Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Costa Rica Birding, Day 1, Part 1 - We better Quetzal we're ahead

Birders all over the world come to Costa Rica to see a magnificent bird of the Trogon family - the Resplendent Quetzal. When we were planning a trip to this Central American country, we chose a place where sightings of the famed Quetzal would be guaranteed.

It was a long, tiring trip from Los Angeles to our final destination: the Savegre Nature Resort and Spa in the town of San Gerardo de Dota arriving there at around 6 pm. Having left California a little past midnight, we were understandably plastered and fast asleep as soon as we checked in into our room.

Bright and early the following morning, we were awakened by the song of the aptly named Melodious Blackbird. Interestingly, this species do not show up in any of the bird lists of this area. According to Wikipedia, prior to 1989 there was only one record in Costa Rica. Yet now, this became our regular wake up call every morning. They are actually quite common in the premises.

Another "trash" bird is the Rufous-collared Sparrow. They are everywhere just like the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in the Philippines and the House Sparrow in the U.S. This one is a bit more colorful though.

Around the restaurant and the office were feeders - both for the hummingbirds and for the fruit-eaters. We saw 6 different kinds of hummers, 5 of which were lifers. The non-hummingbird feeders attract a variety of birds - most common being the Tanagers: Flame-colored, Silver-throated and Blue-grey. Occasionally, a migrant, the Tennessee Warbler would also drop by.

Tennessee Warbler
Costa Rica's national bird, the rather drab looking Clay-colored Thrush is, next to the Rufous-collared Sparrows, another common bird. These thrushes are more adaptable in terms of habitat as they can be found near human habitation or in the forests as well.

clay-colored robin

Our hotel offers various birding tours which would take visitors to the different areas around San Gerardo de Dota. One of these tours was for Quetzal sightings. However, while having breakfast that morning, a couple dining next to us gave us a tip. "Take the road going out of the hotel and look for a sign nailed to a tree trunk that says 'no lance la basura' (don't throw garbage). Look across the stream from that place and you will see the nest (a hole in the tree trunk). The parent Quetzals are always there."

As soon as we finished our morning repast we hied over to the directions given us. It didn't take us long to find the sign. And there, as our new friends assured us, was the female Quetzal. While taking pictures of the Mom, I noticed that there were birders on that side of the stream - which, of course, was much nearer to the bird! So, there we went also. Indeed the view was definitely closer. With only the female there, most of the birders left the area leaving just me and Cynthia and another bird photographer. 

resplendent quetzal female

We were scouring the boulders on the stream hoping to find an American Dipper (which had been seen sporadically here) when the male Quetzal appeared near the tree where their nest was. However its perch of choice was slightly covered by some branches and leaves. Despite that we still got busy taking its picture. Then, as if summoned by a higher power, the male flew to an open branch where it can now be better viewed and much closer than before.

resplendent quetzal male

After taking hundreds of shots (unusual for me to do) it was us, unbelievably, who gave up. Imagine that we got this incredible opportunity and didn't even have to shell out the $75 (per person) tour fee. Exhilarated, we returned to the area near the restaurant to take a breather from all that excitement at seeing the star bird of Costa Rica that close and that open! I jokingly told my wife that we better quit now while were ahead with our target birds. However, nature has a funny way of dealing with us people. As soon as I said that joke, the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, another gorgeous Costa Rican bird, flew in and perched at about 5 meters away from us as if to say, hey, there are other beauties here than those quetzals! They were so close that I at first I could only manage head shots. Thankfully I had a zoom lens and was able to change my setting from 600mm to 350mm just so I can get the full body in the frame. 

All these and it's not even 10 am!

Costa Rica Birding, Day 1, Part 2 - Keener Garden

After a short breather, having just seen and photographed the Resplendent Quetzal out in the open (please see my previous blog) Cynthia and I decided to try the "Canto de las Aves" (song of the birds) trail. As we approached the trailhead, we first heard, then saw, a flock of parakeets fly by. This happened several times as the green birds flew back and forth until my wife's sharp ears informed her that the parakeets had stopped flying and were now screeching their hearts out not that far from where we were standing. As we turned a corner we came upon an apple orchard on a hillock.

"There!" my wife whispered as she pointed to several green objects gorging on some ripe apples. At first I had no clue as to what species we were looking at. Later that day we bought an illustrated guide to the highland birds of Costa Rica. 

What we saw were Sulphur-winged Parakeets!

It was nearing noon and as we rounded the corner on our way back, we encountered a Sooty-capped Bush Tanager and a Yellow-faced Grassquit by the wayside.

Sooty-capped Brush Tanager

Yellow-faced Grassquit
After lunch, we were approached by Marino Chacon, one of the owners of the hotel and an excellent guide, and offered to take us to the "Photography Garden" at a rate of US$10 per person. We agreed to meet up before 2 pm. At 2pm, we were at the garden sitting on the portable chairs brought by Marino and looking at some Blue-grey Tanagers.

"I'll leave you here and pick you up at around 4:30, OK? Enjoy the birds!" said Marino.

Indeed there were birds all around us, you just need to have some keen hearing and eyesight to see them. The highlights here were the tiny Volcano Hummingbird

and the constantly moving Slaty Flowerpiercer.

slaty flowerpiercer female

slaty flowerpiercer male
Here also we had better views of the Silver-throated Tanager.

One intriguing species we saw was the Large-footed Finch. Looking at the bird, we noticed that the feet were not really that exceptionally large. What's more is that this is not really a finch but actually a sparrow!

At around 4, Marino came with another birder, Mike Steffes. Marino asked if we had seen the Mountain Elaenia and we replied in the negative. "There it is!" he said pointing to a non-descript olive-brown bird. But it flew before we could even take its picture. "There!" Marino once again pointed at a bird in a different place. This happened several times until we finally got a shot. Reviewing our photos later that night, it turned out that we have already seen (and photographed) the Elaenia earlier. It was quite common, as a matter of fact.

"There's a White-naped Brush Finch down there," our enthusiastic and keen-eyed guide told us. We looked and saw nothing. Not even Cynthia's usual spotting ability was able to distinguish the bird from its surroundings. Marino then asked for Cynthia's camera and took several shots. Then he took my camera and made several shots as well. As we reviewed the photos he took we were now able to pinpoint the whereabouts of this seemingly invisible bird.

At 4:30 all four of us returned to the hotel. Cynthia and I rested a bit then had dinner at 6:30. It had been a remarkable first full day of birding for us in Costa Rica. The Resplendent Quetzal right off the bat. Imagine that!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Arizona Birding, Day 3 - Paton the Back

It had always been referred to as Paton's Place, or more specifically, Paton's Hummingbird Haven. In the early 1970s Wally and Marion Paton noticed a Violet-crowned Hummingbird (an uncommon species) in their backyard, so they decided to put up some feeders. And the rest, they say, is history. When birds (not just hummingbirds) started visiting their place, they decided to open their premises to the public, just asking for donations to maintain the feeders. Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009. Their daughter, Bonnie Paton Moon, decided to sell the property to the Tucson Audubon Society who promised to continue the legacy of her parents.

We have visited the Paton's Hummingbird Haven four times in the past 10 years. It was one of the birding areas we went to outside of California when Cynthia and I were still new in our our birding adventures. Here's a composite of the photos taken there through the years. Top left was in 2005, top right in 2006, lower left - 2007 and finally lower right, 2015.

As expected, Paton's backyard was teeming with birds. Spring is not best time to see hummingbirds in Arizona so there were only a few at the feeders. We only had a glimpse (and no picture) of the resident Violet-crowned. Compensating for the lack of hummingbirds, we had great looks at the other local birds. One of them was the colorful Lazuli Bunting

and Northern Cardinal.

The most common bird was the rather drab Pine Siskin.

Other visitors were the White-winged Dove

the Gila Woodpecker

and the Curve-billed Thrasher.

After having our fill at Paton's we visited Patagonia Lake. This is a huge  State-run park and there were picnic tables and even an RV Camp. The good news is there is also a wilderness trail - and this is where the birds are. The most common of which - so common that every hundred feet or so, there will be at least one of them busily hunting for insects - the dynamically colored Vermillion Flycatcher.

The reed-filled lakeshore hosted three species of ducks:

The Gadwall

Cinnamon Teal

and the Green-winged Teal

A sure find at the lake is the uncommon Neotropic Cormorant.

This was the end of our 2 full-day birding trip to Arizona. Going back to Paton's place brought back nice memories. We were glad that the local bird clubs were taking good care of this place and continuing to preserve the efforts of Wally and Marion Paton.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Arizona Birding, Day 2 - Happy Madera's Day

Madera Canyon in Arizona is one of the prime birding areas in the U.S. Cynthia and I had been to this place several times before racking up several lifers such as Elegant Trogon and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, among others.

It was a pleasant morning as we drove up the road towards the Sta. Rita mountains. One of the very first birds we encountered was what I believed to be the uncommon Rufous-winged Sparrow. Nowhere else in the U.S. can this species be found except here in Southeastern Arizona. Although not a lifer - we've seen this before also in this area 8 years ago - we were still happy to be able to get a clearer shot this time.

Proctor Road yielded some passing migrants such as the Warbling Vireo

and the Grey Flycatcher

Sta. Rita Lodge, as always, is a favorite stopping point. Non-guests still can view the grounds where the management placed some feeders to attract the birds. All three hotels in Madera Canyon (Sta. Rita Lodge, Madera Kubo, and Chuparosa Inn) provide feeders in their respective grounds for the benefit of birdwatchers. Hummingbirds were not plentiful this time of year (June and July, when the rains come, is the best time to see them). Still, the Broad-billed Hummingbirds - another species found only here in Arizona - were dominating the feeders, with a few Black-chinned and Allen's joining them.

Mexican Jays, another Arizonan exclusive, were quite common. 

The brightly colored Hepatic Tanager occasionally drops by to try the fruits on the feeders.

We moved on to the picnic grounds but did not try the steep trails leading to where the Elegant Trogon dwells - our ancient legs could no longer handle the arduous climb. Still, we were rewarded with a very tame Yellow-eyed Junco that kept looking for worms coming as close as less than a meter from our feet! (Take note that there are no feeders here).

It is interesting to note how similar this bird looks like to its cousin, the slate-colored subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco.

Before we left the canyon, we had some quick sightings and not so good photos of the beautiful Painted Whitestart.

painted redstart

As we were enjoying our lunch at Mama's Hawaiian Barbecue in the city of Sahuarita, we were thankful for the birds we had seen. Madera Canyon did not disappoint and we had a very happy, fruitful, birding day there.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Arizona Birding, Day 1 - Contretemps

I don't believe in bad luck. However, two eerie things happened on our first day of birding in Arizona. After checking in at our hotel in Green Valley, Cynthia and I went to check out the birds at Madera Canyon. My son, Kurt, who had been driving our rental car since early that morning, took a much needed rest so it was my turn at the wheels. After taking some photos of the Pyrrhuloxia and Phainopeplas, we got in our car and prepared to continue on to Proctor Road. It was then I noticed that the engine light was on. Worried that something worse might happen to the car if we continued up the road, my wife and I decided to return to the hotel asap. As soon as we arrived, I informed Kurt of the situation. He got in the car, turned on the ignition and...the engine light didn't appear on the dashboard. He tried several times and got the same result. As a matter of fact it never happened again the rest of the time that we used the car. Did I do something wrong while I was driving? was the thought that haunted me for a while.

