Monday, December 20, 2010

Hayfield Road/Southeastern Joshua Tree National Park

In March of this year, Judy and I went to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to see the spring wild flowers. It was an extraordinary year for Mexican gold poppies. As I talked to a ranger about the best places to go to see them, she said that every day the landscape changed. Some blooms died out and others, in different places, took their place. I thought about this comment and decided that it would be fun to pick a desert landscape near my home to check at regular intervals and see how it varied over a season.

April 3, 2010:

On April 3, 2010, I took Andrew and Lauren on a trip out to see Carey’s Castle. Cary's Castle is the home of a miner from the 1930s built underneath a large boulder, with side walls of rock, a door and  windows. Inside are shelves and a bed frame. I’d been there the year before and appreciated its solitude, its variety of desert flowers,
and the varied terrain encountered on the four mile hike in to the Castle.
What’s more, I could drive to the area in about 1 ½ hours - from Redlands it is a straight drive east out the I-10 freeway, taking the Hayfield Road exit just past Chiriaco Summit. Every two weeks, for the next ten weeks, I visited the Hayfield Road area of the Eagle Mountains. Several times I hiked all the way to Carey’s Castle and other times I just walked around on the bajada.
I made one final visit, with a month gap, in mid-July, making seven trips overall to that area in 2010. The area did change each time I went, sometimes dramatically. I ended up doing quite a few posts on cactus, flowers and desert wildlife and I learned a lot more about desert plant life, in particular, in the process.

On the April 3rd visit with Andrew and Lauren, we hiked all the way to Carey’s Castle and saw an amazing variety of plant and wildlife. The most exciting find of that trip, and perhaps of the entire seven visits, was a large-spotted leopard lizard, less than 50 yards from our car. It was the first one I'd ever seen. I saw two more on my fourth visit. On the way back from Carey's Castle, we saw a small chuckwalla, a lizard I'd only seen a few times before. This one looked quite a bit different than the others I'd seen. I also saw a beautiful yellow-backed spiny lizard with orange diagonal stripes on its sides. We also saw some Great Basin whiptails. They are generally very difficult to get close to.

From where we parked, we followed the bajada gently uphill, to the northwest.
After three quarters of a half mile or so, we started to veer north, following the contour of the mountains to our right.
Then the ground got more sandy as we entered the mouth of a wash
and eventually veered east into the Eagle Mountains through the wash. On later trips, when I did not go all the way to Carey's Castle, I would veer west at this point and follow the bajada around the base of the Eagle Mountains 
 and then do sort of a circle, going south, then southeast, near the base of a small, solitary mountain,
then back to the car. When going all the way to the castle, we followed the winding wash,
having to take several junctions within the wash. At points the mountain sides are quite steep,
but eventually the terrain evens out
and you take a side trail up through another small wash until ultimately arriving at the Castle, about four miles from the car.

On this particular trip, in the wash on the way up to the Castle, I encountered a long-stemmed flower with a round, red head on it that I had a very difficult time identifying. After weeks of looking, and subsequent trips back, I figured out that it was California buckwheat in its bud stage. The red buds later turn into many, many small white flowers - a plant I have seen many times near our home. It later dries out and gets quite ugly, but I discovered that in its white stage, the small white flowers are gorgeous. I discovered this applied to many other desert plants. The flowers are generally very small, but if you get a close-up view, they are spectacular. Another plant that reminded me of the California buckwheat in some respects, was the chia. I was familiar with it in its dried out state, and got some pictures of it with its purple spikey-looking head with little blue spots on it. I didn't really think too much about what the blue spots were. When I got home and identified them, I was shocked to see pictures on-line of chia with beautiful tiny blue flowers. I enlarged my pictures of chia, and sure enough, I could see the blue flowers. However, it took a later visit and focusing on the chia flowers before I could get a reasonably good picture of them.

One of the unusual plants I found, that I recognized from my trip to Organ Pipe, was the shrubby deervetch. A quick glance portrays nothing unusual, but if you get real close, better yet, an enlarged camera view, the yellow and red flowers look like a large voluptuous, cartoonish, mouth. Then I learned that quite a few desert plants have similar types of flowers that look like open mouths. Another fun plant was the bladderpod spiderflower, very showy with bright yellow bunched flowers, with long tendrils stretching out the front of them, almost like baby birds with their mouths open and tongues sticking out, begging for food. Even more interesting was the pod that looks like a bladder, with seeds inside much like peas. I saw the first one when Andrew had a pod open and was devouring the seeds. Fortunately, they are not poisonous, because many of the desert plants are. The desert trumpet was used by Native Americans as a pipe. Its bulbous and unusually jointed stems were a relatively common sight.

One of my favorite flowers, Bigelow's monkeyflower, was discovered on this first trip and it persisted, in small quantities, longer than most other flowers. It is small, with pink petals and yellow splotches in the middle or throat. Despite being small and delicate looking, it must be quite hardy. The Mojave Aster was in bunches and its whitish to violet flowers stood out from quite a distance. The blue desert Canterbury bells also stood out at a distance as did the yellow cup primrose. The white-stemmed blazingstar looked similar to the yellow cup primrose, with a yellow flower, including some with orange at the base of the petals, but they were attached to a stem more like a vine.

Other flowers, like the yellowdome, were so small that I would not have noticed them if I had not been scanning the ground carefully. When I saw them, I had to get down on the ground and put my face up to them to get a decent look. In the same category was the yellow woolly daisy, absolutely beautiful when I put my nose right up to them. The Mojave desertstar, found near the yellowdome and woolly daisy, only gets two inches tall with a flower head 3/4 inch across with long white petals and a yellow disk. The white pincusion looks much like the yellowdome, but with a white flower. 

Some flowers were parts of bushes. The desert alyssum had tiny white flowers clumped tightly together in bunches. Cryptantha is a genus of green plants with white bristles that scream "desert" in almost the same way that the cactus, gila monster and scorpian do. Desert plants and animals generally have some sort of protective mechanism. The bearded cryptantha, or bearded forget-me-not, is the cryptantha of cryptanthas. Its bristling is so dense that it almost appears to have bristles like a bottle brush, so dense that the bristling looks like a beard. It has tiny white five-lobed flowers that are difficult to see without magnification.

I discovered what an ironwood tree looks like and this is one of the few areas in Joshua Tree National Park where they grow. At that, there is only a very small area of the large area I covered on my hikes where they are found, and that is on the bajada not too far beyond where we park, perhaps an eighth or quarter mile.

We saw a very large blacktail jackrabbit, one of many I would see on most, if not every visit.

And of course, we saw cacti, lots of them. On this first visit, the barrel cacti were in bloom, their yellow flowers on top looking like the nose of a mole.
There were areas with quite a few branched pencil cholla, but I never did see them in bloom, despite the fact I specifically looked for that each time I visited.
Another cactus I tried to find in bloom each time I visited, was the fishhook cactus. I would only see a few on each visit, they are not plentiful and they are spread out. I did see some in bloom on one of my visits, but it was early in the morning and the flowers were not open fully yet.
I determined to come back later in the day and photograph it. When I came back later, despite scouring the area thoroughly, I couldn't find them. I was very disappointed. The hedgehog cacti were in full bloom
and on my fifth visit I found them with fruit and enjoyed the experience of eating the fruit. Silver cholla were present, but not plentiful and I did later find some in bloom. One of the most distinguishing features of the area is a forest of teddy bear cholla.
There are sections where they are so prevalent that they virtually exclude almost all other vegetation and make it necessary, while walking through those areas, to pay careful attention to avoid stepping on their stems which have fallen on the ground.
The Mojave yucca were evident on the hills above the wash in some places.
The ocotillo were also in bloom.
Not only were their red stem-ends full of life, but their regular green stem-leaves were fresh and beautiful.

April 17, 2010:

On April 17, my second trip to the area, I found another example of a boring looking plant from a distance which was fascinating close-up. The  fringed twinevine has clusters of flowers that grow in roundish heads, and the individual flowers look kind of like gumby flowers. Each has five colorful yellowish or pinkish petals, a circle around the center and inside the circle, five white eggish-looking sepals and a yellowish center.  The green vine contrasts beautifully and it twists and winds around itself like electrician wiring. Another fun find was the ghost flower, with off-white colored petals in the shape of a jagged rimmed goblet with a red spot like a cherry in the bottom. Other tiny red spots cover a portion of the inside petals.

An exciting find was the browneye or brown-eyed primrose. It has a flower with four white petals, a brown base which gives it its name, and long protruding pistils. I'd seen a yellow version of this flower, known as Peirson's brown-eyed primrose, near Puerto Penasco, Mexico earlier in the year. I determined that the reason I may not have seen it on the first trip is it is a night-blooming flower and I was at the area by 6:00 a.m., significantly earlier than on my first trip. The narrowleaf suncup, also called the narrow leaved primrose, is another species of evening primrose which blooms at night. They have red or green stems and white flowers with four petals.

Parish's poppy is similar to the California poppy or Mexican gold poppy, except that they were pretty solitary. I did not find them grouped together in large groups like I've seen the other poppies. The globemallow, found near the edge of the wash, were in full bloom,
and in contrast with the brittlebush, provided a backdrop worthy of a Hollywood set.
 Desert dandelion were blooming along the freeway on the drive out, but I only found a few strays in the areas where I walked.

I encountered several new bushes. One with white petals emanating from the end of an elongated green flower is desert tobacco. Another, with small yellow five-lobed flowers and squid-like tendrils is the yellow nightshade groundcherry. It develops a bulbous structure which hangs below the flowers that develop a berry, which gives it its name. Later in the year I found some with ripe berries. Yellow whispering bells have bell-shaped pale yellow flowers with five rounded lobes. When they dry, the wind causes the flowers to make a whispering sound which gives them their name. The checker fiddleneck also has tubular flowers with five lobes that are yellow to orange, but they are attached to a green, fuzzy inflorescence that looks like a fiddle, or perhaps the tail of a scorpian. The desert starvine can be found enveloping a cactus or some other plant. It has elongated green leaves, corkscrew twisting tendrils and very small five-pointed white flowers. The button brittlebush is also known as the rayless encelia. It might be better called the rayless brittlebush as it looks like a brittlebush without the yellow ray flowers emanating from it. A related plant, the Virgin River brittlebush, has a flower halfway between the brittlebush and button brittlebush. Like its relatives, it has a fuzzy yellow disk, but the rays, or flowers, are substantially smaller than the brittlebush. The pygmy cedar, or desert fir, has a flower similar to the button brittlebush, but looks like a cedar tree. However, it is neither, it is a shrub and a member of the sunflower family. The desert wishbone bush has distinctive stems that form green wishbones, and white, funnel-shaped, flowers with yellow knobbed stamens. The white petals have many lobes and look similar to a many-legged starfish. I saw one paperbug bush and later had a hard time trying to identify it as I was focused on the white bags which I thought were the flowers. When I went to the same area on May 15th, my fourth visit, I noticed them everywhere. The bags go away and are replaced by an unusual flower with a white to light violet upper lip and a three-lobed lower lip that is dark violet.

May 1, 2010:

On my third visit I found a new bush, the spiny senna, which absolutely jumped out at me. It had fluorescent yellow flowers that glowed in the early morning light at a great distance. I was able to recall that I'd seen what I thought might be the same bush two weeks earlier, with long, green stems and a few yellow flowers. But where I recalled seeing one, maybe two bushes, now I was seeing lots of them. Nothing like color to make a plant or bush stand out. I found that over and over again. Plants I'd not noticed before, once in bloom, stood out like a Christmas tree with lights on and I started seeing them everywhere. Then, once the blooms were gone, I couldn't see them anymore.

In a small ravine coming off the slope of a hill, among granite rocks, I found the only Emorys rock daisy I saw during my seven trips. It looks much like the common daisy in a garden, but much smaller. It has white rays or petals coming out from a yellow disk and is attached to a leafy green plant. Another beautiful small flower I found was the parachute plant or gravel ghost. It sits atop a long, leafless stem, and has white, layered, rectangular petals or rays, toothed at the ends, with pink tinges and a pink center. I also found a small, invasive, plant known as the redstem filaree, with a pinkish flower with five petals and a red stem.

The burrobrush or cheesebush is more of an ugly green bush with chewed up looking bunches of white to off-white flowers. The crushed leaves smell like cheese giving it one of its names. The California fagonia forms a ground cover, kind of similar to the desert starvine, but has a Laker's colored flower with five purple, spreadout, petals and a center with gold stamens. Wire lettuce is a distinctive bush with a profusion of gray-green stems. I was now noticing it for the first time because it was just starting to bloom, with pinkish lavender flowers with five to six notched petals. On later visits, the number of blooms on each plant were dramatically greater. I found another new bush, known as Pima rhatany, or purple heather, on a rocky slope. The bush looked similar to low-lying sagebrush, with gray leaves, but it had distinctive flowers with magenta sepals and petals. I saw desert lavender on my second visit, but made a conscientous effort to photograph their tiny blue flowers on the third trip. These are the best-smelling desert plants of all. I loved being in their vicinity.

May 15, 2010:

My fourth trip to the area was with my brother Chris, visiting from Las Vegas. We hiked in to Carey's Castle and had a great reptile day. We saw two large-spotted leopard lizards, although we were not able to get too close to them; we saw a beautiful desert spiny lizard with an orange head that I caught and examined;
and most fun of all, we found a beautiful Sonoran gopher snake right outside the Castle. It had primarily brown blotches down its back.

Our plant find for the day was the blooming desert willow. They were located low in the sandy wash that leads to the Castle. Their flowers are some of the most beautiful desert flowers. They are large and tubular, up to 1 1/2 inches wide, with two upper lobes and three lower lobes. They came in two colors, light pink and lavender, with yellow and magenta streaks inside. A tree had only one color of flower, but trees with different colored flowers were right next to each other. The palo verde trees nearby were also in bloom.
Another fun flower-find, although not as dramatic as the desert willow, was the sand blazing star. It has cream-yellow petals, lobed, but with pointed ends, and orange to pinkish veins inside. Many stamens also contain the orangish to pinkish color. Parish's larkspur is another flower that has amazing complexity and oddity when you take a close look. It has a purple, rear-projecting spur, a white and three sky blue petals and five sky blue sepals with a light green spot toward the tip. They are difficult to sort out even when looking at a magnified photograph.

May 29, 2010:

On my fifth trip I really noticed that things had dried out. There was very little color. I walked up into the mouth of the wash that leads to the Castle, then west, out of the wash, over around the base of the Eagle Mountains to the west, then back around by the small free-standing mountain, down the arroyo next to it. One of my most fun discoveries was red fruit growing on the cucumber-like hedgehog cacti. I found one that had been opened and could see that it was white inside, with black, sesame-type seeds, and it looked just like the flesh of dragon fruit. So I took one and carefully cut off the outside layer, removing the nasty spines, and had a wonderful sweet treat. The fruit of the hedgehog cactus tastes much like dragon fruit and provided a cool, refreshing treat. I ended up eating quite a few.

Another of my favorite finds during my seven trips was the paleface or rock hibiscus. I was feeling a little depressed on this visit. Most of the beautiful flowers I'd seen on previous visits were gone. I found the paleface on the side of a hill, one solitary flower among many flower-less stems on a bush, and it was simply beautiful. It has five pale white petals, each with purple at the base, and a stamen with fuzzy orange around it. I could envision it stuck in the hair of a dark-skinned polynesian beauty on a Hawaiian beach. Finding it was worth the trip out.

I noticed that the honey mesquite were in bloom. As had happened with so many other plants, the blooms highlighted mesquite trees I had not noticed before, some of them very large. There were a lot more of them than I thought. Perhaps blooms are God's way of making sure each plant gets noticed at some point in time. Or perhaps, more practically, making sure that the bees will notice them so that pollenization can occur. They were surrounded by many bees.

I found several Bigelow monkeyflowers, some California fagonia and the desert willows still in bloom. But that was about it. I saw two blacktail jackrabbits and a white-tailed antelope squirrel. I never got close enough to a white-tailed antelope squirrel to get a picture.

June 12, 2010:

My sixth visit was the shortest. I arrived a little after 5:00 a.m. and was out by 7:00 a.m. I was very tired. There were just a few blooms on some of the desert willows. I noticed several spiny senna bushes without flowers. All of the hedgehog cactus fruit was gone. There were some wire lettuce bushes with a few flowers, but they were looking more dried out. I found one Bigelow monkeyflower still in bloom. It is the only flower I saw blooming on my first visit that was still blooming. Most of the palo verde trees had quit blooming. I opened up a pod on a barrel cactus with a knife and found many small black seeds, like tiny bbs.
There was no moisture in the pod at all and it was very stiff. I noticed a few dried-up flowers on teddy bear cholla cactus and knocked them off. It leaves the little nub with the hole in the top that are so prevalent on teddy bear cholla. I cut one in half and it was moist inside. I didn’t try eating any. I looked for the rock hibiscus and couldn’t find it. This visit was a little depressing, even more so than last time. I really realized that it is the flowers and color that makes various plants stand out. Without the color I am not noticing anywhere near the variety of plants as in my early visits, even though I have been there many times. It raised the question in my mind of whether that is because the plants dry up and go away, or whether they are just less noticeable. As to some of the flowers, I know they have dried up and gone away. As to the bushes, I'm less sure, but believe many of them have also shriveled up.

