Thursday, February 28, 2008

One Morning in Spring

The doldrums of the past week have to be shaken off. Once again the price of gasoline soared to ridiculous heights thereby making trips to my favorite birding haunts economically unfeasible.

But I have to go birding. What's more I need the exercise. So off to Whitter Narrows I went Wednesday morning. It was a beautiful day with just a touch of nippiness to make long hikes pleasant.

I started off at the Whitter Narrows Nature Center where I immediately saw an Allen's Hummingbird enjoying the morning sun. 

The Lesser Goldfinches were also busy having breakfast. 

Other than the usual House Finches and Butterbutts, I didn't see much of anything else.

At the Legg Lake area, there were more birds variety-wise but still nothing unusual. What got my attention was the Great Blue Herons building nests high on the treetops. The male would bring in some broken off branches from somewhere, give it to the female who then sticks it in to the nest platform. 

The Cormorants likewise were building their nest - sometimes on the same tree as the Herons.

The duck population were now down to the native Mallards, a few Northern Shovelers and one or two Cinnamon Teals.
Herons and Cormorants nesting and wintering ducks almost gone, it must be spring.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pour by Sick

Last week was terrible! It rained intermittently the whole week. The sun only revealing itself a few times, and not very long at that. Not long enough to go birding, much less go on a photography sortie.

Thursday, Feb 21, looked promising though. I quickly drove over to the Rio Hondo Settling Ponds in Pico Rivera where an immature Bald Eagle was seen last week. I don't know what it is with eagles but I almost always have no luck with them. That was the case again that time. Despite roaming around for almost two hours, the eagle was a no-show. Were it not for the pleasant company of Al & Linda Moreno, the morning would have been a disaster bird-wise.

There were birds alright, Vultures were soaring overhead, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks were sharing a fresh breakfast of duck, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk did a flyover. Ducks were there, too - American Wigeons, Green-winged Teals, Lesser Scaups, Buffleheads and Ringed-necks mixed in with the local Mallards.

Mockingbirds and House Finches were a given. The only "unusual" bird we saw was a Eurasian Collared Dove.

Saturday, it was bright and sunny in the morning but then it was I who went under the weather. A nagging pain in my abdomen kept me bed-ridden most of the day. Sunday morning the pain was gone. But then Sunday is church day, an occasion we will never miss.

I just hope the coming week would be much better.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tripping the Light Fantastique!

For the longest time I have wanted to take a photograph of the Red-whiskered Bulbul. This species has its origins in tropical Asia. However, several feral populations have established themselves in Miami, Honolulu and here in southern California – more specifically, at the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia. I have been to the arboretum before but never had the chance to take a picture of this exotic bird.

Wednesday I was determined to make it the day of reckoning. It was a bright, glorious day, perfect for photography. Armed with the knowledge of where to locate my quarry, I set off on my mission.

The very first bird that greeted me as I entered the compound was a resident Peacock. The arboretum hosts a number of these big, beautiful birds with the famous tail. They were natives of India and so I had my first exotic bird of the day.

At the main trail, an Allen’s Hummingbird was basking in the morning sun. Not far from it a flock of Cedar Waxwings populated the top of a tall leafless tree. Near the fountain, Canada Geese and a lone Cackling Goose were feeding on the lawn grass.

At the first pond, I was thrilled to find some Mandarin Ducks beginning their morning swim. Arguably, these are the most colorful of ducks. They were originally from China and Japan. Thankfully a small, wild population has established themselves here at the arboretum and at Almansor Park in Alhambra. At first they were just milling around under the shade of a drooping willow tree. I positioned myself at the edge of the pond and eventually the brightly colored ducks got used to my presence. They swam close by affording me great looks.

If there is one duck species that could challenge the Mandarins for sheer gaudiness, it would be the Wood Ducks. Woodies are native American species and luckily for me, a few of them were on the same pond with the Mandarin Ducks. They are so closely related to each other that the less colorful, but attractive in their own way, females are sometimes difficult to tell apart.

I moved on heading towards the Tallac Knoll where a Gray Flycatcher was seen a week before. Before reaching the knoll, there is an area that has waterfalls. Beneath the falls, the waters empty into a tiny pond. Here a Snowy Egret was doing a fishing dance that is better associated with its bigger cousin, the Reddish Egret.

Not far from the Snowy, I noticed a Chinese lady so intent in taking a picture of something in the bushes in front of her. Inasmuch as she had a long lens on, I presumed that she was photographing a bird. I moved closer to her, ever so quietly so as not to disturb her subject. When I was behind her, I saw the object of her photographic endeavors. A Red-whiskered Bulbul! I tried to curb my enthusiasm, aware that this bird is away from where its kind normally inhabits.

Side note: My wife always says that whenever someone leads us to our target bird, whether intentionally or not, that someone is an angel sent by God. It has happened more than once and I agree with her.

Needless to say, I joined the lady in photographing the very reason for my visiting the arboretum today. The Bulbul was very cooperative, too, allowing us to get close enough and at the proper angle for good lighting.

The bird eventually flew off. I continued on to the knoll where I dipped on the Gray Flycatcher. Further up, under the shade of a big, heavily foliaged oak tree were a flock of Juncos. Among them was an uncommon Slaty-colored subspecies. Unfortunately the light was so bad that the picture I got was really crappy. On the way back to the paved trail, I encountered a Mourning Dove amidst fallen purple flowers. Somehow the scene reminded me of Valentines Day – I’m not sure why.

On the trail back, I was startled by loud, screeching noises. When I looked up I saw a pair of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets doing aerobatics among the palm leaves. The parakeets added another ticker to my exotic list for the day. Soon the raucous noise began to subside. Taking the cue, my pair of parakeets flew after the receding squawks and screams.

Back at the ponds, my 61 year old legs were getting a little tired. I plopped into a bench for some rest. It was then that a Black Phoebe decided to keep me company. It perched on a low branch about 7 feet away from me, occasionally darting off to catch some unfortunate insect.

After a few minutes of enjoying the hunting prowess of the Phoebe, I stood up and walked towards the ponds’ edge, whereupon I unintentionally flushed three kinds of birds! The first was a Common Yellowthroat. This used to be my nemesis bird – always on the move and never allowing a good, open shot. But not anymore.

After it flew off, another bird perched on almost the same exact spot where the Yellowthroat was. This time it was a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This is another species that had given me a hard time identifying it. This species closely resembles its much more common cousin, the Song Sparrow. The picture I got clearly shows the distinctive grayish head and buffy breast.

The third bird I flushed was actually a Song Sparrow. This one showing the distinguishing heavily dark-striped breast.

From the ponds, I proceeded to the Aloe Garden where the Bulbuls are normally found. Sure enough, as soon as I got there, I saw one calling from a bare tree. It wasn’t long when the rest of the flock joined him and a chorus of song ensued.

I always thought that aloe plants are short, green things. This place showed me how wrong I was. Here were aloe plants that are more than 6 feet tall and colored red. These particular plants were the favorites of the House Finches whose yellow/reddish plumage blended well with the aloes. It made the ordinary finches look extraordinary.

Moreover, some of the aloe plants bore flowers that Hummingbirds adore. A creative Anna’s was having the time of its life enjoying the nectars of the aloe blooms without having to do the energy-sapping activity of hovering.

Almost four hours have passed and it was time to go. On the way out American Robins were keeping a wary eye on a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. The Peacocks were shouting at its other reminding me what a great day it was. It is not often that I go through a day like this where the weather was just perfect. And instead of just one exotic bird I was rewarded with a whole spectrum of colors from different species.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Goody Woodies

Perhaps it is because it was a Saturday - and a gorgeous day at that - that our birding trip to the Irvine Regional Park wasn't that productive. The park, although harboring a pond and lots of trees, was actually a family park, complete with mini train rides and horses for rent. And families came in droves that morning. Ergo, more non-birding people, less birds.

