Birding by RV, ch 2, Salton Sea and Joshua Tree

Salton Sea and Joshua Tree

Our route from Yuma is the direction of young men (and women) following the historical suggestion to go west. It is California or bust. The direction is toward the Beach Boys and California girls, although we plan to follow Interstate 8 only to highway 111. In 2005, while on a 45-day birding marathon, we followed I-8 to San Diego. California girls that had gone west were there, but my girl and I were searching for California birds, especially California Gnatcatchers, California Scrub-Jays, Elegant Terns, and more. Now, ten years later, we sail the RV only a far as Salton Sea.


13 January 2015

Our Monday morning keeps us in Yuma for more time than we care, but there was a hic-up in communication concerning my recent INR reading in Yuma. My coumadin clinic back in Medford, Oregon, is asking me to get another check. As in the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” there was a “fallah to communicate.” Well before we hit the road this last October, we had read that medical matters might hinder RVers. The small issue of a simple blood test, the coumadin dipstick check, is trying my patience. Getting a finger stick for the blood test is not possible. After another blood draw, we finally are on our way into California.

With the day shortened, it is not possible to arrive at Salton Sea before the birds are ready to roost. Our campground app reveals a site along the route halfway between Yuma and El Centro, California. It is a Long-term Visitor Area (LTVA), with emphasis on long stays. Fourteen days are the minimum time for camping. Our chosen campground du jour is one of several LTVAs among over 400 BLM campgrounds scattered across the country. BLM land is mostly in the western United States and historically includes territory considered undesirable by early homesteaders. The public land administered by BLM ranges from national monuments to the tiny campgrounds we enjoyed barely outside western Tucson. Many ranchers pay a miniscule fee to graze their cattle while miners drill, dig and scrape under the umbrella of generous mineral permits. Most every acre of BLM is open to the public, sometimes with small user fees, and held in perpetuity for our future. Linda and I suspect that if BLM property was given or sold to privateers, the land would be overcome by cattle, empty housing lots, acres and acres of gravel, the vegetation destroyed by ATVs racing across the fragile desert, tailings and pits from mining, with no lack of no trespassing signs to keep out the public. We had already witnessed the products of overgrazing and mining in Arizona. Linda and I had observed that cacti and other vegetation did not survive beyond a protective fence. We easily notice that representation of wildlife in most, but to be fair, not all private land, is poor to nil when compared to the exceedingly healthy populations on most public land.

Contrary to a natural landscape found in most public land, some LTVAs do not meet the criteria of encompassing a healthy fauna and flora usually found elsewhere on BLM land. Some LTVAs render the environment more akin to what one expects to find on most private property, with vegetation scraped away for roads and home sites. In the case of the LTVA, the homes are RVs. A few bushes survive, again much like what one finds in a housing project, although some projects are horribly barren. The most famous BLM campground LTVA is the 11,400 acre La Posa LTVA, commonly known as Quartzite off I-10. An RVer we met weeks ago in Nevada asked if we had ever been to Quartzite. We said no. The RVer said we should try it at least once, just for the experience of camping where literally thousands of RVs park for the winter. We were also told that Quartzite might be best ignored. There are just too many people.

The LTVA we pull into is on BLM land just east of Holtville,ifornia. Several RVs parked among the creosote and nearby tamarisk. The site’s moniker, Hot Spring LTVA, has little impact on our weary selves. We did not think about a hot soak, even if there was enough remaining day light and we were not so tired. With an area of 400 acres, Hot Spring LTVA is relatively smaller than legendary Quartzite site, and the Hot Spring campground lacks water, restrooms and a dumping station. That is okay. Our fresh water is full and our own bathroom tank is empty. Because the campground is a LTVA, a sign indicated we might not be able to stay the night. Fortunately, the kind host bends the rules and tells us we are welcome for the night, but must check out in the morning. Luck is on our side since we do not have a permit, the usual requirement for winter visitors at LTVA sites.

14 January 2015

It is early and cool. Thick vegetation, the diminutive tamarisk and what appears to be willow, might harbor an interesting bird or two, but not likely anything new to add to the year list. We are reasonably close Salton Sea, the birding hotspot, no pun intended. We will add a few California birds to our burgeoning list that normally occur only in southeastern California. It is not until east bound on I-8 that we tumble onto the fact that the campground has a hot spring. Maybe some other time those waters will soak our skin.

On our way to Salton Sea, we search for a Mountain Plover, a species of shorebird severely impacted by loss of grasslands. The rare species breeds in the interior grasslands from Montana to the northern panhandle of Texas and winters in California, Southern Arizona and Texas to northern Mexico. My first, last and only sighting of Mountain Plover was in the Pawnee National Grasslands northeast of Denver. I should get out more. Today, I hope to break the record by laying eyes on another Mountain Plover. Unfortunately, the road accessing the site of the reported plover is closed for construction. Ploverless, we motor onward.

A couple of wrong turns are made on the way to refuge headquarters. We are grateful our 23-foot, with its relatively short wheel-base, is easy to negotiate tight spots and for U-turns. Finally, we end up in Westmoreland, a familiar town on highway 111. I stayed in a motel there in 2009 during my second visit to the refuge. From Westmoreland, the road to the refuge is at first straight as an arrow. After a couple of 90 degree turns and only a couple of curves, we see the Salton Sea. The region has a long and rich history. The present Salton Sea was spawned from the Colorado River as the result from an accident a few years before Linda and I are born. In area, Salton Sea is 376 square miles and is just short of 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, although shrinking in size. It nestles in the ancient basin of Lake Cahuilla, which was 111 miles long and about as wide as the present Salton Sea.

Salton Sea is dying. Because it is much saltier than the Pacific Ocean and due to chemicals flowing in from the surrounding rich farmland, the lake will be devoid of fish and any other fauna. As the shores are exposed due to decreases of inflow, wind will blow the toxic farm chemicals and poison the air. What is currently highly endangered habitat will become a dead zone to anyone and anything within the basin.

Today, we take advantage of what remains by visiting Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge so named to acknowledge the late Sonny Bono’s work toward saving the endangered Salton Sea. This is Linda’s second visit and there is concern about the smell. Countless fish often litter the shores of Salton Sea and when we were here in the early spring of 2005, the air was pungent. However, today, at least during this January, the odor is tolerable.

Headquarters is a good place to check on the latest bird sightings. Nothing out of the ordinary has been reported. However, the ordinary are great birds, with Gambel’s Quail and Abert’s Towhees near headquarters. Reasonable temperatures allow for a walk on Rock Hill Trail at the very shore of the sea. Previous visits, even in early spring, were too hot to venture onto the trail. Gulls rested on shore. One of them is a Yellow-footed Gull, a species not likely to be found in the United States other than at Salton Sea. Wintering Snow Geese, Northern Shovelers and other ducks, shorebirds and more sprinkled the shore and water.

Salton Sea


15-16 January 2015

A lack of RV camping sites and need for showers is good reason for nights at a motel in Westmoreland. On 15 January, I visited the Salton Sea where I heard Ridgway’s Rail, a kind of clapper rail and a Little Gull. The gull is a big deal since it is a new life species. On 16 January, we explore the southeastern side of Salton Sea. We are shocked at the devastation at Bombay Beach.  (See Milestone 700)

Bombay Beach

Farther north, we drive into Mecca Beach campground operated by Salton Sea State Recreation Area. The price is well-worth our stay where the view of the lake is different from the flat and arid atmosphere of the southern end. Mountains tower high to the west reminding us of mountain lakes we have oft enjoyed. White Pelicans, long-legged Black-necked Stilts and a Bonaparte’s Gull are among the birds along the shore. The beach is covered with thousands of dried fish.

17-20 January 2015

We scoured Mecca Beach for birds before deciding to drive north into Joshua Tree National Park. Our plan is to head northeast from California highway 111 to highway 195. Highway 111 is indicated on our map by red whereas 195 is gray. It may be a road less traveled or a route difficult to negotiate. Confident we can travel highway 195, we begin looking for its juncture with our red highway. Somehow, we cannot find the junction and end up in the town of Mecca. Remarkably, no one out of four people quarried said they had ever heard of highway 195 and, when asked, could not offer directions to Joshua Tree National Park. We are momentarily perplexed since, as a crow flies, the park is only about a dozen miles away. Linda and I conclude that not all members of our small sample are joking. We had experienced similar misalignment of brains that suffer from geographical disorientation. Not everyone is so impaired, but thanks to fast food joints, many must rely on the relative location of a destination to hamburger and fries. “Oh, take a left at the first Hamburgers R Us, and then right at the Crunchy Fry Franchise.” One must forget about using compass directions, regardless of where the sun might set. On the other hand, we found individuals who took the time to walk us out the store and point the direction we need to travel.

We finally give up, retrace our tracks and by our own wit, locate California State 195. Anyone from Mecca or elsewhere could enjoy a fine road. On our way northeastward, we pass through Box Canyon where the tan rocky walls hem in loose alluvial soil washed down the draw by fast-moving flash floods. The BLM campground is crowded with people even though the afternoon is young. Too many of the campers are carrying or shooting guns. This is too strange and probably dangerous for us. We travel on into the Joshua Tree.

Cottonwood Campground, near the southern boundary of the park, is our destination, but we did not realize that today is a holiday weekend. Cottonwood is full as are the other campgrounds in the park. Disappointed, we drive south toward Box Canyon, but decide to chance it by parking on a wide spot off the road, but inside the park. From our home for the night, we can see I-10 and far beyond, Salton Sea. Parking in a non-designated campground turns out to be a bad idea. A ranger disturbs our slumber around 2 am. She was about to write us a ticket, but decides to let us go with a verbal warning. I don enough clothes to drive legally. Not far is another pull off, this time on the south side of the park entrance. Perfect, we thought until we are roused again, this time by someone needing a jack since he blew a tire by driving off the highway. We do not have a jack—I could not lift the spare or bad tire, jack or no jack.

The morning light reveals we are mere yards from a BLM dispersed campground, where we stay for two nights to recoup the sleep we earlier lost and to wait out the plethora of weekend campers.

Driving back into Joshua Tree National Park on the 19th promises Linda a new plant. She had never seen a Joshua tree. A ranger during our quick stop at Cottonwood Visitor Center informs that we will begin seeing Joshua trees further north and recommends Jumbo Rocks Campground. Soon, we leave the Sonoran Desert and enter the Mohave Desert where we see forests of Joshua trees. The pavement leads to a rocky terrain where we turn onto a narrow paved road deep into Jumbo Rocks Campground. The boulders are truly gigantic. Although one end of the campground is less of a jumble of rocks and more suitable to RVs, we elect a campsite surrounded by the surprising landscape. The rocks are, depending on the light, a pale tan, with a hint of gray and almost pink. Many have vertical and horizontal groves from the ravages of rain, wind and temperature fluctuations. Their surfaces are rough and inviting to visitors who enjoy climbing them.

Scenes of Joshua Tree National Park

Rock Wrens are climbing the jumbo rocks, as are a few others, including an occasional scrub-jay and thrashers. Except for a single Canyon Wren, a walk on Skull Rock Trail that begins at the upper end of the campground produces opportunity for botanizing. Pencil cholla and grayish cotton thorn is among the sparse vegetation, but I need help in identifying most of the species. Where is a ranger-naturalist when you need one?

20-23 January 2015

We drive from Joshua Tree National Park south on the west side of Salton Sea to Brawley. Our general delivery mail is waiting in perhaps the most unique post office in the United States. The building has an octagonal dome. The front is also octagonal, but the back of the post office is squared as most buildings. We park in the back, and walk around the treed grounds to the octagonal front. The windows around the dome appear as decorative and probably functional. Outside, what is probably stucco, is pink. Even the entrance is impressive. Inside, I have the impression of an old remake of a train station, but a clerk tells me the structure has been a post office as long as she recalls.

There is a stack of mail to sift through. In the meantime, I find a clinic for my coumadin check and locate a store to restock our little kitchen. We revisit the motel in Westmoreland for welcome showers and catch-up on the laundry.

24-25 January 2015

The route from Joshua Tree to Brawley driven on the 20th took us past some interesting locations along the west side of Salton Sea. Today, we retrace part of that travel, with visits to North Beach and Salton Sea, the town. The adjacent shores yield only a few birds compared to the southern regions of Salton Sea. Two Yellow-footed Gulls are the highlight and the species to add to Linda’s life list.

Returning southward, we enter unit one of Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Linda is rewarded by another life bird, a Ridgway’s Rail. Rails are secretive and the one today is heard, but not seen. Sandhill Cranes, Common Gallinules, White Pelicans and other birds are preparing for the coming night. We also prepare for the coming night. Unit 1 is isolated from the rest of the refuge and is reached by a remote and mostly dirt and gravel road. Few visitors come here. We park our RV and snuggle while listening to American Coots and Black Rails competing for attention. Although camping is not allowed in the refuge, we rationalize that we are not actually camping. No fires are built. No tents are pegged. We are merely parking.

Our intention is apparent in the early morning. The surrounding marsh is wakening to a clear and cool sky. Actually, it is quite nippy as flocks of Snow Geese, White-faced Ibis and Sandhill Cranes fly noisily overhead. Black-crowned Night Herons croak, Ridgway’s Rails clap, cranes trumpet and geese cackle until a little after sunrise. By then, these anxious birds have flown to foraging sites in the marsh, on the water and adjacent fields. Warming sun encourages Marsh Wrens to sing and Northern Harriers to hunt them. Waking up in a marsh is amazing.

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and hot tea, we depart southward to I-8 and head east to Yuma. The night brings rain that erodes and muddies the BLM site where we stayed a few nights ago. Laboring trains continue hauling cargo north from Yuma. The rumbling strain competes with the rain while we sleep. Soon, we will return to the mountains of Arizona.


By now, we had learned a few things about living in a 23-foot RV. A full tank of fresh water and a full tank of gasoline weighs so much that side winds are less problematic than when those tanks are nearly empty. We also discovered that there is less stability on curves when the rear mounted black and gray water tanks are near capacity. This is especially true if the fresh water and gasoline tanks are low.

Conservation of fresh water seems an easy task. We had practiced brushing our teeth with little water compared to wasting so much before living in the RV. We also use hand sanitizing alcohol. Packaged personal wipes also save water and help maintain sanitation. Of course, keep those so-called flushable wipes out of the RV black water. And, it is a good idea to keep other paper products out of the system, even those little squares of toilet paper that dissolve with the least bit of moisture. That is because the paper does not always disolve.

Of course what goes out has to have a source. We call that food. For breakfast, two scrambled eggs in a microwaveable bowl is an easy meal. Throw in some cheese and what ever is nutritionally handy and it is omelet city. My cholesterol held its ground at a healthy state, but may have been helped with statins and plenty of exercise. Just how many, if any, eggs might be consumed may vary individually. According the recent information, we humans do not have to stop eating eggs even though a medium-sized egg contains 186 mg of cholesterol. Our liver naturally produces cholesterol and it releases less cholesterol when we eat eggs and releases more cholesterol when we do not eat eggs. People in a study who consumed eggs, the most nutritional food on earth, had a rise in HDL, the good cholesterol, and 70% of the participants had an increase in total cholesterol and no increase in LDL, the bad cholesterol. Actually, not all LDL is bad. Eggs apparently cause some LDL to be large, which is not bad for our body, whereas small LDL can be a health risk. For those egg lovers that have abstained from eating eggs, the yolk is on them since there are no bad results from eating three eggs per day. However, I am not a medical doctor and if one regularly eats eggs, it might be a good idea to have a periodic blood workup.

If eggs are a problem, try oatmeal. We used the fast cooking kind, water and the microwave. Putting more water in the bowl helped in dry climates and high elevations. Another nutritional meal is a smoothie. A measured dash of powdered protein, milk or juice and any fresh fruit, sometimes with a piece of kale, blended to a tasty drink is healthy any time of the day.

A theme on how to cook anything is apparent. Nuke with the microwave or use the propane burners to boil, but do not fry inside the RV. Nuking saves time. Using a propane burner may take more time and water to clean up, but frying will not only take more time to cook, there is the matter of popping grease and oil. Then, and far worse, miniscule amounts of oil floats in the air to eventually settle and clean to a surface that will also require cleaning. Frying is best relegated to the campfire.

We try to avoid glassware as much as possible. Breaks and cuts and the clean-up that follow is avoidable with the use of certain plastics. Microwaveable bowls come in all sizes, but it is sometimes hard to find a store that sells them. We found a microwaveable bowl the size of a cereal bowl perfect for feeding our hunger. Where? They nested in the camping section of Wal-Mart. These easy to clean bowls made life easy, whether they held eggs, a baked potato or stain bearing chili.

The design of plates, cups and other items holding food is important. Generally, plates should not be too flat. Having the edge curl upward may mean the difference of a meal sliding off the plate. That might happen during a hasty retreat from the picnic table to avoid feeding wildlife or having food watered down by rain. Cups, mugs and glasses need to have steep sides to avoid their contents sloshing overboard, again in the likely need to retreat from the picnic table. Also, keeping the meal and beverage off the RV floor is worth the time it took to select utilitarian dining ware. The only time I cried over spilled milk was in our RV.

Those eggs, oatmeal and canned chili all came with as brief of a grocery shop as possible. After all, there are more miles of RVing to perform and more birds to find. Nonetheless, time was taken to eat healthy, which requires studying labels in grocery stores. Any pre-prepared food, for example chili, soups, etc. Are often loaded with salt and other preservatives. We had to pick and choose. For greens, the premixed salads are easy on the water bill. Fresh fruit availability seems to vary from place to place requiring us to keep a can or two of fruit handy. With canned fruit, we study the labels to avoid too much sugar. For meat, canned chicken was our usual source of protein. The chicken goes well mixed with mayonnaise for a sandwich, or tossed loosely into salads or almost any other dish.

Cooking inside the RV is possible only by the microwave or on the two-burner propane stove. Microwaving is a favorite as preparing food usually takes less water, especially for cleaning afterwards. Of course, microwaving is faster than on the propane range. Also, microwaving contributes less heat to the interior of the RV. We discovered that when microwaving scrambled eggs and oatmeal it is a good idea to cover the top of the bowl with something. Through trial and error we discovered that draping a facial tissue over the top of a bowl does the trick. Avoid touching the food with the tissue and do not use tissues impregnated with lotion to avoid unnecesaraily moisturizing your food. Not all brands of facial tissue are created equally. Puffs work best and do a good job for noses. We found those facial tissues useful for wiping bowls and plates before any food residue dries onto the surfaces. Doing so saves our fresh water supply.

Our refrigerator allowed for space for several days of meals, but we decided to not load down the RV with food that could be replenished in a few days. After all, distances between grocery stores in most parts of the country are not great and locating a grocery in most of Arizona will be easy.

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