Joshua Tree Trip Report - March 21-22, 2009

Note: This trip report is so huge, I’ve posted two versions on both of my blogs. The stories will be the same, but the photos will be different. On this blog you’ll find mostly the insect photos I snapped on the trip while on my other blog,, you’ll find the flower/scenery/non-bug photos.

I arrived into Joshua Tree National park at 1:30am early Saturday morning. This would be my second trip of 2009 and my fifth in a year. Unlike my other visits, I decided to enter the park from the southern entrance, which is a longer drive for those coming from Los Angeles than the western entrance. Even in the moonless night, I could see signs that this trip would be worth the two hour drive. In my headlights,  color flashed by on the sides of the road. Purples, yellows, reds, and whites – wildflowers have come to the Sonoran Desert. Every mile or so, a kangaroo rat would bounce across the road through my headlights as if playing a game. (Losers of this sport end up on the road permanently.) I spot the tail of a kit fox before it disappears into the desert darkness. Moths and other insects parade over my hood and windshield.

I pull up into the Cottonwood Campgrounds, about nine miles into the park and the first campsite from the southern entrance. It’s Saturday on a warm weekend, so I’m not surprised that all of the 62 sites are filled. In fact, they have flipped open their road signs at all of the entrances informing visitors, “CAMPGROUNDS ARE FULL.” No matter. I was prepared to sleep in my car for the night. I park near the campground’s public restroom – one of the few in the park with running water and flushing toilets – and stretch my legs. In my walk from my car to the restroom, just 30 paces, I spot two types of beetles, a few large unidentified scavenging ants, and a golden huntsman spider (Olios Fasciculatus). I’m not 20 minutes into my weekend trip and I’m more successful at finding wildlife than my entire last weekend trip to the park, just five weeks ago. Spring has sprung in Joshua Tree!

After an uncomfortable night’s sleep in my car, I began the day before the sun rose. It was clear to me after reading the Desert USA Wildflower Report that it shouldn’t be difficult to find fields of blooms (even though their “Wildflower status” scale is at 5 of 10). My search area would lie to the southeast, outside of the park and a half hour from the California-Arizona border. With the sun up, it was obvious that my quest to photograph flowers would be successful: the entire stretch of the Twentynine Palms Highway leading from the park entrance south to the 10 freeway was lined in wildflowers. I parked and stepped out of my car, immediately taken by the strong aroma of flowers. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), chia (Salvia columbariae), Arizona lupine (Lupinis arizonicus), and brittlebush (Encelia farinose) stood at attention 6-10 feet deep, as if lined up for some Gary Larson-esque Rose Parade in which the floats are artistically covered in people.

I headed east on the 10 and exited Eagle Mountain Road. This area of the Sonoran was swathed in blooming brittlebrush. I spent time up near the beautifully oxidized Eagle Mountain Railroad, which offered many photographic opportunities.

I continued my journey east along an old road paralleling the 10 freeway until I reached Kasier Road, just 50 miles from the California-Arizona border. Here I found a town that has been reclaimed by the desert and forgotten by Time. Gas stations, cafes, and small homes shut their doors many years ago are now washed in desert dust. I stopped at a dilapidated community center just a stone’s throw from the 10 freeway. Inside, chairs were stacked neatly, a typewriter was left on a counter, and two pianos sat facing each other, their keys as crooked as a British farmer’s teeth. A chalk board in the corner of one room has the word “POOR” permanently etched upon it. As I walked over the fallen roof tiles and made my way through broken doorways, I could almost hear the voices of the locals who once used this building. The stage, with its thin wooden planks slowly losing their permanence, creaked with the memory of its last speech. I imagine a town leader standing here, where he had the unfortunate job of solemnly informing the gathered residents that their doors would be permanently shut. I have a feeling that the closure of the Eagle Mountain railroad in 1986 lead to the demise of this town.

Outside, among broken glass and pieces of roof tiles, stand old farming equipment which must have been standing here long before the building closed. In a land as harsh as the desert, these oxidized monuments must have proudly shown those passing by that the people here once tried to control this land. Now they seem to represent what eventually happens to all desert dwellings: nature wins in the end.

As I turned back to the freeway through the ghost town, dozens of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) danced through the air.  I counted 2-3 every second bouncing off of my windshield.  It was a magical moment.

I head back into Joshua Tree National Park, pass the Cottonwood Visitors Center, and continue north. I’m curious to see if the northern half of the park is as colorful as the southern portion. Joshua Tree National Park straddles two of the four desert biomes found in the United States. The Mohave Desert covers 22,000 square miles of land in southern California and Nevada. The much larger Sonoran Desert, with an area of 311,000 square miles, covers land in California, Arizona, and Mexico. These two deserts meet in the middle of Joshua Tree NP.

Along the Twentynine Palms Highway where these two deserts converge lies one of my favorite locations in Joshua Tree NP: the Cholla Cactus Garden.  In this unique transition area, the teddy bear cholla cacti (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) flourish in great numbers. It’s a strange site to see while driving along the highway through the park. For just a mile or two, where the altitude and climate work together to allow these spiky plants to congregate.  Although they are named for their furry appearance, don’t be fooled! One has to be constantly aware of these prickly cacti when in their presence. Their barbed spines can attach to clothing, soles of shoes, and if you’re unlucky, bare skin. I’ve been attacked by these cacti on more than one occasion, most recently in October of last year, where I documented my struggle on film. (please excuse the mumbled obscenities).

I spent an hour at the gardens, walking the well-groomed walking path looking for insects. They tend to stick out among the yellow cacti, but who knows how many camouflaged arthropods I’ve missed. The hover flies are out, but are difficult to photograph. They tend to startle easily and land infrequently. I did find two beetles: a blister beetle (possibly a Nemognatha lurida) and a purple leaf beetle. Only got one shot of the leaf beetle before it flew off, but the blister beetle didn’t mind the paparazzi. I also found an approachable side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), which allowed me to take a few shots of it’s back with my 65mm macro lens.

I headed further north into Joshua Tree, spotting a desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) as it sped across the road like a Jesus lizard crossing water. My bumper almost greeted two Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii). No wonder the speed limit in the park is 35-45 mph. Despite the wildlife I encountered, the Mohave portion of the park is not in full bloom yet, but there are some beautiful flowers to be seen. The beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) is in bloom throughout the park. Near White Tank Campgrounds, I photographed desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens), desert poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma), and Arizona lupine (Lupinis arizonicus).

I had lunch at Denny’s in Twentynine Palms (where I was able to snipe someone’s wireless connection for a bit to check my e-mail) and headed back to Cottonwood Campgrounds, stopping again at the Cholla Cactus Gardens around 5pm. I kept my SLR camera packed away and simply enjoyed the sunset-lit teddy bear cholla. I knew I wouldn’t find any insects at this time of day. By this time, the wind had picked up and any smart winged insect wouldn’t find itself anywhere near cacti. Last year I found a hover fly that had been skewered on a cactus in this garden, becoming a part of the garden’s naturally pinned insect collection.

I was spared from sleeping in my car for a second night thanks to two rock climbers from San Diego. In exchange for a couple rounds of beers, I got a piece of their rented real estate to set up my tent and nice conversation around a campfire. At 11pm or so, I grabbed my headlamp and some vials and searched for nocturnal invertebrates. I find they are easy to spot on the white cement pathways that snake through the campground, connecting the amphitheater and public restrooms. In just fifteen minutes, I found three darkling beetles: A stout Coniontis with its beautiful and subtle purple coloring; A large (30-35mm) gigantic eleodes (Eleodes gigantica), which is also known as the desert skunk beetle or stink beetle. The third is yet to be identified, but is of similar size and look of the gigantic eleodes.

I also found a few spiders, all yet to be properly identified. A crab spider was found exploring the stucco wall of a building. An orbweaver spider was found loitering on a plant. A possible ant-mimic spider (3-4mm) and a black mouse spider (possibly Scotophaeus blackwalli) were found roaming the relatively vast landscape of white cement which made up the 5-foot wide path. I captured them, took photos of them at a makeshift studio set up on the cement bench at the campsite, released them, and went to sleep.

Sunday morning I was motivated to get out of my tent by something I overheard a nearby camper say to his 5-year old daughter: “Honey, want to see a scorpion? Come here and check it out.” In five minutes, I was over at their site with a jar. I photographed the adolescent stripe-tailed scorpion (Paruroctonus silvestrii) and released it away from any campsites. Although their sting doesn’t have any lasting effects, it’s probably wise to remove it from the area in order to protect both the campers and the scorpion. It reminded me to check my boots twice before putting them on that morning. Where there’s one scorpion, there’s most likely a dozen more.

When the wind gusts started to pick up, I packed my gear and headed out of the park, stopping briefly in the canyons between the Cottonwood Visitors Center and the south entrance. The ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) were just starting to bloom and I wanted to search a new area for insects. Again, I found many hover flies (Syrphidae family) but with the wind, they didn’t stay too long in one area. I spotted a large harvestman (order Opiliones) backing into a burrow on my approach, but wasn’t able to entice it to come out for a photo shoot.

As I headed home on the 10 freeway, ominous clouds began to form over the Coachella Valley.  Wind gusts of up to 60 mph blew cars around on the freeway, making everyone drive as if they’re under the influence of alcohol.  At one point it was sunny and seemingly clear out the side windows of my car, yet rain was pelting my windshield like I was in a car wash.

With such incredible weather came an idea, which lead to a two-mile hike into the wind farms of Cabazon, California.  Throughout the valley, hundreds of large wind turbines  (windmills) line the valley floor.  They are responsible for providing much of Riverside County with its electricity and able to generate enough clean energy in one hour of 35 mph winds to run an average household for a month.

After some wrong turns, I eventually found the correct gravel road that cut across the valley to a wind farm operated by Edison.  There stood 49 white behemoth turbines making a sound I can only describe as mechanical wind.  Each turbine stands 15 stories tall, their three blades measuring 75 feet in length.  It takes no more than three seconds (by my guess) for the turbine to make a complete rotation.  They zip around so quickly, the tips of some of the blades whistle.

I walked the perimeter of the farm along the barbed-wire fence, hoping to find a good angle to photograph the wind turbines and the dark clouds.  Despite the wind gusts and sudden bursts of rain, I found it to be an enjoyable hike.  The area was in bloom.  I was walking in a huge wash consisting mostly of sandy soil, but much of it was covered with dark green grass and a sprinkling of  small yellow, orange, and blue flowers.

Who knew that my favorite photos of the weekend would be taken during this small unexpected detour on the way home?  I discovered a gathering of seven-spotted ladybug pupae (Coccinella septempunctata) on the underside of a twisted branch.  I was really excited to stumble upon this.  I’ve never seen ladybug pupae before and I had just been reading and blogging about the ladybug life-cycle!

I went home happy to have seen so many wonderful things this weekend. But the craving to explore more of it is still strong. I made a new year’s resolution to visit Joshua Tree NP every weekend in April and I tend to do it. I know that no matter how many times I go to the desert, it will always hold something new to see.

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