Journey Through Coyote Canyon
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Wildlife Viewing
By Joanie Stadtherr Cahill
From top to bottom, Coyote Canyon contains a diversity of life forms unequaled anywhere else in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Eighteen miles long, the canyon stretches between Riverside and San Diego counties. Reaching elevations of 3,900 feet in the north, where rainfall is likely to be 3.5 inches or more, the canyon descends to the desert floor at only 650 feet above sea level. Last year's rainfall here amounted to a mere 2.53 inches. Because it is one of the few places in the desert with a stream that runs year round, it is a mecca for wildlife.
What makes Coyote Canyon so valuable and precious? The answer lies in its diversity. Five separate areas of Coyote canyon have been identified as "sensitive habitats" -- areas protected for their biological diversity. Diversity is the cornerstone of healthy and productive habitat, and healthy habitats build a healthy ecosystem for us to live in. Each of these areas is home to a unique variety of life forms, many found few other places on earth. Follow along on a journey through this unique and sensitive portion of the park.
Hiking from the top of the canyon down, we might first pause at Upper Willows or Horse Canyon. The thickets of cottonwood and desert willow trees along the creek are home to streamside nesting birds like the least Bell's vireo and the yellow-breasted chat. Birds like the Bell's vireo are endangered because every time people move into an area, streams seem to disappear. For ever ten streams that existed the southwest before European settlement, only one remains!
Among the trees, hummingbirds flit from blossom to blossom seeking nectar and gorging themselves on the abundance of insects in the area. The water and air dwelling insects provide food for the birds as well as the amphibians and reptiles who come to the water's edge to feed. Frogs and toads are abundant in the untrammeled waterway, while predators like snakes and lizards lurk nearby.
Continuing downward, along the forty miles of hiking trails that exist in the canyon, our next stop will be in a small grove of California fan palms. This is the only palm tree native to California, and it can be found only in small pockets where water is available to its roots all year. We can rest in the shade of this beautiful oasis, and watch for the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep that come here to drink.
In the evening, yellow bats are plentiful here since they are totally dependent upon fan palms for their food and shelter. For the yellow bat, not other tree will do. Hooded orioles also make use of the palm, weaving their intricate nests from the fibers of the fronds. The badgers and bobcats are less choosy about their living areas, but also find the palm grove a good place to call home, feeding on the small mammals that live in the thick frond skirts of the older trees.
As we near the bottom of the canyon, we come upon the mesquite thickets of Lower Willows. Here dozens of mesquite trees mingle with the willows, offering tons of seed pods each year for the sustenance of life, both animal and human. Rodents feast on the fallen seeds while Peninsular bighorn sheep, coyote, and mule deer come to browse. The black and white phainopepla is king of this forest by day, but the ountain lion reigns at night.
Coyote Canyon's streamside has yielded over 85 archaeological sites, as the early people depended upon this perennial stream as much as the wildlife do now. The Cahuilla ate the mesquite seeds as their main staple, making them into cakes, breads and porridges. Evidence of numerous village sites, historic structures, rock art and sweat lodges has been found throughout the canyon.
Coyote Canyon is a special place for the animals that live there and the humans who visit. It holds secrets of our past and perhaps keys to our future. Keeping it healthy and diverse is our challenge here at the state park, and your challenge as a visitor and citizen of California. Recently, a three mile section of the canyon was closed to motor vehicles to protect these precious and important plant and animal species. By visiting the canyon on foot, on bike, or by horse, you are saving the creekbed from the treads of about 7,200 tires this year!
Take a walk this year, in the wilderness of Coyote Canyon. Pass along the same trail that Juan Bautista de Anza walked in 1774. See for yourself why this canyon accounts for nearly one fourth of all the land designated as state wilderness in California. Enjoy its beauty, learn its secrets. The diversity of life here is like no other place on earth. With your help, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is committed to preserving that diversity for the future.
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