Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ash Meadows NWR: Part 1

My sister and I worked at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for 11 months between 2009-2010 as Ecological Technicians. It was an amazing experience and a lot of hard work. Ash Meadows is home to at least 24 species of plants and animals that are endemic to the refuge--meaning they are found nowhere else in the entire world. Erin and I worked on eradicating--or at least trying to control--the crayfish population (which are an invasive species that like to eat the endangered species), sprayed and pulled weeds, planted hundreds of plants, put together irrigation for said plants, helped create a new habitat for the endangered pupfish and dace, and lots of other fun stuff. You can also check out Ash Meadows at their facebook page. It's right next to Death Valley National Park, so if you're passing through you really must stop by for an afternoon to see the amazing springs and wildlife.

This blog post will be photos from my recent visit last week. A lot has changed! Part 2 will be photos from when my sister and I worked there, which will have plant and animal photos (it was the wrong time of year for that this time!).

All the new pillars and signage on the refuge are new since the time I worked there. These are some photos from the Welcome Sign. The pillars are amazing! The large weird creature you see on the right pillar is called the Ash Meadows Naucorid; it is a water bug (in the simplest terms--technically an aquatic beetle) that lives only in the Point of Rocks Spring and a smaller, warmer spring called School Spring. The beetle is listed as Threatened and our fisheries biologist was quite passionate about the little guy, trying to improve his habitat and population.

The two maps in the above collage are of the roads on the refuge and the many springs. You can see a clearer map here at the Ash Meadows NWR website. Not too many people have seen all of the springs on the refuge--there are tons of them!--and some of them are on private land, hard to get to, or just honestly aren't much to look at compared to the major springs with boardwalks. Not all of the springs have fish in them, but many do. Four of the seven species of fish present at Ash Meadows are endangered species (Devil's Hole Pupfish, Ash Meadows Amargosa Pupfish, Warm Springs Pupfish, and Ash Meadows Speckled Dace), while the other four are introduced exotic species. (Just for your information, this website by National Atlas tells you the different definitions of exotic, introduced, invasive, etc... even though we basically used them interchangeably at Ash Meadows).

Our first stop: Point of Rocks

Point of Rocks was a project still mostly in its infancy when Erin and I worked there. The road, bathrooms, picnic area, and the boardwalk except for the bridges had already been built. However, the vegetation along the boardwalk had not been planted, the information signs had not been put up, and the Amphitheater had not been built yet. I was very excited to see all of it completed while I was visiting!

These are the pillars that are on either side of the welcome sign at POR. I didn't take many pictures of the sign and there were lots of words on it anyway--besides, I was most impressed with the designs. I loved the one on the right with the bat flying over the pool with Ash Meadows Amargosa Pupfish. Just that day, we were told that a bat was seen flying over King's Pool to drink water--in the middle of the day! The one on the left has a Gambel's Quail and dragonfly along with some flowers and vegetation. The flowers are probably supposed to be the Ash Meadows Sunray, which is a threatened species.
Point of Rocks is the location where you can get a chance to see Bighorn Sheep. We didn't see any that day, but I've seen them there before.

Just after the welcome sign is the new picnic area. It's very nice to have a place to sit in the shade when it can get so hot out there!

At the picnic area there are four gorgeous benches. My poor (dying) camera did a very poor job trying to capture their beauty. Clockwise, the first one (top right) is of the Naucorid, then the Pupfish, Spring-Loving Centaury (threatened; pronounced: sent-or-ee, not like our typical "century"), and the Speckled Dace. They are all beautifully colored and sculpted. 

These are a few of the information signs that are along the boardwalk at POR. Amazing! Whoever carved them is incredibly talented. I didn't take photos of every single one (and a few were still waiting for their signs as well), so you'll just have to visit and see them all for yourself. Ever sign has the ability to swing over and the other side is all of the same information in Spanish. Every welcome sign has both English and Spanish as well.

The photo on the bottom may look funny to you. It's of the seed pods of the most abundant tree at Ash Meadows--the thorny Screwbean Mesquite. Be careful about walking off-boardwalk--all the twigs have thorns and they can easily get stuck in the bottom of your shoe! The coyotes eat the seed pods for food (along with their more carnivorous meals). The coyotes also eat the Honey Mesquite seed pods, which are shaped more like green peas.

Screwbean Mesquite seedpods. Native Americans also ground them up and turned them into flower to make into cakes, which they would bake in hot stone of the summer's day. They were a major source of food for the Native American population in the area.

King's Pool at Point of Rocks

Contrary to what is often believed, you don't actually see the Point of Rocks Spring at the Point of Rocks boardwalk area. Instead, you get to see beautiful King's Pool. The Pupfish at this spring are always very bright blue, and you never fail to see them up close. You often get to see the bright blue males defending their territory (which the fish in the photo above was doing), or chasing around a yellowish/duller female. Sometimes you even get to see them mating, where they swim alongside each other. 

The actual Point of Rocks Spring is around the tip of the mountainous land formation that Point of Rocks is named for. It's not as pretty of a bright blue like King's Pool and doesn't have as crystal-clear water. It also has California Sawgrass (which is actually a sedge) which makes it hurt to visit if you're wearing shorts!

Our last stop at POR as the boardwalk loops around was the new Amphitheater. The photos on the left are of my husband and I at the Amphitheater and one of the many beautiful bridges that have been built along the boardwalk. This one features the Spring-Loving Centaury, a Pupfish, and another flower that I suspect is supposed to be the Ash Meadows Gumplant (threatened).
On the right side are photos of the boardwalk. The first is leading up the hill toward the Amphitheater, the second is after you first walking the boardwalk from the picnic area, and third is the entrance to "Birder's Walk."

One last thing....this photo is specifically for my sister (Fire Writer). It's a little toddler-aged Mesquite tree, along with a few more in the background as well. We planted this tree in 2010 and it's grown two- or three-times the size it was then. All of the Mesquites seem to be doing quite well, whereas most of the Ash trees we planted didn't seem to make it. Some of them might've though. It's hard to say about the grasses yet because they were still all dead-looking from winter, but I *think* they did look bigger. Yay!

Second Stop: Longstreet

Longstreet Spring is named after a man who came to live (hide) at Ash Meadows after running from the authorities. He was an outlaw and wanted for murder. He built his own cabin and became friendly with the local Natives. That's about all I know, which is said in the poem anyway.

It's a nice, short boardwalk that takes you to the spring and his cabin. The cabin has been rebuilt from the earlier 1800's ruins. You can read more here about Andrew Jackson "Jack" Longstreet. Interesting fellow!

These awesome pillars were on either side of the welcome sign here. Ducks are often seen at this spring (like all of the springs), and the gunslinger is just awesome.

The boardwalk, the spring, and the cabin.

Last Stop: Crystal Spring

Crystal is usually the first boardwalk and spring that people visit when they come to Ash Meadows because it is right outside the Visitor's Center. It's a lengthy walk but beautiful when the flowers are in bloom. Make sure you bring a hat and sunscreen because there isn't a lot of cover along this boardwalk. 

There is more at Ash Meadows than I've posted about here. There's Crystal Reservoir, which is beautiful and the only place you can go swimming (though I wouldn't recommend it), Horseshoe reservoir which is mostly cattails but it is a designated hunting area, Peterson Reservoir where there are sand dunes and also hunting for waterfowl, and Fairbanks spring which is very, very deep and as bright blue as as Crystal is. To view Pupfish I would recommend Point of Rocks (King's Pool) or Fairbanks.

If you decide to visit, definitely check out the Visitor's Center and chat with the ladies in there. Cyndi and Alyson are both very nice and always glad to direct people on where to go. Tell them April sent you!