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Salton Sea Area Trip Report: 7-8 February, 2015

February 13, 2015

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Reeds and mountains (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

Reeds and mountains (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

It was a great trip. The weather was near-perfect – no one would have complained if it were 5° lower – and no rain to turn the caliche roads to mud and tires into slicks. Our radios worked, no cases of food poisoning or scorpion stings, no one was seriously late, and many state, USA or life birds were found. Zone-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara and Crissal Thrasher were the only notable misses. It’s best to look for Crissal very early in the morning, difficult to do when you cannot be simultaneously everywhere.

The Davis Rd. salt works and/or salt bath spa (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

The Davis Rd. salt works and/or salt bath spa (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

My general impression of the birdlife of the south end of the Salton Sea (SESS) is that overall numbers declined since 2012, but diversity is holding steady, or even up a little. We still had large numbers of certain species: Snow & Ross’s Geese, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Cattle Egret, White-faced Ibis, Ring-billed Gull and California Gull. Although our “counts” are extremely rough approximations, even these species seemed somewhat fewer. Other species definitely seemed reduced in numbers, for example: American White Pelican, Black-necked Stilt, Common Raven, and Red-winged Blackbird. Then again, most of those species are found in flocks – miss one flock and you miss most of that species. Perhaps such variances mean nothing at all.

Neotropic Cormorants - Note white border to gular pouch (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Neotropic Cormorants – Note white border to gular pouch (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

We checked out two new areas. A few miles east of Brawley is the New River Wetlands Project, with scrub surrounding a pond about 100m X 300m. A large flock of Great Egrets roosted in some nearby trees. The Crested Caracara reported to be in the vicinity did not appear; later we learned it prefers late afternoon. While Marsh Wrens madly burbled in the reeds, we studied cormorants roosting on water-snags, trying to figure out which – if any – was a Neotropic. After much scratching of heads, Joyce cleverly noted that several had a varying amount of narrow white border to their orange gular pouches, a field mark I had forgotten. [Neotropic Cormorants are casual visitors to SE Calif; I last saw one here in 1986.]

We found some of our target birds at the Wister Unit parking lot: Gambel’s Quail, Verdin, Abert’s Towhee and the only Inca Doves of the trip. An immense amount of brush as well as the nature trail is gone from the west side of Davis Rd. for reasons we couldn’t guess, leaving a barren moonscape. A stop at the old salt works spa produced our first Burrowing Owl sitting on a concrete box-like affair, while a short distance away we found a large mixed flock of Rough-winged, Tree, Barn and Cliff Swallows resting on overhead wires and poking about in a muddy field. Many of the Tree Swallows were blindingly iridescent blue.

Burrowing Owl at his burrow (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Burrowing Owl at his burrow (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

The Roseate Spoonbill, a major target bird for California, proved to be at the end of Garst Rd. as reported, albeit at a vast distance, tiny even in our best scopes. Its off-white, very pale pink plumage was spotted by David, I don’t know how. I suspect that some of our 16 birders – even after many minutes of viewing – remained unconvinced. I was fortunate to see it crane its neck, giving me a glimpse of its large gray spoonish bill.

Gambel's Quail (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Gambel’s Quail (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

The Salton Sea Park HQ at the west end of Sinclair Rd. is a great place for lunch. Bathrooms, shaded picnic tables, water, and viewing platforms to check out the geese, many of which are real – not cutout figures, pivoting on poles in the breeze. Several seed feeders bring birds in close, particular Abert’s Towhees, Gambel’s Quail and various doves. Verdin build their globular nests in the mesquite trees. I bumped into birding compatriot Roy Poucher who kindly mentioned that a Yellow-footed Gull was out on the sea-edge, within walking distance, and after lunch we make the trek.

Common Ground Dove - note scaly breast & brown-spotted wings (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Common Ground Dove – note scaly breast & brown-spotted wings
(J. Waterman 2/7/15)

As usual with rare gulls, they’re buried amongst thousands of similar gulls. David and I scoped the shoreline, starting from opposite ends of a long line of gulls disappearing into the distance in both directions, almost all Ring-bills with a few scattered Herring. Much to my surprise, I found it not far away, its large size and dark gray back obvious – well, sort of obvious– among hordes of lighter gulls. But it was lying down. So we all watched, wishing it would rise.

The Yellow-footed Gull stands among lesser mortals. (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

The Yellow-footed Gull stands among lesser mortals (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

It wouldn’t move, so we clambered down the stone embankment, the gulls beconing restive as we reached the edge of their comfort zone. Our target gull stood up, we all admired its bright yellow legs and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune, and left.

