Friday, January 30, 2009

"Frankly, my dear...." *

"I’m going to the Dam."

Early Tuesday morning as my wife was getting ready to go to work, she asked me if I plan to go birding that day. I stayed home Monday, so she was concerned that I have given up on my project of adding species seen to my year list. But I am a man of resolve, if anything, and I assured her that I will be going to Hansen Dam after I take her to her workplace.

That was the start of a three-day birding binge that covered dam sites – Hansen at Lake View Terrace as mentioned earlier, Bonelli (though technically not a dam, but actually a reservoir) in San Dimas, and Santa Fe in Irwindale. Despite having the same ecological habitat, each one harbors some species that are not found at the other sites – at least during this week.

I always go to Hansen Dam with a certain degree of trepidation, especially when I’m all by myself. The lower parking area almost always have cars with the drivers just sitting there as if waiting for someone, or something to happen. Carrying a camera with a long lens in a trail through a forest where evidence of recent activities by homeless people punctuates every turn can be quite daunting. That is why I stayed close to the water’s edge where it was more open and was nearer to the main, and more family friendly, parking lot. I soon as I saw my target bird – the Common Mergansers, even though they were way beyond photographic range – I called it a day.

Wednesday, I was at Bonelli, where the Painted Redstart is a can’t-miss winter resident. It’s symbiotic partner, the Red-breasted Sapsucker didn’t show up while I was there. The Osprey was also a no-show and so were the Cactus Wrens. I was rewarded however with two species of woodpeckers – a Downy and a Nuttall’s were playing king of the hill, or in this case, the tree. They were chasing each other trying to establish pecking rights on this particular sycamore. At the grassy area near the water’s edge, a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Marsh Wren (!) gave me a quick once-over before diving back into the dense greenery.

Lincoln's sparrow:

Marsh Wren:

I decided to drive to the north shore hoping to see the Gray Flycatcher but dipped on that one. I was watching a single Ross’s Goose mingling with a flock of Coots when into my line of view popped Dave Chadsey, whom I met at Salton Sea just last week. He was quite amused by the all-white little goose who thought it was an all-black Coot. The Coots of course welcomed the goose like it was part of the clan – they would forage on the grass together, swim together and preen together.

The following day I visited Santa Fe Dam. The area next to the willow forest was always a good place to find birds. Yet as I completed the route, I did not see anything except for a particularly skittish flock of Savannah Sparrows. The usual Rock Wren pair and the family of Orange Bishops were conspicuously missing. Then the reason for all this emerged from the bushes, gave me a quick glance and trotted off back to the bushes. This coyote was roaming around the area perhaps in search of breakfast. Not long after, a Cooper’s Hawk glided by. No wonder the tiny birds were scarce – the predators were in full force that morning. I trekked back to where the Jeep is parked starting to feel miserable. Dark clouds of gloom started to hover above my head when out of nowhere a Mourning Cloak appeared and circled around me and flew off taking with it the feelings of disappointment that was beginning to haunt my heart. How can I feel sad when a lovely butterfly flies next to me lifting my spirits with its fragile wings?

As I drove towards the exit, I saw a brown bird standing on the stones by the roadside. As I came near, I realized it was a Rock Wren! It even stayed put until I was able to park the Jeep, walk towards it and take its picture.

Encouraged by this turn of events, I decided to continue to where the nature center was. The trails were buzzing with Yellow-rumps and White-crowned Sparrows. I was standing in the shade of a tall bush when I heard what sounded like the sputtering of a car engine behind me. I turned around and lo and behold a Cactus Wren was calling from atop a brush! This species had been quite difficult to find lately even though they were known to reside both here and at Bonelli Park.

I’m not a superstitious person – far from it, but the change of luck after being buzzed by a butterfly, the first time that happened, by the way, was something I’d be thinking about for some time.

Frankly, it was damn good.

* Gone With the Wind, 1939

Monday, January 26, 2009

"Life is like a flock of gulls..." *

“You’ll never know what you will get.”
South end of the Salton Sea. We just pulled into the corner of Lack and Lindsey Roads. There were cars lining up the edge of the narrow dirt road some 20 feet above the shoreline. Birders from the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society were lined up by the road peering into their spotting scopes at the birds below. We asked one of the birders, Dave Chadsey whom I have met at Legg Lake before looking for the Bay-breasted Warbler,  if there was anything interesting down there. “Just a bunch of gulls, including some Herrings”, he replied casually. My wife and I looked at each other. “Herring Gulls, you say?” I commented in the same casual tone – trying to sound like I have seen this species a gazillion times already (which Dave probably had) – when as a matter of fact it would be a lifer for Cynthia and myself. So I raised my binoculars to the group of gulls bunched together on tiny strip of mudflat below and tried to figre out which of these are the Herring Gulls. As I was just about to take a picture of the gull flock, Dave announced that the group are moving on to Obsidian Butte to try and look for the Yellow-footed Gull. I asked Dave if it’s alright that we tag along. Graciously he said ok. We quickly packed our gear (thus not being able to photograph the Herring Gull(s?) and jumped into our Jeep since the birding caravan had started to move.
By and large, birders are very nice and accommodating. However….
Yesterday afternoon we drove to Unit 1 of the Salton Sea Refuge. At the observation deck, we met an elderly couple who were scanning the area with binoculars. We asked them the usual “Anything interesting?” question. The little old lady smiled and said, “Well, there’s a bird…..”. We waited for the continuation. A few minutes passed. Had we been sitting, we would have fallen off our seats at the unbearable suspense. But then she just smiled and continued looking through her binoculars. At this point,  Cynthia and I descended from the observation deck and walked towards the ponds further down the road, to look for one of our target birds, the Stilt Sandpiper. When we were out of earshot from the couple on the deck, I yelled, “What bird was it?” My wife stared at me and was at once concerned with my state of mind. “I just needed to vent”, I assured her. Having done that, I was now able to breathe normally. Thankfully, as some sort of a palliative, we got our Stilt Sandpipers.

The following morning, at the same area, we met Taurino Tadeo, a young guy we have also met previously at Bolsa Chica. Taurino and I have a lot of things in common: we are both half-Filipino, we enjoy photography, we love birds and we are both exceedingly good-looking (well, at least he is). We exchanged information on where to look for particular birds, him giving us directions on where to find Burrowing Owls, and us showing him where the Sandhill Cranes hang-out during the day. Wishing each other good luck, we parted ways on our separate missions.

Back at Obsidian Butte with Dave and the group, it didn’t take long for them to locate the Yellow-footed Gull. The bird was quite a distance – perhaps the length of a city block - but the San Bernardino Auduboner’s were so nice in letting us look through their spotting scopes. We were so grateful to them for our 7th lifer of the year.

They decided to stick around to look for the Lesser Black-backed Gull, so we grudgingly said goodbye to the friendly group inasmuch as we still have to look for our other target birds: Mountain Plover, Sprague’s Pipit and Chestnut-backed Longspurs.
We failed miserably on those three despite searching diligently for over two hours the areas where they were reported seen. On the return trip home we took the east side (Highway 111) route. On a whim, we decided to stop by Mecca Beach on the north shore of the sea. There we were greeted by gulls! Lot’s of them! Easily I recognized Ring-billeds and Bonaparte’s. Then a huge gull with dark wings flew over and alighted on some rocks about a hundred feet away. “I think that’s a Lesser Black-backed Gull”, I told my wife. “It was reported seen here quite recently.”

 “Then, what are you waiting for?”, she asked. “Go after it.”

 A hundred feet seemed like forever when chasing a lifer, but eventually I was able to get close. Close enough to correctly identify the gull as a Lesser Black-Backed.

As we resumed the trip home, our conversation went something like...

"What about that other gull?  Is that a third year Western?"

"Could be a winter adult California"

"…..might be a Thayer’s, you know……"

"another Herring, maybe?..."

"..but the irises are pale...."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"You know how to pish, don't you?" *

"You put your lips together and go psssh!

Well, no matter how I tried, my pishing efforts were never successful. Last year I bought Pete Dunne’s “The Art of Pishing” which included a CD of how correct pishing sounds like. I followed all his instructions, from plain pishing to imitating the sound of an owl. All that happened was that the front of my shirt became drenched from all that spewing from my lips.

Last Monday at San Joaquin Wildlife Santuary in Irvine, through my feeble attempts at pishing, I tried to coax the following to show themselves out in the open: a Common Yellowthroat, a Marsh Wren and a few Song Sparrows. Yes, I did the “pssssh!” sound and the “lu-lu-lu-lu!” of an owl. No response. I saw some fluttering behind the tall reeds, but that’s about it. Thankfully I was the only one there, otherwise people might get curious why I was so frantically wiping off my binoculars which was hanging from my neck.

So I moved on. Catching a glimpse of some movement behind a tall brush, I took a deep breath and was about so burst forth in an ear-splitting pish when an Anna’s Hummingbird suddenly alit on a branch just a few feet away. It stared curiously at me and then flashed me with the most gorgeous shining gorget I have ever seen.

Satisfied that it succeeded in preventing me from puckering my lips and making a fool of myself, the tiny angel of a bird flew off.

Things got a lot better after that. Rounding a corner, I was surprised to see a Northern Harrier perched on a bare branch. At about 30 feet, that was the closest I was able to get to this raptor species.

The ponds were full of ducks and all three species of Teals were well represented: Blue-winged,


and Cinnamon.

After lunch, I visited Bolsa Chica and easily refound the White-winged Scoter. This time it was much closer and I got even better shots than the last time.

* To Have and Have Not, 1944

Monday, January 19, 2009

"The Stuff That Dreams are Made of" *

Well, maybe not exactly. But with the ease of finding my fifth lifer for the year, it seemed so dreamlike.

Perhaps it is the month for Scoters since I just recently added the Black Scoter to my lifelist (number 4 for the year) and now a White-winged was sighted at Bolsa Chica. It was a little before 9 am on Thursday, Jan 15th, when I started my quest. Walking along the path that parallels the Pacific Coast Highway, I looked at each and every duck-like bird on the channel at my right. The fact that the Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails and female Lesser Scaups and Surf Scoters were all brown and looked similar from a distance made my task a bit daunting. Not to mention that most of these birds were still sleeping and had their heads tucked under their wings, thereby making it much more difficult to observe the tiny white feathers under the eyes of the White-winged Scoter – field marks that would separate it from the rest of the brown plumaged flock.

About halfway along the trail, I noticed a small number of Lesser Scaups beginning to stir from their nap. One of them didn’t seem to belong – having a much darker plumage and is a tad bigger than the rest. Using my binoculars, I thought I saw the large, dark bill (unlike the gray color of a Scaup’s beak). It could be my White-winged Scoter but it was at the other side of the channel! Nevertheless, I fired off a couple of shots just so I could have some “documentary” evidence that I have now seen my fifth lifer. (Note: Some of us bird photographers call a not-so-good photo of an uncommon bird or a lifer “documentary” which basically means: I could have done a better job at photographing this **deleted** bird!) Anyway, I was now faced with a dilemma: I need to get to the other side at the fastest time possible and pray that the scoter will remain where it was. Do I get there via the boardwalk or via the tidal gate – both options probably covering the same distance (read: far). I took a deep breath and headed towards the tidal gates in quick, long strides. Running was out of the question as I would probably collapse in sheer exhaustion even before I reach my destination. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity (and trying not to be distracted by any photo opportunties the other birds in the area presented), I reached the place where the Scaups and my Scoter were preening. There it was, close enough for me to be able to confirm that it was indeed a White-winged Scoter. Unlike the Black Scoters at Ballona which kept me and my wife in suspense for almost three hours before finally making an appearance, this was as sweet as a pleasant dream. 

* The Maltese Falcon, 1941

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Round up the Usual Suspects" *

For 2009 I decided to also keep a year list - a compilation of all the species I have seen throughout the year. The reason for this is that this could possibly my last full year's birding in the U.S. If plans go through, we will be residing in the Philippines for good beginning early 2010.

