Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Birds of the Desert: Residents & Spring Migrants

Nearly everyone knows the desert as a barren, desolate land of extremes: high heat, low precipitation; little available food and water; prickly, spiny, unfriendly plants growing in a sea of rocks and sand as far as the eye can see.  But for those who stop and look closer, the desert reveals itself as the beautiful, incredible, mesmerizing place it truly is, teeming with unexpected life.

Juvenile male Costa's Hummingbird visiting chuparosa blooms next to our campsite in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I particularly love the desert in the spring, when the annual wildflowers, cacti, flowering trees and shrubs are all in bloom.  (I've experienced the desert in the searing 120 degree heat of summer, and the rainy, even snowy cold of winter... and spring wins every time!)  Eric and I just returned from a week in the Colorado desert, exploring the imperiled, accidental Salton Sea (more on that coming soon), the vital wetlands of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, and the desert washes, badlands, canyons and palm oases of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

To describe all of this in one word?  Beauty.  Absolute beauty, everywhere we looked.  Many people don't see the appeal of the desert (or understand my fascination with it), speeding through in air conditioned vehicles as most tend to do.  And even I must admit that from the highway, miles of sand and spindly creosote bush doesn't look like much to entice visitors. 

But after a night under the stars and waking to a desert sunrise, you might begin to think differently.  And after putting boots to earth and hiking into the desert wilderness to get up close with wildflowers of every description, prehistoric-looking chuckwallas, and more hummingbirds than you can count, I assure you, the desert will absolutely come alive!

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

When one thinks of wildlife in the desert, I imagine what comes to mind for most people are the reptiles - the snakes, lizards and tortoises that are perfectly at home in arid environments.  And it's true that the deserts of California hold the greatest number of reptile species in the state.  What is perhaps surprising, though, is the number of bird species that also call the desert home.

The low-elevation Colorado desert is home to such intriguing species as the Cactus Wren, which builds its nest in the protective spiny arms of cholla cacti, and Greater Roadrunners, which prey almost entirely on lizards and snakes. 

Cactus Wren

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are also true desert denizens, living year-round in dry washes and areas of desert scrub.  The territory of one individual included the indigo bush behind our tent, so the chatter of the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher formed a happy soundtrack to our week!  While several hummingbird species migrate through the desert, the dazzling Costa's Hummingbird stays year-round.

Male Costa's Hummingbird

The lively little Verdin is another true resident of deserts, a diminutive species you are likely to both see and hear while hiking through washes of mesquite and palo verde.  Verdins seem to get all the water they need from the insects they eat, and have reportedly never been seen drinking.  I did watch several Verdins eating palo verde blossoms and/or nectar, though!


In the Colorado Desert, Gambel's Quail and Abert's Towhee replace California Quail and California Towhee; Ladder-backed Woodpeckers replace Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Crissal Thrashers replace California Thrashers.

Gambel's Quail

Colorful White-winged Doves and small Common Ground Doves cohabitate with the more familiar Mourning Dove, and the recently introduced (and much larger) Eurasian Collared Dove.

White-winged Dove

Common Ground Dove

Phainopeplas and Hooded Orioles are typical desert species, though both of these birds can also be found in Northern California as well.  While hiking up Borrego Palm Canyon, I spotted a few clumps of desert mistletoe in some catclaw acacia trees growing along the wash.  I commented to Eric that this would be the place to see Phainopeplas, since they love mistletoe berries, and just as the words were coming out of my mouth, a gorgeous male flew into a nearby tree and perched.  This illustrates just how closely some birds are associated with certain plants!


Brewer's Sparrows and Black-throated Sparrows are two little brown jobs likely to be encountered year-round in the desert, though other species, like the common White-crowned Sparrow, behave like true snowbirds and spend winters in the desert.

Brewer's Sparrow, taking shelter from the heat in a creosote bush

While Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls make their home and breed in the desert, a few Long-eared Owls spend the winter here.  Any encounter with an owl is special, and we were lucky enough to spot this roosting Long-eared Owl napping quietly in a grove of introduced Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) trees.

Long-eared Owl

In addition to the birds that make their living in the desert year-round, a large number of species pass through during the spring and fall migrations.  Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, goldfinches, Western Tanagers, Lazuli Buntings and several hummingbirds species are common spring migrants through the desert, often encountered near palm oases and washes with lush vegetation.  (I saw several Nashville Warblers, a beautiful Warbling Vireo, a couple of flycatchers - Gray and Hammond's - and Black-chinned Hummingbirds!) 

Warbling Vireo

What may be inhospitable to migrant birds during the summer months becomes a vital stopover and refueling ground during the spring, after winter rains have brought plants (and insects) to life.

Like so many things, the desert is much more than it seems.  It is not, in fact, a barren wasteland, by any stretch.  It is a delicately balanced ecosystem filled with amazingly well-adapted species of plants and animals that live on the edge of extremes, perfectly in tune with the seasonal rhythms of life.  Hopefully this very brief overview of the desert's rich birdlife begins to illustrate the great value of this bioregion - and encourages you to first explore and discover, then come to know and love, and finally appreciate and advocate for our deserts! 

"I want YOU to help protect my home!"
- Mrs. Costa

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