Thursday, September 6, 2007

Big Morongo

The desert is full of surprises. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a natural oasis off of Route 62 just before Yucca Valley where you can find hundreds of birds during migration season plus several rare or unusual species that nest there. The Preserve was originally under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, was managed by The Nature Conservancy for a while, and is now back under BLM care with the assistance of the Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. The year-round water comes from Big Morongo Creek which is formed by an earthquake fault gathering mountain snow runoff, runs underground for awhile, and then is forced to the surface by pulverized rock at the Preserve.

This past weekend, besides star-gazing at night, Kathy, Bart, and I drove down to Big Morongo Saturday evening and again Sunday morning to see what we could find. It's a little early for fall migration of land birds although the shorebirds have been at it for a month already, but you can find real rarities just before migration starts and again at the end of the season. Juveniles tend to be early. Like young human adults, they tend to explore and can be found off course, so to speak.

Spring migration is a wonderful time to go to Big Morongo. The spring birds are in full breeding plumage and the males are singing from every perch they can find. They want to be seen and heard so it is much easier to find them. In the fall, just the opposite occurs. The birds are more drab and subdued, they are more secretive, and they are quiet. It is much more difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell the males from the females from the first-year juveniles. The immatures in their first fall are particularly dull in appearance and telling them apart can challenge the experts, plus they can hybridize which adds to the problem. The great Roger Tory Peterson referred to fall warblers as "the confusing fall warblers."

Among the few birds we found on our walks were two species of warblers. One was the resident Yellow Warbler (2 birds only), and the other was more rare for this part of the country, first-year Canada Warblers (again 2 birds travelling together). I could not get a picture of any of these birds as they are too small and flit from branch to branch very fast. You are lucky to get a good look at them with your binoculars. There was still some water in the marsh area even though we are in extreme drought conditions and a waterfall at one spot was attracting a lot of birds including Lesser Goldfinches which are also resident at the Preserve. One Scrub Jay did sit on a perch to watch us for awhile (waiting for a handout?), but flew off when I tried to take his picture.

There was plenty of wildlife to view, too, and interesting plants to look at. Because of the year-round water, the Preserve attracts all manner of wildlife including Bobcats, Mountain Lions, and Bears. We didn't see any of those although a bear did leave scratch marks on the boardwalk. We did see Coyotes, Desert Cottontails, Raccoon tracks, and several kinds of lizard including two Desert Spiny Lizards, one without a tail. The sunny boardwalk seemed to be a perfect spot for the lizards to get warmed up early in the morning and when unsuspecting humans came along, they could easily, and swiftly, dart underneath it.

While Bart was the bird and lizard expert on our walks, Kathy is the plant expert. She kept us informed of the flora on either side of the boardwalk as we sauntered along. I can never remember the names of plants until I have become very familiar with them, but I did recognize the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite trees that shaded our walk. The marsh area had sedges, cattails, and watercress. There was even a patch of Stream Orchids which had finished blooming. But I can't remember the name of this interesting plant.

Saturday afternoon there was a big thunderstorm with some heavy rain in the desert. We went to Big Morongo after the rain had stopped and were there to witness a glorious sunset.

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