I had the opportunity to spend some time in and around the Salton Sea area over the period of two weekends in January, January 13th and 20th to be exact. While I have been exploring the desert areas of Southern California going back nearly 30 years now for whatever reason I have never spent any time around the Salton Sea so this was, for the most part, my first trip to this very interesting area. I won’t go into a long dissertation regarding the formation of the Salton Sea or it’s natural history since there is so much info on the internet about it already but it is interesting to note that the Salton Sea did not exist in it’s current state before 1901 (however there is historical evidence to suggest that other lakes have existed there in the past as early as 300 years ago and as long ago as 10,000 years.) Point being however that in about 105 years this lake has become an integral part to the migratory flyway and breeding ground for significant numbers and species of birds and other wildlife. Further point being that it’s not impossible to create and/or manage significant wildlife refuges and restore a balance to nature if one is given time and resources. Also interesting to note is that agriculture has actually played an integral role in keeping the Salton Sea from evaporating as for the most part, the water it receives is run off from agriculture that surrounds it on virtually all sides. Anyway, back to the trip report…
Sometimes I like to set specific goals for an excursion when it comes to finding and photographing wild animals, I find it helps me focus if I do so and this was no exception. I had three goals in mind: To add the Sandhill Crane and Mountain Plover to my bird life list and to get a decent photograph of a Burrowing Owl, long ago on my life list and fairly commonly seen in the right areas but had totally eluded me in terms of a photograph.
On January 13th, my wife Lynn and I left San Diego around 5:30 A.M. and headed east, over the Laguna mountains on highway 8 and into the Colorado Desert and Imperial County. We drove directly to the main park headquarters at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge at the southern end of the Salton Sea, arriving around 8:00 AM after stopping to photograph a few birds on the way in.
This Belted Kingfisher was one of the first birds spotted on the wires along the road. There were also numerous Hawks and in particular more American Kestrel than you would ever care to see! Also a few Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers.
American Kestrel (Note Band on Leg)
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate for most of the day with a thin, bright cloud layer blanketing the desert sky shorly after getting to the National Wildlife Refuge. For those of you that photograph, you know that this is somewhat the kiss of death for high-quality photos as it’s backlight city for most shots, in particular telephoto types, at least as far as anything that uses the sky as a background. But, you have to make the most of the cards you are dealt and so we did. There were Abert’s Towhee’s all over the place at the park headquarters, along with Gambel’s Quail, Verdin, Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Wren, Starlings, White-crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, Common Ground Doves, a White-breasted Nuthatch, House Sparrows, and a too fast to identify Vireo. From the observation platform you could easily see a flock of 1,000 or more Snow and Ross’s Geese feeding in one of the agricultural fields that is maintained around the lake specifically for wildlife grazing. Also, unfortunately, in the distance you could hear the nearly continuous report of shotgun fire as beside the fact that this is one of the truly major wintering spots for a myriad of migrating birds, it’s also a hunters Mecca for duck, geese and dove in seasons. I guess one has to take the pragmatic approach and realize that the money for the duck stamps that the hunters buy to shoot they prey out of the air is used at least in part to manage and support wildlife resources.
While I was at the observation deck I ran into a gentleman from upstate New York that was visiting, he had some bird ID questions and I helped him out on a couple and we walked around the perimeter of the agricultural area at the park headquarters and over to the shoreline of the Salton Sea. There were numerous Gulls, Ducks and a variety of shorebirds present, some in large numbers like American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, Northern Shoveler and Ring-billed Gulls. There was also a large contingent of Caspian Terns and smaller numbers of Ruddy Ducks, Greater Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, more American Kestrels and a fairly large flock of American White Pelicans.
It's not too hard to tell the difference between Ross and Snow Geese. Ross's are smaller, they are usually all white (Snow Geese have some buff on head and back some times) and Ross's do not have the "Grin Patch" on the sides of their bills like the Snow Geese Have. There are several Ross's Geese in the picture above mostly in the center.
Large Mixed Flocks of Snow and Ross's Geese at Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge at Salton Sea
More Snow Geese
And, More Snow Geese!
After exploring the area for a while, I said goodbye to the guy from New York (not sure I ever got his name) and met back up with my wife who had taken another path around the area managing to scare up a giant flock of Northern Pintail’s which seemed to blanket the sky! On the way back to the car we ran into a Greater Roadrunner as well.
Large gathering of mostly Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler
A mixed group of Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler
Northern Shoveler's - closer look
Next I decided to check out the Red Hill boat ramp area, this area is more of a sportsman’s area than the NWR and is full of hunters and fisherman. The one thing that bothered me about the area is that the road in was literally littered with dead ducks of all varieties, I counted seven ducks in a quarter mile that were just laying in the middle of the road, obviously victims of shotgun pellets. There are duck blinds about a quarter to half mile off the road and I assume that some of the ducks make it away from the blinds and then die in mid-air or land on the road and die. It’s just carnage! Anyway, in this area there were a myriad of shore birds including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler, Northern Harrier, Say’s Phoebe and American Kestrel. Also spotted a Common Yellowthroat, Great-tailed Grackle, Yellow-rumped Warblers and European Starling in the cattails by the waters edge.
Great Blue Heron
My wife scared up these two Green Heron's near the shoreline
Say's Phoebe were relatively common in a variety of different habitats
Norther Harrier, another one of my photographic nemesis! I never get a clear and/or clear shot!!!!
Next was the great quest for Burrowing Owls, Sandhill Cranes and Mountain Plover. Each with a fairly specific requirement in terms of environment, all supported by the massive agricultural endeavors in the area. Burrowing Owls tend to like agricultural areas, ditches and rock piles where there are cavities. A perfect environment for them are the numerous irrigation canals and dikes that bisect the area. Sandhill Cranes take advantage of fields to hunt for food and Mountain Plover do likewise however they tend to aggregate around the most barren, sparsest fields imaginable, freshly plowed dirt and burned fields being the favorite.
Alas, on this day, I was only able to achieve one of my objectives as it took quite an effort and many miles of driving before spotting a small flock of these huge birds. They look like over-grown Great Blue Herons from a distance but you can see that they are quite different in stature and appearance! New Lifer for me!!! Sandhill Crane!
More Sandhill Crane
Here they are taking off - they squack almost non-stop when they are disturbed, and they are LOUD!
Quite graceful for such giant birds. Hopefully I can get their courtship behavior later in the year!
It was getting later in the day, the sun had finally come out so the light was better allowing for a few decent photographs however I had one more stop planned before heading home so we high-tailed it up to the Borrego Springs area and out to Tamarisk Grove campground to hunt for our last quarry of the day.
Long-eared Owls are regular visitors here and today was no exception with three of them roosting in one tree. A poor, unknowing young lady who had unfortunately been given campground number 16 was looking on as a fairly constant flow birders would ask if they could get a closer look at the owls that were perched near her tent… As my wife and I walked up she looked at us and said “Here for the Owls?” we both nodded and she pointed to the tree where you could easily see all three not more than 10-12 feet off the ground. We got our shots just as the sun was setting behind Mount Laguna and headed for home.
Forward one week to January 20th… I was going solo today as my wife was feeling a little under the weather and since I did not achieve my objective from the week before I was even more motivated and told myself that I would work it as hard as I could, and I did!
First indication that it was going to be a good day came when I was a few miles away from my first destination. I drove by a large stack of bailed hay and out of the corner of my eye I saw a little round brownish bird sitting on a rock in front of a loose bail of hay. At first I thought it was a fluffed out Mourning Dove and kept driving but something told me to stop and check it out so I hung a U-turn and was rewarded with my first Burrowing Owl of the day and it allowed me to take about a dozen photographs before taking off behind the stacks of hay. Great start!
Burrowing Owl (from later in the day)
I arrived at Sonny Bono NWR around 7:30 AM, the weather was much nicer this weekend, sun shining brightly, and also at least 10 degrees warmer than the proceeding week which had been abnormally cold and way below freezing an night. I basically retraced my steps from the previous week, adding a few new birds now and then like a Common Goldeneye, Green-winged Teal, Western Sandpiper, Eared Grebe, etc. Along with the usual smattering of Pintails, Shoveler, Geese, Herons, Ibis, Pelicans, Gulls, etc.
American White Pelican
Common Ground Dove
I then set my focus on finding the illusive Mountain Plover… Along the way I got a great sampling of the birdlife that visits the agricultural fields as I think I drove every side road for miles in every direction. I saw everything from sod farms to ornamental flowers to rice fields to cabbage patches to alfalfa to dirt, saw tons of different birds, but no Mountain Plover. It was about 3:30 and I was hungry and a bit tired but I decided to try one more area a little more to the Southeast of the lake and I finally hit pay dirt! Literally I guess… I found a very large field of pretty much barren, brown dirt, I saw some birds way off in the middle of the field and stopped to get a better view with my binoculars… Killdeer! More Killdeer than I would ever care to see! About a hundred of them. I was getting ready to take off when a smaller flock of birds, much closer to me caught my eye. They blended in so well that if I hadn’t seen the movement I would never of seen them and there they were, a flock of about 20-25 Mountain Plover, about 100 yards from the road. I took a ton of shots but when I reviewed some of them it became evident that with the lighting conditions, their size and the fact that they blended in with the dirt so well I was not getting the quality of photograph that I wanted. So, I decided to stalk them… I got out into the open field and slowly tried to walk up on them… When I got to about 50 yards, they took off. At least I was able to verify my claim as the black patch on their tail was quite evident in flight! I stood in the middle of the field watching them fly off when a Northern Harrier came swooping down from nowhere and spooked the fleeing flock in mid-flight, the did a U-turn, almost in unison and headed right back in my direction! They landed about 100 feet from where I was standing and that gave me the opportunity I was looking for! Mission accomplished!
On the way back I spotted my 5th Burrowing Owl of the day (after drawing a complete blank the week before) and was able to get some additional good shots to kind of top off the day. I headed back to San Diego as the sun was getting low on the horizon having accomplished what I had set out to do, albeit in twice the time that I had planned. I will be back though, this area has a lot to offer and it also changes as the seasons do so I know for sure I’ll be here this summer looking for the Storks…
Here’s my bird list (85 species) from the two trips:
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Common Ground Dove
Western Scrub Jay
Last updated: 01-23-2007