The Salton Sea

The desert in this area (Coachella Valley) is almost totally without natural wetlands and that makes the manmade sites valuable to migrants. The sewage lagoons in many desert communities are (now) often made into (vegetated) wetlands and the stunningly large Salton Sea is a remnant of a mis-directed Colorado River from some 105 years ago. Actually there has been a lake here off and on over the past several million years. The flowage of the Colorado often dammed up the rivers exit into the Sea of Cortez and lakes formed periodically only to be washed away centuries later. The Salton Sea is now about 35 miles long and about 15 miles wide; covering some 360 square miles (obviously not a neat rectangle). The salts are leached from the surrounding agricultural soils and then flow back into the Sea. The current salinity is about forty times that of the Pacific Ocean. As you drive around the sea there are water-stains on the cliff faces showing where the ancient shore-lines were located. It is pretty neat. The surface of the water is well over 200′ below sea level.



I took very few images of the sea itself as it is hot, low, flat, featureless, and often unattractive. I will stick in some images of the birds of the area however. There are millions of birds here. Even though it is very salty there are tons of brine shrimp and brine flies and a few species of fish that can survive. They in turn feed the birds that winter on the waters.
The Salton Sea is hot; the air is often 120 and the water reaches 90 degrees each summer. The evaporation continually increases the Sea’s salinity and sooner or later it will be impossible for most life forms to exist here. As the area is well below sea level (up to 200’ below sea level!) there is no way to let the salty water out and it is nearly impossible to add fresh water. You might imagine a wind-swept vista like a lake in Maine, but you would be wrong. The Salton Sea is not a healthy-looking place; the fish often die-off due to lack of oxygen, creating a rather unpleasant aroma and a profusion of flies. But birders look for birds and there are birds here. So I will tell you about the birds and try to limit the icky, smelly, heat-addled, and simply tiring comments.

We started off before daylight and were seeing the shoreline as the first light broke. There were hundreds of pelicans coasting along the edge and a mix of gulls, cormorants, osprey, and terns in with them. As visibility improved we started to see shorebirds wading in the shallows and both grebes and ducks on the surface. Access is always a problem for birders and the Salton Sea is no exception. We were limited in the north end by Indian lands, the water commission regulations, and the lack of roads. We headed south as the sun rose.

Perhaps a sense of history is important here. The Salton Sea was, as mentioned, a big lake for a while. the water level will rise and drop depending on local weather conditions. There are hundreds of docks that don’t reach the water anymore and in a related act, there are also hundreds of empty and abandoned trailers, homes, camps, and small businesses in the area as well. There is more than 100 miles of coastline around the sea and it is generally uninhabited and undeveloped. It is often very hot and has an aroma that is a generous mix of guano, old mud, dry salts, and dead fish. 

However this visit was pretty nice; we had some distasteful views perhaps but no odor and no soft sand or mud. We had a very nice and very long day. At one point we went into the town of Brawley and walked a nice (green) residential are where we found Gila Woodpecker and then stopped at the rodeo grounds (also green) where we had a flock of quail and lots of ground-doves.

Most of the wildlife at Salton Sea is birdlife. There are some ducks among them and there is a hunting season. It is not an easy place to visit, bird, or hunt as the ground is really drying mud made of very small particles (clay-like) and salts. You can break through this slippery crust and find yourself in a hellish goo. The hunters will use small float boats and try to sneak up on birds. Birders have to walk a lot and use telescopes. There are always a few great birds at the Salton Sea (boobies, jaegers, rare herons) but it is often difficult to relocate things. The numbers that we saw included several thousand Long-billed Dowitchers and White Pelicans. There were hundreds of Stilt Sandpipers, Eared Grebes, Black-necked Stilt and Avocets. We ate on the way home; tired and happy with the outing.

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