This was also our first time to bird this place. There was no trail map available so we just sort of wandered aimlessly guessing where we could find the birds that were reported seen here. Like the Lewis Woodpecker and the Sapsuckers. Even after several hours of meandering, we still dipped on those.

On the plus side, we had good looks at the "woodies" - Acorn Woodpecker,

Nuttall's Woodpecker

and the very colorful Wood Ducks.

The Belted Kingfisher, a species that has eluded our various attempts at photographing it, continued to torment us by perching at distances that even a spotting scope would be quite inutile.

My wife's endeavours to capture the Double-crested Cormorants in flight were all in vain. It was almost noon, temperatures were uncharacteriscally high at this time of year, and we had just hiked for some distance. That is the reason, I explained to her that she did not have the steadiness in her hands to do BIF (birds in flight) shots.
11:30 and it was time to go. We drove off as the sounds of the toot-tooting of the tiny train and the clip-clopping of the horses' hooves faded in the distance.

Friday, February 08, 2008

E.C. does it

I refrained from birding after my frustrating experience with the Lewis' Woodpecker at Chesebro Canyon last Thursday. Any other time I would have been happy garnering two lifers in half a day's birding. But coming from a thirty-plus list from our Texas trip and getting pictures of most of them despite really gloomy, overcast weather conditions, Thursday's sightings were a bit of a letdown. The weather was gorgeously perfect, yet the darn woodpecker wouldn't stay still for at least one good photo op.

And now, here I am, a week into February without having gone to even a single birding sortie. I needed a fix, fast. Thankfully, there's always Eaton Canyon in Pasadena. It is close enough for a "quickie" birding. You know, that kind needed to alleviate the "itch". Let me go on record here that there is absolutely no double-entendre intended in my last sentence.

The day augured well when after dropping off Cynthia at her office, the trees next to the parking lot at Carl's Jr., which is just a block away, was peppered by a flock of Red-crowned Parrots raucously calling at each other. I quickly parked the jeep and took several shots of the parrots' antics.

Elated, I drove on to Eaton Canyon. Immediately, I moseyed over to the back of the Visitor's Center where the feeders were. The first thing that caught my attention was the unusual stripings on the back of a brown bird. Binoculars confirmed what I suspected all along: A White-throated Sparrow - an uncommon species.

For the next two hours I got reacquainted with the usual denizens of the park; Lesser Goldfinches were hanging like fruits from a sycamore tree, White-crowned Sparrows, spotted Towhees and California Thrashers were scratching the ground in search of food.

A tapping above me revealed a female Nuttall's Woodpecker looking for her kind of breakast. A White-breasted Nuthatch flew from tree trunk to tree trunk.

After a couple of hours my need for birding had been fulfilled. On my way to the parking lot, I saw a big, reddish bunch of feathers up a sycamore tree. A Hawk! At first I thought it was the commoner Cooper's but when I peered through my binoculars, I realized it was a Red-shouldered - the first time I've seen this species here at Eaton Canyon. That was the icing on my birding cake!

Once again, Eaton Canyon did it. The place very seldom disappoints. Even when there are dogs and noisy children running around. You may not see rarities all the time, but there will always be something to satisfy your avian cravings.
Or at least be serenaded by a Hermit Thrush.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

There Will Be Blog - A D.Day Lewis' (Woodpecker) Lament

Thursday morning, I went to Chesebro Canyon Park at Agoura Hills to see (and photograph) for myself the Lewis' Woodpeckers (note the plural) that were seen there.
I immediately saw one right after I parked the Jeep. When I brought out my big gun (the 500mm) the woodpecker was, of course, gone. For more than an hour I waited for it to return. While patiently waiting for its reappearance, I was rewarded by the sight of a Golden Eagle being chased by a Raven half its size. When the eagle landed on a grassy knoll (too far even for my long lens), the Raven gave up the chase. As soon as the black bird was gone, the eagle ruffled its feathers and flew away.

