Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sticky Post

This weather here makes everyone wet and sticky.

I should be having a whale of a time. I'm in a birding paradise, in a small and easy-to-navigate town where people actually drive sanely, and fall migration is in full swing, with the promise of dozens more lifers just outside the door. But most of the time the very idea of going outside repulses me.

Why? It's sticky here.

Not just slightly humid, the way it was in central Orange County for most of the summer. Not just a bit hot. I'm talking 90-degrees with 90% humidity sticky. Walk-to-the-mailbox-and-return-90-seconds-later-drenched-in-sweat sticky. And I don't even want to talk about how I must look to my students after walking across campus from my office to the lecture hall.

I am miserable, and everyone else around here looks dry, well-groomed and happy. "Welcome to Florida," they say sweetly whenever I mention the weather. "Don't worry, by November, it'll be really nice out."

Compounding the misery are the mosquitos. Yup, they exist back in the OC. But not in the mind-blowing density that they do here. And I am cursed with a taste mosquitos crave.

Last week, I came back from Palm Point Park with five ping-pong-ball-sized welts on my left arm. So when I set out with my local birding mentor today, I made a point of slathering myself with bug repellant. This worked for about an hour, until we hit the Bolen Bluff trail at Paynes Prairie State Park, a usually reliable spot to find migrating warblers.

We only got two—an American Redstart (these are common here), and an Ovenbird (a lifer for me). But I did see swarms of mosquitoes in concentrations previously unimaginable to me. OC birders are familiar with the swarms of non-biting gnats lingering over the front ponds at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Imagine those swarms at about twice that density, then turn them into aggressively buzzing and biting mosquitoes. In 90 degrees of nearly liquefied air.

There probably were tons of birds out there, but I was too itchy and panicked to see or hear most of them. (Besides, it's hard to hear any birds over the constant drone of mosquitoes.) I did hear something that I swore sounded like a Bell's Vireo, but perhaps I was subconsciously homesick for some nice, dry, coastal sage scrub, and thus hallucinating.

The other factor making birding such a sticky proposition are the large number of spiders, many of which build huge webs across trails, just at face level:

This is a Golden Silk Spider, and is just as big as it looks—its body is over an inch long. It gets its name from the yellow web it weaves, which is strong enough to catch birds. I accidentally walked through one such web yesterday, and found myself ensnared in sticky yellow strands with a thickness and texture somewhere between dental floss and Silly String. Thankfully, these spiders are not venomous, and not aggressive towards people—but the moment I got home, I threw my clothes into the hamper and jumped into the shower.

Despite all this, I managed to get a few lifers this weekend: White Ibises, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, and Eurasian Collared-Doves. I should be happy and grateful—and I am—but I'm also hot and itchy. And worried about contracting malaria. And sticky.

But some of the birders are going out again tomorrow morning to look for fall migrants, and have invited me along. And I'm going.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Storm Birds

Another new bird for me: A Red-bellied Woodpecker at Palm Point Park, by Newnans Lake.

Fay loomed psychically over Gainesville like an empty threat for most of the week, before dumping torrents of rain on Thursday and Friday. And I was soon to find out that around here, storm-blown pelagic birds are the silver lining to hurricane clouds.

Through a great site called, I contacted a local birding master who told me that Newnans Lake is THE place to be the day after a hurricane or tropical storm, and invited me to join him and several others to look for pelagics there on Friday morning.

But when Friday rolled around, rain was coming down in sheets, all the local schools and government offices were closed, and public-service announcements were warning of the dire consequences of "non-essential travel". I figured that there was no way they'd be going out on a day like this, and went back to bed.

That afternoon, I got an e-mail from him: he and the others had seen seven tern species, some phaloropes, and a Leach's Storm Petrel.

And I had wimped out. I blame it on my Southern California background: if you'd spent your life in a place where the tiniest hint of condensation becomes STORM WATCH 2008! in the local TV news, would you get up at 5 am to drive through unfamiliar rural roads through a tropical storm?

But--my new birding mentor's e-mail continued—they were going out again on Saturday. Could I join them then?

It was still raining on Saturday morning. But there was no way I was missing out.

Once there, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of birders with spotting scopes, all scanning the lake. A large flock of Black Terns drifted back and forth over the course of the morning. I also got three new tern species: Sooty, Common, and Sandwich Terns.

The other birders were thrilled with the influx of seafaring birds. I was thrilled by everything: The common resident Tri-colored Herons (a lifer for me) . The resident Bald Eagles (not new birds for me, but by no means routine, either). And the moss-filled oaks and cypress trees surrounding the lake were filled with noisy Red-bellied Woodpeckers and warblers--I got two new warblers as well, a Prothonotory Warbler and a Northern Parula.

Nobody could re-find the Leach's Storm Petrel seen the day before, but we did get another good bird: a Magnificent Frigatebird, which I miraculously managed to photograph, sort of:

This was so much fun, I decided to go back again on Sunday. The fact that someone had spotted a Jaeger on Saturday afternoon was all the more reason for a return trip.

The Jaeger was indeed there for most of Sunday morning, but it sadistically chose to stay on the opposite shore of the lake from us, far out of decent photo range. Through our spotting scopes, we could see that it was a solid dark brown (thus immature), and had wingtips that ended before its tail when it was resting on the water (which was most of the time). I think the others sort of decided it was a Parasitic Jaeger. Or a Pomarine. Or something...

This was Mystery Lifer #1 of the day. Mystery Lifer #2 was this hawk, who, according to the other birders looking at it, was either a very dark Broad-winged Hawk or a Short-tailed Hawk:

But I also got a few new birds I could ID definitively (or that were identified definitively for me by others): a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a Prairie Warbler, and an Anhinga. There were also lots of interesting new butterflies to wonder at:

I could not ask for a better weekend: 12 lifers in 48 hours, the company of pleasant and knowledgeable birders, and a great place to look for birds. And I was happy to find that, contrary to the warnings I've heard from local acquaintances, my birding adventures out here won't resemble a violent mashup of "Kingbird Highway" and "Deliverance" after all.

This could be good!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Stand By My Man

A short bit of family promotion here: my darling husband Glenn will be presenting some of his amazing photos at Sea and Sage Audubon's monthly meeting, coming up on September 19. Full details are on the front page of this month's Wandering Tattler.

(...Which is, of course, THE best possible name for a Audubon chapter newsletter--I pity future chapters who might have their choices reduced to "The Mourning Dove" or "The Brown Booby".)

Other OC photo gurus who will be presenting are Jim Gallagher and Steve Metildi—so Glenn will be in deservedly prestigious company.

If you're in the area, do go, enjoy the show, and show him your support. Because I'm out here in the swamp and I can't. :< (.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Mysterious East

There are birds in there, somewhere.!

On my first morning in Gainesville, I was awakened by unfamiliar squawks and chirps outside my window. Despite fatigue, jet lag, and the overall stress and misery of moving across the country via multiple connecting flights (a pox on US Airways..), one word jumped into my travel-weary little brain...


I stumbled across the room, fished out my binoculars, and threw open the sliding door leading from my room to a spacious second-story balcony. (Some friends of my sister generously allowed me to crash at their house until my apartment was ready.) Outside was a thick canopy of moss-covered trees, all noisy with birds and buzzing insects--none of which I could locate.

And I couldn't even guess at half the birds I heard. There was something that sounded like a chattering monkey (maybe some kind of oriole?); something that, honest to God, sounded like a tree-dwelling American Wigeon; a weird squeal that I later discovered was a Blue Jay (Florida Lifer #1), and the familiar song of a Northern Cardinal (Florida Lifer #2--since my Talbert Nature Reserve Cardinal was an escapee, he didn't count--but knowing his song definitely helped!)

I knew things would be different out here. The birds are only half of it.

A few random observations, and a few factoids shared by my hosts:

—It is surprisingly easy to find good bread and cheese in Gainesville.
—One is legally required to register one's car in Florida within ten days of moving here. However, the soonest appointment I could get with the DMV to do this is 11 days from now. WTF??
—There is a conspicuous preponderance of okra in all the supermarkets.
—Florida is a major grower and exporter of eggplant.
—Gainesville, according to my hairdresser back in Costa Mesa, is a major center for punk rock.
—It is also has a huge hippie subculture, thus lots of natural food stores with nice vegetables.
—However, the areas outside city limits are distinctly poor and rural, with a heavy Klan presence.
—Therefore, smart-ass "foreign" girls from the university, such as yours truly, are advised not to wander around the back roads outside city limits alone.
—Guess where all the good birding spots are around here?

This is pissing me off because there are tons of birds out here. Fall migration is in full swing here, and even as I write this, the woods on the edges of town are swarming with warblers and other goodies. I e-mailed the local Audubon society and told them I was new to town and looking for birding buddies (who might offer me a degree of protection as well as help with East Coast bird ID). I haven't heard back yet--maybe they don't like us fancy-pants outsiders either?

Oh, and just in time for my arrival in Florida comes the first tropical storm to hit Gainesville in four years. Fay is supposed to hit Gainesville tonight. I've been told (1) not to worry, and (2) to stock up on bottled water and matches. Oh goody.

Florida summer refreshment!

So my move here will not be, as I predicted, a trial by fire, but by wind and water.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Parting Shots

Today is my last full day in California, and the last day of my week-long birding "staycation". I've been spending every moment not dedicated to relocation-related bureaucracy out in the field, getting my last fix of Western birds. Knowing that I won't be back for a while makes even ordinary birds seem precious—which, of course, they have been all along.

On my last visit to Bolsa Chica, I was greeted by a huge swarm—"flock" doesn't seem like the right word—of peeps. They flew in formation, their collective mass constantly changing shape and density, for about 5 minutes before landing on a mudflat out in the distance. What made them decide to land there? And which of them made that decision for the group, and how?

There were the usual large number of herons, egrets, and cormorants. Here, some Double-crested Cormorants hit some interesting poses:

Monday was my self-designated Day of Decadence: a morning farewell visit to San Joaquin, followed by a huge bowl of spicy beef noodle soup at a Taiwanese hole-in-the-wall, followed by a massage and herbal bath at a spa in Mission Viejo (courtesy of a two-year-old gift certificate I finally got around to redeeming). At San Joaquin, there were shorebirds in abundance in the front ponds. The back areas were not so birdy, but butterflies were everywhere:

I've more or less made peace with the fact of my move, and have been started to look forward to it. But when I called up the Los Angeles Times this morning to cancel my subscription, I felt like crying. As always, I had to remind myself that this move is the right thing to do, professionally and personally, and the right option is rarely ever the easy and comfortable one.

Things I'll miss about So Cal: Bolsa Chica. Jacarandas in the spring. Steve Lopez. Townsend's Warblers in the winter. Real Chinese food. And of course, my family and friends—and most of all, Glenn, who will be staying behind for his job. Hell, I'll even miss Huell Howser.

Things I won't miss about So Cal: Earthquakes. SigAlerts. Overpriced real estate. USC.

And then there are all those Florida birds to look forward to—and I hope to continue writing about them once I get my new job and home under control. It could be fun.

Later, gator.

Monday, August 11, 2008

We Get Another Tern

We headed out to San Joaquin Marsh yesterday afternoon for a mellow afternoon of birding and some sunset photography, and instead got sucked into an adrenaline-fueled race around the ponds that landed us—the single photo above: one of two Black Terns we found flying around from pond to pond.

Glenn and another photographer were about 20 feet away from me, shooting the numerous Killdeer and Semipalmated Plovers in Pond C, while I scanned Pond D, trying to ID the dozens of peeps scrambling about. Suddenly, two dark, narrow-winged birds swooped down and circled the pond: Black Terns!

I called the guys over, and they both got good looks at the birds before they flew off towards the big ponds in the back. We were thrilled; this was a new bird for both of us, and one we weren't expecting to see.

"Which way did they go?" Glenn asked.

"That way," I said, pointing toward Pond 1.

"Let's go over there and see if we can find them."

The other photographer smiled. "Yeah, and they'll be sitting there waiting for you when you get there."

Common sense always loses out to the desire to see a new bird. And for Glenn, the desire to photograph one.

As we walked towards Pond 1, one of the terns flew overhead, squeaking loudly and swooping low over Pond B before flying back towards Pond 1. (I love how all the ponds at San Joaquin have such evocative names.) There, Glenn managed to get the shot posted above.

At Pond 1, we saw the Black Terns in the distance, diving and plucking prey delicately off the surface of the water. We raced around the pond, trying to find a better angle from which to photograph them. Then we saw them overhead again, flying over Pond 2. Then we ran around Pond 2, looking desperately for an opening on the shoreline from which to see them. Dozens of Black Skimmers, Caspian and Forster's Terns were hunting and loafing in both ponds, but no more Black Terns.

By now, the sun was starting to set and we were sweating from our race around the ponds. We returned to the front ponds, and watched the White-faced Ibises return for the evening, as they always do, and enjoyed the sight of the Black Skimmers gliding silently over the water as the resident peeps and plovers looked on. This was my last weekend in California, and my last sunset at San Joaquin, at least for a while. And I was both happy and sad to be there.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Photo School

Western Kingbirds at Talbert Nature Reserve.

My car has been shipped off to Florida, so on the days when Glenn goes up to LA for work, I'm without wheels. Monday was one such day, and I decided to do something I should have done a long time ago: figure out how to use my camera!

And being a total Luddite, it did indeed take me almost half the day to work my way through the manuals for both the lens and the camera body, and the rest of the day to read through Glenn's old copy of Arthur Morris's "Art of Bird Photography" while figuring out how his instructions for balancing film and shutter speed and aperture settings (all calibrated to different colors and sizes of birds in different environments) could be applied to my digital camera.

This was a productive use of a day at home. Now I finally know what all those buttons and dials on my camera are for, and if another photographer at Bolsa Chica or San Joaquin asks me what ISO I'm shooting at, I can tell him. I think.

Yesterday, I decided to go out early, do some heavy birding and practice applying my new knowledge. The good news is that I saw some great birds. The bad news is that my photos still suck.

I decided to stay close to home, and spend the morning at Talbert Nature Reserve, with a detour down to the Santa Ana River Mouth and up to Canyon Park. Upon entering Talbert, I got two good birds almost immediately: an Ash-throated Flycatcher, and a Wilson's Warbler, the first I've seen since spring. Unfortunately, both moved too quickly for me to photograph.

I got to the bike path along the Santa Ana River at low tide, and flocks of Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers were feeding on the mudflats. I don't think I've ever seen so many Semipalmated Plovers together in one place before:

Further down the river were a group of hunting Double-crested Cormorants. I managed to get a mid-flight shot of one that was actually in focus:

My best bird (and worst photo subject) of the day was a Clapper Rail preening itself in by the reeds in the Banning Ranch marsh. The bird was pretty far away, and because of its preening, was taking on some decidedly non-photogenic poses. Pathetically enough, this was my best shot:

Get the clap at Banning Ranch!

Back at Talbert, I spotted the two juvenile Cooper's Hawks who had been hanging around the front of the reserve all summer. A couple of young Cooper's Hawks frequented the area last summer as well; I'm pretty sure they nest there. A Red-tailed Hawk drifted by, gliding slowly overhead with the sun shining through its wings. I thought this would make a nice shot, so I tried to remember everything all the manuals said: Get the autofocus at the right setting, then set the focus on something about the same distance away as the moving object you're shooting at, then get said object in your viewfinder and shoot. And voila!

Who says nature blogs have to be uplifting and inspirational?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

An Unstinting Quest

This is not a Red-necked Stint.

My penultimate weekend in California was a long-planned visit to San Diego, where we planned to spend some time with my sister, brother-in-law, and cute little baby nephew—as well as with some southerly bird specialties that never quite make it up to Orange County.

We visit my San Diego sister often, and our weekend ritual generally goes like this: (1) Get up at 5:30 on Saturday morning, throw our stuff in the car, and head out for some morning birding, (2) Bird frenetically from about 8 a.m. to about 2 or 3, (3) Stop for fish tacos before heading to my sister's place, (4) Enjoy an afternoon and long night of gossip, food, wine, movies on DVD, and playtime with a two-year-old with a foot fetish and the world's longest eyelashes.

