Sunday, July 27, 2008

Our Tern To See

Talbert Marsh at Huntington Beach has been quite popular lately among birders. This narrow, block-long strip of mudflat is the site where a Gull-billed Tern has been observed quite regularly this past week or so. This species is unusual in this part of California, normally only being seen at the Salton Sea about 200 miles from here.

Saturday morning, after our traditional breakfast at McDonalds, we proceeded to the marsh. We parked along Brookhurst Avenue about three blocks from the marsh entrance, unaware that people were allowed to drive in (there is a paved road alongside the marsh). Well, we needed the exercise anyway and besides I don't have my heavy equipment to lug through that distance.

We met a young guy carrying a camera and a scope (sure signs that he is a birder), Pornpat Nikamanon, a grad student from UCI, and immediately asked him if he saw our quarry. He said he did but it flew away heading eastward. We thanked him and decided to walk up to the south end of the marsh. Just as we were approaching the bike path, I saw a tern fly over. We turned back right away, despite the uncertainty that the tern I saw was the Gull-billed.

I spotted a tern eating something from the mudflat. It's black-bill confirmed that I have now gotten my 76th life bird for the year!

For the next hour or so, we followed its antics, and taking photographs of the other avian denizens of Talbert Marsh as well. Like this Brown Pelican

and a Willet 

Soon Leigh Johnson ( came with a group of birders who were doing a survey on the birds of the area. Satisfied at seeing the rare tern, they soon left to continue with their survey.

Taking a cue from them, we decided to call it a day and bypass Bolsa Chica altogether. Near the entrance, a couple of Ospreys made some close fly-bys. Naturally we took advantage of that opportunity and practiced on our BIF (birds in flight) shots.

The three-block walk back later to the Jeep wasn't bad at all, considering we were quite elated that we were able to see the bird which we came for.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ratty Towhee (et autres jeunes oiseaux)

"Don't you miss birding?" my wife asked as I was driving her to work. "The last time we did was in Arizona - and that was a week-and-a-half ago."

I gave her all sorts of excuses - it's too hot, high gas prices, plain old laziness. But when I got home, I thought, what the heck, why not give Eaton Canyon a visit today.

I got there around 8:30 am and right away the absence of the Nutmeg Mannikins by the parking lot was noticeable. So I hit the trail by the ampitheater and saw a young Black Phoebe jumping at insects.

Not too far from it another young bird, a Bewick's Wren was itself hunting for food.

That sort of set the trend for my morning's birding. Most of the birds I saw were young, probably just recently fledged. They were generally unkempt-looking, feathers sticking out at odd places, attesting to the fact that they were beginning their molt into adult plumages. Like this ratty California Towhee:

a California Thrasher

and Wrentits - the scraggly looking young one below and the more svelte adult above it.

Other than these young ones, the few species that I saw were just the usual suspects of Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches and Mourning Doves. At 10 am, I called it a day to seek some shelter from the sweltering heat.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Colorful Birds of America

Inasmuch as we already had "le grand aventeur" last week at Madera Canyon in Arizona, we decided to stay-in this weekend. (A euphemism for financial recuperating). Anyway, with time on my hands, I created this video of some of the more colorful birds we have photographed. We hope you like it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Continuing Quest for Our Grail Bird

It was still dark outside. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves as we silently filed out of our apartment. A few moments of prayer and then at 5:15 in the morning of Thursday, July 3rd, we were off. Our destination was Green Valley, Arizona. I have beeen faithfully monitoring the postings on the Arizona birding listserve and I noticed that almost on a daily basis there were sightings of the Elegant Trogon and the Flame-colored Tanager - both gaudily plumaged tropical birds. There was still some reluctance on my part to make the annual pilgrimage to our next door state. The price of gasoline was of course a major consideration. And then there was the tight schedule. Friday, July 4th was a holiday, so if we travelled on that day, it will only leave us Saturday for a full day of birding. Then we will have to miss church if we want to be home early enough on Sunday which we didn't want to do. To my surprise, Cynthia was given a day off on Thursday, July 3rd, and she didn't even ask for it! That opened the door to our plans. I immediately booked a room at the Baymont Hotel in Green Valley and prepared for our trip.

It has become almost a tradition, or a ritual, if you will, that whenever we travel east - whether it be to Morongo or Salton Sea or Arizona - we always make it a point to have breakfast at MacDonalds in Cabazon. Thursday morning was no exception. Revitalized, we continued on our journey. We gassed up at Quartzsite, the first town in Arizona across the stateline. We were so happy that gas prices were "only" $4.09 a gallon - cheaper than the $4.49 at Costco when I loaded up the day before.

Noonish and we were getting hungry. We already passed through Phoenix and decided that Tucson would be a good place to have lunch even if we would be arriving there past 1 pm. It was then that we saw a sign that again resolved a problem for us. We were entering the city of Casa Grande and a sign said that there was a Golden Corral restaurant there. Golden Corral is a western style buffet restaurant and we have enjoyed its food both in Arizona and in Texas. We wondered why they have not established a franchise in California. Maybe California was not "cowboy" enough. Anyway, as expected, the food was great and the service was excellent. (Tip: ask for their bread - the best restaurant bread you will ever taste.) (

A little before 3 pm we rolled into the Baymont Hotel parking lot. This was our first time to stay in this hotel - we always went to Best Western - but the Best Western here at Green Valley somehow ceased operations recently. The room we got was right next to the lobby, so that was convenient, if a little noisy. We took some much needed rest and respite from the sweltering heat outside. (

At around 6 pm we took a foray at Madera Canyon. There were a couple of young Red-tailed Hawks resting in the shady side of the telephone poles. There weren't that much action at the Sta Rita Lodge feeders. We got excited when we saw what we thought was a Lazuli Bunting but upon detailed observation, it turned out to be an Eastern Bluebird instead. Which was still intriguing to find them this far in the west.

The feeders at the Kubo were swarming with Nuthatches and the usual hummingbirds - Broad-billed and Black-chinned. Soon claps of thunder and flashes of lightning forebode the coming monsoon rains.

We thought it prudent to return to the hotel as soon as possible. Nevertheless, we still got caught in a heavy downpour just as we were arriving at the Baymont. Then there was a power blackout that engulfed the city of Green Valley. To its credit, the hotel provided us with a candle. But then the local restaurants and shops were ill-prepared for this situation and we ended up contenting ourselves with the Rice Krispy bars that we brought along for our supper that night. Power eventually came back at around 1 am. At 3:30 am we were rudely awakened by an insistent pounding on our door. Groggily, I opened it. The hotel manager was there announcing that they were evacuating the hotel because of a possible fire. I appraised Cynthia of what was going on. We grabbed our camera gears and hurriedly exited the building. Firetrucks and police cars were everywhere. After more than an hour, the firemen concluded that there was nothing wrong - the smoke alarm just went off (probably from all those candles provided to the guests) - and we, together with about 30 other sleepy guests, were all herded back to our respective rooms.

A quick breakfast at 6:30 am and then we were off. Entering the Madera Canyon road, we witnessed a flurry of morning avian activities: Rufous-crowned Sparrows were singing on the telephone wires,

Mourning and White-winged Doves competed for attention with their "hoo-hoos", Curve-billed Thrashers skulked in the underbrush, Cactus Wrens were invisible but their engine-sputter calls were unmistakable, and a family of Pyrrhuloxias were frolicking by the roadside.

A pair of Gambel's Quails even made a brief appearance.
The feeders at the Sta Rita Lodge hosted some Bronzed Cowbirds (a lifer!)

and a few Mexican Jays.

"What's the difference between Mexican Jays and the Scrub Jays we have in California?" my wife wanted to know.
"Easy," I said, "Mexican Jays speak Spanish".

