Beginning on September 10, 1955, and continuing for more than 600 episodes over the next twenty years, the television show Gunsmoke ruled the airwaves. Jump ahead 56 years, local author Ben Costello will be joined with author/film historian Julie Ann Ream for “GUNSMOKE NIGHT”. This event will be a tribute to the legendary western TV show. It will be held on Wednesday January 4th from 5:30pm to 8:30pm at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, 58116 29 Palms Highway, in Yucca Valley. Admission to this Morongo Basin Historical Society event is $5.00. Autographed copies of this book, along with other books will be available….
Some folks say the Mojave Desert is just a bunch of rocks – a “gravel pit.” While other deserts around the world seem to be made of pure sand, those in the American Southwest are a bit rockier. Sand dunes exist, only in sparse locales. The huge monolithic structures that stand out so strikingly from a distance have served as backdrops to many an old western movie.
Imagine the Mojave Desert nearly 12,000 years ago. It was a wetter place but the Ice Age was just coming to an end and many animals were becoming extinct. Mammoths, mastadons, saber tooth cats, giant ground sloths and other animals would soon be wiped off of the face of the earth. At this time one small creosote bush sprouted up through the desert floor and began spreading its mighty roots into the earth; this creosote bush would later be known as King Clone. Possibly at about this same time only a few miles away the ground began to shake, but this was not an earthquake, it was a landslide, possibly the largest landslide that the world and definitely North America had ever seen. This landslide was to be known as the Blackhawk Landslide. I find it quite amazing that these two events occurred at roughly the same time in history and only 4 miles apart in close proximity to State Highway 247 (Old Woman Springs Road), in Johnson Valley, near Lucerne Valley.
Mojave Max, the desert tortoise, emerged from his burrow on March 29, so it must be spring. Granted that the spring arrival is a little late this year due to lingering cool temperatures, still it is welcomed with no less enthusiasm. Max’s girlfriends emerged a few weeks earlier, but Max has the official word. Mojave Max has been the Mojave Desert’s version of the groundhog for many years and lives at Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas. The incumbent is the second in a line of Mojave Maxes that will likely go on into the future.
This last week of March is the first week that temperatures have been consistently over 70 degrees F. The fierce ides of March have finally subsided as well, enticing humans and wildlife alike to get out and get active.
In the garden, honeysuckle is blooming and spring bulbs are developing flowerspikes for their spring show. It’s the time for planting annuals that will flower until the temperatures get really hot. The trees are leafing out and fruit trees have already bloomed. It’s definitely the time for allergies! The pollen of ash and mulberry trees, among others, causes many people misery throughout the spring. You can always go to your allergist and have a panel done to see exactly what you are allergic to. It won’t allow you to prevent the allergies, but at least you can plan for them. There’s a holistic treatment that contains the pollen of common Las Vegas irritants, called the Las Vegas Mix. It depends on the individual to decide if it builds immunity.
Meanwhile, bees are about, along with no-see-ums and aphids. Feeding on the aphids, which seem to have a variety for every plant, are the ladybug larvae that look like little dragons. With the insects come the lizards, seen in the daytime feeding on the fresh food source. They may slip back into cracks and crevices if the warmth is not prolonged. The snakes will be out a little later, when temperatures are warm enough for them to stay out at night and when larger food items are active. Rodents that hibernate come out when plants begin growing again, feeding on new growth and leftover seeds from the winter. Of course the larger mammals (foxes, bobcat, bighorn sheep, deer, cougar) are active year-round, but certainly spring is a time when they have more to feed on and are having young. Browsers like the bighorns and deer take advantage of new growth on wildflowers, sagebrush, ricegrass and even prickly pear cactus. Predators take advantage of the browsers! According to meteorologist Larry Jensen with the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, we haven’t had a lot of rain yet in 2011 – only 0.25” since January. A couple of light storms occurred – early spring rains that supply perennial, or woody desert plants with the moisture they need to bloom. But Jensen said we received 1.77” in December. Winter rains benefit the annual desert plants, including many wildflowers. It probably won’t be a banner year like 2010 for the bloom, but it’s still something to look forward to. Leading the display, brittlebush have begun showing and desert globemallows are just starting. Desert tortoises time their emergence from winter brumation with the blooming of the globemallows.
