My birding-itch finally got the better of me during our stay in the Philippines when Cynthia told me there was a small park in Valle Verde where we were staying at the time. I could spare an hour to bird there before I drive to Antipolo, I convinced myself. The very first bird I saw was a Brown Shrike, quite common at this time of the year. Cynthia then pointed to some dead branches piled in a messy heap several meters away. On top perched a Pied Fantail flicking its tail from side to side. Also making its presence known were some Yellow-vented Bulbuls playing tag among the tree tops. There was also a pair that resides in a palm tree next to the Punzalan residence who treated us to a show every morning. Also at the park, flitting high up in the acacia trees were a flock of Golden-bellied Flyeaters. As we returned home, I stalked a Zebra Dove feeding alongside the road. Five species in an hour wasn't bad. Most of all it satisfied the craving I have been having since we landed on Philippine soil.
The air was nippy that Saturday morning we arrived at Whittier Narrows . The sun seemingly reluctant to wake from its slumber. It was uncharacteristically silent as we hit the trail that passes by a small pond. Further down the trail I saw a bird perched on the top of tall bush. Without her binoculars (she lent it to my niece who was with us that day) Cynthia started ticking off possible ID’s: “Kestrel” “Nope” “Mourning Dove” “Guess again” “What is it, then?” she asked, finally giving up. “Northern Flicker”, I replied. I tried to move closer to get a better angle, but as soon as I set up my tripod, it flew away. Not a good start I thought to myself. We moved on and came upon a dried up pond. Just as we descended into it, the sun finally broke through from the horizon and flooded the thicket in front of us with its warm light. As if on cue, birds were suddenly everywhere! The particular bush where I focused my camera produced in quick succession: Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, House Finch, Allen’s Hummingbird, Lesser Goldfinches and Anna’s Hummingbirds. Several feet away from me, Cynthia was stalking an American Robin. A flock of Bushtits flew by.
Our return route took us alongside a creek by the San Gabriel River . There we spotted a hawk quietly perched on a bare branch of a tall tree. It allowed us some photo ops before flying off on some avian errand. Continuing our stroll by the creek, we were startled by the scolding call of a Belted Kingfisher as it flew across the river. We tried to relocate it later but it was nowhere to be found. San Gabriel River yielded a few Killdeers, one Spotted Sandpiper and the ubiquitous Mallards. A great Egret soared silently close to us. At 9 am, we called it a day, hied to the nearest Golden Arches and indulged in our usual Saturday morning routine.
Oct 8, '06 It's only about 50 miles away, so we thought we would revisit Patagonia, AZ. The trip was uneventful except when a rock hit my windshield causing a sizable 'break". The damage was not that big, but it would still cost me more than $200.00 to have my windshield replaced. "Not again!", I exclaimed, since this was the second time it happened. But Cynthia reminded me of what the Pastor preached yesterday, saying that God is always with us, not matter what happens. We got to Lake Patagonia at about 8-ish in the morning. We disembarked from the parking lot which was just a few feet from the trailhead. I was setting up my gear when a family of deer meandered by. Of course, they were gone as soon as I was ready to shoot. This has become a recurring experience for me and would probably be the theme of my photographic life - the ones that got away. There was another birder as we hit the trail, a lady named Epstein (forgot her first name). She was intent in viewing something flitting through the mesquite in front of her. As is customary among birders, we asked her what she was looking at. In soft, whispery voices, naturally. "Northern Beardless Tyrannulet", she whispered back. Now there is name that invokes a million questions. In the United States, it is only found here in Southeast Arizona, why then is it called "Northern"? And what is it about being "Beardless"? I have not seen a bird with a beard. Wattles that hang from their chins, maybe, but never a beard. Why then call the poor thing, "Beardless"? Did it have a beard before, shaved, and is now beardless? Other than the curiously named bird, Lake Patagonia did not offer much. Our trip to the same place in February of last year was a lot more productive. It being close to lunch time, we headed for the town. Patagonia has only one street and not a lot to choose from when it comes to places to eat. We ended up at the hotel where we stayed before and had ridiculously priced sandwiches for lunch. Actually it was cheaper here than at the first place we ventured into. We should have gone back to the Velvet Elvis and enjoyed the special pizza served by its Mexican owner. Our next stop was Paton's place. This is a world-renowned private residence that allows birders to view the many bird feeders placed strategically all across their yard. Again, we've seen more kinds of birds here last year than we did that day. It was quite a disappointing day. We just chalked it up to experience and still vowed to return someday when the birding (and hopefully, the eating) would be better.
Early Sunday morning, we joined another bird walk led by Alan, the BLM volunteer. This time the venue was Sierra Vista's Environmental Operations Park (EOP) a glamorized epithet for the city's wastewater treatment area. Nevertheless, it was a birdy place. Just off the parking lot, we were already greeted by a Loggerhead Shrike, another skittish species in California but not so in Arizona. Continuing with the friendly-bird format, we also saw (and photographed) a Virginia Rail, a bird that is more often heard than seen as it skulks among the dense marsh vegetation it inhabits. We also had good looks at Yellow-headed Blackbirds, one of our target birds on this trip. The walk ended at 9:30 am giving us sufficient time to go back to the motel to change into our church clothes.
The service (and preaching) at Calvary Chapel Sierra Vista was very uplifting. The congregants, friendly. For lunch, we decided to live it up and had a sumptuous buffet at Grand Corral.
Inspired by lunch at the Corral, we took off our birding hats and put on our tourist caps as we proceeded to Tombstone. Yes, this is the site of the famous gunfight between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday against the notorious Clanton Gang. The center of the town was kept in its historic original, complete with dirt road, stagecoaches and, of course, gunslingers. Nothing historic about the prices of the merchandise, though, as the primary source of their economy are curious tourists such as this two. Of course, we didn't succumb to this highway robbery - we're smart dudes, ya know.
We followed Mel & Elaine's advice and decided to go along with the bird walk to be held at 7 am at the San Pedro Riparian Area. The motel offers free continental (read: cheap) breakfast, so we partook of their cold cereal and hot cocoa before embarking on our adventure.
We arrived at the SPRA and found a gathering of birders. As I was setting up my gear, Mel (the tall guy with a hat in the middle of the picture) approached me and asked, "Did you see it?" "See what?" was my curious reply. He pointed to the top of the tree right beside the parking lot and there perched a Red-tailed Hawk enjoying the early morning sun. Soon everybody started hitting the southbound trail. Not good, I whispered to Cynthia, most birds we will see will be against the light. Not discouraged by such prospects we ambled along with the group, stopping every now and then to watch the birds pointed out by Alan, a Bureau of Land Management(BLM) volunteer. Thr circuitous route covered about 3 miles and as we trudged towards the San Pedro House (the visitor center), my left shoulder was already bruised from the more than 10-lb load hefted onto it. The walk added Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows to our life list. Blue Grosbeaks which we found to be very skittish in California are much more friendly here. At the San Pedro House, while everybody was discussing the birds they saw, we lingered a while near the feeders close by. David, another BLM volunteer, suddenly shouted, "White-breasted Nuthatch!", as he pointed to a black and white bird foraging near the base of a tree. Strangely enough, nobody paid attention to David. I, on the other hand, kept clicking away.
It was about 11 am when we left SPRA. We had lunch at Arby's where Cynthia finished off a Chicken Salad sandwich before I could even say "sandwich". Blame it on the 3-mile walk she explained. After lunch we went to the Huachuca Canyon. According to my reference books there are four canyons that are great places to bird. The first, Ramsey Canyon, we learned, was pretty dead as far as birding was concerned. The 8 mile unpaved road to Carr Canyon is precipitous with numerous hairpin turns so Cynthia and I, acrophobics that we are, agreed not to take that route. We chose Miller Canyon first. It was a 2.5 mile drive of rocky road (not the ice cream) without any zigzag. At the end of the road was Beatty's Ranch and B & B. This place is famous for its hummingbirds (14 species were found in one day!). The hummingbird feeders around the Beatty store did not show much promise but we were told by a couple of birders who were on the way out, that there are more feeders, and consequentially, more birds, further up the trail.
Ignoring the pain on my shoulder, I once again carried my camera gear up a steep slope and finally ended at a relatively flat, albeit small area with chairs and a roof. There we met Lisa Williams, a local, who is also into bird photography (see her work at arizonabirder.com). The place was soothingly quiet that we can hear the whirr of hummingbird wings as if only inches away from our ears. The three of us spent about 2 hours enjoying and photographing the tiny winged wonders of the avian world. (Trivia: Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards). Here we met the Magnificent Hummingbird, arguably the largest hummer found in the United States.
Having had our fill of Beatty's hummingbird corner, we decided to check out the last canyon in our list. Ash Canyon is about 4 miles south of Miller and has a better (and even shorter) road. The road ended at the front gate of Mary Jo Ballator's B & B and like Beatty's she also had feeders in her yard. Lisa joined us here as well and we had a great time once again with hummingbirds. Our life list was now augmented by Broad-billed and Lucifer Hummingbirds and Mexican Jays. In between shots, we just sat on the patio chairs and took in the beauty of the multi-colored feathered jewels and the serenade of whirring wings that only the Huachuca Canyons can offer.
Now that Cynthia had been hooked to bird photography, it behooved us to go to a place where there are lots of birds. Sierra Vista, Arizona, is such a place. Nestled in the mountainous area of the southeastern section of that state, it is dubbed as a birder's paradise, boasting of species seldom, if ever, seen in other parts of the United States. We left home at exactly 6 am Friday, Sept. 22. By 9:06 am we crossed into Arizona territory and by 3 pm we are checking-in at Best Western in Sierra Vista. It was a long drive, but we had several stops along the way. For lunch, we ate at the Burger King in Tucson, a break from the traditional breakfast at McDonalds. It has become a routine for us whenever we go birding, that our morning should start with a breakfast at the famous fast food place (regardless of where we were ultimately headed). But this was lunch, we rationalized, so it was OK. There was still enough light to go birding, so after dumping our luggage into our room (thank God it was on the ground floor) we proceeded to the San Pedro Riparian Area about 7 miles away and a well-known birding place. We decided not to bring our cameras as we hit the trail from the parking lot to the edge of the San Pedro creek. We just planned to "case the joint" and see what the place has to offer bird-wise. None of the birds we saw were unusual in the sense that they can be seen in California, too. However, the birds here seem to be more colorful; the Vermillion Flycatcher more strikingly vermillion, the Blue Grosbeak, in deep blue shades. Close to the creek we met a local birding couple, Mel & Elaine, who gave us suggestions on where to bird at what particular time. Mel was in a middle of a sentence when I saw a raptor suddenly fly into view. I grabbed my binoculars and Mel did the same. "Swainson's Hawk", he said almost nonchalantly. Cynthia and I viewed the bird with the enthusiasm of a child just handed a new toy. It was our first lifer of the trip. Flushed with our success, we decided to celebrate by having dinner at a Korean Restaurant. We had a perfect bul-go-gi to end a perfect day.
It was bound to happen. Put a camera in her hands and she'll produce wonders. I have just gotten my new Canon 30D and wanted to give it a test run. So I attached it to my workhorse lens - the 500mm monster plus the 1.4 extender. To my old Canon 20D I attached the 300mm (another formidable glass). The latter I handed to Cynthia for her to practice on, it being lighter and can be handheld quite easily by a lady of her stature.
We first visited the tamarisk trees at Camarillo for the migrating warblers. The tamarisk trees line up alongside a farm road and is a "migrant trap" (a place where migrating birds stop over during their southerly journey). The farm road sees only a few traffic but the vehicles that pass through usually do so at speeds that are only witnessed at NASCAR sites. While I was straining my neck to locate these energetic small birds, Cynthia decided to pursue the Yellowthroats darting back and forth across the small creek nearby. I lucked out (not without really trying - but the odds of getting flattened by a vehicle rushing at 60 miles an hour are greater than getting a shot at the tiny, flitting birds, skulking behind the dense pine-like leaves of the tamarisks), but Cynthia's persistence paid off. She got the yellowthroat!
We then moved on to Playa del Rey where the shorebirds are a lot friendlier. Cynthia got shot after shot of the bird population of the playa while I struggled handholding my almost 10-lb gear. I can't use my tripod because the jetty where the birds are are too narrow for it. And the birds are too close for my huge lens that almost all my shots were portraits.
When we got home and after I have uploaded our pictures to the computer, lo and behold, Cynthia had some really great killer shots! She enjoyed it so much she already staked her claim to the 20D/300mm combo as "her" camera. I have created a monster.
It was getting to be a ho-hum day of birding. The ponds at San Jacinto are still dry, parched by the still lingering summer. The excitement of seeing a barn owl in flight as we drove in slowly ebbed as the sun inched its way in the morning sky. 10 am and I told Cynthia that it was time to leave the wildlife reserve. On the way back I noticed something white glimmering in the air. "White-tailed Kites!", I yelled. I eased the jeep on the side of the road and immediately set-up my camera and tripod. Before us were three (!) kites doing their thing. Kites are hawklike birds that like to hover as they search for some unfortunate rodent in the grassy plain below. The challenge here was trying to focus on the bird while it was in its "hover" mode. It was not easy. I spent close to an hour and a hundred or so shots photographing the white aerialists. Back home, out of those hundred or so shots I took, only one, it seemed to me, was in proper focus. I posted the picture in the Nature Photographers website soliciting their comments and critiques. Bob Steele (see my blog titled "Man of Steele"), one of the foremost bird photgraphers in the U.S. called it a "killer shot!" And that he was jealous of this photograph. Needless to say, it made my day. Heck, it made my month! Probably even my year!
Another unpaved road. With a ditch alongside. Prime Burrowing Owl territory, I mused. We are still at Salton Sea. Having just bombed on locating the Blue-footed Booby, we are on another quest.
It wasn’t long before I spotted the burrowing owls. I stopped the jeep on the side of the road. Grabbed my gear and just I as I was about to point the camera to the birds, they flew. Far. Beyond photographic range. Muttering, I returned the equipment to the car. A silver Audi pulls up in front of us. Tall, balding guy comes out grinning.
“What were you shooting?” he asked.
“Burrowing Owls”, my somewhat surly reply.
He was soon joined by Lucia, his Filipina partner. They drove all the way from San Jose, we learned. To photograph birds at the Salton Sea. All four of us talked shop for a while.
“Look, a dead owl!”, Lucia exclaimed as they prepared to leave.
And there it was, the desiccated corpse of a young owl lying a few inches in front of their car.
Several hours passed. Sun beats on us mercilessly. Cynthia notices her sunglasses are missing. She looks everywhere. Practically turned the jeep inside out. Still nothing. This is the fourth pair of sunglasses she lost. Fearing the wrath of the buying husband, she offers something I can’t refuse. She will find birds for me for the rest of my life. I did not refuse.
On the way back, I wanted to try my luck with the burrowing owls again. This time no owls. Nada. Zip. Zero. No live ones, that is. I see the dead owl. Something brown lying beside it. I sighed. I pointed the object to Cynthia. She jumps from the jeep. Grabs the brown thing. Waves it in front of my face. Smiling from ear-to-ear. No more birding guides for the rest of my life.
The Salton Sea saga continues. No luck on the Booby. The Burrowing Owls have flown the coop. Next target is the Piping Plover. A rarity. Last seen in Southern California 40 years ago. Little did we know that to see it, we have to negotiate a narrow trail. Next to a body of water. We chickened out. Not desiring to risk dumping precious equipment and lots of pride should we stumble from the precarious viewing area. Not worth it, I consoled myself. The photographer and miser overruling the birder in me. We are now batting 0 for 3. Not good statistics. Decided to hit the Obsidian Butte (pronounced byut). The road runs parallel to the sea. We parked when I saw some seabirds. The usual suspects. I sighed. Was about to board the jeep when something black flew by. Not too many black seabirds, I said to myself. Could it be a...? I have read in the Yahoo listserves that they been spotted here before. But then, with the kind of luck I'm having... Brought up my binoculars. Hope guiding my eyes to the flying black bird. Could it be a...? Grabbed my Sibley's Field Guide. Trembling hands and eager eyes scanning the pages. Yes! Yes, it is a Black Tern! A lifer for me! Quickly set-up my camera and fired away. Memories are made of this.
The end of Route 76 is narrow and unpaved. There were already a couple of SUVs and a car parked on the grassy area where the road ends. We nodded to the man standing beside his red car. He nodded back.
“Have you seen it?” I asked.
“Nah”, he replied. “That guy has been here since daybreak”, he said pointing to a man sitting inside his black Explorer with his eyes closed, “and he hasn’t seen it either”.
We spied some men at the shoreline about a mile away peeping through their scopes.
“Well, we’re gonna try our luck”
We trudged along the seashell-strewn shore, crunching sounds breaking the eerie silence of the early morning. Suddenly we saw four men walking towards us. All are carrying their spotting scopes on their shoulders. We hailed the first one.
“No sight of the bird?”
“No luck”, he said exasperatingly, “nothing but dead fish and flies”
We turned back. No sense in walking a mile for nothing. The no-show bird was a Blue-footed Booby. A rarity. A bird commonly found in offshore rocks and isles. Certainly not in an inland body of water as the Salton Sea.
Back at the Jeep, Cynthia noticed something unusual.
“You have brown shorts, brown t-shirt, brown shoes. A brown hat even. But why, pray tell, are you wearing blue socks?”
We did not see the Blue-footed Booby that day. But we had a Blue-socked Bobby.
The Kern County Birding Group in Yahoo announced that they are having a "Hummingbird Festival" on Saturday, August 12th. Part of this program is a workshop on photographing hummingbirds which will be conducted by Bob Steele. Bob is a foremost bird photographer in the country and have had his photographs featured in all Birding and Nature magazines around. He is also the moderator of the Avian section Nature Photographers Network of which I am also a card-carrying member. I emailed Bob earlier in the week asking him for the better route to get to the Kern River Preserve (KRP). We've been there before and we took the longer way through Bakersfield and came home using a different way through the Kelso Creek Road. This was where we got into a lot of trouble because the road is unpaved and traverses a across the mountains. We were still driving the Saturn sedan at that time and although we got home in one piece, it was the most nerve-wracking trip we have undertaken. So when Bob suggested to take Route 14 and then Hwy 178, and with our Jeep thoroughly checked-up and maintained (costing me $680.00), we decided to give it a try. We got up early - around 4:30 am and were on the road by 5:20. We arrived at KRP at around 9:00 am after a short pit stop at McDonalds in Rosamond, a city on Route 14 just before the turn off at Hwy 178. There were already a lot of people gathered for the festival, all of them white and many of them senior citizens. Bob Steele was already there setting up flowers next to a hummingbird feeder explaining that that is the way of getting hummingbird pictures in a "natural" setting. So I attended his workshop along with a dozen or more photographers which lasted for a little over an hour. All this time, Cynthia was regaling the other non-photography-oriented birders with tales of our birding/photography adventures and even showed them my "portfolio". After the workshop, Bob and I talked shop and I am just awed at how friendly and knowledgeable he is. We shook hands as he hauled his equipment and prepared to leave. Cynthia and I ate our "baon", loaded up some gas in town and headed home.
The overcast skies of last Saturday was a great relief
to the blistering heat of the past week. Southern California experienced
record-breaking temperatures and high humidity. And so we joyously jumped into
our Jeep and proceeded to our intended destination for that particular morning
- Crystal Lake, high in the San Gabriel Mountains. As we negotiated the narrow
and winding road, we noticed the fog getting thicker and thicker. Cynthia
commented that visibility is down to 40 feet (actually, for me it was more like
20 because I wasn't wearing my glasses. But, of course, I didn't tell her
that). About halfway up, we decided to turn around, lest we end up in the
canyons below instead of the summit above.
Back on the freeway where visibility was again good, we
decided to just go to the local nature center in Pasadena. There we saw the
usual suspects - birds we expected to see there. We then tried a trail that we
have not gone to before. As we approached a pile of rocks, I saw a wren that I
thought I have not seen in this area before.
"Rock Wren", I whispered to Cynthia.
"Is that a lifer for you?", she asked.
"Not really", I replied, "we've seen one
in Patagonia last year"
So we decided to stake out the tiny bird, since it was
popping in and out of the rockpile. I had at that time my old camera body
with my 300mm lens and a 1.4 converter attached to it. My good camera (Canon
20D) was out of commission and I didn't want to bring the 500mm monster lens at
this trip. Now this camera (Canon 300D) was excruciatingly slow and does not do
well in the kind of lighting conditions we had at that time (overcast skies,
remember?). Nevertheless, I still managed to get a few shots of the bird,
albeit not as sharp as I hoped them to be.
When I uploaded the images at home, it seemed to me that
the bird did not look like a Rock Wren at all. (I just concluded, when I
first saw it among the rocks..rocks..wren..must be a rock wren).
Consulting my field guide, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bird we
just saw was actually a Canyon Wren! Now that was a lifer for me! Thinking
back..we were at Eaton Canyon Nature Center, so I should have concluded
canyon...wren...Canyon Wren! We are always smarter at hindsight, aren't we?
Rain had been pouring on and off the past week. Yes, it
really rains in Southern California. When the sun decided to peep through
Saturday morning, we wasted no time driving off to Bolsa Chica for some photo
ops. A Horned Grebe had recently been reported there and we hoped to see the
bird since it will be a lifer for me.
Perhaps it was because of the recent rains that the
usually "birdy" coastal lagoon was somewhat unproductive bird-wise.
We decided to try the other end and was rewarded by a flotilla of ducks. I did
get a lifer, in the form of a female Canvasback. We missed the more colorful
male, but hey, a lifer is lifer to any self-respecting birder. As I was
occupying myself taking pictures of Red-headed Ducks, a beautiful Grebe popped
into view. At first I thought this was the most sought after Horned but it
turned out to be an Eared Grebe instead. Not as colorful as its cousin but beautiful
nonetheless with stiff yellow feathers projecting out of the side of its face
contrasting with bright red eyes.
The skies darkened foreboding more rains to
come and so we hastily departed for the warm coziness of home.