Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bay Watching

Today, Memorial Day, we had a singular purpose: to find, and hopefully, to photograph, the Bay-breasted Warbler seen yesterday at the Sea Gate Park in Huntington Beach. 

We arrived at the park around 8:30 am. There were several birders there and as we approached them there was a shout of "there it is!" and we all rushed to where the announcement came from. This was not an easy task because to get to the location of the bird, we had to descend a steep and slippery (the sprinkler was just turned off just as we were about to go down) slope. I almost gave up the chase since I was carrying my 500mm + tripod combo. But a big thanks to Rusty who helped me and my gear get down without damaging me or my equipment. The place where the warbler was hanging out was such that it made my camera/lens/tripod combo useless. It was muddy and trees and second growth plants were all around. Add to that eight birders all eager to get a glimpse of our valued quarry. I saw the bird - a short glimpse - not long enough to even tell that it was indeed the Bay-breasted. In a few minutes, the bird was gone and the birders trickled out of the park, leaving us somewhat disappointed.

We lingered at the park for a little while longer and when Cynthia noticed my unease, she suggested a visit to Bolsa Chica. "We'll come back later after lunch", she said, "Anyway, it was around that time that it was seen yesterday."

And so we went to Bolsa Chica where we tried (and failed) to get flight shots of terns. After lunch, we went back to Sea Gate Park. Before long, Sandy and Tina (?) arrived and started staking out the elusive warbler. We thought we would give the place where we first saw the Bay-breasted another try - (Sandy was on the other side of the park) - but totally dipped there.

On our way back, Leigh and Peter called from the top of the "ravine" and asked how to get to where we were. We gave them directions and as we were resting from our "climb", we heard Tina yelling, "We got the bird! We got the bird!" The only reaction to expect from a birder after hearing those words is to run like heck to the source of the shouting. So we ran. I have switched to my much lighter 100-400 lens and I arrived at where Sandy, Tina, Leigh and Peter were in nothing flat. This time we had better looks at the lovely warbler. I had my pictures but then in my excitement I forgot to make the proper adjustments to consider the lighting conditions and the mobility and habitat of my subject. aaaarrrrrgggghhh!

Nevertheless, Memorial day has a new meaning for Cynthia and I as we both got our lifer.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Flycatchers and Friends

Reports that not one, but three (2 males and a female) Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were seen at the feeders at the Big Morongo Preserve gave us a good excuse to go back there on Saturday, May 19th.

This time I purposedly left my big gun, the 500mm, at home. I wanted to give my new 100-400 zoom lens a real workout, so to speak. Cynthia thought that having a 1.4 extender attached to her 300mm slowed down the autofocusing somewhat so she went back to her original set-up

Just right after we got off the jeep we both immediately caught a glimpse of the bright red of the Summer Tanager flash overhead. And there perched on the fence by the parking area was its less gaudy but also beautiful mate giving us the eye.

We joined the bird walk led by Dee Zeller (who also gave us the bad news that the grosbeaks were gone). Just as we were entering the boardwalk at the start of the Marsh Trail, we were greeted by a very tame Gambel’s Quail doing a morning call. Soon, Margaret, a member of our group started listing names of birds heard along the trail.

“That’s a Verdin.” There’s a Bell’s Vireo, and another one on the opposite side”, she would announce to the group. It was quite frustrating for us photographers since these birds were all hidden among the foliage around us. The highlight of the walk was an Olive-sided Flycatcher (also located by Margaret) which was a lifer for us. We eventually tallied 38 species, but unfortunately, only a few good shots. Throughout our walk on the Marsh Trail we were accompanied by a pair of Western Scrub Jays staying close to us that you could almost touch them. They are having their own people-walk, seems like.

Still being early, we decided to go to Luckie Park in Twentynine Palms to try to locate the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher recently sighted there. We parked at the northwestern side of the recreation area close to the ballfields. There were lots of birds; Great-tailed Grackles, Brewer’s Blackbirds and tons of Horned Larks, even a pair of White-winged Doves, but no Scissor-tail. In our perambulations, we met Matthew Baker who has been scouring the area looking for the same quarry but have not had any luck either. We whiled away the time shooting at the Horned Larks. It was almost noon and we were beginning to feel the pangs of hunger. Visions of McDonalds soon began dancing before our eyes. Our reveries were suddenly interrupted by shouts of “There it is! There it is!” Matthew finally spotted the long-tailed bird and we all rushed to where it was perched. This was one of those moments when I wished I brought along my 500mm lens. Nevertheless, our mission was accomplished and we now proceeded to satisfy one of man’s basic needs. An Angus third pounder never tasted this good!

Back at Morongo, after a well deserved repast, we settled into a more sedentary activity. We sat by the feeders watching and photographing the comings and goings of various avian species which included a Mountain Chickadee, Bullocks and Hooded Orioles, Costa’s Hummingbirds, a Nuttall’s Woodpecker and the usual denizens of House Finches, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and Lesser Goldfinches.

Around 2:30 pm, we decided to give the Marsh Trail one more look-see. By the spillway, we discovered the Bell’s Vireo and its nest. Along the route, we bumped into several kinds of Flycatchers whose identities completely buffled us, particularly those darn empidonax species! Near the end of the loop, several birds were playing king of the hill, or in this instance, king of the bare limb. A Western Kingbird, a Brown-crested Flycatcher, an intrepid young Western Tanager and a feisty Western Wood Pewee would perch into this bare limb after hawking some unfortunate insect, only to be dislodged by the next species. Once in a while a Black Phoebe would even join the fray. Warbling Vireos and Wilson’s Warblers, on the other hand, were busy working the surrounding greenery.

We hated to leave such interesting antics but we still have some 120-odd miles to drive. It was a fun day, made even more enjoyable by finding new friends who share our passion for birds.

And by the way, this was one session where my wife had the better shots.

Taking the 100-400 for a Walk

As you may recall in my last blog entry, I was complaining of being tired and having some back pains as a result of lugging my heavy camera gear whenever we are doing our sorties. After some introspections and consultations with my beloved wife, I made a decision to only bring my heavy artillery if our outings would not involve a lot of walking. Otherwise I will just carry a smaller camera/lens combo. Inasmuch as Cynthia was already hooked on bird photography and therefore adamantly refuses to let me use "her" 300mm lens, I presented her with this proposition: I would buy a smaller lens (the Canon 100-400 zoom would serve my purpose perfectly) only if it would be offered with "no sales tax" (which would add roughly $120 to the retail price) and "no interest for 1 year". Please bear in mind that those conditions very rarely go together. As a matter of fact, we've never seen that kind of offer being published ever.

So we prayed. It's for my poor, old, fragile body's sake, we told the Lord. Thursday, May 10th, while waiting for our laundry to get washed, we passed away the idle time reading the Los Angeles Times. As I was getting to the last page, there was a 2-page colored advertisement from Samy's Camera announcing that they will waive the sales tax for any item purchased in their store from May 10 to May 15th. Moreover, if the purchase price is greater than $299, they had a "no interest, no payment until May 2008" offer. I immediately showed the ad to Cynthia and right then and there we thanked God for His goodness and faithfulness. Nothing is impossible with the Lord!Hallelujah!!!

Cynthia then asked, "So, when are you going to buy the lens?"
"I''m thinking maybe Saturday, after your doctor's appointment", I replied.

"What?! ", she said incredulously, "Saturday, I want you using that lens already as we will go birding after my doctor's appointment"

Now how can I argue with that?

And so it came to pass that on Friday, during my lunch break, I hied over to Samys store in Pasadena, not far from where I work, and obtained for myself God's answer to our prayers.

As planned, Saturday morning we went birding to Placerita Canyon, where I "test drove" the Canon 100-400 zoom lens while Cynthia tried to familiarize herself with a 1.4 extender attached to her 300mm. Weather and birds not being that cooperative, we still managed to get some keepers. It would probably take a couple more weeks before taking pictures with our new gears would become second nature to us. All in all, my expectations were met and I think I will be happy with this new lens. At least my back and shoulders were overjoyed.

Sun Scorching and Soul Searching

I had a couple of days off to rest. And so on Saturday, Apr. 28th, we drove the 120-odd miles to the Big Morongo Valley Nature Reserve. It was foggy when we left South Pasadena at 6 am. It was a tad windy when we had our usual stop-over at Cabazon for breakfast at McDonalds. When we parked at Big Morongo a little after 8 am, something just didn't feel right. There were already quite a number of birders making the rounds of the various trails. We thought that it was the unusual density of human beings that somehow upped the ground temperature.

We started off going clockwise on the Marsh trail, spotting a Verdin and some noisy Bewick's Wrens. Luckily, most of the birders were already on the way out, presumably to more productive (and more pleasant) environments. Even then, although we saw a number of birds, they were mostly hidden among the leaves and never venturing out in the open, much to our frustration. All along the trail, we could hear the maddening chatter of the Yellow-breasted Chat. But the large warbler, despite it's yellow color might as well be invisible. I finally got a shot at him, but it's not something to crow about.
We got glimpses, and really bad shots, of the colorful Tanagers (Western and Summer). As we returned to the shed at the beginning of the trail, we noticed the temperature reading 95 degrees and it was only about 10 am. It would go even higher at midday.

After resting and a quick lunch of hotdog sandwiches, we explored nearby Covington park. It was not very birdy - only a few warblers and the resident Vermillion Flycatcher was there and he was not as cooperative as before.

At around 4 pm, we decided to give the Marsh trail one more try, still hoping to get better views of the birds. A couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers were busy hawking flying insects out in the open. I pity these birds, having to endure the intense heat of the afternoon sun, just so they can eat. Even the seed-eating (and therefore less active) House Finches were panting.

We took the hint and called it day. Just as we were approaching the parking lot, Mr. and Mrs. Gambel's Quail paraded in front of us.

As we were driving home, thoughts played in my head. Am I getting too old for this? It seems that I now tire a lot more. I think carrying about 20 lbs of camera gear over my 60-year old frame over park trails is starting to take its toll on my body. I need to do some serious planning in the coming weeks.

From the Ocean to the Canyon

It rained the whole day Friday and cooled the weather somewhat drastically. Because of this, we woke up late on Saturday morning. The sun was shining brightly so given the lateness of the morning, we decided to go Bolsa Chica. I wanted to see shorebirds and waterbirds donning their much more colorful breeding plumages, spring being the season that they do so.

But when we got there, we saw more people than birds! It so happened that the local community were cleaning up the area in preparation for Earth Day on Sunday. We had no choice but to restrict ourselves to the boardwalk where the only birds present were terns flying overhead. And so we practiced getting flight shots which was not easy at all. The morning was saved when a Savannah Sparrow landed a few feet away from me and stayed there long enough for me to get Cynthia's attention away from the terns. A short walk later we encountered some Western Grebes and Ruddy Ducks (the only ducks left, it seemed). We took some half-hearted shots of the grebes and decided to say goodbye to Bolsa Chica.

After a quick bite at Jack-in-the-Box we returned to Eaton Canyon once again hoping to get more (and maybe better) shots of the warblers and hummingbirds. At the place where we saw the Calliopes, we came upon Jimmy Chen, a wonderful bird photographer, whom we have met before. He was shooting the Calliopes which were feeding on the white flowers. We joined in and in the course of our conversation, I asked if he has seen the Costa's Hummingbird which was also reported in the area. "Oh, they're there right behind the Nature Center." he said as if these hummers were the commonest bird in the canyon. We've been in that section three times last week but not once did we even get a glimpse of the Costa's. So, we thanked him, bade goodbye and went the opposite way from his prescribed place.

After many minutes of fruitless meanderings, we finally went to the back of the Nature Center. Jimmy was there sitting on a bench and talking shop with Kevin Kao, another bird photographer that I met here last Wednesday. As I was waving hello to them, Jimmy suddenly yelled, "There it is! There it is!" pointing to a tiny bird perched on a small branch just behind me and Cynthia. Just to be very sure, I looked at the bird through my binoculars and noticed the bright pink gorget that covered its whole head - telltale sign that it was indeed a Costas. Another very cooperative lifer for me as we (all four of us) spent probably close to an hour shooting at this magnificent creature all the while oohing and aahing as the gorget shone and sparkled everytime the sunlight hits it.

That certainly made up for the disappointing time we had at Bolsa Chica.

After Hours Birding

At 5:30 pm the sun was still up so we decided to break out of the routine and go birding after work. Eaton Canyon in Pasadena is an easy 15-minute drive from Cynthia's office. Monday, April 16th, on a whim, we gave it a try. No cameras, I told Cynthia. This will be strictly birding activity only.

Binoculars hanging from our necks, we first explored the area east of the Nature Center. Just behind the building, we were serenaded by a House Wren singing full volume unmindful of two mesmerized human beings. Reluctantly we left the brown-feathered songster and as we turned to follow the eastward path, a Bobcat poked its head around a low bush, looked at us and disappeared quietly.

Close to the trail were some white sage flowers. It wasn't long when my wife suddenly exclaimed, "Hummingbirds!" They were probably the common Anna's, I told her. But then, peering through my binoculars, I noticed a little buff on the body and the streaky gorget. "Calliopes!", I excitedly announced. Thrilled by discovering a lifer for us, we moved on further south where the sycamores are.

Soon, Cynthia's super ears picked up different songs from up a tree. It wasn't long when a Black-throated Gray Warbler exposed itself, then we spied a bright yellow Wilson's Warbler. Both our jaws dropped when one after another warblers darted from the sycamore to the oak trees - Orange-crowned, Nashville and the beautiful but uncommon MacGillivray's (another lifer). By the picnic tables under a huge oak tree, Pacific Slope and Ash-throated Flycatchers were catching flies. A pair of Spotted Towhees flew by while California Towhees were so tame you could almost step on them.

North of the Canyon, we saw Allen's and Rufous Hummingbirds while House Finches and Goldfinches flashed their colors from the setting sun. Cynthia then pointed to a slow-moving mass of black and white. "Are those skunks?" she asked. "Yes, three young ones!" I replied. It is not often that you can see skunks during daytime, but here they are all three of them venturing out even before dusk fell.

"Oh, if only we had our cameras", Cynthia lamented. "We'll come back tomorrow", I promised her, "and this time we'll be adequately armed".

We did return the following day. But then it was gloomy and windy. Murphy's law at its fullest effect. And again, we tried on Wednesday afternoon. This time, the sun was up, the weather was nice. Although we got some really good shots of the birds we saw last Monday, they were not as conspicuous and cooperative as when we were simply birding.