This past week I visited my local haunts just so I could begin my compilation with the usual suspects - the common birds found here at the San Gabriel Valley where I reside.

At Eaton Canyon in Pasadena the California Thrashers were surprisingly quite friendly - foraging for food just a few feet away from me.

I also got a photo documentation of a Wrentit taking a bath.

The shy and uncommon Purple Finch nicely padded up my year list.

A few days later I was at Legg Lake where the land birds were uncharacteristically sparse. No Robins nor Bluebirds nor Flickers. Even the normally ubiquituous Yellow-rumped Warblers were only represented by a few individuals. 

Fortunately, the waterbird population were quite diverse and plentiful. The Canvasbacks and Ring-necked Ducks were still at the third lake. American White Pelicans, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets contrasted their white plumages with the black Double-crested Cormorants as they all huddled together basking in the early morning sun. A pleasant surprise was a Green Heron perched atop a green barrel.

A single Ross's Goose mingled among the hundreds of domestic Graylags. Three species of blackbirds - Brewer's, Red-winged and Great-tailed Grackles competed for the tasty morsels on the ground.

As of the 15th of January, my tally shows 94 species seen so far (including 5 lifers!). It looks like it's going to be a good year.

* Casablanca, 1942

Monday, January 12, 2009

"They're Heere" *

Thanks to the tip from our birding buddy, Tom Starcic, we could be in a position to add our 4th lifer for 2009. He sent me a picture of Black Scoters that he saw at the Ballona Channel in Playa del Rey. That was last Tuesday, Jan. 6th. Saturday morning as we drove down to Ballona, we were hoping that the scoters were still there.

At 8:30 am we were scouring the east side of the channel. Except for a raft of Buffleheads and tons of Heerman's Gulls, the subjects of our search were nowhere in sight. There were some heartbeat quickening moments when I saw a dark scoter swimming nonchalantly by. Cynthia and I both took numerous pictures of it thinking we finally got our Black Scoter. Reviewing the pictures during a pause in our quest showed the bill to be too dark and too thick for a Black Scoter. It was, as a matter of fact, a female Surf Scoter. Slowly, disappointment started to creep in. Will this be our first heartbreak of the year?

Learning from our Solitary Sandpiper fiasco last year, we once again surveyed the east side of the channel with increased determination. The presence of a couple of bird photographers somehow buoyed our hopes. When we asked them, both gave us the same answer: no Black Scoters seen. It was then that we saw the male Common Goldeneye. Although we have already photographed this bird late last year, it is always nice to have another opportunity to see an uncommon avian visitor. Just as we were focusing on the Goldeneye, a kayaker came paddling by spooking all the birds along his way. Undaunted, we decided to wait a little while hoping the Goldeneye would return - we sort of gave up on the Black Scoters at this point.

Minutes went swiftly by. Only the Buffleheads returned along with a few Gulls. It was now past ten and our hopes were fading fast. I looked at my wife and she merely shrugged - her unspoken way of saying that it's time to throw in the towel. With heavy hearts, we trudged slowly along the berm all the while keeping a wary eye on the waters below. Then "whoosh" came a trio of brownish black birds flying close to the surface of the channel. I followed their flight with my binoculars and immediately knew that the Black Scoters have arrived. To our delight they landed on the channel waters about 100 feet behind us. "They're here!", I told Cynthia. We quickly turned around and I sprinted the distance with the speed of a hungry cheetah chasing an antelope. Then with caution I descended from the berm and were almost on an eye-to-eye level with the scoters. Cynthia, on the other hand, remained at the berm for a more panoramic view. The yellow coloring of the top of the beaks confirmed that we have indeed found our 4th lifer.

Not too far from them, the Common Goldeneye also returned and this time gave us another great photo op.
While the scoters were diving for food, I noticed another kayaker coming up our way. I knew she (this time it was a lady rower) would soon be scattering the scoters and the other avian denizens along the way. I climbed back to the berm and told my wife that it was now time to go. The walk back was now done in buoyant strides that complemented the smug looks on our faces.

