Birds at Big Morongo

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a Southern California wildlife preserve about a half-hour north of Palm Springs. It is a pleasure to share this magnificent place.

When you first arrive, there is a large parking lot surrounded by big, old cottonwood trees. I hadn’t been there five minutes when I spotted a vermilion flycatcher (photo above) in one of the cottonwoods. He stuck around for a few minutes; but then as birding can be, we never saw him again.

The park is one of the ten largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California, and the large, leafy cottonwood trees, members of the poplar family, were popping with birds.

A pair of western bluebirds also joined us, here is the male.

Near the parking lot is an information kiosk with photos and siting lists, always a great way to start a hike or bird walk.

The Preserve started in 1968 when the Nature Conservancy bought 80 acres from a rancher. Over the years, more acreage was purchased and more organizations stepped in. Today it is part of the Sand to Snow National Monument and encompasses 31,000 acres, with wildlife corridors connecting the Preserve with Joshua Tree National Park. 

It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, and also run by a successful non-profit organization, Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

More info: Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

I have been here three times, and each time was in the month of February. Temperatures this past February were chilly and the mountains were snow-covered. Many of the trees were still bare, but some of the birds, like the vermilion flycatcher, were just arriving for the summer.

There were also plenty of year-round residents like the California Scrubjay and the Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Both of these bird species nest here.

Most of the Preserve lies within the Mojave Desert but a small portion also includes the Sonoran Desert.

Deserts, mountains, natural springs, a creek and marsh offer a diverse landscape featuring a rich array of habitats. As you can imagine, a corridor with fresh water in a desert location is a big draw for the wildlife.

This mountain chickadee reminded us of the mountain habitat.

A well-maintained and extensive boardwalk takes the visitor through the wet areas and winds around the creek and woods. There are also trails into the desert and leading up to the ridges.

Link to Trail Map

When we walked by these palms photographed below, they were screeching with finches. I saw many house finches and lesser goldfinches flying into the brown palm cover and not coming out–they were snug and secure in their community.

These are California fan palms. They are native and commonly seen in southern California. Washingtonia filifera.

We saw many songbirds in the woods around us: yellow-rumped warblers, oak titmice, bushtits, black phoebes, ruby-crowned kinglets, American robins, California towhees, white-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Woodpeckers, raptors, songbirds, hummingbirds and more.

Here is a cedar waxwing we found in a flock.

In addition to the birds, there are mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and more. We stopped to listen to a few chorus frogs, but could not see them in their murky, tall-grass hideaways.

California ground squirrels greeted us…

…and as the sun warmed the day up, an occasional western fence lizard joined us too.

The surrounding desert mesquite plants were loaded with mistletoe. Phainopeplas are attracted to the mistletoe berries. This is a desert bird I have only seen a few times in my life, and always a joy to spot.

The Preserve boasts 263 recorded bird species and is an internationally recognized birding site.

There is no entrance or parking fee at Big Morongo and you can show up with or without an agenda.

For birders like us, we follow the flash of color, whirring of wingbeats, or the intriguing “chip” of a call above.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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91 thoughts on “Birds at Big Morongo

  1. The birds are lovely, and the location was a surprise. When I read ‘Morongo,’ I assumed I was going to see a selection of African birds. Once I’d reoriented myself, I was curious, and learned that ‘Morongo’ was the name of the last people to inhabit the canyon before the arrival of white settlers. I also learned that the Morongo were a clan of the Serrano Indians, and that brought to mind a staple of cuisine here: the Serrano pepper. One more step revealed that the Serrano people lived in Mexico: there’s clearly been as much human and plant migration in this story as migration of birds!

    • Hi Linda, yes, this area is so rich in resources, it has a lively history. I’m glad the post motivated you to look into human history. Thanks for your visit and interest.

    • Thank you, Sherry. Yes, it is a marvelous place and I know you would really like it here, Sherry. So much of Southern Calif. is a continual bustle, but not this oasis in the desert–it’s full of quiet and birdy moments.

    • Thanks, Cindy. We were lucky to have spotted that flycatcher. We were really itching to get on the trail but instead moseyed around the parking lot just in case there was something special…and there was! Sending you a big smile.

  2. Thank you Jet, for another wonderful post. The Vermillion Flycatcher is stunning as is of course the lovely little hummingbird you feature. I also really like the boardwalk….what a wonderful way to see nature up close.
    Have a lovely weekend….here we have the Coronation which will be much fun. Janet :)XX

    • So wonderful to “see” you, Janet, thanks for your comment and visit. I’m glad you enjoyed the vermilion flycatcher and the boardwalk. I agree with you, the boardwalk is a wonderful feature. And it is, of course, a complete joy to bring you another dazzling hummingbird. I am so happy you mentioned the Coronation as I am looking forward to watching it on TV but oh how jubilant your lively city must be today. Thinking of you and sending a big smile.

    • Yes, the Big Morongo is a hidden gem definitely worth visiting next time you’re in the area, Jane. My warmest thanks, it is always a pleasure to share favorite California spots with you, we gravitate to the same places.

  3. Simply wonderful! What a delightful read this morning, Jet – and it being bookended by the vermilion flycatcher images, sandwiching all the other beauties you saw at Big Morongo? Just fabulous!

    • I loved your words today, pc, as I always do. I am glad you enjoyed my decision to bookend the post with my favorite vermilion flycatcher photos–that bird was such a spritely joy. Cheers to you and Mrs. PC for a happy weekend…have fun with the Coronation.

