Monday, June 25, 2007

Wild Goose Chase?

Ross' Goose

Egyptian Goose

Canada Goose

My one weekend hiatus from birding made me sick - literally. I battled the flu while still reporting for work, dedicated employee that I am, until finally, I had to rest on Thursday, June 21st. I felt a little better Friday, reported back to work, and then Saturday, I was rarin' to pursue my hobby again.

It has been quite some time since we've been to Prado Dam in Chino. If you want to see the colorful Vermillion Flycatcher in the greater Los Angeles area, this is the place to go. I wanted to see it and so we went. We found the bird almost immediately, its brilliant red color resplendent against the verdant foliage. It's larger, albeit less colorful cousin, the Western Kingbird was at a nearby tree, belligerently guarding its nest. The blackbird family was well represented: Starlings were everywhere!; Brewer's Blackbirds were mingling with them looking for anything edible on the ground. Down by the lakeshore, Red-winged Blackbirds were trying to outsing the more vocal Great-tailed Grackles.

The trail along the lake was peppered by various species that were either starting or already raising a family. Common Yellowthroats were bursting with song, while Song Sparrows were bringing tasty morsels to their young. Overhead, Barn Swallows were feeding their full-grown offsprings while on the wing!

Summer migrants like the Blue Grosbeak offered a quick glimpse. I was thrilled to see not one, but at least three, Yellow Warblers! On the way back, a Common Moorhen swam slowly by. A juvenile Bullock's Orioles feeling the heat of the day, drank from a small puddle only a few feet away from us.

And then there were the geese. There were lots of the domesticated geese that you will find at any park that has a body of water in it. Joining them were several Canada Geese. We also saw four Egyptian Geese, which were quite uncommon anywhere. A single Ross's Goose who probably thought that the flight to Alaska was too tiring decided to stick around and hang out with the locals.

A funny thought came to mind involving these lovely wild geese: You see Canada Geese so you must be in Canada. You see Egyptian Geese so you must be in Egypt. Then you see a Ross's Goose and therefore you must be in...

Ross Department Store!

As far as my wife is concerned, that is the happiest place on earth. Perhaps it was the sight of the straggler goose that made Cynthia insist that we visit her favorite place to shop. There's one at the Chino Hills Shopping Center, she reminded me. I, of course, obliged. She was so ecstatic that she later volunteered to pay for our lunch. And this was no fast food, cheap restaurant either. We went to a seafood buffet place.

I felt like stuffed goose as we drove home.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Brant New Day

The disappointment of last Saturday's trip to Chilao was still lingering like a bad aftertaste. I had some time to spare on Tuesday afternoon after my appointment with my dentist and before I pick up my wife from her work. Like any opportunistic bird photographer, I had the foresight to bring my 30D + 100-400 combo with me.

My destination was Legg Lake in El Monte which was not that far from my wife's office. Besides, there were sightings of a Brant in the area and that was more than enough incentive for me to go. Brants are small, black wild geese and are rather uncommon in Southern California. Of course, it would be a lifer for me should I be lucky to see this one purportedly inhabiting the north shore of the lake. Lucky I was! I have not been standing by the lake for more than 5 minutes when I spotted it right away - contentedly bathing in the shallow waters. I captured the next two hours of its life in digital images thereby washing off the sad memories of Chilao.

In between my sessions with the Brant (sometimes it would swim off towards the middle of the lake or else mingle with the local domestic geese population) I would venture off and observe the other avian residents of Legg Lake. Green Herons were also cooperative giving me good and close enough opportunities to take their pictures. Both Orioles (Bullocks and Hooded) were busy rearing their almost grown-up offsprings. American Robins and Western Bluebirds were working the grassy areas. A Nuttall's Woodpecker suddenly popped into view.

My enthusiasm has been restored.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Chilao and Goodbye

We thought about making it the third straight week of pursuing after a particular uncommon bird - a Red Phalarope was reported to be very obliging photography-wise at the Malibu Lagoon. But then weekend at the Lagoon on a summer day brought back unpleasant memories of full parking space and tons of people. That's why we decided to "crash" the picnic held by the Los Angeles Audubon Society at the Chilao campground high up in the San Gabriel mountains.

