Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Mojave Roadtrip Part 4: Valley of Fire, water, ice and snow

Saturday May 7 after a bit of a sleep in Ned, Nai, and I headed towards Valley of Fire State Park. The park surrounds a large area of red and pink sandstone formations and is home to many rock- and sand-loving herps species such as Southwestern Specked Rattlesnakes, Common Chuckwallas and Desert Iguanas. Of particular interest though is that it harbours a healthy population of Gila Monsters. While these beasts are seldom encountered, it was the right time of year and we hoped the rainy weather might bring some out for us.

Upon arriving to the park we got our first close-up views of some of the formations. We stopped briefly at the visitor centre where we met a couple from Washington D.C. who were keen on looking for herps as well. After chatting with them a bit we drove north through the mountains to White Domes at the top of the park where we planned to hike a ways into the mountains. The drive through was absolutely stunning. I’ve never been to Utah or other similar places so this was my first time seeing these kind of formations, and I was definitely impressed.

When we got to White Domes we decided to walk an under-travelled trail to escape the tourists, and explored up some canyons and washes we had entirely to ourselves. The three of us were checking every rock and crevice we could for SW Specks and Gilas, the cliffs for Chucks and the sandy brush for Iguanas, but the cool weather must not have been to the herps liking and despite our long hike these targets continued to evade us. We did see a few Great Basin Whiptails and Common Side-blotched Lizards, but the herp front was pretty quiet. However, the scenery kept us entertained, and made me realize that I couldn’t stop and take a photo of everything. The storm clouds rolling in really made the colour in the stones pop.

Along the way on a rock shelf I came across this beautiful Paiute arrowhead carved from some purple stone. I’ve never found anything like this before so I was pretty excited with the find.

Paiute Arrowhead

We also found this Lucy's Warbler nest in a perfect hole in the side of the cliff. They and the Prothonotary are the only cavity-nesting warblers, although the Lucy's definitely prefer drier habitats than the wooded sloughs of their golden cousins.

Lucy's Warbler nest

Another major highlight came as we climbed towards the top of a narrow wash. Nai was in the lead as Ned and I were off to the sides checking crevices, and she called out “I’ve got a snake.” Right in front of her was a Mojave Desert Sidewinder, and a very full one at that! It’s meal dwarfed it’s small head, and it didn’t really want to move anywhere as we came to get a few photos. I’d only ever seen one of these gorgeous Crotalids before, our camp mascot “Sidely” from last season at Ash Meadows, so it was a treat to be reacquainted with this small horned rattlesnake.

The wash

Mojave Desert Sidewinder

We continued our loop and made it back to the parking lot for a welcome water We then headed back through the mountains towards the visitor centre to refill our water jugs, scanning the cliffs for the Desert Bighorn Sheep that roam the red stone. The sheep weren’t out to show off though.

When we got to the visitor centre we inquired on where to find chuckwallas, and as we suspected they should have just been ‘around’ with all the rocks about. Perhaps it was just a bit too cold and overcast for them to be out and basking. While Ned and I talked with the ranger, Nai bumped into our herping friends from the morning. They were really excited about our Sidewinder find, and informed us of a bunch of chuckwallas near the campground. We went to fill up our water jugs before heading off on the hunt when we spotted a hummingbird perched in a shrub across the parking lot. I got my binoculars on it and saw what appeared to be flared ends to its gorget. It then flew straight towards me before disappearing over the building, and showed an extensively blazing purple head that no Black-chin could sport. It was around this time that I yelled out “I THINK IT’S A COSTA’S”, getting a laugh from Nai and some strange looks from some of the other tourists about. It was only a very brief view, but diagnostic to clinch this life bird that can be tough in the Mojave and I had missed last season.

With water jugs full we got back to the car and saw an ominous storm approaching from the direction we were going to go look for Chucks. Not promising, but the scene was absolutely spectacular.

We were almost to the campground when the rain started, followed by pouring rain, then promptly by dime-sized hail. Not ideal for looking for basking lizards, so we headed out of the park towards the Spring Mountains to spend the night. Soon we encountered the area where the storm had opened up at full strength. The hail littered the ground like snow, and flash flooding had washed out the road in many places. I was well aware of the flash flood potential in the desert, but this was the first time the three of us had ever seen it in life. It was truly impressive, with the road completely submerged in places and the Mojave scrub looking like a swamp.

Floodwaters and hail

However, the floodwaters were no match for Sally Suby, and in good time we made it to Lee Canyon and began climbing from the desert up to our camp in the P-J. The mountains higher up were snow-covered with the recent storm, but our camp was low enough to only experience chilly rain.

Getting to camp we mobilized like a well-oiled machine, with Nai setting up the tarps and Ned and I collecting firewood. Before long we were out of the rain beside a cozy fire, a great way to spend our last night of the trip.

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