We thought about making it the third straight week of pursuing after a particular uncommon bird - a Red Phalarope was reported to be very obliging photography-wise at the Malibu Lagoon. But then weekend at the Lagoon on a summer day brought back unpleasant memories of full parking space and tons of people. That's why we decided to "crash" the picnic held by the Los Angeles Audubon Society at the Chilao campground high up in the San Gabriel mountains.
We arrived at the campground, which was not really a campground but a picnic area, around 9:30 am. The Auduboners were already out birding so we went on our own. Except for a proliferation of Acorn Woodpeckers and an elusive flycatcher which we suspected to be a Western Wood Pewee, there weren't much to see. We went back to the parking area and noticed an old man sitting on a picnic table all by himself. Cynthia's gregarious nature came forth and she moseyed over and introduced herself and me. "My name's Herb Clarke," the old man beamed at us. He explained his solitary stance in that his body was not strong enough to keep up with the birders because he has cancer. As we were talking about birds and photography, he said, "I have a book!" Eagerly, he led us to his SUV and pulled out An Introduction to Southern California Birds. My jaw dropped as this is one of the better birding books for the area and the photographs - taken by Herb himself - are outstanding and pioneering in this field. I could have hugged him on the spot but I was afraid I'd break his bones. Suffice it to say that I was in awe to be in the presence of such a venerated figure in California birding. When he asked how we are doing in our bird photography there at Chilao, we replied honestly that it wasn't going that well. Try the feeders at the Visitor Center he suggested. We thanked him profusely and went straight to where he directed us.
True enough, there were a lot of bird activity at the feeders: The garrulous Scrub Jays were there in numbers and their shyer cousins, the Steller's Jays would occasionally venture in; Brown-headed Cowbirds and a lone Brewer's Blackbirds were on the ground feasting on the nuts and seeds that fell from the feeder; Once in a while a White-breasted Nuthatch would swoop in, grab a nut and then fly off; Band-tailed Pigeons would come whoosing and scattered the other birds that were there. But the Acorn Woodpeckers were the lords of the feeders and were never intimidated by the larger, bulkier pigeons.
Soon it was noon and we went back to the parking area. The LA Audubon group were preparing for their picnic. We were invited to join them but we politely declined and settled for our egg sandwiches on a table several yards further down.
After lunch and realizing that our prospect of seeing more birds looking quite dim, we decided to give Charlton Flats, 2 miles up the road, a try. Charlton Flats wasn't that different, except for fewer people. We managed to get a glimpse of a Western Tanager as it flew by but that was probably the most exciting bird of the day. I was so frustrated trying to get a good shot of a Mountain Chickadee foraging among the pine needles about 5 feet from where I was. It was constantly on the move and never out in the open. Luckily a White-breasted Nuthatch was more cooperative if a little distant.
It wasn't one of our better birding sorties. We should have gone for the Red Phalarope. Even Herb Clarke said so.