Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Elkhorn Slough: An Ecological Treasure in Central California

Elkhorn Slough, near the town of Moss Landing on the edge of California's Monterey Bay, is truly a special place.  The slough, or estuary, winds through 7 miles of freshwater and tidal salt marshes.  The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) protects 1,700 acres of habitat, while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife protects even more land in the area.  Together, the Nature Conservancy and Elkhorn Slough Foundation have set aside 3,500 acres of the watershed for preservation. 

However, the greater Elkhorn Slough watershed encompasses 45,000 acres.  This means that any water that falls as rain, is applied to agricultural fields, or runs off city streets within those 45,000 acres finds its way into the Elkhorn Slough.  The implications of this is that water running into the slough from the surrounding watershed is often contaminated with agricultural chemicals, motor oil and other toxins.  What's a slough to do with all those nasties?  Certainly they aren't good for the sea otters!

Elkhorn Slough is California largest remaining tract of tidal salt marsh outside of the San Francisco Bay (and much of the San Francisco Bay's tidal salt marsh has been lost to development).  It supports a great deal of biologic diversity.  135 species of aquatic birds can be found here (not counting others, like songbirds and raptors in surrounding areas) and around 200 additional species of birds stop here during their annual migration.  The slough is home to 550 species of marine invertebrates and 102 fish species. 

Though invertebrate species are typically not the most glamourous creatures out there, they form the critical base at the lowest levels of the food web.  Other animals depend on them for food.  Without the insects and the marine invertebrates, the ecosystem would collapse.  More familiar residents of Elkhorn Slough include California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Southern Sea Otters. 

Estuaries in California have been largely lost to development (something like 90% are gone), and as a result a high number of threatened and endangered species are found in these special wetlands.  Elkhorn Slough alone is home to two dozen species that are classified as rare, threatened or endangered. 

Three of the United State's top ten most imperiled habitats are found within the Elkhorn Slough watershed.  These habitats are freshwater marsh, maritime chaparral, and the most biologically diverse grassland in North America, the coastal prairie.

In addition to providing habitat for a vast array of species, the slough provides a number of environmental services.  Estuaries like Elkhorn Slough act as a buffer between land and sea.  The assemblage of native vegetation helps to prevent erosion, and the tidal marshes protect surrounding land from floods by capturing excess water and releasing it slowly. 

And remember those toxins we talked about before?  The chemicals and oils and other nasty things that enter the slough from the surrounding watershed?  Wetlands of all types act as filters to remove toxins and restore water quality.  Plants in the wetlands absorb excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from fertilizer runoff, preventing explosions of algae growth which use up all available oxygen in the water and lead to the eutrophication of the ecosystem.  Other wildlife subsequently dies off in such conditions from lack of oxygen.  Aquatic plants trap sediments which often contain pollutants such as heavy metals.  The contaminated sediments are trapped and held in place at the bottom of the wetland.  The study of wetlands and what eventually happens to these sediments is on-going; for now, it seems safe to assume that it's best not to disturb wetland soils.

Wetlands also sequester (capture and store) a large amount of atmospheric carbon, even more than their temperate forest counterparts.  Large amounts of blue carbon, carbon captured by oceans and coastal ecosystems, can be stored in coastal wetlands for two main reasons.  First, most of these plants have a high growth rate, each year producing a substantial amount of new growth that requires plenty of carbon dioxide.  Second, when wetland plants die, they decompose very slowly, buried underwater in the largely anaerobic soils (lacking oxygen) of the wetland.  Since decomposition releases carbon back into the atmosphere, carbon is stored for a much longer period of time (hundreds, perhaps thousands of years) in wetlands than in terrestrial ecosystems where decomposition happens at a much faster rate.

If that's still not enough to convince you of the value of these beautiful places, visit Elkhorn Slough, or any other wetland habitat, and see for yourself.  The intrinsic value of wetlands must be seen and felt.  Elkhorn Slough offers visitors a chance for outdoor recreation and relaxation.  Paddle a kayak, hike the trails, watch the terns diving into the water, or sit quietly and contemplate the beauty before you.

Visit Elkhorn Slough's website to learn more:  http://www.elkhornslough.org/

Monday, March 20, 2017

Plant Profile: Optunia basilaris, Beavertail Cactus

Last spring on our desert odyssey, the first glimpse I got of Beavertail Cactus (Optunia basilaris) in bloom was from a moving vehicle - while I was driving.  It was really just a flash of brilliant pink out of the corner of my eye, a bright splotch of color amongst the creosote scrub.  But I knew right away what plant produced those beautiful blooms.  If we had seen no other wildflowers, I think the Beavertails alone would have made the trip worthwhile! 

