Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happy Bird-day

What do you do when you turn 61 and is out-of-work?

One word: Birding!

I thought I'd celebrate my three-score-and-one years of existence by going back to Santa Fe Dam where I had a fairly good birding experience last week. Unbeknownst to me, Wednesday was the day they turn the sprinklers on. Water was spurting practically everywhere...most especially at places where seed-eating birds normally feed. After an hour of driving around and not finding the usual array of avian species expected here, I decided to hightail it to Peck's Pit in El Monte, hoping that the bird gods (not to mention the birthday gods) would shower me with mercy and make the anniversary of my birth not so disappointing as it had been so far.

I always have misgivings whenever I go Peck's Pit by myself. The place had been known to occasionally harbor some unsavory characters. Thankfully, it was not so today. Thankfully, too, that there were sparrows galore. 

At the edge of the lake, after taking a shot at a Cormorant, I staked out a Belted Kingfisher which flushed when my subject cormorant flew. Knowing that birds are creatures of habit and that kingfishers usually come back to their favorite hunting spot, I waited for close to an hour for it to return. Alas, all that waiting was in vain. This kingfisher must have kicked the habit, I murmured to myself.

As I was waiting for the uncooperative kingfisher, I noticed a Great Egret fly by. What caught my attention was an orange thing sticking out of its back. When I looked at the picture later that day, my worst suspicions were confirmed - it was an arrow! It seemed that the big bird was none the worse for that, but it makes me mad that someone could be so cruel to do that kind of thing.

Tired of waiting and upset at what I have just seen, I thought it was about time to go home. Approaching the trees close to the parking lot, I noticed a flock of small birds with dark heads. Juncos, I surmised, and inasmuch as I still don't have any decent photos of these cute migrants, I immediately assumed my best stalking stance and inched closer to where they were feeding. But wait, why were their bellies striped and why were there plain brown birds hanging out with them? Surely these can't be Juncos, but what are they?

Using my binoculars I focused on the group and realized I was looking at a species that calls Africa its home. Bronzed Mannikins (aka Bronze-winged Mannikins) are small sparrow-like birds that are rather common as caged birds. What I was looking at were most likely escapees that have established themselves in the seed-rich grassland of Peck's Pit.

Now that made my day, and my birthday a happy bird-day.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

American Idle

Friday, October 19th - the day I did absolutely nothing. It wasn't that I was feeling sick or anything, I just decided to relax and give my aging body some much needed rest.

After taking my wife to work, I immediately returned home and went back to bed. I woke up at around 11 am, surfed the internet for a while and took a leisurely lunch. Washed the dishes afterwards and then back on the computer to prep my photos for the 2008 calendar edition which I plan to sell to augment my dwindling finances. OK, that may be considered "work" but for me it's all fun and I enjoyed doing it.

I picked up my wife at 4;30 and we were back home before 5 pm. As I write this, I reminisce of the times when I was working. Friday has always been a day of anticipation - counting down each day from Monday eagerly waiting for the respite of the weekend. By 5 pm, with nerves frayed and my mind stressed almost to the point of mental collapse, I leave the office, knowing in my heart that this whole routine would be repeated come Monday morning.

But that was now a thing of the past. Here I was on a Friday wallowing in almost sinful idleness.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thrush your Instinct

After driving my wife to work I went birding at Eaton Canyon. Gasoline prices being prohibitive as it was (more than $3 a gallon!), I thought it would be wise to go someplace near. Eaton Canyon is not exactly my favorite birding place because almost always there'll be noisy hikers and people walking their dogs. But then again, those were on weekends, so hopefully I won't encounter these distractions today.

The place was quiet when I arrived. A quick look-around resulted in zero bird sightings. Of course, there were little old ladies walking their little old pooches. I sighed in desperation as walked back to the Jeep. Just as I was putting back my gear, a movement under the bushes in front of me caught my eye. Grabbing my camera, I chased after a California Thrasher but it dove under a thicket and promptly vanished. It's a sign, I thought to myself. My instinct says I will find birds here while my impatience argued against staying. The morning is still young so I decided to follow my instincts.

It wasn't long when I saw my first bird - a White-crowned Sparrow enjoying a breakfast of seeds. Then it was as if a fog was lifted, for now I see birds at places where there were none before! At a small clearing next to a low stone fence, a group of Juncos, Sparrows and Butterbutts were busy feeding on the leaf covered ground. Most of them flew away as I approached. I sat still on the stone fence hoping they would return. They didn't. Only the Yellow-rumped did and while I was watching it's insect-hunting antics, I noticed a small brown bird with longish, thin legs fly in. It hopped on a rock and surveyed the surroundings as if some feathered royal staking his claim on this piece of land. It was a Hermit Thrush - considered America's best songbird. It gave me some good photo ops, seemingly enjoying the attention it was getting from me. I wished it sang for me though.

It was 10:30 when three busloads of pre-school children arrived for what I gathered to be a school nature field trip. As for me, my trip was now over.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Life after Indymac

Today is day two of my being unemployed. So far, so good. I definitely was not missing my work at Indymac.