Sandhill Cranes (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Sandhill Cranes (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

At Unit One – the Sonny Bono unit at the SW corner of the sea – we found a single White-fronted Goose within a large flock of Snow and Ross’s Geese, with Sandhill Cranes field-gleaning in the distance. Sundown approached. We made it back to Keystone Rd. SE of Brawley by 4:30, with plenty of time to watch Cattle Egrets and White Pelicans soar past enroute to the sea, gulls and ducks and White-faced Ibis splash down in the embanked pond nearby, and especially for the ululating of the Sandhill Cranes as they spiraled down to the water. It was, as always, a magical moment.

Gila Woodpecker (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Gila Woodpecker (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Sunday morning began with a drive through the tree-filled SW Brawley residential neighborhood, which yielded our first pair of Gila (Hee-laa) Woodpeckers. Cattle Call Park had more, plus Cedar Waxwings and other small birds. No Zone-tailed Hawks appeared. We checked out another new area, known locally as Carter & Fites, a small undeveloped brushy forest, mostly mesquite, where Crissal Thrashers could be found. Alas, none were. And not much else, either, except a few Phainopeplas, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, some Verdin, and a honeybee who was obsessed with my hearing aids.

We shot back over to the east side of Brawley to revisit the Neotropic Cormorants with Saturday’s late-arriving contingent. That done, we headed home via Hwy 111 on the now-closer east side of the sea, which led us to try for the Lesser Black-backed Gull at Salt Creek, halfway up the sea’s eastern edge. It was a virtual repeat of the prior day’s Yellow-footed Gull search, with two differences: the thousands of other gulls were mostly California, and I incautiously wore sandals to stroll upon what I thought to be a sandy

Birders on the shelly beach at Salt Creek (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

Birders on the shelly beach at Salt Creek (D. Roberts 2/8/15)

beach. Not. Sand. Tiny razor-sharp shells, trillions of them, knee-deep in places. Despite this, we actually found the gull, dark-backed among the pale gray gulls, heavily streaked on head and neck, bright light eye and yellow feet, dark wing-tipped below, a dead ringer for one of the pictures in Gulls of the Americas. I’ve searched for this annually reported gull at the sea several times before, often wondering if it was someone’s hypnogogic hallucination.

Celebratory date shakes all around.

The gorget of the male Costa's Hummingbird is purple with long side 'extensions' (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

The gorget of the male Costa’s Hummingbird is purple with long side ‘extensions’ (J. Waterman 2/7/15)

Useful Resources:
Finding Birds at the Salton Sea and in Imperial County, California; Henry Detwiler & Bob Miller; 2012; $18.
Available at Buteo Books and elsewhere.
Southwest Birders Web Site

Links to prior trips:   February 2012     February 2010
Trip list counts from 1 to 10 are reasonably accurate. All larger numbers are estimates intended only to reflect relative abundance.  [Chuck Almdale]
H – Heard Only
In Bold – Bird of Special Interest

