Monday, June 30, 2008

Desert Destination: A Snow Patch High in the Mountains

Every Monday we visit a desert destination.
In the heat of the summer, with the desert sun baking the valleys, it's time to take to the mountains. We went hiking with the cousins and were lucky to find this patch of snow. 
We couldn't resist playing in it...
And before long it became a contest to see who could slide the furthest. Riding double was the winner.
Too bad we couldn't bring the snow patch back down with us. At least we can look at the photos and imagine how cool snow feels, especially when you go a little too fast down that snow slope and get snow down your shirt.

Stay cool!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Desert Boy and Henry Test Their Teeth

I'm living with two boys, two baby boys, two baby boys who are teething. One is a human boy, and one is a puppy boy, but they sure have a lot in common. Every day they both are chewing on a lot of things.
Fortunately, living in a rural desert area means we can leave things scattered around the yard and they won't get stolen or rusted from rain. So they both have lots of things to chew on as they wander around. And they do.
But sometimes having inanimate objects to chew on isn't good enough. The other day Henry took a little nip at Desert Boy. This happens often, and usually Desert Boy is able to deflect him. This particular day, Desert Boy got mad, turned to Henry, and nipped him back. He just grabbed the puppy, sank his teeth in, but Henry's skin is so loose he just got a little bitsy bite. I scolded them both and then tried my best to keep from laughing out loud. It was such an unanticipated movement, but clearly Desert Boy was going to show Henry who was boss. 

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Celebrate Pollinator Week

Bee in tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)

I recently learned from Bug Girl's Blog that the week of June 22-28 is Pollinator Week. Okay, so today is the last day of the week, but you weren't really planning on running out and celebrating it, were you?

Here are a few facts from that might make you decide to have a party after all. Pollinators are responsible for pollinating over 75 percent of flowering plants and 80 percent of the world's crops. They help produce $20 billion of crops each year, despite the fact that 3,000 acres of farmland are lost each day.

In honor of these awesome and often overlooked pollinators, I have some photos showing these pollinators in action. After taking a look here, go out and give the pollinators in your neighborhood a high-five. Well, you really shouldn't touch the wildlife, but give them a mental high-five. They'll appreciate it.

Small butterfly on unknown yellow flower

Swallowtail butterfly on Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Small fly or bee in prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha) flower

And for those who think that there aren't many pollinators in the desert, in our valley alone we have over 200 species of bees, 150 species of butterflies and moths, 4 species of hummingbirds, and many species of bats, small mammals, beetles, ants, and wasps.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Scatology: Who Left the Poo?

Scatology is the study of scat, otherwise known as poo, doo-doo, feces, turds, dung, excrement, and other terms that are not kosher to write on this family-friendly website. Scat is the "technical" term for what comes out after something has been eaten and digested, and it can tell you a lot. Over the years I've looked at a lot of scat. The desert is a great place to look for scat. It doesn't decompose all that fast, so there's lots of scat around, and if you're a scatologist, you're in luck.

Most of the scat I see comes in two forms, pellets or turds. The photo above shows jack rabbit scat, with rounded form and brown color. Rabbits are herbivores, so their pellets all have about the same consistency. Other pellet scat found in the area include deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. 
This scat is obviously not a pellet and it obviously does not have uniform consistency. If you look closely (you can click on the photo to see a larger version), you can see bone fragments and matted fur. This animal is a carnivore, it eats other animals. To determine what animal left this scat, I look at the size and shape. Blunt ends are left by cats, and it's about four inches long, so it appears to be bobcat scat. 
This scat has some similar characteristics to the bobcat scat, but it seems hairier and is smaller. The animal was probably eating mice and voles. The ends are tapered, which means that it is from the dog family, which includes coyotes and foxes. Based on the size and habitat, it's probably gray fox scat.
Here's some more pellet scat. If you look carefully, you can see the pellets aren't rounded like the jackrabbit scat at the top; instead they have a pinched end. This is deer scat.

Now I want to make sure that you notice I haven't included Desert Boy in any of these photos. I do have some sense of propriety, plus I know all too well that just seeing the scat wouldn't be enough for him to learn about it. 

