Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grail Birds

See? There really WAS a Hermit Warbler at Canyon Park!

After our morning trip to San Joaquin on Sunday, I decided to take a quick spin through Canyon Park in Costa Mesa to look for warblers and see if I could find the Hermit Warbler and Lazuli Bunting I saw last week. And I got them both: the Hermit Warbler was in the same tree he was in last week (which makes me think it was the same individual). There were also a large number of Wilson's Warblers there, but mysteriously, none of the Black-throated Grays or Nashville Warblers who were there in profusion just two weeks ago. I guess they were just passing through.

I was about to give up on the Lazuli Bunting, and was on my way back to the parking lot when I saw a flash of blue and red in a bush just off the trail: there he was! And he was being remarkably sedate for a Lazuli; he actually stayed still long enough for me to get a couple of (bad) shots of him.

This was a great treat for me: Glenn had gotten his long-sought-after Marsh Wren shots (and a few unexpected Wilson's Phalarope shots), and I finally got my grail birds for the week. Just seeing them was a pleasure enough, but being able to share them with others—however lamely—is even better.

And even better, now I have proof that I wasn't making all these sightings up!

Two Days at the Marsh

On Saturday, we did one of the dumbest things one could possibly do during a heat wave: we spent the day birding San Joaquin Marsh. And it ended up being so rewarding that we went back again on Sunday.

Our original plan was to bird Bolsa Chica, which we hadn't visited in a while. But when we got there, both parking lots were full and from PCH, the trails looked crowded. So it was time for Plan B, and for no particular reason, we headed to San Joaquin Marsh.

At San Joaquin, the avian hormone level was off the charts. The Tree Swallow nest boxes were all full, several pairs of American Avocets were mating in the front ponds, and the Marsh Wrens, usually (and frustratingly) invisible despite their loud singing, were now perched high on the tops of the reeds, singing up a storm.

Other interesting voluble singers were a Yellow-breasted Chat and a very bright Yellow Warbler, who was working the trees by the Audubon House parking lot and the construction site behind it. We also saw a Sora in the reeds on the edge of Pond D, and some mother and baby American Coots, also in Pond D.

Glenn was particularly interested in getting photos of the elusive Marsh Wrens, but wasn't happy with the harsh late morning/early afternoon lighting we had. So we went back on Sunday morning, bright and early. to take advantage of the pleasant light and relative cool.

And it was even better than before. We saw the same cast of characters with a few new additions: a group of White-faced Ibises, some really bright Western Tanagers, and about four still-bright Wilson's Phalaropes in Pond C.

Plan B turned out to be a winner. Thank goodness Plan A didn't work out!

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Spring migration continues to bring both delight and frustration. This week, I got some wonderful first-of-season birds--but failed to get any pictures of them. Glenn gave me one of his not-so-old SLR cameras and bought a me a new 300 mm lens for Christmas, just so I could get decent documentary shots of birds on the days when he was sleeping in or off shooting something else. But a combination of pathologically slow reflexes and Luddite tendencies (instruction manual? What's that?) meant that my photos of that gorgeous Lazuli Bunting and Hermit Warbler hopping about in THE SAME BUSH AT THE SAME TIME at Canyon Park last Sunday morning turned out as indecipherable blurs. If you saw them, you wouldn't even be able to tell what kind of bush they were sitting in.

Grrr. I hate being incompetent.

The only somewhat recognizable shot I got all weekend was a pair of Downy Woodpeckers just moments after they mated (I wasn't fast enough to get them in the act, so no bird porn!) This was taken by the island at Huntington Central Park on Saturday morning:

(Here, I could insert a totally tasteless joke about getting a woody. But I won't.)

I also got a horrible blurry photo of the American Redstart at Huntington Central: as usual, he was in a cluster of bushes not far from the Slater Street parking lot.

Luckily, Glenn's photos from the weekend came out great, as usual. We spent a lot of time admiring a very noisy Bullock's Oriole at the Shipley Nature Center on Saturday:

The Black-chinned Hummingbirds are back at Huntington Central Park, and Glenn spent a lot of time shooting them while I trolled the rest of the park for warblers and other goodies:

Yup, he a million times the photographer I am. But I can still spell better than him. And cook better. And I'm better at math, too.

So there.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Too Much Good Stuff

A spring treat: One of this week's Nashville Warblers

One of the pleasurable benefits of my job has been swimming after work. After 10 hours of teaching, writing, dealing with students, and occasionally wishing I were out birding, there's nothing better than a long, hard swim. And my campus has a gorgeous 50-meter outdoor pool framed with tall pines, which as of late have been filled with singing American Robins (the pines, not the pool!).

In the fall and winter, the swimming was great: when it was 50 degrees and drizzly out, and lap swimming hours started after dark, I could swim to my heart's content without bumping into anyone: in every lane there were maybe 3 or 4 well-behaved aging triathletes and other random fitness buffs.

But spring has arrived, which ironically means that lap swimming now is a form of torture. Instead of being a relaxing escape from the crowd, it is now an exercise in defensive collision avoidance. I can't swim fast (but I can and do swim a couple of kilometers a day), so out of courtesy to faster people, I generally stay in the lanes designated for slower swimmers. But now, since it's light out and warm out during most of the lap swim hours, the slow lanes are now filled with people who can barely swim at all: I feel like throttling those bikini-clad naifs who dog-paddle wussily along, then randomly stop and grab onto the lane markers (which is the swimming equivalent of parking your car for a picnic in one of the center lanes of the 405.) It's like trying to maneuver around a bunch of hippos on Prozac.

Believe it or not, this does relate to birds. Last week, Glenn got some great hummingbird shots at Huntington Central Park, so another photographer pal of his asked if he could join us there for more fun. So we met at the Huntington Park Central Library, right behind the hummingbird garden, a bit before 8 this morning.

And since it was spring migration, a clear and pretty day, and prime photo time, there were almost a dozen other photographers in the parking lot, setting up their tripods and wiping off their lenses. And heading straight towards the hummingbird garden.

Yup, there's a pattern here: the better things get, the worst they get.

I didn't want to add to the crowd, and I was more interested in finding warblers than hummingbirds in any case, so I took off on my own, keeping my cell phone on in case Glenn and his pal actually did see something good.

Near the Slater Street parking lot, I did get a nice inventory of spring warblers: a couple of Nashville Warblers, several Townsend's and Black-throated Grays, as well as the usual Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats. Another birder (one of only three I saw, surprisingly), told me he had seen a Plumbeous Vireo as well as the American Redstart that I reported a few weeks back. (I was really glad that he had gotten the latter, since Glenn and I were unable to get a photo of it—at least now we have someone to back up our ID.)

I was wandering around by the island looking for more warblers (and seeing a surprisingly large number of White-crowned Sparrows) when I saw the other birder again: he called me over, saying he'd gotten a Lazuli Bunting!

I LUST after Lazuli Buntings. They totally thrill me. And I can count my actual sightings of them on the fingers of one hand.

He had seen it in the island, just a few yards back from where I was looking. We looked into the foliage where it had been foraging, without any luck. While we were waiting (in vain) for it to return, I did get my first-of-the-year sighting of a bright male Western Tanager. Glenn phoned, saying he and the other photographers had located and photographed the Great Horned Owl fledglings. I told him about the Lazuli, and he was by my side on only minutes. And of course, the stupid bird was nowhere to be found.

We then returned to the hummingbird garden. Glenn said the hummingbirds had been scarce (probably because of the number of people looking for them), but there had been a lot of butterflies. Even better than an actual hummingbird was a very active hummingbird moth (officially, a White-lined Sphinx Hummingbird Moth) that was foraging on the same purple flowers as the small number of Anna's, Allen's/Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds in the area:

It was definitely the coolest bug I've seen in a while. While Glenn and the others chased after butterflies and hummers, I looked around for more birds: I got a male Bullock's Oriole and yet another Black-throated Gray. It's definitely a sign of how spoiled I am that I was actually getting tired of both birds.

And there's no excuse for that. The only solution is, of course, to get out and enjoy them while they're here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Friends Are Drips

An Oak Titmouse at Caspers Regional Park.

Our birding by ear class wrapped up two weeks ago, and it made me realize that I'm actually one of those students I totally hate: I always waited until the last possible minute to do my homework, did a half-assed job of it, and spent a dangerous portion of the class itself wondering about the American Idol results show I was missing.

My only consolation was that I wasn't the only one. During one of of last sessions, our fearless leader Sylvia Gallagher played a recording made at Caspers Regional Park a few years earlier, and asked us to write down all the birds we heard. Then she called on us, one by one, to guess at one of the birds.

