Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Going. Going, Trogone (3rd and last installment of our Arizona trip journal)

Our trip to Portal from Sierra Vista was quite uneventful, birding-wise, except seeing Swainson’s Hawks on two different occasions, both times atop an electric post. We arrived at Portal much too early for the 2 pm check in time. Rather than be charged an extra day, we just advised the not-too-friendly innkeeper that we’ll just be back at two.

As were leaving, we met a lady who said she just saw some Red Crossbills at the pine tree across the post office. We followed the directions she gave and for about half an hour stood there staring at a tall pine tree totally devoid of any birdlife.

We then tried to locate the fabled Berylline Hummingbird nesting across from the Stewart campground.. We wandered along the creek where the sycamore tree that harbors the nest was supposed to be and saw nothing but the now suddenly common Painted Redstarts and a few Hutton’s Vireos. Thankfully, Walt Carnahan, a veteran birder from the Sierras in California was there, also looking for the Beryllines. As we approached, he motioned us to follow him. Soon enough, we were staring at a tiny, albeit empty, nest high up in the branch of the sycamore. We waited almost breathlessly for some movement that would indicate the presence of either Mama or Papa Berylline. Even a glimpse of a baby bird would make us happy and contented birders. No such luck.

We moved on to the South Fork picnic area. This is Trogon Country, our guidebooks informed us. Along the gravelly road, we saw a couple emerging from the grove of trees by a creek. Birders! We screeched to a halt and asked the gentleman if he has seen anything interesting.

“Trogons!”, he said excitedly. “We followed their calls and saw two of them fly by”.” Just listen and follow the barking sound”, he advised.

Encouraged, we looked for a place to park. Venturing into the woods, I relied on Cynthia’s super ears to listen for any barking sound.

“I hear something”, she said shortly, “but it’s far off.”

Like hungry predators we followed the bird calls hoping to locate its source. Suddenly, it stopped. The silence that ensued was heartbreaking.

We moved on to check out Herb Martyr road only to discover that it doesn’t have much to offer.

“Why don’t we try the Research Station that we passed on the way here?”, my wife suggested. At this point I was willing to try anything or go anywhere just so I can find a bird that we have not seen before.

The first bird we saw at the Station was a Robin. I just shook my head as dismay started to overcome me. As I took out my camera from the Jeep, I noticed Cynthia clicking away at some birds feeding on the ground next to a red SUV.

“What are those?”, she asked. Inasmuch as the birds were in the shade, it took me sometime before I was able to ID them. Then with the speed and agility of a trained athlete, I quickly moved closer, shooting in bursts. “Yellow-eyed Juncos!”, I whispered to my wife. A smile spread across her face because she knew that this is one of our sought after species. After a while the juncos dispersed and so we explored the surrounding areas. 

Cynthia got a shot of a sparrow that we were unable to ID at the time. Later on I emailed that photo to the Tucson Audubon Society which confirmed that it was a Rufous-winged Sparrow. Another lifer! I also had an unknown sparrow photo that the TAS later identified as a Rufous-crowned Sparrow which made it our third lifer for that day.
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-winged Sparrow
At around 2 pm, we checked-in to our room, noticing how frugal the arrangement was. No refrigerator nor microwave and a TV that can only get one station. At least the air conditioner works, Cynthia said consolingly.

Later in the afternoon, we decided to go the Dave Jasper’s place. Dave is a birder who opens his yard to fellow birders. His yard is surrounded by tall bushes and some trees and contains various feeders – similar to the Paton’s in Patagonia. We seated ourselves, once again battling with tiny flying pests (the repellant that we sprayed ourselves with was beginning to wear off). Soon throngs of Gambel’s Quails appeared and began pecking at the various feeders. We have never seen so many quails gathered in one place! And the noise they made was deafening, Imagine hundred of birds cackling together all at the same time. One by one the White-winged Doves joined the feeding frenzy. A few Black-throated Sparrows came and gave us good looks. But the highlight of Dave’s yard was when a pair of Pyrhhuloxias flew in. The name itself conjures some tropical, colorful, winged mythical creatures. We have only caught a glimpse of a female two years ago in Patagonia. And now here they were, in full view, including a beautiful male, red crest fully erect like a wartime banner. 

The appearance of a Crissal Thrasher was another welcome sight, if a bit anti-climactic.

We returned to the lodge where we had dinner together with a wonderful couple, Walt and Barbara Carnahan..

Bright and early the following day, Friday, we were at South Fork again. We were sitting at a picnic table enjoying a simple breakfast, when we heard the unmistakable “ark! ark! ark” of an Elegant Trogon. It sounded so close, maybe not more than 50 yards away across from the creek. We jumped and rushed to the edge of the creek, peering through the treetops, hoping for even a glimpse of our quarry. Just like the day before, the bird suddenly stopped calling. Eerie silence followed. Whatever sliver of hope we had slowly drained from our being. As if to add insult to injury a man parked his truck next to us and nonchalantly unleashed two dogs. He then went to potty, leaving the beasts to take control of the parking area. We quickly boarded the Jeep and sped away, both dogs yapping and chasing our vehicle.

The gravel road up to Rustler Camp was steep, winding and badly rutted. Just as we were approaching the campsite, Cynthia asked, “Was that your brakes making funny sounds?” Hearing impaired that I am, I listened intently as I stepped on the brakes while we were rounding a hairpin curve. Sure enough there was a screeching, high pitched sound.

“We have to turn back”, I said gravely.

“Don’t you want to at least continue to Rustler Camp – it’s only 3 miles away?” Cynthia suggested.

“Not with my brakes like this. What if it fails while we are going downhill?”

Bypassing the bird-rich areas of Rustler Camp and Walker House, I made a tough decision.

“Let’s check out and go back to Sierra Vista to have the brakes fixed,” I said firmly.

My wife agreed. By 10 am we were out of Portal. On the highway past the city of Douglas, my wife noticed that the brakes weren’t making as much noise.

“Maybe it’s because we are on a good flat surface road, “ I offered as an explanation.

Since the Jeep was covered by dust and as filthy as can be from all those gravel roads and stream crossings, we thought we ought to wash it first before taking it to brake shop. At the car wash, we were at a stall next to a young Filipino. He was a soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca. Happy to meet another Filipino, we talked for a while and Cynthia even offered to pray for him (his name is Edward) especially when he gets to go for another tour in Iraq.

Leaving the car wash and going to the nearby buffet restaurant, we both noticed that the brakes were not making any noise at all! No matter how hard I stepped on it, there wasn’t any noise and the Jeep stopped on a dime without any problem.

It was 1 pm when we finished our lunch.

“It’s still early,” I said, “we have time to make it home.”

“Are you sure?” my wife wanted to know.

“There’s no point in going back to the Chiricahuas and Sierra Vista doesn’t have much to offer, anyway.”

We were fast asleep in our own bed at 10 pm that night.

The trip wasn't a total disaster. We got seven lifers, even if we dipped on most of our target species.

Best of all, it was the people that we met: Walt and Barbara of the Sierra Foothills Audubon; Austin and Ann of Morongo Valley; Tom and Chris of the Morro Bay Audubon; and of course, Edward of Fort Huachuca. The time we spent with them were short, but they will always be remembered and we hope to meet them again.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pop, Grackle, and Snap

My wife and I dislike Great-tailed Grackles. They are mid-sized birds that inhabit lakeshores. Males are completely black, with less the purplish, bluish sheen of their Eastern Cousins – the Common Grackle. Females and juveniles are dark brown all over. The only striking feature they have are their bright yellow eyes which both sexes have. They are cocky, noisy and omnivorous just like their bigger relatives, the Crows.

So when the Philippine Photographers group chose the Grackle as the next bi-monthly subject (for us residents of North America) we both groaned. The locals have the Yellow-vented Bulbul as their subject – a much more colorful, and very interesting species. How a Grackle can compare to a Bulbul is beyond me. These two bird kinds have no commonality at all.

But decisions have been made, and rules are rules. So Saturday morning, we drove to Lake Balboa in Van Nuys. Despite getting there early – we arrived a little after 8 am - the place was already swarming with people. Lake Balboa is a public park and joggers, dog-walkers, and weekend exercisers were all over the lake shore. However, despite the presence of human beings, we saw the ever-present rock doves, the Mallards and Coots. Some Cormorants were even enjoying an early morning swim. A Great Blue Heron awoke from its top of a lamppost roost. But where were the Grackles?

In the middle of the lake were some boats still covered in blue tarps. There on top were a group of grackles still dozing off. Luckily, the harbor master soon arrived and towed the boats to the pier where they will be rented out. Of course, the grackles were roused from their slumber and soon they were popping up on the shore.

We snapped a few photos but were a bit disappointed. How can you make a simple black or plain brown bird appealing? Inasmuch as these birds have gotten accustomed to the presence of people, we were able to watch them as they went about their daily routine. Some of their poses we found to be quite humorous. Thankfully we were able to capture those candid snapshots of our subject species.

A Buggy Day (2nd installment of our Arizona trip journal)

We waited until the heat was more tolerable before we hit the birding trail at Sierra Vista. They were experiencing 3-digit temperatures the past few days and today was no exception.

As had been the case last year, we checked out the San Pedro Riparian area due to its proximity to the hotel. The moment we stepped out of the car, we were assaulted by bugs! And because of the muggy weather, we decided to wear shorts for our first birding sortie at Sierra Vista. Big mistake! The bug attack on our legs resulted in us doing an impromptu jig. But we were not going to allow some pesky flying insects to mar our ornithological foray. We proceeded to take the trail to the river, flushing a pair of Lazuli Buntings along the way. The expected species were there: Papa and Mama Vermillion Flycatchers teaching their brood the fine art of catching flies; Blue Grosbeaks would occasionally flash their deep indigo feathers..but never close enough for a photo op. The grassland along the way was punctuated every now and then by tall bushes and the tops of these bushes would inevitably be festooned by a Western Kingbird.

No longer able to endure the incessant onslaught of gnats, mosquitoes and their equally dreadful ilk, and dark clouds suddenly forming, foreboding a wet afternoon, we decided to call it day. We headed straight to the nearest Target store and purchased a large-sized bottle of insect repellant.

Bright and early the next day we returned to the San Pedro, this time fully covered in liquid armor. Freed from the winged pestilence, we were able to enjoy our birding more. Again we were not seeing anything unusual. The river did not yield the kingfishers that were supposed to inhabit its banks. As we were about to turn back, we heard the unmistakable chattering of a Yellow-breasted Chat. This species had been a bane for us, always being heard but very seldom seen, and when seen, always just a glimpse of some movement high up among the dense foliage. It was therefore quite a surprise when we came almost face to face with this individual. For almost half an hour, he just sat there, preening, in between singing his repertoire of whistles, chatters and chirps. 

Happy with this serendipitous encounter, we proceeded to Miller Canyon for a hoped for encounter with a lifer – the White-eared Hummingbird. There was already a couple – Austin and Ann - seated at the controlled-access-area provided by the Beatty’s where the rarity had been making its appearance. We plopped next to them and for the next hour or so, watched about 9 different kinds of hummingbirds enjoy the feeders hung by the hospitable owners. Then Austin suddenly shouted..”There it is!” Those are always sweet words to a birder. We pulled up our cameras and shot away. No fantastic flight shots nor full body shots of a perched bird, but we satisfied ourselves with pictures of a colorful hummer, tell-tale white stripes on the side of the head prominently showing. 

Having gotten our 3rd lifer of the trip, we bade goodbye to our new friends and headed down to Mary Jo Ballator’s yard. It was about noon and not surprisingly, there weren’t many birds at Ash Canyon. The resident Lucifer Hummingbird usually appears late in the day, we were informed. And we just missed a fly-by of a Gray Hawk (another would-be lifer), the couple who was just leaving told us. After talking with Graeme Lowe, a gentleman-photographer who was still patiently sitting behind his 500mm set-up, we heeded the call of our grumbling stomachs.

