Monday, January 22, 2007

Parrots, Parakeets and Peck's Pit

We purposed to chase parrots today. San Gabriel Valley in southern California has been known to harbor several species of parrots. The original birds were allegedly escapees from a pet store fire in Los Angeles several decades ago. They have since proliferated and have expanded their territories where in some areas they are even considered nuisances (all those screeching!).

We cruised down Golden West Avenue in Temple City and soon enough Cynthia's super ears heard the unmistakable raucous cries of our quarry. Not long afterwards she saw a pair flying down the street and I almost recklessly followed them. But we lost them anyway. We then proceeded to the other places nearby where parrot sightings have been reported. To no avail. Cynthia suggested that we go back to where we first saw the birds. Trusting her intuition, I readily agreed. As we approached Daines Street, Cynthia saw them again. This time two Red-crowned Parrots landed on a tree near the street. I hastily parked the jeep across from the tree and Cynthia, as always, had already jumped out and started shooting while I assembled my gear. Surprisingly, the parrots remained and probably were just as curious at two human beings aiming white things at them as we were at the two bright green colored avian creatures in front of us. Soon a mischievous crow harrassed our parrots and giving an indignant squawk, they flew away.

Flushed with our success (our day was already made) I decided to visit Peck Road Water Treatment Plant (aka Peck Pit) instead of the original plan to go to Santa Fe Dam, and save $7 in entrance fees in doing so. The first bird I saw at Peck Pit was an Osprey perched on a tall (a very tall) tree above the eastern side of the lake. Meanwhile, Cynthia was so enthralled by the bright patch of red on the head of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Note that this red patch is very difficult to observe - we have seen hundreds of Kinglets before and this is the first time Cynthia saw the "ruby-crown" for which the bird was named. And so while my wife was trying to get a photo of the active little kinglet, I snuck over to edge of the lake to try my luck at the Osprey. Suffice it to say that we both failed miserably at our endeavors.

As we meandered among the picnic tables, we spotted a flock of Western Meadowlarks feeding nonchalantly among the grass. We got our shots and that buoyed up our spirits once again. Just then, Cynthia's super ears once again picked up some squawking overhead. "Parrots!" she yelled pointing up. "Parakeets!" I corrected her and referred to the long tails for confirmation. Our hearts began to sink as both parakeets flew past. Then as if following a divine order, they wheeled around and perched on a leafless tree right in front of us! There they preened and posed as we took their pictures to our hearts content. And when they concluded that they have done their job, off they went to their intended destination. Later on at home, I found out that we just saw a pair of Blue-crowned Parakeets - a lifer for both of us.

Everything was anticlimactic after our encounter with the parakeets although we also got some good shots of Lark Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and Ring-necked Ducks.

To top what we already considered a perfect day, we bought our dim sum lunch at the nearby San Gabriel Superstore. Enough food to feed 3 people (that is two people with an appetite of three) and it only cost us $10.75!

What a day it was!

Monday, January 15, 2007

A very B.C. Day

We wanted to see if the reported Varied Thrush and American Redstart are still at the Huntington Beach Central park in Orange County. They are not lifers for us but we still don't have any decent photos of either species.

We lucked out on both of our quarries. Actually we did not look very hard because it was so blustery cold! We stationed ourselves under a group of low trees where birds are quite plentiful. However our trembling hands made it difficult to handle our cameras much less click on the shutter buttons. Cynthia got a lucky shot of the constantly moving Wilson's Warbler - a yellow beauty with a black cap. I got a Bushtit which was all puffed up like a brown cottonball with a tail.
We finally gave up and decided to satisfy tradition. We couldn't find our favorite breakfast place and settled for Carl's Jr's burritos. Our bellies full and sufficiently warmed up by steaming coffee, we proceeded to Bolsa Chica. A block after leaving Carl's, Cynthia suddenly cried, "Look! a MacDonalds", pointing to the obvious. If only we were patient enough to go an extra 500 feet, tradition would not have been broken and a heartburn would not have been endured.

As we approached the boardwalk at Bolsa Chica, a familiar face was all hunched over his camera gear peering at the clump of bulrushes about a hundred feet away. After the usual hellos, Raul Roa told me that there is an American Bittern in them thar bushes. American Bitterns are quite uncommon in these parts and, of course, a lifer for me. As I plunked my gear next to his, he excitedly pointed to what appeared to be a bunch of dry reeds batched together with a pointy top. It was my lifer as I happily clicked away. Cynthia, on the other hand, was trying to shake off the cold by walking up and down the boardwalk and shooting at the various denizens swimming below. My friend and I waited for close to an hour for the bittern to show more than just its head and neck to us. It didn't happen. Cynthia and I then bade him goodbye as we planned on going to the other side of B.C. (Bolsa Chica) to explore the mesa above it.

Just as I was parking the jeep, I saw a Western Meadowlark busily working the grasses a few feet away. Cynthia grabbed her camera and fired away. I followed a few minutes later with mine as we followed the bird. The meadowlark just kept on feeding oblivious of the two crazy people running after it. Eventually it flew off and we continued our hike to the mesa. There we were treated to some almost close-up photo ops by a very cooperative American Kestrel. Only when a jogger whizzed by that the bird took off. We got 5 raptors that morning: Kestrels, a Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, White-tailed Kite (and photgraphed two - the Kestrel and the Kite) - six, if you count Turkey Vultures. On our way back, we met another bird photographer acquaintance. Dan Smith related a story about our cooperative kestrel saying it even allowed him to photograph the small raptor while enjoying its rodent lunch. Just after we said our goodbyes that I regretted not remembering to tell him about a Great Blue Heron that we saw swallowing a whole mouse earlier.
Back at the parking lot, we were treated to another great photo ops by another very cooperative bird - this time a Greater Yellowlegs enjoying the nearby puddle.

It was not a bad day at all!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Birding the New Year

What a better way to start the year than by going birding. Also, it is an excuse to get away from the madness of the Rose Parade - Pasadena's once-a-year claim to fame.

We went to Frank Bonelli Regional Park - not to chase a lifer - but to get reacquainted with the Painted Redstart that has made it its home. Just as we got off the freeway and came at the Park gate (there was no attendant, so we assumed the entry is free), the place was enveloped in fog! Thick, soupy, can't see-beyond-five-feet, fog!

Slowly, almost to a crawl, I inched the jeep to the parking space next to restroom # 8, the hangout of the Painted Redstart. Despite the darkness and the damp air, I assembled my gear (this is beyond hope, this is faith!) while Cynthia stood beneath the tree that our quarry calls home. Not long afterwards, Cynthia was almost jumping up and down as she pointed to the tiny black and red bird foraging among the leaves high up in the tree. And as if the bird possessed some magic, the sun slowly flooded the park dissipating the cold mist. On cue, birds were suddenly everywhere! Robins sang, Western Bluebirds darted after insects, Cedar Waxwings were picking berries, Yellow-rumped Warblers were frolicking in a manner only they can. A young dew-laden Downy Woodpecker was rubbing its feathers against a branch trying to dry itself.

After having our fill photographing these birds, we went back to the Redstart and tried to take its picture. This was no easy task. Painted Redstarts are very active birds, always flitting among the leaves and branches capturing insects for food. We spent about an hour without any decent shot to satisfy our standards. At one point, while I patiently waited for a better opportunity, Cynthia wandered off the parking lot, where out of nowhere, a Red-tailed Hawk flew by. Cynthia just adores raptors, especially those in flight and this was no exception.

Eventually, we moved to a place near the lake where again Cynthia's ears helped locate a Common Yellowthroat and a Bewick's Wren investigating fallen leaves for whatever edible morsel they could find underneath. I even got lucky with a lifer - a Cassin's Vireo that was passing by! Next we concentrated on water birds, where we got a Spotted Sandpiper and some Gadwalls (a kind of duck) among the usual carpet of Coots. When a belligerent Goose started harassing us, we decided to go back to our Redstart and give it another shot.

On the way back, we decided to check out the place where I saw some Cactus Wrens the last time I visited the place. There were no wrens this time, but we were pleasantly surprised to see a White-tailed Kite perched on a bare tree not too far away. Knowing Kites to be extremely skittish, to say the least, we moved in slow-motion as we silently got out of the jeep and set-up our cameras. We were rewarded by some very nice photos of this beautiful bird of prey.

When we got back to the area next to restroom # 8. there were already several birders ogling the lovely bird and this time we got some good (but not great) photos of the bird.

A Painted Redstart to start the new year - a good portent of things to come, if you ask me.

Bluebirds of Happiness

Saturday, December 23rd was sunny and bright if a little bit chilly. A perfect day for birding. Santa Fe Dam was our destination that day in response to the reports of sightings of Golden Eagles and Mountain Bluebirds, both would-be lifers for me.

But first, tradition must be satisfied. We hied over to the land of the golden arches and ordered the usual 2-for-$3 sausage and egg mcmuffins and one small cup (note size and quantity) of decaf coffee . Frugality is the order of the day.

Warmed by the is bottomless, you know..we then entered Santa Fe Dam handing $7 to the sleepy attendant. Just as we were parking I glimpsed a raptor wheeling over the lake. Even before I finshed saying, "Did you see that?" Cynthia was already rushing by the lakeside and clicking away. I, of course, have to set up my gear which took me a good 10 minutes (or so it seemed). And by the time I joined Cynthia, the bird (it was an Osprey) was flying away, not to be seen again.

The next couple of hours were spent looking for the, what I felt has become mythical, mountain bluebirds. Sure, there were plenty of birds around: Kingbirds, playing king-of-the-hill on the treetops, Juncos foraging on the grass below joined by a few Lark Sparrows. The ubiquitous Black Phoebes and Yellow-rumped Warblers were being, well, ubiquitous. The raptor fodder (a.k.a Coots) were busy being Coots. And the local Geese were begging for handouts. And yes, there were Western Bluebirds, cousins to the more rare and intriguing Mountain Bluebirds.

I was on the verge of being disappointed. The Golden Eagle was a no-show, I never had much hope for that. But the bluebirds....there were supposed be a lot of them and friendly even. Cynthia, bless her heart, suggested we give parking area # 4 one more try (we were swinging back and forth through parking lots 3 to 5). We parked there and as I sat broodingly in the jeep, Cynthia pointed to something blue flying from the ground to a tree. A different kind of blue. Mountain Bluebirds! We hit the jackpot! Needless to say, we spent the next hour or so photographing these lovely lifers.

They were indeed the bluebirds of happiness.

Pipits, Pelicans and Photographers

Saturday, Nov. 25th, we purposed to do the Orange County Circuit: San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine, then to Upper Newport Bay (UNB) in Newport Beach and finally Bolsa Chica (BC) in Huntington Beach.

A Red-throated Pipit (quite uncommon in Southern California) was reportedly seen at SJWS. Right at the parking lot, there were a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Cynthia started firing away as I struggled to set up my gear. To my dismay, my camera won't autofocus. John Afdem, who luckily was nearby (he was there to photograph the Vermillion Flycatchers also reported in the area) suggested I remove my 1.4 extender. I did, and true enough there were some screws loose there (just like the owner). I did not have my screwdriver with me at the time so I just settled with the 500mm lens without an extender. Just as I was ready to shoot, the Cedar Waxwing flew away.

Cynthia and I proceeded to the location where the Pipit was allegedly found, after thanking and bading goodbye to John. There were Pipits galore, but they were all American Pipits which are a lot more common species than the Red-throated.

Having had our fill of Pipits, we then moved on to Upper Newport Bay (UNB). There were a lot of birds there but they were all huddled close together that it is impossible to take any individual shots. We had better luck at the "bridge" across the bay, although Cynthia missed a good shot of the Sora. Here we met a lovely couple who were both also into bird photography; Dan and Michelle Smith. Dan suggested that we visit Bolsa Chica because "the pelicans are there". We assured him that that will be our next stop.

At Bolsa Chica (BC) just as we were gettting off the jeep we could already hear and see the pelicans doing their dive bombing antics. They would fly several feet up and then plunge hard into the waters. Pelicans are huge birds with wing spans up to seven feet and watching them do this routine is quite fascinating! Needless to say, we had a heck of a time photographing them from as close as ten feet away.