Austin CollegeJanuary Term

Natural History of the Desert Southwest

coming again in

January Term 2003

See images from past trips Course content Field notebooks Important considerations What to bring Our proposed itinerary Links to other sites

This page is under construction. Last modified 06/20/02.

Instructors:  Steven Goldsmith, MS 314, ext 2204,
Visit Dr. Goldsmith's home page

Wayne Meyer, MS 312, ext 2254,

Sandy Beach, MS 315, ext 2348,

Course Content: This course is a detailed and first-hand experience with the biota, topography, geology, geography, and cultural history of the desert Southwest. The primary activity for the course is a 21 day field trip to several locations in the Southwest (see itinerary below). We will spend the first two days of JanTerm in preparation for the trip, then spend the last few days in debriefing and decompressing. The lessons on natural history will be supplemented by informal "lessons" on living in the wild, hiking rough country, and traveling cross-country. Each student will keep a field notebook (described below) where observations and interpretations will be recorded.

Sources of Information: The primary source of information will be your own observations of the natural history of the desert. We will primarily concerned with observations and interpretations of the ways the organisms of the southwest make their living, and how they came to be what and where they are. There are two required textbooks: The National Audubon Society's Nature Guide to Deserts (by James MacMahon) and the National Geographic Society's Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The Deserts guide provides much background information about desert habitats in general and about the plants and plant communities. The bird guide is required because we will be able to locate and observe birds more readily than other animal groups, and because the places we will visit are occupied by species that are rare elsewhere in the US. There is also a requirement of reading from a selection of environmental or biological books (not textbooks) such as Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle or On the Origin of Species, Leopold's Sand County Almanac, Abbey's Desert Solitaire, Wilson's Diversity of Life or Naturalist, Tinbergen's Curious Naturalists, or Alcock's Sonoran Desert Spring or Sonoran Desert Summer. Almost any other book of this sort that interests you would be acceptable.

Field notebooks: You will record activities, observations, and impressions in a field notebook. The format of the field notebook varies greatly among field biologists, and takes on different forms in different specializations within field biology. Traditionally, the field notebook consists of three sections: the log, the species accounts, and the journal. Most biologists keep field notes in a loose-leaf notebook (5.5" x 7.5" or 6" x 9") with the three sections separated. In this course, loose-leaf binders are mandatory -- they allow you to rearrange your species accounts to keep them in proper taxonomic order, and to add new ones as you make more observations. It is useful to have pockets in your notebook to keep things like maps or directions to field sites, pens and pencils, rulers, conversion tables, receipts, etc. Notebook binders, dividers, and paper are available in the AC Bookstore and in other places around town.

Grades: Grading in this course is S/U, and is based on the quality of your field notebook entries. We expect thorough, accurate, and legible records of your observations. We will record many observations as a group, so that you learn to be observant, and so that you learn what should be included in your entries. We will discuss and share our interpretations and impressions, but your journal should reflect your own ideas and biases. Your field notebook is your own record of the trip. It will be a permanent record of what you saw and what you did - it will only be as good as you make it. We will collect and evaluate your notebooks periodically during the trip, and will give you constructive feedback on your records. We will not make any marks in your notebook, and anything that you write will be held in strict confidence.

Important considerations:

Things you must bring:

sleeping bag -- you will need one that is comfortable to at least 20oF; consider bringing a spare blanket as well

ground pad -- this is critical for comfortable sleeping, which is critical for an enjoyable trip. Self-inflating ones like those made by Thermarest are the best choice

pillow that is firm enough to give good support

good hiking boots with adequate ankle support, and that fit well. Plan on a break-in period before the trip.

good hiking socks -- at least 3 pairs of Thorlos or something equivalent, designed for hiking, and which are made with acrylic and wool

appropriate clothing -- be prepared for both warm and cold conditions.  Hiking can usually be done in shorts and a light shirt, but long pants and warm clothes are necessary for night time. Convertible pants are a desirable item. Your clothing should include things like flannel shirts, wool sweaters, polarfleece garments, and polyester or cotton long underwear, with a windbreaker or other shell to cover the layers below. It really is better to layer your warm clothing, both because you stay warmer that way and because your clothing is more versatile. On some hikes you will want to bring something warm in case of cool weather at high elevations.  Nights are potentially uncomfortably cold unless you are prepared.

rain gear that is lightweight and durable, not an umbrella nor a plastic disposable poncho

backpack -- a day-pack that is both comfortable and sturdy

field notebook (described above), pens for writing, and pencils for drawing

tennis shoes or other comfortable shoes for when we are not hiking

mittens or gloves for warmth

hat -- you may exercise your own preference here, but you will need something that protects your head from sun and rain, and one that is warm.

bottles for water while hiking -- you will need at least 2 liters for short hikes, and 3 or 4 for all-day hikes

insulated mug with your name on it (or that is recognizable in some way)

pocket knife (which goes in your field bag)

bathing suit (some of the hotels have pools and hot tubs, and there is a hot spring in Big Bend)

towel and washcloth -- some campgrounds have showers, and all will have bathrooms with running water for washing

flashlight with extra batteries; a headlamp is useful for working in the dark, which we will do occasionally


personal toiletry items including any prescription medicines. You should bring copies of essential prescriptions, including those for eyeglasses (if necessary).

passport or copy of birth certificate plus a picture ID for travel into Mexico

Things you should bring:

camera with plenty of film and extra batteries

spare glasses or contact lenses


plastic bags/mesh bag for dirty clothes

reading material for time in the vehicle (in addition to required reading material described above)

food knife (for cutting fruits, vegetables, meats)

field guides for mammals, herps, etc.

tent if you have one

playing cards


Fri Jan 3:   Logistic and academic preparation: meet at 9:00 in MS 301; field trip to Denison Dam

Sat Jan 4:   Logistic and academic preparation: meet at 9:00 in MS 301; load trailer

Sun Jan 5:  Depart campus at 8:00, drive to Fort Stockton, TX; this is about a 9 hour drive.

Lodging is at La Quinta Inn (phone: 915-336-9781; fax: 915-336-3634).

Mon Jan 6:  Depart Ft. Stockton at 9:00 am, drive to Big Bend National Park; this is about a 3 hr drive

Set up camp at Rio Grande Village
Nature walk along Rio Grande, tour of Boquillas Canyon (about 4 miles round trip with minimal elevation change);
batwatching in the evening
Tues Jan 7:   Hike Lost Mine trail from Panther Pass, birding and botanizing;
this is about a 5 mile round trip with approximately 1000 ft elevation change (both ways)

Wed Jan 8:   Tour western part of Big Bend for birding, botanizing, and geologizing:

Sotol Vista, Castolon, Tuff Canyon, Cottonwood campground, Santa Elena Canyon
we will depart the campground at 8:30 and return by 5:00;
howling for coyotes in the evening
Thurs Jan 9:   Hike Chisos Mountains South Rim trail
Depart campground at 7:30 for this hike of approximately 15 mile round trip, with change in elevation of approximately 2200 ft; plan on a 8-9 hr walk
we will be at the trailhead by 9:00 and should return by 6:00
Fri Jan 10:   Tour of Dagger Flats, Panther Junction area, other places for plants and birds

Sat Jan 11:  Birding in the morning, tidying up our camp and beginning to pack in the afternoon

Sun Jan 12:  Break camp early, drive to Las Cruces NM; we need to leave by 9:00

Lodging is at La Quinta Inn (phone: 505-524-0331, fax: 505-525-8360)
This is about a 9 hour drive, but there may be time for laundry after we arrive
Mon Jan 13:  Depart about 10:00 for the 4 hour drive to Chiricahua National Monument, set up camp.
Grocery shopping and laundry in the morning before departure;
Hike short trails near campground for birding and botanizing, visit Visitor Center
Tues Jan 14:  Hike Heart of Rocks trail from Hailstone trailhead;
this is a 10 mile round trip with elevation change of about 500 ft
Wed Jan 15:  Birding in the Coronado National Forest, visit Cave Creek and the Portal area
Depart campground at 8:00, return by 5:00
Thurs Jan 16:   Break camp, drive to Tucson, AZ; we need to leave by about noon
lodging is at La Quinta on Speedway (phone: 520-622-6491, fax: 520-798-3669
This is about a 2 hour drive; the rest of the day is for laundry, resting, working on field notebooks
Fri Jan 17:  Tour of Mount Lemmon with Gus Hall; depart lodging at 8:00 return by 6:00
This is a driving tour with elevation change of about 6700 ft; the summit of Mt. Lemmon is usually snow-covered this time of year, so bring appropriate clothing.
Sat Jan 18:  Visit Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Hike short trails in Saguaro National Park West;
Depart lodging at 8:00, return by 5:00
Sun Jan 19:  Drive to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; this is about a 3 hour drive;
Grocery shopping and laundry in the morning; depart at 10:00
set up camp; hike short nature trails near Visitor Center
Mon Jan 20:  Hiking Bull Pasture/Estes Canyon trail;
this is a 5 mile hike with elevation change of 800 ft.
(only gauchos with huevos muy grande go to Bull Pasture)
Tues Jan 21:  Day trip to Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico;
birding and botanizing as well as shopping and sight-seeing
Wed Jan 22:  Driving tour of Organ Pipe;
birding and botanizing at Quitobaquito Springs, Senita campground
Thurs Jan 23:  Break camp, drive to Las Cruces, stay at La Quinta Inn

Fri Jan 24: Depart Las Cruces, stop at White Sands National Monument, then on the Lubbock;

lodging is at La Quinta Inn (phone: 806-792-0065, fax: 806-792-0178)
Sat Jan 25: Depart Lubbock at about 9:00, drive to Sherman; arrival by 5:00

Sun Jan 26: Collapse

Mon Jan 27: Debriefing; final version of field notebooks due. Meet at 10:00 in MS 301.

Tues Jan 28: JanTerm ends