I've done some talks about scat for school kids, and one of my favorite ways to help them learn about different types of scat is to show them a variety in ziploc bags. Then I ask them how to tell the difference between old deer scat and new deer scat. After I hear a couple suggestions, I tell them that the best way is by taste. I secretly put a Raisinet in my fingers, pretend to open the deer scat bag and pull out a pellet, and put the Raisinet in my mouth. All the kids look aghast until one figures out what I've just done. I've always wondered if any have gone home and tried to do the same thing with their parents.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rhubarb Crumb Bars

Okay, I know you're supposed to start a recipe post with the finished product. But we scarfed it down so fast that I didn't get a chance. In fact, my husband finished the rhubarb crumb bars off at breakfast this morning. He was lucky I was out doing a bird survey or I might have beat him to them. So here's a photo of the rhubarb I'm going to use for the second batch. 

Our wonderful neighbor had given us a bunch of rhubarb and I looked on the internet until I found a recipe that sounded healthy. It's got oatmeal in it, so it's got to be healthy. We'll ignore the butter, sugar, and brown sugar part of it. Besides, rhubarb, always needs a little help, doesn't it? 

Here's the recipe, a tasty dessert (or breakfast) good in or out of the desert:

Top and bottom "crust"
1/2 cup butter, (melted)
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 cup flour
3/4 cup oatmeal (uncooked)

1 egg (beaten)
1 Tbls butter (softened)
3/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 Tbls flour
1/4 teas nutmeg
2 cups rhubarb (cut into 1/2" pieces)

Mix butter, brown sugar, flour, and oatmeal, until crumbly. Press 1/2 into greased 9" square pan. In another bowl, beat egg, mix in butter, sugar, flour, nutmeg and rhubarb. Beat until smooth. Top with other half crumb mixture, press mixture down lightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

If you happen to have lots of rhubarb and need more ideas of what to do with it, here's a website to the rescue:

Desert Boy and Henry Go for a Swim

It's getting really hot here, into the 90s every day, which I realize isn't as hot as say, Phoenix, but it's still hot for me. And for Henry. And for Desert Boy. So the other day we went for a walk to the little pond near our house. We like the pond a lot, and had been there a few days earlier. It's a settling pond where the stream water goes before it's sent down a long pipe to the irrigation pivots in the fields below. As the stream water suddenly loses velocity, sand and gravel drop out of it, so the pond has gradually gotten a lot shallower. That makes it wonderful for us to go wade around.

Henry obviously remembered how much fun the pond was, because as we approached it, he took a flying leap and jumped in. Except it wasn't the shallow part, it was a deep part over his head, and he hasn't decided that he knows how to swim yet. He's a labrador retriever, so I thought it was sort of wired into his DNA, plus I did see him do the doggy paddle one other time when he got a little deep. But this time, he panicked and was trying to scramble out of the pond, but the edge was too steep and he was stuck. So recalling all my training from my lifeguard days, I walked over to the edge, grabbed his collar, and hauled him out. My reward was him shaking the water off him and getting me all wet.

Henry didn't want to get back in the water, but I figured he better get over his fear right away. So we went down to the shallow part and I threw sticks into the water for him to chase. No way, he was stubbornly staying on shore. So I walked into the water and called him. Then I looked up and saw that Desert Boy was managing to climb out of his stroller, despite being strapped in. I got out of the water, grabbed Desert Boy, got back in, and called Henry again. Seeing his pal in the water did the trick, and Henry leapt into the water and began splashing around, getting us a lot wetter than we wanted to be. Than I wanted to be. Desert Boy loved it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Four North American Deserts

In an earlier post, I briefly mentioned the four North American deserts. Now I'll describe them in a bit more detail.

Sagebrush in the Great Basin Desert
Great Basin Desert
The Great Basin Desert is the biggest North American desert, covering most of the state of Nevada and extending into the states of Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and California. It is the only North American desert considered to be a cold desert, which is largely a function of its high elevation, with most basins above 4,000 feet in elevation, and mountaintops over 13,000 feet. Average annual precipitation is 6 to 12 inches. The term Great Basin originates from the fact that the water that falls in the Great Basin does not drain out to the ocean, but stays within the basin. It's really a bunch of basins separated by mountain ranges, but somehow trying to say that succinctly isn't easy.

The primary plant in the Great Basin Desert is sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), a fragrant green-gray shrub that grows up to several feet high. Several species of sagebrush grow in the desert. Other common plants are winterfat, greasewood, rabbitbrush, and saltbush. Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada are in the Great Basin Desert.

Lechuguilla in the Chihuahuan Desert
Chihuahuan Desert
The Chihuahuan Desert is the spiny desert, with lots of sharp plants. It is found primarily in Mexico, but a small portion creeps across the border and into New Mexico and Texas. It's the coolest of the hot deserts, with elevations ranging from 1,200 to 6,000 feet, and it receives up to 10 inches of precipitation annually.

While creosote bush and ocotillo are common, the distinctive plant in this desert is the lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla). It's a member of the Agave family and has razor sharp spines. Other spiky plants are other agaves, yuccas, sotols, thorny mesquites, and a variety of cacti. El Paso, Texas and Carlsbad and Roswell, New Mexico are within the Chihuahuan Desert.

Saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert
Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Desert is the neat cactus desert, with the characteristic saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) holding up its arms. In addition to this charismatic character, the Sonoran desert has the greatest species diversity of all North American deserts, despite being the hottest of the four deserts. 

Precipitation ranges from less than 2 inches to more than 12 inches. The desert creeps into southern Arizona and California, but the majority of it is found in Mexico. Phoenix and Tuscon, Arizona are part of the Sonoran Desert.

Joshua tree in the Mojave Desert
Mojave Desert
The Mojave is the smallest of the four North American deserts, but what it lacks in size it makes up in character. This is the desert with the Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia).

The Mojave Desert is found between the Sonoran and Great Basin deserts in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. It is a transition area between the two deserts, ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 4,000 feet on average, although it also includes Death Valley which descends below sea level and Mt. Charleston at over 11,000 feet. This is the driest of the four deserts, with 2 to 5 inches of annual precipitation. Las Vegas, Nevada and Palmdale, California, St. George, Utah, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona are in the Mojave Desert.

So in summary:
Largest Desert: Great Basin (or Chihuhuan based on some maps)
Smallest Desert: Mojave
Hottest Desert: Sonoran
Driest Desert: Mojave
Best Desert: You decide

A great resource for learning more about these deserts and the plants that live in them is Ronald J. Taylor's Desert Wildflowers of North America. And now Desert Boy, Henry, and I are going to head outside to go enjoy another desert adventure.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Desert Boy Finds a Stinkbug

This lovely upended creature is called a stinkbug. It's a beetle in the Tenebrionidae family, which contains about 1,400 species in North America. In general they're called darkling beetles, but beetles of this genus, Eleodes, are called stinkbugs, and about 100 species are found in the western United States. They are scavengers, eating the leftovers that no one else wants. They are about one and a half inches long and easy to spot as they creep around a variety of habitats. 
When the stinkbug is upset, it sticks its rear up in the air. If it gets really mad, it can squirt a stinky brown liquid. I've never seen this happen, despite trying to provoke some stinkbugs. If you have seen a squirt, I'd like to hear about it! Okay, that gives you an idea of what life is like out in the middle of the desert, I get amused by watching stinkbugs wander around and wondering if I can make them squirt.
Here's a good view of that pointy behind. Some people call these clown beetles because they look like they're standing on their heads. They can live up to 15 years, an age that seems quite old for such a tiny creature. Because they wander around and are easy to see, they are eaten by mice, Loggerhead Shrikes and another stinky critter, skunks. 
Speaking of stinky critters, here's Desert Boy. He sees the stinkbug and can't resist trying to catch it. Is he coordinated enough to actually grab it?
Getting closer, he's determined to grab it.
Success! Now Desert Boy has the wiggling beetle in his hands. He likes feeling to learn about new things, but he likes tasting even better. So will he do it, will he eat the stinkbug? (For those of you saying that I should be intervening at this point, I have to say I was just enjoying myself too much. And after all the dirt he had eaten that day, I figured a little extra protein wouldn't cause any harm.)
Did he eat it? I'll let you decide.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Desert Destination: White Sands

When you hear the word desert, what images come to mind? Perhaps sand dunes? I often think of sand dunes, even though we don't have any near our house. But there are some big ones about two hours away (because lots of neat stuff is about two hours away!). Today we'll venture farther away, to White Sands National Monument, located in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.

I've visited lots of sand dunes over the years. Sand dunes frequently form in deserts when there is loose sand, high winds that often blow the sand in one prevailing direction, and a mountain range to force the wind up, upon which it drops the sand particles and creates the sand dunes. White Sands is unique in that the dunes are made of white gypsum sand, and covering 275 square miles they are the world's largest gypsum dune field.
White Sands at sunrise
Contrary to popular belief, many critters live on or near sand dunes. But life isn't easy when you have sand suddenly being blown on top of you or blown away from your roots. Some of the plants have adapted by elongating stems and growing upwards more than a foot a year, like the soaptree yucca (Yucca elata), or anchoring their roots on a dune so that after the dune moves on, they can continue to grow on a pedestal of sand. Some of the animals that live at White Sands have adapted by becoming whiter, so they blend in better with the gypsum sand. One example is the bleached earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata ruthveni).

