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,


Vancouver Lake

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new sparrow. Certainly not for lack of trying. Since before the first of this year, I’ve looked for little brown birds with that extra bit of flair at several locations including Jackson Bottom, Fernhill Wetlands, Ridgefield NWR, Sauvie Island, and Vancouver Lake. But still no luck.

So when I saw White-throated Sparrows were a target species for one of Audubon’s free outings a couple of weeks ago I was pumped. We met early at Vancouver Lake on a day forecast for steady rain showers.

Audubon outing

The lake waters started slow, a couple of Double-crested Cormorants flew by, and Cackling Geese flew overhead, and then things picked up with thousands of Snow Geese, multiple Sandhill Cranes, and a pair of Tundra Swans passing by above.

Audubon outing

Walking along the trails increased our species sightings with Western Meadowlark, Fox Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pacific Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and American Kestrel. To name a few.

Audubon outing

Walking back on the park roads that’s when the sparrow magic happened.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Not just a pile of leaves, there’s a White-Throated Sparrow in there!  There were a few hopping around and kicking leaves within the groups of Golden-Crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Success! Sometimes it helps to have more eyes and a seasoned guide to find the bird.

Oddly, on this trip I took more pictures of people than birds even though we saw more than 50 species! It was not the greatest light conditions, but with no rain AND a new sparrow? I call that a good day.


Sauvie Island

For my first March trip I opted for Sauvie Island.


I was most excited to see raptors, sparrows, waterbirds, and for the opportunity to practice geese identification.

I gained life experience points when shortly after arriving I realized that I’d left my camera memory stick at home and didn’t have a spare. In this moment I learned how important photographing birds is to me, not just seeing them. By chance, there was a retail store open on a Sunday at 7am just 12 minutes away from my location and I zipped there and back relieved I didn’t have to make the long drive home and miss out.

The island is huge. 26,000 acres with about 24 miles of road to explore. I curse the transportation planner who designed the roads so narrow with little to no shoulder. Granted they were probably designed several decades ago but it’s scary navigation for cyclists and drivers in some sections especially near the steep embankments. It’s rather treacherous for birding out the car window too. I like to stop a bunch if I see birds standing out against the scenery. I could use a sign that reads: “this vehicle makes sudden and frequent stops for birds.” It’s a good thing I go out so early before more traffic is present.

My first sudden stop was for this surprising bird.

Ring-necked Pheasant

A Ring-Necked Pheasant! I wish I’d gotten a clearer picture, but he was hurriedly on his way to do bird business in the dense shrubs along the roadway.

Instantly, my disappointment of the late start melted. My strategy was to travel to the farthest point and work my way back on the island. I first drove to Rentenaar Rd a wildlife viewing area requiring a parking permit. I was unnerved to hear gunshots nearby. Sauvie Island is open to hunting this time of year, so some trails are closed, but this road is open for viewing.


Even still, I carried on. I’m glad I did.

Savannah Sparrow

This little bird was out and back in the shrubs in an instant. At first sight I thought it was a Lincoln’s Sparrow, but the yellow-ish eyebrow, short tail, pink legs (and conformation on Whatbird) equals Savannah Sparrow. Lincoln Sparrow have grey, rather than yellow “eyebrows.” Each time I find a new sparrow, I’m reminded how much I have to learn.

Then, on my way to my next stop, Coon Point, I saw a field of swans!

Snow Geese

Nope! Not swans! Snow Geese! They fooled me. Neat to get a look at them since they are only in Oregon during migration. They’re a noisy bunch!

Next up was the Great Blue Heron rookery!


Conveniently located next to the rookery was a Bald Eagle nest.

IMG_2063 (2)

I counted at least 6 juvenile Bald Eagles in a tree next to the rookery. Easy pickins for the eagles. According to a Seattle Times article, this is a common problem. Suzanne Krom founder of Herons Forever says eagles consider heron nesting grounds “all-you-can-eat, fast-food delis.” Yeesh.

One raptor I expected to see on the Island was a Merlin. And then I saw this bird.

Peregrine Falcon

I left the island under the impression this was a Merlin, little did I know. Once I got home, researched the field guides, and asked Whatbird, I giddily realized this is a PEREGRINE FALCON. Holy bird poop, how exciting. I only wish I’d figured it out in the field and could have admired it more. Maybe next sighting.

Another falcon I had difficulty identifying was this one.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

I thought surely I’d found a Sharp-shinned Hawk; small head, “lack of neck.” The feedback on Whatbird was that this is a Cooper’s Hawk based on fine belly streaking, strikingly large bill, and shorter outer tail feathers. The Sharp-shinned has eluded me yet again. Update: Or has it! Upon further debate on this bird, despite the tail feathers it is “likely a Sharp-shinned Hawk“! I concur; see comments below.

At Coon Point I did see geese.


So many tiny dots. Without a scope or a closer view, I decided to just call them geese.

Though it was getting late in the day, I pushed on to my final destination point, Wapato Greenway State Park, a lovely, flat 3 mile trail on the island. Here are the results.

One trip to Sauvie’s Island resulted in four new species for me! Ring-necked Pheasant, Savannah Sparrow, Snow Geese, and Peregrine Falcon! Another exciting day as a beginning birder. Sauvie Island is rich with stunning birds, I can’t wait to make a return trip.

Tweets and chirps,