Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Desert Comes Alive

While I was down in the Rainbow Basin last weekend, I had a wonderful time looking for desert wildflowers. Up in the Great Basin Desert at over 5,000 feet I've only seen two flowers so far, but the Mojave Desert is bursting with colors. It is so beautiful! I got up early each morning to see what I could find. I'm not very cognizant of Mojave wildflowers, so I'll do my best to identify them, but if I've missed the mark, please leave a comment!

One of the most frequent flowers was the one above, a bright yellow flower in the Evening Primrose family. It has a delightful name, Suncup (Camissonia brevipes). It can grow up to two feet tall and has lots of yellow flowers on each stem.

Desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) is an easily recognizable shrub with its holly-like leaves. These leaves are grey in color, one adaptation for surviving in the hot desert. The grey color helps them reflect more sunlight. I found one patch of desert holly that had tiny red flowers on it. I was so surprised, because it was the first time I had seen the flowers blooming. When they get older they often still stay on the plant, but turn brown and inconspicuous.

The hills of Rainbow Basin made a nice backdrop for some Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera). When these flower, they have large bell-shaped cream-colored blossom. This is the most common yucca of the North American deserts. California Indians gathered and roasted the fruits or ate them raw. They extracted fiber from the leaves for weaving blankets, baskets, and ropes.

Right up in the campground were large patches of fiddleneck (Amsinckia sp.), an annual herb in the Borage family that grows in disturbed areas. They have pretty yellow flowers bending along the raceme.

There were a few other people wandering around in the morning. Up on the ridge are the wonderful Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia).

Tucked down in the wash a flash of red caught my attention--Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.). The red is absolutely brilliant. One of the cool things about paintbrush is that it is a root parasite. It doesn't have many other desert adaptations, but it can tap into the roots of the shrubs it is growing near in order to get more water for itself.

Some of the washes were really eroded. It would be interesting to be up on the bank watching a flash flood. Some of the boulders in the wash are really large, testifying to the power of the water.

The bright colors of the flowers attract the pollinators, like this bee on this Phacelia (Phacelia sp.). To humans, flowers are beautiful things because they brighten up the landscapes, our gardens, and our homes. To pollinators, the flowers mean food. The sexier the flower, the more likely it is to attract pollinators and survive.

This delicate yellow flower emerged from the rough-looking dirt. I think it may be a desert poppy (Eschscholzia glyyptosperma).

 Here is a desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), and in places huge numbers of them turned the desert floor yellow. Unlike common dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), desert dandelions are native. 

Okay, for those of you saying, "Enough flowers!", here's a bird, a horned lark. It kept flitting from bush to bush along the wash. I'm used to seeing them along the sides of the road in big groups where I live, so I was a little surprised to see one all by itself and up higher in the vegetation.

I also found some ants actively moving things out of their burrow. I guess they are spring cleaning.

Another flower in the Sunflower Family is the desert chicory (Rafnesquia neomexicana). My wonderful guidebook (Desert Wildflowers of North America by Ronald J. Taylor) says that it has milky juice, but I didn't want to break the stem to find out.

And finally, one more pretty flower, not quite opened up. I'm not sure what it is, but I figured that just because I didn't have the exact name for it, I shouldn't discriminate and delete the photo. After all, sometimes just enjoying the beauty of the flower for being a flower is enough!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Desert Destination: Owl Creek Campground--Speleo-Ed 2009

Every Monday I feature a Desert Destination.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to Speleo-Ed, a weekend seminar highlighting cave education. It was held at Rainbow Basin north of Barstow, California. I arrived late Friday night and couldn't really see much of the Owl Canyon campground, but the next morning I got up before sunrise and climbed up some of the surrounding hills. The large tan tent was the gathering place for the 100 attendees.

Saturday morning we spent inside the tent, listening to a variety of interesting talks. Everyone brought there own folding chair. The tent made it dark enough so we could use powerpoint. Being cavers, we felt very comfortable inside the dark environment.

The screen was a quilt tied up to a makeshift rafter. It was a wonderfully rustic setting.

After lunch there were several field trips. I chose to go on the geology one, which was a popular one. We stopped to listen about the Barstow syncline. The syncline is the folding of the earth into a basin (as opposed to an anticline, where a dome is formed). There's a rather good entry on geology of the Rainbow Basin here if you're interested.

The syncline is a spectacular geologic feature and so easy to see. Many field geology classes come out to study it and measure the angles of the dip. (I think that's the correct terminology--I'm working on beefing up my geologic knowledge, but right now it's rather scanty.)

This geologic feature caught my eye. You can see if it from the same overlook as the syncline, just turn around 180 degrees. 

It's obvious why Rainbow Basin got its name. The different colors are apparently due to iron. When the iron is oxidized, it makes reddish colors and when it is reduced, it makes greenish colors.

We started hiking up one of the washes to explore more in the Rainbow Basin.

There were lots of interesting rock formations, and the clouds even became rather interesting to watch.

As we headed up one gully, it got narrower and narrower, and we had to go in single file. Our group stretched on and on...

The gully walls got steeper and steeper. It definitely would not be a good place to be during a flash flood.

And then, up ahead, we saw the gully go into a dark hole. Oooh. We were all cavers, so we were very excited. 

This is called a soil pipe cave, and is basically formed by water washing away the sediments and eroding the rather soft limestones, dolomites, and conglomerates. There are little mud and dirt formations in parts of the cave, and bat droppings on the floor.

The cave was short, but it was long enough we had to turn on our headlamps.

The entrance on the uphill side was quite a bit smaller, requiring stoop walking and a little climb. We went further up the gully until a tall dry waterfall stopped up. Then we turned around and got to go through the cave again. Hurray! We did some more hiking and went to another cave, this one even requiring crawling. 

When we got back to the campground in the late afternoon, there was another talk. This one was about paleontology and was put on by Bob Reynolds of LSA & Associates and Bob Hilburn of Mojave River Valley Museum. They showed us bones and casts from some of the interesting creatures that have been found in the  area. 

The Barstow formation is called "highly fossiliferous," meaning that there are lots of fossils in it. In this area, a permit is required to collect fossils from BLM lands. Many different animals are preserved in this area, which was a combination of lakes and rivers and uplands. Many lived during the Barstovian North America Stage, during the Miocene about 13.6 to 16.3 million years before the present. I couldn't find a good website about the fossils, but this dissertation abstract gives a little more info about ages and some of the megafauna found.

We took a walk down a nearby wash, where one of the paleontologist pointed out the fossilized track of a camel. It's on the wall of the wash, because it was made before the rock had been tilted upward. I would have never noticed it if it hadn't been pointed out to me.

Here's a closeup of the fossil. The fossil is in relief, meaning that instead of the track being depressed like a recent track in mud, the fossil is raised. You can sort of make out the toes of the camel.

That night we had a yummy dinner, a fun night hike (except for the people who went to the business meeting), and relaxing talks around campfires. The wind was strong and I didn't stay up too late. (I live on a ranch, anything past 9 p.m. is late for me!!)

Going to bed early meant I got up early and had time the next morning to hike around and explore more before the Sunday field trip (which will be featured next Monday). I loved looking at all the different washes and gullies and rock formations next to the campground. 

The Owl Canyon campground is called primitive, but it has limited drinking water, picnic tables, fire grilles, outhouses, and swingsets and playground equipment! It is a super place for kids. And it only costs $6 a night to camp.

On my wanderings, I went up one gully and encountered this little rock waterfall with two holes near the base of it. Yep, those are cave entrances! I was by myself so I didn't go in, but I did check out the entrances and saw that some human garbage had washed in, and I couldn't see the end of the cave. I guess I'll just have to go back. Want to go with me?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sheep on the Road

While I was driving the other day, I had to slow down because these sheep thought they should be on the road. Sheep are just small enough and dull-colored enough that they often blend in with the surroundings, and it can be really hard to see them from a distance. So nearly every time I come upon sheep, I have to hit the brakes rather hard. 

Sheep aren't known for being especially fleet of foot, so it's important to brake for them. Then they take their time meandering, with some getting off the road, while others walk onto it. You can tell they just don't care much one way or another where they go.

I was kind of glad to stop because the scenery was spectacular. The higher elevations are still snow-covered, making the mountains seem so much taller than when the snow melts. I wonder if the sheep ever look up at the snow and wish it were cooler down where they are. After all, they are wearing extremely thick wool coats.

If you ever do get stopped by sheep crossing the road, be sure to roll down your window. Listening them to baaaing is quite enjoyable and will put a smile on your face. Trust me, it will.

Finally they had cleared out of my way. In fact, they almost look like they're taking in the beauty of the mountains. Sheep contemplating. Perhaps that's an oxymoron. Oh well, I was entertained by them.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Desert Boy Updates and More

Here's our beautiful apricot tree, all blossomed out. This morning it was 19 degrees. Brrrr. The tree used to have wonderful apricot crops, but I'm wondering if we'll just have to remember them instead of experience them. I am already lamenting the loss of the apricots--can you feel my pain?

Okay, better move on. I took Desert Boy to preschool for a couple hours this week. He loves to go and play with the bigger kids, try out new toys, and draw with markers.

He's very serious about drawing. And he's so proud he can get the lids off the markers by himself. I am keeping the markers in our house hidden--I don't think I'm ready for new decorations.

Putting the lids back on the markers isn't always so easy, and the face he makes gets a grin from Teacher Gwendy.

At recess time, Desert Boy hangs out with the girls on the swing. It's fun watching him try to imitate what the older kids do. Physically he can run around with them, climb up the slide, ride the bikes. But verbally he is still talking in one-word phrases and his own language that no one quite understands. "Backhoe" is a a frequently uttered word.

Pre-school wore him out, so when I got Desert Boy home I put him on his bed. I was washing sheets, so I laid him on a blanket, but he managed to scooch until he was nearly off the bed. That didn't stop him from sleeping.

Do you think you could sleep in this position?

Here's how we're progressing with toilet training. 

The bowl makes a rather nice hat, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Spring Break Fun

When Uncle Andrew was visiting last week, we took a little jaunt to the playground, one of Desert Boy's favorite places. One of the pieces of equipment had been overturned, which actually made it more fun than its original intended use.

Uncle Andrew and his friend peer into the upside-down container. What could possibly be so intriguing?

Maybe a little toddler, absolutely enthralled to have a blue clubhouse that no one else can get into. (Of course he can't get out of it by himself, but he wasn't thinking that far ahead.)

You can tell by his grin that playing hide and seek with the adults is so much fun. He doesn't even have to work hard to hide.

Meanwhile, over on the grass, a little dog named Lluvia has come to play with Henry. Or does Henry have other ideas?

Henry is licking his chops. He looks like he might want to eat little Lluvia. She could be a tasty morsel.

Lluvia is on her back, pleading for mercy.

Please, don't eat me. I'm really not tasty.

Will Henry resist and not take a bite?

Henry decides the excitement is just too much and lies down to take a break. Lluvia lives another day.
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