Less than a month left. I expected to be doing constant office work at this point, but the weather has remained nice! A very dry autumn. There was even a wildfire in Carson last week. So instead of being shackled to our computers, the three of us have actually been able to get out in the field a fair amount. We’ve surveyed for rare plants, assessed burns, characterized uncommonly huge and dense populations of Eriogonum elatum, and made some late December seed collections.
We’ll be going to the CNPS 2012 annual conference in San Diego next week, and then it will be a lot of getting ready to pass off the reins to the next interns.
The intern team is shrinking rapidly. Our 9 person crew has now dropped to 3. Though I still have two months left, I’m constantly aware that the end is rapidly approaching and that I need to figure out what’s happening next. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will require a move. And while there’s always some excitement about getting to see a new place, I really hate moving and would like to find a good place to settle down for awhile. In the meantime, the ski season at Tahoe has begun, and I can now get to work on becoming a less awful skier.
Here is a random batch of semi-recent internship-related photos:
Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) seed pod
A section of the recent Burbank Fire. Pine Nut Mountains, NV.
Offset of depositional layers exposed in a diatomaceous earth mining pit.
A pretty big juniper and a pretty small intern. Peavine Mountain, above Reno.
We have recently been doing a lot of surveying for Eriogonum robustum, a rare buckwheat that only grows on altered andesite soils and is only known from the Virginia Range in western Nevada and from one other area near Reno. It’s pretty country, and the soil type really stands out because of its color and because it’s sparsely vegetated, and often the vegetation is unusual for the area. You don’t often see tree species like jeffrey pine and especially white fir and western white pine in the area otherwise.
We also recently did some surveying for another rare buckwheat, Eriogonum diatomaceum. It only grows in diatomaceous earth, and it is only known from diatomaceous deposits in Churchill Narrows in western NV. We did some surveying in Mineral County, NV, and though we didn’t find any E. diatomaceum, we did come across some huge mining pits. Part of me was bothered by them because huge areas were completely torn up and deeply excavated. It’s public land. It belongs to everyone, but mining interests were allowed to destroy it to get what they wanted and then leave the rest of us with a permanently altered landscape. But at the same time…it looked really cool. Dune-like mounds of white, diatomaceous earth bordering white, canyon-like pits that might have beautiful, exposed strata. Was it worth it? Plants are growing all over it, so it’s not like it’s barren and sterile, and maybe what was there before was a lot less interesting. But then maybe what was there before was amazing, and it was ruined partly so that house cats can more conveniently go to the bathroom indoors (diatomaceous earth is used for cat litter, among other things). I’ll never know.
In my short ecologically-oriented career, I have worked a fair amount in burnt areas. I spent one summer doing vegetation sampling in north-central WA in the Tripod Fire, a huge, intense burn in an overstocked, fire-suppressed forest. The level of destruction was incredible. Some areas were absolutely scorched! What really surprised me was how beautiful the burns could be sometimes, and I have been reminded of that to some extent lately as I have been out CLMing. Lately, we have been assessing the intensity of very recent fires. This is the first time I have been in such recent burns (a month or so after the fire), and I was surprised to see things (e.g. desert peach and a buckwheat (I think it was elatum)) already resprouting! But again, I was struck by how beautiful the burns could be. It brings out a different kind of starkness and makes the landscape seem even vaster than it already does. It’s also fascinating to see how the fire skipped some areas despite burning everything else around them, and it makes me wish I had taken more fire ecology classes in school. It all adds another level of appreciation to the desert in particular and the natural world in general, and I hope I get to do more work with fires in the future.
Seed collection is great because it gives you a legitimate reason to drive/hike around, explore new places, and look at plants, and you get paid to do it! Not finding much around the volcanic craters near Mono Lake? Why don’t we head up that stunning, glacially-carved, Eastern Sierra canyon and see what’s growing up there? There’s nothing much to collect in these foothills. Why don’t we head down to the huge salt flat in Smith Creek Valley, NV?
On a salt flat in Smith Creek Valley, NV
The huge variety of seed sizes and forms is really interesting, and training myself to look for seed has really added a new depth to my knowledge of and interest in botany. Mimulus guttatus seeds are so small and numerous that they appear as a fine, black powder. Epilobium ciliatum seeds are tiny, attached to tufts, and carried off by the wind. Needle-and-thread grass seeds are corkscrew-shaped and literally screw themselves into the ground. As always, plants are incredible.
