Friday, August 29, 2008

Definition of Insanity

I panted, gasping for breath in the muggy air. I could almost hear my legs screaming for mercy as I pressed on up the hill on my bike. And, of course, it was blazing hot. Why are you doing this to yourself? That evil little voice piped up in my head. I experimentally ran my tongue over my upper lip. Sweat. Lots of it. You know why, I countered.

The reason for torturing myself? A small, dark sandpiper; a Solitary Sandpiper, in other words. One had been hanging around recently in the San Diego Creek near the Irvine Civic Center, and it was a species I was keen to add to my Bigby list. Heavy-duty school starts up next week (gotta love the Junior year!), so today was just about my last chance to pedal after it. Too bad it was so hot...

After a rather pleasant but lengthy bike ride, I reached the San Diego Creek early this morning and began cruising along the bike trail that follows the creek. I intently scanned the creek bed for suspicious shorebirds as I pedaled along. I passed the Irvine Civic Center without seeing any sign of a Solitary Sandpiper. Hmm. I pulled a U-turn and retraced my path, more carefully scrutinizing all the hidden patches of water. Still no luck - the same Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and White-faced Ibises (or Ibii?) skittered through the shallow water, and my eyes skipped over them without pause. Well, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is close by. Maybe it hopped over there for a while. Worth a look, anyway.

I rolled into the sanctuary a few minutes later, unpacked my scope, and set out to check the first several ponds. Pond E was parched - the bone-dry bottom of the pond looked like a giant brown jigsaw puzzle, the earth was so cracked. Pond D, however, still had plenty of water. The first bird I laid my eyes upon was a small, dark sandpiper standing by itself in a corner of the pond. My "think like the bird" mode produced positive results for once!

After I had spent ten minutes admiring the bird, it took off towards the creek, calling as it dwindled into a black speck fleeing into the distance. Makes me glad I didn't dawdle ten more minutes on the ride down! I walked around other parts of San Joaquin, but found very little. By now, the sun was high in the sky, and it was ridiculously hot and humid. I grimaced as I thought of the ride home.

The ride home was every bit as awful as I had anticipated. It was not long before my shirt was soaked with sweat, and I could feel myself becoming dehydrated even though I frequently stopped to gulp mouthfuls of tepid water from my water bottle. When I finally rolled wearily into my garage in the early afternoon, I was more than ready to kick off my shoes, slurp down a frosty root beer float, and type "Solitary Sandpiper" into cell #214 of my Bigby list in Microsoft Excel.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Park

The park. That's not very informative at all, yet nearly everyone uses this expression. Normally, people use "the park" to refer to that little city park with a few dusty trees and large, sterile expanses of crab grass down the street.

However, "the park" that my family refers to is Irvine Regional Park. We are fortunate to live very close to this large and interesting park that is, as I have discovered, an excellent place for birding. Since it is only a mile away from my house, I frequently ride my bike over there for a few hours of birding in the morning. I did so this morning, cradling my new Nikon D80 in my arms as I sought out birds.

Irvine Regional Park is very lush, with tall trees and nice grassy areas kept alive only by a functioning sprinkler system. Exotic trees such as eucalyptus are ubiquitous, but there are also many native trees, such as oak, sycamore, and walnut. There are also large scrubby areas of the park that are left wild. This makes the park a very good spot for migrants and wintering birds. Skinny, lime-green acorns are already peaking out from the spiky leaves of the live oaks.

Hundreds of people clog the park on weekends - not good for birding. It is definitely a lovely spot for a picnic, but attempting to bird around dozens of family picnics is very difficult - screaming kids, barking dogs, and booming music all drown out the few birds that haven't been scared away by the crowds. However, go on a weekday, and you will only have to share the park with a handful of joggers (and maybe a few birders, too!). Occasionally, an interesting bird will drop in on the small lake in the center of the park. This morning, a lone Snowy Egret was loafing at the water's edge. I apparently looked mighty suspicious to it as I crawled on my belly towards it, because it flew off. I did snap off several photos of it, but they were all back lit. Just a secret - take a back lit photo, slap the title "artistic" on it, and hey! - you've got a good photo!

Other birds were plentiful. Several migrant species were in evidence - a lone Wilson's Warbler, a few Bullock's Orioles, and a cornucopia of Orange-crowned Warblers. I also noted a single male Belted Kingfisher rattling around the lake, one of the first I've seen this "fall".

Of course, I'm not interested in just the migrants passing through the park. I also enjoy watching and photographing the year-round residents of Irvine Regional Park. Irvine Regional Park is probably one of the most convenient spots in Orange County to find oak-associated species such as Acorn Woodpecker, Hutton's Vireo, and yep, you guessed it, Oak Titmouse. I spent several minutes stalking a gang of boisterous hatch-year American Robins frolicking in a shallow puddle on the pathway. The American Robin is one of the most familiar and widespread species in the East, yet here in Orange County they are surprisingly uncommon.

Perhaps the most conspicuous denizen of Irvine Regional Park is the Common Raven. Many of these striking birds hang around the park during the day, brazenly swiping food from garbage cans. At dusk, hundreds drift in to roost in the crowns of the towering sycamore trees. Ravens are certainly under appreciated by birders - they are amazing intelligent and clad very handsomely in glossy black.

One attribute of Irvine Regional Park that surely is not shared by many other parks is the spooky tower on the nearby hillside. Wrapped in an aura of mystery, it sits perched on the hill, seeming to fix the entire park with a sinister gaze. I've come to the conclusion that it is either the prison of some princess, or perhaps a drug warehouse, even though it closely resembles a decrepit farm silo...

I pedaled home around nine-thirty, satisfied with a nice morning of birding and photography at my local patch. There is nothing quite like wandering about Irvine Regional Park early on a sunny morning. The sky is blue, the golden glow of sunlight filters through the lush canopy of the trees, and birds are everywhere. What more could one ask for? Well, maybe some more migrants... I'm looking forward to seeing more migrants streaming through, as well as the return of the common wintering species. (The Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows that are so omnipresent during the winter arrive in less than a MONTH!)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Oh The Joy...

...of owning a Nikon D80! I spent much of my day yesterday wandering about in bliss, shooting away with my beloved new camera. The more I use it, the more I learn. I hunted up photo opportunities around the neighborhood and also at Irvine Regional Park. It is an absolute pleasure to use this camera! Enjoy!

Barn Owl at Irvine Regional Park.

Song Sparrow.

Fledgling Barn Swallow.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New Camera Technology

What good is that money doing sitting in my bank account? I mused. Why not spend it on something, like maybe a... camera! I quickly convinced myself that this was a good idea. I had been wanting to upgrade to a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) for a long time. And, I had almost enough money...

I settled on the Nikon D80 as my top choice. It's an excellent camera, and therefore carries an excellent price; I had to shell out thirteen hundred bucks (or rather, I had to shell out part of that total; I'm still working off the last couple hundred bucks) for the camera body, two lenses, and various accessories. One lens is a wimpy little 18-55 mm for general photography, and the other is a 70-300 mm for birds.

Late this afternoon the package finally came, courtesy of UPS. I excitedly tore open the box and began fiddling with the camera. It's in a completely different league from the little point and shoots I've used before. Naturally, I took it out on a test drive late this afternoon around the neighborhood. I LOVE it! It is rather complicated and feature-filled, but I'm working on getting to know it better.

Here are a few of my first Nikon D80 images:

Eucalyptus bark

Great-tailed Grackle

Ah, now this bizarre little gal. It's a female Pin-tailed Whydah, a species native in Africa. Lately I've been noticing several in the neighborhood, undoubtedly escapees from captivity.

I'm looking forward to doing more shooting with my new camera!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Loaded Down

Binoculars can reach only so far. I quickly realized this soon after I began birding, while squinting through binoculars at ducks bobbing around far out in the chilly water of the Detroit River. It was November 1999, and I was on my first official field trip with the Detroit Audubon Society. Other birders with scopes began reeling off the identifications: Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser. The scope-wielding birders were kind enough to let me use their scopes; I was so short at the time that my dad had to heft me up to the eyepiece so I could get a quick glimpse of the bird.

I've owned a scope for years, but it is difficult to go birding by bike with a scope. That's a problem - it is very tough to add shorebirds and seabirds to one's Bigby list when you can't have a scope along. Fortunately, I've come up with a solution.

I purchased a back rack for my bike, along with a set of pannier bags. I put my binoculars, lunch, maps, and other items in the bags, and then strap the tripod to the rack. My scope is too large to fit comfortably in one of the bags, so I toss it in my backpack. As a result, my bike is loaded down with gear, but it works!

This morning I set off early, determined to reach the beach and add some seabirds to my Bigby list. My route took me around the Upper Newport Bay loop, which turned out to be a good thing. As I was whizzing along, I heard the harsh calls of a Clapper Rail and then glimpsed it as it flew a few feet and then disappeared back into the marsh. These Clapper Rails are notoriously difficult to find, and I've missed them on my several other visits to the bay this year. Otherwise, there were very few birds at the bay.

I reached Little Corona City Beach around 9:30. I've always found the birding decent at this little rocky beach, and today did not disappoint. Immediately upon arrival, I spotted a Pelagic Cormorant sitting among other cormorants on a rock just offshore. Another new Bigby bird. I hurriedly set up my scope and began scanning the ocean. It didn't take long for me to spot a few Sooty Shearwaters buzzing the swells well offshore, and they were soon followed by a couple Black-vented Shearwaters. Both of these were new Bigby birds for me.

In my hurry to scan the offshore waters, I neglected to check the rocks below the overlook for shorebirds. When I did finally look down, I was delighted to see five Wandering Tattlers nonchalantly loafing on the rocks. Yet another new Bigby bird for me, and always a neat bird to see. I clambered over the rocks and was able to approach closely for photos (I could only fit three of the birds in the frame).

After loitering around a bit longer, I turned around and began the long journey home. I managed to get out of the crowded and confusing maze of streets in Corona del Mar unscathed, and soon was cruising back around Upper Newport Bay. I stopped to scan a flock of shorebirds feeding on a distant mudflat, and after much careful scrutiny, I picked out a single Red Knot. Another new Bigby bird for me, bringing the tally of new Bigby birds for the day to six.

The ride home was anything but fun - pedaling uphill for miles in oppressive heat is exhausting. It was worth it, though; I haven't added six species to my Bigby list in a single day since March. When I finally arrived home at 2:15, I was more than ready for a hearty snack and a cold shower. The six new Bigby birds I added today brought my total to two hundred thirteen. Not too crummy - I wonder how many more I can find before the year ends? With the help of my new scope-carrying technology, hopefully many more.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stealth Migrants

Years ago, as a fledgling birder, I assumed that May and September were just about the only times to see migrating birds. Sure, I vaguely knew about the migrant shorebirds in the summer, but I didn't fully appreciate that different birds are migrating year round. Even so, it is amazingly easy to miss the first few waves of migrants in the summer.

All birders (at least, I hope so) know that shorebirds migrate in the summer, when little else is happening in the birding world. Many birders do not realize precisely how early many of these shorebirds arrive; often, by June twentieth, the first fall migrants such as Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpipers begin to arrive.

The migrants that really slip through unnoticed, however, are the early migrating passerines. Many of these are birds that also breed locally, such as Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullock's Oriole. In late July, I began noticing more Black-headed Grosbeaks around the neighborhood than usual. A pair or two probably bred somewhere in the immediate area, so I didn't think too much of it. Then, on July 26th, I found nearly half a dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks, an Ash-throated Flycatcher, two Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Bullock's Oriole on a short birding jaunt around the neighborhood. Hmm. Something fishy was going on! I flipped through San Diego County Bird Atlas...

And guess what? They were probably migrants! This really opened my eyes, and since then I've been hearing Black-headed Grosbeaks out the window and the flight calls of Yellow Warblers overhead. "So what," some birders would say. "You've been seeing those birds all spring and summer."

Well, now that I realize that they are migrants, I look at them with a new light. Soon, I should begin seeing migrants that do not breed locally such as Western Tanagers and Wilson's Warblers. In the meantime, I will enjoy watching migration unfold!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Utter Exhaustion

Want to know how to completely exhaust yourself? Volunteer to help work Sea and Sage Audubon's Advanced Bird Camp. That's not all. You must awake early every morning and ride fifteen miles down to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (where the camp is), and perhaps ride fifteen grueling uphill miles back if you see a new species for your Bigby list. Thirty miles on a bike in a day isn't very far, but sandwiched between the ride down and the ride back are seven hours of tramping about San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and attempting to keep a bunch of hyper kids in order. Then, on Friday night, you foolishly stay up until one in the morning playing cards and trading jokes with campers on the clammy floor of the Audubon House. Am I complaining? No way. It was fun.

The days blended together into a blur of birds. Every morning we split up into groups and stomped around the marsh, seeking birds. On Monday I got very lucky - a Gull-billed Tern winged by as our group was headed back to the Duck Club late in the morning. A rather rare bird (though unusual numbers have shown up in the area this year), and a new Bigby bird for me. This meant I had to pedal home under a blazing sun, with only one water bottle to keep me going. How I lost my other bottle is a story in itself; all I will say is that it involved my clumsiness and a street drain.

Of course, the common birds of the marsh put on a show for the kids. Many of the kids were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. One morning we were treated to the sight of a rowdy juvenile Least Tern begging for food from its parent. The juvenile flew around the adult, screaming constantly, while the adult plunge dove for fish. Eventually the juvenile got his meal and spent a few minutes resting on the shoreline.

Shorebird migration was more than a little evident throughout the week. Big flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers (early on Friday morning I counted roughly one hundred and fifty in the first three ponds alone) congregated in the shallow areas of the ponds. Peeps weren't as numerous as dowitchers, though some Western and Least Sandpipers showed up. I finally saw my first juvenile Western Sandpipers of the year, true beauties clad in subtle tones of buff, brown, gray, and rufuous. A handful of Wilson's Phalaropes were present the entire week.

Of course, the campers were encouraged to look for not only birds but also plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and anything else that crossed their paths. As usual, I kept a sharp eye out for butterflies. I saw several Queens (Danaus gilippus), including this one that cooperated for the camera.

Bird walks were not the only activities that we did. We taught bird lessons to the kids inside the duck club, played bird games, and painted Red-breasted Merganser decoys (photo at top). It was great to see the kids so interested in the bird lessons. None of the kids were hardcore birders, but undoubtedly they now know far more about birds and the environment than the average kid nowadays.

Even now I battle to keep my eyelids from shutting. Was it worth it? Yup. Will I be doing it next year? Hopefully. Now my task is to find a comfortable spot for a quiet nap.