Salton Sea Trip Lists 2/7-8/15 2/11-2/12 2/6-7/10
Greater White-fronted Goose 1
Snow Goose 1000+ 1000+ 6000+
Ross’s Goose 200+ 300+ 500+
Gadwall 50 40 10
Eurasian Wigeon 1
American Wigeon 80 200 30
Mallard 30 100 60
Blue-winged Teal 2
Cinnamon Teal 4 25 4
Northern Shoveler 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Northern Pintail 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Green-winged Teal 200 400 30
Redhead 1 60 4
Lesser Scaup 1 3 100
Bufflehead 10 5
Common Goldeneye 6
Ruddy Duck 70 80 300
Gambel’s Quail 40 30 16
Pied-billed Grebe 4 5
Horned Grebe 1
Eared Grebe 80 50
Western Grebe 3 2
Neotropic Cormorant 3
Double-crested Cormorant 1000+ 200 200
American White Pelican 100 1000+ 300
Brown Pelican 50 100 20
Great Blue Heron 15 30 10
Great Egret 60 20 20
Snowy Egret 5 50 4
Cattle Egret 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Green Heron 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 20 1
White-faced Ibis 1000+ 1000+ 400
Roseate Spoonbill 1
Turkey Vulture 15 20 15
Osprey 1 1
White-tailed Kite 5 1
Northern Harrier 25 30 20
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1 1
Zone-tailed Hawk 1 1
Red-tailed Hawk 40 40 25
Ridgway’s Rail H1
Sora H1 1
Common Gallinule 1
American Coot 100 50 500
Sandhill Crane 400+ 300 185
Black-necked Stilt 50 400 100
American Avocet 100 500 30
Black-bellied Plover 10 10
Killdeer 100 100 100
Mountain Plover 60
Spotted Sandpiper 5 1
Greater Yellowlegs 4 4 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Long-billed Curlew 50 75 500
Marbled Godwit 30 30 40
Least Sandpiper 70 20 50
Long-billed Dowitcher 20 100 200
Ring-billed Gull 3000+ 1000+ 5000+
Yellow-footed Gull 1 4
California Gull 1000+ 500
Herring Gull 20 10
Lesser Black-backed Gull 1
Glaucous-winged Gull 2
Caspian Tern 5 60 30
Forster’s Tern 1
Black Skimmer 1
Rock Pigeon 60 50 10
Eurasian Collared-Dove 100 70 60
Inca Dove 2 2
Common Ground-Dove 20 12 20
White-winged Dove 6 2 4
Mourning Dove 40 50 300
Greater Roadrunner 2 4 1
Burrowing Owl 3 1 9
Anna’s Hummingbird 3 2 2
Costa’s Hummingbird 5 1
Belted Kingfisher 1 2 1
Gila Woodpecker 6 4 2
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 10 4 1
American Kestrel 20 20 20
Peregrine Falcon 1 1
Prairie Falcon 1
Black Phoebe 35 12 10
Say’s Phoebe 10 6 3
Vermilion Flycatcher 1
Western Kingbird 2
Loggerhead Shrike 2 6 2
Common Raven 25 200 20
Horned Lark 100
No. Rough-winged Swallow 10
Tree Swallow 50 60 20
Barn Swallow 40 200
Cliff Swallow 80
Verdin 10 9 3
Marsh Wren 2+H20 H4 3
Bewick’s Wren 1
Cactus Wren 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2 3 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 8 2
Mountain Bluebird 2
American Robin 2 20
Northern Mockingbird 30 25 2
European Starling 150 100 50
American Pipit 30 40 100
Cedar Waxwing 5
Phainopepla 2
Lapland Longspur 1
Orange-crowned Warbler 2 3
Common Yellowthroat 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 40 31 20
California Towhee 2
Abert’s Towhee 20 10 12
Chipping Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 1 4
Song Sparrow H2 4 4
White-crowned Sparrow 50 60 50
Red-winged Blackbird 200 1000+ 10,000+
Tricolored Blackbird 1
Western Meadowlark 20 60 200
Yellow-headed Blackbird 5 30
Brewer’s Blackbird 40 40 200
Great-tailed Grackle 60 50 40
Brown-headed Cowbird 6 30 20
House Finch 30 100 30
Lesser Goldfinch 10 4
American Goldfinch 7
House Sparrow 30 100 30
     Total Species – 130 100 103 92
  1. liz bell permalink
    February 13, 2015 11:17 pm

    Does this post say you saw about 400 Sandhill Cranes? I didn’t know we got any in California, but it makes sense. Good to know. I’ve become sort of a craniac myself. Am going with the International Crane Foundation to the Platte River in March. Do you know of anyone else who have gone or is going to that area this year? Would like to share stories. Thanks. Liz >


    • Chukar permalink*
      February 14, 2015 1:52 pm

      Yes, about 400 cranes. We had that number at the Keystone Rd. nighttime roost, and about the same number earlier at Unit One. I don’t know if none, some or all of the two groups of cranes were the same individuals, so we might have had 800 cranes. Watching they fly in, singing, is more exciting than watching them glean grain in the distance. They’ve wintered in Imperial Valley for decades. They also winter in southern San Joachin valley (Tule Lake, I believe) and in the reserves of the Sacramento River Valley NW of Sacramento. Then there’s a huge number wintering at Bosque Del Apache in southern New Mexico.

      You might see Whooping Crane at Platte River, but the central Texas coast in winter is the most reliable location for this still-endangered bird.

      I’m sure some readers of this blog has been to the Platte River to see cranes, but I’m not one of them. From what I’ve heard, be prepared for early morning wake-up calls and dress warmly. By the way, the Int’l Crane Foundation is a wonderful organization which deserves support.


  2. Joyce Waterman permalink
    February 13, 2015 6:28 pm

    Chuck — you tell a fine story of our great trip! Doug and I always enjoy your humor and detailed accounts. The blog is very entertaining and informative. Thanks!

    And YES I missed a big bird on Sunday! Lucky for you all though. Next time . . . J



  3. Karen&Doug Kirk permalink
    February 13, 2015 5:39 pm

    Awesome, wonderful Trip Report, pictures and editorial comments….Thanks so very much! Karen & Doug


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