Birds are everywhere! It’s not uncommon to see an oriole (Bullock’s or hooded in southern Nevada) pass through yards on their way back to more northern climes, and what a brilliant sight they are – unmistakable in the still somewhat bare trees. Migratory house finches and goldfinches are back, also showing off a spot of color in the yard, and cheering us with their lilting songs. Mockingbirds, too, have returned. Hummingbirds are back and busy, getting ready for nesting season. Anna’s hummingbird is a year-long resident, and broad-tailed, black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds live here in the summer. The Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds are true migrants, and may be seen moving through the area. In Lincoln County, a true sign of spring is the return of the turkey vultures.
Spring can’t be taken for granted in the desert. Oftentimes it’s gone just as soon as it gets here. The transition from cold to hot is a pretty quick one. Sometimes you’ll see new leaves on the trees with the dead ones from fall still hanging on. There’s not much time for growing spring veggies. Some people say that there are really only two seasons in the desert – summer and winter. So it’s because of spring’s ephemerality that it’s such a joyous time of year – time to pack in all the activities you can do in the mild weather.
The day that our paths crossed I was quite surprised, immediately Paleface stood out among the crowd, I tried to befriend him but he kept a safe distance from me. He would come around the barn to scavenge the left over food from our burros and goats. Was he here as an omen? If he was then hopefully a good omen. I may have forgotten to mention who Paleface is, he is a Raven that would visit our ranchette on a daily basis. Paleface was not your average Raven, he was completely white, sure he stood out from the rest but he seemed like a friendly guy. We were used to Ravens coming around to scavenge, a previous frequent visitor was a black Raven whose wing looked damaged but he could fly just fine, he got pretty friendly with me but Paleface kept his distance.
All I want for Christmas is to get outside…
Christmas Eve – the shopping rush is done. But there is a last-minute gift that you can still give your kids – and you won’t have to wrap it. Give them the gift of the outdoors. It’s perfect, really, since it’s free, it’s available at any time, and it’s a gift that keeps giving. Perhaps you’ve had to cut back on the gift-giving this year, if the difficult economic times have affected you. Those popular electronic gifts for kids aren’t cheap.
Getting your kids outside will be much healthier for them. Or consider combining the outdoors with one of the iphone field guide applications or an educational electronic “toy” that helps kids learn about nature. At any rate, giving your kids access to the outdoors will be a gift that will last a lifetime. There are plenty of options for getting into the outdoors, depending on their interests, and, they might even gain some valuable life lessons from their encounters with nature.
The educational community agrees that contact with the outdoors is beneficial for kids (and adults, too). If you are familiar with Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods,” and his nationwide grassroots movement to get children back into nature, you will have heard that we are suffering from nature-deficit syndrome. For many of us older folks, being out in nature in childhood was taken for granted. These days, kids just aren’t getting that exposure. Research shows that regular time in the outdoors affects mental health, concentration in school, and physical health (increase in immunity and decrease in obesity). It will also give kids an appreciation of their world and teach values such as respect.
So just how do you give the kids this intangible gift? You can start with a simple walk on Christmas day. The weather in southern Nevada is perfect for a stroll in the winter.
Winter is also a good time for bird-watching in the desert. Many birds winter in the Mojave, and still others are passing through. Some of the delightful avian visitors around the Las Vegas valley include flickers, orioles, and many raptors. Make a bird feeder with your kids and put it out. This is the time of year for the Audubon Christmas bird counts. Find out how you can participate. There are many great sites to go birding around Vegas: Corn Creek, Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, Clark County Wetlands Park, and others. Also have the kids look for nests, which are more easily seen in trees that are bare.
A quick trip up to Mt. Charleston will provide the kids with a change in scenery and a rare opportunity for them to see and play in snow! They might get to see deer or wild horses as well. They can also try their hand at animal tracking.
When spring arrives, take the kids to see the desert’s wildflower bloom and watch for reptiles coming out of hibernation. There are many places with hiking trails.
Try fishing (yes, fishing!) at any number of waterholes in the area. Camp, look for ancient treasures, or play sports.
One of the best ways to give the gift of the outdoors is to present kids with the Nevada Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights. This is a new program whose aim is to help you get those kids outside doing all kinds of things. The brainchild of members from different agencies in southern Nevada, the Bill of Rights was put together as a declaration of things that every child in the state should have a right to do at some time in their childhood. Although it may seem like this should be intrinsic, it’s not anymore. So the initiative puts forth the case.
