Yuma Area Trip Report
Dates: August 27 & 28, 2005
September 4 & 5, 2005
October 16, 2005
May 20, 2006
I decided to combine several short field trips to the Yuma Arizona area into one field trip report. Just seemed that it would paint a better picture of the natural history, flora and fauna of the area condensing it into one report since it’s basically all from the same area.
My wife has a friend in Yuma and I occasionally drive out there with here depending on schedule and the length of time she is planning on being there so while she is visiting and taking care of business I take off for looking for some stuff to photograph. I use the term “Yuma” loosely as we are actually talking about an area within about a 60 mile radius of downtown Yuma. The area is very interesting and has a wide variety of habitat ranging from the nearly barren creosote, salt scrub Salton basin and Imperial Dunes area just to the west of Yuma (and actually in California, not Arizona) to the Desert riparian systems influenced by the Colorado River and Gila River drainage systems that converge near the city to the typical Sonoran desert ecosystem that influences the plant and animal life to the east of Yuma.
Starting from West and moving east, here’s what the area typically looks like in the Salton Basin and Imperial Dunes areas. There are several interesting reptiles found almost exclusively here including the Flat-tailed Horned Lizard and the Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Sand Lizard. Unfortunately, this ecosystem has been severely disturbed due to development of the area, intense agricultural activities and large areas of off-road recreational vehicle use. I used to commonly see Fringe-toed Sand Lizards in this area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it would not be unusually to see 10-20 in a morning hike, I have not seen one since 1989 in this area despite stopping to look just about every time through here. Also, recently I noted that the Desert Iguana population seems to be at an all time low as well. Could just be bad timing on my part but it’s concerning non-the-less.
Typical creosote brush interspersed with sand dunes, home of the Fringe-toed sand lizard and Desert Iguana
View of the Imperial Sand Dunes, a massive sand dune formation,
very popular with the off-road vehicle enthusiasts as well as home
to several species limited more or less by the same range as the dune formations...
On my last trip in May of 2006, we decided to take the “old road” back from Yuma, it’s the old highway system that existed before Interstate 8 was built many years ago, there’s about 20 miles of road left that is somewhat passable although it’s in pretty bad shape now, in any event, I was treated to a great find and a new lifer for me on that trip, my first Flat-tailed Horned Lizard. It was sitting on the road a little past sunset, I thought it was a gecko when I stopped to get a look and photograph it. Much to my surprise and unlike it’s close cousin the Desert Horned Lizard, this guy really booked when I got too close, in fact, I had to do a dive off the pavement, and luckily closing my hand over him before he was able to get to cover. Unfortunately, my knee didn’t make it into the dirt and I also had some “road rash” but I did get him and we were able to take some photos of this protected and endangered species.
Flat-tailed Horned Lizard - Phrynosoma mcallii
The Flat-tailed Horned Lizard is the ONLY horned lizard with a stripe running down the middle of it's back...
Note the long horns, much longer than it's cousin the Desert Horned Lizard.
My favorite area around Yuma is the Gila River drainage system. There are a couple of “secret” spots that I visit (they really aren’t secret at all, there are always several other folks in the general vicinity fishing the Gila River or one of the many irrigation canals in the area (and the bass and crappie fishing looks pretty good by the way!). I have always had a lot of success in this area on the birds, in particular in the Spring and Fall when the migrations are underway but even in the summer these areas are great aggregators for the surprisingly varied populations of birds that are in the area. Here are some habitat shots as well as samples of the types of birds I have run into.
The Gila River, winding it's way toward the Colorado River
One of the many irrigation canals that transverse the area. Great areas for birding...
A Black-tailed Gnatcatcher foraging near the waters edge.
A pair of Western Kingbirds. Note the open mouths, no they aren't talking to one another! It was very hot and they are panting...
Always one of my favorites to photograph, the Great Egret
White-winged Doves are VERY common along the river
Female Black-chinned Hummingbird
Wilson's Warbler, they forage in the lower brush all along the river edges
Female Lazuli Bunting. There was a male around too but he never stopped to allow me to take his picture.
Another Western Kingbird, panting to get rid of some of the excess heat, it was about 105 when I took this photo...
This area attracts a lot of fisherman, there are several dirt access roads in the area and I have seen people catch quite a few fish here!
There are also herps in the area! The Sonoran Spiny Lizard is commonly encountered in the brush and debris along the river edges.
The Great Basin Whiptail is also a common sight although not so easy to photograph!
Another area that I get to if there is enough time is a slice of the Sonoran desert about 60 miles to the east of Yuma, there is a road that transverses the Gila River basin there and also some mountains and a variety of micro-habitats that lets you see quite a variety of species. Here's what the general area looks like:
I've had success here night driving as well as general "herp hunting" during the day...
This is the source of the volcanic flow that permeates the area
The Gila River as it crosses through this area, about 60 miles east of Yuma, depending on the summer rainfall this can be as it is here, nearly dry, to a full raging river...
Sunrise in the Sonoran Desert
On my last overnight trip in September, we had come out for a wedding reception, my Wife’s friend’s sister had gotten married, the reception went too late to go out and do some night driving that night so instead I set the alarm clock for very early in the morning and got out to the area a little before sun-up, usually my desert trips are more of the late into the night variety, night driving until 2 or 3 AM, in this case it was the reverse which is good too, the desert always has some interesting stuff to observe if you know when and where to look, are patient and observant. In this case, I took my time to observe the scene unfolding before me and shortly after sun-up I was greeted by two different birds of prey, one starting the day (the Red-tailed Hawk) and one probably finishing up a busy night (the Great Horned Owl).
