Monday, December 31, 2007

Feliz Bolsa Chica

After Christmas my wife and I agreed that we needed to shed off a few pounds gained through partaking sinful foods from various holiday feasts. A walk around Bolsa Chica would do the trick was our unanimous decision.

There weren't too many people at the boardwalk when we arrived. Cynthia wasted no time joining the photographer who was so concentrated on taking pictures of something beneath the boardwalk. She was rewarded by shots of a Surf Scoter enjoying an early morning clam chowder, without the chowder. The clam was of course gone when I arrived at the scene.

Our walk up to the tidal gates was uneventful, perhaps because the water level was quite high thus no waders nor peeps were present. The resident ducks were all dozing off at some distance away from the trails. While passing by the tall, dead trees on the north side, Cynthia pointed to a fluff of feathers ensconced between the trunk and a thick branch on the shadowy part of a tree. Bringing up my binos, I at first, couldn't figure out what the creature was. It then moved its head and opened its eyes (it, too, was dozing off) and hallelujah! A Peregrine Falcon!! We have always wanted to get a photograph of this magnificent raptor, preferably in flight, but hey, a sleepy one would do just fine. We probably spent about an hour just admiring and taking photographs of our unmindful subject. Occasionally, we would proudly point it to some passing birders, as if it were our very own trophy. Actually, Cynthia was just waiting for it to fly so she could fulfill her dream (she's the expert in BIF - birds in flight - shots).

While my wife was patiently waiting for some peregrine action, I wandered off a bit and got some nice shots of a Downy Woodpecker which was loudly pok-pok-poking nearby.

A few meters up the trail, I was surprised to find a male Red-breasted Merganser swimming close to the shore. Up to this point I have only seen females at various locations (even at an unlikely place as the tiny, trickling San Diego Creek). You can just imagine my thrill in getting a male, which has a dark deep blue head, as opposed to the female's red-orange, at such close range. I also did get a photo of a female later on our return trip.

Realizing that the falcon had no intent of leaving its roost, we reluctantly moved on. As we were negotiating the middle berm, I spotted the Reddish Egret also trying to get some shut-eye.

This time as I was pre-occupied with my target wader, Cynthia's attention was caught by a Belted Kingfisher perched not too far from the egret. Despite the distance and the relatively small size of the kingfisher, my wife was still able to get her BIF shot.

And as we were leaving the area, she also got a picture of what looks like a pissed-off Anna's Hummingbird.

As we neared the tidal gates once again, we were startled by a raptor that quickly took off from a grassy spot in the middle of the channel. When I looked at where it flew from, I noticed that there was still another raptor remaining behind. The owl-like disc on its face told me it was a Northern Harrier!

We have never been this close to a Harrier before and so we started clickling away until the raptor had enough of us and decided to follow its mate. This time I got my BIF shot.

Everything was sort of anti-climatic after that. Even the Scoter has left the vicinity of the boardwalk.

We may not have lost the desired poundage that day but we sure gained a few nice surprises.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

See no Eagle, Hear no Eagle

Cynthia will be working half-day on Christmas Eve. I thought I'd try for the Bald Eagle at Bonelli yet one more time before I pick my wife up. Despite arriving there quite early - around 8:30 am - the eagle decided to spend the holidays elsewhere depriving me and my friend Chris Akiyoshi (whom I met there) of what could have been a great Christmas present.

Not counting the disappointment of dipping on the eagle, Bonelli still had some goodies to offer. The Painted Redstart as always, was a thrill to watch. Its symbiotic partner, the Red-breasted Sapsucker was there, too, of course. The tree that these two species occupy was also visited by a female Nuttall's Woodpecker. While helping Chris locate the Brown Creeper that I saw on the 15th, we got a surprise when a White-breasted Nuthatch showed up instead.

Early on, during my eagle vigil, I spent close to two hours just looking at the regular avian denizens of the lake. When you spend that much time watching them, the "ordinary" birds became interesting either by chance or by their behavior. Examples were the "three-billed" Gadwall and the fighting Coots.

Soon it was time to go. Chris and I exchanged Christmas wishes and better luck in future birding endeavors, particularly for a certain Bald Eagle who reportedly visits Bonelli regularly.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nice and E.C.

The rains finally stopped this morning. I decided to take advantage of this respite to do a quick birding/photography at nearby Eaton Canyon. I wasn't expecting much, the day still dreary and cold with only an occasional glimmer of sunlight.

Instead of going behind the Nature Center as I usually do, I thought a change of direction would yield better prospects. First bird seen was a lone Anna's Hummingbird perched forlornly on a dead branch. Then nothing. As I approached the fenced off corral (used by the equestrian folks next door), a very skittish Say's Phoebe was hawking for insects. I move one step towards it and the bird would fly off to the other side of the corral. This happened several times that I almost titled this blog: Say No More. (har, har). On one occasion, while chasing the elusive phoebe, a larger brown bird flew by and caught my attention. Thinking it was just another Mourning Dove, I was about to continue my pursuit when the brown bird flashed some orange and soon alighted on a concrete structure near the fence. Peering through my binoculars, I was a bit surprised to see an American Kestrel. And the Phoebe was perched only a few feet away from it! Irony of ironies! Here I was only harmlessly desiring to take it's picture and the darn flycatcher avoided me like the plague and yet it would fly close to a known bird-killer! Strangely, the Kestrel paid no attention to it.

Frustrated, I started the trek back to the Nature Center only to make an abrupt halt. A little brown bird was hopping near the trailhead, itself looking for some hapless insect. I stood there almost awe-struck as the Rock Wren paid little notice to me and just did what hungry little Rock Wrens do at this time of day. This was the second time in the month of December that I was photographically rewarded by this cooperative species.

Back at the Nature Center, I dipped on the White-throated Sparrow but had good looks on a pair of Golden-crowneds. And what has now become a normal routine whenever I visit Eaton Canyon, I got serenaded by Hermit Thrushes.

North of the Center, I got some good shots of my target species by standing behind a dumpster (thank God it was empty). Three California Thrashers were sifting through fallen leaves looking for some tasty morsels. One, thinking I was just some pile of garbage, came close enough for a good photo-op.

With two notches in my belt and the morning still young, I was feeling lucky. The third notch came a few minutes later and was a total surprise for me. A few blogs ago, I had an "oh darn" moment from my last visit to this place. I saw but failed to photograph a Fox Sparrow. This time as I passed a small puddle behind a picnic shed, I noticed some movement from the corner of my eye. I stopped and remained motionless. In a short while, a Fox Sparrow appeared from underneath the bushes and plopped into the puddle. Why a tiny bird would bathe in 50 degree weather is beyond me. I wasn't arguing with nature as I happily captured for posterity the private ablutions of an uncommon sparrow.

Dark clouds soon began to gather and then my cellphone rang. My former co-workers were inviting me to lunch at a Thai restaurant. I got my 3 notches without so much of a sweat and now looking forward to a free lunch. I was singing in the rain that afternoon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

No Eagle but got some Birdies

Lately our birding sorties had been more purposeful. Few were the days when we would go birding just for the sake of birding. Luckily, Southern California every so often had something new to offer (at least to us). There was the Bay-breasted Warbler at Legg Lake and the Wilson's Snipes at Irvine. Last week it was the Roseate Spoonbill at the Santa Ana River. Yesterday, Saturday, we went after the Bald Eagle seen at the Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas.

As we walked towards the lake, we met a bird photographer acquaintance, Dave Furseth ( When asked about the eagle, he informed us that right now it was across the lake. But it occasionally would fly back, he said encouragingly. We chose a good spot by the lakeshore, where it was sunny, the day being quite cold with even a bit of a wind chill factor, and started our stake out.

After a while, just as we were getting bored at looking at the various ducks and grebes taking their mid-morning siesta, a relatively bigger sized bird flew in and splashed among the sleeping water birds. Cormorant, I told, Cynthia, almost nonchalantly. Another one of those regular species you would see in these type of habitat. But then, it wasn't dark colored like a cormorant. So I peeped through my camera's 400mm lens (I forgot to bring my binoculars, a mortal sin amongst avid birders - old age dementia must be sinking in, what can I say?). Lo and behold, it was a Common Merganser! As I have said in my previous blog, despite its name, these duck-like birds are not at all that common in Southern California waters. Revived from our stupor-like vigil, we happily snapped away at the red-headed swimmer.

Having had our fill with the merganser and the Bald Eagle still a no-show, we decided to move on. We headed northward where we met a couple of birders who were participating in the Los Angeles Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Yes, they both have seen the Bald Eagle. Yes, it flies back and forth across the lake. Once again, spirits buoyed by this report, we scanned the skies over the lake. We would get excited whenever something bigger than a swift would appear at the horizon, only to discover that it would be anything but an eagle. By this time, close to two hours have already passed. Abandoning all hope of ever seeing the majestic symbol of the United States, we trekked back to where the Jeep was parked.

Once again, we saw the bird counters. One of them showed the list of the birds they had seen that day and it tallied pretty much with what we have seen as well. Except for the Bald Eagle, of course. Just then Cynthia called my attention and excitedly pointed at small piece of bark moving up a tree trunk. Looking closely, my heart leapt at seeing a Brown Creeper investigating every nook and cranny of the tree for bugs. Its constant motion and preference for the shadowed side of the tree makes it quite a challenge at being photographed. When its search for food brought it towards the top of the fir tree where pine needles were aplenty, we gave up taking its picture.

Closer to where our vehicle was parked, I noticed a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding among the grass. The most common subspecies of Juncos are the Oregon type. These were those with dark heads and grayish bellies. However, I noticed that one of the birds in the flock does not have the usual dark head, but a tiny black mask instead. I just saw and photographed the not-too-common Gray-headed variety of Junco!

Before leaving the park, we thought we'd give the lake one more look, this time by the green pier that fishermen frequents. And maybe get some sparrow or wren or yellowthroat by the grove close by. None of those landbirds showed up and the Bald Eagle continued to stay away from our anxious eyes. However, for our consolation, we got a Red-tailed Hawk in flight and not long after, an Osprey grabbed an unlucky trout right in front of our very eyes!

We got our birdies, and we hope we eventually will get our eagle too.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Spoonful of Shoe Gear

When I visited San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary Friday, Dec. 7th, the place was just so darn muddy that my regular hiking shoes were covered with sticky, dark soil. I gave them a thorough washing as soon as I got home yesterday. They were still wet when I checked them this morning.

When we decided to chase after the Roseate Spoonbill Saturday, I had no choice but to wear my back-up hiking shoes. These were not as comfortable as my regular ones and little did I know that they would be used for walking great distances (for me, a mile is considered "great distance") and clambering up and down steep levees while carrying a ton of camera gear on my shoulder. Needless to say, my feet and ankles (not to mention my shoulder) were complaining bitterly by the end of our twitching day.

Not only were my feet complaining, my photographer heart was aching as well. I am sort of a schizophrenic in a certain way. I am both a birder and a bird photographer. And there are times, such as today, when these two aspects of my life war against each other. The birder in me was rejoicing because I added Platalea ajaja to my lifelist. However, the photographer side of me was frustrated by not being able to get a good picture of the Spoonbill.

Yesterday, I was talking with Monte Stinett, another birder cum photographer, while waiting for the rare wader to show up. The conversation turned to the time we got started on our hobbies. Monte explained that he is a photographer first and foremost and enjoyed birds as his subject. Rather than just having a picture of a "little brown bird" he researched as to what kind it was, where is its habitat, etc, etc. and consequently got hooked into birding. I, on the other hand, was a birder first, having started while I was still in my teens in the Philippines. It was my desire to record in print the images of the species I have seen that steered me towards photography.

That said, I'd say the birder in me has the stronger emotional stimuli, especially if a lifer has been seen. That there's always a chance of getting a better photograph of such and such bird in the future has been my rationalization for moments like today.

Bad shoes and bad photographs notwithstanding, the Roseate Spoonbill was now added to my growing list of birds seen in my lifetime.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Dip and Luck

Any self-respecting Southern California birder would naturally want to see the Roseate Spoonbill hanging around the Santa Ana river in Orange. I still got some little self-respect left so despite the fact it had just rained, I joined the flock of eager birders Friday morning to look for the rarity. I'll make it as quick and as painless as possible. We dipped.

All the hopeful chasers left at around 11 am. It was just my friend, Raul Roa, and myself who remained. We looked at each other and agreed that we should give up as well. I gave Raul directions to Peter's Canyon so that he can save the day by photographing the friendly resident Roadrunner there. I hoped to save my day by going to San Diego Creek behind the Irvine Civic Center parking lot and photograph the Wilson's Snipes seen there.

Wilson's Snipes would be a lifer for me - all I have to do is find them. I quickly surveyed the creek which was flowing furiously after last night's downpour. There were some gray-streaked birds foraging for food by the creekside. Could they be...? Binoculars said they were Lesser Yellowlegs. I went a bit upstream where a lone Cormorant was drying itself. As I came closer, a duck-like bird with red head that seemed to have a bad-hair day plopped into the water. Binoculars said it was a female Common Merganser! Despite it's name, Common Mergansers are not that common in Southern California waters, particularly in a fresh water creek.

