Immediately following our class trip to Gray Lodge, Cricket and I began our vacation. We spent one night at Kaz and Aiko's home in Lodi and then made the long drive, some 9-plus hours to Indio, passing through some of the heaviest rain we've seen in a while. My poor windshield wipers struggled to keep the windows clear and we learned after we started driving that my right headlight was out... Needless to say, the drive south was a bit tense. The birding festival had finished up the day we arrived and bird reports were posted at all the visitor's centers for us to follow up on. Our targets were of course, the two specialties of the area, birds that neither of us had ever seen before, the Yellow-footed Gull and the Ruddy Ground Dove. If all else failed, we simply had to find these two birds... We arrived in Indio around dinner time and watched from our balcony as the parking area continued to fill up with water and the skies became darker. It just didn't look good for the next day's birding experience. Nevertheless, we watched a Cactus Wren and a Verdin in the tree just off our balcony, so at least we had luck there. We ate dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant and turned in early to watch a movie. We chose "Three Kings" with George Cluny and both liked it a lot.
The next morning we birded the north sea areas, finding our first local birds, Abert's Towhee and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher along the White River Delta levy trail. The latter species was coaxed out into the open with the help of my iPod and a recording of the bird's song. The area hosts a small group of feral dogs that a guy in a pickup truck warned us about. "It would be good to have a club or something, just in case..." Well, that made us feel safe. I could always use the tripod as a weapon if necessary. No other target birds were found here, but the area was stunning. One one side of the levy there was a low-lying floodplain that had sage and other scrub, a few tires and an abandoned car for that ghost town feel, and on the other, a long muddy river bed that drained into the sea. This area is supposedly good for Least Bittern, but we didn't locate any. Osprey also perch on the bleached branches of the many dead trees lining the shore.
The recent rains made it impossible to reach many of the spots mentioned in the Lane guide. Between flooded roads, deep mud and road signs that were missing, it was not easy to get around. We managed though, but decided to skip the locations that looked too risky.
We continued clockwise down the east side of the sea toward the northern unit of the Sonny Bono preserve. At the Salton Sea State Recreational Area headquarters we had beautiful views of the Sea. The Salton Sea is an enormous tideless body of water that is generally still. It's below sea level and saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Imagine something like Death Valley filled with water and you have a general picture. The beach especially, was a strange place. Nearly silent, except for the quiet lapping of small frothy waves on the shore, which was made mostly of barnacle shells. Occasionally a Cactus Wren could be heard in the distance or the cry of a Gull. Almost no cars were parked in the enormous lot. It really seemed like we had missed some great event. The whole place seemed tired.
Next we drove to Bombay Beach where the situation was even stranger. A long gravel road led out to a glassy smooth reflecting pool of amber colored water. Two submerged bath houses, both salt encrusted, stood leaning in the brightening sun. The sky was beginning to clear now, and the warm brightness was welcome indeed. We walked along the barnacle shores for a while, snapped a few pictures of the abandoned buildings and listened for the faint echo of a bustling beach community that evaporated years ago when the waters began to recede and the sea grew more saline.
The small town of Niland provided views of a large puddle with a flock of resting Gulls. We searched for any Yellow-foots, but found instead, California, Ring-billed, Herring and Bonaparte's. Great-tailed Grackles began to appear in larger numbers in this community and would be our companions for the remainder of the trip.
Wister Unit, a famous stop for wintering waterfowl proved quite impassable, but we didn't mind too much. The Sonny Bono headquarters was just ahead. There, we got great looks at Abert's Towhee again, as well as Gambell's Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, Common Ground Dove and Inca Dove. We made the muddy trek out toward Rock Hill and found the pool where Gulls gather for the night. We located a large, dark-mantled Gull that appeared to have fleshy-yellow legs. Could it be a first summer Yellow-foot, we wondered? The wind picked up and it began to rain, and while we got photos of the bird, they proved inconclusive. We headed back toward Indio but not before looking for the pig farm outside of Calipatria where rumor had it the Ruddy Ground Dove could be found. Rain prevented any concentrated search for the bird, but we knew where to look the next day.
We had the same Mexican food that night, but by candle light in our room. We made pretty much the same journey south the next day, concentrating more on the southern locations. We visited the pig farm, found a small flock of tiny Doves feeding in the lot by the red tractor and a pile of hay. Someone had put some feed in that area and the Doves were clearly pleased. Incas and Common Grounds showed up, all with telltale scaling on their heads and necks. They waddled among the House Sparrows that were nearly as large as they and were simply dwarfed by the Mourning Doves. Wait, there's a Ground Dove with NO scales... We watched it for a moment. It was slightly larger than the Common Ground that it fed beside, its face was pale, its wing coverts showed slight pale edging and the dark markings on the tertials were BLACK, not brown. Yes! This was a female Ruddy Ground Dove, a lifer for us and quite rare north of the Mexican border.
Back to the Rock Hill trail at Sonny Bono's place. We marched out with renewed enthusiasm, having gotten one of our two targets with no disclaimers (heard only, possible, probable...) necessary. The sun was shining and everything seemed wonderful. In that same large pool where we had seen the immature bird, we located another large, dark-mantled Gull, but this individual was an adult. Cricket and I traded off with the scope, each of us watching for several minutes, so we could get a look at the legs if the bird should ever decide to stand up. Cricket had the scope when it finally did rise, and she shouted, "It's standing, and it has YELLOW legs!" Snap, snap. Snap, snap, snap... I took as many pictures as I could to document this second lifer of the trip. While the Sea is the only spot this species of Gull can be found in the ABA checklist area, winter is the worst possible time to begin looking. The books say you can usually find one or two over-wintering, but it's certainly not a guarantee. We felt a bit cheeky that we had succeeded in finding this rare bird during the off season, and what a nice example. A full adult, which is really impossible to confuse with any other Gull in the area, including the occasional Western Gull that may appear along the shores. That certainly took the pressure off for that species! The issues surrounding the first summer bird we had seen the day before seemed a bit moot now, but we would continue looking at the tiny digital preview screen for some time to see if we could make it a Yellow-foot as well... The rest of the day floated by easily.
For the remainder of the trip it didn't matter what happened. We had succeeded in our mission, our birding campaign was a triumph! We had a kind of surgical focus that generally amuses normal people, but makes birders feel like all conquering giants. We got what we had come for and anything else we saw would just be icing on this wonderful muddy, rainy, salty cake.
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Clapper Rail (Yuma race, heard only)
Eurasian Collared Dove
Common Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground Dove
Northern Rough-winged Swallow