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Western Migration
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 27, 2008


This week I was in Palm Springs and San Francisco for a wedding and to spend time with my girlfriend Jessica. I also hoped to squeeze in a little west coast birding along the way. Palm Springs was hot hot hot...about 110 in the daytime, although it cooled off a lot at night. We stayed at a very nice little pensione called Korakia, which is Morrocan-themed and so has lovely pools and palms and landscaping. This all turned out to be good for the birds. I was up before daybreak the first morning, and watched as the birdlife picked up and got busy before the mid-day heat arrived. Besides the ubiquitous pigeons and sparrows, there were a pair of Cactus Wrens, a Bewicks Wren, several hummingbirds (definitely Annas, possibly a Black-Chinned), and a Verdin. Great Tailed Grackles and Common Raven also sailed by. Once 8 or 9am came, everything quieted down considerably due to the intensifying heat, and so we spent the rest of the day relaxing and swimming, and then attended (and photographed) the rehearsal dinner that night.

At four am the next morning we awoke and got into a car we had borrowed, and then made the two hour drive down to the southern tip of the Salton Sea. Tom Stephenson had been kind enough to recommend us to some experienced birder friends of his, Nick and Mary, and they happened to be doing a scouting trip that day to prepare for the tour they were leading the next. We stopped for some gas station donuts and coffee, and met them at their motel. On our drive to the sea itself we stopped to see several burrowing owls perched outside of their burrows which were made in the roadside embankments. This included an adolescent, whom Nick and Mary said was the first that they had seen. These were my first views of any burrowing owl, and they were all interesting to me.

We continued on to the Sea. The Salton Sea is a vast lake that is at once strange, grand and dismal. It's a body of water initially created by the delta of the Colorado, which has since been completely diverted for the rapacious water requirements of the cities and agriculture of the west. Before that, either the Salton or the delta created a stopover for millions of birds...now the Salton is their only choice, and that itself is drying up. The lake is sustained only by agricultural runoff from the farms around it...when we flew in we could see the green valley created around the Salton, and the vast desert that surrounds it. The runoff contains some pesticides, and is apparently insufficient to maintain the lake's water levels, so there is a continuous receding that leaves behind alkali flats that can be bizzare and beautiful, but lifeless. Along the lake itself, the avian life is vibrant. Thousands of Black-Necked Stilts work the shallow waters for food, along with flocks of peeps, more thousands of Pelicans (both brown and white), and similar numbers of Gulls. Among those gulls is the special attraction of the Salton Sea...the Yellow Footed Gull. These birds breed in Mexico, but some spend their post-breeding time at the Salton Sea, and it's the only place in the U.S. to see them. Through the morning we encountered a couple of dozen Yellow-Foots, and got really great looks through our scopes, as well as some photos. Other highlights were the Western Sandpipers (here they were hoping for a Semipalmated among the Westerns, while in Jamaica Bay we sift through the Semipalms hoping for a Western), dozens of Phalaropes (Wilsons and Red-Necked), hundreds of Avocet, a couple of hundred Marbled Godwit, thousands of White-Faced Ibis (as opposed to our one at Jamaica Bay, but again a Glossy Ibis here would be rare), and dozens of Long Billed Curlew. It was the numbers that were most gratifying to me, though...to see a flight of several thousand pelican rising up like a white cloud in the distance was dramatic and gratifying and memorable. Counterbalancing that sight was getting a breath of the hot, sewer-like stench that can come off of the Sea, standing in swarms of flies, while watching a group of park rangers retrieving sick pelicans for rehabilitation, Many thousands of these birds died a few years ago due to an avian botulism outbreak, and it was unclear if what they were doing was related. I don't know what the facts of the place truly are, but there was a strong contrast between the bustling bird life and the feeling of decay and death as the sea shrinks around them.

Our last stop was a group of natural mud pots that were in a nearby dirt field. This is the sort of thing that you would normally see as an attraction, with a fence and boardwalk and explanitory plaques, but here we just hiked right up to them and peered in. The area were were in runs along the San Andreas fault, and so there is a lot of geothermal activity. In fact, we saw several geothermal electic generating plants on our drive along the lake. So here was some concrete evidence of that, complete with comical burping sound effects as the liquid mud was forced up to the surface. This is part of what is so strange about the Salton Sea...clearly there is a lot of man-made environmental damage going on here, but at the same time it's a brine lake in the desert along a fault line, so there is a lot of natural desolation as well, and my understanding of the place wasn't great enough to easily separate the two.

That night was the wedding, and it was lovely. We danced under the sky and drank good red wine, and all had a wonderful time. The next morning we were off to San Francisco, to stay with Jessica's friends, see my sister, and relax for a day or two. Of course, relaxing includes birding, so we did a bit of that as well. At the Ferry Terminal we had a delectible outdoor lunch from the farmer's market while watching a curious and hungry Heermans Gull take bits of bread from not two feet away--an excellent way to study plumage. We had Western and California gulls, Brewers Blackbird, and a couple of Red Faced Parakeets fly over. These Parakeets are the famous Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about which there is a book and movie, and although we also went to Telegraph Hill, we never got truly good looks at them. Later we went to the beach and looked for Elegant Tern and Snowy Plover, but without success. We did see lots of Heermans Gulls, a cluster of Ravens, and hundreds of Cormorant and Pelican roosting on the big rocky outcroppings that sit just off the coast. In Golden Gate Park we had Chestnut Backed Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Bushtit (yes, that really is a bird). In between all that we had some excellent burritos and generally enjoyed ourselves. Change is the constant and so today I'm on a plane hurtling towards New York, making a crosswards migration back to my Big Year.