A drying Salton Sea struggles to support life in the Imperial Desert.
All photos and blog by Barbara Swanson.
The Salton Sea region in California’s Imperial County is a truly unique but endangered ecosystem, created by nature and human error over a century ago and slowly being altered by humanity’s thirst for water. It is a very complex area, supporting wildlife, farming, geothermal energy, communities of local residents and water for distant cities. In 2018, voters passed Proposition 68, which earmarked $200 million dollars for rehabilitation of the Salton Sea. Some of the issues to be addressed include dust abatement (many people in the local communities have respiratory diseases such as asthma), wetland habitat restoration and decreasing the water salinity. Already many fish and invertebrates have died as they could not survive as the water levels dropped; this has had rippled down the food chain and so dramatically reduced the number of birds at the Sea including pelicans, cormorants and grebes that the presence of some species has declined to less than 1% of their numbers compared to only ten years ago.
My most recent trip there on February 27, 2020, was to explore and enjoy the tremendous amount of wildlife that calls this area home, especially the birds in the winter time. The Salton Sea is on the Pacific flyway, a route that many migrating birds use in spring or fall. Some birds stop there for a short time to refuel and continue their journey, while others stay to either breed or to spend the winter. Almost the entire Eared Grebe population called it their winter home, but now there is only a tiny fraction of their former numbers here. Other birds live in the area year round along the shoreline, and the area has documented over 400 different bird species.
We started at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge ponds on Vendel Road, near the south end of the lake. Small flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese fed in the tilled fields along the road. Hundreds of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals floated on the pond, while close to shore there were many hundreds of Dowitchers feeding along the bottom. It was a beautiful morning to be there, with mostly sunny skies, a light breeze and temperature in the 70’s. As this area is around 220 feet below sea level, it can get quite hot in the summertime but is usually pleasant in the winter and early spring as long as it is not windy.
We eventually moved on to the viewing platforms at Unit 1, which is as far as the public is allowed. I could hear the primal sounds of the Sandhill Cranes foraging on a sandbar and watched them for a while. Every so often a small group of them flew off to the south. There were large flocks of various birds, and I needed my spotting scope to count them. Wilson’s Snipes were nearby, but unless they moved it was hard to see them as they blended in so well with the surrounding mud blobs. It paid off for us to stay awhile, as what I had thought to be a dingy Snow Goose laying down suddenly stood up and was a Tundra Swan! A snowy egret foraging near the deck caught a very large crawfish, and it took it about 4 minutes for the egret to remove all the debris clinging to it and figure out how to swallow it whole.
We decided that it was our lunch time as well and drove to the Sonny Bono Visitor Center, which is located on the southeast side of the lake. There is no entrance fee and there are a number of nice picnic tables in the shade, restrooms, and several bird feeders. While we ate we watched the quail and sparrows eat their lunch too. After we finished eating, we quietly sat or stood and photographed the birds and bunnies. A short walk took us to the closest viewing of the resident burrowing owls, who were standing in the entrance of their man-made burrow. We also had the good fortune to be able to talk to a visiting group, including a representative from the governor’s office, that is part of a task force for planning the rehabilitation of the Salton Sea.
Our next stop was to head north, but after only a few miles we made an unplanned stop when we saw a flooded field covered in white birds. I pulled over and we realized the birds were cattle egrets and gulls. We noticed a small farm road that we could drive down to better view the birds, and we spent half an hour watching and listening to all the birds.
We estimated that there were around 10,000 birds; it reminded me of Bosque del Apache except with gulls and egrets, as periodically many of the birds would launch into the air, fly a couple laps around the field, and then land. It was beautiful to see and hear. I had to crawl into the backseat to photograph as I didn’t want to open my car door and disturb them. Most of the birds were Ring-billed Gulls, with hundreds of Cattle Egrets and scattered small groups of White-faced Ibis.
We finally left and drove to the Salton Sea Visitor Center on the northeast side of the Sea, part of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area (this is a fee area). When we arrived it was very overcast and not many birds left in the marina, but we were very fortunate to see the rare female Garganey duck before she flew off a few minutes after we arrived. A very kind out-of-state birder let us view the duck through his scope. We walked along the shore of the Sea, where there were thousands of birds floating in the water. As it was getting dark it was hard to identify all of them, but we saw a diversity of species, including the Eared Grebes who used to winter here in the millions, and many Bonaparte Gulls. We watched the mostly cloudy sunset, then headed back home after a full day of enjoying the Salton Sea.
PHOTO BLOG & SLIDESHOW: FAVORITES OF THE SALTON SEABIRDS
Click on any image or its arrow ⇒ button lower right for enhanced views of the photos. Photos by Barbara Swanson.