So what did I do? Why, go birding, of course! I headed off to Santa Fe Dam in the hope of seeing the Palm Warbler reported by Andrew Lee just a couple of days earlier. Well, I dipped on that but it was a great morning of birding nonetheless! It was a gray day so there wasn't much photography done. Still, birds were everywhere, particularly the Yellow-rumped Warblers. Highlight of the day was a Canyon Wren ( !!! ). I tried taking its picture from the Jeep but it was away from the driver's side so I pointed my camera against the (dirty) windshield while the engine was running (and therefore the camera was shaking). I couldn't leave the driver's seat because I was in the middle of a one-lane road. So I decided to park and go after the bird on foot, but then it was already gone when I returned to the place where it was chasing insects earlier.

Another highlight was a Northern Flicker that was foraging on the ground. Flickers are cousins to the Woodpeckers and normally they would hunt for food on tree trunks. So it was a bit of a surprise to see this one away from a tree. Also, this time, it was on the driver's side and I was able to get some decent shots from my vehicle.

Around 11 am, my ex-officemates called and invited me to have lunch at our favorite Mexican place. We had good food and even better conversation - seems like only yesterday that we worked at the same office. Wait, it was really only yesterday!

Anyway, they had to go back to work and I was left with nothing to do. Well, that's not exactly true, there were lots of work to do at home. Thus, the whole afternoon was spent fixing things that need to be fixed, tidying up things that need to be tidied up.

These home "makeovers" continued until Wednesday, and most likely will become a daily activity for me.

Some officemates speculated that I will be bored when I no longer have a job. The way things are going, I do not think so.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Turn the Twitch On? - The Sequel

In my earlier blog, I debated the idea of being a "twitcher" - a birder who chases lifers and rare birds. Last Saturday, Oct. 13th, an opportunity to twitch presented itself when a Black-throated Blue Warbler was reported seen at Holmby Park in Westwood - a few blocks from UCLA.

"What the heck", I told my wife, "lets do the twitch" So eager were we in getting there as early as possible, that the usual side trip to McDonalds was done away with. There were three birders already staking out the firewheel tree which the rare warbler frequents. We wanted to be sure that the bird was there first, before we bring in our heavy equipment, so I just grabbed my binoculars and promtply interrogated the birding trio. They have just arrived, we were told, and had not seen the rarity yet. Just then, Cynthia saw something blue move behind the huge green leaves.

"Is that it?", she asked me. Peering through my binos, I immediately noticed the blue color and white wing bars.

"There it is!" I yelled to the other birders, pointing to the red-flowered tree.

"Go get the cameras", my wife reminded me. Handing her the binoculars, "Don't lose track of it" I implored her as I ran towards the Jeep. It took me a good 10 minutes before I got my gear all set-up. As I plunked the tripod in front of the tree, I heard my wife say, "It is gone. It showed itself briefly near the top of the tree and then flew off to the taller sycamore trees".

We waited for two hours waiting for it to return as it has been wont to do (so we've been told), passing the time by taking shots at a somewhat cooperative Black-throated Gray Warbler, our quarry's commoner and less colorful cousin. My patience finally ran out and not having breakfast, my stomach has started to make funny noises. So we reluctantly left and drove back home (I read later that the Black-throated Blue Warbler actually did return to the same tree a few minutes after we left).

Which brings me to conclude that as a birder, twitching is exciting, but the bird photographer in me was very heartbroken at not being able to capture the image of a rare and lovely bird. For me, birding and bird-photography had become inseparable. I cannot be content at the medium of being a happy birder and at the same being a sad photographer. Chasing and getting a picture of the Pectoral Sandpiper a week ago was a stroke of luck and it doesn't always end up like that as evidenced by Saturday's turn of events.

Looking back, most of the twitching we did this year has been succesful - the Hepatic Tanager in San Diego, the Pine Warbler at Estancia Park, the Mississippi Kite at South Coast Botanic Garden, the Bay-breasted Warbler at Sea Gate Park and the Arctic Warbler at Galileo Hills. Of course, we dipped on a few as well - the Yellow-throated Warbler at Tewinkle Park, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Ballona Creek and the Blackburnian Warbler and Blackpoll Warblers at the Laguna Tams. But then such is the life of a birder, even the most avid of twitchers. You win some, you lose some. The thrill, I believe, lies in the uncertainty of the chase. Another notch on my lifelist belt or an addition to my growing album of bird photographs (or none of those) are just end results of a game of adventure and chance.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Departed

Allow me to digress from birding just for this time. Monday, Oct. 15th will be my last day at work. After more than 11 years with this company, the time has come to say goodbye. Below was a "valedictory" email that I sent to my friends and co-workers.

The klieg lights have been dimmed. The orchestra has left the pit. The curtain has been brought down. The physically challenged lady has sung. After over 11 years, it is now time to exit stage left.

In the coming days I will be looking back and once more hear the applause and some occasional boos. When the band played triumphal marches and a few sad requiems. Memories of my life on the Indymac stage will be a constant companion as I sit back and enjoy the freedom from the pressures demanded by the repertory.

Above all I will cherish the moments spent with those who were at the backstage with me. Away from the limelight, these are those who shared my joys and my tears. I will remember those who draped an arm around my shoulders when I needed it most and those who laughed at my oftentimes corny jokes. These are the people who made my decision to leave very difficult. I will remember them all and my heart will smile.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Turn the Twitch on?

Our destination Saturday was Orange County. But first tradition must be fulfilled. That means breakfast at MacDonalds. After enjoying our morning repast at Warner and Bolsa, we then proceeded to Bolsa Chica where it was uncharacteristically un-birdy. Even the usual mob of photographers with their tripods and big lenses were absent.

We swung by Upper Newport Bay and again we didn't even bother to unload our cameras. We did see our FOS (First-of-Season) White-crowned Sparrows and the Song Sparrow that had a thing with side mirrors. Every time we parked at UNB, without fail, this particular bird would hop onto our side mirror and would begin to challenge its reflection there. Other than this tragi-comic side show, Upper Newport Bay did not have much to offer.

But then, perhaps it was because my heart was set on going to San Joaquin Wildlife Area that I did not bother to explore the two places we visited earlier. Perhaps it was the posted sighting there of a Pectoral Sandpiper on Friday night that conditioned my senses to chase after it. Sure enough, as soon as we have parked the Jeep, I half-dragged my wife to Pond D where the uncommon peep was last seen. The sighting was further confirmed by a couple we met as they were returning from the ponds.

Heart beating in anticipation I scanned the almost dried up habitat, looking at each and every shorebird, trying to find the telltale streaks on the breast that would confirm its identity. Finally with a yell of triumph that startled Cynthia who was standing next to me, I located my lifer! But it was still too far to be photgraphed even with my 500 + 1.4 lens.

"Look, there's a path through the reeds and the ground there seems dry enough", my wife helpfully suggested as she pointed downward.

"Gung Ho!" I shouted as I almost jumped the 20-foot slope. On solid ground close to the reeds (but far enough so as not to disturb the various birds enjoying the water), I positioned myself and waited....

As if by Divine providence (or maybe it was), the Pectoral Sandpiper moved away from the flock of other peeps and walked towards me! There it fed at just the right distance for my big lens to focus on it properly. Satisfied that I have taken the sandpiper's pictures from every conceivable angle, I bade it goodbye, thanked the birding gods and clambered back to the trail.

Everything was anti-climactic after that. Well, almost. My wife and I were preparing to leave when we heard a screeching noise coming from above. Valkyries? Banshees? In the middle of the day? Our curiosity was soon answered when a very young Red-tailed Hawk came flying in and landed on a branch maybe 50 feet directly above us. There it sat and screeched inviting the attention of newly arriving birders (this was right at the parking lot). Needless to say, we took advantage of this photo-op until we had cricks on our necks.

Reflecting on the events of the morning while having lunch at Sizzler's, the unsettling thought came to me that I might be turning into a twitcher. A twitcher, of course, is a birder who will go after (twitch) a rarity or a lifer at the drop of a hat and by all means possible. Knowing also that I will soon have a lot of time in my hands, chasing never-before-seen birds would not be a far-fetched activity after all. It could be fun, too, but sobriety still reigns, I think. I will probably go after a lifer, but only if it is convenient, and never as a consuming passion.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Signs of the Tams

My short hiatus from birding was over! I finally announced to my bosses at work that I am accepting the "voluntary severance program". Officially, I will be out of work by Oct. 16. Inasmuch as that onus was now out of my system, I can focus (pun intended) on the activities that are near and dear to my heart: birding and bird photography!

It had been established as some sort of tradition (by quite a few birders, I presume) to visit the tamarisk trees lining Laguna Road in Camarillo (commonly referred to as Laguna Tams) during fall migration. Despite its small area - about 50 trees along the road, it has been known to harbor vast quantities and quite a diversity in species of warblers. A rarity or two had been known to visit these pine-like trees from time-to-time.

So that was our destination Saturday morning. Sure enough, as soon as we got there, warblers of various kinds were popping in and out of the needle-like leaves. There were Townsends, tons of Wilsons, Black-throated Grays, and Orange-crowned (including the gray-headed subspecies). Warbling Vireos were also represented in great numbers. We didn't see the Blackburnian Warbler that was reported a week ago though.

For me and my wife, deprived of good birding photo ops for a forthnight, experiencing this bonanza was a thrill touched with a little frustration. The birds, of course, were constantly in motion, oftentimes in the darker parts of the trees making photography a little difficult. Sometimes, they would be too close for our big lenses to focus on! Then again, stalking flitting warblers and at the same time keeping a wary eye on oncoming vehicles hurtling at 70 mph a few inches from where we were was an exercise in sheer, heart-pounding adventure.

Noonish, bird activity quieted down somewhat. Reluctantly we left the Tams and had lunch at Wendy's - that was after obliging to my wife's wishes to shop at nearby Target (for household items she assured me).

After lunch we decided to go to Ballona Creek to try for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper reported seen the day before. We dipped on that, but still had a great time shooting Surfbirds, both species of Turnstones and a few peeps.

At the end of the day, Cynthia and I were both happy at the results of our return-to-birding jaunt. Portent of days to come? We hope so.