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Discovering the Desert

“Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.” ~Mark 6:31

Springtime is a great time to explore and learn about the beauty of the desert southwest. Spring comes early to the desert and brings all of the dry, dead-looking plants vibrantly back to life. Anyone who thinks that the desert is a barren wasteland of cactus and rocks should see the amazing array of greenery and color it has now! Property owners and builders, who usually thoughtlessly scrape away the virgin desert topsoil to create their own artificial landscapes, should take a walk through the untouched desert in springtime to behold all of the tiny miracles of nature that normally remain hidden to the developer’s eye.

The Sonoran Desert where we live is known as the most beautiful desert in the world. The cacti, trees, and shrubs grow so dense that it is referred to as a “desert forest.” The upper Sonoran Desert is home to as many as 400 different species of plants, more than any other desert on earth. That fact is especially noticeable at this time of year. An astonishing variety of wildflowers, nurtured by winter rains, can bloom in wondrous profusion and carpet the desert floor and mountainside slopes with glorious color. Once you see the desert in all of its springtime finery, you will surely appreciate it a lot more.

Explore the Desert

Many people can only read about deserts in books, but we are lucky enough to be living in the middle of one! The more you learn about the desert, the more you can appreciate how unique and beautiful it really is. The following activities will help you learn more about the desert around your home.

Beginning explorers should start out by studying one small area of desert close to home, or it may even be right in your own backyard. Mark off a square area by drawing a line with a stick, approximately 6-8 feet on each side, or about the size of your bathroom at home. Take care not to damage any plants or disturb the ground too much.

There will be many things to observe in your small square of desert. In your notebook, draw pictures and write down what you see. Use your senses-look, listen, smell, and touch. (Be careful around cactus so you don’t get stuck!) Take notice of how close together or far apart the plants are growing. Sketch a map of the landscape showing where each plant is located. What kinds of plants are they? Use a field guide to identify the different types of trees and cacti.

What are the rocks and soil like? Do you see evidence of any animals? (Look for pack rat nests, bird nests, holes in the ground or in saguaro cacti, piles of seeds on rocks, chewed plants, claw marks, droppings, tracks in powdery soil or in mud.) Do you see or hear any birds, insects, or other creatures? Use your binoculars to look at birds or blossoms atop a tall cactus.

Visit the same area over a period of several days or weeks, and at different times of day. Keep a record of the dates and times whenever you go. Check the temperature each time you go out. Draw a picture of where the sun is in the sky. Draw what the clouds look like, if there are any. How does your spot change from day to day? How is it different at different times of the day?

Return to your spot several times during the year to see how it looks in other seasons. If you look closely, you will notice how the desert seasons differ. In the spring you will see how beautiful the desert is when the wildflowers are in bloom. Previously dead-looking plants will be full of life. Under your magnifying glass you will be able to look at ladybugs and other insects, pollen, and tiny delicate flower petals.

Plan Ahead

Get a head start on learning what kinds of plants and animals live in the desert. Visit a zoo, botanical garden, or museum that has desert displays. Look in a field guide that identifies desert plant and animal life. You may already have such a field guide, or you can buy one at a local bookstore. (It’s a good idea to have your own, because you will use it a lot.) In addition, you can check out desert books from the library and practice identifying the plants and animals in the pictures. That way, when you go out into the desert you will be familiar with the types of plants and animals you will see, and you will know what to look for.

Be a Scientist

How much rain falls in your desert (or in your yard)? Make a rain gauge to measure. Get a clear plastic bottle with a wide opening at the top. Take a ruler and with a permanent marker, make ½ inch and 1 inch marks on the side of the container. Place the rain gauge in an open spot and wait until it rains. Did less or more than half an inch fall? Does more than an inch ever fall? Keep a record in your notebook.

Make a Desert Diorama

A fun project would be to make an interpretive exhibit representing one square area of your desert. Get a shoebox and measure its length and height. Cut a piece of light blue construction paper for the background wall, about ¼ inch shorter than the box’s height and about 4 inches longer than the box’s length. On it you can draw saguaro cactuses and mountains in the background. Place the picture in the box and tape each side to the front. The paper will curve. On separate paper, draw and color desert plants and animals, each with a flap at the bottom. Cut out each picture, bend its flap, and glue or tape it to the bottom of the box. Pick up some real rock samples to add to your desert scene. Write descriptions of each plant and animal on 3×5 cards.

Desert animals and plants you may see:

Mammals – cottontail rabbit, jackrabbit, mice, pack rat, rock squirrel, ground squirrel, javelina, coyote, bat.

Birds – quail, cactus wren, thrasher, dove, woodpecker, cardinal, hummingbird, hawk, vulture, raven, roadrunner, owl.

Reptiles/Amphibians – whiptail lizards, collared lizard, banded gecko, horned toad, chuckwalla, desert tortoise, gila monster, coral snake, rattlesnake, king snake, spadefoot toad, Colorado River toad.

Insects – ants, beetles, termites, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, crickets, walking stick, praying mantis, butterflies, moths.

Other Invertebrates – tarantula, giant desert centipede, scorpions, wolf spider.

Cacti – saguaro, prickly pear, staghorn cholla, teddybear cholla, barrel cactus, hedgehog cactus.

Other Plants – paloverde tree, ironwood tree, mesquite tree, cresosote bush, catclaw acacia, ocotillo, brittlebush.

Safety Rules

Exploring the desert can be a great adventure, but it is no place to take chances. When setting off for the desert, make sure you always obey the following safety rules:

1. Never go into the desert alone.

2. Tell an adult where you are going and when you expect to return.

3. Don’t go out in the middle of a hot summer day or at night. (Early morning or late afternoon is best.)

4. Bring along plenty of water to drink.

5. Wear a hat to shade your head, long sleeves and pants to protect your arms and legs, and sturdy shoes or boots to protect your feet.

6. Stay alert for rattlesnakes.

7. Never place your hands into holes, crevices, or other places where you can’t see.

8. Beware of scorpions underneath rocks and in cracks.

9. Watch where you’re walking. (You don’t want to slip on loose rocks or bump into a cactus!)

10. Never walk in washes when it’s raining.

Along with water to drink (and a snack to eat), you may want to bring:

1. A small notebook, and pencil or pen for taking notes.

2. Magnifying glass.

3. Binoculars.

4. First aid kit.

5. Plastic jar or bags for collecting samples.

6. Thermometer.

7. Gloves.

8. Field guide.

9. A walking stick.

10. A backpack to carry your supplies in.

Important Notice: The desert is full of surprises to uncover. But use caution in case one of those surprises turns out to be a rattlesnake, scorpion, or other poisonous creature. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Recommended Resources

One Small Square: Cactus Desert, by Donald M. Silver, 1995.

A Desert Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk in the Sonoran Desert, by Virginia Wright-Frierson, 1996.

America’s Deserts: Guide to Plants and Animals, by Marianne D. Wallace, 1996.

Deserts: Information and Hands-on Activities, by Robin Bernard, 1995.

Sonoran Desert A to Z Coloring Book, by Conrad J. Storad, 1997.

Alejandro’s Gift, by Richard E. Albert, 1994.

Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, by Stephen J. Phillips, et al., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 1999. This book contains a general overview of the region’s geology, climate, human ecology, and biodiversity, plus an in-depth look at hundreds of plants, mammals, birds, and reptiles that live in the Sonoran Desert. Throughout the text are supplemental anecdotes, essays, maps, diagrams, and illustrations. An invaluable book for both experts and laymen alike, it will heighten your awareness of the desert’s beauty and complexity, and provide information on where to visit and what to expect during each of the Sonoran Desert’s seasons.

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11. Discovering The Desert

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