Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fit for a king?

I came. I saw. I left. That basically summed up my experience in finding my latest lifer - an immature male King Eider at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.

But that story doesn't include the initial hemming and hawing I did the night before. I told my wife that if I had my druthers, I would not want to go through the experience of a horrendous weekday rush-hour traffic at the 110.

"Don't you realize that the 110 goes through downtown Los Angeles?" I told my wife. "Not only that, it also carries a lot of traffic going to the airport." I pointed out emphatically.

"But wouldn't it be great to add the Eider to your year-list, not to mention your life-list?", she said encouragingly.

And so it was with gritty determination that I got into the 110 onramp Tuesday morning, conditioning myself to endure the snail pace traffic I knew would happen as soon as I hit Chinatown.

It didn't happen. It was smooth sailing from South Pasadena to San Pedro, taking me just about 45 minutes to get to my destination. It could have been even shorter had I dared go beyond the 70 mph speed limit (which most of my fellow drivers did anyhow).

When I got into the fishing pier where the sightings were made, I noticed the birders/photographers who were already there chatting idly as if trying to pass away a certain degree of ennui. When I asked the inevitable "Have you seen it?", I was directed at the raft of Surf Scoters bobbing about a hundred feet away from the pier. "It's there.", was the succinct, seemingly nonchalant reply.

Soon enough a brown bird with a yellow bill separated itself from the scoter flock and swam toward the pier. As if awakened from some self-induced stupor, the photographers, to a man, suddenly pointed their cameras toward the oncoming eider. I, of course, followed suit. Just as suddenly all commotion ceased when the bird swam under the pier and away from view. Everyone then reverted back to idle chit-chat. This off-and-on scenario was repeated several times over the course of about an hour, after which everyone decided they had their fill of the King Eider and left. Surprisingly, I too, felt the same. Pointing the eider to the newly arrived batch of birders and photographers, and happy that I have passed the good deed forward, I left. After paying the $1 parking fee, I had an overwhelming feeling of being like a king where everything happened the way I wanted it to happen. And knowing that I have just gotten the best value for a buck I ever spent.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A "song" for the holidays

Nuthatch posing on an open pine

Pipit bobbing on a stone

Say's Phoebe taking its time

And a Sandpiper looking so alone

Everybody knows that herons like to hunt for fish

And berries the bluebirds take

The trees have a kingbird and a finch

While buffleheads swim on the lake

Happy Holidays, everyone!

(Note: All of these pictures were taken in one morning's outing at Bonelli Regional Park using a Canon 5D Mk II with a 500mm lens plus a 1.4X extender.)

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wrentit for a Day

Once in a while I write paeans to a certain species of bird. This time I chose the quaint Wrentit. Quaint, because it is neither a Wren nor a Tit - although it exhibits certain characteristics of both species. Quaint, because it is the only member of the Babbler family (Timaliidae) to be found in the New World. Not only that, its range is confined to the Pacific coast - from southern Washington State to northern Baja California.

It is a pretty nondescript bird decked in browish plumage and it is more often heard -with its "bouncing-ball" song - than seen as it hunts for insects in dense underbrush. Its long tail is almost always cocked and the pale iris gives the bird a fierce look. Which is indicative of its audacity and apparent fearlessness of human beings. I had many encounters with Wrentits where they would come to within an arms length and seemed unperturbed by my presence even while pointing a menacing looking object like a camera with a long lens at them.

The bold, out-of-place, drab Wrentit is definitely worthy of being my bird of the day.

For other (more heart-wrending?) birding blogs and photographs, please visit:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wing and a Prayer

My continuing endeavor to add to my yearlist brought me to places I have never been before. One of those places was Veteran's Park in Sylmar. This is not one of those areas where birders congregate on a regular basis. And when I got there I understood why. Despite having a lot of trees - and a great variety at that - it was quite un-birdy (if there is such a word). I can't believe that even after an hour I have not seen a single bird...not even the ubiquitous Black Phoebe or those ever-present winter birds, the Yellow-rumps. Only a couple of Ravens did a fly-over, croaking as they went.

The reason I was at this place was because a Williamson's Sapsucker was seen here. The directions given in the Yahoo groups posting was so precise it was impossible not to locate the tree where the Sapsucker supposedly feeds. I did find that particular pine tree but the fabled bird was nowhere to be seen. An hour and a half slowly went by and I was at the point of giving up. I sat at a nearby picnic table and I prayed. I prayed that my trip to this place would not have been futile and that I will see the Williamson's Sapsucker which would not only add to my year list but would be a lifer even. With a sigh I stood up and picked up my backpack (which contains my camera gear) when I heard a flap of wings. That in itself is a miracle because I am a bit hearing impaired. But I did hear a flap of wings and when I turned around to follow the sound I saw a flash of black and white alight at the aforementioned pine tree. With bated breath I withdrew my camera gear from my backpack (which seemed to take forever) and ran to the tree. There tap-tapping on the bark was my Williamson's! I took a hundred shots and even a short video of my lifer as it just remained in that particular tree engrossed in seeking its sustenance from the oozing sap.

