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

Gone Birding – Eugene

Fireworks are going off. Summer must be here. It’s hot, birds have slowed down so now I can too. It’s been a busy couple of months! Back in May, Tomas and I took a weekend trip to Eugene for a Night at the Cascades Raptor Center. Wine, snacks, and owl entertainment provided for a small donation to help the birds? Shut up and take my money.

The facilities are great. They are situated on a forested hill much like Forest Park in Portland.

Yes, it was a little hard seeing these beautiful creatures in cages. But things happen, and sometimes animals need help. Like Nike, the Gyrfalcon that was found in 2005 with an infected eye that ultimately had to be removed.

No longer able to hunt, Nike is cared for and works as an education bird.

Same for the resident Northern Goshawk, Newton, who was imprinted when hatched and unable to release in the wild.

The birds here were so cool. Eurasian Eagle-Owl, White-tailed Kites, Barn Owls, a 13-year old Long-eared Owl, American Kestrels, Burrowing Owl, and a freakin Snowy Owl named Archimedes.

Gah. And it was making it’s bark-like hoot.

Kit Lacy, the Education Director led us around the facilities. Here she is with a Burrowing Owl, named Ra.

Later in the evening, we finally heard Ravi, the Western Screech Owl singing her ping-pong song. She was the lone survivor in a nest cut down by logging in 2005 and is now a favorite of the Education Team.

I’m glad we finally made the trip out here, it was definitely worth the visit. All of the animals are “adoptable” with funds going to the support and care of the birds. This visit was also a fun introductory as I’ve joined the Portland Audubon Wildlife Care Center volunteer team for baby bird season this year. It’s been one of the most altruistic experiences. And the most duck poop I’ve ever seen.

Back to Eugene. My local friend, Rachel, recommended checking out a few places including Stewart Pond and Skinner Butte.

At the pond I found Long-billed Dowitcher (based on location).

A surprise Solitary Sandpiper.

And nesting Red-winged Blackbirds stalked by Great Blue Heron.

But I had the best time at Skinner Butte. It’s not terribly big, smaller than Mt Tabor, but I ended up spending almost 6 hours there. Too much fun. It’s a known stopover for migrating warblers.

Warblers indeed. There were Black-throated Gray.

Nashville.

And gobs of Orange-crowned Warblers.

To name a few. I also saw a MacGillivray’s but couldn’t manage a photo. I saw a few other migrating birds including, Cassin’s Vireo and many Warbling Vireo.

And a nice surprise Calliope Hummingbird!

Also, Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

And Turkey Vultures sunning themselves.

And I spent a lot of time watching Black-capped Chickadees collecting nesting material.

At one point I almost left, but then right by the parking lot, I spotted my FOY Western Tanager.

It was near impossible to leave.

You’re not going anywhere.

Eventually, after so many hours, hunger got the best of me and I met back up with Tomas for the best beers and burgers at Coldfire Brewing and its associated food cart Haybaby. Followed by a sunset swift watch at Agate Hall!

Apparently, the Vaux’s Swift population is more active in springtime in Eugene.

Who knew? It was the perfect ending to a fulfilling trip!

I heart Eugene.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

January Birds

January was a good month for birds.

Happy New Year

Inspired by a fellow local birder friend, Jen, I’m trying out birding a 5 mile radius from home and using eBird’s “patch” options to track species. Basically, pick a few places to regularly bird and add them to a patch. It’s a good way to explore nearby parks, maybe save some time driving, and it’s a fun challenge to find new species in regular patches. I started off strong on January 1st with 55 species including a visiting Burrowing Owl at Broughton Beach!

Then the snow came.

8-14″ in some places. My 5 mile radius turned into about 5 feet outside my front door. Luckily I had some decent snowy yard birds. Including a Varied Thrush!

The birds seemed appreciative of the extra suet and seeds I put out. The bird bath turned into an elevated feeder dish.

Dark-eyed Junco and Black-capped Chickadee

California Scrub-Jay

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Most of the common yard birds made an appearance.

Bushtits

House Finch

Downy Woodpecker

I think my most favorite to watch were the Dark-eyed Juncos. They seemed right at home in the snow.

I even had a Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco, a less common winter-visiting variety. Note the lack of contrasting hood.

They don’t call them snowbirds for nothing. One bird that is most certainly not a snowbird is the Anna’s Hummingbird. It took effort to keep the feeder thawed and free from ice and snow but it was totally worth it to help the hummers through this extraordinarily harsh winter.

Before the big snowstorm I took time off from work to make it out to see the (normally east coast) Black-throated Blue Warbler that wintered in SW Portland.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (right)

Found just outside my 5mi radius. I have a new mission to figure out how to attract rarities to the yard.

One rare bird that did find it’s way to a local patch was a Bohemian Waxwing at Mt Tabor. I geared up in a snow-tire equipped Subaru to make it up there and search.

Icy stairs of doom

I arrived on the scene to find a birder who had just seen a bohemian fly overhead. Something I love-hate to hear. At least the bird was here, but I’d just missed an easy sighting. I made my way down the icy trail to check out hawthorne trees.

Where there are berries, there are birds. I found about 300-400 American Robins, a handful of Cedar Waxwings, and one blurry Bohemian Waxwing!

It happened so fast. The bird flew in, I tried to get my bearings, change my camera settings and it was gone. I searched and searched while my hands froze, then I finally found it again high up in the tree.

Pretty exciting. As I circled around to get a better view, a Sharp-shinned Hawk darted in and spooked all the birds away.

Kind of annoying for scaring the rarity, but also kind of awesome to see the hawk so close. I enjoyed the looks I got and called it a day.

On another snowy day I made it out to Smith and Bybee wetlands to tromp through snow and find a reported shrike. The park was “closed” which made it perfectly quiet and lovely.

The snow was deep, not “Larch Mtn deep“, but novel enough to still make it fun.

And since the ground was frozen it made it easier to access the normally marshy-flooded parts of the park. And that’s where I found it.

Northern Shrike! It tormented the poor juncos and sparrows that tried to drink water along the pond’s edge where the snow melted. Birds gotta do what a birds gotta do. I left the hunter in peace, happy I’d taken the chance to find it.

Back in my 5 mile radius at Whitaker Ponds I lucked out last weekend when I found Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Common Goldeneye, and this sleepy Barred Owl.

Right where it’s supposed to be.

Each time I went around the 1/2 mi walking loop I found another species, so I kept going and on the third loop I heard an unusual song worth investigating. I was right because not long after, out popped a Hutton’s Vireo!

Gah. So cute. And not a Ruby-crowned Kinglet because of the song, but also the bill color (grey vs black) and the feet color (grey vs yellow). This is the first I’ve seen in Oregon (I saw one very briefly once in Washington). And precisely what makes the local patch thing so rewarding.

Now back at home I’ve geared up for spring. I’ve added a second seed feeder, new window hummingbird feeder, and a birdhouse that will hopefully make a chickadee couple very happy. We shall see.

Crowd-pleaser

Pledge of allegiance to the sugar-water

Home tweet home

And I picked up a “hum button” from the Backyard Birdship to try hand-feeding the hummers. It worked on the first try!

It’ll all be perfect once the ice melts. February has a lot to live up to!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey