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Birding at South Bay Salt Works
What is the South Bay Salt Works?
The South Bay Salt Works is San Diego County's oldest continuously operating business. It's been around for more than 145 years. They use a natural process of dehydrating sea water to extract salt. They use a series of levies to move ocean water to different compartments as the salt levels rise. This salt is mined for industrial and agriculture use (i.e. salt supplements for cattle). The San Diego Salt Works is located in south Chula Vista right at the southeast corner of the bay.
The area is extremely attractive to shorebirds because the high salt content attracts a large number of brine flies that many of them feed on. It is also fairly undisturbed and fairly isolated from people and predators, though there are feral cats, dogs, foxes, and coyotes in the area. A resident peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk also reside in the area.
Once a month, from October to March, San Diego Audubon holds a guided tour of the area. Usually, the tours are on Saturday, but a Sunday is usually offered at least once during the season. Bad weather will cancel the month's event. There are strict rules that the groups must follow to preserve the privilege of being inside the salt works. You must stay with the group and not get close to any of the ponds or structures. You can't go anywhere without a guide, including leaving the fenced area.
I've been on several of the tours and this hub is about my experiences and photos. All the photos are taken by me.
South Bay Salt Works
Vintage Video at the Salt Works
This is a 47 year old video taken at the salt works in 1967. Very little has changed in this area. You can see many of the same birds in the video today and the salt is harvested in much the same manner as in the video. The video is a bit long and has no sound, but is interesting if you are into local history.
Walking at the Salt Works
When you are doing the salt works tour, keep in mind some of the following:
- Public tours inside the salt works are available on a very limited basis. No one is permitted in the salt pond area unless they either work for the company or are escorted by authorized personnel.
- There is a short tour and a long tour. Long tours can last up to 5 hours, while the short tour usually lasts about 2-3 hours. Plan accordingly
- Stay on trail and roads, don't walk on plants or anything wooden. Some of the wooden structures are over a hundred years old.
- Follow the guides' directions.
- There are no facilities, not really even any bushes to hide behind.
- You must stay with the tour until it's time to go.
- Keep children from running ahead of the group as they may potentially scare birds.
I recommend drinking little or no liquids before the tour, especially if you plan on taking the long tour. (Skip the morning coffee) If you have bladder issues, this might not be the best tour for you. Bring a snack or a lunch and plan to eat it while walking as time is limited, especially on the long tour. Be sure to bring water and sun screen. Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes and long pants.
Birds You Might See at the Salt Works
There are many species that live around the salt ponds. These include:
- various grebes
- red knots
- And these killdeer
The killdeer in the above photo are some of the fifty-plus that live around the salt ponds and the surrounding refuge all year. They love to eat the brine flies. Like most birds, they have a salt glad behind the eyes to help excrete excess salt. However, sometimes there's too much salt in the ponds and the birds must find fresher water nearby. Luckily, the Otay River is nearby.
In the summer, several species of terns, such as elegant and gull-billed terns, use the area for breeding. This is one reason why the salt works is closed to tours in the summer. Only researchers and people who work for the company are allowed to be around the salt ponds at that time.
A handy shorebird guide is a must in this area because there are so many birds to see. There's even birds that fly in from Asia and the Pacific Islands. This field guide has hundreds of color photographs to help you identify just about every type of extant shorebird out there.
Restoring the Bay
Recently, part of the salt works has been restored back to its natural state. Several of the western ponds were dredged to let the natural tides return. Native plants were also planted and are doing very well. As a result, this area is beginning to become a world-class birding area. Several rare birds have already been spotted in the area and numbers of birds have been increasing.
You can access the area where the western salt ponds used to be by walking along the Bayshore Bikeway just north of Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach. Best access areas are at the end of 13th and 7th streets and the parking area on the Silver Strand to the north.
Looking For More Information on the Salt Works?
If you want to find more information on the history of the San Diego Salt Works or the wildlife found in the area, here are some links to check out: