Road trip adventures part 2 — eastern Nevada’s fabulous cave

Great Basin national park in east-central Nevada near the Utah border is a relatively new member (established in 1986) of the national park system. Named for its unique hydrology as a collection bowl that only drains internally: i.e., water flows into the Great Basin, pools briefly, then drains through the crust or evaporates, with no flow leaving the basin.

The bowl of the Great Basin extends from the Sierra Nevada range in the west to the Wasatch range of Western Utah in the east. Tectonic activities throughout the 200,000+ square mile area have created a series of low mountain ranges that have been likened to a “group of caterpillars crawling toward Mexico”. Great Basin national park is located just below the “a” of Great Basin on the map.
Among its exceptional features this park includes 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak and it’s assorted granite-lined valleys and alpine lakes, groves of the world’s oldest living trees — Bristlecone pines, and the amazing and varied formations of Lehman Caves.
While we waited for our cave tour to start, we drove up near Wheeler peak summit for a 3 mile hike through some alpine lakes. It was breath-taking! (Literally) scenery, and nice to hike without a pack.
There is a definite tree line on these steep mountains. Lack of water and cold temperatures create a very short growing season for these conifers, such as spruce, bristlecone, and limber pine.

But, Lehman cave was what we came to this park to see. The cave was discovered in the 1880s, was privately owned for a while, made into a national monument in 1922, and then incorporated into the much larger national park. Some of the most unique of all cave formations are found in abundance here —

Lehman Caves has such familiar cave formations as stalactitesstalagmitescolumnsdraperiesflowstone and soda straws. There are also some rarities such as shields, which consist of two roughly circular plates fastened together like fattened clam shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate. Lehman Caves is most famous for its abundance of shields. A shield called the Parachute and other formations make touring Lehman Caves an unusual and rewarding experience. Delicate helictites, small branching formations that defy gravity, and anthodites, small needle-like crystals of aragonite, are also found throughout the caves. Cave popcorn resembling the edible variety, adorns many walls.” (https://www.desertusa.com/grb/lehman.html)

Not just a stalactite meeting a stalagmite, but thick columns of calcium carbonate run floor to ceiling through the cavern.
Popcorn additions to cave structures are calcite or aragonite deposits.
An entire room full of fantastic shapes created by the slowly percolating, calcium-carbonate seepages through porous rock.
Delicate spires cover underlying mounds of calcium rich rock, creating unique shapes.
Rarely seen in most caves, there are numerous “shields” in Lehman cave that form from two halves that grow together to fit like a clam shell.

No flash photography is allowed in the cave, but the formations are well lit so that a camera phone can capture their beauty. Passageways are very narrow, with delicate formations right in the middle of the path that we had to carefully walk around without touching. The formations are wet, and water drips continuously from the ceiling, so the path is slippery in some places. Needless to say, our visit here was one of the highlights of the “road trip-2022”.

And next it’s on to the dinosaurs of Utah!

Road trip adventures 2022 – Nevada

The two youngest grandsons accompanied us from California back to Minnesota at the conclusion of the annual Sierra backpacking trip. Of course, it’s standard practice to stop at various geographic and geological wonders along the way to educate and entertain the youngsters (both teen-agers now). This sometimes results in ”misadventures” instead of just adventures, but there were no flat tires on this trip, unlike the previous summer’s trifecta of blown rubber.

Once again over the crest of the Sierras, we traveled on Hwy 50 (“the loneliest road in America”) across Nevada. Although most people avoid driving this road because of its supposedly monotonous features, we always find plenty to look at.

First stop was the hill we have always called “Wonderstone Mountain”, 10 miles southeast of Fallon. Although the location is just north of the highway, the myriad of roads that people drive through the desert makes it hard to find the right route. The boys quickly climbed the hill and began to look for the curiously marked “wonderstones”.
Colorful rocks and pebbles were probably formed as gaseous vents spewed minerals through the clay sediments of lake beds in this area millions of years ago.
The next stop was Ichthyosaur state park, where a 55 foot replica of the largest reptile of Mesozoic seas is mounted outside the museum. These creatures were the top marine predators of their time— air-breathing “whales” of the ancient oceans.
The museum houses the skeletons of at least six ichthyosaurs, still encased in stone. Scientists believe the huge animals may have beached themselves in shallow mud and died there, but their bones became separated and jumbled together when the area was buried in mudslides and subjected to uplift in several mountain building events.

The park is located near the once-booming, mining town of Berlin, 20 miles east of Gabbs, NV, in the foothills of the Shoshone Mountains. More than a ton of gold was mined here,- valued at $850,000 in 1890 prices ($20/ounce). The thriving town of about 300 miners, merchants, etc. was deserted when the ore vein ran out, but it never burned, so many of the original buildings and some of the equipment used still remain.

Nearby, Ione was an even more prosperous town in the mid 1800s when it attracted a population of 600. But failing mines caused people to drift away, so that by the 1890s, just a skeleton crew remained. However, unlike Berlin, the few that remained in Ione kept the town alive until the post office closed in the 1950s. Now, the town sees just a few tourists, fond of visiting the ghost towns of Nevada.

A day late and a dove short

I should have posted this composite image of White-winged Doves coming to and leaving a perch yesterday — when it was National Pigeon/Dove day. Oh well….hence, the title of the post.

White-winged Doves are one of the most numerous birds in the desert southwest, and they are especially attractive in flight with their black and white accents.
Dun-colored plumage matches the background of the desert floor, but how about those beautiful orange eyes with their blue eye shadow!

These doves are native to central America and Mexico, but expand northward into southern most CA, AZ, NM, and TX during their breeding season. They time their arrival with the blooming and fruiting of the saguaro cactus, feasting on its nectar, pollen, flowers, and seeds. In fact, the tiny seeds of the saguaro are the only ones the doves will consume, because they are so easy to pick out of the cup-shaped fruit.

The saguaro cacti were just beginning to bloom in late May in southeastern AZ. This particular cactus was about 12 feet tall, with 3-inch flowers only on its top. The nectar and pollen in the flowers attracts bats, birds, and insects, ensuring lots of pollination and fruit set.

Many dove species are particularly successful in hot, dry desert environments — they are the only birds that can pump or suck up water with their bills immersed so they can rehydrate quickly, and they are strong flyers that can search for waterholes within a wide radius of their nest. Once well hydrated doves can evaporatively cool themselves by panting, even at air temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). Amazing survivors!

Morning desert visitors

Our morning photography sessions in the Alan Murphy Arizona photography workshop began at 4:30 a.m. with a drive into a canyon in the foothills southeast of Green Valley, AZ. A short hike down a steep hill brought us to an almost flat spot where we set up our cameras in a tent blind while workshop leader Alan Murphy and assistant Dano Grayson “decorated” the site with branches, flowers, and perches and loaded them with bird treats.

Alan (left) and fellow participant Lee Anne put the finishing touches on a perch decorated with yellow flowers while Dano (right) straightened a tall ocotillo skeleton perch.
The camera blind was far enough away from the perches to encourage bird visitors, but close enough to allow us to get great close-ups of most of them.
The ocotillo perch was a favorite of the Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays, both attracted to the peanuts and nutty suet stuffed into the holes and cracks of the woody stems.
The Phainopepla male visited only briefly, but lined up on this branch with the sunrise light in the background for a lovely pastel glow.
There is no doubt that Hooded Orioles are one of the most striking birds in the Arizona desert landscape. They are a brilliant yellow in Arizona, but the birds in Texas and eastern Mexico are bright orange — I wonder if it’s their diet.
Black-headed Grosbeaks were easily the most common visitor to the feeders in this canyon. Many individuals looked like they hadn’t finished molting to their breeding plumage, and males far outnumbered the females which have a black and white striped head and less orange on their breast.
A favorite at both the morning and the afternoon blinds out in the desert floor was the Brown-crested Flycatcher. This bird is the western equivalent of our midwestern Great-crested Flycatcher — they look and sound almost identical to each other.
Tiny Lucy’s Warbler frequently swooped in to grab a bite of orange or suet. Their signature brown cap is just barely visible.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum from Lucy’s Warbler, Mexican Jays spent little time perching but immediately went to the suet or peanuts, grabbed something, and took off.
Nothing like a free meal…

The chase is on

As any fan of morning cartoons from the 1950s knows, Roadrunners are very fast runners (more than twice as a fast as the average human), and they use that leg speed to run down and capture slower moving prey. We had a demonstration of that late one afternoon in our Alan Murphy photography workshop near Green Valley, AZ.

