Stebbins, A Life and Times

ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES

Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 3

Introducing Kids to Nature in the California Desert 
From the Mojave River at Victorville to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Wildlife biologist Starker Leopold and I, members of the staff at the U.C. Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, decided it was time our kids and some of their friends have a trip together in the desert. Unfortunately, the Leopold group could only participate at Anza Borrego. Never the less we decided to proceed with the plan. Thus most of what follows relates to my group.

My travellers were son John, daughter Melinda, and their friends Danny O’Brien, Helen Stiles, and Ted Papenfuss. We rode together in a sedan pulling a one-wheeled trailer with gear. Our first stop was Victorville. We had travelled over 350 miles, so looked forward to a break and to begin our search for creatures.

I had selected Victorville as our first outing because I knew we would find two irresistible animals to excite the kids – Desert Tortoises and Arroyo Toads. Both were present along the nearby Mojave River that passes through town and beyond. I had many times found these animals along its sandy banks. We were present at the breeding season, so activity was at a high level. We soon found tortoise tracks, and then a tortoise. Melinda has a way with tortoises. Maybe she was responsible.

Desert Tortoises

Tortoises are best watched from a distance because when they are closely approached they are likely to engage in a “look like a rock” response. They do so by pulling in their head and limbs and becoming immobile. However, if left alone they usually soon resume activity. I have learned that if you crouch and remain immobile a tortoise may crawl toward you and even settle down between your legs! Too bad this knowledge was not available to us at the time.

Arroyo Toads

Arroyo toads are chubby, lively, delightful animals. They hop high and fast, perhaps more often than they walk. At the time of our visit many were abroad and vocalizing in broad daylight. Their voice starts with a trill, rises in pitch at first, then ends abruptly. They were obviously in a nuptial mood. On many field trips I have been put to sleep by the soothing voice of this animal. Since we were camped out in the area, I hoped the kids would have the same pleasant experience when they tucked into their sleeping bags.

Catching and releasing toads was easy and fun, but I had in mind to also use them for a broader purpose to teach the kids a technique that has wide field application – from locating a distant smoldering forest fire to a singing tree-cricket – in a word, by “triangulation.” Danny told me recently that his profession as a forester and fire-jumper was influenced by being a part of our desert triangulation exercise.

Triangulation at Night to Find Arroyo Toads

Each participant was supplied with a headlamp with a long beam. They were then told how, by standing some distance apart in pairs, they could turn on their light beams and use them to mark the location of a distant sound. They could do so by noting the location of the crossing of their beams. Lights, however, were not to be turned on until the pair had agreed upon their target by careful listening and aiming (by pointing).

Heading Farther South

Leaf-toed Geckos

We are entering San Gorgonio Pass. On our right is San Jacinto (“San Jack”) and on our left – equally grand San Gorgonio, both beautifully snow-capped. Foothill areas along the San Jack side have been a favorite site for finding Leaf-toed Geckos (Phyllodactylus xanti), a Gecko considered rare in California. It is known from the San Jack area on the desert side of the coastal mountains, to the Mexican border. However, in Baja California it ranges from the U.S. border to the tip of the peninsula.

I told the kids that in the “old days” we were careless in finding this animal. During the day it lived in rock crevices, apparently seldom emerging. But at night, it came out in search of food. Sometimes we used crowbars to pry off huge slabs of rock to find them. We could not replace many of these slabs. Since the animals absolutely depended on crevices for shelter and sites for their eggs, it soon became evident rock-flaking must stop. So today we shone our lights into crevices to see if anybody was at home and looking out – or we could come back at night and see residents out on the rock surfaces, searching for nocturnal prey. A daytime crevice-search failed to yield results but the kids enjoyed using their flashlights to check crevices, and being in the habitat. We did not have time for a nocturnal search.

A Stop For Sand Lizards

In various places around Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley are many areas of pale-colored (almost white) sand flats and dunes. We were soon abroad with noosing gear to catch and release lizards and snakes and to enjoy exploring habitat for creatures of special focus was the Coachella Valley Fringe-toed Lizard.

This animal, in structure and behavior, is a bundle of adaptations that fit it for life in fine windblown sand. Such sands have particles so fine as to feel like velvet when held in one’s hand and stroked. Notable also are the pointed scales on the toes that help prevent sinking into the sand. Fringe-toes can run rapidly over sand surfaces and, in a flash, bury themselves out of sight. A predator such as a Roadrunner, can run past a buried lizard and never find it. I have seen tracks that indicated the futile wandering efforts of the bird after passing a lizard’s burial site. There follows pictures of the Sand Lizard and many other animals that were found in this desert animal paradise as we knew it in the 1950s [not included].

Salton Sea, San Felipe Creek, and Places to Get Wet

We were not prepared to swim in the Sea but I told the kids that its salt content was so great they could float with ease in its waters. I had done so when a flock of white Pelicans was present and was able to swim right next to them when they were feeding. They didn’t seem to mind. They were scooping up brome fish.

Near the south end of the Sea is san Felipe Creek that feeds its waters. At this site (or a similar one farther south), the kids had a great time cooling off and exploring for Pacific Treefrogs (Hyla regilla) and other marsh-dwelling creatures.

Just before uniting with the Leopold party we stopped at a site where the kids could see, on a nearby hill-side, the water line left by a much larger and deeper Salton sea, when there were many low-lying places world-wide that filled with water following the last ice age. We would be well under water where we stood.

A Nature Playground: Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Our Journey Ends

Professor Leopold soon took off to do a study of rare mountain deer. I was in charge of group members. Our stay at Anza Borrego was brief – two or three days as I recall. My memory focuses on one thing – a game of “Hide and Seek”, concocted by the kids. Perhaps they now felt nature could wait. It was time for outdoor play. I have a clear memory of the event. It was late. Dusk was approaching. I was tired and decided to turn in. I had laid out my sleeping bag, on the ground, at a comfortable site. As I crawled into bed and started to settle down for the night, I felt a lumpiness and motion under my bed. Alarmed, I started to get up when Ted Papenfuss crawled out from underneath! He thought he had found a perfect hiding place.

Soon thereafter we headed for home and had the pleasure of retracing part of our desert travel route. The only thing that marred that part of the trip was, as we approached the outskirts of Berkeley, our destination, I was pulled over for speeding and got a ticket, much to the amusement of my young desert passengers! I really wasn’t that eager to unload my cargo of kids.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.

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