Thrilled by that discovery, I ambled downstream to search for my original quarry. I focused on a suspicious looking clump of twigs in the middle of the creek. Something moved! A Cinnamon Teal. Slowly, I scanned every bit of vegetation and other detritus accumulated by the flowing waters. I'll make it as quick and as painless as possible. I got my lifer. Lifers, actually, for there were about six or seven of them.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Where or Wren

Tuesday seemed like a nice day for birding. Santa Fe Dam seemed like a nice place to go birding. So I just put one and one together and voila! I spent almost the whole day Tuesday birding first at Santa Fe Dam then finishing off at Eaton Canyon. The entrance booth at Santa Fe Dam was unoccupied as I drove in. That means that parking is free! Augurs well for the day, I thought, smiling.

Passing by parking lot number 3, I noticed a small brown bird hopping on the rocks. Was this the same wren I saw several months ago and took some very bad pictures of? So bad that I can't properly identify the bird. I hastily parked the Jeep and rushed over to the pile of rocks near the road. This time the wren stayed put as it was busy trying to devour a rather large worm. Lighting was not that perfect, but hey, a photo-op is a photo-op. Having finished off its wriggly prey, the little brown bird flew off to some place not accessible by bumbling humans.

I continued driving and as I passed by parking lot number 4, there was another wren atop a small rock by the roadside. It's deja vu all over again as Yogi Berra would say. Parked the Jeep, ran to where the bird was and took photographs like crazy. This time the light was much better.

Later as I was talking with fellow birders, Tom and Jim, I showed them the images I took of the wren and both of them confirmed that it was indeed a Rock Wren. Woo-hoo! Until today I have not had the good fortune of getting a decent shot of this species.

Tom and Jim were looking for the Mountain Bluebirds reported seen here. They dipped on it, but I not only saw the birds, I got pictures of them to boot. That's the advantage of arriving early at the scene, I guess. Aside from the Rock Wren and the Mountain Bluebirds, I got really good shots of a Cooper's Hawk, an American Robin and three kinds of Geese: White-fronted, Cackling (Aleutian subspecies) and Ross'.

After lunch, I proceeded to Eaton Canyon hoping to refind and rephotograph its rare visitor - the White-throated Sparrow. As I approach the back of the Nature Center, a lady who was in the patio at the Nature Center itself, yelled and said, "The White-throated Sparrow was found there", waving her arms towards the east. "Lady", I replied, "I'm looking right at it." The bird was there in front of me giving me a curious eye and was only about 20 feet away from my helpful guide.

My perambulations at the park yielded shots of Wrentits which came so close to me that my camera couldn't even focus properly. Bewick's Wrens were frolicking everywhere. Then there were my dear friends, the Hermit Thrushes, who always provide good photo-ops. This time I actually heard their song (which is really something, considering I'm a bit hearing impaired). My only "oh, darn!" moment was when I saw Fox Sparrows but weren't able to get pictures of them. These birds were so skittish!

I'd say both luck and patience paid off today.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Ibiseeing you

Battling with neck and shoulder pain, (ah, the travails of getting old) I still asked Cynthia that we go birding Saturday afternoon. I wanted to see the reported Wilson's Snipes at the Irvine Civic Center as it would be a lifer for us.

I don't know what happened, but plans changed when we exited Jamboree Ave in Irvine. We ended up at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary instead. After looking at the various duck species at the ponds, we checked out San Diego Creek (afterall it was in this creek that the snipes were seen, albeit further upstream). Down below was a White-faced Ibis nonchalantly feeding among the Killdeers. We saw this bird as we drove in but when I got off to get a better look at it, it was spooked by a low-flying Red-tailed Hawk. Which prompted my wife to declare that it was a "scared" Ibis - an intended pun against the Sacred Ibis of Asia. Witty, my wife is.

Having gotten some good shots of the wader, we proceeded to Upper Newport Bay to look for the Short-eared Owl. Dipped on that one (although some birders saw it a few minutes after we left). Oh well, c'est la vie. At least we got eye-level shots of an American Kestrel and a very busy Say's Phoebe.

We passed by San Joaquin again on the way home where we met fellow photographer and Blogger Glenn Price & Felicia Lee, respectively, who were just about ready to leave, too.

That evening at Wal-mart (a good place to end a birding day, at least according to my wife), we met fellow photographer Jimmy Chen and his wife Susan. We may not have been that successful in seeing our target birds but meeting friends definitely added nice memories for the day.