Imperial Sand Dunes
December 2007
by Bob Miller

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Dec 29 - Finished!!
Walked the last point set in the Algodones Dunes on Saturday.  Walked a total of 120.22 miles for the month which is six miles short of what it took for each of the previous two count periods.

Loggerhead Shrike

Shaving two miles off a point set is an important issue when you are heading back to your vehicle!  Sometimes you can see the vehicle right there and still walk for 30 minutes to get to it.  Another interesting aspect to those 120 miles is that no other human being saw me out there even though about 1/3 of thepoints are in open OHV areas.  Well, OK, two humans saw me.  They were both in the same vehicle and of all the people to actually see me out there I thought it was pretty cool.  Cobra helicopter cruising low over the dunes!  How do I know they saw me?  Those two little stick things pointing out of the nose of the aircraft were pointed straight at me.  Those go where the crewman’s eyes go!

Lack of birds was the most notable part of the walks through to the last day but that is how it works in the desert, fluctuation.  Let me rephrase that first part.  Lack of “wintering” birds.  The resident species were where expected.  Crissal and LeConte’s Thrasher were about the most commonly seen birds aside from Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  Numbers of Say’s Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Verdin seemed lower than expected.  Very few Gamble’s Quail were actually seen or heard but their tracks were evident…mostly in open dunes which was a bit surprising.  Greater Roadrunner…..tracks…were evident in the places expected but only saw one or two individuals for the whole point set.  Never could get any to talk to me either so might have to brush up on my Roadrunner grammar with Nicole!  Had one Ash-throated Flycatcher near the south end of the dunes. 

Several mornings I walked in an hour before sunrise under a full moon in hopes of turning up some owls or poorwills or something in the deeper more heavily vegetated pockets.  Nada!!  No poorwills for the season.  Only a few Great-horned Owls were seen or heard and those were on the drive in or in the one pocket that always has them.  The two mile walks under the full moon were absolutely awesome though!  Seems like I live two separate lives, total solitude all morning and then back to civilization and the office everyday.

19 Dec - A few birds of note on my dune walks the past few days. Birds were few but good. LeConte’s Thrasher each day, lots of

LeConte's Thrasher

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, fewer Say’s Phoebe than expected and even fewer Loggerhead Shrike. Red-tailed Hawk of course and the same pair of Ravens that seem to be covering that area. The few Sage Sparrow seen were all loners seen individually and far apart.

Not much wildlife was “seen” this morning or Monday on my dunes walks. Tracks in the sand are another story. In fact, they can tell the whole story, if you learn to read them! Most things happen at night out there and most critters are calling it a night as we are starting our day. The tracks tell of things that mostly happened in the dark, even though it was still dark when you walked in, the track makers have already gone to where they go to disappear. A few of the stories I got to read in the past few days?

A lone Burrow Mule Deer crossed the high dunes in the middle of the night. At first glance seeming to meander aimlessly across the dunes but upon closer inspection you see that it was constantly moving in an easterly direction, always taking the path of least resistance, you never try to go up a dunes slip face, yet managing to stop at every small Palo Verde or shrub along the way to browse. It was moving from one “pocket” area to another a mile or more over and along the way was feeding on vegetation that does not get browsed often.

A Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat that had a VERY close call with a coyote Coyote but the “K-Rat” made the safety of its burrow just in time. The tracks told that the Coyote happened over a dune while the K-Rat was out in the open and they both threw on a big burst of speed, the Coyote skidding to a stop at the entrance of the hole. This one must have been older because it knew digging at the burrow was a waste of energy so went on looking for something else to surprise. Coyote can sometimes be seen in the daytime down in the pockets because that is where they spend their day but they spend a lot of their night in the open dunes, always on the move, always searching, for the one that is just a bit too far from it’s burrow.

A K-Rat that was not so lucky in the dunes was taken by a Great Horned Owl. Did not hear that one coming I guess. Great Horned Owl leave very large and strange looking tracks on the sand!

A Jackrabbit that snipped off a pencil sized branch of Palo Verde and spent a good part of its night sitting in that one spot eating all but the largest parts of that branch. Jackrabbits have teeth on both jaws so when they browse they make clean little 45 degree cuts on every branch they snip. They can reach pretty high on their hind legs too! Deer have no upper cutting teeth and they give a little tug at the branch so they tend to leave more squared off and jagged tip when they browse. Most reptiles are out for the winter but this morning there was the track of a lone Colorado Fringe-toed Lizard that scurried across a dune in the warmest part of the day yesterday. Only the second such track I have encountered this season.

13 Dec - Found the sparrows today! About 100 each of White-crowned and Black-throated with about 40 Sage and a dozen Vesper all mixed in with one Chipping Sparrow. Eleven Canada Geese flew over to keep it interesting. A male Northern Harrier

Black-throated Sparrow

was hanging on the sparrow flock and I am assuming it is the same guy I have seen three times already. Figured he would show me where the sparrows were sooner or later. Was standing in the shadow of a 12' tall Creosote Bush when the shadow of a large bird came right on me. Had heard a Common Raven some distance out a few minutes earlier and thought that was what it would be. The Northern Harrier did a pretty drastic turn a few feet over my head. Surprise! A Crissal Thrasher was singing about 50 meters out as all of this was happening. Birdiest two points I have had all season and they were the last two of seven for the morning. Sweet. Now it was only .6 of a mile back to my vehicle for a 5.5 mile stroll through the desert.

Parking closest to the last point means that you have to get walking while it is still dark dark but 60 degrees is mighty warm at the end of a five plus mile walk so it is nice to have the short leg going out. Temps have been running about 45 to 50 at night which is just wrong for winter! It changed a few days ago and is now where it should be with a touch of frost on the desert floor in the deep pockets and always about ten degrees warmer on the dunes. Coldest temp I have had on a point was 33f so far.

Had another Crissal Thrasher singing about 20 minutes before

Crissal Thrasher

sunrise as I was about 1 1/2 miles in on the two mile walk to my first waypoint. He was about 80 meters away from a waypoint that would be my third of the morning. He was still singing when I did that waypoint an hour later and was still singing when I left it! Had another LeConte's Thrasher for the day as well.

Several people are interested in going walkabout with me on Feb 2 and 3 so it is a go. My initial plan is to see who can make it at what time on Saturday and hopefully get an early walk then camp out and walk early Sunday for sure.

12 Dec - Been a LONG few weeks! Last post was a Friday and I mentioned that it was raining in the dunes and I was headed out to begin my bird point counts in the dunes. Well it did rain, and good!! Over an inch fell in a few hours and it was enough to flash flood most of the pockets. That first Saturday morning the wind was gusting in excess of 40 mph so was not able to do points that day but had a fantastic time doing stream crossings and circumnavigating lakes, in the DUNES!! Walked about four miles that morning. Some of the pockets had several feet of water.

Today I finished the last set of points for the first go around so I am half way. Have walked about 62 miles so far. Now I turn around and do them all over again backwards. Some of the pockets had gotten more flood than others so was evidence that some were a good eight feet deep in water in some places. One pocket still had some standing water ten days after the rain! It sprinkled a few times since then but just sprinkles. On day seven most of the desert surface sprouted green! The average for a year out there is about three inches I think. The whole of last year had only .4 inches until Sept when it got about .5 for a total of less than an inch all year. The year before that was under two inches so it was really bad out there.

Birds?! Yikes! This might be the lowest number of birds I have ever recorded out there. Most of the birds that would have wintered out there checked it out and moved on. Do not know where but they did. I suspect that this will be a great spring for birding though because when they pass back through there should be a banner seed crop.

Among the birds of note so far was a lone American Robin. Found a pair of Burrowing Owls at an active den which was a first for the counts I think. The entire front of the den was covered with little black slivers looking like black ash from a fire. Flipped my

Gray Flycatcher

bins for a close up to discover it was all bug legs from thedarkling beetles!! No other body parts just the legs but they were all regurgitated as pellets that were mostly broken up. LeConte’s Thrasher are in the usual places and have seen them frequently. Today was a walk of 7.5 miles. Was amazed to have seven individual Crissal Thrasher and two LeConte’s Thrasher for the day! Actually had four Crissals singing at the same time just after sunrise! Also had two Gray Flycatchers in this pocket today that were the first that I have seen out there this season.

Birds most notable by their absence? I think I have seen maybe six Yellow-rumped Warblers and no other warblers. Maybe only 30 White-crowned Sparrows for the whole set. Only a few Brewers. Black-throated and Sage Sparrows are about tied for the most numerous sparrows out there with 50 or so for each.
dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed Junco

About a dozen Dark-eyed Junco. Had my first Northern Flicker today. No accipiters and only one male Northern Harrier that I have seen about three times. One Prairie Falcon. For someone who has learned that they have a dislike for counting birds you think I would be pleased but am definitely not. I do love seeing mass quantities. I just do not like having to count every individual of them!!

Other stuff? Oh you bet! I am amazed at every step I take out there. Native American pottery shards are like little treasures. I photograph every one and mark it with my GPS then walk away. In fact, I photograph and GPS everything of interest and hope to get those pics on our website one day. Have found several Bobcat tracks. Two active Coyote dens with tracks of pups. Today I found the largest set of deer tracks I have ever seen bar none! We have the largest of the six sub species out there, Burro Mule Deer, and this one was as big as they will ever get. Seen a few deer and lots of fresh tracks. Seen about six Coyote and even more of their tracks.

Was driving in yesterday morning with one of the student BLM people. She had never seen a Kit Fox up close. We were about half way up 13 miles of gravel road an hour before sunrise when a Kit Fox crossed the road. I turned the truck sharply to the side of the road and up to the three-foot-high berm to shine the lights across the desert. There it stood about fifty yards out. Turned off the motor with the lights still on and started squeaking with my fingers to my lips like pishing. Instantly it ran straight at us!! Came right straight to the front of the vehicle and stood on the berm in the lights! Thought it was going to hop on the hood for a second. Don’t know who was more amazed, me or the BLM’er!

Bizarre stuff? Does four red and white Air Jordan sneakers count. What if I have been finding them one at a time, miles apart, deep in the dunes, about one per year!! Found the fourth day before yesterday. Size 13 right foot. Today’s track happened to take me near the second one that I found a few years ago and it was in exactly the same spot where I first found it. Did I mention GPS? Size 13 left foot!!

ash-throated flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher

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