Monday, April 28, 2008

Hope Floats - A Bullock's (Oriole) story

The cost of gasoline has gone to wuthering heights. And so, despite Saturday being a gorgeous day, we decided to forego the more productive, albeit distant, birding sites. We chose to go to Sepulveda Basin, about 20 minutes away, a place we have not visited for quite some time now.

The most common species we encountered was the Red-winged Blackbird, the males of which were constantly bursting in song at almost every bush and tree along the trails.

Then Cynthia spotted a flash of brilliant red - the gorget of an Allen's Hummingbird resplendent in the sun.

Further on we encountered a birder couple and when asked the customary "anything interesting?" they replied that there were Bullock's Orioles about 50 feet from where we were. Thus began our quest for the gorgeous yellow and black bird. These species prefer the higher branches of tall trees and very seldom fully shows itself to observers (and photographers) like us. Their chittering calls made them easy to locate - but viewing them and getting a good enough picture is another story. On a few occasions while searching for the orioles up on the treetops, we would encounter an unexpected and relatively quieter bird in the same tree.
Like a Spotted Towhee

and a Blue Grosbeak.

The California Towhee is one of the friendliest birds in Southern California, often hunting for food just a few feet away, oblivious of any passing people.

It was getting quite hot at around 11 am and we already had our share of oriole pictures -mostly half-bodied and peering out of a bunch of leaves. So we decided to call it a day. "I wish we had better shots of the oriole", Cynthia sighed, "they are just so colorful!"

On the way to the parking area, I saw a sparrow that looked a bit different - so far we have seen the very common House and Song Sparrows - and I was so happy to discover that it was a Chipping Sparrow. That was the fist time we've seen this species here.

When we reached the Jeep, I packed my gear in my knapsack and then inserted the key in the ignition. As I was about to turn it on, I saw a flash of yellow alit on an iron structure right in front of us. "Oriole!" we yelled simultaneously. "Shoot! Shoot!" I ordered my wife who was still cradling her camera gear on her lap. "Here, you have a better view", she said handling her 30D+300mm combo to me.

It was divine intervention we both agreed.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Upper Texas Coast - April 19, 2008 - Epilogue

Even though our flight back to Los Angeles isn't until 5 pm, we both agreed that this will be a non-birding day. The angst of returning a damaged (albeit only slightly) rental car was weighing heavily on me. We wanted to get over that experience as soon as possible. The invitation by fellow photographer Joanne Kamo to join her at Sabine Woods this morning was so tempting but our concerns regarding the car was foremost in our minds. We wanted to be in Houston, a good hour and a half''s drive away, as early as possible.
It turned out that we were anxious for nothing. Will, the representative at Dollar assured us that since we took a Loss Damage Waiver Insurance and already had an insurance claim number (we called them right after the accident), we won't have to worry about what happened to our rental car.

The airplane on the flight back home was only 3/4 full and so it was a relaxing voyage. Reminiscing on the past four days, I was thankful that the accident wasn't as bad as it could have been. We tallied 28 new species in our lifelist which was quite good. Of course, coming in, my expectations were very high, even telling Cynthia that it was possible we would be getting at least 40 lifers. But vagaries of weather somehow affected the density of species that visit migrant traps of the Upper Coast of Texas.

It could have been better, but we were happy and content with what we had. One thing that was guaranteed in Texas was the hospitality and friendliness of the people.

Texans like to say these to departing visitors: "Y'all come back now, ya hear!"

Oh, we will. We will.

Upper Texas Coast - April 18, 2008 - Derailed at Anahuac

Rain was coming down hard on Friday morning. Rain is good, the birders at High Island told us. That means there will be birds coming in. But first, we have to wait for the rain to stop, right? Not! Neither rain nor sleet nor snow would stop a dedicated birder from pursuing his target bird.

After about a couple of hours the rain did stop. Still there were a few birds to be seen. Nothing unusual has made an appearance yet.

So we decided to visit Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge where "at least four kinds of rail can be seen". There we got good looks at Cattle Egrets and an American Bittern that decided to show itself.

We did an auto tour around Shoveler Pond where we picked up lifer # 21 - a Mottled Duck.

Spending close to an hour at the boardwalk hoping to find a rail - any rail -became an exercise in fulility. Thankfully, we got lifer # 22 when we caught a glimpse of a Least Bittern flying across the road. We tried the other routes but all we saw were alligators.

Back at High Island, things were still slow at 3 pm. The only thing of interest was a Little Blue Heron devouring a huge orange-colored fish.

By 4 pm, bird activity started to pick up. Colorful tanagers raided the mulberry tree above the "grandstand". By the "cathedral" we picked up three species of vireo, two of which were lifers 23 and 24, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated, respectively. The third was a Blue-headed which we have already seen two days ago.

A commotion at the grandstand indicated that warblers were coming in. We joined about a hundred other enthusiasts as the local experts started calling out the names of the warblers that showed up. Tennesee Warbler (lifer #25),

Black and White Warbler! (#26)

Blue-winged Warbler and finally Golden-winged Warbler (#27). Eventually, the excitement died down as evening approached. As a last hurrah, I spotted a Rose-breasted Grosbeak preening itself above us. It was our 28th and final lifer of the trip.

Upper Texas Coast - April 17, 2008 - Out of the Woods

Today we revisited Sabine Woods. But first we went to Willow Pond about 6 miles down the road. It was pretty quiet except for the incessant calling of the local grackle population. At first I thought they were just Great-taileds which was very common in California. However, upon closer look, I realized that they were Boat-taileds and therefore a lifer for us! (#14).

A Green Heron was hunting close to the boardwalk. Suddenly a brightly-colored Summer Tanager played hide-and-seek with us. I also managed to track down a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird and chalked up lifer #15.

As we were about to leave, flashes of chestnut and black appeared among the green willow leaves. Soon a flock of Orchard orioles were cavorting among the trees, flying back and forth across the boardwalk. Occasionally, one of them would burst into song. These gaudy serenaders were our 16th lifer.

Saying goodbye to the morning chorus, we drove back to Sabine Woods. Along the way we encountered a flock of White Ibises flying along the highway. We've seen these birds before in the Valley but they were at quite a distance. So we stopped and enjoyed a closer look at a squadron of these white waders with black-tipped red bills.

Mid-morning at the Woods was pretty slow (it's that darn south winds again, one birder reminded us). It wasn't a total disaster though for we encountered a Great-crested Flycatcher by listening for it's "tit-syew" call. It was lifer # 17.

Nothing exciting happened from noon until about 3 pm. We were tired from perambulating the wooded area so we decided to rest by the drip. Soon lifer #18 in the form of a Brown Thrasher popped into view.

Then once again the Orchard Orioles stole the show. It was while watching them that I caught a glimpse of red in the underbrush. With my binoculars, my heart leapt for joy as I saw our target bird - the Painted Bunting. Our 19th lifer is arguably the most colorful bird in the United States. Red underparts, blue head and greenish yellow back made it nature's grand masterpiece. It was just so heartbreaking that they (there were more than one) kept their distance and therefore not allowing for good photographs.

As if the parade of colors were not enough, the bright orange and black of the Baltimore Oriole (#20) shone from atop a tree. When the Painted Buntings left, they were replaced by a gorgeous male American Redstart. Although not a lifer (we've seen a female in California) we were still awed by its black and yellow-orange plumage.

We ended our day watching a spectacle of colors brought in by the Scarlet Tanagers and a Yellow Warbler.

When we took our shower that evening we were dismayed to discover that we've been the victims of chigger attack. Both of my legs were peppered with red (and itchy) polka dots caused by the microscopic insects. Cynthia had her share, too, though not as worse as mine.

And the misery continues..

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Upper Texas Coast - April 16, 2008 - The High-Lows

Our destination this day was High Island. This is a small community along the Texas coast fabled for being a migrant trap particularly in Spring. Birders from around the world make a pilgrimage to this place every April to observe the throng of migrating birds making a landfall after a long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

Our first hour and a half yielded only a few common birds and not a single warbler. Only the loud singing of a Carolina Wren broke the doldrums that every birder was feeling that morning.
While Cynthia was chatting with some kindred folks, a birder-photographer directed my attention to a woodpecker up in a tree. At first I thought it was just a Golden-fronted, which we have already seen in the Rio Grande Valley early this year, but upon closer look through my binos, I discovered that the head was red and not golden. A Red-bellied, the photographer helpfully confirmed the ID for me. It was my 8th lifer.

