29 April - 13 May 2018 ~ Anza Borrego ~ Organ Pipe ~ Saguaro ~ Joshua Tree


Exploring the ecology & evolution of plants and animals in the wonderful and varied deserts of the southwestern USA. Leaving from Los Angeles, we will travel through four desert areas in southern California and Arizona, including Anza Borrego State Park, Organ Pipe National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and the elevational gradients of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson.

Through class exercises and group research projects, we will investigate how geological, climatic and biotic factors interact to influence the abundance, distribution, life histories, reproductive strategies and behaviour of desert organisms.

We will travel by van, sleep in tents, cook outside and spend a lot of time hiking to experience as much of the desert as possible.

This website contains all the information you'll need to know before you arrive in California. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me (phone: 613-328-6812, email: or Dave Ensing (

Arrival & departure
We will meet before 2pm at LAX, Los Angeles International Airport (arrivals pick-up zone closest to your baggage claim area), on Sunday 29 April and we will drop you off ~10am at LAX on Sunday 13 May (if you book an earlier return flight you’ll have to get yourself to the airport). You are welcome to arrive in California before and/or stay after the course. You just have to make it to the rendezvous point on time.

Tentative Itinerary

Sun 29 April: Arrive LAX, drive to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Mon 30 April: Spend day and night at ABSP

Tues 1 May: Travel to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in S
   Arizona (5 hrs)

Wed 2 May: Day and night at OPCNM

Thurs 3 May: Day & night at OPCNM

Fri 4 May: Day & night at OPCNM

Sat 5 May: Travel to Tucson AZ (2hrs),
    visit Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Sun 6 May: Saguaro National Park

Mon 7 May: Saguaro National Park

Tues 8 May: Explore Catalina Mountains near Tucson

Wed 9 May: Travel to Joshua Tree National Park in CA (7 hrs)

Thurs 10 May: Day & night at JTNP

Fri 11 May: Day & night at JTNP

Sat 12 May: Mosey back to LA via the Salton Sea

Sun 13 May: Departure from LAX

Course work

(1) Short seminar based on a topic in desert ecology (20% of your total mark)
You will prepare a short presentation on a topic of relevance to desert ecology & evolution. Your presentation will mainly occur in the field (20 minutes) so you won’t have access to AV technology. All presentations will occur sometime during the first week of the course. Your presentation must be almost entirely prepared before you arrive in California. Once you've arrived you will have some time to get some hands-on experience with your topic before presenting it to the class.

In addition to your presentation, you will prepare a 2-page hand-out summarizing your topic (about one page of text plus one page of figures, diagrams and references to the literature). Please bring 20 copies of this hand-out.

For more information and to see what topic I have assigned you click here.

(2) Desert treasure hunt (10%) will occur half-way through the course and will test how well yu have learned your desert organisms and natural history

(3) Formal write-up of an independent field research project (40%)
As a big part of this course, you will team up with 1-3 other students and conduct a field research project. You will write up your study exactly like a scientific manuscript formatted for the journal Evolution. It will be no more than 12 double-spaced pages of 12-point type (not including title page, references, tables and figures). Your report is due on Saturday 30th June 2018 - emailed to me as a single PDF or Microsoft Word file by 11:59pm on that date. No late reports accepted. I will provide you with much more information by email.

(4) Field notebook (15%)
You will be required to keep a field book in which you will make concise, accurate notes about what you did during the field course. Quality notes are an essential part of any field study. These will be due on Saturday May 12th at breakfast and will be graded before you leave.

(5) Participation (15%)
Participation is an essential part of the field course experience, and students often learn a great deal from each other. You must actively participate in this course. Ask questions during the seminars and field exercises. Be proactive in developing a research project. Participate fully in your research project, especially if you are working in a group. I will be grading your participation in a quantitative fashion. If you don't get in there and mix things up you won't get any participation marks. But if you're active and keen, you'll get full marks.

What to bring

All 18 of us will have to squeeze into two 15-passenger vans, so please limit what you bring to one large bag plus a smaller daypack (plus incidentals). A medium-sized duffle bag (≤ 80L) will work better than a narrow tubular backpack because you will be able to access your stuff easily when it is in a jumble of other bags in the back of the van. Large rolling suitcases cannot be accommodated.

We will be living, cooking, eating and sleeping in the desert throughout the course. Campgrounds will often be primitive with pit toilets and no water. When we are in areas with no water supply we rely on packed water, so there will be no luxury water‐use (e.g. showering or hair washing). This will require flexibility with respect to personal hygiene.

Personal items

  1. use of a tent (if you have a tent that can accommodate more than you and you are willing to share, please email us)

  2. sleeping bag (night temperatures may go as low as 5°C)

  3. sleeping pad (foam or thermarest-type)

  4. eating tools (plate, bowl, cup [for hot & cold drinks], knife, fork, spoon)

  5. backpack - we will be hiking a lot and you’ll need a 20-30L pack for bringing WATER (!!!), snacks, equipment, extra clothing and all your valuables.

  6. water bottles and/or water bladder for your backpack. You’ll need capacity for at least 3-4L per hike. Make sure you have a bottle for around camp.

  7. sturdy hiking boots. Very important - because the desert is full of spiny plant diaspores, I suggest at least ankle high boots without a lot of mesh material on the outside, which spines can get stuck in. Break in your footwear before the course!!

  8. sandals or running shoes for travel days and around camp

  9. lots of light hiking socks - not cotton

  10. sunglasses (mandatory)

  11. quick-dry towel & toiletry items (toothbrush, etc.)

  12. flashlight (very important - a strong headlamp is optimal for viewing nocturnal creatures)

  13. watch or other timepiece (opportunities to charge your phone may be sporadic so you may not be able to rely on it for keeping time)

  14. a hat - mandatory!! A broad-brimmed hat keeps the sun off much better than a ball cap, and you’ll look awesome in it. Bring two.

  15. a Buff, bandana or other light neck scarf thingy - handy for keeping sun off your neck

  16. sunblock - ≥ SPF 30 - bring lots

  17. clothing for dry, hot but extremely variable weather. Make sure to include light-coloured long pants and long-sleeved shirts to keep sun off if you get sunburned. Include at least one warm sweater, fleece and jacket for cold nights (it can go down to 5°C and get windy)

  18. swimsuit (for an end-of-course dip in the Pacific Ocean)

  19. guitar, banjo, fiddle, accordion, ukulele, pipes, mandolin, cittern, concert zither, oud, mohan veena, tuba and/or dobro  (note however that our stuff will often be locked in very hot vans so if you do bring an instrument make sure it’s not an expensive one)

For field observations and data

  1. pencils (lots)

  2. a compact, durable notebook for personal notes. We will supply a proper field book for field notes

  3. a 10x or 14x magnifying loop (optional)

  4. binoculars (optional but very strongly recommended)

  5. camera (optional but highly recommended - bring an extra battery and memory card)

  6. a USB memory stick for taking a copy of your project data home with you

Last updated: November 6, 2018
©Christopher G. Eckert