We saw some birders hanging around the Kubo but they informed us that there was nothing new so we went directly to the upper parking lot where the trailheads are. Armed with the directions provided by Anthony Mendoza whom I emailed after he reported seeing the Elegant Trogon, we started our quest for our grail bird. For the past three years we tried to look for the Trogon but each time we were unsuccessful. There had been some close calls: in Patagonia Lake in 2005 where we gave up at noon but our fellow seeker from Boston kept looking and found it just after we left, and in the Chiricahuas last year where we heard but did not see the bird. Anthony said that there was a trogon nest about a mile up the trail and that was where he saw it. The trail was arduous, to say the least, especially to these 61 year old legs with about 20 extra pounds of gear lugged on my shoulders. Every 20 feet or so, Cynthia and I would stop to catch our breaths. During those times we scanned the treetops and surrounding vegetation looking for birds as our excuse for such frequent stops in case the other birders/hikers noticed. About 3/4 along the way we met a lady birder who confirmed the directions that Anthony emailed me. She also said that there was indeed a trogon nest there but the young birds have already fledged. With us at this spot were a few birders with the same aspirations as we have. Soon we could hear the barking call of our quarry. But the birds never showed up. Determined, we moved on to where the nest is, leaving the other birders behind. Soon we were at the big boulder which was the landmark mentioned by both the lady birder and Anthony. It was eerily quiet. Cynthia chased some Hermit Thrushes to while away the time. An hour has passed and still nothing. "Let's pray" I told Cynthia. "We've come this far, so let's ask God to honor the effort we have made". So we prayed. After a short while I saw some movement in the branches not far from where we are. I followed it only to discover that it was a Sulphur-bellied Flycacther. It was while I was taking the flycatcher's picture that we heard a loud "gark!" "gark!" "gark!". I looked up just in time to see the Trogon fly overhead. "There it is!", I shouted to my wife who immediately jumped to her feet and followed the barking sound. The Elegant Trogon eventually landed on a branch not far from the big boulder. Heart pounding, I trained my big lens at it only to be dismayed that I can't autofocus due to some leaves in front of it. I used manual focus but that was my undoing because I have bad eyes and couldn't tell if the subject is focused properly or not. Nonetheless, I got some documentary shots. Cynthia, on the other hand, was more mobile with her 100-400 zoom lens. She was able to position herself in front of the bird, albeit with a too steep an angle. When she tried to move back a little, she almost tripped on a rock. Her jerky movement in trying to regain her balance spooked the bird which flew off barking into the distance. I ran towards my wife and hugged her and offered a prayer of thanks. Both our hearts were beating wildly as the excitement of finally seeing the Elegant Trogon sank in. Nevermind the crappy pictures. We saw it. On our fourth attempt, we saw it at last!

Returning back to the parking lot seemed like a breeze, stopping once to take a picture of an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher, then resting on the only bench along the trail. "It may be an ordinary bench to you", I told my wife, "but it is a Mercedes bench to me".

There we had our usual snack of Krispy bars and drank perhaps a gallon of water. Did I mention that it was extremely hot even this high up in the mountains? I was drenched with perspiration as we got back into the Jeep.

Our next stopover was at the Madera Kubo where a couple of rarities have been visiting their feeders. Here we met Cora Lansky, a Filipina who is married to Richard, a now retired U.S. Navy man.

They own this lovely Bed-and-Breakfast Inn.

Cora welcomed us with the warm hospitality so common in our native land. For the next 3 hours or so, Cora regaled us with stories of her family and of the uncommon birds that visited the feeders that she and her husband put up and faithfully maintains. Cora is also an expert on bird calls. She is able to detect when a certain bird is in the area. She would say: "There's the Hepatic Tanager", or "The Flame-colored Tanager is on the tree in front of us" just by listening. Thanks to her expertise, Cynthia and I chalked four more lifers: the Arizona Woodpecker which we surprisingly missed in our previous trips into southeast Arizona;

the Scott's Oriole which we missed at Joshua Tree National Park;

the rare Berylline Hummingbird which we missed at the Chiricahuas last year;

and finally the exotic Flame-colored Tanager, a very rare and colorful visitor to Arizona.

Of course, there were a lot more birds around the Kubo, including wild turkeys. Hepatic Tanagers and Hooded Orioles added their bright red and yellow colors to the array of shimmering hummingbird plumages.

Hunger soon overcame us and we reluctantly bade goodbye to our gracious host, promising her that we will return and stay at her beautiful Kubo. Snacks at a local MacDonalds satisfied our hunger. We returned to our hotel and rested still spellbound by the unusual good luck we had that day.

Very early next morning, we headed to the Proctor Road area with the hopes of getting a picture of the gorgeous Varied Bunting. I saw the bunting from a distance. However, it was too far to be photographed even with my long lens. Despite seeing a Blue Grosbeak and a Summer Tanager, there was nothing much we saw there. I guess after all the excitement of the previous day's sightings, today was quite anti-climactic and was a bit of a letdown. We left Madera Canyon at 8 am to prepare for our long trip back home.

Gasoline at Green Valley was only $3.89 a gallon. We loaded up and began our return journey. We got home at 5 pm exactly nine hours after we left our hotel stopping only for lunch and gas at Quartzsite. And I must say that was one of the most pleasant long drives I have ever had.