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

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

Florida: Beach Birds

My family has timeshare at a condo at Madeira Beach and I returned this year to spend time with them and check out the birds. Two years ago I remembered a large flock of resting birds on the beach right in front of the condo that included Black Skimmers that totally blew my mind.

They were back!

I was so happy to revisit these charismatic birds.

Having two more years of birding under my belt, I felt I had a better grip on shorebirds, terns, and gulls. It felt really good to apply what I’ve learned as I scanned the flock, focused on field marks, and looked for the differences.

If your bill looks like it was dipped in mustard, you’re a Sandwich Tern.

If you’re balding except for those Bart Simpson spikes in the back, you’re a Royal Tern.

Banded!

I haven’t thought of anything clever for the Forster’s Tern, so if you’re a small tern leftover with a dark comma by the eye and orange legs you’re a Forster’s Tern.

Ring-billed Gulls were there.

As were effervescent Laughing Gulls.

And the first day I saw a rather large gull that stood out in the flock.

That dark back, light eye, the stern look. It was almost like a Herring Gull but the back was too dark. Hopeful, I looked up black-backed gulls and this one fits perfectly with Lesser Black-backed Gull. Identify-new-gull achievement unlocked!

Lesser Black-backed Gull headstand combo

The Lesser Black-backed Gull had a bully persona to go along with that stern look.

The terns weren’t as thrilled as I was to have it around.

To me the Lesser Black-backed Gull looks like a gull that’s been up all night drinking. He’s tired, cranky and means business.

The beach rewarded me with something different each day. Last time I found one Red Knot, this time I found a whole lot of knots.

I see you back there Black-bellied Plover

Late afternoon one day as I went for a swim with my mom and aunt in the gulf, almost as soon as I entered the water (and acclimated to the chilly water temp) I looked up high in the sky and thought I recognized the shape of a Magnificent Frigatebird. I’d hoped to see one on the trip, but this was terrible timing!

Not wanting to miss the photo opp I awkwardly splashed out of the water, ran all the way back up to the room grabbed my camera, and hurried back to the beach to snap a few pics. Then it was back to the room to drop off the camera, back to the beach and into the waters again to relax and swim. It was totally worth it.

Confirmed

It wasn’t until later that I noticed even more frigatebirds in the sky.

First there was one, then a few, and suddenly a dozen. Later, while my mom and I visited the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary down the street I looked up and counted 28! I managed to get 20 in one photo. Crazy. It was some kind of frigatebird meetup (my aunt called them “friggin birds” by then).

Back to the Seabird Sanctuary (an awesome place!), bonus points to anyone who can identify this handsome gull housed there.

Towards the end of the week, while scanning terns I noticed an imposter next to the Forster’s Tern. The Sandwich Tern noticed too.

That dark spot next to the eye is incomplete, then I noticed the leg color was different.

That’s a nice gull from home! A Bonaparte’s Gull. I found a handful more the next day.

On the last day at the condo, I walked out to check the birds for a final time, and as I scanned through, I noticed a gold eye in the mix.

Oh yes, American Oystercatcher! My prior sightings of this species have always been so far away so it was nice to finally appreciate a close-up view of this one. Hey, there.

And the last evening on the beach the final show was put on by Black Skimmers skimming.

I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the best of beach times.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey