Ajo Mountain/Organ Pipe National Monument Trip Report
Dates: July 1-2, 2006
My wife had some business in Yuma on Saturday, July 1st so once again I volunteered to do the driving in exchange for some field exploration. At the last minute my wife’s appointment was canceled but we decided to make a trip of it anyway. I had been wanting to visit the Organ Pipe National Monument area for some time so we decided to drive down in that area, do some road cruising and spend the night on Mt. Ajo just to the east of Organ Pipe.
We left San Diego at 1:00 PM and we were on Highway 86 heading toward Organ Pipe by 5:00 PM. The day was very hot, around 105 and the first indications of the monsoon season were evident. The humidity was rising and thunderheads could be seen all around the area. We actually hit a big downpour in the San Diego mountains at Buckmann Springs on the way out. The start of the monsoon season also signals the start of the good "herping" season in Arizona so I was pretty excited at the prospects of having a great night of herping. The first herp was spotted around 6:00 PM near Ajo, Arizona, a very large Red Racer was on the shoulder of the road, I estimated him at around 5 feet or so. Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic on highway 86 and I was being tailgated by a vehicle when I spotted the snake, by the time I was able to turn off and around, he was long gone… However, I was enthusiastic that we had already spotted a herp! The road was really crowded all the way to the National Monument headquarters, we arrived there just at dark without seeing anything else.
There is a 21 mile road (partially paved, mostly gravel) that forms a big loop around Mt. Ajo. Mt. Ajo reaches nearly 5,000 feet above the desert floor so you get to cover some interesting habitat and conditions along the road. We hit the road around 8:00 and started looking for life. Lightning flashed in the distance, the temperature cooled and was in the low nineties to high eighties. There was a ton of mammalian life, lots of Kangaroo Rats and small mice scurried across the road, also a lot of insect life but not a single herp! I made one complete 21 mile loop without seeing a single specimen, not even a gecko even though it was prime habitat.
Not to be discouraged, I started a second loop around the mountain, driving slower this time to make sure I didn’t miss anything. We spotted many large millipedes, many more mice and rats, a fox, some bats and nighthawks but again, no herps. Near the summit I finally spotted a Desert Banded Gecko, the first herp after dark and it was now around 11:00 PM.
Desert Banded Gecko - Coleonyx veriegatus
I made a second complete loop and then drove back to the summit where we parked, it was now around 12:30 AM and still only one gecko to show for all these hours of driving. This was one of the worst night-driving experiences I have ever had in terms of productivity! The conditions seemed so good, we were the ONLY people on the mountain the entire night, complete isolation and nary one reptile to show for it.
I parked the car and we tried to get some sleep. Around 3:00 AM I was awakened by the sound of approaching thunder. I got out of the car and watched as a thunder storm slowly built overhead, lightning lit up the peaks and then it started to rain. It poured for about 5 minutes, soaking everything and then as quickly as the storm came, it ended and the stars were back out shining. Perfect! I thought to myself, a nice desert rain, now the herps will be out! I started the car while Lynn slept and did another complete 21 mile loop on the road… NOTHING! I started wondering what could possibly be wrong, the conditions were too good to get skunked but skunked we were! I got back to the camp at 4:30 AM and got about 1.5 hours of sleep getting up as dawn was breaking. My only theory was/is that the herps sensed that the next day and the day after were going to be real gully washers and were taking shelter for the impending deluge for the day after we left the skies really opened up in the area and some places received 4-6 inches or rain with some major flooding. I don’t know if that’s really the case but that’s the only thing I can think of.
In any event, it was not Sunday morning, July 2nd and we decided to slowly make our way down the mountain, stopping to take photos as the opportunity arose.
Here are some shots of the habitat and scenery in the area.
Note the cactus on the valley floor...
What's left of a Saguro bloom...
Arches and large cracks are common on Mt. Ajo, the arch on the left is over 4,000 feet above sea level.
I chased around a couple of birds and did end up with a new lifer for me. This is a Canyon Towhee:
Also spotted a Scott’s Oriole, which I have seen before but not photographed. At least the day was starting off better than last nights fiasco!
We started down the mountain and Lynn spotted some movement in the distance. After some scanning we were able to spot a small group of five Collared Peccary (Javelina) heading up the hill probably to bed down for the day. We had seen two running across the road on one of the loops during the night, they appear to be common in the area.
Collared Peccary or Javelina
Here’s some more scenery from the area.
A few miles down the road and about halfway down the mountain there was a picnic area where we stopped to have breakfast, clean up and look around. There was a lot of residual cloud cover from the previous nights thunderstorm activity which worked out nicely as it keep the temperatures from climbing too rapidly. It was around 8:00 AM when we stopped to have breakfast and we left the area around 9:30 with the temperatures still comfortably in the low 80’s. This area was productive, we spotted several interesting species including this Ash-throated Flycatcher:
Also in the area were these really cool Ornate Tree Lizards. The blue throats and bellies are just unbelievable and they are not the least bit shy so you can really get close to them for some good photos. One male in particular seemed very happy to continuously display for us as we took his pictures.
Urosaurus ornatus - Ornate Tree Lizard
Another Ornate Tree Lizard, this one with more green than blue on his chin...
Also in the area were a couple of Sonoran Whiptail Lizards, a little harder to photo but I was able to chase one into submission after about ½ hour of hide and seek.
Sonoran Whiptail Lizard - Cnemidophorus tigris punctilinealis
Also spotted some Sonoran Spiny Lizards sunning themselves.
Sonoran Spiny Lizard
And this Rock Squirrel was also very content to let us photograph him as he soaked up some early morning rays!
By 9:30 it was starting to get rather warm and we decided to move on, taking a few pictures here and there as we went.
Mt. Ajo Road heading down the mountain toward Organ Pipe National Monument
This is a 4" long Millipede
I was back on highway 86 by 10:30 after passing a large group of “visitors” from Mexico that we happened upon when heading down the mountain. About 2 miles from the Organ Pipe visitor center I spotted a really nice Sonoran Whipsnake starting to cross the road, unfortunately, as with the Red Racer, I was again at the mercy of the car right on my tail and had to maneuver carefully to avoid being read-ended. The snake made a U turn as I passed him and headed back into an open field, where there were about 10 zillion holes, you know the rest of the story…
Here are a couple more shots from the general area:
Looking up at sunrise over Mt. Ajo, Arizona
The Sonoran Desert is my favorite, the variety of plant life, scenery and diversity makes it worth visiting regardless of how successful the search for herps or whatever is...
There were numerous hawk nests along the road in telephone poles, I think this is a young hawk not too far removed from it's nest.
We started making our way back home, large thunderheads forming all around, the monsoon season has arrived in Arizona! I made on quick stop on a road that I am familiar with not too far from Highway 86 and we were able to get some good shots of a few more herps including this young Chuckwalla:
Common Chuckwalla - Sauromalus ater
Also found a Zebra-tail without the tail! I thought it was an earless lizard until I got home and saw the photos.
Common Zebra-tail Lizard - Callisaurus draconoides
These Great-tailed Grackles were at a gas station that we stopped at...
Great-tailed Grackle (female)
And a great end to an otherwise pretty crappy herping expedition was this Sonoran Collared Lizard which for once, let me take some pictures! This is the first Collared Lizard that I have ever gotten more than one or two shots at which is pretty remarkable in that the temperature was well into the 100’s when I spotted him and he was plenty hot!
Sonoran Collared Lizard - Crotaphytus nebrius
The rocks were HOT, see him lifting his feet just like you would do at the beach on hot pavement...:o)
A special note on this guy. I was able to observe some behavior that I have not seen before. He was perched on a lava rock, as picture here and right in front of him was a creosote bush in bloom. As I was photographing him he turned toward me and made a wild leap off the rock, I thought he was bolting until I watched him land in the middle of the creosote bush with an insect in his mouth. He had jumped off the rock, flew about 12 inches in the air, catching the bug on the bush and then landing on the ground. He quickly hopped back on his perch on the rock, still munching the insect. I only wish I could have snapped a shot instead of standing there with my mouth open…
It really heated up on the way home making it useless to stop anywhere else. We were back in San Diego before dark and working on the photos. Totals for the trip are as follows:
1 – Red Racer
1 - Sonoran Whipsnake
1 – Desert Banded Gecko
3 – Ornate Tree Lizards
3 – Sonoran Spiny Lizards
3 – Sonoran Whiptail Lizards
2 – Chuckwalla
1 – Common Zebra-tail Lizard
1 – Sonoran Collared Lizard
1 – Kit Fox
7 – Collared Peccary (Javelina)
1 – Coyote
TMTC – Kangaroo Rats
TMTC – Mice of various species
1 – Wood Rat
1 – Rock Squirrel
TMTC – bats of unknown variety