We arrived at the campground, which was not really a campground but a picnic area, around 9:30 am. The Auduboners were already out birding so we went on our own. Except for a proliferation of Acorn Woodpeckers and an elusive flycatcher which we suspected to be a Western Wood Pewee, there weren't much to see. We went back to the parking area and noticed an old man sitting on a picnic table all by himself. Cynthia's gregarious nature came forth and she moseyed over and introduced herself and me. "My name's Herb Clarke," the old man beamed at us. He explained his solitary stance in that his body was not strong enough to keep up with the birders because he has cancer. As we were talking about birds and photography, he said, "I have a book!" Eagerly, he led us to his SUV and pulled out An Introduction to Southern California Birds. My jaw dropped as this is one of the better birding books for the area and the photographs - taken by Herb himself - are outstanding and pioneering in this field. I could have hugged him on the spot but I was afraid I'd break his bones. Suffice it to say that I was in awe to be in the presence of such a venerated figure in California birding. When he asked how we are doing in our bird photography there at Chilao, we replied honestly that it wasn't going that well. Try the feeders at the Visitor Center he suggested. We thanked him profusely and went straight to where he directed us.

True enough, there were a lot of bird activity at the feeders: The garrulous Scrub Jays were there in numbers and their shyer cousins, the Steller's Jays would occasionally venture in; Brown-headed Cowbirds and a lone Brewer's Blackbirds were on the ground feasting on the nuts and seeds that fell from the feeder; Once in a while a White-breasted Nuthatch would swoop in, grab a nut and then fly off; Band-tailed Pigeons would come whoosing and scattered the other birds that were there. But the Acorn Woodpeckers were the lords of the feeders and were never intimidated by the larger, bulkier pigeons.

Soon it was noon and we went back to the parking area. The LA Audubon group were preparing for their picnic. We were invited to join them but we politely declined and settled for our egg sandwiches on a table several yards further down.
After lunch and realizing that our prospect of seeing more birds looking quite dim, we decided to give Charlton Flats, 2 miles up the road, a try. Charlton Flats wasn't that different, except for fewer people. We managed to get a glimpse of a Western Tanager as it flew by but that was probably the most exciting bird of the day. I was so frustrated trying to get a good shot of a Mountain Chickadee foraging among the pine needles about 5 feet from where I was. It was constantly on the move and never out in the open. Luckily a White-breasted Nuthatch was more cooperative if a little distant.

It wasn't one of our better birding sorties. We should have gone for the Red Phalarope. Even Herb Clarke said so.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Mississippi Kiting

This was the second week in a row that we went to photograph a bird that is quite rare in Southern California. As its name implies, the Mississippi Kite is a raptor that is rather common in the southeastern part of the United States. It is very seldom found west of Texas. So when news came out that there is one such bird inhabiting the South Coast Botanic Garden (SCBG) in Palos Verdes, we decided to check it out, hoping that we still carry the same amount of luck when we saw and photographed the Bay-breasted Warbler (another rare vagrant from the east) in Orange County last Monday.

As we entered SCBG, we noticed that there was an entrance fee: $7 per person. Per person??!! Tightwads that we are, we were quite taken aback by that price. But then, a rare bird is a rare bird, and a paltry sum of $14 should not stop any enthusiastic bird photographer like us.

The gardens were beautiful with different kinds of flowers blooming everywhere! From the directions given us by the park volunteer, we realized that the kite was holding fort at the far end of the park. This was one of those times I was glad I didn't bring my heavy artillery along. We were both panting when we saw a group of birders/photographers already enjoying the sight of our visitor from the east. The skies were downright gloomy, but our subject was very cooperative, perched on a limb of a "she-oak" tree and staring back at a bunch of humans below. Everybody with a camera (even if it was only a point-and-shoot model) took pictures of the bird to our hearts content. Among them was Steve Wolfe, the person who "discovered" the Mississippi Kite, with his Pentax and Bigma combo.

By the way, on our way to where the kite was, we noticed a lot of hummingbirds, mostly Allens, enjoying the bounty of flowers. Cynthia said that as soon as we're done shooting the Mississippi Kite we'll return to the flower beds and shoot the hummers. It turned out that that afternoon, there was a wedding at the park and guess where all guests congregated? Cynthia was quite disappointed, to say the least.

Anyhow, at lunchtime we left the SCBG to satisfy our hunger. Jack-in-the-Box was our restaurant of choice. Did I say we were tightwads? Tummies filled, we returned to the garden, having been assured earlier that we don't have to pay the entrance fee again just as long as we showed our receipt. 

This time the sun was shining in its full glory. As we approached our destination, we noticed that the birders were all looking up in the sky. We followed their lead and soon enough we saw our bird, flying effortlessly above us, even putting on some breathtaking aerial maneuvers, just to impress us earthbound creatures. After a while it alighted back to the tree where we saw it the first time that morning. Again, with better lighting conditions, we started shooting till our arms tired. The highlight of the day was when the kite made a short sally and came back with a green beetle in its mouth. It then proceeded to dismember the poor insect. The raptor had its lunch in front of a thrilled audience. Thank goodness there weren't any entomologists among us.
At around 3 pm, we decided to call it a day. Our luck held and our adventure with the Mississippi Kite was well worth the $14 we shelled out to see it.

Did I say we were tightwads?