Salton Sea Update 2008

 

 

This report is a synopsis and a collection of photographs from several trips to the Salton Sea region of Imperial county, California, over the fall, winter and early spring of 2007-2008.  Areas visited included Brawley, Cattle Call Park, Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge and a vast area of farmland, plowed fields and desert areas in the Imperial Valley of California.  The Salton Sea is a unique habitat, formed, in it's current state through the accidental flooding of an old and ancient lake bed in a desolate region of the Colorado Desert of Southern California.  According to the Salton Sea Authority (www.saltonsea.ca.gov) the recent history is as follows:  In 1901, the California Development Company, seeking to realize the Imperial Valley’s potential for unlimited agricultural productivity, dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River.  Heavy silt loads, however, inhibited the flow and new residents of the valley became worried.  This prompted the engineers to create a cut in the western bank of the Colorado to allow more water to reach the valley.  Unfortunately, heavy flood waters broke through the engineered canal and nearly all the river’s flow rushed into the valley.  By the time the breach was closed, the present-day Salton Sea was formed.  Instead of evaporating over a period of years, today’s Salton Sea is maintained, in large part, by agricultural runoff from irrigation in the Imperial and Coachella valleys.  Irrigation of these fertile valleys supports the Salton Sea and an industry that helps feed the world.  Agricultural fields in the region join with the Salton Sea to support an ecosystem that attracts hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife.  It is a crucial link in the Pacific Flyway, and a very important part of the Colorado River’s delta.

 

The wildlife in this area is quite varied, not only are the classic desert species present but the area serves as a wintering ground and a migrant trap for birds.  Several species of interest live here year-round as well, such as the Burrowing Owl that can be found pretty much along any dirt-lined canal where there are large holes present.   Often they can be seen early in the day perched on utility lines as well, as the one below.

Burrowing Owl

The area attracts a wide variety of typical sea birds as well such as pelicans, gulls and terns such as this Caspian shown below.

Caspian Tern

Due to the tremendous amount of life in the area, large numbers of predatory birds are also present, Hawks and Falcons are commonly seen as are many members of the Heron and Egret families.  Cattle Egrets, like the one below are very common in both agriculture fields as well as grazing herds of cattle.  Sometimes thousands of them can be seen blanketing a freshly watered or cultivated field looking for a quick and easy meal.

Cattle Egret

Several species of doves are found in the area as well including the sometimes secretive Common Ground Dove as pictured below.

Common Ground Dove

Common or Ring-necked Pheasants are often encountered along the edges of agricultural fields.  Apparently introduced or escapees from local hunting clubs, these beautiful birds have established themselves across many regions including the Salton Sea area.  Here a young male is moving for cover as I approach for a better shot (with the camera of course).

Common Pheasant

 

One of my favorite times to come to Salton Sea is after the Burrowing Owls have nested and started to raise their brood, typically one or two youngsters can be found hanging out at the entrance to their nesting hole waiting for their next meal to arrive.

Fledgling Burrowing Owl

Mom and baby...

There are also a wide variety of herps to be found in the area, typically in less traveled or non-agricultural areas.  This large Desert Spiny Lizard lost part of its tail, probably to a predator such as a Roadrunner.  They are usually quite secretive and hard to photograph, staying near cover.  Usually they are heard rustling around in the leaf litter before seen.

Desert Spiny

 

Another pelagic species often encountered are Cormorants.  There were about 50 Double-crested Cormorants perched in this large, dead tree along the shores of the Salton Sea in early winter.

Double-crested Cormorant

 

One of the more commonly encountered raptors is the Northern Harrier (sometimes called a Marsh Hawk).  This one was flushed and flew by me at eye level allowing me to get a show of their owl-like face.  Note the white rump, one of the identifying characteristics of this species.

Northern Harrier

 

In the spring and summer months dragonflies are common along the waterways claiming their territories as they live out their short existence in this form before mating, laying their eggs and dying.

Dragonfly from Salton Sea area

Eurasian Collared Doves are introduced species that are rapidly expanding across the U.S.  This specimen was photographed at Cattle Call Park in Brawley, California.

Eurasian Collared Dove

Gambel's Quail are commonly encountered anywhere near scrub as they forage for seeds and plant matter.  Large coveys can be found throughout the area.  I have seen 50 or more together at one time.  They are also widely hunted in the region which brings up another topic should you decide to visit the area.  Beware of hunters, they are here by the thousands during duck season and dove season.  They positive is that they pay for hunting licenses and the monies go to help preserve the area for future generations, the downside is that you can get caught in their crossfire if you are not paying attention so be careful where you go and use common sense.

Gamble's Quail (F)

Spring and Fall bring added excitement to the area as it's a huge migrant trap and stop-over for migrating warblers.  I have seen nine warbler species in one morning.  A few species such as the Orange-crowned Warbler are year-round residents but most are only passing through.  A couple of good locations for Warbler viewing are Cattle Call Park in Brawley (early in the morning) and Park Headquarters.

Orange-crowned Warbler trying hard to look like a MacGillivray's Warbler

Avocets and Stilts both nest in the area and can usually be found along the shore line and sometimes in flooded fields.  Sometimes very large concentrations of Avocets and Stilts can be seen feeding in the flooded areas near Red Hill at the Salton Sea during the winter and early spring.

American Avocet

 

As I have stated a few times, the area supports a large number of predators, the food chain seems to be in good shape here, probably due in part to the tremendous amount of agriculture.  This Barn Owl was discovered roosting inside of a Washington Fan Palm at park headquarters and photographed by Lynn.

Barn Owl

 

A variety of swallows can be found here as well, several species including these Barn Swallows nest in the area.  The huge amount of insect life allows them to easily feed their broods.

Barn Swallow

Shorebirds such as Plover and Killdeer are quite common as well, again taking advantage of the high concentrations of food.

Black-bellied Plover

 

American White Pelicans are quite plentiful at certain times of the year, another important reason that the area needs to be conserved.  Many species that have seen their numbers decline or be threatened over the years have found the Salton Sea to be a last bastion of refuge.

American White Pelican

Large concentration of American White Pelicans

Another shorebird visitor to Salton Sea is the Black Skimmer as this one, taking advantage of the variety of small fish species that live in shallow waters, a prefect scenario for this predator.

Black Skimmer

Herons and Egrets are commonly encountered near areas with standing water.  Black-crowned Night-Herons nest among the reeds along the various irrigation canals that run through the area.  Usually you can also find Green Herons and Great Blue Herons not to mention the ever-present Great Egret and Snowy Egret.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

 

A migrant visitor to the region, this Black-headed Grosbeak was photographed at Cattle Call Park in Brawley California in April.

Black-headed Grosbeak

 

Black-necked Stilts are commonly encountered along drainage and irrigation canals as well as in flooded fields.  The also nest in the region and are quite protective of their young.  They really put up a fuss if you get near their chicks once they have fledged.

Black-necked Stilt

Fledgling Black-necked Stilts

This Great Blue Heron was flushed along the shoreline of the Salton Sea.  Large concentrations of these magnificent herons can often been seen as can their nesting areas with their huge nests made up of driftwood sticks.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron Nesting Site

This Black-throated Gray Warbler was one of eight different warblers I spotted in a one hour period at Cattle Call Park in Brawley, others included:  Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, Wilson's, Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, and Hermit.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

 

This Gnatcatcher was mixed in with the mixed flock or Warblers mentioned above.  This is a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the other species encountered is the Black-tailed.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

Brown-headed Cowbirds are a common, year-round resident as well.

Brown-headed Cowbird

 

Gila Woodpeckers are a rare but regular visitors to the Salton Sea area.   I have seen them at Cattle Call Park (like the one below) as well as park headquarters.

Gila Woodpecker

 

Another rare spring visitor (more common in fall) is the Gray Flycatcher.  This individual was seen often at Cattle Call park in early spring of 2008.

Gray Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

 

Yet another shore bird that can be seen with regularity in the area is the Greater Yellowlegs.  This one was found in a flooded field with a contingency of Western Sandpipers, Dowitchers and Curlews.

Greater Yellowlegs

 

Five species of Grebe can be viewed at Salton Sea, this Eared Grebe is a common sight along the shoreline, occasionally you can also view Pied-billed, Horned, Western and Clark's.

Eared Grebe

Noisy, gregarious, aggressive, obnoxious yet interesting is how I describe the myriad of Great-tailed Grackles that can be found everywhere.  Only Red-winged Blackbirds and perhaps Brewer's Blackbirds can outnumber them in terms passerine-type birds.

Great-tailed Grackle

Green Heron's like this one are typically extremely elusive, shy and hard to find.  I flushed this one several times over the past few years from nearly the same spot, meaning that they are also creatures of habit, or at least this one is.  Typically found in heavily over-grown areas with running water, e.g. irrigation canals, these Herons are easier to find in the early morning hours.

Green Heron

There are many species of Gulls and Terns that are possible at Salton Sea, 25 species have been recorded here.  On of those that are fairly consistent in the fall are Gull-billed Terns like the one shown below.

Gull-billed Tern

 

This Hermit Warbler was spotted in dense brush alongside an over-grown irrigation canal near the Sonny Bono NWR park headquarters. 

Hermit Warbler

 

Many introduced species live in the area as well, House Sparrows, House Finch, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Pheasant to name a few.

House Sparrow (F)

Killdeers are common in the area

This is yet another shorebird that can be found with regularity along the shore line at the Salton Sea.

Willet

 

This is text added for the template for a large post.  This is a collection of photographs from several trips to the Salton Sea region of Imperial county, California, this is only a test

Caption for picture

 

Loggerhead Shrikes are another common bird found throughout the area.  Shrikes often impale their prey on sharp objects such as cactus spines or even barb-wire fencing.  If you see a lizard or a large insect hanging from a sharp object it's usually because a Loggerhead Shrike has placed it there for safe keeping.

Loggerhead Shrike

 

Mourning Doves and White-winged Doves are very common throughout the agricultural lands, benefiting from mans presence in the area which helps support a large population.  Other than ducks and geese which are hunted extensively in the area, doves are prime targets for the myriad of hunters that visit the area every year.

Mourning Dove

Beside the birds and reptiles, a large number of mammal species can be found in the area.  I was quite surprised to spot this Muskrat paddling around in an irrigation ditch.  He didn't much like me following him around and taking pictures and quickly found a dense bit of foliage and disappeared into it.

Muskrat

One of the commonly encountered migrant warblers encountered in the spring and fall is the Nashville Warbler.  On this particular day in April I visited Cattle Call Park and Park Headquarters and Nashville Warblers were abundant!  I spotted at least 10 individuals at Cattle Call park alone, mixed in with a smattering of Black-throated Gray, Orange-crowned and Wilson's Warblers.

Nashville Warbler

Just a few more close-up shots of migrating Nashville Warblers...

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

On another occasion in late winter I found a group of Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers laying siege to Cattle Call Park.  There were about six of them foraging around the area, much more gregarious than I have seen them elsewhere, they often allowed fairly close approach which allowed me to get off a few good shots of them.

Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker

The area also has it's share of common birds such as Northern Mockingbirds and a variety of sparrow species.  Here a Northern Mockingbird sits perched for a moment before heading on.

Northern Mockingbird

White-crowned Sparrows are another common visitor to the area, large numbers of them are present at times at the park headquarters and along the edges of agricultural fields as well as in the small towns nearby.

White-crowned Sparrow

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallows can be seen in the area, they are often perched on utility wires as well as shrubs and irrigation canal levees.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

 

At certain times of the year the amount of wildlife in the area can be staggering... As in this scene below where Northern Shovelers are wading and feeding as far as the eye can see.

A mass of Northern Shovelers

 

Another commonly encountered year-round resident is the Great Basin Whiptail Lizard.  These fast, wary lizards are distant relatives of the much larger monitor lizards of the tropics.  They can be seen nervously flicking at the dirt looking for their insect prey.  Many species of this family are literally clones of one another, reproducing via parthenogenesis (reproduction without sex) literally fertilizing their own eggs and creating clones of themselves.

Great Basin Whiptail

 

Here are some more photographs of commonly encountered species:

Orange-crowned Warbler

 

Osprey

Peregrine Falcons are seen regularly however close approach is usually difficult.

 

Red-tailed Hawk

Ring-billed Gull

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruddy Duck

Gulls, Terns, Cormorants and Pelicans at Salton Sea

Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants

Cooper's Hawk

 

Gambel's Quail Standing Sentry

 

While I was photographing some ducks near the Red Hill area I noticed this bird calmly strolling down the side of the road in my direction.  It was occasionally stopping and walking into the weeds that edged the road and then would step back out and continue it's walk toward my general direction.  I watched with amazement as this Greater Roadrunner continued it's stroll, walking right past me, literally within arms reach, stopped briefly to look me over and then continued on it's way down the road...

Greater Roadrunner

 

A large group of Dowitchers were found foraging in a flooded field and allowed close approach for photographs.  They were very intent to probe the fertile soil for food as I snapped a few photos.

Long-billed Dowitcher

 

This was quite a surprise for me.  While reviewing some photographs I noted something in two shots that I had not seen previously.  I was actually photographing a Black Phoebe and while I was cropping the photos I noticed this snake in the photographs.  It's a Great Basin Gopher Snake and it was photographed along a levee right along the Salton Sea shore near park headquarters.  This points to one of the predicaments of someone like me that tries to photograph both birds and herps... You can't look up and down at the same time, got me to wondering what else I have missed in the past...

Great Basin Gopher Snake

 

During the winter months, tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Ross' Geese visit the area.  They will literally turn a field white with their presence.  The local farmers do not like tens of thousands of geese on their crops and luckily as part of the overall conservation project at Salton Sea, areas of land have been purchased and made "Geese Friendly" so these beautiful creatures have places to hang out without being driven off by the local farmers.  Here a small group of Snow Geese fly lazily overhead, probably no more than twenty feet off the ground.  You can head the whoosh of their wing beats as they fly overhead.

Snow Geese

 

Another Warbler passing through is the beautiful Townsend's Warbler.  Usually easier to photograph then some of its relatives as is evident in this photo.

Townsend's Warbler

 

Of course, the scavengers have their place in the ecosystem as well and Turkey Vultures can easily be seen working thermals as well as on the ground should there be something of interest to scavenge!

Turkey Vulture

 

As mentioned previously, Herons and Egrets are well represented and you can see large concentrations of Greater Egret anywhere there is standing water.

Great Egret

Here a Phainopepla tries to steady itself on a branch against a stiff wind.  The wind can be quite strong here in the spring and winter months in particular, often kicking up large dust storms along the fringes of the valley.  Luckily with all of the agriculture in the area, severe dust storms in Salton sink are not as common as they are to the east and west of the area.

Phainopepla

 

Another commonly encountered resident and desert dweller is the Verdin.  Easily mistaken for a warbler as they forage in similar manners these neat little birds nest throughout the area.  It's quite easy to find their stick nests in barren trees near park headquarters.  They build their nests with an entrance at the bottom and it looks mostly like nothing more than a tangled mass of twigs stuck in a branch.

Verdin

Western Kingbirds like the one below are common in the spring and summer months while other varieties such as Cassin's and Tropical can be found with less regularity.

Western Kingbird

Western Meadowlarks appear to like green fields of shorter crops, they are quite common but localized, when you do find some however there is usually quite a concentration.  Here one sings along Red Hill boat ramp road.

Western Meadowlark

 

Sandpipers can be seen in the thousands along the shorelines and flooded fields near Salton Sea.  Yet another typical coastal species that has found a home and foraging ground in the middle of the desert.

Western Sandpiper

 

Orioles and Tanagers are often spotted in the Spring months as they move through the area.  Several Western

Western Tanager

 

Large concentrations of White-faced Ibis are also present.  Here a small flock was startled by my presence and take off to get a safer distance away from me.  Sometimes large flocks of these birds can be observed in flight in the region.

White-faced Ibis

 

One of the hunters target species in season are White-winged Doves, they seem to be quite prodigious despite the fact that they are easy prey for predatory birds and their young are relatively well protected as they tend to move around the neighborhood.

White-winged Dove

Another Warbler commonly encountered during migration seasons is Wilson's Warbler.  Always a challenge to photograph due to their nervous behavior I have found that patience pays off with this species and if you wait around long enough they will eventually offer you at least a chance at a good picture or two.  This bright male was no exception at Cattle Call Park in Brawley, in early April.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

 

Yellow-footed Gulls are common in portions of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico however in the U.S., the only location where they can regularly be found is the Salton Sea.

Yellow-footed Gulls

 

I guess there was another warbler... This is a Yellow-rumped Warbler, again photographed at Cattle Call Park in Brawley.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

 

This photograph was taken in the late summer/early fall, temperatures were still quite warm and I caught this Burrowing Owl cooling itself off in the shade of a telephone pole...

Burrowing Owl trying to stay cool...

Savannah Sparrow

Brown-headed Cowbird

 

Here's a list of the birds I recorded in the Salton Sea area over this time period:

Pied-billed Grebe              

Eared Grebe                    

American White Pelican         

Double-crested Cormorant       

Great Blue Heron               

Great Egret                     

Snowy Egret                    

Cattle Egret                   

Green Heron                    

White-faced Ibis               

Snow Goose                     

Ross' Goose                    

Canada Goose                    

American Wigeon                

Green-winged Teal              

Northern Pintail               

Cinnamon Teal                  

Northern Shoveler              

Common Goldeneye               

Ruddy Duck                     

Turkey Vulture                 

White-tailed Kite              

Northern Harrier               

Cooper's Hawk                  

Red-tailed Hawk                

American Kestrel               

Peregrine Falcon               

California Quail               

Gambel's Quail                 

Ring-necked Pheasant           

Sandhill Crane                 

American Coot                  

Black-necked Stilt             

American Avocet                

Black-bellied Plover           

Killdeer                       

Mountain Plover                

Long-billed Dowitcher          

Marbled Godwit                 

Whimbrel                       

Long-billed Curlew             

Greater Yellowlegs             

Willet                         

Sanderling                     

Western Sandpiper              

Least Sandpiper                 

Dunlin                         

Ring-billed Gull               

California Gull                

Yellow-footed Gull             

American Herring Gull          

Caspian Tern                   

Forster's Tern                 

Rock Pigeon                    

Eurasian Collared-Dove         

Mourning Dove                   

White-winged Dove              

Common Ground-Dove             

Greater Roadrunner             

Barn Owl                       

Burrowing Owl                  

Anna's Hummingbird             

Belted Kingfisher              

Gila Woodpecker                

Ladder-backed Woodpecker       

Northern Flicker               

Gray Flycatcher                

Pacific-slope Flycatcher       

Black Phoebe                   

Say's Phoebe                   

Vermilion Flycatcher           

Western Kingbird               

Horned Lark                    

Tree Swallow                   

Northern Rough-winged Swallow  

Barn Swallow                   

American Pipit                 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet           

Phainopepla                    

House Wren                     

Marsh Wren                     

Northern Mockingbird           

Mountain Bluebird              

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher          

Red-breasted Nuthatch          

Verdin                         

Loggerhead Shrike              

Western Scrub-Jay              

American Crow                  

Common Raven                   

European Starling              

House Sparrow                  

House Finch                    

Orange-crowned Warbler         

Nashville Warbler              

Yellow Warbler                 

Yellow-rumped Warbler          

Black-throated Gray Warbler    

Townsend's Warbler             

Hermit Warbler                  

Common Yellowthroat            

Wilson's Warbler               

Western Tanager                

Abert's Towhee                 

Lark Sparrow                   

Savannah Sparrow               

Song Sparrow                   

Lincoln's Sparrow              

White-crowned Sparrow          

Black-headed Grosbeak          

Red-winged Blackbird           

Western Meadowlark             

Brewer's Blackbird             

Great-tailed Grackle           

Brown-headed Cowbird           

Scott's Oriole                 



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