Tag: Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree in November

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.  

Trip Report: Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park

Cactus Wren, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park

Cactus Wren, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park

Desert Birding at Joshua Tree National Park

A friend of ours reserved a couple of group camping spots at Indian Cove campground in Joshua Tree National Park and invited us to come along. Needing a little getaway from the continuing social restrictions, we eagerly accepted. That it would require driving through traffic to get there, and that it promised to be 99 degrees despite it being October, didn’t dissuade us.

Indian Cove is only three miles off the highway, but it’s not connected by road to the interior of the national park. We’ve camped here twice before. It’s a quiet spot with great rocks for scrambling. Conveniently, in the group camping area, those rocks provide a good deal of shade during the day. There’s no water in sight. And the bushes are devastatingly prickly. 

Indian Cove Campground

Indian Cove Campground

Like most water-free desert spots, there isn’t a lot of bird activity. The most common birds are Black-throated Sparrows. Their tinkling sounds are often coming from a nearby bush. Ravens roam the campground regularly. There’s a wash west of the campground with more vegetation, which I’ve found to be a good spot to find birds. During morning and late afternoon walks in the wash, I saw desert birds like Gambel’s Quail, Cactus Wren, and Verdin. Activity was otherwise pretty low. I didn’t make it over to Rattlesnake Canyon, which is a mile east of the campground. It’s also got a wash full of bushes and is probably the best bet for finding birds in the area.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Loggerhead Shrike Joshua Tree National Park

Loggerhead Shrike watches over the wash

One of the best parts of the trip was that it coincided with a full moon. About an hour after sunset, the moon started to rise in the east. By 9:30, it was incredibly bright out, with clear, dark shadows cast about. Without a need for headlamps, we went for a full moon hike. It was fantastic. The kids were scrambling all over the rocks like it was daytime. I didn’t see anything flying around, and wished I had an infrared camera to see where the birds were hiding during the night. If you’re good at planning, time a trip to Joshua Tree when there’s a full moon. It washes out the Milky Way (we did still see some shooting stars). But the splendor of the night walk is worth it.


Indian Cove Campground Joshua Tree National Park

Camping under a full moon

Full moon rising, Joshua Tree National Park