Sunday, December 28, 2008

Season's Gray Things

Christmas eve and Christmas day were both gloomy. The skies were gray and rain punctuated the holidays. But then again, spending time with family gave the needed warmth to an otherwise bleak season.

Friday, Dec. 26th, however, was another story. We woke up, albeit a little late, to a glorious sunny morning. Time to search for the Gray Flycatcher at Lacy Park in San Marino, I told my wife. I tried looking for it last Tuesday but failed miserably on that endeavor. Being a beautiful day, there were a throng of people at the park. Not exactly a good sign if you want to see a rare flycatcher. Cynthia and I ambled along the southwest perimeter where our target bird was last seen. After an hour and a half, the park population somewhat thinned a bit. It was then that my wife heard something different coming from the sycamore trees by the concrete picnic tables. After a while she was pointing to a drab-looking bird diving for insects on the leaf-strewn grass. We found our bird, our 89th lifer for the year. It was quite cooperative and for the next ten minutes or so, we were able to get some pictures of it. We were about to follow the flycatcher when it flew to the west side of the park when as if conjured by a mad wizard, people with children on scooters, bikes and anything with wheels appeared on the trails. They were soon followed by folks who let their dogs chase balls all over the park. Of course, no flycatcher can compete with all these activities. And neither can we. Anyway, we were happy. We came, we saw, we got our Christmas bird.



Monday, December 22, 2008

Thick Take Two

Hoping to rack up a few more lifers before the year ends, Cynthia and I visited the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes. Our target was the Thick-billed Kingbird that has been reported there. We were concerned that the rain and cold spell just two days ago would drive the Kingbird to more pleasant weather conditions.

As we approached the small pond, Cynthia's outstanding hearing prowess immediately located the bird puffed up high in a sycamore (it was very cold that Saturday morning). It was a bit too high for our camera lenses but we tried to take its picture nonetheless. We both agreed that if we hiked to the berm we might be able to get a better look at our quarry. As soon as we got to the berm, the kingbird flew off, destination unknown. The LACounty birding listserv reported that the Thick-bill would occasionally visit the trees close to the bridge over the stream. I suggested to Cynthia that we go look for that bridge and maybe we might be able to relocate our lifer.

Descending towards the bridge we spotted another birder/photographer who was already aiming his camera at the tree tops. Just as we approached, the Kingbird flew off. The birder/photographer turned out to be Steve Wolfe whom we met before when the Mississippi Kite was sighted (by him originally) here. We told Steve where we first saw the bird and all three of us went back there hoping it had returned to its original perch. Apparently it didn't and after several minutes of waiting, Steve said he would go back to the bridge while Cynthia and I would go around the lake to scout the area.

We eventually got back to the bridge where once again Cynthia's ears picked up the bird further east. Just like before it was way up at the top of another sycamore. Steve showed up and as we were pointing the bird to him, it flew. This time it landed much closer to us. And while all three of us were taking advantage of the kingbird's proximity, another bird landed just beneath the Thick-billed Kingbird. At that time we dismissed it as either a goldfinch or one the more common species that calls the garden home. It was when I was uploading our pictures that I noticed that it was actually a young Bullock's Oriole. Though not as rare as the Thick-billed, it is also not a very common species particularly this time of year.




Having had some satisfactory shots of our 88th lifer of the year, we bade goodbye to Steve. On the way home visions of Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) danced above our heads. Guess what we had for lunch?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bittern Sweet (aka Fowl Weather Friends)

Saturday was the Los Angeles Audubon Society's field trip to the Upper Newport Bay in Orange County. The reason for this is that the tide will be quite high that day which hopefully would drive the marsh birds closer to shore and ergo better viewings.

When my wife and I looked at the weather section of the Los Angeles Times that morning, we saw this:



However, looking out our window, the skies didn't seem that dark. And we are birders, of course, where neither rain nor sleet can stop us from pursuing our hobby. (These are pep talk words, by the way, spoken to ourselves to dispel any lingering discouragement we might feel).


We met the group at the boardwalk. Nick and Mary Freeman, the group leaders, were already busy pointing out the Clapper Rails in the distance. They were the ones who showed us where to find the Varied Thrush at Galileo Hills a month ago. Then there was Barbara Johnson who showed us our first Black Oystercatchers and Surfbirds at Playa del Rey a few years back. And our birding buddy, Tom Starcic, was there, too. In the pay-it-forward scheme among birders, we were the ones to show Tom his first Spotted Owl at Placerita Canyon early this year.

We were all lined up along the boardwalk waiting for the tide to reach its peak when somebody yelled "Bittern, flying in!". Binoculars went up in unison while Cynthia and I raised our cameras and started firing away. After several passes in front of us, the Bittern settled in a dense brush.



We continued to pass the time watching a Northern Harrier patrol the back bay. Suddenly Nick Freeman came rushing and announced that another American Bittern had landed not too far from the boardwalk. Like the crowd when the stores opened on a Black Friday morning, we all rushed to the point that Nick said the Bittern was. This was the first time that Cynthia and I have seen an American Bittern in full view. Who knew they have yellow legs!




It started to drizzle a bit. Mary suggested that we all go to the back bay drive and see if we can get closer looks at the birds. Surprisingly, the sun shone just as we entered the one way street along the bay. Most of the birds - Marbled Godwits, Willets and Black Skimmers were sleeping and the ducks were still far off into the waters for any good photography. The only bird that piqued our interest was a young Common Moorhen foraging by the "falls".




We said goodbye to our friends and made a stop at Bolsa Chica. However, the cold wind blowing incessantly kept most of the birds huddled far off shore, not even daring to fly in this harsh condition. Even the most intrepid birders know when it is time to quit. It was time to quit.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Buddy Birding

I visited Legg Lake Monday to look for Canvasbacks. The only photo I had of this species was that of a female taken at Bolsa Chica several years ago. It wasn’t long before I found a group of them lounging at the third lake. Also in the area were a bunch of Ring-necked Ducks. Inasmuch as these species would be a lifer for my birding buddy, Tom Starcic, I asked him to meet up with me on Tuesday morning. That was also an excuse for me to bring my bigger lens. My images of the male Canvasback that I got on Monday with my 100-400mm zoom lens were not big enough for my taste.

I was already taking shots at the Canvasbacks when Tom arrived. We proceeded to the area where the Ring-neckeds hang out. Along the way we were startled by a pair of Northern Flickers which darted across from us and landed on a nearby pine tree giving us some nice photo ops. The Ring-necked Ducks, on the other hand, were all sleeping way out at the middle of the lake. We moved to a point that would bring us closer to them and patiently waited for some activity. Eventually a few Ring-neckeds awoke and started their morning ablutions. Tom and I had some nice views.

As we were rounding the lake, Tom would every now and then stop and point to a flock of parakeets whizzing overhead, screeching as they went.


“Most likely Yellow-chevroned Parakeets”, I informed Tom.

When we reached the parking area, Tom stopped and stared at a sycamore tree.


“The parakeets are there.”, he said.


Silently, we approached the tree until we saw a pair of the Yellow-chevroneds. Tom was smiling as we reviewed our shots of the lovely exotics. He just got his second lifer of the day.


We then proceeded to north Rosemead – still a part of the Whittier Narrows Recreational Area – to look for the Pine Warbler reported seen last Monday. Although the place was quite birdy (lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Western Bluebirds and Black Phoebes), the Pine Warbler was nowhere to be found. What we saw was a Plumbeous Vireo and Tom’s third lifer for the day.


Since it was still early – a little after 10 am – Tom suggested that we visit Bonelli Regional Park which is not too far from here. After enduring a terrible traffic jam at the Pomona Freeway, we arrived at Bonelli around 11 am. Our first stop was the area next to Restroom 8 where the Painted Redstart spends winter every year. Sure enough, it was in its favorite tree and was very cooperative in posing for us.



The lake itself was surprisingly devoid of a lot of birds. The Redheads I saw just a week ago were gone. Only a few Scaups and Western Grebes dotted the lake. At this point I was already tired from lugging my heavy gear so I just rested while Tom explored the lakeside trail. After a while, he called me saying that there’s an Osprey perched not too far from where I was resting. I hauled my camera and tripod and proceeded to where Tom said the Osprey was. There it was, unperturbed by the harassing of a pair of American Crows.



Soon Tom returned from his foray. We made several more stops along the lake but bird activity had pretty much slowed down. It was 1 pm and we both were getting hungry so we agreed to call it a day. It was a great birding day for both of us; Tom getting three lifers and me getting good shots at the male Canvasback and getting a good work out for my back.




Monday, December 08, 2008

I for an Eye

Henderson, Nevada. November 25, 2005
Our family was celebrating Thanksgiving at Las Vegas. My wife and I decided to do some morning birding at the Henderson Water Treatment Plant. It was here that we got our first, albeit quite distant, glimpse of the Common Goldeneye.

San Dimas, California. November 25, 2008
As a birder/photographer there are certain species of birds that would lay dormant in the inner recesses of my mind. That vision would remain unperturbed until certain news that involved that particular species would awake that memory from its heretofore undisturbed slumber. The Common Goldeneye was one such species.

Three years later on the exact same date, I was at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park (my wife was at work at the time) to look for the Common Goldeneye that was reported seen here just the day before. But as luck (or in this case, bad luck) would have it, the Goldeneyes - there were supposed to be a pair - were nowhere to be found.

Playa del Rey, California. December 6, 2008
Once again spurred by reports of Common Goldeneyes (again, a pair) sightings at the Del Rey Lagoon, my wife and I were at that place bright and early. It was a beautiful day, the sun smiling gaily on a nippy morning. We saw a couple of photographers by the lagoon's edge firing away at a raft of ducks at the west end. We were on the other side from where they were but we couldn't contain our curiosity and decided to investigate. As we moved closer to the shoreline, I immediately noticed a duck slightly different from the male and female Buffleheads swimming closely together. The male Common Goldeneye! I managed to get off a few shots at it before it flew off towards the Ballona Channel. We took off after it but failed to relocate the bird.






It was still early so Cynthia and I went to the southernmost jetty where we encountered a bunch of Surfbirds and Least Sandpipers. Then there was a lone Black Turnstone and a Wandering Tattler that allowed me some real close shots. My wife and I decided earlier that she will not do any photography this time and that I will be the one using "her" usual gear - the 30D with the 100-400 zoom combo. She will just be my "morale-booster" in case we dipped on the Goldeneye.

We were returning to our Jeep when we met our birding pal, Tom Starcic. We were talking shop when a couple of birders informed us that the Common Goldeneye was seen again at the Channel, "just five feet from the rocky shore". All three of us hurriedly went to the trail above the Channel and after a few hits and misses we were able to relocate it.
Cynthia and I still have some chores and errands to do and since we have gotten some pretty good shots of the Goldeneye, we bade Tom farewell.




The Solitary Sandpiper has taken the Goldeneye's place in hibernating at the back of my mind.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Short-lived Birding


We didn't know when we went to Peck Park last Saturday that we would be birding next to a crime scene. We were quite unaware of that fact as we innocently birded along the lake. For starters our target birds - Glaucous-winged Gull and Canvasbacks - were on the far side of the lake. The filth along the shoreline probably drove them farther away, we thought. So we contented ourselves with whatever we could encounter along the way. Luckily, we saw some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a very skittish Green Heron and what looked like an overstaying Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Other than those, it was just the usual smattering of Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, American Goldfinches and White-crowned Sparrows. When we tried to take the road to the far end of the lake, we noticed an unusual number of police cars and firetrucks blocking the way. We quickly retraced our steps and as we approached the parking area, more emergency vehicles were coming in.

Just as we watched the scenario, wondering what was going on, Chet King, the forensics person for the Arcadia Police engaged us in conversation. It turned out that he does professional photography on the side. We also learned from him that a body was found earlier floating on the lake.

After a while, Renny and Lynn Maddox, birders from Burbank, joined us and told us that they saw the Canvasbacks. "But they were quite a distance", they said. Noting the commotion going on, they, just like us, decided to cut short our birding activities for the day.



Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ay-yay-yay, no eye

The report that a pair of Common Goldeneyes were seen at Bonelli Regional Park perked my interest. You will recall that we dipped badly on this species last Saturday at Big Bear. So off to Bonelli I went (Cynthia is at work) Tuesday morning. The day started out glorious - blue skies and just enough nippiness in the air that invigorates the lungs.

I immediately proceeded to the eastern shore and scanned the lake with my binoculars. Nothing but Mallards, Western Grebes and hundreds of Coots. A pair each of Canada and White-fronted Geese were just waking up as I walked closer to the water's edge. A Killdeer scampered ahead of me. But no wintering ducks! I turned my attention to the land birds. There was a small puddle by the roadside where Yellow-rumps, American Goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos and an occasional Western Bluebird would take a drink.


At the easternmost point next to the parking area, a Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret were trying to overcome their frozen inertia. A Belted Kingfisher and an Osprey on the other hand, have begun their quest for an early morning meal.


I walked along the lakeside going west accompanied by skiterring Least Sandpipers. Around the bend, I finally saw some Redheads bathing! Further into the open, Western Grebes stretched their necks and legs while Ruddy Ducks slept. Four Eared Grebes went swimming by.


But still no Goldeneyes.

I decided to drive to the western side of the lake and I was turning into the main road, I was completely surprised to see a Roadrunner! I stopped the Jeep, flashe my emergency lights on, opened the window on my side and grabbed my camera gear. Fortunately, I decided to bring my big 500mm telephoto lens for this trip anticipating that the ducks would be at quite a distance offshore. Praying that the lens' Image Stability capabilities would work, as I was handholding the camera and trembling with excitement, I took a bunch of shots at the roadrunner. Eventually it took off and hid among the bushes.


I stopped by restroom # 8 to see if the Painted Redstart still inhabits the tree across. The black-and-red warbler has obviously gone to warmer climes for it was quiet as a cemetery there. There was however, a Merlin perched silently high up a pine tree.

I continued to the west side parking lot and hauled my gear to the lakeside. This time a Spotted Sandpiper came bobbing towards me, totally unmindful of my presence. Once again scanning the lake with my binoculars, I saw Lesser and Greater Scaups together offering excellent opportunities to compare one species from the other.


But still no Goldeneyes.

The beautiful morning soon turned into overcast skies and a few drops of rain forebode a wet afternoon.

I will have to "live another day" in my search for the Goldeneye. (Oh no, not another James Bond theme!)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There's a Kind of Thrush


There's a kind of thrush that is unlike other thrushes. It has a long tail and has a plain, dull gray color. Except for a tiny patch of buff on its wing and a white eyering, it is a nondescript looking bird. It may be less attractive than its more colorful cousins but we wanted to see it anyway. The Townsend's Solitaire, should we find it, will be our 87th lifer for the year 2008. A good place to look for it is at Big Bear Lake 8,000 feet up in the San Bernardino mountains.

The sun was slowly emerging from the mountains on the horizon and spreading a pinkish hue on the eastern skies as we drove to Big Bear on Saturday morning. There were only a few people braving the six degree temperature at Lake Arrowhead where we tried to get some warmth from the steaming hot coffee at MacDonalds. It was still freezing cold as we traversed the boardwalk at Stanfield Marsh at Big Bear Lake half an hour later. The Common Goldeneye pair that was reported seen here the day before was now nowhere to be found but a flotilla of Hooded Mergansers were swimming around. Next to the boardwalk Mountain Chickadees were already busy hunting for food.

Our next stop was the Discovery Center at the North Shore Drive. The lady volunteer was very eager to help but when asked about the Solitaire, she didn't even know there was such a bird. "Ask the guy at the Wild Wings store", she suggested, "he knows where to find the birds in this area." We thanked her but before proceeding to meet the local expert, we spent a few minutes next to the feeder that the center put up where a Pygmy Nuthatch and several House Finches were enjoying the seeds.

The gentleman at the Wild Wings store was indeed very knowledgeable of the area's avifauna. He mentioned the possible places where we will most likely encounter the Townsend's Solitaire. One of the places he mentioned was a route called 2N10. When I first heard the name, it seemed strange to call a place "two and ten". Why not just call it "twelve" I thought to myself. 2N10 turned out to be a rural dirt road that only a high clearance vehicle can negotiate. The Forest Ranger that we met told us that the route runs for about 7 miles through a pine forest. Half a mile into it and not encountering any bird at all made us decide to turn back.

We then tried the different trails (located at various points around the lake) suggested by the Wild Wing guy but we dipped on each of those. We even went to the Ecology Center, further east and north of the now dry Baldwin Lake, but the birds there were even more sparse.

At the trail at Juniper Point around 3 pm we saw a single Cedar Waxwing perched forlornly atop a dead tree. As we were going back to the Jeep I told Cynthia that I would like to leave for home earlier than we originally planned. One of the suggestions of the guy at Wild Wings was to look for Poor-wills at Polique Point at the North Shore. They can be easily found along the road as soon as it starts to get dark, he said. As tempting as getting another lifer would be, I would rather not drive through the downhill zigzag road when it is already dark. My wife whole-heartedly agreed. So we decided to do one quick stop at the Discovery Center to prepare ourselves (read: use the restrooms) before embarking on an almost two-hour trip home. Just as we were about to enter the building, Cynthia saw a Robin flitting among the pines. Why not one last attempt at photographing this bird she said. As we were following the Robin, a gray bird flew nearby and landed on a tree across from where the Robin was. There it started flicking its wings as if teasing the somewhat perplexed Robin perched at the opposite tree.


"What bird is it?", Cynthia asked.

"Townsend's Solitaire", I replied trying unsuccesfully to curb my enthusiasm.

"You're joking", my wife said. My non-response and the fact that I kept clicking away with my camera confirmed to her that I was not.

The bright red sun was sinking slowly and its orange rays were surrendering to the blanketing blue back of the evening. Along the way we can't help but talk about our serendipitous encounter with our target bird. We have been searching for it all day and to find one at a place where we were not expecting it was nothing short of a miracle.

"God saved the best for last", Cynthia remarked.

I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Dam" spiro, spero

Hope. A very inspiring word. It was hope that lifted my spirits from the doldrums of an unbirded weekend. It was hope that brought me to Santa Fe Dam once again on a bright Monday morning. The spate of firestorms all over Southern California the past week had blanketed the air with ash and covered the skies with dark billowing smoke. But Monday was blessed with glorious, unveiled sunshine. It was the hope of finding two lifers that got my heart beating faster that promising morn.

And yet the brightest of hopes can sometimes be dimmed. Four hours of diligent and optimistic search never yielded the species I had wanted to see. Still, the adventure wasn't for naught with the unexpected sighting of a female Orange Bishop. Heretofore, I had only seen the male in its gaudy orange and black plumage. The lady bishop, it turned out, was completely different from him, clad in sparrow-like brown feathers with a touch of yellow on the head and neck. So contrasting are the male and female in looks that it is possible for them to be mistaken as two different species.



The disappointment of not finding my two target birds was exacerbated by the fact that I saw and photographed two species that are painfully similar to those that I sought. The American Pipit only differs from the rarer Red-throated Pipit by the lack of streaking on its back.



And the Chipping Sparrow only differs from my hoped-for Clay-colored Sparrow by the darker line across its eyes.



The alarming regularity that Santa Fe Dam has denied me the satisfaction of sighting lifer species was somehow daunting. And yet as Cicero, the famous Roman orator and philosopher once said: Dum spiro, spero - While I breathe, I hope.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Phantom of Shoelace

SCENE: Placerita Canyon - 8:30 am

Bob & Cynthia are getting off their Jeep and proceeding to the nearby butterfly garden. Both are carrying their camera equipment and looking for birds to photograph.

BOB: It's a beautiful day although it seemed a little quiet, bird-wise.

CYNTHIA: Look, there are some Lesser Goldfinches drinking from the dripping faucet.

They both take pictures of the goldfinches.

BOB: Let's go explore the canyon. Do you want to try the picnic area or hit the trails?

CYNTHIA: We've always had luck with the trails, so let's do that first.

BOB: OK, but don't forget to tie your left shoelace before we go.

Cynthia ties her left shoelace. They walk the trails, Cynthia listening for any song or twittering from the birds, but not hearing much.

BOB: Do you hear anything?

CYNTHIA: Not much, except for the Acorn Woodpeckers and the Crows flying overhead.

BOB: Gee, I wonder where the birds are. This year certainly wasn't very birdy.

They reach a bench to rest a little. A California Thrasher pops out of the brush and Bob was able to squeeze off a few shots at it before it flies off. Cynthia gets up and follows a sound she hears further up the trail. Bob prepares to follow her, but stops suddenly as a couple of Spotted Towhees alight not too far from him. He takes a shot at those. Bob then follows Cynthia who is now busy trying to get a picture of an Oak Titmouse. She was so concentrated on the titmouse, that she is unaware of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet foraging in the branches above her. Bob takes advantage of the situation and photographs the kinglet.

CYNTHIA: (discouraged) Those titmice are so active, I can't get a decent shot of them.

BOB: Don't worry, hopefully we'll encounter more of them later.

They are now on the return trail. Cynthia suddenly stops near the rear of the Nature Center.

CYNTHIA: Do you hear that?

Bob strains to listen for something. Soon they both hear a "Twoo-Hooo!"

BOB: (excitedly) Sounds like an Owl

Both try to follow the source of the sound. The hooting continues and Bob & Cynthia move back and forth trying to locate the owl, but couldn't find it.

BOB: It seems like it's coming from inside the Nature Center.

CYNTHIA: But the center is closed. They are renovating the building and there are fences all around it.

BOB: (resignedly) Oh well, let's just continue to the picnic area.

CYNTHIA: Wait, your shoelaces are untied. We don't want you tripping all over the place now, do we?

Bob sighs and ties his shoelaces. They walk to the picnic area. Just as they leave the Nature Center, the hooting stops. At the picnic area, they look around and were amazed at the lack of birds.

BOB: I can't believe how few the birds are!

CYNTHIA: Yeah, where are the Bluebirds and the Nuttalls's Woodpeckers?

BOB: And the Golden-crowned Sparrows? They used to be all over the place!

Suddenly, a large bird flies in and lands somewhere. Bob and Cynthia cannot see where it landed. They walk towards the grove of trees peering at the branches. As they were searching for the large bird, Bob notices Cynthia's shoelace.

BOB: You might want to tie your right shoelace this time. (He winks) We don't want you tripping all over the place, do we?

CYNTHIA: What? I can't believe this. First the left, now the right!

She ties her shoelace. They continue looking for the large bird.

CYNTHIA: There it is! There it is!

Bob looks through his binoculars at the object Cynthia is pointing at.

BOB: It's a Red-shouldered Hawk!

He takes a few shots at it but it flies off. They both follow the bird and refinds it perched even farther away. They still try to get pictures of the hawk despite the distance and the shaded light. Eventually the hawk flies off again. Bob & Cynthia sit at one of the picnic tables. A few minutes later, some Oak Titmice and several Dark-eyed Juncos were feeding on the ground not too far from them. Cynthia finally manages to get some good Oak Timouse photographs.

CYNTHIA: Let's go. It's almost 11 o'clock and we still have some errands to do.

Bob nods in agreement. They walk back to the Jeep. Near the parking area, a young Anna's Hummingbird was perched on a dry branch. They both take pictures of the hummingbird. Then they pack their gears as they prepare to leave.

BOB: Before we go, maybe you should tie your left shoelace again.

CYNTHIA: This is so weird! Never did this happen in our previous outings..and we have hiked longer distances than this!

BOB: (laughing) It could be the phantom owl of Placerita!

SCENE: Bob & Cynthia's house. 5 pm

Bob is in front of his PC processing the photographs they have taken.

CYNTHIA: So how many good shots did we make?

BOB: (distracted) Huh? What?

CYNTHIA: How many species of birds did we get good shots of?

BOB: Oh! Oh! Seven!

CYNTHIA: That's all? Are you disappointed that we didn't get a good harvest this time?

BOB: Oh no, not at all! I already had low expectations when we went to Placerita this morning. Besides, there's always something positive that happens everytime we go on our birding trips.

CYNTHIA: Oh yeah? And what is that?

BOB: Well, we....

Bob stands up and assumes a double-oh-seven pose.

BOB: ...Bond. Just bond.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Majesty, Power and Grace

All three descriptions were represented in bird photographs when my friend Tom Starcic and I visited El Dorado Park in Long Beach yesterday.

Despite still being a juvenile, the majesty of the Bald Eagle clearly shows in this shot:
The Osprey, on the other hand, showed power as it caught a huge trout from the lake:



And what could be more graceful than the lovely Mute Swan?




Monday, November 03, 2008

Easy as Pie

Rain. Hard, pelting rain hammering the windshield of our Jeep as we drove in pre-dawn darkness. Our destination was Solvang, a touristy town about 130 miles north of Pasadena. We have planned this trip twice before and each time we had to postpone it for different reasons. Now that we are finally on our way, our hearts were being filled with discouragement as heavy rain poured like buckets of water. Still, we had enough faith and determination to make this trip worthwhile.
Approaching the town of Camarillo, the rain diminished into a soft drizzle. On the horizon a partial rainbow appeared and its red and orange hues slowly pushed back the dark blue of the night. Eos and Iris brought forth a dawning of a day that promised hope.

After a stopover at Camarillo for our traditional breakfast and to load up on gas, we proceeded to Goleta where we tried to locate the reported Chestnut-backed Chickadees. It drizzled on and off while we craned our necks at the tall eucalyptus trees at the end of Coronado Drive. But the chickadees were not to be seen. On our return trip we passed by this place again and gave our search for the tiny birds another try. Only to be disappointed a second time.

Our primary purpose for this trip however was to look for and photograph the Yellow-billed Magpie. This is a species found only in Central California and should we find it, would be a lifer for us. We drove through downtown Solvang ignoring the quaint Scandinavian ambiance for which reason tourists flock to this place. Alisal Road is where we want to be and finally finding it (thanks to our GPS unit) we drove slowly along the narrow two lane road. To our left was the Alisal Ranch Golf Course the fence of which was covered here and there by dense vines and thick hedges. To our right was a knoll peppered profusely by different kinds of trees. I was telling my wife that this was prime magpie territory.

"What do magpies look like?" she asked.

"Black and white with long tails and as big as crows".

I have barely finished my description when she suddenly yelled: "There it is!" She was pointing at the covered fence next to the golf course. Thank God there wasn't any vehicular traffic along Alisal as I stepped on the brake, swerved the Jeep to the shoulder on the left side of the road, stopped and looked at the fence.

"Where?" I asked somewhat doubtfully.

"There, inside the fence", she said.

I peeped and saw nothing but Acorn Woodpeckers. They were black and white but have short tails, so I again queried my wife if she was sure she saw the magpies. (Please understand my skepticism here. We were going about 30-35 miles an hour, the golf course was at my left, which means my wife was on my right and farther away visually. The fence that separates the golf course from the road was about 6 feet high, and although they were made of metal wires, at most places they were covered by thick vines. There were only a few breaks between these vines, the widest probably was about 2 feet. So the possiblity of seeing a bird under these circumstances definitely raises some reason for doubt.)

"Well, it was black and white and has a long tail", my wife insisted. She moved to another break in the vine coverings several feet back.

"There!" she said smugly.

Indeed, not one but two, Yellow-billed Magpies were there. Was it luck finding these birds? Maybe. Was it my wife's super-human eyesight that did it? Maybe. Was it answered prayer? Most definitely. Did I mention that the sun was shining beautifully when we saw the magpies?

After a while, the magpies flew off. We continued down Alisal Road but we didn't find any more of those lovely black-and-white-with-long-tail birds.

Restaurants at Solvang did not appeal to our gastronomical and economical preferences so we ended up having lunch at Carl's Jr. at nearby Buellton. After lunch we stopped by the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc. By now the skies have once again become gloomy and overcast. The place was most likely celebrating "el dia de los muertos" for it was quite dead birding-wise. Besides, there was a wedding being held on the mission grounds that afternoon. (Why anybody would want to get married on "the day of the dead" is beyond me.)

We did a quick stop-over at the beaches in Santa Barbara where all we got was a flock of Skimmers, sand in our shoes and cold wind whipping at our faces.

Rain. Soft, drizzling rain leaving tiny droplets on our windshield as we drove in the fading light of dusk. Our destination is home where a hot dinner and afterwards a warm soft bed await us. And of course, there is that nice fuzzy feeling that we saw what we travelled 260 miles to see.





video

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Lotta Bonelli

As you will recall, my 85th lifer for the year 2008 was a Red-breasted Nuthatch which my wife and I saw at Galileo Hills last Oct. 18th. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get some pictures of the said bird. So when it was reported that one was sighted at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, I was there bright and early on Oct. 28th.

Not long after I parked my Jeep, I saw a bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoying a puddle of water. As I approached I immediately saw the Red-breasted Nuthatch among the leaves almost above me. Bad lighting and the innate restlessness of this species only allowed me some so-so shots. Better than none, I reasoned to myself. After about five minutes it left the area, never to be seen again despite my repeated forays to that particular spot.



Other than that the place was quite birdy and I was able to get some nice pictures, particularly of a Redhead Duck which I thought was quite unusual here.


All in all, I had quite a good harvest of avian photographs some in rather interesting poses.











Sunday, October 26, 2008

Out for a Lark

October 24, 2008. It was just like any day as far as our morning routine goes. Except I got a couple of cards from my wife as we were preparing for breakfast. Throughout the day I would be receiving calls, text messages and emails from family and friends greeting me on my 62nd birthday. As of today, I am officially "retired" according to the government records. Soon I will be getting my social security pension. Inasmuch as I have been out of work for over a year now, this was not exactly an earth-shaking event for me. Besides, I'm the kind who does not want nor expect any fuss on my birthday "celebration".

So what do I do on my birthday? Go birding, naturally. I wanted to do a reprise of what I did last year - visit Peck Park in El Monte. Last year (which was just a week after Indymac and I had a friendly "divorce") I got some pretty good birding experiences at Peck's. Today didn't go too well, though. All the sprinklers were on and the maintenance people were busy doing their jobs and quite noisy about it. Nevertheless, I was able to capture some good shots of a couple of "Larks": the Lark Sparrow (the most beautiful sparrow in the U.S., in my opinion) and the plentiful Meadowlarks.


Later that night as my wife and I were enjoying a sumptuous Mediterranean dinner, she asked me how my day was.

"It was a lark!" I replied smiling.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Marvels at Warblers

My mid-week birding brought me to Legg Lake in Whittier. Not by chance, but by a report of a Blackpoll Warbler sighting. When I arrived a little after 8 am, the place was discouragingly quiet.

I did a quick tour around the lake with hopes of seeing the Canvasbacks likewise reported there. Got blanked on that. Nothing of interest inhabited the lake and its surroundings. Disappointment was starting to creep in as I returned to the tree where the Blackpoll was sighted. It was also at this particular tree that a Bay-breasted Warbler was seen by a lot of people last year, including moi.

As I was resting at the picnic table, I finally noticed some movement among the leaves. Peering through my binoculars, I saw a warbler-like bird hunting for insects that looked a bit different from the Yellow-rumps that have also begun to pop out seemingly everywhere. Soon I was joined by a fellow birder/photographer, Chris Akiyoshi. When I showed him my shots, he was a bit skeptical as to the correct ID of the warbler I just saw. He did admit that it was paler than the brownish Butterbutts. Later after I uploaded my pictures to the computer that I was able to confirm that I did get a shot (although not a very good one) of the uncommon Blackpoll Warbler. It was my 85th lifer for the year 2008.
Chris and I hung around the now bustling-with-activity tree for a couple more hours. Throughout that period, we marveled at how a single tree can produce 6 species of warblers: the ubiquituous Yellow-Rumps, an Orange-crowned, a Yellow, several Black-throated Grays, a few lovely Townsends, and of course, the prized Blackpoll.

A Black-throated Gray:



Just as we were about to leave, a flock of Western Bluebirds landed at a nearby tree and stayed long enough for us to get some good shots. The term "bluebirds of happiness" proved to be true this morning.



Monday, October 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Sites

It was the worst of times and it was the best of times. It was hot and it was cool. There were no lifers and there were several lifers. There were unhappy birders and there were happy birders.

Pardon me for going a bit Dickensian with this blog. It's just that the contrasts between two birding sites in two consecutive days seemed to recall the opening lines in Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities".

My wife took a day-off on Friday, Oct. 17th. We had originally planned to go to the Solvang/Santa Barbara area for some R & R and of course to go birding as well. Maybe garner a couple of lifers such as the Yellow-billed Magpie and the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. But fate had a way of making even the best laid plans go awry. Around 4 am on Friday, I suffered some stomach pain and it kept me bedridden until about 9 am when the medicine I took finally relieved me of my discomfort. Cynthia and I both agreed that the Solvang trip was now out of the question. Checking the birding listservs at Yahoo, I discovered that two rare Pipit species (Sprague's and Red-throated) were located at the Santa Fe Dam that very morning. I convinced my wife that I was well enough to go birding. Besides Santa Fe Dam wasn't that far from home, so in case my stomach trouble returns, we can quickly go back to our apartment. I also told her that we can still go to Solvang the next day.

Thus began a terribly bad birding day for us. We stayed at the dam from 10 am to about 6 pm, taking only an hour's break (3 to 4 pm) to visit the nearby Wal-mart for a quick snack. All through those hours we endured the heat and buzzing insects without seeing even a glimpse of either Pipit. Even the birds were few, except for the Western Meadowlarks which we didn't even bother to photograph. Local twitchers came and went, each one experiencing sheer frustration as we did. We went home exhausted and despondent that evening.
That night as I was once again trolling the listservs for birding information, I was intrigued by the report that not one, but two, Black-throated Blue Warblers were sighted at Galileo Hills. As far as I'm concerned, Black-throated Blues are one of the most beautiful warblers there is. And they are extremely uncommon in California. We chased one at Beverly Hills last year but all I got was a look that was shorter that the blink of an eye. Cynthia had probably a split-second longer sighting of the lovely bird. Because of those fleeting views, I did not consider it as a lifer at that time. Seeing it again and photographing it this time would finally make it to our lifelist. So, in my most charming way, I sweetly asked my beautiful, understanding wife that we once again postpone our trip to Solvang and go to Galileo Hills instead on Saturday. To my joy and relief she agreed. Telling her that my birthday was coming soon probably helped, too.
Perhaps in some obscure history of the area, the place was once called Galileo Hills but now it is the Silver Saddle Resort and Spa. It is a veritable oasis in the middle of a desert. Although privately owned, the owners are graceful enough to allow birders in their expansive grounds which contains several lagoons and ponds, a Skeet range, an Archery range, a Petting Zoo, horse stables, and a Pavillion where the functions and parties are held. Yet somehow among birders, the place has always been referred to as Galileo Hills.

We left the apartment at 6 am. We did our "traditional" breakfast at MacDonalds at the city of Rosamond and arrived at Galileo Hills at 8:30. At first, the place seemed quiet, birding-wise. We walked over to the grassy area next to the Skeet range where one of the Black-throated Blues was last seen. But we didn't find it. We then ambled to the lagoon where a lone, juvenile Double-crested Cormorant looked perplexed.


We met Gary, a birder from Bakersfield, who told us where to find our quarry and added that there was also a Swamp Sparrow "close to the Pavillion". We thanked him profusely and headed to the direction he provided us. Along the way, we chased a bunch of Sparrows (mostly White-crowned) and Dark-eyed Juncos (including the Slate-colored subspecies) next to the Archery range and came upon a tiny pond that harbored a young Ring-necked Duck which definitely looked incongruous to the place.


We returned to the grove of trees across the hotel parking lot and met Mary & Dermott Lumkins who immediately pointed the Black-throated Blue Warbler flitting among the lower branches to us.


Just as we were firing away, Mary then diverted our attention to the tiny and energetic Golden-crowned Kinglet foraging a few trees away


In a span of fifteen minutes we racked up two lifers in a row!
Encouraged by our two lifers, we proceeded to the Pavillion area. The rosemary bushes alongside the Pavillion yielded Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers. I thought I saw a Tennessee Warbler, but since I wasn't able to take a picture of it, I can't be sure. On the other hand, a Fox Sparrow gave me some good photo ops.


Soon Nick and Mary Freeman, birders from Glendale, came. Nick showed me where the Varied Thrush hangs out and sure enough, it was there. The Varied Thrush is another colorful, albeit uncommon bird here, although it was not a lifer for us - we've seen it before at San Diego back in 2005.
At noon we took a break and had corned-beef sandwiches and Coke for lunch. Although Silver Saddle had a restaurant, we thought it will be a lot cheaper if we brought our own provisions. Also, we learned our lesson from yesterday where we almost got dehydrated because we failed to bring along even a single bottle of water. Just as we were enjoying our lunch at the picnic table, the Black-throated Blue alit on a branch above us just to say "hello".

After lunch Cynthia loitered around the picnic area while I tidied up and returned our lunchbag to the Jeep. As I walked back to where my wife was, she pointed at the base of a tree and said: "Nutmeg!"

"Nutmeg Mannikins?" I asked skeptically.

"No!", she said, still pointing at the tree trunk, "Look!"
I looked and I saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch (the Lumkins told us about them, too). My wife, when excited at seeing a gorgeous bird for the first time, has this habit of christening the creature with a new name - like calling a Moorhen a Moorhouse. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a shot of the Nuthatch, but it still counted as our third lifer of the day.
Later, Mary and Dermott came and excitedly told us that they saw the Swamp Sparrow at "the tiny pond with some rocks next to it and a willow tree nearby." But you have to be patient, they warned us. Needless to say, we immediately went to the said pond and sat on the grass in front of it and waited. For almost an hour. As we stood up thinking the little brown bird would never show up, I saw something move next to the rocks that the Lumkins mentioned. "Swamp Sparrow", I whispered to Cynthia. For the next quarter-hour or so, our fourth lifer obliged for some picture-taking sessions.



We then tried to take a few more shots of the Varied Thrush, which was quite a challenge, it being very skittish.


Back at the picnic area, we once again met up with the Lumkins. While Cynthia was engaged in some bird-talk with them, I saw an American Robin fly to the ground. Not far from it were some White-crowned Sparrows. However, there was a bird among them that looked different from the rest. It was very pale, like light beige, and unlike any sparrow I've seen so far. That unidentified sparrow capped a very exciting, fun day.


As Cynthia was talking to Mary, she related to her that we actually planned to go to Solvang, but decided to come here at Galileo instead. "But I'm glad we came here," she confessed to the Lumkins. I pretended not to have heard it but I was grinning from ear-to-ear as I photographed my mystery bird. - and a potential fifth lifer for the day.