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Field Trips of Yore: Black Rock Campground & Morongo Valley Preserve Trip Report: 2-3 May, 2015

May 9, 2020

Editor’s Note: We’ve cancelled the May 9-10 field trip to Black Rock and Morongo Valley due to novel coronavirus sequestering. This trip report is a reminder of what we’re missing. Lots of photos in the slideshow on the blog!

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We weren’t even out of our campervan before California Thrashers, Gambel’s Quail and Western Scrub-Jays came by to (maybe) check us out. Colorful lizards sunned themselves in the cactus garden. Unlike the movie, it would be a good day at Black Rock.

Cactus Wrens sound like a birthday party toy (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Black Rock)

Cactus Wrens sound like a birthday party toy (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Black Rock)

A few years ago we broke this trip into two parts: Saturday afternoon at Black Rock Campground; Sunday morning at Morongo Valley Preserve & adjacent Covington Park.

Speckled Lizard - Black Rock (R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Speckled Lizard – Black Rock
(R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Late afternoon, after the heat of the day, when birds begin rousing themselves for a final burst of feeding, is a good time for Black Rock. Many birders had already taken to moteling Saturday night in Yucca Valley, close to the campground five miles south into northwestern Joshua Tree Nat. Park. The best time to see Piñon Jays is shortly before sunset, when they fly up and downslope above the campground. Other birds are always around the campground, but – as do most birds everywhere – they make themselves scarce mid-day.

Males Gambel's Quail, a desert bird, watches for his mate (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Black Rock)

Males Gambel’s Quail, a desert bird, watches for his mate (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Black Rock)

We found most of the Black Rock specialties: Gambel’s Quail came to water drips and called from the Joshua Treetops, the increasingly more common White-winged Dove, several hummingbirds worked the bushes and ephemeral flowers, Ladderbacked Woodpeckers drilled the Joshuas, the aforementioned Piñon Jay, Verdin with faces the color of yellow mesquite flowers, the squat-jumping Rock Wren and the cranky Cactus Wren, desert early-nesting Phainopeplas, the Black-throated Sparrow who never drinks water, and the lovely-to-see-and-hear Scott’s Oriole. Perhaps the most uncommon sightings were several Chuckwalla lizards warming on rock tops, and a large

Rattlesnake, either Western or Red - Black Rock (R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Rattlesnake, either Western or Red – Black Rock (R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Diamondback Rattlesnake (either Western or Red) near the front door of the ranger station. His rattles had broken off. Mary, temporarily alone, saw a Roadrunner the rest of

Black Rock campground - no wind, tents still in place (R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Black Rock campground – no wind, tents still in place
(R. Seidner 5/2/15)

us missed. We then went off to dinner at La Casita in Yucca Valley, a good Mexican restaurant. Those of us camping returned, stuffed to the gills, to Black Rock and waited for the wind to rise. Infamous for its winds – we call it Windy Ridge – people have seen their unpegged tents sail away into yucca-strewn gullies, or been rocked to sleep – or into terror – by a wind-wobbled campervan.

Next morning, on the way from our Black Rock campsite to Morongo Valley, we spotted two Roadrunners, one road-crossing as we coasted down the long road back to the highway, and one crossing the highway itself, right in the middle of town. I almost forgot: Lillian and I witnessed a 6:05am flyover of 60-100 Piñon Jays, heading down-canyon directly above our campsite, each one calling in their peculiar quail-like purr.

Morongo Valley Preserve was moderately birdy and – for a change – neither windy nor unbearably hot. Warblers were few: we did see six of the eleven western warbler species, but 95% of them were Wilson’s Warblers.

Male Summer Tanater at the seed feeder (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Male Summer Tanager at the seed feeder
(D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Summer Tanagers have apparently already paired up; we first spotted them whizzing back and forth, and later at the seed feeder by the warden’s house. Brown-crested Flycatchers were very vocal, as were Yellow-breasted Chats, and we heard them singing and calling over and over before we finally spotted either species. At least one pair of Vermillion Flycatcher were in Covington Park, and we saw a female sitting on her nest near the tennis court, her mate busily bringing her flies.

Male woodpecker, probably a Nuttall's - Ladderbacked hybrid - misshapen black on shoulder (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Male woodpecker, probably a Nuttall’s – Ladderbacked hybrid – misshapen black on shoulder (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Nearby, birds, including Lawrence’s Goldfinches, were coming to the small water drip someone had set up. White-winged Doves were frequently seen; a few years back we had to diligently search for this species, often missing it, but now they seem widespread. At the seed feeders we could admire their blue orbital ring.

Morongo Valley is one of the few areas where the ranges of the Nuttall’s and Ladderbacked Woodpeckers overlap, and they do interbreed. Of the photos taken, none are clearly one or the other species. Check the three photos for some of the annoying details.

This female woodpecker might actually be a hybrid - buffy lores with otherwise Nuttall's appearance (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

This female woodpecker might actually be a hybrid – buffy lores with otherwise Nuttall’s appearance (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Female woodpecker belly seems too white to be pure Ladderbacked (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Female woodpecker belly seems too white to be pure Ladderbacked
(D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

All told, we had 66 species in two days, down from 2013’s 76 species (see list below). A lot depends on which winds the birds encounter as they move north from the brushy shore of the Salton Sea. A good tail wind and they sail right on by, high over the hills. A stiff head wind like the screamers that frequently come through San Gorgonio Pass, and they are forced to stay low and slow, moving up through Big Morongo Canyon to rest and refuel at the Preserve.

Brown-crested Flycatcher (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo)

Brown-crested Flycatcher (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo)

Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers both nest at the preserve. Very similar in appearance, even the thinner bill of the Ash-throated can be mistaken by some (moi!) for the chunkier bill of the Brown-crested. Fortunately, the latter bird has a much more liquid Whit! call and rolly song than the former. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one sing. [Added Note: The fact that this photo was captioned “Ash-throated Flycatcher” in the original email demonstrates how easily they’re confused.]   [Chuck Almdale]

The uncommon male Lawrence's Goldfinch (D. Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

The uncommon male Lawrence’s Goldfinch
(Dennis Erwin 5/3/15 Morongo Valley)

Many thanks to Dennis Erwin and Roxie Seidner for all the great photographs!

Black Rock & Morongo Valley
Codes: B – Black Rock Campground
   M – Morongo Valley Preserve & Covington Park
   H – Heard Only
Species List 5/2-3/15 5/4-5/13
Gambel’s Quail MB MB
Green Heron M
Turkey Vulture MB M
Cooper’s Hawk M M
Red-tailed Hawk M
Virginia Rail M-H M-H
Rock Pigeon MB MB
Eurasian Collared-Dove MB M
White-winged Dove MB MB
Mourning Dove MB MB
Greater Roadrunner B
White-throated Swift M
Black-chinned Hummingbird MB MB
Anna’s Hummingbird MB MB
Costa’s Hummingbird MB MB
Allen’s Hummingbird M
Calliope Hummingbird M
Ladder-backed Woodpecker MB MB
Nuttall’s Woodpecker M M
American Kestrel M B
Olive-sided Flycatcher M
Western Wood-Pewee MB MB
Willow Flycatcher M
Pacific-slope Flycatcher M M
Black Phoebe MB MB
Say’s Phoebe B
Vermilion Flycatcher M M
Ash-throated Flycatcher MB B
Brown-crested Flycatcher M M
Cassin’s Kingbird M MB
Western Kingbird  M MB
Loggerhead Shrike M
Bell’s Vireo M M
Cassin’s Vireo M M
Warbling Vireo M M
Pinyon Jay B B
Western Scrub-Jay MB MB
Common Raven MB MB
Mountain Chickadee M
Oak Titmouse MB M
Verdin MB
Bushtit M M
Rock Wren B
House Wren M M
Bewick’s Wren MB MB
Cactus Wren B B
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher M
Western Bluebird MB MB
Townsend’s Solitaire M
Swainson’s Thrush M
Hermit Thrush M
California Thrasher MB MB
Northern Mockingbird B B
European Starling MB MB
Phainopepla MB MB
Orange-crowned Warbler M M
Nashville Warbler M
Common Yellowthroat M M
Yellow Warbler MB M
Yellow-rumped Warbler MB M
Black-throated Gray Warbler M
Townsend’s Warbler M
Hermit Warbler M
Wilson’s Warbler MB MB
Yellow-breasted Chat M M
Spotted Towhee MB
California Towhee MB MB
Brewer’s Sparrow B
Black-throated Sparrow B
Song Sparrow M M
Summer Tanager M M
Western Tanager M M
Black-headed Grosbeak M M
Blue Grosbeak M
Lazuli Bunting M
Great-tailed Grackle M
Brown-headed Cowbird M M
Hooded Oriole M M
Bullock’s Oriole M M
Scott’s Oriole B B
House Finch MB MB
Pine Siskin M
Lesser Goldfinch M MB
Lawrence’s Goldfinch M M
House Sparrow MB MB
Total Species – 85
66 76

 

Chuck checks Cactus Wren nest to see if anyone home - Black Rock (R. Seidner 5/2/15)

Just before the horribly disfiguring accident, Chuck checks a Cactus Wren nest in a cholla to see if anyone is home (R. Seidner 5/2/15 Black Rock)

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