Wildlife refuge in desert teems with thousands of birds that stop for a rest
The stillness of the desert morning was shattered by the whoosh of a thousand wings as a flock of snow geese lifted from the marshy field. Even the tiny burrowing owl I was watching seemed to take notice of the clatter.
San Diego bird-watchers don’t have to migrate far this time of the year to get a good look at some rare and unusual feathered travelers.
Winter brings flocks of migratory ducks, geese, swans and cranes to the Imperial Valley, where the Salton Sea and surrounding agricultural fields offer a welcome mat for these seasonal visitors.
Along with the collection of resident birds, winter birding at the Salton Sea can be a treasure-trove for anyone trying to add to their life list.
The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when flooding from the Colorado River breached an Imperial Valley dike and water flowed into the below-sea-level basin for two years. The result was a great inland lake 230 feet below sea level, spanning 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.
Known today as the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, it is located on the Pacific Flyway, an important migration route for birds. The refuge habitats and the Salton Sea are vital to these migrating birds as a resting place and wintering area.
Additionally the refuge manages an intensive farming program to provide forage for as many as 30,000 wintering geese and other migratory birds and wildlife in winter months.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Park Ranger Mark Stewart is the education coordinator for the refuge. He says every season offers something special.
Winter brings big numbers of geese, cranes, swans, ducks and other shore birds that spend the season here.
Starting in March, the refuge sees perching birds like warblers, orioles and buntings passing through as they return north, and summer brings some unusual visitors such at the blue-footed boobie, an ocean bird rarely seen in this area.
“The refuge is recognized as one of the premiere birding sites in the world, and we get visitors from all over,” Stewart said. It’s located on the southeastern corner of the Salton Sea, about 100 miles east of San Diego.
On my recent visit, I was greeted by a breathtaking sky show as white-tailed kites performed a mating ritual that resembles aerial combat. Moments later, I was stalking a colorful verdin feeding on Chuparosa blossoms as three species of doves fed nearby.
In one of the palm trees a barn owl was sleeping while waiting for the night shift, and along the canals it was common to see tiny little burrowing owls watching the world go by from the entrance of their underground shelters. In fact, about 70 percent of the state’s burrowing owl population is found around the Salton Sea.
Stewart said the mating ritual of the kites is a rare sight, but something that visitors might expect.
“You never know what to expect here. This year, our most unusual visitor was the boobie,” he said. “That really excited birders, and we had lots of people out to see that.”
The refuge is also home to large numbers of resident raptors, and visitors can expect to see owls, hawks, eagles, kestrels, merlins, falcons and kites.
First-time visitors to the refuge should check in at the visitor center, located at 906 W. Sinclair Road, Calipatria. Maps and bird lists are available there.
There is no fee to visit the refuge, and the visitor center is open from 7 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on weekends. The center is closed on weekends in summer months.
Trails and roads in the refuge are open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
Stewart said the best birding time in the refuge is often early and late in the day, especially in the hot summer months.