Monday, June 30, 2008

Sloth Machines

There were a few reasons why we did not go birding last Saturday: The skies were a bit gloomy early that morning, gasoline prices were still sky high, my wife was a pain in the neck...I mean she had a pain on her neck, and my right index finder - my camera trigger finger, was out of commission.

An accident last Thursday made it incapable of normal functions. It got caught in the door of my Jeep as it slammed shut. What was worse was that I couldn't go anywhere else to stem the gush of blood that flowed as I was in a laundromat doing our laundry. With the aid of my handkerchief (what will I do without it?) and tons of paper towels, I clamped my left hand over my bleeding finger in a valiant attempt to ease the dripping and lessen the pain. An hour and a half later, when all my laundry was done (how I managed to fold/hang them without getting stained by my blood was a miracle in itself), I quickly drove home, washed the wound and wrapped a couple of band-aids on it. And that, thankfully, helped a lot.

And to top all these reasons, each one valid as they were, there was a matter of slothfulness. That overpowering feeling of not wanting to do anything that would involve even a hint of exertion. Summer days usually bring about such lassitude. Besides, there weren't a lot of birds to see. A totally fitting justification, I might add.

And so around 10 am we decided, a bit reluctantly, to do some errands. Just as we were about to exit our tiny community, we both saw, at the same time, a hawk perched atop the huge water tank. I screeched to a halt, handed my Canon 300D (my very first DSLR) with a 18-55mm lens attached to it to my wife. I always carry this gear where ever I go just in case some photographic opportunity would present itself. Such as this hawk. Of course with such a short lens, the hawk appeared as a mere dot in the picture. "Let's go back and get a bigger lens", my wife suggested. Even before Cynthia could finish her sentence I was hurtling back home, less than 5 minutes away. Now armed with a 30D and 100-400 lens, we returned to the site. Just as I got off the Jeep with my camera, the hawk flew off. Fortunately, the hawk soared in circles above the water tank and Cynthia, who took the camera from my inept (and unlucky) hands, was able to snap off a couple of shots. That was our grand birding adventure for the day.

After we returned from our errands, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch of philly steak sandwiches. That afternoon we slept a little and then schlepped the rest of the day. All in all it was a day of respite for this pair of aging machines.

P.S. "Speak for yourself", my wife said as she read the last line.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Death of a House Finch

My wife and I were at our porch waiting for a customer to patronize the hummingbird feeder we just hanged when I saw the flutter of brown wings on the ground next to the concrete walkway.

"Looks like there is an injured bird over there." I told Cynthia as I hurried to where the bird was lying. I could tell that the poor House Finch was on the throes of death: eyes half closed, beak partly open as it gasped for breath. There were no blood or wounds so it must be due to a natural cause.

"It's dying", I informed my wife.

"Give it water", she suggested."Maybe it's just suffering from heat stroke".

Indeed the temperature was in the high 90's but I've seen this condition before when I was still breeding finches and I just know that water would be of no help at all. Nevertheless, I filled a saucer with cool water. Dipping my finger in the water, I placed it on the tip of the poor bird's beak, hoping it would sense the refreshing touch. I told Cynthia that it was not responding and that I wouldn't want it to suffer any more that it already does by being swarmed by ants and bottle flies while still alive.

Memories of a similar incident flooded my mind. It was a couple of summers ago at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. Cynthia and I were birding the trail along Pond D when I noticed a young Pied Billed Grebe slumped ahead of us. The first thought that came to my mind was it was probably due the heat. Closer inspection revealed that the baby bird was alive, but fading fast. Ants had begun to crawl all over its inert body. Cynthia ran back to the Audubon Center to report the incident only to be told that they (the people manning the center) were not allowed to touch birds. I can't believe that the Audubon staff members would be so heartless and insensitive to the very creatures they were supposed to protect and care for. I knew I had to do something. I cannnot, in good conscience, allow this young grebe to just wither away albeit tortured by the numerous ant bites it was already suffering without a little help. I pulled out my handkerchief, slowly brushed off the ants crawling all over the bird's body. Then I picked it up and gently placed it on the waters of the pond, hoping it still has the instinct to float and swim. I scooped some water and trickled it on the grebe. To our surprise and joy, the little grebe revived from its stupor and slowly swam away toward the shelter of the reeds. In that moment I knew in my heart that this precious creature would survive.

I was quite certain that the situation of the finch before me would not have the same happy ending. I walked back to the house to get a piece of cloth where I could place the bird to prevent the ants and the flies from making it more miserable that it already was. When I came back holding a blue piece of cloth, I saw the bird gave one last gasp and then it closed it eyes permanently. I picked it up and placed in on the cloth that I brought, noticing how emaciated it was. I don't know what caused its death and at this point, I did not really care. This was the first time I saw a wild bird die that was not a victim of some predator. I wonder if this was a better way for them to perish than being seized by the talons of a hungry hawk. Do birds feel pain during their last moments on earth? Are they even aware that they are dying? I do know that not one of them falls to the ground apart from the will of God. (Matthew 10:29). Each one of us on earth that has breath has an appointed time to die. Today, it was this particular young House Finch's time. I thought it was only appropriate to give it a decent burial.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Few Good Mannikins

Last Friday I visited Eaton Canyon once more. This place had become my favorite birding grounds lately due to its proximity to my home. It was not quite birdy that morning except for the usual Scrub Jays and House Finches. As I approached the Nature Center I met my friend and fellow birder-photographer, Kevin. He also expressed disappointment at the obvious lack of birdlife. So I asked him if he already saw the Nutmeg Mannikins. When he said no, I promptly invited him to the place where the mannikins play.

We stood beneath the pine tree craning our necks looking for any kind of movement. Alas, not even a single pine needle quivered. Thankfully, diverting our attention and relieving our growing anxieties, some Lesser Goldfinches fed on the thistles nearby.

After about 20 minutes, Kevin decided to give up. I was about to eat crow when a pair of mannikins flew in. "There they are! There they are!", I shouted. Kevin did a quick 180 and for the next fifteen minutes or so, we took as many pictures as the Nutmeg Mannikins would allow us. The birds would often hide behind the branches or duck into their nest. I told Kevin that I'd probably return the following day and bring my big lens along so I can get closer looks. At about 9 am, the temperature was already in three digits. We both agreed that it was time to leave the mannikins to their own antics.

Saturday, Cynthia finished earlier than expected from her doctor's appointment. I told her what I told Kevin the day before that I wanted to get pictures of the mannikins with my 500mm lens. She agreed. She also wanted to see the birds that I kept telling her about.

At 9 am, the Eaton Canyon parking lot was already full. Luckily we managed to get a spot not far from the mannikins' pine tree. We first staked out the tree and when the little brown birds flew in, I hastily set up my camera gear. So single-minded was my purpose to capture the images of these birds that I used up all 1 GB of my compact flash card shooting nothing but Nutmeg Mannikins.

Except for a gratuituous shot of a young Scrub Jay eating bread from the steaming road.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Riding on the good fortune we had last Saturday, I thought I'd do another quickie birding at Eaton Canyon this morning. Besides, there was a report that Nutmeg Mannikins are nesting near the parking lot.

Nutmeg Mannikins aka Spice Finches aka Scaly-breasted Munias are natives of Southeast Asia. Several populations, descendants of escaped caged birds, have become established around the Los Angeles and Houston areas. I tried looking for them at the Mile Square Park in Anaheim and also at nearby Hahamongna Watershed, all to no avail. I was hoping that my luck with this specie would change this morning.

Not far from the southmost parking lot, there is a small storage structure maintained by the park. I decided to explore the vegetation behind it which looked promising (and also to have some shade from the already blistering sun). I was standing still when a Bewick's Wren came to within an arm's length and gave me a curious look. Satisfied with what it saw (perhaps I look harmless enough), it moved on and flitted beneath a forest of twigs. I was too stunned to get its picture. Then I heard some fluttering and I turned just in time to see a California Thrasher land on top of the bush where the Wren was. It gave me a look and then flew off chattering. This happened so fast that I didn't have time once again to raise my camera to my eyes.

Going back to the parking lot, I looked up to the pine tree where the Mannikins are supposed to be nesting. There was some movement, but I can't determine what bird it was. Using my binoculars, I finally saw what I came here for. I'm not sure if I could claim this as a lifer because most likely I have seen these birds in the Philippines. Still it was a thrill to finally see one perched incongruously on a pine tree branch.

Satisfied, I moved on and proceeded northward toward the nature center. A House Wren with a lot of chutzpah, sang a few feet from where I stood (too close for my 300mm lens). A California Towhee with something in its beak sat on a telephone wire trying to figure out what to do with its catch.

A very young Black Phoebe was already making a living on its own,

while a young Anna's Hummingbird rested in the shade.

At 10:30, I went back behind the storage structure. This time a Wrentit flew in and looked at me from almost the same spot where the Bewick's Wren did the same thing earlier. This time I was ready.

The pine tree next to the parking lot was already pretty quiet that time of day. The Mannikins were probably in their nest, taking refuge from the rising temperature.
I took the hint and headed to the comforts of home.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Short and Sweet

My wife has a 10 am appointment Saturday, June 14th. When we arrived at Legg Lake in El Monte we only had about an hour to go birding. Thank heavens, we weren't disappointed.
By the water's edge a Great Blue Heron was patiently stalking some potential breakfast.

The tree tops were blossoming with Double-crested Cormorants and awash with the calls of Great-tailed Grackles.

Near the green bridge a family of Bullock's Orioles were chasing one another. Finally, one of the youngsters, perhaps getting hungry from all those flying around, decided to hunt for spiders from a dead tree.

Not far from it Barn Swallows were resting on the telephone wires.

Since Legg Lake is a popular picnic area most of these birds had become familiar with the presence of humans. We were having a blast enjoying the "tameness" of these birds when I noticed that an hour has already passed. As if to say goodbye, a lone American Robin eyed us as it sat basking in the morning sun.

And they said summer always brings birding doldrums.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Owl be there

Fellow birder/photographer and good friend, Tom Starcic wanted to see and photograph the Spotted Owls at Placerita so we arranged to meet there at 9 am Wednesday, June 4th. Looking out my window, I noticed the overcast skies. Then after I drove my wife to her office, there was even a slight drizzle. Quickly, I signed on to my email account to check if Tom changed his mind because of the inclement weather. Nothing. We're good to go, I told myself.

Driving up to Placerita, I prepared myself to just seeing the owls since photography would definitely be out of the question in this condition. As I approached the Freeway 14 junction, lo and behold, the sun was out!

Tom arrived just a whisker after 9 am. On our trek to the waterfalls, which I described to Tom as going to be "arduous", we encountered only a few birds. The scads of Black-headed Grosbeaks that used to make the hillside come alive were now conspicuously absent. As we hit the waterfall trail an American Robin "led" us part of the way, every so often looking back at us as if to say, "Hurry up, you oldtimers!"

And then we were there. Papa owl was as usual sleeping on a branch not that high up. Occasionally it would wake up and give us a look that I can only describe as exasperated. High above him, Mama owl was herself off to slumberland and was totally unaffected by all the commotion below.

Suddenly I heard a "hey". "Did you hear that?", I asked Tom. "Is that a bird?" Before Tom could answer, a couple of guys sitting on the path ahead (and not in our direct line of vision) gave us a wave. We waved back and I asked them if they saw the baby owl. "Right there in front of us", Fred, one the guys replied. When we asked them if they saw the papa owl, they said no. So we eagerly pointed to them the branch where owl senior was perched. We quickly changed places, (not easy - the trail being narrow, steep and peppered with poison oaks) so Tom and I can photograph the baby.

After an hour, we proceeded to the main park where the lack of birds was quite unexpected and disappointing.

"Where are the flycatchers?" I asked. "A week ago, they were everywhere!"

"It's ok", Tom said as we were saying our goodbyes, "we saw what we came here for."

Indeed we did.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Re-tern to Bluesa Chica

On a bright, sunny Saturday, the place to be is at the beach. It has been awhile since we visited Bolsa Chica in Orange County and sightings of a Little Blue Heron - a California rarity - was incentive enough.

There weren't that many people there when we arrived. Usually, the boardwalk would be filled with photographers of various shapes and sizes wielding lenses of various shapes and sizes. Not this time. Perhaps it was the obvious lack of birds - only terns were whizzing by - or the ridiculously high gasoline prices that prevented my colleagues from visiting this popular place.

Anyway, the first bird that we saw was a Savannah Sparrow. For some reason they were bolder this year. 

Meanwhile, Cynthia was busy capturing a Black-necked Stilt tending its nest.

How can such a long-legged bird sit on its nest? you might ask. Well, here's how:

At the end of the boardwalk, a Least Tern was also patiently sitting on its egg.

As I mentioned earlier, there weren't that many birds along the trail. A Black-bellied Plover was starting to put on it's summer plumage. Marbled Godwits competed with Willets for foraging rights on the mudflats. By the tidal gates, terns of different varieties were having a field day diving for tiny fish.

Somehow, mama duck and her brood of eight managed to evade the dive-bombing terns.

We rounded the trail without seeing the Little Blue Heron. Cynthia needed to answer the call of nature so we drove to the nearest fast food restaurant. "Do you want to return to Bolsa Chica?" she asked me afterwards. It was still quite early, so we did. This time I chucked my big lens and opted for the smaller 300mm. We planned to hike to the mesa and a lighter gear would give my aching shoulders a much needed relief.

Halfway up the boardwalk, I noticed something blue fly by us. It was the Little Blue Heron! Half-running we chased after it until it landed on the shallow part of the lagoon some 30 yards away from the trail. Slowly, it worked it's way northward. About 50 feet ahead, the lagoon would be only a few feet away from trail. Anticipating that the heron would end up there, we positioned ourselves and waited. And waited. And waited. Just as it turned the bend, we started shooting but then the sun was overhead and cast shadows on the heron's blue face. Besides, it was still too far for our short lenses to get a decent shot. I dared not go back to the jeep to get my big lens, pessimistically assuming it would be gone by the time I got back. It was then it decided to fly off towards the tidal gates. We thought of chasing after it, but not knowing where it landed, we both agreed that it was enough that we saw what we came for and still got some "documentary" shots of it.

As we walked back to the parking lot, Cynthia reminded me that we already had some gorgeous photographs of the Little Blue Heron that we took in Texas. No need to get frustrated here, she said consolingly. My wife has always been the voice of reason in a situation like this. Now how can you argue with that?