Wild Ideas: The monarchs of Death Valley   

Pam Owen at Death Valley’s Dante’s View, overlooking the salt flats below.
Pam Owen at Death Valley’s Dante’s View, overlooking the salt flats below. Dana Owen

When I joined my brother, Dana, and his wife, Joyce, in Death Valley National Park on Oct. 6 for a five-day camping trip, it was hot. Of course, I expected our campsite, at Furnace Creek  —  on the valley floor, almost 300 feet below sea level — to be hot . . . but not that hot.

Dana and Joyce had set up camp in a grove of athel tamarisk, trees that have pine-like needles and rough, deeply grooved bark. Their blossoms there had gone to seed — tiny white ones, which combined with fallen needles to make a thick carpet beneath the trees.

Joyce said she and Dana had expected temps to be in the low 80s. In researching the park, I found that Furnace Creek is famous for being not only one of the lowest points in the park but also, true to its name, the hottest recorded spot on Earth (129.2 degrees F.; see sidebar). Knowing that, I had checked the temperature records for that area before I went and found that it could get up to the upper 90s early in October some years, and I guess this was one of those years.

The campsite, in tamarisk grove at Furnace Creek, with Pam Owen’s sister-in-law, Joyce Thoresen.
The campsite, in tamarisk grove at Furnace Creek, with Pam Owen’s sister-in-law, Joyce Thoresen. Dana Owen

It was already that hot when I arrived, and the day before I left, the official high reached 105 degrees. A windstorm that came through the day before that day was no help. The storm was apparently what was left of a Pacific storm after it dropped its precipitation in the mountains surrounding us. We could see the rain hitting the mountains, but it evaporated before it got to the valley floor.

When it’s that hot, wind does not so much cool you off as scour you, especially after it picks up sand, seeds from the tamarisk surrounding the site, and other debris. All of this got into everything, some of it hitching a ride back to Virginia in my suitcase.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking: “but it’s a dry heat.” That got to be a joke between my brother and me the whole time I was there. As we had both learned from our experiences in super-dry climates, the lack of humidity presents its own issues, especially for me, accustomed to the sauna that Virginia can be, and for Dana and Joyce, who live in a temperate rain forest in Alaska.

Hovering around 10 percent humidity, the air at Death Valley seemed to suck every drop of moisture from our systems, especially when we were in the sun. It cooled off a bit at night but was still dry, and my usual post-nasal drip turned into cement then, morphing me — and apparently a lot of others in the campground, from what I heard in my nightly visits to the restroom — into world-class snorers.

Weather aside, what really surprised me when I arrived at Death Valley was that the first animal I saw was not a tarantula, a sidewinder, roadrunner or scorpion (all of which are endemic there and I would have loved to see) but rather a monarch butterfly. As I mentioned in my Oct. 6 column, migrating monarchs seemed to be showing up in a lot of places in Rappahannock before I left — but they were the last thing I expected to see at Death Valley.

The ranger I talked with there about the monarchs said the butterfly likely was blown in by a windstorm that had hit a couple of days before I arrived. The thing is, my brother said that they’d seen a monarch every day they were there, hanging around the tamarisks surrounding the campsite. We saw up to three monarchs at a time while I was there. So, were these butterflies truly accidental visitors?

In doing some research once I got home, I found an interesting piece about monarchs in California, on the website Learn About Butterflies, that made me think that the butterflies could have been blown off course, but perhaps not on their way to Mexico:

“It is little known that these amazing butterflies also regularly overwinter in small numbers in arid desert locations such as Saline Valley in California — a moon-crater shaped valley about midway between Mount Whitney and Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. Monarchs regularly survive the winter there despite the very low daytime humidity (5-25 percent), scant winter rainfall and the fact the only evergreen vegetation in mid and late winter are bushes such as tamarisk, mulefat and creosote. One problem with the Saline Valley habitats however is that once every five years or so, overnight temperatures drop several degrees below zero, and freeze most or all of the Monarchs.”

Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) and creosote bush (Larrea tridentatey) are native to Death Valley. I noticed creosote almost everywhere we went, depending on the local environmental conditions and elevation, which runs from the low point at Furnace Creek to 11,000 feet above sea level. I can’t say the same about mulefat, since I hadn’t heard of it until I did my research.

Tamarisk, a plant genus (Tamarix) with more than 50 species, was introduced into the United States early in the 19th century, and “by 1913, it had invaded the California desert,” according to the park’s website. It was planted in Death Valley “by pioneers, the CCC, and even by the National Park Service during its early tenure of this park.”

At Furnace Creek, which holds the world record for recorded high temperature, a bee nectars on athel tamarisk blossoms, an introduced tree.
At Furnace Creek, which holds the world record for recorded high temperature, a bee nectars on athel tamarisk blossoms, an introduced tree. Pam Owen

The monarchs in our campground flew too high and fast among the tamarisk trees for me to photograph. I couldn’t figure out why they were hanging around these trees, since their blossoms had gone to seed there and most had fallen, or been blown, off. From my research, I learned that athel tamarisk can bloom through November in Death Valley, and I did find some still blooming in an adjoining campground that had not yet opened for the fall season. However, I only saw bees nectaring on those, so I settled for photos of them and wondered if the butterflies were looking for an overwintering spot instead, like their well-known one among the fir trees in the highlands of Mexico.

Although seeing monarchs was not such a thrill after seeing so many just before I left home, I did have the pleasure during my trip to Death Valley of encountering another species I’ve longed to see most of my life. Look for more about that and other highlights of the trip in soon in this column.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Death Valley: How hot is it?

The location of the highest temperatures in the world, both air and ground surface, is hotly debated, so to speak, among meteorologists and others interested in weather, or in world records. Weather historian Christopher C. Burt, writing for Weather Underground, proposed that the highest reliably recorded air temperature on Earth is at Death Valley, 129.2 degrees (F.), recorded on June 20, 2013. A temperature of 129.0 degrees was recorded another four times: July 20, 1960; July 18, 1998; July 20, 2005 and July 7, 2007.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”