Thankful for finding my life bird and having had my fill of photographing, videographing and simply watching, I walked slowly to the parking lot. Only to be surprised by the presence of birds! Whereas this place was as quiet as a library a couple of hours earlier, now it was jumping with American Robins, Western Bluebirds, Dark-eyed Juncos (including one which I believed to be of a Pink-sided variety) and of course, Black Phoebes and Yellow-rumps.

Still having some time to spare I decided to visit Placerita Canyon which was not that far from Veterans Park. At the canyon I had close encounters with two White-throated Sparrows! Although I have seen these early this year (and no longer needed for my year list) I was quite happy to watch this uncommon species once again. Although both were mingling with the Golden-crowned Sparrows, the two individuals I saw were from different locations and both afforded me some good looks and photographic opportunities.

Gals in the Hood

It was pouring cats and dogs last Saturday. This was the kind of weather that Los Angeles very seldom experiences. And the kind of weather that will not deter a birder with a grim determination. It was almost halfway in the month of December and I want.., no, I need, to rack up my year list. It has been my resolve at the beginning of 2009 to keep a year list. For the simple reason that this will be my last full year of birding in America. Early next year my wife and I will retire to the Philippines - a difficult decision for me - but that was the only way we can survive with our meager pensions.

And so when I learned that a Hooded Merganser was sighted at Almansor Park I thought that it would be a welcome addition to my list, rainy day notwithstanding. Almansor is practically in my neighborhood, a tiny park with a pond in the city of Alhambra. When I broached the idea of going there to my wife, she agreed without even a hint of hesitation. As long as we go shopping afterwards.

Braving the pouring rain we treaded across the muddy, squishy grassy area to get to the ponds. At first all we saw were scads of American Wigeons who were so accustomed to people you can almost step on them. Then there were the Mandarin and Wood Ducks both stunning in color despite being wet.

There was even a Snow Goose mingling among the local geese population!

Not finding our quarry on the north pond, we once again walked over the squishiest, muckiest grassy area towards the south pond. And there, completely oblivious of the downpour were four, count 'em, four, female Hooded Mergansers! I wondered if the male of the species are rain-phobic, because it is interesting to have four females frolicking and not a single male. But I'm happy to add another species to my year list.

Now to do some really serious shopping.....

For more (dryer?) birding blogs and photos please visit:

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Bee Minus

It was a feast day at Bonelli when I visited last Wednesday. Ripe berries attracted American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Even Western Bluebirds momentarily ceased chasing insects to join in the berry-eating frenzy. All that commotion resulted in partly eaten fruits, juices oozing tantalizingly attracting myriads of bees.

Which in turn got the attention of bee-eating birds. I watched the amazing providence of nature unfold before me and noticed something interesting: birds that prey on bees do so by catching the insects at their behinds - where the stingers are - and not grabbing them by the head as I expected. Which brought about even more questions to ponder...Wouldn't it be a quicker death to the bee if the birds bit the head? Isn't the sting of the bees poisonous..wouldn't that hurt the tongue of the bird?

Answers, anyone?

Black Phoebe

Cassin's Kingbird

For other (more bee friendly?) birding blogs and pictures, please visit:

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Taste of Things to Come - Birding in the Philippines

This post is a bit anachronistic - narrating events that transpired before my latest blog - but it has to be told, and you'll know why.

It has been almost 25 years since I left the Philippines. I have returned three times since, in 1997, 2004 and 2006. However during those visits, I was not able to do any birding at all. And so when my wife told me that we will be going to the Philippines this November, I made sure that our schedule would include some time for birding.

Two days after our arrival, Cynthia and I decided to go to the University of the Philippines campus in nearby Diliman district. Unfortunately, it rained quite heavily and so we had to pursue other non-birding activities. The following day, Saturday, we returned to the UP campus. By the main library area, we met Gabs Buluran, a fellow member of the Philippine Bird Photography group (PBP). He suggested we go to the Marine Science Institute (MSI) area because a Blue Rock Thrush had been spotted there. There we met Mark and Toto, also members of the PBP. While they were staking out the tall acacia tree, I busied myself taking pictures of the abundant Yellow-vented Bulbul population. It wasn't long when everybody was pointing their cameras at the branch of the acacia tree where sat the lovely Blue Rock Thrush. It then flew away and all of us relaxed a bit. We were soon joined by Ding Carpio, another PBP member, who right away saw a pair of Black-naped Orioles fly in, only to fly off again even before we could raise our cameras. Once again there was a lull which was occasionally interrupted whenever a new bird appeared such as a Philippine Hanging Parakeet, or a Brown Shrike, then a Long-tailed Shrike. A Pied Triller even gave a brief appearance. Soon some in the group dispersed to check out the surrounding areas. I went with Toto who was lucky to spot a Grey Wagtail along a ditch. Eventually things quieted down with only the Bulbuls and the Shrikes continuing their never-ending quest for food. Unanimously we all agreed to go back to the Main Library area where prospects are better at this time of day. There, two more members of the PBP were already waiting for the Coppersmith Barbet to appear. Ralf Nabong and Doc Mando informed us that the Barbet was flying back and forth from the sunken garden to the tree next to the library stairs. We all listened as the Barbet's "pok, pok, pok" sound became louder. I was lucky enough to spot it as it landed on the tree where the ubiquitous Bulbuls were having a feast. I informed the others of my discovery and we all tried to get a shot of the colorful, yet very active, tiny bird. An Artic Warbler flitting among the bamboos temporarily diverted everybody's attention away from the Barbet. Noon and we decided to call it a day.

