This past week, my hubby and I took a break from the mad world of mushrooms to hook up with a birding group from the GGAS, led by Rusty Scalf.
It had been waaaaaaay too long since I got to put on my Desert Rat persona.
Birds, just like us, prefer a damp and shaded place to hang in the heat of the day, and so those were some of our primary habitat targets.
We had lovely walks in the Agua Caliente Tribe-managed Palm Canyons, although bird activity was quite low by 8 am, the earliest that we could get beyond those locked gates. The good news is that these special places are reserved exclusively for the wildlife prior to 8 am and after 5 pm. I spoke at length with one of the Tribal Rangers, and he said that even the Tribal Chairman can't get into those reserves during those hours. Way to walk your talk, my friends.
Another real treat was getting to know the Morongo Valley Reserve, another place that is very well-managed for the benefit of the wildlife.
I was delighted to see that the Morongo Reserve BANS the use of bird song tapes. Calling in territorial birds by playing songs of other birds may provide dramatic sightings for bird groups, paid or not, but certainly provides no benefit to the birds, and possible harm. Frankly, I would like to see that rule much more broadly applied. Hey, a girl can dream...
Fabulous bird sightings within this reserve were the very handsome and boldly spectacled Cassin's Vireo, California Thrashers actively feeding in the thick duff with their sickle-like bills, Yellow Breasted Chats running through their astonishing repertoire of calls and songs, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker pair displaying,(and seeing just how much they resemble our Oakland neighborhood Nuttals), Summer Tanagers adding a bit of fire to the landscape, and despite their being a life bird for us, discovering how truly annoying their calls are (just cause they're rare doesn't mean you have to enjoy everything they do!), seeing how many of my backyard birds also thrived in this desert landscape (linnets and lesser goldfinches, CA towhees, Coopers hawks, etc.), the diagnostic white flash of white winged doves winging overhead, and the surprising observation of a distant cliff-side Prairie Falcon, that displayed a bit of hovering behavior that made me doubt my sighting (it appeared to be a really big falcon, but distance and size can be deceiving, and when I saw it back-beat, I was confused. Kestrel??!) Not until I searched my library back home and read a couple of references to this rather unusual behavior in the Peeters' guide to "Raptors of California" was this Prairie Falcon sighting confirmed in my mind.
Bird feeders at the Reserve brought us Bullocks and Hooded Orioles and Lazuli Buntings, as well as shade and cushioned seats: birding for the foot-weary and the over-heated!
The Vermillion Flycatcher, a common sight at the nearby Covington Park, knocked our eyes out with its feathered brilliance. Talk about showy! Last time I saw one of these, I had to spend an hour driving ten brutal miles in my Kharmen Ghia, trashing my oil pan where the washes bottomed out, on my way to the Quitobaquito Springs in the Organ Pipe National Monument in AZ. I was six months pregnant, and it was so hot when we got there that I had to crawl under a bush for a few hours to cool down. Just me and the lizards and birdies! Good times.
An unexpected pleasure was walking and birding the lushly vegetated Living Desert Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Palm Desert, the day before the Audubon trip. We spent five blissful hours watching verdins and hummingbirds (Black-chinned and Costas, Annas and Selasphorus), linnets, lesser goldfinch, cactus wrens and Coops, while learning the names of various xeric-adapted botanical wonders from CA and Mexico (or really, just Mexico, depending on how far back ya wanna go in history), like the way-cool Boojum tree from Baja and lotsa different palms and seventy species of agave!!!
It was blissful botanical overload and plenty of birds to boot (not that you would want to boot any birds, mind you). We even got to see some life-mammals, like the Mexican Wolf and Fennec Foxes with their crazy long ears. Although like most of us, I have "issues" with captive animals, this Zoo is part of several reintroduction programs, from Big Horns to Mexican wolves.
We even saw my very first example ever of the Thick-Billed Parrot, our only former United States native parrot species. A beautiful bird, driven off from its former U.S. habitats, and also declining in its current Mexican range. Get it while you can; I fear that handwriting is on the wall.
Best of show for our entire trip were a couple of fringe-toed lizards in a sugar-sand wash environment, pale and beautiful, with a pink wash across their belly, standing on tip-toes, and with black and white banded undersides to their tails. When one was ready to move, it curled its tail over its back, stood up on its hind legs and ZIP! it was gone! Their flattened faces allow them to dive into the sand and bury themselves in the blink of an eye. Very impressive beasts.
Thanks to Rusty for showing us such wonderful habitats for birds and other wildlife in our marvelous S. California deserts. We will be back!