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

Baskett Slough NWR

Summer’s almost here. Even though we turned on the heat in the house yesterday, it’s really June. Spring migration is winding down and I miss the warblers already. But there’s still plenty to keep oneself occupied. This past weekend I thought I’d try my luck looking for what would be a lifer Grasshopper Sparrow reported at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve not spent a lot of time at this refuge since it’s a bit of a drive from Portland (1.5hr), but there’s plenty to find here (especially in spring). There are trails to hike, but I’m still recovering from ankle surgery. Thankfully much of the refuge can be seen from car pullouts along the road. I parked and immediately heard Purple Finch.

And a little farther down, I saw a flashy buzzing Rufous Hummingbird.

Then I heard a likely candidate for the Grasshopper Sparrow. I listened intently. I recorded the audio and I thought about it. I listened back and doubt crept in. Quickly I felt underqualified at identifying a GRSP song. Sarah had suggested practicing by comparing the song with Savannah Sparrow that is way more common and has a similar sounding song. I listened a bit and convinced myself that this one was definitely a Savannah.

Imposter Sparrow

Moving onward. I drove around the corner of a butte and listened further.

I heard more Savannah, a few quick notes, thin buzzy middle, and ending with a quick lower trill. It’s that ending note that Grasshopper Sparrows lack. Instead they have two staccato notes, followed by a thin “insect-like” buzz. It’s subtle.

Then in the dewy distance, I saw it!

The best way to confirm a Grasshopper Sparrow singing is to see it. Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since they’re usually in the grass, there are few perches. But this one cooperated nicely.

Then the damn thing flew even closer.

I think my heart stopped. It sang and picked some things (insects? seeds?) off the Cow Vetch flowers before dashing back down into the grass. Such a great lifebird (#479).

Giddy, I then drove the short distance to “the narrows” a good spot to see waterbirds. Someone usually puts some seeds out for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and ducks and this was the case today.

Baskett Slough is a good place to see Black-necked Stilts.

They even nest here.

There were a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes flying by.

And I had a teal slam, seeing Cinnamon, Green-winged, and this Blue-winged Teal.

There had been a Whimbrel reported the week prior, which is rare for the area and would be cool to see. I wasn’t as lucky, the best shorebird I could pull off was this super distant Dunlin.

Closer and more vocal was this Wilson’s Snipe, calling “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip!”

Another fun sighting was this American Bittern, hunting out in the open.

It was turning out to be quite the morning. The icing on the cake was seeing four Virginia Rails hopping through the grass, and one that sat out in the sun preening.

It doesn’t get much better than that. I was glad I’d arrived early. I saw all the birds I’d hoped for and made it out before the huge rainstorm moved in.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Summer Lake

Once inside Summer Lake Wildlife Area it was on. I had no responsibilities or schedule to keep, my only job was to look at birds and I looked at as many as I could. It was exciting and overwhelming all at once. This must be what vacation feels like?

The refuge itself is set up much like Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge with an (8.3 mile) auto tour loop. There’s places to park and walk along the dikes, and a few camping areas on the refuge. Here’s a map. The best time to visit is spring (Mar-Jul), the auto route is closed during hunting season (Oct-Jan). The weather can be crazy, thunderstorms, hail, wind. And there’s a few bugs.

But it’s worth it because there are birds. So many birds. At headquarters there were Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, Say’s Phoebe, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Kingbird and House Sparrow. Sometimes lined up all in one place.

Looking at hummingbird feeders next to headquarters I was rewarded with the only hummingbirds of the whole trip, Black-chinned Hummingbird. But I saw more Bullock’s Orioles at the feeders than hummers.

The real stars of this refuge are the long-legged kind.

American Avocet

White-faced Ibis

Black-necked Stilt

And Willets perched on shrubs! Calling “pill-will-willet!”

I probably went around the loop a dozen times (at least) and each time I’d see something different or unique. Some of the more unusual sightings included this trio of Franklin’s Gulls seen only on the first night.

And the same night a Bald Eagle flew over a marsh in the distance creating an amazing White-faced Ibis chaos cloud.

While scoping out camping options just before a storm, I noticed a small patch of willows full of warblers, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and a MacGuillivray’s Warbler that made a special appearance.

There are Caspian and Forster’s Terns, California and Ring-billed Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorant nesting colonies here.

Did I mention there were Snowy Plovers?

I spent so much time on the refuge I was able to help out the Owl Be Damned Birdathon team (the world’s greatest women’s birding team) that happened to visit while I was there.

Together we looked at Great Horned Owls, including owlets!

A Western Grebe with a pile of babies on its back that I only got terrible photos of. And I was also able to share with them a Short-eared Owl that was one of the best surprises.

I camped on the refuge two nights, and both times I was the only person at the site. One night was so stormy and windy I made the executive decision to move into a barn.

It helped block the wind, and gave me a nice wake-up call to a pair of Great Horned Owls hooting so that was nice.

Better than coffee

Such an amazing place! Something fun around every corner.

Thank you for visiting Summer Lake, please come again.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey