Big Morongo Field Trip

I recently led a field trip for the Sea & Sage Audubon chapter to Big Morongo Preserve in the southeastern corner of San Bernardino County, CA. Long known to birders, Big Morongo Preserve sits upon the outflow of subterranean water that supports a marsh and cottonwood forest in this corner of the Mojave desert. Big Morongo is a place where desert inhabitants mingle with marsh and forest birds and migrants who settle in on their way north.

Yellow-breasted Chat singing at Big Morongo Preserve

Yellow-breasted Chat singing at Big Morongo Preserve

On May 8th, we arrived at Covington Park in the city of Morongo Valley at 6:00 for some early birding before the official field trip began at 7:00. The park was awash in song as Yellow Warblers shouted from the cottonwoods, a Summer Tanager proclaimed his turf and Eurasian Collared-Doves (yes, they’re here too!) called from the tamarisks along the road. In the dryer areas of the nearby houses, Gambel’s Quail sang their odd songs and a California Thrasher added sweetness and endless variety to the morning chorus. Lesser and Lawrence’s Goldfinches were flying back and forth between town and the park. Big Morongo and Covington are one of the most reliable places in southern California to see Lawrence’s Goldfinch in spring. They are a beautiful bird with their greenish wingbars, gray and black faces and yellow chests. At 7:00, we tore ourselves away from the birds and went to collect the larger group.

Brown-crested Flycatcher hunting at Big Morongo

Brown-crested Flycatcher hunting at Big Morongo

I was fortunate to have with me Vic Leipzig, an experienced birder and field trip leader. So we split the group of 20 field trip participants in half so folks would have a better chance to see smaller birds on the often narrow and intimate trails of the preserve. This worked perfectly. I took a group out on the Marsh and the Desert Loop Trails, while Vic led his group on the Marsh, Mesquite and Canyon Trails. The two groups found nearly identical lists of birds, with the exceptions being a calling Virginia Rail found by Vic’s group, while Bruce’s group caught fleeting glimpses of a gorgeous Cassin’s Vireo. Not everyone saw this bird, but all got to hear it’s halting, burry “elevator” song – “going up… going down…” Other highlights of the walk included great looks at the singing Yellow-breasted Chats, the Brown-crested Flycatchers and threatened Least Bell’s Vireos. We also got up close and personal with several Verdins in the mesquite trees.

Long-eared Owl roosting at Big Morongo

Long-eared Owl roosting at Big Morongo

Next, we led the participants over to Covington Park for great looks at Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles, Summer and Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and several pairs of Vermilion Flycatchers. A Lark Sparrow was a pleasant surprise for the group. But the absolute glory of this stop was the pair of Long-eared Owls that, for the second year in a row, had raised a brood of chicks in the greater Morongo area. Our visit produced both adults and the youngest two of the five chicks they had this year. We stopped to watch the bird traffic at the feeders across the street from the park. With a waterfall going, many of the birds from the park would fly across to this yard to bathe and drink before returning to the park. We had a group lunch there under the canopies in Covington Park. Some of the group left after that, but many continued with us to the Black Rock Canyon Campground unit of Joshua Tree National Park, roughly 20 miles further east near the town of Yucca Valley.

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake

We visited Black Rock for a chance at some of the desert specialties and it paid off handsomely. The Black-throated Sparrows practically stepped on our feet while singing to us. A pair of Scott’s Orioles was somewhat more circumspect, but the male did give us extended views from a not-too-distant yucca plume. Additionally, there were singing Cactus Wrens, displaying Gambel’s Quail and calling Ash-throated Flycatchers. As a crowning touch, some Great Horned Owls were nesting in a large Joshua tree. Everyone got excellent looks at one very pale adult and three rather fuzzy chicks. The snakes were also fabulous that day. We found this Red Diamondback Rattlesnake crossing the road, and it allowed close approach while scarcely even rattling at us. Near the Great Horned Owl nest, I captured a placid 5-foot Gopher Snake that gave people good views as I held it.

White-headed Woodpecker at Humber Park

White-headed Woodpecker at Humber Park

By this point, we were down to just 9 people, but they were game for more, so we drove up to Idyllwild for a bit of mountain birding. We made a series of short stops, beginning with Lake Fulmor, where we found a Hairy Woodpecker, several raucous Stellar’s Jays, bunches of Mountain Chickadees and a host of Violet-green Swallows. Humber Park netted us Band-tailed Pigeons, Brown Creeper, singing Purple Finches and after a long search, a White-headed Woodpecker, right over the cars! At Idyllwild County Park we finally caught up with the Pygmy Nuthatches that had been teasing us all day and added Oak Titmouse and American Robin. We finished the day with a total of 78 species and a large group of happy customers.

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