Please send good photos if you got ’em; we’re running low again. I should just pin this request to the top of the website page! But there is a post on the left sidebar called “How to send me wildlife photos,” which will tell you all you need to know.
Today’s photos, by UC Davis ecologist Susan Harrison, portray one of my favorite places in California, and if you’re in the Owens Valley or heading to Death Valley, you must visit it. Susan’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
The White Mountains and Ancient Bristlecone Pines
California’s White Mountains lie just one valley east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and reach comparable heights (14,252’ vs. 14,505’), but the two ranges are quite different ecologically. Lying in the rain shadow of the Sierras, the White Mts. have the cold desert climate of the Great Basin.
White Mountain Road ascends to UC’s Barcroft Station at 12,470’, where high-elevation physiology and ecology are studied. Along the way are forests of Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) from about 9,000’-11,000’.
White Mt. Road, with bristlecone pines and view west across the Owens Valley to the Sierra Nevada’s escarpment (click photo to enlarge):
Bristlecone pines are famed and Latin-named for living up to 5,000 years – or perhaps longer, since the oldest trees are unlikely to be found. They can survive even when most of their bark is gone except for thin strips, an unusual trait that gives the millenia-old (“ancient”) bristlecones a partly-dead look.
Live and dead ancient bristlecone pines:
Bristlecone pines grow extremely slowly. One inch of their wood can hold 100 annual growth rings, and their needles hang on for decades. Their dense wood resists breakage, beetles, and decay.
Cross-section of a 3,200-year-old tree that died in 1676:
Beginning in the 1950s, scientists used the growth rings of live and dead White Mts. bristlecone pines to create an 8,000-year climate record. The carbon-14 dating clock was recalibrated, the “Mesopotamia as cradle of civilization” story was overthrown, and the hockey-stick graph of modern climate change was built using this unprecedented data (as described in this New Yorker story).
Methuselah Grove, home to the oldest known bristlecones, on a north-facing slope at 9,500’ on white dolomite soils (view east to the Last Chance Range, north end of Death Valley):
Wildlife are scant in the bristlecone pines, but here are some sightings from my August 2022 visit.
Mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli) and the bristly cones of Pinus longaeva:
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) on an ancient tree:
Damage by a sapsucker (Sphyrapicus species) on a younger tree:
Chipmunk (Neotamias — either speciosus, umbrinus, or minimus):
Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis):
Male and female Chukar (Alectoris chukar), an introduced partridge, surprising to see in the 11,000’ Patriarch Grove:
A spartan alpine landscape lies above the bristlecone pine forest. Up here I saw yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides), and many horned larks (Eremophila alpestris).
White Mountain, the highest peak, seen from just above Barcroft Station:
Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris):