The desert is full of life. Most of what you see is plant life, because it’s standing still and it’s there 24 hours a day.
There are hundreds or thousands of living creatures walking, running, flying and burrowing around you, but they’re difficult to find, nor do they want you to see them. They have no particular reason to like people. Chalk it up to innate good judgment. As soon as they see, hear or smell you, they’re gone. Like this mule deer I surprised when I turned a corner in a wash in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness last summer.
It had been lying in some shade by the trail, jumped up and covered 100 yards in a flash, leaping over rocks and brush in a display of power and grace no human could begin to imitate. Then it stopped and looked back at me as if to say, “Let’s see you do that, clumsy 2-legged animal.” My opportunity to take its picture before it moved on to find another spot to continue its siesta on a 100+-degree day.
To see coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, ground squirrels and deer, not to mention any of the varieties of snakes, lizards, beetles and other desert residents takes a lot of time, patience and either a fair amount of luck or a great deal of preparation. Many, especially the mammals, are nocturnal, and are asleep or resting while you hike past their nests and burrows. It helps to get up early and start looking as soon as there’s enough light to see by, or wait ’til the end of the day, cooler temperatures and low light. Some, you’ll simply never see.
Professional wildlife photographers invest enormous time and effort in identifying the likeliest seasons, places and times of day to find and photograph their subjects. Then they wait.
I enjoy taking photos, and do the best I can, although that’s not my primary purpose when I hike. I’m there for the experience, and I enjoy writing about what I’ve observed. Photos help illustrate scenes that are difficult to convey in words, like the look of the dry wash we were following in the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California recently:
Landscapes are easier to photograph than animals in at least one regard: They stay in one place. You can walk around, choose your angle, get the light the way you want it and compose a nice shot — even take time to consider how it might look reduced to black-and-white.
I do relish the opportunity to see wildlife, and I’m always on the lookout. Our recent trip to Anza-Borrego provided a few chances. We hiked through the middle of two sunny, hot days, so we didn’t have a lot of wildlife-spotting expectations. We had some pleasant surprises.
Anza-Borrego has more than 50 species of reptiles. A relatively large lizard is the Desert Iguana:
Fortunately, I spotted that one before it moved into some shade at our approach. As you can tell, if it had been sitting still in that dappled light, we’d almost certainly have walked past without seeing it. It’s almost perfectly camouflaged, about 14-16″ long.
Later, a few miles away, we saw another slightly smaller one:
The next day we encountered a lizard that’s common in the area, although I’d never seen one: the Western Zebra Tailed lizard
That one is 8-10″ long. It’s impressively quick, capable of running about 18 miles per hour. If you could cover distance at the same rate relative to your body size, you’d be traveling about 150 mph. Usain Bolt, officially the fastest human, manages 28 mph over 100 meters.
I saw one jackrabbit, but it was moving away from me, quickly. The ability of animals to cover broken terrain at terrific speeds never fails to impress me.
Sometimes you simply get lucky. Anza-Borrego gets half its name from the Spanish word for the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni): “Borrego.” They’re the classic mountain sheep, living up in the rugged, rocky terrain of the park, like this:
We pulled into the trailhead parking area for the most popular trail in the park, Borrego Palms Canyon. There’s a pool of water there. Drinking from the pool was a group of 6 or 8 Borregos, including several lambs.
A ranger explained that it’s common for the animals to come down to drink at the pool, although not every day. The nearest surface water is more than a mile up the canyon:
I’ll write about the hike up the canyon in a later post. Simply seeing the elusive bighorns is enough for now. Hours later, returning from our hike, we encountered two rangers with a spotting scope. They were watching the same group of sheep on the mountain, and it was a treat to see the ease with which the animals moved among and over the rocks, sure-footed and serene. That’s why I hike: not for the photos — just to see.
Interestingly, that pool from which the Borregos were drinking contains an extraordinarily rare creature: the Desert Pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius). Once common, descendants of fish that inhabited inland seas thousands of years ago, they’re now endangered and survive in only a handful of locations in the Sonora Desert. They’re less than 3″ long, and although I saw them, I don’t have an acceptable photograph for you.
One point worth making: It’s a matter of respect and mutual self-interest not to crowd too close to animals. They’re wild creatures, not exhibits. All these photos were shot in telephoto mode, the Borregos from about 40 yards. Safety is a concern. That ewe will defend her lamb if she feels it’s threatened. You do not want to provoke a 100-pound animal equipped with horns, twice your foot speed and motivated by maternal rage.
I try to bear in mind that I’m invading the animals’ home. I’m only a visitor.
What’s your best-ever wildlife spotting? Where? Leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Borrego photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.
Special thanks to the rangers and volunteers of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.