Camp flora—A riparian walk—A naturalist’s paradise—I get some bird learning—What Don Rolando knows—To eat or not to eat the Sierra San Pedro Rainbow Trout—James hooks a huge one—Museum reflections

5 June, Camp, La Grulla, 6am

A pretty good night’s sleep despite the nightly, unnerving cabal of local coyotes in the meadow. The elevation is high (~8000ft), but the morning temperatures remain fine, and a huge contrast to Lamb’s trip in the same season. He awoke one morning to find his water pail frozen over.


The early morning cacophony of birds fades quickly so that by 8 or 9 things get real quiet. Whitney takes advantage of the early traffic by getting up around 5. She’s well underway with a long list and some “hot snaps” by the time the rest of us lurch from our tents.


This morning I try to catalogue some of the flora around camp. We sleep beneath a canopy of Jeffrey Pines, huge beasts of trees with characteristically long needles, their cones the archetypical pine cone shape. Their bark is highly variable, sometimes tight and rough but in general “smooth” in appearance, but other times it develops deep crevasses, probably due to age, in which you can smell the faint odor of rich butterscotch or vanilla. These share the space with another conifer, Incense Cedars, too, whose bark is a rich brown that tends to shred, giving it its characteristic shaggy look.

Evening Primrose

The abundant sage we see all around us and under the pines is Salvia rosa, or Rose Sage: a broad-leafed sage whose characteristic sage smell has strong rosemary notes. Here and there on the forest floor are California Evening Primrose (Oenothera californica): a white, four-petaled flower with extruded yellow stamens and anthers on a tall green stalk of deeply serrated leaves. Many small (6-8”) specimens of Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a herbaceous flowering plant, cover the forest floor in addition to the Primrose. These individuals produce dense clusters of many small white five-petaled daisy-like flowers with yellow stamens.

A little father up in elevation, between the huge granite boulder formations that hug the camp, grow vibrant red-orange columbines of one species or another, each flower dangling dozens of extruded stamens under a crown of red pinnacles, each pinnacle topped with a bauble. Western Tiger Swallowtail butterflies hang from them to gather nectar. Equally striking are the large fields—sometimes a meter or two square—of Red Monardella (Monardella macrantha). These red, tubular flowers have extruded stamens and grow in clusters of 6 or 8. Their stems are covered in short, thick, heart-shaped leaves with tiny hairs that seem to glow in the morning sunlight. A species of lupine—perhaps an arroyo lupine, violet flowered and with wide leaves–also grows abundantly, though few are in flower at this time.

Red Monardella
Red Monardella patch

5 June, La Grulla, 9am

Today we decide to continue to follow the arroyo south, happy to stay out of the exposure of yesterday’s meadow walk. Around 9 we set out to work on the bird list. John, Devon, and I team up and follow the stream for a couple of hours, through a forest of Arroyo Willow. Western Bluebirds are in abundance, as usual; four Pinyon Jays near camp; loads of juncos; some Yellow Warblers—quick, restless yellow birds, very small, difficult to photograph; a few nuthatches; and Pacific Slope Flycatchers.

Western Bluebird

In the stream we’re following we see as many 10-12 of trout at a time, and probably 35-40 total. Mostly these are small, 4-6”, acting as trout do, waiting for food in the drift. It’s not hard to imagine that they move from pool to pool, flushed down stream in the wetters seasons. The stream bubbles in southward, toward San Antonio Ranch and the Rio Santo Domingo, the type location of this fish, but it would be a long swim back to their homeland.

Naturalist's Paradise
Naturalist's Paradise
Lesser Goldfinch

After a couple of miles of scrambling through willows increasingly packed in closely between rocky walls, the landscape opens up a bit beneath some pines. It’s a paradise: impressively pristine riparian habitat that doesn’t appear grazed at all, where the water is clear and cool. Unable to quit the place, we spend an hour reclining on a bed of pine needles, lazily recording everything. This picturesque bower contains quite a nature show. Devon notes drill holes in several nearby large cedars. This would appear to mark clear evidence for Williamson’s Sapsucker here, although we saw and heard none, and John observes that they are not known to venture much lower than the Vallecitos and Tasajera trailheads. The Swallowtails, Mourning Cloaks, a species of colorless Blue (possibly Glaucopsyche lygdamus, or Silvery Blue) are cooperative and photogenic. Giant rusty Flame Skimmers, and a new dragonfly—a striped black-and-white behemoth (possibly blue-and-yellow—but no one seems to agree with me), zooms up and down the stream in search of prey. James spies a pair of tussling Mearns’s Squirrels (the place is lousy with them). I am proud of myself for identifying a Lesser Goldfinch—a small, short-beaked finch with a bright yellow body and black wings. Females have a black cap.

While I don’t have a lot of expertise, iNaturalist is a great leveler and gives me something meaningful to contribute when I’m not doing what I came to do (which is even now unclear to me). In addition to giving the amateur the experience of being a field naturalist, there’s a kind of expectation that we’ll each return with new and interesting information. It’s like a kind of currency. “Did you get any good snaps?” is a typical question upon one’s returning from a walk.


To raise the bar a little higher, I have asked John to give me a bird challenge to help jump-start some basic understanding of are avifauna. He recommends ten common birds and four “challenge” birds, along with some basic bird know-how. Here’s my list and lesson:


Common birds:

Yellow Warbler

Rock Wren

Junco (a sparrow) (easy one)

Lesser Goldfinch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pinyon Jay (ravens/crows/jays) (also easy)

Common Raven (easy)

Bluebird (thrush) (easy)

Turkey Vulture (easy)


Challenge birds:

Pac Slope Flycatcher

Western Wood Pewee

Cassin’s Vireo

Olive-sided Flycatcher


Study methods:

Listen to calls

Read up in a guide

Observe behavior in the field, to know how they act and so can supplement identification

Write up a 1/2 page or so natural history based on observations


Bill shapes and habits

Wrens and Warblers: thin-billed (wrens longer billed; warblers shorter billed)

Sparrows and Finches (short billed)

Long bills: tree-dwelling; birds pick insects from trees; birds dwell in trees

Short bills: breaking nuts/seeds; often spend time on the ground


Sparrows and finches hang out closer to the ground (e.g., Juncos)



Finches: yellow and black are common

Sparrows: drab/earthy is common

5 June, camp, La Grulla, 1pm

Over lunch we discuss our rephotography goals with Don Rolando, who seems to know all the locations featuring man-made structures, and has some guesses for the landscape shots at La Grulla and La Encantada. Aede says she grew up in the house featured in one of the photos at Valladares (MVZ #4800), the old mining community we plan to visit after La Grulla. Her grandfather, Pibi, is 82 years old and still works at Rancho Meling. They say he might recognize people from the photos. For lunch today, deer stew with rice, green pepper, and garnished with chopped onion and cilantro and lime. The meat was falling off the bone and remarkably tender. The temperature in the dappled sun at 3:30pm could not be more pleasant.

5 June, Camp, La Grulla, 4pm

After our afternoon siesta I take a solo walk up the arroyo to work on my list. I snap a Black-throated Gray Warbler, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a one list bird: Pygmy Nuthatch. I also snap a Northern Flicker—this is a beautiful dun-colored bird with complex mottling (like stripes or spotted stripes) and a rusty red head and cheeks and a long, Jay-like beak. Its red underwings and under tail flash vibrantly in flight. These are woodpeckers, but spend most of their time on the ground, eating insects. Only Whitney has seen another flicker previously, and only poorly, so I felt like I contributed something.

Northern Flicker
James Hooks a Huge One

5 June, Camp, La Grulla, 6pm

Ate the best meal of the trip so far: handmade sopes crafted on Aede’s wooden press, with pork and beans and guacamole. My only regret is I didn’t eat more of these while I had the chance. We briefly consider sampling the trout. There has been some question about the appropriateness of eating an animal that some sources consider “of special concern,” especially on a scientific mission. Long gone are Lamb’s days of specimens for collecting and “for eating.” We decide against it, but fish anyway. James hooks a huge one, 10 or 11″.

5 June, Camp, La Grulla, 9pm

Evening conversation with James and John turns to the Moore Lab’s upcoming remodel, inspired by John’s question, “Do you know about the Museum of Jurassic Technology?” It delights me that this modern-day cabinet of wonders that has inspired more of my thinking over the last decade than anything else has somehow followed me onto this Mexican mountain to rest by this campfire. It takes us down a rabbit hole, as it always does, and we talk museum history and their ideas for redesigning their collection. They have ideas about bringing in some old, historic features—dioramas, hummingbird cabinets, etc.—to complement the modern science. Both John and James are clearly interested in museum history. They are drawn to museums because they’re not only biologists and conservationists but historians, which brings them close to the humanities (I find out that John has some pretty erudite tastes that run into obscure French novelists. Moore, the Lab’s namesake and founder, was himself a poet and humanist). We talk about museums as archives of not just specimens but stories and culture. They are “museum men” in the truest sense—curious about everything—which opens them up to unlikely collaborations that don’t fit into traditional disciplinary boxes. It seems that a certain kind of person is drawn to museum work, a psychology that crosses disciplines. We have that in common.


Tomorrow we make the long trek to La Encantada, so it’s an early night. But before bed I shoot some moon photos so the tripod wasn’t a total waste of weight. Don Rolando calls the dark patches on the moon “El Coyote”—coyote moon—fitting as the coyotes begin baying around 8 or 8:30pm, when the moon brightens, announcing the night.