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

Birdathon 2018

First, a big THANK YOU to my donators! I couldn’t raise money for the Audubon Society of Portland without you. This year I joined two teams, The Murre the Merrier and Brewery Blackbirds. The Murre the Merrier, led by Sarah Swanson and Max Smith was a 12-hour day, starting from the Pittock Mansion in Portland, continuing at the coast in the afternoon, and ending back at Dawson Creek in Hillsboro.

Colleen McMeadowlark

Birdathons are intense! We try to see as many species possible in a day and this time was no different. Some of the highlights included Purple Finch, Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler, and a FOY Western Wood-Pewee at Pittock Mansion.

Best view in the house

We stopped at Smith Homestead in the Tillamook Forest along Hwy 6 for Hermit Warbler, American Dipper, excellent sounds of Evening Grosbeak, and even better looks at perched Violet-green Swallows.

At the coast we visited Sitka Sedge State Natural Area, Oregon’s newest state park, that has an excellent trail through a saltwater marsh. We found Marsh Wren, Spotted Sandpiper, and two Black-bellied Plovers decked out in breeding plumage. We missed a normally reliable Wrentit, and instead got lovely looks at a Rufous Hummingbird that flashed us his golden gorget.

The perfect topper

We stopped for lunch at Sarah’s family beach house in Pacific City as we scoped Tufted Puffins on Cape Kiwanda’s Haystack Rock and watched a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese fly by.

We picked up a few other coastal species including Pigeon Guillemot and we made a special stop to add Common Murre (The Murre the Merrier!). While scoping birds a woman asked us what we were doing, and she was rewarded by having to take our group photo. So nice of her.

Back inland, after seeing no woodpeckers all day it was decided we’d end at Dawson Creek where Acorn Woodpeckers were a sure bet. And they were, along with Wood Duck, Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and a FOY Olive-sided Flycatcher that brought our total species count for the day to 101! Great job team!

Saturday’s Brewery Blackbird Birdathon trip, led by Colleen McDaniel, was spent at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. This was a great day. The park promised baby Virginia Rails and it actually delivered!

Soak it in. Because it’ll never be seen out in the open again.

Other highlights included Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, a singing Swainson’s Thrush, Willow Flycatcher, and the most cooperative Yellow-breasted Chat.

We saw Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, and Green-winged Teal (teal slam!), and a Bald Eagle defy gravity while battling a Red-tailed Hawk. Quite the display.

Along the forest trail, Sarah spotted a Great Horned Owl surprisingly perched on an open maple branch. And another highlight was this Wood Duck family on a log.

Quite a handful!

After four hours we ended with 74 species. But because we’re good birders, we added a House Finch outside Stickman Brewery after pizza and beer bringing our total to 75.

Such good birders

Is May the best month for birding? It sure feels like it. So many great birds seen with great people! All for a great cause.

For the birds.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Whitaker Ponds Nature Park

One of my favorite parks is Whitaker Ponds Nature Park. Ever since my first time there I knew it was a special place. It’s a small (but productive) park at 24 acres with a 1/2-mile flat loop trail. Completely surrounded by urban land, it is a mini-oasis for birds.

And for myself. Here I saw my first Common Merganser, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Great Egret, and Anna’s Hummingbird. And later in the summer my first Western Tanager and Warbling Vireo. And I’ve once seen a family of river otters in the pond.

Needless to say, I’m sentimental about the place.

In the past year, it’s gone through some changes. Where there once was a gorgeous willow tree and field now is a parking lot. I’m kicking myself for not taking more “before” photos, but I hadn’t known about the project until after it was gone. Danger Garden took one of the best photos of that willow tree I could find on the internet. Here’s a couple I took of the progress.

Of course there’s pros and cons, there’s better parking, which will make people feel more comfortable visiting, and hopefully then more people will care about the park. There’s still a problem of transients living and littering in certain forested areas, but in general it’s getting better.

Better?

I’ve recently started following the Columbia Slough Watershed Council on Instagram, they’ve organized and implemented a ton of restoration work on the park. They also provide updates on water levels and beaver activities. (thanks for keeping the beavers, birds, and me happy!)

I’ve seen 87 species at Whitaker Ponds (it even gave me 40 species in my 5-mile radius). Most recent additions were a Hermit Thrush that surprised me before bulleting away as quick as it could.

A Glaucous-winged Gull flyover (no photos), and a female Barrow’s Goldeneye (more yellow on that bill).

Compared to the female Common Goldeneye below (more black bill with yellow tip) and male (right), also hanging in the slough.

While observing the goldeneyes I heard an enticing “zu-wee, zu-wee, zu-wee” and I turned around to the best looks ever of a Hutton’s Vireo.

Thicker bill than Ruby-crowned Kinglet and gray feet (vs. yellow on RCKI).

There were two singing back and forth. Along with endless Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Townsend’s Warblers.

Also on this trip I saw the reliable Black Phoebe.

And I got a quick glimpse of a Spotted Sandpiper.

Just before I spooked a Cooper’s Hawk.

This park is full of surprises. Even sneaky Great Horned Owls.

I wish I could visit every day. It’s less than a 10-minute drive from my house and now that the construction’s completed really I have no excuse. I’ll make a point to visit more often and make it a goal to find more species. I was going to say 100 (since I’m at 87), but that might be a stretch since the top eBirder at the park (Nick Mrvelj) has 97. But we’ll see!

Cheers to local patches!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey