Monday, December 31, 2007

Feliz Bolsa Chica

After Christmas my wife and I agreed that we needed to shed off a few pounds gained through partaking sinful foods from various holiday feasts. A walk around Bolsa Chica would do the trick was our unanimous decision.

There weren't too many people at the boardwalk when we arrived. Cynthia wasted no time joining the photographer who was so concentrated on taking pictures of something beneath the boardwalk. She was rewarded by shots of a Surf Scoter enjoying an early morning clam chowder, without the chowder. The clam was of course gone when I arrived at the scene.

Our walk up to the tidal gates was uneventful, perhaps because the water level was quite high thus no waders nor peeps were present. The resident ducks were all dozing off at some distance away from the trails. While passing by the tall, dead trees on the north side, Cynthia pointed to a fluff of feathers ensconced between the trunk and a thick branch on the shadowy part of a tree. Bringing up my binos, I at first, couldn't figure out what the creature was. It then moved its head and opened its eyes (it, too, was dozing off) and hallelujah! A Peregrine Falcon!! We have always wanted to get a photograph of this magnificent raptor, preferably in flight, but hey, a sleepy one would do just fine. We probably spent about an hour just admiring and taking photographs of our unmindful subject. Occasionally, we would proudly point it to some passing birders, as if it were our very own trophy. Actually, Cynthia was just waiting for it to fly so she could fulfill her dream (she's the expert in BIF - birds in flight - shots).

While my wife was patiently waiting for some peregrine action, I wandered off a bit and got some nice shots of a Downy Woodpecker which was loudly pok-pok-poking nearby.

A few meters up the trail, I was surprised to find a male Red-breasted Merganser swimming close to the shore. Up to this point I have only seen females at various locations (even at an unlikely place as the tiny, trickling San Diego Creek). You can just imagine my thrill in getting a male, which has a dark deep blue head, as opposed to the female's red-orange, at such close range. I also did get a photo of a female later on our return trip.

Realizing that the falcon had no intent of leaving its roost, we reluctantly moved on. As we were negotiating the middle berm, I spotted the Reddish Egret also trying to get some shut-eye.

This time as I was pre-occupied with my target wader, Cynthia's attention was caught by a Belted Kingfisher perched not too far from the egret. Despite the distance and the relatively small size of the kingfisher, my wife was still able to get her BIF shot.

And as we were leaving the area, she also got a picture of what looks like a pissed-off Anna's Hummingbird.

As we neared the tidal gates once again, we were startled by a raptor that quickly took off from a grassy spot in the middle of the channel. When I looked at where it flew from, I noticed that there was still another raptor remaining behind. The owl-like disc on its face told me it was a Northern Harrier!

We have never been this close to a Harrier before and so we started clickling away until the raptor had enough of us and decided to follow its mate. This time I got my BIF shot.

Everything was sort of anti-climatic after that. Even the Scoter has left the vicinity of the boardwalk.

We may not have lost the desired poundage that day but we sure gained a few nice surprises.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

See no Eagle, Hear no Eagle

Cynthia will be working half-day on Christmas Eve. I thought I'd try for the Bald Eagle at Bonelli yet one more time before I pick my wife up. Despite arriving there quite early - around 8:30 am - the eagle decided to spend the holidays elsewhere depriving me and my friend Chris Akiyoshi (whom I met there) of what could have been a great Christmas present.

Not counting the disappointment of dipping on the eagle, Bonelli still had some goodies to offer. The Painted Redstart as always, was a thrill to watch. Its symbiotic partner, the Red-breasted Sapsucker was there, too, of course. The tree that these two species occupy was also visited by a female Nuttall's Woodpecker. While helping Chris locate the Brown Creeper that I saw on the 15th, we got a surprise when a White-breasted Nuthatch showed up instead.

Early on, during my eagle vigil, I spent close to two hours just looking at the regular avian denizens of the lake. When you spend that much time watching them, the "ordinary" birds became interesting either by chance or by their behavior. Examples were the "three-billed" Gadwall and the fighting Coots.

Soon it was time to go. Chris and I exchanged Christmas wishes and better luck in future birding endeavors, particularly for a certain Bald Eagle who reportedly visits Bonelli regularly.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nice and E.C.

The rains finally stopped this morning. I decided to take advantage of this respite to do a quick birding/photography at nearby Eaton Canyon. I wasn't expecting much, the day still dreary and cold with only an occasional glimmer of sunlight.

Instead of going behind the Nature Center as I usually do, I thought a change of direction would yield better prospects. First bird seen was a lone Anna's Hummingbird perched forlornly on a dead branch. Then nothing. As I approached the fenced off corral (used by the equestrian folks next door), a very skittish Say's Phoebe was hawking for insects. I move one step towards it and the bird would fly off to the other side of the corral. This happened several times that I almost titled this blog: Say No More. (har, har). On one occasion, while chasing the elusive phoebe, a larger brown bird flew by and caught my attention. Thinking it was just another Mourning Dove, I was about to continue my pursuit when the brown bird flashed some orange and soon alighted on a concrete structure near the fence. Peering through my binoculars, I was a bit surprised to see an American Kestrel. And the Phoebe was perched only a few feet away from it! Irony of ironies! Here I was only harmlessly desiring to take it's picture and the darn flycatcher avoided me like the plague and yet it would fly close to a known bird-killer! Strangely, the Kestrel paid no attention to it.

Frustrated, I started the trek back to the Nature Center only to make an abrupt halt. A little brown bird was hopping near the trailhead, itself looking for some hapless insect. I stood there almost awe-struck as the Rock Wren paid little notice to me and just did what hungry little Rock Wrens do at this time of day. This was the second time in the month of December that I was photographically rewarded by this cooperative species.

Back at the Nature Center, I dipped on the White-throated Sparrow but had good looks on a pair of Golden-crowneds. And what has now become a normal routine whenever I visit Eaton Canyon, I got serenaded by Hermit Thrushes.

North of the Center, I got some good shots of my target species by standing behind a dumpster (thank God it was empty). Three California Thrashers were sifting through fallen leaves looking for some tasty morsels. One, thinking I was just some pile of garbage, came close enough for a good photo-op.

With two notches in my belt and the morning still young, I was feeling lucky. The third notch came a few minutes later and was a total surprise for me. A few blogs ago, I had an "oh darn" moment from my last visit to this place. I saw but failed to photograph a Fox Sparrow. This time as I passed a small puddle behind a picnic shed, I noticed some movement from the corner of my eye. I stopped and remained motionless. In a short while, a Fox Sparrow appeared from underneath the bushes and plopped into the puddle. Why a tiny bird would bathe in 50 degree weather is beyond me. I wasn't arguing with nature as I happily captured for posterity the private ablutions of an uncommon sparrow.

Dark clouds soon began to gather and then my cellphone rang. My former co-workers were inviting me to lunch at a Thai restaurant. I got my 3 notches without so much of a sweat and now looking forward to a free lunch. I was singing in the rain that afternoon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

No Eagle but got some Birdies

Lately our birding sorties had been more purposeful. Few were the days when we would go birding just for the sake of birding. Luckily, Southern California every so often had something new to offer (at least to us). There was the Bay-breasted Warbler at Legg Lake and the Wilson's Snipes at Irvine. Last week it was the Roseate Spoonbill at the Santa Ana River. Yesterday, Saturday, we went after the Bald Eagle seen at the Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas.

As we walked towards the lake, we met a bird photographer acquaintance, Dave Furseth ( When asked about the eagle, he informed us that right now it was across the lake. But it occasionally would fly back, he said encouragingly. We chose a good spot by the lakeshore, where it was sunny, the day being quite cold with even a bit of a wind chill factor, and started our stake out.

After a while, just as we were getting bored at looking at the various ducks and grebes taking their mid-morning siesta, a relatively bigger sized bird flew in and splashed among the sleeping water birds. Cormorant, I told, Cynthia, almost nonchalantly. Another one of those regular species you would see in these type of habitat. But then, it wasn't dark colored like a cormorant. So I peeped through my camera's 400mm lens (I forgot to bring my binoculars, a mortal sin amongst avid birders - old age dementia must be sinking in, what can I say?). Lo and behold, it was a Common Merganser! As I have said in my previous blog, despite its name, these duck-like birds are not at all that common in Southern California waters. Revived from our stupor-like vigil, we happily snapped away at the red-headed swimmer.

Having had our fill with the merganser and the Bald Eagle still a no-show, we decided to move on. We headed northward where we met a couple of birders who were participating in the Los Angeles Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Yes, they both have seen the Bald Eagle. Yes, it flies back and forth across the lake. Once again, spirits buoyed by this report, we scanned the skies over the lake. We would get excited whenever something bigger than a swift would appear at the horizon, only to discover that it would be anything but an eagle. By this time, close to two hours have already passed. Abandoning all hope of ever seeing the majestic symbol of the United States, we trekked back to where the Jeep was parked.

Once again, we saw the bird counters. One of them showed the list of the birds they had seen that day and it tallied pretty much with what we have seen as well. Except for the Bald Eagle, of course. Just then Cynthia called my attention and excitedly pointed at small piece of bark moving up a tree trunk. Looking closely, my heart leapt at seeing a Brown Creeper investigating every nook and cranny of the tree for bugs. Its constant motion and preference for the shadowed side of the tree makes it quite a challenge at being photographed. When its search for food brought it towards the top of the fir tree where pine needles were aplenty, we gave up taking its picture.

Closer to where our vehicle was parked, I noticed a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding among the grass. The most common subspecies of Juncos are the Oregon type. These were those with dark heads and grayish bellies. However, I noticed that one of the birds in the flock does not have the usual dark head, but a tiny black mask instead. I just saw and photographed the not-too-common Gray-headed variety of Junco!

Before leaving the park, we thought we'd give the lake one more look, this time by the green pier that fishermen frequents. And maybe get some sparrow or wren or yellowthroat by the grove close by. None of those landbirds showed up and the Bald Eagle continued to stay away from our anxious eyes. However, for our consolation, we got a Red-tailed Hawk in flight and not long after, an Osprey grabbed an unlucky trout right in front of our very eyes!

We got our birdies, and we hope we eventually will get our eagle too.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Spoonful of Shoe Gear

When I visited San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary Friday, Dec. 7th, the place was just so darn muddy that my regular hiking shoes were covered with sticky, dark soil. I gave them a thorough washing as soon as I got home yesterday. They were still wet when I checked them this morning.

When we decided to chase after the Roseate Spoonbill Saturday, I had no choice but to wear my back-up hiking shoes. These were not as comfortable as my regular ones and little did I know that they would be used for walking great distances (for me, a mile is considered "great distance") and clambering up and down steep levees while carrying a ton of camera gear on my shoulder. Needless to say, my feet and ankles (not to mention my shoulder) were complaining bitterly by the end of our twitching day.

Not only were my feet complaining, my photographer heart was aching as well. I am sort of a schizophrenic in a certain way. I am both a birder and a bird photographer. And there are times, such as today, when these two aspects of my life war against each other. The birder in me was rejoicing because I added Platalea ajaja to my lifelist. However, the photographer side of me was frustrated by not being able to get a good picture of the Spoonbill.

Yesterday, I was talking with Monte Stinett, another birder cum photographer, while waiting for the rare wader to show up. The conversation turned to the time we got started on our hobbies. Monte explained that he is a photographer first and foremost and enjoyed birds as his subject. Rather than just having a picture of a "little brown bird" he researched as to what kind it was, where is its habitat, etc, etc. and consequently got hooked into birding. I, on the other hand, was a birder first, having started while I was still in my teens in the Philippines. It was my desire to record in print the images of the species I have seen that steered me towards photography.

That said, I'd say the birder in me has the stronger emotional stimuli, especially if a lifer has been seen. That there's always a chance of getting a better photograph of such and such bird in the future has been my rationalization for moments like today.

Bad shoes and bad photographs notwithstanding, the Roseate Spoonbill was now added to my growing list of birds seen in my lifetime.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Dip and Luck

Any self-respecting Southern California birder would naturally want to see the Roseate Spoonbill hanging around the Santa Ana river in Orange. I still got some little self-respect left so despite the fact it had just rained, I joined the flock of eager birders Friday morning to look for the rarity. I'll make it as quick and as painless as possible. We dipped.

All the hopeful chasers left at around 11 am. It was just my friend, Raul Roa, and myself who remained. We looked at each other and agreed that we should give up as well. I gave Raul directions to Peter's Canyon so that he can save the day by photographing the friendly resident Roadrunner there. I hoped to save my day by going to San Diego Creek behind the Irvine Civic Center parking lot and photograph the Wilson's Snipes seen there.

Wilson's Snipes would be a lifer for me - all I have to do is find them. I quickly surveyed the creek which was flowing furiously after last night's downpour. There were some gray-streaked birds foraging for food by the creekside. Could they be...? Binoculars said they were Lesser Yellowlegs. I went a bit upstream where a lone Cormorant was drying itself. As I came closer, a duck-like bird with red head that seemed to have a bad-hair day plopped into the water. Binoculars said it was a female Common Merganser! Despite it's name, Common Mergansers are not that common in Southern California waters, particularly in a fresh water creek.

Thrilled by that discovery, I ambled downstream to search for my original quarry. I focused on a suspicious looking clump of twigs in the middle of the creek. Something moved! A Cinnamon Teal. Slowly, I scanned every bit of vegetation and other detritus accumulated by the flowing waters. I'll make it as quick and as painless as possible. I got my lifer. Lifers, actually, for there were about six or seven of them.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Where or Wren

Tuesday seemed like a nice day for birding. Santa Fe Dam seemed like a nice place to go birding. So I just put one and one together and voila! I spent almost the whole day Tuesday birding first at Santa Fe Dam then finishing off at Eaton Canyon. The entrance booth at Santa Fe Dam was unoccupied as I drove in. That means that parking is free! Augurs well for the day, I thought, smiling.

Passing by parking lot number 3, I noticed a small brown bird hopping on the rocks. Was this the same wren I saw several months ago and took some very bad pictures of? So bad that I can't properly identify the bird. I hastily parked the Jeep and rushed over to the pile of rocks near the road. This time the wren stayed put as it was busy trying to devour a rather large worm. Lighting was not that perfect, but hey, a photo-op is a photo-op. Having finished off its wriggly prey, the little brown bird flew off to some place not accessible by bumbling humans.

I continued driving and as I passed by parking lot number 4, there was another wren atop a small rock by the roadside. It's deja vu all over again as Yogi Berra would say. Parked the Jeep, ran to where the bird was and took photographs like crazy. This time the light was much better.

Later as I was talking with fellow birders, Tom and Jim, I showed them the images I took of the wren and both of them confirmed that it was indeed a Rock Wren. Woo-hoo! Until today I have not had the good fortune of getting a decent shot of this species.

Tom and Jim were looking for the Mountain Bluebirds reported seen here. They dipped on it, but I not only saw the birds, I got pictures of them to boot. That's the advantage of arriving early at the scene, I guess. Aside from the Rock Wren and the Mountain Bluebirds, I got really good shots of a Cooper's Hawk, an American Robin and three kinds of Geese: White-fronted, Cackling (Aleutian subspecies) and Ross'.

After lunch, I proceeded to Eaton Canyon hoping to refind and rephotograph its rare visitor - the White-throated Sparrow. As I approach the back of the Nature Center, a lady who was in the patio at the Nature Center itself, yelled and said, "The White-throated Sparrow was found there", waving her arms towards the east. "Lady", I replied, "I'm looking right at it." The bird was there in front of me giving me a curious eye and was only about 20 feet away from my helpful guide.

My perambulations at the park yielded shots of Wrentits which came so close to me that my camera couldn't even focus properly. Bewick's Wrens were frolicking everywhere. Then there were my dear friends, the Hermit Thrushes, who always provide good photo-ops. This time I actually heard their song (which is really something, considering I'm a bit hearing impaired). My only "oh, darn!" moment was when I saw Fox Sparrows but weren't able to get pictures of them. These birds were so skittish!

I'd say both luck and patience paid off today.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Ibiseeing you

Battling with neck and shoulder pain, (ah, the travails of getting old) I still asked Cynthia that we go birding Saturday afternoon. I wanted to see the reported Wilson's Snipes at the Irvine Civic Center as it would be a lifer for us.

I don't know what happened, but plans changed when we exited Jamboree Ave in Irvine. We ended up at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary instead. After looking at the various duck species at the ponds, we checked out San Diego Creek (afterall it was in this creek that the snipes were seen, albeit further upstream). Down below was a White-faced Ibis nonchalantly feeding among the Killdeers. We saw this bird as we drove in but when I got off to get a better look at it, it was spooked by a low-flying Red-tailed Hawk. Which prompted my wife to declare that it was a "scared" Ibis - an intended pun against the Sacred Ibis of Asia. Witty, my wife is.

Having gotten some good shots of the wader, we proceeded to Upper Newport Bay to look for the Short-eared Owl. Dipped on that one (although some birders saw it a few minutes after we left). Oh well, c'est la vie. At least we got eye-level shots of an American Kestrel and a very busy Say's Phoebe.

We passed by San Joaquin again on the way home where we met fellow photographer and Blogger Glenn Price & Felicia Lee, respectively, who were just about ready to leave, too.

That evening at Wal-mart (a good place to end a birding day, at least according to my wife), we met fellow photographer Jimmy Chen and his wife Susan. We may not have been that successful in seeing our target birds but meeting friends definitely added nice memories for the day.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Let Osprey

After complying with the "No Shop Day" last Friday, we did a little shopping Saturday morning. Well, my wife did. She wanted some clothes for the holidays so we went to Ross' at Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. Best Buy was just next door, but I was able to resist the temptation of going over. Being unemployed can make a strong defense against needless buying even if the goods were at bargain prices.

But I digress. That afternoon we visited Bolsa Chica. Our target was the Reddish Egret (Egrets?). I already have photos of this lovely wader but that was when it was still a juvenile and not yet sporting the reddish feathers on its head and neck that gave it its name. So we're hoping that today we would be able to get its picture in full glory.

But first, there were pelicans near the boardwalk. Once again, these huge birds were putting on a show. They would fly a short distance then plunge head-on into the lagoon making loud splashing noises. The usual gamut of photographers were there, holding cameras ranging from the common point-and-shoot types to equipment that costs about my wife's annual salary.

Having gotten our share of pelican shots, we moved on to the "hill" where our target species were last seen. But, as luck would have it, they were not there. So we trudged through the trail leading to the tide gates without seeing anything spectacular. On our way back, we were thrilled to notice an Osprey hovering just about next to the trail. The cold wind was picking up and the raptor took advantage of the draft to "hang" in the air without so much of a wing flap. Enduring the freezing blast of cold air, we fired away. Not being successful in its fishing expedition, the Osprey eventually moved on to better hunting grounds.

When we got back to the "hill", my wife pointed to a heron-like bird in the distance.

"Is that the Reddish Egret?"

With the use of my binoculars, I confirmed that we have indeed found our quarry. But then, it was so far out in the mudflats that a decent photograph was out of the question. We did take some shots anyway for "documentary" purposes only.

The Reddish Egret then flew even farther and as we crossed the boardwalk, the reddish sun was making its own exit.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

We're gonna git ya, sapsucka!

The weather was nice Friday so we thought we'd try again for the Bay-breasted Warbler at Whittier Narrows. And hopefully see the Canvasback (which I missed twice before) this time. Let me just say that the Bay-breasted broke about a dozen birder's hearts that morning by not showing up at all. My heart was broken on the other hand by the Canvasback who was also a no-show.

After much lingering in the area and not seeing anything interesting except for a cooperative Spotted Sandpiper and American Robins playing tag, my wife and I were just about ready to leave. Just then something different flew into the tree where the Robins were. It was a Red-naped Sapsucker! And then another one flew in to the same tree. For the next half-hour or so, we played hide-and-seek with these lovely birds, them doing the hiding and we doing the seeking. The joggers and picnickers who saw us running from tree to tree, all the while pointing our cameras in every direction imaginable must have thought that these couple in camos had gone loco.

When the sapsuckers finally flew off to a densely leafed pine tree, we gave up the chase and hoped that we have gotten good enough photographs of the woodpecker-like bird.

Well, we did get ya, sapsucka!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mission Accomplished

"Your mission should you decide to accept it is to locate and photograph the Bay-breasted Warbler seen at Whitter Narrows Recreation Area. Should fog or any misdirection of locale prevent you from accomplishing this mission, bird photographers all over Southern California will disavow any knowledge of you and your equipment."

After my failure to locate the bird last Friday and my decision not to chase after it during the weekend, I went back to Whittier Narrows Monday morning to try my luck at seeing, and maybe getting a few photographs of the Bay-breasted Warbler. I arrived a little after eight am. The place was covered by thick, soupy fog. I proceeded to the area where it was last seen. Next to the fenced children's playground, construction workers have begun their work. Engine noises and men yelling disturbed the idyllic scene. Not seeing any bird activity at the nearby trees, I went back to the warmth of my Jeep and dozed on and off for about an hour.

About 9:30 am I decided to give it another try. As I approached the area I saw a birder. He said that he had not seen the Bay-breasted yet but explained that he saw it yesterday in this place as he pointed to a clump of trees. Soon we were joined by Jim Moore of the San Fernando Valley Audubon and Jeff Webster of Whittier Audubon. Jeff led us to a huge maple tree where warbler activities were beginning to pick up. Soon I saw a Hermit Warbler pop-out among the dense foliage and I informed everybody about it. Not long after, I saw the object of our hunt and enthusiastically announced my discovery to the birders present.

The fog still had not dissipated at this time and getting photographs of the rare warbler was next to impossible. As the hours passed by birders came and went, each one able to lay their eyes on our avian visitor from the east. At around 11 am, the sun finally broke through giving joy to the birder/photographers (including myself) who patiently waited for such an opportunity.

A little after 12 pm with my 2GB flash card full (95% of which were Bay-breasted Warbler shots), my hands numbing from the cold, and developing birder's neck, I called it day. I took more than 200 shots that morning. From these, only 4 were what I considered acceptable. Four was good enough. Mission accomplished.

Monday, November 19, 2007


When news of sightings of a Bay-breasted Warbler and a couple of Hermit Warblers at Legg Lake in South El Monte broke last Thursday, Nov. 15th, I was there early Friday. Despite spending close to three hours, I still dipped - big time! On both species! They were not lifers for me but I wanted to hopefully get some decent pictures of both warblers. I would learn later on that the birds were seen - probably not long after I left.

Saturday, my wife was down with the flu. Even though she gave me the permission to chase the uncommon warblers, I opted to stay with her. For me, no bird, no matter how rare, is more important than my relationship with Cynthia. My wife needs me - that trumps any birding desires completely.

Sunday, is of course, church day. Even more important than husband-wife relationship is God-human fellowship. Attending church services on a Sunday had always been our priority, no matter where we were. Whenever we plan a vacation that would include a Sunday, we always make it a point to go to Calvary Chapel in the city that we are in (there usually is one). For me and my wife, to be close to our Creator is more important than being close to His creatures.

The Bay-breasted Warbler was seen both Saturday and Sunday by a number of birders. I'm hoping it will still be there for me on Monday.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One flu over..

The flu bug got me yesterday. It got me so bad that I wasn't able to join the traditional Sunday lunch with my kids and grandkids. With a heavy dose of cough syrup and cold medicine, I felt a little better Monday morning. Not that great, but well (and determined) enough to take on what Eaton Canyon had to offer on this bright, albeit cool, morning.

I don't know, but it seems like Hermit Thrushes had developed a certain kind of fondness for me. It was a Hermit Thrush that greeted me with a song as soon as I entered the grove behind the Nature Center. In the three hours that I spent at Eaton Canyon, Hermit Thrushes would always pop up, one of them eyeing me from almost arm's reach. It then flew at me, so close that I felt the wind from its wings only to land a few feet behind me continuing to give me a curious eye.

There is a place behind the Nature Center that I always refer to as the "Drip" because that's basically what it was..a faucet that was allowed to drip and form a small, shallow pool for birds to drink and bathe in. I spent most of the three hours just standing at "shooting" distance from there. My patience was rewarded by getting photographs of the shy and skulking (and quite uncommon) White-throated Sparrow and a lifer for me..Purple Finch!

White-throated Sparrow
Noonish and bird activity dropped somewhat. As I packed up my gear, I thought about what transpired the past three hours which seemed to fly by so quickly, and you know what? I felt a lot better... in more ways than one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Soli Buteo regalis

It was a beautiful sunny morning last Saturday - a perfect day for bird photography. But gasoline prices had gone higher and even worse, I was feeling a little bit under the weather. My birding spirit prevailed over this dilemma primarily because there was allegedly a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sighted at Peck's Pit. Peck's Pit was close enough that it would not create a huge dent in my gasoline budget and the weather was nice enough that my cold would not get aggravated. Besides birding experts are still not in complete agreement as to whether this was really a Ferruginous inasmuch as it is way off its normal habitat and I wanted to help - hopefully through photographs - confirm its identity.

We saw a couple of birders as we got off the Jeep. They informed us that they saw the hawk but they thought it was just a young Red-tailed - a very common species. They also said the bird flew across the lake and thought that it would probably go back to the school compound where it was first seen. Undaunted by this not so encouraging news, my wife and I proceeded towards the lake resigned at just photographing the usual denizens of the park. Just then I noticed a raptor flying in from the lake.

"There it is!" I yelled and sprinted after it, Cynthia following right behind me. It landed on top of a tall sycamore and we moved slowly to get a better view. We spent about half an hour taking photographs despite the distance and the elevation of our subject. Eventually the hawk flew and we thought that that was the end of it. But then it decided to perch on a lower branch of another tree a few feet from where it was! This time we got terrific views of the raptor as it sat there, less than 50 feet away! Without a doubt, this is a Ferruginous Hawk, albeit a juvenile one.

At home, as I was downloading our photographs, I realized that we took almost 200 shots of just one species of bird. With the exception of a couple of shots of a Red-tailed Hawk (which we took just so we can compare it with the Ferruginous), we did not take any picture of any other bird that day.

The Ferruginous Hawk certainly deserved to be the bird of the day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Short Story and a Long Tail

I can't believe I went 10 days without birding! Was my passion for birds waning? Heaven forbid! A few factors contributed to this pause in my birding activities: High price of gasoline (please realize that I am currently jobless), no reports of any unusual sightings within my comfort radius of driving, entertaining Cynthia's daughter and her family who were visiting from the Philippines, and, I'm quite embarassed to admit, sloth.

But, when news that a Long-tailed Duck was seen at Bolsa Chica, the spirit of twitching awakened in me. Undeterred by the heavy fog on Saturday morning, we proceeded to Huntington Beach. A gang of photographers brandishing a variety of lenses that would put Ritz Camera stores to shame were already making negotiating the boardwalk a test in personal maneuverability. With Brown Pelicans putting on a show, dive bombing for fish just a few feet from the railings, and Forster's Terns zooming overhead, ducks were the norm of the day - and I do not mean those birds swimming and calling "quack, quack" - I meant avoiding getting whacked in the head by swinging 12-pound lenses.

Despite all these, nobody seemed to know that a rare duck (the swimming bird) was present in the area. We left the swinging bunch and proceeded to take the trail alongside PCH. While we were trying to look at some White-crowned Sparrows, a gentleman and his son greeted us with "If you're looking for the Long-tailed Duck, you can find it north of the Tidal Gate". We gave them our heartfelt thanks and wasted no time getting to the place referred to.

At the tidal gate, we saw nothing but Lesser Scaups and Surf Scoters with a couple of Buffleheads completing the group. No Long-tailed Duck. We went to the mesa to get a more panoramic view of the lagoon below. We saw Northern Pintails and American Wigeons, but still no Long-tail. Feelings of disappointment began to gnaw at my soul. My wife, bless her, suggested we give the tidal gates another try. There we saw Glenn Price and his wife, Felicia Lee. Even before I could say anything, Glenn asked if I had seen the Long-tailed Duck. I, of course, replied in the negative. Glenn smiled and said, "There it is approaching us." pointing to an almost nondescript brown bird among the black Scoters. My jaw dropped, for it was indeed swimming towards us. Excitedly, I showed our lifer to Cynthia and we spent the next half hour or so taking its photograph.

Like rain that fell on parched earth, my experience with the uncommon waterfowl was refreshing. My birding spirit had been revived.


Our deepest gratitude to Glenn and Felicia for showing the rarity to us. You can find Glenn's excellent photographs at and Felicia's blog (always a great read) at

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happy Bird-day

What do you do when you turn 61 and is out-of-work?

One word: Birding!

I thought I'd celebrate my three-score-and-one years of existence by going back to Santa Fe Dam where I had a fairly good birding experience last week. Unbeknownst to me, Wednesday was the day they turn the sprinklers on. Water was spurting practically everywhere...most especially at places where seed-eating birds normally feed. After an hour of driving around and not finding the usual array of avian species expected here, I decided to hightail it to Peck's Pit in El Monte, hoping that the bird gods (not to mention the birthday gods) would shower me with mercy and make the anniversary of my birth not so disappointing as it had been so far.

I always have misgivings whenever I go Peck's Pit by myself. The place had been known to occasionally harbor some unsavory characters. Thankfully, it was not so today. Thankfully, too, that there were sparrows galore. 

At the edge of the lake, after taking a shot at a Cormorant, I staked out a Belted Kingfisher which flushed when my subject cormorant flew. Knowing that birds are creatures of habit and that kingfishers usually come back to their favorite hunting spot, I waited for close to an hour for it to return. Alas, all that waiting was in vain. This kingfisher must have kicked the habit, I murmured to myself.

As I was waiting for the uncooperative kingfisher, I noticed a Great Egret fly by. What caught my attention was an orange thing sticking out of its back. When I looked at the picture later that day, my worst suspicions were confirmed - it was an arrow! It seemed that the big bird was none the worse for that, but it makes me mad that someone could be so cruel to do that kind of thing.

Tired of waiting and upset at what I have just seen, I thought it was about time to go home. Approaching the trees close to the parking lot, I noticed a flock of small birds with dark heads. Juncos, I surmised, and inasmuch as I still don't have any decent photos of these cute migrants, I immediately assumed my best stalking stance and inched closer to where they were feeding. But wait, why were their bellies striped and why were there plain brown birds hanging out with them? Surely these can't be Juncos, but what are they?

Using my binoculars I focused on the group and realized I was looking at a species that calls Africa its home. Bronzed Mannikins (aka Bronze-winged Mannikins) are small sparrow-like birds that are rather common as caged birds. What I was looking at were most likely escapees that have established themselves in the seed-rich grassland of Peck's Pit.

Now that made my day, and my birthday a happy bird-day.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

American Idle

Friday, October 19th - the day I did absolutely nothing. It wasn't that I was feeling sick or anything, I just decided to relax and give my aging body some much needed rest.

After taking my wife to work, I immediately returned home and went back to bed. I woke up at around 11 am, surfed the internet for a while and took a leisurely lunch. Washed the dishes afterwards and then back on the computer to prep my photos for the 2008 calendar edition which I plan to sell to augment my dwindling finances. OK, that may be considered "work" but for me it's all fun and I enjoyed doing it.

I picked up my wife at 4;30 and we were back home before 5 pm. As I write this, I reminisce of the times when I was working. Friday has always been a day of anticipation - counting down each day from Monday eagerly waiting for the respite of the weekend. By 5 pm, with nerves frayed and my mind stressed almost to the point of mental collapse, I leave the office, knowing in my heart that this whole routine would be repeated come Monday morning.

But that was now a thing of the past. Here I was on a Friday wallowing in almost sinful idleness.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thrush your Instinct

After driving my wife to work I went birding at Eaton Canyon. Gasoline prices being prohibitive as it was (more than $3 a gallon!), I thought it would be wise to go someplace near. Eaton Canyon is not exactly my favorite birding place because almost always there'll be noisy hikers and people walking their dogs. But then again, those were on weekends, so hopefully I won't encounter these distractions today.

The place was quiet when I arrived. A quick look-around resulted in zero bird sightings. Of course, there were little old ladies walking their little old pooches. I sighed in desperation as walked back to the Jeep. Just as I was putting back my gear, a movement under the bushes in front of me caught my eye. Grabbing my camera, I chased after a California Thrasher but it dove under a thicket and promptly vanished. It's a sign, I thought to myself. My instinct says I will find birds here while my impatience argued against staying. The morning is still young so I decided to follow my instincts.

It wasn't long when I saw my first bird - a White-crowned Sparrow enjoying a breakfast of seeds. Then it was as if a fog was lifted, for now I see birds at places where there were none before! At a small clearing next to a low stone fence, a group of Juncos, Sparrows and Butterbutts were busy feeding on the leaf covered ground. Most of them flew away as I approached. I sat still on the stone fence hoping they would return. They didn't. Only the Yellow-rumped did and while I was watching it's insect-hunting antics, I noticed a small brown bird with longish, thin legs fly in. It hopped on a rock and surveyed the surroundings as if some feathered royal staking his claim on this piece of land. It was a Hermit Thrush - considered America's best songbird. It gave me some good photo ops, seemingly enjoying the attention it was getting from me. I wished it sang for me though.

It was 10:30 when three busloads of pre-school children arrived for what I gathered to be a school nature field trip. As for me, my trip was now over.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Life after Indymac

Today is day two of my being unemployed. So far, so good. I definitely was not missing my work at Indymac.

So what did I do? Why, go birding, of course! I headed off to Santa Fe Dam in the hope of seeing the Palm Warbler reported by Andrew Lee just a couple of days earlier. Well, I dipped on that but it was a great morning of birding nonetheless! It was a gray day so there wasn't much photography done. Still, birds were everywhere, particularly the Yellow-rumped Warblers. Highlight of the day was a Canyon Wren ( !!! ). I tried taking its picture from the Jeep but it was away from the driver's side so I pointed my camera against the (dirty) windshield while the engine was running (and therefore the camera was shaking). I couldn't leave the driver's seat because I was in the middle of a one-lane road. So I decided to park and go after the bird on foot, but then it was already gone when I returned to the place where it was chasing insects earlier.

Another highlight was a Northern Flicker that was foraging on the ground. Flickers are cousins to the Woodpeckers and normally they would hunt for food on tree trunks. So it was a bit of a surprise to see this one away from a tree. Also, this time, it was on the driver's side and I was able to get some decent shots from my vehicle.

Around 11 am, my ex-officemates called and invited me to have lunch at our favorite Mexican place. We had good food and even better conversation - seems like only yesterday that we worked at the same office. Wait, it was really only yesterday!

Anyway, they had to go back to work and I was left with nothing to do. Well, that's not exactly true, there were lots of work to do at home. Thus, the whole afternoon was spent fixing things that need to be fixed, tidying up things that need to be tidied up.

These home "makeovers" continued until Wednesday, and most likely will become a daily activity for me.

Some officemates speculated that I will be bored when I no longer have a job. The way things are going, I do not think so.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Turn the Twitch On? - The Sequel

In my earlier blog, I debated the idea of being a "twitcher" - a birder who chases lifers and rare birds. Last Saturday, Oct. 13th, an opportunity to twitch presented itself when a Black-throated Blue Warbler was reported seen at Holmby Park in Westwood - a few blocks from UCLA.

"What the heck", I told my wife, "lets do the twitch" So eager were we in getting there as early as possible, that the usual side trip to McDonalds was done away with. There were three birders already staking out the firewheel tree which the rare warbler frequents. We wanted to be sure that the bird was there first, before we bring in our heavy equipment, so I just grabbed my binoculars and promtply interrogated the birding trio. They have just arrived, we were told, and had not seen the rarity yet. Just then, Cynthia saw something blue move behind the huge green leaves.

"Is that it?", she asked me. Peering through my binos, I immediately noticed the blue color and white wing bars.

"There it is!" I yelled to the other birders, pointing to the red-flowered tree.

"Go get the cameras", my wife reminded me. Handing her the binoculars, "Don't lose track of it" I implored her as I ran towards the Jeep. It took me a good 10 minutes before I got my gear all set-up. As I plunked the tripod in front of the tree, I heard my wife say, "It is gone. It showed itself briefly near the top of the tree and then flew off to the taller sycamore trees".

We waited for two hours waiting for it to return as it has been wont to do (so we've been told), passing the time by taking shots at a somewhat cooperative Black-throated Gray Warbler, our quarry's commoner and less colorful cousin. My patience finally ran out and not having breakfast, my stomach has started to make funny noises. So we reluctantly left and drove back home (I read later that the Black-throated Blue Warbler actually did return to the same tree a few minutes after we left).

Which brings me to conclude that as a birder, twitching is exciting, but the bird photographer in me was very heartbroken at not being able to capture the image of a rare and lovely bird. For me, birding and bird-photography had become inseparable. I cannot be content at the medium of being a happy birder and at the same being a sad photographer. Chasing and getting a picture of the Pectoral Sandpiper a week ago was a stroke of luck and it doesn't always end up like that as evidenced by Saturday's turn of events.

Looking back, most of the twitching we did this year has been succesful - the Hepatic Tanager in San Diego, the Pine Warbler at Estancia Park, the Mississippi Kite at South Coast Botanic Garden, the Bay-breasted Warbler at Sea Gate Park and the Arctic Warbler at Galileo Hills. Of course, we dipped on a few as well - the Yellow-throated Warbler at Tewinkle Park, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Ballona Creek and the Blackburnian Warbler and Blackpoll Warblers at the Laguna Tams. But then such is the life of a birder, even the most avid of twitchers. You win some, you lose some. The thrill, I believe, lies in the uncertainty of the chase. Another notch on my lifelist belt or an addition to my growing album of bird photographs (or none of those) are just end results of a game of adventure and chance.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Departed

Allow me to digress from birding just for this time. Monday, Oct. 15th will be my last day at work. After more than 11 years with this company, the time has come to say goodbye. Below was a "valedictory" email that I sent to my friends and co-workers.

The klieg lights have been dimmed. The orchestra has left the pit. The curtain has been brought down. The physically challenged lady has sung. After over 11 years, it is now time to exit stage left.

In the coming days I will be looking back and once more hear the applause and some occasional boos. When the band played triumphal marches and a few sad requiems. Memories of my life on the Indymac stage will be a constant companion as I sit back and enjoy the freedom from the pressures demanded by the repertory.

Above all I will cherish the moments spent with those who were at the backstage with me. Away from the limelight, these are those who shared my joys and my tears. I will remember those who draped an arm around my shoulders when I needed it most and those who laughed at my oftentimes corny jokes. These are the people who made my decision to leave very difficult. I will remember them all and my heart will smile.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Turn the Twitch on?

Our destination Saturday was Orange County. But first tradition must be fulfilled. That means breakfast at MacDonalds. After enjoying our morning repast at Warner and Bolsa, we then proceeded to Bolsa Chica where it was uncharacteristically un-birdy. Even the usual mob of photographers with their tripods and big lenses were absent.

We swung by Upper Newport Bay and again we didn't even bother to unload our cameras. We did see our FOS (First-of-Season) White-crowned Sparrows and the Song Sparrow that had a thing with side mirrors. Every time we parked at UNB, without fail, this particular bird would hop onto our side mirror and would begin to challenge its reflection there. Other than this tragi-comic side show, Upper Newport Bay did not have much to offer.

But then, perhaps it was because my heart was set on going to San Joaquin Wildlife Area that I did not bother to explore the two places we visited earlier. Perhaps it was the posted sighting there of a Pectoral Sandpiper on Friday night that conditioned my senses to chase after it. Sure enough, as soon as we have parked the Jeep, I half-dragged my wife to Pond D where the uncommon peep was last seen. The sighting was further confirmed by a couple we met as they were returning from the ponds.

Heart beating in anticipation I scanned the almost dried up habitat, looking at each and every shorebird, trying to find the telltale streaks on the breast that would confirm its identity. Finally with a yell of triumph that startled Cynthia who was standing next to me, I located my lifer! But it was still too far to be photgraphed even with my 500 + 1.4 lens.

"Look, there's a path through the reeds and the ground there seems dry enough", my wife helpfully suggested as she pointed downward.

"Gung Ho!" I shouted as I almost jumped the 20-foot slope. On solid ground close to the reeds (but far enough so as not to disturb the various birds enjoying the water), I positioned myself and waited....

As if by Divine providence (or maybe it was), the Pectoral Sandpiper moved away from the flock of other peeps and walked towards me! There it fed at just the right distance for my big lens to focus on it properly. Satisfied that I have taken the sandpiper's pictures from every conceivable angle, I bade it goodbye, thanked the birding gods and clambered back to the trail.

Everything was anti-climactic after that. Well, almost. My wife and I were preparing to leave when we heard a screeching noise coming from above. Valkyries? Banshees? In the middle of the day? Our curiosity was soon answered when a very young Red-tailed Hawk came flying in and landed on a branch maybe 50 feet directly above us. There it sat and screeched inviting the attention of newly arriving birders (this was right at the parking lot). Needless to say, we took advantage of this photo-op until we had cricks on our necks.

Reflecting on the events of the morning while having lunch at Sizzler's, the unsettling thought came to me that I might be turning into a twitcher. A twitcher, of course, is a birder who will go after (twitch) a rarity or a lifer at the drop of a hat and by all means possible. Knowing also that I will soon have a lot of time in my hands, chasing never-before-seen birds would not be a far-fetched activity after all. It could be fun, too, but sobriety still reigns, I think. I will probably go after a lifer, but only if it is convenient, and never as a consuming passion.