Saturday, June 27, 2009

Life's Little Dramas

I haven't posted much lately because I haven't seen that much: by any objective measure, my birding over the past few weeks has been disappointing. Nothing makes me feel like more of a lame-o than submitting sighting lists to eBird that barely hit the double digits.

Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the few outings I had over the past few weeks. We may not have seen that many birds, but just about every one had a story.

While in Los Angeles, Glenn and I met up with one of Glenn's photographer friends at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. It's not a hugely birdy place, but it has a lot of very tame exotics, which make for great photos: peafowl preen only inches away from squealing toddlers, and colorful Red-whiskered Bulbuls perch conveniently on the tops of tiny manicured trees:

Even the wild birds there are extraordinarily tame. This Black-crowned Night-Heron was only a couple of feet away from me when I got this shot:

Glenn's friend, who has a membership to the Arboretum and visits it frequently, told us this Night Heron has devised a clever feeding technique: it waits for the local juvenile Homo sapiens to throw bread into the pond for the Mallards and Wood Ducks, perches on the shore near the floating bread, and waits for carp to come to the surface to take the bait...

A short trip to Bolsa Chica likewise yielded only the usual suspects. Happily, the usual suspects in the summer include lots of babies: fuzzy little Snowy Plovers, even tinier and cuter than their parents, skittered about like wind-up toys, and fledgling Least Terns squealed noisily for parental handouts. Just off the Wintersburg Channel, a pair of baby Black-necked Stilts were exploring their new digs:

Glenn decided to sleep in this morning, so I took a long walk through Canyon Park, through the south end of Talbert Nature Reserve, and down the Santa Ana River bike trail. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the ever-elusive Lazuli Bunting, but wasn't entirely surprised when it refused to materialize. Instead I heard several Yellow-breasted Chats and Blue Grosbeaks, and saw several Bullock's Orioles. Hovering over the river were flocks of dive-bombing Least Terns. On the mudflats in the river were several egrets and herons, including this immature Reddish Egret:

Glenn and I had seen Reddish Egrets here before in previous years; once, we saw two of them. Seeing an immature one in the same place a year later makes me wonder if they're breeding here now.

Every bird has a story—but some you can only guess at.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


What are you looking at?

Seneca famously said that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. Oprah says in just about every issue of her magazine that if you have a big goal, you should (1) understand what motivates you to pursue it, (2) break your big task into smaller, manageable ones, and (3) enlist the help of mentors/friends/allies.

With this sage advice in mind, I set off again on Saturday morning in pursuit of Lazuli Buntings. The opportunity was there: scads of them were reported at the Blue Jay Campground in Cleveland National Forest just days before. The preparation was in place: I know what they look like and sound like, and what kinds of habitats they like. And I know that this is the time of year when they're here. I know why I want to see them (just because), and what I needed to do to carry out my mission (download the directions to the campground and get my butt out of bed early enough to get there during prime birding hours.) And if there were any interesting birds in the area, there would likely be interesting birders besides Glenn and me, too. If the Lazulis were out there, chances are someone would be there to point them out to us. How could we lose?

The campground was apparently somewhere off the Ortega Highway, a beautiful but dizzyingly windy little road that clings to the upper ridges of the Santa Ana mountains. As we wound our way uphill and local drivers zipped around us on hairpin turns, I remembered why I had a somewhat dark mental image of the Ortega Highway: wasn't it known for lots of gruesome car crashes?

Now it was starting to rain, and all those CAUTION: ROCK SLIDE AREA signs were starting to look more ominous. According to Google Maps, the campground was 38 miles from our place. We had now gone about 45, and the road seemed to grow narrower and steeper as we progressed. Had we passed it? Was the entrance not marked? Our birding time was limited because of afternoon obligations, so we cut our losses, turned around, and stopped at Caspers Wilderness Park , a more than respectable spot for birds.

We stopped at the visitor's center, which has a pleasant outdoors area with numerous bird feeders. The center itself is becoming a new home for a colony of Cliff Swallows:

Further into the park, we relocated the drip which we had visited before. Last time, we had seen Orioles, Grosbreaks, and Phainopeplas there, just feet away from us. (And a birder friend we were with also saw a Lazuli Bunting, which we had missed.) But today, we mostly saw Acorn Woodpeckers: a family of there was nesting in a nearby tree, and they darted back and forth noisily with food for their babies. When not tending to the nest, they'd stop for a drink of water:

We wandered around the area and saw Oak Titmice, Western Scrub-Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, as well as a pair of screeching Red-shouldered Hawks. This was all quite pleasant—but still no Lazuli Buntings. And now our birding time for the weekend was over.

Seneca was obviously not a birder: There are some kinds of luck you just can't prepare for.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lazuli Blue

It's not a Lazuli Bunting. But it will do.

The first time I saw a Lazuli Bunting, I couldn't believe it was real.

Glenn and I were walking up a brush-lined path in Talbert Nature Reserve in Costa Mesa, looking for hummingbirds, when he said he saw "something blue" in the bushes. A Western Scrub-Jay? No, too small. A Western Bluebird? No, not that shade of blue. It was REALLY blue. And it had red and white on it too.

Then I saw it for a brief moment. It was blue. REALLY blue. An amazing, iridescent eyeball-searing aquamarine kind of blue. The only things I'd ever seen in that color were foil balloons and particularly swank East Los Angeles low-riders.

And now this color was on a tiny little bird in the wild mustard off the side of a local bike path. No effing way!

From that moment on, I lusted after Lazuli Buntings—and have been rewarded by perhaps one or two brief but wonderful sightings a year. And shortly after returning from Florida, a friend mentioned seeing "lots" of them on the Santiago Truck Trail near Modjeska Canyon. Lazulis don't occur in Florida, so they topped my list of Western birds to bag before returning to Florida in the fall—so I dragged Glenn up there and after an hour of dodging mountain bikers, saw not a one.

But they just had to be out there, somewhere. After all, Hamilton and Willick's canonical text on the birds of Orange County lists them as regular summer birds. And at nearby Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, where we have been spending lots of time as of late, one of the staffers told us that Lazulis had been seen regularly along the trail leading up the hillside. So we hiked up to the top, and got great looks at Phainopeplas, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and California Quail—but no Lazuli Buntings.

No matter—even though we didn't get the Lazulis, this was the closest and best look we ever had of Phainopeplas, and we saw several of them to boot. Very cool birds! As for the Lazulis, we'd just come back another day.

We did, and once on the top of the trail, it started raining. And still no Lazulis.

Back in the main part of the reserve, Glenn camped out by a set of feeders to photograph the Black-headed Grosbeaks and California Thrashers lingering in the area, while I wandered off in search of other more exotic creatures, including Lazulis. I came back half an hour later to find that he had seen and photographed a juvenile Lazuli Bunting—a sighting that surprised the staff, who had only seen the birds away from the main part of the reserve, up on the hillside!

And I had missed it.

There have to be more Lazuli Buntings out there somewhere. I don't want to go back to Florida without seeing one. So yesterday afternoon, I went back to Talbert, where I'd had most of my previous sightings. I just knew they were in there, and that I'd find them—how could anyone NOT see something that color?

But after three hours of watching singing Yellow-breasted Chats, and dive-bombing Caspian Terns, still no Lazulis. The closest I got were a number of singing Blue Grosbeaks. I also had an unexpected sighting of a male Red-breasted Merganser sitting on a sandbar in the Santa Ana River—I thought they only occurred here in the winter.

This was cool but it wasn't a Lazuli Bunting.

I didn't get one this week. Nor last week. Have no idea if I'll get one next week. But I want one. Bad.

Monday, June 1, 2009

You Can Go Home Again

Eew, gros!

The academic year ended at UF, and now I'm back in California for a brief working vacation before another round at the Gator Nation!

I figured things would be different when I got back: I can't vote here anymore, and when I found myself roped into giving another tour of the San Joaquin marsh on Saturday, I was dismayed to find that the tour started in a different building and followed a different path than before. But some changes were for the better: The docents' restroom in the Audubon House is no longer stuffed to the rafters with taxidermied birds (which required anyone using it to move a stuffed and mounted Great Blue Heron), and the number of summer Bat Walks has been increased from five to seven.

And the fundamentals of California life remain unchanged. I got back just in time for a 4.7 earthquake, the annual collapse of the state government, and a standard-issue off-year election full of ballot measures nobody understands.

Best of all, West Coast birds remain the same. I haven't had much time to bird since coming home—but when I finally got out this weekend, it was like meeting old friends again.

We spent both Saturday and Sunday at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon. It's a tiny little place, but we almost always find birds there we don't normally see in the flatlands of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. And this time was no exception. We saw several Lark Sparrows, a bird I haven't seen in ages:

Black-headed Grosbeaks have been lurking about everywhere as of late, but at Tucker, the generously stocked sunflower feeders brought them closer than I'd ever seen them, which allowed for great photos.

I also heard strangely familiar calls and scolds that reminded me of Florida—in particular, they reminded me of the crowd swarming around my front-yard feeder at sunset. Titmice! But of course, not the eastern Tufted Titmice, but Oak Titmice—which are just as feisty and sound almost the same:

Florida Scrub-Jays are rare and treasured; their western cousins are joyfully abundant at Tucker. Western Scrub-Jays are bold and noisy, but not as much so as their Florida counterparts:

We had such a good time watching the birds at Tucker on Saturday that we went back again on Sunday. And we were treated to good looks at Phainopeplas and a brief glimpse of a juvenile Lazuli Bunting.

More on that later!