Sunday, December 28, 2008

Season's Gray Things

Christmas eve and Christmas day were both gloomy. The skies were gray and rain punctuated the holidays. But then again, spending time with family gave the needed warmth to an otherwise bleak season.

Friday, Dec. 26th, however, was another story. We woke up, albeit a little late, to a glorious sunny morning. Time to search for the Gray Flycatcher at Lacy Park in San Marino, I told my wife. I tried looking for it last Tuesday but failed miserably on that endeavor. Being a beautiful day, there were a throng of people at the park. Not exactly a good sign if you want to see a rare flycatcher. Cynthia and I ambled along the southwest perimeter where our target bird was last seen. After an hour and a half, the park population somewhat thinned a bit. It was then that my wife heard something different coming from the sycamore trees by the concrete picnic tables. After a while she was pointing to a drab-looking bird diving for insects on the leaf-strewn grass. We found our bird, our 89th lifer for the year. It was quite cooperative and for the next ten minutes or so, we were able to get some pictures of it. We were about to follow the flycatcher when it flew to the west side of the park when as if conjured by a mad wizard, people with children on scooters, bikes and anything with wheels appeared on the trails. They were soon followed by folks who let their dogs chase balls all over the park. Of course, no flycatcher can compete with all these activities. And neither can we. Anyway, we were happy. We came, we saw, we got our Christmas bird.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thick Take Two

Hoping to rack up a few more lifers before the year ends, Cynthia and I visited the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes. Our target was the Thick-billed Kingbird that has been reported there. We were concerned that the rain and cold spell just two days ago would drive the Kingbird to more pleasant weather conditions.

As we approached the small pond, Cynthia's outstanding hearing prowess immediately located the bird puffed up high in a sycamore (it was very cold that Saturday morning). It was a bit too high for our camera lenses but we tried to take its picture nonetheless. We both agreed that if we hiked to the berm we might be able to get a better look at our quarry. As soon as we got to the berm, the kingbird flew off, destination unknown. The LACounty birding listserv reported that the Thick-bill would occasionally visit the trees close to the bridge over the stream. I suggested to Cynthia that we go look for that bridge and maybe we might be able to relocate our lifer.

Descending towards the bridge we spotted another birder/photographer who was already aiming his camera at the tree tops. Just as we approached, the Kingbird flew off. The birder/photographer turned out to be Steve Wolfe whom we met before when the Mississippi Kite was sighted (by him originally) here. We told Steve where we first saw the bird and all three of us went back there hoping it had returned to its original perch. Apparently it didn't and after several minutes of waiting, Steve said he would go back to the bridge while Cynthia and I would go around the lake to scout the area.

We eventually got back to the bridge where once again Cynthia's ears picked up the bird further east. Just like before it was way up at the top of another sycamore. Steve showed up and as we were pointing the bird to him, it flew. This time it landed much closer to us. And while all three of us were taking advantage of the kingbird's proximity, another bird landed just beneath the Thick-billed Kingbird. At that time we dismissed it as either a goldfinch or one the more common species that calls the garden home. It was when I was uploading our pictures that I noticed that it was actually a young Bullock's Oriole. Though not as rare as the Thick-billed, it is also not a very common species particularly this time of year.

Having had some satisfactory shots of our 88th lifer of the year, we bade goodbye to Steve. On the way home visions of Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) danced above our heads. Guess what we had for lunch?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bittern Sweet (aka Fowl Weather Friends)

Saturday was the Los Angeles Audubon Society's field trip to the Upper Newport Bay in Orange County. The reason for this is that the tide will be quite high that day which hopefully would drive the marsh birds closer to shore and ergo better viewings.

When my wife and I looked at the weather section of the Los Angeles Times that morning, we saw this:

However, looking out our window, the skies didn't seem that dark. And we are birders, of course, where neither rain nor sleet can stop us from pursuing our hobby. (These are pep talk words, by the way, spoken to ourselves to dispel any lingering discouragement we might feel).

We met the group at the boardwalk. Nick and Mary Freeman, the group leaders, were already busy pointing out the Clapper Rails in the distance. They were the ones who showed us where to find the Varied Thrush at Galileo Hills a month ago. Then there was Barbara Johnson who showed us our first Black Oystercatchers and Surfbirds at Playa del Rey a few years back. And our birding buddy, Tom Starcic, was there, too. In the pay-it-forward scheme among birders, we were the ones to show Tom his first Spotted Owl at Placerita Canyon early this year.

We were all lined up along the boardwalk waiting for the tide to reach its peak when somebody yelled "Bittern, flying in!". Binoculars went up in unison while Cynthia and I raised our cameras and started firing away. After several passes in front of us, the Bittern settled in a dense brush.

We continued to pass the time watching a Northern Harrier patrol the back bay. Suddenly Nick Freeman came rushing and announced that another American Bittern had landed not too far from the boardwalk. Like the crowd when the stores opened on a Black Friday morning, we all rushed to the point that Nick said the Bittern was. This was the first time that Cynthia and I have seen an American Bittern in full view. Who knew they have yellow legs!

It started to drizzle a bit. Mary suggested that we all go to the back bay drive and see if we can get closer looks at the birds. Surprisingly, the sun shone just as we entered the one way street along the bay. Most of the birds - Marbled Godwits, Willets and Black Skimmers were sleeping and the ducks were still far off into the waters for any good photography. The only bird that piqued our interest was a young Common Moorhen foraging by the "falls".

We said goodbye to our friends and made a stop at Bolsa Chica. However, the cold wind blowing incessantly kept most of the birds huddled far off shore, not even daring to fly in this harsh condition. Even the most intrepid birders know when it is time to quit. It was time to quit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Buddy Birding

I visited Legg Lake Monday to look for Canvasbacks. The only photo I had of this species was that of a female taken at Bolsa Chica several years ago. It wasn’t long before I found a group of them lounging at the third lake. Also in the area were a bunch of Ring-necked Ducks. Inasmuch as these species would be a lifer for my birding buddy, Tom Starcic, I asked him to meet up with me on Tuesday morning. That was also an excuse for me to bring my bigger lens. My images of the male Canvasback that I got on Monday with my 100-400mm zoom lens were not big enough for my taste.

I was already taking shots at the Canvasbacks when Tom arrived. We proceeded to the area where the Ring-neckeds hang out. Along the way we were startled by a pair of Northern Flickers which darted across from us and landed on a nearby pine tree giving us some nice photo ops. The Ring-necked Ducks, on the other hand, were all sleeping way out at the middle of the lake. We moved to a point that would bring us closer to them and patiently waited for some activity. Eventually a few Ring-neckeds awoke and started their morning ablutions. Tom and I had some nice views.

As we were rounding the lake, Tom would every now and then stop and point to a flock of parakeets whizzing overhead, screeching as they went.

“Most likely Yellow-chevroned Parakeets”, I informed Tom.

When we reached the parking area, Tom stopped and stared at a sycamore tree.

“The parakeets are there.”, he said.

Silently, we approached the tree until we saw a pair of the Yellow-chevroneds. Tom was smiling as we reviewed our shots of the lovely exotics. He just got his second lifer of the day.

We then proceeded to north Rosemead – still a part of the Whittier Narrows Recreational Area – to look for the Pine Warbler reported seen last Monday. Although the place was quite birdy (lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Western Bluebirds and Black Phoebes), the Pine Warbler was nowhere to be found. What we saw was a Plumbeous Vireo and Tom’s third lifer for the day.

Since it was still early – a little after 10 am – Tom suggested that we visit Bonelli Regional Park which is not too far from here. After enduring a terrible traffic jam at the Pomona Freeway, we arrived at Bonelli around 11 am. Our first stop was the area next to Restroom 8 where the Painted Redstart spends winter every year. Sure enough, it was in its favorite tree and was very cooperative in posing for us.

The lake itself was surprisingly devoid of a lot of birds. The Redheads I saw just a week ago were gone. Only a few Scaups and Western Grebes dotted the lake. At this point I was already tired from lugging my heavy gear so I just rested while Tom explored the lakeside trail. After a while, he called me saying that there’s an Osprey perched not too far from where I was resting. I hauled my camera and tripod and proceeded to where Tom said the Osprey was. There it was, unperturbed by the harassing of a pair of American Crows.

Soon Tom returned from his foray. We made several more stops along the lake but bird activity had pretty much slowed down. It was 1 pm and we both were getting hungry so we agreed to call it a day. It was a great birding day for both of us; Tom getting three lifers and me getting good shots at the male Canvasback and getting a good work out for my back.

Monday, December 08, 2008

I for an Eye

Henderson, Nevada. November 25, 2005
Our family was celebrating Thanksgiving at Las Vegas. My wife and I decided to do some morning birding at the Henderson Water Treatment Plant. It was here that we got our first, albeit quite distant, glimpse of the Common Goldeneye.

San Dimas, California. November 25, 2008
As a birder/photographer there are certain species of birds that would lay dormant in the inner recesses of my mind. That vision would remain unperturbed until certain news that involved that particular species would awake that memory from its heretofore undisturbed slumber. The Common Goldeneye was one such species.

Three years later on the exact same date, I was at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park (my wife was at work at the time) to look for the Common Goldeneye that was reported seen here just the day before. But as luck (or in this case, bad luck) would have it, the Goldeneyes - there were supposed to be a pair - were nowhere to be found.

Playa del Rey, California. December 6, 2008
Once again spurred by reports of Common Goldeneyes (again, a pair) sightings at the Del Rey Lagoon, my wife and I were at that place bright and early. It was a beautiful day, the sun smiling gaily on a nippy morning. We saw a couple of photographers by the lagoon's edge firing away at a raft of ducks at the west end. We were on the other side from where they were but we couldn't contain our curiosity and decided to investigate. As we moved closer to the shoreline, I immediately noticed a duck slightly different from the male and female Buffleheads swimming closely together. The male Common Goldeneye! I managed to get off a few shots at it before it flew off towards the Ballona Channel. We took off after it but failed to relocate the bird.

It was still early so Cynthia and I went to the southernmost jetty where we encountered a bunch of Surfbirds and Least Sandpipers. Then there was a lone Black Turnstone and a Wandering Tattler that allowed me some real close shots. My wife and I decided earlier that she will not do any photography this time and that I will be the one using "her" usual gear - the 30D with the 100-400 zoom combo. She will just be my "morale-booster" in case we dipped on the Goldeneye.

We were returning to our Jeep when we met our birding pal, Tom Starcic. We were talking shop when a couple of birders informed us that the Common Goldeneye was seen again at the Channel, "just five feet from the rocky shore". All three of us hurriedly went to the trail above the Channel and after a few hits and misses we were able to relocate it.
Cynthia and I still have some chores and errands to do and since we have gotten some pretty good shots of the Goldeneye, we bade Tom farewell.

The Solitary Sandpiper has taken the Goldeneye's place in hibernating at the back of my mind.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Short-lived Birding

We didn't know when we went to Peck Park last Saturday that we would be birding next to a crime scene. We were quite unaware of that fact as we innocently birded along the lake. For starters our target birds - Glaucous-winged Gull and Canvasbacks - were on the far side of the lake. The filth along the shoreline probably drove them farther away, we thought. So we contented ourselves with whatever we could encounter along the way. Luckily, we saw some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a very skittish Green Heron and what looked like an overstaying Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Other than those, it was just the usual smattering of Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, American Goldfinches and White-crowned Sparrows. When we tried to take the road to the far end of the lake, we noticed an unusual number of police cars and firetrucks blocking the way. We quickly retraced our steps and as we approached the parking area, more emergency vehicles were coming in.

Just as we watched the scenario, wondering what was going on, Chet King, the forensics person for the Arcadia Police engaged us in conversation. It turned out that he does professional photography on the side. We also learned from him that a body was found earlier floating on the lake.

After a while, Renny and Lynn Maddox, birders from Burbank, joined us and told us that they saw the Canvasbacks. "But they were quite a distance", they said. Noting the commotion going on, they, just like us, decided to cut short our birding activities for the day.