The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping for supplies as our next destination would be far from the amenities of a regular town. We also took stock of what we have accomplished thus far. Realizing we are quite short of our expectations, we hoped that the Chiricahuas would be kinder and gentler to us.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Birding Meme

Taking a break from writing about out Southeast Arizona trip, here are my answers to a Birding Meme that Cogresha ( ) published:

1. What is the coolest bird you have seen from your home?

I have two answers for this: One was a Blue Rock Thrush that I saw from my window when I was still living in the Philippines. It was a migrant from east Asia and normally doesn't stay in urban areas. But a storm just passed thru and must have blown this poor bird close to my home.

My second answer was a Townsend's Warbler flitting among the leaves of the oak tree in front of our apartment in Pasadena. I wasn't an active birder then and seeing a new bird other than the Bushtits, Scrub Jays and Mourning Doves was a welcome respite.

2. If you compose lists of bird species seen, what is your favorite list and why?

I am not a lister. Let me give a lame excuse. I also photograph birds and although I am unable to take pictures of all the birds I see whenever my wife and go birding, my "list" would be the bird photos we (my wife also photographs birds) have taken.

I know, I am a bad birder - shame on me!

3. What sparked your interest in birds?

Being born into this world. Ever since I can remember, I have always been fascinated by birds.

4. If you could only bird in one place for the rest of your life where would it be and why?

Earth. I have books on the birds of almost every country or region in the world, just so I can "bird" these places even if vicariously.

5. Do you have a jinx bird? What is it and why is it jinxed?

So far...the Elegant Trogon. Every year we go to Southeast Arizona to look for this species but no luck yet. At least we heard them this year - our third year of chasing them - so who knows..maybe next year the jinx will end?

6. Who is your favorite birder? and why?

I have not met any of the great birders, so ... next question please..

7. Do you tell non-birders you are a birder? What do they say to you when they find out?

No need to. My wife and I always wear camouflaged clothes (even in a city park. ha ha) and there's this binoculars always hanging from my neck. And of course, I have my ubiquitous camera with me. Some non-birding people are sometimes just curious. I leave all the explaining to my more articulate wife.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Big Dipper (1st installment of our Arizona trip journal)

Dip (v. int) – a birding term which means not seeing a targeted (usually uncommon) species. i.e. I dipped on the Rock Sandpiper at Playa del Rey.

Our hopes were high in adding heftily to our lifelist as we travelled to Southeast Arizona Saturday, August 11th. Both our guidebooks “Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona” by the Tucson Audubon Society and “A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona” by Richard Cachor Taylor” recommended that the best time to go birding in this region is in mid-August. That is when species diversity would be at its peak, both books stated.

With this in mind, we wasted no time exploring the vicinities of Madera Canyon – the first of three places that we planned to bird . Visions of rare sparrows and other Arizona specialties popping out of every bush and tree along the road danced in our minds. The road up the Sta. Rita mountains was still wet from a very recent downpour.

"The book says we should be seeing throngs of Cassin’s and Botteri’s Sparrows singing on the wire fences, right after a rainfall, " I told my wife. We passed about 10 miles of wire fences and saw a total of zero sparrows.

We did not stay long at the Proctor Road parking area, not wanting to pay $5 for less than an hour's stay. Besides, the fields around it are quite devoid of birdlife except for a solitary Say's Phoebe.

Up the Canyon, we visited the feeders at the Sta. Rita Lodge. Only Anna's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are present (both common in southern California). House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, White-winged Doves, Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mexican Jays rounded up the total bird population of lodge's feeders.

The feeders at the two lodges further up the road (Madera Kubo and Chuparosa Inn) were even less exciting. We then drove to the picnic area at the end of the road. It seemed like there were more people than birds there. It's probably because it is a weekend we concluded.

