Greater Roadrunner Joshua Tree National Park

This desert icon at the Joshua Tree visitor’s center delighted the family

Beauty, peacefulness, and a few birds

Over the Thanksgiving break, we took a weekend trip to Yucca Valley, near Joshua Tree National Park. My parents were in town, and they hadn’t been to Joshua Tree in 50 years. November is a great time to enjoy the desert, and the boys love to scramble on the granite rock formations, so we snagged an airbnb and took the drive. We stopped at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which was shockingly disappointing on the birding front. With all its trees and bushes, it’s usually a pretty productive place. But we struggled to stir up much of anything. Dad got an Oak Titmouse lifer, but there was little else moving around. Maybe the recently spotted bear in the area had the birds in hiding (no kidding).

Cactus Wren Joshua Tree National Park

Campground Cactus Wrens are not shy

Joshua Tree National Park proved better, bird-wise, which is an unusual thing to say. The desert is beautiful and peaceful and wonderful in 70 degree weather, but it’s never hopping with bird activity. A visit to Black Rock campground produced a couple dozen scrub jays, some Black-throated Sparrow, a couple Bell’s Sparrows, and some sharp Cactus Wrens around a water-drip. Inside the park proper, we had a nice encounter with a male Phainopepla (another lifer for Dad). It was calling, and moving about, while we sat on the rocks and ate snacks. The visitor center provided a close-up view of a female Costa’s Hummingbird, and a fun encounter with a Greater Roadrunner in the parking lot. My mom, my wife, and my sons had never seen one before, and it posed for a minute or so, slowly bobbing its tail and occasionally raising its crest. Such cool birds. 

Our airbnb was just outside the park in Yucca Valley, a couple of miles from the highway. Cool, quiet evenings provided stunning sunsets and a star-filled sky. During a couple strolls around the neighborhood, I saw Gambel’s Quail, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the best bird of the trip: an out-of-season Scott’s Oriole.

Enjoying My Dad’s Enthusiasm

Of the many reasons I enjoy birding with my Dad, seeing his enthusiasm and optimism is near the top. He wants to see all the birds, and take photos of all the birds, and learn their names and something about their behaviors, and figure out how to identify them. Whereas I’ll stand in a spot and quickly get the sense that there’s nothing but White-crowned Sparrows and Scrub Jays around (and the odds say I’m right), he’ll eagerly pursue every flash of movement he sees, wondering what possible lifer just flashed into a bush in his peripheral vision. In the end, maybe he just finds another White-crowned Sparrow or Scrub Jay. But that approach–to bird every bird–is one that can be easy to leave behind the more time you get in the field. And that’s a shame when it happens. The wonder of birding we all felt early on, when every possible movement and sound was some field guide drawing come to life, is something we shouldn’t put behind us.


I reminded myself of the point of it all the other day, when my Dad and I were standing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh at dusk crossing our fingers that a Short-eared Owl that had been spotted the day before was still around. Another birder joined us, and lamented that his camera wasn’t good at low light pictures. “It’s not about the photo,” I said. “We’re here because we want to see an owl. ” As human nature and obsessive compulsiveness and eBird lure us into counting everything, documenting it with tack-sharp close-up photographs, and valuing a sighting most of all because it is a new one for our (fill-in-the-blank) list, it’s important to remember that we’re out in the field with our binoculars because, more than anything, we want to get eyes on that bird that just flew into the bush, and if we’re lucky, see an owl fly around.