It Was Truly Spring in the Desert

Blythe and Fianna at Big Morongo Canyon, a spring migration hotspot.

“Hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.” The duetting of Great Horned Owls echoed through canyons of Hole-in-the-Wall campground, a beautiful greeting to the start of our adventure in the desert. Encouraged by the possibility of a desert super bloom and the excitement of spring migration, we planned a 10-day road trip to the southern part of California.

We began in Mojave National Preserve, then traveled to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and ended our trip in Palo Verde Ecological Reserve near Blythe. We birded, hiked, and camped in the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran deserts. Throughout the trip, we thought intentionally about how to be in good relations with the land and the places we visited. Highlight birds included Scott’s Oriole, Phainopepla nesting beside our tent, and Costa’s Hummingbirds at Anza-Borrego; Burrowing Owls and White-faced Ibis at the Salton Sea; and Lucy’s Warblers at Palo Verde.

Hellhole Canyon, a cool desert fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) oasis flourishing with life.

Mojave to Anza-Borrego

On the drive down from Mojave National Preserve, we made several stops. After an amazing morning at Big Morongo Canyon filled with kinglets, and a Plumbeous Vireo, we stopped for a refreshing mesquite shake at Temalpakh, an organic farm and farmstand run by the Augustine Band of the Cahuilla Indians. Continuing our drive, we noticed the desert becoming more arid and backdropped by snow-capped mountains. Joshua trees were replaced by blooming ocotillo as we got closer to Anza-Borrego.

Justicia californica was in full bloom to the delight of hummingbirds.


Camping for five nights in Anza-Borrego, we saw the desert awash in wildflowers. We hiked to two palm oases, one known as Hellhole Canyon. Hiking along a sandy wash dotted with poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma), beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), and monkey flowers (Mimulus bigelovii), we heard the distant and distinct sounds of gurgling water. Palms increased in number. The obvious trail became several, going in a multiplicity of directions. Which would lead us to the waterfall? House Finches’ rich, liquid song filled the air, occasionally joined by Hooded Orioles, striking orange against the green palm fronds.

The grape, mesquite, sycamore, and willow were just beginning to greet the spring with their new growth. As we walked, we wondered, “What were the stories behind each tree’s journey to arrive here? A bird? Other desert travelers?” After spending time feeling the refreshing mist of the waterfall, briefly joined by a bathing hummingbird, we began to hike back.

Emerging from the palm grove into the sandy wash, we heard a buzzy “gee gee.” A gnatcatcher! The tiny gray sprite flew across the trail right in front of us into a dense catclaw bush (Acacia greggii). Trying to get a better view and an ID, we shifted position and saw the little buddy deep in the bush near a clump of vegetation . . . oh, a nest! As the male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher departed, we saw the upright tail of the female sitting tight in the tiny cup nest. It truly was spring in the desert.

Several empty water bottles later, we paused to identify a Phacelia. We heard a distinct “zeeee,” the wing whirr of a hummingbird visiting the Justicia californica, a bush with brilliant red trumpet-shaped flowers. “See that tiny bird with a bright purple throat? That’s a Costa’s Hummingbird!” We shared the sighting with some fellow hikers. They were amazed.

Desert sunset, looking toward Borrego Springs.

We returned to camp. The day closed with the dusk songs of White-crowned Sparrows in the wash and the Milky Way draped across the sky.

Hearing the White-crowned Sparrows reminded us how much birds can tell us about season, geography, and habitat. We experienced this throughout the trip. Traveling grew our understanding of the complexity of desert ecosystems. We asked ourselves, “How can we intentionally be in good relations with the places we visit and travel through?” We practiced this though spending time picking up trash, learning about histories, and sharing joy in being outdoors.

We encourage any and all young birders to find ways to share their experiences with birds, whether in a backyard, on a trip to a favorite local spot, or on a longer trip! Stories are what connect us all, just as air currents do migratory birds.

—Blythe Wilde and Fianna Wilde


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  1. I felt like the comment about the backyard bird watcher was meant for me……such a very descriptive version of your adventure immerses the reader in the places you went and the things you saw……thankyou girls!!