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Visualizing the Pitayal Pt. 4 – The Act of Early Morning Data Collection

Thanks for visiting Wingtrip. This post is a part of a project called Visualizing the Pitayal. Click here for an explanation of the project. Click here for a complete listing of all the posts in the project so far, to start at the beginning. And if you are impressed by what you learn and see, consider supporting the Alamos Wildlands Alliance. Thanks again and enjoy!

Xeric (xe·ric) (adjective) \ˈzir-ik, ‘zer\ : Characterized by, relating to, or requiring only a small amount of moisture <a xeric habitat> <a xeric plant>.


Pea Soup in the Pitayal.

It’s difficult to consider this definition when soggy. The press of scrub we were gingerly picking through, glimmered through a shroud of early morning fog. Thick fog is incongruous with most people’s notions of deserts, but  were the fleshy cacti, drought adapted leafless shrubs and mostly bare soil. Having spikes driven into my ankles didn’t make my clothes any less sodden.

Water is universally vital, but xeric scarcity encourages a specific devoutness in desert inhabitants. Navopatia receives a (mostly) annual monsoon system in July and August. The Sonoran name for it is “las aguas,” or “the water,” which alludes nicely to the torrential rains. The same monsoonal winds thrust these storms into Southern Arizona, but are slightly less intensely . Winter rains aren’t unheard of, frequent enough to acquire the name “equipatas,” a reference to the sound of pattering rain on the roofs, like little horse hooves. Still, there are places North of Navopatia, in the interior of the Sonoran Desert where rain may not fall for years at a time.


Great-tailed Grackles, waiting for the fog to lift so they can get on with their day.

Momentarily, while waddling around thorns, I was engulfed by an inane thought: the English language doesn’t have terms for different types of rain. Of course we do, they just don’t sound as romantic. Having flowery linguistic flex is pleasurable, but if rain can succinctly be described as either a mist, a drizzle, a shower, or a downpour, I think we’re doing just fine. Carhartts clinging to my legs, I wondered about a Sonoran phrase for “coastal fog that soaks everything.” The shimmering landscape in the morning light certainly seemed romantic enough to have acquired description.


The romantic, not at that moment xeric, landscape.

Of the many interns jobs at the Navopatia Field Station, a major responsibility is conducting area searches. Most mornings, the students are out on plots in the surrounding area, surveying them for bird life. Transecting these plots they note the birds they hear and see. For a group whose goal is to protect a portion of habitat, knowing what is there, is of course a vital part of the equation. On several mornings I joined the interns on their data gathering, bumbling along behind them while they did their work; which is exactly what I was doing when I considered the incongruous fog and desert.

So, you just go there, note all the birds, and head back to camp. Done. You know it’s not that simple.


Rhiana and Jilly planning the morning route.

First of all, one has to know all the birds, by sight and sound. Even for interns with birding expertise, this is no small feat. Likely their bird knowledge is from the United States and more likely from Washington because many of the interns are from the Evergreen State College. These barriers are temporary, surpassable with some diligent study.

The landscape has less plasticity as a challenge. Here’s the good news: it’s totally flat and free of rushing waterways. No giant hills to run up to finish your survey in the allotted time, no snow-melt engorged creeks to fall into. Here’s the bad news: it’s a hellish wall of thorns, sprinkled with the threat of venomous snakes and tiny, dangerous scorpions.


Prickly Pear aren’t my favorite when you have to get around them in tight quarters.

On my first area search with Rhiana and Jilly, I was not only soaked, but well aware most of the plants we brushed past were more than happy to skewer me. I trusted the interns, I followed them as they wound their way through the cacti, agave, ocotillio trees, and acacia. Somehow I only managed to kick on cholla and tear one hole in my shirt, despite fussing with my camera and being generally distracted by the world around us. The interns of course, moved through the landscape with comparative grace.

My guides, fully immersed in their work, moved deftly through the Pitayal, stopping only to listen or scribble notes. I often looked up from this wonder or that wonder, to find myself alone. Despite my hubris over a good sense of direction, the Pitayal is a confusing homogeny of dense scrub. No doubt I would have found my way out of the maze alone, but parsimony was to keep up.


Jilly and Rhiana verify that we’ve been heading in the right direction the whole time. When you are picking your way around cacti, it’s hard to tell if you are staying on course.

Both the area searches I accompanied were made tardy by the morning fog. Only the chuck of Northern Mockingbirds and a few cheerful Northern Cardinals broke the relative silence at the beginning of each survey. However, by the end both plots were alive with bird voices, peeping verdins, noisy thrashers, and the calls of wintering birds, sparrows, buntings, and warblers, with no reason to sing. They were soon bound North to breeding territories where singing actually mattered.

In both global and local perspectives, these area searches are important. On one hand, they help establish what species of neotropical migrants spend their winters in coastal thorn-scrub. They also help answer how important is the habitat to these species. As vacuous as it sounds, no one would know that answer, unless a group of scientists took the time to collect the data and make comparison (those of you waiting to hear the answer, I don’t have on yet). Equally so, monitoring helps establish what other non-migratory species call the pitayal home.


Lark Sparrows are a common winter resident from the North, but are found in huge numbers on the edges of the thornscrub in the agricultural lands that surround it.

So, say no one did this work, that the pitayal was all bulldozed, and this wonderful sink of biodiversity was lost forever. We’d never know much about what was there, besides the early botanical and anthropological work conducted in the vicinity. The pitayal would just drift away as a memory, the ghost of another place pushed out of existence. That alone is a tragedy. Knowing that this is the densest collection of organ-pipe cactus in the world, a place with 800 species of plants, and 400 species of birds makes it even more painful to think it could disappear.

What if the pitayal was discovered to be an important wintering habitat for neotropical migrants, after the fact, when certain populations crashed? Any such hypothetical is unacceptable. These sorts of questions, and an enduring curiosity in basic natural history, is what truly motivated the interns to rise early, push through a laceration of scrub, and sometimes, get soaked to the bone.

Believe me, expectations of superiors and contracts are not enough to get the work done, you have to really love it out there. After spending several hours going along for waterbird and vegetation surveys in midday heat, the mornings can seem idyllic. But when you are snuggled up in your wall tent and the sun hasn’t risen, sometimes all you want is to close your eyes and doze till eight. Lying there, struggling for motivation, dawn chorus breaks and you remember the new things you find everyday, and you catch the last wispy stars wiped from the sky by the rising sun. That’s what field work is all about.


Every day the field presents something new to the attentive field biologist.


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