Change At The Salton Sea Is Affecting Bird Populations
California’s largest lake has long attracted visitors. Many go there year-round to see thousands of birds congregating around the lake and its nearby habitats, but the lake is changing and that’s changing bird populations.
More than 400 different species have been recorded here and estimates put the daily bird population around the sea at more than 100,000.
That’s great for bird watchers like Ryan Llamas. The Audubon Society member’s binoculars are pressed tightly against his eyes as he scans the open water.
“Yeah, so you’d expect you are going to see a lot of water birds. It’s really cool because I can see right now a grebe. A western grebe,” Llamas said.
The black and white birds have long, slender necks, like a swan’s, but grebes are much smaller. The fish-eating birds are just one small sliver of a broad and complex web of birds in the region.
“The Salton Sea is huge. It is 35 miles long. So you’re not going to see all the same species distributed evenly throughout,” Llamas said.
There is bird activity both in the water and along the shore at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, on the northeast side of the lake.
The sea is a popular destination for birds navigating the Pacific flyway because it has coastal wetland that are difficult to find in California.
“About 95 percent of (coastal wetlands) have been destroyed you know in the name of development, farmland, especially in the Central Valley and so the Salton Sea as an inland wetland is one of the last refuges for shorebirds. You probably can see here today the black-necked stilt or the American avocet,” Llamas said.
Birds congregate in other habitats around Southern California, but there is a richness around the lake that’s unmatched in the region.
Llamas does not tire of the bird life that the water attracts.
“There are some ruddy ducks,” Llamas said as he pointed across the water. “Those are the ones that suffered from the die-off. So it’s kinda cool to see them too.”
Flocks of birds die at the Salton Sea
That duck die-off happened on the southern edge of the lake in January.
Avian cholera decimated ruddy ducks, northern shovelers, black-necked stilts and gulls. The disease spread quickly because the birds were huddled together looking for fish around a freshwater inlet, the New River.
The outbreak was swift and deadly. Thousands of bird carcasses ended up at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge where the bodies could be safely disposed.
“This is our largest incinerator, let me open this up a little bit,” said Chris Schoneman, a biologist who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A peek inside that incinerator, which is inside a building the size of a single car garage, reveals bones that weren’t completely consumed by fire.
Incinerators were built here because disease has a long history of killing birds in this region.
“This past January it was close to 7,000 birds out there. And to try to get out there and pick 7,000 birds up one at a time is a huge challenge,” Schoneman said.
Burning the carcasses gets the diseased bodies out of the ecosystem, hopefully limiting future outbreaks. However, the fact that there are two incinerators here also says something about the changing ecosystem at the Salton Sea.
“As the sea changes, it gets saltier, it affecting the animals that live in the sea. Most dramatically, lately, we’ve seen a shift in the fish populations,” Schoneman said.
Fresh-water tilapia were the lake’s most common fish, but they are disappearing as salt builds up in the water.
And the changing environment is challenging and changing the bird populations.
There are fewer species visiting here. White pelicans used to be common, but now they are a rare sight, as fish-eating birds look for other rest stops.
“The productivity of the Salton Sea is not what it used to be. The increased salinity has definitely suppressed productivity out on the Salton Sea,” Schoneman said.
The numbers bear that out.
The estimated daily population of birds at the sea hovers around 100,000, and that is half to a third of the numbers that used to come here as recently as a decade or so ago.
Joan McCandless and Carol Olavier spent a recent morning watching as a burrowing owl huddled in a plastic pipe on the western edge of the lake.
“Isn’t he adorable? Oh look, he’s really moving around,” McCandless said.
The small ground-nesting bird’s populations are falling elsewhere but there are about 4,000 breeding pairs around the sea.
The region rewards persistent birders.
“The closer you look, therefore binoculars, you know the more beautiful they are. And they all have different personalities too, species to species,” McCandless said.
And the bird populations say a lot about what’s going on inside the water.
A smaller and saltier sea will serve fewer bird species, but the disappearance of fish-eating birds may make room for other birds that eat bugs and worms along the muddy shore.
“Birds are like little messengers. They’re indicators of the health of an ecosystem and in the case of the waterbirds and shorebirds are indicators of the health of the Salton Sea,” Llamas said.