conservation ftw, joanna irl

Southwestern Wildlife Spotting: Volume 1

The following are some accounts of wildlife I’ve seen since moving to California. This isn’t an exhaustive list, mostly just of those animals I’ve photographed, but there are a few I’ve ID’ed with no photo (which makes me sad… but still happy I saw them). Not all of the photos are fantastic, but they “work” for IDing and I don’t always have time to ask the animal to sit nicely and pose for me. Ha.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, lizard

Common Chuckwalla

This is a common chuckwalla. It is probably a female; according to my reptile book, the females retain the juvenile characteristic “banding” pattern on their tails.

Whale watching, gray whale faces

These are gray whales, and I blogged about them after whale watching. We also saw meinke whales but I didn’t get a photo because they were moving too quickly.

Whale watching, dolphin pod

Also from the whale trip: Dolphins and sea lions, though I’d seen them before at La Jolla cove.

La Jolla sea lions, group

Sea lions in a pile.

La Jolla seals pup profile

Harbor seals.


This is a desert cottontail. I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen one of the types of jackrabbit, but without a photo it’s hard to ID which type.

Sparrows dancing

These are just common house sparrows, but they were dancing (being that it’s spring and all) and it was fun to watch them.

Blue Sky western fence lizard

Western fence lizard— I especially like these because they are blue underneath, which you can see in this photo.


And this is, I think, a type of flycatcher. I’ve got another photo of one, and I’ll let them stand for all of the songbirds and such that I’ve seen and not been able to ID or photograph.

Lake Ramona, flycatcher

Other birds include a bunch of red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, and (I’m not kidding) a real California condor I spotted, circling above the desert in Joshua Tree. I wasn’t expecting it, and thought it was a (really big) vulture I didn’t know, so made a note of the distinct black and white pattern on the bottom of its wings, then checked in my book later. Wow!

Lake Ramona, common checkered whiptail

This is a bad photo, but it ID’ed the common checkered whiptail lizard. It was really large (though not as large as the chuckwalla) and very pretty. Seen on the Lake Ramona hike.

Lake Ramona, common side-blotched lizard

A common side-blotched lizard. We saw a lot of them on the Lake Ramona hike.

Lake Ramona, raven

A raven. ^_^ It didn’t say Nevermore, though.

So that’s what I’ve seen so far. There have been even more local plants and wildflowers, but I really should save those for another entry.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Painted Rock Petroglyphs

This will be a short post.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, single

On the way back from Casa Grande we made a short detour to a places called Painted Rock Petroglyphs, in the Painted Rock mountains.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs

The glyphs are from a wide age range, some ancient, some from a few hundred years ago and some from the 19th century. They are on a rock outcropping that makes a prominent landmark in the surrounding valley.

Arizona painted rock petroglyphs, lizard

We also saw our only desert wildlife here that wasn’t a bird: a lizard.

I haven’t figured out what he is yet. Ideas? ((UPDATE: It’s a chuckwalla!))

Also, as this is the last post about the road trip, here are all of the photos from that. ^_^

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Well, I SAID I wanted to see the Sonoran Desert.

So here’s the thing.

I’ve been trying to go to as many national parks (or historic sites, as the case may be) this year as possible. I’m excited about my passport stampbook (as I’ve previously posted) and especially since we now live in the half of the country with all of the huge natural areas, I want to see them!

One of the exhibits I’ve always loved at the North Carolina Zoo is their Sonora Desert dome, so when I noticed on my newly-acquired roadmap of Arizona that the interstate went THROUGH it, I couldn’t resist! On the way home from the Casa Grande ruins, we looked it up on our GPS and found a place labeled “Sonoran Desert National Monument.” That sounded promising, so we programmed it to take us there.

And we started driving.

And driving.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert sign

See that? PROOF we were in the RIGHT AREA.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert road

We took a couple of smaller roads, then wound up on a two lane highway going straight across the Sonoran Desert, generally back in the direction of I-8, which we would pick up on the other side after stopping at the monument. The desert was fascinating, with far more plant-life that I expected in a desert, and we drove between two long mountain reaches, watching for wildlife (though we never saw any) and grateful for the full tank of gas and water bottles.

It was interesting, too, that there weren’t many cars. Most of the “scenic” stops were closed for the season, but that didn’t bother us because we planned to stop at the monument.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wide

At this point I want to note that there are not that many photos from this drive. That’s because I kept expecting to, y’know, GET to something. These photos of cacti?? Actually from BEFORE we got into the national monument area.

After a while, we reached the point where the GPS told us to turn and drive 11 miles to the monument. We slowed down to make the turn…

…and then stopped. We were facing a sandy track that crossed some railroad tracks that ran parallel to the two lane highway. On the near side of them was a VERY large sign that said: “DO NOT ENTER.” Oh, and some WILD COTTON BUSHES.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wild cotton

I looked again at the GPS. We’d followed the directions correctly. But then I noticed that the 11 mile “drive” was supposed to take over an hour… across sand… And we realized then that the “Monument” was probably the DESERT ITSELF.

THANKS, GPS. We were now in the MIDDLE of the Sonoran Desert. Well, about 11 miles from the middle, as far as I can tell.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert cacti

To be fair, I DID say I wanted to properly SEE the desert, and not just drive past it on the interstate. And boy howdy, I SAW that desert.

We checked our map and discovered we were closer to I-8 if we kept going forward rather than backtracking, so that’s what we did.

I guess some monuments are bigger than others. I’m still bummed I didn’t get a stamp for it, though.

joanna irl

Casa Grande Ruins: an unexpected very neat thing

Casa Grande, Arizona, Jo with Cactus

In my quest to see national parks (and collect passport stamps from them!), I’ve made it a habit to check for any that are an easy drive from a place I might already be. In this case, J and I were in Casa Grande, Arizona, for the renaissance festival, and we kept seeing signs that said “Home of the Casa Grande Ruins.” It showed up on my national parks guide, so off we went.

We stayed in the newer part of town, but as we drove toward the park, it felt like we were going back in time. The old town of Casa Grande looks about like I’d imagine it did in the 1960s, except with modern cars on the narrow roads. The signs are hand painted, shops are a little careworn, and pastels are everywhere. After about half an hour, we reached the entrance to the national park site.

Casa Grande, Arizona, sign

I think we were expecting something more like piles of rocks. After all, other ancient sites we’re familiar with (mostly on the east coast and upper midwest) tend to be mounds, or maybe some stones with carvings. We weren’t expecting anything like what we found.

Casa Grande, Arizona, wide of house

In the middle of a wide stretch of cactus-covered plain, there is a huge three story house. There are also the walls of a compound that surrounded the house, plus several other compounds, a ball court, and other signs of a huge community.

Casa Granda, Arizona walls

The dry, desert air has preserved the site. It used to have a small river going through it, and the people who lived there had an elaborate irrigation system for agriculture. The site was populated for a while beforehand, but the great house itself is about 800 years old.

Casa Grande, Arizona, back of house

We walked around, looking into the interior of the house where you can still see the places where wooden beams formed ceilings, floors. The walls were almost destroyed by graffiti in the 19th century, as the place was used as a waypoint for people traveling west, but has since been restored. The roof overhead was built in the 1930s and protects it from the summer storms.

Casa Grande, Arizona, house

All in all it was a very cool thing to find, and completely unexpected.

joanna irl

Driving to Arizona: No map? No problem! Unless you get detoured onto a historic highway…

In the age of the GPS, I haven’t bothered in quite a while to buy a roadmap. I haven’t needed one in a long time, and even when I’ve lost GPS signal I have been either close enough to home not to need it, or in a relatively small place where it is difficult to get too lost. The outer banks of North Carolina are an example: you’ve got very limited options until you’re driving straight into the ocean, so just keep moving along, all right?

Arizona roadtrip, J driving

When heading to the Phoenix area for the renaissance festival the other weekend, J and I looked up directions and headed out onto the open road sans map. You might think this is a little crazy, except that from San Diego to Phoenix is almost a straight shot on I-8. In fact, we were actually going to Casa Grande, which IS pretty much a straight shot off of the 8. We’d researched and looked at a map at home and knew the best tactic was to fill the gas tank near the Arizona border and then just keep going across the desert as quickly as possible. Plus we had our trusty GPS!

Arizona desert roadtrip

Interstate 8 goes across southern California in an almost due-east (plus some local meandering) fashion. Growing up on the east coast, I never realized that the border between the US and Mexico is at a rather significant slant. Neither did J. Keep this in mind, but if you want to see for yourself, go map it.

So down the interstate we went, listening to the radio and enjoying the scenery.

Arizona roadtrip, back on the insterstate

And then we needed a pit stop.

There was an exit with “Services” signs (including a gas station, which means bathrooms!), so we exited and went along the off-ramp and found ourselves at another stretch of road.

Arizona roadtrip, historic route 80

It was an older highway, patched with tar, and no indication of which direction the gas station might be. We turned to the right and drove a couple of miles.


Arizona roadtrip, historic route 80 Jacumba

So we turned around and went the other direction. Still not much, except some old houses and such, but I noticed the sign: Historic Route 80. I’m a sucker for historic, scenic routes, and we could still SEE the interstate at that point, so we decided that since a good roadtrip always involves detours and adventures, we’d give the old road a try.

Arizona roadtrip, old house

As we rambled down Historic 80, we started seeing small farms and old stone buildings and a dark metal fence that kept getting closer and closer. Wondering aloud about the fence, it suddenly struck both of us: we were looking into Mexico!

Arizona roadtrip, MX border fence

After about ten miles, we reached another entrance to the interstate, plus a rest stop where we could pull over for a bit. I bought a map then, and sure enough, we had driven as close along the border as you can.

Arizona desert sunset, orange

After that, we crossed the mountains and reached the Arizona line, then quickly passed into the wide flats of the Arizona desert. When land is that flat and dry, certain… smells… permeate the air. We knew every time we drove within ten miles of a ranch, for sure.

Arizona roadtrip, desert cactus sunset

For a while, it was exciting to see the tall cacti that we’ve mostly seen in movies pop up on the side of the road. And the sunset was really spectacular behind the purple mountains. (And now I have seen Purple Mountain Majesties, though not so much of the fruited plain. Mostly it was sand. Maybe further north and east and not Arizona?)

Arizona roadtrip, pink sunset over desert

But yes, the desert is beautiful. And large. As we discovered yet again on the drive back home, wherein our GPS took us to (literally) the middle of nowhere, and no map could have prevented it. But that’s another story for another day.