Several picnicking areas are found in the park, but don't plan to picnic for lunch during the middle of summer. During the sunlight hours, the white sand reflects the heat and you literally get baked from above and below. The best times to go are very early or very late in the day. We planned our trip to coincide with the full moon so we could enjoy a moonlit hike.

White Sands is a harsh but fascinating environment. The constantly shifting dunes and designs in the sands make for great exploring and photography. If you'd like more information, visit

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Water + Dirt = Mud

We're going to give the moniker Desert Boy a try. If you like it, or if you don't, leave a comment and let me know. Anyway, to make this post sound intelligent, I'll say that we were beginning chemistry lessons with Desert Boy, trying to teach him what happens when you mix water and dirt. In reality, Desert Boy just loves water, and goes wherever he can find it, including Henry's water dish.
Desert Boy thinks he's helping Henry get a drink of water. At least that's what I think at first. Then I realize he's trying to tip the pot while Henry is drinking.
Henry backs off and Desert Boy starts jiggling the handle, watching the waves in the pot. I know that this stage won't last long.
Sure enough, it doesn't. He's got to get his hand in there and start splashing. I have to go and move a hose by the garden. It's only about 20 feet away. It only takes me about two minutes to move. But by the time I get back...
Desert Boy has dumped the pot with water, is potching in the mud, has gotten his clothes all dirty, and Henry is taking off with the pot. At least Henry hasn't tackled Desert Boy in the mud. This time.

Desert Boy and Henry Go for a Visit

It seems like Desert Boy, Henry, and I have had a lot of adventures lately. They haven't all had particularly happy endings, but as I look back at them I find myself chuckling, and perhaps tales of our wanderings in the desert will entertain you.

A few days ago, I decided to go for a bike ride because it was still cool in the morning and I needed some exercise. I have a bike seat for Desert Boy that is attached to the front of the bike, so he can see where we're going. He loves it. I also added one of the little squeeze bike horns that his hands are finally big enough to grab and squeeze, so as we started out of the driveway, he started honking the horn. All was good. But then Henry decided to come along. Henry usually stays in the yard, but this morning he didn't want to miss out on the fun. The only problem is that Henry didn't know how to run next to a bike, so he kept running ahead of us and getting slightly run over. After getting run over a couple times, he realized he better run by the side of the bike. I thought maybe it would work out, he would get extra exercise by keeping up with the bike and we would have a nice ride.

By this time we had crossed two cattle guards and were out on the pavement, which also happens to be the main road through town. A truck came from the opposite direction, and Henry decided it would be wonderful fun to start chasing it, so he darts out in the middle of the road. My heart started pumping fast as I wondered if our little puppy would survive his stupidity. He did, and I sighed a big sigh of relief and scolded him. We continued on, hoping that there wouldn't be any more traffic. But another came, and Henry ignored my commands and chased it. And then another.

By this point I decided we needed to get off the highway. So we pulled into the driveway of a friendly older neighbor. Her dog was in the yard, and I thought it would be fun to say hi to her and her dog. She says hi from her open kitchen window and then comes out in her nightgown. Just as she comes out I hear a hissing sound from the back tire of the bike. Rats, a flat tire. She says she has a pump, and I say great. But then I look at the tire closer and see green slime coming out from near the valve stem. It's probably a broken valve stem so I won't even be able to fix it. 

The neighbor offers to drive us back home, but I figure she's in her nightgown and we shouldn't disrupt her. I say no, I'll just walk back, we are less than a mile from home. She offers her bicycle, and I say yes. It has a flat tire, so after searching for and getting out two different extension cords and her bike pump, we finally find a combination that works and get the tire pumped up. I hear something beeping in her house and ask if she needs to go do something, but she doesn't remember. I figure that I will ride her bike back to the house, put the bike in the back of my truck, and be back in five minutes. But I have nowhere to put Desert Boy on the bike, so I ask her to watch him and tell her I will be back in five minutes. What can happen in five minutes? I peddle out of the driveway, Desert Boy starts crying, and Henry won't come with me. I realize that it might be a long five minutes for her, so I ride as fast as I can, hoping Desert Boy will stop crying soon.

When I get back to her house in my truck, I see that the sprinkler is on and Desert Boy is happily playing in it. No problem. But there's also a sweet smell in the air. The neighbor tells me that the beeping turns out to be the oven timer, but she had forgotten about it until the smoke alarm went off. She had been making hummingbird food and the sugar burned, filling her house with smoke and ruining her pan. She had opened all her doors and windows to try to get the smell out of the house. I apologized profusely, and then took out her bike to return it to the garage. She walked with me, and when we got back to Desert Boy, we found that he had walked over to the spigot for the sprinkler and had turned it on all the way, so the water was now sprinkling the inside of her house through the open window. I guess it would put out any fire. 

Desert Boy was sopping wet, so I grabbed him and told her we better be leaving before we caused any more destruction. When we stopped we had only wanted to wish her a good morning. Now she had a bike pump out, extension cords strung everywhere, a smelly house, a ruined pan, wet dining room curtains and carpet, and more excitement than she usually gets in a few days, all within a few minutes timespan. The phone rang, and she said it was the lady who checks up on her every morning. She was definitely going to have something to talk about that morning!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Coyote Morning

I was out doing a bird survey this morning and got to see some interesting sights. One was this coyote, a little close for comfort. The reason appeared to be some kind of injury, as he was limping badly and didn't make much of a move to get away from me. I was impressed with how green his eyes looked.

Later I saw some mule deer running through the shrubs. I got out my camera and had it ready, but due to my paltry zoom didn't get close shots of them. They ran across the meadow and soon a coyote came running out of the same willow and rose thicket. He ran in a different direction, knowing that the deer were much too big of prey for him alone.

Seeing these wildlife sightings is pretty exciting, because sometimes the bird surveys can be a little slow. Ten minutes is a long time if you have the same four birds singing the entire time. 
White-faced Ibis
I had some good bird sightings, including breeding Common Yellowthroat and Lazuli Bunting in the bushes that the irrigated meadows support on their margins, and White-faced Ibis, Eared Grebe, Sandhill Crane, and Northern Shoveler in the ranch pond. Out in the meadows Western Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Brewer's Blackbirds were the most common sightings.

I also got bit by a mosquito and a deerfly. They surprised me, because usually the dry desert environments don't support these biting nuisances, but the irrigated meadows provided enough water for them. My new waterproof boots were actually waterproof, so it was a good morning. Now on to more adventures!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Reriding the Pony Express Route

My nephew left this evening to go meet up with the Pony Express reride and help carry mail across the desert, bringing back to life a romantic bit of western lore. What exactly was the Pony Express? It was the way that U.S. mail was delivered for 18 months in 1860 and 1861. The railroads didn't stretch across the country. Telephones didn't exist. Telegraphs hadn't even been built from coast to coast. So if you wanted to get a message all the way across the West, it had to be hand carried.

Sure, stagecoaches could and did take some mail. But they were slow, and in 1860 the mail contract went to a company that advertised it could take the mail over 1,800 miles in only 10 days. The route went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, and used horses and young riders to cover the ground quickly. A horse at full gallop can go about 10 miles, so stations were set up at that distance. When a rider came to the station, he would take the mochila with the mail and jump on to a horse that the station master had ready for him and continue on. He would generally go about 75 to 100 miles before another rider would take over for him. Each rider had one section of the trail that they usually rode. They learned that section so well they could cover it quickly at any time of day or night in any weather, including bad winter snowstorms or searing summer heat. One of my favorite books that includes firsthand accounts about the Pony Express is a true story called The White Indian Boy by Elijah Nicholas Wilson.
This Pony Express marker was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s east of Callao, Utah. It is located near the remains of one of the stations. No one lives within 20 miles of this station, so not much has changed since the Pony Express Days.
Here is some of the terrain that the Pony Express riders covered. Along with the mail they carried some water and a revolver. Riders were not allowed to weigh more than 125 pounds, and they were paid $100 a month.. An advertisement recruiting riders read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
These are the remnants of another Pony Express station. The telegraph put the Pony Express out of business in October 1861. The short-lived operation has lived long in people's memories. The vision of young lads galloping across the country with important messages (like Lincoln's inaugural address) has allowed the Pony Express route to be recognized as a national trail. Every year, the entire route is ridden in June, around the time of the full moon to allow for more light on those dark stretches.

Somewhere out in the middle of the Nevada desert, my nephew will be carrying the mail, listening to the coyotes howl, feeling the wind on his cheeks, and reliving a part of history.
This year, the mochila contains a GPS tracker, so if you'd like to see where the rider is, check out  

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