San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[San Diego County Bird Atlas Project]

Reports from the Field
Summer 2001

Beware the New Moon

Drawing of Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures

Contrary to common expectations, the new moon is much more dangerous than the full moon. Consider the following...

At the new moon in late March, we went into square N25, the Inner Pasture in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. From Agua Caliente County Park, we hiked up the heavily bouldered Moonlight Canyon, covering about two miles while gaining nearly 1000 feet in elevation to the rim overlooking the "pasture" of creosote, ocotillo, mesquite, and cholla. While we were descending the hundred feet into the "pasture", ten Turkey Vultures swooped out of nowhere to check us out thoroughly. We thought they probably saw us as a potential future meal. We spent the day in the "pasture," finding 23 species, and toward late afternoon started the climb out, euphoric with the relative ease of the hike at the end of a hot, tiring day. After congratulating ourselves on our planning and execution of the day's events, we took a "short cut" for the last half mile to our car. As twilight encompassed us, we felt uneasy, because while we were traveling faster than earlier, we were on the trail longer than expected. Then, surprise! We found ourselves looking down at the Inner Pasture we had left two hours before! Reversing our path, we started the descent down the steep rocky canyon again, finding it much more difficult and dangerous in the weak starlight and absent moonlight. Locating an area of sand without teddy bear cholla, we lay down under an emergency mylar blanket and tried to sleep. At first light, we continued down the canyon and found the correct turn toward Agua Caliente. Half an hour later, without water but alive (and disappointing the Turkey Vultures), we climbed into our car and headed home.

The following new moon, in late April, we headed out for the old Urquhart turkey ranch in K22 in Rodriguez Canyon, taking the turnoff from Highway 78 at the Banner store. In the fall we had discoverd that the shorter road up the canyon from Highway S2 was impassable. We intended to bird there for an hour or so before splitting up--Ann would head down the Pacific Crest Trail toward S2, where Tom would pick her up. Well, as we spent more time than planned observing and admiring the hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies on the expanses of Blue Phacelia and Desert Dandelions and Marigolds, it became too hot for Ann's planned hike. We decided to keep birding around the former turkey ranch. At 10 AM a Jeep Grand Cherokee went down the road, and we remarked that if we didn't see the Jeep again, the road was now probably open to S2. We had lunch, and were about to start back up the road for Highway 78, when we noticed a woman walking up the hill toward us. She was in obvious distress and without water. We had her sit in the shade and gave her some water while she told us of leaving her older husband, a diabetic and recent heart-stent implant patient, in her Jeep, which was high-centered down the road about one half mile. Using our cell phone, we attempted to reach Chrysler for roadside (really?) service but were unsuccessful. We piled into our truck and went down the road toward her Jeep. Indeed, it was stuck, and we took the better part of two hours to get it free and back on the road toward Highway 78. The lady, an experienced off-roader, was under the impression that there are working ranches in the area (they are actually abandoned gold mines) that she could walk to for assistance. We doubt that she could have made it the five miles or so back to the highway in the heat without water, and with nobody giving the alarm, her husband would likely have perished before another party happened along. How fortunate for them that our plans had been altered.

The point is that the desert is a dangerous place even for experienced hikers/birders/off-roaders. Be careful out there!

We went back to the Inner Pasture at the beginning of May, closed the square, and saw several migrants, including Western Tanagers, a variety of warblers, Warbling Vireos, and Hammond's Flycatchers. On the way out, some fifty feet from our "bedroom," we found a four-foot rattlesnake.

-- Ann and Tom Keenan

Summer 2001 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction