Monday, April 27, 2009

Meals, Interrupted

We had just completed the Marsh Trail loop at Big Morongo Valley and I was bit exhausted. I was carrying my big lens set-up and it has started to make a dent (literally) on my shoulders. We had already added four more species to our year list. Not only that, we had photographed the bird we came to see - the baby Long-eared Owls. The adult, unfortunately was sleeping deep in the tangle of branches, leaves and vines that taking its picture was next to impossible. (More on this in another blog).

And so Cynthia and I decided to take a break. We headed to the parking lot. While we were enjoying some crackers and soda sitting at the tailgate of our Jeep, a Greater Roadrunner came dashing in front of us carrying a huge gecko in its beak. Before reaching its destination at the other side of the parking area, it was spooked by a young couple who had alighted from their car. In panic, the poor roadrunner dropped the gecko and scampered for cover back from where it originally came. This happened so fast that I didn't have time to react and just stood there open-mouthed watching this sight unfold before our very eyes.

As we resumed our snack, I told my wife that the roadrunner will return for its food. I mean this is one huge gecko and definitely worth coming back for. I pointed my lens at the gecko and waited. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, when the bird determined that the coast was clear, it shot out of the bushes, braked in front of the gecko, gave us a quick look, decided we were harmless, picked up the gecko and sped to the other side of the parking lot. Thankfully, I was able to get three (ok, two-and-a-half) shots before the roadrunner beep-beeped away into oblivion.

(the feet were not even touching the ground!)

Just like the speedy bird, we then continued with our meal in complete satisfaction.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

A Sight for Soras

There are those days in birding when you see a species that a) you're not really looking for and b) you don't expect to find out in the open on a hot morning.

It started out quite inauspiciously as we started out at Pond C at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. Spread along the water's edge where a bunch of photographers brandishing a wide array of camera equipment all of which were trained at some avocets nonchalantly going about their business. When we returned three hours later, the same photographers were still at it, steadfast in their desire to capture the avocets doing their "thing". You know, the "thing" that avocets in particular, and birds in general, do in spring to ensure the perpetuation of their species.

Cynthia and I, on the other hand, preferred to roam around and see what birds are available to be photographed (aside from romantically-inclined avocets). And it was at the adjoining pond, Pond D, that we had a serendipituous encounter with a bird seldom seen in the open. The Sora. At first it was just a single bird, cautiously venturing away from the protective covering of the reeds. Soon it was calmly feeding on the muddy soil. Sensing the confidence this bird had on its surroundings, two more Soras emerged from hiding and frolicked at the farther end of the pond.

It must have been a holiday in the Sora calendar because after meandering around the sanctuary until noon, the Sora (this time it was by itself) was still at it, unmindful of the scorching weather. When we reported our sightings at the Nature Center, Pat Thelen, a new birder (he started only about six months ago) got excited and wanted to see the bird as it will be a lifer for him. We gladly took him to Pond D. Our hearts sank because the Sora was no longer there. But then, after a while, it reappeared albeit at the other end of the pond. Pat got good looks nonetheless and was so ecstatic at getting a life bird.

It was also quite a fruitful day for us. Aside from the Soras, we saw seven species of warblers: (Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Gray, Wilsons, Nashville, Yellow and Hermit!) and a couple of Vireos (Hutton's and Warbling). Today's birding foray upped our yearlist to 240.

And oh, here's a gratuitous shot of an Avocet, sans l'amour

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Long and Short of It

Days after our trip to Florida, I was afflicted by a certain amount of lassitude. These bouts with sluggishness have been happening with alarming frequency lately. Thank heavens my wife would, without fail, wake me up from these moments of languor by these loving words: Go out and bird!

Spurred by Cynthia's encouraging "suggestion" I prepared my camera gear, albeit a tad wearily, when a brilliant thought flashed in my stupefied brain. I have not been using my 500mm lens lately - it's weight a factor that more often than not precluded it from being used in the field - so why not take it out and give my flabs a much needed work-out.

Of course, my destination shouldn't be far and should not require extensive use of a pair of legs that had been in action for more than 60 years. I chose Eaton Canyon in Pasadena where there are birds within a hundred yards radius from the parking lot. I wasn't disappointed. By simply plopping my gear near the drips I was able to capture in digital media the private lives of some lovely birds. At home after processing my photos, I was amazed at the quality that my long lens produced. Like these Nashville Warbler and Black-headed Grosbeak photos:

That was a complete contrast to the pictures I took two days later from basically the same spot, but this time using my short (and light) 300mm lens. Although some of the pictures turned out well, the images were, of course, a lot smaller and needed more tweaking during post-processing. The California Quail was the look-out as its mate and progeny fed nearby, and Bewick's Wrens were always oblivious of people around them so I was able to get some close-up shots of this one.

Now it was as if two tiny "Bobs" were sitting on my shoulders: the one on the left, the tiny, aesthetic Bob whispers to me, "use the 500 more often and get better photos"; while the one on the right, the wee yet physical Bob says, "use the shorter lens, walk around a lot and get pictures of more species".

Life is full of dilemmas, isn't it?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

With a Little Help (Part VI of our Florida Trip, Apr 8, 2009)

We'll get by with a little help from our friends...

And so it had to come to an end. We felt that we have barely scratched the surface of Florida birding. The question now is, do we plan to return and have another go at it? Only time (and of course, finances) will tell. Cynthia fell in love with Florida and the thought of retiring there even crossed her mind. She simply adored the wide open spaces and the abundance of greenery and water (there were ponds and lakes everywhere we went). And of course, the hospitality of the people. Which now please allow me to acknowledge them here.

First of all, a shout-out to friend, fellow birder and blogger Felicia Lee for going out of her way in providing us information on birding places in Jacksonville. Too bad our schedules didn't jive and we were not able to meet her and her husband, Glenn.

At Jacksonville, our deepest thanks to May Galang and her Mom, Nena, who accommodated us to their home for two nights. May the Lord grant you your hearts desires! Our thanks also go to Francis and Elsie Ong, for showing us their lovely mansion and taking us to a sumptuous dinner at Mandalouns. To the very kind and helpful Ranger at St. George, Roger Clark, for helping us add numerous lifers to our list and for letting us hang-out on his veranda. More power to you! To the Rangers and other birders at Ft Caroline who made it easy for these out-of-town birders to enjoy the local birdlife, thank you all!

At Orlando, our sincerest gratitude to the Magpantay family: Joel, Jennie and their three sons, John, Josef and Matthew for letting us stay with them and for the super delicious meals they shared with us. God bless you and may the Lord prosper you in many ways!

Bill and Shirley Hills for inviting us to their yard to watch the colorful birds that come to their feeders and for pointing out the birds to us at Turkey Creek Park, thank you very much! That goes to their birding pal, Howard, too! A shout out to Ranger Cindy at Moss Park for taking the time to chat with us and making us feel welcomed.

Now for the numbers: We added 10 lifers on this trip which brought my lifelist to 469. My year list for 2009 is now standing at 233 species seen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gone With the Wind (Part V of our Florida Trip, Apr. 7, 2009)

Gone with the wind, just like a leaf that has blown away.

We had very high hopes of getting a good number of lifers when we left Orlando Tuesday, Apr. 7. Our destinations were Joe Overstreet Landing at Kenansville and Orlando Wetlands Park at Christmas (that’s the name of the town).

The fenceposts along Joe Overstreet Road were populated by Loggerhead Shrikes and Eastern Meadowlarks.

A single (and skittish) Eastern Kingbird even joined them.
However, the closer we got to the lake, the stronger the winds became. At the lake shore, we had to stay inside the car because the winds have now reached almost gale-like conditions. We could spot Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers flying off in the distance while a flock of Chipping Sparrows huddled on the lee side of a big tree.

After about an hour we gave up in desperation and hoped that we would have better luck at the Orlando Wetlands. We didn’t. Although the winds were not as strong there, it was still gusty nonetheless. Except for a Little Blue Heron and some Purple Martins flying over, we didn’t see much. Once again we had to cut short our visit.

It was still early and we were quite in a dilemma. Shall we keep on birding despite the wind or call it day? We decided to return to Orlando and when we were almost home, Cynthia suggested that we go to Moss Park again, inasmuch as it was not that far away. Thanks to her boundless optimism, Moss Park turned out to be less windy (the tall trees acted as barrier) and was even quite birdy. Aside from the now familiar Sandhill Cranes – one pair even had a baby tagging along – we saw a Red-shouldered Hawk, which was quite a surprise.

Another surprise was a Summer Tanager whose bright red color cheered up a rather blustery afternoon.

Soon Palm Warblers and Chipping Sparrows filled the tree tops.

As we were about to leave, a Great-crested Flycatcher finally showed up for a fitting farewell to our Florida birding.

C'mon my House (Part IV of our Florida Trip, Apr. 6, 2009)

C’mon my house, c’mon
I’m gonna give you eye candies..

Based on our research, Turkey Creek Sanctuary at Palm Bay is one of the places to look for migrant warblers. So off we went from Orlando, which took us about an hour to get there. Turkey Creek is indeed a nice place to go birding…if you can see the birds. There is an extensive boardwalk that goes through a heavily forested area. Tall trees were festooned with spanish moss and the undergrowth was quite thick. It was quite maddening to hear the chorus of birds and not see a single one. Well, except for an overly curious Gray Catbird.

