Sunday, July 24, 2005

It's Too Darn Hot!

We were having a heat wave in Southern California. The temperature has been soaring into 3 digits for the past week or so. Mind you California heat is not humid where you sweat a lot, but rather dry and piercing that it literally hurts the skin.  It will be the same weather condition this weekend said the all-knowing weatherperson. To bird or not to bird?..that was now the question. First, a little story:
Birder's Wife: Darling, would you please take out the trash.
Birder Husband: What? Don't you know how hot it is out there? Why you could even fry an egg on the sidewalk!
A few minutes later...
Birder's Wife: Honey, look, the newspaper says they just saw a Lesser Roadrunner near Death Valley!
Birder Husband: So what are you standing there for? Get dressed and let's go! Oh, hand me the trash, I'll throw it before we get into the car.
Birders are not ordinary people. They will cross the burning desert, climb the highest mountain, sail the seven seas just for a glimpse of some feathered creature. And thus plans were prepared for a birding foray this Saturday – heat wave be darned.
Part I. A Walk With Butterflies.
Our plan was to go to Malibu Lagoon, 22 acres of marsh and tidewater pools close to the famous Malibu Beach, playground of dudes and dudettes. Along the way was Malibu Creek State Park, a bit of wilderness amidst the Santa Monica mountains a thousand feet above the Malibu coast. We decided to pass by this patch of forest and see what it had to offer, bird-wise. We arrived early, a little before 8 am, and walked along a trail with the creek to which the place was named for on one side, and a meadow-like slope, dotted with a few trees and bushes on the other side. What made this scene even more beautiful was the proliferation of butterflies - different kinds from the yellow tiger swallowtail, to the tiny white cabbage butterfly. They would criss-cross our paths, or occasionally accompany us part of the way. Their presence punctuated our countless stopovers and provided an exhiliration that lessened the scorching effect of the unforgiving sun.
The first bird we saw was a wren that was not unlike a moth-eaten piece of rag. It was dust-bathing in the sunlight apparently to rid itself of some feather-eating bug or heaven-knows-what. 
Bewick's Wren
Then there was an explosion of phainopeplas. Phainopeplas - the name means "silky robe" and conjures up images of some exotic, brilliantly colored, epitome of God's creation in the avian genera. Actually it is a medium-sized (about 8 inches) black (male) or brown (female) bird with reddish eyes and a crest. It's song is a trill somewhat akin to a police whistle. This bird was not new to us but here at Malibu Creek, they're just everywhere! Needless to say, I got some good photos of this species. At some point on the trail we were on a higher level than the creek alongside, so much so that we were almost eye level with the top of the trees that grew along its banks. 

I was trying to get some pictures of yet another group of phainopeplas when Cynthia shouted, "woodpweker!". As you might have learned by now, whenever she gets excited at seeing a new bird she baptizes the poor thing with a new albeit funny name. And so I added an Acorn Woodpecker to my list of birds photographed that day. The crowning glory of our visit to Malibu Creek was - at last! - a decent picture of the Blue Grosbeak (yes, it's that bird again), a male and a female to boot!

At about 10:30 am, we came upon a sight that would break any birder's heart - a group of noisy (and loud) picnickers (including not a few overweight women in bathing suits!) Bear in mind, this was a creek that we have here, that is so shallow even a tiny bird will not drown in it.  Maybe these ladies know something we don't? hmmm. Not desiring to witness what could be a miracle in the making, we decided to pack up and head for our original destination - Malibu Lagoon.

Part II - Highway Ride

PCH, which stands for Pacific Coast Highway is a stretch of road that runs through California and at various instances comes close to the Pacific ocean.

As I mentioned in Part I, our original destination for this day was the Malibu Lagoon which is right by PCH. We were stunned when we arrived there. The parking lot was full and the place was teeming with people! We should have known better not to go to a beach on a sweltering weekend. 
We vented our somewhat dashed  enthusiasm over a footlong cheesesteak sandwich at Subway. We resolved not to let this little setback ruin our birding day. There is still Bolsa Chica which was also along PCH but unaffected by the throng of beach-going heliophiles. Now in going to Bolsa Chica from Malibu, we had to pass thru various cities in the southern part of the Los Angeles megalopolis. Note: PCH is not a freeway and on certain spots becomes a normal thoroughfare complete with traffic lights and all the denizens that come with an urban street.
And so with this in mind, we began our trek of the 50-odd miles to our new destination.  Cruising PCH we passed by some affluent neighborhoods where a condo would cost anywhere between $600,000 to a million and then just a block away the scenery would change so abruptly and we would see squalor and very palpable poverty. There were cities where it seemed that we were in a Mexican town complete with billboards and signs in Spanish and not a single Caucasian in sight, whether in cars or on the streets. As we passed by Long Beach, Cynthia saw Ken Malloy Regional Park (a supposedly good birding area) but when I was about to pull over I noticed that the people using the park at the time were the kind that I wouldn't want to be seen toting $3,000 worth of photographic equipment even in broad daylight e.g. half-naked tattooed men basking in the sun (and they were not even close to the beach!)
About an hour-and-a-half later, we saw the familiar sights of Bolsa Chica. Inasmuch as it was already past noon, we took a break and had a sandwich and a shake at Jack in the Box. Being the only fast food restaurant nearby. There is also a public beach in Bolsa Chica but PCH separates it from the Ecological Reserve thus sparing the nature area from the beachcombers and the traffic.
The place was packed. Once again satiated with food, we proceeded to bird Bolsa Chica. If Malibu Creek had its phainopeplas, Bolsa Chica had its terns. Everywhere you turn, there were terns. It wasn't very productive photography-wise because terns do nothing but fly it seems like, and the peeps (a generic term for those shorebirds that appear to all look alike even if they belong to a dozen species or so) were all so far to be photographed even by my 300mm lens.
We called it a day at around 4 pm. It turned out not to be too hot after all - Malibu Creek had some tall trees which offered shade and a cool soft wind every now and then, and then Bolsa Chica of course had its ocean breezes to give relief from the unshaded glow of the afternoon sun.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Up in the Mountains

White-headed Woodpecker

July 4th - Independence Day - a holiday. While most people celebrate this day by having some outdoor barbecues and generally pigging out which would then segue into watching fireworks in the evening, we decided to go to the mountains. At first we thought about going to Santa Fe Dam Recreational Park to look for Blue Grosbeaks and Yellow-breasted Chats (am I obsessed with this two species or what. Pragmatism prevailed over obsession, however, as we figured (and correctly so) that it would be quieter (quiet = more birds can be seen) up in the mountains than in a park.

And so at around 8 am we did a Beatle's song (The long and winding road - mmmm, corny ). Well, the road was really long and winding. But first, at the onset of this journey, we had to stop by the Ranger's office to buy a Forest pass ($5 for the day). While Cynthia was buying the pass, I spotted a bird perched on a telephone wire above me. I quickly grabbed my camera and positioned to a place where the lighting was better and fired off several shots. I was grinning ear to ear when Cynthia came back and I explained to her that I just took a picture of a Brown-headed Cowbird. (Another unfortunate name but then again what right have I to question the ornithological powers-that-be?). What made me grin was that this bird is quite uncommon at this altitude.

Continuing our trip, we arrived at Charlton Flats, which is anything but flat - we are a little over 5,000 feet above sea level - at around 9 am. The place was peppered by coniferous trees and teeming with birds - most of which were too quick or too high. I still managed to get some pictures although they are not as good as I had hoped they would be. All in all, it was quite a rewarding day - I had three lifers! At around noon time, the birds and our endurance dwindled. Besides, the heat is becoming unbearable -can you believe that? 5,000 feet in a mountain forest and it was hot! Why, there was even snow here just last month! Anyway, we glided down the long and winding road again and ended up in a restaurant whose name best expressed our feelings about our day - Wahoo!
White-breasted Nuthatch

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sunday in Irvine

We were tired from our trek yesterday so we woke up a little late Sunday morning. We went to church at 9:30 am and then had lunch with Michelle (my daughter), her husband, Randy, and their lovely daughter, Megan. We all decided to eat at the food court at the Santa Anita Mall where we shared some Japanese food.
After lunch, Cynthia had her regular (mmmm, semi-regular) massage session. Revitalized, I'm sure she would go anywhere with me if I just asked. So I asked. And she consented. Earlier that day I read from the Orange County birding Yahoo group that a rare, (a zoo escapee) duck or, to be more precise, a Wigeon, and a native of Chile, was found at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. That's where I asked Cynthia to go with me.
We arrived at Irvine a little after 4 pm. Our queries led us to the San Diego Creek (it is 150 miles away from San Diego, but who am I to question the person(s) who named this tiny fluvial strip). Under the bridge, they said, is where you'll find your bird. So we went, but all we saw was a couple of inebriates enjoying their beer at the other side of the stream (thank God they are on the other side!).. but no sign of the Wigeon from Chile.
Back we went to the sanctuary where I came almost face to face with a sharp-shinned hawk. The sanctuary has a cage to quarantine birds they suspect were infected with the west nile virus. I wanted to look into this cage to see what birds are kept in there when there on top of the cage, was the hawk who had the same idea, except his was for gastronomical purposes. We stared at each other for a few moments before I realized I was holding my camera. I managed to get off a few shots before the hawk decided he had enough of this white haired human who intervened with his predatory motives.

