Monday, March 26, 2007

Greys are not to me

Grey. That was how it was on Saturday, March 24th. All throughout the day. Except for brief bursts of sunlight, it was grey. So I had my flash and better beamer mounted on my camera as we headed out to Sepulveda Wildlife Area in Van Nuys.

As soon as we entered the place, Cynthia pointed to a tiny clump of feathers perched at the tip of a bare branch. "Allen's Hummingbird!" Her picture of the hummer best demonstrated the kind of day we were going to have: it was, indeed, crappy.

The lake was not its usual bustling with bird-activity except for the usual coots and grebes. The lakeside and the surrounding area however, were bursting with song! Brewer's Blackbirds were filling the air with the cacophony of their spring serenades. Red-winged Blackbirds were showing off their brilliant epaulets while Great-tailed Grackles whistled, gurgled and croaked unceasingly. Not to be outdone, Song Sparrows were doing what they were named for, while White-crowneds were chip-chipping away.

As we were perambulating along, I saw something big and brown fly through the grove and landed on a sycamore branch ahead of us. Grabbing my binos and focusing on the mysterious bird, I was a bit startled as I was staring face to face with a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The hawk, perhaps oblivious of our presence continued in its quest for breakfast. It would fly with great agility among the tree branches and would land on a branch and then would look around, sometimes in a most awkward way.

"Are you sure it's a Sharpie and not a Coopers?" Cynthia asked with a tinge of doubt in her tone, knowing how difficult it was to distinguish between the two raptors especially in their juvenile phase such was the case here.

"I'm sure." I replied confidently, explaning in tedious detail the head and feet size and the squareness of the tail edge.

Further up the trail, we encountered another raptor that needed a proper identification. Again, another juvenile, this time a Red-shouldered Hawk and not the similarly plumaged Red-tailed Hawk. Cynthia had some flight shots of this magnificent creature. When it comes to flight shots, I bow to my darling wife. (Only because my gear is heavier and my darn flash wasn't working properly. )

Anyway, the weather still not cooperating, we decided to give Lake Balboa a try, but then there were more people there than birds. Except blackbirds. Blackbirds of various sorts seem to flock in that area, Red-wings, Great-tailed Grackles, Tri-colored and Brewer's were all abundantly represented.

Having had enough of blacks and greys, we headed home.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Placerita Canyon

With gas prices ballooning lately to over $3 a gallon, we thought it wise to go birding to a place closer to home. Placerita canyon is such a place. Less than 30 miles away, it is a place we have not visited for quite sometime now. Placerita is a wooded canyon in the north side of the San Gabriel mountains in southern California.

After our Saturday morning ritual at MacDonalds (where else but in our own hometown of South Pasadena), we pessimistically drove north. Pessimistically because there was fog all over. Our fears thankfully went for naught because after a few miles the sun was already brightly shining.

There were already some volunteers sprucing up the area when we arrived. Just as soon as we parked, Cynthia was already calling out birds that were right in front us: “Juncos and House Sparrows!”

“You’re half right”, I said, “the sparrows are actually Golden-crowned”. Of course, she was already shooting away before I could even get my camera out of the Jeep. Then again the sparrows were used to people so I was able to squeeze in some shots of my own.

We moved on to the trails where we got some good looks at Acorn Woodpeckers and singing House Wrens. Further up the trail, Cynthia hushed me and said that she heard a different bird call, something she has not heard before. We stood still while Cynthia tried to locate the source of the strange new song. Soon she was yelling, “There it is! There it is!” all the while pointing to a small brown bird high up on the hillside. At first I thought it was some kind of a flycatcher a it hawked after some insect. But then…..

It has a long bill - so very unlike a flycatcher. Looking at it intently through my binoculars, going over images in my brain that will match the identity of the bird in my sights. Then it came to me. “Rock Wren!” I shouted triumphantly.

“Are you sure?, Cynthia asked trying to curb her enthusiasm since this is a rather uncommon bird. I have seen this species only once before, in Patagonia, Arizona a couple of years ago (she missed it).

“Without a doubt.” I assured her.

We both agreed that that was the highlight of the day. On our way back, we added Spotted Towhee, California Towhee and Nuttall’s Woodpecker (!) to our photo list.

As we were leaving something deep within me, call it gut feeling, prompted me to turn right from the park exit instead of turning left which would be the way back home. When I moved to the side of the road to let the truck behind me pass, I noticed a bird perched on top of the telephone pole. I quickly grabbed Cynthia’s camera (mine was already packed and stowed at the trunk) and started shooting the juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. Perhaps it was the clicking sound of the camera but the raptor took one look at me, sized up my personality and consequently gave me the “finger”. One of them juvenile delinquents, what can I say?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spring has Sprung

It was overcast as we disembarked from the Jeep last Saturday morning which prompted Cynthia to suggest that we leave our camera gears in the vehicle.

“But that is why I have a flash”, I tried to reason out. Only to discover that the recipient of my reasoning had already moved on.

“Why don’t we case the joint first, since this is the first time we’ve been here”, she explained as I caught up with her. It was a statement, not a question.

We tried to follow the instructions I read in the Yahoo listserv in locating the Yellow-throated Warbler that has been seen here, oh, about a month ago. Baseball field on your left, ponds on your right, it said. As we passed by the ponds, Cynthia pointed to a duck with a red head. “Redheaded Duck!” I said triumphantly – proud at my prowess in intellectual deduction and species identification. Only upon closer look did I notice the yellowish top of the head. “Make that Eurasian Widgeon”, I sheepishly conceded. In and of itself, a Eurasian Widgeon is still quite a rarity here in southern California. A little distance from the Widgeon, I happily pointed another duck to Cynthia. “Look, Hooded Mergansers!” this time confident of my identification inasmuch as a “Hoodie” doesn’t look like any other duck at all. Besides, it is also uncommon.

Encouraged by our success, we proceeded to where the tall pines are close to the wall that separated Tewinkle Park from the residential area. A few birders were there craning their necks looking at the treetops. One of them suddenly pointed at some moving object and said, “There it is!” As if obeying a regimental command, all birders present lifted their respective binoculars to the specified direction. But all I saw were some hyperactive Yellow-rumped Warblers, colorful as they were in their newly clad breeding plumage, Yellow-throated Warbler, they’re not. The other birders shook their heads, as I shifted my gaze to them in an unspoken question. Birders are so much kindred spirits that oftentimes words are no longer necessary to communicate our thoughts.

Soon most of the birders moved on perhaps to some more productive birding areas. Except one. This fellow has a tape recorder that he plays back every so often. Maybe it was because of this playback or just the right time of the morning but soon we were literally surrounded by birds! Gorgeous Western Bluebirds were pouncing on some unfortunate worms, White-crowned and House Sparrows were erupting from the bushes, Dark-eyed Juncos (both Oregon and the rarer Slate-colored subspecies) were foraging on the grass. Time to get the cameras I told Cynthia. She agreed unhesitatingly but still unwilling to use her camera (it doesn’t have a flash). My camera up and ready, we hurried back to where the birds were, only to find out that they were gone! All of them! Except for the original Yellow-rumps high in the pine trees, there is not one single bird around! Of course, the guy with the tape recorder was gone, too.

“Why don’t you just take pictures of the Widgeon and the Merganser?” Cynthia said consolingly. So we hied over to the ponds and there saw two photographers, one on each side of the pond, crouched over their big lenses. Needless to say, they were both shooting the Hooded Merganser. Me, always the unconventional type, moved around getting different angles on both the merganser and the widgeon. Meanwhile, Cynthia was relaxing on a bench observing her husband’s strange tactics. “Why don’t you just stay put like those two?” she asked. I just gave her a wink and a smile not wanting to admit that I get cramps when sitting motionless for periods of time. Old age and vanity can never go together.

“I’m done”, I said after getting off a few shots. As we walked back to the Jeep, Cynthia pointed wordlessly to the two photographers still hunched over their cameras. It looks like they were going to be there for the long haul. But for us, we have places to go, birds to photograph, unknown adventures to discover.

Which happened later at Upper Newport Bay. After parking at the only parking spot in the area, we were greeted by the singing of the Song Sparrow. Spring is in the air when the Song Sparrow sings. It was a beautiful song, Cynthia told me. Something I could not appreciate because I am hearing impaired. I know that the bird is singing because I could see it beak open and its throat vibrate. But without holding a microphone to its beak, I will never be able to hear its song.

“Let’s go and try for the Marsh Wren”, Cynthia suggested, who at this time was also carrying her camera, the sun being up and shining, “I can hear it singing”. Up the hill we went to the bridge which the wren (and the Sora Rail, which we hope to see also) calls home. The Marsh Wren was its usual skulking self, always heard but never seen and the Sora was a no-show. When I looked over to other side where the storm drain is, I saw two huge white birds with red beaks. My excitement uncontained, “Swans!” I blurted out. Now swans aren’t your usual bird-on-the-water kind that you encounter any day of the week. Although considered park birds on the east coast, what we were looking at here at this moment looked like pretty wild birds to us. Perhaps these are really park birds that decided to try the freedom that Upper Newport Bay offers. They were quite tame, unperturbed by these two curious photographers (and nobody else, interestingly enough). They were so close and so big that I had to move about 100 feet away just to get the whole bird in my viewfinder. We kept shooting until we both used up our CFs.

Next stop on our tour was San Joaquin Wildlife Area. We were once again greeted by a singing Song Sparrow. As we traversed the various ponds, we noticed that the Tree Swallows are back, fighting for dibs on the nest boxes provided by the sanctuary. Without a doubt, spring is really here.

We have one more place to go – Bolsa Chica. It was past noon when we got there and as expected, the birds were few and far between. The only species that gave us photo ops were Northern Pintails, who after a few minutes decided that it was time to take a nap. We took the hint and headed home for a siesta of our own.