Mongolia Monday- Comparing The Gobi And The Sonoran Desert

Just for a little context….Prairie Creek State Park, Humboldt County, California

I grew up in forests. Redwood forests, to be exact. Camping out meant drippy, foggy mornings and warm sweatshirts with, maybe, sunshine in the afternoon. In August. None of it ever bothered me because I loved being enclosed by those wonderful trees. My mom always loved the desert. Me? Not so much.

Then I went to Mongolia and on my second trip in 2006 spent a few days in the Gobi. And found it quite interesting. Enough to want to go back.

Which I did in July of 2010. And got hooked. Totally. It was hot, sometimes humid, we had to be careful to make sure we had enough water, we fought off mosquitos with dung smoke at a remote lake and I can hardly wait to go there again. I love the Gobi.

Gobi earth road, through sand and saxaul forest near Orog Nuur (remote lake)

So when Dr. David Wagner invited me as one of 30 artists to spend a week traveling to, learning about, sketching, painting and photographing the Sonoran Desert and then creating work for a 2013 show at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, I accepted immediately, thinking it would be interesting to compare and contrast these two arid environments.

“Earth road” going towards Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert

I’ve pulled together my research and travel experiences and here’s what I’ve learned, illustrated with images from both places.


SONORAN DESERT: Located in both the United States and Mexico

THE GOBI: Located in both Mongolia and China

Which means that both deserts cross an international boundary.

Tetakawi Hill: Mountain and sea, Sonoran Desert
Mountains and lake: Orog Nuur with Ikh Bogd mountains; demoiselle cranes at lakeside


SONORAN DESERT: 100,000 sq. miles

THE GOBI: 500,000 sq. miles, which makes it the 5th largest desert in the world

Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert
Yolyn Am (Vulture Gorge), Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Sept. 2006


SONORAN DESERT: sea level to 12,600ft (San Francisco Peaks, Arizona)

THE GOBI: 3,000-5,000 ft. above sea level on a plateau; the highest mountain peak reaches almost 13,000 ft. (Gobi Altai mountains)

Sonoran Desert landscape with chollo and saguaro cactus, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum grounds
Gobi landscape, saxaul trees with Flaming Cliffs in the background


SONORAN DESERT: Hot with some colder winter areas at higher elevation. Snowfall rare except in mountains. Temperatures: summer- up to 120F (180F surface temperature has been recorded in Lower Colorado River Valley); winter- average low of 39F. Rainfall: bi-seasonal rain pattern- Dec./Mar., July/mid. Sept.; in some areas, multiple years without rain. Wind: winds blowing onshore bring the summer “monsoon” rains; hurricanes possible.

THE GOBI: “Cold” desert due to location on a plateau. Frost and snow can occur on the dunes. Temperatures: summer- up to 140F; winter- down to -40F; up to 50F temperature swings in 24 hours. Rainfall: one rainy season-July/August; up to 7.6″, some years with no rain. Wind: winds up to 85mph can create dust storms (usually occurring in March/April) large enough to be seen from space.

Estero Solado, a tidal estuary with no inflow, therefore it is always saline
The Flaming Cliffs beyond small Gobi lake, Sept. 2006


SONORAN DESERT: Coastal areas on the Baja Pennisula and the east coast of mainland Mexico experience marine influence.

THE GOBI: Mongolia is a land-locked country, so the Gobi has no marine influence.

Side-blotched lizard, Nacapuli Canyon, Sonoran Desert
Toad-headed agama lizard, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Sept. 2008


SONORAN DESERT: There are seven ecoregions: Tundra, Coniferous Forest, Temperate Coniferous Forest, Grassland, Chaparrel, Desert, Thornscrub (wet desert), Tropical Forest (source: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum); sand dune fields of various sizes common.

THE GOBI: There are two or five ecoregions, depending on the source: 1) Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe, Gobi Lakes Valley Desert Steppe (World Wildlife Fund) 2) Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe, Alashan Plateau Semi-desert, Gobi Lakes Valley Desert Steppe, Junngar Basin Semi-desert, Tien Shan Range (“Alternative sources” Wikipedia entry for Gobi Desert); 5% of the Gobi is covered in sand dunes, much of the remainder in gravels of various kinds.

Avocets in the Estero Solado, Sonoran Desert
Avocets, Orog Nuur, The Gobi, July 2009


Animal herding is common in both places. In the Sonoran Desert, there are cattle and some horses. The cattle graze on their own, the horses get fodder. In the Gobi, there are domestic bactrian camels, goats and some horses. In the more arid areas, camels do the work of horses. All animals graze on their own unless there is a severe winter, then they are fed fodder.

Food growing occurs where there is enough water. In the Sonoran Desert, water comes from springs, groundwater and wells. The growing season is very short- July and maybe into August. In the Gobi, there are lakes in some areas, springs and wells. The growing season may be as long as from April to October, depending on rainfall.

Desert bighorn ram, Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, March 2010
Argali ram, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, April 2005


SONORAN DESERT: 60 mammal species, including desert bighorn, jaguar, Mexican grey wolf, kangaroo rats, saiga antelope; 350 bird species, 15 which are endemic;  over 100 reptile and 20 amphibian species. Endangered mammals: jaguar, Sonoran desert pronghorn. Endangered birds: cactus ferruginous pigmy owl, southwestern willow flycatcher

THE GOBI: 40 mammal species, including argali sheep, snow leopards (Altai Mountains) grey wolf, jerboas, Sonoran pronghorn antelope; the only reasonably reliable count for bird species that I could find on the web is 240 (from the Juuchin Tours website) specifically for Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. 15 reptile and amphibian species. Endangered mammals: Gobi bear, wild bactrian camel. Endangered birds: lammergeier, houbara bustard

Sonoran desert tree that stores water in its trunk
Saxaul tree, which has wood so dense from slow growth that a branch, thrown in the water, will sink


SONORAN DESERT: 2000 species of plants; known for: saguaro cactus

THE GOBI: 410 species of plants; know for: saxaul trees

For my Mongol friends, a desert that meets the sea

So there you have it. What I found to be a useful and interesting comparison of two of the great deserts of the world.

I want to thank Dr. Wagner for inviting me along on this wonderful trip and all my fellow artist traveling companions. Did we have fun or what? You’re the best!

The Sea Of Cortez-An Album Of Images

What a trip it was! The whole package…great scenery, interesting animals, terrific traveling companions who are also great artists and, in 2013, the exhibition at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to top it off.

I’ll be blogging about specific aspects of this experience and the art that I plan to create from it between now and showtime, but today I thought I’d share an overview of some of my favorite images, an album, if you will.

And, for this coming Mongolia Monday, I’ll compare and contrast Mongolia’s Gobi with the part of the Sonora Desert that I have now visited.

View from the condo I shared with four other artists.
Nacapuli Canyon
Someone took pictures of almost everything. Here's Carel Brest van Kempen photographing ants.
Predator water beetle; waterhole in Nacapuli Canyon
As yet unidentified lizard; Nacapuli Canyon
Estero Solado; an estuary ringed by three species of mangrove
Roseate spoonbills feeding in the estero
The turkey vulture who wouldn't abandon "his" fish
One of about six species of fiddler crabs living on the shores of the estero
Willets on the beach near the condo in nice morning light
Pelican feeding frenzy off-shore in San Carlos
The wonderful boat that we went out in
The boat made it possible for the plein air painters to get to great spots like this
Heerman's gull; almost at eye level from the boat's dingy
San Pedro Island; we spent a day birdwatching and snorkeling along its three mile length
Brown pelicans
Brandt's cormorants
Sally Lightfoot crab
Blue-footed booby colony; the white is guano
Blue-footed booby; an artist favorite
California sea lions
Male California sea lion
Female magnificent frigatebird
The Sea of Cortez
Group shot- photo by Molly Moore- Field Trip to San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico, March 19 - 26, 2011. Pictured are Linda Bittner, Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, DeVere Burt, Andrew Denman, Kim Diment, Kim Duffek, Cathy Ferrell, Susan Fisher, Susan Fox, Mary Garrish, Ann Geise, Shawn Gould, Mary Helsaple, Heiner Hertling, John Kobald, Deian Moore, John Pitcher, Don Rambadt, Paul Rhymer, Rebecca Richman, Carolyn Thome, Christine Sarazin, Rachelle Siegrist, Wes Siegrist, Martha Thompson, Glenn Thompson, Sue Westin, Ronnie Williford, Debbe Wilson, and Nicholas Wilson. (Not pictured are John Agnew and Molly Moore). Leading the field trip was Richard C. Brusca, Ph.D. The trip was organized by David J. Wagner, Ph.D. for artists to produce a body of artwork for a museum exhibition entitled The Sea of Cortez, produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C., and scheduled to premiere at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute from March 16 through June 2, 2013.

Mongolia Monday Goes To Mexico

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way to Arizona on Wednesday. A few days of gallery visits in Tucson and Scottsdale and then I’ll be joining around two dozen fellow artists on Sunday morning for the nine hour (two hours at customs, they tell us) bus ride to San Carlos, a town of 4,000 which is just to the west of Guaymas on the Sea of Cortez.

We're going to be based in a condo complex right on the beach just west of Guaymas

We’ll spend five days learning about the Sonoran desert ecosystem, hiking, snorkling, going out in a 50′ boat and recording the wildlife and landscape in a variety of media. What is doesn’t look like I’ll have, as near as I can tell right now, is an internet connection, although I may be able to post some photos on Facebook via my iPhone.

The purpose of the trip is to gather the material needed for us to each create work for an exhibition “The Sea of Cortez”, to be held at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in 2013.

One of my personal goals will be to compare the desert ecosystem of this part of Mexico with the Gobi of Mongolia. The biggest difference, which is obvious from looking at maps of both places, is that much of the Sonoran desert has at least some marine influence, whereas the Gobi has none. What this will mean in terms of climate, vegetation and animal life will be interesting to learn.

The Gobi extends from Govi-Altai in the west to Dornogovi in the east, over a third of the land area of Mongolia.

So, if you don’t see a new post here for a week or so, you’ll know that I’m suffering for my art- hanging out with a bunch of great artists, sketching, painting, talking shop and eating great Mexican food.

Mongolia Monday: We Interrupt Our Regular Programming For Three Special Announcements

But there is a Mongolia connection with all three.

When It Rains It Pours Department: The first two announcements are somewhat related since they both involve very special invitations to travel to “interesting” locations and work with fellow artists.

Update Jan. 2011: Guy and I both bailed on this one when it became clear that it wasn’t very well organized, but who knows, I may still make it to India sometime.

The first invitation has been extended to me thanks to my good friend and colleague, Guy Combes. Even though I’ve bought the plane tickets, I’m still pinching myself about this incredible opportunity. I’ll be departing on January 18, 2011 for Nairobi, from where Guy and I will fly to…..India! We will be part of an international group of artists from the UK, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Peru, the USA and Australia who have been invited to the Kanha Tiger Reserve for an Artist’s Week. We will be exploring the park, shooting reference and sketching in order to be able to produce art for a show which will tour internationally and then be auctioned to raise funds for tiger conservation. All expenses except airfare are being covered by our hosts, who own the luxurious lodge where we will be staying.

This is the place that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories. It is home to 22 mammal species and over 200 species of birds and is one of the remaining strongholds of the Bengal tiger.

And the Mongolia Connection? Babar, who conquered part of India, was a descendant of Tammerlane, who claimed descent from Chinggis Khan. Maybe or maybe not. But he did come from Central Asia and the part of India that Babar ruled became known as “Mughulistan” or “Land of the Mongols”. We know it as the  Mughal Empire, which lasted from the 1500s until the British took over India in the 1800s. The most famous artifact of the Mughals is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

Kanha Tiger Reserve is near Nagpur

After our week in India, we’ll go back to Kenya, where I will stay, visiting and animal watching until I come home on the February 15.

The second invitation came via an email from Dr. David Wagner, who specializes in curating shows of animal art, including the Society of Animal Artists annual exhibtion “Art and the Animal”. He has invited me to join him and a number of my colleagues on the Sea of Cortez at the end of March, 2011. We will be accompanied by a scientist familiar with the Sonoran desert and Sea of Cortez ecosystems. Our mission is to learn about them, shoot reference, sketch and paint, hang out on the beach and eat great Mexican food while talking art shop. The end result will be a show at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in 2013. More details and who else will be going soon.

The Mongolia connection? I will be able to compare the Gobi with the Sonoran Desert ecosystem to see what the similarities and differences are of climate, plant and animal life. I already know that the far-western edge of the Sonoran Desert extends to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where there are desert bighorns and that there are argali sheep in mountain areas of the Gobi.

We will be based outside of Guaymas

Last but not least, I am pleased to announce that Plaza Design, with stores in Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, is now offering a large selection of my small, original oil paintings! There’s a little bit of everything, including landscapes and American wildlife. They will be offering a selection of my greeting cards, too.

The Mongolia Connection? There are currently a couple of takhi (Przewalski’s horse) paintings available, with more Mongolia subjects to come.

Here’s a look at the display in the Arcata store:

Next week I’ll wrap up The Best Camping Trip Ever.