My phone rang a few weeks ago and I could hear the sound of money jingling in the background as one of the companies with whom I work was requesting my services for botanical surveys. Finally. It has been months since I have worked in my trained field of botany. Three days of field work was more like a vacation for me.
After a long drive into south eastern California, we reached our destination in the northwestern portion of the Mojave Desert. I was back in "search and record" mode as easily as I breath. Head down, eyes to the ground I moved across this new area scanning the flora and taking notes.
For this assignment, I was anticipating three long grueling days in desert temperatures, but was surprised by mild and windy days. The strength of the breeze became annoying at the end of the eight hours, ripping maps, wearing skin to near raw, and sucking the moisture from my lungs. The wind's ceaseless nagging wore me down in a different, but no less tiring way than sweltering heat.
The spiked and naked mountains jutting up from the brown earth were disturbing at first. I am not used to seeing such a xerophytic landscape and the lack of trees made me uncomfortable. But after a day of absorbing the views and acclimating to the habitat change, I started to appreciate the beauty in the rocky details and the bare slopes, as they reavealed exacting details of the mountains. There were no soft edges or fuzzy boarders, just well defined lines demarked by rocks and ridgelines. As I passed crumbling cliff faces who's shards of rock were gradually creeping down slope, I realized these pieces of earth would be there long after I was gone.
As a botanist my job is to record all the plants which I encounter, and "key" those which I don't know by sight. Identifying unfamiliar plants requires the use of books with dichotomous keys and inspection of flowers, stems and general life form of the specimen in hand. This is the stuff that I love to do, I guess I am sick like that.
So with a heightened alert I proceeded to investigate these strange lands and search for plants that I knew, scribling their names on my notepad. Unfortunately, there were a plethora of common weeds which have become naturalized in our state. They are the usual suspects like bromes and filarees, which in laymens terms are non-native grasses and broadleaves.
Then there were the ubiquitous shrubs I encountered across the arid habitat, and they consisted of species with which I was not familiar. I internalized their differences during the first two days of survey so I could distinguish one greenish-grey shrub from another within the rabbit brush scrub habitat.
On the last day of work, a slope which had been previously burned in a wild fire years ago stretched before me. At the top of the survey area a patch of green still remained, escaping the flames for some reason. The subtle change in it's aspect and slope, or by some random chance, this pocket was alive with green vegetation showing me what the habitat was like before the fire. In survey areas, I always investigate carefully those areas which are different than the others. It is most often they have the most information for me and hold plant species which are rare or special-status.
Hiking up the steep slope to my little patch of greenery, my lungs filled with dry air and my leg muscles began to feel a burn. One step followed the next, again and again, foot fall after foot fall, until I reached the top of the slope. Like a determined mountain goat, I climbed the hill side to gain access to the plants that remained alive. Amazingly, some of the few dozen shrubs that remained had flowers which I could use to identify their species.
There were six shrubs that I repeatedly saw in my survey areas, which I identified to the genus and species level after working through my references. From 20 feet away, each of these shrubs could be mistaken for one another due to the similarity in their shape, leaf arrangement, colors and size. So I concluded that evolution created one basic growth form for shrubby vegetation in southeastern California (or other airid areas).
Grey-green, round shaped, about three to four feet tall and possessing various armature is the only shrubby growth form which can survive the upper Mojave conditions. And, I am certain I am the one millionth ecologist to come up with this revelation. As I became accustomed to seeing the differences in the shrubs, they became more distinct from a far, but again this is only due to the fact I am a plant geek.
I especially liked the tiny leaves and pointed stems on this little beauty below.
Critters were sparse, but side blotch lizards were fairly common and I saw my first antelope ground squirrels on day two.
THEY are adorable, spastic, rodents! I stalked these little guys around for a little while trying to get a photo, but had to resort to borrowing one off the Internet. That these rodents are capable of hacking out a living in such a rough environment is a testament to adaptability and survival skills! If only I was as tough.
So that pretty much sums up my latest adventure at work. Bye for now!!!