Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dinosaurs Still Rule the Day

So we've had this yearlong project to see all of California's native mammals.  In the sidebar you can see photos of the furry friends we've bagged so far.  Out of 197, the tally stands at 31, or 15%.  Not a great showing, but the year is not over yet, by golly.

I don't know about you, but I bought that story about how dinosaurs ruled the day while mammals skulked around under cover of darkness.  But then an asteroid strike wiped out the lizard giants and (cue triumphant music) mammals were free to come out proud, into the sunshine.  Well, we have discovered that these are just about the only California mammals that you'll see out in the daytime.

 And even they like some shade.  And will scurry if scared.  Read on.

Dinosaur descendants (birds),on the other hand, and their squamate (snake & lizard) and testudinidate (turtle) relatives are abundant in the daytime.  In case you didn't get the memo, the term reptile is now obsolete.  It's polyphyletic.  And we don't engage in polyphyly around here.

We took a trip recently to Joshua Tree National Park.  Joshua Tree is as alien a place as anything you will find on any continent. Friends had seen bighorn sheep there, and so we went to see bighorn sheep.  We rose before dawn on two consecutive mornings and hiked to Barker Dam to look for sheep with big horns.  

Beautiful vistas abounded, but we saw no sheep.

There were also plenty of dinosaur relatives.

A friend stumbled on this nest with two baby birds and two eggs.
Afterwards the kids were on the lookout.  They checked nearly every cholla cactus we passed.

In all they found six nests.  All had four eggs.  Some pink, some blue.  One had babies and one had a mother who would not quit her nest.

The cholla cactus are vicious.  Some are called jumping chollas because they seem to go after you.

They are also beautiful and strange.

We saw a tour bus disgorge a load of foreign tourists at the cholla garden.  They couldn't read the signs telling you to stay on the path and beware of the sharp chollas with their barbed hooks.  Soon the place was littered with wounded.

Even one of our own, who could read the sign, fell prey.

The birds are not the only ones to use chollas to defend themselves.

The desert wood rat covers its nest in piles of cholla.  It is a nocturnal skulker, like most mammals, and we did not get to see it.
We did get to see something endangered.  Not a bighorn sheep, but this desert tortoise.

The truth is we were much more excited to see the desert tortoise than the mammal below, the antelope squirrel.  Which does come out in the day, though it scurries away into its hole pretty quick.

It was a great time to be in the desert.

And though we didn't see bighorn sheep in their native habitat, we did get to see one mammal we really wanted to see.

On the last day, I walked into the bathroom at our campsite and found this:

A kangaroo rat!  We are counting this fellow as being in his native habitat because when we tried to free him from the women's bathroom he ran along the building and squeezed under the door into the men's bathroom.

Our reptile and bird count far outstripped our mammal count, though.  I now understand why birdwatching is popular and mammalwatching, not so much.  We even saw frogs in the desert.

And we were very grateful to have heard one reptile, er squamate.  Yes, we were grateful, when hiking in a rocky canyon, that the rattlesnake gave us plenty of warning.   Judging by the way we scurried, dinosaur relatives still rule the day.


AM said...

I like how your three mammals have matching headgear.

J.G. Wilder said...

Holy cow! It's all beautiful. Thanks for not sticking around to get a shot of the rattlesnake.

Kristin said...

Your so lucky to have seen that tortoise. When last there, I was told that the ravens are eating all the young ones (up to 5 years old) because their shell is soft.

I'm not so sure why you've selected mammals as your focus when all the others creatures and plants seem to inspire you all. How about those nests? Very cool to spot all of those.

-And your kids, once they've learned how to walk in the desert and avoid all the cactus on their way will move easily anywhere in the world. Sometimes it takes getting stuck by a cholla to learn though...Ouch that hurts.

Karen said...

We've been watching lots of Nat'l Geographic and Discovery Channel shows about the Age of Dinosaurs, and the Age Before the Dinosaurs, and the Age Right After the Dinosaurs... both my boys want to be paleontologists when they grow up, I guess that explains the choice of shows. Dinos certainly rule the day around here!
I am wondering, have you been keeping a record of plants you've come across as you spend your year seeking out native mammals? You post such lovely pics, and I love your level of detail about not just the animals but their habitats. Thanks for sharing!

Susan said...

AM--hey, there was agonizing over each one of those hats--I can't believe you think they all look the same!

Jennifer, well, you see, my camera battery had died. Mike got some pics with his phone, but they were very poor quality since it was in the shade and the sun was glaring all around.

Kristin, I guess the mammal hunt was a way to balance our naturally reptilian instincts. :)

Karen, no plant list! California is home to nearly 6000 native plant species. The kids do know a lot of plants, though. Sometimes, when bored in the car, they try to name every plant as we pass it. Eucalyptus, eucalyptus, coyote brush, oak, bay, coyote brush, redwood, redwood sorrel. My kids are particularly into identifying anything edible. It is amazing how textured (and tasty!) the landscape is when you know the names of what is around you. In a way our list is synonymous with the number of plants we can name.