From first glimpse, I was smitten with the Beavertail Cactus.  Its brilliant pink rose-like flowers are about 3 inches in diameter, with lovely ruffled petals.  They bloom from March to June; as you can see from all of the buds in these photos, the blooms were just beginning to open when I photographed them last March. 

The Beavertail Cactus gets its common name from the shape of its wide, flat succulent stems, which are reminiscent of the shape of a beaver's tail.  The gray-green stems are jointed, dotted with clusters of tiny reddish bristles (called glochids), and grow in clusters.  This plant is low-growing, up to about a foot in height, with a spread of up to six feet in large specimens.

The Beavertail Cactus grows throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, in southeastern California, southern Nevada, western Arizona and southwestern Utah.  It can be found on dry, rocky or gravelly desert slopes with very sharp drainage, at elevations between 300 and 6,000 feet.

Like other members of the Optunia or prickly pear genus, the flowers of the Beavertail Cactus are more than beautiful; they develop into edible fruit that is an important food source for many animals, as well as people.  The flowers are frequented by a variety of pollinators, and are of special value to our native bees.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hiking Trails: The Rings Trail, Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve is a hidden gem in California's Mojave Desert, located roughly south of Death Valley National Park and north of Joshua Tree National Park.  The preserve's website and brochures claim "Desert solitude in Southern California," and that is an accurate statement!  While tourists and weekenders from L.A. are waiting in line at entrance stations and jostling for available campsites at Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, hikers, campers, naturalists and solitude-seekers will find the peace they seek at Mojave National Preserve.
The preserve is home to Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) and endangered Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).  Its 1.6 million acres boast a larger Joshua Tree woodland than Joshua Tree National Park, and more extensive sand dunes than Death Valley.  And I was very impressed by the spring wildflower display here! 
The mouth of Banshee Canyon
One of my favorite things to do on any outdoor adventure is to hike - just pack a daypack and head out on foot to see what there is to see.  I find that more often than not, the simplest things really are the best.  So I'm always on the lookout for good hiking trails. 
The Rings Trail at Mojave National Preserve is a short 1.5 mile loop, with just a little excitement built in.  The trail begins at the Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center and descends through Banshee Canyon. 
A portion of the Rings Trail through Banshee Canyon
Hikers scramble down dry falls in the narrow canyon (or up, depending on which way you're traveling around the loop).  A series of mounted rings are bolted into the rocks to make the scramble a little easier.  This is the fun part of the hike!  Feel free to do this section more than once (we did!)
The namesake rings
The trail emerges from the mouth of Banshee Canyon, depositing hikers onto the desert floor with a stunning view of desert mesas composed of volcanic tuff (see the first photo in this post).  At a junction with the Barber Peak loop trail, a left turn takes hikers around the south side of cliffs, past petroglyphs and back to the visitor center to complete the short loop.
Bighorn Sheep petroglyph
It is also possible to connect the Rings Trail with the Barber Peak Trail to make a longer hike (not recommended in hot weather).  The Barber Peak trailhead is also located at the Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center and the 6-mile loop trail circles Barber Peak, to the west of Hole-in-the-Wall campground.
More information on hiking in Mojave National Preserve can be found on their website: https://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/-hiking.htm
The hiking professor ascending the rings
For those interested in geology (and really, everyone should be!) the formation at Hole-in-the-Wall is noteworthy.  The cliffs are volcanic tuff (ash deposits that were so hot, they solidified or welded into solid rock upon landing), most of which is part of the Wild Horse Mesa Tuff formation.  The holes in the rock were formed by, a) gasses trapped in the ash, according to the sign at the trailhead, or, b) damp pockets in the tuff formation, caused by slight variations in the degree of solidification of the ash, which allowed minerals to decay into small particles that are easily eroded away, according to my geology professor.  I'm not sure what to do about that seeming discrepancy in information.  More research, I suppose is the answer!  In any case, the holes have been further eroded by wind and water, and make excellent nesting sites for cliff-dwelling birds.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Wildflowers of the Mojave Desert

Where better to experience an array of Mojave Desert wildflowers than Mojave National Preserve?  While camping here last spring, I explored the area around Hole-in-the-Wall campground and was overjoyed to discover an abundance of blooming plants, a kaleidoscope of color, if you will. 

A short trail from Hole-in-the-Wall campground to the visitor center takes you through the most beautiful desert garden, one planted entirely by nature.  (But the perk is, there are signs with plant names next to prominent desert shrubs.) 

Linear Leaved Goldenbush (Ericameria linearifolia) and Blue Sage (Salvia dorrii)

This place is botanist heaven!  Ask Eric: I was giddy.  It seemed literally everything around me was covered in blooms!  And the colors!  So many colors, woven seamlessly together into a breathtaking desert tapestry.  It makes my heart beat a little faster just thinking about it!

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa/angustifolia) growing in Blue Sage

From the visitor center, we hiked on through Banshee Canyon.  It just so happened that a passing storm was clearing up, and as we emerged from the canyon, the desert came alive with birdsong.  I was enthralled.  A place with blooms and birds?!  What more can a naturalist ask for?

Flowers of Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera)

Mojave Yucca

I'm afraid my photographs will never do this magical place justice.  But I did try.  From here, I'll let the photos speak for themselves.  The landscape and plants themselves are probably the best testament to the uniqueness of this beautiful and very special place.

Desert Vervain (Verbena gooddingii)

Close-up of the flowers of Blue Sage (Salvia dorrii)

Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

California Primrose (Oenothera californica)

Wallace's Woolly Daisy (Eriophyllum wallacei)

Desert calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii)

Beavertail Cactus (Optunia basilaris)

Yellow Desert Evening Primrose (Oenothera primiveris)

Bajada Lupine (Lupinus concinnus) (?) My best guess, judging by the very hairy leaves

Bajada Lupine (?)
Buckhorn Cholla (Optunia acanthocarpa) and Linear Leaved Goldenbush

Wildflowers of Death Valley

Last year, during the spring of 2016, Death Valley experienced a "Super-bloom."  It's not every year that the desert bursts into glorious bloom, and some sources say perfect conditions for peak wildflowers only occur once every decade or so.  Death Valley's most recent super-bloom before 2016 was in 2005. 

Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) in Death Valley National Park

This year, abundant rain and ideal conditions have created a super-bloom farther south in the Colorado Desert; a great spot to see desert wildflowers right now is in the area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like I'll have a chance to get all the way down to the desert to see the blooms this year.  But all is not lost: I have plenty of wildflower photos from last year to share with you!  If you get a chance in the next month or so, take a trip to Southern California's deserts to see the blooms yourself!

Gravel Ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla)

Many of the desert's most brilliant wildflowers are annuals, short-lived plants that germinate, grow, flower, set seed and die within a few short months.  They can also be called ephemerals, meaning they only last for a short time.  This life strategy allows plants to take advantage of short windows of favorable conditions in the winter and spring, and avoid the harsh, dry conditions of summer.  When drying winds and singeing heat hit the desert, seeds of ephemerals lie dormant in the soil, waiting for just the right moment to spring to life. 

Desert Five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia)

In order for the desert to produce abundant wildflowers, conditions must be just right.  Rain must be consistent through the fall, winter and spring.  A half-inch of soaking rain is needed to begin the germination of annuals by washing the protective coating off of the seeds.  Then, gentle rain needs to fall intermittently in order to allow the tiny seedlings to flourish.

Mojave Aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia)

Temperatures must be high enough to warm the soil and promote germination of annual seeds, and there must not be too much wind.  Excessive wind dries the top layer of soil and desiccates small seedlings.  Desert plants are well-known for their ability to protect themselves from harsh conditions, and many have waxy coatings, tiny hairs or spines to shield themselves from the wind and prevent desiccation.  But ephemeral wildflowers lack these defenses, and dry up quickly in windy conditions.

Desert Dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata)

Masses of wildflowers blooming in the desert attract pollinators, like bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths, that would otherwise not visit the desert.  And pollination is the key to successful reproduction, the ultimate goal of every species.

Apricot Globe Mallow (or Desert Globe Mallow) (Sphaeralcea ambigua) - My personal favorite!

Different elevations in the Mojave Desert produce different wildflowers, starting with blooms at low elevations (below 3,000 feet) as early as mid-February.  (Though this year, I saw very few blooms in Death Valley in February.)  Low elevation flower shows, such as the display of Desert Gold that sometimes flanks Badwater Road in Death Valley, will continue through March.

Booth's Primrose (Camissonia boothii)

In April and early May, the flower show generally continues at higher elevations, between 3,000 and 5,000 feet.  In Death Valley, the drive to Dante's View atop the Black Mountains and the drive over Jubilee Pass are good places to look for wildflowers later in the spring.  By the end of May and into June, wildflower hunters will have to climb mountain slopes above 5,000 feet to find blooms.

Golden Evening Primrose (or Yellow Cups) (Camissonia brevipes)

250 species of spring annuals occur in the Mojave Desert, according to the Audubon Society.  And of those species, eighty percent are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.  Let that be a reminder to you of how special these protected places are!

Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata),

When hunting for wildflowers, remember to tread lightly and take only photographs.  Removing any plant parts, including flowers and seeds, is illegal.  Our deserts seem tough as nails, but they are in fact fragile ecosystems.  Deserts have taken much abuse over the years, as uninformed people flock to off highway vehicle recreation areas and tanks crawl across government-designated military bases and weapons testing areas.

Desert Dandelion

My hope is that after one has spent time in the desert - particularly during the spring among the wildflowers - he or she might come to appreciate what special places our deserts are.  There's nothing quite like seeing an otherwise barren land carpeted with wildflowers.

Carpets of Desert Dandelion!

Happy desert travels!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hiking Trails: Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park

This hike in Death Valley National Park offers the adventurous an opportunity to venture inside the labyrinth of badlands viewed from Zabriskie Point.  The badlands are composed of clay and ancient lake bed sediments; don't expect to find this part of the park blooming with wildflowers, as almost nothing is able to grow in the badlands.  If you're interested in fascinating geology, however, this hike is for you!

The trail into the Badlands, seen from the Zabriskie Point trailhead.

The trail can be accessed from Zabriskie Point above, or Golden Canyon along Badwater Road below.  Both trailhead parking areas have restrooms, but no drinking water.  Be sure to carry water with you on this hike, and drink it, even if it doesn't feel too hot.  It's a good idea to keep a couple of extra gallon-sized jugs full of water in your car when traveling in Death Valley, or any part of the desert.

Red Cathedral, beyond Golden Canyon

Last spring, Eric and I did the popular Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch hike, starting from the trailhead at Golden Canyon.  This hike is a 4.5 mile loop that climbs steeply up to the base of iconic Manly Beacon before dropping into the badlands.  The trail emerges along the Badwater Road through a steep gulch formed by erosion. 

View toward Manly Beacon - our trail will skirt the bottom of the formation.

The trail along the base of Manly Beacon (pictured below) looks more like a Bighorn Sheep path than a trail for hikers!  It is exposed and steep, not for the faint of heart!

Trail along the base of Manly Beacon.

But the trail affords stunning views of the maze of colorful badlands you are about to drop into.  The badlands topography seen here is part of the Furnace Creek formation, layers of ancient lake sediments, alluvial fans and volcanic ash deposits that have been uplifted, tilted and exposed to erosion.  (For those interested, I wrote more about the geology of Death Valley in another post.)


West of the Badlands, you will emerge into Gower Gulch, a gulch made artificially large through the diversion of water from Furnace Creek; the diversion caused an unnatural amount of erosion to take place.

Gower Gulch

After a bit of a scramble, it's an easy walk from Gower Gulch back to your car at the Golden Canyon trailhead.

Scrambling down a dry waterfall in Gower Gulch

A shorter option is the walk into Golden Canyon from the trailhead parking lot.  Hiking one mile into the canyon will give you a view of Red Cathedral, which can be reached via a 0.5 mile spur trail.

The complete 7.8 mile circuit can be completed by starting from Golden Canyon, hiking up to Red Cathedral, past Manly Beacon and through the badlands up to Zabriskie Point.  Pause here to take in the view before following the trail mostly downhill through Gower Gulch and back to the Golden Canyon trailhead parking area.

Badlands in the Golden Canyon / Gower Gulch vicinity

A word of caution: DO  NOT undertake this hike during the heat of summer!!  This area of the park is popular with tourists and has become a search and rescue hotspot (not a good thing to be known for).  Carry and drink more water than you think you need, and always wear sun protection (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen).  Know your limits: this hike involves elevation changes and climbing uphill can be challenging for some, especially in the heat.  Carry a map and compass with you, and know how to use them.  There are signs to follow along this trail, but don't depend on them!

Accessed from

Happy hiking!