"I love the smell of snow geese in the morning!"
These were the words I spoke to my wife as we were standing at the edge of a ditch at the Unit 1 area of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on a cold wintry morning. Before us thousands of Snow Geese were beginning to stir as the light of dawn slowly brightened up the cloudless skies. A little to our left about two dozen Sandhill Cranes were already busy feeding among the tall grass.
On New year's Day we decided to leave the hustle and bustle of the Rose Parade in Pasadena for the peace and quiet of birding at the Salton Sea. We have not visited this place during winter and we were hoping that we could begin the year by adding some new species to our lifelist. We were not disappointed. We saw our first flock of Snow Geese minutes after we arrived at the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge headquarters at around 10:30 am. A covey of Gambel's Quails were noisily availing of the seeds that fell from the feeder, while Abert's Towhees and White-crowned Sparrows were battling for prime space on the feeders. Common Ground Doves were mingling with the quails below. Here we met fellow birder Tom Wurster who gave excellent directions on where we could find the best birding areas.
After checking in at the Calipatria Inn, we headed to Keystone Road south of the city of Brawley. Along the way we encountered a huge flock of Cattle Egrets next to the highway. The fields east of the sugar factory at Keystone were pretty quiet so we drove farther until we got to the intersection of Dogwood. It was here that Cynthia pointed to a group of tall birds. "Sandhill Cranes!" I exclaimed as both of us jumped out of the Jeep and tried getting some pictures of the distant birds. Eventually the cranes flew off. We tried to follow the flock but they landed in a field where access was prohibited. Through dogged persistence, we were able to find a place to park and I walked towards where the cranes were now feeding. I borrowed Cynthia's lighter camera gear and after about a quarter mile, I located the tall birds and took some shots. After a while, the cranes once again flew off this time towards the horizon.
On my way back to the Jeep (my wife remained there) I was startled when a Burrowing Owl flushed and flew by me. I chased it down but then it flew back until it settled between Cynthia and myself. Through intricate hand signals, my wife finally understood what I was trying to convey and she grabbed my camera with the 500mm lens attached to it. Handholding that camera set-up she took a burst of shots at the owl while I slowly approached from the other side and tried to take some pictures as well, despite my subject being backlit and all.
The following morning we were at Unit 1 and we were so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of birds around us. Wave upon wave of Snow Geese were flying overhead while Sandhill Cranes were bugling and rattling below. We had not seen this kind of avian spectacle ever before and we stood there entranced by the beauty of it all.
Reluctantly, we left this awesome pageant. We had to be at the fields next to the Calipatria State Prison for the pipits and the longspurs. The only pipit we saw were Americans and not the longed for Sprague's. Savannah Sparrows darted back and forth across the road and we hoped that there would be some longspurs among them but we dipped on those as well. The birders that we met here were all talking about the Bendire's Thrasher that was seen within the premises of a residential area in Calipatria. Tom also mentioned it yesterday. Since it would be a lifer for us, we decided to join the group in searching for the uncommon thrasher. We were soon rewarded by a glimpse of the shy, skulking, nondescript bird. The thrasher had a habit of showing up briefly on the branches of a dead tree and then diving to the ground and out of sight.
While we were all waiting for the bird to reappear, I saw a flash of red overhead. It was a Vermillion Flycatcher grabbing a moth in mid-air. It landed on an electrical wire where it consumed its prey.
With the owner of the place where the thrasher hangs out getting a little antsy, we thought it prudent to take an early exit.
After lunch we returned to Keystone road where we once again saw a flock of Sandhill Cranes. Along the sea were more Snow Geese, countless Northern Pintails and Gulls of various kinds.
We wanted to be home before it got really dark so we left around 3 pm. Burned into our memories were the sights of thousands of geese darkening the blue skies as they flew overhead and the raucous calls of the Sandhill Cranes as they danced in celebration of a new year. Racking up three lifers is indeed a glorious way to start our birding year.