Monday, January 26, 2015

Day 3 - Scenes from the Salton Sea

After securing a quick breakfast in Brawley, our travels took us to the agriculture fields outside of town.  Never, in my life, have I seen so many American Kestrels.  At any given time, fields were being patrolled by dozens of these little buggers.  Mice?  Small birds?  Boy, are they having a tough time in life.  One field in particular held a target bird.  

The Long-billed Curlew, with its namesake schnoz, winter in these fields.   The sight of seeing 30 or 40 of them feeding is really quite something. 

After securing great looks (but no photographs – dammit!), it was time to move on to bird one of the greatest engineering gaffs of the 20th century – the Salton Sea.

The region is below sea level by over 200 feet.  Early farming practices were desperate for water (which only makes perfect sense because we are in the desert).  By 1905, an engineering team constructed a canal that could carry water from the not-so-distant Colorado River to the region.  While that sounds all cool, the canal failed.  For two years, the entire discharge of the river’s water diverted into the large depression. Forget it flowing to the Gulf of California.  It dumped into the desert.  The Salton Sea was born.

The waterflow issue is still a mess.  Any and all inflows come in the form of agricultural runoff and rain (hah!).  The result?  The Salton Sea is slowing drying up. Without an influx of water to offset the losses from evaporation, the salt content now exceeds that of the Pacific Ocean as it continues to increase at a rate of 1% a year. 

For birders, however, this place is a treasure.  Despite the salt levels in region, waterfowl come here in droves. The surrounding desert and agricultural regions broaden habitat options.  In a short matter of a few hours, Natalie and I secured 13 species of waterfowl.  That’s just for starters.  The Varied Thrush at the HQ turned out to be one of many for the trip.  Ibis were had.  The Gambel’s Quail at the feeding station were long overdue for the trip. Natalie noted that they sounded like Flickers.   The Ferruginous Hawk was amazingly cooperative.  

So where the Burrowing Owls.  Such neat birds. 

A fortunate conversation with a British fellow put us back out into the agricultural fields.  Within 20 minutes, we were relishing the views of Mountain Plovers.  Any opportunity to see this bird is a prized one as their numbers continue to decline in the western US.

Eager for more birding but running down on energy, a quick stop in Calipatria was in order.  The beer situation had not improved as this farming town with deep Hispanic origins is even smaller than Brawley.  In fact, I would suggest the place is so small, the Health Department does not know where it is.  Our little diner actually had caged parakeets in the dining room!  Is that allowed? 

Returning to the Salton Sea, specifically the Sonny BonoUnit (I’m not kidding here – it is named after him), we did the 1 mile hike to Rock Hill. A Yellow-footed Gull had been in the area. While a long shot in the winter, the incoming reports were encouraging. Sadly, it was not to be.  We, did however, score the LesserBlack-backed Gull that had been lurking in the region.  

Still struggling to figure out how to dress, we got a quite chilled as the day progressed despite the sunshine.   We opted to move along in the late afternoon. A brief stop at the Wister Unit of the Refuge was almost pointless.  The two coyotes were neat to see. We finished the day with 78 species of birds.

The drive to Escondido was beautiful and frustrating.  The road takes you through the Anza-Borrego State Park.  Beautiful desert terrain, it is. Sadly, it is very easy to get stuck behind a truck or camper on this two-lane road.  Passing opportunities were limited. Fortunately, my Motor City driving skill set came in handy.  Those California drivers….they just don’t get it.   They wont pass when they can and,by and large, they won’t exceed the speed limit.  It brings to mind to an old Batman episode from the 1960’s campy series.  They refused to exceed the speed limit en route to an emergency. In doing so, the bomb that had been placed in their car and set to go off at a certain speed did not. They were all driving like Bruce Wayne.  Mind you, I am not driving crazy. I don’t drive like an idiot.  I just understand things.

After passing through the storybook-like village of Julian, we secured lodging in Escondido.  Dinner was at the Stone Brewing Company.  We had no idea what we were in for.  Expecting the low-key but classy experience we have come to known at breweries across the country, this place blew us away.  The entire North American brewing operation currently runs from this building.  It’s huge.  With the interior decorating masterfully combining concrete, decorative stone, and re-bar (you know this stuff – it’s the iron bar sticking out of broken concrete), the atmosphere here was stunning.  An  outdoor patio with campfires only made the mood better.

The beer? Hell, its Stone Brewery! While hardly a microbrew anymore, this place has not lost touch with its microbrew roots.  The samples were all extraordinary.  The Go To IPA, Levitation Ale, Pale Ale, and Smoked Porter (#1519-1522) were all well above average.  Four’s across the board.  Given the chills of the day and evening, the Smoked Porter really hit the spot.  The food was too.  If we are ever back there, dinner will be there for sure.  

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