July 10, 2010:

My seventh and final visit for the year was July 10th. I started hiking at 5:30 a.m. when it was 88 degrees. When I finished around 11:00 a.m. it was 106 degrees. I felt pretty good despite the heat. It was quite cloudy early which helped.
When the clouds lifted and I got pure sun, the hiking got harder. It appeared that there had been some flash flooding as some of the sand in the wash was altered. I hiked all the way to Carey’s Castle. I had plenty of water and I sweat a lot in the heat. I saw several black-tailed jackrabbits, including one that almost ran into my car while I was driving down the dirt road on the way out.

My biggest surprise was seeing indigo bush in bloom.
They had been blooming awhile because many blue petals were on the ground around them. But as I stated previously about the spiny senna, it was just like seeing a lighted Christmas tree.
The blooming indigo bushes were swarming with bees. In a strange way, it really put some joy into my heart.
My sixth visit had been so depressing, everything had dried up. It didn’t seem possible that anything new could be in bloom for the seventh visit. It was worth this trip just to see the indigo bush which is normally terribly ugly.

I saw some cherry nightshade and opened the sacks and found little cherries inside.
One was quite sticky. I even saw one semi-shriveled yellow flower. The creosote bushes were in bloom, or at least had a white fuzz.
I saw quite a few white-tailed antelope squirrels, but still was not able to get a picture of one. I saw a wood rat near Carey’s Castle building a nest inside one of the metal drums near it. I saw a large speckled rattlesnake among some rocks I was hiking up through. It was big, fat and rattling like a banshee. By the time I got my camera out, my photo just captured the tail disappearing into a hole.
It was still rattling away inside the hole. I saw two more chuckwallas. They are very curious. I discovered that if I moved slowly I could get close to them. I got very, very close to the second chuckwalla.
It kept moving, then turned around to look at me. The area was covered with dung, including some quite yellow and I wondered whether it was sick. I saw two spiny lizards, neither of which were real large or real colorful.
I also saw lots of side-blotched lizards, and one whiptail.

There were remnants (flowers and bags) on a number of paperbag bushes and the desert willows still had a few blooms, but were mostly drying out. Some palo verde trees had a few yellow flowers, while in Redlands they are just chock-full of them. I saw only one zebra-tailed lizard and that was early. I was surprised because they seem to tolerate full sun so well.

Carey’s Castle was quite cool inside. Carey knew what he was doing.

The visits to Hayfield Road and Carey's Castle were an amazing learning experience. I've come away with much more knowledge of the desert and a greater appreciation and love for it. I can recommend a similar experience to anyone with the time and willingness to do it.

May 5, 2012:

I did not visit in 2011, but was feeling a need to return in 2012. I have grown to love this place. What is fun is that no matter how many times I visit, I often see something new and different. I started to hike about 6:20 a.m. and the wind was pretty strong. I saw my first turkey vulture in the area, about ten minutes later, sitting in the top of a tree.
As I approached and it flew, it became obvious it was not flying because the winds were making it difficult to fly. It quickly went down again, I didn't see where. It took me about two hours to hike into Carey's Castle. I got a brief view of what I think was a leopard lizard and I saw several large jack rabbits. About 40 yards from the Castle I found a small southern desert horned lizard
I've wondered many times why I'd not seen any because the area seems so perfect for them. Finally, on the way out, I saw a desert iquana, a small zebra-tailed lizard and one more jack rabbit. 

May 12, 2012:

I had so much fun last week that I decided to go again, and I'm glad I did. I slept in my car at the trailhead and started out at 5:30 a.m. There was no wind and it was warmer than last week. When I got to Carey's Castle I decided to go to the east further than I have before. I was encountering lots of creosote and the thought occurred to me that it was probably a good place for desert tortoise. I went about a quarter mile until I encountered a small mountain covered in rock. I was walking near the base when I spotted a desert tortoise below me, standing on a rock. 
I was extremely surprised and elated to see tortoise, the first one I've seen in the area, and to see that it was on top of a large boulder. I spent about a half hour watching and taking photos. On the way back I saw a chuckwalla high up in the rocks, I saw several spiny lizards and I got quite close to a blacktail jackrabbit, one of about four that I saw. 
I only saw one zebra tailed lizard, with the added heat, I thought I would see more. Many doves, money quail, with babies and lots of orioles. Seeing the desert tortoise made the trip worthwhile. 

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