In September of 1999, Tom and I had a wedding to attend at Big Bear in southern California. We decided to go a day early and investigate a couple of places for wildlife. I had been to Big Morongo once before and been very impressed, and I was also curious about Joshua Tree National Monument.
We arrived at LAX in the afternoon and headed east to a mall to pick up Tom's tux. (He was one of the groomsmen.) Afterwards, we continued to Palm Springs, and headed to a motel just north of Big Morongo. The next morning, I got up at the crack of dawn, and headed to the refuge. It was closed, of course, and the gates locked. I decided to continue on the highway, and see if I couldn't find a backroad and scare up some desert wildlife.
I didn't scare up anything but a jackrabbit, but I returned to the refuge and took a hike around the scrubby lowland area. As in my previous experience there, the birding was incredible. There were California Thrashers, Verdins, Costa's Hummingbirds, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, all sorts of warblers, vireos, and sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Black Phoebes, and a Red-shouldered Hawk.
Afterwards, I met up with Tom for breakfast and we headed up to Joshua Tree National Monument. The scenery there was very impressive, and the weather was perfect: clear and sunny. We drove up to a viewpoint and in spite of the distant smog, we were able to see the Salton Sea in the distance. The only birdlife, though, was a Black-throated Sparrow near the parking lot, and other than that, there were a lot of lizards sunning themselves on the rocks.
We decided to take a hike to an old mine. The trail was clearly marked, yet we managed to get lost. We finally turned around, but now we couldn't even find the trail we had come on, and ended up squeezing through a narrow, rocky canyon. That was pretty good luck birding-wise. In addition to seeing some beautiful Swallowtail butterflies, I found a Scott's Oriole, a Dusky Flycatcher, a Yellow Warbler, Rock and Canyon Wrens and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. That was a pretty nice detour!
As we were driving out of the park, we noticed a rather well-fed Coyote walking along the road, and then another one in the scrub. They seemed a little plump for your average wild animal.
We finally had to head up to Big Bear to check in to our hotel for the wedding. The next morning, I was awake at 5am as always, and couldn't resist taking the car out to go find some birds. I had some great luck. At the north end of the valley, there was a dry lake bed that was full of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. At the south end, there was dry pine habitat with Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches and Purple Finches. There were bluebird nestboxes by an airfield, where I spotted several Western Bluebirds and a Mountain Bluebird. In the lake, I also found a family of Wood Ducks.
That night, the other (mostly LA-based guests) were utterly amazed that we had come to southern California a day early, and had gone to see... the desert. People tend not to appreciate the wonders in their own backyard!