This is the biggest Red-tailed Hawk I have ever seen. I thought it was a Golden Eagle when I pulled up on it, it was still grey outside, low light and from a ways a way it was just huge, in any event, he let me snap several photos before taking off.
Down the road I stopped by the bridge that goes over the Gila River to just check it out, I walked along the guard rail and this huge bird flew up right in front of me, glided to the other side of the road and landed on a large boulder not more than 50 feet away. The Great Horned Owl checked me out as I snapped a few dozen shots before he decided enough was enough and effortlessly took off with whooshing wing beats and disappeared into the distance.
Great Horned Owl profile
Looking for leftovers... The Turkey Vulture
Also got to see several desert lizard species getting an early dose of the sun’s energy including the Sonoran Spiny Lizard and the Common Chuckwalla. Interesting to note that most of my experience with Chuckwalla’s are around massive rock outcroppings where they have vast amounts of crevices and cracks from which to hide/shelter and thermo-regulate themselves. In this case, I spotted several Chuckwallas in relatively small piles of boulders that were strewn across the area. The area is an old lava flow but there is nothing there that I would consider to be even a large pile of rocks, seems they have adapted to this area quite nicely however and with the lush vegetation in the area due to the proximity of the Gila river it’s probably to be expected (Chuckwalla's are mainly vegetarians).
As I think I said earlier, there are two really good times to observe wildlife in the desert once the temperatures start to climb in the late spring and into summer and early fall. The first is of course after sunset when the nocturnal animals come out but another great time to do some wildlife viewing is the very early morning hours, right after sun up. Many times the air is pleasant with a bit of a cool breeze, the light is great and usually you can be the only one around if you want to be. Here are some more early morning sights from the general Yuma area.
Sonoran Spiny Lizard - Sceloporus magister
The Chuckwalla - Sauromalus ater
Another "Chuck" getting some early morning sun....
Here's something that eats what I like to chase down... The Roadrunner... Beep Beep!
Say's Phoebe along the edge of the Gila River
A Brown-crested Flycatcher hiding in the brush watching for prey to fly by, a real acrobat! You can hear them snap their beaks sometimes when they are hunting before you see them. They will perch and watch the area for flying insects, when they see one, the pounce from the air, snapping their beaks on their unsuspecting prey in a loud "click" In the desert, with it being so quite you can hear them picking off their prey...
On another trip (August, 2005) I did night drive the same area and had good luck finding a number of snake species and some amphibians as well. One of my all time favorites is the giant Sonoran Desert Toad (also sometimes called the Colorado River Toad). This is a HUGE toad, much bigger than my extended hand and fat and heavy! Also, this species is quite toxic to any animal that would be foolish enough to mouth it or try to eat it. The huge parotid glands (the big lumps on either side of it’s head) secrete a toxic substance that will kill a dog (and probably a person too) if they get enough of it in their system.
The Sonoran Desert or Colorado River Toad - Bufo alvaris
Another common toad in the area is the Great Plains Toad - Bufo cognatus, they can usually be seen after summer rains and around permanent water sources at dawn and dusk.
One of the more common snakes of the area is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake - Crotalus atrox. On this particular evening we saw several young ones sitting on the road.
Here's another shot of a juvenile "atrox"
Also very common in the area is the Sonoran Desert Sidewinder, this one was also found crossing the road.
Two other snakes found that evening was this particularly brilliantly colored Western Longnose Snake and a Sonoran Night Snake as seen below.
Western Longnose Snake - Rhinocheilus lecontei
Some of these can be quite brilliantly colored, much variation depending on locality and other factors, this one would be on the brightly colored side of the spectrum...
The Sonoran Night Snake - Hypsiglena torquata chlorophaea
Same snake, heading for cover. Hypsiglena is one of several colubrid snakes found in North America that is technically venomous due to the fact it has enlarged teeth toward the back of it's mouth and the ability to secrete a venomous substance into the wound of it's bitten prey. Fortunately, due to the small size of the snake and the apparent weakness of the venom, this snake poses absolutely no danger to man... however small snakes and lizards, beware!
Here are a few other pictures taken in the various areas around Yuma with some additional comments, in no particular order.
The ubiquitous Desert Side-blotched Lizard - Uta stansburiana stejnegeri
A Mourning Dove overlooking a field of grass in the early morning hours.
Another Sonoran Desert Sunrise...
Another Sonoran Spiny getting some rays... FYI, in this particular area, these darn lizards are so wary that it's nearly impossible to get a good shot at them. I found the best technique was to drive slowly by a rock pile on the opposite side of the road very slowly, spot one and then try to get a shot with my 400mm lens. At least, taking the shot out the window I could balance the lens on the glass and get a fairly clean shot. Getting out of the car meant a quick exit for these lizards, they wanted nothing to do with me which probably preys into some sort of predation factor here. Could be that any movement is a threat and they immediately seek cover and that the cars are common enough that they recognize them as NOT a predator and hence aren't spooked by the cars, at least that's a theory...
Antelope Ground Squirrel getting up in the morning...
And a lone Saguaro cactus, one of the plant species indicators of the Sonoran Desert...
ADDITIONAL TRIP REPORTS RELATED TO ARIZONA: Madera Canyon 2008 - Madera Canyon 2007 - Madera Canyon 2006 - Ajo Mt./Organ Pipe 2006
Thanks for looking!
- Brad & Lynn