Thursday, July 26, 2007

Plovers at my Feet

Monday, July 23, was my day-off. What better way to spend free time than to go birding! I first visited Peck Pit in El Monte but suspicious looking characters made me cut my visit short.

Off to Bolsa Chica I went. Grey skies notwithstanding, I had some quite good photo ops. As usual, terns were whizzing over the boardwalk and occasionally plunging into the water to grab an unlucky fish. At the end of the boardwalk, I paused by the water's edge while a small flock of Western Sandpipers alit a few feet away. As I brought up my camera to my eyes, all of the Sandpipers flew off leaving an individual behind. Which turned out to be a Snowy Plover. For the next 15 minutes or so, it just foraged in the mud while I sat not too far taking pictures of the lovely plover.

I then moved over to the first lookout point and lo and behold - four, count 'em, four Ruddy Turnstones were busily exploring the area. This was the first time in a long time that these birds were seen here at Bolsa Chica, I was told by local birder. Continuing down the path to where the Red Knots were last seen, I saw lots of birds - tons of Peeps, Long-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits (the last three similar-looking species making a perfect example of testing a birder's ID skills). Then there were the Black-bellied Plovers. Juveniles not yet in their striking adult plumage, but beautiful nonetheless.
But the Red Knots are "knot" there!!

Further down the trail, I was greeted by frolicking Semi-palmated Plovers. Two young Least Terns dropped in front of me calling for their Mama who was hunting for food nearby. 

On the way back Great Blue Herons were everywhere. More than half a dozen of them all of which were...sleeping! Snowy Egrets, on the other hand, were half-submerged, stirring the waters with the tips of their beaks.

Approaching the boardwalk, I peeped through the wire fence to look at the nesting terns and skimmers. A baby Black Skimmer, looking unkempt and ugly (unlike its slim and striking parents) were being mobbed by a throng of Elegant Terns. I believe the intent was without malice because most of the terns were carrying tiny fish in their beaks which they were probably trying to offer to the fledgling. Both Mama and Papa Skimmer who were both nearby, were completely insouciant to the whole episode.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds and it was almost noon. Trips to Upper Newport Bay and San Joaquin after lunch were both uneventful and totally tiring. One sad news was that Mama Killdeer finally abandoned her three eggs. Perhaps it was the stress of being too close to human traffic that made her lose interest in the perpetuation of her species.

At least I had Bolsa Chica and her Plovers to save the day for me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Drop of my Blog

I was scheduled for a blood test on Saturday morning. As Cynthia and I were seated waiting for my turn, the lady across from us suddenly addressed my wife. "Your husband has very nice legs!" I thought this woman had a lot of chutzpah saying that to my better half, who gamely played along and replied, "Yes, he has better legs than mine."

"That's why I wear shorts", I said smiling.

I sighed in relief when she was finally called for her blood test, as she kept ogling my legs which was beginning to make me feel a bit uneasy. "I'm glad you came along with me," I told my wife, "otherwise, she would have probably grabbed my knees". I wondered if the medtech who will be doing my blood work will find it a little redder with all that flattery thrown at me.

The rest of the morning was spent in housework, the chores made light by the constant ribbing about the now prized part of my anatomy. (Maybe I should insure them just like Angie Dickinson did, I jokingly told Cynthia,). Most people here in the States do their housecleaning in spring. We do it in summer. Why? because there are no birds during summer!

That was made even more evident when we sashayed over to Sepulveda Dam in the afternoon. We did see a Robin with something in its beak just as we were getting off the Jeep. Aside from a Yellow Warbler that teased us with its singing while all the while being partly hidden from the dense foliage, nothing else piqued our interest.

