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October 24, 2008. It was just like any day as far as our morning routine goes. Except I got a couple of cards from my wife as we were preparing for breakfast. Throughout the day I would be receiving calls, text messages and emails from family and friends greeting me on my 62nd birthday. As of today, I am officially "retired" according to the government records. Soon I will be getting my social security pension. Inasmuch as I have been out of work for over a year now, this was not exactly an earth-shaking event for me. Besides, I'm the kind who does not want nor expect any fuss on my birthday "celebration".
So what do I do on my birthday? Go birding, naturally. I wanted to do a reprise of what I did last year - visit Peck Park in El Monte. Last year (which was just a week after Indymac and I had a friendly "divorce") I got some pretty good birding experiences at Peck's. Today didn't go too well, though. All the sprinklers were on and the maintenance people were busy doing their jobs and quite noisy about it. Nevertheless, I was able to capture some good shots of a couple of "Larks": the Lark Sparrow (the most beautiful sparrow in the U.S., in my opinion) and the plentiful Meadowlarks.
Later that night as my wife and I were enjoying a sumptuous Mediterranean dinner, she asked me how my day was.
"It was a lark!" I replied smiling.
My mid-week birding brought me to Legg Lake in Whittier. Not by chance, but by a report of a Blackpoll Warbler sighting. When I arrived a little after 8 am, the place was discouragingly quiet.
I did a quick tour around the lake with hopes of seeing the Canvasbacks likewise reported there. Got blanked on that. Nothing of interest inhabited the lake and its surroundings. Disappointment was starting to creep in as I returned to the tree where the Blackpoll was sighted. It was also at this particular tree that a Bay-breasted Warbler was seen by a lot of people last year, including moi.
As I was resting at the picnic table, I finally noticed some movement among the leaves. Peering through my binoculars, I saw a warbler-like bird hunting for insects that looked a bit different from the Yellow-rumps that have also begun to pop out seemingly everywhere. Soon I was joined by a fellow birder/photographer, Chris Akiyoshi. When I showed him my shots, he was a bit skeptical as to the correct ID of the warbler I just saw. He did admit that it was paler than the brownish Butterbutts. Later after I uploaded my pictures to the computer that I was able to confirm that I did get a shot (although not a very good one) of the uncommon Blackpoll Warbler. It was my 85th lifer for the year 2008.
Chris and I hung around the now bustling-with-activity tree for a couple more hours. Throughout that period, we marveled at how a single tree can produce 6 species of warblers: the ubiquituous Yellow-Rumps, an Orange-crowned, a Yellow, several Black-throated Grays, a few lovely Townsends, and of course, the prized Blackpoll.
A Black-throated Gray:
Just as we were about to leave, a flock of Western Bluebirds landed at a nearby tree and stayed long enough for us to get some good shots. The term "bluebirds of happiness" proved to be true this morning.
It was the worst of times and it was the best of times. It was hot and it was cool. There were no lifers and there were several lifers. There were unhappy birders and there were happy birders.
Pardon me for going a bit Dickensian with this blog. It's just that the contrasts between two birding sites in two consecutive days seemed to recall the opening lines in Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities".
My wife took a day-off on Friday, Oct. 17th. We had originally planned to go to the Solvang/Santa Barbara area for some R & R and of course to go birding as well. Maybe garner a couple of lifers such as the Yellow-billed Magpie and the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. But fate had a way of making even the best laid plans go awry. Around 4 am on Friday, I suffered some stomach pain and it kept me bedridden until about 9 am when the medicine I took finally relieved me of my discomfort. Cynthia and I both agreed that the Solvang trip was now out of the question. Checking the birding listservs at Yahoo, I discovered that two rare Pipit species (Sprague's and Red-throated) were located at the Santa Fe Dam that very morning. I convinced my wife that I was well enough to go birding. Besides Santa Fe Dam wasn't that far from home, so in case my stomach trouble returns, we can quickly go back to our apartment. I also told her that we can still go to Solvang the next day.
Thus began a terribly bad birding day for us. We stayed at the dam from 10 am to about 6 pm, taking only an hour's break (3 to 4 pm) to visit the nearby Wal-mart for a quick snack. All through those hours we endured the heat and buzzing insects without seeing even a glimpse of either Pipit. Even the birds were few, except for the Western Meadowlarks which we didn't even bother to photograph. Local twitchers came and went, each one experiencing sheer frustration as we did. We went home exhausted and despondent that evening.
That night as I was once again trolling the listservs for birding information, I was intrigued by the report that not one, but two, Black-throated Blue Warblers were sighted at Galileo Hills. As far as I'm concerned, Black-throated Blues are one of the most beautiful warblers there is. And they are extremely uncommon in California. We chased one at Beverly Hills last year but all I got was a look that was shorter that the blink of an eye. Cynthia had probably a split-second longer sighting of the lovely bird. Because of those fleeting views, I did not consider it as a lifer at that time. Seeing it again and photographing it this time would finally make it to our lifelist. So, in my most charming way, I sweetly asked my beautiful, understanding wife that we once again postpone our trip to Solvang and go to Galileo Hills instead on Saturday. To my joy and relief she agreed. Telling her that my birthday was coming soon probably helped, too.
Perhaps in some obscure history of the area, the place was once called Galileo Hills but now it is the Silver Saddle Resort and Spa. It is a veritable oasis in the middle of a desert. Although privately owned, the owners are graceful enough to allow birders in their expansive grounds which contains several lagoons and ponds, a Skeet range, an Archery range, a Petting Zoo, horse stables, and a Pavillion where the functions and parties are held. Yet somehow among birders, the place has always been referred to as Galileo Hills.
We left the apartment at 6 am. We did our "traditional" breakfast at MacDonalds at the city of Rosamond and arrived at Galileo Hills at 8:30. At first, the place seemed quiet, birding-wise. We walked over to the grassy area next to the Skeet range where one of the Black-throated Blues was last seen. But we didn't find it. We then ambled to the lagoon where a lone, juvenile Double-crested Cormorant looked perplexed.
We met Gary, a birder from Bakersfield, who told us where to find our quarry and added that there was also a Swamp Sparrow "close to the Pavillion". We thanked him profusely and headed to the direction he provided us. Along the way, we chased a bunch of Sparrows (mostly White-crowned) and Dark-eyed Juncos (including the Slate-colored subspecies) next to the Archery range and came upon a tiny pond that harbored a young Ring-necked Duck which definitely looked incongruous to the place.
We returned to the grove of trees across the hotel parking lot and met Mary & Dermott Lumkins who immediately pointed the Black-throated Blue Warbler flitting among the lower branches to us.
Just as we were firing away, Mary then diverted our attention to the tiny and energetic Golden-crowned Kinglet foraging a few trees away
In a span of fifteen minutes we racked up two lifers in a row!
Encouraged by our two lifers, we proceeded to the Pavillion area. The rosemary bushes alongside the Pavillion yielded Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers. I thought I saw a Tennessee Warbler, but since I wasn't able to take a picture of it, I can't be sure. On the other hand, a Fox Sparrow gave me some good photo ops.
Soon Nick and Mary Freeman, birders from Glendale, came. Nick showed me where the Varied Thrush hangs out and sure enough, it was there. The Varied Thrush is another colorful, albeit uncommon bird here, although it was not a lifer for us - we've seen it before at San Diego back in 2005.
At noon we took a break and had corned-beef sandwiches and Coke for lunch. Although Silver Saddle had a restaurant, we thought it will be a lot cheaper if we brought our own provisions. Also, we learned our lesson from yesterday where we almost got dehydrated because we failed to bring along even a single bottle of water. Just as we were enjoying our lunch at the picnic table, the Black-throated Blue alit on a branch above us just to say "hello".
After lunch Cynthia loitered around the picnic area while I tidied up and returned our lunchbag to the Jeep. As I walked back to where my wife was, she pointed at the base of a tree and said: "Nutmeg!"
"Nutmeg Mannikins?" I asked skeptically.
"No!", she said, still pointing at the tree trunk, "Look!"
I looked and I saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch (the Lumkins told us about them, too). My wife, when excited at seeing a gorgeous bird for the first time, has this habit of christening the creature with a new name - like calling a Moorhen a Moorhouse. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a shot of the Nuthatch, but it still counted as our third lifer of the day.
Later, Mary and Dermott came and excitedly told us that they saw the Swamp Sparrow at "the tiny pond with some rocks next to it and a willow tree nearby." But you have to be patient, they warned us. Needless to say, we immediately went to the said pond and sat on the grass in front of it and waited. For almost an hour. As we stood up thinking the little brown bird would never show up, I saw something move next to the rocks that the Lumkins mentioned. "Swamp Sparrow", I whispered to Cynthia. For the next quarter-hour or so, our fourth lifer obliged for some picture-taking sessions.
We then tried to take a few more shots of the Varied Thrush, which was quite a challenge, it being very skittish.
Back at the picnic area, we once again met up with the Lumkins. While Cynthia was engaged in some bird-talk with them, I saw an American Robin fly to the ground. Not far from it were some White-crowned Sparrows. However, there was a bird among them that looked different from the rest. It was very pale, like light beige, and unlike any sparrow I've seen so far. That unidentified sparrow capped a very exciting, fun day.
As Cynthia was talking to Mary, she related to her that we actually planned to go to Solvang, but decided to come here at Galileo instead. "But I'm glad we came here," she confessed to the Lumkins. I pretended not to have heard it but I was grinning from ear-to-ear as I photographed my mystery bird. - and a potential fifth lifer for the day.
Yesterday, my wife and I did something that we haven't done for awhile. It was refreshing, exciting and such fun even if it lasted only a little more than an hour.
We went birding in the afternoon. At Bolsa Chica. We were so used at driving there without any problem that we were just appalled at the traffic jams we encountered.
After an hour and a half (what normally takes less than an hour), we finally arrived at our destination. Surprisingly, there weren't too many people around. The boardwalk was almost empty.
Then we found out why. Blustery winds that further lowered the temperature of an already chilly afternoon. But we were prepared - having worn jackets and sweaters in anticipation of such a weather condition.
The Pelicans were there, putting on their usual show of leaping from their swimming position, flying low and then plunging into the water after some unfortunate fish.
The usual denizens of a coastal mud flat were there. It was dinnertime for the birds and this Long-billed Curlew was enjoying a fresh mussel still in its shell.
A Black-bellied Plover, on the other hand, was able to "un-shell" its meal.
One reason why I wanted to go to Bolsa Chica was to see the Reddish Egret. It has been a year since we last saw it - and it was at some distance when we did. I was hoping we would get some closer looks this time. At the trail east of the tidal gates, we saw a juvenile Reddish Egret cavorting at a place too far for our camera lenses. I prefer to see the more colorful adult anyway, I told my wife. By now the sun was getting close to the horizon, so we decided to hike back. Don't worry, Cynthia assured me, God will send the Egret to us. It was while I was shooting at the moon (literally) halfway through the return trail, that I glimpsed an adult Reddish Egret fly by and land at a mudflat not too far away. I called my wife's attention to it and as the sun's fading light bathed the place in a warm red-orange glow, we had our moment with the lovely egret. That orange glow and the blowing wind created an image that seemed like the egret was on fire. I thought it appropriate to call it, "The Firebird".
Like the Pavlovian dog, mention "Solitary Sandpiper" and I salivate. Ears pricked, tongue hanging, I await for the directions where that bird was last seen. Upon obtaining that information I scamper over to that particular place to eagerly search for my potential lifer.
So when someone posted seeing a Solitary Sandpiper at Pond D at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, I was there bright and early the following day. Soon I was joined by my birding buddy, Tom Starcic (he was the one who told me about the sighting) and then a bit later on by two more birders - all of us looking for the elusive shorebird. Three-and-a-half hours later, the uncommon sandpiper was still a no-show. By noon we all gave up. My only consolation that morning was getting a picture of the reclusive Virginia Rail as it made its rare appearance around 10 am, venturing out in the open for a few fleeting moments.
Tom and I had a quick bite at the local McDonalds and decided to take a shot at the Bald Eagle recently sighted at Peter's Canyon Regional Park not too far from where we were. There we met Tim Rhoades, another birder/photographer. All three of us stood on a hill overlooking the dam enduring the blistering noonday sun while watching numerous Turkey Vultures and Ospreys flying overhead and waiting for the majestic raptor to honor us with its presence. After an hour-and-a-half, the eagle still hasn't made its much awaited appearance.
Due to commitments to pick-up our respective wives, Tom and I reluctantly left Tim behind and bade him the best of luck.
After I picked up Cynthia from her work, we passed by Von's Grocery in South Pasadena for some needed household supplies. My wife lent me a sympathetic ear as I related to her how Tom and I zeroed out on our target birds. Just as we were getting to our Jeep, we heard some raucous calls overhead. Looking up, we saw a flock of parakeets fly by and headed towards nearby Garfield Park. We jumped into our vehicle and tried to follow the green-colored birds. A few blocks later, we saw them land on the trees at the parking lot behind the Rite-aid Drugstore. I parked immediately, grabbed my camera and binoculars and ran towards the trees hosting the parakeet flock. Through my binos, I identified the birds as Mitred Parakeets. Although we have seen parakeets fly overhead here in South Pasadena on several ocassions, this is the first time that I have positively identified them and was even able to take some good pictures of these exotic birds. Which would now officially make them my 80th lifer of the year.
Who knew that in a span of eight hours, my luck would change from 0 sightings from a place 50 miles away, to getting a lifer just a few blocks from where I live.
Laguna Tams. The grove of tamarisk trees along Laguna Road in Camarillo, California. For both my wife and I this place stands as a significant historical landmark. It was here back in October 2004 that my bird photography hobby was born. My then brand new bride (we were married the month before) encouraged me to take up birding once again after a long hiatus. I just learned that the Laguna Tams is an excellent place to visit during the fall migration. Indeed it was, for warblers and vireos were everywhere. Out of impulse, I decided to bring my son's Canon film camera with a 70-200 zoom lens attached to it. One of the birders there who was also taking pictures noticed the camera I was using. "Time to go digital", he said and went on extolling the virtues of digital photography, even showing me the gorgeous shots of a warbler he had taken just a few minutes earlier. A week later I purchased my very first digital SLR, a Canon 300D.
After the 300D I had gotten a 20D, a much faster, more technically advanced camera. Which was then eventually replaced by the 30D in September, 2006. On our 2nd wedding anniversary, Cynthia and I once again visited the Tams. I wanted to take my spanking brand new 30D with the 500mm telephoto lens for a field test there. I told my wife that if she wanted to, she can use my "old" 20D with the 300mm lens. She said, "Why not?" and the rest, they say, is history.
Whenever we go on our bird photography trips, we have an agreement: If there are plenty of birds around, we usually shoot at different subjects to get the most number of species. If we are shooting at the same subject, especially if it is a rare species or a lifer, we usually shoot at different angles to get as much coverage of the subject as possible. It has never been a competition between us, rather we compliment each other to get the utmost in our bird photography experiences. In a number of occasions, however, my wife had gotten better shots than I did. Which is quite interesting, as I am the more "technical" shooter, fussing over ambient lighting and shutter speeds and f-stops and all that photography gobbledygook. She is more of a "point-and-shooter". But more patient and has steadier arms, I suppose.
And that was the case again this morning at our beloved Laguna Tams. The weather was really crappy - dark clouds with the threat of rain. The birds were few and far between. Thankfully, there were a handful of Townsends Warblers that gave some brief photo ops. Cynthia and I were about 50 feet apart from each other shooting at two different Townsends. After I uploaded the pictures when we got back home, the results were resoundingly in her favor.
and even posed again facing the opposite way!
What is even more intriguing was that I was shooting at ISO-1600 (really bad lighting, remember?) using a 40D with a 300mm prime lens and a 1.4 extender while she was at ISO-400 with a 30D and 100-400 zoom!
Ain't my wife grand?
For a moment I thought I have lost my passion for birds. As a matter of fact, my wife has been urging me (almost to a point of desperation, I think) to go out and do some birding. The lack of exciting avian news probably contributed to my uncharacteristic reluctance to pursue my hobby. Or maybe I'm just getting too old for this??? Heaven forbid!!
(On a side note: As I drove through the entrance of Sante Fe Dam, the young lady who mans the booth only charged me half the entrance fee because I am a "senior citizen". And then at lunch, I went to El Pollo Loco and ordered a 2-piece combo to go. I was surprised when the cashier gave me more change from the twenty-dollar bill I gave her than I expected. Looking at the receipt, I noticed that she gave me a senior discount as well without me asking for it. And when I got home, lo and behold I got three pieces of chicken instead of two! I am not "yet" a senior citizen, I just look like one. And maybe that is a good thing.)
Anyway...Finally there were some report of unusual sightings at the Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale. So, Monday morning despite the kooky weather - it would be bright and sunny one moment then there would be thunder and drizzling the next, then sunny again, then gloomy -(Was I in the tropics??) I visited the place. I birded the usual spots and saw the usual birds. The numerous species listed in the report were nowhere to be found. I searched high and low and still could not locate the Clay-colored Sparrow and the Solitary Sandpiper (my new nemesis bird), both would-be lifers for me. After four hours of fruitless pursuit and gallons of sweat - it was humid even when it was drizzling - I called it a day. It was not a total disaster as I saw some neat birds, only they were not new to me.
That night I emailed the birder who posted the Santa Fe Dam sightings and requested for specific directions. Andrew Lee replied with a very detailed description of how to get to his birding site.
Wednesday morning, I was back at Santa Fe Dam. I wasted no time hitting the trail that Andrew mentioned. And according to his description, as soon as the grass became greener, the place became birdier. (And I thought it was just a cliche). Sparrows were flying back and forth across the trail, most of which were Song Sparrows, with a few Lincoln's thrown in. But no Clay-colored.
Part of the trail had some water and mud and as I contemplated whether to go through it or not, I was startled by a flash of red on my left. I turned and almost came face to face with an Orange Bishop (the official name actually is Northern Red Bishop). Woohoo! This lovely species gave me and my wife (and then me and my friend, Tom Starcic also) such a hard time at the Eaton Canyon Wash. I have given up hope of ever getting a good picture of this colorful exotic bird. And now, this was redemption!
At about 9 am, the temperature climbed unbelievably high. Birds were now by the patch of water and started to bathe. Throngs of Song Sparrows dominated the refreshing pool. Some Savannah Sparrows joined in as well. Still no Clay-colored. Then one of the Savannahs started chasing a sparrow-like bird with a bright red beak. The distraught tiny brown bird landed on a branch not too far from me and as I gave it a good look, I knew that I just had my 79th lifer for the year. It was another exotic bird - a female Pin-tailed Whydah (aka Widow).
Having had my fill of exotics, I traversed the muddy trail to where the "pond" was and where hopefully, the Solitary Sandpiper still hangs. Except for scads of Killdeer, no sandpiper of any kind was present.
Now soaking in sweat, I thought it wise to turn back and just count my blessings with at least one lifer and a close encounter with a feathered bishop.