The Salton Sea: February 2018

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American Avocets and Coots

Burrowing Owls – I can’t seem to get these little guys. By ‘get’, I mean ‘add to my list’, not as in ‘I don’t understand them’. Although I don’t. Anyway, I’m determined on this trip — steely-eyed. The owls are ‘reliable’ in the intensely agricultural Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea. It’s a curiosity, the Salton Sea. An accident. Sort of. Being below sea level the Salton is a sink soaking up seasonal runoff. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘s’s!

In centuries past, runoff created a lake, which the sun quickly evaporated away. Then about 1905 or so,  a water company goof let the Colorado River fill the basin and suddenly the folks in Palm springs and LA had a big beautiful lake to visit. Great! Resort communities sprang up; probably Bogie and Bacall spent time here. In the a 1950’s it was a Beach Blanket Bingo kind of a place. That was then. Nowadays, almost no new water comes in and the lake is shrinking under the hot desert sun. Did I mention the smell? It has an unusual bouquet and when the wind’s in the wrong quarter, it’s fierce. If nothing changes, all the fish will die within seven years — even the hardy African Tilapia. Birds will suffer too as water levels drop. Where will the migrating flocks go to replenish their energy when the Sea is gone? Who knows?

The change is happening now. Three years ago squadrons of White Pelicans cruised the Sea; today not a single bird. Maybe there just aren’t enough fish anymore. Maybe the Pelis are at the other end of the lake. Lots of birds still come – they have to –  but fewer and fewer every year they say.

But I need to lighten up. It’s not all doomsday. There are folks trying to get more water for the Sea. The birding’s still good. American Avocets, which don’t need the Tilapia, still work the retreating edge of the water picking up brine shrimp. They are tall, pretty shorebirds with their French lawyer robe colouring and upturned bills. I can vouch for the upturned bill, not the other.

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Waterfowl in Transit

The  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge has Burrowing Owls — or they’re close by at any rate. Just inside the Refuge, a Roadrunner ambles by and then darts off looking, I suppose, for a snake or lizard for breakfast. Some Gambel’s Quail chuckle their way through the undergrowth. On some ponds, huge numbers of waterfowl rest on their way north; on others amazing numbers of shorebirds, including dozens of Dowitchers.

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Roadrunner

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Gambel’s Quail

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Dowitchers

I stop at the Refuge office for tips and also to ask about Sonny. Politicians tack their names on projects in which they otherwise have little interest but Sonny, once mayor of Palm Springs, really cared. So, thanks Sonny, (though not necessarily for “I Got You Babe)! As for the owls – “just walk out to the end of the parking lot and look right.” Which I do. In the wild, they’d use the abandoned burrows of other animals as they don’t dig their own. Here people have installed nesting pipes. And there they are, right on their doorstep, taking in the morning sun. So easy. How come it took me so long to get ’em’?

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Burrowing Owls

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

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Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail

 

 

Cabo Birding

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The Arco at Cabo San Lucas

Los Cabos — the brightness and warmth is nice after some very gloomy months plus I finally get a chance to visit a location that figures prominently in the historical novel I’m writing. The story involves the capture of the Manila Galleon by the English privateer, Thomas Cavendish in 1587,  Cavendish seized a vast treasure and then left half of it behind with his mutinous second ship, the Content, which almost immediately disappeared from history. It all took place right out there.

On the birding side, Baja Sur has species found nowhere else, such as Belding’s Yellowthroat, Xantus’ Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. Our hotel is right beside a major bird sanctuary — the Estero San Jose. Coincidence? I think not. Spectacular Hooded and Scott’s Orioles are among the first birds we see.

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Scott’s Oriole

So, a successful, combined research and birding trip all in all.  Did I mention the glorious sun and sparkling blue water? Never mind. For a week it’s been birding in the morning and composing galleon action scenes and  treasure stories in the afternoon. Not a bad thing – birding in sandals, imagining history on the beach. Later, a Baja Birding tour will help me get the Xantus’ and the Gray Thrasher, both life birds, as was the Yellow-footed Gull I saw at the ‘Arco’.  Great!

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Damage from Hurricane Odile (2014)

As for the Sanctuary, at the moment it exists, it seems, in name only. No one to blame, I suppose, economics being what it is. Hurricane Odile smashed through here in 2014 and the effects are still visible. Littering and illegal dumping are a problem too and dogs and horses roam the trails. One can only hope that conservation efforts will revive once Odile and its costs slide into the more distant past.

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Yellow-footed Gull

Otherwise, the Estero is fantastic. Happily, birds don’t seem to mind many of those things that irritate us humans. Water birds are abundant and relatively easy to find — Cinnamon and Blue-wing Teal, American Coots and Gallinules, Herons and Egrets. Glossy, black White-faced Ibises gather like mini conventions of funeral directors. Lots of stuff here. I particularly like watching the numerous Reddish Egrets as they dash about and pounce in the peculiar way they do. It’s like it just occurred to these birds that they are supposed to be working! It’s a fishing strategy that seems to me, well, goofy. It must be successful but I think they’re hilarious.

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White-faced Ibises

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Reddish Egret

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Hooded Oriole

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Female Belding’s Yellowthroat

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Eared Grebe

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Gilded Flicker

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Lark Sparrow

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Crested Caracara

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Gray Thrasher — a supercilious look methinks!

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Verdin

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Xantus’ Hummingbird