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: Fremont Forest to Lover’s Lane

Over Memorial Day weekend Tomas was scheduled to volunteer with Oregon Timber Trail working on mountain bike trails through the Fremont National Forest so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to explore Summer Lake Wildlife Area.

Tomas worked hard chainsawing through trees and brushwhacking trail obstacles, while I binged on birds for five days. This was Lake County which I hadn’t visited since a Cabin Lake trip in 2016. I saw 145 species this trip, 102 new county birds, and one state bird. But first, I had to get out of the forest.

After dropping Tomas off, I spent three hours traveling the 24 miles down to the valley picking up Lewis’s Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Clark’s Nutcracker.

I saw a Pinyon Jay interested in the juniper berries.

And a few migrating visitors included Lazuli Bunting.

In one patch of pines I saw Townsend’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Cassin’s Vireo, and a singing Western Tanager.

There were Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finch, Chipping Sparrow, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, and a fun favorite, Green-tailed Towhee.

Sparrows included Brewer’s Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored), and I even found a nice looking Lark Sparrow.

Flycatchers were singing loudly (thankfully), Olive-sided (quick-three-beers!), Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky, and I think the best sighting was this Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Eventually I made it down to the wildlife refuge. But then I had to pick up a parking pass from the gas station, which unfortunately only takes cash. Pro-tip, bring enough cash! I had to dive 40 minutes south to Paisley to the nearest ATM to pull out enough to cover for an annual pass.

While in Paisley, I figured it was worth checking out Lover’s Lane, an eBird hotspot I’d noticed had some target birds I was hoping for. This turned out to be an excellent decision.

Lovers on Lover’s Lane

I started down the farm road and immediately stopped for this adorable baby Killdeer.

It bobbed its head and squatted down looking just like a rock. Of course the parents were shrieking nearby, so I did not stay long. The pastures next to the road were flooded creating huge puddles, but since it was a hot day, the birds were totally into it.

Not far along, a freakin Wilson’s Phalarope decided to land in a puddle right next to the car, then it fed and bathed right next to me.

It was like a dream. The dream continued when I noticed a shorebird in the road up ahead. I got closer, but it flew into a field.

It’s a Willet! A state bird! I was so excited to find it, since I’ve only seen them on the coast, and mostly in Florida. They breed here in the desert in this small part of Oregon during spring and summer. It flew over the road then landed on the other side to hang out with a Black-necked Stilt.

Buddies

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I heard “CurLI, CurLI, CurLI” from a Long-billed Curlew in the same field.

The Wilson’s Snipe and I couldn’t believe our eyes.

Neither could the Sandhill Cranes.

Yep, they were there too. It was the best kind of party, everyone’s invited. Eventually I made it to the end of the road and about died with happy when I saw another target I’d hoped for, a Black Tern.

I thought the road might end at a water feature, but it was just flooded farmland, and the terns seemed okay with that.

I’ve only seen Black Terns one other time at Perkins Peninsula Park in Eugene and the looks were bad enough that I didn’t write about it. But here I could soak it in, it was the best I could hope for.

Smitten with Lover’s Lane I backtracked to HWY 31 and made my way back to Summer Lake where I could buy a parking pass and finally explore the wildlife refuge.

Welcome to Summer Lake, I hope you enjoy your stay.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Wasco County

I used to think county birding was silly. But that was before I realized how much fun it can be. Birds don’t adhere to geopolitical boundaries, but it’s a good excuse for humans to get out of the house and go exploring. Which is exactly why I said yes when Sarah and Max invited me to join them for some Wasco County birding.

I’d picked up 30 species the weekend before, so I didn’t have much of a goal, but Sarah and Max only needed three more species to make it to 100! Luckily, eBird organizes sightings by county so it makes it super easy to see county numbers.

Spoiler alert

We decided to make a large loop through the county starting in the higher elevation forest east of Mt Hood where we heard Hermit Warbler, Purple Finch, Varied Thrush, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Cassin’s Vireo.

Quickly we dropped out of the forest into the scrubby rangeland and farmland habitat and scanned trees and powerlines for more birds.

Almost immediately, Sarah saw a Tree Swallow which turned out to be their 100th county bird! A nearby yard turkey gobbled in celebration.

Wasco County yard turkey

We thought there’d be more of a challenge, but it turns out county birding is easy. We stopped for the Mountain Bluebird on a wire.

Followed by Western Kingbirds.

We ended up seeing 15 (!!) in total. Wasco County is the king of kingbirds. Here’s five at once that looks like a flight sequence.

Before our trip I’d messaged our friend Brodie since he lived in Wasco County before so he knew where all the good birding spots were. He had lots of tips, one of which led us to a farm field looking for Long-billed Curlews.

We saw a large, buffy shorebird with curved wings far in the distance defending its territory from a Northern Harrier. It flew our direction, then dropped down into a row of shrubs on private property. It was an exciting sight, but sadly, no photos.

Instead, we had closer views of Yellow-bellied Marmots.

Consolation marmot

And later a nice soaring Swainson’s Hawk.

Brodie’s brother lives in Maupin and he was kind enough to let us stalk his hummingbird feeder for a Rufous Hummingbird, that I only got a blurry photo of. While waiting we also saw a Western Tanager fly over. We were on a roll.

At a sage bluff overlooking the Deschutes River a Canyon Wren sang out and then we made eye contact with a Peregrine Falcon. We’d hoped for a Golden Eagle, but missed seeing one the whole day. As we turned to leave we heard a “sparrow” singing in the brush that sounded too good not to follow.

Don’t think about camping there, Max

We never got visuals, but after recording the song and having multiple reviewers listen, it turns out this bird was actually a Lazuli Bunting! Recording in this checklist.

We left, but not before Max stopped to rescue a Bull Snake in the road.

After all this, why not go look for a few rare Snow Geese?

So easy. The geese were located near Price Rd Wetlands which is a basically a large private estate with distant views to water below.

If only we knew who lived at Quail Heights. Nevertheless, from the bluff we saw Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-billed Magpie, Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Max heard an Ash-throated Flycatcher here. And down the road we spooked a Great Horned Owl.

That led us to find owlets! Practicing branch-walking.

A very fun find. While watching the owls we stirred up a few other birds including a Pygmy Nuthatch, Bushtits, and little House Wrens checking out nest holes.

A perfect fit

At the bottom of the hill we tried to turn Red-winged Blackbirds into Tri-coloreds, and Say’s Phoebes into more kingbirds.

Phoebes not kingbirds

By the creek we had Yellow Warbler, Wood Duck, a family of Canada Geese.

And I got a photo of a warbler that turned out to be a Nashville Warbler!

A great county bird. We made a couple more stops to pick up Bank Swallow.

As well as Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

The county birds just kept coming. Until we finally reached Seufert Park next to the Columbia River in the Dalles where we’d hoped for a pelican or two, but instead rounded out the day with Double-crested Cormorant, California Gull, and yet another Western Kingbird.

Such a fun day! We ended up seeing a total of 87 species, bringing Sarah and Max to 120, and me to 95! Only 5 species away from 100. A great excuse to get out of the house and go explore Wasco county again.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey