SoCal: The Salton Sea

This year for my 38th birthday Tomas and I treated ourselves to a road trip to southern California. The plan was to fly to L.A., pick up a rental van, drive to the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley and then fly home from Las Vegas. I was inspired by a coworker’s experiences with Escape Campervans so we decided to try out #vanlife. It’s everything you think it is, quirky, convenient, and unconventional.

Vultures – a good omen?

“Simba” would be our lodging and transportation for the week. For some reason (mostly traffic) it took us 8 hours to cover the 165 miles between LA and Salton Sea on the first day. One of our stops included the Trader Joe’s in Palm Springs to load up on groceries for the week. We arrived at New Camp near the Salton Sea Headquarters in the dark. Not ideal but the sun sets at 4:30pm in the desert.

Cereal, it’s what’s for dinner

We settled in to hopefully get some sleep, but there were Loud. Trains. All. Night. Long. At least it was just the first day. In the morning we were tired, but surrounded by good distractions.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Where in the world was I?

Welcome to the Salton Sea

Fish bones and barnacles

Ever since I saw the documentary Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (watch it!) I’ve been fascinated with this strange part of the world and it’s quirky and complicated history (and uncertain future). And that was before I knew how important it is for migration, it’s one of the only reliable places in the United States to see a Yellow-footed Gull. Sold.

A friend lent me a copy of A Birder’s Guide to Southern California which was extremely helpful. It guided me to my first stop, the old swimming hole by headquarters.

Here I was immediately drawn to shorebirds, Black-necked Stilts, and a Spotted Sandpiper.

In the water were four American White Pelicans busy feeding, and a pair of White-winged Scoters, a rarity for the area.

Under the shrubs by the watering hole I met my first life bird of the trip, an Abert’s Towhee!

Not Albert or Ebert

Doing what towhee’s do, scritch-scratching in the dirt.

Because I was hoping for a Yellow-footed Gulls, I paid extra attention to the gulls. A YFGU looks like a Western Gull but with bright yellow legs instead of pink. This Herring Gull stood out to me, but it has pink legs, a pale eye, and light gray back.

In the water I saw a small group of Bonaparte’s Gulls swimming with Ring-billed and California Gulls.

And farther away was a gull slightly larger Bonaparte’s with a black bill and gray wash on the back of its head that I figured out was a late-season Laughing Gull.

The day was warming up already and we needed to get moving if we were to make it to the Sonny Bono NWR before too late. We drove along the north side of the sea and next to one road by the refuge I noticed a flock of 120+ Long-billed Curlews.

We pulled over to scan closer when Tomas spotted another surprise behind a barricade.

Burrowing Owl!

Adorable! And chill. We spent a lot of time watching this owl. It did not care. Meanwhile, noisy curlews called from the field and flew back and forth.

We made it to the refuge but the temperatures were already roasting. And a huge group of tourists were coming back from a guided walk. It was still pretty birdy, I saw Snow Geese,  Common Ground-Dove, Cattle Egret, but I had a hard time leaving the parking lot area because I spotted a Barn Owl hiding in one of the palm trees on the property.

I’d set up the scope to get better looks while Tomas walked around. He returned to tell me he’d seen Gambel’s Quail under the feeders. This would be a lifer for me (!) so I hurried over, but there were too many people around and no sign of the quail. So instead I talked to the rangers for gull advice.

They said our best bet for YFGU would be at Obsidian Butte not too far away. Tomas drove the van on some questionable sandy roads but we made it. There were huge obsidian boulders strewn about along with the typical fish bone beaches.

Have a seat and enjoy the view.

I’d read about the stink of the Salton Sea but it wasn’t too bad until the heat of the day at this spot. But the stink brings the birds. There were American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, Forster’s Terns, Caspian Terns, and more gulls. I scoped the most promising gull in the distance.

I hurried over, minding the quick sand, but this gull was wearing pink legs.

Classic Western Gull

Tomas humored me driving around more farm roads looking for gulls, but eventually I had to throw in the towel. I knew finding one in winter might be difficult, but it was worth a try. They are best seen late May to early June, peaking late July to early August. It’s much hotter and stinkier then, but it seems I’ll have to take another trip (Or go to Baja!).

On the way out we found another Burrowing Owl that did not want to be seen.

Not so chill

We gave this little one space and went on our way. Next up was Salvation Mountain a religious art sculpture in the desert created by Leonard Knight (1931-2014). But there were few birds and I was more impressed by the sign next to the mountain.

Back at North Shore we stopped at the International Banana Museum for a banana split!

Because of course there’s a banana museum in the desert?!

Is this place great or what?

Bananas for birds,

Audrey

Florida: Fort De Soto Park

To see even more beach birds my dad and I visited was Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde, FL. It is the largest county park within Pinellas County park system at 1,136 acres made up of five islands (keys), beaches, mangroves, wetlands, and upland trails. There’s camping, but I’ve heard it’s popular and hard to get reservations. Amazingly, the park boasts “more than 328 bird species that have been documented by ornithologists.” (339 on eBird!)

We were excited to see what we could find. Before I even left for Florida, I signed up for Pinellas County rare bird alerts just in case something came up and a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers had been reported the day before we were set to visit the park. I hadn’t seen STFL since Texas and my dad had never seen one so we both agreed it was worth checking out.

