Big Morongo, located in the Little San Bernardino Mountains about 20 miles north of Palm Springs is one of the largest desert oases in California. It is located adjacent to the town of Morongo Valley, the first of the gateway towns to Joshua Tree National Monument along Hwy. 62. The habitat consists of riparian woodland and freshwater marsh habitat along perennial streams within the canyon bottom; a broad large alkali meadow (a portion of which is used as athletic fields) surrounded by riparian thickets and microphyll woodland; and dry, desert scrub-covered hillsides. The BLM manages much of the canyon as the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (formerly The Nature Conservancy), though a significant amount of habitat (160 acres, incl. most of the alkali meadow) is located on lands owned by San Bernardino Co. and managed with a Memorandum of Understanding with the BLM. The entire area is currently managed for biodiversity, and aside from tiny Covington Park's five acres of county land, human use is limited to foot traffic along a boardwalk and trail system that winds through the preserve. South of here, the area's creeks converge and enter a steep-walled canyon with a narrow band of riparian vegetation decidedly less attractive to birds, finally emerging in the lower Colorado Desert west of Desert Hot Springs.
Avian use of the IBA is remarkable, and has been well-known to ornithologists for decades. Its breeding bird community is unique and exceptionally rich, with over 70 nesting species documented from just a few hundred acres of habitat. Long-term research into the breeding bird diversity, mainly by Gene Cardiff of the San Bernardino Co. Museum of Natural History, has estimated densities of more than 1400 territories per square kilometer, one of the densest concentrations in North America. It currently boasts one of the largest populations of Brown-crested Flycatchers and Summer Tanagers in the state. The Bell's Vireos breeding here appear the coastal Least Bell's Vireo (breeding in mesquite bosques), one of just a handful of desert outposts for this race. Long-eared Owl maintains a small breeding population within the willow forest, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo has graced the IBA several times in recent summers, suggesting it may be at least prospecting for breeding locations. Other riparian obligates such as Yellow-breasted Chat nest in strong numbers both at the preserve and at Covington Park, with Vermilion Flycatchers nearly restricted to the latter site. This region (western Little San Bernardino Mtns.) appears to be a contact zone between desert and coastal species (e.g. Ladder-backed and Nuttall's Woodpecker). During spring, songbirds migrating north through the state from the Colorado Desert stop here in huge numbers, particularly in late April, when there can be hundreds of flycatchers, warblers, tanagers and orioles at the oasis. Fall migration is more subdued, but can be impressive in September.
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The fact that much of the most important bird habitat within this IBA is not protected by the preserve but is in fact county-owned presents a strong argument for constant vigilance at the site. Recent proposals by San Bernardino Co. include the construction of a campground with concessions at the entrance to the preserve (RK). The growth of the surrounding desert communities within the Morongo Basin represent another concern to the water supply, the lifeblood of the preserve, which is otherwise well managed and carefully maintained (most of the canyon bottom protected by the BLM as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern"). Cowbird parasitism exists, but its impacts are not quantitatively known. A fire in the early 1990s burned much of the riparian forest (including many mature cottonwoods), but this has regenerated well.
The BLM manages much of the canyon as the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (formerly The Nature Conservancy), though a significant amount of habitat (160 acres, incl. most of the alkali meadow) is located on lands owned by San Bernardino Co. and managed with a Memorandum of Understanding with the BLM.
The habitat consists of riparian woodland and freshwater marsh habitat along perennial streams within the canyon bottom; a broad large alkali meadow (a portion of which is used as athletic fields) surrounded by riparian thickets and microphyll woodland; and dry, desert scrub-covered hillsides.