Driving in California’s Imperial Valley, you come across something completely unexpected. On the horizon in the middle of the Californian desert, you can faintly see what appears to be the ocean.
The Salton Sea, one of North America’s premiere birding locations, is one of the most unbelievable places I have ever birded. This site is legendary for some of the unusual visitors and amazing vagrants found there, including Boobies, Frigatebirds, Tropicbirds, and Yellow-footed Gulls. On a blistering summer afternoon my dad and I visited this miraculous sea. Our guidebook told us that to fully experience this birding hot spot we needed to spend three or four days driving around the entire area. We had one afternoon. I do not know which was more impressive: the birds or the temperature. As we drove down to the water, which is 226 feet below sea level, our car’s thermometer topped out at 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of the heat, we were ready to bird.
There are some amazing species to be found at the Salton Sea and the area around it, but it is the sheer number of birds that really blows you away; we saw hundreds and thousands of shorebirds, terns, gulls, curlews, egrets, ibises, blackbirds, grebes, and pelicans. Some of our best birds were Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Yellow-footed Gull, Black Tern, Burrowing Owl, Greater Roadrunner, and Lesser Nighthawk. In the short time we were there, we found some wonderful species, and I wish we could have spent more time birding in this spectacular location because I know there was so much more to see.
The Salton Sea is an experience unto its own. Everything about it is over-sized–the number of birds, the variety of birds, the wind, the smell, and especially the heat. There is no other place in North America that is quite like it. So, if you are planning to bird in Southern California, try to make it into the desert to the Salton Sea; you will not regret it.
* For more about birding in North America see Places to Bird: Part 1.