2017-05-23~27 Horse Thief Springs

Bushtit - Psaltriparus minimus

The Bird and Mammal team from the San Diego Natural History Museum launched an expedition nearly 300 miles north to the north-east flanks of the Kingston Mountains, about 75 miles south of Death Valley and 12 miles from the Nevada border at a site called Horse Thief Springs. Our plan was to stay for eight days and study two nearby sites that were part of an earlier study from the early 1900’s by the great naturalist Joseph Grinnell. The survey history at Horse Thief Springs is complex, but the main two visits they were seeking to replicate were from June 1939: (A. Starker Leopold, Monroe D. Bryant, Ronald W. Smith, and Ward C. Russell) and June 1940: (Alden Miller, David H. Johnson, Frank A. Pitelka, Harvey I. Fisher, Milton Hildebrand, and Thomas C. Groody.) These were all students of Grinnell from the MVZ. They covered the spring itself, and the vicinity, including 2 miles north, other springs to the west (Beck Spring and Crystal Spring), and the higher slopes to the south and west. A few also returned to the area on a few later dates, including 15-18 June 1940.

The site got its moniker due to its past use by a Ute Indian chief (Walkara) who earned a reputation as the “world’s greatest horse thief”. He must have been quite a guy. He spoke five or six languages and his exploits were reported as far south as Cajon Pass, south of Victorville California. The springs here make up a desert oasis. The water pushes above ground into a bosque of large cottonwood and willow trees with dense growth of small bulrushes on its floor.

I arrived at our campsite on Tuesday ahead of the rest of the team and scouted viable camping locations. The best site for the main party had no cell reception, so I made my campsite in a location about 2 miles down the valley. I’ve learned that if I am denied internet reception, my time is spent less efficiently. When not done in the field, processing the data for my images might double the time required if this step is delayed until the return home. I invested in a cell phone amplifier for my RV with a high gain antenna specifically for expeditions such as these. This was my first test of the system on a SDNHM event, and I found it had other benefits.

Our plan was to stay until the following Wednesday for an 8 day stay, but we got word on Thursday that one of our team member’s father was in the ICU in Tucson due to a nasty fall he’d taken at the hospital. Given I was the only one with cell service, I took the message from a concerned friend back in San Diego about the situation. Because my RV’s Add-A-Room and awning were staked to the ground for the “Rat Theater”, I had to ride my bike 2 miles to the main camp in the dark. Our friend drove down to my camp and after calling his mom and the hospital staff, he elected to drive directly to Tucson that night. With him gone, the rest of the team had to abbreviate the original scope of the survey.

In spite of these unfortunate circumstances, we still managed some meaningful science. The mammal team caught lots of animals. Desert Woodrats were especially abundant, and some even were captured unintentionally in the mist nets. Rat Theater had its first introduction to the White-Tailed Antelope Squirrel. This animal is fondly called “Rocket Squirrel” by team members, because of how they launch on release from the Sherman traps used for their capture. We all had visions of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil tearing up the theater scenery, but after a couple of bounces off the glass walls, our little girl settled down and was a cooperative player in the theater.

Perhaps the most surprising find by the bird team was a black-eared Bushtit. This striking pattern represents not a species or subspecies but a morph (polymorphism). It is seen commonly in mainland Mexico but less so in the U.S., where it crops up in a few juvenile males. It is extremely rare in California. The black “ears” are not retained by the birds as they age into adults.

Two members of the team were from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley. They joined us after their own 7 week mission monitoring birds further north in Death Valley and vicinity. These two split their time between the bird and mammal teams. Dan and Andrea from UC Berkeley were each a delight to spend time with. Dan’s approach to his field work impressed me when he told me he’d opted to release a Mountain Chickadee with an unusual beak structure, rather than collect it for the museum, even though he had all the right permits to do so. His field assistant Andrea was brilliant, always willing to pitch in where needed. Her can-do spirit, good humor and willingness to contribute wherever needed were a joy for all of us to associate with.

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