Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"I'll be back..." *

Mountain Plovers are unappealing little birds that scurry unnoticeably over dry fields. They are, according to the Sibley Guide “distinctively plain brown in all plumages” and their call “a coarse grrt or lower dirp”. If they are so dull plumaged and do not even have a beautiful song, why would I travel 200 miles - again - to Calipatria to look for them?

The answer is: a) Mountain Plovers would be a lifer for me and my wife, b) we didn’t see them the two times we’ve been to Calipatria last month, and 3) every birder and his uncle who had been to Calipatria this winter had seen them. By the hundreds!

And so, for the third time in two months, we checked in at the Calipatria Inn on Friday, Feb. 20. This time we were armed with reliable information as to the time and place to best observe the plovers. And boy, we were firm-jawed, squinty-eyed determined.

Dawn, Saturday, we were already scouring the various burnt fields along Highway 111. And finding nothing. We would occasionally get excited when we would spot some brown birds only to discover that they were either Marbled Godwits or Long-billed Curlews. Inasmuch as the most recent sightings of the Mountain Plovers were at the intersection of Highway 111 and Hoober Street (that’s how it really is spelled) we decided to park the Jeep there and fixed our gazes on the blackened field before us as the sun slowly rose from the horizon. I decided to explore further afield on foot to see if the brown spots we were seeing were actually birds and not just clumps of dry grass. It turned out to be the latter. It’s funny (or frustrating, depending on how you look at it) when sometimes our eyes would play tricks on us telling our brain what we had hoped to see instead of what was actually there). Desperation was starting to kick in. Would we fail again, for the third time, in seeing the Mountain Plovers? I was on my way back to the Jeep (where Cynthia remained, unable to stand the icy blasts of wind) when I saw about a dozen small brown birds alight in the middle of the burnt field. Finally – Mountain Plovers! I crouched towards them, all the while taking pictures with my handheld zoom lens, unconcerned with the huge distance between me and my subjects. I just wanted to get some “documentary” shots before the birds get spooked by this ungainly mammal creeping towards them. Soon more birds were flying in and I was able to get within maybe 30 feet of the nearest flock. Noticing that these plovers were not that skittish at all, I returned to the Jeep to replace my camera gear with the bigger 500mm lens. Soon I was there in the middle of a burnt field the size of a city block my heart beating furiously and my spirit soaring as I was surrounded by plain-looking brown birds that spoke to me in "grrrts" and "dirps" .

Having had our fill of Mountain Plovers, my wife and I could not believe how easy it was to find them. Where have we gone wrong the first two times we were here? My bad, actually, for not getting sufficient information and not planning well enough our itinerary before we set off on our birding trip to the Salton Sea. Perhaps it was also because we were concentrating on finding the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese on those first two trips – they were our priority then. But this day, we got our target bird. And even got a bonus. We also saw and photographed the pair of Tundra Swans at Unit 1 of the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge – another lifer for us.

* The Terminator, 1984

Monday, February 23, 2009

Parrots, oh Perchance

I have just dropped off my wife at her work in San Gabriel and was on my way to Bonelli Park for another look at the courtship rituals of grebes. Just a block away I saw a pair of Red-crowned Parrots perched on electrical wires above the street. I quickly parked the Jeep, grabbed my camera and started shooting away. Red-crowneds are by far the most common feral parrots in the San Gabriel Valley. I have seen Mitred, Red-faced, Blue-crowned and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets around here as well.

Here is a picture that I thought is really begging for a caption. So my dear friends, how about having a go at it?

* Pirates of Penzance, 1983

Monday, February 16, 2009

Splashdance - a Valentine's Day Story *

Ah, c'est l'amour! Love is in the air!

It was one Valentine's Day date that my wife and I would cherish. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas may not be a romantic place for many people, but the local Western and Clark Grebe population thought otherwise. And strangely so did we. Guilt by association, I suppose.

In truth, we purposely came to Bonelli to watch the "dance" of the grebes. I was quite intrigued when fellow bird photographer Monte Stinett whom I met here last week told me about this spectacle of nature. I also remember my friend, Romy Ocon , from the Philippines, asking me several years ago whether I've seen this interesting grebe habit. Honestly, I thought that such courtship displays never happened in winter. Or in California for that matter.

Cynthia and I weren't really prepared for what we were about to witness. It was still quite early in the morning and the grebes were still sleeping, heads tucked beneath their wings. Then we noticed a pair awaken and started bobbing their heads. Suddenly they were up and "running" over the lake surface, heads curved, wings flapping. It all happened so fast that I barely had time to press the shutter on my camera. Cynthia was so enthralled that she completely forgot to turn on the camcorder.

For the next four hours we were treated to four more dances, thrice by the Clarks and once by the Westerns. Each time we were so completely taken by this wonderful celebration of courtship - so much so that we were not able to take any video at all and only some passable photographs.

That evening, inspired by the beauty of nature, of the grace and passion of grebes, we had the most wonderful Valentine dinner ever. Picture lobster tails and filet mignon, capped by a decadent cheese cake. No, it wasn't at some fancy restaurant where such fare would create a huge dent to our budget (After all, I am unemployed and Cynthia works as a mere clerk). Rather it was at the privacy of our own home. Cynthia being a great cook that she is, prepared everything. I was more than happy to do the dishes afterward.

Ah, c'est l'amour!

* Flashdance, 1983

Friday, February 13, 2009

Loonstuck *

My good friend, Tom Starcic suggested that I visit the lake at the Huntington Central Park (HCP) in Orange County if I wanted to add a couple of species to my year (and life) lists. The Red-throated Loon and the Tropical Kingbird can both be seen there, he said.

So, despite a pounding headache that would stay with me most of the day, I was at HCP bright and early on Wednesday morning. Finding the loon was a piece of cake. It was just sitting at the edge of the lake.

It didn't move even as I approached to about fifteen feet from where the bird was. I dared not come any closer as I had this uneasy feeling that something was wrong. The loon looked quite alert but another friend, Glenn Price, has posted a picture of this same bird in this same spot in basically the same position. That picture was taken last Sunday. If the bird hasn't moved in four days, something's got to be wrong. I fear for it's life since there were unleashed dogs occasionally running about. As a matter of fact, a little bit earlier I saw such a dog kill an unfortunate Coot who got tangled in the reeds. A lady birder, who I believe is associated with the Sea and Sage Audubon Society came by and when I told her of the poor loon's predicament, she said she will notify the bird rescue group of Orange County.

The Tropical Kingbird was not as easy because there were a couple of Cassin's Kingbirds associating with it. There's some degree of difficulty separating the two similar-looking species since they usually stayed high up at the top of the trees and most of the time against the morning sun. So I did what every bird photographer would do in such a situation... take photos of all three birds and then study them at home with the help of various field guides. Looking over the results of my "shotgun" approach, there was indeed a kingbird that had much more yellow on the undersides that extends almost up to the throat. And the notched tail also was a giveaway.

As I drove home, my headache was a bit exacerbated by my concern for that hapless loon that seemed to be stuck at the edge of a small lake in Orange County.

* Moonstruck, 1987

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I'm Birding in the rain.. *

10 am, Monday, Feb. 9th. I'm sitting inside my Jeep watching a horde of coots feeding on the grass completely oblivious of the downpour. Droplets of rain streamed down my windshield while flashes of lightning and claps of thunder punctuated the gloomy morning.

It wasn't like this when I arrived at Bonelli Park around 8 am. The skies were blue albeit covered every now and then by gray clouds. Birds were singing paeans to a morning that finally promised sunshine after several days of constant rainfall. One tree harbored five species clustered near the top as if trying to get as close to the sun as possible. A Northern Flicker, a couple of American Robins, a flock of House Finches waited for a break in the clouds while the Nuttall's Woodpecker was busy pecking away at the trunk. Western Bluebirds were flying back and forth, sometimes perching near the Flicker or the Robin as if asking for a weather update.

After saying hello to the resident Painted Redstart, I drove to the East Shore where to my utter delight an adult Bald Eagle came flying towards my direction. Without even thinking, I grabbed my camera and was able to fire off a couple of shots before the majestic bird disappeared from view, never to be seen again.

I moved on to where the grebes and ducks were just waking up. To my surprise, my birding pal, Monte Stinett, was there waiting for the Western Grebes to do their water ballet. Unfortunately, the grebes were not cooperating and so we just talked shop until tiny rain drops started to fall on us. We quickly returned to our vehicles so that our precious camera gear would be spared from getting an unwarranted splashing.

As I sat in my Jeep a feeling of peace and even joy flooded my being. The past week was fraught with nonchalance and languor (see my previous blog titled "The force be with you"). But today as I birded in the rain... "there's a smile on my face, I'm happy again..."

The song "Singing in the Rain" is sung by Gene Kelly from the movie of the same title.
* Singing in the Rain, 1952

Monday, February 09, 2009

"The force be with you..." *

January had been quite hectic birding-wise in my attempt to see as many species as possible to give my yearlist a good start. After visiting Salton Sea twice (!!) and going to different habitats, my tally for the first month of the year was 153. Which was not bad.

What was bad was it drained me of a certain degree of enthusiasm. Lethargy came where there was once energy. It's like quitting cold turkey from caffeine addiction. After three days, on Wednesday, Feb. 4th, I forced myself to go birding. Forced. Willfully overcame reluctance. And what was even more strange...I purposely left my camera gear behind. Horrors! Considering that the place that I was going to harbored at least five different gull species, according to the report I just read.

It is unusual for an inland body of water like the reservoir at Peck Park to host such a diversity of gulls but the one who saw them was quite reliable and this presented an opportunity to further increase my lifelist tally. But to leave the camera behind? Many would say, my wife being foremost, that that is just not me. So I really can't explain why I did not bring my camera (I did bring my videocamera, however) except perhaps for the fact that a dead body was found at this park just a couple of months ago. Call me paranoid but I would not risk bringing about $3,500.00 worth of photographic gear to a murder scene when I'm birding all by myself. At least the video camera was small enough to fit my hand and my pocket and was quite inconspicuous.

I did see some birds none of which were new to me. And yes, there were gulls, but they were at such a distance that determining the color of the irises or of the bills were impossible. The videos I took at full zoom were of no use either.

A week passed and the gloom, both personal and the weather, continued to dampen my birding zeal. Not even Dark Wader nor Look Skylarker nor Hen Swallow managed to lift my doldrums.

But you'll never know, the "birdfire might strike back" next week. The "return of the birdguy" could happen. Stay tuned for the sequel.
* Star Wars, 1977

Monday, February 02, 2009

"Why don't you come up sometime..." *

..and see Chickadees?”

Six thousand feet up in the San Gabriel Mountains, my wife and I spent the last day of January, enjoying the fresh air, the smell of fir trees and hearing the roar of speeding motorcycles. And trying to add some more species to my yearlist.

There weren’t much variety of birds to be observed here, yet in the course of about three hours, we counted six more for the month of January (including a White-headed Woodpecker, a gorgeous Red-naped Sapsucker and of course, Mountain Chickadees). The three others were Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch and its tiny cousin, the Pygmy Nuthatch. These brought my tally to 153 species seen since the new year. One of the most notable birds that I missed was the Osprey! Oh well, maybe in February.

* She Done Him Wrong, 1933