Sunday, March 31, 2013

From Sea to Shining Sea

Our short 10-day visit to California was intended for family and friends. We went birding, of course, but these were limited to the places that were already familiar to us. They were, for all intents and purposes, cursory birding.

After seeing my nemesis bird at last at John Baca Park in Orange County, we went to Bolsa Chica, a wetland area right next to the Huntington Beach Park (which abuts the Pacific Ocean). Unfortunately, it was the "gap" period. That time when birds that spent the winter here were now on their way to the Arctic while those that enjoyed the tropics still hadn't arrived. Nevertheless I was still rewarded with some good views of the "locals".

Blue-winged Teal
Greater Yellowlegs
The following day Cynthia and I went to Eaton Canyon. When we were still residing in Pasadena, we considered this as our "neighborhood" birding place. It is a small park nestled at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. This is where sightings of the Wrentit, a tiny, brown, brazen featherball is almost guaranteed. 

This is also where I would always find the Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Next morning it was Legg Lake for me. For sheer diversity of bird species, this is the place to be. Consider seeing an American White Pelican swimming on the placid lake while in the trees next to the body of water Cedar Waxwings enjoy bountiful fruits.

On the fourth day was a long trek around the hills of Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park. This was where the puzzle of taxonomy was so vividly illustrated. Try differentiating these two separate distinct species of Grebes:

Then wonder why these two Juncos which were obviously so different in coloring from each other was considered as a single species!

For our final birding day, we returned to the sea. This time at Playa del Rey, not that far from the LAX Airport. Again, the "gap" was quite noticeable here. Luckily I was able to photograph two of my target species right where I expected to see them.

Black Oystercatcher
Five couple-of-hours birding sorties may not be much, but still I was happy to see some of the birds I missed last year.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nemesis No More

In 2009 I wrote a poem lamenting the fact that this particular bird had successfully managed to avoid being seen by me for many, many years.

Even prior to our visiting Los Angeles, I had been scanning the yahoo listserves of the local bird groups to see if any unusual species had been sighted recently. When the Orange County Birding group mentioned that a Solitary Sandpiper had been spotted at the John Baca Park, I got excited. At the first birding opportunity that I had, I asked my son, Kurt, to drive me to that place where hope thrives. As soon as he parked the car, I jumped out and headed straight to the place described in the listserve where my nemesis supposedly lingers. 

It wasn't there.

Sighing deeply I ambled aimlessly along the trail. I looked back to where I stood a few minutes ago and saw a birder. He looked familiar. Jim Rowe was the one who showed me the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the Southcoast Botanic Garden many years ago.

"Looking for the Solitary?" I asked the obvious.

"Yup" he replied, "saw it here five times out of six that I'd been here."

We talked about birds as we waited for several minutes. Still nothing.

"Well, I'm gonna look for the Least Flycatcher" he said as we both turned towards the trail. 

I took one last look at the ditch and saw some movement.

"It's there!" I gasped. 

Jim peered through his binoculars and smiled. "Oh yeah!"

Satisfied, Jim said goodbye. I called Kurt to show him the bird that had made my birding life miserable for so long. When my son arrived, I was about to point the sandpiper to him but it was no longer there. Was I just hallucinating? Without Jim to confirm the sightings, did I really see the Solitary Sandpiper?

Thank heavens for the miracle, I managed to get some photographs despite my trembling hands.

Friday, March 08, 2013

That's Owl, Folks!

An array of cameras with huge lenses mounted on sturdy tripods were lined up in front of the tree. The photographers were excited engaging in shop talk as they waited. Soon our host, Jops, came rushing in. He looked up at the tree where the cameras were pointed, shone his flashlight into it and declared for everyone to hear:

"It's there!"

Cameras were aimed, shutters pressed and flashes flashed. That was the routine for the next couple of hours as we photographed the star of the LaVista Village, the Philippine Scops Owl (which I shall lovingly dub as Jop's Scops). The only variation to that routine was the shifting of our positions either to get a better view of the adult or to move to where the fledglings were.

Somehow the sight of a horde of photographers with long lenses aroused the curiosity of the local residents particularly those emerging from the nearby church after attending an evening mass. An impromptu introduction into bird watching was done by the members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) as they spoke with the intrigued individuals. 

"That's owl, folks!" was the response to the question as to what bird it was that drew all these visitors to the subdivision.

A little before 8 pm, Jops announced, "Last five minutes!"

Flashlights were soon turned off, camera gears packed and an exuberant group thanked our dear host and left happily.

adult Philippine Scops Owl
the young 'un
As Porky Pig would have said: "Th-th-th-that's owl, folks!"

Monday, March 04, 2013

Malaysia Birding - Information and Logistics

First of all, please allow me to express our deepest gratitude to our friend, Weefar Wee, for his kindness, hospitality and generosity. We can never thank him enough for what he had done for us. Consider these: He picked us up from the airport, treated us to dinner and let us sleep in his house in Kuala Lumpur. The following morning he treated us to breakfast then drove us to first to Bukit Tinggi and from there to Fraser's Hill. He even took us to Jelai on the afternoon of our first day in Fraser Hill and again in the morning of day two. Again, thank you Weefar for everything!

Now for the information:

First be aware the Malaysia has right-hand driving. Another thing is that the electrical outlets are three-pronged so be sure to bring an adapter with you if you plan on recharging your electrical devices.

Birding Places:

1. Bukit Tinggi - is a resort area located some 2000 ft above sea level in Pahang State about an hour's drive from Kuala Lumpur. The area in and around the Japanese Garden is a good area for birding and bird photography. The Botanic Garden is also an excellent birding place.

Getting there:
There is no public transportation that goes there. If you're driving, take the Kesas Highway from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan, then take the Bukit Tinggi exit. Otherwise take a taxi which would cost about 200 MR (Malaysian Ringgit).

Accommodations: If you wish to spend the night at Bukit Tinggi, there is a hotel, quite expensive, I might add, that you might consider:  Colmar Tropicale 

There is also an entrance fee if you plan to visit the Japanese and Botanic Gardens: 16 MR per adult, 8 MR for children

2. Fraser's Hill - arguably the best birding place in Malaysia not only because of the ease of seeing birds but also of the diversity of birds to see. The prime location is the parking lot of the Jelai Hotel from sunrise to about 8:30 am. Although birds can still be seen at other hours, the most number of species present would be between these times.



Taxi to Bukit Tinggi - about 200 MR one way
Taxi/Hired car (have the hotel arrange for airport pickup and return) to Fraser Hill - 250 MR one way
Hired car from Shazan hotel to Jelai - 50 MR roundtrip


We stayed at the Shazan Hotel for 200 MR a night which includes free buffet breakfast. No airconditioning necessary because it's cold especially at night. The usual amenities are there and there is free wi-fi at the lobby and restaurant. The manager, Mohammad Daud, is very nice and helpful.


There are several eateries at the food court (and most of the hotel have their own restaurants) which serves Malaysian/Chinese/Western food. Prices range from 8 MR and up.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Malaysia Birding, Day 4 - Filling the Gap

We still had the whole morning to spare before we go to Kuala Lumpur for our flight back home. As we had decided yesterday, we planned to tackle the Hemmant trail. Our agreement was as soon as we encounter a bird wave then we go back after that. Quite honestly, my wife and I were no longer expecting to see any more lifers within the planned two hour excursion into the trail.

Serendipity, however, happened as soon as we stepped out of our hotel. I saw a largish bird alight on the tree right in front of us. Curiosity aroused, I followed the dark object move up the trunk (the sun wasn't fully up yet). 

"What is it?" Cynthia asked noticing the smile on my face.

"Lesser Yellownape!" I pointed to the woodpecker. "Another lifer for us!"

Our luck did not end at the Shazan Hotel parking lot. At the entrance to the Hemmant trail, the Rufous-browed Flycatcher provided a deja vu (shall I say, deja view?)

Inside the trail, the hoped for wave never came. Well, it did about several meters from the entrance as were already on the way out. There was one bird in the group (composed mostly of Mountain Fulvettas and Mountain Tailorbirds) that kept warbling but stayed under the leaves most of the time. Patience only gave us documentary shots of another lifer, the Chestnut-capped Warbler.

At the trees overlooking the golf course, we spotted some dark birds. There was a female Black-and-Crimson Oriole, an all black, unassuming bird which we had seen before at the Jelai area. Then a flash of red! At last, the male came into view showing the red breast for which it was named.

We walked jauntily back to the hotel, packed our luggage and waited for the car that will take us to the airport. When we arranged for the transport we asked the hotel manager if it was ok to request the driver to stop if we see a bird along the way, particularly at the Gap Road. He smiled and said the driver was already used to transporting birders and that stopping for a bird would not be a problem.