    • Yes, that mountain chickadee didn’t stay still for long either, so you’re right, Jan, there was a bit of magic involved in that snap. Wonderful to hear from you, thank you.

  4. Sounds as if you had a lovely day in this interesting place! Very colorful… and I love the sound of the word “Morongo.” Sounds like a sexy dance. ;>)

    • I enjoyed your fun comment, dear Nan, thank you. We had so much fun at this wonderful place. There are a lot of people and cars speeding by in southern California, so it was a serene pleasure to be in this hidden spot away from it all. I’m glad I could share it with you, thank you.

  5. What a terrific place to explore❣️ thank you for guiding us through and for the photos that bring it to life. πŸ’πŸ™πŸ»πŸ’›

    • It is a true delight to share the beauties of this park with you, Val. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and as always, I enjoyed your kind words and darling emojis.

    • Yes, the variety of birds in this one park was indeed impressive. And I’m sure there are more as the weather warms, too. It is great fun to share it with you, Jo, thanks so much for your visit.

  6. You are bird watcher by nature Jet and it is not unusual to see a great collection
    of various species from areas being visited. Southern California is a fine place
    for many different birds as so well represented here. Great photos Jet!

    • Yes, we were so happy when we found Big Morongo 12 years ago and always hoped to come back, and it was such a nice surprise this time that it hadn’t been more commercialized or worse, lost funding. Deborah I know you would love it here, I hope you can visit it someday. The bird list is wonderful and I am sure about now there are even more species there. So many birds…so little time. πŸ˜€ Thanks so much.

  7. Always fascinating to see regional color morphs. Apart from the bill, here in the Bitterroots I would have easily pegged that bluebird as an indigo bunting… Thanks for sharing!

    • Those two birds, the phainopepla and the vermilion flycatcher, were the stars of our day, Bill. Each of those birds we’ve seen less than ten times in our life. I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed them, Bill — thanks very much.

  8. The Sand to Snow National Monument is a new one to me, Jet. Athena’s next to last photo captured the concept well. It definitely looks like it will be worth a visit in either in the spring or fall next time I am out that way. Thanks for sharing the birds and scenery. –Curt

  9. Another fantastic location to put on the “Next Time in the West” list. Any place that greets you with one of those Vermilion fire sticks is going to be a joy to bird. A bit jealous (per usual) as I haven’t had the chance to check off the Nuttall’s yet or your version of the Scrub Jay. The Costa’s is second only to the Anna’s in my favorite Hummers – we luckily get to see those on our annual trip to Vegas along with the Phainopeplas (can than make it any harder to spell these birds ha). Looks like you saw the female, the males always give me a bit of the spooks – like an evil Cardinal hehehehe. Lovely post, always makes my day when I get to learn about new places from your adventures.

    • I was oh so delighted that you enjoyed the Big Morongo post, Brian. I’m glad you put it on your “next time” list because I know you would like it here. And you’re right, starting out the day finding a vermilion “fire stick” is a winner. Lots of Costa’s there in the area, so thrilling, and plenty of Nuttall’s and Calif. Scrubjays. The phainopeplas were a delight for us and the male eluded us at Big Morongo but we did get a good look at nearby Joshua Tree NP. We don’t have No. Cardinals here, so it’s the next best thing, and so beautiful. Really enjoyed your comment and visit, thanks for stopping by.

  10. Awesome post Jet and Athena’s captures are perfect!! I can’t believe that in all my years in Southern California I had never heard of this place!! Spent to much time San Diego coastal πŸ™‚ apparently!! Again great post!!

  11. What a fantastic wildlife preserve. Being greeted by a vermilion flycatcher can’t be beat. It’s so good to see such a variety of wildlife still seemingly thriving…
    Thank you for sharing… πŸ’ž

    • I’m happy the Big Morongo looked good to you, LuAnne. It is not well known except to birders and hikers, and I hope you can see it sometime in the future. Thanks very much.

  12. The vermillion fly catcher!! Wow, I would love it here. Recently I was sitting on my little porch with a friend and she stopped mid-sentence because the call of a woodpecker interrupted her. She had a look of stricken horror and explained that she’s afraid of birds, we went inside. I was very much taken off-guard by this reaction. Of course, I told her we could go inside and it was fine and I tried to be sympathetic but it really threw me because my love for birds is so large and my curiosity so wide that I literally cannot imagine being afraid like this of birds. I am sorry for her, but am ever grateful to you for bringing these places to me through your blog.

    • This was a great story, Sylvia. As a birder, I too, find it difficult to imagine the fear of birds. I’ve talked to people who have told me of this fear of theirs, and much of the time they’ve been scared by a goose as a child. But it is a compassionate friend who offers to go inside, and that’s the best part of your story. I am so glad you have a love for birds and happy I could share these here with you today. My warmest thanks for your visit today.

      • Oh that’s interesting…when I was a child my aunt had a farm and I was very terrorized by a goose on that farm. The geese were very often quite aggressive and mean. I have experienced aggressive swans as well. (also aggressive sheep and bulls and dogs) And yet, I love all these animals and am not afraid. I am not a fan of insects however, and I try very hard to be kind to insects but it’s difficult. So I wonder what makes us feel afraid and what makes us feel an affinity for certain creatures?

      • Sometimes we don’t all have the courage or clarity to face our fears and forgive. I’m glad you accomplished just that with the animals, Sylvia. Lovely to “talk” with you.

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