Bird’s-Eye View Below Sea Level


“Binoculars. Don’t leave home without them,” could be the motto of the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge. In fact, few visitors who traipse the shores of the salty sea, which lies 235 feet below sea level, are found without their field glasses.

The refuge’s inclusion in numerous birding guides explains why about 30,000 bird-watchers a year flock to this remote wildlife sanctuary.

Most noticeable of the feathered visitors and residents are geese, particularly the loud, honking Canada geese, which fly here in their distinct V-shaped formation. Also easy to spot are the large snow geese and the Ross geese, white geese that are similar to, but smaller than, the snow geese.


In addition to geese, bird-watchers can spot several kinds of waterfowl--ducks, mergansers, wigeons and reals. Endangered species include the Yuma clapper rail, the California brown pelican, the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. Other winged things at the refuge include bats and butterflies.

During the winters of 1992 and 1994, thousands of eared grebes died at the refuge. Scientists believed the birds were poisoned by a toxic form of algae that blooms in the huge salty lake. The algae is probably nourished by fertilizers and other nitrogen-based pollutants, called nutrients, that flow into the Salton Sea from nearby farms and perhaps even by sewage from Mexicali, Mexico. Aquatic biologists are studying this problem.

Rock Hill Wildlife Trail explores a kind of habitat that even the most experienced hikers may have never encountered: a cover strip--trees and shrubs found along dikes that separate farm fields. Mesquite and paloverde in cover strips provide food and protection for wildlife. Characteristic cover-strip birds include Gambel’s quail, mourning doves and loggerhead shrike.

The refuge, which is open all year, is especially attractive in winter, when the migratory birds are in residence. A tiny visitors center, an observation platform and a shaded picnic area welcome bird-watchers.

Directions from trail head: From California 111, 3 1/2 miles north of Calipatria, turn west on Sinclair Road and proceed six miles to the headquarters/visitors center of Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

The hike: From the refuge’s little observation platform, the path heads west along a dike for half a mile. To the south is a geothermal energy plant that captures steam from deep within the Earth to drive turbines and generate electricity.


The trail turns north as it reaches the Salton Sea shoreline. A brief ascent brings the hiker to the top of Rock Hill, a small volcanic butte. Enjoy the bird’s-eye view of the Salton Sea, then return the way you came.


Rock Hill Trail

WHERE: Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

DISTANCE: Two miles round trip.

TERRAIN: Marshlands, volcanic butte.

HIGHLIGHTS: Rock Hill Trail.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 120, Calipatria, CA 92233; tel, (619) 348-5278.