Having missed going to the Salton Sea on our previous visit to California, my dad and I were especially excited as we started our journey to this special area, early on the morning on Day 3.
After all, how could we not be excited? Dead fish smell, 100+ fahrenheit temps (with no shade), and swarms biting insects awaited us. Looked like it would be a blast!
The few (but notable) negatives about birding the Salton Sea aside, this area is a famed birding location, where hundreds of birds flock to the appropriate habitat created by the sea and surrounding towns, which are further surrounded by barren desert for miles around.
Among the visiting birds, Yellow-footed Gull is probably at the top of most birder’s wish-lists when visiting the sea. Restricted to the Gulf of California in Mexico just to the south, this species is an annual post-breeding visitor to this area. Unfortunately, March is probably the least productive time for finding this gull, but we were hopeful that we might run in to one or two during our jaunt through the area.
Most of my other targets were a who’s-who of the sea’s best wintering species: Mountain Plover, Sprague’s Pipit, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, etc. This was going to be an awesome day.
After descending from the Laguna Mountains to the warm valley floor below, we began our journey to some farm fields west of the Salton Sea, in the vicinity of the prison near Montgomery Road. Our primary target here was Mountain Plover, although we were also keeping watch for one of a few Sprague’s Pipits that had wintered in the nearby fields.
Driving through a number of fields alongside the prison, we were unable to nail any plovers until we struck gold on Montgomery Road. Here, thirty or so Mountain Plovers were foraging in one of the fields, well off the main road.
While watching the plovers, we also noted a few quintessential species of this habitat type, such as Horned Lark and American Pipit. Other highlights from this area included Northern Harrier, Long-billed Curlew Burrowing Owl, American Kestrel, Merlin, Cliff Swallow and numerous Western Meadowlarks.
Unfortunately, we were unable to run into any Sprague’s Pipits, but Mountain Plover was definitely higher up on the target list.
Moving on towards the sea, we hit Red Hill, with high hopes of possibly coming across a Yellow-footed Gull or two. Unfortunately, gull diversity at this spot was rather low, but a plethora of other species, including Northern Pintail, American White Pelican, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Dowitcher, made themselves known.
We paused in our search for the gull only to visit the nearby Salton Sea NWR Visitor Center. Gambel’s Quail, Common Ground-Dove and Abert’s Towhee were all noted.
Back on the Yellow-footed chase, we stopped off at Obsidian Butte, arguably the best location for the species at the Salton Sea. It took a while, but evenutally we were able to finesse a single first-cycle Yellow-footed Gull out of the masses. The complete white breast and belly, huge bill and blocky head shape, made this individual stand out quite boldly.
Also present at Obsidian were a couple of Green-winged Teal and Common Goldeneye, as well as Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Verdin representing the passerine side of things. A pair of Cinnamon Teal and fifty-four Caspian Terns were loafing off a nearby road.
By this time it was well past noon, and we decided to forgo the search for the hawk and falcon until the Arizona portion of the trip.
Heading west to San Diego, we made one last stop at the Otay Lakes, in hopes with connecting with a Glaucous-winged Gull that had recently been seen there. Again, we were unable to connect with this species, although a single first-cycle Thayer’s Gull among the masses of Herring, California, Western and Ring-billed Gulls was a nice surprise.
Following a fantastic day of birding, in which we notched our two biggest targets, we enjoyed a celebratory sushi dinner in San Diego, which was the perfect way to cap off our first visit to such a premier birding location.