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As we bumped over the five-mile dirt road leading to the Desert Tortoise Preserve near California, City, California, we were hoping we might be rewarded by the sight of one of the creatures the area was founded to protect. Birds flew overhead, but otherwise we seemed to have the desert to ourselves.
"It's pretty hot, said Mark. "Tortoises know better than to stay out in the sun on a day like this. We probably won't see anything." We seemed to be the only people, too.
"Look, there's a motor home parked over there," said Mark as we pulled into the Preserve. Sure enough, we weren't alone. "It looks like a visitors center. Let's go see if anyone's there."
And that's how we met Sonja Norstedt, a volunteer naturalist and wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management who is living at the Tortoise Preserve for three months. She led us out over the sand to the home of one of her charges, a female desert tortoise who was partly visible in her summer burrow under a creosote bush.
"The tortoises are getting ready to estivate," said Sonja. "They store up water so they can get through the driest months. They can hold water in their bladders all summer if they need to. If they get scared by something, they release it, so never frighten tortoises if you can help it. It could kill them if they can't replenish their supply."
Sonja, who has a degree in ecology and systematic biology from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, told us that many animals besides tortoises live in the preserve. "In fact, I've seen more green Mojave rattlesnakes out here than tortoises. I saw two out hunting together just the other day. They were systematically moving from shrub to shrub, probably looking for bird's nests and eggs."
While the Desert Tortoise Preserve does draw a number of visitors each year, Sonja has plenty of time to herself. "I've had a conversation with a tortoise or two," she said. As we left the preserve, we were thinking how lucky those tortoises were to have a conversation with someone like Sonja.