Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ay-yay-yay, no eye

The report that a pair of Common Goldeneyes were seen at Bonelli Regional Park perked my interest. You will recall that we dipped badly on this species last Saturday at Big Bear. So off to Bonelli I went (Cynthia is at work) Tuesday morning. The day started out glorious - blue skies and just enough nippiness in the air that invigorates the lungs.

I immediately proceeded to the eastern shore and scanned the lake with my binoculars. Nothing but Mallards, Western Grebes and hundreds of Coots. A pair each of Canada and White-fronted Geese were just waking up as I walked closer to the water's edge. A Killdeer scampered ahead of me. But no wintering ducks! I turned my attention to the land birds. There was a small puddle by the roadside where Yellow-rumps, American Goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos and an occasional Western Bluebird would take a drink.

At the easternmost point next to the parking area, a Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret were trying to overcome their frozen inertia. A Belted Kingfisher and an Osprey on the other hand, have begun their quest for an early morning meal.

I walked along the lakeside going west accompanied by skiterring Least Sandpipers. Around the bend, I finally saw some Redheads bathing! Further into the open, Western Grebes stretched their necks and legs while Ruddy Ducks slept. Four Eared Grebes went swimming by.

But still no Goldeneyes.

I decided to drive to the western side of the lake and I was turning into the main road, I was completely surprised to see a Roadrunner! I stopped the Jeep, flashe my emergency lights on, opened the window on my side and grabbed my camera gear. Fortunately, I decided to bring my big 500mm telephoto lens for this trip anticipating that the ducks would be at quite a distance offshore. Praying that the lens' Image Stability capabilities would work, as I was handholding the camera and trembling with excitement, I took a bunch of shots at the roadrunner. Eventually it took off and hid among the bushes.

I stopped by restroom # 8 to see if the Painted Redstart still inhabits the tree across. The black-and-red warbler has obviously gone to warmer climes for it was quiet as a cemetery there. There was however, a Merlin perched silently high up a pine tree.

I continued to the west side parking lot and hauled my gear to the lakeside. This time a Spotted Sandpiper came bobbing towards me, totally unmindful of my presence. Once again scanning the lake with my binoculars, I saw Lesser and Greater Scaups together offering excellent opportunities to compare one species from the other.

But still no Goldeneyes.

The beautiful morning soon turned into overcast skies and a few drops of rain forebode a wet afternoon.

I will have to "live another day" in my search for the Goldeneye. (Oh no, not another James Bond theme!)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

There's a Kind of Thrush

There's a kind of thrush that is unlike other thrushes. It has a long tail and has a plain, dull gray color. Except for a tiny patch of buff on its wing and a white eyering, it is a nondescript looking bird. It may be less attractive than its more colorful cousins but we wanted to see it anyway. The Townsend's Solitaire, should we find it, will be our 87th lifer for the year 2008. A good place to look for it is at Big Bear Lake 8,000 feet up in the San Bernardino mountains.

The sun was slowly emerging from the mountains on the horizon and spreading a pinkish hue on the eastern skies as we drove to Big Bear on Saturday morning. There were only a few people braving the six degree temperature at Lake Arrowhead where we tried to get some warmth from the steaming hot coffee at MacDonalds. It was still freezing cold as we traversed the boardwalk at Stanfield Marsh at Big Bear Lake half an hour later. The Common Goldeneye pair that was reported seen here the day before was now nowhere to be found but a flotilla of Hooded Mergansers were swimming around. Next to the boardwalk Mountain Chickadees were already busy hunting for food.

Our next stop was the Discovery Center at the North Shore Drive. The lady volunteer was very eager to help but when asked about the Solitaire, she didn't even know there was such a bird. "Ask the guy at the Wild Wings store", she suggested, "he knows where to find the birds in this area." We thanked her but before proceeding to meet the local expert, we spent a few minutes next to the feeder that the center put up where a Pygmy Nuthatch and several House Finches were enjoying the seeds.

The gentleman at the Wild Wings store was indeed very knowledgeable of the area's avifauna. He mentioned the possible places where we will most likely encounter the Townsend's Solitaire. One of the places he mentioned was a route called 2N10. When I first heard the name, it seemed strange to call a place "two and ten". Why not just call it "twelve" I thought to myself. 2N10 turned out to be a rural dirt road that only a high clearance vehicle can negotiate. The Forest Ranger that we met told us that the route runs for about 7 miles through a pine forest. Half a mile into it and not encountering any bird at all made us decide to turn back.

We then tried the different trails (located at various points around the lake) suggested by the Wild Wing guy but we dipped on each of those. We even went to the Ecology Center, further east and north of the now dry Baldwin Lake, but the birds there were even more sparse.

At the trail at Juniper Point around 3 pm we saw a single Cedar Waxwing perched forlornly atop a dead tree. As we were going back to the Jeep I told Cynthia that I would like to leave for home earlier than we originally planned. One of the suggestions of the guy at Wild Wings was to look for Poor-wills at Polique Point at the North Shore. They can be easily found along the road as soon as it starts to get dark, he said. As tempting as getting another lifer would be, I would rather not drive through the downhill zigzag road when it is already dark. My wife whole-heartedly agreed. So we decided to do one quick stop at the Discovery Center to prepare ourselves (read: use the restrooms) before embarking on an almost two-hour trip home. Just as we were about to enter the building, Cynthia saw a Robin flitting among the pines. Why not one last attempt at photographing this bird she said. As we were following the Robin, a gray bird flew nearby and landed on a tree across from where the Robin was. There it started flicking its wings as if teasing the somewhat perplexed Robin perched at the opposite tree.

"What bird is it?", Cynthia asked.

"Townsend's Solitaire", I replied trying unsuccesfully to curb my enthusiasm.

"You're joking", my wife said. My non-response and the fact that I kept clicking away with my camera confirmed to her that I was not.

The bright red sun was sinking slowly and its orange rays were surrendering to the blanketing blue back of the evening. Along the way we can't help but talk about our serendipitous encounter with our target bird. We have been searching for it all day and to find one at a place where we were not expecting it was nothing short of a miracle.

"God saved the best for last", Cynthia remarked.

I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Dam" spiro, spero

Hope. A very inspiring word. It was hope that lifted my spirits from the doldrums of an unbirded weekend. It was hope that brought me to Santa Fe Dam once again on a bright Monday morning. The spate of firestorms all over Southern California the past week had blanketed the air with ash and covered the skies with dark billowing smoke. But Monday was blessed with glorious, unveiled sunshine. It was the hope of finding two lifers that got my heart beating faster that promising morn.

And yet the brightest of hopes can sometimes be dimmed. Four hours of diligent and optimistic search never yielded the species I had wanted to see. Still, the adventure wasn't for naught with the unexpected sighting of a female Orange Bishop. Heretofore, I had only seen the male in its gaudy orange and black plumage. The lady bishop, it turned out, was completely different from him, clad in sparrow-like brown feathers with a touch of yellow on the head and neck. So contrasting are the male and female in looks that it is possible for them to be mistaken as two different species.

The disappointment of not finding my two target birds was exacerbated by the fact that I saw and photographed two species that are painfully similar to those that I sought. The American Pipit only differs from the rarer Red-throated Pipit by the lack of streaking on its back.

And the Chipping Sparrow only differs from my hoped-for Clay-colored Sparrow by the darker line across its eyes.

The alarming regularity that Santa Fe Dam has denied me the satisfaction of sighting lifer species was somehow daunting. And yet as Cicero, the famous Roman orator and philosopher once said: Dum spiro, spero - While I breathe, I hope.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Phantom of Shoelace

SCENE: Placerita Canyon - 8:30 am

Bob & Cynthia are getting off their Jeep and proceeding to the nearby butterfly garden. Both are carrying their camera equipment and looking for birds to photograph.

BOB: It's a beautiful day although it seemed a little quiet, bird-wise.

CYNTHIA: Look, there are some Lesser Goldfinches drinking from the dripping faucet.

They both take pictures of the goldfinches.

BOB: Let's go explore the canyon. Do you want to try the picnic area or hit the trails?

CYNTHIA: We've always had luck with the trails, so let's do that first.

BOB: OK, but don't forget to tie your left shoelace before we go.

Cynthia ties her left shoelace. They walk the trails, Cynthia listening for any song or twittering from the birds, but not hearing much.

BOB: Do you hear anything?