The Southern Nevada Agency Partnership (SNAP) is the lead agency for this initiative and has dedicated some initial funding for its implementation. The UNLV Public Lands Institute (PLI) is coordinating the effort on behalf of SNAP and serves as the point of contact for the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights Alliance and inquiries from the public.
So what does the Outdoor Bill of Rights provide? If you go to the website at http://www.nvoutdoorkids.org, you will find a list of outdoor activities that kids can participate in, along with itineraries of where to go and when, in order to do them. Could it get any easier? Look at the Bill of Rights and have the kids select an activity that they’ve always wanted to try. The website will give you several options for how you can do those activities. Some sites offer coordinated activities, along with educational opportunities. Other sites are open to a variety of activities that you and the kids can do on your own. Most people are not aware of all of the opportunities for outdoor recreation in southern Nevada. And the kids will never appreciate Nevada’s outdoors unless they get out in it.
Other options for getting your kids outside include family nature clubs or after-school clubs. Organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Boys and Girls Clubs offer many group outdoor activities. Also look for community classes, sometimes at recreation centers and parks. The REI stores have a kid’s outdoor program, too.
But perhaps the most important factor in giving the gift of the outdoors to your kids is to overcome ecophobia in yourself. Kids follow their role models in their attitudes and actions, and parents and caregivers need to show by example. Ask yourself what’s really holding you back from experiencing the outdoors. Is it a fear of dangerous critters? Stranger danger? Or maybe you just think that the desert is too harsh a climate to get outside. Educate yourself. There is really only one time of year that is inhospitable to outdoor recreation in the desert, and that’s in the dead of summer. Winter, on the other hand, is a wonderful time. Get to know the creatures of the desert, and you will learn that most of them are not as scary as you might think. You can also learn how to be safe around those that do pose a certain risk. In fact, learning how to be safe is a basic prerequisite for any outdoor recreation, and includes the areas of weather, terrain, and people. Most outdoors people will agree that the benefits of getting outside outweigh the risks.
So make a memorable holiday by giving the kids the priceless gift of the outdoors. And be a part of the present – keep it going by following-up and making it your new year’s resolution to actually take the kids to those sites. You might find yourself as one of the gift recipients as well.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has so much to offer as long as you look. I wanted to post this picture to share it with the other Anza-Borrego explorers on the site. However, because desertusa.com is not just some photo posting site (not that there is anything wrong with having a flickr photostream), I felt an obligation to have some kind of story or anecdote accompanying the picture.
Along the S-2 (Carrizo Highway)
Just south of Sweeney Pass
Southern Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Unfortunately, I did not have one. Plus, trying to come up with something good quickly, without use of cliches or trite-isms, was not as easy as I hoped.
I started by thinking about standing at this site, maybe with someone else or maybe alone. My boot crushes some dry twigs or kicks up some dust as I swat away some flying bugs and watch something run across the road too fast to be identified, but slow enough to catch my eye.
As exotic as this starts sounding, it also starts sounding like a big boring cliche and the story goes as nowhere as the road.
So, after whining for one paragraph and using cliches in another, ironically, the photo now has some background.
See you on the trails as you leave behind clouds of dust and sand…
Sometimes business can turn into pleasure which was the case for me when I conducted some personal business with Helen Holloway and her son Jason. Helen was born in 1920 and is currently 90 years old. She was born Helen Blanding, daughter of Harry and Irene Blanding of Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is slightly over 2000 feet in elevation and lies on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert with stands of the Mojave Desert’s signature tree, the Joshua Tree. This signature tree of the Mojave Desert is dispersed on the landscape surrounding Las Vegas. Immediately I thought about how nice it would be to hear a few of Helen’s stories so we could share them with DesertUSA readers. This is Helen’s account of her childhood in Las Vegas from 1920 to 1937….
Reptiles get a bad wrap. Slimy, unsavory characters are branded ‘reptiles,’ even though as a rule reptiles are not slimy. Certain occupations are put in the reptile category, presumably referring to their cold-bloodedness. And since I’m from Las Vegas, what about the term ‘lounge lizard’? This refers to guys who hang out in bars. The only reasoning I can think of for this analogy is the picture of wild lizards hanging out in the sun, warming up their normally cold blood. And while observing lounge lizards in the casinos might be fun, I’d like to recommend that you try lizard watching in the desert.
Lizards are fascinating creatures. Although they live in many environments worldwide, they are very often associated with the desert southwest. Most are insect-eaters, but they live in a variety of habitats, from riparian areas to woodlands and of course, extreme desert. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colorations. One thing most of them have in common is the ability to lose their tails if captured. Just about every kid who has grown up in the desert is familiar with this. Lizard tails can break off at a natural weak point, which leaves the predator with a twitching morsel, while the lizard makes a clean, if somewhat damaged escape. Most species can regenerate the missing tail piece, but it’s never quite the same.
Lizards can be seen sunning themselves on rocks, especially in the spring when they emerge from brumation (reptilian hibernation). What people don’t know is that even though they love the heat, they are still vulnerable to overheating in extreme temperatures. Cold-blooded animals need to be able to regulate their body temperature. Wildlife biologists do their reptile surveys when temperatures are amenable, between 60 and 85 degrees, usually at night, when most of these animals are active. Similarly, reptiles don’t like to come out when it’s cloudy or windy. Bear these things in mind when you set out to observe your favorite lizards.
Here’s a summary of some of the favorite lizards to see in southern Nevada:
Common chuckwalla – The chuckwalla, or ‘chuck’ is one of the more interesting lizards. It is quite large, with a body of around nine inches long, and appears to be fat. Actually, it has a good amount of loose skin on the sides of its body, which allows it to inflate itself with air when threatened. Chuckwallas usually slip into a rock crevice, then balloon themselves up so that predators cannot get them out. Of course there are two predators that can puncture and deflate them – the badger and man. Chucks are known for their variety of colorations. Tan, brown, black and orange in varying patterns sometimes lead to confusion with Gila monsters. Juveniles have strong banding on the tail. See these lizards lounging on rocky outcrops, or you may be able to spot one in a rock crevice with the use of a mirror.
Desert horned lizard – The only horned lizard in southern Nevada, it is sometimes called a “horny toad,” due to its body shape’s resemblance to a toad. Horned lizards have a relatively short tail and don’t usually need to drop it because of another defense mechanism –shooting blood out of their eyes. Their other defenses include horned scales on their head and body, and the ability to blend into soil of any color. The desert horned lizard is about three and a half inches long and is well-camouflaged in dry areas.
Desert iguana – Somewhat unlike its green, bearded tropical cousin, the desert iguana is rather bland-looking, grayish-white with brown to black netlike markings. It has a small head and a long tail, almost twice its six-inch body. They are found in low sandy flats, sometimes under creosote bushes.
Desert night lizard – A small lizard, four inches in total length, this night lizard has dark brown spots on a tan background, or can be uniformly tan. Found at the southern edge of the Mojave desert, in chaparral and up into pine woodlands, they are usually under cover. Take care when looking for them, as they easily lose their tails.
Gila monster – Sorry, folks, there’s a slim chance that you’ll ever see this reticent creature in the wild. They spend over 90 % of their lives underground. If you are lucky enough to see one, May is the most likely month for it. They are also active at night during the summer. Of course you can always go to the Springs Preserve to see a captive one. Gila monsters are large, from 9 – 20 inches long, and very thick-bodied. The banded subspecies, which is in southern Nevada, has black and orange mottled stripes on the entire body, and a very thick tail. Gila monsters can survive for a year on the fat stored in the tail, and to lose it would mean certain death. Their legs are short and their movement slow, but they quickly defend themselves with a tenacious bite and they are venomous, so do not handle them! It’s also illegal to do so. These lizards are common at low to mid-elevations in the desert, where they prey on eggs and small animals. Sometimes they are confused with western banded geckos or common chuckwallas. You can find an identification guide at http://www.ndow.org/wild/concerns/safety/snake/NV_Ven_rept.pdf.
Gilbert’s skink – Skinks are different than most lizards, because they have smooth, overlapping, and equally-sized scales, which make for a shiny appearance. They also have a hard exterior, with bony plates just under the scales. Large for a skink, the Gilbert’s is about six and a half inches long and tan in color. Head and tail are red or orange. It is found in sage/pinion-juniper/pine habitats along riparian corridors, for example, high in the Spring Mountains.