With my target woodpecker still a no-show, I disassembled my gear, and replaced the lens with the lighter 100-400 zoom. I decided just to stay in the Jeep and listen to some music to soothe my disappointment all the while keeping an eye on the tree where I last saw the Lewis'.

Then it returned. Immediately, I jumped out of my vehicle and before I could even reach the tree where it landed, it flew off and alit on top of an electric pole a few hundred yards away. I took a "Hail Mary" shot and chased after the bird. No more have I gone a few feet nearer and it once again flew off. This happened maybe five times and not once did the skittish woodpecker allowed a clear, close enough shot.

Despite adding two more lifers, I thought it was a disgusting day - not being able to get any good photographs of both Golden Eagle and Lewis' Woodpecker. With bright, clear skies even.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Texas Trip Part VI - 01/28/08 Epilogue

The plane trip back home was as uneventful as the first. The whole trip as a whole was quite a success for us - picking up 30 lifers despite the bleak weather.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is an excellent place for birding - as a matter of fact it is one the top tourist attractions in the area. We would certainly like to come back, hopefully when the weather is more cooperative for photography.
The staff at the Visitors Centers of the various birding hotspots were all very kind and helpful. In particular, we would like to thank Robert Archer at the Hugh Ramsey Park, Ben Luna and Linda Luft at the Estero Llano Grande and Jerry and Carol at Bentsen-Rio Grande for their assistance in showing us where to find the birds. To the friendly Winter Texans (birders from out of state who stay in Texas for the winter) whom we encountered on the field, thank you for your advice and suggestions.

The staff of the Best Western Hotel in Brownsville were all very nice and accomodating.

Thanks to "Eartha" - our GPS unit. We would literally be lost without it.

My special thanks to my wife Cynthia, who endured rain, freezing winds and sloshing though thick mud, being stared at at restaurants, and most important of all - not insisting on going to the Outlet/Wal-mart/Target/Ross just so we could have time to see the next "lifer". That's why I love her so. Yes, even more than all the lifers we saw in Texas.

Texas Trip Part V - 01/27/08 Birding in the North

Having figured out the best way to go to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, we went there on Sunday morning. All the literature I've read and all the advice I received from those who have been there were unanimous in saying that this place is a must-see for birding. The fact that it is close enough to the city of San Benito (where we intend to attend services at Calvary Chapel) made it all the more necessary to find out what the refuge had to offer.

As we neared Laguna Atascosa, there were Harris' Hawks perched on almost every other electric pole. We got our 25th bird. We scoured the fields, tree tops and electric poles hoping for the rare Aplomado Falcon, but we dipped on that.

The ubiquitous feeders next to the Nature Center were populated by the usual Cardinals and Green Jays with a sprinkling of Long-billed Thrashers. The strange leucistic Cardinal (a bird with an almost all-white plumage - as opposed to the normal bright red) mingled among its more colorful co-species.

We proceeded to the Lakeside Drive where a Roadrunner was offering some goodies to the object of its affection. Living up to its cartoon counterparts, a Coyote strolled by. Too bad the two didn't actually meet. It would be nice to see how that would go in real life.

Other than these two creatures Lakeside had nothing much to offer. May I mention here that the skies had once more become overcast and a little cold wind had started to pick up.

It was time for church. The congregation at Borderland Calvary Chapel were very friendly and the service typical of all Calvary Chapels. The service ended at 12 noon. Our search for a place to eat brought us to Luby's in Harlingen. Luby's is actually a cafeteria style restaurant where you "point" to the food you want. It was a bit pricey for a cafeteria and the food wasn't that good. But what caught our attention was the predominantly white clientele. So much unlike the buffet restaurants we've been to where patrons were mostly Hispanics. Needless to say we got our share of curious glances as being the only Orientals around.

Lunch over, we headed back to Laguna Atascosa, once again seeing several Harris' Hawks along the way. This time we took the 15-mile Bayside Drive which would put us near the shore of the Laguna Madre - the body of water that separates mainland Texas from the South Padre Island.

