The usually barren desert is covered in acres of desert gold and desert dandelion because of this year's superbloom happening at the Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark in the Mojave Desert. (Sarah Craig/KQED)
Plentiful winter rains followed by a mild start to spring is resulting in what naturalists call a "superbloom" throughout Southern California's desert landscapes.
Wildflower enthusiasts can't get enough of the vibrant colors, and tourists are flocking to the deserts. Meanwhile, creeping out from their underground middens or swooping in during the darkest hours, desert critters are feasting.
David Lamfrom is a regular witness to the cycle of life in one of California's driest areas -- the southwestern side of the Mojave Desert.
He's the director of the National Parks Conservation Association and he spends his days advocating for the beautiful landscapes that most people think of as barren when the wildflowers aren’t in bloom.
Desert Creatures Thriving on Wildflower 'Superbloom'
He's also an expert on the thriving flora and fauna in the Mojave, and he has a pretty good idea of where to find blooms. He took me 15 minutes south of his hometown, Barstow, to a valley at the base of the Ord Mountains where the yuccas were in full bloom.
A short hike in and we run into a huge yucca covered in insects. Because the desert received so much moisture this year, Lamfrom says the insect populations will be significantly higher.
"It’s going to ripple out through the entire year," he explains. "All the species are going to be healthier. They will have bigger broods."
Broods as in babies. The desert is busy multiplying this spring.
We walk on to the next plant where Lamfrom starts searching for moths.
"During the day you can find moths sometimes hiding inside,” he says. “The moths come out at night. In the same way that we're finding all these species during the day, there's a night shift. It's what the scientists call resource partitioning."
This is when you have completely different species that do the same thing, but at different times so they don't compete. Moths and butterflies are perfect examples.
“When you have these blooms, it's not only boom times for the animals that eat these plants, it's also boom times for the predators that eat these animals,” Lamfrom says.
Superblooms depend on just the right amount of rain and heat from the sun. It comes down to when it rains and how much. This winter the desert got nearly an entire year's worth of rain in just a few weeks. And the spring was mild.
If it gets too hot too quickly or stays too cold for too long, the blooms suffer.
"It's like every 10 years, all the animals and plants hit the lottery and they have so much,” Lamfrom says.
Take for example the federally threatened desert tortoise. Superbloom years mean more tortoise eggs. And coyotes won’t try to eat the tortoise because there’s more jackrabbits and cottontails around to feed on.
As we walked back to our car, Lamfrom points out the tortoise’s favorite flower: the apricot mallow. “It’s like skittles for a desert tortoise,” Lamfrom says.
He tells me that it’s easy to figure that out because the orange plant juice from the mallow will dry on the tortoise's mouth. “It’s cute because you have these tortoises which are inherently cute, wearing basically lipstick, which is also cute."