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Go Birding At California's Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a desert oasis for more than 400 bird species.

Chuck Graham

You can see many bird species at the Salton Sea, such as Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, as shown in this video.

It felt like kayaking in a land that time forgot. As we paddled across Southern California’s Salton Sea, there wasn’t a drop of water out of place, glassy conditions prevailing throughout our paddling trip. The only sounds on the water were thousands of American White Pelicans. Feeding, frolicking and preening in the shallows, they were enjoying their winter stopover in this accidental manmade habitat as pink and orange hues crept across the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Depending on your point of view, the Salton Sea can appear like a dismal, lifeless wasteland or a desert oasis for 400 species of birds seeking refuge during winter. California’s largest lake was created in 1905, when the Colorado River swelled and breached levees and dikes before filling what was once known as the Salton Sink directly above the San Andreas Fault and 227 feet below sea level.

Deemed the next Las Vegas in the 1940s and ’50s, the Salton Sea once held a resortlike atmosphere. Waterskiing, fishing and boating were favorite pastimes. At one point, 400,000 boats used the sea each year when more people visited the Salton Sea than Yosemite National Park.

Over the decades, the Salton Sea has endured more flooding, which thwarted further development. Because there are no outlets for flood waters and the water is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, high salinity levels have induced mass die-offs of fish and birds. Several species of fish used to live in the sea, but tilapia has proven to be the only fish able to tolerate such high salinity levels. Eventually the 110-mile shoreline lost its luster.

The Salton Sea still holds a certain allure, and it remains one of the best birding locales in the United States. During our kayaking trip, we explored its mud-cracked shorelines littered with dead fish, while scattered flocks of Western Sandpipers and Black-necked Stilts foraged in the crunchy brine.

Almost 90 percent of the American White Pelican population spends the winter at the Salton Sea.

Eighty to 90 percent of the entire American White Pelican population winters on the Salton Sea, and we were awestruck by those massive flocks. Statuesque Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets stood motionless in the shallows, waiting to skewer a tilapia swimming beneath them. The Salton Sea of yesteryear holds on, but it’s slowly being absorbed by the surrounding Colorado Desert.

For birdwatchers, the diversity of birdlife makes the Salton Sea so attractive. Kayaking around the entire lake exposed us to throngs of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, and Snowy Egret. When we camped along the shores, we saw Ferruginous Hawk, White-tailed Kite and Red-shouldered Hawk. Burrowing Owls appeared several times close to our camps. Around our tents, Say’s Phoebe, Horned Lark, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Pipit, and Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers were busily working the desert flora of creosote bush and cholla cactus.

Continuing southward, we pushed our kayaks into the milky smooth water just east of the sand dunes between a covey of Long-billed Curlews and American Avocets feeding in the brine-covered rocks. An abandoned military test site sat nearby, appearing like something out of the apocalypse. A long, black point extended far off the site and out to sea. The point slowly began to move, almost rolling, as the desert played tricks on our squinting eyes. Then in a flurry of black, hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants broke away, running on water, then flapping furiously for liftoff all in one direction. We soon discovered that the cormorants were the current keepers of the abandoned site. Guano-covered pilings still stand, now prime nesting and roosting habitat for hordes of birds.

Paddling east toward Niland, we skirted the edge of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge winters up to 30,000 Snow, Ross’s and Canada Geese as well as 60,000 ducks from November through February. Endangered species observed on the refuge include Southern Bald Eagle (H.l. leucocephalus), Peregrine Falcon, California Brown Pelican (P.o. californicus) and Yuma Clapper Rail (R.l. yumanensis).

A significant Yuma Clapper Rail population nests on the refuge. Other sensitive species using the refuge include Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork, Long-billed Curlew, Mountain Plover, Western Snowy Plover (C.a. nivosus), Burrowing Owl and White-faced Ibis.

The refuge was designed to reduce waterfowl depredation to adjacent croplands. Management practices benefit the high concentration of waterfowl and shorebird species that flock each winter to the refuge. Those methods include an intensive farming program that involves cooperative farmers growing crops for waterfowl consumption during winter. The refuge also manipulates water levels in ponds to provide ideal habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl. The refuge extends a couple of miles out to sea, and small aircraft is required to stay clear of the multitude of avian species that hone in on this sanctuary.

More recently, the refuge has become heavily involved with fish and wildlife disease and contaminant issues. It routinely surveys the sea for dead or dying fish and wildlife, and it removes them to prevent the spread of disease and sends them to a laboratory for investigation.

While the refuge does not offer camping facilities, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area has ample camp spots. California’s budget constraints put the state recreation area on a closure list in 2012, but it’s not clear yet whether city or county municipalities or a nonprofit group like the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association can step in and continue to maintain the 14-mile-long recreation area.

Also on the east shore and seven miles south of the recreation area is Salt Creek Kayak Camp, designed for kayakers by California Department of Boating and Waterways. The best part about it is it’s free, and there is fresh water.

You can see birds like the American Wigeon at the Salton Sea.

Winter offers the best time to visit the Salton Sea when daytime temperatures feel mild to warm. The evenings, however, can reach freezing temps. Fall through spring is the best time for birding; the sea sits on the Pacific Flyway, making it one of the most important winter stopovers for migratory birds.

Want more places to go birding? Check these out!  

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Posted: July 21, 2014, 8:00 a.m. PDT

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