Roadrunners don’t often need to fly, but in this case, it spied a lizard wagging its tail on a dead cholla trunk. I noticed that when the sun hits the Roadrunner’s feathers just right, they are iridescent.
Roadrunner vs lizard, part 1 — landing on the perch.

Lizards don’t usually perch this high on a dead cholla trunk, but they do climb into the middle of bushes or align themselves vertically on a bare stem in the middle of the day to avoid the direct solar radiation. However, in this case, the lizard is more or less a “sitting duck” on this high perch.

Roadrunner vs lizard, part 2 — the attack. Lizard obviously sees the bird coming and begins its escape. This is a test of bird vs lizard reaction time and accuracy of strike. But both species have a variety of maneuvers they can use to capture or avoid being captured.
Roadrunner vs lizard, part 3 — the grab. Oops, it looks like the Roadrunner may have missed a good hold on the lizard, or conversely, the lizard has wriggled itself out of the bird’s grasp.
Roadrunner vs. lizard, part 4 — the miss. Score one for the lizard because it got away. Roadrunner immediately abandons perch and drops to the ground for the chase.

Down on the ground, the Roadrunner definitely has an advantage. They can sprint at top speeds of 26 mph, but are also capable of chasing over long distances at just under 20 mph (note: the average “fit” human can run a mile at 6-8 mph).

Roadrunner vs lizard, part 5 — the chase. Now the advantage is for the Roadrunner because the fast-twitch, oxidative fibers in its leg muscles will outlast and outsprint the mostly fast, but fatigable muscle fibers of the lizard’s back legs. Full-out running posture of the Roadrunner is usually more erect with its wings pressed to its side, but the bird is closing in on the lizard here — not trying to win a race.
Getting closer to the grab, the Roadrunner lowers its head and retracts the wings to become a sleek arrow, darting toward its prey.
Roadrunner vs. lizard, part 6 – success! Another delicious meal snagged for its chicks, waiting back in the nest. Photo by Peter Relson, another participant in the photo workshop.

Roadrunners are opportunistic in their hunting; they can capture (and eat) a wide variety of animals such as grasshoppers and tarantula hawk wasps, tarantulas, scorpions, lizards (even venomous ones), snakes (even small rattlesnakes), small birds and nestlings, small mammals, some fruits and seeds from cactus and sumac. It is one of the few predators that can consume venomous prey!

While watching hummingbirds at a feeder last year in Portal, AZ, we saw a Roadrunner dash up to the feeder, leap into the air, and snatch a hummingbird while it was hovering. Needless to say, Roadrunners are amazingly quick!

Evening visitors at a desert oasis

We set up for our late afternoon photography sessions with Alan Murphy at a private home site about 13 miles south of Green Valley AZ, where a man-made pond drew in the wildlife as the heat of the day finally waned.

Water is not required for the survival of some desert animals: many lizard and bird species can save water by making a concentrated urinary-fecal paste instead of losing water as urine; and some desert mammals can make a highly concentrated urine that minimizes their water loss from that avenue. But most animal species will utilize fresh water for bathing and drinking if they have access to it.