Here we saw what I thought was an interesting scene. An Osprey was enjoying it's freshly caught meal. Nearby was a Ring-billed Gull trying to steal the Osprey's lunch. Add to this two Ruddy Turnstones darting in and out between the two much bigger birds, picking up tiny morsels dropped by the Osprey. The story ended with the gull finally making a quick jab at the fish and got away with it. At least the Osprey had already eaten much of the fish. So all's well that ends well.

Surveying the seashore, I picked up two lifers in succession: an American Golden Plover and a White Ibis. A white-phased Reddish Egret was doing it's quaint fishing techniques on the shallow waters.

On the road back we got lifer #28 - an Eastern Meadowlark. Quick looks at a White-tailed Hawk and Northern Bobwhites brought our total to 30 for the entire trip.

The skies continued to darken and the freezing wind prompted us to call it a day and head back to the hotel.

Texas Trip Part IV - 01/26/08 - Birding in the West

Saturday we headed west. We skipped our free breakfast buffet at the hotel because we wanted to get an early headstart since our destination is 70 miles away. We did make a short stop at Denny's in McAllen to prepare us for some heavy birding ahead.

We arrived at Bentsen-Rio National Wildlife Refuge just as the local guides were herding a group of birders for their Saturday morning bird walk. "Bird walk" would be a slight misnomer because the birders were actually taking a tram. We realized soon enough that the refuge was so huge that a vehicle would be needed to get around. That morning, there were too many birders to be accommodated in the tram. Our just-in-time appearance made it even worse. So they decided to use the park van to transport the spill-overs.

Each stop that we made had blinds near the feeders so that birders and photographers alike can view the birds without disturbing them. We had very good looks at the colorful South Texas birds such Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Cardinals and Kiskadees. American Goldfinches, Gnatcatchers and Warblers were all over the trees. 

There were also a couple of mammalian sightings at the feeders: A javelina (a wild pig) and a raccoon.

Our guides, Jerry and Carol were very helpful in pointing out the park birds to us. At the aptly named Kingfisher pond, Jerry was able to locate a Ringed Kingfisher through his spotting scope. He graciously offered me to look at my first lifer of the day and 20th overall. Again, thanks to Jerry, he pointed out lifer number 21 - a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker looking for insects high up a tree. The tour ended at around 10:30 am and after locating the Allen's Hummingbird (everybody was quite excited with this Texas rarity, although quite common in California) near the Visitor's Center, we hied off to Anzalduas City Park.

Anzalduas City Park was a total dud bird-wise. Except for a flock of American Pipits which we saw as we were leaving, there was nothing of interest there. We got an Armadillo though.

We had a so-so Mexican lunch at Stripes - the convenience store associated with Valero's gas stations. From there we went to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. There were a lot of people visiting the park that afternoon - not many of them birders. The northern lake is the home of a huge flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. We've seen them in flight at Harlingen but never had any good looks. A small pond between the northern and southern lakes was supposed to be the home of the Green Kingfisher. Our first passover didn't reveal any.

We debated whether we should go visit Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge a few miles from here. But the day is getting late and we still have not seen our Green Kingfisher which the park attendant assured us was always there. As we were returning to the lakes, some birders from Wisconsin informed us that the kingfishers regularly come back to the pond and we'll just have to be patient. Along the way, I noticed an unusually colored warbler flit from tree to tree. With my binoculars I discovered that it was a Yellow-throated Warbler, lifer number 22.

We returned to the the pond and waited vigilantly for our target bird. And just as promised, a our lifer number 23 flew in. It settled across the pond from us where we had very good looks at it. 

At some point while Cynthia was still eyeing the kingfisher, I noticed something yellow fly to a nearby clump of bushes. My heart leapt as I quickly took potshots at an Audubon's Oriole lifer number 24!

Satisfied that we got a good number of lifers today, Cynthia requested that we go back to the northern pond because she wanted to take flight shots of the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. Besides the sun finally broke through and we hoped we could now get better photographs. Unfortunately the ducks didn't cooperate much. 

Reluctantly we left and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Brownsville.