As one gets closer to the Sea, it does indeed feel like one is on another, post-apocalyptic planet. The dirt roads of the eastern shore take the adventurer into salt marshes and fetid bays, along strips of crunchy beach adorned with rotting fish and accumulated bones. Decaying algae, selenium run-off, and other heinous odors drift ever-gently in and out of the explorer's consciousness. At certain points, one might come under indirect fire from roving bands of Dove hunters, straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Salton Sea is a scary place, one that shakes outdoorsmen and naturalists to their core, and makes one question whether the universe has any orientation towards the Good. So why come at all? What is the Sea's appeal and where can the explorer find salvation? The Birds. Oh, the birds...
With Pelicans by the thousand, Terns, Gulls, Herons, Shorebirds, pelagic birds and a huge potential to catch vagrants, the Salton Sea is one of the premier birding hotspots in the continental U.S. Although the water of the Salton Sea is enclosed and stagnant, coastal and inland birds move through in large numbers and with great regularity.
The Wister Waterfowl Management Area now plays hosts to several hundred roosting Black Skimmers and Gull-billed Terns. I missed the Terns by about a week, but many of the Skimmers were still around--a fittingly preposterous and awesome-looking bird for a preposterous and awesome place.
While keeping one's head low to avoid the errant shots of Dove hunters, one can watch the Skimmers display their aerial prowess while the ever-calm and collected Western Grebes cruise below.
Sometimes the Skimmers come down to the Grebe's level too, and put those big mandibles to good use.
Farther south from the Wister Waterfowl area, which is essentially flooded acres of former slat cedar groves, one gets to the Salton Sea proper. The mud gets thicker, stickier, and stinkier, and the concentration of shorebirds really starts to increase.
There are various points of access for the Salton shore, many of which offer different expected species and rare sightings. Almost all of the turn-offs are guarded by Burrowing Owls who chide the obsessed birder for entering such a hellish place.
The Owls are prescient, as Owls are often said to be. While exploring the Schrimpf and McDonald Road sites it is very easy to get one's vehicle ensnared in the quagmire. Once stuck, there is no escape but for the slow demise brought on by beating heat and whips of salty wind. It eats away flesh and metal alike and has spelled the doom of thousands of birders. For those that do survive, it does offer really nice looks at in-land Short-billed Dowitchers and massive Pelican flotillas.
One of the best spots along the east coast in the Red Hill "Marina," which isn't so much a marina as a strip of beach with a few deteriorated posts in the sand and some old cement foundations. The open expanses of shoreline are covered in dead fish and more than a few dead birds. Foraging amid the debris are many little Peeps.
The Western Sandpipers forage in conspicuous groups, but less gregarious Semi-palmated and Snowy Plovers require a discerning eye at times. The Snowy Plovers blend in particularly well despite there being no snow around the Sea. They bring some subtlety and softness to the harsh landscape.
Packs of rampaging Marbled Godwits are a more obvious sight along the shore, where they dip and slash with their rapier-like bills, murdering little mollusks with extreme prejudice.
Like the Gulls and Pelicans, the Godwits are very suited to life at the Salton Sea. On the other hand, gentler birds like this little Red-necked Phalarope, struggle to clear the relentless tide as it comes crashing towards the shore. It is a harsh world where only the strong survive, and only the cruel thrive.
Troops of Yellow-footed Gulls also ply their trade along the Salton Sea shore--one of the few places they're seen north of Mexico--and like a great pirate armada they roam around the other concentrations of birds, ready to pillage and loot at any sign of weakness.
Despite the seeming brutality of the place, the Salton Sea has plenty of charm. Over three hundred and eighty species of birds have been recorded in the area, with plenty of rarities and specialists species not often seen anywhere else. The landscape is rough, but the birds bring grace and purpose to this funny lake, and make it worth the blistering trip.
Posted by Laurence Butler