A pair of Roadrunners roam this home site and nest here. They were unperturbed by our presence and came right up in front of us to drink in the early evening. Being well adapted to the desert aridity, Roadrunners don’t really need access to fresh water because they get enough water from their animal prey and can excrete excess salt through specialized salt glands located below their eyes.
Roadrunner male and female look alike, so the only way to be sure which member of the pair you’re photographing is by their behavior. This individual was “acting” like a male when the female was around by drooping his wings and waving his tail.
Gambel Quail are another well-adapted desert species and get some moisture from eating succulent green vegetation. They can tolerate air temperatures higher than their body temperatures (104 F) as long as they have some access to water or green vegetation, but will become dehydrated and lose weight on a diet of dry seed alone. Only one of the pair of quail drank at a time, while the other one “stood watch”.
Desert cottontail rabbits can also live in this arid environment without access to fresh water. However, they are attracted to the succulent vegetation that grows near water sources. Rabbits typically avoid the heat of the day under a bush and emerge only when the air temperatures are lower and the evening or morning humidity is higher.
A pet Gila Monster placed near the pond immediately went for a swim — after “tasting” the environment with its tongue. Their huge swollen tail is actually their fat store, which can be used up as a fuel source when animal prey become scarce. Fat metabolism also produces water as a byproduct.
Most desert reptiles don’t need to drink water because they are so efficient at conserving water loss through their scaly skin and concentrated urinary paste. But Gila Monsters consume a lot of water in their diet of small mammals, lizards, frogs, and insects.

After sunset, we set up our cameras to capture photos of bats flying across the pond by focusing on a particular spot, and then shooting continuous 20-sec exposures for the duration of the night (that’s 3 shots per minute, 60 minutes per hour, for about 12 hours = about 2000 shots). Bats flying across the pond would trigger a strobe light that provided the illumination for the images, and on the first night we tried this, I managed to get 63 images with bats, or parts of bats, in them. Not bad for a first try.

This is likely to be the Long-eared Myotis, a small bat found in the western U.S. that lives in habitats ranging from arid shrublands to subalpine forests. They feed primarily on insects, gleaning them from the ground or trees, or hawking them from the air by using echolocation. Flying requires high metabolism and thus high water loss in these animals, so bats are dependent on pools of water to replenish their losses. In this particular image, it looks like the bat might have dived into the water and kicked up a large number of water droplets when it took off. Notice that the membranes of its wings are so thin, you can see the skeletal supports.

Multi-shot extravaganza

We had numerous opportunities to photograph birds in flight at Alan Murphy’s Bird photography workshop outside of Green Valley, Arizona this past week. There were so many good opportunities that I wanted to capture their flight in just one composited image. In case you’re not familiar with this technique, I overlaid successive images taken of their flight onto the image of the right-most bird in the photo — in this case using the double exposure tool in SnapSeed.

A Gila Woodpecker in action — their normal flight is flap, glide like a bullet in a sleek aerodynamic shape, but this particular take-off featured a nice banked wing spread.

Alan has perfected the set-up for capturing birds in flight by placing entry points to feeding sites, so that birds fly directly across in front of us from one perch to another on the same focal plane. With cameras set at 1/1000-1/2000 second with a capture rate of 20-24 frames per second, we can capture 6-10 decent images of flight.

A male Pyrrhuloxia (desert Cardinal), whose color, shape, and vocalizations resemble those of the Northern Cardinal, on the move from one perch to another. You rarely get to see the beautiful colors in this bird’s wings unless you capture them in flight.

And just for fun, I tried my luck capturing the take-off of the golden paper wasp from the small pond in front of our blind…and luck it really was because I only managed to do it once.

Golden paper wasps came to the pond for an afternoon drink. Their long legs resting on the water don’t break the surface tension of the water, allowing them to just rest on it while imbibing. Usually a photographer gets no signal that the wasp is about to take off, but Alan said they usually drink for 23 seconds, so I counted to 22 and started shooting.

Flowers of the desert

Although we have been a little early in some places and a little late in others, we still have seen some of the spring wildflower show as we travel.

One of the most exotic flowers we saw were on this claret cup cactus, actually an endangered species found only at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico — which is exactly where we were when we saw it. The plant puts out brilliant scarlet flowers on cylindrical stems that mound together into a cactus clump.
The color of the flowers suggests it might be pollinated by hummingbirds, although the shape of the flower is wrong. However, the “flower” is actually the outer sepals and petals combined, and the nectar reward for the hummingbird pollinators is in the central chamber surrounded by hundreds of thready stamens.
Cylindrical flowers of the Ocotillo are the more typical hummingbird floral type, but a number of other birds enjoy these flowers for their nectar, as well as the insects they attract.
Why bother probing into the flower for nectar when you can just rip the flower off the stem and eat the whole thing, as this male Pyrrhuloxia is doing?
Looking for insects on unopened Ocotillo buds? A male Gila Woodpecker might enjoy both a nectar and an insect reward from these flowers.
A female Rufous Hummingbird foraged on a bunch of Penstemon flowers in the early morning at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona.
A Clear-wing Moth and Pygmy Blue butterfly foraged on the bush lupine right outside our room at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona. This plant had so many flowers and apparently so much nectar, it was constantly moving with the all the butterflies and bees swarming on it.
The Southern California deserts didn’t receive enough rain this year to produce much of a wildflower show, but the Desert Agave still bloomed here, along with many Ocotillo plants, giving this desert in Anza Borrego State Park some color. The Agave plants only send up one flower spike in their lifetime, as tall as the plant’s energy resources will allow, to attract bats to pollinate them.

Birding is such hard work

We sit quietly in chairs placed strategically near bird feeders, waiting expectantly with cameras on laps and binoculars glued to eyes, searching for that iconic shot of some new bird we’ve never seen before, or a better shot of a bird we have seen many times before. When we’ve exhausted the possibilities at one site, we get in the car and move on to the next one. It’s such hard work…(not). But it’s the thrill of the hunt for the best shot that keeps us going from place to place.

From my chair I could see hummingbirds coming to any one of six feeders (two shown here), but most were too far away to get good close-ups of the action. Oranges, jars of grape jelly, platforms with seed, and containers of suet mix were spread out in the trees in front of us — a real bird buffet. All we had to do was sit and wait for birds to show up.

In Portal, Arizona, in the foothills of the Chiricahua mountains, you are welcome to visit the backyards of the local residents to sit and photograph the birds that visit their feeders. At this particular backyard, a Roadrunner (lower left of the photo) walked through the backyard looking for an unwary bird to capture. It made a half-hearted attempt to lunge at a hummer on one of the feeders in the photo above, but gave up and moved on. We heard it had grabbed and eaten a Cactus Wren just a half hour before.

This is a collage of the Broad-billed Hummingbird’s approach to the feeder. If the bird catches the light just right, it shows off it’s beautiful iridescent blue and green feathers. Photos taken at 1/2000th of a second stop the rapid wing action as the bird hovers in place. Click on the image to view it in full screen.
Even though the feeder is large in comparison to their size, hummingbirds aren’t very tolerant of others trying to feed at the same time they are. Here, a female Blue-throated hummer feeding on the left is much larger than the approaching make Broad-billed Hummingbird, and just her presence there is enough to make him hesitate to settle on the feeder.

Arizona sunset time

What can you see in just a couple hours time in the Sonoran desert north of Tucson? Quite a lot it turns out! We bagged (photo-wise) a badger and a roadrunner in the first 15 minutes after getting out of the car at Catalina State Park, and thought we were off to a good start finding animals we hadn’t yet seen on the trip.

Crossing the dry wash and climbing the adjacent hill we found a few old friends:

A flock of Gambel Quail scurrying through the brush. This is the desert equivalent of the more mesic chaparral inhabitant, the California Quail.
A very photogenic little Hermit Thrush that was poking about in the dry leaf litter. I was surprised to see this bird here because I associate it with the much wetter temperate forest where it breeds. But apparently they can adapt to desert aridity well.
On the dry hillside, a Cactus Wren greeted us with its scolding chatter.
The late afternoon sun really shows off the red eye of the Phainopepla!
It’s amazing how much you can find in this diverse habitat, with deciduous trees in and along the dry wash, and a variety of cacti on the hillsides.
A beautiful place we want to visit again and again.
But we ran out of daylight, so until next time…