Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Hidden Marsh

The Orange Coast alps

I had a sinking feeling that today would be an exercise in speed-birding: it had rained for most of last week, it's supposed to rain from this afternoon through tomorrow, so today would be our only chance of the weekend to get any quality time outdoors. And I wanted our outing to pay off in a big way.

I figured that the storm might bring in birds from off the coast, so we drove to the south end of Huntington State Beach to check out the beach and Santa Ana River mouth, where I had spotted several Common Goldeneyes a few weeks ago. The Goldeneyes had appeared there—along with huge flocks of Surf Scoters and Buffleheads, and a handful of Canvasbacks—right before the last big storm, so we were hoping to get lucky again.

We started at the beach, which we hadn't visited since the end of our volunteer tour of duty at the Snowy Plover and Least Tern Reserve there last summer. Today the reserve was quiet and empty, except for a couple of good samaritans doing trash pickup. And it was nice being there without having to lecture people about not riding their bikes or walking their dogs on the beach.

We worked our way to the river mouth, and turned inland on the bike path running along the river's northern shore. From the path, the now-snow-covered mountains looked startlingly close. Alas, no Goldeneyes today—but the Surf Scoters were still around in large numbers, as were Brown Pelicans, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Redheads (but no Canvasbacks).

A Common Goldeneye we didn't see (I got this shot at the Santa Ana River mouth a couple of weeks ago).

Suddenly I saw Glenn turn onto a paved side path I hadn't noticed before. I followed after him, and we found ourselves at another marshy, bird-filled area bordered by the Pacific Coast Highway, Brookhurst Avenue, and whatever that big industrial thing is along the northern shore of the river mouth.

In this odd little marsh were Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, and dozens of Double-crested Cormorants and gulls. There was nothing terribly unusual there, but something about it seemed promising. Glenn thought it would look awesome at sunset. And it was definitely attractive to birds, despite being tucked into the intersection of two busy roads. It would be worth a return.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Birder Watching

On Sunday morning, I spent a few quiet hours at Huntington Central Park, looking in vain for the American Redstart seen by the Slater Street parking lot. The area by the parking lot was loud with the chattering of birds, so I spent about an hour there, waiting to see what might show up: I was rewarded by a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, a female Summer Tanager, and a large number of Townsend's, Yellow-rumped, and Orange-crowned Warblers.

But something was wrong. The park was busy; joggers, dog-walkers, and families with kids were everywhere—but no other birders. I worked my way toward the island—lots of people mucking around in the brush, for reasons unknown, but none with binoculars or cameras.

I was at the park from 9 to noon on a sunny midwinter Sunday, prime birding time in a prime birding place—and yet, it was just me. It was as if every other birder on the planet had dropped off the face of the earth.

I was soon to find that this wasn't the case.

After lunch, Glenn and I returned to San Joaquin Marsh to see if the American Bittern and visiting African weaver were still around. In the parking lot we ran into a couple of occasional birding buddies and a familiar-looking photographer staking out the weaver. Once Glenn set up his tripod, this established a critical mass of people all looking at the same spot, which attracted yet more birders.

It seemed as if we couldn't walk three feet without someone stopping us to ask about Glenn's photo gear or the inventory of ducks in Pond D, or if we'd seen anything unusual (we hadn't—the Bittern had disappeared.)

We did manage to see a good assortment of raptors— Red-shouldered and Cooper's Hawks, both dark and light morph Red-tailed Hawks, a Northern Harrier, and a White-tailed Kite. We also saw a very fat gopher excavating a burrow, dangerously close to an area frequented by an aggressive Great Blue Heron.

There were also plenty of sparrows hopping about near the cages in the parking lot, and I suspected there might be a Golden-crowned Sparrow or some other treat mixed in with the White-crowned and Song Sparrows, but we ended up spending most of our time in the area talking to people about birds rather than actually looking for them. And after a slightly creepy morning of feeling like the last birder on earth, this was actually okay.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Sucker for Conspiracies

Sapsucker wells?

On a short run through Tanager Park in Costa Mesa last weekend, I noticed these odd markings on a couple of the trees, and wondered if they might be sapsucker wells. They look quite a bit like the photos of sapsucker wells I pulled up on Google Images, and I can't think of anything else that could have made them (apart from a Homo sapiens with an ice pick and an obsessive-compulsive disorder).

I have no idea how long those holes have been there.

I've seen Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers in the park, but no Sapsuckers. Still, the possibilities are intriguing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Only Two Birds

He's back, and Bittern ever!

On some days, a good birding day feels like a shopping spree—I sprint through the day checking off as many new sightings as I can, and go home giddy with pride in my new acquisitions.

Saturday was not one of those days. We ended up spending the day focused on only two birds—but still had an awesome time.

We started our day at Tewinkle Park, where Glenn hoped to refind and photograph the Brown Creeper and Red-breasted Nuthatch that Bettina Eastman had shown us the week before. After a few minutes, we hadn't seen or heard either bird, but we did see a photographer who told us he had just been shooting at San Joaquin marsh, where a very bold and visible American Bittern was hanging out. Glenn had been wanting forever to get a good Bittern shot, so we hit the road and headed to San Joaquin.

The American Bittern was, as promised, in the reeds only a few yards from the shore of Pond D. And it was easy to find, as there was a phalanx of guys with big lenses parked directly across from it—the bird clearly didn't seem to mind.

The Bittern was great fun to watch (at least when he wasn't completely obscured by the reeds). I loved how he stalked his prey with his long neck completely extended, parallel to the ground like the barrel of a sniper's rifle. I loved how the stripes on his neck looked like some bold design statement when he was out in the open, yet made him nearly invisible when framed by the reeds. And I loved how he liked to stand with his neck and bill stuck snobbily into the air—clearly, he thinks he's Bittern us! Ha ha.

Glenn and Bettina both guessed it was the same bird who had been seen in the pond several times over the summer: perhaps he had managed to stay relatively hidden all along, until the recent rise in water level forced him out.

The second bird we got to obsess over was the exotic/escapee Taveta Golden Weaver hanging out in the parking lot, near the bird cages. Again, we spent about two hours photographing and watching it, and explaining to passersby that it wasn't (a) a parakeet or (b) a messed-up Western Tanager.

As the sun started to set, we returned to the pond so Glenn could get some sunset shots of the Bittern and some of the other birds. A female Hooded Merganser was there, diving in and out of the floating leaves and reeds, and a couple of White-faced Ibises were lurking about as well. It was a perfect ending to a mellow day with a couple of good birds.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Birding Meme: Top 10 Birding Experiences of 2007

Moment #10: Abert's Towhee by the Salton Sea.

Tai Haku of Earth, Wind & Water proposed a nice end-of-the year meme: List your top ten nature moments of 2007. A number of local bird bloggers (including Amy Hooper, Leigh Johnson, and Bob Kaufman) have followed up with a twist: Their top ten birding moments. (Since birding moments are a proper subset of nature moments, technically this would count as the part of the Tai's original meme.)

Since I've grown to consider almost any moment outdoors with a bird to be a treat, there was no way I could rank my favorite moments by preference. So instead, I list them in chronological order:

My favorite birding moments of 2007:

1. January 1: Getting two lifers (a Chestnut-backed Chickadee and a Golden-crowned Sparrow) at MontaƱa de Oro State Park, near Morro Bay.

2. Second week of January: Getting another lifer (a Yellow-throated Warbler) at Tewinkle Park in Costa Mesa. Most memorable part: all the really kind and interesting birders I met there, also looking for the same bird.

3.Third week of January: Freezing my buns (and feet and fingers) off in 0 degree weather during the hawk –banding trip to the Antelope Valley sponsored by Sea and Sage Audubon. Saw yet more new birds: a Burrowing Owl, Prairie Falcon, and Ferruginous Hawk.

4. March: Yet another lifer at Tewinkle: a pair of Hooded Mergansers. Gorgeous birds! Even better was knowing that interesting birds could be found at a seemingly banal suburban park only five minutes from my place.

5. May: Lurking in the underbrush in Sea Gate Park with seemingly every other birder in Orange County, looking for the Bay-breasted Warbler. Get a five-second glimpse at it. Yet another lifer!

6. June-August: Monitoring the Least Tern/Snowy Plover reserve at Huntington State Beach. Watched Peregrine Falcons scoping them out as potential snacks.

7. September: Looking outside the window of my apartment on a particularly boring afternoon, and finding that the tree directly outside my place was jumping with Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers. And suddenly the afternoon was a lot less boring!

8. October: Watching in amazement , from a third-story outdoor stairwell outside my office, as a huge flock of bold Cedar Waxwings flitted about in a tree about an arm’s length away from me—then realizing that one of my teaching assistants had been standing behind me the whole time, convinced that I had totally lost it.

9. November: Spending two days looking for the Roseate Spoonbill in the Santa Ana River near Orange/Yorba Linda. The real pleasure: finally seeing it after two days of looking in vain.

10. December: Getting three lifers (Verdin, Abert’s Towhee, Gambel’s Quail) within five minutes of each other at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Merry Christmas to me!

And happy (belated) New Year to all of you!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pretty Ugly (part 2)

A former resident of the unlovely Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is justly known as a paradise for birders: if you can spend several days doing nothing but thinking about and looking for birds, a trip there will make you a very happy camper.

But if you want to do anything else there (apart from hunting, off-road vehicle racing, or producing large quantities of meth undisturbed), you're screwed: finding anything else pleasurable to do there is an exercise in futility. Take, for example, eating.

We stayed at the Calipatria Inn, a surprisingly comfortable place in the town of Calipatria, one of the rare settlements too tiny to have as much as a McDonald's or Starbucks. (But it did have a state prison whose surrounding grounds are supposed to be a good birding spot.) The only eateries around (the nearest neighboring towns were about 10 miles away) were a tiny Mexican place that always seemed to be closed and the hotel's own, uh, "Steakhouse". Due to sheer sloth (after birding 10 hours straight, we didn't feel like driving long distances for identifiable foodstuffs), this is where we had dinner three nights in a row.