Our first day certainly did not look very promising.

Sunday, we birded the canyon early in the morning. There were tons of Painted Redstarts at the picnic grounds. then we saw our first lifer - the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Encouraged by this, we vowed to return in the afternoon. For now we have something to do that we would never want to miss. Wherever we go, we always make it a point to attend church services on a Sunday.

We attended Calvary Chapel of Sahuarita at 10 am, had lunch and rested for a few hours. In the afternoon, we lingered at the Proctor Road parking area where we got our second lifer - the exquisitely beautiful Varied Bunting! It was just too bad that it was quite a distance away and the light was becoming dark, that the picture I took was just so disappointingly trashy. The photo of the Western Wood Pewee singing not far from the bunting was even worse! Our second day at Madera Canyon was a bit uplifting.

We hoped Monday would be more promising without all the noisy picnickers disturbing the birds. We went straight to the end of the canyon road, where a trail leads up to Trogon country. We hiked about a mile, stopping every so often to watch the Painted Redstarts go about their business and the Bridled Titmice flit from tree to tree. A Hutton's Vireo gave me a nice pose. We met a birder who pointed out the Brown Creepers methodically work their way up the trunks of tall trees. 

At about 3/4 of a mile, as we were about to give up, a group of senior citizens came up and told us that they saw a bird that has a long tail and bright orangey belly. That's a trogon, we told them (they were not birders, and were just hiking the trails, they informed us). One of them gave us specific directions on where they saw our target bird of the trip. Giving us a cold bottle of water and a hearty wish of good luck, they bade us goodbye. Meticulously following the directions given us, we arrived at where the trogons (note the plural) are supposed to be displaying to curious passersby. Nothing. Nada. Zero.

Dejected, we trudged back. Why would a trogon show itself to non-birders and not to people who desire to enjoy and capture it's beauty, I kept murmuring to myself. When we returned that afternoon, we got caught in a torrential downpour. We stayed at the Proctor Road Parking area until the rain stopped. By then it was sunset and all the birds were gone. Day three was disappointing.

On our last day at Madera Canyon, we decided to give the Proctor Road one more try. We caught a glimpse of the Varied Buntings but again, they were too far off to even get a decent shot. A Blue Grosbeak made an appearance but what caught our attention were the Cardinals. First a young one sang vigorously on top of a tree. Then we were startled by a male Cardinal calling to its offspring just a few feet away from us.

Soon we were on the road to Sierra Vista. We stopped by the Kino Springs Golf Course where sightings of a Painted Bunting and a White-collared Seedeater were reported. Both species are extremely rare even here in Arizona. We stayed there for about 2 hours, just having a sandwich and a coke for lunch while patiently waiting for our quarries to appear. Once again, Nada. Zip. No-show.

We stopped at the Patagonia Roadside Rest hoping to see the Black-capped Gnatcatcher that was supposed to be nesting close the Shrine. You guessed it. Dipped again.

Day four was a big dipper day.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Egret day to be Birding

Flushed from my wife's winning the bi-weekly contest of the Philippine Bird Photography Club, we set-out to try once again to capture an image worthy of another victorious achievement. This time the subject species are Herons and Egrets.

Bolsa Chica, of course, is teeming with these elegant waders. We arrived early to avoid the rush and congestion from beachcombers and nature enthusiasts. Saturday morning was uncharacteristically overcast. Which turned out to be quite an advantage since we would be shooting big white birds - which in bright sunlight would show blown highlights in a photograph.

An incident that is becoming quite a pattern (seems to me) happened near the tide gates. A woman with a dog on a leash entered the trail despite my showing her the sign that canines, even on a leash, are not allowed in there. She even questioned my "authority" to give her that reminder. Oh well, I guess it's none of my business after all.

We spent about three hours taking pictures of the various aspects of an egret's life - flying, fishing, preening, squabbling. Hopefully, one of them would be good enough to win another prize.

We left a little before noon having other domestic obligations to fulfill.