Monday, August 31, 2009

It's a Plane!, It's Superman!, no, it's a Baird's!

Having learned our lesson from our debacle on our last trip to the Los Angeles River - seeing hundreds of "peeps" and ill-equipped to pick out the Baird's Sandpiper, this time we brought along a kid. Not just any kid, though. John Garrett is a young (not yet 16) birder with more than 600 species in his lifelist. He is an expert at looking at those mind-boggling subtle differences that separate say, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, from among a continuously moving flock of Western Sandpipers feeding a hundred yards away.

Five minutes after he set up his spotting scope, and way before I was even able to plunk down mine, he said, "Bob, there's two Baird's Sandpipers in that group over there". Cynthia and I quickly peered through his scope and lo and behold, we got our lifer! Now comes the "documentation" part. The birds were just too far away for a decent photograph. I gave it a couple of shots and hoped that it would be sufficient. We then spent another couple of hours scouring the river and hoping to find an even rarer sandpiper - the Buff-breasted - which was seen two days ago. Dipped on that.

On the way home, I thought that we might try to visit the Rio Hondo in El Monte and see if we can find any interesting birds there. Interestingly, there were four (!!!) Baird's Sandpipers there and this time John volunteered to climb down the concrete levee and take a picture of the Baird's for me.

That definitely made my day. A gazillion thanks to John, who even decided to forego chasing the Great Knot in San Diego just because he made a promise to help us find the Bairds. And oh, he even identified the mystery sandpiper I saw at San Joaquin last Monday as a Semipalmated - thereby adding another lifer to my list.

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Superboy!

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Tern of Fortune

Our birding woes continued to haunt us. Having failed at finding the Solitary Sandpiper last August 15th, two more species of its family made our lives a bit miserable lately. On both occasions we had those “maybe we did, maybe we didn’t” situations. Allow me to elaborate:

Last Saturday my wife and I went to the Los Angeles River to look for Baird’s Sandpipers. There were hundreds of peeps gathered in the distance about of perhaps more than a hundred feet away. To pick out a few paler, longer winged individuals from that group was downright frustrating, especially when the flock would suddenly take off, circle a bit, and land just a few feet where they used to be. We thought we saw a couple of pale birds from the constantly moving throng but without a photograph (did I mention they were too far?) to support our hunch or an expert opinion to confirm the identities of the birds we saw (where are the uberbirders when you need them?), we decided not to include the Baird’s on our list.

I visited San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine last Monday. Cynthia has to go to work so I went solo. This time my quarry was a Semipalmated Sandpiper. As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s déjà vu all over again”. There were tons of Westerns and Leasts frolicking at the ponds and to pick out one with a shorter bill among them was an exercise in futility. Even with the arrival of locals Jim and Lucy (with her spotting scope) didn’t do any good. I took some pictures of what I suspected to be the Semipalmated, but the expert who I sent them to couldn’t be 100% sure either.

Earlier in the morning, just to shake off the misery of failing to find the Semiplamated, I wandered off to the other ponds, hoping that my target bird would be there (and easier to spot). While I was scanning the waters at Pond C, a tern kept circling and made various attempts at catching some prey. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as terns are not that unusual here. But then in one of its turns, I noticed that the wings were dark grayish unlike the Forster’s that frequent this place. Now this time I had with me my big 500mm lens mounted on a tripod. This set-up is excellent for birds that stay put. But try it on a fast flying whitish bird and it becomes the epitome of inefficiency. That said, I was able to get a “hail mary” shot – good enough to confirm (thanks to Lucy’s help) that what I saw was a juvenile Black Tern! I think it is safe to say that the Black Tern is as uncommon as a Semipalmated Sandpiper hereabouts. At least my day wasn’t a total loss.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting Solitary? Knot!

Ever since my discombobulated affair with the Solitary Sandpiper last year, it has become my nemesis bird. For me and my wife, it has become the bird "that wasn't there". So when Pasadena Audubon announced that they will be having a bird walk on Saturday, Aug. 15th at the Los Angeles River where, guess what? - Solitary Sandpipers have been seen quite regularly lately, we made it a point to be there.

And there we were 10 minutes before the appointed time. We met Barbara Johnson who was there even earlier and informed us that she saw our target bird, oh, maybe 5, 10 minutes ago. As soon as the birding party was complete we proceeded to the bike trail that overlooks the river. Below us were a number of birds, Stilts, Avocets, Mallards, both species of Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, but no Solitary. Mike San Miguel, our leader, patiently scanned each and every individual bird at the river below hoping that he would be able to deliver our sought-after species.

"Well", he said with a sigh, "no Solitary Sandpipers but there is a single Red Knot out there beyond the group of Terns."

Red Knot?! This is another species that had also eluded us for quite some time.

For this trip, I purposely did not bring my big lens knowing we would be doing a lot of walking and of course, I wouldn't want to burden these ancient body of mine with such a heavy load. Excited at seeing a lifer, I wanted to get at least a "documentary" shot of the Red Knot. And that was exactly all I got. A "documentary" shot. The bird was just too tiny and too far even for my 400mm lens.

We visited two more spots along the L.A. River and it was pretty much more of the same. Meaning still no Solitary Sandpipers!!!

For us it is now a challenge. This is our last year of birding America and by golly, we will add that bird to our list or die trying. Well, not really, but it feels good just to say that.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Raptor-ous Delight

Last Tuesday, I met up with my birding buddy, Tom Starcic, at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale to look for kites. The White-tailed ones, not those that are tethered to a piece of string. First we tried for Cactus Wrens near the Nature Center, but despite playing back their raucous calls, we got zero response. The place was as a quiet as a library when there were no people around.

Near the spillway, we got the White-tailed Kites - there were two of them - rather easily.

The morning turned out to be quite raptor-filled as we also saw:

A Northern Harrier,

At least two Red-shouldered Hawks

A Sharp-shinned Hawk

And a Cooper's Hawk

Out flying in the distance were Turkey Vultures. An American Kestrel did a fly-over and a Merlin got into a spat with a Coopers. Surprisingly, the usually common Red-tailed Hawks were a no-show that morning.

Our predatory instincts satisfied, Tom and I called it a day at 11 am, absolutely enraptured..or shall I say.. enraptored?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Santa Cruisin'

Friday, the last day of our vacation, we decided to swing by Santa Cruz - a city by the ocean and famous for beach bums and surfers. We first visited Pogonip Open Space Preserve - a forest sanctuary on the hilly side of the city. It was here that we were able to finally get a shot of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

And we were even rewarded with our third lifer of the trip - a Hairy Woodpecker!

From Pogonip, we cruised the road hugging the ocean stopping occasionally to take in some interesting sights:

Our fourth lifer was also encountered here. The unusual Pigeon Guillemot:

From there it was a long, almost boring  5 hour drive home along Highway 5, punctuated every now and then by some suicidal bug smashing against our windshield.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It Happened in Monterey

My wife wanted to spend her vacation in Monterey. So as my birthday gift to her we traveled north on Wednesday, Aug. 5. We arrived at the Best Western Ramona just a little after 1 pm only to be informed that check-in time is actually 3 pm. We were surprised because the confirmation of our reservation clearly stated that check-in time is 1 pm. After some spirited discussions about their check-in policy, we were finally allowed to go to our room.

We rested for about an hour and then proceeded to a park that had a stream (or estero). Aside from a few Brewer's Blackbirds and a variety of gulls - all in different stages of maturity -- there wasn't much to see there.

We then went to the Fisherman's Wharf where there were tons of people!

There were some interesting things to see at the wharf (aside from the tempting food offered by the local restaurants) - like this jellyfish:

and Harbor Seals:

And of course, what would a wharf be without boats...even colorful ones:

There were a few birds, too, like this Black Turnstone:

..and Brandt's Cormorants:

We then bade goodbye to Rappa's as we headed back to the hotel.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Beast

The monster stood there facing us. Fierce eyes glared at us with a frightening confidence that it had us trapped. My wife and I shivered not just because of the biting cold that was brought upon by an enveloping fog that was rising from the sea a hundred feet beneath us, but because we are staring at the ugly bare-skinned countenance of the thing in front of us.

Although a deep ravenous cliff separated us from this huge unkempt creature, we dared not move. Behind us the roar of hurtling vehicles warned us of a most gruesome fate should we backtrack even by a mere foot or so. We held our collective breaths as the beast shifted its position and spread its gigantic wings. It leered at us once again then suddenly made a couple of flaps and vanished into the misty air.

The place was at the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) near Big Sur and we had just had an encounter with one of America’s rarest birds – the California Condor! Seeing this magnificent, albeit unattractive bird is an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. It is not unlike seeing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in person (or maybe, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”?). And to be able to take pictures of the Condor, would be, shall I say, icing on the cake. Which is rather appropriate inasmuch as it was my wife’s birthday…so we had our cake and ate it too, metaphorically speaking.

Here I was in my precarious position between a cliff and onrushing traffic trying to photograph the condor.

To know more about this magnificent bird (#438 - the bar at the bottom of the tag indicates 400), please visit
Please help support the condors - take a moment to visit the website dedicated to them:

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Tanager Angst

So my BFF asked me if I wanna join her to go like, birdwatching, and I said, ‘whatever!’ We go to this place where there’s a lotta trees, and you know, stuff. We were walking and walking and I was kinda, like, bored, ya know? Then my BFF was like jumping and pointing to a like, whatever bird. So I looked and like, whoaaa! There’s this bird and it was like yellow and the head was like awesome red!!! I said, “Dude, that bird is like, way hot!” Later as we got ready to like, go home, my BFF asked if I enjoyed the walk, and I’m like, Duh! Totally, Dude.

August brings out the worst in me by way of humor. I just can't explain it. So I thought I'd describe our birding last Saturday through the words of a present day teenager (teenager/tanager - whatever, dude!)

Our original plan was to bird Santa Fe Dam but when we got there we were informed that there was an entrance fee of $8, and no they don't give senior discounts on weekends anymore. And I was even willing to pay the $4 senior fee. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I watch my wallet with the same ardor as I watch birds. So I did a quick u-turn and decided to go Eaton Canyon instead where the entrance is freeee! And as in any place that doesn't charge anything to get in, the place was packed with people. (Midmorning, Saturday, Summer, like, duh!) We spent the next couple of hours without seeing much. Thankfully (and curiously) the area behind the Nature Center was relatively quiet and almost devoid of people. My wife and I were trying hard to locate the Hooded Oriole(s?) that kept vocalizing but were frustratingly difficult to get a visual of. Then we saw a yellow bird fly into a low bush. Cynthia screamed, "There's the oriole! There's the oriole!" I pointed my big lens at the general vicinity and hoped, no, prayed that the bird would show itself. And it did. I quietly informed my wife that what we're looking at is not an oriole but a, hold your breath now, Western Tanager! I say that because we have birded this place quite regularly for the past five years and not once have we seen a Western Tanager here.

Oh, we eventually did see the Hooded Orioles - a whole family of them! Cynthia even got a shot of the young 'un.

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