The lack of bird activity becoming quite noticeable, we decided to visit Smith Woods a couple of miles away, per recommendation of the local Audubon personnel. Be sure to check out the rookery, they suggested. The rookery was quite noisy as hundreds of Egrets, Herons, Spoonbills and Cormorants competed for space to build their nests. Interestingly, alligators were lurking beneath awaiting perhaps for an opportune moment to have an avian lunch. One bright moment was when we spotted the lovely yellow Prothonotary Warbler.

Noontime we had a nice tri-tip lunch at Mama Teresa's at Crystal Beach. Afterwards we headed out to Bolivar Flats where thousands of Avocets, 8 kinds of Terns and a multitude of shorebirds were reported seen daily. Perhaps we took a wrong turn because although we ended up on a beach, there were only a handful of Elegant Terns, a few Laughing Gulls and maybe two or three Willets populating the shoreline.

Back at High Island, birding was still agonizingly slow. It was because of the prevailing south winds, the local experts explained. The tailwind pushed the migrating birds hundred of miles inland, bypassing their normal stopping point here. Except for some Summer Tanagers, there wasn't much to see. We visited the pond where we got lucky in seeing lifer #9 - a Purple Gallinule. Not too far from it was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Later on, when people were trickling out, we tried the photographer's blind, where finally, we got some decent shots of an Indigo Bunting (lifer # 10)

and a Northern Waterthrush (#11).

A Hooded Warbler posed obligingly as it bathed at the drip.

Soon even the drip was no longer hosting any avian visitors. Reluctantly, we left the blind only to encounter lifer #12, a Scarlet Tanager high up over Purkey's Pond.

A few minutes later the same tree yielded our 13th lifer - a Blue-headed Vireo.

At the parking lot, we were greeted by the mournful "Hoo-hoo" of a Eurasian Collared Dove.

We arrived Beaumont a little after seven. Even the delicious Vietnamese dinner that we had did not diminish the fact that we only added six lifers today. It was quite a disappointing day.

And it won't be the last.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Upper Texas Coast - April 15, 2008 - What a Way to End the Day

Spring at the Upper Texas Coast is famous world-wide because it is a stop-over of beautiful songbirds migrating north from the tropics. A month before our travel date I have already been monitoring the reports coming from High Island and vicinities. Sightings of 20-plus species of warblers in one day started coming in around the second week of April. Not only warblers but colorful tanagers, orioles and vireos were seen as well.

And so it was during the 3-hour flight to Houston that I have started listing in my mind the many lifers we expect to find on our 5-day trip. My expectations were high and my enthusiasm unbridled. As soon as we got settled at Best Western in Beaumont, we immediately drove to Sabine Woods about 35 miles southeast. We arrived at about 5:30 pm but the sun was still up and our hopes of seeing some migrants were undiminished. The first bird we saw and our first lifer was an Eastern Kingbird. As Cynthia and I traversed the boardwalk, we were surprised to see a tiny yellow and black bird hopping ahead of us. The Hooded Warbler was our second lifer.

A birder who was walking with us pointed to a brown bird a few feet away. "Wood Thrush", he said. We thanked him for showing us lifer number 3. It wasn't long when a gray bird appeared from the underbrush. Lifer number 4 was a Catbird. Close to the pond, it was my turn to tell the other birder that there was a Kentucky Warbler lurking by the water's edge. That was lifer number 5. I saw a glimpse of a Blue Jay which counted as the sixth lifer of the day.   

The boardwalk ended at the edge of a shallow, weeded pond. By a broken twig across the pond, a yellow and black bird was hunting for insects. Kentucky Warbler, I said aloud. The local birder who was beside me said that it could probably just be a Common Yellowthroat. I've seen Yellowthroats before and this was no Yellowthroat, I murmured to myself. The birder peered through his binoculars and confirmed almost hesitatingly it seemed, that it was indeed our 7th lifer.

Back near the entrance, a Blue Grosbeak gleamed in the afternoon sun, while a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked a nearby tree.

It was almost 7 pm when we saw our 8th and final lifer of the day - a lovely yellow Blue-winged Warbler.

Along the road on the way home, we marvelled at the many waders flying in to roost at the roadside canals. The reddish rays of the setting sun accentuated the pink feathers of the Roseate Spoonbills. White Ibises and Egrets joined the Herons as they prepare to settle for the night.

