A Quick Trip To The Desert







It's 0615 on a Sunday morning and I'm on a commuter flight to O'Hare, en route to a work-related conference in San Diego. The conference doesn't start until Monday, but I want to get out there as early as I can. I want to get one more herp trip in if it's possible. Responses to inquiries made to some herp newsgroups indicate that I may have a chance to observe some reptile life out in the desert to the east, even though it is the middle of November. I cannot pass up a chance to herp somewhere new and exciting, especially when the frost is on the pumpkin back at home.

Switching planes in Chicago, I arrive on the coast around 1030 AM, Pacific Time. I have my rental car by eleven and by noon I have left San Diego far behind as I head east on I-8. Pine-covered hillsides give way to rock-covered hillsides as I drop down into the low desert, heading towards the area south of the Salton Sea. It is a bright sunny day,  the temperature in the mid-fifties, and I am heading for parts unknown and sights unseen.

Most of the hillsides are covered with large rocks, which are rounded smooth - there are few sharp edges or fracture planes to be seen. Thinking it over, I realize that cycles of heating and cooling are splitting these hills and mountains down to their very bones. The sand-laden winds scour away the evidence over time, smoothing away the rough work of fire and ice.

I'm still dropping down into the low desert when signs indicate a county park at the next exit, and public land is just what I'm looking for. When I reach the parking lot I find the park to be one of those boulder-strewn hillsides I saw from the highway, with hiking trails and a scenic overlook. Getting out of the car, a steady and brisk east wind hits me in the face, which is a bit dismaying, chilly wind not making for the best conditions for observing reptile life. Then again, the sun was bright and still high in the sky, so perhaps some creatures were basking in some nook out of the wind.

 I made my way between jumbles of rocks and boulders, many of them larger than my rental car. Their rounded shapes made many interesting niches and hiding places where two or more rocks came together. Down in this rocky maze I realized I was sheltered from the wind, and I could feel the sun's warmth on the rock surfaces, which made me feel a little better about my chances this day.

Sure enough, I saw a flash of lizard as it disappeared around the curve of a boulder.  I readied my camera and followed after, moving slowly and carefully.  There it was!  It was a fair sized Banded Rock Lizard, Petrosaurus mearnsi, basking on a near vertical surface.  I managed to take a few photographs before the lizard decided to move into the safety of a deep crevice.  There are several species of Petrosaurus inhabiting boulder piles from deep in Baja California up to here in Imperial County.  P. mearnsi is one of several "Baja endemics" that range up into the southern tip of California.  These lizards are two to three inches in length from snout to vent, seven to nine inches in total length.  Their limbs are robust, and there are several long toes on each hind foot.  The back legs are held out away from the body, which is kept low to the ground, giving the lizard a slow waddling gait when not frightened.  It is hard for me to tell how they run, for they are a blur when they want to get away.

I conjured up an image of these boulder fields stretching south from here for hundreds of miles, down into the Baja peninsula.  Down there somewhere warmer breezes blew, and Petrosaurus,  Chuckwallas and other lizards bask in comfort all winter long.

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