California Gulch and California’s Salton Sea
Birding in Arizona’s California Gulch became a dream as soon as I heard about its riches. Being a late bloomer in the modern birding world, I did not know anything about California Gulch until 2004 when Linda and I planned our 45-day birding trip the next year. Five years of fancying a trip to the gulch seemed like a long time to crave. However, the older one becomes, the faster time flies, so, in old fart time, five years is equal to maybe a year. During those five years, a few good birds had flown by the binocs. Life had been good, yet, I was bothered just a little in lacking the California Gulch experience. Arizona whetted my appetite, but I needed more. In 2006, I checked on human guides to the gulch, but went to Banff and other northerly places that year when a heat wave hit Canada Arizona style. Reaching the California Gulch seemed remotely possible in 2007, but a brief trip to Texas and moving to a new residence kept anywhere in Arizona out of bounds. Staying close to home was in the cards in 2008, but with the arrival of 2009, I made definite reservations for a guided trip into the land of the Pajarito Mountains and famed California Gulch.
The Pajarito Mountains straddle the International Border and are the only principal range in the birding Mecca known as Southeastern Arizona that lies west of Interstate 19. Compared to most of the other higher sky island mountain ranges in SE Arizona, the highest elevation in the Pajarito Mountains is barely over 5400 feet. Woody vegetation is sparse and often thorny. Cactus abounds, with towering saguaro. Grass grows in some areas that once supported so many cattle that overgrazing became a problem in the late 1800s.
Besides the promise of Five-striped Sparrows, Buff-collared Nightjars and Montezuma Quail, the history of the remote region of the gulch fascinated me. I could not help trying to piece together a nutshell idea of what has been going on there, but not being a real historian, the history of the region is more of a broken eggshell. First, Native Americans living in what now are Arizona and parts of northern Mexico occupied the land. In 1687, as far as I can recall, a Jesuit missionary, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino made his way north, apparently via Sycamore Canyon where many rare birds now occur. Kino is the namesake of such places Kino Springs, a good birding spot between Nogales and Patagonia. Around the mid-1700s, Spanish seeking gold and other minerals began to scrape and dig practically every nook and cranny of the region. One of the mines they named Oro Blanco, because of high content of silver in the gold. Wait, Oro Blanco. That is where the Buff-collared Nightjars, according to the people at that time, milk goats. The tale of goatsuckers is another story and no one knows if the prospectors were worried about losing goat milk. Anyhow, the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 succeeded in snagging a chunk of land for the United States. More miners scoured the land. By the 1890’s mineral mongers were abundant. Two towns, both named Oro Blanco, spring up not far from each other but in different years. One of them had a post office serving a population of 225. That reminds me that back in the day, the pre-zip code day, of my teenage abode was in Phoenix, Oregon. Envelopes without the word Oregon being in all caps, underlined and in red frequently went first to Phoenix, Arizona. Having more than one Oro Blanco must have been at least as troublesome Like the mines, the miners and their two towns, the land of opportunity came and went, disappearing into the bone-dry desert.
Not to be forgotten, as is the usual case with Indians, the Gadsden Purchase divided the Tohono O’odham land by an international border. The Baboquivari Mountains, northwest of California Gulch, forms the eastern boundary of the reservation. A Bureau of Land Management boundary even divides Baboquivari Peak, a 7,730-foot monolith that is the sacred mountain. Problems at the borders and prospecting continued but not so earnestly after the beginning of the Twentieth Century. In the 1960s and 70s a few so-called hippies looking for a warm and isolated place to live, bought up old mining claims thereby residing on private land protected by surrounding national forest service holdings. Some of the same people lingered on, settling in the town of Arivaca, originally a Pima Indian village, and Ruby, a privately owned mining community. The culture of the land nonetheless did not abandon the prospect of mining. According to one source, there are, in the Twenty-first Century, 30 mining claims scattered between Arivaca, Ruby and California Gulch. Although the price for gold (about $36.00 an ounce when I was a kid) has skyrocketed, what gold there may be in some of the old mines, including their tailings, the refuse, the piles of dirt and rocks, from the mines, is too costly to acquire. That fortune, if there is one, awaits some deadly cyanide bath or other deleterious ruin to the environment.
The harsh land, according to various sources, including bird-finding guides, is initially accessible by only a couple of roads leading from Interstate 19 from the east and Arizona State highway 286. Beyond those routes is Ruby Road and California Gulch Road. Only part of the drive into the region is possible on narrow and winding pavement. The rest is over dirt roads. Warnings to anyone venturing into the region include the need for a high-clearance vehicle, preferably a four-wheel drive, plenty of water and nerve. Also, expect dusty, rutted, wash boarded roads full of rocks and more dust, except during the monsoon season when there will be flash floods, with otherwise dry washes that will require floating across a ford, and avoiding slick mud or becoming stuck up to the floor boards. Then there are the other warnings, the least worrisome of which are no trespassing signs. People living in the remote area do not want interlopers and they mean it. The warnings that are plain to many local residents and punctuated by white and green Border Patrol vehicles signal a different kind of caution. Keep out and watch out, not just watch for birds. Do not trespass and be vigilant for people who have crossed the border illegally.
Plans for California Gulch would mean being careful not to snare myself by some spiky bush or sneaky saguaro, avoid tripping over prospectors tailings or falling into a mine pit, somehow not stepping on private property or rattle snakes, getting caught up with people coming across the International Border and not looking suspicious to the border patrol. Sometimes emulating the latter, I practiced smiling. All these precautions seemed like things a person with good birder skills could master. It all sounded like it could be lots of fun.
9 July 2009
A large four-wheel drive vehicle, closely following another, pulls into the McDonald’s parking lot exactly at 2:30. Two people, a 40 something, maybe older, woman and a 60 something man, exit the first vehicle. A tall, 50 something man, steps from the second SUV. Finished with my ice-cream treat and waiting next to my rental, I step toward the entourage. At the same time, a 50 something woman exits the McDonalds and approaches the woman in the first vehicle. Everyone, but one, is booted and looks ready for the desert. Yep, it is the California Gulch party. The driver of the first vehicle is Melody Kehl, who I had emailed earlier about a guided trip to the gulch. The second driver is her husband, Eric. The 60 something man is Art Martell, retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service, who lives in British Columbia. The other woman, the one without heavy boots, is Diane from east of the Rockies. I grab my extra water, binocs and jump in the back seat of the first vehicle. Art, whose name I had already forgotten, sits in the jump seat, a place where he had been sitting during the last several days birding under Melody’s tutelage. He and Melody had already seen the wayward Rufous-capped Warbler in Florida Canyon. Diane, who I almost instantly translated in my little mind as Annabel, sat to my left. Eric followed in the second vehicle in case there is trouble. Trouble? Apparently, one trouble was a broken down vehicle on one of the many trips led by Melody.
About twenty miles down I-19 is the end of comfortable riding. Melody slows while going through Arivaca Junction, and warns than anyone who is subject to motion sickness should sit up front. Art, who I now think has the moniker of Eric, offers to switch with one of us. “Annabel” and I tell our intrepid driver we are fine in the back seat. Moments later, we are roller coasting on the paved road to Arivaca. Somewhere along our southwesterly route, Melody points out Baboquivari Peak and mentions the word Papago. I learned earlier the Papago are also known as Tohono O’odham, but now hearing the word Papago reminds me that papago is the name of a subspecies of Black-headed Grosbeak, now recognized as a synonym of the nominate subspecies, the one breeding in the species range except the Pacific coast states, Baja California and British Columbia. In the blink of thinking about grosbeak systematic, I barely realize we have entered and exited Arivaca and are heading southeast on Ruby Road. A road sign, “Old South Stage Road “strikes a chord since I live on a South Stage Road which intersects nearby with an Old Stage Road. The others in the vehicle either are not amused by my trivia or are too busy hanging on to their seats as we bounce ever further towards our goal. Montana Peak, a 5,370 foot rock topped mountain reminds me of mountains seen in Big Bend. I snap a picture to add to a couple of others of tight strands of barbed wire fencing around meager cattle fodder and a distant residence placed well away from the main road. Deep scars, left from mining, complete the scene. In moments, tires are throwing dirt and rocks to the side of a primitive road. Eric hangs back, just out of the range of any rear flying rocks and choking dust. I grab a strap hanging from the ceiling of the rocking vehicle and hang on. Once, I bang my noggin on the door near ceiling. It is once, because learning from experience is a good thing. I cinch the seat belt even tighter and scoot a little toward the center. Sitting in back, I become confused about direction and distance before I realize we are driving eastward. Somewhere we enter Coronado National Forest, but often-unmarked private land within the boundary means possibly trespassing. A few solid bumps later, I glimpse a sign that reads “California Gulch Road.” Stopping for a picture would have been nice, but we barely slow, braking only for the largest bumps, dips and rocks, this time moving south. A few cattle appear along the route. They look amazingly healthy considering the surroundings. Our intrepid guide is not perturbed as bovine gridlock stops us shortly. Inching forward, the flies and cowhide hoof it off the road. We follow the gulch for a while, and then suddenly veer to the right, up, and over a dry ridge or two. A large dark hawk floats over the mountains. It is a Common Black-Hawk. Seeing it in flight is new. The only other Common Black-Hawk I had seen was perched at the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. This must be a border bird. Melody said we are just north of the international border. Having checked earlier, we are less than a mile from Mexico. At the top of one of the ridges, the vehicle nearly bucks as Melody cranks the wheel hard to the left and abruptly comes to an immediate halt. This is it, the beginning of birding California Gulch. My homework was meager preparation for the reality.
We pile out. Eric drives on. We will not have to walk back up the trail; he will pick us up at the other end. We are at the top of what the guidebooks call the old road. A hand-dug road accesses the gulch. Described as steep, I had imagined something steeper, something forbidding as one eases down into a brown-walled canyon full of sharp rocks and little vegetation. The old road actually provides a painless descent. It reminds me of a steep paved road near my house, the road I walk up and down three or four times a week so that I can walk up and down old roads leading to Five-striped Sparrows. Of course, there are loose rocks to avoid slipping on, and I think how difficult it would be to enter the gulch without this road. The closer I look, the more I realize this is tremendously rugged country. The walls of the gulch are almost covered by thick thorn scrub and cactus. Bare places are either rocky or covered by loose gravely desert ready to roll into the gulch. We stop occasionally on the way down to check out possible Lucy’s Warblers, bushtits and vireos.
California Gulch birders.
At the bottom of the gulch is a varied botanical smorgasbord of sycamore, cottonwood, willow, hackberry, ash and more. The trail is easy walking as it winds its way along what is presently a dry streambed. Only occasionally, loose rocks on the trail keep us mindful of inviting gravity. Almost immediately, we hear singing Five-striped Sparrows. Females remain hidden in the thorn scrub on the slopes of the canyon. A pool of water in the streambed attracts a couple of birds that award photo quality views of these dark sparrows. A Canyon Wrens sorrowful echo announces advancing cool shadows as the western sun dips below the top of the canyon wall. California Gulch is more than I had expected.
We count the number of singing male Five-striped Sparrows. There are 13 along the short distance of our stroll down California Gulch for maybe a meandering mile. That suggests a rather small territory size. S. G. Mills and friends, in 1980‘s Living Bird, wrote that territory size for birds in the Patagonia region was 0.6 to 2.6 hectares. For those hectare challenged people, like me, the territory size translates to about 1.48 to 6.42 acres. In other words, 1 acre is 43,560 square feet. Inching along the gulch, the sparrows seem to occupy every nook of the dry scrub slopes above the wash. Five-strips no longer breed in the Patagonia region. Perhaps they prefer the digs at California Gulch. Only seven male Five-striped Sparrows were counted upon their discovery in California Gulch in 1977 by S. G. Mills (W. Birds 8:121-130). Since then, according Kathleen Groschupf (Western Birds 25: 192-197), its numbers have fluctuated from only three in 1990 to 12 the next year. Since the 1994 paper, the species in California Gulch is holding its own. Not surprising, my old friend Allan, and his coauthor son, Roberto Phillips, summarized the northern distribution of Five-striped Sparrows. Not surprisingly, Alan took the A.O.U. to task on the range and preferred habitat.
Art and I, after being satiated by more sparrows that they have stripes, walk along riparian growth and bovine tracks. What gulch water remains from the last rain has been repeatedly mixed with cattle leavings, rendering it a rudimentary soup. Birds, desperate for a little water, are competition with our love of beef. I remark that in Oregon, and I am sure Canada, cattle’s fouling a riparian area is illegal. Art said, “Yes, and I would hope it is the same in Arizona.” The action of the cattle is just as illegal as it is illegal for us to trespass on any of the private property dotting the landscape that is within the national forest. I wonder who would have been in the most trouble had there been someone to enforce the law. There are no enforcers, no rattlesnakes, no accidents down the trail, no one illegally crossing the border and no border patrol checking our citizenships. It is a good day unless you are a thirsty Five-striped Sparrow or make a misstep into a fresh meadow muffin. I am happy seeing so many rare birds, and glad that Eric is waiting at the end of the trail. Someone mentions that the area is near a former residence known as Ralph’s Place.
The sides of California Gulch at the end of our trail are not as steep as at the beginning end of the trail. Eric, who once was the driving instructor for the Phoenix police department, ferried us out of the gulch and back to our parked vehicle quicker than I would have dared. The trip is like being on a dirt bike with four wheels churning. Certainly, the tires threw part of the ridge down to the gulch. Fortunately, it is a short ride. We pick up the vehicle left at the old hand dug road and in minutes are down on the other side of a ridge. Melody swerves quickly off the main drag onto a flat overlooking a dry creek bed. Just across the dry creek bed is the Oro Blanco Mine, the one where birders can usually find Buff-collared Nightjars.
Both vehicles back up to the wash. We are about .8 of a mile from the border. Eric begins unloading folding chairs, a portable table, and food. I help unload the furniture. The food is part of the guide’s package. There is chicken and there are Five-striped Sparrows, salad and Montezuma Quail, and cookies and a Buff-collared Nightjar. A white powder spots the flat ground overlooking the wash. It is diatomaceous earth to help keep the biting ants away. From the powder and old footprints, it seems obvious that the site is used by birders, especially by groups under Melody‘s assistance. She has been birding in southern Arizona since 1983 and leading small bird tours, especially to California Gulch since 1991. One or two visits per week to the gulch for a couple of months are a bunch of trips.
I am doing such a good job of hydration that it is crucial to excuse myself before hiking down to the wash to look for Montezuma Quail. A deep tributary is a private spot to wet some rocks. While there, I find most of the remains of a bovine. I tense a little, thinking a cougar had done the deed, but more likely, the cow or bull fell into the rocky trench and could not get up. Regardless, there is no danger from a lurking predator; the bones are bleached white. Our guide said that the animal died last year and the odor from its remains were worse than picnic ants.
We rest a bit in comfortable camp chairs, with drinks sitting in cup holders. This is a safari fantasy. The group is confident that more good birds are on their way. They are. Melody lines us up for a Montezuma Quail drive. I’m in the bottom of the wash not far from the rocks I hydrated. She thinks I can handle walking among the stream choked with rounded rocks and loose sand since Florida Canyon had provided me plenty of practice. Melody walked along the bank, about 20 to 30 feet to my right. Art is on more even footing another 20 to or so feet to her right and Annabel, without boots, take a smoother area to paralleling Art. A broken fence dangled across the wash. Seconds before we reached the fence, Melody blurts as quietly as is possible, that two quail are on the run. Catching movement, I get the binocs on a male and female Montezuma Quail hurrying away. It is an eye appealing moment, just under the barbwire.
Self-congratulations and a picnic dinner are in order. While sitting and munching we occasionally hear the quail’s strange wobbly whistle race to inaudible silence. It is an appropriate sound for the dry thorny sunset and is a prelude for a sound we are all waiting to hear. Soon shapes and faces blur in the darkness while our 3600-foot elevation helps cool thoughts of a sweltering day. A Common Poorwill and a Western Screech-Owl embrace the night. The white streaks of diatomaceous earth appear bright, as if floating above the darker sand. Eventually, the white streaks become paler, almost disappearing. The increasing darkness brings another sound befitting the stark Pajarito Mountains. This time it is a Buff-collared Nightjar. Melody, who is sitting in a camp chair a few feet from the rest of us, comes to attention. “It’s close.” We stare through the darkness, toward where we know Melody is ready to show the party a life bird. I see a faint movement flutter in the pale moon glow. Diatomaceous earth is flying in the dust as everyone, as far as I can tell, scrambles toward Melody. “It’s across the wash.” I peer in that direction, wishing I could see the bird calling in the darkness. Melody aims her light beam toward the sound. Two large orange orbs reflect back from a perch in the top of a bush. The nightjar continues its song, a cuking or tuking sound that speeds up before ending quietly and then repeating again. It would have been great to have a better look, to see the buff collar, but I am satisfied that hearing is believing.
Not everyone is excited about the nightjar. Eric did not join in the fray, staying back to watch our backs. Sometime, perhaps before he picked us up at the end of California Gulch, he had donned a small leather holster smartly nestling a handgun. Art, Annabel and I noticed the gun. Melody said Eric is just very cautious. I wonder about what. On the way back to the pavement, I thought I had the answer. He is worried about human traffic coming across the border, just as the numerous vehicles of the border patrol suggest. One patrolling vehicle follows us for several miles. We stop for Annabel who becomes car sick and needs to rid herself of her picnic chicken. An officer asks if everything is ok. He barely looks at our faces. I think he is accustomed to Melody’s sparrow/nightjar gangs. Annabel switches places with Art. She had been sitting in the back with me. Life is full of narrow escapes, but I pick wildlife over barf anytime. Art and I talk about Spruce Grouse, other boreal species and Wayne Campbell who got the multivolume Birds of British Columbia off the ground. Wayne visited the museum in the early days of the book project. He kept us in stitches relating birds and people he knew. Once more, we stop for Annabel. We are within sight of a border patrol checkpoint. Melody, with a walkie-talkie, asks Eric to go ahead to let the checkpoint agents know we are not disposing contraband at the side of the road. Finally, at the checkpoint, as agent ask about citizenship, Art says he is from Canada, which I think might create a stir, but we are waved on with a surprising smile. Almost to the interstate, we face a huge plaster cow skull. It surrounds the entrance to a bar and grill at Arivaca Junction. The giant skull’s eye sockets glow red. Now that is eye shine.
10 July 2009
After a hearty motel breakfast, I climb into the rental’s oven temperatures, top off the gas tank and head north toward Phoenix. Last night, I telephoned Henry Detwiller, the southeastern California birding expert. I had been worried that Yellow-footed Gulls might not be waiting at the Salton Sea for me to see. Henry said, “They are there, this is one of the best times to see them.” I mention I might try for the Yuma subspecies of Clapper Rail when I pass through, where else, Yuma. As I drive and drive and drive, I actually enjoy seeing the desert, the sparseness of it all, the towering saguaro decorating the landscape in every direction.
Despite the distance, roughly 340 miles and recommended driving time of four hours and 40 minutes, the time from Green Valley to Brawley, California seems effortless. I make the more or less prescribed stops to make sure the blood is circulating the way it should. There’s no since hindering the lungs with annoying blood clots. Having made it from near-death to birding in the desert in 11 months, I do not intend to miss out more of life. The support stockings are hot and get even hotter as I step out of the car at a gas station east of Yuma. I would have stopped sooner, but all of the Arizona rest stops are closed. Because of that, the station’s mini-market is full of tired and thirsty people. With a cool bottle of caffeinated beverage, I put the car on cruise control and attempt to keep the blood flowing in my legs by dancing in my seat to avoid repeating last year’s pesky clotting behavior. It works. I gas up at Yuma. Once across the border, California gas prices skyrocket. I turn north from Interstate 8, heading to Brawley, then to Calipatria and veer west on Sinclair Road to the headquarters of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The late Sonny Bono is an icon, staring with wife Cher on TV during the year I began my museum career. He is also an icon for efforts to save what many believe is dying, the great Salton Sea.
Imperial Valley is flat, flat, flat. Geologically, it is part of the Salton Trough that extends from expensive Palm Springs south to poverty-level communities all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Salton Sea is now an agricultural sump, collecting irrigation water draining into it from surrounding vast fields of vegetables, cotton and more. Some of the fields are dotted with recently baled hay. The closeness of the individual bales tells me, having loaded a good many bales during youthful summers, that there is a good crop. Stubble left after the hay or other crops frequently get the torch. In every direction, huge plumes of blackened smoke rise straight up in the breezeless summer. It reminds me of television shots taken during the Iraq war. Are there smoldering oil fields, exploded tanks or crashed planes burning? How can this be? California is seemingly a leader in advocating conservation, including healthy air quality. Remarkably, even though the state sets regulations on field burning, counties are free to implement their own rules, which may not be up to state standards. I am thankful that, at least today, the smoke is rising. I try to ignore the fact that there may be millions of unseen particles raining down on an already toxic landscape.
On the way from Brawley, I open the car window. The 75 m.p.h. wind roars. The car-generated wind sears my skin at temperatures over 100 degrees. In seconds, the whole interior of the car experiences a dry boil. Gasping, I hit the button, closing off the rumbling wind that is too hot to breath. Surprisingly, breathing it did not suggest the Salton Sea is not dying today. Actually, the dryness may help. Put water on a dead fish and it smells worse, and that is what apparently is happening as I drive further west, closer to the lake, where the dead and rotting are in the air. At refuge headquarters, cottontail rabbits hippity hop in every direction. Rushing inside the cool air-conditioned headquarters, I meet two guys working at desks. One assures me there are Yellow-legged Gulls for the finding. Because several hours of light remain in the day, I ask if it makes any sense to check for gulls now or wait until the morning when it is only in the high 90s. With a grin, they tell me that the afternoon is fine if I’m up to it. I am, but I plan to have the interior of the car around me as much as possible.
Red Hill Marina is north of headquarters and southward is Obsidian Butte, both good places to troll for Yellow-legged Gulls. Back in the car, now probably over 140 degrees, I drive south. Four years ago in May, Linda and I worked hard to see any birds at Salton Sea. As we left Obsidian Butte, Guy McCaskie motors up. He tells us where to look for Western Grebes, but we are behind schedule and head west toward San Diego. Today, as the sun is bouncing from the pale grayness of Obsidian Butte, the only breeze is from the movement the car, which is now throwing up a low cloud of dust. I slow for bumps and birds. A distant gull might be my quarry, but the binocs don’t help. Luckily, I brought along a spotting scope. Resting on the windowsill, it brings the bird closer, but not enough. I crank up the power. The vibration from the car is too much and I shut off the engine. With the air conditioner off, baked air rushes inside like a predator waiting to suffocate its prey. It does not, and at 45 power and through the blurring haze from heat waves, yellow legs are barely seen. I stare. Yes, they are yellow, not pink or flesh-colored. The mantle is dark, but this is no Western Gull. That species is actually an unexpected gull along the Salton Sea. Good thing I bothered bringing the scope for a better look. I sigh relief and regret. I have one more species of gull to notch on my scope. Three more yellow-legged species remain, including the Yellow-legged Gull, a bird occurring in a much cooler environment. About five red-legged gulls wait to be in view before notching the scope. One, a northern Ross’s Gull visited the Salton Sea last year. Other gulls for me to tick off sport black or pinkish legs. The regret: Once a new species is seen, it is never new again.
The shallow near shore water is full of shorebirds. Most are Black-necked Stilts, with a few American Avocets. Smaller fry start to draw me in. Should I spend the time attempting to identify each and every one of them, not just to document what is there but to check for any waifs such as some misguided stint or plover never seen by me. No, is my unspoken reply; shorebirds are not why I am swatting at gnats at the shore of Salton Sea. It is impossible to avoid at least glancing over the smaller shorebirds to search for any that stand out as different from the shorebirds I have seen over the years. Gulls, at the fringes of the shorebirds likewise deserve observing. Their numbers are made up by Ring-billed and California Gulls. Caspian Terns rake the air with their harsh calls. At the side of Red Hill are more shorebirds, thousands that sadly must go nameless. On the other side of the road are scattered Burrowing Owls standing at attention while watching me take their picture. In the background is a rusting structure, with pipes going everywhere. The whole thing dominates the pool table flatness near the intersections of Sinclair and Garst Roads. Even taller is a smoke stack emitting a ghost white curl into the pale blue sky. The mega structure is but one of several around the sea. I learn some call them Vulcan, Hoch or Leather Plants. The etymology may be a good story, but I’m satisfied to know the plant extracts geothermal brine to produce electricity.
Red Hill is not the usual pale gray and tan of the surrounding shoreline. It feels hotter here; perhaps heat from the sun is more absorbed by the darker red color. At a fork in the road, the choice is a campground to the right or the “beach“ to the left. From morbid curiosity, I turn right and am surprised there are actually a few people camping. How do they cope with the bugs and heat? It does seem quite the opposite of heaven. I drive back and bump along the south section of the rock to the westerly seaside of the rock. The greatly magnified and shaky peek at the Yellow-footed Gull at Obsidian is barely satisfactory. The thought of having at a chance at a second and better look at the target gull is nearly as tantalizing as a virgin sighting. Around a big bump, I realize Red Hill is making that second chance possible. The white of an adult gull reflects the afternoon sun. It is so close to the scratched road that it fills my binoculars. Heat waves cannot blur this view. The gull has gloriously yellow legs and feet and I can see a glint in its eye. How can I regret seeing such a bird? Certainly, I will never again be able to count Yellow-footed Gull as a new ABA species, but finding the target species does not negate the pleasure of birding in such an inhospitable environment. At the west unit, according to headquarters, is the place to see or at least hear, Clapper Rails. Naturally, I have seen a Clapper Rail or two, but I had not seen Rallus longrirostris yumanensis. A population of the subspecies breeds at the southeastern end of the Salton Sea. The remainder of this endangered subspecies breeds along what is left of the Colorado River, including marshes in the Yuma, Arizona, region, and south into western Mexico to Pueblo. My interest in seeing the so-called Yuma Clapper Rail is both biological and nostalgic. At the museum, I had seen many specimens of Clapper Rail, especially those from western populations. Dick Banks and coauthor Roy Tomlinson wrote the definite paper on the taxonomy of Clapper Rails in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. The paper published in Wilson Bulletin in 1974 bases its conclusions on careful comparisons of specimen plumages and measurements of 92 specimens, 34 of which were newly collected. The first line of the acknowledgements reads, “We thank M. Ralph Browning for technical assistance in this study…” That assistance is largely from hours and hours of preparing specimens. Roxie Laybourne, the feather lady, the pioneer in identifying birds that had flown into either plane engines or their feathers stuffed in a pillow used as a silencer in a murder, watched over me, teaching the best way to prepare a long-lasting and serviceable museum specimen. By serviceable, I mean a specimen that is easily measured, with wings not tucked into their cotton or fibrous tow stuffed bodies and one that anyone can see all its parts, the breast, tail, and back. Roxie, at the time seemed a rough taskmaster, but a friendship soon blossomed.
The same issue as Dick’s paper on the rails carried the paper “Collision between a Vulture and an Aircraft at an Altitude of 37,000 Feet” by Roxie. And, here I am below sea level. A couple of Common Moorhens scurry to the edge of the dike road, peck at the edge and disappear. The rails never show, but I do get to hear at least four of them keking and kacking in the thick marsh. A couple of Gull-billed Terns sail by, close enough to see their gullish bills. Thankfully, the sun almost sits barely above the horizon. The heat index now lowers a degree or two.
My cooling vest, now dried by the intense temperature, is becoming a warming vest. Tossing it in the car, I begin chasing out the 500-600 small flies that entered the open windows. Even they needed to get out of the sun. Several minutes later, I arrive at a motel, flyless in Westmoreland, a mini-opolis south of the lake. The motel lobby is wonderfully cool and clean. No smell. No flies. A young woman tells me it will be $89 for a bare-bones room. Shocked, I remind her “even though this is the only motel in miles, there are only three vehicles parked in the lot and most likely one belongs to you.” With a firm smile, I tell her I will pay $65 and not a dollar more. She seems surprised, but finally agrees to $67.50, including tax. I drive about a quarter of a mile to a grocery store that has a grill and order a hamburger and salad to go. Back at the room, the television announces it will be in the teens tomorrow. Teens plus 100.
11 July 2009
Last night’s call to Linda worries me. She still is not feeling well, although she perks up from the story of getting the room rate down, knowing I had learned a thing or two from my father, a man who could always make a good deal. With my good luck and surviving the heat, I get up around sunrise and head back to the Salton Sea. My agenda is to get another look at the Yellow-footed Gull. If I see it enough, maybe I will stop confusing the common name for Yellow-legged Gull. Both have yellow feet and yellow legs. What were the name giving gods thinking?
It is Saturday. Refuge headquarters is closed, but I stop anyway to check if any new bird sightings might decorate the bulletin board or chat with any birders in the parking lot. There are no postings and no one is around. The weather report must have scared everyone indoors. Several cotton-tailed rabbits hippity-hop around the compound and are unafraid of my quick return to the air-conditioned car. I drive back to Garst Road to check the birds in what the refuge calls the Hazard Tract. The name of the region is accurate. Getting off the road, stuck in the soft shoulder, in this heat, is far beyond a hazard. While watching a group of foraging Wood Storks, I check a map the refuge staff gave me yesterday. In this heat and barely unmarked route, I have to know where I‘m going. This is no place for error. I keep the car well placed on the compacted ruts produced there by the intrepid birders and explorers before me. Continuing to identify the larger birds, I scope herons, gulls and cormorants as I stop and start along Schrimpf Road. The road ends, I head north on English Road and then west onto McDonald Road. The term road is rapidly becoming a loose definition of a hazardous track and as I bump along, I decide not to entertain looking at any birds should they catch my eye as I negotiate the route.
McDonald Road ends at the shore of the Salton Sea. There is hardly room to turn the car around. Luckily, experience in reversing directions on even narrower logging roads in Oregon helps today. Once turned, aimed for an escape back to the better scrapes, I exit into the continually rising temperature. A flock of Double-crested Cormorants I had not noticed, jump into the air and fly away from me. Once up about 15 feet above the water, the flock gradually changes directions affording a partial profile view of the escaping flock. Knowing they are lowly cormorants, I nonetheless get my binocs on them, mainly because one bird is not cormorant material. The shape is not right. The mystery bird has a definite white rump and the white extends down a pointed tail. The bill is thick. Its head is almost white. The back has dark bars across a white background or is it the other way around. Its neck is also almost white. I catch what appears to be faint streaking on the head and neck.
Cormorant is quickly ruled out. Even immatures have some yellowish around the relatively thin bill. Is the bird a booby? Brown Booby is the only booby I’ve experienced, but the field guide illustrations of the other species are burned in my mind. I know what it is. The flock of cormorants and the booby again turn slightly. I see that it has a white sides but I cannot see the feet. Even so, everything adds up. The mystery bird is a Blue-footed Booby. The flock disappears into a cove near Scrimpf Road. Hurrying back is not permissible in the land of the Hazard Unit. Finally, at the spot where I hope the flock settles, I find a few scattered cormorants and clueless Wood Storks. Three Black Skimmers plough the water. What a place.
When I returned to Oregon, I checked bird sightings made at the Salton Sea. Guy McCaskie visited the southern end of Salton Sea on the very day I arrived there. He made observations about a week later, but he nor anyone else report Blue-footed Booby until the 22 August. Records of the species in the recently published tome, Birds of the Salton Sea, range from 12 July to 29 November, with the majority of observations in August and September. Even then, most are immatures. I phoned Henry Detwiller about my sighting, but I’m not sure he believed me. However, I believe me, and once I saw a few photos of flying boobys on the web, I am even more certain that I had my first Blue-footed Booby.
Once home, I also checked a few facts in the ornithological literature and discovered that Art’s colleague Wayne Campbell, who visited the museum during my tour, continues to publish. In a note on the southern distribution of Red-legged Kittiwakes, he acknowledges my help in a 2008 publication. That’s a dozen years since I roamed the collection. No wonder some people wonder if I’ve really retired. Or have I?