2017-05-28 Red Hill At The Salton Sea

Lesser Nighthawk - Chordeiles acutipennis

Travelling south after my expedition with the San Diego Natural History Museum to Horse Thief Springs (read more of that trip HERE) in the Mojave Desert, I could not bring myself into a bee-line for home. I thought a pass by the Salton Sea might be worthwhile. When I travel, I try to find highways I’ve not traversed before, but I’m running out of them in the lower half of California. The route I followed this day was a mix of new and old pathways that carried me through the Mojave and Colorado deserts and included the Pinto Basin in Joshua Tree National Park past Cottonwood Springs.

South of Cottonwood Springs the Mojave transitions to the Colorado desert and the Joshua Trees further north are no longer seen. The elevation drops dramatically from 3000-4000 feet to several hundred feet below sea level at the Salton Sea thanks to the pull of the tectonic forces of the San Andreas Fault system that runs through the Coachella Valley and into the Gulf of California in Mexico.

The heat of early Summer is not the peak of birding season at the Salton Sea, but I know Lesser Nighthawks will be there, and the Red Hill Marina is a reliable place to find them when the weather is its hottest. There is a funky campground at Red Hill run by Imperial County where for $20 you can get electricity and water hookups. I don’t trust the water, but with electricity I’m able to defend against the oppressive heat certain to be visited upon me.

After establishing camp I made two passes through the grounds, once in the afternoon and another the following morning. Present were Great-Tailed Grackles, Eurasian Collared and Mourning Doves, Hooded Orioles, Say’s and Black Phoebes, Black-Tailed Gnatcatchers, Verdin, Abert’s Towhees, Northern Mockingbirds, and of course, the nighthawks.

Nighthawks are a tricky subject for photography. During the heat of the day they roost under the thickest growth that the small Mesquite trees here will offer. When encountered, they often take flight, usually in the opposite direction of the approach. In this situation, the flight shots are made more challenging by the lilting, buoyant manner of flight these birds use, floating low between all the structures the camp provides. When one is lucky enough to spot one perched, a slow, cautious approach, gathering images and moving forward a foot at a time for more shots, is the best formula for success.

I used the hottest part of the day to hunker down under the protection that the AC in my RV provided and processed the images I’d collected in camp. Only one other camper was parked nearby. A short walk from the site I chose, a couple from Wickenburg Arizona were set up under the only shade tree in the immediate vicinity. Those few other residents staying on the grounds were in their semi-permanent digs in another area of the facility. The couple from Wickenburg had been coming to camp here for 25 years, but only for a few days at a time. Carrying my camera gear past their site was cause for conversation and I spent considerable time visiting with them. Before I broke camp, I took my laptop over to their camp and shared the images I’d collected during my stay.

I had one more night at the sea, but I’d gotten what I could from Red Hill and I wanted to explore other locations before heading home. Being Sunday, the folks at the Sonny Bono NWR Visitor Center were not present, so I headed to my favorite perch at the south-eastern shore of the sea. It was nearly dead for birds here, so I headed to Ramer Lake for the night.

The heat of summer at Ramer Lake means hundreds upon hundreds of nesting and/or roosting Cattle Egrets, White-Faced Ibis, Double-Crested Cormorants will be present. A few American White Pelicans, numerous Western, Clark’s, Eared and Pied-Billed Grebes will also be there to, as will nesting Great Blue Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets. Passerines present will usually include grackles, blackbirds, towhees, Verdin, Bewick’s, Marsh and House Wrens and most of the other common desert inhabitants.

Images Below:

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