By Ashley Kvitek, ABF Education Coordinator
In case you missed the news, Spring has come and gone in Anza-Borrego. It was a lovely (albeit short) time filled with fantastic temperatures, a little bit of rain, a lot of beautiful flowers, a couple adventures, hundreds of hawks eating thousands of caterpillars, and is being rounded out with the emergence of the Sphinx moths that Ranger Steve talked about in the last blog post. And the heat. The heat is coming.
The Winter/Spring time period is honestly one of the hardest for me here in the desert. Yes, the temperatures are lovely and the list of adventures that are waiting just outside my door are absolutely endless. However, it is also our busy season, and that leaves little time for us to actually get out and enjoy this place we care so much about. I felt like I missed out on all of the opportunities to enjoy myself last season, so I decided to go whole-hog this year and do pretty much anything I could weasel my way in to. The result? I’m exhausted, but in the last six months I truly believe I’ve experienced more of what the desert has to offer than I did in my whole first year.
Now the question is, where to start?!? This season was a whirlwind and I hardly can remember when it started. I remember the fabulous and snowy kick-start to the New Year but after that, I have to think really hard to remember all of the things I had the opportunity to do. Guess I’ll just have to focus on the highlights!
Through my work here at Anza-Borrego Foundation I was able to go on three perfectly strenuous Mike’s Hikes to places I would never go on my own- I almost made it to the top of Indian Head right here in the Borrego Valley, we went on an unexpectedly snowy adventure to the top of Whale Peak, and then, just a couple days before my birthday, we hiked up to the top of Villager and back in about 8 hours. A big thanks to all for making it a birthday to remember! I thought Indian Head would be my favorite, since I’ve wanted to tackle that peak since I got here, but Villager was it for me. It completely kicked my butt and then handed it to me on a platter- twice- but I loved every second of it. For sake of brevity, I’ll simply say that you should join ABF next year for at least one Mike’s Hike!
I was also recruited to be the staff member on hand for a couple of our mountain bike rides. I do not mountain bike. Riding a bike seems like WAY more work than is really necessary to me, since I’m perfectly capable of using my feet to walk safely and slowly down a steep decline. I will say, though, that with our fearless and caring leaders, I really enjoyed both the ride down Grapevine Canyon and the Glorieta Canyon loop that I was able to tackle this year. Mountain biking is a brand new experience (complete with 2 flat tires on the first ride) and I can’t wait to get back into it when the time comes around for next season’s rides.
Now let’s talk about the big show. This year, the flowers came out in numbers that haven’t been seen in over five years. Apparently it wasn’t much of a big-bloom year, but it was pretty epic to my eyes! I watched the flowers come out on hikes here and there up to Granite Peak, into Rainbow Canyon, up Borrego Palm Canyon and Flat Cat Canyon, on a geology drive into the Borrego Badlands, on other short adventures throughout the Park, and on my daily runs just along the side of the roads here in town. The day I finally decided I had better get myself to Henderson Canyon Rd was one of the two days it rained right in the middle of the bloom. Seeing the mountains shrouded in clouds and creating a backdrop to the bursts of color on the desert floor completely blew me away. When I first considered moving here to Borrego, I Googled Anza-Borrego. (Of course I did, I grew up in the age of technology!) All of the photos that came up were from the “Wildflower Year” blooms that haven’t happened here in many years. Obviously, my perception of spring was skewed that first year. I was not, however, disappointed when this year’s blooms came around. It started out with just a few flowers here and there. A couple Desert Lilies, perhaps, followed by the Sand Verbena, and then the Dune Evening Primrose and the Brown-eyed Primrose and the Phacelia and the Desert Sunflower, and all the rest that I don’t have the room to mention! I was wowed everywhere I went. For about a month I was in a constant state of awe just looking around at these beautiful flowers sprouting up from an otherwise monochrome-brown landscape. I found myself getting re-immersed into the practice of naturalizing, when a short hike could take hours due to a renewed attention to the plethora of things to learn about and identify.
The amazing thing about desert flowers is how ephemeral they are. It seems they were blooming and beautiful one moment, and dried up and gone or eaten the next moment. My knee-jerk reaction to the hundreds and then thousands of caterpillars eating the delicate Dune Evening Primrose was sadness. Then I realized that those destructive little caterpillars are actually a very interesting piece in the puzzle of The Nature. Although they do chomp their way right through our beautiful fields of flowers (think of a field of verbena, and then two days later- NOTHING), their adult counterparts- the Sphinx Moths- are the pollinators of many desert plants. Not to mention the fact that they provide some good eats for our famous annual migrators, the Swainson’s Hawks. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. Last spring I saw a couple of kettles from far away and I thought that was okay. Nothing overwhelmingly exciting about a bunch of birds flying in circles. Oh boy, oh boy! Sometimes I love it when I’m wrong.
I made a decision in mid-February to commit some of my evenings to watching the hawks come in. I was not excited about it, but I was resolved to immerse myself in some Citizen Science in action whether I liked it or not. Luckily, this year sort of kept everyone guessing and it turned out to be a very exciting experience for me. At one point during the Hawkwatch (which is done every year from February 15-April 15) the birds stuck around for a few days. This is not normal behavior- usually the hawks come in, stay the night in one of the stands of trees near the farms, and then kettle up and head out the next morning. I got to see birds on the ground chomping on caterpillars. I saw Ravens attacking Swainson’s Hawks while in flight. I watched a bunch come in one night, heard a report that none left the next morning, watched a hundred come in that evening, and then heard none left the next morning again. It was crazy. I was able to finally catch a morning count, and was astounded when the birds lifted off, kettled up, and streamed right over my head into Coyote Canyon and out of Borrego Valley. One morning near the end of this season’s count, I drove up to the morning count site, got out of my car, looked up, and couldn’t believe my eyes. The hawks were RIGHT THERE over my head, some of them kettling, some of the streaming, some of them feeding on flying ants while they were flying. It was an absolutely magical experience made even more so by the wonderful corps of volunteers the Hawkwatch employs to sit in the sun morning and evening watching birds for what feels like hours on end. Each one of the main counters, and those that simply love to help out day after day, were so wonderfully knowledgeable and willing to share their insight with a birding novice like myself. It is truly a special group of bird nerds here in the Borrego Valley.
And at this point, I must bring myself to a halt. I have many more adventures and learning experiences that I want to share with you from this season, but each one could be a blog post on its own: Granite Peak, Indian Head Peak, Rainbow Canyon, the Mud Volcanoes at the Salton Sea, a trip up Coyote Canyon with the youth photographers from the Borrego Springs Elementary School, the time we spent with our fabulous AmeriCorps team, my ride down Grapevine Canyon, and so many, many more! For now, just keep adventuring, learning, and getting outside in the beautiful landscapes of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park!
Lead photo by Don Endicott. Hawk photos by Hal Cohen and Iris. All other photos by Ashley Kvitek.