Monday, August 22, 2005

Numenius is Good News

Much has been posted about the proliferation of peeps including some rarities at the Los Angeles River. So we decided to go after lunch. (Early morning has been committed for some non-birding activity). We got there around 1:30 pm and sure enough there were a lot of birds at the river feeding among discarded tires, grocery carts, even a baby stroller. However, the riverbanks were steep concrete, some 30 feet high, and even with binoculars, the birds appeared small. The larger birds were, of course, easily identifiable. But the birds that caused a ruckus among the local birding community are too tiny to be distinguished from the commoner species. Surprisingly, there were no other birders around to help sort out the unidentifiable peeps.

We decided to leave after an hour or so and because I felt the place posed a danger to Cynthia. She had this habit of  "disappearing". One moment she is beside you, and next moment she is gone, only to find out that she is on all fours. At first I thought it was just her gesture of worshipping the very  ground I walked on, but then  I realized that she had this tendency to slip or stumble over the most minute objects. Lest I find her rolling down the cement walls into the muddy river, I decided it would be a lot safer for her to move on to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine – a favorite birding place for us.

It was hot at 3 pm in SJWS but there were still birds to photograph (at least the sandpipers were close enough here than in the L.A. river). We were walking along the trails when I spotted a raptor-like bird flying towards us. Having a very limited success in flight photography, I mentally crossed my fingers and shot at the approaching bird. The bird turned out to be an Osprey (a bird-of-prey that hunts fish). Not long afterwards another raptor appeared in the sky. This time it was a White-tailed Kite but it was too high for any photographic attempt. We decided to close the day at Bolsa Chica where I have a feeling that there would even be lots of birds.

We arrived Bolsa Chica just in time for the “golden hour” as our friend, Dan Trinidad, calls that time of day. It is actually the hour before sunset and usually presents very good light to take pictures. There were already a bunch of photographers at the boardwalk armed with monster 500mm lenses while others have teeny-weeny pocket digitals. Most were shooting the Snowy Egret that was foraging close by, while some were practicing taking flight shots of the numerous terns zooming overhead. Cynthia suggested that I concentrate on the Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) at the other side of the boardwalk. This shorebird is aptly named because its long curved bill which is as long as its body.

The picture of this bird is one that I am unabashedly proud of - not because of the technical precision of the photograph but because the image invoked a sense of aesthetic contentment in my soul. The setting sun seemed to ignite the plumage of the curlew as it did its crepuscular ballet.  And phoenix-like it lifted my spirit from the ashes of disappointment. The broken heart caused by a twitched but unseen Red-faced Warbler in San Diego had been mended.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A River Runs Through

The Santa Clara River is the largest river system in southern California and is only one of two in the region that remain in their natural state and not channelized by concrete. It lies close to the boundaries of the cities of Ventura and Oxnard, some 100-odd miles north of Los Angeles.

The thought of seeing a river in its “natural state” - so different from the urbanized concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles, spurred us to investigate this waterway and try to discover what feathered creatures it harbors.  What made this trip more inviting was its proximity to McGrath beach – a strip of sand and sand dunes not frequented by the heliotropes of southern California. With the weather as hot as it was, a stroll on an uncrowded seashore would be a welcome respite.

And so we went early on a gloomy, overcast Saturday morning (what happened to the so-called heat wave?). The instructions we got from a birding site in the internet suggested that we park at the foot of the bridge which traverses this river and hike/bird from there. We found a good parking spot when we got there and were about to hit the trail when I noticed some debris which appeared to be the living quarters of some homeless person. Common sense dictated that we abandon plans of using this path so we proceeded to go the beach campground just a few yards away from the other side of the bridge, where we had to shell out $8.00 for the entrance fee. There was a trail right next to the parking area that led to the river, or as we soon discovered, the river bed. The natural river turned to be a small creek and a lot of mud. The river bed itself was huge, probably a quarter or even a half- mile wide. In spring when the snows melt from the mountains and the resulting waters rush toward the ocean, this river, I imagine, would be a real beauty. For now we had to contend with patches of water here and there. But there were birds, lots of them, and majority of them hidden in the bushes and trees by the riverbank. Another nemesis of mine, the Common Yellowthroat, were aplenty but so secretive and so active that getting even one good shot was an exercise in futility. The only bird that showed itself was the Black Phoebe. One of these days I'd probably write an ode to this black-and-white flycatcher. We go up the mountains, it is there, in a park full of people, it is there. In a desert or by a waterfalls, you'll find it there.

Anyway, frustration was beginning to get to me (skies are grey and I'm feeling blue), when suddenly a couple of killdeers flew by. Now that's another misnomer if ever there was one. These are birds about the size of a small chicken with big, beautiful eyes and certainly not capable of killing a deer. A shrimp maybe, but not a deer. I started stalking them, crouching in mud while Cynthia was chatting with a local hiker (Turns out she was getting directions for a birding place in the mountains not that far from where we were, either that or she was just getting an alibi for not traipsing in the mud with me).

With the killdeers eventually flying away, we started our hike toward the ocean where we could see a lot of birds congregating on the sand dunes. Along the way we passed by a group of tall reeds and a flock of Bushtits in a feeding frenzy. Bushtits are tiny (just a little bigger than my thumb), active, brown birds. They travel in small flocks moving from one reed stalk to another, constantly flitting, gleaning tiny insects from the plants. Knowing this habit, I positioned myself to a spot where I knew they would pass and hoped against hope that I would get at least one good shot of a bushtit. And I did.

We moved on, crossing piles of dead reeds, side-stepping stinky pools of seawater. Eventually we reached the sandy shore and there they were - throngs of seabirds, mostly pelicans and gulls with a smattering of peeps. Cynthia then exclaimed, "Look at the color of that killdeer!" I looked and saw a bright orange- colored bird with a large black "necklace". (Looking at our field guide later, we found out that it was a Ruddy Turnstone, a lifer for us).

We spent some time at the beach enjoying the birds around us. After a while, we felt a little cold (the skies were still overcast) and the wind was a bit gusty (the waves were high enough for surfers to have a field day). As we turned to go back to the parking lot, we came across a fenced-in area where snowy plovers were supposed to be nesting. We looked and looked, straining our necks but we couldn't find a single one, not even a nest or an egg.  Disappointed, we continued on. On a small dune were several brownish birds that we discovered to be the vey common House Finches. But then among them were about three birds that were larger and did not have the telltale reddish tinge of the finches. Using my binoculars, my heart leapt when I recognized the black bib and crown of Horned Larks! Having seen these birds only once before in Lake Isabella at the other side of the state, I was pleasantly surprised to see them here.

Happy with the fortune we had with the Horned Larks, we moved on to another spot in Camarillo, where there was only a parking space and then some expanse of grassy land before it becomes the Pacific Ocean. The parking lot and this expanse of land was separated by a very shallow creek with steep banks. We crossed the only bridge that spans this creek in the hope of getting close enough to photograph the pelicans and other birds in a sandbar about a hundred yards from where we were. But we have only walked a few steps when all, and I mean all, the birds in the area flew away from us. Hmmm, my deodorant must have worn off already. As we were returning back to the car, I noticed two birds fly in to the creek. I hurriedly went after them and was rewarded by the sight of two Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the shallow waters.

From there we went to the mountain place that Cynthia culled out from the hiker she talked with at Santa Clara river. The place turned out to be a dud, bird-wise, probably because it was getting really hot (this was about noon, and the cloudy skies finally gave way to blistering sunlight) or maybe because we didn't venture far enough (a hiker was actually lost at that time according to the forest ranger that we met). I did have a glimpse of our target bird, the White-tailed Kite, but it was too far away for a decent shot.
As we left, we resolved to return to Santa Clara in spring of next year when the river will be at its fullest, and we hope so will the birding activities.
P.S. Regretfully, we were not able to return to the Santa Clara River after this so we never found out if it actually became a river or remained as a creek.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Chasing Egrets

Reddish Egrets, to be precise.  The birding community was abuzz with sightings of Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens) at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. It will be a lifer for my wife, Cynthia, and myself, so we decided to go Saturday morning, July 30th. It has been said that the egrets only appear when the tide is low. The tide will be at its lowest, so we read, around noontime.
We intended to park at the Warner Avenue area but we were stopped by volunteers who were getting ready to clean-up the general area. We parked at the main parking area at PCH instead. Most of the people we met were already leaving, somewhat disappointed that they have not seen the now famous Reddish Egrets. Undaunted, we hiked the trail all the way up to the bluffs beyond the tidal gate, following a group of photographers lugging their humongous lenses. Along the way, another photographer pointed us to a very cooperative Great Blue Heron. 

And then not too far from it, another cooperative bird, this time a Black-crowned Night Heron, allowed me to take some close-up pictures.

On the bluff midway between the tidal gate and Warner Ave, the photographers with the big lenses set up their gear and watched and waited for the egret to arrive. We watched and waited with them, taking pictures of the other denizens of the lagoon below. There were Black-bellied Plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Long-billed Dowitchers and various peeps all congregating on the bountiful mud flats that surfaced as the water slowly ebbed.
Noontime came and still no sign of the elusive bird. Our stomachs were starting to grumble so we reluctantly left the bluffs and went back to the boardwalk one more time to check out if the Egrets somehow managed to get there without being seen by the people at the bluffs. Not seeing any sign of them and with hearts sinking, we drove off into PCH to look for a place to eat. Glancing to my right as we drove along, I thought I saw a somewhat dark egret in the middle of the lagoon. Must be hunger, I thought to myself, that gave me these visions. As we turned right to Warner, I noticed that the parking lot there had now been opened and the volunteer cleaners had started to leave. I told Cynthia to give our search for the Reddish Egret one more try. To my delight, she agreed. After parking the car, I scoped the area where I thought I saw the egret and although the distance was quite great, I was now convinced that it was actually there. I looked up the bluff and saw the photographers (yes, they were still there) training their lenses towards the bird that I saw. I literally sprinted the half-mile distance (at least that's how it seemed to me) to the top of the bluff. Gasping for breath, I looked down, and there in all its beauty was the Reddish Egret, frolicking and gamboling in the lagoon, doing its quaint little dance, doing pirouettes, half-flying in the air, darting to catch a tiny fish in the shallow waters. We watched this avian ballet for about an hour and then, as if on cue, the prima ballerina exited stage left, leaving its audience awe-struck. We almost applauded and shouted Bravo and Encore! But it went on to another location for what we presume to be another sterling performance with another audience whose hearts would be enraptured by the dazzling dance of this divine diva of Bolsa Chica!

We left the place very happy and all the excitement seemed to have diminished our hunger that we even had our lunch at West Covina - a good half hour away.