Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Fresh Ending

We had originally planned to go to San Elijo Lagoon in Encinitas close to San Diego. But then we woke up late (again) this Saturday. (Must be the cool autumn nights, we reckoned). Anyway, we decided to go the San Joaquin/Upper Newport Bay route. This should give us a good enough variety of birds albeit the commoner species, to observe and photograph.

The very first pond we looked into at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary contained lots, and I mean lots! of American White Pelicans and American Avocets, some Black-necked Stilts, a sprinkling of Grebes and a bunch of Coots. However, they were quite a distance off and the group or any individual did not present a good photo-op. The Sparrows were scooting under the tangled bushes at our approach and the Common Yellowthroat teased us continually by showing themselves long enough to be seen but never long enough to be photographed.

We both agreed that it was time to move on to Upper Newport Bay. We briefly stopped at the edge of the road where Jamboree Avenue crosses over the bay. Below us gliding and searching for prey was a Northern Harrier which was soon joined by a Red-tailed Hawk. The two battled for a short while for territorial dominance and then decided to divvy up the wide area with the Harrier taking up the west side while the Hawk hovered over the east side.

We then proceeded to Back Bay Drive. Back Bay Drive is about a mile long and is a one-lane, one way street that goes from west to east and is used mostly by bikers and joggers. It hugs the southern edge of the Upper Newport Bay on its left side. Halfway up the road is a parking place and short boardwalk to observe birds. A few feet from the parking area is a dip where water flows from under the road to the bay. This was where birds, lots of them, can be found. If San Joaquin had pelicans and avocets, Upper Newport Bay had skimmers, godwits, willets, tattlers, gulls – tons of them! Again, these birds were so close to each other that an aesthetic photographic composition was out of the question. Frustrated at the inability to take pictures despite the plethora of birds, we decided to drive on. A little further down the road, I glimpsed a duck that I have not seen before. I immediately stepped on the brake and adroitly maneuvered the car back to the shoulder of the road overlooking the watery nook where the ducks were. A single Eurasian Widgeon, distinguished by its red head stood out among the commoner American Widgeons. Surveying the quacking throng, I noticed some brown-headed ducks with a long tail. “Northern Pintails!”, I shouted. The handsome birds, lifers for me, were digitally captured by my camera.

Having my fill of duck photos, we continued our drive. “Mourning Dove”, Cynthia said nonchalantly (it being a very common bird) as she pointed to a bird perched on a leafless tree on my side of the road. I looked at it and slammed on the brakes for the second time. “Back, back, back”, I told Cynthia as I engaged the car in reverse and gingerly parked on a small strip of land almost below the bird. It was actually an American Kestrel, heretofore a very skittish bird to observe. But this one probably was used to being stared at and thus provided me with great photo opportunities. I even managed to change lenses and it still remained where it was, unmindful of the activities below. Eventually it flew off perhaps hearing the growling of our stomachs (it was well past noon).

Refreshed by visions of ducks and raptors, we drove all the way back to Pasadena where we partook of some burritos at Baja Fresh.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

We Came to Playa

The gloomy skies of the past week gave way to the bright sunny Saturday of October 29. We dropped off Cynthia’s nephew and niece at Universal Studios around 9:30 am and from there proceeded to Playa de Rey. Surprisingly, traffic was light (the 405 is notorious for its nerve-wracking traffic jams) and we arrived at the Playa del Rey lagoon just about 10 am. Despite the drizzles we had the past week, the water at the lagoon was low and there were only a few birds around – most of them Snowy Egrets and Mallard Ducks. Or so we thought.

We decided to head for the beach which was just across the steet from the lagoon. At this point, I purposely did not bring my camera gear yet as we wanted to survey the area first and see if we would be able to find our target bird for the day – the Black Oystercatcher. About a month ago, famous bird photographer Bob Steele posted a picture of this bird that he took from the very same location that we are now. Although the Black Oystercatcher is not an uncommon bird in winter along California beaches, I still wanted to get a picture of this enchanting shorebird.

We walked along the sandy beach and saw nothing but Willets and the usual gulls. We moved on to the area where the Los Angeles river flowed into the Pacific Ocean. Slowly we traversed an elevated breakwater that separates the river from a cove. There were a lot of birds here – huddled and most of them asleep close to the water’s edge making them quite difficult to observe from our lookout point. There were Willets again (hundreds of them!), some Marbled Godwits, and a smattering of Gulls (mostly Western), but no Oystercatchers.

Finally, having explored the area for more than an hour, we grudgingly walked back to the parking area by the lagoon and re-draw our birding plans. We walked over to the restrooms and while waiting for Cynthia, a lady who was getting out of her car asked me if am a birder (with a pair of binoculars hanging from my neck, I thought that was quite obvious).

I said, “Yes, I am”.

“Are you getting ready to leave?”, she asked.

“We are about to”, I replied. Then I asked, “Why?”

