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Ocotillo: Bizzare and Beautiful. And Sharp.

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:46pm

Hello Everyone,

I confess that it has been awhile since my last post, so you will have to forgive my absence. Part of my excuse is that in December I was able to take a three week break from my CLM position and go back home to northern Illinois for Christmas. I expected that the trip home would give me just a taste of a real winter with snow and ice. Well, it was fairly cold in Illinois, but for those three weeks in December it snowed more here in Needles than it did in Chicago! I did not see a single snowflake up north, and I missed the first snowstorm to hit Needles in more than 50 years! Now that I’m back in Needles I might be tempted to complain that I miss seeing at least a little bit of snow, but then I walk outside and realize that it’s 70 degrees in January, and I feel pretty good about life.

Is that fog? In the desert? Why yes it is. It's winter here, and it's been raining.

Is that fog? In the desert? Why yes it is. It’s winter here, and it’s been raining.

My CLM internship has been extended again, so that means that I’ll get to stay here in Needles until May, which will give me a full year in the Mojave Desert. That is great for me, and I am especially looking forward to being here for the spring and the possibility of some spectacular spring-blooming plants (but we need to get enough rain this winter – so I’m crossing my fingers). So far in January I’ve spent most of my time here at the office working on research and planning to establish long-term vegetation monitoring plots in our field office in the spring.

Since I haven’t been out in the field much since early December, I don’t have any new pictures or discoveries to share with you. So instead I’ll pull out some old pictures from the fall and we can look at one of the most distinctive desert plants here: ocotillo.

This is Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo). You can see that this one doesn't have any leaves at the moment, and that is how these plants spend much of their year.

This is Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo). You can see that this one doesn’t have any leaves at the moment, and that is how these plants spend much of their year.

Fouquieria splendens, the ocotillo or coachwhip, is a bizarre plant. It is a woody shrub, with dozens of long, slender stems that branch at the base of the plant and then extend vertically straight up into the air or in a spreading arch. The plants can be up to 20 feet tall, and dominate the landscape in the broad valleys where they grow south of Needles. The stems are grayish-green with fissured bark, and are densely covered with long spines up to 4 cm long. Ocotillos are leafless for much of the year, a behavior that conserves water during dry periods.

Here's a close up of one of those leafless branches. Those are some very sturdy, serious spines. Good luck climbing this plant.

Here’s a close up of one of those leafless branches. Those are some very sturdy, serious spines. Good luck climbing this plant.

When I first arrived in May, the large fields of these bare, thorny plants gave a particularly harsh and intimidating face to the desert. But their character changed dramatically after we were hit by the first summer rainstorm. Just three days after it rained, the ocotillos had produced a dense covering of lush green leaves. These plants, which had previously appeared gray and inescapably dry, transformed almost overnight into vibrant green spots of life against the bleak desert landscape. After a couple months and a dry spell the ocotillos dropped their leaves, and have returned to their formidable dry season appearance.

Add a little rain, wait 2 or 3 days, a flick of my magic wand and...Poof! Now we have leaves.

Add a little rain, wait 2 or 3 days, a flick of my magic wand and…Poof! Now we have leaves.

When rain does show up, ocotillo produces a high density of leaves in a hurry. They need to take advantage of their chance to photosynthesize while they have the water resources to do it.

When rain does show up, ocotillo produces a high density of leaves in a hurry. They need to take advantage of their chance to photosynthesize while they have the water resources to do it.

Here's a little perspective for you. I'm 6'3''. So we're talking about a pretty substantial plant here. And they are especially striking because most of the other plants that grow around them are low-growing species.

Here’s a little perspective for you. I’m 6’3”. So we’re talking about a pretty substantial plant here. They can grow up to 20 feet tall. And they are especially striking because most of the other plants that grow around them are low-growing species.

I have yet to see the ocotillos blooming, but when the time comes this spring their flowers will add another splash of color to these plants. They produce dense spikes of bright red flowers high up on their stems. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a good look at some in a couple months, and I’ll share pictures with you (but they would also be worth looking up on your own right now). Ocotillo nectar is an especially important food source for hummingbirds as the birds migrate north in the spring. Of the desert flowers that hummingbirds use for food on their migration routes, ocotillos may be the only one that will produce nectar reliably even in very dry years. The birds require this dependable food source to give them the energy to make their long migrations.

I have not seen flowers or seeds from ocotillo, but you can still see some of the leftover structures. In the spring, those stalks will be full of brilliantly red flowers.

I have not yet seen flowers or seeds from ocotillo, but you can still see some of the leftover structures. In the spring, those stalks will be full of brilliantly red flowers.

I haven't seen very many of these, but here is a little baby ocotillo. Is it cute? Sure. Charming? Absolutely. Huggable? Not so much.

I haven’t seen very many of these, but here is a little baby ocotillo. Is it cute? Sure. Charming? Absolutely. Huggable? Not so much.

Ocotillos are a Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert species, so we have them here in the southern part of the Needles Field Office where the Mojave Desert meets the north edge of the Sonoran. Their range extends to the east all the way to Texas. Ocotillo is in the Fouquieriaceae Family, and one of its cousins is the equally bizarre boojum (Fouquieria columnaris) of Baja California, a similar species that can grow more than 60 feet tall. If you’re looking for pictures of strange desert plants (which I recommend), this family is a good place to start.

In fact, I think I’ll leave you with even more plants to go look up. I learned about these from a book put out by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson (a good place to visit I’m told). There is a plant family called Didiereaceae that appears only in Madagascar. Do a search for “Didiereaceae” pictures. First, you can probably tell that they are totally wild and strange plants. Now compare the ocotillo pictures I’ve posted to some of the Didiereaceae plants, especially the genus Alluaudia (maybe do a separate search for this one). They look pretty similar right? Probably related? Well, it turns out that these two families are not closely related at all. Didiereaceae are somewhat related to cacti, and have succulent leaves that are different from ocotillos. And yet they have evolved with a strikingly similar appearance and growth habit. This is called convergent evolution, a process by which organisms that are not closely related are shaped by similar environmental conditions so that they evolve to have similar traits that have developed independently of one another.

How amazing is that!? Guys, plants are so cool.

Until Next Time,

-Steve

Needles Field Office, BLM

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Help, I’m stuck in the office

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:43pm

Still holding it down in Surprise Valley. Things are going well and I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of interesting projects. Most recently, I spent some time in Susanville helping out with a FIAT assignment (Fire and Invasive Annuals Treatment). For an added bonus, I got to go to a BBQ and meet some awesome CLM alumni! The goal of this assignment was to identify sites within focal sage grouse habitat and prioritize them for treatment and protection. I spent time writing up these plans for the Surprise Field office which required a lot of research and background investigation. I then helped compile all the write ups from the Western Great Basin to send off to FWS. It was a great learning experience.

Currenlty, I have been focused on developing a monitoring schedule for the upcoming field season, which couldn’t come any sooner! This has included designing a plan for post fire treatment and natural recovery monitoring, identifying seeds of success sites and scheduling habitat restoration monitoring. In regards to monitoring, there has been a lot of discussion revolved around the AIM protocol. This is the primary terrestrial monitoring protocol adopted by the BLM. I have been attending meetings with other field offices to discuss what answers we can get from this protocol, what answers we still need, and in the latter case, additional monitoring we can use to get them. It has been rewarding to meet a lot of new folks and gain exposure to different methods of monitoring and land management.

I have also been doing a little NEPA writing. We are proposing habitat restoration/juniper reduction treatments on a number of sites throughout the field office. A programmatic EA was completed in 2013. The next step is to write the DNAs for the 2015/2016 projects which I have been great at putting off until now.

Thanks for reading!

 

-Amy

 

 

Final Blog (until round 2)

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:41pm

I started in June.

I am naturally critical being from New York. Then spending 10 years in Vermont, I’ve been a flat-lander, an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong. I expected the same experience in Wyoming.

Instead I was greeted with smiles and care. I was offered bedding materials, pots and pans, and food from co-workers. My room mates and I had created this friendly dynamic of sisterhood. The town turned out to be extraordinarily safe due to a large police force. The house we lived in was fun-a hot tub, large living quarters, and plenty of parking.  I enjoyed the small town atmosphere and immediate access to the mountains.  I became a member at the YMCA, library, yoga studio, and an occasional volunteer at the food pantry. I liked small town living! Enjoyed it so much I will be coming back for a second term (April-August 2015)! THANKS CLM!

