Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Texas Trip Part III - 01/25/08 - Birding in the South and East

Sabal Palm Audubon Center is located south of Brownsville right along the U.S./Mexico border. Even before we parked the car, I spotted our first lifer of the day (and 13th overall). The bright black and orange of the Altamira Oriole was a joy to behold as it was silhouetted against the dark, gray skies.

There were the usual feeders right next to the Visitor Center. Squabbling for better feeding positions were the gaudily colored Green Jays. We were thrilled by the bright green and yellow and blue hues flashed before our eyes as we chalked up lifer number 14. Number 15 were the relatively drabber White-tipped Doves taking advantage of the seeds that fell from the feeders.

From the feeders we took to the trail that goes around a small pond. As we were walking we heard some squawks and saw a Cararcara chase an unidentified hawk. Later, we saw the hawk perched atop a tree across the pond. It was a juvenile Gray Hawk and our 16th lifer. At the pond were some Least Grebes and calling Kiskadees. A Common Yellowthroat hunted the vegetation sticking out of the waters for some tasty insects. Northern Cardinals were busy working the trail grounds.

On the return trail, we met Art & Janet Riley from Michigan. They informed us that there were some Black-crested Titmice visiting the feeders where we saw the Green Jays earlier. Sure enough, our lifer number 17 darted in and out of the trees near the feeders. 

We continued on to the Native Trails, where small birds abound. Sparrows, warblers, vireos and gnatcatchers were flitting about and it frustrated us no end because we were hardpressed at identifying these tiny, active birds and coming up with only a few that we have already seen before (Olive Sparrows, White-eyed Vireos, Nashville Warblers). Ladder-backed Woodpeckers also announced their presence by their tapping on the tree trunk.

We had lunch at the Golden China buffet then off to South Padre Island. South Padre Island, it turned out, was a resort town. Hotels and pricey restaurants lined the main thoroughfare. Towards the northern end of the island was the Convention Center and right next to it was a boardwalk that extends into the marshy area by the seaside. Given the right weather condition, this boardwalk would undoubtedly yield a virtual goldmine of bird species. Today, however, gloomy skies and blustery winds only gave one additional lifer: The Little Blue Heron was our number 18. 

There were some plovers on the mudflats some distance away that I hoped would be another lifer (either a Piping or a Wilsons) but the identity was very much iffy and I will not include it at this stage.

As the afternoon progressed, so did the intensity of the wind and coldness. We thought it prudent and healthy to rush back to the warm comforts of our hotel room.

P.S. on the plovers. It was a Semipalmated Plover which wasn't a lifer for us.

Texas Trip Part II - 01/24/08 Birding in the Rain

This is our first day of really serious birding. Five am and it was drizzling outside. After doing our early morning ablutions, we headed over to the hotel annex where a free, hot breakfast buffet was being served. Surprisingly (then again, maybe not) we were the first customers. The Mexican lady in charge kept talking to us in Spanish. I guess that because we were not "white", she assumed we were Hispanics as well. (We would get this kind of treatment many times over during our stay in South Texas. Come to think of it we didn't see many Orientals here.). Hurdling the language barrier (she understands and speaks some English, too) we settled for some pancakes, ham omelet and of course, steaming coffee. We will have this same breakfast every single morning, except when we had to leave early on Saturday and stopped by Denny's along the way.

Our intended destination that morning was Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge some 50 miles northeast of where we were staying. Funny thing was we kept ignoring the directions given by our GPS unit - which we christened "Eartha" as in Eartha Kitt (a famous singer from our generation - as an FYI to you, young ones). Kitt, as some of you may remember was the talking car in Knight Rider, a TV series in the 70's (or was it 80's?). And since "Global", the "G" in GPS is synonymous with "Earth", and the unit's voice being female, thus Eartha seemed appropriate. So there.

Enough of the digression. Two miles before reaching our destination, the pavement ended. Since it had been raining on and off for the past few days, the unpaved road had turned quite muddy. (How apt - atascosa is Spanish for muddy). It would be sheer stupidity to attempt to navigate this mucky, icky two miles with our little rental car with teeny, weeny wheels. Had we followed Eartha's directions, we discovered a few days later, we would have been spared of having to go through the muddy portion of this particular road. But for now, we had to quickly come up with plan B. Looking at my printout of local birding hotspots (whose directions we pigheadedly followed instead of the GPS), we noticed that there was a small nature park not too far away from where we were.

Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen was only a fraction in size compared to the vast Laguna Atascosa but my references indicated that it is quite birdy nonetheless. A few yards after doing a U-turn from the pavement's end, we were surprised to see an Osprey perched on a tree stump by the roadside. Cynthia readied her camera as I inched the car closer to the bird. Of course, it flew off just before she could press the shutter. Further down the road, I spotted a flying raptor with a white tail. I screeched to a stop and watched the raptor land on the grassy ground much too far for our camera lens' reach. Using my binoculars I noticed the conspicuous white head as it walked on the field. A white-headed, white-tailed raptor that walks? That could only mean that it was a Crested Caracara! We just got our first lifer of the trip! We encountered another one as we neared the city of Harlingen, but it was deja vu as the bird would fly and then land way beyond photographic focusing distance.

We picked up our second lifer along this route as well. the bright yellow belly of a Great Kiskadee flashed as the bird flew from the side of the road to a nearby tree. Unfortunately, we are unable to park the car to try to take a picture because again, the road shoulder was soft and quite muddy.

Soon we were at Hugh Ramsey Park. There we met a park volunteer just as he was leaving. He was kind enough to give us a map and pointed at places where we are most likely to encounter the local avifauna. We tried the Hummingbird area first. There were feeders of different kinds catering to the various needs of the resident bird population. Many of the feeders were empty at this time and so we didn't see a lot of activity. A whirr of wings startled Cynthia who suddenly realized she was just a few feet away from a Buff-bellied Hummingbird trying to obtain nourishment from a red feeder. We got our third lifer!

At this point allow me to squeeze in a disclaimer: All photographs taken during this trip were below our standards. Gloomy, rainy weather pervaded throughout our stay in South Texas. The ambient light was always poor and the birds tended to stay under the shades and out of the rain and wind.

For the most part of the morning we see-sawed between the Hummingbird Area and a trail that leads to a small pond. Out of these perambulations, we picked four more lifers: Olive Sparrow, Long-billed Thrasher, Carolina Wren and White-eyed Vireo. The latter we didn't even realize until we reviewed the photographs back at the hotel.

We looked for a place to have lunch debating whether to go a fast food joint or to a more expensive sit-down restaurant. Looking bedraggled after spending several hours under wind and rain pretty much killed option 2. We were then thrown into a dilemma, since we really didn't want to go for burgers and fries. We were driving along in such a quandary when we spotted a familiar, albeit unexpected name. In the two times that we visited Sierra Vista in Arizona, we have always enjoyed the buffet and the casual ambiance of the Golden Corral. The food there was always good and the price very reasonable. We thanked God for solving our gastronomical (and economical, I might add) problems and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the Golden Corral in the city of Harlingen, Texas.

Per suggestion of Bob Archer, whom we met at Hugh Ramsey (he replenished the feeders later that morning) we proceeded to the Estero Llano Grande Park in Weslaco, some 20-odd miles from Harlingen. It was probably due to the inclement weather or it being a weekday (or both) but we were the only visitors to the park. We were warmly greeted by Ben Luna, the Park Ranger, who gave us information on where to go and what birds to expect in the area.

When I met up with my wife after I answered nature's call, she had this smug smile on her face that told me she had seen something I ought to see for myself. Without saying a word, she pointed to a big, brown bird sitting forlornly on top of a feeder just a few feet away from us. The Plain Chachalaca was added as lifer number 8.

As we walked away from the Visitor Center, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker became number 9 on our life list.

Later on at Alligator Pond (yes, there were supposed to be alligators there but we didn't see any), we added three more to our list: Anhinga, Tri-colored Heron and Least Grebe. By 4 pm, the drizzle had metamorphosed into real, honest-to-goodness rain. With 12 new birds under our belts, we called it day.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Texas Trip Part I - 01/23/08

Given the current economic crisis, and it being the middle of the week, I was hoping that the plane would be half empty (or half full for you optimists). Well, it wasn't so. There were only a few vacant seats on both the Houston-bound and the Harlingen-bound flights. Nevertheless, our flight was quite uneventful - no screaming babies on board, no stomach emptying air turbulences.

We touched down at Valley International Airport at 3:20 pm - right on schedule. We then proceeded to the Enterprise booth and experienced the most hassle-free car rental ever! We showed our confirmation to the agent. He took one look at it, asked for an ID and a credit card, processed the payment, and handed us the keys. We were out and driving our KIA Rio in less than ten minutes. The car had only 116 miles in it and still had that brand new car smell. Nothing was automatic except the transmission but it gets a lot of mileage per gallon.

Checking in at Best Western Rose Garden Inn at Brownsville was also a breeze. We got a ground level room that has two enormous queen beds. We also got a free daily hot breakfast buffet.

After a quick dinner at Jack in the Box, we showered and crashed for the night.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bald is Beautiful

My wife knew how frustrated and disappointed I was for not seeing the Bald Eagle at Bonelli Park last December. Three times I tried to locate it and three times I failed! Since the start of the new year, Cynthia had been urging me to give it another try but hard-headed guy that I was, I adamantly refused. Today, Wednesday, January 16th, she took a day off from work and insisted that we go to Bonelli. Now how can I refuse such an act of faith and devotion?

We toured the RV area where the eagle had been reported seen lately, even inquiring from the office for any leads. But no sign of the huge raptor. After about an hour we decided to park near the east shore rationalizing that if the bird decided to show itself we still could see it from where we were. We walked along the paved road contenting ourselves with getting pictures of the usual avian population of the area. American Pipits, Yellow-rumps, Song Sparrows and a single Say's Phoebe kept us company.

Soon it was noon..the time when the eagle was supposed to appear. We both sat on a picnic bench scouring the lake for any flying bird. Everytime a raptor-like bird would appear from the horizon Cynthia would jump up and yell, "There it is!"

"Only an Osprey", I would always tell her, dashing her hopes time and again.

About quarter to two, our hearts were beginning to sink in desperation. I stood up ready to return to the Jeep when I noticed a bird soaring above the RV area. Resigning myself to the fact that it probably was just a Red-tailed Hawk, I brought up my binoculars to see it better. When it turned, I noticed the white tail (couldn't be a red-tailed hawk now, could it?) then as it glided majestically towards the lake, the unmistakable white head confirmed that at last my eyes have laid upon the avian symbol of the United States of America.

"Here it comes!" I yelled to Cynthia, who knew what I meant without me even mentioning what the "it" was. She wasted no time taking its photograph. We got some pictures but the eagle was too high for any good quality shot. 

Eventually, the bird flew off to parts unknown. Cynthia hugged me and we were both thankful that our hearts were not broken this time. We got our first lifer of the year!

Before we went home, I took some gratuitous shots of the resident Painted Redstart and its symbiotic partner, the Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Battle of the Buteos

The trails behind the Nature Center at Placerita Canyon was completely devoid of birds at 8:30 am last Friday. Getting bitter with disappointment and murmuring to myself "I drove over 30 miles for nothing!" I decided to try the picnic area. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that that was where the birds are! The grounds were literally hopping with sparrows (mostly Golden-crowned!) and Juncos. Some even a few feet from me totally oblivious of my presence. The creekbed alongside the picnic area still holds a few puddles of water from last week's rain. There Lesser and American Goldfinches, Golden-crowned, White-crowned and Fox Sparrows and Towhees were enjoying an early morning bath despite the low 60's temperature.

As I wandered around drinking in the apparent tameness of the feathered creatures of this place, I flushed a flock of Fox Sparrows. They all flew into a tall bush about ten feet from where I was standing. One individual clambered up the branches and gave me a long, hard look. I guess it was as curious about me as I was about him.

Then there was this couple of Nuttall's Woodpeckers. The male was working on a tree several feet away from the female. Both (unintentionally, I'm sure) played chase with me. As soon I came within photographic distance, the bird would fly off to another tree. First I would chase the male and when it would fly off, I will go after the female which would do the exact same thing. Persistence paid off eventually. I got shots of both.

At around 10:30 am, avian activity ceased completely. Where about an hour earlier, the ground was covered by birds, suddenly not a creature was stirring, not even an Oak Titmouse.

I was walking back to the parking lot when I heard a screeching noise from atop a tree. Looking up I saw first a Red-shouldered Hawk screaming its lungs off. Several branches below I saw the object of its fury; a Red-tailed Hawk was trying its best to ignore the invectives being hurled against its presence.

Occasionally, the Red-shouldered, unable to control its contempt for (what I assumed to be) the intruder, would take a swipe at the bigger hawk. Despite these brazen attacks, the Red-tailed managed to maintain its cool. Realizing that it was not making any progress in its attempts to dislodge the interloper from its perch, the smaller buteo shrugged its red-shoulders and flew off.

I almost applauded at the end of this drama I just witnessed. Too bad I didn't bring my videocamera along..and I wasn't able to take a shot of the attacks..I was just too absorbed at watching the whole scenario unfold before my amused eyes.

My 30 mile trip was worth it in the end.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ruby, Ruby

Sometimes I wonder why some birds were given seemingly inappropriate names. Take the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, for example. For the life of me, I just couldn't fathom why a bird could be beardless. Another name that baffled me was the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Everytime I see and photograph this species, there wasn't any ruby on its crown. I had the suspicious feeling that some devious ornithologist played a dirty joke on bird-watchers. "Try to find a red-color on the head of that one. Ha!" must have been in the mind of the mischievous taxonomist responsible for this apparent misnomer.

Little did I know that on a dreary, rainy day outside my window, I would be proven utterly wrong in my etymological cynicism. As I was checking if the feeders needed replenishing, I saw a small, olive bird flitting from branch to branch in a leafless tree across our porch. What grabbed my attention was a flash of red on the head of this tiny bird. Realizing that I just saw the proof that Ruby-crowned Kinglets were indeed appropriately named, I ran for my camera.

With the prevailing weather conditions and the little bird's constant motion, getting its photograph that would show its pride and glory was quite a challenge. In the end, I managed to get a few so-so shots - documentary evidence that would forever remind me of my reckless and unfounded conclusions on avian nomenclature.

To the ornithologist/taxonomist who named the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my sincerest apologies to you, sir/ma'am!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Dream Weaver

When I read Neil's Gilbert's Blog regarding a beautiful yellow bird with a red face found at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, I thought it was a dream. But when I saw Toan Thang's pictures of the same bird from the same place, then I knew it had to be real.

Now I always have a weak spot for exotic birds and I was determined to see and possibly photograph this bird. After dropping Cynthia off at her work I drove to the Sanctuary. Thankfully, traffic was light Wednesday morning and I arrived at around 8:30 am. To my dismay, no yellow bird showed up.

It was still early and the weather was nice so I thought I'd give the place a walking tour and photograph any bird that I chance upon and would be cooperative enough. So I got me an Allen's Hummingbird stretching out. Common Yellowhthroats were busy working the vegetation next to (and on) the ponds. Two Spotted Towhees were playing follow-the-leader as they flew from bush to bush. Song Sparrows were everywhere I could almost step on them. Egrets would hunt for food 5 feet away from me. White Pelicans and Turkey Vultures were trying to outdo each other in who could soar longest without flapping their wings. Northern Harriers did some fly-overs while Red-tailed Hawks just perched and watched.

Around 10:30, I got hungry. I returned to the Jeep and nibbled on a rice krispy bar. As I was washing it off with bottled water, I glimpsed some yellow movement by the fence. Quickly grabbing my camera, I leaned against a tree that gave me a full view of the fence (with camouflage clothes on I'm practically invisible to the wild creatures in the area. Yeah, right!). Anyway, it wasn't long before my target bird warily emerged from the deep bushes. For an escaped cage bird, this is one shy weaver. When it finally concluded that the coast was clear, it began feeding on the seeds on the ground. With bated breath, I started shooting, all the while praying that there would be enough light to produce a quality picture. Suddenly a great egret noisily flew over the fence. And just like that my lovely golden weaver vanished into thin air.

I don't know but the new year probably instilled more patience in me than what I usually have. I remained at my post like a military sentinel. Soon, Peter, a birder from Orange County joined me. I described to him in great detail my encounter with the mystic bird. For about half-an-hour Peter and I talked about birds and birding, all the while keeping an eye out for a furtive yellow ball of feathers. In a most unexpected move, we both saw the weaver fly to a tree in front of us. It was quite high up and was obviously casing the joint. Noticing two elderly gentlemen pointing binoculars at it, it once again dove into the safety of the underbrush. Peter was satisfied that he had at last seen the golden weaver and bade me goodbye. I, patient and determined that I am, remained at my post.

Another half hour passed and this time the bird repeated its earlier routine: first hopping on a low branch looking this way and that and when assured that there wasn't any potential danger, flew to the ground to feed. Again I was ready. But then, after a few pecks it once more disappeared, spooked by some imaginary predator.

Thirty minutes after twelve and bird activity ceased almost completely. Even the ubiquituous Song Sparrows were gone. It must be siesta time, I thought. Time to have one of my own.

