Monday, March 30, 2009

Waxwing Eloquent

If ever there was a superhero among birds, it will be the Cedar Waxwing. First of all, look at its mask. This is not your villain-type mask. It is something that can be seen with the likes of the Lone Ranger. Add to that a glorious crest erected majestically when excited – be it from a potential danger or a potential mate. Watch it as it surveys its domain and you can’t help but admire its stance, not unlike Caesar when he proclaimed: Veni, vidi, vici.


Have you ever seen a Cedar Waxwing with a ruffled feather? Neither wind, nor rain, nor a flight through a thicket of leaves would dislodge a waxwings feather from its place. Whether gorging its favorite berry or sipping the freshness of the morning dew, it is always svelte, forever well-groomed. Nothing in the avian world exemplifies “coolness” like the Cedar Waxwing.



Yet despite its superhero-like good looks and really cool attitude, waxwings are never snobs. They always gather in flocks, feeding together, flying together in tight formations while executing breath-taking maneuvers or simply resting on the tree tops.


Needless to say, the Cedar Waxwing is one of my favorite birds. I can not help but wax eloquent whenever I talk about it.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Down the Hatch

Our friend, Voltaire Yap, was flying down from San Jose to supervise their company's trade show at Anaheim. He wanted to squeeze in some birding/photography at Bolsa Chica and so my wife and I agreed to meet him there.

The weather wasn't cooperative as it was quite gray when we got to Bolsa Chica around 11 am. Not surprisingly, there were only a few people braving the nippy winds. There weren't a lot of birds either. However, we got lucky as we watched a Red-breasted Merganser hunt for food with a good amount of success as shown in the following photographs.







An hour and a half quickly went by and Voltaire by dint of work obligations had to leave. Despite the dark skies we had fun and certainly enjoyed the company.

For more bird stories and photographs, check out Bird Photography Weekly # 30 at:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hills are alive...

One nice thing about Pasadena is that it is close to a variety of avian habitats – well if you consider an hour’s drive close. Anyway with the onset of spring, we thought it would be nice to head for the hills. Nestled amidst the San Gabriel Mountains about 30 miles east of us is Placerita Canyon. Not a lot of people go there, as it lies sort of off the beaten track. And that could be a good thing.

Of course, little did we know that there was a school outing there yesterday. Thankfully, they stayed at the ampitheater and we were able to explore the trails undisturbed. The highlight of our day came when we were at the picnic grounds where there were always a variety of birds to be seen. Dark-eyed Juncos were just about everywhere and the Western Bluebirds were constantly swooping down on some insect. I was taking some pictures of the Juncos when my wife almost nonchalantly said, “Look, a sparrow!”

Sparrows weren’t really that unusual here, White-crowneds and an ocassional Golden-crown were regulars. But when I looked at the object of my wife’s comment, I was speechless for quite a while. Cynthia, after a few minutes of waiting for me to identify the sparrow, finally asked, “Well, are you going to tell me what kind it is?”

“White-throated Sparrow!” I finally announced breathlessly.

White-throateds are very rare in California and to serendipitiously find one here can make one lose one’s speech faculties.


Per suggestion of the local docent, we proceeded to the Walker Ranch area where not far from the parking area, a hillside of yellow flowers were in full bloom. Here we saw our FOS Hooded Oriole.
Rufous Hummingbirds were competing with the Anna’s for prime feeding territory.

We saw a lot of birds that lovely Friday morning and it even seemed like the canyon was bursting in song. Even to this slightly hearing-impaired birder.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Friday the 13th

It was eerily quiet as we walked along the trail, as if the presence of something sinister frightened the creatures of the sanctuary into silence. As we trudged slowly we could sense some movements along the trail – trembling leaves when there wasn’t any breeze to stir them or a shaking twig but no bird or squirrel jumping off from it. Small, dark things would swiftly scurry across the path ahead only to quickly vanish in the dense undergrowth. As we neared the pond, we could hear a faint twittering sound. The closer we approached the reeds that lined the edge of the pond, the sound became louder. Suddenly the whole placed seemed to reverberate with a thousand scolding tiny voices. We abruptly stopped on our tracks. My wife grabbed my arm and with eyes fixed on the vibrating reeds whispered in my ear.

“Marsh Wrens!”, she said.

Early on we thought that we were having spring doldrums when most of the wintering birds have left for their breeding grounds up north, while only a few of the summering birds have arrived from their tropical vacations, thus creating somewhat of a void in bird activities. Thankfully it wasn’t so. The Marsh Wrens certainly proved that. Soon there were birds everywhere! A small flock of American White Pelicans were floating serenely on the pond waters while Tree Swallows were zooming overhead, ocassionally buzzing us by just a few inches.

The other ponds at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine yielded a variety of waterfowls. One of which, the Blue-winged Teal, became the latest addition to our year list.


Later, a quick drive-by at Upper Newport Bay gave us a huge flock of Black Skimmers all standing on a mud flat, with everyone facing the same way as if watching some grand concert (or a politician promising a bailout?).


A trip to Bolsa Chica before lunch was rewarded by the sight of a wild, unruly and extremely raucous bunch of Elegant Terns.


Capping the morning was getting quite close-up views of the lingering White-winged Scoter.


It was Friday the thirteenth and it was a thriller.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Rack 'em up" *

My year list sort of got stalled in February. My wife and I agreed that a visit to the Ballona Channel in Playa del Rey would give it a much needed boost. There should be quite a proliferation of shorebirds there that we have not yet seen this year.

Or not.

It turned out that on that particular Saturday morning, the UCLA rowing teams were having a competition at the channel. Despite the commotion caused by the rowers and their long boats, we managed to get four of our six target birds; Surfbird, Sanderling and both Turnstones, missing the Black Oystercatcher and the Wandering Tattler.

Sanderling:

Surfbird:

Black Turnstone:


Ruddy Turnstone:

Then there were gulls, of course. All those first-year, second-year cycle plumages (not to mention the hybrids) would confuse most birders as they did to us. Luckily, we met John Garrett, a very nice and knowledgeable young birder from Pasadena. Because of him, we have now added Glaucous-winged Gull and a possible Olympic Gull (a hybrid between a Western and a Glaucous-winged) to our list.

Three-and-a-half more weeks to go in March. We need to rack up some more species to augment our nine so far for the month. Where to bird? Where to bird? That is the question.

* The Color of Money, 1986

Friday, March 06, 2009

"As if.." *

The American Coot is as common as dirt here in southern California. Because of that local birders tend to treat it as..well, dirt. Not only are they plentiful, they are quite unassuming in their dark plumage and their call is described as "flatulent" by Ted Floyd in his Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America, page 143.

Monday morning I was at the lake's edge at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale trying to identify some gulls flying in the distance and faring badly. A few feet away several Coots were swimming close to shore. One of them gave me one of those "flatulent" calls as if to belittle my gull-identification prowess. To make it even worse, it gave me this:

The Coots got my attention, to say the least, not because of the perceived insult, but because of this heretofore unobserved behavior. I didn't know Coots can dabble like a Pintail. Not only that, they can dive, too, like any self-respecting Scaup.

That made me realize that I have not been giving much concern to some species of birds just because they are very common and quite unattractive. Had I been more observant, like today, I would have noticed some rather interesting characteristics of these birds.

This fact was even more emphasized when I saw a Cedar Waxwing on the ground! All these times whenever I see waxwings, they are high up in the tree tops and always as a flock. This particular waxwing on this particular morning was all by itself and was on the grass peering here and there. Then I realized what it was doing. It was drinking the tiny dewdrops clinging on the grass leaves.


As if that wasn't enough, I got another lesson from the Western Bluebirds. As far as I know, Western Bluebirds are insect eaters. They would perch on a branch, survey the area below and then swoop at some unfortunate insect. Until this morning, that is, when I saw a bluebird pick up a berry and swallow it whole! I've seen Mountain Bluebirds do this but I thought Westerns have different feeding habits from them.



On that fateful morning in early March, Mother Nature gave me some life lessons. It made me rethink my approach in birding. It's like going back to basics. Birding, after all, is observing. Going forward it will be as if I was given a new pair of eyes. Seeing with freshness and noticing the fascinating behaviors of the feathered creatures around me.


* Clueless, 1995

Monday, March 02, 2009

"I have always depended on the kindness of birders." *

I am by no means an expert birder. I can get by in identifying the more common birds we encounter on our birding trips. I mean I don't think I will ever make the mistake of calling a Vermillion Flycatcher a Summer Tanager. But tiny sparrows, those darn empids, peeps, and of course, gulls, are another story.

My other "handicap" in birding is that I'm not good at locating birds. I would read on a yahoo listserv, for example, that an unusual bird was seen on the left side of a creek that runs north to south and is frequenting the flowering mulberry bush next to the bridge. I would get to the general vicinity but would never find the bridge, much less the mulberry bush.

And so, a lot of times, I depend on the kindness of other birders to either identify a bird for me or take me to the location of a target bird, or both. Then there are those glory days when a birder would offer to do such things for me and my wife without us even asking for it. "Angels", my wife calls these people.

Such was the case Saturday when we went to Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange County to look for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as posted in Neil Gilbert's blog. Despite the precise directions given by Neil, we could not find our target bird. We were about to give up after three hours of searching and was getting ready to go home when we met Jim Rowe. Almost nonchalantly he asked if we have seen the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. When we replied in the negative, he graciously offered to take us where it usually hangs. Sure enough, it was there as if summoned by the power of a kind birder to wait and show itself to a couple of "lost" seekers.

Earlier, in our meanderings around the park ,we got a photo of what we first thought as an empid, possibly the Pacific Slope Flycatcher that Neil mentioned in his blog. I sent that picture to Neil for verification and he very nicely pointed out that the bird we saw was actually a Hutton's Vireo. It may not be the flycatcher we hoped for, but the vireo was also a very welcome addition to our year list which at the end of February stood at 168 species seen. Not a bad tally and we owe most of them to the kindness and helpfulness of fellow birders like Jim and Neil, among others.


Note: Since the beginning of the year, I have adapted my blog titles from famous movie quotes and movie titles. This blog will be the last (maybe) to do so. Frankly, my dear, I'm running out of ideas. :-P

* A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951