CYNTHIA: Not much, except for the Acorn Woodpeckers and the Crows flying overhead.

BOB: Gee, I wonder where the birds are. This year certainly wasn't very birdy.

They reach a bench to rest a little. A California Thrasher pops out of the brush and Bob was able to squeeze off a few shots at it before it flies off. Cynthia gets up and follows a sound she hears further up the trail. Bob prepares to follow her, but stops suddenly as a couple of Spotted Towhees alight not too far from him. He takes a shot at those. Bob then follows Cynthia who is now busy trying to get a picture of an Oak Titmouse. She was so concentrated on the titmouse, that she is unaware of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet foraging in the branches above her. Bob takes advantage of the situation and photographs the kinglet.

CYNTHIA: (discouraged) Those titmice are so active, I can't get a decent shot of them.

BOB: Don't worry, hopefully we'll encounter more of them later.

They are now on the return trail. Cynthia suddenly stops near the rear of the Nature Center.

CYNTHIA: Do you hear that?

Bob strains to listen for something. Soon they both hear a "Twoo-Hooo!"

BOB: (excitedly) Sounds like an Owl

Both try to follow the source of the sound. The hooting continues and Bob & Cynthia move back and forth trying to locate the owl, but couldn't find it.

BOB: It seems like it's coming from inside the Nature Center.

CYNTHIA: But the center is closed. They are renovating the building and there are fences all around it.

BOB: (resignedly) Oh well, let's just continue to the picnic area.

CYNTHIA: Wait, your shoelaces are untied. We don't want you tripping all over the place now, do we?

Bob sighs and ties his shoelaces. They walk to the picnic area. Just as they leave the Nature Center, the hooting stops. At the picnic area, they look around and were amazed at the lack of birds.

BOB: I can't believe how few the birds are!

CYNTHIA: Yeah, where are the Bluebirds and the Nuttalls's Woodpeckers?

BOB: And the Golden-crowned Sparrows? They used to be all over the place!

Suddenly, a large bird flies in and lands somewhere. Bob and Cynthia cannot see where it landed. They walk towards the grove of trees peering at the branches. As they were searching for the large bird, Bob notices Cynthia's shoelace.

BOB: You might want to tie your right shoelace this time. (He winks) We don't want you tripping all over the place, do we?

CYNTHIA: What? I can't believe this. First the left, now the right!

She ties her shoelace. They continue looking for the large bird.

CYNTHIA: There it is! There it is!

Bob looks through his binoculars at the object Cynthia is pointing at.

BOB: It's a Red-shouldered Hawk!

He takes a few shots at it but it flies off. They both follow the bird and refinds it perched even farther away. They still try to get pictures of the hawk despite the distance and the shaded light. Eventually the hawk flies off again. Bob & Cynthia sit at one of the picnic tables. A few minutes later, some Oak Titmice and several Dark-eyed Juncos were feeding on the ground not too far from them. Cynthia finally manages to get some good Oak Timouse photographs.

CYNTHIA: Let's go. It's almost 11 o'clock and we still have some errands to do.

Bob nods in agreement. They walk back to the Jeep. Near the parking area, a young Anna's Hummingbird was perched on a dry branch. They both take pictures of the hummingbird. Then they pack their gears as they prepare to leave.

BOB: Before we go, maybe you should tie your left shoelace again.

CYNTHIA: This is so weird! Never did this happen in our previous outings..and we have hiked longer distances than this!

BOB: (laughing) It could be the phantom owl of Placerita!

SCENE: Bob & Cynthia's house. 5 pm

Bob is in front of his PC processing the photographs they have taken.

CYNTHIA: So how many good shots did we make?

BOB: (distracted) Huh? What?

CYNTHIA: How many species of birds did we get good shots of?

BOB: Oh! Oh! Seven!

CYNTHIA: That's all? Are you disappointed that we didn't get a good harvest this time?

BOB: Oh no, not at all! I already had low expectations when we went to Placerita this morning. Besides, there's always something positive that happens everytime we go on our birding trips.

CYNTHIA: Oh yeah? And what is that?

BOB: Well, we....

Bob stands up and assumes a double-oh-seven pose.

BOB: ...Bond. Just bond.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Majesty, Power and Grace

All three descriptions were represented in bird photographs when my friend Tom Starcic and I visited El Dorado Park in Long Beach yesterday.

Despite still being a juvenile, the majesty of the Bald Eagle clearly shows in this shot:
The Osprey, on the other hand, showed power as it caught a huge trout from the lake:

And what could be more graceful than the lovely Mute Swan?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Easy as Pie

Rain. Hard, pelting rain hammering the windshield of our Jeep as we drove in pre-dawn darkness. Our destination was Solvang, a touristy town about 130 miles north of Pasadena. We have planned this trip twice before and each time we had to postpone it for different reasons. Now that we are finally on our way, our hearts were being filled with discouragement as heavy rain poured like buckets of water. Still, we had enough faith and determination to make this trip worthwhile.
Approaching the town of Camarillo, the rain diminished into a soft drizzle. On the horizon a partial rainbow appeared and its red and orange hues slowly pushed back the dark blue of the night. Eos and Iris brought forth a dawning of a day that promised hope.

After a stopover at Camarillo for our traditional breakfast and to load up on gas, we proceeded to Goleta where we tried to locate the reported Chestnut-backed Chickadees. It drizzled on and off while we craned our necks at the tall eucalyptus trees at the end of Coronado Drive. But the chickadees were not to be seen. On our return trip we passed by this place again and gave our search for the tiny birds another try. Only to be disappointed a second time.

Our primary purpose for this trip however was to look for and photograph the Yellow-billed Magpie. This is a species found only in Central California and should we find it, would be a lifer for us. We drove through downtown Solvang ignoring the quaint Scandinavian ambiance for which reason tourists flock to this place. Alisal Road is where we want to be and finally finding it (thanks to our GPS unit) we drove slowly along the narrow two lane road. To our left was the Alisal Ranch Golf Course the fence of which was covered here and there by dense vines and thick hedges. To our right was a knoll peppered profusely by different kinds of trees. I was telling my wife that this was prime magpie territory.

"What do magpies look like?" she asked.

"Black and white with long tails and as big as crows".

I have barely finished my description when she suddenly yelled: "There it is!" She was pointing at the covered fence next to the golf course. Thank God there wasn't any vehicular traffic along Alisal as I stepped on the brake, swerved the Jeep to the shoulder on the left side of the road, stopped and looked at the fence.

"Where?" I asked somewhat doubtfully.

"There, inside the fence", she said.

I peeped and saw nothing but Acorn Woodpeckers. They were black and white but have short tails, so I again queried my wife if she was sure she saw the magpies. (Please understand my skepticism here. We were going about 30-35 miles an hour, the golf course was at my left, which means my wife was on my right and farther away visually. The fence that separates the golf course from the road was about 6 feet high, and although they were made of metal wires, at most places they were covered by thick vines. There were only a few breaks between these vines, the widest probably was about 2 feet. So the possiblity of seeing a bird under these circumstances definitely raises some reason for doubt.)

"Well, it was black and white and has a long tail", my wife insisted. She moved to another break in the vine coverings several feet back.

"There!" she said smugly.

Indeed, not one but two, Yellow-billed Magpies were there. Was it luck finding these birds? Maybe. Was it my wife's super-human eyesight that did it? Maybe. Was it answered prayer? Most definitely. Did I mention that the sun was shining beautifully when we saw the magpies?

After a while, the magpies flew off. We continued down Alisal Road but we didn't find any more of those lovely black-and-white-with-long-tail birds.

Restaurants at Solvang did not appeal to our gastronomical and economical preferences so we ended up having lunch at Carl's Jr. at nearby Buellton. After lunch we stopped by the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc. By now the skies have once again become gloomy and overcast. The place was most likely celebrating "el dia de los muertos" for it was quite dead birding-wise. Besides, there was a wedding being held on the mission grounds that afternoon. (Why anybody would want to get married on "the day of the dead" is beyond me.)

We did a quick stop-over at the beaches in Santa Barbara where all we got was a flock of Skimmers, sand in our shoes and cold wind whipping at our faces.

Rain. Soft, drizzling rain leaving tiny droplets on our windshield as we drove in the fading light of dusk. Our destination is home where a hot dinner and afterwards a warm soft bed await us. And of course, there is that nice fuzzy feeling that we saw what we travelled 260 miles to see.