Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Scout Trip (April 1991): Organ Pipe Cactus NM

We left Redlands about 8:00 pm on Wednesday April 10, 1991, LeRoy Billings, Greg Palmer and Bob Cannon driving. Noah Kalama, Brad Martinsen, Paul Billings, Larry Gray and Scott Brennen attended. We arrived in Organ Pipe about 4:00 am and slept a couple of hours on the dirt road cutoff for Alamo Canyon. After obtaining permits from the Visitor's Center, we backpacked from the road to the Alamo Canyon campground (about 3 miles) and then in another 1/2 mile to our campsight north of the campground.

That afternoon (from about 2 to 4:00 pm) we walked out our environmental science study area, then did another session the next day from 6 to 8:00 am and 7 to 9:00 pm, and Saturday from 7:30 to 9:30 am.

On Friday we backpacked from the campground to the mouth of Grass Canyon and back, approximately 8 miles. Several scouts also hiked south of the campground on Thursday evening to the saddle between two hills (getting back after dark) and hiked up the Alamo Canyon dry river bed to a water hole (water remaining in the river bed from previous rains) on Friday afternoon.

Saturday, we backpacked from the tent sites to the campground and out to the road, then drove to Lukeville and walked briefly into Mexico. On the way back we stopped in Ajo at the open pit copper mine and drove back through Yuma (and the wonderful looking sand dunes just west of Yuma), arriving in Redlands about 10:30 pm on Saturday evening.

In our wanderings, we saw numerous ravens and turkey vultures around camp and driving along the roadways. The vultures were identifiable by their red heads and black undersides with white stripe along the wing feathers while in flight. We found a Desert patch nosed snake dead along the dirt road (several black stripes with other yellowish bands running lengthwise). We also spotted what we think was a gray coachwhip (snake) which slithered quickly away from us through the branches of a small tree. A cactus wren had a football shaped nest of gray twine in a cholla cactus (with an entrance in the side) near Bob Cannon's tent. It would return with food in its mouth and we could hear it feeding its young. Greg Palmer caught a desert side blotched lizard (blue patch behind the front leg, brown w/ light blue spots on back and orange on undersides of neck) which we saw many of. Brad spotted a collared lizard which was much too fast for us to catch. We saw numerous mourning doves at the mouth of Grass Canyon and in Alamo Canyon and saw Lazuli Buntings (blue heads with rust breast), American Goldfinches (red heads and breasts) and other yellow finches at the water hole in Alamo Canyon.

We saw numerous whiptail lizards, woodpeckers (one pair was nesting in a saguaro cactus near where we camped), and heard some meadow larks. We saw a pair of Orioles (orange and yellow - probably Hooded Orioles) near our campground and a number of Phainopepla (black with black crest and white patches on undersides of wings) in the dry river bed. Several boys saw rabbits, deer dropping, packrat droppings, collared peccary or javelina droppings, places where javelina had rooted cactus and javelina tracks and several jawbones of what appeared to be deer (or javelina?).

We discovered that the fishhook cactus (about 6 inches tall w/ very hooked spines which won't spear you, gray appearance) usually grows in rocky areas right next to a rock, apparently for protection. They were less common than most other cacti, but in the rocky area at the foot of the mountain on our way to Grass Canyon were fairly plentiful.

The mountains were volcanic rock which broke apart in slabs when climbing, and made climbing treacherous. At the base of the mountains, the same rock lied in small chunks on the ground, some areas more chunky than others. In the arroyos where water runoff carved out small gulleys in the ground, there were areas of very gravelly sand, obviously the same volcanic rock broken down into smaller particles. There also was a very fine layer of top soil type material on the ground, only about 1/8 inch thick, which was apparently the same volcanic material more finely ground up. This would probably be due to organic matter decomposing on the ground and making better conditions for the growth of desert plants. However, the ground was fairly hard, and still a difficult environment for plant life to grow in.

The average rainfall is about 13 inches, about what we'd get in Redlands, and so the desert has a significant amount of plant life, much more than Anza Borrego, Corn Springs or Joshua Tree. However, the summer temperatures would be comparable or higher to those other spots.

Most of the saguaro cactus were straight up and down, without arms, indicating for the most part that they are still fairly young. There were however saguaros with large arms that must have been 30 feet tall. The saguaros appeared to thrive everywhere, on the flat and even on the sides of the steep mountains. Many of them had holes in them, probably made by woodpeckers, many of which must have contained nests. Near our campsight, there was a pair of woodpeckers  nesting near the top of a saguaro. The saguaros have ridges running lengthwise up and down them, with spines coming out of the ridges at 45 degree angles to protect the lower valley portions of the cactus. I believe that during heavy rains the saguaros fill up with water and the ridging allows the cactus to expand and take in significant amounts of the moisture. The root system is very shallow indicating that they must not get much moisture from the ground, but must be able to collect it efficiently (and then store it) above ground. The skeleton of the saguaro consits of long whale bone like staffs that are very straight and light and make good walking staffs.

The hedgehog cactus (cucumber shaped, growing in bunches, about 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall) were beginning to bloom with beautiful purple flowers. There did not seem to be any pattern to where they were, and they were not in great numbers, so we usually took notice when we saw them.

The cholla were very abundant and there appeared to be about 3 different varieties. The teddy bear version had very thick white spines which looked almost fuzzy or furry from a distance. These grew very large there, some 6 to 9 feet tall, and I believe many of these also had segments that had fallen on the ground which made walking near them treacherous. These spines almost seemed to jump at you ("jumping cholla") and easily penetrated tennis shoes and other protective clothing. The chain-fruit version had small nodules on the ends, sometimes many attached to each other, which almost looked like the end of an insects foot after coming off the hairy end of the insect leg. I'm not sure if these "fruit" later turn into blossoms or stay as nodules, but they appeared to be similar to nodules on other types of cactus that later turn into blossoms. The last variety is a less thick variety which has longer less clustered spines. This version and the teddy bear version we had seen on other campouts, the chain-fruit version was the first type of that variety we'd seen. Some cholla had a yellow flower and others a reddish flower-- I didn't notice whether the color of flower was limited to a particular variety of cholla.

We saw only 4 or 5 agave, all but one just the dead and dried out stem still standing. These seemed to be in the same vicinity which would indicate there was some characteristic favorable to it there and unfavorable to it elsewhere. One we saw had the old dead version laying next to it on the ground and a new shoot, about six feet tall going into the air, a grayish color. It looked almost like asparagus.

Palo verde was very plentiful in the wash areas indicating that it may need more water than some of the other plants.

Barrell cactus was there, again mostly on the sides of hills or at the base of the mountains. As we'd noticed on other campouts, it was not plentiful, but seemed to have spots where 5 or 6 would be in the vicinity. The spines are much heavier and thicker than on other cactus and so long and close to each other that it would be very difficult for an animal to get to it for nourishment. In Grass Canyon, we found one uprooted on its side and could hear the water slushing around inside when we jiggled it. When we cut a piece off, it had a white mushy inside which apparently can be stirred up into a liquid if a survival need arises in the desert.

The organ pipe cactus are nowhere as plentiful as the saguaro, and not evident out in the flat part of the desert floor. However, closer to the mountains, and in or near the edge of arroyos, and on the sides of the mountains, it was sometimes plentiful. We deduced that it needs more water than the saguaro, which it probably gets near the mountains and in the washes. The organ pipe often had spider webs between its branches, but didn't have the woodpecker holes in it like the saguaro. This is probably due to the skeletion, which is a long single solid branch in each stem, whereas the saguaro had a hollow inside the skeleton and consisted of many smaller woody spines encircling the inner core.

We also saw a fair amount of beavertail like cactus which appears to have been prickly pear. It was larger than beavertail and had much larger and longer spines. We also saw it at Joshua Tree and wondered what type it was. Because beavertail was not listed as a cactus at Organ Pipe and prickly pear was, we determined that this must have been prickly pear. We saw evidence of the javelina having taken bites out of it, and cut some off and it looked almost appetizing, very moist. Some of the boys tasted it.

Creosote was very abundant in certain areas, it was very colorful with its yellow flower blossoms and white cotton balls. We determined that the yellow blossom falls off leaving the white cotton ball (which must contain the seeds) which are then blown by the wind to create more creosote. We understand that creosote has a way of killing other plants around it as a protective measure for its own survival. Particularly in high areas between washes in our study area, we noticed places where only creosote and cholla seemed to grow.

Ocotillo seemed to exist in every environment, from the sides of the mountain, to sides of washes to the flatland.

The brittle brush (gray leaves with beautiful yellow flowers was just beginning to bloom. We noticed it was much more plentiful on the north side of our study hill than on the south side and it seemed to exist in patches, but we discerned no rhyme or reason to its allocation.

There were other trees, particularly in the dry river bed at the mouth of Alamo Canyon which we weren't able to identify. Some of them were definitely mesquite type leaves, and I'm sure we probable saw some ironwood. 

1 comment:

  1. One of your earliest forays into Southern Arizona and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and definitely not your last.