It was when we were almost running out of patience that three local birders arrived. Bill and Shirley Hills and their British friend, Howard, saw the exasperated look on our faces and offered to show us around. Bill and Shirley come to this place every morning thus they know every nook and cranny of the sanctuary. More importantly, they know where to look for the birds. It wasn’t long before we were seeing the migrants such as a Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-throated Warblers, Black-and-White Warblers. I was lucky to have seen the American Redstart first (which I proudly pointed out to them) and then they in turn showed us a lifer - the Worm-eating Warbler.

While walking along the boardwalk Howard mentioned that there are tons of Indigo and Painted Buntings at the feeders at the home of the Hills. Inasmuch as it was almost noon and they were ready to call it a day, Bill and Shirley insisted that we follow them to their house so we could see for ourselves what Howard was talking about.

They even have a two chairs set-up near their back yard, facing three feeders and a couple of birdbaths. Shirley turned on the mister so that the birds can take “a shower”. You’ll see a lot of birds, not just the buntings, Shirley assured us. True enough, the colorful buntings soon arrived and feasted on the seeds that the Hills prepared for them. Unfortunately the feeders were quite far for good photography and we were not able to get decent pictures of the colorful buntings. Pretty soon the place was swarming with birds, Blue Jays would scare the smaller buntings. A Red-bellied Woodpecker was pecking above us. Carolina and House Wrens and Tufted Titmice took turns at the bird bath. A Brown Thrasher even showed up momentarily. After a while the sound of the twittering of the birds were replaced by the growling of our stomachs. We reluctantly left the eye-candies.

We had a stroke of luck when we found a Chinese Buffet lunch for only $4.99 in the city of Melbourne! Filled and feeling a bit lethargic, we went to Viera Wetlands where birding by car is quite the norm. By this time, the winds were starting to pick-up and so our sightings were not as good as we expected and we didn’t pick up any lifers (no Limpkins!). We did however have some nice bird photos like this Pied-billed Grebe in what appears to be biting more than it can chew. :-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Close To You (Part III of our Florida Trip, apr. 5, 2009)

Why do cranes suddenly appear..
Just like me, they long to be close to you..

Wherever we are we always make it a point to attend church services on Sundays. Normally we go to Calvary Chapel, our home church, and there is usually one in almost every major city in the United States. This time however, we will be going to World Outreach Center in Orlando because our host, Joel Magpantay, is the Pastor of the Children’s Ministry there.

The World Outreach Center has a predominantly African-American congregation and it was a welcome change for us to be a part of such a dynamic and lively Palm Sunday service. We were blessed and felt close to the Lord.

The Magpantays would be busy the whole day involving church activities so Cynthia and I enjoyed a quiet lunch at a nearby Vietnamese Restaurant Pho 88.

Earlier, Joel recommended that we visit Moss Park, which was not far from their house. Sandhill Cranes are quite tame there he assured us. At first I took that statement with a certain amount of skepticism. After all we had to travel close to 200 miles from Pasadena to Salton Sea to look for these tall birds. And even then they were always too far and skittish for us to have a good look at, much more photograph them. But then I reasoned out, Joel is a Pastor so why would he even try to embellish something just for our benefit.

Of course he was telling the truth! We found that out almost as soon as we parked the car at Moss Park. Although the place was filled with picnickers and beachcombers, Sandhill Cranes were walking amongst the throng of people, completely unperturbed by the noise and human activities! They would wander so close that we could almost touch them.
Moss Park abuts Lake Mary Jane. About a third of a mile offshore is a tiny island inhabited by a myriad of birds. Occasionally these birds would fly over the park and it was here that we got some relatively good shots of the Wood Stork and the Anhinga.

We then ventured a bit inland where tall trees abound. Here we witnessed a Downy Woodpecker battle a bigger Red-bellied Woodpecker for prime nesting territory.

A Great-crested Flycatcher even showed up, as we were about to leave.
We retired early to rest our weary bodies from the long drive from Jacksonville and from the excitement of experiencing our close encounters of the bird kind.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fort Caroline (Part II of our Florida Trip, Apr. 4, 2009)

Fort Caroline, good times never seem so good
I’ve been inclined to believe it never would..

Although we saw a lot of lifers yesterday it was a bit disappointing because we weren’t able to get some decent pictures at all. Little did we know that the following day would be a complete and welcome change from our experiences the day before.

In our talks with Ranger Roger yesterday, he suggested we visit the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve which includes the Theodore Roosevelt Area with its diverse ecosystem and Ft Caroline National Memorial which although basically a historical site also includes some forest and marsh habitat.

When we broached the idea to our host, May Galang (she graciously opened her home for us to stay a couple of nights), her eyes lit up. She said she just went jogging there yesterday and would be happy to show us the place.

Theodore Roosevelt Area is huge and daunting for these two pairs of ancient legs. Although the place looked promising, we didn’t stay long as we did not have the stamina to traverese such an expanse. Besides, our friend, May, had to leave early due to some prior commitments. And so, we stayed at Ft. Caroline instead, where we didn’t have to go far to find birds. Right next to the parking lot we saw such eye-candies as the Northern Cardinals and Yellow-throated Warblers that delighted our non-birding friend.

When Hermit Thrushes stared at her from a few feet away and a Carolina Wren serenaded us from behind the bushes, May was so thrilled we thought we just had a convert into bird-watching.

After May left for her appointment, we tried the trail to the Spanish Pond which wasn’t a pond at all but some sort of a marsh with tall trees. We didn’t see much here except for the Black Vultures looking down at us from the tree tops.

We took a nice lunch at a Filipino restaurant a few minutes away from the park and then headed on to Helen Cooper Floyd Memorial Park. Once again fishermen hogged the prime places whose huge trucks sometimes blocked the way of our tiny Corolla. We decided to bird along the road instead where we saw our first Tri-colored Heron in Florida.

At around 4 pm we returned to Ft Caroline where we met a Canadian couple who were also birders. They were getting ready to leave and so Cynthia and I focused our attentions on the antics of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. All of a sudden, the couple who were already driving out did a quick turn. The lady jumped out of their SUV and told us that she saw a Pileated Woodpecker “behind those trees”. We thanked them for going out of their way just to give us this information. We peered at “those trees” trying to locate the large woodpecker. As if ordered by some divine power, the Pileated flew into a tree not far from us. There it stayed, in full view, looking for some tasty morsels. Needless to say, we took photos to our hearts content until our arms wearied from holding up our camera gears.

That capped a very exciting birding day for us. It was now time for some socials. We visited another friend of Cynthia, Elsie Ong, who welcomed us to their mansion.

They have a river-front property which included a pier that extends out into the St John river. There we watched a glorious sunset while the ladies shared memories.

From there it was dinner at Mandalouns where we had the most exquisite mediterranean fare that made our bellies dance.

Oh, and hers, too.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Unphotographable (Part I of our Florida trip - Apr 3, 2009)

Unphotographable, that’s what they are
Unphotographable, though near or far..

That was the theme of our first of two days of birding at Jacksonville. We would encounter birds and lifers galore but getting photographs of them was another story. Most of the birds were either flying swiftly overhead or flitting non-stop among the shadowy parts of tall trees.

The day started out somewhat ominously as buckets of rain poured upon us as we drove out of Orlando. As we neared the junction of Highway 95, the road that would take us north to Jacksonville, the rain stopped. And so did our GPS unit. It just completely died. Of course, we would be completely lost, literally, without it. I started to panic. Without a GPS we would never be able to go to the birding places we planned to visit. Then we noticed that the city of Daytona Beach lies at the end of I-4, the freeway we were currently on. We prayed that we would find a store there that sells this handy gadget. Just after exiting the freeway, we were so glad to find a Target store almost immediately. We procured a new GPS unit and happily continued with our journey.

Our first stop was Little Talbot Island State Park, where the presence of fishermen and beach goers meant the variety of birdlife was quite limited. Except for the Laughing Gulls, a couple of Fish Crows and the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackles, we didn’t see much. We managed to photograph a pair of Mottled Ducks in one of the ponds along the highway. Other than that, it was just the usual melange of egrets, gulls, pelicans and terns.

At Ft. George Island Cultural State Park was where we chalked up most of our lifers. The combination of forest and lake side was ideal for a diversity of birdlife. Driving through the forest, we caught a glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker, which promptly disappeared as soon as we got out of our car. At the parking area we added two more species to our lifelist: Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse, both of which stayed high up in the trees, constantly moving behind the branches and leaves. Here we met Roger Clark, the Park Ranger. We had a long talk about birding at the Jacksonville area. Every now and then, Roger would stop and point to a bird flying overhead. “Chimney Swift!”, he would call out. Or “Wood Stork!”, “Swallow-tailed Kite!” Everytime we raise our cameras to take a picture of these lifers, they would invariably have already flown past our shooting range. Noting our frustration, he suggested we go to the upper deck of his house (which was within walking distance). According to Roger, Northern Parulas would always gather in the afternoon to bathe and feed at the “drip” and feeders that he set-up in his backyard.

We proceeded to Roger’s house and staked out the feeders and the drip. But there were no Parulas. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird would occasionally visit the feeders,but that’s just about it. Soon Roger arrived (he stayed behind because he had to close the park gates at 5 pm) and he was incredulous when we informed him that the Parulas were a no-show. Just wait a bit more, he said encouragingly. First the Cardinals will come and the Parulas will follow. And just like that, soon we were surrounded by the “teacher” “teacher” songs of the Cardinals. Then came the Parulas, one of which afforded us some good photo ops.

We thanked Roger profusely for his kindness and finding for us a lot of lifers. Despite a not so promising start, the first day of our birding vacation ended beautifully.

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