“Because I will be going over to the breakwater and do some birding. Maybe I can help you find some birds.”

My face lit up as if a huge spotlight was suddenly shone upon it. As soon as Cynthia emerged from the restroom, I relayed to her the good news. I immediately hauled out my camera equipment while Cynthia engaged the lady (her name is Barbara Johnson) in a very intense avian conversation. Even before we left that morning, Cynthia and I prayed that we will be able to see our target bird for today. And now, just as we are about to give up, the Lord answered our prayers by sending us Barbara who turned out to be the guide who will be leading a birding tour here at Playa del Rey tomorrow.

First, Barbara led us around the lagoon and pointed to several gray birds feeding on the murky water’s edge. “Dunlins”, she said, “among the Short-billed Dowitchers”.  Now Cynthia and I had seen this group before and I even identified the dowitcher’s correctly, but for the life of me, I never noticed the Dunlins despite the obvious difference in size. After showing us two pairs of Greater Scaups she then asked us if we saw the White-fronted Goose. I said we saw a group of geese earlier and I just thought they were just the very common Graylags. She scoped the banks on the other side of the lagoon and as she pointed to the smaller of the four geese sleeping there, she said, “That small one is the White-fronted. It has been with us since last year.”  Since the geese were all taking their siesta which means their heads were tucked under their wings, I couldn’t confirm the information that Barbara just told us. Then, as if on cue, the small goose looked up and showed the tell-tale mark that gave it its name.  I just got a lifer that very moment.

The three of us then proceeded to the breakwater in the opposite direction of where we originally went. Cynthia and I didn’t think of going that way because we saw several fishermen there and we thought there couldn’t be any birds where there are people. Even as we approached the breakwater, Barbara was already pointing out birds – “There’s a Black-bellied Plover, that is a Western Gull, those are Double-crested Cormorants.”

A few feet into the breakwater, and not too far down were a flock of Surfbirds. This was the first time we’ve seen them this close and this many. 

At the other side of the jetty were some Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, more Surfbirds and Black Turnstones (alas, no Ruddy Turnstones). Barbara Johnson exclaimed that we were looking at 4 species of birds in just one tiny spot. Whimbrels were in there, too, watching us warily. All of a sudden, Barbara started yelling, “Black..uh..mm…O-o-oys…mm..uh, Ah..ah…” I knew right away what she meant and true enough, the black bird with the red bill stood prominently among the drab gray of the Surfbirds. Such is the striking beauty of this species that it made even a seasoned veteran like Barbara stutter.

Satisfied that she had done her job, Barbara bade goodbye. We tarried for a while enjoying the Oystercatcher and other shorebirds up close. Soon it was time for lunch. We purposed to go the Ballona Creek after eating but our search for a place to dine brought us to Burger King in Van Nuys which was quite a distance away. We tried the MacDonalds near Playa del Rey but when we saw some unsavory looking characters hanging near the parking lot and with about $10,000.00 worth of camera equipment in the trunk of the car, we decided to look for a “safer” place. We also tried the Westwood/UCLA area but couldn’t find a place to park despite our numerous attempts!

From Burger King we went to one of our favorite birding grounds, the Sepulveda Wildlife Reserve. We have always good sightings here and today was not going to be an exception. Almost as soon as we entered the reserve I spotted a raptor perched on a tree close to the lake. It looked like a Kestrel but had darker plumage. I smiled as I came closer (while taking photographs) and discovered that it was a Merlin, a somewhat uncommon bird in Southern California. 

The reeds along the lake had its usual denizens of egrets (Snowy and Great), herons (Great Blue and Black-crowned Night), Mallards, Coots and Pied-billed Grebes. There were even a couple of Ospreys and a Belted Kingfisher flew by. By the meadows we saw the dark-colored Merlin again this time actively competing against the glorious white of the White-tailed Kite. Two beautiful raptors hovering, gliding against the backdrop of the setting sun. This was an image that is etched into the heart of every birder.

The sun started its slow descent to the horizon and as we were basking in its warm glow and relishing the beautiful birds that we saw today, our semi rapturous state was interrupted by the ring from my cellphone. Cynthia’s nephew and niece finished their adventure at Universal Studios and are ready to go home. And so were we.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Fishy Story

We woke up late Saturday, Nov. 12th. It was one of those lazy, dazy, days of autumn. Not having a definite birding destination planned, we agreed to go to Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve which is only about 25 miles away and always a sure place to see birds. Besides there had been sightings of a Blackburnian Warbler in its vicinity. That, of course, was incentive enough to visit the place.

We were just getting off the car when we saw the squadron-like formation of American White Pelicans slowly descending in the distance. We decided to carry both cameras; Cynthia handling the smaller and lighter 300mm lens while I lugged the humongous 500mm. When we reached the first lakeside lookout point, we witnessed the cooperative behavior of the White Pelicans. Several birds would herd the fish with a lot of wing beating and water splashing like a bunch of white clad cowboys. As soon as they have their quarry trapped between them, then the feeding frenzy begins. They were doing this at less than twenty feet away from the curious onlookers – birders, photographers (and a combination thereof), families with young kids, artists (there were a group of painters nearby who left their masterpieces just to witness the pelican’s behavior). Adding to this was an Osprey who did its own way of catching fish…flying about 50 feet above the waters and then suddenly swooping down and plunging into the lake, then rising up with an explosion of water oftentimes with a fish in its talons. All these commotion didn’t appear to bother the grebes and cormorants who just continued on with their respective businesses.

After a while we left to continue our search for the warbler. We did not have high expectations of seeing this bird because the directions given were not clear enough and a search party the day before did not find it either. Meandering along the trailway, we were surprised at the volume of people that we encountered. This must be “Take-your-child-birding” day. We met wave upon wave of adults guiding small children with tiny binoculars hanging from their cute little necks.

We eventually came into a place where there were no children (perhaps it was because the day was starting to heat up). We saw the usual suspects – birds that we see often enough. Cynthia practiced on her photographic style while I did some half-hearted shots. It was then that I witnessed something white on top of a leafless tree. It gleamed as the mid-morning sun shone upon its white feathers. I immediately looked at it through my binoculars and confirmed what I had hoped I would see – a White-tailed Kite! I pointed out the bird to Cynthia who wasted no time taking its picture. I, on the other hand, and with the stealth of a hungry tiger, inched closer while clicking away with my camera at my magnificent prey.

At about 50 feet away, the red eyes of the white raptor caught the movement of this strange object crouching in the tall grass and holding what looked like a big coffee can, and decided to fly away to an area devoid of weird creeping, hat-wearing creatures.

On the way back, although a bit anti-climactic, I got some good pictures of a friendly Western Kingbird. 

The Pelicans were still having a piscine party, the Osprey was still plunging into the water to catch its meal. Hmm, it is almost noon…fish seemed like a good idea for lunch.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Hunt for the Red Celebrity

He was on the front page of a local newspaper (one of those broadsheets published by a city that has a total subscription of less than 10,000). Somehow, the local network television editors picked up the story and on the 6 o’clock news on Friday, November 4, 2005, “Rudy”, the Painted Redstart, became an instant celebrity.

I have read about the then relatively unknown warbler a few days earlier in the Los Angeles Birding Yahoo group. It was found near Restroom # 8 not too far from the entrance to the Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park. Admittedly, the Painted Redstart is an uncommon bird in southern California, its normal range being in Arizona all the way to Texas and northern Mexico. Uncommon, yes, but not that rare. Actually, this species had also been observed within the premises of the San Diego Zoo and another one was seen at the Elysian Park in Los Angeles just last week. There had been instances of sightings of much rarer birds (the Tundra Swan, for example) but none got the media attention that Rudy had.

And so it was with some feelings of trepidation (What if all media attention scared the bird away? What if there will be a circus of onlookers at Bonelli?) that we embarked on the hunt for this red celebrity that early Saturday morning of November 6, 2005. As we approached restroom # 8, I sighed a sigh of relief noting that the place was almost devoid of people! Only one birder was there and he was quite a distance up the road. As soon as I got off the car, I looked at the oak tree where Rudy was seen by the entire population of the greater Los Angeles area the night before (albeit in their boob tubes), and there he was, flitting among the leaves and working for his breakfast. I immediately set up my camera gear and started shooting away at the cooperative celebrity. 

Occasionally, it would fly off across the street and then come back a few minutes later. That was the time another colorful bird, the Red-breasted Sapsucker would come and start drilling the trunk of the oak tree to eat the sap that would ooze out. The sap was probably sweet as it attracted a lot of insects. These insects in turn attract Rudy who feasted upon them every opportunity that he got.

After a while we moved on to explore the other areas of the park, particularly those close to the lake hoping we would see a Belted Kingfisher or two. We found a group of birders looking up a tall fir tree. “Barn Owl”, one of them informed us. I looked up and there, 30 feet up, was an owl doing what it does during the day – sleeping. No amount of commotion below would rouse it from its deep slumber. Well, a Barn Owl, awake or not, was still a lifer for me.

Walking along the lake, we saw the usual coots and mallards, several grebes, both Pied-billed and Western. An Osprey made a fly over. A lone Spotted Sandpiper bobbed its behind continously as it foraged for small insects in the mud. A couple of joggers told us they saw kingfishers (note the plural) in the area where the road ends. We found the area and the kingfishers (there were two of them) but both were so flighty that I was unable to get any picture at all.

We returned to Rudy’s domain where now there were photographers with huge lenses. Of course, the Painted Redstart was still there, oblivious of its newly acquired celebrity status. After some shop talk with the onlookers, we decided to call it a day and rest on our laurels (read: 2 lifers!).