Into the Inyos

The past month has seen me diving irreversibly further into realm of botany, while occasionally coming up for air to help out with other surveys. My fellow intern, Robbie, and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Funeral Mountains with the incredible Sarah DeGroot, from Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens. In exchange for helping with seed collections, she provided us with bundles of knowledge. Not only did we meet several new species of plants, we also learned how to more accurately fill out our data sheets and process our seed collections for mailing. Sarah’s style of botanizing was both impressive and inspiring. Working with her proved that a little organization and planning goes a long way!

The setting sun over the Funeral Mountains

The setting sun over the Funeral Mountains

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Oliomeris linifolia (Lineleaf Whitepuff) with Eagle Mountain as the backdrop

We were lucky enough to follow-up our week with Sarah with a visit to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens themselves. There we had access to the herbarium to identify a few of our mystery plants and familiarize ourselves with some of our target seed collection species. We also got a peek at their seed cleaning and storage facility. It was neat to get a better understanding of how our work fits into the larger picture of seed collection, cleaning, storage, and distribution. We are one link in the chain of the Seeds of Success program!

When we’re not learning about plants, we’re teaching about them. We helped out with an environmental education program that brings fourth graders on a field trip to a nearby canyon. They spend the day visiting various stations (plants, birds, aquatics, archeology, history, and art) where they learn about water conservation and the desert ecosystem they live in. Naturally, we were in charge of the plant station. We doled out hand lenses (tiny magnifying glasses for getting a better look at plant features) and informed them that they had become plant detectives! We proceeded to go for a short nature walk, stopping to examine the beavertail cactus, touch the fuzzy Anderson’s thornbush leaves, marvel at the height of the cottonwood trees, and smell the cheese bush leaves (and argue over whether it really smells like cheese). They learned why desert plants are so pale and their leaves so small. I enjoyed witnessing their raw curiosity about everything around them.

One of the parent chaperones on the field trip, making casual conversation, inquired as to whether the tarantulas had come out this year yet. I had to stop myself from spluttering, “THE WHAT!?” I have been repeatedly warmed about snakes, but no one mentioned the tarantulas. Apparently they are not out yet, or at least I have yet to see one! The snakes, however, are another story. I saw my first rattlesnake last week – a decent sized creature hanging out in a creek bed. Luckily it was content with slithering off under a shrub, where it proceeded to blend in alarmingly well.

As much fun as botany is, the past month also afforded us a chance to take a break from plants and tag along on a variety of other surveys being conducted on BLM land. Thus I joined a quest to locate the elusive Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander. The little amphibians enjoy hanging out under rocks in springs. They are found only in the Inyo Mountains, and therefore their range is fairly small. They are being considered for more strict conservation protection, which required updated surveying. The populations my team intended to survey were near Beveridge, allegedly the most remote ghost town in California, and had not been surveyed in over fifty years. We set off on an ambitious hike up an old mule trail. After at least a 7 mile climb and almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, realized why no one in recent history had surveyed these springs! A flash flood had wiped out the base of the wash we were following and the trail seemed to disappear on several occasions, adding to the length of our journey. In the end, our plan turned out to be too ambitious and we were forced to turn around before we reached the survey site, chalking up the excursion to a scouting trip. Luckily there was another population site, which we stopped to investigate on our way down, but alas, we did not find any salamanders.

View of the Eastern Sierras from the climb to Forgotten Pass in the Inyo Mountains

View of the Eastern Sierras from the climb to Forgotten Pass in the Inyo Mountains

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Echinocereus mojavensis (Mojave Kingcup Cactus)

The following week saw me perched just outside an open mine shaft equipped with night vision goggles, counter clickers, and infrared spotlights watching the sun set over Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierras. We had been recruited to monitor bat populations living in abandoned mines. Many of these mines have open “features” (shafts, for example) and are located in recreation areas – a dangerous combination. Since they are no longer mined, the BLM is working on filling in or otherwise closing the entrances. However, the mines also provide ideal habit for bats. Populations of Townsend and Pallid bats have taken up residence in many of the mines. That’s where we came in: each person helping with the exit counts was assigned an open feature to watch at dusk and count the number of bats entering and exiting. This data will then influence whether or not bat-compatible structures are needed to close the mines.

Dr. Pat the Bat biologist shows off a Townsends bat

Dr. Pat the bat biologist shows off a Townsend Bat

Overall this month has been another whirlwind of new experiences, from receiving more detailed seed collection training to sharing my enthusiasm for plants with local students to surveying for salamanders to monitoring bat populations. Until next time!

E. O’Connell
Ridgecrest BLM Office

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