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Desert Life of Southern California

Updated on October 27, 2014
Palm Trees in the Anza-Borrego
Palm Trees in the Anza-Borrego | Source

The American deserts are often portrayed as being sparsely vegetated and dotted by the big saguaro cacti. It is a place where rattlesnakes, coyotes, and roadrunners live. While the latter is basically true about the deserts in southern California, only a small portion of the deserts here have saguaros and there is actually a wide variety of plants and animals there.

I frequently visit the desert just outside of my town and it's not like how it's portrayed in a lot of cartoons. Well, sometimes it is because it's often used for movies sets. But, it's not devoid of life. Life is everywhere in the deserts around here, even right smack in the middle of the summer. It's a great place for wildlife watching all year. In the spring, there's pretty flowers.

Let me show you.

Southern California Desert ARea

Teddy Bear Cholla

Teddy Bear Cholla
Teddy Bear Cholla | Source

"Teddy bear" cholla, like that pictured above, abounds in the deserts around the Anza-Borrego Desert and desert areas just east of the Laguna Mountain ridge east of San Diego. Though this plant looks soft, it has very painful barbed hooks. If you even just brush by this plant, a piece of it will fall off and hook into your clothes or your skin. It can be extremely painful to remove these pieces.

I fell into a bed of these plants and got pieces all over my legs and arms. I had scars after I removed them that were visible for years.

Washingtonia Fan Palms


There are two types of palms native to California and both are in the Washingtonia family of fan palms. These palms were once plentiful over much of southern California several million years ago, especially in the desert. However, as the nearby mountains rose over the years, blocking the moist sea air from coming inland, the deserts began to dry out. The trees held on near permanent water sources such as springs and streams.

Though seen throughout California, these palms are technically extinct everywhere except in certain parts of the deserts. The ones you see near the coast are actually transplanted or grown from seeds from desert trees.


Creosote | Source

The creosote bush is very common in the deserts around southern California. In the spring, it has little yellow flowers all over it and is a lot greener. it is said that it has medicinal purposes, though I caution against using it for such if you don't know how it is used.

Master Blister Beetle


These beetles look mean, but the adults are completely harmless and vegetarian. However, their larva will attack and eat ground nesting bee nests and eat immature bees. They're called blister beetles because they exude a chemical that can cause blisters in the skin of other animals. For that reason, most animals avoid them. Their bright red color serves as a warning to their toxicity.

Blister beetles are very common in the deserts around southern California and often come in different shapes and colors. There's actually a lot of insect life in the desert that is very unique and not seen elsewhere.

Desert Cricket

Cricket in the desert
Cricket in the desert | Source

I don't know what kind of cricket this is, I tried to look it up. It sits on the desert shrubs and makes a buzzing noise similar to a bee buzzing. You can hear them "talking" to each other. They're almost invisible and I had to look a long time before I found this one.

Bird Life

Verdin | Source

There is a large variety of birds in the desert that one can't see anywhere else, such as this verdin. This is a good place to get species on your life list. Birds exist in the desert all year around, not just in winter, though there more during the cooler months.

If you visit an area with permanent water, such as a spring or man-made pond, you may be surprised at what you see. Killdeer, for example, are extremely common in the desert, especially near springs and streams. They've been in the desert for millions of years, according to fossil records. Sometimes, other shorebirds have been found in the area. Ducks are a bit rarer, though, around the Salton Sea area or the canals.

Mammals: Desert Bighorn

Desert bighorn in Joshua Tree National Park
Desert bighorn in Joshua Tree National Park | Source

Many people go out to the deserts in southern California to look for these bighorn sheep. They're extremely rare and there's only a few hundred of them in the United States. There's a couple hundred more in Baja California. The town of Borrego Springs is named after these sheep.

Other mammals you might see are coyotes, which are extremely common, rabbits, badgers, raccoon, even mountain lions.

Other animals

There are a lot of other animal species in the desert. Reptiles are well adapted to desert life and one can often see a variety of lizards and snakes in the area. Be wary of the rattlesnakes, though. They like to hide in shady areas during hot weather.

Also, there are fish in the desert! They mostly exist in the springs as desert pupfish, also extremely endangered. Larger species of fish exist in larger bodies of water such as the Salton Sea.


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