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: Circle B Bar Reserve II

Circling back to Limpkins. I was excited to see these subdued brown and white streaked waterbirds because Florida is its northernmost breeding range. It’s highly uncommon to find them north of southern Georgia and I certainly can’t see them in Oregon.

Structurally related to cranes and named for a perceived limp when they walk, Limpkins are the only surviving species in the genus Aramus and the family Aramidae. They were hunted almost to extinction in the 20th century.

They are no longer listed in Florida (as of January 11, 2017), but are part of the Imperiled Species Management Plan. Populations have improved since protections were enabled, but of course they’re still threatened by what ails most birds today: habitat loss.

They have an unmistakable wailing call that’s even been used in films (jungle sound effects in the Tarzan films, and for the hippogriff  in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanz). Hearing their call was almost as good as seeing them. Here’s a recording I took that includes the sound of baby Limpkins begging at the end.

One goal of the trip was to see a Limpkin, and I’d say that was a smashing success.

We had other successes too, including Purple Gallinule.

So pretty! And much more secretive than the Common Gallinule.

Another glistening bird was the Boat-tailed Grackle.

Above our heads were kettles of both Black and Turkey Vultures.

Occasionally we’d spot a Red-Shouldered Hawk.

You know those moments when you’re trying to get a good look at a bird, particularly a warbler in the trees, and you get the feeling it might be something new and different? Usually it turns out to be a Palm Warbler.

But every once in a while, it turns out to be a Northern Parula!

The gray hood, white eye crescents, wing bars, and that bright yellow chest means this is a female Northern Parula. So exciting to find a new warbler. Some day I’d like to meet her handsome male counterpart. Not far from the parula something orange caught my eye. Had to be something good, I knew it.

Indeed! Behind that leaf is a Baltimore Oriole! Another life-bird courtesy of Circle B.

Another goodie we came across was a White-eyed Vireo.

Followed by my lifer Blue-headed Vireo eating a moth snack.

We saw a lot of birds at Circle B and every time we were done for the day we had a difficult time leaving the park. Just one more bird! One day it was impossible to leave because my dad’s car battery died. No, I didn’t sabotage it 😉 but this did mean we could bird for another hour!

This turned out to be a pretty magical hour. First I saw something intriguing sneaking around low in the bushes.

It wasn’t until later that I recognized how awesome this sighting was – my first Painted Bunting! I got such a quick look at the time that I didn’t notice the green sheen on this female bird. I thought it looked like an exotic escapee finch, but it’s actually a lovely wild finch.

Around another corner I noticed a small dove that looked different from the Mourning Doves.

It has a scaly neck, and a pinkish bill with a dark tip, making it a Common Ground Dove. New dove!

Then below the tree I saw a small weird statue.

The statue moved and morphed into an armadillo! Native to southwestern North America, the Nine-banded Armadillo was introduced and expanded its territory to Florida. They’re creepy cute.

It’s a good thing Florida has signs on how to hand this situation. I did not climb the armadillo.

Other birds seen while waiting for AAA:

Pine Warbler; different from Palm Warblers with white wing-bars and a non-wagging tail.

Northern Cardinal

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Prairie Warbler

And a doe-eyed Tufted Titmouse!

Gah! – So cute.

Overall, we saw 63 species at Circle B, 8 of which were life-birds for me, including the Fish Crow that looks identical to American Crows, but says “uh-uh” instead of “caw-caw.” Audio here.

The battery was fixed and it was time for us to leave Circle B Bar Reserve.

Just one more bird.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey