Although this wasn’t a safari, and it wasn’t the best time of year for “botanizing,” my innate interests in plants and wildlife made for some memorable experiences. I looked at plants every day, and learned many new ones as I traveled to new regions and climates. It was hard to narrow the list down to just a few, but I did my best, and the list wound up reflecting the iconic species that I encountered, rather than the delicate wildflowers I might have seen in the springtime. The same is somewhat true of wildlife, though I did not have memorable encounters daily. In fact, I saw relatively few animals – but what I saw stuck with me. I had to decide between the wildlife-viewing events that occurred, and those animals that I got to see for the first time, or that intrigued me without learning in-depth about them. Here’s the result:
Top 10 Flora and Fauna
What do low-growing shrubs and fish-netting birds have in common? Rabbitbrush was ubiquitous in the North Dakota badlands… but also in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas! Pelicans, with their large windspan, were one of the few species aloft during my windy day of birdwatching in the North Dakota plains… and two months later I saw them be buffeted by the breeze on the Texas coast. Their presence tied together two of the primary destinations of my trip – the most northerly and most southerly. Rabbitbrush and White Pelicans helped me to realize that our country has similarities not only by latitude, but by longitude as well. Sure, the climate is similar across the far south, from LA to Houston, and across the far north from Montana to Maine. But geological commonalities, along with rainfall patterns, create “The Great Plains,” “The Rockies,” and “The Pacific (or Atlantic) Coast” – comparable across temperature climes. Some of our most iconic species show this quite clearly!
9. Antelope in MT
Since the mountained West was not on my destination list, but simply conveniently between stops, I had forgotten all about its wildlife. I was therefore surprised to see antelopes on the plains of eastern Montana. Watching them run when I rolled down my car window to take a photo, I was reminded of Cpt. Merriweather Lewis’s description of attempting to sneak up on them in nearly the same location. They are quick, with a striking appearance, and for a couple days they were frequent appearances in the meadows along the road – but only in Montana, and then they were gone again.
It was tough to decide which of the desert species was my “favorite,” because they have some amazing adaptations and unique forms. I settled on the agave species because they were so varied, but were consistently present throughout the deserts in my travels. I watched bats veer around them at Carlsbad Caverns, swung from their limbs at Joshua Tree, and saw them growing in the prairie in the Guadalupe Mountains.
Well, fungi are technically neither plants nor animals, but in a kingdom of their own. Until I write a “top ten fungi” list, though, they should be honored to be included here. I saw some awesome fungi on my trip, primarily in the colder and wetter climates – northern Minnesota, the west side of the Rockies in Idaho, and the Cascades in Oregon. Very cool, and an inspiration to learn more about the mushrooms around me!
6. Armadillos and Roadrunners and Alligators
Okay, maybe it is cheating to include these all together – but this item is a tribute to all of those animals that I’d never seen before in the wild, and got to see pretty much by accident on this trip. I saw one armadillo, a couple roadrunners, and a whole lot of alligators… all pretty interesting to watch go about their business.
5. Prairie Grasses
I could pass this ranking off as another case of a suite of plants tying together diverse locations… but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. I made sure to spend a full day playing in the prairies along the Upper Mississippi as I started my journey, because I knew that I would enjoy that adventure, if nothing else for the next few months. When I got to western North Dakota, I was pleased to find those same grasses growing among the petrified wood, rainbow-colored cliffs, and cottonwood-lined chalky rivers – it made me feel comfortably “at home” after a few cold and dreary days on the plains. When I hit the Guadalupe Mountains, I thought that I was still in the desert, and was astonished to see those grasses at my feet as I made my way up the trail – believe it or not, I nearly jumped for joy! Sure, I liked these plants a lot before leaving home, but going away helped me to see that they could hold their own among all of the other awesome species out there!
Oak trees are pretty awesome, and I’m not the first to think so. Nearly every culture that has survived where oaks thrive has adopted them as a symbol. They are revered as a food source, for their longevity, for their beauty, and for being a definitive species in their ecosystems. “The mighty oak” grows in some places, but in others, like the high desert, oaks are nothing more than shrubs. This very diversity is amazing, and I enjoyed all the oaks I saw, from the mighty Burr Oak to the Live Oaks of California, to the tiny Gray Oaks in the mountains. But maybe the best one was when I found the Chinquapin Oak in the mountains of West Texas – I squealed with excitement at the time, and I still like re-telling the story today!
I won’t re-tell the stories of these encounters, because I’ve already devoted full posts in my blog to them (click links above if you missed them). However, these chance encounters with very large (and frustrated) male animals will definitely stick in my memory for a long time to come. Definitely not the kind of adventure I could have had sitting on my couch!
A lot of other items made it onto this list by surprising me – either by their presence or by their significance. I knew the Coast Redwoods were there in northern California, and I knew that they would be impressive. They were. ‘Nuff said!
I was going to put this item a little lower on the list, until the experience I had earlier this evening. I realized that, had I not swung into Brazos Bend State Park, had I not taken the hike that I did, I would not be where I am today – in every sense of the phrase. For the first time in my life, I was captivated by birds, and wanted to keep watching them and learning about them. It convinced me that a career in natural resources was worth struggling for, and if I hadn’t made that decision, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. Even if I were, though, I wouldn’t have opted to spend my evening watching returning migrants splash into the flowages and sedge meadows of northwest Wisconsin, if I hadn’t found out how cool they would be. More about that adventure coming soon!