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Spring 2012: Animals

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: 2012 Trips, Animals, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips.

Spring is a great time to see desert wildlife, and we were blessed not only with abundant sightings, but with photos of animals that visited the spring on our land over the winter, since one of the biologists had placed a motion-sensor camera there last November.

Mountain sheep expert John Wehausen spotted a group of rams at the head of the gulch, and the other biologists encountered numerous rattlesnakes on their hikes.

I was lucky to run across a couple of rattlers, a gopher snake and two variable ground snakes. Plus, I saw several western tanagers on migration, a flock of Gambel’s quail, and lots of jackrabbits. Redtail hawks were out in force, and from camp we saw one chasing a raven across the inner basin.

During my later hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area, I ran into lots more snakes, lizards, birds and insects – plus a group of sea lions basking on offshore rocks.

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Insects of the Southwest

Sunday, August 18th, 2013: Animals, Nature.

Mantis on bear poop, Eighty Mountain, October 2011

When I was a little kid, I used to lie on the ground behind our house, watching ants and trying to figure out their business. I captured other insects and fed them to the black-and-yellow garden spider who had strung her huge web along the side of our house. The neighbor kid got an extravagant model rocket for his birthday, and we caught crickets for astronauts, launching them into the sky over the creek. And one night after I went to bed, a big, beautiful luna moth flew in my window on a moonbeam (see Windows).

I was intimate with insects throughout childhood. Lightning bugs added magic to summer evenings; woolly worms were plush and comical. Under every rock were sinuous centipedes and pillbugs that curled up into tiny balls when disturbed. Fat bumblebees sailed drunkenly through flower gardens. I was stung by wasps and bees, but I still found them captivating, and it bothers me that, considering all the pollinator photos I’ve included below, not a single one shows a bee.

We used crickets and grasshoppers as fishing bait, and in summer the neighborhood boys all had their prize fighting pinching bugs. My pets included tropical fish, frogs and salamanders, snapping turtles, lizards and snakes, and birds and bats with broken wings, and they all enjoyed various kinds of insect food. A man in the neighborhood raised bait in his oversize garage, under grow lights. I bought mealworms (beetle larvae) from him in wire-handled takeout boxes and stored them in the fridge at home.

My home in New Mexico is an insect crossroads. I run across lots of magical creatures on my hikes in the surrounding mountains, but some of the most astounding have shown up right in my yard – like the fantastic Automeris cecrops caterpillar shown below, which became the talk of my neighborhood as it spent several weeks browsing my front hedge.

Growing up in the rural midwest, I took lacewings for granted – they were among the bugs that gathered around lamps in the evening. A couple days ago, I glanced out a window and saw some tiny things hanging from a leaf and wondered what they were. Later, putting together this gallery, I found my photo of a lacewing and googled it. Lo and behold, those things I had seen hanging from the leaf were lacewing eggs!

In the gallery, you’ll find several pictures of my long-time favorite moth, the sphinx moth. I fell in love with them on my land in the Mojave desert, where they sometimes swarm in the desert willow trees in May, so much like hummingbirds, gorging on nectar.

Don’t be misled by my title; centipedes and tarantulas are not insects. And I haven’t tried to identify everything; please let me know if you recognize any of these or notice any errors!




























Mystery Insects







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Desert Cams

Thursday, December 5th, 2013: Animals, Nature.

Bighorn ewe at dawn, July 2014

I have to preface these galleries with my own ambivalence. I’m not crazy about adding technology to this wild place; I’m not crazy about remote sensing in general. I think the photos are cool, and I respect my biologist friends who maintain the cameras, but I treasure my own direct observations and the stories of friends who’ve seen these animals personally, far more than these robotic photos. Increasingly, science is technology-happy, prizing instrumental data over personal observation. Gone are the days of natural history, when people who loved nature patiently immersed themselves in habitats long enough to observe the life cycles of animals and plants, recording their observations with universal, primitive, and sustainable technologies: drawing and writing.

These galleries represent my own selection of “greatest hits” from each cam, and I expect to update them. The complete chronological sets of cam photos contain a lot of useful data and will presumably be available to legitimate researchers upon request.

The Seep







Ringtail Cat


The Spring



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Vision Quest 2016: Science in the Storm

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Animals, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips.

The Amargosa toad

The suburban sprawl of Las Vegas became less finished, less dense and more expansive, and more under construction, as we drove north in a tunnel of freeway, surrounded by noise-barrier walls, with the newly snow-covered peaks of the Spring Mountains and Sheep Range closing in at west and east. The Paiute reservation went by in a flash, then the military and prison complexes began, first the artillery and bombing range with its mock Mideastern villages, then the drone base and the prisons for women and juveniles.

After the long drive to Beatty, we checked into our motel and stopped for an early dinner of Mexican food at an outdoor table by the highway, next to a group of retiree Harley hogsters and their wives. In the dusk, Jef drove us up the road to the Spicer Ranch, which the current patriarch is developing into a private mountain bike resort. Wonderful news for me, because I’d love to see these adrenaline-fueled machines outlawed from public lands.

Jef had raved about this new-age rancher who rode bikes everywhere, but Dave Spicer turned out to be a mellow, friendly guy. His ranch compound stretched all around, consisting of the usual meandering dirt roads, abandoned equipment, vacant houses and ruined sheds, and half-finished dams, ponds, and corrals. The ranch was sited here by his ancestors because massive springs drain from the slopes back of the compound, out of an area of colorful badlands, to vivid reedy marshes along the highway. As darkness fell, we tried to follow his directions to where we might find endangered Amargosa toads around irrigated meadows and ponds.

Jef parked in a grove of trees and we fanned out, quickly spotting toads. I helped gather them, and we added each to a ziploc bag which was marked, either “out of water” or with the temperature of the water where it was found, taken on the spot with a digital probe. We each accumulated toad-filled bags in our left hands, until we had a dozen or so. When Jef occasionally encountered a big invasive bullfrog, he’d grab it and sling it hard against a rock; bullfrogs prey on smaller native frogs and toads. Wind was blowing hard when we started, with lightning and thunder over the mountains, and the low, heavy clouds began to spit rain.

When we returned to the vehicle, wind and rain were lashing the little SUV, which Jef and Anthony began efficiently turning into a field lab. I sat in the back holding the metal clipboard of data sheets. As Jef and Anthony sterilized a forceps and scissors and Anthony prepared the individual glass culture plates, Jef handed me paper packs of wooden-stemmed sterile cotton swabs, numbering the plastic caps of glass sample vials and returning them to their rack which he likewise passed back to me. Then they both sterilized their hands and put on sterile rubber gloves.

For each bagged toad, Jef would remove it from its bag, announce its number, measure its length in millimeters, determine the sex and read off the bag data, all of which I would quickly note on the data form. Then I would rush to tear open the end of a swab package, handing it to Jef tip forward, and he would begin to swab the toad. Meanwhile I’d pull a vial out of the rack and struggle to twist the cap open, holding it up for Jef to insert the swab, then carefully return it to the rack. Then Jef would hold the toad legs-first toward Anthony, who would clip off a tiny bit of webbing between the toes as a DNA sample, dropping it onto a culture plate. In the process, Anthony would sometimes recognize toads he’d caught before, on previous trips.

Back in the lab on campus, Anthony would test all the samples for the spreading chytrid fungus, which is considered “the most significant threat to the world’s montane amphibian populations”, allegedly contributing to mass extinction. But field research generally raises more questions than it answers. Jef, Anthony, and other scientists haven’t even been able to figure out the mortality rate – how many animals infected by the fungus actually die.

After Jef restored the specimen to its bag and set the bag outside the vehicle, he and Anthony would remove their gloves, sterilize their hands and equipment, put on fresh gloves, and start with the next bagged toad, all in the confined space of the front seat, with everything they needed stashed precariously on the sloping dashboard or between their feet on the floor, the doors propped open for extra maneuverability, and weather gusting in from outside.

When all the toads were sampled and all the data were entered, Jef and Anthony would clean up and pack up, while in the back seat, I donned sterile gloves and lifted each vial out of its rack, snapping the wooden swab off so its tip remained inside and screwing the caps back on, changing gloves after each vial. Then we moved to a different location, collected more toads, and resumed the lab work, with the wind and rain hitting harder each time, and the night falling colder.

At our final location, along the Amargosa River south of Beatty, I caught a chill in my legs – I hadn’t dressed for the wind – and my body temperature dropped so I had to quit and return to the vehicle, where I sat hunched and shivering for about an hour, feeling sick, as they finished processing the last sample set with the doors cracked open and the rain and wind intruding. It was 1:30 am when we got back to the motel, and I fell asleep instantly.

We returned in the morning, and Jef pointed out that the entire riparian area had been bulldozed free of invasive tamarisk. There was no tamarisk to be seen anywhere now in this sea of green at the base of multi-colored badlands. The tiny river flowed clear through a wetland of cattail, riparian grasses and coyote willows, shaded by young cottonwoods. I wondered why the ubiquitous seed stock of tamarisk hadn’t regenerated. Maybe they’d poisoned it chemically and replanted native vegetation. Quite an expensive, energy- and labor-intensive project, like all conservation, only possible in an affluent society.

After our rough night, we spread out in a leisurely, meandering search for chorus frogs, which Anthony would take back as samples for his broader study of the fungal infection. I was lucky to find the first specimen, a pretty green one. Admiring it through the ziploc bag, I wondered what its fate would be as a pawn of science, but my mind was too exhausted to dwell on it.

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Year of the Butterflies

Monday, June 29th, 2020: Animals, Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico.

It’s been going on since early springtime, and I can’t keep quiet about it anymore.

There are more butterflies this year than ever before! I have no idea why. Are their predators in trouble? I don’t even know who their predators are.

First the small ones, yellow and white, along the wilderness trails. Then the bigger ones, in my yard at home. By now they’re darting and sailing back and forth all the time – I often mistake them for birds.


I returned to my favorite local trail, the one with over 4,000′ of elevation gain that takes me to a peak with a view of the interior of the mountains. It’s more of a struggle each time, because more trees have fallen or been blown down across the trail.


Hectic time of year for birds, too! Turkey vultures and hawks circle overhead as mother quail shepherd their tiny young across the road. As I traverse stark burned slopes on the peak, the boomerang shapes of white-throated swifts rocket past my shoulder. And in the forest from canyon bottom to ridgetop, constant calls and song from a diverse community. Birds are less timid, often allowing me to walk right past them.


In the lead-up to our monsoon, as the heat rises, the air dries out, and the creek dwindles, the first wave of flowers reaches its peak.


On the way up the mountain, I just enjoyed the butterflies. But on the way back, in the canyon bottom, I suddenly reached a large clump of Monarda where butterflies were converging from all directions, and I stopped in their midst to photograph them as they ignored me and went about their business.

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