Crest Collections

Hello faithful readers, it is officially summer! Though it has felt like summer here in the Mojave for quite a while now. In each blog post, I have been tempted to write about the heat. Every time, I think “surely it can’t get any hotter than this” and yet the temperature continues to climb. So although the thermometers have scaled to new heights this week with temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (a personal record for me), I doubt the heat’s full ambition has been realized. Not to worry though because, to quote the cliché, “it’s a dry heat.” Being from the Midwest, where the summer humidity often teeters around ninety percent, this was always a mysterious phrase. It does make quite a difference though! In the dessert, you feel as though you are being slowly baked in an oven, as opposed to melted in a sauna. You are not perpetually sticky and things like shade and sweat are actually effective coolants. Nonetheless, I am grateful for a bit of office work when it comes my way!

In the last month we have put the “petal” to the metal and hit a crest in our seed collection numbers with six new collections. The heat has driven us up in elevation or into shaded canyons. Thus two of our collections are from Surprise Canyon in Panamint Valley, just west of Death Valley. Spoiler alert: the surprise in Surprise Canyon is water! There is a spring-fed creek that winds its way down the base of the canyon. But the canyon also concealed a few other surprises, including a couple of rusted trucks. We were entirely baffled as to how the trucks got in there in the first place because our hike involved a fair amount of scrambling and climbing. No matter how high your clearance is, a truck could not have made it up. Yet a road used to lead up to a small city, so the most plausible explanation is that the road was washed out by a flash flood. The second surprise was a healthy population of Epipactis gigantea, stream orchid. Lucky for us each fruit contains an insane amount of seeds (at least thousands) which makes for a simple collection!


One of Surprise Canyon’s surprises.


Stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) seed capsules and their thousands of microscopic  seeds.


We completed another two collections up at Walker Pass, along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our first collection there was Ericameria linearifolia, narrowleaf goldenbush. Since there are plenty of ericameria species to go around and (in my novice opinion) a solid assortment of look-alike species, it took us a few tries with the key to figure out what we were collecting! We enjoyed the area so much and there were so many species fruiting, that we decided to go back for another collection, this time of Chaentactis xantiana, Xantus pincushion. The pinyon pines and junipers were a welcome reprieve from the stretches of low-lying shrubs. Plus, plenty of hikers passed us along the trail and spiced-up our days. It was neat to meet thru-hikers and hear their stories. Some were even curious what we were up to and we explained that we were collecting native seeds for long term storage, research, and conservation projects.


The view from Walker Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail.


A brilliantly-colored caterpillar exploring our target species, narrowleaf goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia).


We finally met a member of the celebrity calochortus genus, Calochortus invenustus, (Plain Mariposa Lily).

For an even more drastic break from the desert, we traveled to Chicago for the CLM internship workshop hosted at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. There we welcomed grass, trees, and, yes, even the humidity with open arms! Overall, the workshop was a grand time, every day jammed-packed with information and new faces, leaving me exhausted and inspired. The workshop included a symposium focused around “seed sourcing for restoration in a changing climate.” I enjoyed hearing a spectrum of perspectives from academia to government to private business. The speakers helped give context to the seed collections I am personally contributing. We also learned about conservation genetics and monitoring methods, or as I like to put it, the science behind wandering around in the desert. Even though I have already been learning on the job many of the things taught in the workshop, there were still plenty of new tips. It was also valuable confirmation that we have been doing our job right! One of the most exciting parts of the week was meeting interns from all over the country, currently scattered across the western United States. I enjoyed swapping field stories and sharing the personal histories that landed us in conservation. Generally, the week gave me a greater understanding of the scope and purpose of the CLM program.


Chicago skyline on a lovely afternoon in Lincoln Park.


CLMer’s waste no time in trying out their new found monitoring skills.

And back to some heated collections!

E. O’Connell
Ridgecrest BLM Office

Into the Inyos

The past month has seen me diving irreversibly further into realm of botany, while occasionally coming up for air to help out with other surveys. My fellow intern, Robbie, and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Funeral Mountains with the incredible Sarah DeGroot, from Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens. In exchange for helping with seed collections, she provided us with bundles of knowledge. Not only did we meet several new species of plants, we also learned how to more accurately fill out our data sheets and process our seed collections for mailing. Sarah’s style of botanizing was both impressive and inspiring. Working with her proved that a little organization and planning goes a long way!

The setting sun over the Funeral Mountains

The setting sun over the Funeral Mountains


Oliomeris linifolia (Lineleaf Whitepuff) with Eagle Mountain as the backdrop

We were lucky enough to follow-up our week with Sarah with a visit to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens themselves. There we had access to the herbarium to identify a few of our mystery plants and familiarize ourselves with some of our target seed collection species. We also got a peek at their seed cleaning and storage facility. It was neat to get a better understanding of how our work fits into the larger picture of seed collection, cleaning, storage, and distribution. We are one link in the chain of the Seeds of Success program!

When we’re not learning about plants, we’re teaching about them. We helped out with an environmental education program that brings fourth graders on a field trip to a nearby canyon. They spend the day visiting various stations (plants, birds, aquatics, archeology, history, and art) where they learn about water conservation and the desert ecosystem they live in. Naturally, we were in charge of the plant station. We doled out hand lenses (tiny magnifying glasses for getting a better look at plant features) and informed them that they had become plant detectives! We proceeded to go for a short nature walk, stopping to examine the beavertail cactus, touch the fuzzy Anderson’s thornbush leaves, marvel at the height of the cottonwood trees, and smell the cheese bush leaves (and argue over whether it really smells like cheese). They learned why desert plants are so pale and their leaves so small. I enjoyed witnessing their raw curiosity about everything around them.

One of the parent chaperones on the field trip, making casual conversation, inquired as to whether the tarantulas had come out this year yet. I had to stop myself from spluttering, “THE WHAT!?” I have been repeatedly warmed about snakes, but no one mentioned the tarantulas. Apparently they are not out yet, or at least I have yet to see one! The snakes, however, are another story. I saw my first rattlesnake last week – a decent sized creature hanging out in a creek bed. Luckily it was content with slithering off under a shrub, where it proceeded to blend in alarmingly well.

As much fun as botany is, the past month also afforded us a chance to take a break from plants and tag along on a variety of other surveys being conducted on BLM land. Thus I joined a quest to locate the elusive Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander. The little amphibians enjoy hanging out under rocks in springs. They are found only in the Inyo Mountains, and therefore their range is fairly small. They are being considered for more strict conservation protection, which required updated surveying. The populations my team intended to survey were near Beveridge, allegedly the most remote ghost town in California, and had not been surveyed in over fifty years. We set off on an ambitious hike up an old mule trail. After at least a 7 mile climb and almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, realized why no one in recent history had surveyed these springs! A flash flood had wiped out the base of the wash we were following and the trail seemed to disappear on several occasions, adding to the length of our journey. In the end, our plan turned out to be too ambitious and we were forced to turn around before we reached the survey site, chalking up the excursion to a scouting trip. Luckily there was another population site, which we stopped to investigate on our way down, but alas, we did not find any salamanders.

View of the Eastern Sierras from the climb to Forgotten Pass in the Inyo Mountains

View of the Eastern Sierras from the climb to Forgotten Pass in the Inyo Mountains


Echinocereus mojavensis (Mojave Kingcup Cactus)

The following week saw me perched just outside an open mine shaft equipped with night vision goggles, counter clickers, and infrared spotlights watching the sun set over Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierras. We had been recruited to monitor bat populations living in abandoned mines. Many of these mines have open “features” (shafts, for example) and are located in recreation areas – a dangerous combination. Since they are no longer mined, the BLM is working on filling in or otherwise closing the entrances. However, the mines also provide ideal habit for bats. Populations of Townsend and Pallid bats have taken up residence in many of the mines. That’s where we came in: each person helping with the exit counts was assigned an open feature to watch at dusk and count the number of bats entering and exiting. This data will then influence whether or not bat-compatible structures are needed to close the mines.

Dr. Pat the Bat biologist shows off a Townsends bat

Dr. Pat the bat biologist shows off a Townsend Bat

Overall this month has been another whirlwind of new experiences, from receiving more detailed seed collection training to sharing my enthusiasm for plants with local students to surveying for salamanders to monitoring bat populations. Until next time!

E. O’Connell
Ridgecrest BLM Office

Treasure Hunts and Plant Safaris

Early morning sun illuminating the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

Early morning sun illuminating the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

Nearly a month and a half into my internship at the Ridgecrest Field Office and I am beginning to settle in. I still marvel at the view of the Argus Range whenever I step out my front door and pause in admiration of the sun setting over eastern Sierra Nevada’s to the west. By no means has day to day life become ordinary – each day in the field has its own surprises. So far, we have suffered a flat tire at the hands of a rough route (nothing like that foreboding hissing sound of all the air leaving your tire at once) and made acquaintances on two occasions with desert tortoises bravely journeying across the perilous road. We also saw our first adorable wild burros and experienced a brief sprinkling of rain. I had previously written off rain as a myth belonging to distant, non-desert lands, but discovered that it does indeed rain here!

A desert tortoise poses with my "tortoise awareness" sticker.

A desert tortoise poses with my “tortoise awareness” sticker.

Our seed collections are up and running, as we have completed two collections and are working on the third. Our first collection was of Plantago ovata. At first glance, desert indianwheat reminds me of its rather weedy plantain relatives abundant in un-mowed Midwestern lawns. Looking more closely reveals delicate and nearly translucent flowers set against deep purple seed cases, actually quite beautiful! This observation led me to wonder how often I have overlooked simple beauty, even in urban settings. The seeds themselves are tiny and the collection took several days to complete. Our second collection was of Descurainia pinnata, a tansy mustard with the habit of growing around the base of large shrubs, particularly Lycium cooperi, a very thorny fellow. Our latest collection endeavor has been Stipa hymenoides, an interesting plant historically because the Indian rice grass was a main food staple for indigenous tribes living in the area.

Plantago ovata

Plantago ovata, Desert Indianwheat

In addition to seed collections, we have also been conducting rare plant species monitoring. This involves visiting locations of known rare plant populations and recording damage or threats to its habitat. Our first plant safari, as we have deemed them, had us on the hunt for a tiny flower endemic to Kelso Valley in the Bright Star Wilderness of the Eastern Sierra Nevada’s. There are only nine known populations of the Kelso Valley Monkey Flower (Mimulus shevoccki), all in and around Kelso Valley. The flower itself is miniscule, often less than an inch tall, and proved challenging to find. Our first day, we spent several hours searching unsuccessfully. Just as we were about to try another site, we finally found the population. As I approached the population, at first I saw just one, then two, then they seemed to materialize out of nowhere in front of me. It was a fulfilling end to our day!

Mimulus shevoccki, the elusive Kelso Valley Monkey Flower

Mimulus shevocckii, the elusive Kelso Valley Monkey Flower

We also surveyed for Phacelia nashiana, a brilliant blue phacelia. Charlotte’s phacelia certainly has a knack for finding hard to reach places. Its preferred habit is impossibly course granite soil on rocky outcroppings, often near the top of steep slopes. Thus our search in each valley began with looking up and locating the nearest high rocky outcropping. Unfortunately, we were monitoring at the end of its bloom period. Summer is rushing in quickly here and the landscape has already begun to turn crispy and brown. After scaling several phacelia-less, dried-up slopes, we came upon a slope alive with flowers. The geography of the slope had kept it shaded from the relentless sun and it was as though we stepped back in time to the height of spring. Sure enough, over two hundred Charlotte’s phacelia were in full bloom at the top!

Phacelia nashiana, Charlotte's phacelia

Phacelia nashiana, Charlotte’s Phacelia

Sometime finding these plant populations is a bit like going on a treasure hunt. We head off into an unfamiliar maze of roads and routes armed with a GPS “X” marking the spot where the population was previously recorded. A successful search yields a view of a rare species or a seed collection, treasures invaluable to plant conservation and research.

E. O’Connell

Ridgecrest BLM Office

A Ridgecrest Arrival

My first couple weeks in Ridgecrest, California have been a whirlwind of activities and new experiences. I had never spent much time in a desert ecosystem and thus had stereotypical expectations of cacti and very few other plants. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Already, I have encountered more species of vibrant wildflowers and pale green shrubs than I can count. When my fellow intern and I first arrived in the area, we were curious about the identity of the little green shrub that seemed to be everywhere. Little did we know there are actually at least twenty species of little green shrubs!

A view of Ridgecrest, CA from the nearby Rademacher Hills

A view of Ridgecrest, CA from the nearby Rademacher Hills

A few of the "little green shrubs" found in the northern Mojave Desert

A few of the “little green shrubs” found in the northern Mojave Desert

I kicked off the week with orientation and training in the office. The BLM office is filled with specialists in a host of areas including wildlife biology, archeology, wilderness, recreation, geology, botany, grazing, reality, and many others. On my second day, I had the chance to attend a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) meeting. These meetings create a space for the experts to come together and analyze how a new project will affect the land from each of these perspectives. The meeting was a great way to meet everyone in the office and learn about how they apply their unique knowledge to manage land.

My first day in the field, I shadowed an archeologist surveying potential restoration sites for artifacts. It turns out anything (especially “trash!”) is considered archeological evidence if it is over fifty years old. The day also provided an opportunity to learn the in’s and out’s of GPS operation.

I spent another day in the field helping with small mammal monitoring, specifically the threatened Mojave ground squirrel. We began the morning bright and early by opening and baiting the 225 traps set-up in a 15×15 grid formation. At mid-day we walked the transects and checked the traps for animals. Despite warnings not to get our hopes up, I was disappointed to find every trap empty.  We repeated the procedure at the end of the day and this time we were rewarded with an antelope ground squirrel! Although not our target species, it was still exciting to meet the furry creature and see the documentation process before letting it scurry off into the desert.

The captured antelope ground squirrel just before its return to freedom

The captured antelope ground squirrel just before its return to freedom

Even my off time has been bursting with new experiences. On my first free day, we headed out to Death Valley. There, I was quite surprised to find water! In fact, we took a short hike to Darwin Falls where there were suddenly trees, cattails, and generally an expected lushness. I found I recognized several relatives of familiar Midwestern plant species that I would never have expected to find in the desert. The valley itself even boasted a few trickles of water beneath salts flats. At first glance the salt appeared to be snow, but the 96 degree weather quickly contradicted that observation.

Salt coated plants on the floor of Death Valley

Water and salt coated plants on the floor of Death Valley

I also had the chance to help out with a Student Conservation Association (SCA) crew performing desert restoration. I have some background in ecological restoration in Midwestern wetland and oak-savannah ecosystems and I found it fascinating to learn about restoration in a desert ecosystem. For example, while woodland restoration often focuses on invasive species removal to allow the growth and return of native species, desert restoration concentrates on erosion control and re-establishment in areas damaged by off-highway vehicles. Additionally, since the desert is so much drier, restoration requires even more patience for rejuvenation.

Overall, my time thus far has been one enormous learning curve, from basic office procedures to local geography to plant identification (and botany and more plant identification). My field notes are quickly evolving from “little yellow flower with fuzzy stem” to “Amsinckia tessellata “fiddleneck,” boraginaceae family, pubescent,” as I become familiar with the local flora and hone my botany vocabulary. I look forward to learning more and exploring the diverse environment around Ridgecrest in the coming months!

Eschscholzia californica, California poppy and other species

Eschscholzia californica, California poppy and other species

E. O’Connell

Ridgecrest BLM Office