© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.


The desert dance

of predator and prey


December 27, 1996:

I'm sure it had been raining hard all

night in Idyllwild, but above our campsite ten miles outside

of Borrego Springs, the storm merely generated a luminescent

veil of creamy gray-tones that chased a piercing winter solstice

moon. Ten rain drops were enough to compel me to put the rain

fly on the tent during the middle of the night, but the morning

sunrise, and waves of gently warming air, meant we could wear shorts

and tank tops while most of southern California put up with wind,

rain, mud slides and traffic jams. It seemed as if the desert canyons

beckoned us to visit until we readied our fanny-packs, watched

looming rain clouds engulf the higher distant peaks, and then set

out for a morning hike to discover whatever Mother Nature deemed

willing to show. Today that lesson would be one of Earth's most ancient

stories, the struggle for life and the inevitability of death.


Anza Borrego Desert State Park will always be one of

my favorite wilderness areas. Encompassing nearly a million

acres of wild lands, we can thank the vision of wilderness preservationists

like Harry James for recognizing that people need a place of such

expansiveness and wildness to temporarily release us from the

shackles of civilization and refresh our souls with a deep

cleansing breath of nature. As a naturalist, I'm in a sense no

different, I crave wild places after spending too much time

looking at the same trees outside my office window, or after the

fourth trip down to Hemet in the same week begins to lose its fascination!


desert peninsular bighorn sheep in Anza Borrego Desert State Park


The canyon we choose to hike was called Bitter Creek Canyon, and

my curiosity about the name only added to the need to explore a

new environment. Like so many desert washes, this canyon bore

evidence of extremes -- in flooding, drought, heat, and cold. The

wash was home to numerous resident and migrant birds and

mammals. The black-crested Phainopepla boldly defended its

feeding territory of mistletoe infested Creosote bushes,

munching on the toxic fruit and flaunting his natural immunity,

while unknowingly spreading sticky seeds through his feces, and

thereby extending the range of the tenacious plant parasite. The

first flowers of the rainy season were from the Chuparosa, a

perennial shrub whose dense red inflorescence and ample

nectar provide a winter-long food supply for the Anna's

Hummingbird. While a pair of Rough-legged Hawks soared

above our heads, the tracks of Black-tailed Jack Rabbit,

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat, Coyote, and Mule Deer crisscross the

sandy wash suggesting they were participants in an

all-night dance marathon.


Golden Eagle


Further up the canyon, I caught a glimpse of movement while

pondering the presence of a lone Cottonwood tree growing

high upon the wall of the north-facing slope. Training binoculars

on the point of movement, my "gestalt" reflex told me "Golden Eagle,"

yet it wasn't until about five minutes later that the huge bird

launched herself from a hiding place and proved my hunch. The

eagle flew low and slow down canyon over our heads as she

caught a warm updraft, tipping her wings into the thermal air

bubble and began an ascent that rapidly lifted the magnificent

bird to an altitude of several hundred feet.


Curiosity over the eagle brought us to the base of the slope

where we noticed peculiar vertical lines extending many feet

from the lone tree to near the spot where the eagle had lifted off.

The lines turned out to be a series of metal and plastic pipes

supplying a steadily dripping source of water to an old claw

foot bathtub. This "wildlife guzzler" was a tool to enhance the

survival of wildlife by providing water at times when the desert

can literally be as dry as a bone. Even the best desert-adapted

animal needs water, whether it comes from a natural spring or

juicy vegetation, to survive. Range managers built these low-tech

water systems decades ago to keep cattle alive, but the real

beneficiaries have been the Mule Deer and Bighorn Sheep and

Golden Eagles, and the hundreds of other species whose survival is

measured in the day to day struggle to find food, water and shelter.


We soon noticed large numbers of sun-bleached bones scattered

around the guzzler and even more near the Cottonwood tree and

willows that grew densely around the spring. Finding intact

skeletons of Mule Deer and Bighorn Sheep, and smaller bones

from many other species, set off my intuitive "red light" as I

realized we had just walked right into the dining room of a Mountain

Lion! I checked the black mud surrounding the spring for sign of

fresh lion tracks but was only mildly relieved to find nothing

recent. The desert drama that had played out around us was

exciting enough to imagine without coming face to face with

the big kitty that called this place home. Walking back to camp,

my mind and spirit recharged by the heady emotions gleaned

from this timeless desert dance of survival between predator and

prey, I felt an overwhelming sense of wilderness.

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