Winter Wonderland at the Salton Sea

Posted by ardeidae on January 29, 2006

Wow, what a week! Today, I finally finished up processing the photos I took last weekend at the Los Angeles Audubon Society's winter field trip to Salton Sea. I had a wonderful time. My new Nikon D200 camera and 80-400mm VR lens were definitely up for the task, and although I only had them for a week, the combination proved to be quite impressive in usability and in the results. At the end of the two days, I had taken over 1300 photos, and ran up an 18-gigabyte tab! Going through them all and trying to pick out the best ones was quite a chore, but enjoyable and educational nonetheless.

This was the second trip for Carol and I to the Salton Sea. Our first trip last August, was incredibly hot and humid, but there were some amazing birds. (Read "Sultry Salton Sea for a recap.) This time the weather was great. It was mostly sunny and in the 60s, and the birds were abundant!

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret
On Saturday, we met up at the Wister Unit, just north of Niland, at 7:30am. The temperature was around the 40s and it was sunny, with a light breeze. As we were getting organized, we saw the first "official" birds of the trip: Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus), Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerina), Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris), and Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). Around 8am we headed down the 111 and turned east on Sinclair Road, where a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) flew over. Just past the corrections facility, we made our first stop to watch for longspurs.
Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull
We were three-for-four with Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius ornatus), Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus), and Smith's Longspur (Calcarius pictus). They were really skittish and kept their distance. They didn't lend themselved to a good photo, but there were others who were more accomodating. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) and Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) were abundant, flying by and landing in the fields to get some breakfast. Other vistors were Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus), Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya), Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).

Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Dusky-capped
Flycatcher
After figuring we'd seen all the longspur we were going to see, we headed back to the Wister Unit to see if we could find the Rufous-backed Robin (Turdus rufopalliatus) that had been seen there in the previous days.
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
It's a real rarity in the US and was seen eating the dates from a tree by the side of the road. It never showed up, but we did get a good look (and photos) of a Dusky-capped Flycatcher (Myiarchus tuberculifer), another rare vistor to the area. After snapping off a few shots, the flycatcher flew away. A few minutes later, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) swooped in and circled a few times before continuing on. The big buffer on the camera really came into play and I was able to get a lot of flight shots. Also in the area were Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and American Coot (Fulica americana).

Mud Volcanoes
Mud Volcanoes
Another interesting piece of the Salton Sea is that is lies along the southern part of the San Andreas fault system and encounters some geothermic activity. Hot mud and gas spews up from deep down causing mud pots and mud volcanoes. Some of these volcanoes reach five or six feet in height. You can walk right up to them and watch the mud sputter out. If you're ever in the area, make sure to check them out on Davis Road, north of Schrimpf.

Geese at SBSSNWR
Geese at SBSSNWR
It was around 2pm when we stopped for lunch at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. As we got out of our cars, we heard the unmistakable cackling of geese. We climed the ramp to the top of the observation tower to see a field filled with Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and Ross's Geese (Chen rossii). They're very similar, but having them side by side makes it easier to identify the difference in markings. While making a restroom stop before continuing on, it was hard to miss the Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii) chasing each other around. Some stopped long enough to get their photos taken.

Our last stop of the day was south of Brawley on McConnell Road, south of Keystone. There was a small body of water next to the road. As we arrived, we spotted a flock of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) trying to decide where to land. They didn't seem to want to make up their minds, so we got out to see what else we could find.

Swarms at sunset
Swarms at sunset
There were plenty of other birds in the water and out in the field to observe. Large flocks including Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), Long-billed Curlew, Cattle Egret, Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Ring-billed Gull, American Coot, Kildeer (Charadrius vociferus), American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) were all hanging around and feeding. There was even a lone Sandhill Crane in the mix. As the sun started setting, large swarms of birds would appear seemingly out of nowhere and then land again. It was quite a sight. A flock of Sandhill Cranes started approaching, but veered off and few west. A few minutes later another flock neared and landed in a field about a hundred yards away. They really have an unmistakable call.

After a busy day of birding, we made our way to a Mexican restaurant in Brawley, where we were joined by Bob Miller of Southwest Birders. Bob was raised in the Salton Sea area and is an amazing guide. If you ever need a guide there, make sure to hire him for the day...you won't be disappointed. After a tasty dinner, Bob was kind enough to take us to his neighborhood, where Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii) frequented. We heard a call at one tree, but gave up searching after 20 minutes, since it was apparent it didn't want to be found. The next spot, however, turned up two calls from the same tree. No more than five minutes later, Bob spotted the two owls only about ten feet over our heads. It was almost as if they wanted to be seen. I guess after a day of watching birds, it was time for the birds to watch us. What a great way to end the day.

Continue to Day 2.


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