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Monumental Birdwatching in the California Desert

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Vermilion flycatcher | Photo: Daniel Petterssonsome rights reserved 

For the past eight years I’ve lived in a four-stoplight town that is a gateway to Joshua Tree National Park. I moved to Joshua Tree after living in the crowded greater Los Angeles area, where I taught elementary school, had a freelance writing business and moonlighted as a board member for the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.

The transition from city lights to quiet nights was a great one. Rows of empty parking spaces beckoned me at the supermarket. I began to know my neighbors really well - for better or for worse. At night, from my backyard, I gazed up at millions of stars and the hazy white light of the Milky Way. Best of all, there were millions of acres of mountains, washes, canyons and oases on public land in every direction… and many, many birds!

This year, thanks to President Obama, Senator Feinstein and the work of many tireless advocates, people around our nation have something to celebrate: The creation of the Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains National Monuments. These new monuments connect and protect 1.8 million acres of California desert ecosystems, preserve historical and cultural sites, and enhance opportunities for recreation... including some of the best birding in California.

The road to protecting these special places has been long and winding, but the effort really grew out of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act, later called the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act. This bill addressed significant threats to public lands in the California desert, including inappropriately sited utility-scale wind and solar projects that were sometimes proposed in ecologically sensitive locations or adjacent to national park units.

Feinstein’s legislation would have added lands to our national parks, created wilderness and Wild and Scenic River segments and designated two new national monuments. Despite broad support, it did not move through a conflicted Congress.

In 2015, Feinstein requested that President Obama use the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the President the authority to designate federal land with objects of scientific and historical interest as protected national monuments. In February 2016, Obama created the three new desert monuments which benefit desert ecosystems, recreationists and the tourism economy.

Big Morongo Canyon in the Sand to Snow National Monument | Photo: J. Maughn, some rights reserved

Sand to Snow

The Sand to Snow National Monument covers more than 150,000 acres, and is managed cooperatively by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Contained within its boundaries are diverse botanical specimens, the Whitewater River and a 23-mile stretch of the much-beloved Pacific Crest Trail. Sand to Snow connects the low elevation oasis at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve with the snow-capped peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains to the west and Joshua Tree National Park to the east. The slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains rise dramatically from the floor of the Colorado Desert up to Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California's tallest peak.

I became enchanted with Big Morongo Canyon Preserve back when I was a teacher in Los Angeles and would come out to the desert on long weekends to camp, hike and watch birds. If water is the liquid gold of the desert, then Big Morongo Canyon may qualify as Fort Knox. In the shadow of large cottonwoods, red willows and native desert fan palm, you’ll find glistening water burbling to the surface underneath some stretches of the Preserve’s accessible boardwalk. If you are really lucky and your timing is right, you may see a delicate rosy hued stream orchid poking out of the ground.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The Preserve is designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) and has over 250 species that come to enjoy the water, food and shelter that are provided in this desert oasis. In fact, Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is one of the ten largest willow and cottonwood riparian areas in the whole state. As one biologist I know says, if you were a bird migrating across the grey and brown expanse of the California desert, this patch of verdant green would draw you like spring break road tripping college students are drawn to fast food joints! Also important for birds is adjacent Covington Park, which is managed by San Bernardino County, and which has amazing bird habitat for a wide variety of species.

On this particular spring day, I patrol the fence line along the western edge of the Preserve, fueled by morning coffee. Western kingbirds chatter and flutter in and around the mesquite bushes. Crossing into Covington Park I spy a vermilion flycatcher sitting on the fence surrounding the tennis court. A hooded oriole sounds the alarm call as I approach an enormous cottonwood tree that stretches towards the sky, and a male American kestrel watches over children playing on the jungle gym, as if to make sure everybody is behaving.

Doubling back and heading into the Preserve along the Canyon Trail, I flush a Cooper’s hawk looking for breakfast and then catch a glimpse of a summer tanager darting through the vegetation. Later, I head down canyon and manage to get a glimpse of a common yellowthroat peeking out from behind some willows.

It’s here that I first hear the yellow breasted chat, which gives a series of “Chuck, chucks” and clear whistles. I’ve seen and heard this large warbler many times, but not usually for more than a short amount of time before it dives into the trees. This time, the chat perches atop a tall snag in full morning light for over five minutes, as if on display at a museum.

