The Unbelievable Life of Death Valley

Please welcome guest posters Scott Stoner and Denise Hackert-Stoner. Scott and Denise are nature photographers, writers, and birders in upstate New York, where they operate “Naturelogues.” Their award-winning work has been exhibited widely across the NY’s Capital Region. They are published in several magazines and the just released New York Wildlife Viewing Guide (Watchable Wildlife Series).

Roadrunner by Scott Stoner

Roadrunner by Scott Stoner

It’s the hottest place on earth, and the lowest and driest place in North America. At 282 feet below sea level, it averages a scant 2 inches of rain per year; some years it receives none. Its world record high temperature stands at 134 degrees, and summer days routinely reach 120. With places like Coffin Peak, Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, and Badwater, Death Valley demands respect. Yet there is much beauty here, and a surprising amount of life.

We visited Death Valley in March 2013, our six days barely scratching the surface of the vast salt pan of nature in this 3.4 million acre national park, the largest in the Lower 48.

Though the calendar still said winter, heat was an issue, with daytime shade temperatures in the upper 90’s — well above even Death Valley normal. Park staff conveyed the blunt message “hydrate or die,” and warned visitors carry lots of extra water whether you are exploring by car or by foot.  The restrooms even had charts showing urine color as an indicator of dehydration!

The landscape was stark and stunningly beautiful; a vast salt flat surrounded by mountains, with dunes, badlands, and a fascinating human and natural history. In some places there were no plants at all, just mile after mile of bare ground with great mountains in the background, intercepted by huge alluvial fans. The hardiest plant was desert holly, a blue-green shrub that seemed to survive on nothing, even in places where the creosote bush would fail. There are several dune fields in the park; the easiest to reach are the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, elevation zero. A visit first thing in the morning offered photo opportunities before the dunes were covered by human footprints, and a chance to see tracks of beetles, sidewinders, and kangaroo rats.

The wealth of human history memorialized in this park includes a monument to the Forty-Niners (1849) who passed through and barely survived on their way west to seek gold. Borax provided barely a 10-year boom – remember the Twenty Mule Team Borax ? It was mined and refined right there in Death Valley, and pulled by teams of 20 mules a couple hundred miles to the train depot.

Badwater is another iconic place. At 280 feet below sea level, it offers access to the vast salt pan where one can go out and explore. Walk a few miles to descend the last 2 feet, but bring plenty of water. Amazingly, while photographing salt crystals, Denise came upon a tiny spider in this most desolate of environments!

Few if any birds were in these parts. However, where there is water there are birds. And there are a few wet areas in Death Valley. One is Salt Creek, where we had Say’s Phoebe; another is at the Furnace Creek visitor complex, complete with swimming pool, palm trees, golf course (the lowest in North America), ponds, and even grass. The sight of 50 American Coot in the pond and walking on the golf course more than 200 feet below sea level seemed almost unreal. Other birds at Furnace Creek included Lesser Goldfinch, Black Phoebe, House Finch, White-crowned Sparrow, Pied-billed Grebe, and Ruddy Duck!

One afternoon, while photographing Common Raven, Great-tailed Grackle, and other birds around Furnace Creek Ranch , Scott suddenly realized that Denise was gone. Looking around, he saw her in the distance, running away. Thinking there was some emergency, Scott began running after her. What was lost in the distance and heat was her yelling and yelling “ROADRUNNER”! She had spotted a Greater Roadrunner behind one of the lodge buildings. Scott caught up to her, and immediately began photographing this brightly colored individual which the photos would later reveal had three prey items in its mouth! We watched it move around behind the lodge building, even going onto a guest room’s patio at one point. We believe it had a nest in the area and was collecting food to bring back. Needless to say, the bird attracted quite a bit of attention, and was our bird of the trip!

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