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Cranes, Quail, Doves, Verdin, Towhees: Salton Sea & Imperial Valley 9-11 February, 2018

February 14, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at dusk, Dogwood Road (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Other than blowing a tire Friday night en route to Christine’s (Fine Mexican Dining), it was a good trip. From this event we learned five things: median strips in Brawley are invisible; compact spare tires are inferior to full-sized, but far better than no spare and an air pump; Walmart may advertise that their auto repair door “opens at 7am” but repairs don’t start until 8am; leave room for the jack’s crank when parking next to the curb; good leverage outranks shear body strength. One large and helpful local saw me struggling, pitiful and disheveled, crouched on the curb in the flickering neon light. “Hey buddy, let me help,” and took over the cranking job. But over several minutes of straining he failed to move it, and while walking away, muttered  to his wife, “that guy’s stronger than he looks; I couldn’t budge that thing.”

Verdin in Palo Verde tree (Jerry Ewing 2-10-18)

Roadside vegetation at the Whister Unit sign-in spot on Davis Road has recovered a bit since the management’s scorched-earth policy of three years ago, but still sparse with fewer birds. Recent rains had washed out several bridges, and we couldn’t get through on either Davis or English Roads. We found a workaround.

Long-billed Curlews, English Road (Chuck Bragg 2-10-18)

After a futile Crissal Thrasher search on Noffsinger Road, we found a good selection of waterfowl and shorebirds in an impoundment around the corner on English Road, including a large mixed flock of plastic geese. A Peregrine Falcon was in territorial mode, diving repeatedly on a Turkey Vulture. The attacks apparently forced the TV to the ground, but he managed to take flight and get away, despite a few more Peregrine stoops. We guessed that the falcon had knocked a bird down which the TV then tried to move in on, but the falcon maintained ownership. Vultures normally stick to dead things for food, and therefore don’t compete with raptors who kill their own prey.

Peregrine Falcon & Turkey Vulture, Whister Unit (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

We managed to locate the American Redstart wintering since October at the NE corner of the Imperial Irrigation District’s managed wetlands, but only two people were in the right spot at the right microsecond to see it. The pair of Burrowing Owls on Sinclair Rd., which we’d found on Friday, were probably hiding in their hole during the noonday heat.

Burrowing Owl – out on Friday, hiding on Saturday
(Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Burrowing Owl, sign & tube
(Chuck Bragg 2-10-18)

Fortunately, the owl at the Park HQ stayed alert at his burrow-tube mouth, and everyone had excellent looks. Likewise, the Gambel’s Quail, Abert’s Towhees and Common Ground Doves were busy seed-scarfing at the feeders. Life birds for many.

Eurasian Collared-Doves have proliferated in Imperial Valley. About ten years ago I was very excited to find one, near Nyland. They had been spreading at lightning speed across the U.S. from their southern Florida starting point – some say the Bahamas – and this was my first California sighting. Now they’re everywhere in the valley, often in groups of 5-20 birds. Concurrently, Mourning Doves seem to have taken a big hit. See the comparative trip lists below.

Similarly, as the sea retreats and salinity of the remaining water increases, the fish are dying out and several avian species have dwindled almost to the vanishing point, notably White Pelicans and Eared Grebes. The grebes used to coat the water in vast rafts, while coordinated flocks of thousands of pelicans soared. If you listened closely, you could hear the wind ruffling their flight feathers. Where are they all now? My guess (or hope) is they’ve continued farther south to the open water of the Sea of Cortez. If not there, they’re vanishing before our eyes.

Abert’s Towhee, Park HQ seed feeder (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

On Garst Road towards Red Hill Marina we found many Snow Geese and Cinnamon Teal in the roadside ponds. The north end of Garst keeps getting longer as the sea retreats, and tall reeds now surround the area where once was only open water a few years ago.

White Pelicans on the Salton Sea, north end of Garst Road (Chuck Bragg 2-10-18)

Marsh wrens sang everywhere although we saw only a few, and a Sora called from hiding. On the sea, what little we could see of it, were a few White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants, a single Forster’s Tern perched on a pole, and a spotless Spotted Sandpiper prowled the edges. This bird’s butt-bobbing behavior led to a brief discussion about the effect of tail/head wagging/bobbing on a bird’s ability to perceive depth.

Spotted Sandpiper, Salton Sea, north end of Garst Road (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Slowly driving past the enormous Brant Ranch cattle feed lot on Brant Rd. brought us zero Yellow-headed and Tricolored Blackbirds. At least 90% of the blackbirds we’d seen there at 8:45 AM had gone elsewhere.

Common Ground Dove, Park HQ seed feeder (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Eddins & Sperry Rds., just west of downtown Calipatria, is a well-known hangout for small doves: Ground, Inca and Ruddy Ground Dove. A diligent search yielded only a single Inca Dove in the former pig farm, and few of the birders felt up to walking over to see it. Another property owner came out to greet us when her dog started howling. This beast was blind and sixteen years old and staggered sideways more than walked forward, but it still possessed a strong voice. She show us a photo which Bob Miller, field guide author and local birder extraordinaire, had given her of two of her Ruddy Ground Doves, and then told us of the tour buses which stop to disgorge hordes of dove-hungry birders. She also lamented the gun-toting dove hunters who like to shoot up or remove her “no-trespassing” and “children present” signs.

One of a pair of jousting Greater Roadrunners, English Road (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

A couple of birders peeled off at this point to retreat to the motel, and the rest flagged in the afternoon +80° heat. Yet on we went to Ramer Lake to pick out purported Neotropic Cormorants from the Double-crested. I personally do not care for this particular exercise. I stare at these cormorants, knowing that other birders always find Neotropics here, but I can never see them, no matter how hard I try to convince myself. The lowering afternoon sun painted their gular pouches a deep orange – almost red in one instance – which didn’t make things any easier. One bird seemed to have white edging on its pouch, but it was very faint and restricted. I gave up and we left.

Snow Geese (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Rough-winged Swallow, Carey Road seed mill (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

We arrived at the Carey Road seed mill (between Hwy #86 and Dogwood Road) several miles south of Brawley about a half hour before sundown, giving us plenty of time to watch 79 Sandhill Cranes stalk the seed and chaff-covered ground. Cranes arrived and left, ululating to our delight, while other small groups flew by to land a mile away, east of Dogwood Road. We relocated to roadside Dogwood, listening, watching, talking. Flocks large and small passed overhead: Snow Geese, White-faced Ibis, Cattle Egrets, heading to their night roosts as the setting sun painted the sky in traditional California colors of pink and blue.

Dinner at the Brawley Inn restaurant was quite nice, consisting of mostly Italian food (mine a scorching ziti), with draft beer and wines on hand. Our total bird list for the day was a reasonable but not spectacular seventy birds.

Long-billed Curlews (Joyce Waterman 2-10-18)

Next morning after breakfast, we arrived at the Carter & Fites brush & trash patch about 6:45 AM, ready to find the Crissal Thrasher, for which the spot is noted. The less said about this effort, the better. We found a few singing Phainopeplas, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers bounced through the brush and vines, but little else appeared.

White-winged Doves, Cattle Call Park (Joyce Waterman 2-11-18)

Birding was better across the New River at Cattle Call Park. Gila Woodpeckers in the park and local neighborhood, White-winged Doves, Juncos and Abert’s Towhees on the lawn, tricky Anna’s Hummingbirds, several Ground Doves, Gambel’s Quail, Yellow-rumped and Nashville Warblers. Joyce found a Red-naped Sapsucker – certainly unexpected for this area – and a Northern Flicker. A distant and calling Cactus Wren was a life bird for some. For most birders, this was the end of the trip.

Gambel’s Quail trio, Cattle Call Park (Joyce Waterman 2-11-18)

After passing through Westmoreland and heading home up Hwy 86, Lillian and I stopped at Poe Road, a spot new to us, which entailed a mile drive on dirt and caliche down to the edge of the sea. (Do NOT drive on caliche when wet!) Here we found an enormous number of shorebirds and ducks – primarily Least/Western Sandpipers and Northern Shovelers – plus more Black-necked Stilts than I’ve ever seen before, all at scope-distance. It’s cheating a bit to add these to the trip list, but we did it anyway – so Snowy & Black-bellied Plovers, Willet, Dunlin, Western and Stilt Sandpipers made it onto the trip list. Total species for 2 PM Friday through noon Sunday was 92 species.

Salton Sea at end of Poe Road – It’s hard to believe there’s over 10,000 birds in this picture (L. Johnson 2-11-18)

Here’s a plug for two local businesses.

Red-naped Sapsucker female, Cattle Call Park (Joyce Waterman 2-11-18)

Brawley Inn: Their manager must have seen our trip announcement which mentioned four area motels including his. He emailed me an offering of $82 special price for trip participants, which most of us utilized. The rooms, water and soundproofing were fine, as was their restaurant and the included breakfast, but at least one participant had to exert extra diligence to make sure they actually received the promised price.

Oasis Date Gardens (59-111 Grapefruit Blvd., Thermal): The new Highway #86 bypassed their store full of great date shakes, sandwiches, special lunches, and about ten varieties of delicious dates year-round. We always stop – both coming and going – to get date shakes and a couple of pounds of dates. Heading south on Hwy #86, turn right (west) at Airport Blvd. (equivalent of Avenue 56). A new overpass crosses over the railroad and Grapefruit Blvd. As the overpass descends, take the first right which curves around to Grapefruit. Then three miles south (right) to the Oasis store on your right. To continue south, stay on #111 to travel the sea’s east side to Nyland. For Brawley or further south, get back on #86 when you see the signs.

When coming north, I recommend exiting #86 at Hwy #195 (equivalent of Avenue 66), drive east towards Mecca, turn north (left) onto Hwy #111 and drive seven miles north to the store. If you’re driving up #111, just continue past Mecca to the garden.

American Kestrel pair, shortly after mating, Cattle Call Park (Chuck Bragg 2-10-18)

You can get onto Hwy #86 at Airport Blvd three miles north of the store. The highway design people didn’t do any favors for the Oasis owners, and the turns and roads are irritatingly poorly marked. But it’s well worth the effort.
Link to Google Map.

Celebratory date shakes all around.

Recommended Reading:
Finding Birds at the Salton Sea and in Imperial County, California  Henry Detwiler & Bob Miller, 2012, $18.00
From ButeoBooks
Southwest Birders Web Site

