Where I've been/What I've seen
Please excuse the hideous pictures, it was over 100 degrees out and the heat waves were terrible
The Salton Sea; most who know of it think of it as a barren wasteland, a place that once upon time, was a tourist destination. The Salton Sea is the largest body of water in California, funny considering it was formed by accident. Birders everywhere flock to the sea to catch glimpses of Yellow-footed Gulls, and other species seen there found nowhere else in the state. I recently braved the summer heat with several other young birders from the California Young Birders Club, to experience the sea, before it disappears forever.
The day started at four-something in the morning, carpooling with a friend to another friend, who would take all of us to the sea. There we would meet up with several other young birders at Cattle Call Park in Brawley. After crossing the mountainous areas of San Diego, the outdoor thermometer started to climb, starting in the seventies, and climbing to the mid-nineties by the time we arrived at the park. Cattle Call is known to have one of the most reliable Gila Woodpecker populations in the state, and as soon as we left the car, one was found in the palm tree above us. Although not much time was spent in the park, a beautiful male Western Tanager was found, the eccentric yellow seemingly matching perfectly with the bright orange-red of the face, as well as an Abert’s Towhee bouncing around.
Leaving the visitor center, we decided to pay a visit to Morton Bay, a not truly well-known, and certainly under-birded rarity magnet. Species like Sabine’s Gulls, Roseate Spoonbills, Blue-footed Boobies, frigatebirds, and more have been seen here in the past, but today we had no such luck. Ryan spotted a Neotropic Cormorant here, which was the first of two for the day. The extent of the birds we saw at this location included two new birds for me, the first of many Black Terns in addition to a Least Bittern calling somewhere from the cattails. At this point, the temperature had crept into the hundreds, and thankfully, it was not expected to get much hotter
As we left for a quick bite in Brawley, the group made a stop in a residential area for a reported Bronzed Cowbird. The bird, was most likely avoiding the heat, and as a result, we could not find it. We were just about to leave when the group behind us could not get their car started. They finally could, and we went to a Subway at a Walmart so they could look at the car, while we grabbed lunch.
Turns out the alternator on the car broke, meaning the entire group would cram into two minivans, or we could wait it out. We decided to wait, up until some of the members grew impatient and we decided to sacrifice our comfort for seeing birds. On the way to our next stop, a roadside field yielded birds such as Laughing Gulls, Whimbrel, and White-faced Ibis.
The seawall was not extremely productive, besides the five Yellow-footed Gulls, a Neotropic Cormorant, and an interesting looking white-morph Eared Grebe. “Peeps” were numerous here, but all of them seemed to be Western or Least. We continued to drive along the wall until we came across another field, one with thirty more Yellow-footed Gulls, eight-hundred Black Terns, and numbers ranging in the hundreds for several other birds. These numbers, however, could not be compared to those of ten or more years ago, when the now toxic vat of chemicals known as the Salton Sea attracted the same birds, but in the thousands. It was hard to imagine at the time, five to ten more times the number of birds in this small field.
By now we had reached the hottest part of the day, as well as the last stop. Most of the group was growing tired, and about ready to call it quits. We decided to make our last stop Unit 1 of Sonny Bono, a reliable place for shorebirds and other miscellanea of the Salton Sea. We scanned for a bit, pulling out a Burrowing Owl, and several shorebirds when a life bird flew in, two Wilson’s Phalaropes. After this somewhat surprising bird, the group headed back to the cars and called the day a success.
On the way back we talked with each other, about what we thought the Salton Sea used to be like, what would happen to it, and the effect it would have. We practically came to a consensus. The Salton Sea, in its prime, was the place to go birding on the west coast. Perfectly situated for state rarities, it lays above the Sea of Cortez, and vagrants were ever common. Since water flow was cut off to the sea, it has begun evaporating, the average water depth now being just over nine feet. Because of the evaporation, it has become one of the saltiest bodies of water on the planet, so salty that currently, only one kind of fish can live in it, known as Tilapia. If this continues, even this fish will die, and the sea will become a pit of mixed pesticides and salt, leading to both a conservation nightmare and a biological one as well. If the Salton Sea dries up, there will be no birds for miles around in the deserts of California, and worse, toxic dust clouds will spread up through Palm Springs, reaching the extent of the eastern area of Los Angeles. There’s only one thing that can stop a tragedy like this from happening: to save the sea at any cost.