However, I have definitely seen some noteworthy, non-botanical things as we have traveled around the NV deserts. The coolest thing I have seen recently is glow-in-the-dark scorpions! Apparently, all scorpions fluoresce under black lights, and we saw many of them on a night walk at Sand Mountain.
I am a scorpion.
Easily the creepiest and darkly weirdest thing I have seen so far was in one of the salt flats in Smith Creek Valley. Maybe a mile or so in, there is a large, wooden post with two dead animals hanging from it. At the top was a mummified cow (with what looks like a bird’s nest in its pelvis). Near the bottom was a second skeleton, suspended by wires which creaked when the wind blew. There were no signs nor any indication whatsoever of why everything was there.
Welcome to the desert!
I feel privileged to have been able to work at so many great locations for this internship. One of my favorites is Sand Mountain, a 600-foot high, 2 mile long sand dune in west-central Nevada that is a glaring anomaly in what is otherwise typical basin and range landscape. ATVs are the most time-effective way to travel around in dunes, and we have used them in our efforts to plant buckwheat for a rare butterfly, survey for rare plants, and collect native seed. Wildlife we have seen includes horny toads, which partially bury themselves in the sand to avoid being seen, scorpions that glow under a black light, and a kangaroo rat that was so curious and habituated that it came into our camp and dug a little burrow directly under a co-intern’s rear end. This same critter later ran up another intern’s pant leg later on, followed by a stay under my legs.
We camped on the east side of the dune area during our most recent visit, and in the adjacent valley, the military does electronic warfare, which is a type of training, so we would see flashes of light and flame in the distance, adding another odd dimension to an already unusual area.
Next week, we will be heading to a completely different landscape, that of the tufa towers of Mono Lake. In addition to collecting seed near the lake, we will be visiting Bodie State Historical Park to gain new perspectives on resource management issues, and we will be helping with botanical education at a youth camp. I’m really looking forward to it!
My appreciation for the Great Basin deepens every day. Everything I do, anything form treating weeds to surveying for sensitive plant species, helps me to understand the landscape and how everything fits together. At the same time, the work has allowed me to spend extensive amounts of time in places I might have just driven by otherwise, places that might not have any dramatic features to draw in tourists but are still beautiful in their own right. For example, I wouldn’t recommend the Constantia Fire burn area as a must-see for people visiting the area, but I really enjoyed being out there in the foothills of the Sierras.
Red Rock Canyon, one of our survey sites
Favorite new-to-me plants:
Brown’s peony (Paeonia brownii) with its weird, ground-facing, meaty-looking flowers that sprout green, surprisingly-large, tusk-like pods when in fruit.
Clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata): fully parasitic, non-photosynthetic plants that don’t really even have leaves. The entire plant is either yellow or pink. We dug one up and were able to see where it was growing directly out of a sagebrush root–an unexpectedly small root for how much plant mass was coming up.
The parasitic plant known as clustered broomrape
My internship is in Carson City, NV. A common misconception of Nevada seems to be that it is a flat, endless, dull, hot wasteland. However, it is actually a very diverse state, the most mountainous of the contiguous U.S. Already, we have worked in a variety of habitats including pinyon-juniper forest, salt desert, ephemeral lakes, a 400-foot high sand dune, and sagebrush steppe. Still to come are places like the tufa formations of Pyramid Lake and the meadows and forests of the Sierra Nevada.
Carson City is located at the base of the Carson Range–a spur of the Sierra Nevada–and is pretty close to a lot of great places. Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake (22 x 11 miles) and second-deepest lake (1,600+ feet) of any kind in North America, where I have already skied, snowshoed, and hiked, is 20 minutes away. The high country of Yosemite is 2.5 hours away (once Tioga Pass finally opens). The tufa towers and volcanic craters of Mono Lake are ~2 hours away. The 35-mile-long playa of the Black Rock Desert is 2-3 hours away. If you want a larger city, Reno is 45 minutes north.
It’s difficult to sum up the four months I have already spent here, but I have really enjoyed learning a new flora and experiencing the different ecosystems. I am also fortunate to work with some excellent co-interns. They even baked me a surprise birthday cake recently.
Tomorrow, we leave for the almost coast of California for a rapid vegetation assessment training. I’m really looking forward to learning the skills, and I know they will be valuable in my near and far future. More blogging to come.