Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pretty Ugly (part 1)

Salton Sea lifer #1: Verdin.

The odd French expression jolie-laide translates literally into "pretty-ugly". It does not mean "sort of ugly" but simultaneously pretty and ugly: it's used to describe things that are alluring despite not being conventionally attractive—such as Edith Piaf and pugs.

I thought of this expression often over the past week, after spending three days stomping through piles of dessicated dead fish and waking up to the smell of cow manure—and loving almost every minute of it. Birding near the Salton Sea simultaneously sucks and rocks.

We arrived on the Thursday after Christmas, drove past the boarded-up remains of old motels, gas stations, and resorts; checked into a non-boarded-up hotel, and immediately set out to look for Glenn's grail bird, the Burrowing Owl—and within 15 minutes found one, peeking out of its burrow off the side of the road. We pulled over and spent about half an hour watching and photographing it before it retreated into its hole. Over the next few days, we would see several more: on our second day, we got lost—detailed maps of the area appear to be nonexistent, something we overheard several other visitors complain about during our stay—and pulled to the side of the road to get our bearings. And right across the street were TWO Burrowing Owls, staring at us from on top of their burrow!

After leaving our first owl in its hole, we continued to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge , where I scored three lifers in a five-minute period: a Verdin, several Abert's Towhees, and a flock of Gambel's Quail, all a few feet from the visitor center. By now I was absolutely giddy: if this pace kept up, I would expand my life list by 36 birds an hour! And assuming 10 hours of birding a day (Glenn wanted to get both sunrise and sunset shots, so we planned to be out shooting/birding every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m), this would mean 360 new birds a day over the course of the next two full days of birding! Woohoo!!

Of course, it didn't end up this way—in the end, I got only five more lifers (Ross's Goose, Common Ground-Dove, Inca Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and Sandhill Crane—all expected, common birds in the area). Still, being able to spend three days doing nothing but looking for and thinking about birds in a new place was reward enough.

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