Great Basin Collared lizard – A beautiful, medium-sized lizard about six inches long, this lizard has two black collars around its neck, separating a black-spotted gray head from a white-spotted khaki body. They are usually seen basking on boulders, but are easily frightened. If one is captured, it will bite. These lizards have strong jaws and will even prey on other lizards. The tail is sturdy and rarely lost.
Long-nosed leopard lizard – A medium-sized lizard, about six inches long with a tail twice as long, this is one of the most beautiful local lizards. The back is covered with brown leopard-like spots along with yellowish horizontal lines. The tail is striped, but more densely than the zebra-tailed lizard. Females develop orange spots on their sides during breeding season. Mostly found in low, flat desert areas, leopard lizards are known to run to nearby cover and ‘freeze’ motionless.
Long-tailed brush lizard – The brush lizard is very small, only two inches in length, with a very long tail. Gray or light brown in color, it has a wide band of enlarged scales running lengthwise down its back. It can be found in typical desert scrub, especially in the Lower Colorado River area. These lizards prefer to camouflage themselves against shrub and tree branches, so don’t look on the ground for them.
Ornate tree lizard – Another small lizard, this one is two inches with a tail up to twice as long. With distinctive brown and black splotches on the back, they appear darker when cold. Southern Nevada is on the western edge of their range and they can be found on riparian slopes as well as in urban settings. These may be the ones that coined the term, ‘leaping lizards.’
Side-blotched lizard – Another small lizard, about two inches with a tail about as long, the side-blotched is so named for a black blotch on each side of its body, just behind the front legs. But the most striking part of this lizard is the bright blue spots on the males. It inhabits typical desert scrub and is very commonly seen basking or running between bushes.
Western banded gecko – Everyone loves geckos. These little reptiles are different from regular lizards because their skin is thinner and more transparent. To compensate for the greater evaporative loss, they prefer more humidity than most desert lizards. Despite their delicate skin, they have a greater tolerance to heat. They also have vertical pupils and functional eyelids. Banded geckos emit a high-pitched squeak as their first defense strategy, but are also very quick to discard their tails.
Western fence lizard – These small, lizards are about four inches long with a tail one and a half times the body length. Keeled scales give them a spiny appearance. Coloring can be gray to brown to black, with two lengthwise rows of darker scales on the back. Males are known as “blue bellies.” Their habitat varies from to grassland sagebrush to woodland, sometimes at higher elevations. They can live in urban habitats, and like to perch on elevated structures.
Western skink – Another glossy-looking skink, this one is small, with a body only about three and a half inches and a tail twice as long. Brown with three lengthwise stripes in darker colors, the juveniles have a bright blue tail. This skink, too, is found under cover high in the Spring Mountains. It is also found in alpine meadows, grasslands, woodlands and riparian areas and extends into the Great Basin.
Western whiptail lizard – Aptly named, this is one of the fastest lizards around. Its tail is extra-long, more than twice its four-inch body length. The front half of its body appears dark, while the back half and tail are tan or golden brown. This may be the lizard you are mostly likely to see around southern Nevada, because it is extremely common. It is often seen darting under bushes.
Yellow-back spiny lizard – A fairly large lizard, about five inches with a tail as long, and a somewhat stout body, it is easy to recognize with spiny, or keeled, scales on its back. Usually light yellow or tan in color, they have a black color phase when cold. These lizards can be seen up to 5000 feet in elevation.
Zebra-tailed lizard – With a four-inch body and a tail as long, this is another of the fastest lizards in Nevada’s Mojave. It is grayish-tan, with two rows of brown blotches and a very distinctive tail with ‘zebra-like’ stripes. When pursued, it raises its tail to reveal even bolder stripes and runs on its hind legs. Find it in gravelly areas along washes and smaller drainages.
I have to give credit to Polly Conrad, reptile biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, who helped me with the information for this piece and is enthusiastic when it comes to educating the public about reptiles. Conrad authored an entry in the new reference book entitled “Lizards of the American Southwest, A Photographic Field Guide,” edited by Jones and Lovich, 2009, Rio Nuevo Publishers. This is a great source to find photographs of the lizards that I wasn’t able to include. And Polly wouldn’t let me go without telling you about proper reptile etiquette. Kids love to catch lizards, but they need to be careful so as not to make them drop their tails. They should always release them afterwards. Not only do wild lizards not make good pets, but there are laws regulating the collection of them. Lizards are terrific animals to encounter in the wild, and hopefully there will be enough of them left for future generations to enjoy.