Plant phenology is a commonly used indicator representing the impacts on vegetation by the climate and other environmental factors. The use of repeated digital photography provides an opportunity to conduct long-term monitoring of plant phenology and to extract phenological transition dates. Here, we tracked the phenological changes in the flowering tree, Elaeagnus angustifolia L., in the Cherigele (CRGL) of the Badain Jaran Desert (BJD) and the nearby Lianggejing (LGJ); using one-year near-surface digital repeat photography and meteorological data, the phenological difference between the two sites was revealed. We found that the use of digital cameras allowed for the monitoring of plant phenology with high temporal and spatial accuracy in these dryland ecosystems. Furthermore, in the lake group region of BJD, the onset of greening occurred 23 days earlier, the onset of dormancy began 13 days later and the growing season was 36 days longer, compared to those of the surrounding area. This difference is partly related to the higher altitude in the LGJ; however, it is dominantly related to the warm island effect in the lake group region. This effect resulted in the mean annual temperature in the CRGL being ~1.6 °C higher than in the LGJ.