After a relatively unproductive foray, my wife and my two beautiful legs decided to call it a day.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dog Day Afternoon

Birding is not spectacular nor much fun in summer in southern California. Luckily, the Philippine Bird Photography Group instituted a bi-weekly "Show-off" Contest. This is a friendly competition, the winner being awarded "bragging rights" for a couple of weeks. Occasionally, somebody would donate a prize. But overall, it was just for fun. What's even better is that we, who are here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, can join, too! I had the honor of being the first judge when the "show-off" started two weeks ago. Now that my judging role is over, I am excited to be a participant. The next contest's subject was: doves and pigeons.

With that in mind, my wife and I set out to the promised land of Mourning Doves - San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine. We also decided to do our photography in the afternoon, when the warm rays of the soon to be setting sun will give that certain kind of glow to the somewhat drab brown plumage of our target species.We left the house at 3 pm and I suggested that we pass by Bolsa Chica first for a couple of "red" birds; the Reddish Egret and Red Knot. Big mistake! Never go near the beach on a hot Saturday afternoon. Pacific Coast Highway was jampacked with all sorts of vehicles each one intent at dislodging their human passengers to the inviting beach and cool breezes across from our intended destination. Needless to say, we had to abandon all hopes of seeing the Egret and the Knot (they probably weren't there anyway, we rationalized).

An hour already woefully wasted, we proceeded to SJWS. The usual suspects were there - stilts, mallards, peeps and some phalaropes. We were relieved to find our Mama Killdeer still tending her eggs. We were shooting some Avocets when two brown birds whizzed by. "Mourning Doves!" I shouted. Quickly, we approached the bank of the pond to where the birds landed. We got our shots but still were not quite happy with the results.

We were patrolling the the trails between the ponds when we saw this guy, who is shorter than my 5' 7" frame and probably the same weight as mine, but he was holding a Canon 1D MkII with a 500mm lens attached to it! Let me tell you that this combination is quite heavy. When he told us that he is there to shoot Ospreys in flight, I was definitely impressed! While we were talking shop, he pointed to a fluttering white bird in the distance. "White-tailed Kite", he said nonchalantly. Wanting to get a picture of this bird in flight, Cynthia persuaded me to go after the beautiful raptor.

Of course, the kite was nowhere to be found when we got to the place where Thang (the guy with the big lens) saw it. But as luck would have it, when we were going back, we saw a Mourning Dove perched on a bare branch cooing sweetly to his ladylove. We started clicking away. After a while he flew off but we glimpsed some movement among the leaves below where he used to be. Silently moving closer we saw the object of his affections. Once again cameras were raised to capture the image of this lovely creature. Cynthia, who always has a passion for perfection, wanted a clearer view of the bird. To do this, she had to stand on top of a narrow concrete fence, about three feet high. There she went merrily shooting while her faithful and loving husband steadied her lest she topple over and ruin precious and expensive equipment. From her higher, if precarious, vantage point, she naturally got the better photos. And I can proudly say that she had my support on that.

Content with the pictures we got and sunset about to happen soon, we started the trek back to the parking lot. Then we met a lady (if you could call her that) with a young boy in tow and a small dog on a leash. I informed her that dogs are not allowed in the sanctuary and there are signs at the entrance that say so. "Oh, I didn't know that.", she replied coolly, and ignoring completely the information just given her, proceeded towards the ponds. Thanks to my wife's even-temperedness for restraining me from giving the interloper a piece of my mind and probably a even a piece of San Joaquin mud.

Oh well, our day has just gone to the dogs.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Snowy Summer

July 7, 2007 aka 777. Weddings everywhere just because of the uniqueness of the date. The perfect number they say. Would it give us luck? We tried to find out by heading to Bolsa Chica to look for the Red Knots. Unlike the past days, this morning was gray and overcast. We should have taken that as an omen of things that will unfold for the rest of the day.

We dipped on the Knots. I guess we looked at the wrong part of the lagoon. Because somebody saw them at the time we were there! I found out about this when reading the Yahoo listserv for Orange County birding later that night. We just missed adding a lifer to our still short list!

