In the early 90’s I had returned to college as a biology major. One of my courses was a vertebrate biology course that included a field trip over Memorial Day weekend into Mojave National Preserve. We spent the weekend chasing lizards and snakes, searching for birds, and even examining the diverse and extensive fauna of the region. I was enthralled as this painted a much broader picture of the Mojave desert than I knew from the rocks of Death Valley.
One of the most common lizards of the Mojave, the side-blotched lizard Uta stansburiana, is found scurrying almost everywhere. This small lizard is food to a number of reptile and bird species.
The Mojave desert is loosely defined as the region where this yucca, the Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, grows. One of the largest stands is found at Cima dome.
A year or so later, suffering through a particularly bleak El Niño winter, I returned to the spots of my field trip and began what has become an annual pilgrimage to the desert. The Mojave desert is one the four great desert systems in North America. The Mojave, made famous by Death Valley and Las Vegas, is a transitional desert situated between the Great Basin desert to the north and the Sonoran Desert to the south. The Chihuahuan Desert just to the east occupies parts of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and fills into north central Mexico. The Mojave contains elements of both the Sonoran and Great Basin deserts and is frequently defined by a loose boundary of where it’s principal vegetation grows: the Joshua Tree. The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a tall multi-branched tree sized yucca with short leaves. The branches are upraised as arms towards heaven, hence it’s name. The large white flowers are pollinated by moths and the trees can live to be several hundred years old – that is if they can survive the harsh winds of the region. The trees grow in an area defined by elevation between 2000-6000’ and they are only found within the Mojave desert. Additionally, the Mojave is incredibly rich in plant life with upwards of 2000 species of plants in the region. Of course, water is scarce in any desert but the Mojave can be quite cold in the winter. It has snowed inches in one night while I slept during one visit. The flat or gently sloping valleys are situated between relatively small mountain ranges that pop up all over the place. You can even find cinder cones and lava flows that are a relatively recent 10,000 years old. Great for finding chuckwallas or just marveling at lava in the desert. Once you get to some elevated spot you can really appreciate the alluvial plains that slope and stretch for miles. Or you can easily make out the long washes that channel flash floods during brief rainy periods. I come to the national preserve for the silence, the grand vistas, and of course the reptiles. The preserve offers wonderful places to set up camp and make daily forays into various habitats and regions and it also supplies nice roads for cruising night time snakes. Unfortunately, the preserve is bounded by Interstate-15 to the north and I-40 (replaces old Route-66) to the south. I-15 is a major thoroughfare for Las Vegas bound southern Californians and I-40 is the country’s major east-west trucking corridor. The preserve is bisected, joining these two highways, by Kelbaker road which is often used as a short-cut between the systems. Cars flying through the preserve cause a nightly onslaught of roadkill carnage. While many people may swerve to avoid hitting a jackrabbit, most seem to swerve to deliberately run over a snake; something I’ve witnessed too often.
The highest peak of Kelso dunes rises near 700′ providing stunning views. Here the plain is visible beyond the sandy region with the Providence mountains to the left (southeast) and the Granite mountains just out of view to the right (south).
The Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Uma scoparia, basks in late afternoon light at the base os Kelso dunes. The fringes on the feet allow this lizard to run on loose sand and bury itself to escape predators. Like many of the desert lizards it has special eye scales to shield it from scorching light and blowing sand.