Well, here I am, still in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Just another intern at the busy Carlsbad BLM Field Office. It has been only about two months into my internship, and yet I have already gained so much experience that I hope to take with me in my next step towards my career.
For one, I am happy to be taking a part in a New Mexico native seed collection. I was able to help collect seed in our first collection for Seeds of Success (SOS) just a few short weeks ago. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the SOS, it is a government-driven program that is focusing on seed banking for a number of reasons. Seeds that are collected by us interns and field botanists are sent to a seed cleaning factory, then sent to be stored and saved for potential future disasters. Of course, there are other reasons for the seed collections: Many universities and horticulturists may take some for their own research prospects. When we collect more than enough for everyone, we even get the chance to keep some for native restoration of our public lands. I say it is a program that is a win-win situation. I am incredibly overjoyed to be a part of a bigger picture, something bigger than you and I.
Taking a shady refuge on my first collection day – plant press slung around my shoulder, and data sheet in my hands. Photo taken by B. Palmer
Our first collection of the year came on a delightfully overcast and cool early morning of 85°F (a pleasantly wonderful surprise that seldom graces the Chihuahuan Desert). With the guidance of the Las Cruces district botanist, we decided to collect a native and pollinator-friendly flower of the Asteraceae family, Ratibida columnifera. With four of us collecting, I believe the morning to be a success! You see, as part of the SOS protocol, we are required to follow certain rules: we must collect from a minimum of fifty plants within a population so that the collection is genetically diverse. We can only collect a maximum of 20% of the available seeds per plant, to not take away from the native population. And…we must collect a minimum of 10,000 seeds, per collection. The SOS will not accept collections less than that, due to the expenses of cleaning seed and storage (not to mention it takes a lot of seed to restore disaster zones successfully). Of course, if our BLM office wanted to keep some of the seed for our own restoration purposes (which they do), we must collect more than 10,000 seed, and anything extra will come back to us. Fortunately, it was not difficult from this particular collection, as plants of the Asteraceae in general put off a lot of seed per plant in the first place. I couldn’t have asked for a better collection to learn the SOS protocol on.
A small handful of Ratibida columnifera seed. Photo taken by B. Palmer
Unfortunately, it has been our only collection thus far of the season. Typically, July is “monsoon” season for Carlsbad. However, it has been a typical rainless desert for the month of July. No rain, with high, dry-heat, stifling temperatures. Really anywhere you go, no rain = no new flowers to collect from. The other Carlsbad CLM intern and I arrived late enough to miss potential spring collections, but now we may be gone before the potential fall plants are ready for collection. Until it rains here, we may be out of the job we were sent here to do. Fortunately, we have been working with our mentor, Johnny Chopp, who is a wildlife biologist, and he has had a few other projects for us up his sleeves.
One of which has been a herpetology survey he has conducted for several years at this office. There are plenty of Chihuahuan Desert endemic plants here in Carlsbad, but now it is time to think more like an ecologist. You see, Johnny has been searching for the Sand Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus), an endemic to the area, and has been on the decline the last few years. We have been surveying sites to find a presence of this particular lizard. How do we do this, you ask? Simple: pitfall traps made of a 5-gallon bucket snugly buried into the lizards’ sandy habitat on dunes of Shinnery Oak (Quercus havardii Rydb.) and Sand Sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia Torr.). I can honestly tell you, I have never encountered so much sand in my life. I come home and there’s sand in my hair, my ears, my nose, my shirt, my pockets, my boots…but what kind of experience would it be if not for that??
This is typical habitat for the desert lizards. They take refuge under the Q. havardii, and run though sandy areas to find food. Photo taken by B. Palmer
Here I am showing off one of the lizard pitfall traps, and a snake stick we use to open traps. It is a 5-gallon bucket buried into the sand, with the opening canopied by a small piece of plywood that keeps the critters shaded and predators out of the traps. Photo taken by N. Montoya
To our dismay, we have yet to find the anticipated Sand Sagebrush Lizard. However, we have found many of the desert’s interesting critters along the way. We have pulled beetles, wasps, ants, spiders, scorpions (oh so many scorpions) out of the traps. At one of our first arrays, one of the office’s wildlife biologists found a Texas-Horned Lizard – not even from our little traps! That indeed was a gem on its own.
A Texas-Horned Lizard, found hiding in a bunchgrass. Photo taken by B. Palmer
There are several lizards found in the Chihuahuan Desert, and another is commonly and creatively named the side-blotch lizard (yes, for the blotch of black found on its side). We have even found juvenile lizards, as big as your thumbnail. But again, we have not found the lizard we have been looking for yet. A trend has been noticed by the biologists here, that when there are side-blotch lizards in an area, there is typically not sand sagebrush lizard. This is a trend that still shows to be true this year as well.
I am handling my first Side-Blotch lizard that was caught in one of the traps. Photo credits: M. McClure
An adult Side-Blotch Lizard I found in one of the traps. You may notice that its left claw is blue. We mark the lizards here to check if we recapture any. Photo taken by B. Palmer
A juvenile found in one of the traps. Juveniles do not yet have the markings we use for identification, so the species of this little guy is unknown. Picture taken by B. Palmer
In excess time here, I have also been involved in a project to install Monarch Waystations in a few selected locations around the Carlsbad area. For those of you who don’t know much about Monarch butterflies, they too are on the decline. They are a butterfly that migrates from northern North America, all the way down into Mexico. Their habitat has historically been near prairie settings, however, what do we use prairie habitat for now? You guessed it – agriculture. In the recent years scientists have found that Asclepias spp. (Milkweed) is a prominent piece of monarch butterfly habitat. You see, the plant itself is very toxic to animals animist insects, but is the main food source for the monarch caterpillars. We do not want to loose an essential pollinator of North America, so waystations, areas designated as butterfly “sanctuaries” along their migration lines if you will, are on the rise. We wanted to be a part of that too, so we proposed in a weekly NEPA meeting to provide four different locations to install potential waystations. It has been a difficult process to get others in the office on board with the idea, however, we have been able to pull through. Some fellow interns and I drove all the way to Albuquerque, NM (a 10-hour round trip drive and 13 hour day) to pick up two species of Milkweed plugs (Asclepias speciosa and A. latifolia) from a native plant nursery.
Each tray holds 98 young plants, between 1-2 years old. We picked up two different kinds of Asclepias: Showy and Broadleaf Milkweed. Photo taken by B. Palmer
Our first planting was but a few days ago, at a little area called Conoco Lake. It is a small recreational (and man-made) pond in the middle of dozens of oil pads, that has turned into a small wildlife sanctuary. There are birds in the trees, fish in the pond, and a plethora of pollinators that seek its refuge: one of the reasons we decided to plant there. We ended up planting 98 young Asclepias plants in hopes that it will become a waystation in a year or two. I hope our hard work pays off, and some of the milkweed survives!
I am instructing others how to transplant the young milkweed on our big transplanting day. Photo credits to M. McClure
Despite our extra projects, we are always on the lookout for potential plants to collect seed from. It is dry as a bone out here in the desert, but there is still life out here; I have a hard time even fathoming how plants grow here. For example, guess what I found on one of our scouting days: Equisetum!! That’s right, a freaking horsetail…in the freaking desert! The ways of the desert and what grows here surprises me everyday.
Equisetum growing in the desert. I still cannot believe I found this! Photo taken by B. Palmer
I was also very excited to come across flowering towers of Agave species (possibly Agave neomexicana, however, I am unsure of the species) on another scouting day a few weeks back. This is by far one of my favorite plants of all time. They have tall, stunning yellow inflorescences that I will never forget! All their lives, Agave spends its life as a small, dense, succulent rosette. Then one day after years of this vegetative state, the plant decides to put forth all its energy into that thick, impressive reproductive shoot holding hundreds of little flowers, attempting to put forth its genetic makeup into the world via pollination before dying that very year. Is there anything more spectacular than this?
We were driving through some pinion-juniper woodland, when I forced the others to stop the truck so that we could investigate this inflorescence! Photo taken by M. McClure
Overall, I love hunting for plants in the desert. But oh how I miss home so very much. Everyday I am out here, I am incredibly homesick: for trees and vivid green landscapes, my dog, my home, especially my soon-to-be husband. Nonetheless, I believe traveling is essential for personal development. One night a group of us went out to dinner, and my mentor brought up a favorite quote of his, by Mark Twain:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
When one stays in one place for a long enough time, they can become stagnant in their lives. That is why this internship is so incredibly important. Not only for me, but for all the other interns in the program as well. We can learn about the world from the safety of our homes, but you cannot truly experience it unless you step outside, and out of that comfort zone. Since I have stepped out of my own comfort zone, I have learned one incredibly important thing about myself: Despite the interesting town that I am stationed in and the blistering daily heat, there is a loupe around my neck, a plant press swung onto my back, a notebook in my hands, and most importantly, a smile on my face. I am where I need to be, and I am a field botanist.
I feel (and think that I look like) a true botanist. I am blossoming now, and hope to be a great botanist in years to come. Photo taken by B. Palmer
Carlsbad, New Mexico, BLM Field Office