Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mojave National Preserve Part 1: The Pilgrimage, The Relifer, The Desert Blooms

For those of you without kids, yes, having a baby is as hard as you think it is. However, there are upsides. One of the big perks earlier this year was taking a long leave from work when Annabelle was born, much of it paid. Billy and I debated about whether we should take some kind of trip or not while we were both on leave, but we were both really tired with frayed nerves...at that time, any kind of overnight trip seemed like a daunting, serious undertaking.

Which turned out to be meaningless in the end, because we decided it would be best to drive all the way out to the Mojave National Preserve. Neither of us had been there before, it had birds and wildflowers, and seeing thousands of "superbloom" posts on social media for the previous month had only fueled our desire to return to the desert. Billy booked us a room at a casino's hotel in Primm, and we were off.

The Mojave National Preserve is a massive parcel of land on the California-Nevada border. Anyone driving between Las Vegas and southern California goes right by the northern edge of the preserve. It is decidedly less crowded than Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego, the two most popular desert destinations in California for birders and nonbirders alike. Although the preserve lacks particularly good migrant traps (with the notable exception of Zzyzx on the west side), it does feature some birds that are very local in California: Gilded Flicker, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse and Bendire's Thrasher. This is the only reliable place for the flicker in the entire state, so California birders who relish their state lists are destined to make the pilgrimage here if they are around long enough. The time had come for yours truly...I donned the ceremonial flicker pilgrimage garb, said some ceremonial words ("An unturned stone, an undiscovered door leading to the gift of hope renewed, eternity for you, the masses of humanity will always have to suffer..."), and drank ceremonial goat blood straight from the jugular of a living goat, which was painted to look like a Gilded Flicker. Yes, birders have a rich history of birding the preserve, and our ways are steeped in tradition. Demonic, heartless tradition, but tradition nonetheless...call me old-fashioned.

Goat blood downed with relish, we were off to the desert!

Wildflowers were good but not superbloom status, but they were more than enough to keep me entertained and we found some really good patches here and there throughout the weekend. This was the first time I'd ever spent springtime in the desert with someone who knew their plants (that would be Billy), so it was nice to know what I was looking at for a change. This is Fremont's phacelia.

Desert dandelion was by far the most abundant wildflower of the trip.

Do you know what is even harder to experience than lifering? Relifering. I had seen one Bendire's Thrasher, over 20 years ago, at Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County. It was a high quality Vague Runt that was quite confiding and stuck around for a while. I had never managed to see another anywhere else, but on our first morning in the preserve I found a couple pretty easily from the roadside. I didn't expect this kind of luck with such a major target bird...relifering ain't easy. No crushes, but good scope views. Can't complain!

Side-blotched lizards are one of the most common reptiles in California, but the blue-backed individuals like still grab my attention.

A panoramic view from the Teutonia Peak Trail, which is on the north side of the bizarre and fascinating Cima Dome. Few geographic features so large are so...subtle. I actually didn't shrink this image, feel free to double click to see a larger version.

Mojave mound cactus was one of the best plants of the trip. We found a few thriving clumps in bloom here and there.

Luckily, Black-throated Sparrow was one of the most abundant birds in the preserve. This is not unexpected, but it was a good bird to reconnect with.

Another avian highlight of the trip was finding a pair of Crissal Thrashers on the Teutonia Peak Trail. This wasn't even a bird I was looking for, as they are uncommon in the area, with no highly reliable spot to find them (at least, not from what I could see in eBird). This was no relifer, but I hadn't seen one in seven years, back when I was point counting in southeast Arizona. Crissal and Bendire's Thrasher in one morning...that's a pretty great combo, at least in California.

I love me a good bird combo, but I can also appreciate this flower that I can't identify, and this similarly mysterious butterfly. I would rather see combos of rare and uncommon birds though.

I followed this large, humorously shaped bug for a while as it scurried around with surprising speed at Kelso Depot. Nerds, if you know what this is, clue me in.

Desert lily! This was my favorite plant of the trip.

This patch of hundreds of blooming plants was growing roadside just south of Kelso Depot. I was impressed.

The Kelso Dunes...scenic from a distance, not so much going on up close. They may have been raging with wildflowers earlier in the spring, but not while we were there. But more importantly, I found a LeConte's Thrasher on the way back to the car...holy shit! LeConte's, Crissal, and Bendire's all in the same day? In California? What are the chances??? This combo will be remembered for years to come. The desert never ceases to surprise and amaze.

We saw at least a couple of different primrose species, but not many of this big-blossomed thing.

Bladderpod! Few shrubs are as entertaining as the bladderpod. So many bells and whistles.

Purple mat, mmmmmmmmm.

Why not stick with the pink theme? Pretty sure this crippling bloom is sprouting from a hedgehog cactus.

Beavertail cactus has a similar facemelting blossom, but looks much less threatening when you look at the rest of the plant.

It's not difficult to spot a blooming beavertail from a great distance away in this bleak landscape.

Life in a beavertail blossom.

My bastards. More Mojave coverage coming soon!


  1. We are becoming regulars 👱‍♀️👶🏻🌼....I believe it's Arabis sp.---rockcress

  2. The bug looks like Cysteodemus armatus, a Desert Spider Beetle

  3. The purple mystery flower is indeed an Arabis sp., and the butterfly attending it is most likely the desert orange-tip (Anthocharis cethura)

  4. I am 2000 late on this. Thrasher diversity plus suffer quotes plus awesome wildflowers plus that freakin bug. Yes. Your last line promises more and I demand it.

    1. My supply of desert should measure up to your demand of desert.

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