Desert Birding at a Death Valley Spring

Approaching the desert spring area, I smell water and plants. Insects seem to suddenly appear on, in or under creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata ) though for the last two miles I have seen almost no signs of insects or spiders in the daylight. Exception to that statement is the occasional sighting of tracks in a patch of sandy soil. Yes, a PATCH of sand. Most of this area is salt pan, and clay with some sandy patches and a few erratic boulders from the distant canyons. Those boulders of different origins hint at ancient and significant storms which may even pre-date the Shoshoni in this region.

Perhaps the most memorable one is the tarantula hawk (Pepsis thisbe ). It is neither a tarantula nor a hawk. Rather it is a large black desert wasp with bright orange wings. It behaves like a hawk in flight, yet when scampering across the sand it looks like a six legged spider. It seeks tarantulas (Aphonopelma chaleodes). The male tarantula hawk consumes mostly nectar. The female lays her eggs in the bodies of tarantulas she captures. The larva eat the tarantula.

A desert horned toad lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos calidiarum) has begun to defend its territory and is now performing a dramatic ritual with my right boot as its offending target. I am amused by the drama because this tiny creature is truly working to frighten me away. So, I comply and back away as I photograph its demonstration of hostility. For the horny toad it is a matter of survival. If it were much bigger, my safety might be a concern, but the ludicrous scene plays out like Gulliver’s Travels with me in the role of Gulliver.

Scampering across a yellowish sandstone boulder I see a collared lizard. They are really distinctive usually seen at higher elevations. Later I watch a side-blotched lizard (fairly common) doing push-ups on the same boulder. Wondering, does it help the lizard see? Or does it help the lizard maintain a particular body temperature? I never found a true authority to explain why they did that. A sleek whitish desert iguana sneaks past me beneath the brush ever vigilant and watching my every move.

Ants carry seeds and flowers from creosote bushes and fuzzy seeds from the cottonwood trees, like a regimented army they march in the chosen path without varying as much as a half an inch off the track of the ant in front of it. Unless something disturbs the track, like a boot print.

We rarely think we have any impact on living creatures in the wild, but something as simple as my boot print sent these ants into a frenzy as they searched for the path. While I waited for the evening wildlife to appear, I experimented with different size gaps in the ant track to see how much variation they could manage while carrying their treasured food back to their ant colony deep beneath the sandy soil, where the roots of plants could form channels and moisture might collect.

I learned that at least for that ant colony if the line drawn in the soil is wider than a ballpoint pen it is distracting enough to cause soldier ants to hurry and reorganize activity at the gap to keep the line moving. A line drawn by a pen or even the pen itself was a minor distraction which the worker ants were able to lumber across with minimal confusion. The sudden appearance of shade, like from my clipboard, perhaps suggests a predator because it caused major racing about and shelter seeking behavior among the otherwise focused seed gathering ants. Yellow shafted flickers like to eat ants and I am watching for one to appear.

I enjoy the shelter and respite of these sparse trees which are visible from the road. I observe them each season with binoculars. That is how I know when the cottonwoods are experiencing autumn weather, when their leaves turn yellow and fall. The dormant season is short but dramatic and austere. Though it is only 3 miles from the road, it retains wilderness qualities. The desert rules here.

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One Response to Desert Birding at a Death Valley Spring

  1. Pingback: Bring binoculars for desert birding |

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