Winter Observations at the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve

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By Russell Almaraz

Winter is the quiet season at the Preserve. However, the alert observer can catch a glimpse of the interesting and often subtle workings of nature. The winter solitude also provides an introspective setting to contemplate the unique environmental interrelationships that link the Preserve to the surrounding urban neighborhoods.

As the weather turns to a wintry cold in the Antelope Valley, the trees and desert shrubs cease growing. At first glance, nature appears to be entering a deep slumber. Deciduous trees, such as the Fremont cottonwood and willow loose their leaves, becoming bare and dormant. While appearing lifeless, these plants are developing the inner-workings of new buds that will burst open in late winter and spring as new leaves and flowers. A diverse variety of hawk and other raptor species are winter visitors to the Preserve, where they perch on the bare tree branches or soar and glide at varying altitudes to observe the goings-on below.

Some of the Preserves inhabitants are rarely seen in winter. Reptiles, such as the gopher snake and the desert night lizard hibernate under ground or in sheltered crannies during the coldest part of the winter. The reptiles use the warming temperatures, as an external heat source, for their bodies to break out of the slowed biological metabolism of winter’s hibernation.

The winter birdlife at the Preserve is full of activity as they feed on seeds, insects, and larger prey. Birds that are present at the Preserve this time of year are either migrating through the area or are winter or even year-around residents. Birds such as the Northern (red-shafted) flicker or Oregon junco migrate to the high desert from the colder and snowy mountain areas. Many of the birds flock together during the winter, which presents a treat to the senses as they swiftly dart about the vegetation, often in a noisily chirping manner. The Preserve also is a magnet (or a “buffet”) for hunting raptors due to the high population of small mammals, such as desert cottontail and California ground squirrel. A good place to observe them is at the large Fremont cottonwood on the south trail, where they often perch on the topmost branches.

Fall rains bring sprouts of green grass and annual plants that forms a short green carpet over the bare soil, lasting most of the winter. Their growth will cease with the increasing cold temperatures, and will resume vigorously with the warming spring and late winter temperatures, as if kept on hold. Stream flow, in the riparian areas of the Preserve, often occurs as rushing torrents after winter rains. This is due to high amounts of street runoff from adjacent neighborhoods. Since a large part of these urban areas are paved over with asphalt and cement, water cannot soak into the soil and large amounts of rainwater runoff flow through the streets. Much of the runoff water entering the Preserve is soaked up by the sandy soils and enters the ground water that is stored in aquifers deep beneath the soil’s surface. Thus, the soils of the Preserve act like a sponge, soaking up rainwater runoff rather than contributing to street flooding.

Due to the altering of the original natural stream channels by urban development outside of the Preserve, most of the stream channels you see today begin where streets are dead-ended along the Preserve’s south boundary. Even though most of the stream channels were altered by human activity, the Preserve’s riparian areas support a nearly natural ecosystem that is more similar to wild riparian areas than to an urban artificial channel. This is because much of the riparian vegetation is left to grow, serving as a natural filter of dingy street water and providing good habitat and food sources for wildlife. You may even see a great blue heron hunting in the cattails.

Maximum stream water level can be determined by an upper line of water deposited leaves or debris, called the high water mark. Since the stream channels that enter the Preserve, originate from the street gutter flow, the waters carry litter that was carelessly dropped on the streets and sidewalks outside the Preserve. You can therefore imagine how the neighborhoods outside the boundary fence and the ecology of the Preserve are ultimately inter-related in both negative and positive ways.


  • See if you can identify last season’s growth on the trees and shrubs. Hint: It will often be the new twig growth located at the tips of the thicker branches. Because of last season’s unusually high rainfall, about 18 inches, there was a lot of new growth added to the trees and shrubs. New growth on Joshua Trees is identified by the younger looking spiky leaves near the ends of the branches.
  • Observe and think about the environmental impacts that originate from outside of the Preserve. These can be both positive and negative impacts. For example: Look for fast food and snack wrappers accumulated in the stream channel areas. (By the way, the Preserve staff tries very hard at cleaning up this litter, by picking up the trash brought in after winter rainstorms, but the amount of litter sometimes overwhelms us). On a positive note, the Preserve’s porous soils acts like a sponge that soaks up the street runoff, thereby recharging the underground aquifer, which Lancaster uses as drinking water. Can you think of additional impacts that contribute to the interrelationships that link the Preserve with the surrounding neighborhoods?

And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use. And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried: "Look at this God-awful mess."

-Art Buchwald, 1970