Birding Site: Southeast Salton Sea

Most recent visit: 7 May 2011
Latest web site update: 26 Jan 2011



  • Open Water (Various size lakes, ponds)
  • Streams, drains, and canals
  • Riparian
  • Agricultural
  • Marshes
  • Urban
  • Desert & sagebrush scrub

Brown Pelicans

General Description

Two hundred twenty-seven feet below sea level. Searing summer temperatures that exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Largest lake in California. Saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Breeding Burrowing Owls, Ruddy Ground-Doves, Gull-billed Terns, Black Skimmers, and Laughing Gulls. A magnet for rarities, wanderers, and snow birds alike! These all describe the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley. No matter the season, birders can spend a day around the Sea and find thousands of birds of a hundred-plus species.

Every year sharp-eyed observers find unusual and choice birds to complement the numerous residents and migrants. Jaegers and scoters are an annual occurrence on the Sea. Fall 2006 saw a Ross’s Gull at Red Hill Marina and a Black-headed Gull at the north end of the Sea. Summer’s end may yield Magnificent Frigatebirds, Wood Storks, and Blue-footed Boobies. The list of rarities seen here over the years reads like a who’s-who of birds seen in all corners of the U.S.

It is not just rarities and regulars that define a birding trip to the area, it is also the overwhelming numbers of birds. A few of my favorite personal observations from the past few years include:

•   500+ Mountain Plovers in an asparagus field—a good percentage of the world population
•   Clouds of Black Skimmers, Caspian Terns, and California Gulls wheeling over Obsidian Butte
•   Thousands of White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets over Bermuda grass fields--¬the swirling mass blotting out the sun
•   Hundreds of American White Pelicans standing side-by-side at the mouth of the New River, along with countless waterfowl and waders of every description
•   An acre-sized mat of phalaropes swirling on the surface of the Sea

Target Birds

  • Snow, White-fronted, & Canada Geese (w)
  • Brant (w)
  • all Western Waterfowl (w)
  • Yellow-footed Gull
  • Gull-billed Tern
  • Black Skimmer (s)
  • Sandhill Crane (w)
  • Reddish Egret (r)
  • Tricolored Heron (r)
  • Wood Stork (s)
  • almost any U.S. shorebird
  • Prairie & Peregrine Falcon
  • Ferruginous Hawk (w)
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Gila Woodpecker
  • Red-naped Sapsucker (w)
  • Ruddy Ground-Dove
  • Gray Flycatcher
  • Phainopepla
  • Black-tailed & Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Crissal Thrasher

Birding Map

Birding Locations

This route takes you to some of the finest birding in the southeast part of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley. It covers riparian, agricultural, marsh, shoreline, and open water habitats. Good birding!


East of Spreckels Sugar
- Access: from the intersection of Hwy 86 & Keystone, drive 1 mile east on Keystone
- Habitat: agricultural fields, granary
- Expected birds: Sandhill Cranes, raptors


Cattle Call Park in Brawley
- Access: from Hwy 86 & Cattle Call Road, drive 0.6 miles west on Cattle Call Road to entrance of park
- Habitat: park with mixed trees, lawns, fields, and cattle pens
- Expected birds: Vermilion and Gray Flycatchers, Red-naped Sapsucker
- Bonus birds: Zone-tailed Hawk, Red-breasted Sapsucker


Wiest Lake
- Access: from Hwy 115 & Rutherford Road, drive 2.5 miles west to lake
- Habitat: freshwater lake
- Expected birds: waterfowl, Clark’s & Western Grebes, Gull-billed and other Terns
- Bonus birds: Black Swift, Purple Martin


Finney Lake
- Access: from Titsworth & Smith, drive 0.5 miles south to entrance
- Habitat: freshwater lake, marsh, brush, Athel Tamarisks
- Expected birds: Clark’s & Western Grebes, bitterns, Marsh Wren, warblers, Crissal Thrasher, egret & heron colony
- Bonus birds: Harris’s Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe


Ramer Lake
- Access: from Kershaw & Titsworth, drive 0.6 miles north to entrance (left over RR tracks)
- Habitat: freshwater lake, mixed woods, brush, marsh
- Expected birds: Clark’s & Western Grebes, Marsh Wren, warblers, egret & heron colony, Vermilion Flycatcher
- Bonus birds: Anhinga, Yellow-throated Warbler, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe


Eddins Road & Sperry Road
- Access: from the from the center of Calipatria, drive 1.5 miles west on Eddins Road
- Habitat: yards and farm
- Note: be careful of fast cars on Eddins
- Expected birds: Ruddy & Common Ground-Dove, White-winged & Mourning Doves, and Eurasian Collared-Dove
- Bonus birds: Band-tailed Pigeon, Chestnut-sided Warbler


Calipatria State Prison
- Access: from Hwy 115 & Blair Road, drive 2.5 miles north
- Habitat: freshwater pond, Bermuda grass fields (plover & longspurs)
- Notes: pond is on south side of prison; fields are on east side of prison;
- Expected birds: good mix of puddle and diving ducks, grebes, and gulls, in pond; Sprague’s Pipit; Lapland, Chestnut-colored, and McCown’s Longspurs in fields
- Bonus birds: Smith’s Longspur


Earthrise Spirulina Algae Farm
- Access: from Blair & Hoover, drive 0.9 miles west just over the RR tracks; take dirt road that travels around the outside of the east and south side of the fence
- Habitat: freshwater ponds
- Expected birds: waterfowl, Black Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull, nesting Black-necked Stilts, Wilson’s & Red-necked Phalaropes, and Burrowing Owl along Hoover Road
- Bonus birds: Ruff, Wandering Tattler


Sinclair Road & Highway 111
- Access: from the center of Calipatria (Hwy 111 & Eddins), drive 3.5 miles north on Hwy 111, turn left on Sinclair
- Habitat: Bermuda grass, plowed fields, dirt drains
- Expected birds: Burrowing Owl (watching from the drains), Mountain Plover (especially in freshly burned or plowed fields), Sprague’s Pipit (in Bermuda grass)


Salt Creek Beach
- Access: 26.5 miles north of Niland, on west side of Hwy 111
- Habitat: freshwater creek emptying into the Salton Sea, open water, shoreline
- Expected birds: Blue-winged Teal, Common & Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, and gulls
- Bonus birds: Barrow’s Goldeneye, Tricolored Heron


Wister Waterfowl Management Area
- Access: 5.1 miles north of Niland on Hwy 111 (also reached by driving to the north end of Davis Road)
- Habitat: riparian habitat, mesquite trees, fields, freshwater ponds, marsh, shoreline and open sea
- Notes: short nature trail, restrooms, picnic area, and viewing tower
- Expected birds: Snow & Ross’s Geese, “Yuma” Clapper Rail, Laughing Gull, Gull-billed Tern, sparrows, Abert’s Towhee, American Redstart
- Bonus birds: Tropical Kingbird, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-backed Robin, Ovenbird


Davis Road
- Access: ruins at corner of Davis & Pound
- Habitat: ponds, ruined adobes
- Expected birds: Snowy Plover, Peregrine Falcon, Say’s Phoebe


McDonald Road
- Access: from Davis & McDonald, drive about 1 mile west to end of road
- Habitat: shoreline, hedgerow, open sea, ponds
- Expected birds: waterfowl, Peregrine Falcon, Brant, shorebirds
- Bonus birds: Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork


Schrimpf Road
- Access: best portion of this road is between Garst and Davis Roads
- Habitat: marshes, shoreline, ponds, the Alamo River on the north side of the road
- Expected birds: waterfowl, Wood Stork, “Yuma” Clapper Rail, Wilson’s & Red-necked Phalaropes
- Bonus birds: Red Phalarope, Tricolored Heron


Red Hill Marina
- Access: at the west end of Red Hill Road
- Habitat: shoreline and open sea
- Expected birds: waterfowl, terns, Yellow-footed & Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Marbled Godwit
- Bonus birds: Blue-footed Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Glaucous & Glaucous-winged Gulls, Piping Plove


Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR Headquarters
- Access: at the west end of Sinclair Road
- Habitat: mesquite trees, fields, freshwater ponds, marsh, shoreline and open sea
- Notes: half-mile nature trail, headquarters has bird info, restrooms, picnic area, and viewing tower
- Expected birds: Snow & Ross’s Geese, Laughing Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Barn Owl, sparrows, Abert’s Towhee, shorebirds
- Bonus birds: Long-tailed Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Golden-crowned Sparrow


Obsidian Butte
- Access: from the refuge HQ, go south 0.5 miles south on Gentry, then west for 0.5 miles on McKendry to Obsidian Butte peninsula; loop road circles butte.
- Habitat: marsh, ponds, saltbush, rocky shoreline and open sea
- Expected birds: often best location for Yellow-footed & rare gulls, turnstones and other shorebirds, pelicans, waterfowl, Peregrine Falcon
- Bonus birds: Heermann’s Gull, all three jaegers


Salton Sea Levee (Sea Wall)
- Access: south from Obsidian Butte; or from the west end of Lindsey Road—then follow it south about 4 miles to Bowles Road
- Notes: fresh water flows from drains at various spots, like the end of drain at Young Road—these are excellent spots for waterfowl and gulls
- Habitat: shoreline and open sea, freshwater inflows
- Expected birds: grebes, waterfowl, gulls, terns, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow
- Bonus birds: scoters, rare ducks, pelagics, rare gulls, Reddish Egret


Bowles Road
- Access: from Bowles & Lack Roads, drive west 1.75 miles
- Habitat: shoreline and open sea, freshwater mouth of the New River
- Expected birds: exceptional numbers of waterfowl, gulls, terns, pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, and waders
- Bonus birds: Ruff, Little Gull


Willey Reservoir
- Access: from Lack & Foulds Roads, drive west 0.5 miles west to McNerney Road, drive 0.4 miles north on west side of ditch road to fenced perimeter of reservoir
- Habitat: large freshwater reservoir
- Expected birds: often the best mix of waterfowl in the Imperial Valley, gulls, and terns
- Bonus birds: Surf & White-winged Scoters, Red-throated & Common Loons, Tundra Swan

Site Notes

  • Ownership: Federal government, California state government, Imperial Irrigation District, and private
  • Vehicle Access : Most roads are 2-wheel drive, including dirt farm and levee roads. However, rains can turn dirt roads into slippery messes--best avoided by even 4-wheel drive. No matter the season, never ever drive along the shoreline of the Salton Sea--you’ll get stuck in the muck!
  • Fees: None
  • Restrooms: Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR Headquarters, Calipatria, Brawley, and Niland
  • Food: Calipatria, Brawley, and Niland
  • Gas: Same as above
  • Camping: Several fee-based developed campgrounds in the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, plus several primitive camping areas
  • Other Notes: All seasons offer superb birding, but fall through early spring offers the most pleasant weather. The summer season is usually hot and humid. Decomposing algae, rotting fish, and escaping geothermal gases add up to some mighty odiferous birding. And there are swarms of flies. When you step out to view the birds, a baker’s dozen will invade your vehicle in search of cooler air—most aggravating. Summer birding is usually best done from the comfort of your air-conditioned, multi-window bird blind. Always take along plenty of water—a gallon a day per person.

    The definitive reference on the avifauna of the area is the Birds of the Salton Sea, by Patten, McCaskie, and Unitt (University of California Press, 2003). Guy McCaskie had an exceptionally good year in 2006, seeing an incredible 294 species in Imperial County, including 26 species of gulls! A good Internet reference is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR website:

Driving Directions to Salton Sea NWR Headquarters

  • From Calipatria, drive north 5 miles on Highway 115 to Sinclair Road
  • Turn left (west) onto Sinclair Road and drive 6 miles to the headquarters building (at corner of Sinclair and Gentry Roads)

Site Bird List


Western waterfowl
- Black
- Gull-billed
- Yellow-footed (s)
- California
- Herring
- Bonaparte's
- Laughing
- Franklin's
American Avocet
Black-necked Stilt
Stilt Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
- Snowy
- Semipalmated
- Black-bellied
Wood Stork
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon (w)
Red-tailed Hawk
Lesser Nighthawk
Great-horned & Barn Owl
Burrowing Owl
Warblers (m)
- Townsend’s
- Hermit
- Black-throated Gray
- Wilson’s
- MacGillivray’s
- Nashville
- Yellow
- Yellow-breasted Chat
- Willow
- Pacific-slope
- Olive-sided
- Western Wood Pewee  Western Tanager
Bullocks & Hooded Oriole
Black-headed Grosbeak


Surf Scoter (w)
Yellow-footed Gull (w)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (w)
Glaucous-winged Gull (w)
Pacific Golden Plover (m)
Sanderling (m)
Black & Ruddy Turnston (m,w)
Red Knot (m)
Short-billed Dowitcher (m)
Prairie Falcon (s)
Western Screech-Owl
Gray Flycatcher (w)
Crissal Thrasher

m = migrant
w = winter
s = summer


Black Scoter (w)
White-winged Scoter (w)
Tundra Swan (w)
Glaucous Gull (w)
Thayer's Gull (w)
American Golden Plover (m)
Ruff (w,m)
Wandering Tattler (w,m)
Magnificent Frigatebird (s)
Blue-footed Booby (s)
Ross' Gull (accidental)
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (m)
Hermit Warbler (m)


Ross's Gull











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