Monthly Archives: September 2011

Lizard behavior, observed

My computer is next to a window on the north side of our building. About five feet away is the flat roof of the building next-door. Beyond that are a few palm trees and some restaurants and banks, and beyond those is a flank of Mount San Jacinto. This gives me plenty to look at when I take my eyes off the screen. A week ago a roadrunner landed on the roof and trotted back and forth in front of my window for a bit. Earlier this spring a Costa’s hummingbird would come by, hover in front of the open window a bit, and ask if the cat could come play.

But until now, I hadn’t had any lizards walk past. One just did, using the concrete block wall’s protrusion above the roof surface as a shaded walkway. It trotted past with its tail held oddly, saw me through the window screen and glass and froze.

I went for the camera until I remembered it’s not working, then grabbed my small pair of binocs instead. Only about eight feet away, the lizard filled my view in the glasses. It was a Sceloporus magister a.k.a. desert spiny lizard, a nice fat one, and it peered at me through the layers of window and I peered back at it.

After a few seconds it started doing pushups at me: a dominance / territory display, and one in which I myself have some measure of expertise. The relevant section from that post, for those of you with the tl;dr reflex:

Driving slowly back down the canyon in Annette’s Little British Convertible as the sun passed behind the mountain, I slowed for another granite spiny lizard crossing the narrow road in front of me. It stopped to face me, did some pushups at the little car exposing his blue belly in a display of territorial dominance. A few years back in the Grand Canyon I was lying on my stomach in the shade of a cottonwood and saw the granite spiny’s cousin, the desert spiny lizard, a foot in front of my eyes on the tree trunk. He did the same lizard pushups at me. His belly was green, a shiny olive color. It occurred to me as I lay there that my shirt was the same color as his display patch, and I did a few pushups right back at him. His eyes seemed to get very wide, and he did a few extremely hurried head bobs at me before he ran away. The granite spiny today brought that to mind, and if Annette’s Blue Mini had low-rider hydraulics I might have tried for a repeat performance. But we merely stalemated there for a few seconds until he wandered off the other side of the road.

Today’s spiny lizard did those pushups at me for a moment, then lowered the base of its tail almost to the cinderblock and looked at me. It took a moment to realize what he was doing. He was taking a dump. Whether to accentuate his territorial claims, or just because he had to, or a little of each, there it was — a whitish wet spot on the wall just outside the window.

And then he* bent his tail up along his left flank so that the tip was near his nose, sat down on the wall and goddamn scooched along the wall like a doberman with an annoying post-prandial itch. He did this until he’d moved about a foot. Then he lifted his tail over his head and ran away.

* I just realized I’ve switched from neuter to male pronouns here, perhaps out of a stereotyping assumption that females don’t use balconies as toilets.

Thirty Vertebrate Common Names Potentially Useful As Insults

Insulting people by comparing them to animals is nothing new, but in the English language we don’t put much creativity into the practice. Most animal-name insults are short, one syllable, four letters or fewer: “Dog,” “pig,” “ass,” “cow.” And we’re taxonomically uncreative, too: with occasional exceptions such as “chicken” or “turkey,” most of our day-to-day insults generally just use mammal names.

And yet we live in a wild and varied world, with informal taxonomic diversity almost as great as the biological kind! Clearly this set of circumstances cannot long stand.

As a public service, then, I have compiled thirty actual common names of actual animals that are out-of-the-box ready, plug and play insults, each one linked to a citation to prove someone actually named an animal that. read the list and tell me that each name doesn’t bring to mind someone special you could have used it on.


L.A. County’s Jackboots

For those of you who followed the Phonehenge story, here’s the broader context for you. It’s yet another example of regional colonialism by the City of Los Angeles: people on the margins of society, who only want to be left alone, are being harassed off land they own by the greater forces of development. It’s like the County read Ken Layne’s Dignity and decided to adopt it as a General Plan.

My quibbles with the Offishul Libertarian Movement are reasonably well-documented, but I have to say that although I was on the lookout for axe-grinding in this video, they did a great job.

Hat tip to Wendy at the Antelope Valley Conservancy.

This is what happens when it rains in the desert

Ya got yer desert trees, most of ‘em legumes, like this ironwood here.


