Thursday, 21 January 2016

CALIFORNIA 2016: Salton Sea (20-21 January)

Continuing our enjoyable California trip, Matt and I were at Salton Sea where not so local expert Guy McCaskie very kindly showed us around.

20 January.  We met Guy outside the Desert Inn Motel in Brawley at 06:15. He had driven over from San Diego which he had left at 04:00. Guy had been very helpful to my good friend Frank Lambert and Nigel Voaden when they had visited the area the previous summer. At Frank's suggestion we had contacted Guy to see if he would be birding around Salton Sea while we were around. He very kindly agreed to take us around but we hadn't appreciated that he lived nearly 130 miles away, perhaps no great distance in California! Guy suggested the best course of action would be to look for some land birds which would be most active early in the day leaving the waterbirds until later when the timing would make little difference. This seemed a good plan and we transferred to his vehicle. He was able to go into a few areas that were generally off-limits and his car was well known and wouldn't create any concern. We started a few miles outside of Brawley as it began to get light and were soon clocking up species we would have been unlikely to find ourselves (Vermilion Flycatcher and some doves). We headed back into Brawley, checking out a residential hummingbird feeder where there were several Anna's and two Costa's, before visiting Cattlecall Park. It was a good site for Gila Woodpecker (we saw two) and with a bit of perseverance we found a roosting Great Horned Owl. 

Costa's Hummingbird

at a feeder in downtown Brawley
Annas's and Costa's (middle bird) Hummingbirds
Great Horned Owl in Cattlecall Park
another male Vermilion Flycatcher, we saw three before heading for the wetlands
We headed north to look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds amongst huge numbers of Red-shouldered and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Guy tracked down a large flock of several thousand birds that was feeding around a large herds of cows which were crammed into open sheds. The Yellow-heads were surprisingly hard to pick out although we only saw one or two males. The smell was rather overpowering and I was very pleased to leave. We headed north to the Rocky Hill section of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge ('I got you babe' and Congressman fame) stopping to check a large burnt field where a flock of Mountain Plovers had been present for the previous few days. No sign unfortunately (we were very relieved to have seen them in Antelope Valley) but two brilliant Burrowing Owls living in a tyre provided some compensation. We called in at a friend of Guy's nearby seeing more Anna's Hummingbirds on feeders and some Cedar Waxwings on their property.

Burrowing Owl inn its tyre
its mate was nearby

Cedar Waxwings near Brawley

 before spending the rest of the morning at Rocky Hill, Obsidian Butte and nearby pools and marshes looking at staggering numbers of grebes, cormorants, pelicans, duck and gulls. We were particularly interested in checking the gulls in the hope of finding an adult Yellow-footed that had been seen in the area up to the start of the year. Guy had warned us that it would be a very difficult bird to find as fewer than usual had come up from Mexico the previous autumn including virtually no young birds which would be more likely to hang on into the winter. Only two had been recorded on the Christmas bird count (in early December), both by Guy - no surprise there! We checked every gull flock we could find and were pretty confident the Yellow-footed Gull was not about. It being a dark mantled gull amongst much paler birds would have made it stand out even at some distance. Guy picked out two Neotropic Cormorants amongst hundreds of Double-crested, not something I was even considering. 
American Avocets
their bills seemed impossibly thin
Marbled Godwit
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
White-faced Ibis

Ridgway's Rail
as Guy said 'we don't get Clapper Rails around here any more'
Greater Roadrunner with crest raised
we saw five around the Salton Sea during our day with Guy

Neotropic Cormorant
a second-winter Glaucous-winged Gull
The Southern California site guide mentioned a record of Ross's Gull at Salton Sea as an example of an extreme rarity seem there. I asked Guy how many people would turn up the next morning for a Ross's Gull. It turned out Guy had found it, two people made it that evening and about 30 the next day. Guy also found a Bridled Tern but in a private area. The wardens only allowed him to drive in there but didn't mind who he took in. It stayed 8 weeks and he never had so many friends! Salton Sea had an impressive list of pelagic vagrants, thought to have become 'stuck' at the top of the Gulf of California only about 100 miles to SE. There had been 4 Laysan Albatrosses (Guy had seen 2), 3 species of Storm Petrel, three of Shearwaters and Cook's Petrel. Guy was originally from Inverness but moved to San Diego in 1957. Despite being well past retirement age he was still Vice-President of a construction company and he was the top California lister. We were privileged to be taken around by him, but he clearly enjoyed showing off his patch to visitors and, despite te distance, visited Salton Sea once a week on average. Ross's Gull wasn't a possibility, Guy's bird remains the only Salton Sea record, but Ross's Goose was.  We headed south to Sonny Bono Unit 1 where a large flock of Snow and Ross's Geese were wintering. There were about 5000 birds present, mostly Snow but we picked out 20-30 Ross's. There were a few Sandhill Cranes nearby and thousands of birds in the distance at the mouth of New River. Most were too far away to identify but the pelicans stood out.  

Geese at Sonny Bono Unit 1

most were Snow Geese, including encouraging numbers of juveniles
we picked out several smaller, shorter-billed Ross's Geese amongst them

Sandhill Cranes
We finished the day back at Obsidian Butte looking unsuccessfully for Yellow-footed Gull after another abortive look at the burnt field for Mountain Plover.  We did see a first-winter Thayer's Gull and brought our total of Glaucous-winged to three. A brilliant day, I had seen 95 species including Greater Roadrunners, Ridgway's Rail, Stilt Sandpipers, Gambel's Quail, Clark's Grebe and Cinnamon Teal.  Back in Brawley we had a meal with Guy, who was staying over, and planned some birding the following morning.

Red Hill and Rocky Hill from Obsidian Butte
Obsidian Butte
American White Pelicans over Obsidian Butte

American Herring Gulls
Thayer's Gull at Obsidian Butte
I was actually first to see it but fortunately Guy agreed with my ID
a nice end to a very enjoyable day
with another spectacular sunset to top it off

21 January. At 06:30 we followed Guy south to Sheldon Reservoir. A small earth-banked rectangle surrounded by a chain link fence. Guy pulled up by a narrow gap in the fence and told us we had local fishermen to thank for being able to access it. It had been gated and secured by a padlock and chain which they had repeatedly cut only for the authorities to replace. They then removed the gate too at which point the authorities gave up. On the reservoir we saw Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck and a female Bufflehead. We headed back north to the burnt field, the Burrowing Owls were still in their tyre but the Mountain Plovers had not returned. At Sonny Bono the light was excellent for checking the gulls and we tried the Rocky Hill pools, Observation Hill and Red Hill (where Guy had found the Ross's Gull) but no dark mantled birds were present. We had tried our hardest and in Guy had the best person possible to help us. At least we had an excuse to return another autumn. 

both Burrowing Owls in their tyre
Guy scanning for Mountain Plovers, they had temporarily gone missing
Guy scanning at Red Hill.  Perfect light but no dark mantled gulls
Snow Geese over Sonny Bono
two of five Stilt Sandpipers at Sonny Bono

We said farewell to Guy and continued north around the east side of Salton Sea. Guy had suggested checking the gulls at Salt Creek and North Shore but warned us there had been a couple of Lesser Black-backs around. We were pleased to have been forewarned as we saw single adults at both. Three Bonaparte's Gulls at Salt Creek were much more welcome and the only ones I saw.  
Salt Creek
gulls at salt creek, including a Lesser Black-back
Bonaparte's Gulls at Salt Creek
Lesser Black-backed Gull at North Shore. Guy had warned us before we came that Yellow-footed Gull would be tough to find at this time of year but seeing 2 Lesser Black-backs, 3 Glaucous-winged and a Thayer's we felt a bit disappointed not to have done so too.
Cactus Wren at North Shore, Matt first heard its distinctive call, my mind was elsewhere ...
Matt drove us back to the coast in about five hours, mostly on not overly busy freeways. We skirted Palm Springs, San Bernadino and northern Los Angeles (Pasadena and Glendale) before reaching the coast at Mugu Rock. Heerman's Gulls in the car park were nice to see again while distant Black-vented Shearwaters and not so distant dolphins were offshore. We had a couple of hours of light left and decided to try La Jolla Canyon, a site for Canyon Wren. Ignoring a sign warning of trail damage (as others were) we followed the main canyon inland for a mile or so before finding a pair of Rock Wrens then an excellent Canyon Wren. We called in at Perkin's Road Treatment Works where a small pool held Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, several Night Herons and a superb male Yellowthroat. We drove to nearby Oxnard Harbour to check where our boat to Santa Cruz Island was leaving from in the morning - I had received an email notifying us of a change of departure as Ventura Harbour was storm damaged. It was then a 25 minute drive up the coast to Ventura and the Viking Motel.
Heerman's Gull in Mugu Rock car park. I was about to walk down onto the beach where some were resting in the hope of getting close enough for photos when this one flew in and landed nearby

what was presumably its mate soon joined it
Western Gull at Mugu Rock
La Jolla Canyon
Canyon Wren in La Jolla Canyon

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Cinnamon Teal at Perkin's Road

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