Moving on, I spotted the usual suspects of Avocets and Stilts, Swallows and Swifts, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The highlight of the day was a Hooded Oriole that I got some good shots of.

Before we realized it, it was already past 7 pm. Although the sun was still up,  we decided to call it a day. We dropped by Rubio's and took out some burritos for dinner. We showered after supper, and planned for our next adventure tomorrow.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Go San Diego

Friday, July 1st, was a very hectic day at the office, perhaps THE most hectic day ever in my 5 years or so with this Division of our company.

So I decided to make the most of the coming long weekend. Plans were made to go birding in San Diego, one of the places we have not been to yet.
Awakened at around 5:30 am by the incessant twittering of the neighborhood mockingbird, we lazily got out of bed, packed an overnight bag (we planned to bird for two days there) and off we went. The sun was already up although the skies were a bit overcast. The drive was smooth and we reached our destination in about two hours. The place was called Dairy Mart ponds, I guess because of the various cattle farms on each side of the road. At the end of the road was Border State Park, aptly named for its proximity to the Mexican border. But the gate was closed! The sign says the gate opens at 9:30 am so we waited and birded the vicinity for a while. We saw a prairie falcon just beyond the gate perched on a telephone wire. I grabbed my camera gear and with the stealth of a stalking leopard approached my quarry. But, the keenness of the falcon's eyes were better than my best stalking capabilities and it flew away just as I was about to focus my lens on it. That was a portent of things to come, an omen that the vast conglomerate of feathered conspirators are trying to inculcate in my addled brain.

But then once in a while, lady luck would smile and I would spot a Blue Grosbeak. Not really my best shot - the bird was a football field away.

We also heard (a lot) and saw (once) a Yellow-breasted Chat but its picture was denied me. After a wait of about an hour (and I thought Americans were punctual) the gate was finally opened and we proceeded to the park which overlooks the ocean and the city of Tijuana, Mexico. We were so close to the border that the bullring was just a stone's throw away (Ok you have to be a big-league pitcher to be able to throw that far. Ok, ok, you have to use a slingshot).

The Border State Park was quite unproductive, bird-wise, so we proceeded to the Tijuana Estuary where we met up with some local birders who were quite agog over some rare species that was found in the area. It wasn't long before Don, one of the birders, shouted, "There it is!". And there it was, in all it's glory just a few feet away from us - a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. The uncommon bird just stayed there in the creek doing what night herons do, unmindful of the throng of bulged-eyed, jaw-hanging bunch of elderly (and not-so-elderly) people just going ga-ga over it. I, of course, took that opportunity and just fired away. 

We were even given a bonus by the sight of a mother Clapper Rail escorting her two chicks across the creek.
Having our fill of these beautiful birds, we then decided to satisfy our cravings for something more mundane.  A stop at Margie's Karihan nearby (a Filipino restaurant in San Ysidro? Wow!)  calmed the growling beast in our bellies. Flushed and energized by Bistek and Sinigang na Baboy we proceeded to Lake Murray in Chula Vista. The place turned out to be a dud. Next stop was Mission Gorge where, we were told, we will find lots of Blue Grosbeaks and Yellow-breasted Chats. Well, we didn't see those birds, not even one! But we did see a Violet-Green Swallow which was a lifer for me. (Note to the uninitiated: A lifer is a bird that you see for the first time in your life, which, of course, will be added to your life list - a list of all the birds you have seen in your lifetime). 

We also saw a Yellow Warbler (or is it?) but as I have said before, the feathered conspiracy was up against us.
It was getting late in the afternoon, the heat was sweltering so instead of spending the night in San Diego, we decided to return home. We just felt that we had birded the San Diego area to the hilt and one more day there would not bring anything new to our list. We took the I-15 route going back. It was then that I decided to fulfill a long-time promise to Cynthia that I will take her to this fabulous seafood restaurant in Temecula. Vera Cruz is still the same as I remember it; cozy, with a huge aquarium lining the walls. The 30-minute wait was worth it as we gorged ourselves with shrimp, scallops and filets of fish skewered and grilled to perfection. We drove home heavily laden. We were in a state of semi-stupor when we got home and it didn't take long before we were off to slumberland. It was a good day.