Mojave desert star

Monoptilon bellioides

These tiny desert flowers make me so happy. I often don’t see them until I am looking at something else, or pausing in one place for a bit. Suddenly they pop into view. And then once my attention is engaged I see more. This one has seeds from a past flower. I think it will keep growing and making new flowers until it runs out of water.

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Fossils

One of the interesting things about camping on the Colorado river is that the rocks along the river could be from anywhere upriver, even as far as northern Colorado.

I found this Fossil among the rocks. Any guesses as to what it is? I can’t even say plant or animal.

Leafcutter ants

There were leafcutter ants in the sandy wash I camped near. I’ve never knowingly seen leafcutter ants before, but once I learned to see them I saw many colonies each time I walked in that wash.

When I saw a line of ants carrying leaves I was pretty sure they were leafcutter ants and iNaturalist confirmed the identity as Acromyrmex versicolor.

More about Acromyrmex

They are sometimes called “volcano ants” because of their distinctive nest entrances.

The Heart of the Mojave

I’m camped out in Mojave Trails National Monument. North of me is Death Valley National Park and to the south is Joshua Tree National Park. I’ve been here in this same spot almost a week.

I’ve travelled through here in previous years but rarely spent more than a night.

The Mojave landscape captivates me in its vast vistas. The alluvial fans coming off the mountains seem like extremely slow moving rivers of rock. When these fans coalesce they create these vast tilted landscapes where one can move continuously downhill for many miles then climb as gradually back up to the next pass. The alluvium I am camped on is decomposed granite, perhaps from the Granite Mountains 5 miles to the north, or perhaps a closer source.

It’s quiet here. Most humans drive through without stopping. The side road I’m camped near gets maybe one car a day. Yet some (many) live here. Every sign of shared life is precious to me. Here’s a tiny flower (Pectis), germinated and growing after a fall rain.

And a common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana)

Beaver Dam Analogs

I spent three days in eastern Oregon volunteering with ONDA (the Oregon Natural Desert Association), helping to build beaver dam analogs. These are human made structures which act like beaver dams. I knew that there weren’t many beavers now in the west and that it was due to trapping in the past but didn’t know the full story.

Beavers were wiped out In the Pacific Northwest about 150 years ago as a deliberately and consciously evil plan by the Hudsons Bay Corporation to create a “fur desert” (their words). In other words, they didn’t just trap some of the beavers and leave some to grow and repopulate (as would be a typical strategy), they trapped them ALL along with all other fur bearing animals. I cannot express how evil this seems to me. You can read more about this in research by Jennifer Ott at: https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2828&context=etd

The loss of beavers had severe and continuing consequences to the desert west. Streams and rivers which used to make broad fertile flood plains now gushed in steep sided streambeds with only a narrow strip of riparian vegetation. Groundwater levels in the former floodplain dropped and the cottonwood trees and willows died. Without beaver dams to trap sediment the sediment ran off into the stream then to the rivers, ending up in the ocean. Sediment in streams is bad for many reasons- one is that it coats the gravel beds that fish lay eggs in and kills the eggs.

So, what to do? When beavers do move back into streams and rivers the process of downcutting slows and reverses. But beavers have a difficult time in places where they where they once were for two reasons- the first is that the vegetation beavers eat is scarce- the second is that the dams that they build in these steep sided downcut streams get blasted out during floods. But humans can help by building what is called a “beaver dam analog”.

This is a dam made from poles driven into the stream bottom with branches woven around them. We (16 people all told) made 24 dams in three working days.

Before we started working, ONDA’s riparian ecologist gave us an inspirational tour. ONDA has been building BDAs on this creek for 2 years. The differences between stretches with BDAs and without were stark. Behind the previous BDAs theres was water and green, otters and birds.

Where there were no BDAs in the creek the soil was often eroded down to bedrock.

Here’s a BDA we built.

Blue goose at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I spent two days at the Sacramento NWR. It’s always great to visit the waterfowl. This time, I was gratified that I didn’t need to look up the names for the common ducks. They had stuck from when I made myself a primitive drawing.

(Insert drawing)

And what I learned this time was the difference between snow, ross’s and greater White-fronted geese.

Also there was a “blue morph” snow goose that I saw clearly enough, and in the company of others who could help me understand what I was looking at, to understand.

A deer ked

I was relaxing in a meadow in the Oregon Coast Range when an unfamiliar insect landed on me.  I couldn’t even put it to family.  The shape was wrong for a flying ant and besides there was only one of them.  If you’ve got one flying ant you’ve got many.  I might have thought of the parasitic wasps but the wide flat body and lack of long antenna seemed wrong.  So  then I’d think of fly. But no kind of fly I’d seen before.  The body was flattened, eyes wide set and the wings had a dark spot.  Hmmmm. 
So, I posted the picture to iNaturalist and a kind person identified it as a louse fly, or ked (Diptera; Hippoboscidae). They are obligate parasites of various vertebrate animals. The winged adult stage is described as a weak flier and that’s what I saw. I  released the insect to a stalk of grass and watched it crawl to the top and then flutter away. White tailed deer would be a likely host in the Oregon Coast Range.    

More about ground nesting bees.

Kimberly, Oregon.

I don’t know which species of bee this nest belongs to but I am pretty sure it is a solitary bee rather than some other ground nesting insect. To start a nest in hard packed soil females moisten the soil with water or saliva, then put their mandibles in the ground and then spin in circles to loosen and dig into the soil. I’d love to see that! Agapostemon females dig a vertical tunnel and then create individual cells branching off of it for her eggs. Each egg gets its own chamber with a a ball of pollen and nectar to eat while growing towards adulthood. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to spend time near a nest and watch them flying in with provisions.

Robber fly vs yellowjacket

I watched this very same robber fly grab a yellowjacket wasp out of the air. They flew together for about 8 feet then dropped to the ground. I crept over to see if I could see the two still together on the ground but didn’t find them. A few minutes later the robber fly showed up back on its hunting perch and I was able to get a picture. Wow. There’s more about robber flies here.

Fields Spring State Park, Anatone, Washington.

I wasn’t planning on staying here. It’s $30 per night which is way out of my camping budget. But I drove right by and turned in to see. The ranger I met was knowledgeable and informative and enthusiastic. She loves this park. It turned out that she is native to this remote and sparsely populated corner of south east Washington and thats why she knew both the ecology and the history so well. When I mentioned that I was seeking quiet and dark she suggested I might be interested in the “primitive camping area”. It’s so little used and developed that it’s not even listed on the parks website. $12 per night rather than $30.

So yes I did camp there three nights. It’s near a trailhead and I saw maybe three cars a day coming to the trails. Otherwise it was indeed quiet and dark.

There is no cell service in the campgrounds. But it turns out that if you hike up to the top of Puffin Butte you can get a weak signal. The shortest route is 1 mile and a 500 foot climb to the top. But there is a network of trails that circle the butte and connect different parts of the park so you can do a number of lovely hikes and get some miles in if you like.

I would happily stay there again. And I’d love to be there in the spring and summer when the wildflowers are in full bloom.

From the top of Puffin Butte you can see three states: Oregon, Idaho and Washington and the Grande Ronde river 2000+ feet down. The Grande Ronde river cut down through the Columbia River Basalts on its way to join the Snake river. Here’s a view looking south towards the flat top of the basalt in northeast Oregon.