Blue Rock Thrush

Brown Shrike

Long-tailed Shrike

Philippine Hanging Parrot

Grey Wagtail

Coppersmith Barbet

The following day, Sunday, we had time to kill before attending the services at Victory Christian Fellowship, so Cynthia and I decided to pay UP Diliman another visit. We were trying to find the best way to get to the Main Library area and encountering much difficulty because the streets were closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays to accommodate the hundreds of joggers and bikers. In taking the back streets, we found ourselves at the MSI area and so we thought we should start there. It was here that we witnessed the encounter between the Blue Rock Thrush and the Praying Mantis. When the mantis eventually became breakfast, we finally figured out how to get to the Library area. The same birds that we saw yesterday were what we encountered there. But now we had better looks at the Golden-bellied Flyeater, the Arctic Warbler and the Collared Kingfisher.

Blue Rock Thrush and Praying Mantis

Arctic Warbler

Golden-bellied Flyeater

Pied Triller

Collared Kingfisher

Monday morning, Cynthia and I walked around the vicinity of where we were staying in St Ignatius Village in Quezon City. Down the street, we were surprised to see a tiny yellowish bird that seemed to have drank too much caffeine. At first I thought it was a Golden-bellied Flyeater, but when I saw the curved bill, I realized that we were looking at a female Olive-backed Sunbird! I quickly returned home to grab my camera but the sunbird had gone off perhaps in search of more caffeine. As a consolation I was able to take some photos of a Zebra Dove and a very cooperative Pied Fantail.

Zebra Dove

Pied Fantail

Tuesday, I got a text message from Ely Teehankee, another PBP member, who offered to take me birding at Mt Palay-Palay in Cavite on Wednesday. Cynthia had already made plans on that day, so it was just myself, Ely, and his driver that made the trip. At 4:15 am we were off and around 6:30 we have begun birding along the road to Caylabne resort. One of the very first birds I saw was a White-throated Kingfisher perched on an electrical wire. Then Ely and I were straining our necks in trying to a get a shot of the Brahminy Kites flying above us. We stopped by an area where there are fruiting ficus trees. As soon as we got off the car, I saw a Greater Flameback! But it was quite dark and the bird was some distance away that all I got was some really blurred photos of it. I was still shaking my head in disappointment when Ely yelled, "Tarictic!" and sure enough a pair Tarictic Hornbills came crashing in and fed on the ficus fruits. A couple of monkeys watched us as we scrambled in trying to get a shot at the hornbills. Further down the road we witnessed tons of Philippine Bulbuls mixing it up with Yellow-venteds gorging themselves on the fruit of a tree. On the way back we were treated with good looks at a pair of Philippine Falconets. Thanks to Ely's hospitality, I had a wonderful time birding Mt Palay-Palay.

White-throated Kingfisher

Brahminy Kite

Greater Flameback


Philippine Bulbul

Philippine Falconet

A couple of days later we got another call, this time from Lyds Robledo, another PBP member. She will be taking us to the Subic rainforest Saturday morning. We were on the road at 5:30 am and by 8 we were entering Subic. At the Nabasan trail, we met up with Nestor, another PBP member, and Adri and Trinket and Linda who were Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) members. Through their help I saw a pair of Dollarbirds, a Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Green Racket-tailed Parrots and an oh so brief a glimpse of the Red-crested Malkoha. A Crested Serpent Eagle was soaring above us. Soon we were joined by Tina and Wency who guided us to where the Whiskered Tree Swifts and White-breasted Wood Swallows were. Lunch, courtesy of Tina and Wency was at the Cocolime restaurant where the food was fabulous. It's too bad that we had a dinner commitment that night so we had to leave early. Subic has so much potential birding-wise that I swore I will return in the near future.


Grey-streaked Flycatcher

White-breasted Wood Swallow

Whiskered Tree Swift

I racked up 35 species in those outings that I did. It would probably be more but I wasn't sure of the ID of some of the birds I have seen (those I saw by the roadside as we were travelling). My deepest thanks to Ely T for taking me to Mt. Palay-Palay and Lyds for taking me and Cynthia to Subic. Thanks to Tina and Wency for a sumptuous lunch. Thanks to my new friends whom I met in these sorties: Gabs, Mark, Toto, Bert, Ding, Bong and DocMando at UP; Nestor, Adri, Trinket and Linda at Subic.

I had a taste of what it was like birding in the Philippines. It was so different over 30 years ago when I had to do it all by myself, using public transportation, without binoculars, camera or even a guide book to help me identify the birds that I saw. But now, thanks to a wonderful gift from my step-daughter, Jenn, (Volume 1 and 2 of Birdwatching in the Philippines) and my new friends, I am eager to return home and go birding once again.