Monday, February 16, 2009

See Ya at the Sea - Part I

Two happy birders...

The Salton Sea, while relatively unheard of among non-birders, is famous among birders. However, the Sea’s fame is mostly caused by its population of non-breeding Yellow-footed Gulls. This hulking, dark-backed gull has a rather limited range, being found mostly in the Sea of Cortez. The Salton Sea is the only spot in the United States where this species can be found reliably.

Unfortunately, the Salton Sea is often passed off as a one-species hotspot. This could not be farther from the truth. The area around the Salton Sea is an excellent birding destination at any time of the year. I was keen on visiting sometime this winter, and after convincing my dad that a camping trip to the Salton Sea would be fun, we scheduled a weekend trip to the Salton Sea the second weekend in February. I dragged my friend John Garrett along, even though he was terrified of getting bogged down in the mud wallows of roads around the south end of the Sea.

We left my house in the afternoon on Friday. The horrific traffic through Riverside slowed us down a little, but we made it to Mecca Beach Campground at the north end of the Salton Sea in about three hours. The choice birding areas are around the southern end of the Sea, but Mecca Beach, an hour from the southern end, was the closest civilized campground. Before we even exited the car, I spotted the previously reported Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing on the beach. The presence of this bird was one reason why I chose this particular campground. John and I abandoned my dad as he registered and sprinted down the beach to the gull as light was fading.

John and I realized that it might be a good idea to get the tents erected before it grew completely dark. We managed to do so, even though a strong wind was whipping in off the sea. The tents firmly staked down, we joined my dad as he prepared our dinner of kebabs and beans. I discovered that it is possible to toast bread over an open fire. Plain toast isn’t very appetizing, but to my delight I found that toast slathered with pork and beans is downright delicious.

After a fitful night of alternately dozing lightly and listening to trains roaring by on the nearby tracks, I awoke at five fifteen. We hurriedly gathered our things and departed the campground, burrowing south through the darkness towards the south end of the Salton Sea. Our first stop was Davis Road and the Wister Unit. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but instead marveled at the thousands of ducks, shorebirds, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and swallows. John and I couldn’t resist photographing a massive tornado of swallows that were swarming on the telephone wires along McDonald Road. Look carefully – there are three species of swallows on that wire!

I had no solid itinerary for the day, so we decided to move on to some areas around Calipatria. As we were cruising south along Highway 111, John and I simultaneously noticed a burned field full of shorebirds. I fumbled with my binoculars, attempting to identify them. “Uhhh…” I mumbled as I signaled to my dad to pull over. John was faster. “Mountain Plovers!” he shouted as we rolled to a halt on the muddy shoulder of the highway. We tumbled out of the car and enjoyed fine looks at these classy little plovers foraging in the field. Life bird for me. The entire field was sprinkled with them – I estimated there were at least three hundred birds present. John and I intrepidly started crawling through the field, attempting to approach the birds for photos.

Unfortunately, the plovers were rather skittish and wouldn’t allow us to slither any closer than about thirty feet. This isn’t close enough to obtain good photos with our little three hundred millimeter lenses, but we still filled up lots of space on our memory cards with plover photos. We ended up with dozens of distant plover pictures and really sooty jeans.

Our next major stop was the Calipatria State Prison, or rather a big field adjacent to the prison. A handful of Sprague’s Pipits have been wintering in this particular field. This is one vast field, so we were faced with a needle in a haystack search. The only way to get a glimpse of these elusive little brown birds is to walk them out of the field, so we set off, trudging through the short dead grass. We immediately began kicking up Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks, but no pipits. John and I made a couple passes through the field, which was at least half a mile long, with no luck. We couldn’t spend the entire day walking around a barren field, since there were plenty of other birding spots waiting to be visited, so we reluctantly aborted the mission. The only consolation prize was a quick sighting of a small flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, another life bird for me. I had fun photographing a big flock of Cattle Egrets that flew in just as we were leaving.

As we were speeding down Sinclair Road toward the actual seashore, my dad suddenly swerved the car to the side of the road. The reason? Two absolutely stunning Burrowing Owls, perched beside their lair like two little statues. Traffic was nonexistent along this road, so we slowly backed up along the road and John and I began clicking away at the two owls through a rolled-down window.

This was the best look at a Burrowing Owl I had ever had. We saw only a few others throughout the rest of the day, despite John’s promise that they would be “all over the place.” Here’s a shot of the second owl.

By now it was lunchtime, so we dined on peanut butter and grape sandwiches at Red Hill. Red Hill, located right at the edge of the sea, is an excellent spot for finding shorebirds, gulls, and others. During our brief visit we spotted Common Goldeneye, Yellow-footed Gull, and dozens of others.

The whole story of our Salton Sea trip is too long to fit into one blog post, so I’ll leave you hanging here. So far, it’s been an excellent trip. Look for part two in a few days!

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