February desert love

The 15-day Chinese New Year celebration had just come to a close as the full Wolf Moon, also known as the Hunger Moon, rose in the cool, clear night sky amid shimmering stars and howls of coyotes as we settled in for five nights of camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Our festive campsite was in stark contrast to the dark and closed section of the southern non-hook-up section of Borrego Palm Canyon campground on the other side of the Palo Verde tree, due to state budget constraints.  We noticed that there were fewer park rangers and more camp hosts than ever before.

With the help of volunteers, the park’s Visitor Center remains open and is a delight to visit.  Dogs are permitted on the 0.6-mile “trail”, which is actually a cement sidewalk that traverses the desert from the campground to the Visitor Center.  Our dogs love this walk and often wildlife is spotted along the way, such as this Black-tailed jackrabbit (a previous image of mine, showing jackrabbits in their natural habitat, will be seen in an exhibit in the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona, later this year).

The only bighorn sheep seen on this trip were in the form of brass handles on either side of the Visitor Center’s massive wooden doors.

Honey bees were busy collecting pollen from Jojoba flowers nearby the Visitor Center.  Jojoba foliage is eaten by bighorn sheep and its nuts are eaten by rabbits.  Lower than expected rainfall in the area since January 1st could threaten the display of spring wildflowers expected next month.

The sun dipped below the nearby mountain ridge as we lit our teacandle lanterns and enjoyed dinner under the stars as we celebrated the upcoming Valentine’s Day and our 41st Anniversary.

Al Green got it right when he sang, “Let’s Stay Together.”

In pursuit of Bighorn Sheep

At an elevation of 3960 feet, Indianhead Peak loomed nearby as our Airstream friends Theresa, Bert, Janie, and I gathered at the trailhead of the popular Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail for another chance to see the elusive Bighorn Sheep and a spectacular palm oasis.  Just two days prior, Bert, Janie, and I found a 350-foot long serpent undulating in the desert sand not far from here, so we were hopeful for more good luck as we started our 3-mile hike.

Borrego Palm Canyon is a watershed for the San Ysidro Mountains and has a year-round flowing stream.

A thunderstorm can turn this creek into a raging river that can bring down trees, move boulders, and flood Borrego Springs, as it did in 2004.  Fires can also threaten this area, such as the Eagle fire of last July, which burned more than 10,000 acres as it spread east into the western slopes of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  Fortunately, Bighorn Sheep can easily get out of range of flames in the terrain of Borrego Palm Canyon.  Historically, according to Wikipedia, they have been threatened more by hunting, competition from domestic sheep, diseases, and development but are now making a comeback.

I was bringing up the rear of our hiking party halfway into our hike up the canyon when I turned and looked back at the southwestern ridge and spotted a female Bighorn Sheep (ewe) looking down at me.  I whispered to Janie, who passed the word to the others ahead.  I took a few steps back into the shade and began taking photos with my Nikon telephoto lens set to 200mm. I had photographed Peninsular Bighorn Sheep before at Agua Caliente, but I had never seen them in person here before.  As I was photographing the ewe, to my surprise, a much younger ewe poked her head up over the ridge.

It is likely that the larger ewe is pregnant and hungry.  The breeding season, or rut, is in the fall and there is a six-month gestation period.

Bighorn Sheep eat a variety of plants such as mesquite, agave and cacti.

The ewe remained vigilant as she stood on a ledge of the canyon wall covered with desert varnish, while we continued on our hike to the First Palm Oasis.

This oasis consists of a grove of California Fan Palms, Washingtonia filifera, near a running stream.  Oases such as these were habitat sites for the Cahuilla tribe of Native Americans, who ate the palm fruit and seed, and used the palm fronds to make rope, sandals, and baskets.  According to Diana Lindsay, a clan of Cahuilla lived in Borrego Palm Canyon, but abandoned their village due to small pox epidemics and territorial struggles with cattlemen (Anza-Borrego A to Z: People, Places, and Things, Diana Lindsay, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, 2001, page 80).

After working up an appetite, we returned to camp and joined Larry and Theresa’s husband Bob for a feast of pork and shrimp spring rolls, pork pot stickers, and Yusheng salad provided by Larry, while savoring our memories of our hike into Borrego Palm Canyon and reflecting on those who once lived there.  (See Bert’s photos and story of our hike here.)