There’s very little usable nitrogen in the soil in the desert. Plants need nitrogen for crucial metabolic processes, chief among them making amino acids and proteins. Without nitrogen plants fail to grow, then die. The desert’s full of nitrogen, of course: most of the air in the desert, like anywhere else on the planet, consist of pure nitrogen — N2. And since there’s a lot of that air in the desert soil, then there’s lots of soil nitrogen. But N2 is chemically inert, almost as much so as the “noble” gases like helium and neon. Plants can’t use it. Plants can only take in soil nitrogen in two flavors: the ammonium ion , NH4, and the nitrate ion, NO3. Both of these are made out of N2 by “nitrogen-fixing” soil microorganisms, which aren’t as abundant in arid soils as they are in wetter places. The nitrate ion carries a negative charge, and so do most soil minerals, so any stray bit of moisture — or in the desert, even a wind that picks up and circulates the soil — will easily carry away nitrate ions. Ammonium ions are positively charged, so they’re attracted to soil particles. But on alluvial fans in the desert, the typical average soil particle is pretty large, which means the total surface area in soil particle is less than in a silt or clay soil, which means the amount of ammonium that the soil can hold isn’t all that great. Down in the flats, where deserts keep their fine-grained soils, there can be a lot more nitrogen — but there’s usually a lot more of every kind of dissolved salt down there as well, in concentrations too high to make most plants truly happy. And even what little ammonium adheres to the soil in the alluvial fan isn’t there for long: each bit of moisture spurs soil microbes to turn that ammonium into nitrite (NO2) and the nitrite into nitrate, which then leaches away.

So plants up on the alluvial fan have to manage with what nitrogen they can get. Other nutrients — phosphorus, potassium, etc. — they can usually get out of the gravel and sand as it weathers. And in fact, here’s a trade secret well known among plant nutrient salespeople, one of which I was, once. In a most settings, like, say, a backyard garden in Iowa, if you put phosphorus and potassium in the soil — the “PK” in the “NPK” rating on the bag of fertilizer — you generally never have to do it again. But nitrogen, the “N” in the NPK, is like water. It’s fungible. It flows through the local ecosystem, flows into plants and from them into animals, and then — eventually — the more chemically reactive compounds of nitrogen with other elements react with the help of “denitrifying” soil microorganisms to form, once more, that old inert N2. Like water, it’s a limiting factor in desert plant growth. You can get a little bit from decaying organic matter, the leavings of animals and plants and such as they metabolize, and, eventually, those animals and plants themselves. But organic matter is in short supply in the desert.

Leguminous trees like palo verdes, mesquites, acacias and ironwoods have an advantage here. Like other legumes, they have evolved a partnership with those nitrogen-fixing microorganisms. They provide habitat in their root nodules and some nutrients, and the microorganisms provide nitrogen, and everyone’s happy, and the trees, if they survive for a few decades — like the one in the photo above clearly has — put out bumper crops of seeds, most of which find their way into the gullets of rabbits, ravens, packrats and k-rats and ground squirrels, which consume the seeds’ fats and the proteins and excrete nitrogen, and the seasons they go 'round and 'round.

But not all those seeds get eaten up. Some of them are lucky enough to get buried under an inch or so of gravel in a flood. Not only does this hide the seeds from bored and hungry critters, but it also generally scratches the seed’s tough coat so that water has an easier chance of soaking in. Which it can do in the next storm, or the one after that.

For instance, the one that dumped a few inches of rain on Joshua Tree National Park a couple weeks ago, washing out miles of road and making the gravel very wet. Water seeps into seed, swells the seed, stirs the seed’s insensate senses. The seed moves, opens, eases a root down through the gravel for a few days, then pushes against that root and propels itself up out of the gravel, its “seed leaves” — the two cotyledons that stored the little tree’s initial boost of nutrient — slowly unfurling.


And most of these get eaten by hungry rabbits within the first few hours of their lives.

But some of them live long enough to put out their first set of true leaves, and perhaps a second set, and a third;

Two weeks after the flood

A very few of them will live long enough to grow their own seeds, and the painted ponies go up and down.

Coyote Crossing Meetup Update: Location Found!

Final Update: The actual location is described HERE. If you go to the Cottonwood Springs Road location described in this post, you will not find us there. You may well have a good time, but you won’t have a good time with US.

{UPDATE: As soon as I posted this, our friend Florian suggested a couple nearby places that he thinks would be better. We’re going to check them out tomorrow, and I will update accordingly tomorrow evening. Nothing much should change other than the precise directions. Travel times and list of things to bring will be pretty close to the same.]

I’ve scouted out a tentative location for the Coyote Crossing meetup on Oct 14-16 to replace a location I had in mind that was made inaccessible by recent flash floods.

That location is along Cottonwood Spring Road {update: NO, it isn’t. It’s here, instead., just outside the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park — which is closed at this location due to flood damage.

This is a BLM-managed area, long used as a campsite. Unless there is subsequent flooding, or unless someone in the area comes up with a better place in the next two or three days, this is where we’ll meet.

There will be:

-Newly green post-flood desert plants including creosote, jojoba, ironwood and palo verde;
-probable coyotes singing us to sleep or awake from sleep
-a freeway a mile away with noise level set to “quiet ambiance”
-plenty of private little places to lay out a sleeping bag or two, or a tent if you swing that way
-dramatic evidence of recent flash flooding
-a nice big tree that casts a little bit of shade
-campfire, especially if you bring a little firewood to pitch in
-NO running water nor toilet facilities closer than the convenience store at Chiriaco Summit,which is about four-five miles east on I-10

You Should Bring:

-Something to sit on, and something extra to sit on for others if you can
-food for yourself for as long as you plan to stay, though we’ll see if we can’t do some sort of potlucky thing, and I’ll take care of Sunday breakfast
-water, and lots of it: assume a gallon per person per day
-broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt/pants, and sunblock
-layers for after the sun goes down
-the usual other assorted camping equipment if you’re camping

You can also bring:

treats, drinks, jokes, binoculars, stories, hiking boots, cameras, and other such jollities

Directions: [Deleted. Look here instead.]

I’ll be there starting around lunchtime on Friday the 14th.

Google Map attached [Updated: no it isn’t.].

If you have not yet RSViPped, do so in comments here or send me an email.

See you there, I hope! [Updated: Not there. Here.]

On Troy Davis

I said this over at Google Plus and realized I should bring it over here.

As those of you who remember reading my old post (linked here) will recall, the issue of Capital Punishment is less abstract for me than I wish it was.

I understand the emphases on Troy Davis’ innocence: they make the case all the more heinous. But execution of the guilty is just as barbaric. It is a conscious choice to say something about ourselves as a society — that we value blood retribution over public safety; that we value revenge over justice; that we value the fetishizing of our congealed hatred over the possibility, however remote, of reform and redemption.

Closure for the bereaved is an elusive thing. Some people never attain it. Some come to terms with their loss sooner than others. Revenge-killing doesn’t bring closure: it merely seals the deep hurt under a layer of assumed finality, so that that hurt can fester hidden away from public view. It makes the grieving worse. It cheapens the bereaved.

We are a lesser country tonight.

URGENT: Save the Chuckwalla Valley; Tell Jerry Brown to Veto SB108

Palo Verde

SB 108, a bill that would endanger the Chuckwalla Valley near Joshua Tree National Park by streamlining a resumption of mining, is sitting on the California Governor’s desk. Below is an urgent note from Chuckwalla Valley activist Donna Charpied with more information, and a sample letter you can edit and send to Brown. We must persuade Governor Brown to veto this bill. Please contact him today. And do forward and reshare this message to those you feel may be interested. — CC

Dear Friends,

Tricky things are happening at Kaiser’s abandoned mine at Eagle Mountain, in the form of SB 108.

SB 108 is on the Governor’s desk.  The Department of Conservation has an oppose position, but the bill can only be stopped by a Governor’s veto.  Under current law, Eagle Mountain Mine is considered abandoned and must be reclaimed.  This bill would allow the Eagle Mountain Mine operator to simply indicate a desire to continue mining to get out of abandoned status. 

You can read the bill at Search on Senate Bill 108.

Attached below is a sample letter asking the Governor to veto SB 108.  The instructions for contacting the Governor can be found at  Letters must be received before October 1st.  I apologize for the lack of timely notice.  You can’t “attach” a letter, but after clicking on “submit” from the link to contact the Governor, you can type or paste one in.  Of course, you can always send it via snail mail (best), or by fax.

It does not matter if you do not belong to an organization, your letter is important.

You all may recall that we have a campaign, Give It Back!, that is designed to restore 29,775 acres of land in the Eagle Mountains to Joshua Tree National Park.  If SB 108 is not vetoed, our campaign will be shot dead in the water.  This has implications for the dump (yes, it can come back), the hydroelectric project, future big solar projects in the Chuckwalla Valley, and the resources of our Park, Joshua Tree.

Please encourage as many people as possible to oppose this bill.

In Solidarity,
Donna Charpied

The Honorable Edmund G. Brown, Jr.
Governor, State of California
State Capitol
Sacramento,  Ca 95814

RE: SB 108 (Rubio)-Request for Veto

Dear Governor Brown:

[On behalf of the members of [Organization]], I am writing to respectfully request your veto of Senate Bill 108.

Current law requires surface mining operations that remain idle for more than a year with the intent to resume to obtain an Interim Management Plan (IMP).  Mines that do not obtain an IMP within the mandated time frame are considered abandoned and must be reclaimed.  The purpose of this law is to prevent mines that are closed from adding to the legacy of abandoned mines so prevalent in California.

SB 108 would allow abandoned mines to be reopened under reclamation plans that do not meet current minimum state wide reclamation standards.  Mineral resources are vital and necessary to California’s economy, but SB 108 would reward mine operators by imposing no consequences for ignoring State law in an attempt to pay lower annual reporting fees.  Mining fees are based on reported mineral production.  SB 108 would allow mine operators who incorrectly reported mineral production in prior years to simply file adjusted reports without provided verifiable proof of “corrected” production.  SB 108 is simply bad public policy.

Mines that have become abandoned should at least be required to obtain a reclamation plan that meets current reclamation standards prior to being allowed to reopen.  Mine operators should not be allowed to change reported production unless they provide verifiable proof that information is correct.

For these reasons, I respectfully request your veto of SB 108.  Please do not hesitate to contact me should you like to discuss our position on the measure or have any questions.




Visit to the Brenda Solar Energy Zone


I went, I took some photos, I came back. I was really only able to explore the southwest corner of the site. I’ll be going back to look at the rest of the tract, especially as we get a chance of fall bloom. The ocotillos I saw were in full leaf, so there’s some chance of that.

I only explored a small portion of the proposed SEZ, like I said, and some of that time I spent looking at places about a hundred yards outside the SEZ — an artifact of the messed-up map I took with me. The portions I explored were upland, relatively: at about 1250 feet with better drainage, the saguaros and other big plants were fairly lush. Perhaps down by the Bouse Wash, lower and hotter and saltier, the land looks more like what the Wilderness Society claims it does as they advocate for this land to be turned into an industrial facility. Despite my suspicions and prejudices I haven’t honestly seen enough of the place to say whether TWS is right or wrong.

What I did see: sideblotched lizards and western whiptails scurrying for cover as I approached. Doves flying against a purpling sky. Acacia and palo verde twice my height or more, and mature saguaros possibly four times my age.

I saw sandy soil pockmarked everywhere with the homes of wild things, and close-packed desert pavement holding down the desert soil against a steady wind, devoid of life at first glance but showing a legacy of previous annual bloom to anyone who looked closely. I saw places where woodpeckers had made their homes, prime habitat for elf owls. (Didn’t see either bird species, but that’s what that hole in the saguaro says.)

I saw young saguaros and old ocotillos and I saw the sky turn dark and cool. I saw lots of things worth seeing.

But I didn’t see enough to know whether The Wilderness Society is wrong to offer to sacrifice the place. I cannot honestly say, based on my experience yesterday, that they are wrong. Maybe every other acre of the place is as they describe.

I need more data.

I will be going back.

Ground-truthing The Wilderness Society

As background, here’s a longish quote from the Facebook page of our friends at Basin and Range Watch:

Not long ago, joining an environmental organization seemed like a rational thing to do if you had a busy schedule and didn’t have the time to be an activist. The idea was that you could trust qualified individuals to make decisions that would promote conservation of open space, scenic vistas as well as natural and cultural resources.

In an attempt to promote solar energy sprawl, The Wilderness Society has come up with a report called “In the Zones” which promotes the development of about 112,000 acres of utility scale solar energy on public lands in 5 different states. They are coming out in support of some of the BLM’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement which would designate large tracts of public land as sacrifice zones for development that would receive hardly any environmental review. The largest zone they support is called Afton which is 77,000 acres of undeveloped land in southern New Mexico.

They are also supporting a site in Arizona called Brenda which is 3,800 acres of Sonoran Desert habitat. Saguaros, smoke trees and palo verdis are common in this landscape. In their report seen here they are attempting to say this habitat is insignificant. They are claiming that only 30 percent of the site supports vegetation. Those who have seen a spring bloom in Death Valley or Anza Borrego know that even the most barren looking desert pavement can explode with wildflowers covering over 95 percent of the site. They claim that a Sonoran habitat like this “has relatively low use from animals and birds”. Any desert that supports microphyll trees supports wildlife. They claim that all of the saguaros, ocotillos and palo verdis can be transplanted. Ocotillos have great difficulty after transplanting and palo verde trees have almost no success.

Please research an organization before supporting it.

Emphasis is mine.

All this by way of saying I’m heading to Brenda tomorrow to look around, take some photos, and share them with you so that you can decide for yourself whether The Wilderness Society is selling out valuable habitat just because it doesn’t meet their standards for Wilderness Quality. Watch this space.

Mojave Preserve Conservancy events

My colleagues at the MNPC are holding two events in the Preserve: a Star Party on September 24, and a fence removal work party on October 8. Details are below.

Star Party September 24, Hole In The Wall Campground

If you’ve never seen the Milky Way from a dark sky, September is a perfect month to see it. The spiral arm of our own galaxy fills the sky overhead all the way to the horizons. With your own eyes, you’ll see knots of stars, and seemingly dark voids. Telescopes will reveal star clusters, gas clouds, remnants of exploded stars. The astronomers from the Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers will also point out constellations during a star tour before the observing. Cover your flashlight with brown paper or red tape when near the telescopes, or better yet, leave your flashlight in your tent and let your eyes adapt to the darkness. That’s what the astronomers will be doing.

  • Free camping all weekend at the group campground!
  • Free night sky program with highly skilled astronomers!
  • High-powered Telescopes on site for public use!
  • Snacks and adult beverages provided!
  • Bring a friend and experience the Preserve’s dark and starry night skies by night, wildlife and wildflower blooms by day!
  • Learn about the Preserve and the Conservancy!

Where: Mojave National Preserve’s Black Canyon Group Campsite
When: Saturday, September 24, 2011 beginning at 6:00pm
What to Bring: Camping gear, layered clothing, food to share. Dinner is potluck—bring your favorite dish to share with the group. Everyone is responsible for their own breakfast.
RSVP with David Lamfrom at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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or (760) 219-4916

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE – Work Party Saturday, October 8

Join with members of the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy and the National Park Service to remove another section of abandoned, barbed-wire fence from the Mojave National Preserve.  We will meet in the Kelso Depot parking lot at 9 a.m. and work through the afternoon.  A Sunday morning project is possible with sufficient interest.  Bring leather work gloves, water, sun screen, a hat, and lunch.  Layers of clothing are best as temperatures can be unpredictable.  Tools will be provided.  The group campground at Hole-In-The-Wall (with water and vault toilets) is reserved for Friday and Saturday nights.  Sturdy tents with strong stakes are advisable in case of high winds.  Directions are available at  Contact Sid Silliman at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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regarding safety precautions for the weekend and to RSVP. 


Used cameras put to good use

In keeping with the hypothesis that one does not receive things for which one does not ask…

It seems as though my Trusty Canon Digital Rebel XT might not be long for this world, what with its persistent odd shutter issues and a new stuck pixel on its CMOS about every time I look closely. I’ll be nursing it along until I can’t nurse it along any further, Captain — I canna change the laws o physics — but it occurs to me that there might be someone out there who has one of these sitting around not being used, and who would be pleased to be able to say to themselves that their former possession was being used to save the desert. Or to document that part of the desert that could not be saved.

So I’m asking. Got one I can use?

It’s kind of amazing how fast the going price on those things drops, isn’t it? My Canon was bottom of the top of the line when I bought it, all 7.99999 megapixels of it, and the T3 is now selling for less than half of what I bought mine for.

I’d certainly entertain using other cameras, point-shoots, etc. In fact, I imagine I could find a few volunteers to go out and document things with donated cameras, which might be worth exploring. But I’ve got lenses to fit the Canon EOS series, so it makes sense to me to see if someone’s got one gathering dust that they’d just as soon have someone put to good use.

And of course there’s no way any sane person with a set of Canon lenses would turn down a donation of something higher-end than the T3, either, if anyone has one they need to get rid of in exchange for intangibles like gratitude, goodwill, and saving the desert. But, you know. There are tools that outstrip the talent of the person using them.

The official public email by which you can reach me about this or any other blog related topic is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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. Operators are standing by.