Afton Canyon in Mojave Trails National Monument | Photo: Michael Dorausch, some rights reserved

Mojave Trails

The Mojave Trails National Monument is managed solely by the Bureau of Land Management. Mojave Trails’ 1.6 million acres stretch from just west of the Mojave National Preserve all the way to the Colorado River. The new monument serves as the connective tissue for wildlife linking Mojave National Preserve to Joshua Tree National Park. Within the boundaries of Mojave Trails are sensitive wildlife, spectacular desert vistas, fragile archeological and cultural sites and the longest undeveloped stretch of historic Route 66, which American writer John Steinbeck called “The Mother Road.” Mojave Trails also has incredible volcanic formations at Amboy Crater, rare fossil beds in the Marble Mountains and a spectacular desert riparian corridor at Afton Canyon.

Afton Canyon is one of the few places where the Mojave River runs above ground year-round. It's known as the Grand Canyon of the Mojave for its steep, spectacular cliffs. A handsome silver train trestle runs across the Mojave River and punctuates the landscape as the canyon comes into view.

More than 180 migrating and resident bird species can be found here including herons, egrets, the vermilion flycatcher and summer tanager, and other songbirds. The ladder-backed woodpecker and northern flicker also make their presence known. During some seasons, raptors such as merlins, Swainson’s hawks, golden eagles and even ospreys soar in the skies above Afton Canyon.

Afton Canyon is a good spot to see raptors such as this Swainson's hawk during migration season. | Photo: USFWS

My girlfriend Sandy joins me at Afton Canyon where we wind our way through willow, arrow-weed, saltbush and cottonwoods. She often says she’s a beginning birder, but what that usually means is she’s the first to see important wildlife. A western wood peewee sits atop a cottonwood snag calling “bree, bree” and a common yellowthroat darts in and out of the reeds. We approach two water filled tire tracks that reveal a different sort of surprise: an adorable black-masked bandit called the Baja California tree frog and red spotted toads that leap out of our way. On the way back to our car, red and yellow dragonflies course through the air and a zebra-tailed lizard runs through the sand on its hind legs.

The Castle Mountains | Photo: Chris Clarke

Castle Mountains

Castle Mountains National Monument is just over 20,000 acres, surrounded on three sides by the Mojave National Preserve with the Nevada border on the fourth side. It is managed by the National Park Service and is the NPS’ 410th unit nationwide. Golden eagles, prairie falcons and American kestrels soar in the skies above this new national monument. It protects some of the finest Joshua tree, piñon pine, and juniper forests in the entire California desert and has breathtaking views of California and Nevada desert mountain ranges.

I can think of many glorious places to wake up in the morning: alpine meadows, sandy beaches and remote desert canyons. Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino in Primm, Nevada is definitely not one of them. There’s only one reason I’m waking up in this casino: it’s not too far from the new Castle Mountains National Monument and a hectic work week made the thought of organizing camping equipment unpalatable.

I drive along the north edge of the Mojave National Preserve and pass through the small hamlet of Nipton heading towards the Nevada border. Turning right onto Box Canyon Road, I’m getting close to the new monument.

The historic Walking Box Ranch appears on my left, the refuge of Rex and Clara Bell, silent film stars who decided to escape the bright lights and big city from time to time. Gazing into Nevada is the white peak of Spirit Mountain, a sacred site for numerous southwestern Native American tribes.

The road becomes bumpy as I enter the new monument and Hart Peak, as well as the Castle Peaks, tower above the valley floor. The giant Joshua tree forest spreads across the valley interspersed with native bunch grasses and yucca.

There’s a light breeze as I pull over, grab my binoculars and begin watching a serpentine sandy wash below the road. The sun is setting and there’s a golden glow on the Joshua trees, desert almond, desert willow and catclaw acacia that line the wash. Along the slope of the wash is a magnificent pinkish-purple blooming beavertail cactus and creosote bush embossed with countless yellow flowers.

Crissal thrasher | Photo: J.N. Stuart, some rights reserved

The wash comes to life as the sun sinks lower. A pair of black tailed gnatcatchers scold me and a kingbird flutters between the branches of a desert willow. A Crissal thrasher skulks beneath the catclaw acacia and an ash throated flycatcher makes repeated forays into the darkening sky to capture small bugs. All of a sudden, a Cooper’s hawk dives into the wash and birds scatter in every direction.

There’s much to explore in the California desert and these three new monuments have a great deal to offer bird watchers, campers and hikers. So come to the desert, soak up the stunning vistas, view birds and enjoy the wonder of nature.

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