Blog-a-thon: Tucson BioBlitz Transect: Walking Across the Desert

This blog-a-thon submission is an excerpt for the National Geographic News Watch blog. It is written by Andrew Howley as he documents a Tuscon BioBlitz Transect. To access the fully article, follow this link.

With seven days and more than 70 miles of walking and cataloging of
plants and animals ahead of him, NG Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay
(right) looks out with Tucson desert vegetation expert and writer Jim
Malusa (left) into the foothills of the Rincon Mountains to try to make
an early identification of pine species from a distance.
Saguaro National Park consists of two large parks on either side of Tucson, Arizona. The east is very different from the west, and both are obviously different than the city between them. Still, the same birds, bugs, pollen, wind, and water are swirling about them all. They are all part of the same story.

az1.jpgAs part of the 2011 BioBlitz in Saguaro, NG Explorer-in-Residence (and University of Arizona alum) J. Michael Fay walked some 70 miles over the course of seven days on a transect across both parts of the park and the city between them, noting the first time he saw each plant species in an area, and identifying and tallying every bird he saw or heard along the way.

The photo gallery above takes you along moment by moment through open landscapes and close-up details. It shows many of the park rangers and local scientists who accompanied Mike for a few miles or days at a time, and reveals highlights of the experiences and knowledge they shared. Soon you will also be able to view the route in Google Earth and see Mike Fay’s photos exactly where they were taken. By going through these features, you’ll be able to develop a sense of what it is to experience Saguaro National Park or any place in this unique and exciting way.

az2.jpgBut Why Walk?

A few mintues of walking with Mike Fay and it’s clear that he is not out here as a feat of strength or to set a record or conquer a desert or a mountain. He’s here to collect data. He picks an area that people think they know, draws a line across it on a map, and follows that line recording what he sees along the way. Taking this approach, the only way you’re going to see everything and have time to write it all down is if you’re walking. Any other mode of transport funnels you into existing pathways, gets you moving too fast, and keeps you too far away.

There is a price to be paid though. One night when we met up with some
bat-watchers in town, a woman looked at Mike’s feet and asked, “You do
all this in sandals? Are you trained a certain way so your feet don’t
hurt?” “No,” Mike replied matter-of-factly, “my feet hurt.”

More Than Just a Hike

Still, one thing is certain: Transecting is not hiking. It’s as
demanding intellectually as it is physically-more so even. Especially
crossing Tucson itself, our bodies had it relatively easy. We were met
regularly with water refills, had access to food and other drinks
everywhere, and could even drop some of our weight during the day and
have it brought back to us before bedding down for the night.

Intellectually though, there was no break. Your eyes and ears were
constantly engaged, taking in information, searching your memory for
names of plants and animals, scanning the landscape for species we’d not
yet seen, looking for signs of animals likes tracks, scat, burrows, and
potential hiding places. The faintest chirp caught every ear, and
brains ran through call identifications as eyes scanned the sky, trees,
shrubs, and grasses for any sign of the sound’s maker…to keep reading this article, follow this link.

Andrew Howley, National Geographic News Watch

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