We went to East Beach where they’d been sighted first thing in the morning, but unfortunately no luck. So we looked at Osprey instead. We couldn’t find one without a fish.

That’s not true, we saw some with sticks.

Busy building nests, the Osprey didn’t collect sticks like civilized birds, they actually crashed into bare tree branches breaking twigs off. Pretty clever behavior I haven’t seen before.

We then checked on a smaller beach nearby and found a plethora of plovers. Including Wilson’s Plover.

There’s just no good angle that makes that bill look cute.

Nope, crab doesn’t help

For comparison we saw a Semipalmated Plover.

And the cutest of all, a Piping Plover! I was over the moon to find this little lifer plover.

And it was banded!

I learned this Piping Plover was banded as a chick on the Missouri River near Yankton, SD by researchers from Virginia Tech on 7/20/2012 and is a regular winter resident at Ft De Soto. So cool! We both migrated pretty far to meet at this spot.

My dad and I also saw Black-bellied Plovers but they are in a world of their own.

Pulling long worms out.

And sucking them up. Yum.

I tried hard to turn one of the Black-bellied Plovers into an American Golden-Plover, but I never could extend the wing tips beyond the tail.

Further on we continued to North Beach where we spotted one of our target birds right out in the open (the Steve Buscemi of birds?).

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron! Out in daylight?

There were three of them! Reading up on this species, despite the name, they’ll forage at all hours of the day and night. It was very surprising, something my dad said he’s never seen. The opportunistic crabbers will lunge, and shake or swallow their prey whole.

Lunge

Shake

And true to form, fly away and devour.

We watched until my calves ached from crouching in the mudflats and when it was time to leave and we had to walk right by one right on the shore.

My dad and YCNH

It was so cool. As was the second Piping Plover sighting! Adorable.

Hey, don’t look now, but there goes a Willet running by!

We’d hoped to have spotted a Reddish Egret by now, and we did but it was far, far away on an island of misfit birds.

Where we also saw American White Pelicans resting.

It was getting late into the afternoon by now so we walked back along the beach towards the parking lot. And wouldn’t you know it. Who’s that dancing in the water up ahead!?

Reddish Egret! So much drama, and so entertaining to watch.

I showed Tomas a photo, and he agreed. King of the world.

Ehem, anyways. It was late in the day, but not too late to check again on Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Why not look one more time on the way out?

Along the way we had several false alarms that turned out to be a grackle, mockingbird, and then a Loggerhead Shrike!

We returned to East Beach at about 3pm and walked along the trail passing more Osprey with more fish (why is this not the state bird instead of the Northern Mockingbird?).

But wait a minute! What’s that long-tailed bird behind the Osprey?

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! We’d found it!

Piece of cake. There were two, but we only got a quick glimpse of the second before it disappeared. Luckily the other stayed flycatching from the tree-tops while we watched in amazement.

It’s best to end on a high note, so we called it a day. In total, we found a solid 45 species at Fort De Soto, and concluded another successful day of birding in Florida!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Springtime Birds

Back home from Texas and it’s spring in Portland? I’m okay with that.

My 5 mi radius has blown up lately. The evening before I left for Texas, a Rufous Hummingbird paid our feeder a visit.  First time for the yard!

And on a more recent morning, I found an unlucky Anna’s Hummingbird knocked out on our doorstep (I think after a territory dispute). It was barely alive and a tragic find. But with Tomas’s help and a little warmth and sugar-water, the little guy bounced back a little and got a second chance. Tomas wrote a heartfelt post about the experience.

In other yard news, after a big wind storm a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a metal box-lid lifted on a contraption next to the garage door.

Inside I found a nest!

Not knowing if it was viable or not, I waited and checked back a week later.

Three more eggs! I had assumed they were likely House Finch (based on size, color and nest location), but after checking on the nest tonight, I accidentally spooked mama-bird.

It’s a Bewick’s Wren nest! So exciting. She picked a high-traffic spot, but we will have to make a point to give her space. Love our backyard birds.

Also this month I spent some time at Broughton Beach after reading reports of a reliable Red-throated Loon. Unfortunately, on my first attempt I ended up loon-less.

And soaking wet after a huge rainstorm. But just before the downpour I found an American Pipit.

And a Savannah Sparrow! I’ve missed them at the beach.

So it was all rainbows.

And the following morning I returned and successfully located the loon! So easy.

X’s 2 when a second loon flew by! Doubly reliable! A few other lucky flybys at Broughton included a Cliff Swallow.

An Osprey carrying nesting materials.

And a flock of unmistakable American White Pelicans.

More good finds were had nearby at Whitaker Ponds, including an Orange-crowned Warbler.

And the most amazing looks of Black-throated Gray Warblers.

More warblers, yes, please. Mt Tabor Park happily oblidged. Plenty more Orange-crowned Warblers.

And FOY Nashville Warblers! Hooray!

I also officially identified a Purple Finch singing on top of a high perch. A good clue to ID was it sounded like a warbler. It’s a long over-due life-bird and a solid 5mi radius species. Hopefully I’ll get better visuals in the future.

I also played hide-and-seek with a Hermit Thrush. And lost.

But I won a Pacific-slope Flycatcher when it popped into my binocular view.

And a small surprise flock of Evening Grosbeak.

There’s something about their warm, striking color pattern that blows my mind.

I’m so happy it’s springtime! Bring on the flowers, sunshine, and birds!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey