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2019-09-06 – Friday at Border Field

Earlier I wrote about the first two stops I made on my tour though some of my favorite locations between the San Diego Bay and the Mexican border. This episode is about my last visit of the day to this amazing region.

Elegant Tern - Thalasseus elegans
Our beach at the border with Mexico can be a productive place to meet bird life. Imperial Beach, California in San Diego County.

When I left the Bird and Butterfly Garden, I headed to Border Field and paid my fees to access the beach. I feel this location provided my best photo opportunities of the day. Only one car was parked at the road’s end when I got to the beach, but one car followed me in and parked next to me. I walked to the sandy beach and gazed up and down the shore to see several hundred Elegant Terns, lots of hatch-year Willets and Heerman’s Gulls loafing, and a few smaller, unidentified shorebirds within the ranks. A quarter mile north there were two sunbathers. Just to the south, the couple that followed me in were setting up their umbrella and beach chairs. Here were two miles of white sand and almost no people! In southern California this is hard to find. I walked back to the van and gathered my camera gear and went back to the beach with hopes high.

Loafing birds do not make compelling subjects for photos. Experience has taught me that walking into a large gathering of birds on the beach will cause them to fly away and scatter without the benefit of getting any interesting images. There were large groups of loafing birds to the north, and more to the south by the border fence built in 1990 by the first Bush president. I parked myself above the wash of the waves and worked on birds flying past. As one would expect this close to the border, US Border Patrol agents monitor the beaches and the rest of the Tijuana River Valley round-the-clock. When I saw a Border Patrol officer driving down the beach on a motorised quad (ATV) used for patrolling the grounds, I knew the terns would pick up and fill the air. I took advantage of the situation and captured quite a few flight-shots.

I’ve found when shorebirds forage the surf line, it is best not to chase them. By standing still, they will usually move close enough for good images. When I saw dozens of young Willets doing their best to imitate Sanderlings running with the waves in search of mole-crabs, I used this strategy to capture their activities. Mole-crabs are easy to find on many sandy shorelines in Southern California. As a boy I remember watching the waves recede from their push to the shore, and studying the shallow backwash for the filter feeding adaptations of these “sand crabs,” as we called them. By scooping a handful of wet sand from under the crabs, we could catch them almost every time. Releasing them was just as much fun. We marvelled how easily they could dig their way below the surface of the sandy beach. Birds no doubt learned eons ago how to find these small crustaceans, and while their techniques differed from ours, they were quite successful capturing them. However, theirs was not a catch-and-release proposition, as was ours in my youth. This was survival!

While working on the Willets, I saw a single Black Turnstone working its way down the beach above the wet sand turning over small piles of dry kelp and seagrass, like the stone turning behaviour that gives them their name. I was entertained by the tenacity this bird displayed, placing its head under the clumps of dried material and like a pig rooting for truffles, up-ending the small piles and dispatching what small prey items it would find.

As I was leaving Border Field to investigate the ponds near Dairy Mart Road, I encountered a 30” Southern Pacific Rattlesnake struggling to cross the hot pavement. There were no other cars approaching, but I stopped to watch the snake complete its crossing. It wasn’t a long snake, but its girth suggested it was eating well.

I did not find any photo opportunities worth pursuing at Dairy Mart Road. There were a few birds there, but none seemed to be good candidates for photos. I would have to content myself with the thousands of images I’d already collected. It was a good day!

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