The Desert Smells Like Rain

The Papago Indians called it, and we echo their thoughts — the desert smells like rain. Even as the humidity rises before the rain, that special smell permeates the air, our nostrils flare, and we can feel the softness of a smile move up into our eyes as our lungs expand to take in a deep draught of air. Where, but the desert, is the gift of rain more gladly welcomed or more richly heralded?

Where does that smell come from? From our most common and, some feel, one of our most beautiful desert shrubs, the creosote bush, Larrea tridentata. The creosote originated in Argentina and invaded North American during the formation of our deserts sometime between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago. How it got here has been long debated but a good guess might include a ride in the tail feathers of migrating plovers. A sticky resin covers the stems and evergreen leaves. When activated by moisture it’s smell resembles the acrid petrochemical product used to preserve wood.

Creosote Bush

Creosote Bush

It is not unusual to ignore the common things living around us. Since the creosote is the commonest plant in our hot western deserts, it is often overlooked. This is a mistake since its success is based on a number of extraordinary abilities, not the least of which is its ability to go without water for long periods. Part of its secret is the resin which protects the leaves from ultraviolet radiation, reduces water loss, and poisons or repels most microbes and planteating animals. Because of its extensive root system the creosote is able to monopolize soil nutrients, preventing grasses and other plants from taking hold. Its taproot is able to grow 15 feet into the soil and the lateral roots, which also contain chemicals that discourage neighbors, can reach into more than 50 square yards of surface soil.

It would seem that few plants stand a chance against this aggressive invader, but that idea needs a closer examination. Creosote may be the only shrub growing in certain dry areas but in situations where water is not so limiting, such as on alluvial fans, they are abundant and hospitably share their resources.

Researchers Jack Schultz and Ted Floyd found that “many, including the saguaro cactus, begin life in the shade of a creosote plant “nurse bush.” Side-blotched lizards, desert iguanas, snakes, toads, and termites burrow beneath the shrub, and the chuckwalla feeds on its flowers and fruits. Ten or twelve species of small mammals depend on it for food, nesting sites, and refuge from the elements. Kangaroo rats consume its seeds, and jackrabbits prune its branches. Local birds, such as the verdin, black-throated sparrow, and black gnatcatcher, as well as scores of migratory visitors frequent the bush for seeds and insects. Generations of Native Americans have used the extracts of creosote bush as antiseptics and treatments for arthritis and rattlesnake bites. Its resin was once used to waterproof baskets and fix arrowheads to shafts. Today, some of the resin’s more than fifty components are thought to be effective in shrinking cancerous tumors, others are consumed as dietary antioxidants or used as food preservatives.”

Creosote Bushes in Bloom

Creosote Bushes in Bloom

 

~ Pat Flanagan

 

This is about the guest that came and stayed

Delores, the kingsnake

Delores, the kingsnake

This is about the guest that came and stayed; her room is comped and meals are provided (although she has to serve herself). During this warm season she is out in the evening hours, flicking her tongue, tasting the air, looking this way and that, and in the most relaxed manner possible, maintaining her vigilance to rapidly grab and squeeze. Her name is Delores.

We think her main daytime residence is beneath Faultline cabin. When hungry she comes out in search of rodents, other reptiles, birds, and amphibians. She is a powerful constrictor and kills by suffocation. She endears herself to humans because her kind is known to eat rattlesnakes.

Kingsnakes are found throughout the United States. The California kingsnake, Lampropeltis getulus californiae, is our desert subspecies and a member of the Colubridae, the largest snake family in the world, containing 70% of all species. Truth be told, we do not know if Delores is a female or male but the name seems to fit her quiet ways. Delores will hibernate over the winter but come spring we will, hopefully, catch some mating action and learn her sex for sure. Male kingsnakes compete for females and when two are in the same area they will raise their heads, necks, and the fore parts of their bodies to entwine. The winning snake presses the loser to the ground. The loser retreats to lie coiled with his head flat on the ground. The victorious male returns to the female and they copulate (taking from minutes to hours). She will lay a clutch of eggs in a protected area. She can lay more than one clutch per season and the eggs in each clutch can be from more than one male.

Neither the female nor the male have parenting duties; the young are independent from the egg stage on. The eggs take about 60 days to hatch and after their first molt, in about 7 days, the juvenile snakes disperse.

How do kingsnakes perceive their world? Snakes communicate with their tongues, which provide both a sense of taste and smell, and with scent gland secretions. Male snakes can find and follow females through those scent secretions. If a snake is threatened it will twist away in alarm and use secretions as a repellant. Kingsnakes, like most other snakes, have excellent vision. Hearing is restricted to sensing vibrations.

Delores, like most of her kind, is gentle. However, and pay attention here, kingsnakes are known to bite when picked up and to secrete a noxious smelly substance when alarmed. That is why we do not know her sex for sure. She appreciates good manners. She is also curious and you may find her spying on you from a protected position.

 

The California Kingsnake

The California Kingsnake

What’s in a name?

In Greek lampros means shining, brilliant, splendid. Lampropeltis translates to elegant in dress or style. When freshly molted kingsnakes are all of that.

~ Pat Flanagan

 

 

The Story of the Fire Dancer

The "Fire Dancer"  Sphinx Moth

The “Fire Dancer” Sphinx Moth

For the earlier dwellers at the Oasis the long winter nights were a time to tell stories. These stories show a keen ability to observe and translate natural phenomena into memorable lessons—in the following case the behavior and yearly appearance and disappearance of certain winged nightlife.

Moth, the Fire Dancer A Piute story

Long ago, Moth had black wings. He was a great dancer as he flew and he loved to dance around people’s fires. The people would watch him as he danced and the young women would laugh as he dove and fluttered and circled. They would try to catch him and dance with him, but he would always escape them.

“Be careful,” his father told him, “do not dance too close to the fire.” But moth did not listen to his father. He liked to dance and flirt with the young women while the fires burned bright. He danced this way all through the spring and the summer.

One night, near the end of summer, Moth came to dance around the fire. The young women laughed as he danced and he danced even harder, coming closer and closer to the flames. He dove down wildly and flapped up again and the young women tried to dance with him.

“You cannot catch me,” he said. “I am Moth. I am the greatest dancer of all!” But as he bragged he flew too close to the flame. The fire caught him and he spun down onto the coals with burned wings. It seemed as if he was dead.

His father had been watching from the shadows. He flew down and carried his son away into the forest. He put medicine on his son’s burned wings and wrapped him up in a gray blanket and hid him in the bushes.

Throughout the winter, the people talked in their lodges about Moth, the dancer. The young women were sad as they thought of how he had been killed by the flames. They would miss his dancing around their fires at night. They would miss playing with him as he dove and circled. At last the winter was gone and the days began to grow longer. One night, not long after the Moon of New Grass, the people sat around a fire late at night. All was quiet when suddenly, out of the night, came the flash of wings.
Then with wings as bright as the red of flames, someone was dancing around the fire, dancing as Moth had danced.

“Who is it?” the people asked.

“He dances the way Moth danced,” said the young women. “Moth has come back, but his wings now are filled with flame!”

And so it was. Wrapped in his gray blanket, Moth’s burns had healed and he had come back to dance once more with the people. But now his wings were no longer black. They were gray as a blanket above and as red as sparkling flames below.

“We can no longer just call him Moth,” the people said. “He must have a new name. We will call him The Fire Dancer.” And that has been his name to this day.

_____________

Now is the time for the Fire Dancer, our Sphinx Moth, to be out pollinating the large, white, night-blooming Datura flowers. There is a plan growing against the garden fence. The flowers begin opening around dusk and the moths arrive thereafter to hover while unfurling their long tongues down to drink the nectar. In the process pollen is transferred before a new load is picked up.

 

Datura Flower

Datura Flower beside garden

 

~ Pat Flanagan

The Pacific Flyway

Bird sightings in Twentynine Palms

Bird sightings in Twentynine Palms

 

If you drive east from Los Angeles to visit Joshua Tree National Park or come west from Las Vegas you are crossing the Pacific Flyway. It is a major thoroughfare extending from Alaska to Patagonia and covers the deserts (covers California actually), one of the last great open spaces you can see it. See it? How can you see a flyway, it’s for birds? They travel way up in the sky and the smaller ones fly mostly at night. They have to touch down, sure, but not anyplace I know. Anyway I am not a birder (major form of recreation is looking for birds). Or maybe you are a birder, or just a lover of birds (takes and seeks opportunities to watch birds) but you still don’t know how you are supposed to see birds in such empty vastness, unless by accident.

There’s a way. The mechanism is the interactive website eBird; www.ebird.org. eBird is a citizen-science based bird observation project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. On it you will find datasets from around the globe. Any competent bird watcher is encouraged to submit data. Each location is a ‘hotspot’ supported by one to over a thousand reported checklists. The visualization of the hotspots is displayed on Google maps. Species records including time of year and month by month abundance are in a spreadsheet format.

So, let’s say you are coming out to the 29 Palms Inn for the weekend. You are curious after reading this introduction so you go on line and find the website, click on Explore Data, click on Explore Hotspots, click on Hybrid for maps, type in 29 Palms Inn, click on the balloon and Voila! 96 species, 65 checklists. Click on View details and you will see what, when, and who. You will also notice other hotspot balloons adjacent to the Inn, click on each of those: Oasis of Mara – 58/44 and the Oasis Visitor Center – 89/83. Zoom out and see Lucky Park – 76/34 and Knott Sky Park – 81/50, all in 29 Palms. Getting to the Inn you drove (going east) by the internationally known hotspot Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in Morongo Valley – 228/1088. Stop there.

You don’t have to be a birder to enjoy eBird. Just knowing all those birds are out there busy about their business — finding food, water, shelter, or for some species, a place to build a nest and raise babies — makes your travels richer. You know the desert as alive, not empty.

Check it out. Explore. You could become addicted. You might take up bird watching.[1] You might suggest to bird loving friends that they post their lists. If they already do, take them to dinner in thanks for making the Pacific Flyway visible.

 [1] http://www.bigmorongo.org/a4Edu.htm

 

~ Pat Flanagan

Not Just Another Pretty Face

The Roadrunner

Most people know the roadrunner because of the clever shenanigans it has devised over the years to avoid being eaten by Wile. E. Coyote. We all love a rogue and in this case the rogue is truly a cartoon character and bears little resemblance to the real Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx califorianus). Some visitors find it hard to believe that roadrunners even exist until they see one walking across the road. Softhearted desert dwellers living in roadrunner habitat can find themselves adopted and trained to provide food at regular intervals. Come feeding hour, if you aren’t producing, they’ll peck away at the door or window till you do. If they could sigh in exasperation I am sure they would. Roadrunners get away with this bizarre behavior because their imperious antics make them seem more like feathered relatives than wild animals.

Greater Roadrunners are terrestrial members of the cuckoo family and, like all birds, they lay eggs and have feathers, even though they rarely flies. Long-legged, they often conduct their business at a rapid stride with their neck outstretched and tail cocked. Whether capturing prey, courting, or just hanging out they usually operate from the ground or at jumping height level. Their outstretched stubby wings are useful when breaking from a fast trot (they have been clocked at 18 miles per hour), in courtship displays, or as a distraction to confuse prey or predator.

Roadrunners are serious predators; their catholic diet includes: insects, lizards, snakes, rodents, baby birds, and hummingbirds—about anything that moves as long as it is not too big to swallow whole. Animals provide them not only with energy rich protein and fats but also with enough moisture to meet their water demands, even during the summer months. Roadrunners are notorious for killing and consuming rattlesnakes. Resourceful, they also eat fruit and seeds during the winter months when small animals are not available.

The habits and unique characteristics of the Greater Roadrunner are also the subject of Indian stories. Roadrunners, like woodpeckers, have two toes pointing forward and two backward (the perching bird arrangement is three forward and one backward.) According to a Piute story, the roadrunner was able to successfully steal fire by confusing pursuit with a trail that looked like it was going in both directions.

Breeding season is upon us and, if you are lucky, you will see the male parading around with his head held high and stiff with wings and tail drooped. His mating song, delivered from a high perch, is a series of low dovelike coos in a descending pitch (the opposite of a mourning dove). The stick nest is built in shrubs and cactus from 3 to 15 feet above ground. Males do much of the incubating especially at night.

Here at the 29 Palms Inn, a roadrunner is frequently seen going south, crossing the driveway in front of the library. Other than that, in our natural setting with available food, you could spot them anywhere, anytime during the day. We do not purposefully feed roadrunners or any other wildlife.

~ Pat Flanagan

I just saw the biggest lizard!

Image

That you did. You saw the desert iguana, Dipsosorus dorsalis, which can grow up to 16 inches in length, including the tail. All members of the Iguanid family of lizards are vegetarians and large.

Perhaps the desert iguana’s size is remarkable because in late March it just appears, in all its grandness, with no warning at all. All of a sudden there are these big white lizards crossing the street or sitting under a bush in your yard. The Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum reports that desert iguanas appear in March, breed in April and May, and lay 2-10 eggs between May and early July. Hatchlings emerge in late July through August. These dates may be later for the high desert.

Before our iguanas are visible they are hibernating. In February 2004 a trench was dug near the West End Cottage at the 29 Palms Inn. About 18 inches down we exposed a hibernating desert iguana. A rude awaking, but (s)he lived.

The desert iguana is light in color, usually pale gray or whitish with a reticulated brown pattern on its back and sides. The tail, which can be as long as the body from snout to vent, has rows of brown spots. The sides of both sexes blush pink during the breeding season. Their coloration against a sandy background, in tandem with stillness, allows the lizard to escape predation much of the time.

The desert iguana has a higher tolerance for heat than other lizards and can be active in the middle of a summer day.  When they are not resting for long periods in the shade of a creosote bush, you can find them perching on large rocks or sand mounds.

I have heard several people observe that iguanas lack a fear of humans. They go about their business never seeming to care that you are standing close by. This is worth some research.

Let’s start with why they might be so big. They might be so big because they, like all herbivorous lizards, have very large partitioned colons that provide several advantages (stick with me on this) when it comes to eating abundant, easily obtainable but low quality food, i.e., plants.

High quality food, like insects, cost a lot of energy to get and digest. Low quality food costs less to get and there is help with the digestion. The lizard’s large colon provides increased surface area to absorb nutrients and water; and the partitions provide important microhabitats for dense nematode faunas and bacterial and protozoan populations. These fauna, essential in the digestion of vegetable matter, appear to be of mutual benefit for all. The nematodes do the initial heavy labor of mechanically breaking down the green matter into smaller pieces and producing useable waste products. The waste products (vitamins, cellulose, volatile fatty acids, etc.) regulate the composition and abundance of the colonic microbes, which do the final breakdown. The nematodes feed on the microbes. (Remind you of a cow, or for that matter, a termite?)

All this activity needs both space (for the colon) and time to operate. Herbivorous lizards are big and lazy. Metabolically their digestion is from 30 to 70% efficient (70-90% for carnivorous lizards). But who cares, they spend only about 1% of their time feeding and 90% resting. This is the dream of all true couch potatoes.

Dipsosorus dorsalis has a good nose. Research has demonstrated that the desert iguana can detect chemical deposits from snakes and tell the difference between snakes that eat iguanas and those that do not. This ability provides confidence when foraging for food or when entering burrows. It may also provide confidence when moving in the vicinity of your shoes.

They also have amazing eyesight. They secrete a scent from the femoral pores (found on the underside of the thighs on the rear legs) to aid in recognition of their kind. Studies show that these secretions also fluoresce and that the lizard has vision in these wavelengths.

What does all this have to with fear of humans—probably nothing. Desert Iguanas can’t afford a nervous temperament because most of their life must be spent digesting their favorite creosote flowers and other fibrous flora. Their size, color, and stillness help to protect them from predators while they digest. In addition, they can recognize friend and foe by smell and sight in order to avoid trouble. These amazing animals are totally equipped for survival!

~ Pat Flanagan

Meet Pat Flanagan, Naturalist at the Oasis

Pat Flanagan

I grew up wandering in the chaparral foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and the dry eastern slopes and ridges of the Sierra Nevada range. To this day I require aridity and a viewshed with mountains and basins as far as the horizon allows. This is not to say I don’t enjoy forests, I just can’t spend much time (maybe an hour) surrounded by tall trees. When I finally put on shoes for the first grade I was a confirmed nature nut and nothing has changed.

My college education spanned a long time and included a serious interest in literature until I finally acknowledged that the natural sciences were where I wanted to spend my time. For over 30 years I have traveled in the deserts of the southwest including the Baja peninsula. Professionally I am an educator specializing in deserts with an emphasis on the ecology of natural systems – I am fascinated by the connections between the living and non-living environment and the consequences that unfold. I moved from San Diego to the Mojave and Twentynine Palms 12 years ago.  I made this choice because I have family here and because, of all the deserts I had traveled in, I knew the least about this desert I now call home.

Currently I am writing a book on the Deserts of California and would love to hear from you on subjects you would like covered. I am also interested in experiences you want to share.

~ Pat Flanagan