizing about this place, though it does require a big floppy hat and as much water as you can carry without weighing you down so much you get stuck in the kangaroo rat hole cave-ins you inevitably stumble upon. (Just try not to trample the hole with the napping sidewinder inside.) More than anything it helps to want to breathe clean air, or hear silence broken only by the barely audible squeaky Peep! of a shy round-tailed ground squirrel. But don’t let the silence fool you, life is humming just beneath the sandy surface, waiting to emerge with the cooling temperatures of evening. This is not the place to camp with your giant flat screen TV. This is the place to wander at nighttime to experience the busy lives of kangaroo rats, hunting bats, elusive color-changing granite night lizards, or a silent sidewinder hoping to catch a k-rat with its guard down. If you are really lucky, during the day time you may catch a glimpse of a bobcat, kit fox, or an endangered bighorn sheep . (Desert tidbit: it isn’t the rams sporting those huge racks that are the real leaders of the herd, it is the dominant ewe, or female.)

Biodiversity in the Desert? Like you’d never believe.

owlets1 sm Before I became enamored with the desert, I was a an all-things-rainforest snob. To see wildlife I went to wherever there was water, and lots of it. But I learned the desert has many surprises. On some days, given the right temperatures, I have observed a wider array of snakes and lizards than I have anywhere closer to the temperate coast. The list of interesting creatures I have spotted without really trying is long and varied: kit fox, bobcat, badger, burrowing owl (watching the babies play is a hoot), golden eagle, endangered bighorn sheep (25 feet from the Anza Borrego Palm Canyon trail head), rare flat-tailed horned lizards, desert tortoise, and many, many more. Are you a birding fan? Just about every oddball species you can imagine migrates through our deserts, and many hang out for a while to take advantage of the flooded agriculture fields. Aside from the usual desert suspects, I’ve seen anhingas, cormorants, grebes, all kinds of warblers and vireos, rails, ibis, oodles of hawk species, multi-colored hummingbird migrants, pelicans, the list goes on and on; I’ve even seen snow geese, yes SNOW geese. During spring and fall migration you can head to Borrego to see literally thousands of Swainson’s hawks roosting for the night as they make their way to and from nesting grounds and South America. These are no ordinary hawks; though they are nearly the size of the more common red-tailed hawk, their diet is comprised mostly of grasshoppers and ants. Yes, tiny ants that they catch in the ‘palm’ of their foot. If you are an ecologist, you can imagine that fact pretty much blows Optimal Foraging Theory out of the water, as far as we can surmise.

Springtime after the rains is the best times to visit the desert, whether you power hike or bike or drive or wander aimlessly. A place that was a sea of sand literally turns into a stunning carpet of flowers far beyond what your wide-angled lens can appreciate. For the new tourist, the hot spots east of  San Diego county are many, like Anza Borrego State Park the Northern Algodones Dunes Wilderness (see also here), and the unique salty inland oasis and spectacular avian hangout that is the Salton Sea. Spring brings great opportunities for the perfect Kodak moment, where the diversity of life in such an extreme climate is a profound thing that photos just can’t do justice to. But be sure and take your camera anyway, you won’t regret it.

Whether you are into wild places, unusual creatures, interesting geology, fossils, or an unadulterated view of the milky way, just about any time of the year is an exciting time to visit. Certainly during the summer months I suggest night visits for maximum enjoyment and creature-viewing; when it is 110 + degrees by 10 AM the only animals dumb enough to be wandering around mid-day are the occasional overcooked biologist, lost tourist, and a few curious grasshoppers.

But whether night or day, spring or fall, go and seek adventure in the desert. I promise you’ll have new stories to tell once you do.

For more information on how you can get involved in desert conservation in southwest California, visit HERE .

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