conservation ftw, joanna irl

Sunset Cliffs and California Wildflowers

Sunset Cliffs, yellow flower path
Last week J and I spent an afternoon at Sunset Cliffs. Our friends had recently gotten portraits done there, and the photos were beautiful, so we decided to go exploring.

Sunset Cliffs, beach

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is adjacent to Point Loma Nazarene University, and consists of meandering cliff-side trails, wide spans of open space, and a long strip of beach at the foot of the cliffs.

Sunset Cliffs, purple flowers

This time of year, the wildflowers are popping up everywhere, and the ones at Sunset Cliffs are no exception. The ground is blanketed in yellow, or pink, or purple depending on where you look, and the birds and other wildlife are active, taking full advantage of the springtime opportunity.

Sunset Cliffs, cove

We saw surfers and people walking dogs and beautiful vistas, but unfortunately had somewhere else to be at sunset that night so didn’t get to see the colors on the cliff faces. We will definitely be going back for that soon.

Sunset Cliffs, J and J

More photos from Sunset Cliffs are here. ^_^



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.

joanna irl

Joshua Tree National Park, revisited

Joshua Tree NP

As it is springtime (and as he hadn’t been), I took J to Joshua Tree National Park in search of wildflowers. We seem to have arrived about a week (or maybe two) too early, but it was still beautiful and the afternoon sunlight stretching across the desert made the colors all the more vivid.

Joshua Tree flowers

The Joshua trees themselves were blooming, which was fascinating. They seemed a lot greener than I remembered, but maybe that was because I’ve spent more time in deserts since my last visit.

Joshua Tree rock monument

The rocks didn’t look quite real until we got right up close to them, and they look much smaller than they really are. And this isn’t even proper perspective, since the man crouching is very close to me and the rocks are not.

Joshua Tree San Andreas Fault

I also took J to the overlook where you can see the San Andreas fault and the Salton Sea. Pardon our scruffiness, we were camping the night previous.

Joshua Tree wildflowers

On the way out of the park and heading home, we did see the start of the wildflowers. They are bright and are starting to creep over the landscape, and I’m told they eventually blanket the dry ground before fading again for the summer.

(Photos begin here.)

conservation ftw

California Whale Watching: Gray whales, dolphins and sea lions

Whale watching, J and J on ship

Last Thursday, J and I went whale watching off the coast, past Point Loma. It’s migration season for gray whales, coming up from Baja California and going back to Alaska and that region for the summer months. I’ve never seen gray whales, plus it was a chance to take a boat ride through the harbor coming and going.

Whale watching, sea lions on buoy

The ship started from the pier beside the USS Midway, then took us out past NAS North Island (Coronado) and we got to see the gorgeous houses along Point Loma, plus the sea lions hanging out on buoys.

Heading out, I saw a small whale come up for a breath, and one of the Natural History Museum volunteers on board told me it was most likely a minke whale, which is one of the smallest types of whales and one I’ve never seen before. I didn’t get a photo, it was too fast, but still a very neat sighting.

Whale watching, dolphin pod

Next, as we were still heading out to sea, we saw a series of splashes. Before long, we could tell they were dolphins. As we got closer, the sheer number of them became apparent: a pod of over a THOUSAND individuals was intersecting the ship’s path! They went around and under it, and kept on going. The guy on the PA said that such pods aren’t uncommon. Wow!

They swam so fast it was hard to catch photos of them, but they kept leaping out of the water, swimming back and forth, and flicking their tails to make splashes.

Whale Watching, gray whale blow

Finally we got out to deep water where the gray whales migrate. Before long, we spotted some blows ahead, and approached close enough to see: a group of three or four gray whales.

Whale watching, gray whale faces

They weren’t in a usual migration grouping, though, but appeared to be in a mating cycle, which is unusual for this area.

Whale watching, gray whale fin

The whales hung out at the surface, swimming along on their sides or backs, with their fins above water. We could easily see their light gray skin under the water, reflecting almost white on their stomachs when they turned. It was fascinating.

Whale Watching birds and sea lions

After a while, we had to head back to shore. Along the way we passed more sea lions and a whole lot of birds (including herons!) hanging out on the docks where fishermen trap bait fish.

Whale Watching San Diego skyline

Just as we got back into the harbor, the sun cleared the clouds and we got a beautiful view of downtown San Diego.

Whale Watching J and J

This is definitely something I’d do again; even though the gray whales will be gone in another month, apparently this summer there will be blue whales in the area, and I don’t want to miss that!

Also, a few more photos are here.

joanna irl, the geek life

Dire Wolves and Saber Cats! (La Brea Tar Pits)

La Brea, mammoth

Ever since I was old enough to understand what they were, I’ve been fascinated by prehistoric animals. When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a piano-playing-astronaut who was a paleontologist when I wasn’t in outer space. Seriously. (And what happened with that? You’d think I’d have gone all sciencey, but instead I went all artsy. Weird.) Anyway, I had this book with full color illustrations of extinct animals, and half of it was dinosaurs and half of it was ice age mammals and I probably destroyed the book, if my mother doesn’t have it stashed somewhere. (Hey mom, is it stashed somewhere?)

The point of all of this is that the dinosaurs and giant ground sloths and such have always been my FAVORITE parts of natural history museums, and there’s a reason that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is the one I’ve visited three times (and am on their mailing list even though I haven’t lived on that side of the continent in years). So when the chance came to drive up to La Brea (and see the tar pits) one afternoon, I jumped at it.

La Brea, bubbling lake

It only takes about two hours to get to the tar pits from our house, and we enjoyed the drive to Los Angeles. We got to the Page Museum right around lunch time, so we walked to a NY pizza place and had a really good lunch before heading back to tour the museum. They have a pond out front with tar leaking into it that bubbles from the methane-producing organisms on the bottom of it, but they also have several pits currently being excavated.

La Brea, bones in excavation

I didn’t know that the tar is actually a natural asphalt, and hardens when it’s cool outside, so when the water is removed and it’s dry, they’re basically chipping away at something solid and not at gooey tar. Pretty interesting. It’s also why they don’t tend to find nocturnal animals in the pits: at night, the ground was hard.

La Brea, J with dire wolf skulls

There is a huge collection of fossils on exhibit, as you can see from the number of dire wolf skulls in this photo, and they have so many saber cats that they can show a row of skulls at different stages of teething. Really. There are also camels and ancient bison and all sorts of things. But my favorite?

The mammoth.

La Brea, Jo with Mammoth

This was the first time I can remember ever seeing a real mammoth skeleton.

La Brea, giant jaguar

All of the fossils in the museum are real, which is sort of mind boggling. They even have some North American lion fossils, which they now think was actually a giant jaguar and not a lion like the ones in Africa. Pretty cool (and terrifying) to think of a jaguar that’s almost twice the size of a saber toothed cat!

We got to see some current excavation sites, and see volunteers sifting through the tiny fossils found in the tar matrix (insects and seeds and other tiny things get preserved, too) and the project they’re working on that involves the most complete mammoth skeleton they’ve ever found. Very exciting stuff.

So kindergarten-me was very excited. And I’d totally volunteer there… except for the two hour drive! (Check out more photos here!)

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.

conservation ftw

Seals and Sea Lions and Pelicans, oh my!

La Jolla seals J and J

At the end of February, J and I went to the northern part of San Diego (to La Jolla) in search of the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) seals. It wasn’t exactly hard to find them.

La Jolla has a lot to offer in the way of shopping and dining, and beautiful coastal views and beaches, but it also has all the crowds and tourists and very difficult parking. We did discover a couple of great places, though, including a street taco place and one that makes homemade ice cream treats in the form of layered bars.

But the seals were our real purpose. We got to the beach and found a crowd of people, the seals spread out in a wide arc across the sand, enjoying the sunshine.

La Jolla seals wide
The seagulls were there hoping for leftovers from the seals, but the thing I was most interested to see was that there were so many seal pups in the group! As we got down to the sand level, a photographer pointed out something awesome: a minutes-old seal pup and its mother.

La Jolla seals baby newborn

As we watched over the next ten or fifteen minutes, she led the little one down to the water for its very first swimming lesson (and to get it clean, I’d imagine). Just plain adorable. And amazing that they are born knowing how to swim!

La Jolla seals newborn first swim

Granted, they stayed in the shallows, but there were several slightly older pups doing laps in the tide pools with their mothers. Some were simply hanging out on the sand.

La Jolla seals pup profile

We heard a lot of noise coming from further down the beach so, with a little guidance, we headed up the path above the rocks. We rounded a corner and found the source of the noise: a huge group of sea lions!

La Jolla sea lions, group

They were sleeping in piles, and playing in the water, and generally making a racket, but were thoroughly entertaining to watch. We even saw some doing the “classic” sea lion stance.

La Jolla sea lions, noses up

These animals have lived here for hundreds of years, and the presence of people wasn’t about to make them leave. It’s a little strange to me that so many of them live here, with the buildings so close and so many people coming to see them all the time. But at the same time, it’s very cool. I’m glad I got to see them.

And where are the pelicans I mentioned in the title? You’ll have to go see the other photos here. ^_^

conservation ftw, joanna irl, society of dabblers

Catching up on February, plus WHALE BABY.

I’m currently uploading a ton of photos, first to an album of random things from February that I never got around to uploading. The last month has been hectic, between finishing the unpacking process, J coming home from deployment, and then heading out to explore southern California (and Arizona!) together.

J’s mom visited in mid-February and we had a great time enjoying the warm weather, doing some window shopping, etc. On the Friday she was here, we went to Sea World and there was a sign posted that the Shamu show wasn’t happening that day. Being curious, we wandered over to Shamu Stadium… and discovered a staff member explaining that they’d had to close to stadium due to the BABY WHALE. I asked how old it was.

She checked her watch.

Thirty-three hours old. And born on Valentine’s Day. ^_^

baby orca 3

So I snapped a couple of photos and here you go. Baby orcas have to keep swimming for the first several weeks of their lives, so mom and baby were in the pool doing laps. The babies have to breathe very frequently, though, so it kept coming up to the surface.

baby orca 1

More photos and other things are in the album, and look for more blog posts with explanations later this week. ^_^

baby orca 2

One more baby whale photo for good measure. ^_^

baby orca 4

(I still have mixed feelings about SeaWorld…. but a baby whale is a baby whale, y’know?)