Checking up on Whitewater Canyon’s wild things

With rain soaking their clothing and fogging up their binoculars, 50 researchers and university students armed with butterfly nets and specimen bottles fanned out across Whitewater Canyon at daybreak Monday to take the first full accounting of wildlife in the oasis a few miles northwest of Palm Springs.

The two-day “Whitewater Canyon Spring 2010 Bioblitz” aimed to survey 17 miles of the canyon framed by sandstone cliffs and watered by a year-round river roiling through overlapping biological zones including sandy desert, boulder fields, grasslands and forests.

The diverse terrain creates habitat for mountain lion, the California desert tortoise, waterfowl, migrating birds, tree frogs and arroyo toads. Sand snakes and rosy boa constrictors gather on the canyon’s two-lane road at night this time of year, making them easy pickings for reptile poachers.

But on a blustery morning when creatures large and small were trying to keep warm and dry in treetops and underground lairs, the experts in the fields of botany, entomology, herpetology, ornithology and mammalogy had their work cut out for them as they trudged through soggy brush and mud.

“You’d think they would have canceled this thing just because our tallies are going to be abysmally low,” quipped herpetologist Todd Hoggan, drying the lenses of his eyeglasses with his shirttails.

“No insect in its right mind would be out and about in this weather,” said Kurt Leuschner, a professor of natural resources at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert.

Things perked up at about 9 a.m. when sunshine sliced through the clouds, painting the desert landscape with vibrant hues. Suddenly, the air was filled with bird song and the drowsy hum of insects.

High on a cliff side, three Nelson’s bighorn sheep gazed down on the human surveyors. On the ground, lazuli buntings, blue grosbeaks and federally endangered least Bell’s vireos flitted in chaparral and cottonwood trees.

Toad tadpoles wiggled in the river’s shallows. Spring flowers were teeming with beetles, bees, moths and spiders.

UC Riverside entomologist Doug Yanega poked his head inside a butterfly net he had used to sweep up insects from Encelia bushes topped with bright yellow flowers. “What have we got? A black fly. Weevils feeding on seeds. A ladybug larvae eating an aphid that was eating the plant. A crab spider as bright yellow as the flowers he called home.”

He plopped a few of the insects into a bottle already crammed with specimens collected earlier in the day, including a moth that resembled a yellow jacket. “At least two of the bugs in this bottle are new to science,” he said.

The herpetology team’s survey led to a pile of old boards and concrete slabs illegally dumped on a hillside. A few minutes of flipping boards uncovered a family of long-eared wood rats: a female with four babies. Nearby, they discovered an adult California desert tortoise hunkered in defense posture, head and limbs retracted within its scarred carapace.

“Looks like he’s been chewed on by something -- but lived through it,” Hoggan said.

Kneeling for a closer look, Tracy Philippi, who owns a wildlife removal service in Idyllwild, confirmed evidence of skirmishes. “There’s a big canine tooth mark on one side of its shell,” he said, “and what appears to be the gouge marks of tire tread on the other side. Otherwise, he’s in pretty good shape!”

Their brief search of a nearby creek yielded a Gilbert’s skink, a southern alligator lizard, Pacific tree frogs, two great horned owls and a snake they were unable to capture and identify.

Pausing on a mountain trail, Hoggan said, “It looked mighty glum this morning, but I’m glad we stayed. Given the circumstances, we did fairly well.”

A mile up the road, botanist Orlando Mistretta helped students prepare samples of desert plant life for transportation to the herbarium of native California species at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. The leaves, flowers and roots they pressed between pages of newspapers and cardboard squares would provide generations of botanists with “a permanent record of canyon life at this moment in time,” he said.

That kind of talk pleased Frazier Haney, manager of the Whitewater Canyon Preserve, which is operated by the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy. The conservancy cosponsored the bio-blitz with the Southern California Botanists and the San Bernardino National Forest.

“There is so much we still don’t know about this canyon, which has undergone enormous changes in recent years,” Haney said. “For example, a cattle lease has disappeared, and the river is free flowing again because we got rid of diversions that channeled water for private uses.”

Whitewater Canyon, a wildlife corridor linking the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, is a candidate for special protection under the California Desert Protection Act proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), which would create a 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument.

“The blitz was fantastic,” Haney said. “We had so many experts surveying far and wide that we even discovered patches of federally endangered triple-ribbed milk vetch clinging to a remote hillside.

" Very cool.”