At home, after researching the true identity of my dream weaver, I discovered that it was a Taveta Golden Weaver, a native of east Africa.

My birding new year started off like a dream.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

2007 Birding Meme

Based on Amy Hopper's and Leigh Johnson's Meme, here's my take on my 10 most memorable birding moments in 2007:

1. Birding on New Year's Day, 2007 and unexpectedly seeing and then getting a good photograph of a White-tailed Kite. 
2. A Spring Bonanza at Eaton Canyon Park in Pasadena, where in one April day, we got three lifers: Costa's and Calliope Hummingbird and a Macgillivray's Warbler!
3. Chasing Warblers all over Southern California: Pine Warbler at Estancia Park (OC); Bay-breasted Warbler at Seagate Park also in OC and later at Legg Lake in El Monte, (although we dipped on the Yellow-throated Warbler at Tewinkle Park); Artic Warbler at Galileo Hills; and the Black-throated Blue Warbler at Holmby Park in L.A.
4. Seeing the lovely Hepatic Tanager at the Tijuana River Estuary in San Diego.
5. Joining the throng of birders/photographers to see the Mississippi Kite at the South Coast Botanic Garden
6. Our week-long trip to Southeast Arizona in August where we bagged 7 lifers!
7. Finding the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Luckie Park in 29 Palms.
8. Thrilled at seeing exotics at Peck's Pit in El Monte: The Blue-crowned Parakeet in January and the Bronze Mannikin flock in October.
9. Dipping badly (three times!) on the Bald Eagle at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas.
10. Seeing the Roseate Spoonbill at the Santa Ana River along with pratically the who's who of the Southern California Birding community.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Gone with the Wind

We thought we should end the year with a bang. The Tundra Swans at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Riverside would be quite apropos. What we didn't know was that it was going to be blustery. Blasts of cold wind would torment us as we fruitlessly searched for the swans. Perhaps the big, white birds had more sense than us in prudently staying out of the prevailing chilly conditions. Not all birds shared the swans plight for we were still able to get some nice shots of Northern Harriers in flight.

Then there was this Loggerhead Shrike, a species known for its skittishness, who stayed put even as we moved closer to take it's photograph.

The winds getting stronger as the day progressed, it finally sunk in our brains that the swans were right - we need to hightail this place pronto. Inasmuch as HIdden Valley Wildlife Park would be on the way, we decided to pay the Roseate Spoonbill a visit. This was the same Spoonbill that everybody and his uncle chased in the city of Orange early this month. The pink bird decided that it cannot stand that much attention and "migrated" to the relatively peaceful haven of the Hidden Valley pond.

The winds were at the pond,too, though not as strong, yet enough to drive the Spoonbill to take refuge under the branches of the riparian woods. There it tried to doze off but would awake with a start whenever the wind would almost knock it off its perch. The park closes at 4:30 pm and the winds have not abated so we called it a day.

Despite our misses toward the end of the year (Bald Eagle and Tundra Swans), 2007 had been a good one for us. We tallied 35 new lifers altogether. We hope 2008 would even be better.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Creepers, I struck out!

On December 28th, my wife and I visited Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas for yet another attempt at seeing the Bald Eagle. Suffice it to say that even after almost four hours of enduring cold weather conditions we completely bombed out. For the third time we missed our target. Either it really didn't show up or we were just misinformed and were looking at the wrong place. For me that was quite a painful, traumatic experience. Not because we dipped since we have been unsuccessful in our bird chases before, but rather because of the seemingly heartlessness of some fellow birders. I emailed somebody who is a frequent visitor at Bonelli and who has seen the eagle on more than one occasion to ask for specific directions on the whereabouts of the famed raptor, but I never even got the courtesy of a reply. Then there was an acquaintance who, although indirectly, would make you feel stupid by telling everybody on the internet how it was such a no-brainer to locate the Bald Eagle. By and large, most birders that we have met on our trips were courteous and helpful and would even go out of their way to assist in locating a target bird. It 's just so sad that there are some rotten apples in the basket.

Forgive me for venting, but I needed to get that out of my chest.

Anyway, the day was not a total disaster because as we were leaving, we were treated to some very close-up views of a Bewick's Wren and then of a pair(!) of Brown Creepers working on the same tree.

As a final touch, a Coyote insouciantly sauntered into our direction, gave us a casual glance, and passed not more than twenty feet away from us.

And oh, we will still get a Bald Eagle in our lifelist, maybe not from Bonelli, but by golly, we sure will.