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

Summer Lake to Cabin Lake and beyond

One night the storms were too bad even for the barn.

So I ran for the hills, an hour north to Cabin Lake, where there is no cabin and there is no lake. But there is the promise birds and better weather. Along the way I noticed some grounded hawks. Was it too windy for this Ferruginous Hawk to fly or had it just caught a snack?

I drove to a pretty remote location to enhance the birdsongs and minimize the gunshot noise.

At camp I heard Gray Flycatcher, Cassin’s Finch, Green-tailed Towhee, Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, and Chipping Sparrow. Since it had rained the night before, I didn’t bother checking out the new bird blinds, best viewing is when the weather is dry. Leaving Cabin Lake in the morning I got a glimpse of my favorite woodpecker of the area, the White-headed Woodpecker.

Along Cabin Lake Rd I saw the reliable Sagebrush Sparrows.

Brewer’s Sparrow.

Sage Thrashers.

Three Loggerhead Shrikes.

And I rescued the desert from these shitty balloons.

I stopped at Fort Rock State Park for White-throated Swifts, a Prairie Falcon, and I finally spotted the Barn Owl tucked in the cliff! Just above the most white-wash.


Later I noticed a swallow nest colony on the cliffs of a gravel pit area that looked like it was included in highway right-of-way so I pulled over to take a closer look. It was a swarm of Bank Swallows! County bird #124.

As I watched them a car pulled up beside me. Uh-oh. I explained I was admiring the Bank Swallow colony, and what turned out to be a very nice landowner told me to take all the pictures I wanted, he thought someone might be “messing with the dozer.” Oops.

Don’t mess with the dozer

A short drive north of Summer Lake, I pulled over at a site below a large cliff, and hoped for a certain sparrow. Immediately I saw a Black-throated Sparrow perched on a rock singing.

No way! It’s never that easy! Such a brilliant sparrow.

Another night with better weather I camped in the Fremont Forest on Winter Ridge. I was hoping for a nightjar or two. Sure enough, just as the sun set, “poor-will, poor-will, poor-will” of the Common Poorwill, followed by an unexpected “Peent!” of a Common Nighthawk! I’d picked an excellent camping spot.

On the last night, finally reunited with Tomas, we opted for a shower and a bed at the Lodge at Summer Lake. This, followed by the best pancakes in the morning at the Flyway Restaurant next door was the perfect way to end our trip!

Doing it for the pancakes and birds.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Owls, owls, owls, owls, owls.

The Snowy Owl I’d missed a few weeks prior was still being sighted out in eastern Washington. I felt inspired to try again. Luckily, so did Jen, Jacob, and the rest of their pack.

We left our respective homes at 3am to meet in Kennewick by 8am. By that time I was buzzing from lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and the anticipation of what we might find. Or not find.

I was not alone in dipping on this owl, Jacob had also spent time scanning rural horizons for a snowy with no luck. There’s no telling sometimes how the day will go.

This day started nicely with Barn Owls, more than I’d seen last time, and this time one even dove out of the cave and flew beautifully over the grasses by the road.

We could have stayed all day, but luckily Jen reminded us there was another owl to be found. We’d seen photos of the Snowy Owl perched on a red post.

Not an owl

We scanned and looked and eventually, we turned on an unmarked dirt road, one that was previously blocked by a creepy semi during my first trip.

This time though, the path was clear and it was along this road, we found the owl.

It was incredible. I didn’t realize how big Snowy Owls are; they’re larger than a Great Horned Owl, and smaller in length than a Great Gray Owl but with the same wingspan and a 25.6oz heavier weight. Making them the largest owl in North America by weight. Bulky as a barrel but she wears it well.

After admiring from a distance and not flushing the owl, I was relieved we’d found it and proud we’d adhered to good birding ethics. It is tempting to hug owls sometimes, but we resisted.

But we couldn’t resist looking for more. We left and went to stare at a row of willows that I’ve stared at once before.

But this time was way better because I found my first perched Long-eared Owl!

So obvious

They’re mostly invisible. And smaller and larger than I thought they’d be. Mythical I’d say. Just when you think you see one it disappears. And then you see one and three more and then none. We found four before they melted back into the branches.

It was such a great success, three species of owls and it was only mid-day! Plenty of time left to look for more, so we headed to a park along the Snake River.

Along the way, Jacob pointed out his two reliable Great Horned Owls, right where they’re supposed to be tangled in the thicket.

Finally we arrived at the park where two years ago I saw my first Northern Saw-whet Owl with Tomas. It was amazing then and still amazing now.

I’d forgotten how small they are! Only about 8″, it would take three saw-whets to reach the height of a Snowy Owl. We found two.

The second one was holding a rodent.

Mine.

Below on the ground we found more evidence of their kills.

It makes me wonder. According to BirdWeb saw-whets are sit-and-wait predators that hunt almost exclusively at night, so when/how are they attacking yellow-rumps? My guess is YRWAs get too close and bam. Just a guess though.

We continued through the park, enjoying the now sunny weather, as we bumped into more owls including these Great-horned Owls

Not just one owl

This park is wild and lovely.

I’m still reeling from the number of owls three people and three dogs (a six-pack!) can find in a day. We’d found 16 individuals and 5 species. Surreal!

In the evening we toasted over beers, nachos, and burgers to the best day of owls and to the possibilities of what we might find next.

Owls, owls, and owls,

Audrey