SALTON SEA, CALIF. — Mark was kind enough not to tell me what he really thought when I suggested we go birding. He was even kind enough to wake me when my jet-lagged body failed to respond to the feeble beeping of my watch. The three of us piled into Shroud’s green bug and were on the road by 6:30, only half an hour later than we’d planned.
We took highway 78 east instead of the 8. As we began descending from mountains into the desert, I saw agaves, cacti, and ocotillo thriving on the dry, rugged slopes. Rabbits and a few little rodents scampered across the narrow, empty road ahead; then there was a roadrunner.
By 9 a.m., we reached the National Wildlife Refuge. I clambered out of Shroud’s tiny backseat and heard a high-pitched racket from a nearby tree. It was a Verdin. Shroud and Mark did not seem interested, and I wondered how well this was going to work. I started hoping for big, spectacular waterbirds.
But it wasn’t clear where the water was. There was only one trail, so we started off. We came first to a wooden observation deck, which we climbed as a few Mourning Doves scattered. From the deck, we had a distant view of water, and it was covered with birds. I could make out white pelicans, but the great distance and heat shimmer prevented me from identifying much else, let alone explaining it to my uninitiated companions.
Just then, a ragged Great-tailed Grackle flew into some nearby scrub. As Shroud and Mark found her in their binoculars, I started talking about grackles in general and Great-tails in particular. They asked me questions, and I began to think that the day might turn out all right after all.
We continued on the trail, which was a parched, dusty affair leading through desert scrub. Power lines ran along on our left, and I spotted a small bird on a lower wire. We stopped to look, and I told Mark and Shroud it was a Western Kingbird. In all honesty, it wasn’t a great view of the bird, and I didn’t see its tail well. I assumed it was a Western, thinking that none of the others made it to Southern California. I didn’t explain that, though.
Mark found a Mourning Dove on her nest just above eye level. As we looked at her, strange little noises kept coming from low in the brush. I looked up just in time to see chunky bodies hurtling low above the road. “Quail!” We spent the next few moments bending low, straining to see into the brush, but the birds never gave us anything more than the most fleeting of glimpses. At first I guessed they were Scaled Quail, but then I wondered whether they might have been California or Gambel’s quail — whichever occur here. It’s really too bad I don’t actually know what I’m doing.
The power line was good to us. We stopped again to look at a shrike and saw a White-tailed Kite perched farther down the line. I talked briefly about shrikes’ notorious eating habits, and then we moved on to get a better look at the kite. After a little bit, it took off and circled ahead, glowing brilliant white against the intense blue sky and providing us an excellent opportunity to study its field marks.
Along the way, we remarked on the strange powdery consistency of the soil and marveled as we were surrounded by a swarm of infinitesimal white insects.
Finally, we approached the lake shore. As we did, a gorgeous skimmer sailed in front of us, swooping low over a channel and slicing the water with its remarkable mandible. A stilt waded in the shallows near shore, and pelicans of both species flew in small groups or rested on the water. A pair of Black Phoebes fed nearby, and Shroud saw one snatch a butterfly from the air. Caspian Terns flew over regularly, fish clasped in their heavy red bills; I wondered if they were nesting.
The lake was on our left, stretching off into the distance and covered by a heavy haze. A white pelican floated on the water’s surface, appearing like a mirage through the hot, dense air. On the right were the small pools we had seen from the observation decks. Now we could see clearly the skimmers, Caspian Terns, and pelicans that filled them. I also noticed a few distant coots. The Caspian Terns screeched continually, and one small group flew straight toward us making all kinds of racket.
As we walked along the shore, we saw more stilts, and a Willet flew in. I tried to explain that its plainness was actually helpful in identification, and then it flew, exposing black-and-white wings and crying, “Willet! Pee-wee-willet!”
Snowy Egrets flushed, yellow feet brilliant in the hot sun.
Then I looked up as a huge gull flew by. It was very dark, and as it passed me, I thought its feet looked yellow. A similarly sized immature gull trailed behind, and then they were out of sight. Was it — oh please come back. Come back and land on a rock, stretching those beautiful yellow legs for us! I kept walking, hoping for another chance.
The trail led up a rocky hill, around which two kestrels circled. We climbed to the top and looked out across the sea. The sun beat down mercilessly, and Shroud had forgotten sunscreen.
We started back down, stopping to examine strange plants that grew in the unforgiving rock. Their leaves were tough and white, and I couldn’t imagine how they eked out an existence in such a hostile place. They didn’t seem to have any chlorophyll, and there was nothing to parasitize. But they lived.
Salt crystals filled tracks in the dirt road like frost on winter’s day. The gull never came back.
We made it back to the car, sweaty, thirsty, and ready for air conditioning. I wanted to keep birding, but our brief time was already used up — and a little more. Yellow-footed Gulls, cormorants, quail, and other desert treasures will have to wait for another day.
TORREY PINES RECREATIONAL AREA, CALIF. — Large swifts slice through the stiff, cool breeze with incredible speed, hugging the spectacular sandstone cliffs. I don’t have my binoculars, but they seem to have flashes of white below.
The paragliders overhead look enticing, but the riders dangle helplessly, depending on the wind. The swifts are wild, daring, and free, unfettered by cables, canvas, or clocks.
Gusts of wind tickle pink flowers that cling to the clifftops and threaten to lift my shirt off my body, as if pretenses do not belong in such a place. Oh for the flight of the swifts. But we should be going soon.
Mark wants a list of the birds we saw today. I wonder….