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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Where's Waldo? Camouflage in the Desert

Lizard hanging out on a wall, Antelope Canyon, UT

We have spent quite a bit of time in the desert. Most of our friends think we're nuts: "But there's nothing there!" We hear that a lot.

I think you have to get into a certain mindset to enjoy it. Back up, take a different view of your surroundings, and you will be surprised by how much is going on right under your feet. On a broad scale, the mountains and valleys are in plain view, the earth building up the mountains just to have the weather tear it down right in front of your eyes. I think that's cool.

Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park

The other attraction of the desert, for me, is what manages to live in such harsh conditions. We love it but would never visit Death Valley in the summer. The creatures that live there year round manage to do so through winter nights that get down in the 20s all the way through the highs in the summer that can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit (and that's just the air temperature, down on the ground it can get as hot as 200F.)

The weather is just one of the difficulties the smaller desert dwellers face. There are mountain lions, coyotes, hawks, owls, ravens, egrets and herons (near the few water sources) all looking for a meal. The little reptiles and rodents have come up with some pretty clever ways to stay alive, some of which would be the envy of anyone who shops at Cabela's.

Ring-necked Lizard, doing his best to blend in.
Mark is a fiend for reptiles. While I'm off looking at the plant life, he's running through the desert in pursuit of the ring-necked lizard he's been dying to get a picture of. On more than one occasion I've lost him on a trail as he races off, yelling over his shoulder "Chuckwalla! Chuckwalla!"

The holy grail of Mark's world, the chuckwalla is a huge reptile that also happens to be very shy. When it feels threatened, it runs into a crevice in a rocky outcropping and inflates it's lungs, fending off all efforts to pry it out. We've been lucky enough to spot a few over the years, and they are a pretty amazing sight. I'm glad they're shy; they remind me of a dry version of a Komodo Dragon. They just look fierce.

Chuckwalla, posing for the telephoto lens.
Chuckwalla at home. This guy was probably two feet long, not counting his tail.

What's really incredible is the camouflage that so many of the desert dwellers have. We have quite literally almost stepped on things, not seeing them until they move. During one very memorable hike in Anza Borrego I was close behind Mark when he (by dumb luck) stepped right over a whipsnake lying curled up in the middle of the trail. My foot was hovering right over it when I saw it at the last second. I don't think I have ever leapt that far or that high in my life. Of course Mark ran right back, never one to pass an opportunity for a reptile photo shoot (after he peeled me off his back, that is.)

The Whipsnake that started my NBA aspirations.

Even the mammals get in on the camo action. It's amazing to me how the very same animal can look so different, depending on where it lives. Here's a few rabbits for comparison:

Jackrabbit in New Mexico, outside Carlsbad Caverns.
Jackrabbit in Arches NP, Utah
Notice how the coloring changes, depending on the surrounding vegetation.

One of my greatest regrets is accidentally running over a Horned Lizard (sometimes called a Horny Toad, although it's not a toad at all.) I was driving back to camp when it crawled out onto the road in front of us. I swerved to a point where I thought it would go between the tires but I didn't calculate it out quite right and the most sickening squelching, splattering sound could be heard in the back fender. To this day I feel bad; they're not endangered, but they are a pretty rare sight. To make things worse, we had just come off a side road where we had spent a good twenty minutes taking photos of (very possibly) this same lizard.

Horned Lizard
It's no wonder this guy was trying to hide from us. Oh, the humanity!
We're heading to Arizona in May, and I'm sure we'll find some more critters to photograph. We're pretty excited about it. They are, quite probably, not as thrilled. I can only hope the Horned Lizard community hasn't take up a petition against me...

Of course, there are always the things in the desert you'd rather not see.
I think a little camouflage now and then is a good thing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Valentine's Day is supposed to be a big deal: chocolate and flowers and dinner and poems are supposed to flow all over the place, making a big mushy mess of things every year on February 14th. Singles hate it (heck a lot of non-singles hate it) and everyone is left feeling slightly uneasy, as if perhaps they haven't done quite enough to measure up to the invisible romance bar portrayed in all those Hallmark commercials.

A rose is a rose...unless it's Valentine's Day and then it's a fortune.
Mark and I have been married a while--not as long as some but longer than many--so I feel I've come to know a little about what makes love work. At least for us. So here's my list:

Love is sharing the last of your warm plastic-y tasting water two miles from the end of the trail;

It's agreeing to rub your partner's feet even though you've been camping without a shower for six days straight and you can think of a thousand things you'd rather do. 

It's volunteering to carry the heavier pack, even though your feet are screaming, your back is aching and there's several more miles to go, because you know your partner is faring worse than you are; 

It's agreeing to stop for the 47th time to take a picture of another flower; 

It's insisting on eating the pork chop that fell through the grill onto the charcoal, claiming 
"I like it that way." 

It's being able to sit and watch the sun set over a mountain range and not say anything at all because just sharing the moment is enough.

Fire Point, North Rim Grand Canyon

So I say, go ahead and get the chocolate and flowers if you think they will be appreciated but don't feel obligated. You can spend an obscene amount of money on trinkets once a year, or you can spend every day trying to be the nicest person you can to the one who matters to you most.

City of Rocks, New Mexico

Happy February 14th everyone. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Elephants on the Beach: Point Reyes National Seashore

We took our annual trip to Point Reyes National Seashore last weekend. It was the 26th anniversary of our first date and the plan was to visit the lighthouse and watch for whales off the point. However, when we arrived at the visitor's center to buy shuttle tickets, we were disappointed to hear the bus service was interrupted indefinitely.

