South end of the Salton Sea. We just pulled into the corner of Lack and Lindsey Roads. There were cars along the edge of the narrow dirt road some 20 feet above the shoreline. Birders from the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society were lined up by the road peering into their spotting scopes at the birds below. We asked one of the birders, Dave Chadsey, whom I have met at Legg Lake before while looking for the Bay-breasted Warbler, if there was anything interesting down there. “Just a bunch of gulls, including some Herrings”, he replied casually. My wife and I looked at each other. “Herring Gulls, you say?” I commented in the same casual tone – trying to sound like I have seen this species a gazillion times already (which Dave probably had) – when as a matter of fact it would be a lifer for Cynthia and myself. So I raised my binoculars to the group of gulls bunched together on tiny strip of mudflat below and tried to figure out which of these are the Herring Gulls. As I was just about to take a picture of the gull flock, Dave announced that the group will be moving on to Obsidian Butte to try and look for the Yellow-footed Gull. I asked Dave if it’s alright that we tag along. Graciously he said ok. We quickly packed our gear (thus not being able to photograph the Herring Gull(s?) and jumped into our Jeep since the birding caravan had started to move.
By and large, birders are very nice and accommodating. However….
Yesterday afternoon we drove to Unit 1 of the Salton Sea Refuge. At the observation deck, we met an elderly couple who were scanning the area with binoculars. We asked them the usual “Anything interesting?” question. The little old lady smiled and said, “Well, there’s a bird…..”. We waited for the continuation, both of us leaning forward in rapt anticipation - waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. A few minutes passed. Had we been sitting, we would have fallen off our seats at the unbearable suspense. But then she just smiled and continued looking through her binoculars. At this point, Cynthia and I thought it prudent to descend from the observation deck and walk towards the ponds further down the road, to look for one of our target birds, the Stilt Sandpiper. When we were out of earshot from the couple on the deck, I raised my eyes to the skies and asked aloud, “What bird was it?” My wife stared at me and was at once concerned with my state of mind. “I just needed to vent”, I assured her. Having done that, I was now able to breathe normally. Thankfully, as some sort of a palliative, we got our Stilt Sandpipers.
The following morning, at the exact same spot, we met Taurino Tadeo, a young guy we have also encountered previously at Bolsa Chica. Taurino and I have a lot of things in common: we are both half-Filipino, we enjoy photography, we love birds and we are both exceedingly good-looking (well, at least he is). We exchanged information on where to look for particular birds, him giving us directions on where to find Burrowing Owls, and us showing him where the Sandhill Cranes hang-out during the day. Wishing each other good luck, we parted ways as we pursued our separate missions.
Back at Obsidian Butte with Dave and the group, it didn’t take long for them to locate the Yellow-footed Gull. The bird was at quite a distance though – perhaps the length of a city block - but the San Bernardino Auduboner’s were so nice in letting us look through their spotting scopes. We were so grateful to them for our 7th lifer of the year.
They decided to stick around to look for the Lesser Black-backed Gull (which was reportedly seen in this place as well), so we grudgingly said goodbye to the friendly group since we still have to look for our other target birds: Mountain Plover, Sprague’s Pipit and Chestnut-backed Longspurs.
We failed miserably on those three despite searching diligently for over two hours the areas where they have been observed. On the return trip home we took the east side (Highway 111) route. On a whim, we decided to stop by Mecca Beach on the north shore of the sea. There we were greeted by gulls! Lots of them! Easily I recognized Ring-billeds and Bonaparte’s. Then a huge gull with dark wings flew over and alighted on some rocks about a hundred feet away. “I think that’s a Lesser Black-backed Gull”, I told my wife. “Quite a few birders have seen it here quite recently.”
“Then, what are you waiting for?”, she asked. “Go after it.”
A hundred feet seemed like forever when chasing a lifer, but eventually I was able to get close. Close enough to correctly identify the gull as a Lesser Black-Backed indeed.
As we resumed our trip home, our conversation went something like..
"What about that other gull? Is that a third year Western?
"Could be a winter adult California"….
"How about a Thayer’s, you know...that's a possibility, too"
"……another Herring, maybe?..."
"....well, the irises look pale....."
* Forrest Gump, 1994