Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Mojave Roadtrip Part 1: Night Life in a Joshua Tree Forest

The weekend after our second tour Ned and I decided to head south to the Mojave to track down some life birds and herps. Despite working down south at Warm Springs, we are not allowed to use the work vehicles for personal use while we are down there, so any critters off site might as well be in another state.

Luckily, Ned had his trusty Subaru "Sally Suby" and were keen on making the 8 hour trek down south and make a circuit of a few cool spots. I jumped at the opportunity to join him, so Wednesday May 4th not 20 minutes after completing our half day of data entry we were on the road to Searchlight, a town an hour south of Las Vegas.

The drive down was fairly smooth and uneventful. A stop at Miller's Rest Stop produced a Great Egret roosting in a tree which seemed out of place in the middle of the desert and a Black-headed Grosbeak huddled out of the wind, but not too much else.

Miller's Rest Stop, a few trees in the middle of the desert like most migrant traps in the state

Great Egret

We also saw a couple herds of wild burros further along, and some ass jokes may or may not have been made. Once we got to Searchlight we made a quick stop in the town park to check for the resident pair of Curve-billed Thashers. Curve-bills are fairly new to Nevada's avifauna, and this pair found 2 years ago by Dave and Dan, both my crewmates from last year, were the first breeders from the state. By the time we got to the park it was almost sunset and the birds were pretty silent, so we struck out on the thrashers. We did get to meet most of the neighbourhood children though. After we informed them we were looking for birds and not the boogeyman like they suspected, they were more than helpful in telling us all about the white owl and horned owl and falcons that nested in the small park. Great group of kids, maybe they'll become birders yet!

Leaving Searchlight, we headed west to Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness where we would spend the next couple days looking for some specialty birds. Joshua Tree forests are where you find Cactus Wrens and Scott's Orioles in Nevada, both birds I needed and the latter also a potential lifer for Ned. More excitingly, this spot is one of the few reliable spots in Nevada for Bendire's Thrasher and Gilded Flicker, which are much more common further south in Arizona. It got dark just after we arrived making birding not an option, so after setting up my tent we donned our headlamps and hit the desert to look for herps.

Almost immediately we saw were lots of blue eyeshine staring back at us. The eyes belonged to some large gray spiders, most of which would duck into their burrows when we got near. Here's a shot of one who let us close.

Large unknown spider

Soon afterwards I came across my first Desert Tarantula sitting out in the open. We were pretty lucky to find one this time of year, since they are much more common later in the fall when the males are our all over searching our females.

Desert Tarantula

Super cool and really docile creature, contrary to what many people might think, and it didn't mind when we picked it up for a better look. Their 8 legs feel really soft and delicate.

After our arachnid fun we started exploring some fallen Joshua Trees to look for Yucca Night Lizards. Although not entirely nocturnal, these lizards are yucca specialists, and are found almost exclusively under the trunks and boughs of dead yuccas. It wasn't long until Ned flipped my first of these tiny lizards.

Yucca Night Lizard

These lizards were once thought to be exceptionally rare until it was discovered that they rarely leave the cover of their sheltered homes. It turns out there are quite abundant when you know how to look for them, and we found at least half a dozen in about an hour of searching.

While navigating the piles of Joshua Tree debris we came across many Western Black Widow spiders, my first time seeing this well-known species. They were usually quite obvious, but they made us more careful of where we put our hands.

Western Black Widow

In contrast to the cold-blooded critters so far, we also encountered a couple kangaroo rats hopping around. Various species are very common all across Nevada, but due to their nocturnal nature I've rarely had the treat of seeing more than just their tracks. No photos of them unfortunately. However, while watching one of them I spotted some movement on a nearby Joshua Tree and Ned made a great catch of a big Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard.

Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard

These lizards are normally diurnal so it was funny to see him out at night. I didn't see many last year and they were usually from a distance, so seeing this one up close was a treat. They've got a good set of jaws too, and he was reluctant to let Ned's finger go when we tried to release him.

But the highlight of the evening was definitely a Night Snake that Ned flipped under some yucca while looking for the lizards. These small snakes are venomous, but rear-fanged and small enough they are no danger to humans. The vertical pupils and dark patches behind the head are diagnostic.

Night Snake

We called it quits after about 10pm because it was getting a bit cold for herps, and we had some specialty birds to search for the next morning.

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