"California Thrasher?"

"No, no Thrasher."

"American Robin?"



"No Bushtit."

"Yellow-rumped Warbler?"

"Are any of you even listening to the same tape as me?"

And this was my introduction to Caspers Regional Park, which we visited for ourselves for the first time last Saturday.

At first, it looked as though our birding foray would be about as successful as that class exercise. We found a pretty trail framed by oaks and wild cucumber, and heard endless Spotted Towhee and Oak Titmouse calls—but had a tough time actually seeing anything.

"We should have asked Sylvia where the good bird spots are here," Glenn said as we headed back towards the trailhead. "I wish we knew someone who could show us around."

As we descended the trail, the parking lot came into view and so did a figure wearing binoculars. He waved at us, and I realized it was another bird photographer we knew. And, he told us proudly, he was a regular visitor to Caspers and knew all the birds. Sometimes, wishes do come true!

We followed him around for the remainder of the afternoon, as he showed us his favorite spots—"drips" (slowly dripping spigots set up over makeshift birdbaths) set up around the park for the birds. Near one of them, we saw a pair of California Thrashers in a feeding ritual: the male feeding the female as part of their mating program:

At another, we parked our cars and conducted a stationary stakeout, with both Glenn and our friend perching their camera lenses on half-rolled-down windows. There, we saw our first Black-headed Grosbeak of the year:

We also saw flocks of active Acorn Woodpeckers, bright Orange-crowned Warblers (whose crowns were actually orange for a change), a pair of Bullock's Orioles, and singing Oak Titmice and House Wrens. We also saw a mysterious sludge-colored bird with matted feathers, which our friend IDed as a molting Phainopepla (the red eyes should have been a giveaway), and he also got a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Lazuli Bunting. Alas, I didn't catch this one.

We headed out as the sun started to set, and followed our friend's car back to the park entrance. It then occurred to me that since all we had done all day was follow unthinkingly after him, we had no idea where we had just come from, or how to find those places again.

And the thrill of the day was something that would be tough to explain to anyone but another birder: how sitting in a car by a dripping spigot for four hours could be so much freaking fun.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It's on the House

Yesterday was the first day of the term at the school where I teach, so I got to campus early to gear up for my two classes of the day. (Nothing makes waking up on Mondays easier than the prospect of lecturing for 4 straight hours! Ha ha.)

But the great thing about getting to campus early is that I get to check out the birds. At 8 a.m., even my busy urban campus is loud with birdsong: Cedar Waxwings, Bushtits, Yellow-rumped Warblers, random parrots I can't ID. My third-floor office overlooks a stand of jacaranda trees that top out at about the second story of my building. I often see flocks of birds flitting about, but they're too tiny and far off to ID. I'm tempted to bring in my spotting scope and set it up by my window, but everyone thinks I'm weird enough as it is.

By mid-afternoon, my lectures for the day were over, and I found myself, uncharacteristically, sitting in my office without any urgent work-related tasks. So I decided to take a break, surf the web, and see what I could learn about some of the more routine birds I see on campus.

And I was surprised by what I found: as I've found out in my birding by ear class, nothing is ever as obvious as one would think. Birds do things one wouldn't expect. And people who work with birds aren't who we think they are, either.

For instance, take the House Sparrow: as all birders know, it's a European import usually seen Stateside foraging for muffin crumbs outside of any Starbucks. (On campus, they're usually seen eating hamburger bun and tortilla chip crumbs outside the food courts.)

What I didn't know, however, was that the little junk-food-junkies weren't named for their predilection for human edifices, but for the 19th-century birder who first studied and formally identified them as a distinct species: Gregory House, a British surgeon and amateur naturalist.

House was an avid traveller and taxonomist with an obsessive eye for detail: during his North American travels, he drew numerous sketches of, and wrote extensive descriptions of, two other seemingly unremarkable birds that everyone else thought too boring to bother with: these birds are now known as the House Wren and House Finch.

Unfortunately, House suffered from chronic pain brought on by a leg injury suffered during the Crimean War. He died of an opium overdose--perhaps accidental, perhaps not--at the age of 54.

And today--House's birthday, April 1--seems like a perfect occasion to honor this unheralded champion of the common bird.