A Blue-footed Booby would be new for me, as would a visit to California's largest lake. (I just invited guff for that admission, right? Just remember this.) The excursion also would be my first chance to bird with John Puschock, who's participated in both Ivory-billed Woodpecker search seasons in Arkansas and now lives in San Diego. We met during the San Diego Bird Festival in February.
The two-hour drive to the sea went smoothly, and then I missed the correct turn for the meeting spot with John. Thank goodness for cell phones. Thirty minutes later, I found his truck near the north end of the desert lake and walked out to his spot on the Whitewater River delta.
To my right was a canal with reeds and Western Grebes. To my left, the shore looked surreal. It was obvious that the sea's water level had fallen drastically. Stunted dead-looking trees stood or canted amid the dark muck. Lots of dead fish littered the mud.
Curving toward the right, I spied John and then encountered some muck. Fun!
Typically folks mention the smell at Salton Sea. Yep, it was rather noxious. The flies were a wee bit irritating, too. The view and the birds, however, provide distractions -- lots of American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Caspian Terns, one Black Skimmer, Black-necked Stilts, Western Gulls, Yellow-footed Gulls, Western Sandpipers, a Willet, a Semipalmated Plover, a Killdeer and a Snowy Plover.
About 30 minutes after I put down my backpack, John saw the booby in the distance being mobbed by Caspian Terns. To my surprise, the guest of honor eventually turned and flew over our heads. I couldn't see the color of the bird's feet, given the angle of the light, but could spy the white patches on its back. John shot some photos before calling another birder to let him know of the bird's visit.
I particularly enjoyed watching the sandpipers feed in the muck, their little bills pumping up and down rapidly. They acted rather tame in comparison to the other birds, which scattered if John and I barely walked in their general direction. The sandpipers were less deterred from their meals and even tolerated an interloper.
About an hour later, as we began walking toward our cars, the booby appeared again sans entourage. It remained over the water, however, and didn't offer another close view. Closer to the cars, a Lesser Nighthawk flew across the path before landing on the ground for a few seconds.
After a stop in Mecca, we drove along the east shore down to Red Hill Marina. We made one stop so that John could point out the Wister unit, which he recommended for winter birding.
John, by the way, works as a private guide. You can contact him at sdbirding AT sdbirding DOT com. You'll find him knowledgeable, patient and funny -- great qualities in a birding companion/guide.
After cruising through Niland, we turned toward the lake. Ohmyword, the smell on Garst Road! Our quarry at the marina: Piping Plover, which John had seen that morning.
At one stop, we looked at Black-bellied Plovers and Red-necked Phalaropes along with the usual suspects from the north shore. At the next spot, we spied American Avocet, Snowy Plover and, yes, Piping Plover.
By then, John and I were in danger of melting. The temperature registered north of 100 degrees, and our stomachs registered their desire for more food. John graciously allowed a shot before we hopped into our ovens... er, vehicles.
We parted ways in Calipatria, and I high-tailed it to Orange County. During the crazy-freeway commute, the car was inching down an interchange when I noticed the voicemail symbol on the cell phone. An audio clip of M.C. Hammer filled my left ear and made me laugh out loud. Thanks, John!
Later, while flipping channels on the radio, I suddenly heard a familiar voice. What a delight to listen to this fantastic birder -- the icing on the cake of a fantastic day!
Map courtesy of Salton Sea Authority.