Tuesday, February 17, 2009

See Ya at the Sea - Part II

Our trusty Ford Windstar jolted its way down the rough gravel road and into the parking lot of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters (say that twenty times really fast.) John Garrett, my dad, and I piled out of the car, followed by a cascade of maps, food wrappers, and goldfish crackers. As we squinted in the bright sun of the early afternoon, we were greeted by the calls of Gambel’s Quail, Verdin, and Common Ground-Dove. John and I proceeded to poke around the bushes, attempting to photograph the ground-doves and quail.

I realize that we didn’t drive all the way to the Salton Sea to look at Mourning Doves, but I came across this incredibly cooperative Mourning Dove sitting on the ground (thus making it a ground-dove) near the parking lot.

As productive as the headquarters can be for birding (a Cave Swallow had been spotted here earlier this winter), we decided to move on because there didn’t seem to be a lot of birds around (or, at least not as many birds as we could find elsewhere.) Our next destination was Obsidian Butte. This place is aptly named, since it is a genuine butte scattered with hunks of obsidian and pumice from an extinct volcano. Obsidian Butte also happens to be one of the best spots for gulls around the Salton Sea. We were excited to see the swarms of gulls as we drove up. John quickly spotted our second (!) Lesser Black-backed Gull of the trip on a rock just offshore, and I answered by pointing out two Yellow-footed Gulls hanging out with some pelicans on another rock.

After sifting through the gulls at Obsidian Butte for roughly a half-hour more, we continued to work our way south, hugging the shore of the Salton Sea as closely as possible. We found a Surf Scoter at the end of Young Road, a decent bird for Imperial County.

The extensive mudflats near the end of Bowles Road produced thousands of shorebirds: lots of Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, and Stilt Sandpipers (another new state bird for me), along with lesser numbers of other species. By now it was mid-afternoon, and we realized that we’d better hustle along if we wanted to hit all the places we wanted to.

Several miles later and we were driving down Vendel Road, the entrance to Unit One of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (another tongue twister!) We began seeing small parties of Snow Geese flying over the road up ahead, but we didn’t realize exactly how many geese there were until we passed a field full of them. There were thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese!

The cries of the geese exploding into the air were deafening. Geese were everywhere I looked – in the fields, swimming in the ponds, and flying overhead. I merrily clicked away at geese flying over while John looked on in jealousy, since his camera had run out of battery.

A roar of another goose flock behind us caused us to turn, and we were astounded to see a white tornado of geese rising out of a field on the other side of the road.

Recovering from the sight, we looked around at the other species in the area. Two Tundra Swans were foraging in a pond nearby. These two individuals have been present most of the winter in this same pond. Tundra Swans are relatively rare in southern California, and it was yet another new state bird for me.

We continued to the end of Vendel Road, where there is a small parking lot and observation platform. Hundreds of assorted ducks were floating around in the ponds surrounding the tower, and several Clapper Rails (of the “Yuma” subspecies) and a Sora sounded off from the cattail-choked pond adjacent to the parking lot. A young Bald Eagle flew by, much to our excitement.

Despite the massive quantities of birds, we were forced to move on, since I wanted to bird Brawley before sundown. One could easily spend a full day birding each individual place we stopped, so just one day to bird the south end of the Salton Sea isn’t sufficient. As we were driving out of the refuge along Vendel Road, we had to stop to avoid a big flock of Eurasian Collared-Doves that were walking around in the road for some reason. There was one much paler bird among them: a Ringed Turtle-Dove.

The last birding spot of the day was Cattle Call Park in Brawley. This unassuming little park tucked in the middle of Brawley has hosted a few notable birds recently, included Gray Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Vermilion Flycatcher. It is also one of the most convenient places in the entire state to find Gila Woodpeckers. We managed to quickly locate the Gray Flycatcher despite a loud and obnoxious family picnic right where the flycatcher usually hangs out.

It didn’t take much longer to find the Gila Woodpeckers. We located them by their squeaky calls, a sound I hadn’t heard since my trip to Arizona over two years ago. Two were fussing around in some trees in the park, but unfortunately they didn’t come out into the open.

We found Cactus Wrens, Abert’s Towhees, Verdins, American Kestrels, and even a Great Horned Owl in the half-hour we puttered around the park. By now it was nearly dusk, and we were hungry for dinner. Our breakfast was a meager affair – mini-muffins and granola bars. Our lunch wasn’t much better. So, there were three hungry birders to feed! We attempted to stop at a steakhouse in Westmoorland, but an ominous sign on the door reading “Reservations Only” made us think that they wouldn’t cater to mud-splattered and soot-coated birders. After a long search, we finally found a little steakhouse at the Calipatria Inn in Calipatria (surprise, surprise) where we dined on decent tri-tip steak before driving north to our campground for the night.

Thus ended our birding on Saturday. It was a really awesome day of birding; we saw many great birds, included two lifers for me: Mountain Plover and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Stay tuned for part three!


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy accounts of Salton Sea. It's such an exotic place right here in CA! I've been there twice, both times in November. I plan to go back during the heat of the summer (or just before) for some contrast.

Matt from OC

Squid said...

Do you plan on counting all those snow and ross's geese in the pic? hehe

I'll guess 1500.

Chris W said...

"John looked on in jealousy, since his camera had run out of battery."

Geez, John just doesn't learn does he.......
He'll just have to put up with other people's spectacular Wilson's Phalarope photos as long as he doesn't know what the words "extra battery" mean.........