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‘Birding walk,' other activities mark birthday of wildlife refuge

October 15, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

The normal desert quiet on the outskirts of Calipatria was broken Saturday morning by the excited chattering of young children.

Helping staff at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge celebrate the 99th birthday of its parent organization, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the children were embarking on a "birding walk" with local birder Bob Miller and Charie Pelizza, senior wildlife biologist at the refuge.

Clutching water bottles and dutifully bringing up the rear behind Miller and Pelizza, the children soon quieted down when Miller pointed out a black phoebe flycatcher darting in and out of mesquite trees.

Further on, the group came to a stop to allow Miller to set up his spotting scope. This proved to be popular with the children, who crowded around "Birder Bob," eager to catch a glimpse of pelicans through the high-powered lens of the spotting scope.


American white pelicans and California brown pelicans call the refuge home. The brown pelican has earned the dubious distinction of having made it onto the threatened/endangered species list.

Established as a national refuge in 1930 by a presidential proclamation, the refuge has some 375 recorded bird species on its books.

Originally the refuge contained 35,000 acres. Because of flooding by the Salton Sea, only about 2,200 manageable acres remain. A system of dikes is in place and expected to keep the sea from further encroachment into the refuge.

Later at the refuge's visitor station, Miller, a Brawley native, said he enjoys volunteering his time to introduce children and adults to the winged inhabitants of the refuge.

He's led Audubon Society field trips and groups from the San Diego Natural History Museum through the refuge.

"I like doing this stuff," he said.

He added, "People come from all over the world to bird watch here."

An Anna's hummingbird flirted with a nearby hummingbird feeder as Miller spoke.

"Most of the hummingbirds have passed through by this time of the year … but we do get a group of these little guys staying here in the winter. You get black-chinned hummingbirds, Anna's, Costa's. Calliopes sometimes come through here," he said.

When asked if it differs taking children rather than adults on birding walks, Miller smiled and said, "Well, yes and no. Kids are kind of amazed. But they're easily bored and it's hard for them to see birds with just their eyes. They might see just a flash of color. But when I pull out the spotting scope and they look through there … every detail just jumps out at them."

The children, meanwhile, were now occupied constructing and painting birdhouses in a nearby equipment shed.

Maintenance technician Norman Smith bravely offered to hold the partially completed birdhouses together while young hands wielded hammer and nail.

Nine-year-old Heather Dodson of Bombay Beach sat quietly at the end of the table working diligently on a birdhouse, helped by her aunt, Aniko Pusztai. Across from Heather, another youngster appeared to be painting his birdhouse every color of the rainbow, with blue being the predominant hue.

Westmorland participant, Hollie Allison, 8, proudly held up her completed birdhouse for inspection and agreed the spotting scope used on the birding walk earlier, was "pretty cool."

The primary purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl and endangered species.

In summer of 1996 a catastrophic outbreak of avian botulism wreaked havoc with the brown and white pelican populations, as well as affecting other bird groups at the refuge.

It has now become a summer ritual for the refuge staff to go out each morning on an airboat to retrieve ailing birds from the sea and bring them back to the refuge, where they are rehydrated and stabilized overnight.

Within 24 hours of retrieval, the birds are transported to specialized facilities for rehabilitation. Sea World in San Diego is one facility utilized and the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach is another facility birds can be sent to. Closer to home, the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center also rehabilitates birds.

Sick birds typically are hospitalized for 14 to 19 days before being released back into their habitat. Pelizza noted that the refuge now has a successful return rate of 60 to 70 percent

"Back in 1996 when things kind of caught us by surprise … we were not aware that we were going to have such a bad outbreak," Pelizza said. "We were basically just going out there and picking up dead birds. We had a very low rate of release at that time."

Pelizza went on to add, "Now we've pretty much got to the point where we're collecting the birds alive — they're sick but they're able to be sent to a rehabilitator. This has been a good year for us. We've had very few deaths."

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