* Poltergeist, 1982

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"I love the smell of Snow Geese in the morning!" *

"I love the smell of snow geese in the morning!"

These were the words I spoke to my wife as we were standing at the edge of a ditch at the Unit 1 area of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on a cold wintry morning. Before us thousands of Snow Geese were beginning to stir as the light of dawn slowly brightened up the cloudless skies. A little to our left about two dozen Sandhill Cranes were already busy feeding among the tall grass.

On New year's Day we decided to leave the hustle and bustle of the Rose Parade in Pasadena for the peace and quiet of birding at the Salton Sea. We have not visited this place during winter and we were hoping that we could begin the year by adding some new species to our lifelist. We were not disappointed. We saw our first flock of Snow Geese minutes after we arrived at the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge headquarters at around 10:30 am. A covey of Gambel's Quails were noisily availing of the seeds that fell from the feeder, while Abert's Towhees and White-crowned Sparrows were battling for prime space on the feeders. Common Ground Doves were mingling with the quails below. Here we met fellow birder Tom Wurster who gave excellent directions on where we could find the best birding areas.

After checking in at the Calipatria Inn, we headed to Keystone Road south of the city of Brawley. Along the way we encountered a huge flock of Cattle Egrets next to the highway. The fields east of the sugar factory at Keystone were pretty quiet so we drove farther until we got to the intersection of Dogwood. It was here that Cynthia pointed to a group of tall birds. "Sandhill Cranes!" I exclaimed as both of us jumped out of the Jeep and tried getting some pictures of the distant birds. Eventually the cranes flew off. We tried to follow the flock but they landed in a field where access was prohibited. Through dogged persistence, we were able to find a place to park and I walked towards where the cranes were now feeding. I borrowed Cynthia's lighter camera gear and after about a quarter mile, I located the tall birds and took some shots. After a while, the cranes once again flew off this time towards the horizon.

On my way back to the Jeep (my wife remained there) I was startled when a Burrowing Owl flushed and flew by me. I chased it down but then it flew back until it settled between Cynthia and myself. Through intricate hand signals, my wife finally understood what I was trying to convey and she grabbed my camera with the 500mm lens attached to it. Handholding that camera set-up she took a burst of shots at the owl while I slowly approached from the other side and tried to take some pictures as well, despite my subject being backlit and all.
           my shot:

    Cynthia's shot:

The following morning we were at Unit 1 and we were so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of birds around us. Wave upon wave of Snow Geese were flying overhead while Sandhill Cranes were bugling and rattling below. We had not seen this kind of avian spectacle ever before and we stood there entranced by the beauty of it all.

Reluctantly, we left this awesome pageant. We had to be at the fields next to the Calipatria State Prison for the pipits and the longspurs. The only pipit we saw were Americans and not the longed for Sprague's. Savannah Sparrows darted back and forth across the road and we hoped that there would be some longspurs among them but we dipped on those as well. The birders that we met here were all talking about the Bendire's Thrasher that was seen within the premises of a residential area in Calipatria. Tom also mentioned it yesterday. Since it would be a lifer for us, we decided to join the group in searching for the uncommon thrasher. We were soon rewarded by a glimpse of the shy, skulking, nondescript bird. The thrasher had a habit of showing up briefly on the branches of a dead tree and then diving to the ground and out of sight.

While we were all waiting for the bird to reappear, I saw a flash of red overhead. It was a Vermillion Flycatcher grabbing a moth in mid-air. It landed on an electrical wire where it consumed its prey.

With the owner of the place where the thrasher hangs out getting a little antsy, we thought it prudent to take an early exit.

After lunch we returned to Keystone road where we once again saw a flock of Sandhill Cranes. Along the sea were more Snow Geese, countless Northern Pintails and Gulls of various kinds.

We wanted to be home before it got really dark so we left around 3 pm. Burned into our memories were the sights of thousands of geese darkening the blue skies as they flew overhead and the raucous calls of the Sandhill Cranes as they danced in celebration of a new year. Racking up three lifers is indeed a glorious way to start our birding year.