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Salton Sea California (and a little of the Sierras) April/July

Connor Cochrane

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Hi all. Since most of us are still stuck around our home area, and I'm sure most people aren't going on trips right now, so I decided to post a trip, or 2 trips to the same location that I took last year. I live in Northern California, and I don't get down south that often, so I thought it would be cool to go down to the Salton Sea. I went down in my Spring Break with my grandfather, and went back up through the Sierras. In July, I went with the California Young Birders Club, and that trip allowed me to pick up species that I missed on the first trip.


Trip 1: April

4/6 and 4/7 Travel Days. 4/6 my grandfather picked me up from my house, and we drove to Modesto, where he used to live, and still has a part time residence. On the 6th of April, we went to Ceres WTP just south of Modesto, to try to find a Black-bellied Whistling Duck, but failed to locate it, we did find some Bonaparte's Gulls, which was a new county bird for me. On the day of 4/7, we took the long drive down to the outskirts of Palm Springs, where we were going to stay the night. That day we found a Nuttal's Woodpecker, which is very rare for the area. I also got my Californian Costa's Hummingbird that evening. 

4/8 we birded South Salton Sea, the Visitor center, the area where everyone birds. I got many new birds for California including, Gambel's Qauil, Common Ground Dove, Inca Dove, Gull-billed Tern, Verdin, and Black Tailed Gnatcatcher. More unusual birds seen included a Blue Snow Goose, rare for the Pacific, and Brewer's Sparrow. We birded Obsidian Butte, and went back to the visitor center, where we saw the first of many Burrowing Owls. Along Young Rd. we continued, where we got our first Greater Roadrunner of the trip, there we also got Brant. The whole time around the Salton Sea, especially when it's close to dawn or dusk, Lesser Nighthawk are all around. At Unit 1 we went and found 2 Stilt Sandpiper, mixed in with the Dunlin.  In the flooded field around Lindsay Rd, I saw Franklins Gulls and a singular Laughing Gull. It was a good first day of the trip

4/9, this time we birded around Palm Desert to try to find few more Desert Specialties. We birded Ironwood Park, where we found Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, and my FOS Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Hooded Oriole. We than went to the Living Dessert and Zoo, which is a Zoo that was supposed to have Bell's Vireo living there. While we couldn't locate the Vireo's, we saw many Phainlopepla, and a few Black-headed Grosbeak, also the first Black-chinned Hummingbird of the trip. After, we went to Coachella Valley Preserve, which was a massive bust in the 100 degreased weather. 

4/10 was our last day in Palm Desert, so we went back down to the Salton Sea. We started by birding the North Shore Marina, where the beach was full of fish carcasses. Nothing too interesting was there, except a FOS Nashville Warbler hiding in the small bushes. We then headed to the Salton Sea HQ, which was very successful. Blue-winged Teal, Red Knot, Cactus Wren, Red-breasted Merganser, and the highlight of the day a Neotropic Cormorant. We headed to the town of Bombay Beach, which is known for being in such bad condition, most houses missing half of their walls. No interesting birds were there, but it's a very interesting place to visit if your ever in the Salton Sea area. Driving around the roads that are in the South Salton sea, we located many American White Pelican, and a lone Ruddy Turnstone. Back at the visitor center, some very loud Bullock's Oriole stole the show. For the last desert stop of the trip, we visited Cattle Call Park in Barstow. There we saw the beautiful Vermillion Flycatcher, Great Horned Owl, MacGillvary's Warbler, White Winged Dove and a Gila Woodpecker. 

4/11 was another travel day, heading up through Los Angles, we stoped at Hahamonga Watershed Park, where we saw many good birds, including Lewis's Woodpecker, Red Crowned Parrot, Gray Flycatcher, Cassin's Kingbird, Bells Vireo, Hermit Warbler, and oddly, Red-whiskerd Bulbul. we continued are travels, and stayed in Oakhurst, in Madera county.

4/12 was all about Yosemite and the surrounding areas. We drove into Yosemite, seeing Black-throated Gray Warbler, singing Pacific Wren. In a Radom pullout near a stream, two American Dipper were chasing each other around. We birded the main attractions of Yosemite Park, and saw the usual Sierra suspects, but at this location: 37.7227,-119.6479, we saw Clark's Nutcrackers. At Happy Isles Fen, the birding started to pick up, where we saw Cassin's Vireo, Cassin's Finch, and White-headed Woodpecker. We than drove a little bit, till' we got to one of my favorite birding locations, Ackerson Meadow. Up there, we saw Chipping Sparrow, Black-backed Woodpecker which was a lifer for me. It was one of my target birds for the trip, Also we saw, Red Crossbill and Mountain Bluebird. We continued on the thin road overlooking a ginormous canyon near Hetch Hetchy Resivour, where I head my lifer Canyon Wren, singing it's distinctive song from the canyon below. We wen't back to my Grandparent's  house, where we got the last Year Bird of the trip, a Barn Owl, screeching  away out in the fields. 


Soon after that trip, I learned that the California Young Birders Club was going down to the Salton Sea for their June club trip. I knew I missed many species, and when I'm with other birders, I would find some species that I didn't have, also, it's really fun birding with a group of people you know really well. It was at the end of July, and I had already done a lot of birding that summer. I just returned from Orange County, where I was participating in the Junior Olympics for water polo. I landed in SFO, drove up to Napa, where my friend who I was going to be driving with lived, and spent the night there. We left the next day, me, three other young birders, and one of their fathers, piled into their car, with my tule rack on top, and started the long drive down. 

On 7/24, we drove from Napa, to Rancharia road down in the Mountains of Kern County. We saw some of the normal birds to the lower sierras, White-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Rufous Hummingbird, Townsend's Solitare, Dusky Flycatcher, and Lawrences Goldfinch. Many good birds for Kern County. Also around the area, we saw nesting Northern Goshawk, which was a lifer for me, and a bird I had wanted to see for a while. We dropped down from the mountains and entered Kern River Preserve, where the Avifauna was mostly the same as Coastal California, Nuttal's instead of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and California instead of Gambel's Quail. We saw a American Robin, which was rare for the area, but the reason why we were there were for the two Summer Tanager that we saw. After that, we drove 5 hours and arrived at a tiny campground where the closest town was Nipton. We were in the middle of the Mojave, and even in the middle of the night, the temperature was over 100. It wasn't the best sleep. Something very interesting happened that night, but that would have to be told in the Stories page in Photos and Discussion. 

7/25 was our first real day of birding, and one of my favorite days of the trip. We birded the Mojave National Preserve. We started by birding the Cedar Canyon and Black Canyon Road intersection. I got my lifer Pinyon Jay, and my Californian Black-throated Sparrow. We also saw Cactus Wren and Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher. We birded Cedar Canyon road. It's the best area in the Mojave National Preserve. We continued on the road. The first section we got Woodhouse's Scrub Jay, Northern x Gilded Flicker Hybrid, more Black-throated Sparrow. My favorite bird for the first section of the road had to be the Crissal Thrasher. We continued down to the road, and the habitat changed a little bit, The dominate Thrasher change from Crissal to Brendire's Thrasher. Another Lifer. We continued to Mile Marker 15-17 area, where we saw Ash-throated Flycatchers, and another life, a LeConte's Thrasher. You continue on, and you get to the 11-14 mile marker. We were birding from the car and getting out when the birds came. We saw a Gilded Flicker quickly fly by, and everyone hopped out and ran into the middle of the desert. After running for half a mile, we relocated the Flicker on a Joshua Tree. Unlike others in the group, I watched my step. # other people got giant cactus spikes in their leg, and had to pull them out. Also in this area we went birding around a fence line to try to refine Cassin's Sparrow, which they nested in California for the first time in 20 or so years I think, that someone else in the group saw earlier in the year. We couldn't locate them, presumably they had left by July. We continued to these coordinates, 35.1549,-115.3684. There we found another flock of Pinyon Jay which this time wasn't a flyover, so we could photograph them. Also there were Scott's Oriole which was a bird I missed on the last trip. One very unexpected bird were some Juniper Titmouse, which is very hard to find in the state of California. After that we drove West over to San Bernardino County where we drove back up into the mountains. We drove up to Baldwin Lake, where we saw White-faced Ibis, and Semipalmated Plover. We drove up past Big Bear City, and drove up to Wildhorse Meadows where we set up camp for the night. The temperate difference at night form the camps those two nights were over 60 degrees. We saw a few birds that evening, including Clark's Nutcracker, Type 2 Red Crossbill, Dusky Flycatcher and Townsend's Solitaire. From there we drove the hour down the road to the bottom . By then it was night, and we were roasting Hot dogs over a camp grill, we were listening for a few nocturnal specialties. We were listening for Mexican Whip-por Whil. We thought we head in many times, but it usually turned out it was someone playing their calls. We very well could have heard it that night, but we could never differentiate it from playback. Driving back up, playing Flammulated Owl calls, since those were in the area, our car was behind the rest of the group. After playing FLOW for 2 min or so, something responded, but it wasn't a Flamulatued. It was a Common Nighthawk! Very rare anywhere in California away from Modoc county and the Sierra's this was a very good bird. Flying over the valley yellow, we heard it's peent! calls for around 5 min. One person in our group decided, to stay at the hotel down in the valley, heard the Nighthawks too. We continued back up to the camp, continuing to play Flamulated Owls, but never had a clear response. We went to camp and fell asleep.


7/26: We woke up and spent some time exploring and birding Wildhorse meadows, where we camped the night before. Exploring by my self, I located a pair of Williamson's Sapsucker. This was defiantly the bird everyone wanted to see in the area. Otherwise, fairly normal Pacific Mountain Birds including, Townsend's Solitaire, many Dusky, and one Gray Flycatcher. Also there was Cassin's Finch and Vireo, White-headed Woodpecker, and many Type 2 Red Crossbill. After birding from 5:30 to 9, we packed our tents up and drove down the Mountain to Monkeyface Falls. Monkeyface falls is a Swift nesting site, where we saw many White-throated Swift, but more importantly, we saw 12 Black Swift, a bird that previously had evaded me. We drove for 4 hours until we got to the North Shore Marina, of the Salton Sea. This time of year, we had much better luck than the last time I was here. Only one problem, the heat. It was 112 degrees and absolutely horrible to be outside smelling rotten fish, but we birded seeing lifer Yellow-footed Gull, giant flights of Black Tern and a Brown Pelican which looked like it definitely didn't want to be there. Our car split off from the group after we birded a road in Niland, which was a thing it started to do a lot, causing some arguments, and birded the marshes surrounding. While we were with the group, we saw Inca Dove and found a dead  Lesser Nighthawk, which we kept its skull. When we separated with the group and headed into the wetlands, we had some extrodanry dusk flights of thousands upon thousnends of White-faced Ibis, we checked for White Ibis, which there were none of, but there was probably a Glossy in there. Also at the marshes (IID wetlands) we saw birds such as Laughing Gull, and may California Bird Blue Grosbeak. Other Dusk lights we large numbers of Black-crowned Night-Heron, and American and Least Bittern. More birds were seen that night as well, including large numbers of Yuma Ridgeway's RailGreater Roadrunner, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. We stayed in a hotel for the first time, in the town of Niland


7/27: We woke up bright and early and arrived at Rio Bend RV park and Golf Course. Because of how early we were, we saw many Lesser Nighthawk erupting from the ground and flying into the sky. I got some great photos of some Lesser Night hawks on the ground, and a Video of one waddling around. We had good numbers of Common-Ground Dove and Blue Grosbeak. I took some nice photos of Vermillion Flycatcher, and saw many Gila Woodpecker. But we missed our target bird Bronzed Cowbird for a second time. We drove back up to the Salton Sea for our real day of birding there. WE started at Ramer Lake, a good place for Wood Stork in the past. We saw tons of Lesser Nighthawk, but more interesting birds there include over 35 different  Neotropic Cormorant. I got much better look s of them than in April. There we also had some flyover Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Around the lake we also saw Wilson's Pharalope, American White Pelican, and almost 800 Cattle Egret. At Lindsay Rd. Where I had Franklin's and Laughing Gull's in April, we saw 4 more Laughing Gulls, our first good look of the trip. At the Sony Bono visitor center, where I birded extensively in April, we saw many of the Salton Sea specialties, including Greater Roadrunner, Black Skimmer, Gull-billed Tern, and Yellow-footed Gull. Some other Birds there were a large hard of shorebirds, which included Black-bellied, Snowy, and, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Yellowlegs, Marbled Godwits, Stilits, and Avocets. We headed to Obsidian Butte, where there were many shorebirds, and we were able to pick out 8 Stilt Sandpiper, our first of the trip. Every thing else was the normal Peeps. We continued to Lack Rd. at Grubel Seawall, where our best find of the trip was. I pointed out some shorebirds, and we started scanning. At first, it seemed like a normal flock of Wilson's Pharalope, Western and Least Sanpipers, etc. That was until, another in the group yelled out Ruff! We were by our selves, as some people didn't want to bird and went to see a movie. We called everyone else who was birding at other spots to see this bird, which was an Adult Female. It was a lifer for me and a very cool bird. We continued on with our trip until we got to Unit 1.  Most of us wanted to get a better look at the Stilt snappers, that we saw fly away earlier, and I told the others that I saw some here earlier that year. My count of 2 though in April was dwarfed by what we saw. We counted 126 Stilt Sandpiper, a very good bird, and very good numbers. We went back to Niland to try for a third time for our target bird Bronzed Cowbird. As the saying goes, Third times a Charm, and when we went there, a large cowbird flock was there, which include the Bronzed Cowbird. Also there was a Lucy's Warbler, our first for the trip, and my first for California. After that, we waved the Salton Sea goodbye, and took the long drive to Palo Verde. While we were driving the terrain was bare, and it looked like the photos of the Sahara Desert that you see. I was watching the thermometer on the car tick up from 118 to 119 and finally we pulled over, and around 3 in the afternoon it ticked up to 120. We got out of the car for a restroom break and the heat was unbearable. We quickly hopped back on the car and continued on our way. We arrived in the town of Blythe, which was where we were going to spend the night. Blythe is on the Colorado River, which is where the CA, AZ border is. We still had time that day, so our car thought it would be funny, since we were the California Young Birders Club, to go over the river and bird in Arizona. We did, and it became the first time our club left the state. We saw Brown-creasted Flycatcher and Great-horned Owl over in Arizona. After birding there we returned to our hotel, and fell asleep. 

7/28: We woke up when it was park, and drove over to Palos Verde Ecological Reserve, and we were greeted by a giant swarm of mosquitos, and a birded by the name of Caleb Strand. He had birded here before, and we were a bit skeptical of his lists, but all doubts were removed when we started birding with him. We is an amazing birder, and knows how to draw many species in to you, through perfect imitations of owl calls. We had large counts of Inca Dove intact around 12 of them. Our White-winged Dove count was over 700. This Palos Verde was an amazing place. We had a Black-bellied Plover fly over the Colorado, a very good bird for the area. One of the coolest birds we had there was a near-adult Zone-tailed Hawk flying over from California to Arizona. We had a Gilded Flciker, another vey rare bird for the area. We had many Myiarchus flycatchers, including 21 Ash-throated, and 9 Brown-creasted. We had a singular Bank Swallow, a good bird for California. We had singing Yellow-breasted Chat, and 40 or so Blue Grosbeak. The only warbler we saw were Lucy's Warbler which we saw about 70 flitting through the low bushes. We had a few more Summer Tanager. Overall a very good trip. I missed Indigo Bunting, which I heard a Half song quickly, but not definitive to call it. Also, the whole group missed the biggest target, and my nemeses bird Yellow-billed Cuckoo. After we left, that was all of the planned birding of the trip. We drove down a little bit and jumped into the Colorado River. It was very warm, but nice to swim in. Where we pulled over, we had another Brown-creasted Flycatcher. Finally, we went to San Janchito Wildlife Area, where we birded around. We saw Bell's Vireo, but the best find was a Neotropic Cormorant. While not rare in Riverside county, where we were in, this was an crazy rarity for the area, since the county almost stretches across the entire state. The was all the birding we had time for, and we completed the drive back up to Napa that night, which it almost took us till midnight to get back. 


I have a few stories from this trip which I think might be cool for the stories section, but that's where I'm going to leave off. I started writing this around two hours ago, and just started doing this until now, so I'm going to leave off there. I hope at least somebody reads this all ow the way through, as it was fun to wright, and I'm sure at least somewhat interesting to read. I attached a photo of the bird of the trip, the Ruff below.





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14 minutes ago, Bird-Boys said:

Very nice list! Jealous of all the birds you saw, as many of them would be lifers. I gotta head down there sooner or later...

Thanks! These were some of my favorite birding trips I've been on. Around early June is always good time to go. Try to hit it in summer, or during migration.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Good stuff. Will keep this post in mind when planning future trips in that area. Palos Verde Ecogical Reserve sounds very cool, and I need Lucy’s Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Inca Dove, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Gilded Flicker etc. for CA.

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On 5/24/2020 at 11:48 PM, AlexHenry said:

Good stuff. Will keep this post in mind when planning future trips in that area. Palos Verde Ecogical Reserve sounds very cool, and I need Lucy’s Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Inca Dove, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Gilded Flicker etc. for CA.

The Gilded Flicker was a rarity at Palos Verde. I would suggest Mojave National Preserve. The back roads we drove on were good. Cedar Canyon road was what we drove. Also off the road is Gray Vireo, but since I was carpooling the last trip, we weren't in the greatest off road car. The road to the Gray Vireo is very bad, at least I heard, so you need a car that can handle it. 


Here is the Gray Vireo location: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1234953

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