Highlights at the BLM include gaining new skills-plant ID, bird ID, methods and observations. I better understand government structure. I got to attend a wildlife conference. Learned not to eat ground plums even though your co-worker says it’s safe. Taught a co-worker how to identify a plant for the first time, using a dichotomous key. Roamed my first historic fire in search of young sagebrush revival. Organized my own project.

My expectations were met and they exceeded what I envisioned the CLM experience would be like. What is happening in the West was of utter surprise to me. Culture and how we’ve chosen to use the landscape.

The only expectation that wasn’t met was the work ethic of the BLM BFO.  There isn’t a lot of transparency in what people are doing and it seems like there isn’t a whole lot getting done in certain sections, not all sections. There is always time to chat, which provides a easy-going and happy work environment, so I’m thankful for that.

Important a-ha moments were GPS and GIS troubleshooting.  Mainly getting in the field and realizing my GPS has everything I need and more for field work.

At 27, living in small town USA, and working for the BLM-I finally realized who I am as a person. I never had time enough to breathe and realize what I really wanted from life. I do now.

 

 

 

Wrapping up an internship

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:37pm

Greetings fellow interns,

I hope everyone had a relaxing holiday season filled with friends, family and all things pleasant.  Being a California transplant, I joined my family in Iowa remotely via Skype, which was definitely a first for me, and was able to participate in their festivities.  It was wonderful to be able to connect with them despite the distance.  Technology is great when it works.  I have been here in California for a few years now as a CLM intern in what was originally a 5 month internship.  What a great experience it has been!  Although I might like to stay here forever, the position I was hired to fill was only temporary, and I have always known that eventually it would be time for me to leave.  Well, it seems the California vacation is finally coming to an end.  I have recently accepted a full time position back in Iowa and will be leaving the Preserve on February 27, 2015 (please hold you coat, hat and glove donations- I will eventually re-acclimate).

When I first came to the Cosumnes River Preserve in May of 2012, I was living at a facility on site known as the farm center.  If you are not familiar with this facility, it is an old farm house nestled in the rice fields of the Preserve.  It is not a fancy place by any means, but for me it was perfect.  I was living and working on the Preserve, which might burn some people out, but I couldn’t get enough.  I would do land management tasks and various repairs all day, and then at night I would watch the wildlife and enjoy the evening tranquility.  One morning I sat on the front steps and watched a bald eagle dive-bombing a flock of terrified coots for 30 minutes as I drank coffee before work.  Where else can you do that?   I was quite surprised to find a nature preserve teaming with wildlife in such close proximity to the capital city of California.  That has been one of my favorite aspects of the Preserve that I am going to miss when I am gone.  Visitors can drive twenty minutes from the hustle and bustle of the city and find themselves lost in the serenity (amplified serenity when the geese are present in numbers) of nature.

I have greatly enjoyed meeting and working with other CLM interns occasionally throughout my time here.  It would have been nice to have another CLM intern here at my field station (Cosumnes River Preserve) full time.  I hope to be able to visit the Preserve again as a non-employee after I leave.  If you are ever near Sacramento, CA, I highly recommend you make it a point to swing by and check it out.  Winter season (October-May) is the best time to visit; the Preserve is wintering habitat for 50,000+ birds.  I know everything will keep on functioning just fine here without me, but I sure will miss this place.

Four Weeks

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:27pm

I am back for a little four week extension of my internship!

This past week was my first week back and the purpose of this extension is to create a checklist of all the lichen species found in the National Forests of Region 5 of the Forest Service. Region 5 is essentially the state of California. So far it has been a lot of time spent in the Consortium of Lichen Herbaria for North America and Excel. I should add that I am working remotely from my home in coastal Northern California so my very old MacBook is being put to the test and is functioning well thus far.

A list of lichen data sources for the various forests might be added to my list of duties along with taking a closer look at the data that has recently come back from the lab from the lichen air quality project I did in the San Bernardino mountains of the San Bernardino NF.

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