As if that strange event wasn't enough, another mysterious thing happened that night. I wanted to review the Pyrrhuloxia and Phainopepla photos I took that afternoon. When I pressed the replay button on my camera I was shocked that none came out! I tried to upload the CF card to the laptop and was devastated to discover that the whole card was corrupted! To think that it included photos I took a couple of days ago in Orange County. Did I do something wrong with my camera? I remember resetting the date but could that have been the reason for this misfortune? (please see my previous blog).

Two unfortunate events highlighted the start of our birding trip to Arizona. I hoped and prayed that those would be the last.

Epilogue: Three weeks later, I was able to recover the photos from the corrupted CF card. Here are the shots of the Pyrrhuloxia and Phainopepla



Once Was Lost.....

Imagine my horror when not a single photo showed up when I was uploading my CF card to the laptop! And to think that the photos I took were of the birds of two of our favorite spots in Orange County - San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Bolsa Chica - and also those from our first day in Arizona! My mind raced to what caused such mishap. Perhaps it was when I reset the date in the camera settings. It was still in Philippine time so I changed it to U.S. Pacific Coast time. Or I might have pushed a wrong button. In a state of panic I asked for help via Facebook. Friends responded quickly. Two of them, Jun Osano and Micky Lim, even offered the codes needed to access the data using a specific software. I tried those but somehow it didn't work. Possibly it was because the software was designed for the Sandisk brand whereas my CF card's was Lexar.

Days passed and my heart still couldn't bear the fact that I might have lost my shots for good. Not that there were any photo lifers there, or that Cynthia also took pictures of practically the same birds using her own camera. Still......

I took the CF card to Samy's Camera who quoted me $35 for the recovery process. That afternoon I got a call from them saying they were not able to recover even a single shot from the card. So we went to the store and picked up my damaged CF. Since Cynthia and I are planning to go to Costa Rica in a couple of weeks, I bought a 64GB Lexar CF card which was on sale. At home when I opened the package, voila! there was a code provided should I need to recover a damaged card! After downloading the recovery software we (with my son, Kurt's, help) tried to work it out. Yes, we managed to get some raw files but they were from an earlier session and not those from the Orange County foray.

It was after our trip to Costa Rica and with a lot of time in our hands that I tried to run the software again. This time it was a complete success! What were once lost, now are found!

Here are some of those recovered shots:

American Avocet
Black-necked Stilt
Allen's Hummingbird
Savannah Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Walk in the Park

We are still getting adjusted to California weather and time having just arrived from the Philippines a couple of days ago. To shake off the remaining bits of jet lag, Cynthia and I decided to visit nearby Palmer Park and check out the local avian denizens.

Palmer Park is a small patch of greenery in the city of Glendale. It being a work day, there weren't that many people that morning. A few individuals were enjoying the sun to counteract the early morning chill. The birds we saw were typical of any city park in Southern California. The most common, of course, were the House Sparrows.

and the American Crow

Mourning Doves were quite plentiful

There are two species of hummingbirds one would most likely encounter here (interestingly both with "human" names: 


and Allens

Now here is a challenge I set forth to my bird photographer friends: I dare you to try and get a photo of the American Bushtit. I say that because taking a picture of this species is a test of patience and skills. Why is that? Here are a few reasons: 1) Bushtits are small. As in teeny weeny small. They are only 11 cm long and that includes the tail. 2) Very drab in color. Plain (no streaks or spots) gray-brown that blends perfectly to their habitat and 3) They are hyperactive! They are continuously foraging for insects and almost never stops to take a breather. To top it all the female is oh so slightly different from the male. How? the color of the eyes: male-dark brown, female-yellow!

The female I was able to photograph the day before at Eaton Canyon (please see my previous blog post)

Local parks here in California, even small ones like Palmer Park, hosts a variety of birds. We were glad that we took a walk and enjoyed photographing them.