As much as possible we try to rely on our GPS to take us to places we want to go. Unfortunately our hotel address is different than what the GPS had on record. After losing our way a couple of times, we finally found the correct freeway, albeit a little too late. I made a quick turn to the clover leaf that would connect us to our intended route at a 65-mph clip. The car swerved right and as I wrestled with the steering wheel and with my foot firmly planted on the brakes, the car then swung left, turned around, and hit the railings - first with the front right bumper then with the rear right bumper. All the while, Cynthia was saying, "Lord! Lord!". And it was indeed only through God's mercy and protection that we came out unscathed from the accident and the car only sustained superficial damage. Needless to say, we were quite shaken and it affected my verve and enthusiasm for the remainder of our stay in Texas.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Something to be Prado

When my wife asked me on Friday where we are going to go birding on Saturday, I said Morongo. Saturday morning, I had a change of mind. Not only was it overcast, the thought of driving 130 miles one way at current gasoline prices made me decide to try Prado Dam instead.

Driving along the 210 freeway, I pointed to Cynthia the sign that starting today, April 5th there will be a Rennaisance Faire at Santa Fe Dam, one of our regular birding destinations. No good birding there with all those people, I explained to my wife. Approaching the entrance booth of Prado Dam, we were dismayed to notice that the park will host a Civil War Reenactment that very day.

"Not to mention a Boy Scouts camp-out", the Park Ranger informed us when we asked about the event. Despite our chagrin, we decided to bird the place anyway rather than consume more gasoline searching for an alternate venue.

We were even more crushed when we discovered the boy scouts' camp was exactly at the area where the Vermillion Flycatchers make their home.

"There goes our $7", I sadly told Cynthia, referring to the entrance fee to the park.
We were walking back forlornly to where the Jeep was parked when I saw a birder/photographer training his binoculars on a tall sycamore.

"Anything interesting?" I asked.

"Nah", he replied, "just some Yellow-rumps."

He introduced himself and said he would try locating the Least Bitterns. I thought that it would be a good idea to tag along with him. Least Bitterns would be a lifer for us, we told him. Thus began a very interesting morning with Bill Deppe. We learned that he was the one who discovered the Crested Caracara at the Mojave Narrows (He resides in Apple Valley) a very rare species to be found in California. Despite dipping on the bitterns, the disappointment at being to able to bird Prado Dam to the hilt, and the gray skies, Bill's pleasant company was a total redemption.

After we parted ways (Bill said he would try birding elsewhere) we tried the area closest to the entrance, and surprisingly with the least number of people.

I was shooting at anything with feathers while Cynthia patiently stalked a Marsh Wren when I caught a glimpse of yellow fly overhead. It landed on a tree a few feet away. "Oriole!" I shouted. For the next hour or so, my wife and I devoted our time chasing and trying to get a decent shot of a very colorful Bullock's Oriole. It wasn't easy since the bird was constantly moving and the gloomy weather wasn't helping either.

In the end, patience and persistence paid off. We finally got something to be proud of.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sparrows the Eye Can See

Birding on April Fools Day - what an idea! Actually I wanted to test my new 40D with my 500mm lens plus a 1.4 extender to see how sharp it can get and how fast it can focus. Inasmuch as I will be lugging this heavy combo, I decided to just go to Eaton Canyon. There I can find birds without going through an energy-sapping hike.

It is still that odd spring day where some of the winter residents have flown north while those that migrated to the warmer climes of Central and South America have not yet arrived. Nevertheless I had quite a good harvest. The House Wrens were a can't-miss because they were filling the whole area with song. The California Thrashers were quite bold - scampering a few paces from my feet.

But the morning belonged to the sparrows. The White-crowns were a given. They were everywhere.

Uncharacteristically tame were the Golden-crowns. They would feed on the ground oftentimes too close for my big lens to focus at.

A surprise was the White-throated Sparrow. I was trying to get a shot at a Spotted Towhee when from out of nowhere this rare sparrow popped in my line of vision. That got me excited because this is a very shy and secretive bird.

Later on I was looking at some White-crowns chasing each other. One would perch on a branch, then another would suddenly dart from the bushes and start harassing the perched one. Then a new bird would perch on the branch and it would be chased once again by another bird. This went on for some time. But then after a pause in the action, I noticed that the new bird perching on the branch looked different. Instead of having white color on the top of the head (the telltale sign of a White-crowned), this one had a ruddy crown. Chipping Sparrows!! Although not a lifer for me this was the first time I've seen it at Eaton Canyon. And of course its bright head is always a thrill to watch.

The photos of the four sparrows turned out quite good. I am very pleased with my morning session.

No fooling.