Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Summer Day at the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a place I've been to several times, and each time has been in late fall or winter.  It is California's largest lake, and is truly an inland sea.  As far as inland seas go, it is one of the largest in the world.  California called this huge lake an oasis over a hundred years ago, but now it is considered to be the state's biggest natural disaster.  For starters, the Salton Sea is a very shallow and toxic lake due to high saline levels.  Water sources of three different rivers, drainages, agriculture, and creeks have filled up the Sea over the years and it has increased toxic saline levels.  The Alamo River especially carries harmful pesticides, DDT and other harmful chemicals, and fertilizer nitrates into the giant lake, and this build up has occurred for years and years.  What it has amounted to has equaled out to have much higher salinity levels than that of the Pacific Ocean.  It's not safe to boat or swim at the Salton Sea.  Because the Salton Sea is a saline lake, it will dry up in time and it continues to dry up.  The toxic waters of the Sea that have been dominated by years and years of pesticides and more in it's waters are dangerous for those who have respiratory problems, and it's also harmful to birds.  Speaking of birds, the Salton Sea has hosted more than 400 species.  It has one of the highest densities of birds out there, and the numbers of species and the species that have shown up so far are truly remarkable.  I've gone there to see incredible numbers of waterfowl, gulls, terns, and shorebirds.  Rarities I've successfully chased have included Garganey and Bean Goose.  While the Salton Sea is decreasing, it remains to be an incredible location for avian diversity.  The Sea is located in southern California in Imperial and Riverside Counties.  I'll flat out say that the surroundings of the lake are extremely ugly.  If it weren't for an abundance of neat birds, I would never find myself wanting to go to the Salton Sea.  It's right down there with Yuma County.  As I've gone to the Salton Sea in the cooler months, I've never gone during the summer.  The summer hosts hellish temperatures, but the birds are spectacular.  It's the one reliable spot to see Yellow-footed Gull in the ABA area, and on top of that, there are many other birds.  I needed to see a Yellow-footed Gull again after my one-and-only sighting had been of a bird about a mile away in 2010.

On July 9th, 2020, I joined my buddies Ronnie Reed and Caleb Strand, and we left Phoenix at 2 A.M. to go explore the Salton Sea.  Ronnie and Caleb have both been to the Salton Sea much more than I have, Ronnie for fishing and Caleb for birding.  As Ronnie had been there before, this would be his first time for birding and he was pumped.  Caleb was hoping to find a stint.  My main goal was to see and photograph a Yellow-footed Gull up much closer than a mile away.  The best thing about the Sea was that we would be seeing an incredible variety of waterbirds.  Shorebirds, waterfowl, gulls, terns, and more thrive at the Sea.  And for birders, it is a place where they can pull out something incredibly rare at any time of the year.

We got to the north end of the Salton Sea early, and walked for over two miles to a location where we could bird a massive stretch of shoreline.  It was hot, nasty, and there were millions of obnoxious flies everywhere.  On the flipside, the abundance of birds made up for the abundance of flies.

Gulls became Seagulls and Terns were Turbo-gulls (Ronnie's previous name for terns before he was a birder).  We had a good time!  It wasn't long before Caleb and Ronnie spotted two Yellow-footed Gulls along the shore.  While they looked at an assortment of birds out on the waters, I went to make sure I obtained a few pictures and closer looks at my main target.

And then there was an assortment of other birds that were briefly forgotten by me due to my tunnel vision.  That Yellow-footed Seagull.  Terns were fun as we had Gull-billed, Forster's, Black, and Caspian, as were all of the waterbirds really.  Our first stop yielded nearly 80 species and was close to four hours.  The heat and flies would make things challenging as the day went on further.

Black Tern

Brown Pelicans and Black Skimmers

Caspian, Forster's, and Black Terns on the sandbars

Caspian Tern

Snowy Plover

Caleb and Ronnie looking for a Bell' Vireo

One of our other stops was further south along the Sea as we drove along a road called Lack Road.  This was one that I really wanted to go to, because it is known to be very good for seeing Yellow-footed Gull up close.  It wasn't long on our drive along Lack before we found a nice adult Yellow-footed Gull right along the road.

In comparison to my first Yellow-footed Gull a mile away through a scope back in 2010 at the Salton Sea, the birds on July 9th with Ronnie and Caleb were practically lifers.  We had 8 of them in total at the first stop at the north side of the Sea (some were fairly close, others more distant), and this one was the 9th and it gave us what we were hoping for.

It made it's way over to us to join us for the snacks that we were having.  Perhaps our snacks were considered healthy compared to the crappy snacks it was getting out at the Sea.  Literally.

Yellow-footed Gulls are native to Mexico, and they can be seen at the Salton Sea in good numbers after they breed.  They are a large gull, and are very similar to Western Gull.  The Yellow-footed Gull does have a considerably larger bill, and of course, yellow legs rather than pink legs.  It is a well-named bird!  It eats fish, crustaceans, eggs of other birds, carrion, and more.  Because of it's snack leaching behavior, we found out it also likes Flaming Hot Cheeto Fries and Cheez-its.  It was great to see the target bird at such a close, epic range!

When snack time was up, a Black Skimmer joined a flock of peeps along the shore.

And a Gull-billed Tern flew by too.

Ronnie and I got a much closer view of the Black Skimmer!

On the way out of the Salton Sea, we had excellent looks at this Gull-billed Tern at someone's farm pond.

We had 85 species in total at the Salton Sea, not bad for a scorching day in July.  Thanks Ronnie and Caleb for a good time.  Thanks to the Yellow-footed Seagull too!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

In Maricopa County? No Way...

On June 24th, I had just started what would be a full day of birding in Coconino County, which is a county that is under-birded by me.  I planned to cover a variety of elevations and habitats for the course of two days of the 24th and 25th.  At my first stop, I got a text from Caleb Strand with a few pictures of a screenshot from a discussion of a photographed oriole at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  Birders called it a Bullock's Oriole and birders also called it a Hooded Oriole.  It was confusing, but Chris Benesh chimed in and said it looked like a Streak-backed Oriole to him.  I was intrigued at the photograph, which was of the bird's frontside and not the backside.  The backside would be the best indicator, because the Streak-backed Oriole is a well-named bird.  Cheryl Gross was the photographer of the bird, and she was asked to show more pictures of the bird.  She sent in some more pictures and said that the bird had been building a nest.  By looking at her pictures, not only was it evident that she had a female Streak-backed Oriole, but the nest the oriole was making was different than the nests that are built by Hooded and Bullock's Orioles.  It was a wonderful way to identify the bird from two aspects.  I couldn't believe that there was an active Streak-backed Oriole nest in Maricopa County.  Questions were asked of who her mate was or if she had a mate.  Was there a male Streak-backed Oriole nearby?

As the 24th was a Wednesday and the Hassayampa River Preserve is open during summer months from Thursday to Sunday, I decided to spend my day in Coconino County and come back that same day so I could chase the Streak-backed Oriole.  I was pumped up at the chance I had to get this Mexican rarity in Maricopa County.  In Arizona, Streak-backed Oriole has nested before, and it is a casual visitor otherwise.  When one is reported, it always has a lot of birders who want to chase and seek.  There were a few years that a male Streak-backed Oriole spent the winter months at Gilbert Water Ranch, and it was right before I got involved with the Arizona birding community.  It was something I wished I would've seen and not missed by a year or two, and I was glad that I would have a chance for this bird.  In 2016, I did get to see a nice male Streak-backed Oriole at a stakeout spot in Yuma County.

Eric Hough works at the Hassayampa River Preserve as their ranger.  He was working the day the oriole was found, and he went out to re-find it.  Chrissy Smith was with him, and they went out and relocated the nest along the Mesquite Meander Trail of the Preserve.  It was right over the trail, and they decided to close about 100 feet of the trail off so the bird could have space for nesting.  What Eric and Chrissy did was awesome because it gave the bird guaranteed breathing room from people swarming the area, but they also did it from a distance where people could still see the bird very well.  Eric and Chrissy saw the bird that evening when they went out.  By scanning the tree, Eric also found another nest that had been built by the oriole.  It was apparent that she was present at the Hassayampa River Preserve last year too, and had built that nest last year!  I couldn't believe it.  It turned out that the Oriole was photographed on June 9th and 23rd by Cheryl before it was identified by Chris Benesh on June 24th.  It was also observed and photographed by Rachel Stringham on June 6th, and she realized that she had photographed the female Streak-backed Oriole.

On June 25th, I headed out to the Hassayampa Preserve and got there right at opening time.  There were many birders there, and I would stake out the viewing spots for the Oriole for most of the day with Dara, Jeff, Derik, Erin, Mary, Eric, Chrissy, Caleb, and Kav.  It was a lot of fun, and the Oriole would make many appearances.  When I first walked up to the nest from one side of the Mesquite Meander Trail, the nest stood out.

After hearing some chatter calls from Orioles, it didn't take long for the female fly into the nest and make a very brief visit.  When she did this, the nest bobbed back-and-fourth, and it was evident that something made the nest move.  It's almost like watching a bobber go up-and-down while fishing.  She would peek her head out for a half-second or so before flying off and making routine quick visits to her nest.

The nest was placed under the canopy of a cottonwood tree, and below a mistletoe clump on the cottonwood.  At times throughout the day when going to both viewpoints, the female Streak-backed Oriole gave us birders some awesome views.  It was very hard to see at times.  When describing key field marks to a female of this species, AZFO photo editors David and Lauren describe it as:  "Heavy-based straight bill with black on underside of lower mandible, brightest orange on the face and particularly the malar region, white edging to the wing feathers".  And of course, streaks on the back if the bird is viewed well enough!

A few times the female Streak-backed Oriole was seen in what looked to be in copulation pose with another oriole.  For awhile we thought it was a younger male Streak-backed, but Chris Benesh chimed in again and pointed out why it was a male Bullock's Oriole she seemed to be paired with.  Mary got some awesome photos of the birds (SEE AZFO PAGE AT LINK HERE) as they seemed to be in copulation pose.  When the two birds were present at once, it was hard for me to get a good look at them, yet alone a picture, as they moved through dense habitat.  In the days to come, a female Bronzed Cowbird was also seen entering and leaving the Orioles nest.  Perhaps the cowbird was getting ready to give the Oriole a different responsibility.

A week later on July 2nd, I returned to the Preserve again to meet up with Caleb.  The Streak-backed Oriole made brief visits to the area, and didn't come directly to the nest.  But she perched above the nest and I was in the right spot to get off a few lucky shots!

I got took photos of a few other birds along the Hassayampa River during the Streak-backed Oriole adventures.  Young Vermilion Flycatchers and a few cooperative Yellow-breasted Chats.

As I write today, the female Streak-backed Oriole continues at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  Time will tell if she produces young or if things were put on hold by Bronzed Cowbirds.  The Hassayampa River corridor is one that hosts an incredible variety of birds.  There have been many incredible rarities that have shown up there over the years, but the rarities that stand out to me most are those that are mainly from riparian areas in southeastern Arizona and Mexico.  Hassayampa has annual breeding populations of Gray Hawk and Tropical Kingbird, which are more expected.  At times, Thick-billed Kingbird has nested.  A Green Kingfisher was a remarkable bird that found the Preserve, and it stayed in the area for about six months.  When having conversations with Caleb and Eric about what to watch for in the future at the Hassayampa River Preserve, birds that the three of us mentioned were Yellow-green Vireo, Rose-throated Becard, and Nutting's Flycatcher.  Hopefully it won't take too long for these birds to show wouldn't surprise me if they did!