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: 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

Laughing at the Coast

Last weekend I had a roller coaster of a birding trip. But that’s to be expected when chasing rarities. There were at least seven rare birds reported near Newport (Say’s Phoebe, Solitary Sandpiper, Northern Mockingbird, Marbled Godwit, Nashville Warbler (early), Palm Warbler, and Laughing Gull). Laughing Gull?! Who brought back the Texas souvenir?

It wasn’t me. But I have missed the southern birds so I figured why not reunite with at least one? If I could find a few other rarities it would make the long drive worth it. I set off. And was almost immediately detoured by some intriguing-looking geese.

When you see a small group of geese on the side of the road you pull over. But upon closer examination, these turned out to be Domestic Geese.

According to Cornell what makes these different from Snow or Ross’s Geese: “typically domestic geese have orange bills and feet, lack the black wing feathers, and have shape differences such as heavy bottoms and an ungainly waddle.” I didn’t see their legs or their waddle, but the lack of black wing feathers was a tell-tale sign not to get excited.

With only one day to spend at the coast, I didn’t have time to stop for domestic incidentals. Eventually I made it to South Beach State Park the last reported location of the Laughing Gull where luckily I bumped into Wayne Hoffman, a local birder who pointed me in the right direction. Towards the teeny dots in the distance.

This is when it’s extra hard to stay on track and pass up views of Northern Harriers carrying nesting materials, exotic-sounding Yellow-rumped Warblers, fly-by Caspian Terns, and flocks of Savannah Sparrows among the driftwood. Stay on target.

So many pretty distractions

Three stream crossings, two miles, and two soaked feet later, a pair of birders passed me from the opposite direction carrying a scope. They gave me the thumbs up and I knew it was all okay. Not long after, the gull flew by.

Laughing Gull! Oregon’s 4th record! And this one has one leg making it extra special.

I watched for a while as it flew and hopped around the Mew Gulls, and then it ate an undetermined ocean object, before settling down at the shore with a ridiculously large crop.

I was worried about the bulge, but the gull has been reported since then, so all is well digested. I left the gull and trekked back across the streams and the two miles back to the car. Later I learned the Northern Mockingbird was located at the first stream crossing. Strike one. That’ll teach me to walk by distractions.

From here I drove the short distance to the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary nature trail where the reported Palm Warbler has regularly wintered. This bird (which I associate most with Florida neighborhoods) was one I was most excited to see. Along the trail I passed Tree Swallows, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned Warblers, Savannah Sparrows and the most handsome Lincoln Sparrow.

Then I spotted two birders at the bird blind. I asked if they’d happened to see a Palm Warbler. The woman exclaimed they’d just seen one! And I’d just missed it. She said “you have to see my pictures” and she “didn’t even realize what it was” and “isn’t that disgusting?” Her words, not mine. I asked which way the bird flew then politely looked at her photos.

I really wanted to be happy for her and after some snacks and time I genuinely was. Not finding the Palm Warbler was a disappointment, but I was a 5 min drive from the South Jetty where a second Palm Warbler had been seen as well as all the other rarities. But I didn’t find any of those this time either.

If the goal had been to find Golden-crowned Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, a Wrentit, gobs of Savannah Sparrows and a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage then I was highly successful.

I think the best sighting here may have been a fly-by Pigeon Guillemot.

It was getting late. But not late enough to check the estuary trail again for the warbler. I walked along the trail maybe 20 feet when I saw some fluttering by a big ugly building.

No way. There was the warbler flying around the backside of the pipes on the building. Not perched prettily on driftwood, but at least it was a science center and not Walmart?

This bird is pro-science.

So pretty! Glad I went back to check on it again. I was running short on time and I could have ended the day here, but the Salishan Nature Trail where a Nashville Warbler was sighted was mostly on the way home. Why not make a quick stop for a look?

An hour and a half of quick looking later I finally saw the Nashville, but so briefly that I didn’t even count it. I got much better looks of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Common Yellowthroat.

And a Rufous Hummingbird!

M’lady Rufous. One of my favorites.

And just as I was leaving I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk also on a bird hunt.

I wished I had more time. Lesson learned, one day is not enough to find all the rare birds on the coast. I started the three hour drive home, and along the way, next to a field in Grand Ronde I spotted an intriguing white bird hovering over a field.

White-tailed Kite! When you see a White-tailed Kite you pull over. I’ve only seen one other WTKI in Oregon and I had to work hard for it. This one was a treat. I watched from the side of the road as it hunted.

It eventually caught a rodent and then flew off into the distance. I’d come a long way from those Domestic Geese. So many highs so many lows. Such is the case when chasing rarities. Hilariously good times!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey