Stellars Jay ( Cyanocitta stelleri )

The Stellars Jay ( Cyanocitta stelleri ) is a common character found in the forests of the western half of the United States. The bird is an opportunistic omnivore and closely related to the Blue Jay. The Stellars Jay has a black crested head and a vibrant blue body which is commonly about between eleven and twelve inches long. This bird has a lot of variations depending on location.

Stellar's Jay ( Cyanocitta stelleri ) stealing peanuts in Big Bear, California
A Stellar’s Jay ( Cyanocitta stelleri ) stealing peanuts in Big Bear, California
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Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

One of  the more unique and quite frankly cool animals found in the Mojave Desert is the Desert Tortoise ( Gopherus agassizii ).  My family has a connection with this nomad of the dessert in that during the spring of 1942, my grand parents inherited three desert tortoises when they purchased and moved into a house in Ontario, CA.

Hands Off
Hands Off

My grandmother quickly named and adopted her new pets.  She and my grandfather struck up a deal with a local grocery store to donate lettuce and other vegetables to my grandmother to care for the tortoises.  By the time I was born, the three tortoises became a populations of about 20 animals.  Some of my earliest memories was to help her wake up the “turtles” from their hibernation, during which she stored the animals in a  large box along with a bunch of news paper clippings to help insulate them a little bit from the California winters.

Over the years, those three tortoises expanded their family and ours into a breeding population of over 70 animals.   Eventually, we donated the captive born tortoises to several zoo’s, shelters, and rescue to care for the animals.  All in all, my family raised and cared for desert tortoises for about 60 years, the ownership of which was legal because family documentation and the fact that all of the animals were born in captivity.

California Desert Tortoise emerging from a hiding place...
California Desert Tortoise emerging from a hiding place…

Oddly enough, despite my best efforts I did not a desert tortoise in the wild until the late 1990s when I ran into the one emerging from a den during one of the Toyota Four Runner Jamborees which was located out of Stoddard Wells Road.  Surrounded by others, most of whom I did not know, I quietly photograph the tortoise and pointed him out to my brother and two friends.  I chose not to point him out for fear of someone in the group would take it after we left.

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in its burrow
Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in its burrow

Since this initial sighting, I have found four more in the wild.  One sighting occurred while driving the old Mojave Road with my father.  The animal was just walking down the trail.  We stopped and waited about 45 minutes for the animal to clear the road.  The other animal were spotted while driving at speed along various highways in the Mojave.  One animal I found walking down the middle of the road and had I not stopped and moved the animal off the road, it surely would not have survived long.

A juvenile desert tortoise lost its battle for life in the harsh desert environment. Photo by James L Rathbun
A juvenile desert tortoise lost its battle for life in the harsh desert environment. Photo by James L Rathbun

When born, the tortoises shell is thin and fragile which makes it an easy food source for Ravens, Gila monsters, kit foxes, roadrunners, coyotes, and fire ants.  Only about 2% are expected to reach maturity and the population in the Mojave is listed as threatened.  Should you be lucky enough to see one in the wild, take your time. Enjoy the moment. Snap a photograph and then leave the tortoise along.  I can tell you the exact spot of each of the five sightings I have had the good fortune to have experienced.  Each sighting of this timeless desert nomad is unique, and should be protected.

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Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)

A member of the cuckoo family, the long legged Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is an icon of the desert southwest in part to the artistic efforts of Warner Brothers and their animated series featuring “Wile E Coyote”. Road runners are aptly named and may reach a top speed of 26 mph on the ground. Anyone who attempts to stalk them will note their speed and agility as they effortlessly out distance the stalker.

Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)

The road runner is a larger bird than one might realize and typically is between 20 and 24 inches in length. The bird is typically between 10 and 12 inches in height and boasts a wing span on 17 to 24 inches. The upper body is a shade of brown with black streaks and may feature pink spots. This pattern helps break up the outline of the bird and helps provide camouflage. The lower body is commonly white or ran in appearance. The head features a prominent crest of brown features.

Despite the branding and name, the greater roadrunner is capable of flight, although it spends most of its time on the ground. This animal can be found at most elevations between -200 and 7500 feet and favors semi arid scrubland with scattered low lying vegetation. The bird spends its time hunting and stalking its prey. Once sighted prey is quickly run down by the fast legs of this peditor. Common prey items include spiders, insects, scorpions, mice, small birds and lizards and even rattlesnakes.

The greater roadrunner typically forms long pair bonds with its mate. Typically, clutches of 3 – 6 eggs are laid in the spring months. The nests of this bird are commonly found in low brush and cactus and are built by the male. Common with other cuckoos, the roadrunner are known to lay eggs in the nests of other birds, such as the raven.

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Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis )

The Western Fence Lizard ( Sceloporus occidentalis ) is perhaps one of the most common lizards in the desert southwest and is also known as a “Blue belly”. Perhaps this commonality is the reason for its name. The Western Fence lizard is found in a variety of habitats and common at elevations up to 10,800 feet. They can be located in forests, desert sage, farmlands and grasslands. This species is typically not found in harsh desert climates and moist forests.

Western Fence Lizard
Western Fence Lizard

This animal is typically between 2 inches and 3.5 inches in length. They are typically black to brown in colors with stripes on their backs. They have blue colored patches on their ventral abdomen. This reptiles will lay clutches of eggs between 3 and 17 eggs in the spring between April and July. The eggs will hatch within two months of feralization.

This animal are known to eat insects including ant, beetles, flies, spiders and some caterpillars. They typically can be found sunning themselves on rocks, fences and paths. The are a prey item for other animals including larger lizards, birds and also some a mammals. As is common with most reptiles, the lizard is known to hibernate in cooler winter months.

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Desert Tarantula (Aphonopelma iodius)

Desert Tarantula (Aphonopelma iodius)
Desert Tarantula (Aphonopelma iodius)

A favorite cast member of horror stories and adventure movies, the Desert Tarantula (Aphonopelma iodius) is a valuable member of the desert habitat and community. Although their relatively large size can be intimidating, they are reasonably harmless to humans, and their bite is along the lines of a bee sting. This hairy arachnid is known to live in the desert of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah and have a life span of 25 to 40 years

A member of the Arachnid Class of animals, tarantulas come equipped with eight legs, fangs and compound eyes. There body and legs are covered in short hairs and their overall size is typically between three and inches. This class of animals also include scorpions, mites and crabs. The long legs of the Desert Tarantulas equip the animal with amazing mobility over the hostile terrain of the desert southwest.

A nocturnal hunter, this spider lives on just about any animal of the correct proportion including small lizards, grasshoppers, beetles and other small insects. Like almost any other animal, the are a good food source for the tarantula hawks, lizards, snakes birds, coyotes and other small animals. The live in under ground burrows which offer protection from predator’s and heat. Their burrows are typically 6 in 8 inches in depth and are lined with silk to prevent collapse. The burrow opening will be closed in with silk when the animal is in residence.

This species of tarantula is known by may common names including Great Basin blonde, Fresno County blonde, Desert Tarantula, Salt Lake City Brown, Northern Blonde. Some more adventurous people will even keep these animals as pets.

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Classification

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Arthropoda
Subphylum:Chelicerata
Class:Arachnida
Order:Araneae
Infraorder:Mygalomorphae
Family:Theraphosidae
Genus:Aphonopelma
Species:A. iodius