Sunday, October 26, 2014

Oct 25 (Day 298) - Sweating at the Salton Sea

Yesterday I did over a mile of vertical climbing to reach Jacumba, CA. Today I was able to reap the benefit of this climbing as I dropped 3,000 feet to the east to reach the Salton Sea. 

88 + 2 unmapped for 90 miles today

Border fence outside Jacumba

The descent out of Jacumba

Looking back east at the mountains out 
of which I descended

The Salton sea actually sits well below sea level (~230') and has a very interesting history (Salton Sea Wiki) Since the sea is so far below sea level, it can literally get hotter than hell around here. My first visit to this area was in July of 2007. What a disaster. I got my lifer Yellow-footed gull on that trip, but I almost died of heat stroke in the process. The temperature was something like 115F! I have since returned to the Salton Sea on 2 additional occasions - both in the winter (that makes this year's visit #4). I was actually at the Salton Sea in mid-October last year. On that trip I was able to get my lifer Blue-footed booby, or should I say boobies. Here are two photos I took at Obsidian Butte on Oct 11, 2013. The first is a side view of the same rock shown in the second shot. The first shot shows birds on the back of the rock that can't be seen in the second. A perfect count of all birds was difficult, but I estimated that there were at least 30 Blue-footed boobies on this rock during the time I took these photos!

Blue-footed boobies from my last trip to the Salton sea

There were no boobies here today (or at this fall), so my attention was focused on the main, resident attraction of the Salton Sea, the Yellow-footed gull (YFGU). This is a Mexican species that ventures into the US only at the Salton Sea. During the summer months, there can be hundreds of YFGUs present, but their numbers dwindle in the "cooler" months as most birds head back to Mexico. This year has been particularly thin from a YFGU standpoint, so I have planned on spending 2 days in the area should I have difficulty locating one of the few birds that are hanging about. 

The area immediately surrounding the sea is flat, flat, and flat!

Salton Sea shoreline

 There are fish carcasses everywhere around the sea.
It smells awful, but the birds make up for it.

I reached the sea at around 1pm. The mercury had already climbed to 92F at this stage, and it eventually topped out a bit later at 95/96F. It was very hot, but at least it was birdable - barely. Armed with loads of water, I slowly poked my way along the southeast shore of the sea. It can often be difficult to know where to start since there are a mind-boggling number of birds present at this time of year. Thousands of pelicans, cormorants, grebes, ducks, gulls, terns, shorebirds, and herons are visible at almost any point along the southeast shore of the sea. My search image was rather refined though as I was very focused on the YFGU. As expected, I struggled to find a YFGU. I did, however, for the first time in my four trips to the Salton Sea find double digits of Western gulls. Previously confined to the coast, it appears as though this species has encroached inland to (become resident at?) the Salton Sea. Identifying YFGU in the past has been easier than it is now since previously YFGU was the only regularly occurring darker backed gull in the area. With Western gulls now present, extra care must be taken to identify YFGU. 

I spend the whole afternoon searching. I had several false alarms triggered by the aforementioned Western gulls, but no YLGUs. Finally, at 5:15 or so, I saw a distant YLGU on the eastern side of Obsidian Butte. The bird was a long way off, but its very dark back, thick yellow bill, and bright yellow legs were a dead giveaway. YES! Bird #581 and my biggest reason for coming to the Salton Sea had finally materialized! I tried to ride around to a better viewpoint, but by the time I managed this (it took 20 minutes to get back to the bike and ride on the dirt tracks), the YLGU and the birds it was with had moved - UGH. I really wanted to get a photo for you, but such is life. I still had a 17-mile ride to where I was staying for the night, so I had to hit the road. I have had much better luck finding and photographing YLGU as the sea previously. Here is a photo taken on the same day as the booby photo above. Who knows - maybe today's was the same bird!

YLGU from my Salton Sea trip last year

Levitating YLGU from last year (same bird as above)

I am now in tears watching Chris Rock's old standup special "Bigger and Blacker". Time for a few more laughs before bed. Later!

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