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Generating field guides in Baja California, Part 2

This “Notes from the Field” post is from BRIT Biodiversity Explorer Dr. Sula Vanderplank, a Biodiversity Explorer for BRIT. She is a field botanist who loves natural history, floristics, and conservation science. Her research focuses on the botany and ecology of Baja California, Mexico.

Part 2 – April 7-10, Two Reserves and some Dunes

[with Dr. Alan Harper, Natalia Rodriguez, Jim Riley, César Garcia, Paula Pijoan, Dave Flietner, Luis Montes, Anny Peralta, Jorge Valdez, Cesar Guerrero, Veronica Meza]

Parcela 89 East

April 7th – Reserva Natural Valle Tranquilo:

Switching gears after our adventures at high elevation, Alan, Natalia, and I came down the mountain and met up with a group of colleagues at a delicious secret breakfast spot, then drove out in convoy to Reserva Natural Valle Tranquilo, a nature reserve owned by the non-profit land trust and conservation organization Terra Peninsular AC, where I serve as a Science Advisor. We hopped out of the car next to a GIANT agave (Agave shawii) to take some selfies and celebrate the wonder of the reserve, and (being me) I quickly impaled myself on one of the leaves. Despite being a single puncture wound, it hurt more than I cared to confess and irritated me for days to follow!

The group of us at Valle Tranquilo—with a dead ringer of Terra’s logo in the background. Also, agave photobomb = another injury for Sula!

We then took a hike out to a remote side canyon to visit a small forest of the near-endemic grove of “mission manzanita” (Xylococcus bicolor). These plants are near-endemic to NW Baja California and normally restricted to higher elevations and chaparral habitats but seemed to have taken refuge in this shady little canyon.

Reserva Natural Valle Tranquilo

Friend and colleague Jim Riley is working on a field guide to the reserve and the coastal maritime scrub in NW Baja California. His goal is to give the public a quick and easy visual guide to the most abundant and distinctive plants of the region. His guide is colorful, showy, easy to use, and a unique mix of detail without being too science-heavy. On this trip Jim is testing a draft of his field guide on Dave Flietner who, like all of us, is amazed by Jim’s energy and the guide that he seems to have written overnight despite the wealth of data and color.

Jim shows Dave the latest draft of the field guide.

The weather here is stifling, especially after three freezing days in the mountains.  We walk, we sweat, and we drink water.  We thought this would be a great time of year for our herpetologist friends Anny and Jorge, but they too find slim pickings on the dry landscape. That night the campfire is surrounded by jokes and laughter, and we are all glad to be together in a big group.

April 8th – El Soccorro dunes:

Today we are going to the El Socorro dunes.  They are a magnificent dune field, home to 65% of all the dune plants found in the state of Baja California!  During my master’s research on the flora of San Quintín, I also found these dunes to have the highest number of rare and endemic plants per sq-km in the region.  I’m excited because Natalia has offered to show me a part of the dunes that I’ve never visited—a mobile inland dune of soft sand—and she knows an access road.

The dunes were spectacular and did not disappoint. We hiked on the open patterned sand, which was sometimes hard and sometimes swallowed our feet like quicksand!

Dave Flietner
César gets close to Astragalus anemophilus… Don’t eat it, César!
Astragalus anemophilus, dune locoweed

There is an abandoned mine that has eaten into one corner of the dune field, which is already heavily threatened due to the fragile nature of all the dunes of the region, yet we find many beautiful plants and a surprising amount of flowers. Natalia recently published a paper on the origin of the dune field, showing that most of the sand comes from the large arroyo Santo Domingo to the north. She is now working on a paper about vegetation change on the dunes, and I am happy to help.

The heat finally becomes unbearable, and our splinter-group heads to the coast to meet up with the rest of the group. Several people had to leave the trip that afternoon so our small group settles in for a night of camping atop what surely must be one of the most beautiful mesas in the world. With a sunset view all along the coast, a panorama of the volcanoes of San Quintín is soon followed by a sky full of stars. We walk the beach by moonlight and flashlight, looking for snakes and lizards under rocks and plants, our way home lit by a bonfire of giant dead agave.


April 9th – more Nature Reserves:

We’re up early as it’s time to check all of last night’s mammal traps before it gets hot.  Jorge Montiel and Jorge Simancas have a long-term monitoring project at yesterday’s Reserve, and they have been trapping and marking the mammal populations for several months now.  I got to see my first pack-rat and some other interesting critters, but I missed my coffee…

Pack-rat, now donning a fashionable new earring…

When we got back to our camp it had been completely taken over by bees.  Desperate for water, they swarmed every drop of moisture at our campsite.  The water spigot was blanketed in them, and we set out wet paper towels in attempt to draw them away from our food and bodies. Everyone stayed very calm and tried not to panic or move quickly, but I know we were all nervous and uncomfortable as they crawled inside our sleeves and down our necks, trying to drink from any light sweat beads appearing on our bodies…

Thirsty bees.

Later that day we realized the car was also full of bees, dead ones, that must’ve become trapped in our camping gear and eventually died of heat exhaustion. Ugh. Bad way to go.

We left Valle Tranquilo and headed to Reserva Natural Punta Mazo at the tip of the San Quintin bay, in the volcanic field.  On the way we found a friendly rattlesnake, and we made it to my favorite campsite before dark—at the base of a volcano, on soft sand, with a view of the ocean. I’m not surprised by the once again perfect sunset.

Dulzura Kangaroo Rat (copyright Alan Harper); Paula Feliz; a lovely red diamond rattlesnake at San Quintín (copyright Alan Harper)

April 10th – Reserva Natural Punta Mazo:

Reserva Natural Punta Mazo is a lot smaller than Valle Tranquilo, but it includes an outer peninsula of two pristine bays, with 10 km of sand dunes and many rare and endemic species of plants.  To our delight, we also find the endemic legless lizard Anniella geronimensis, a snake-like reptile that lives only in dunes under plants, eating ants in the sand.  It has a very small known range, and San Quintín is right in the middle.  All this digging in the sand is fun, and soon I find all sorts of strange and wonderful insects to play with.  The dune plants are surprisingly “flowerful,” taking advantage surely of the fogs here as finally we have escaped both the heat and the cold. We drive around the tip of the peninsula, and I collect DNA samples of Cakile maritima (“sea kale”) for a researcher in Canada that needs samples from the entire length of its range along the Pacific coast.

Anny (Peralta) and her Anniella.
Getting the perfect shot (of the Anniella lizard) is not always easy.

A treat to find on the dunes is a plant known as “sand food” (Pholisma arenarium). This is a parasitic plant with no green (photosynthetic) parts, that steals all its nutrients from the roots of neighboring plants and emerges from the sand only to share its pretty purple flowers.

Pholisma arenarium (sand food)

Soon the fog rolls in, and as we start our drive north I feel very content knowing that Terra Peninsular is protecting these two great places, and that Jim is bringing them to life for all visitors with his field guide. I’ll be sure to spread the good news when it’s finished!

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