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2016 – Early October Camping At Pinyon Wells

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I spent the second week of October with the bird and mammal department of the San Diego Natural History Museum in Joshua Tree National Park. The site is called Pinyon Wells, and it lies in the middle of the park in a wilderness location against the northern slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. To reach our camp at Pinyon Wells required us to obtain a “Backcountry Pass” and leave the pavement between Sheep Pass and Jumbo Rocks and head south on a dicey dirt and sand road called Geology Tour Road for 8.5 miles. Unlike the previous outing at Cottonwood Spring at the end of September, we had no power that we didn’t bring ourselves. Nor did we have water we didn’t carry in.

The mission for the museum staff on this outing was to retrace the steps taken by teams of scientists in the early 1900’s through the mid-forties. The teams of 75 years ago made many notes describing the flora and fauna they encountered and the various places they studied throughout the park. Our expedition this week at Pinon Wells primarily retraced the steps of Alden H. Miller and Robert C. Stebbins, and while Stebbins was well respected for his work with reptiles and amphibians, our mission was primarily to study birds and mammals.

There were some surprises the team encountered at this location. The first one was the sheer numbers of small rodents here. Normally, a good capture rate (catches per trap) is 20-25%. Here the numbers were 75-89%. Some plots yielded 29 animals for 30 live-traps set. To survey from a distance the arid desolation of this desert, it would be easy to dismiss the scene as a barren wasteland, yet life abounds if one takes the time to investigate.

Another surprise was the numbers of San Diego Pocket Mouse present, which is a species of concern throughout its range. In other areas it faces threats such as habitat loss and fragmentation, however this species was particularly abundant in this large expanse of open space.

When reports from the past were recorded, they showed lots of Juniper and Pinyon Pines. Sadly, the pines are absent except at the highest elevations of these rugged mountains and the Junipers were scattered and sporadic at the lower elevations where we camped. Most of the Joshua Trees were small in stature and their density diminished as the land sloped up from the washes at the valley floor. Since 1970, wildfires have burned 40% of the park. Add the devastation of drought to the mix and it’s easy to see how recovery has not been able to keep pace with the losses.

Below are some captured images from around our camp.

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