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.


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