Prior Field Trip Reports: Feb 2015   Feb 2012   Feb 2010

Salton Sea & Imperial Valley  2018  2015  2012 2010
Name   (See key at bottom)
Feb. 9-11 Feb. 7-8 Feb. 11-12 Feb. 6-7
Greater White-fronted Goose 1
Snow Goose 3000+ 1000+ 1000+ 6000+
Ross’s Goose 200+ 300+ 500+
Gadwall 30 50 40 10
Eurasian Wigeon 1
American Wigeon 100 200 30
Mallard 30 30 100 60
Blue-winged Teal 2
Cinnamon Teal 50 4 25 4
Northern Shoveler 3000+ 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Northern Pintail 300 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Green-winged Teal 50 200 400 30
Redhead 1 60 4
Lesser Scaup 1 3 100
Bufflehead 40 10 5
Common Goldeneye 6
Ruddy Duck 50 70 80 300
Gambel’s Quail 20 40 30 16
Pied-billed Grebe 5 4 5
Horned Grebe 1
Eared Grebe 3 80 50
Western Grebe 5 3 2
Clark’s Grebe 1
Neotropic Cormorant 4
Double-crested Cormorant 200 1000+ 200 200
American White Pelican 50 100 1000+ 300
Brown Pelican 50 100 20
Great Blue Heron 15 15 30 10
Great Egret 20 60 20 20
Snowy Egret 10 5 50 4
Cattle Egret 1000+ 1000+ 1000+ 1000+
Green Heron 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 10 1 20 1
White-faced Ibis 1000+ 1000+ 1000+ 400
Roseate Spoonbill 1
Turkey Vulture 20 15 20 15
Osprey 1 a 1 1
White-tailed Kite 1 5 1
Northern Harrier 30 25 30 20
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1 1 1
Zone-tailed Hawk 1 1
Red-tailed Hawk 10 40 40 25
Ridgway’s Rail 1 H
Sora 1H 1H 1
Common Gallinule 1
American Coot 200 100 50 500
Sandhill Crane 200 400+ 300 185
Black-necked Stilt 500 50 400 100
American Avocet 200 100 500 30
Black-bellied Plover 10 c 10 10
Snowy Plover 1 c 0
Killdeer 30 100 100 100
Mountain Plover 60
Spotted Sandpiper 1 5 1
Greater Yellowlegs 6 4 4 2
Willet 100 c
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Long-billed Curlew 700 50 75 500
Marbled Godwit 30 30 40
Stilt Sandpiper 10 c
Dunlin 5 c
Least Sandpiper 1000+ 70 20 50
Western Sandpiper 200+ c
Long-billed Dowitcher 300 20 100 200
Ring-billed Gull 3000+ 3000+ 1000+ 5000+
Yellow-footed Gull 1 4
California Gull 1000+ 1000+ 500
Herring Gull 20 10
Lesser Black-backed Gull 1
Glaucous-winged Gull 2
Caspian Tern 2 5 60 30
Forster’s Tern 1 1
Black Skimmer 1
Rock Pigeon 500 60 50 10
Eurasian Collared-Dove 100+ 100 70 60
Inca Dove 1 2 2
Common Ground-Dove 10 20 12 20
White-winged Dove 6 b 6 2 4
Mourning Dove 40 60 50 300
Greater Roadrunner 3 2 4 1
Burrowing Owl 4 3 1 9
Anna’s Hummingbird 4 3 2 2
Costa’s Hummingbird 5 1
Belted Kingfisher 1 a 1 2 1
Gila Woodpecker 4 b 6 4 2
Red-naped Sapsucker 1 b
Ladder-backed Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 1 b 10 4 1
American Kestrel 20 20 20 20
Peregrine Falcon 1 1 1
Prairie Falcon 1
Black Phoebe 30 35 12 10
Say’s Phoebe 5 10 6 3
Vermilion Flycatcher 1
Western Kingbird 2
Loggerhead Shrike 2 6 2
Common Raven 10 25 200 20
Horned Lark 100
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 1 10
Tree Swallow 10 a 50 60 20
Barn Swallow 40 200
Cliff Swallow 80
Verdin 10 10 9 3
Marsh Wren 2 H20 2 H20 4 H 3
Bewick’s Wren 1
Cactus Wren 1 b 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 4 3 2
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 20 8 2
Mountain Bluebird 2
American Robin 2 20
Northern Mockingbird 8 30 25 2
European Starling 80 150 100 50
American Pipit  1 30 40 100
Cedar Waxwing 5
Phainopepla 6 b 2
Lapland Longspur 1
Orange-crowned Warbler 2 3
Nashville Warbler 1 b
Common Yellowthroat 2
American Redstart 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 40 40 31 20
Wilson’s Warbler 1
California Towhee 2
Abert’s Towhee 15 20 10 12
Chipping Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 20 a 1 4
Song Sparrow 6 2 4 4
White-crowned Sparrow 80 50 60 50
Dark-eyed Junco 6 b
Red-winged Blackbird 200 200 1000+ 10,000+
Tricolored Blackbird 1
Western Meadowlark 20 20 60 200
Yellow-headed Blackbird 5 30
Brewer’s Blackbird 10 40 40 200
Great-tailed Grackle 200 60 50 40
Brown-headed Cowbird 6 30 20
House Finch 30 30 100 30
Lesser Goldfinch 10 4
American Goldfinch 7
House Sparrow 50 30 100 30
Total Species – 142 93 101 103 93
a – Friday only 2/9/18
b – Cattle Call Park only 2/11/18
c – Poe Road only 2/11/18
Bold – Special interest species
One Comment
  1. Lucien P permalink
    February 14, 2018 4:37 pm

    Great report, chuck, and fantastic photos, Joyce et al.


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