Since Glenn wanted to take advantage of every moment of daylight for photography, and I wanted to find as many birds as I could, we decided to skip lunch every day (instead snacking on granola bars while on the hoof) and eat insanely early dinners. And after 10 straight hours of stalking burrowing owls, just about anything tasted good: the serviceable little tossed salads that preceded our grilled mystery meat entrees seemed like ambrosia.

On our first night, I ordered a glass of wine with my dinner. It was presented in clean stemware, chilled to a brisk 40 degrees.

It was a Merlot.

The second night, I ordered another Merlot. Also nicely chilled.

By the third night, I was perversely looking forward to a nice cold glass of red wine.

And I needed it, too. The dining room had a captive audience; just about all the guests at the hotel had their dinner there. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with the height of hunting season, and the tiny dining room was filled with loud guys in camouflage. As an omnivore, I'm not against taking animals for food, but there's something about killing just for fun—and the guys who do it—that rubs me the wrong way. Being barraged with conversations that would make Rush Limbaugh sound liberal sent me further into the cold comfort of bad Merlot.

That, and their presence made it nearly impossible to get a close-up look at any waterfowl in the area: ducks that would calmly stare you in the eye at Bolsa Chica would flee at the mere suspicion of human presence. Who could blame them?

The other challenge for Salton Sea visitors is navigating the area. The roads along the eastern shore, where most of the birding spots are, appear to be ordinary straight country roads, laid out in a well-behaved grid pattern and framed by endless vistas of grass fields, cattle pens, and hay bales.

But looks can be deceiving: ordinary two-lane asphalt roads would suddenly turn into unpaved ruts running through farmland, then turn into paved roads again a mile later, just when we'd convinced ourselves that we'd made a wrong turn. Seemingly straight roads would twist abruptly and double up on themselves in weird ways. And, as mentioned in my last post, there don't seem to be any detailed maps of the area. Both Mapquest and Glenn's GPS unit, on various occasions, seemed to throw up their virtual hands at our queries: I tried to download Mapquest directions to the hotel before setting off, and the last direction was "Consult local maps for further directions." WHAT local maps??

For an area that covers so much space—the Salton Sea is about 40 miles long—there are relatively few people, so during our stay we got to recognize several of the other birders and photographers in the area. One of these was a photographer who came up to us and introduced himself during our last dinner: "Keep seeing you around—it's time for an introduction," he said.

He turned out to be a landscape photographer, also from Orange County and also visiting Salton Sea for the first time. After dinner, he and Glenn opened their laptops and compared their day's shooting. Even more entertaining than his well-crafted photography was the conversation about the head-scratching weirdness of the place.

"Did either of you have the carne asada in the restaurant?" he asked.


"And did you ever have the tri-tip?"


"Did you notice that they're exactly the same thing?"

We exchanged horror stories about navigating the strangely-laid-out roads: he had come upon a four-way intersection where only one of the four directions had a stop sign. We had come upon a four-way intersection whose two streets—according the to primitive map inside one of the local birding brochures—were supposed to run parallel to each other.

But at the end of an evening of lighthearted complaining, one thing was sure: we'd all come back again, in a heartbeat.

Worth the detour: A pair of Gambel's Quail.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pretty Ugly (part 1)

Salton Sea lifer #1: Verdin.

The odd French expression jolie-laide translates literally into "pretty-ugly". It does not mean "sort of ugly" but simultaneously pretty and ugly: it's used to describe things that are alluring despite not being conventionally attractive—such as Edith Piaf and pugs.

I thought of this expression often over the past week, after spending three days stomping through piles of dessicated dead fish and waking up to the smell of cow manure—and loving almost every minute of it. Birding near the Salton Sea simultaneously sucks and rocks.

We arrived on the Thursday after Christmas, drove past the boarded-up remains of old motels, gas stations, and resorts; checked into a non-boarded-up hotel, and immediately set out to look for Glenn's grail bird, the Burrowing Owl—and within 15 minutes found one, peeking out of its burrow off the side of the road. We pulled over and spent about half an hour watching and photographing it before it retreated into its hole. Over the next few days, we would see several more: on our second day, we got lost—detailed maps of the area appear to be nonexistent, something we overheard several other visitors complain about during our stay—and pulled to the side of the road to get our bearings. And right across the street were TWO Burrowing Owls, staring at us from on top of their burrow!

After leaving our first owl in its hole, we continued to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge , where I scored three lifers in a five-minute period: a Verdin, several Abert's Towhees, and a flock of Gambel's Quail, all a few feet from the visitor center. By now I was absolutely giddy: if this pace kept up, I would expand my life list by 36 birds an hour! And assuming 10 hours of birding a day (Glenn wanted to get both sunrise and sunset shots, so we planned to be out shooting/birding every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m), this would mean 360 new birds a day over the course of the next two full days of birding! Woohoo!!

Of course, it didn't end up this way—in the end, I got only five more lifers (Ross's Goose, Common Ground-Dove, Inca Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and Sandhill Crane—all expected, common birds in the area). Still, being able to spend three days doing nothing but looking for and thinking about birds in a new place was reward enough.