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Big Morongo Canyon Preserve – A birder’s paradise

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve – A birder’s paradise

Printed in part in the Basin Wide Spirit Magazine – Spring 2013

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
A birder’s paradise

Early Saturday morning, I am standing in the middle of lush cottonwoods, majestic old palms, and desert brush in the Big Morongo Canyon, a riparian wildlife preserve in the middle of Southern California’s high desert. A major bird migratory route and a wildlife corridor, the 31,000-acre Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, lays on the western side of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, linking the San Gorgonio Wilderness with San Bernardino National Forest and Joshua Tree National Park.

The Preserve, on the Pacific Flyway, has been designated as one of the United States’ important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy, the American Birding Association, and the Watchable Wildlife National Program. It is also featured in the National Geographic Guide to Bird Watching Sites.

I am with nine people – birders — heads up, binoculars to our eyes, watching and listening to the birds that fly along this popular migration path. Ferocious winds toss my hair and beat the microphone on my iPhone phone as I interview the preserve’s docent. Margret Hoggan, a robust, woman with gray hair and a matter-of-fact attitude leads me along the winding boardwalk, over dense marsh, under the shade of Fremont cottonwoods, red willows, and an occasional white alder.

“We are looking for the most famous resident of Morongo Valley today,” Hoggan says. “A vermillion flycatcher.”

People travel from all over the world to see this distinguished, red bird. It nests in the Preserve during springtime–one of the few places in Southern California to find this particular species. A flycatcher had recently been sighted on the ball field in neighboring Covington Park. Making our way out of the marshy preserve, we pass a cluster of Palms and a burned-out historic ruin. We spot a white-crown sparrow, Anna’s hummingbird, a pair of red-tailed hawks, and a flock of turkey vultures. Hoggan points to the red-tailed hawk mother sitting on a nest high above our heads, tucked into the top branch of a cottonwood.

“There she is,” Hoggan says as she hands me the binoculars.

I can see the side of the nest and the top of the bird’s head.

“The pair successfully raised three offspring,” Hoggan says.

Excited, I eagerly look for the next species, enthralled by the world of birds and bird calls.

“We get several hundred species of birds going north or coming here to breed,” says Dee Zeller, the Preserve’s host.

The Preserve is a wildlife corridor for mule deer, bighorn sheep, and bobcats. The animals move freely in search of food and water but mostly at night. During the day, the area is teeming with desert spiny lizards, desert grassland whiptail lizards, and side-botched lizards.

Paths and trails range from easy (15 minutes) to the longer, challenging 8.43-mile hike to the bottom of the mountain, at the west end of the Coachella Valley, just northwest of Desert Hot Springs.

A permanent resident of the Preserve, the ladder-backed woodpecker perches on the side of a cottonwood. We stop and listen. The rat-tat-tat is the bird calling for a mate. “Girls, I’m over here,” someone in the group translates. “If they were searching for food, you would hear a whack, whack, whack,” explains Zeller.

The alkali goldenbush, a native plant, blooms from August to November. The yerba mansa, a perennial once used by the Serrano Indians for medicinal purposes, blankets the ground in browns and greens–the old dying off and the springtime growth breaking ground. The marsh supports dwarf willow, goldenrods, cattail, water parsnip, and watercress. My personal favorite is the towering palms. Not native to the area, these lofty trees line the trails and circle the open areas like sentries and guards.

We catch up with a flycatcher at the ball field. The small bird sitting alone on the fence captivates everyone. All heads are turned in its direction. Hoggan hands me the binoculars, and I gasp. The tiny bird is the most brilliant red I have ever seen.

The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is at 50100 Park Avenue, Morongo Valley, California 92256. The cross streets are Trail Way and Vail Drive. The preserve hours are 7:30 AM to sunset year round. The website is: www.bigmorongo.org. The Preserve hosts are Dee and Betty Zeller.

The bird walks are twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, except for the first Saturday of the month. Summer hours are April 1st to October 1st, when the group meets at 7:00 AM. Winter hours are 8:00 AM. The walk lasts two hours.
The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is at 50100 Park Avenue, Morongo Valley, California 92256. The cross streets are Trail Way and Vail Drive. The preserve hours are 7:30 AM to sunset year round. The website is: www.bigmorongo.org. The Preserve hosts are Dee and Betty Zeller.

The bird walks are twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, except for the first Saturday of the month. Summer hours are April 1st to October 1st, when the group meets at 7:00 AM. Winter hours are 8:00 AM. The walk lasts two hours.

 

 

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