Audubon California is helping shape the future of this remarkable place for birds.
White Pelicans at the Salton Sea. Photo: Robin L
The Salton Sea is one of the most important places for birds in North America and is in danger of losing its ecological value. As the Sea changes, we face losing a vital part of the Pacific Flyway and a toxic dust bowl that will threaten public health for more than a million Californians.
As part of the Colorado River Delta, the sea filled and dried for thousands of years prior to its current, 35-mile-long incarnation, which came into existence as the result of a massive flood of the Colorado River in 1905. The 330-square-mile Sea has partially replaced wetland habitat lost to agricultural and urban conversion in the Colorado River Delta, California’s coast, and the San Joaquin Valley.
The Sea is a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). For the past century, the Sea has served as a major nesting, wintering, and stopover site for millions of birds of approximately 400 species. Until recent years, tiny Eared Grebes wintered by the thousands in rafts far out on its surface. American White Pelicans roosted on mudflats and fished for tilapia in its shallows. Migratory shorebirds stopped to migrate and feed along the Sea’s edge. Today’s avifauna is shifting – the Sea is losing the fish-eating birds such as pelicans and cormorants because fish populations are disappearing. Eared Grebes, who have fed on pile worms, are also declining rapidly, from millions to several thousand. Shorebirds, however, that feast on invertebrates along the shore edges, as well as shallow feeding ducks such as Northern Shoveler and Ruddy Duck, are still wintering at, or passing along the Sea, in massive numbers.
Recently, its water level dropped to the point that colonial seabirds began abandoning nesting sites en masse in 2013, and shallow, marshy habitat areas at the sea’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish, particularly at the south end. In 2017, inputs of Colorado River water were transferred from local agricultural uses to urban uses on the coast. As less water flowed into the Sea, it shrunk considerably, becoming more saline and inhospitable to birds, fish, and insects.
We must take immediate action at the Salton Sea to protect human health and establish viable habitat for millions of migratory birds.
One year into his term, the Salton Sea continues to recede unabated, dust plumes rise, and birds disappear.
Research about how much habitat -- and what kind -- birds are using at the Salton Sea should guide restoration.
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