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.