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Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

A Desert in Winter

The winter storms have arrived in Southern California, which means that mudslides, sinkholes, and flash floods will likely follow. But while news reports focus on collapsed houses and traffic snarls, such scenes by no means represent the entire region. In arid Death Valley, for example, the rains have been greeted with smiles and sighs of relief.

Death Valley National Park encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of mostly desert landscape northeast of Los Angeles. Located within the park is both the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and an 11,000-foot mountain, Telescope Peak, which is topped now with snow. The recent storms have also washed out several roads within the park, but otherwise rangers there have few complaints. "At least weíll have a good wildflower season now," says one, "thanks to these storms."

Wildflowers attract thousands of visitors from all over the world to Death Valley each spring. In late March or early April -- itís impossible to predict exactly when -- wildflowers blanket the valley with vibrant colors. But now is the time that the quality and quantity of those flowers is determined. Without sufficient winter rainfall, fewer wildflowers will bloom and more visitors to the park will be disappointed. No wonder rangers are pleased that the park has received almost half its annual rainfall total in the last few days alone.

Another reason people in the valley are likely to be happier now is that winter happens to be the most hospitable time of year there. Unlike summer, when temperatures in Death Valley commonly exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, winters there are quite pleasant: highs in the 60s and 70s during the day and lows in the 40s at night.

Winter is an ideal time for spotting wildlife, too. Birds common in the valley during the winter include the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the Mountain Chickadee, the Greater Roadrunner, and the Oregon Junco. Lizards, toads, turtles, and other reptiles are also common. And in the higher elevations itís possible to see Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Lions.