Saturday, 21 May 2016

Mojave Critters: Mini to Monsters

Nevada Bird Count Tour 3 Part 2

Last Friday the 13th after our raptor surveys Kayla, Ned, Dave and I headed back down to our Mojave site one final time to complete our surveys there for the season. Since they are further south the birds start and finish breeding earlier, so we need to finish our surveys there before everything fledges. It's also convenient for us, because the summer in the Mojave gets stupid hot. When we arrived on the mesa Friday evening and stepped out of the truck the dry heat hit us immediately.

We relaxed around camp that evening until the sun was starting to set, at which point the four of us hit the wash for some herping. On my trip south with Ned the weekend before the weather was downright cool, but this time sundown made the temperature comfortably warm, ideal for some herptological action. Plus this was likely our last chance to visit the Mojave for the rest of the season, so we aimed to make the most of it.

On our way out while the sun was still setting we didn't come across any lizards or snakes, despite checking all the cracks we could in the caliche walls. But on our way back after the sun went down the action started. Peering into one crack I saw my first woodrat. Also known as packrats, these rodents hoard large piles of sticks and things to make their nests, which are often easily seen in caves and holes throughout the desert. This individual is either a Desert or White-throated Woodrat, but telling them apart is pretty subtle.

Desert/White-throated Woodrat

Further along we came across a couple Western Banded Geckos. They look kind of like small, translucent Leopard Geckos that many people have as pets, but are really quite quick and agile. The younger ones are quite strongly banded, while the patterns of the adults are much more variable,

Adult Western Banded Gecko

More plainly-patterned juvenile

After a while we headed back to camp to make plans for the morning's surveys, and Kayla and Dave headed to bed. Ned and I were still keen on staying out while the herping was good, so we clambered around on the rocky hill above our camp. Still none of the hoped for Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnakes, but the geckos were abundant and we tallied another 5 of those. More exciting and unexpected was this striped-tailed lizard hiding in a crack in the rock.

Juvenile Common Chuckwalla

It was a juvenile Common Chuckwalla, a diurnal lizard that is always found near rocks and hides out the rest of the time in crevices like this. It was a lifer for both of us, and a great one to see since we struck out on them at Valley of Fire the weekend before. These lizards are known for crawling into cracks when threatened and puffing themselves so they can't be removed. Apparently the Natives used to get around this by popping the lizards with sharp sticks...

We also found a larger adult with a dark body and pale unpatterned tail in another crevice, but it was too far in for a photo.

Over the next 3 days between the 4 of us we completed the summer surveys of this year's grids at Warm Springs as well as all 4 transects on the property. I did the same grids and transect as the tour before so it was cool to see a lot of the same individual birds again, including bumping into the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher family again. I didn't see too much new but it was nice to spend a bit more time with our Mojave birds since I won't be seeing them for the rest of the season. By the early afternoon temperatures climbed to 100F, so we spent that time swimming in the river, napping under the awnings at the local wildlife refuge, or hiding behind the makeshift shade from our trucks.

Our second night folks were tired myself included, so I went out solo for a 45 minute walk before bed. In addition to a couple geckos I found this Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion. It wasn't as giant as some I'd seen last year, but still larger than the Bark Scorpion that can also be found nearby. This species isn't very potent, with a sting likened to that of a bee sting. Ned and Dave discovered last year that even though they act mean they are very reluctant to sting, even if one tries to get them to sting you. The guys made it into the safety portion of the field manual for that escapade.

Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion.

On Monday we left the south for good, and it just so happened this is where we had the find of the trip, and likely the season. Kayla and I left after the guys, but just south of Pahranagat we saw their truck pulled over on the side of the highway. I thought they might either have found something or were out watering some shrubs, so I sent Dave a quick text. No response, so we kept going. Five minutes later I got a call from Ned. He asked us where we were at and I told him we'd just passed them on the highway. He told us they'd just caught a Gila Monster crossing the road. A Gila Monster, the holy grail of Mojave herps!! I may have yelled a little and let out a few excited expletives, Kayla swung the truck around and we raced back south to where we'd seen their truck.

Upon arriving we saw the guys up on the hill waving to us. We ran to meet them and found them standing there with Dave's ice chest. This was what I saw when I opened the chest.

Banded Gila Monster

A full grown Gila Monster!!!! This beast was massive, filling the whole bottom of the cooler, and with a tail full of fat he looked to be healthy and in his prime. The guys then filled us in on the story behind the find. Apparently they had been driving down the highway when they saw the lizard in the opposite lane. They slammed on the breaks and pulled over to attempt to bring it to safety, but the lizard was testy and full of vigor, hissing loudly and striking at Ned's boots lightning speed that one wouldn't expect from an the large, cumbersome-looking animal. At this point a large semi truck was approaching, so with quick thinking Dave grabbed a piece of shredded tire from the side of the road and the guys wrangled the angry venomous lizard out of harm's way just in time. The beast was transferred to the ice chest then brought up and over the next hill, at which point Ned called us to let us know.

After we got our look at it the guys tipped over the cooler and carefully released the lizard under a nearby creosote.

The release

Gila in it's Mojave scrub habitat

Unfortunately the Gila wasn't completely unscathed, as it was bleeding from the side of the head and and looked blinded in one eye. However, the head still looked symmetrical and the jaw didn't appear to be broken, so it may have been barely nicked by an oncoming vehicle. Otherwise  it looked very healthy, and with a good store of fuel in it's tail to help it get through the recovery. We did the best we could for it, and hopefully it'll be able to pull through and roam the desert for years to come. Not under the best circumstances, but I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see one of these monsters and hope that it'll pull through.

On our way back across the Extraterrestrial Highway Kayla and I stopped to take a photo of a road sign that summed up the open range, aliens, and general chaos that can be found in the no mans land of the ET Highway.

Range sign on the ET Highway

It also happened to be in an area of Joshua Trees and surrounded by rocky juniper hillsides, so we took the opportunity for a bit of a birding break. It was late in the morning, but I hoped we might hear some Black-chinned Sparrows singing from the hillsides, a species I'd only lucked into once before. As it was things were fairly quiet, but we did hear a single Cactus Wren and got great looks at a pair of Scott's Orioles feeding in the yuccas. Both birds were new for Kayla and I had only seen them for the first time the weekend before.

Joshua Tree-Blackbrush community with Junipers on the surrounding slopes

The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful until we got to the mountains near Walker Lake. We had briefly glimpsed a couple Desert Bighorn Sheep on the way down, so I let some cars pass us by and we kept our eyes keen as we neared that spot hoping we'd get better looks. As we came to the spot I spotted one sheep up on a hillside so we pulled over. It had disappeared, but Kayla soon noticed a herd of about a dozen just across the road back the way we'd came.

I'd only seen sheep a couple times very briefly from a vehicle before, so it was great to get to study them with bins on foot. The group was made up of females, as the big rams are on their own this time of year. One of the ewes was distinctly paler than the others.

Pale bighorn

We heard some rocks fall from the cliff above and upon looking to investigate saw another 10 animals up on a shelf including some small lambs. Super cute to see, but too high up for photos.

We had one more day of the tour in which I did some more scouting for my area search, but I'll cover those highlights on my post next week. This weekend (May 19-22) our crew is heading over to Great Basin National Park near the Utah border to run some birding hikes for the Bio Blitz the park is running. The park is home to the highest peak in Nevada, some cool montane birds and incredible scenery. I've never been there before but it's supposed to be spectacular, so stay tuned to hear about that in my next installments.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Mark....lookin' forward to the next one!

    1. Thanks Allen! Really enjoying having gotten into the blogging world and doing my best to keep up with the posting.