Avian Diversity at the Salton Sea

The inlet teams with waterfowl and shore birds. Both White and Brown Pelicans float contentedly, along with masses of Ring-billed and California Gulls. One struggles with a recently-caught fish.

Black-necked Stilts and Avocets tip-toe through the shallow water near the shore. Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers and Eared Grebes swim languidly. Two Snowy Egrets fly in, followed by a Green Heron. White-faced Ibis, Killdeer, Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlin and Willets, along with a number of ‘peeps’ that are too far away to identify, forage in the mud.

My friend Penny and I are at the Salton Sea State Park at the north end of the lake. A sign at the visitor’s center talks about the smell, but on this breezy winter day, the air is clear and the water is a clear azure blue. It is a pleasant surprise from what I had expected.

In the Visitor’s Center we watch a short video where we learn that the Salton Sea, formerly was known as Lake Cahuilla, and at 380 square miles is the largest lake in California. It was formed by accident when the Colorado River changed course and flooded the area known as the Salton Sink – 227 feet below sea level. It has no outlet and its water level is maintained through agricultural runoff from irrigation in the nearby Imperial and Coachella valleys.

The Salton Sea, on the Pacific Flyway, has recorded over 400 species of birds, including 100 species that breed there. We only are able to see a fraction of them. Daylight runs out before we are able to hit all of the hot spots.

Working our way south, our next stop is the Wister State Waterfowl Area. Just before the turn off, I spot a Peregrine Falcon perched in a tree. We follow a road along one of the dykes to a spot where mud pots are bubbling and carbon dioxide escapes through the vents. Just like the mud pots in Yellowstone, these geologic formations are the result of a geothermal field just below the water table. We walk out on a viewing platform to observe the earth heaving in the sink holes below.

Back at the entrance, we register to record our interest in bird watching, as opposed to hunting. Swarms of Red-winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds swirl over the neighboring farm, then settle on a power pole. We head south on Davis Road, passing ponds where a variety of waterfowl are feeding

As we pass over an irrigation ditch we watch as dozens of herons, egrets and California Gulls stand like sentinels on either side of the ditch.

Occasionally one of the gulls dives into the water, while the rest of them fly up and around before settling back down. The patient herons and egrets never take their eyes off the water.

At the Red Hill Marina area Penny is fascinated watching Northern Shovelers swim with their spatula-shaped beaks just below the surface of the water, straining out plants and mollusks. On the other side of the road, I diligently scan all of the gulls, hoping to see the rare Yellow-footed Gull. I keep spotting yellow legs, but am disappointed when I discover they are California or Ring-billed Gulls.

Our next stop is the nearby boat launch area at the far side of Red Hill. As we sit on the dyke next to the boat launch, the new bird for the day is the Marbled Godwit. Masses of them are plunging their long slightly up-curved curved bills into the shallow water. Their cinnamon feathers glisten in the late afternoon sun.

As we head to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, we pass one of the plants that generates electricity from naturally occurring geothermal steam.

At the refuge headquarters Gambel’s Quail scurry between the shrubs and Abert’s Towhees scratch in the dirt. I head out on the trail that leads to the shoreline, comparing notes with two birders from British Columbia. In the mesquite trees we find Verdin, Gray Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Savannah Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Beyond the mesquite I can see Snow Geese and hurry back to show Penny. We walk up on the viewing platform and watch as the geese feed in the fields as the light begins to fade.

There were many more hot spots along the southeast shore and nearby areas, but the sun has dropped behind the Borrego Mountains. We watch the sky turn orange, then slowly fade to pink as we make our way up the west side of the Sea. I know that I have barely scratched the surface of the avian diversity and will definitely return.


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