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.

No comments: