September 29, 2013

Heavy rains bring false spring to Anza-Borrego desert

Desert Hibiscus found near Glorietta Canyon on September 29, 2013 (Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association)

By Ernie Cowan
San Diego Union-Tribune

Mother Nature might know what is going on, but I’m confused.

Wildflowers and butterflies are something you find in the desert in the spring. Recent heavy rains have turned the desert into a green carpet of grass and produced a rare fall bloom of scattered wildflowers along with an invasion of colorful caterpillars and butterflies.

In July and August there was more than 4 inches of rain recorded in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Summer monsoons swept up from the Gulf of California bringing more than three quarters of the normal rainfall for a full year.

Initially there was some significant flash flooding, but in this arid land, plants that see little water anytime are opportunists that quickly respond when rain does fall.

When driving into Borrego Springs along S-22, visitors frequently stop at the Crawford Overlook to enjoy the expansive view across the Borrego Valley into the Badlands and to the Salton Sea in the hazy distance.

The visitor now notices a green tinge to the desert floor because of the carpet of grass that has sprung up.

You first notice the large white Jimson Weed blossoms as you enter the park and the road breaks off, dropping into the desert and leaving Ranchita behind. Soon you spot prickly poppies dotting a landscape that was burned in a wildfire a year or so ago.

The careful observer will notice clouds of California Patch butterflies darting about and flocking around the bright yellow blossoms of blooming brittlebush. Brightly colored and striped green worms march across the landscape feeding on the abundant new growth.

The desert is happy.

By late summer many native plants have normally shriveled from blistering heat and the lack of water. This year the drenching rains have revived them and they stand fresh and strong from the unseasonal nourishment. It brings a smile to this leathered desert rat that revels in the anomaly.

As the highway makes the wide, sweeping turn through Culp Valley, there are more butterflies and green hornworms thriving in the new growth. Soon the big caterpillars will mature and bury themselves in the sand as they begin a transformation into a Sphinx moth.

Once on the desert floor you notice a forest of ocotillo covered with thick green leaves. Normally this time of year they look like dead tentacles covered in angry spines. The heavy foliage adds to the green hue, now the prime desert color.

A few cholla cacti are budding and some are in bloom. A hike up a desert wash will reveal beautiful red California fuchsia in bloom and clumps of yellow chinch weed like small buttons on a carpet of green.

Swallowtail butterflies flitter in the abundant fields and the mild temperatures of late summer are kind and embracing to the wilderness hiker.

Canyons that were once familiar to the frequent visitor are now strange places. Flash floods a month ago sculptured the land into different forms. Roads were eliminated, boulders moved, and a new landscape was created to explore.

There is another joy to this wonder of nature.

Some jeep trails are still impassable because of huge gouges cut in the sand or boulders that were moved and now block old routes. Hikes exploring canyons on the western edge of the desert may put the first footprints into the new sand deposited by the flash floods. The landscape has changed.

Spring wildflowers bring the most visitors to California’s largest state park, but the beauty of this false spring has yet to be discovered by most nature lovers. It won’t last long as the monsoon rains sink deeper into thirsty desert sands and the brown hues of fall once again return.

Until then, there is silent beauty awaiting the desert explorer.