Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Post-cogito (Afterthought)

It has been said that the things you do in the afterthought are always better. That has been the case with us this past Memorial Day. Originally we planned on going to Morongo Valley on Sunday afternoon, stay at a hotel in 29 palms and bird the whole day Monday (and maybe meet up with my son, Kurt who is camping at nearby Joshua Tree National Park). But then the cost of the hotel and gasoline (the place is 150 miles away) was a bit daunting. We also considered going to Galileo Hills on Monday - Galileo always an interesting place to visit in Spring - but then it is 120 miles away. Again taking the cost of gasoline into consideration, that plan was unceremoniously scrapped.

Without any particular destination agreed upon, we woke up a little late on Monday. But then the birding itch continuosly pestered our subconscious. "How about we go the mountains (referring to the San Gabriels towering some 7000 feet above us)?" I suggested. My wife agreed. Driving on the freeway I realized I didn't have the $5 needed for the Forest Pass - this is required if one is to park at any of the camp/nature sites there. "Why don't we go to Placerita Canyon instead?" Cynthia asked. I thought it was a good idea, so we did.
Soon after parking we immediately saw an American Kestrel perched on a leafless tree.

Suddenly, my wife asked me to be quiet as she tried to locate the source of a bird call nearby. It wasn't long before she was pointing to something yellow among the green leaves of a sycamore tree. It was a Hooded Oriole - the first one we've seen this year. Unfortunately, it was spooked by something and flew off before we could even get some decent shots of it. Not far from where the oriole was, a Black-chinned Hummingbird was preening in the morning sun.

We hit the trails at the back of the nature center where Cynthia played hide and seek with a Spotted Towhee.

The place was also alive with various kinds of flycatchers. A particular group of flycatchers known to scientists as the Genus Empidonax has always been a bane to birdwatchers including the more seasoned ones, because these birds all look very similar to each other. "Those darn empids" has been a common expression of exasperation among birders. And those darn empids were giving us a hard time here at Placerita Canyon. But I think I got one ID correct - the Hammond's Flycatcher - a lifer for us. Maybe. Hopefully.
Update: 5/28/08 - The photo below turned out NOT to be a Hammond's after all. It was a Western Wood-Pewee which was not a lifer. Oh, darn!

Black-headed Grosbeaks were quite plentiful and at the picnic grounds, Oak Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Nuttall's Woodpeckers and Western Bluebirds were all hunting for food in their own unique way. It was almost noon so we headed back to the Jeep. It was then that another Hooded Oriole decided to pose for us. Cynthia and I probably took about 50 shots each as the cooperative bird just stayed in the tree in front of us.

We were both so happy with our luck that Cynthia decided to push it and suggested we go to the place where the Spotted Owl hangs out. I looked at her half amused and half in disbelief as it was now past noon and we only had some chocolate candies for a snack. But it 's not always that I get this encouragement from her, so off we went, all the while explaining to her that the hike is a bit strenuous.

She went through the long walk gamely and when we arrived at the spot, there were already people in there. The male owl was easy to find as it was snoozing directly above the trail.

Despite the noise made by the hikers (only a couple were birders) he just slept like there's no care in the world. Soon it became apparent that this place is a popular destination on weekends and holidays. Wave upon wave of hikers, most of them with dogs (!!!) and toddlers, dropped by totally unaware of the avian celebrity above them. It was only when they notice us craning our necks and pointing our cameras upwards that they noticed the bird.

Sidenote: Cynthia and I looked at each other sheepishly as we watched toddlers, some probably as young as 1 year old negotiate the (for us - seemingly long and arduous) hike with such ease.

Several feet away on a different tree and on a higher branch, a baby owl was snoozing as well. Suddenly I saw the mama owl fly in bringing something in her talons. Cynthia and I scooted over to where they are and positioned ourselves to get better views (and photos) of mama spotted owl feeding her baby with a freshly caught rat. I filled out 1G of my flash card trying to get a decent photograph.

More people were coming in and it was already past 1 pm so we reluctantly left the scene. On the way back, Cynthia got a great shot of an American Robin

while I got a Steller's Jay.

It was a long, exhausting birding day for us and we slept like the papa owl that night.

Review: Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

A new kid on the block!! The Smithsonian Institute and Harper Collins just published the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. What they did was combine the best of the existing field guides and then added some helpful innovations for the enthusiastic birder.

The introduction is a must read especially for those who are just beginning to appreciate birds and bird-watching. Author Ted Floyd, who is the editor of ABA’s (American Birding Association) Birding magazine, writes in painstaking details everything one needs to know to enjoy birding – from identifying bird species to the natural history of birds. He also talks about conservation and birding ethics.

The book then lists more than 750 species found all across North America. Each bird group is given an introduction outlining taxonomy, feeding, migration, habitats, behaviors and conservation status. I found the 2,000 high quality photographs taken by the who’s who in avian photography illustrating each species covered, showing birds in their natural habitats to be very effective. I am an amateur bird photographer and whenever I’m stumped with the identification of a bird whose photograph I just took, I just look it up in this field guide and the answer is right there. Each photograph is labeled with the state and month the picture was taken – a very helpful information particularly when there are regional and breeding/non-breeding differences in the species’ plumage.

Color-coded range maps showing summer, migration, winter, year-round and rare (but regular) occurrences are also included in each bird species covered.

What I consider a big plus is the included DVD of birdsongs for 138 common species. A total of 587 vocalizations (call, song, etc.) is recorded for each of the 138 species. These are coded in high quality mp3. The corresponding bird image is included which makes it perfect for use on home computers or handheld mp3 players.

There is a handy Quick Index at the end of the book and the page numbers are conveniently located at the upper right hand corner – perfect when flipping through. Although slightly wider than the comparative field guides, it is still compact enough to be carried in the field. The covers are sturdy enough to withstand usage in different environments.

I have two other field guides but since I have gotten a copy of the Smithsonian, I found myself referring to it for my bird IDs more and more.

My only nit is that despite the abundance of photographs, there are still a few plumage variations that were not represented.

All in all the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a welcome addition to a birder’s library. For a novice birder, this is a must-have.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Walking San Joaquin

The San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine is one of my favorite birding spots. It has a very well maintained restroom facility, it doesn't allow dogs, and most of all, it is a birdy place.

We visited San Joaquin early Saturday morning. The parking lot, which occasionally delivers a bird surprise, was unusually quiet. We started our trek at the butterfly garden and enjoying the white flowers of the bower was an Allen's Hummingbird.

Mention San Joaquin to any birder and immediately the Tree Swallow would come to mind. These acrobatic flyers were everywhere. The staff at the Sea and Sage Audubon have placed dozens of nest boxes all throughout the sanctuary specifically for these birds. And in Spring all these boxes were occupied as they were today.

As we rounded Pond 1, an Anna's Hummingbird were staring at us. Other than Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens that were always heard but seldom seen, there were not much at Ponds 1 and 2. Pond D, however, was a different story. Killdeers patrolled the banks.

Cinnamon Teals and Ruddy Ducks were dozing while Avocets patiently sifted the water with their upturned bills searching for some tiny morsels.

Then I saw them. Phalaropes. In their breeding plumage! In winter these birds are just drab grays with black lines over their eyes, but in spring, they put on chestnut and orange and brown. And what is even surprising (and lucky for us) there were two species of Phalaropes in the same pond - both doing seemingly tireless dipping of their bills into the waters trying to catch an unwary insect. The Wilson's, with it's white crown and cheek and deep rust colored nape competed with the Red-necked, with it's tell-tale red neck and white throat in sheer beauty.

Reluctantly, we moved on to search for other species. Soon an American Goldfinch peeped among the leaves. By the stream, Wilson's and Yellow Warblers took turns in enjoying a quick bath. Warbling Vireos would drop by to check out the action below.

Soon the sun was almost directly above us and the sweltering heat was becoming unbearable. We headed back to the parking lot when I noticed a White-faced Ibis feeding in Pond C. The light from the midday sun shining on it's plumage produced spectacular glowing colors that were a feast for the eyes!

That awesome beauty was a perfect ending to our birding day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Owl Be Seeing You

The morning was bright and sunny at last. Time to go on an owl-chase. The LA County listserv provided excellent, precise directions on how to locate the Spotted Owl in Placerita Canyon. Using that as my guide, I proceeded to the Waterfalls Trail. A couple of minutes in and I knew it was going to be a yikes! hike. Narrow and sometimes steep paths challenged my unaccustomed 61-and-a-half years old legs. Sheer determination and frequent stops to catch my breath finally brought me to the spot. I craned my neck searching each and every branch of the adler trees that towered over the tiny stream. My heart was beginning to sink and was on the brink of total disappointment (oh no, not again!) when I noticed a brown fluff partly hidden among the leaves. Of course it was facing away from me! But when I did a really bad imitation of an owl call, it begrudgingly looked my way. The photograph I took won't win any award but at least it documented my latest lifer.

The return trip was much easier being mostly downhill. As I trodded on the dirt road towards the parking lot (another uphill battle), I saw scads of Black-headed Grosbeaks in various stages of plumage. A young Lazuli Bunting also made a brief appearance. Unfortunately, the birds there were so skittish that they would fly away at the slightest movement. Earlier, on my way in, I saw a pair of Lawrence Goldfinces which promptly flew away as soon as I laid my eyes upon them.

It was still early so I decided to stop by Placerita Canyon Nature Park. As soon as I got off the Jeep, a Bullock's Oriole flew in and landed on a bare branch in front of me.

Along the trail behind the nature center I got some fleeting views of a Wilson's Warbler and a Western Tanager. At the picnic area, the grounds were jumping with Spotted Towhees and Oak Titmice. A House Wren was guarding it's home.
A pair of Western Bluebirds were busy hawking insects by the bridge. A little after 11 am, I decided to call it a day. As I was about to get in the Jeep, an Ash-throated Flycatcher alit on the same tree where I saw the oriole earlier. What a welcome and farewell!

I felt good about my birding sortie that I decided to reward myself with an Angus Burger combo at McDonalds.

That's owl, folks!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Birding Pasadena (With Lowered Expectations)

We did not go birding until about 3 pm on Saturday. For one thing, the skies were overcast the whole morning. And of course, I was still trying to get over my grumpiness regarding my (perceived) bad birding experiences lately.
When the sun finally broke through, my wife insisted that we go out "just here in Pasadena" so that I won't have to worry about gasoline expenses. "And, remember, don't expect to find any rare birds, OK?" she warned.

We started off at Hahamongna (a weird name for a park, but it had American Indian origins). The oak groves were quite abuzz with Bewick's Wrens all of which stayed well away from any photographic venues. "What bird is that with a white eyebrow?" Cynthia asked. "Bewick's Wren", I replied. "No, the feathers of this one are black and white." I asked her where she saw this mysterious bird and after a few misses, I finally located a Black-throated Gray Warbler flitting directly above us.

We then explored the lower trails where the "pi-PIT-kan" of a California Quail intrigued us. As we rounded a bend, I was surprised to find the calling quail high up in a eucalyptus tree. Normally these are birds that skulk in the underbrush so finding one in a tree and not flying off as we approached was quite unusual.

Other than House Finches we did not find anything else. On the way back, Cynthia saw a flash of yellow and black landing on a sycamore. We hoped that it would be our FOS (First of Season) Hooded Oriole. Patient waiting revealed it to be a Western Tanager instead which was still a thrill.

To our joy, not far from it a female Black-headed Grosbeak was enjoying a snack.

At around 5pm we proceeded to Eaton Canyon where we saw the usual suspects. An Acorn Woodpecker posed beautifully for us.

As we approached the "drip" another birder/photographer was already there taking pictures of Bushtits taking a bath. "I know this guy", I told my wife. Just then he turned and gave us a big smile. Kevin Kao is a regular visitor at Eaton Canyon. We met him last year when there was a proliferation of migrants here. We spent the next half hour or so discussing birds and birding. He bade goodbye soon after and Cynthia and I then tried to look for the Canyon Wren. We dipped on that. On the return trail, I saw a dark bird with white spots on the underwings flutter nearby. "Phainopepla!" I yelled. It turned out to be our last bird of the day, as dusk was soon upon us.

"How do you feel now?" Cynthia asked as we drove home.
"Much better," I replied.
"We got lucky on the quail, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did."
"The Western Tanager and the Grosbeak were nice, too."
"Yes, they were."
"C'mon, admit it. It's a lot better if you don't have high expectations, right?"
"Right", I said smiling.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Grumpy Old Man

I can't explain why I've been a little grumpy lately. It seemed like small disappointments always had such profound effect on my overall demeanor. By and large I am even-tempered, even approaching nonchalance in my attitude towards life. As of late, however, perhaps subconsciously, I wanted higher returns on our "investments".

Consider our last trip to Texas. We spent about $1,000.00 for a 5-day birding vacation. Please realize that I am unemployed and my wife's pay is not quite renumerative and thus this travel leaves quite a dent in our budget. We went to Texas with the expectations of adding a minimum of 40 species to our lifelist. I thought, OK, that is a good enough return for the cost of the trip. We eventually ended up with 30 species and despite that, I felt cheated. Maybe our car accident on the first day contributed to my moodiness and resulted in some poor decisions as to places and times to go birding. We could easily have added 10 more to our lifelist if only...we ventured further into the Bolivar Peninsula, if only we joined the Rail Walk at Anahuac, if only we birded on the morning of our last day, and so on and so forth.

Then last Saturday, with the cost of gasoline at near $4 a gallon, we travelled some 60 miles (one way) to try for the Hermit Warbler and Lazuli Bunting in Costa Mesa. We missed both birds and that made me unhappy despite seeing the equally uncommon MacGillivray's and Yellow Warblers. Dipping on our target species and a general lack of good sightings at the places we visited gave me the conclusion that we had a poor return on our gasoline expenses. That made me a bit morose.

And so, I apologize for the caustic tone of my recent blogs. Things will change for sure and I know I will soon learn to appreciate again the joys that birding can bring.

Surely this is nothing that a pint of Ben & Jerry's can't cure.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Oh, dog! (and other expressions of exasperation)

 I should have learned my lesson long time ago. The lesson being not to have high expectations when we go on our birding/photography trips. Stubborn as I am, we headed to Canyon Park in Costa Mesa with the lofty hopes of seeing (and of course, photographing) a Hermit Warbler and a Lazuli Bunting. (My wife was the more pragmatic type - content at enjoying whatever species we encounter - the perfect trait of a birder).

We arrived at the park early enough - about 8:30 am and immediately followed Felicia Lee's instructions on where our target birds were last seen. The place seemed birdy enough as we got a Hutton's Vireo right off the bat. It was then that a dog came bounding towards us. Unleashed. With the owner nowhere in sight. "Wasn't there a sign at the entrance where it says all dogs must be on a leash?" I asked rhetorically. To our consternation that wasn't the only incident. Throughout the whole morning wave upon wave of unleashed canines traversed our paths, sometimes followed by their owners talking in voices loud enough to be heard in San Diego, I thought.

Sightings of MacGillivray's Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Warbling Vireos and colorful Western Tanagers failed to lift up my spirit as we dipped badly on the objects of our visit to this place. At noontime we feasted on the ham sandwiches and coke that we brought. The need for a bathroom necessitated that we go to San Joaquin Wildlife Santuary a few minutes away. (How can this park not have a bathroom? Oh, that's right, this place is for the dogs...)

Birding San Joaquin in the middle of the day is really bad timing, we soon discovered, even in the midst of spring migration. The only consolation we got was an Ash-throated Flycatcher trying quite unsuccessfully to have lunch. Our experience here can be summed up by the expression of this male Cinnamon Teal.

Around 2 pm we tried the Back Bay at Upper Newport and scored a big fat zero. Even the usual place where tons of terns, peeps, and skimmers used to hang out was empty except for a couple of coots.

On the way home, a late sortie at Eaton Canyon also brought in blanks on our photo disks.

My wife, noticing the expression on my face as we got home, reminded me that we still saw some interesting birds despite missing the ones we sought after.

"You always see the glass half-empty", she said.

"You mean there was a glass?", was my reply