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.
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.