The LBJ (little brown job) flits into the brush as if to hide, then flies back out and perches on a fence, where its dark mask and ruddy undertail coverts mark it as an Abert's towhee. The bird's range is confined to southeastern California, western Arizona and the southern tip of Nevada, so it's one of the specialty birds people come to the Salton Sea to check off on their life lists.
This big, salty lake in the Imperial Valley is not only known as a recreation destination for fishermen, boaters and campers, it's a world-class haven for birdlife. More than 400 species of resident and migratory birds have been recorded here.
We saw more than 60 species in a recent one-day visit, but that was watching bird behaviors and lingering over "lifers" such as the little towhee. Experts out for a Big Day have recorded nearly twice that many.
There's a deep irony in the Salton Sea's having become a mecca for birds. In a sense, its story is the water story of the American West in reverse.
With the settlement of the West Coast by people of European descent beginning in the second half of the 19th century, more than 90 percent of California's historic wetlands were wiped out for agriculture and development. The loss of the wetlands greatly reduced bird populations, threatening many species that had been using the Pacific Flyway for thousands of generations.
Canals were built in southeastern California for irrigation beginning in the 1800s, part of the same enterprise that drained the historic wetlands. In 1905, extremely heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the swollen Colorado River to overflow canal head gates and sporadically dump its entire flow down two new 60-mile-long rivers it created to the Salton Sink, at more than 200 feet below sea level the lowest spot in the Imperial Valley's Colorado Desert.
The accidental deluge continued for almost two years. It was finally halted by massive engineering efforts undertaken by the Southern Pacific Railroad. By that time a lake had formed that was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide.
Since there's no outlet (the new "sea" is what geologists call an endorheic rift lake), the result was a huge body of water smack dab on the San Andreas Fault. So the Salton Sea now provides wintering grounds and/or a crucial migration stopover for millions of birds.
Flooding episodes in the region ceased for good with the completion of Hoover Dam upstream from Las Vegas to the north in 1935, and the area's development into a tourist attraction, which began in the 1920s, accelerated in the 1950s, with little beach hamlets Desert Beach, North Shore and Bombay Beach built on the sea's east side. Some of the decaying relics from that era may remind you eerily of the History Channel's "Life After People" series.
There's a stark beauty here, with the desert palette of reds and browns painting the landscape and the blue of the sea-like lake. We began birding at the headquarters of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, which covers 14 miles of the lake's northeastern shore. There was an abundance of common grackles, a bird you're not looking for on the West Coast, and white pelicans in this area that supports nearly one-third of the remaining population of the species.
An elegant little Bonaparte's gull — minus its black hood, which is only present during breeding season — plucked small prey from the water as it flew. Hundreds of black-necked stilts waded near the shore working the shallow bottom with their stiletto bills. A lesser yellowlegs foraged along the edge of the little harbor behind the headquarters building, and two green herons sat on two nearby pilings.
At Salt Creek, a rustic campground (crude toilets and parking only) a few miles to the south, thousands of ducks huddled near the creek's mouth: northern shovelers, northern pintails, blue-winged teals, a few common goldeneyes. A lone American avocet swept its upturned bill left and right through the water.
Farther to the south, the Wister Waterfowl Area will remind you of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, with canals feeding various units and many of the roads blocked off. It yielded California quails in addition to white-faced ibis, American wigeons, canvasbacks, buffleheads and ruddy ducks.
The Red Hill Marina isn't much of a marina, although a kayaker was putting in to the chagrin of a couple of pied-billed grebes.
Still farther south, at the Sonny Bono NWR, we thought we spotted a Costa's hummingbird. But it was in the shade and quickly buzzed off, and it could have been an Anna's, so we couldn't claim it. At the entrance to the Sonny (the Bono?), two burrowing owls stood guard over a length of PVC pipe sticking out of the ground on the side of the road.
The Salton Sea is in serious trouble, with increased salinity threatening farming, recreation and the birds. Some of the sea's advocates, including actor Matt Damon, point to the specter of Russia's Aral Sea, mostly dried up by ill-conceived irrigation schemes that created an environmental and economic disaster. Various state, county and federal agencies have wrestled with the problems. The preferred alternative would create a smaller, more manageable lake in a horseshoe shape around a middle area that would evaporate and create a "brine sink." The plan would cost billions and take decades.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.