September 8 Nothing beats birding at the Salton Sea during migration. We had a fantastic day today exploring locations along the S.E. corner of the sea, beginning with Red Hill Marina, then Obisidian Butte. As we drove along Hwy 111 north of Brawley we encountered a flooded field with about 300 Cattle Egrets and a similar number of White-faced Ibis feeding. Mixed in were a few Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Black-necked Stilts. Flocks of Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds and a couple of Western Meadowlarks were mixed in also. Along Sinclair Road, as we made our way west towards the sea, we counted five adorable Burrowing Owls catching the morning sun and doing their morning stretches on the dirt bank alongside the road.
Once we arrived at the sea, I was immediately shocked at how far the water has receded in the last couple of years once again. Eleven years ago when I first visited the sea the water surrounded the boat launch at Red Hill. Now the water line is about 150 meters beyond there. The Red Hill Marina area will not be a good vantage point for much longer as the water disappears. That said, we were able to scope a ‘boatload’ of birds from here, including several Yellow-footed Gulls. A Franklin’s Gull was a good find here, as was a single Heermann’s Gull out over the water. There were loads of California Gulls and a few Ring-billed Gulls here too. Hundreds of American White and Brown pelicans were scattered across the shore, along with good numbers of shorebirds. Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Willet were included.
Next stop was at Obsidian Butte. We were able to get much closer to the birds here, having better views of the Yellow-footed Gulls (up to 25 of them, all adults). There were about a hundred Laughing Gulls here, as well dozens of Black Terns, and Forster’s Terns. There were hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand Caspian Terns to be seen. Amongst hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants we picked out 4 Neotropic Cormorants, a rare species in the California that seems to be becoming more regular at the Salton Sea.
Raptors were in good number today with Osprey, Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel and Northern Harrier found. Loggerhead Shrike was seen well near Obsidian Butte, and one Greater Roadrunner put on a nice show for us along the roadside. Belted Kingfishers seemed to be numerous with about half a dozen counted. Black-crowned Night-Herons were very common and we disturbed about 40 of them at once from one location..accidentally of course. We had lunch at the visitor’s center and were interrupted by the appearance of about 15 Gambel’s Quail. In the mesquite trees around our picnic table were Yellow and Wilson’s warblers, as well as Verdin and House Wren. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, numbering in the thousands were constantly moving by as well.
By mid-day it was close to 40 degrees Celsius so we retreated for a siesta, stopping in a Ramer and Finney lakes along the way. We added a few day birds here; Eared and Western grebe. Just one new trip bird was added, Ruddy Duck. After our siesta we went back out into the field, this time to Cattle Call Park in Brawley. It was still about 38 degrees so we basically just dashed from one shady patch to the next. In the process we got some nice species such as Gila Woodpecker, Abert’s Towhee, Pacific-slope and Willow flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Nashville Warbler and Costa’s Hummingbird. With close to 90 species seen today, it was a very good birding outing indeed!
September 9 We left Brawley and the Salton Sea behind this morning, making just one quick stop near the north end of the sea where we scoped American White and Brown pelicans, Black Terns, Eared Grebes, and some other day birds.
The rest of our day was spent exploring the San Jacinto Mountains. Our first stop, at the Ramona Trail, offered us some nice new trip birds such as Western Scrub-Jay, Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Lesser Goldfinch and Western Bluebird. One lucky observer saw a Bobcat scurry off into the brush. Too bad we all didn’t see this elusive feline.
Next stop, at Hurkey Ck Park was sensational. We wandered around the towering pine trees finding all sorts of goodies. Nuttall’s and Acorn woodpeckers and Red-breasted Sapsuckers were very obliging, as were Steller’s Jays and American Robin. Biggest surprise for me was a lovely fall plumage Hermit Warbler. A little group of Bushtits was a first for the tour, as was a Western Tanager flitting about in the pines. New for the mammal list here was Western Gray Squirrel. We had a nice picnic lunch here, under the watchful eyes of Steller’s and Western Scrub-Jay and Acorn Woodpecker, all hoping to pick up scraps I believe. New butterflies for the list included Monarch and Western Tiger Swallowtail.
Our final birding stop was in the town of Idyllwyld, where we explored the area around the Art School. Only new bird here was a pair of ‘Oregon’ Dark-eyed Juncos, but it was nice to see more Pygmy and White-breasted nuthatches, Oak Titmouse, Willow Flycatcher and Anna’s Hummingbird. We reached a maximum of about 6500 feet elevation, then began our descent, ending up eventually in Twentynine Palms for the evening.
September 10 Before we left the parking lot of our hotel we were looking at a boisterous Cactus Wren, found by Dave and Juline, tour members. Nice bird indeed, and comments voiced included, ‘Are you sure that’s a wren?’ Next stop was at the Joshua Tree Desert Oasis Visitor’s Center in Twentynine Palms. We walked around the original grove of 29 palms, seeing a few goodies, most notably our first Phainopeplas and our first Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Cactus Wrens were again present, along with Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin and a few migrant warblers. We then entered Joshua Tree National Park and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the fantastic scenery here.
There were a few birds to be seen in the park, with most common being Phainopepla, Verdin, Red-tailed Hawk, Common Raven such, but the real highlights included a singing Le Conte’s Thrasher and a small group of 3 Pinyon Jays! It was also nice to watch two Greater Roadrunners battle with an American Kestrel.
A hike to Barker Dam provided good looks at Canyon Wrens, as well as a few migrants including Orange-crowned, Wilson’s and Yellow warblers, Warbling Vireos and Western Tanager. New for the mammal list was White-tailed Antelope Squirrel. We saw several ‘Desert’ Bighorn Sheep in the park as well.
Reluctantly, we left Joshua Tree Park and picked up some lunch in Yucca Valley before heading for birding destinations in the Morongo Valley. We ate lunch at Covington Park, where Black Phoebe, Western Bluebird, Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler and a Greater Roadrunner kept us entertained.
Final birding stop was at Big Morongo Preserve where, after a short search, we found one of our targets for the day, Summer Tanager. Other birds seen here included California Towhee, Common Yellowthroat, Anna’s Hummingbird and Bewick’s Wren. The drive to Mojave took us through some pretty remote desert, and once we arrived in town we settled into our rooms and then went out for an enjoyable meal at a local Pizza and Mexican establishment.