Dairy farms are still run in Point Reyes National Seashore. (Looking west towards the point from Drake's Bay Road)

Sonoma and Marin counties are blessed with beautiful weather, rolling hills, and hundreds of miles of backroads to explore. The people who live and work here have known this all along, of course, but more recently it's been "discovered" by cyclists, both as a training ground for racing (Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer among others have trained here) and for the colorful weekend lycra-cyclists. In the last few years it's gotten a bit frustrating to drive to the coast; contingents of neon-clad "roadies" ride in tightly packed groups, clogging the narrow roads like plaque in Morgan Spurlock's arteries after filming Supersize Me.

(Necessary Disclaimer Because I Know I'll Hear About It Otherwise: I am all for cycling. I commute to work on my bike about 6 months of the year, and I completely understand how terrifying it can be sharing the road with motorists who often seem more concerned with checking their phones than steering. I try to be a considerate driver; if it's not safe to pass, I won't. But a little effort has to be made on the cyclist's part as well; finally approaching a wide spot in the road just to have the cyclist group in front of you spread out and block the lane is maddening at best, road rage inducing at worst.)

Anyway, this year was no different, tons of cyclists not all of them polite. And it turns out they were (sort of) the reason the shuttle buses weren't running: one of the buses, in an effort to avoid some cyclists, veered too far over and ran off the road. It must have been in a bad spot, because it not only disabled that bus, but it blocked the road so the others couldn't make it through either. Point Reyes is a pretty remote park to begin with and the spot where the bus got stuck is an extra 18 miles or so down a very narrow road. It was going to be a while until a tow truck capable of pulling a full size bus out of the mud could get out there.

Shut out on a very windy day. I was disappointed, but happy not to be doing the backstroke with the whales.
We've been shut out before: one year the wind was so strong they closed the stairs to the lighthouse. Point Reyes is the western-most point in the contiguous US, and it sticks so far out into the Pacific there's nothing to dampen the wind as it screams down the coast. The Park Service closes the stairs when the winds exceed 40 miles an hour, not wanting to have to send the Coast Guard after all the tourists blown out to sea.

The view south from the lighthouse.
The view from the lighthouse looking north.
(If you can get there.)
As it turned out, it was a minor disappointment. The shuttle bus station is located at Drake's Bay, a protected inlet that is named for that inveterate explorer/slave trader/plunderer Sir Francis Drake. Large cliffs protect the bay from the wind, and the southern facing beach makes the most of the sun (when it's out.) The day we were there happened to be one of those weirdly warm winter ones--73 degrees--and almost no wind. We grabbed our cameras, picnic lunch and a blanket and took off down the sand.

Drake's Beach at low tide

For years now, elephant seals have been making a comeback to the California coast. They were hunted for their blubber to near extinction in the 19th century, but since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was put in place in 1972, they have been making up for lost time. Drake's Beach is a popular haul out spot for them, with colonies of females and pups gathering at the far western end of the beach guarded by their alpha males. The bachelor males have to find their own spot in the sand, and often bask in the sun off to the edges of the colony. Every year, these lone males spread farther east, often ending up on the beach alongside the human visitors. It's smart to give these guys a wide berth; they are not only a protected species, but if they feel you are infringing on their territory they just might insist you leave the area. A full grown male can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, not somebody you'd want to challenge to a wrestling match.

These guys know how to relax.

They don't make avoidance easy either; since they have so much blubber to keep them warm in the cold water, they get overheated when they lay in the sun. When that happens, they flip sand on their backs, making them look for all the world like a large piece of driftwood that's rolled up with the surf. So when they aren't moving it's easy to walk right up to them unaware. Here's a shot of one blending in with the flotsam and jetsam:

Where's Waldo?

We picked our way through the field of eligible bachelors and found an empty spot of sand for our blanket. From there we were able to observe our slumbering neighbors and keep an eye out for any newcomers in the surf.

Snoozing tidal-pool side.

After a while we heard a ruckus going on down the beach; a large male was in the surf calling out to another male that was sleeping on the beach. At first, the beached male ignored him. But Mr. Surf insisted on challenging, so after about ten minutes of his caterwauling the big guy on the beach decided he'd had enough. He got up, and with surprising speed, ran down the beach and smashed into his challenger. They kept at it, the larger one backing his opponent into the surf, where they continued to fight in the waves.
Looking for a spot to pull over.

We were so engrossed in the spectacle we didn't get any pictures, but the loser ended up swimming towards us, crawling out of the waves to rest. Here he is, a little worse for wear:

Notice the scars, along with the bloody gash on his neck.
These guys have to do battle in order to gain their own harem; I think this one might be better off staying a bachelor.

I can see why the Park Service really doesn't want the public to mix it up with these guys. I don't think they'd attack a person unprovoked, but if someone were stupid enough to approach a male on the warpath...well I wouldn't want to see what was left of him afterward.

After that excitement things seemed to settle down. We lounged in the sand a bit ourselves, then tortured a few sand fleas, a time honored tradition from our grade school days.

Emerita (aka Sand Flea)

Sand flea is just our name for them: they are actually a type of crustacean that live in the sand along the tidal zone. They prefer to be buried in the sand, but our third grade alter egos like to dig them up and watch them bury themselves again. I'm sure we pissed a few off in the process, but fortunately we are much bigger than they are, and they don't have much going for them in the defense department.

...and back down he went, grumbling the whole way I'm sure.
We packed up and left when the tide started to come in. The western side of Drake's beach isn't very wide at high tide; if we waited too long we'd be wading too long, if you get my drift. As we approached the parking lot a docent informed us they had finally cleared the road and the buses were running again. We thought about it for a minute then decided we were happy. We got to see a fight, torture a few small crustaceans and catch some rays with elephant seals in the warm January sun. How could it possibly get any better?
Yeah, you said it buddy.