We hiked the length of the mesa and between the two of us took a total of one photograph. One! A backlit shot of a Great Blue Heron and that was it! At least at the boardwalk we were able to get some flight shots of the Black Skimmer and the various Terns that flew by. A few yards from the fence that protects the nesting colonies we got some prety good shots of the Snowy Plover and its chick. It wasn't a lifer but the photos we got were far better than the previous one we had. That at least saved the day for us. Because...

We drew a blank again at Upper Newport Bay. The Peregrine Falcons that we saw last week were a no-show, as all the other birds one would normally see there, except for a few of them Mallards.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary after lunch was hot. The Wilson's Phalaropes were too far for a decent shot. However, interestingly enough, a female Killdeer decided to lay her eggs just a couple of feet away from the trail. There she was, mouth agape in the heat of the day refusing to budge despite the passing by of birders and hikers. We were so worried about its safety knowing there was a Bobcat family in the vicinity. And even as were voicing our concerns, a Peregrine flew by, spooking the Peeps in the lagoon. We were so startled that we, of course, failed to take pictures of the sought after falcon.

But, we were able to get pictures of an Osprey in flight.
777 may be the perfect number for some people. For us, it could have been better.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Going Cuckoo

I needed to go birding Saturday morning. Staying at the office until 8:30 on Friday night wasn't the way I wanted to end the week. I needed the cathartic effect of seeing winged creatures enjoying their God-given freedom.

We uncostumarily woke up late (was I that tired?) but that didn't deter us from accomplishing my mission. Off to the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine we went. For the past two days, there were reports that a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was seen in its premises. Adding a lifer to my list would certainly be a soothing balm to yesterday's frayed nerves. We surveyed the areas surrounding the several ponds where the rufous-winged brown bird was reportedly seen. At one point, a Tree Swallow eyed us warily as we came unintentionally close to its nest box. Further on, a young Great Blue Heron was unmindful even as we were taking its picture from about 5 feet away. Suddenly, I saw a brown bird with a longish tail fly quickly from one tree to another!

"There it is!" I yelled to Cynthia. We both scanned each and every branch of the tree where it landed, mentally turning over each leaf, searching for our elusive quarry. Certain birds have this uncanny ability to become invisible right under your nose. Despite our diligent efforts and my wife's bionic ears, the Cuckoo, if it was indeed that bird, was never found again. Was I sure it was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo? A GISS (general impression of size and shape) would make it so. But I'm not an expert birder by any stretch of imagination so, reluctantly, this bird will not make it to my lifelist...yet.

The sun was at its apex and the temperature was in the high 90's. It was time to return to the more mundane activity of satisfying our growling stomachs.

Credit my wife for her perfect intuition. After lunch, she suggested we try birding Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica knowing this would somehow alleviate the disappointment of the missed Cuckoo sighting. 

Upper Newport Bay was uncharacteristically quiet although it afforded us some views of Black Skimmers doing their thing. Skimmers are quaint seabirds in that their upper beak is shorter than the lower beak. The reason for this, is that its method of feeding is to dip the lower beak in the water while skimming the surface of the body of water (thus the name Skimmer). When the lower beak hits an object (hopefully, a fish), then the Skimmer would close its beak and swallow the prey. After the Skimmers moved on to better fishing grounds, we saw some raptors flying overhead. First there were two, then three, then finally four birds were wheeling and playing up against the blue skies. Again, the GISS says they were falcons. But these were bigger than Kestrels. And they were brown, whereas Merlins are gray. Their identity was a puzzle (did I mention I was not an expert birder?) until I looked at the blown up pictures at home. Peregrines! Not one but four Peregrines! Although not a lifer, these are such magnificent creatures that seeing them would be like laying eyes on the legendary Phoenix.

Bolsa Chica, likewise, was pretty quiet. Luckily, we were again rewarded with witnessing the strange fishing techniques of a Black Skimmer. Terns were all over the place, so we got the chance to practice our BIF shots.

Reminiscing later at home, I was just thankful that even though I did not see the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the adventure in and of itself relieved me of going cuckoo over Friday's draining work.