This week's trip was no different, except for three things: First, it would be my last visit in a long time; and second, there was the possibility of finding the Red-necked Stint that had been lingering off Coronado Island for most of last week. And third, the stress of my imminent move had turned me into a panicked, sleep-deprived wreck in desperate need of respite. I wanted to see that Stint, doggone it, and I was determined to have fun—FUN!-even if it killed me.

We had a few target birds in mind besides the Staint—the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in Imperial Valley, and the Little Blue Herons in the San Diego River. So we decided to start with the Night-Herons—at the most southerly of our target spots—and work our way north back to my sister's place. Following Neil Gilbert's recent communique, we set out for Imperial Valley Sports Park, where the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been nesting as of late. We were pleased to find that it was directly adjacent to one of our favorite San Diego birding spots, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. We had seen the Night-Herons nesting in trees in a nearby apartment complex a couple of years ago, so it wasn't too surprising to see them here.

In the park, we saw a Cooper's Hawk trying to chase off a group of crows, and the gregarious groundskeeper pointed out the tree where the Night-Herons had been nesting. Only seconds later, one flew into the tree and posed for us for a couple of minutes before flying off towards the reserve.

At the reserve, we found yet another Yellow-crowned Night-Heron—this one, a younger bird with less developed plumage than the first—feeding in the estuary waters:

We've always found the reserve to be a reliable place to find Clapper Rails, and this time was no exception: we heard dozens clicking away in the reeds, and saw several others poking around by the waterline:

Apart from these birds and a few of the other usual suspects, the reserve was uncharacteristically quiet. So we were off to find the Stint, armed with this map, courtesy of CalBirds.

We found the spot easily, but also found it depressingly devoid of people with spotting scopes and binoculars. The tide was up, and only a few water birds—such as about a half dozen Surf Scoters, which surprised me—were in evidence.

This was a bummer, but there were still other places to check out for fun stuff. So we headed to La Jolla Cove, where Glenn got his first-ever view of an American Oystercatcher last year.

Going to a scenic beach for birds at noon on a summer weekend is a bad idea. It was wall-to-wall people, and any bird that might have chosen to be there had sensibly fled for quieter digs. All we saw were a few Rock Pigeons and European Starlings.

Things were beginning to suck. My last birding weekend in San Diego, and I could count the number of species I've seen on my fingers.

"Do you want to head back to your sister's place?" Glenn asked.

"NO!" I practically screamed. Much as I love hanging with my sister, the idea of spending my second-to-last-ever Saturday afternoon in California sitting indoors watching the Food Network (the usual afternoon activity at her place) just seemed too depressing. I needed to be outside, and I needed more birds.

So we headed on to our other favorite spot—the mouth of the San Diego River, just across from Sea World—where we have always had good luck finding Little Blue Herons. We found them, as usual, but they sadistically decided to stay on the opposite side of the river from us, alternately dozing and standing around lethargically:

Almost no other birds were in evidence. A Northern Mockingbird. A stray Mallard. A single Pied-billed Grebe. We had gotten most of our specialties, but apart from that, it was a conspicuously birdless day.

By then, it was almost 2:30 and we decided to call it quits. We had our customary fish tacos (yum!) and spent the afternoon playing with our little nephew and watching (and making fun of) the Food Network. Then, we feasted on huge hamburgers grilled up by my brother-in-law, then ate s'mores made from homemade marshmallows and graham crackers (which I made and brought along) while watching "Into the Wild" on DVD. The film reminded me that nature is beautiful, but does not always give up her secrets easily, or benevolently.

And I was finally happy. I didn't get all of the birds I wanted, nor as many as I wanted. But it beat the heck out of my weekday activities of playing phone-tag with the company shipping my car and the leasing office at that apartment in Gainesville that I will be moving into sight unseen. And I got to spend quality time with my sister, very cool BIL, and the cutest toddler in the world. And see a few unusual birds.

It would be greedy to want anything more than that.