Noon and we're off. Unfortunately that was the time of day when only a few birds were active. Even at the Gap Road - a renowned birding place. Serendipity still happened when we saw a pair of Scarlet Minivets, our final lifer for the trip.

As we approached the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, I asked the driver if we could still stop whenever we see some urban birds to which he happily agreed. So we got pictures of the Common Myna and the White-vented (Javan) Myna. Gap-fillers they may be, but still interesting to see them in the city.

Common Myna
White-vented Myna

Friday, March 01, 2013

Malaysia Birding, Day 3 - Fire and Gold

Thanks to the management of the Shazan Hotel where we were staying, we were able to obtain a ride to take us to the Jelai parking lot before the 7 am deluge of birds. Already there were a vanload of Japanese birders and the tall New Zealander we met yesterday. The early avian visitors were the drab colored Javan Cuckooshrike and the Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo (both of which sent the Japanese birders in a frenzy). Then came the wave led by the imperious Sultan Tit and the usual Silver-eared Mesias, Long-tailed Sibias, and both Laughingthrushes. Having already photographed those yesterday, my wife and I tried to focus our attention (and our cameras) on the tiny skulkers that accompanied the more colorful flock. It was not an easy task since these small, not so gaudy birds were moving non-stop in and out of the foliage, some even teasingly close. Through sheer luck (and lots of determination) we were able to capture some of them:

The slightly larger Blue-winged Minla. Although we've seen this lifer yesterday, we were not able to get a good photo of it.

A Gray-throated Babbler

A Mountain Tailorbird which seem to be missing its tail

And a lifer - an Eastern Crowned Warbler!

At about half-past eight, the bird activity waned as expected. Our group was about ready to leave when one of the guides for the Japanese birders pointed to the Red Bottle Brush tree behind us. "Orange-bellied Leafbird" was his curt comment. Excited ooohs and aaahs filled the air while Cynthia and I fired away.

As the Japanese group were leaving to have their breakfast, a local bird guide, Mr. Durai, came with a couple of European (Nordic?) birders. They were a tad too late but still, it was Mr. Durai who showed us our next lifer. Apparently this bird waits until the commotion had died down before showing up. Perhaps it was ashamed of its rather drab coloring? For us the Buff-breasted Babbler is still a treasure.

That afternoon, a little after four, Cynthia and I decided to continue to explore the area we went to the day before. It looked promising birdwise and we were eager to discover what lies in the jungle out there. As we were leaving the hotel we thought of passing through the restaurant area. Cynthia wanted to ask the waiters about the Barbet so I sauntered ahead.

"What time does the green bird come to the feeders?" my wife asked one of the waiters.

"It doesn't come in the afternoon, ma'am" he politely replied.

"Then what is that?" I asked pointing to the feeder.

I did not wait for Cynthia's reaction as I happily took shot after shot of the Fire-tufted Barbet perched on a tree branch (and not on the feeder where it usually stays!)

Exhilarated, we continued on our journey. Yesterday as we passed by it, we were intrigued by the Hemmant trail. Guidebooks say that it was quite a birdy place, although some warned of the presence of leeches. "Let's check it out" I told my very reluctant wife.

As we approached the entrance, Cynthia grabbed me and pointed at a tiny stump. "There's a bird there!" Inasmuch as I was the one holding the camera, I pointed it at the general direction that my wife was referring to. Indeed there was a brown thing on top of the brown stump. "Rufous-browed Flycatcher!" 

"Shoot! Shoot!" was all she could say about the newest addition to our lifelist.

We both agreed that we need to  take the trail tomorrow morning when there is more light. 

We moved on to the verdant area beyond the food court. Once again, the skulkers were popping in and out of our sights. I finally got a Mountain Fulvetta with some nesting material in its beak.

It was now almost six pm so we turned around and was about to head back to the hotel when something yellow flashed from the shrub nearby. For the next five minutes we followed the yellow bouncing ball, me taking potshots whenever I can and hoping I would get at least one good photo. At one point it went within the tightly knit branches of a pine sapling not more than 5 feet away and at eye level! So close and I could not get a shot at it. Frustration could hardly describe how I felt then. 

That night when I uploaded the results of my photographic endeavors, I was so thrilled that yes, there was one good shot of the yellow bird. It was a Golden Babbler! And yes, it was another lifer!

What a way to end our last full day at Fraser Hill.