Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden

On a much needed escape, I headed out to California to find several birds to add to my life list.  Anytime you bird in California, you need to give yourself time to get to and from your destinations.  One of our treks would take us to Arcadia, home to the beautiful Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.  

Indian Peacock
We arrived early so that we would avoid the nasty traffic and also find ourselves a decent parking space before the masses arrived.  However, we didn't expect to find the Pasadena Audubon group getting ready for their Saturday morning bird walk! BONUS! So we joined our guide, the very funny Julia Ray and had a great morning out. 

As expected, the gardens were worth the visit. It's also a reliable area to find several birds that can't be found anywhere else!  In fact, we found both target species within the first 10 minutes of parking our car!  So our running joke was, "Found our target birds, time to go."  But it was just a joke. When you find your target birds right away, you can enjoy all the other birds at a relaxed pace.  The way it should be. 

Downy Woodpecker working on a his nesting hole
Another part of our trek to California was really to pay attention to the subspecies.  Rumor has it that some will be broken into their own species. Take for example this brightly colored "Coastal" Western Scrub-Jay.  The bird looks slightly different from Arizona's very own "Woodhouse's" subspecies.  It even acts differently and isn't as shy!

Western Scrub Jay(the Coastal Subspecies)
The garden is home to several watering holes full of varied vegetation which attracts a lot of incredible birds. 

A common winter bird for California is the Allen's Hummingbird.  Here, he sips the nectar from one of the many flowering plants at the park. 

Allen's Hummingbird
And the plants were just beginning to bloom. 

Our first targeted bird, the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, is a native to South America.  However, here in Los Angeles, the birds seem to be doing quite well. 

Yellow-chevroned Parakeet on a Silk Floss Tree
We had a high count around the garden.  These birds are not considered ABA countable and yet they have established themselves in the Los Angeles area. 

They were seen in great numbers around the Silk Floss trees.  We had a count of 26 birds in this location. Their numbers seem to be increasing just like our own Rosy-faced Lovebirds(in Phoenix) in these human created urban spaces.  Will it be ABA countable for those ABA listers in CA?  Only time will tell. 

So we continued further into the urban jungle searching for the Red-whiskered Bulbuls.  Our other exotic target species. 

And to be honest, it was all rather too easy:)  We found a healthy population on the garden grounds. 

Red-whiskered Bulbul
Again, we found evidence of nesting happening in the area. The birds were out calling in many different areas. They are native to southern Asia, Pakistan and Southern China. 

It's a lovely bird and one that I had never seen before.  For all of these new birds, all I had to do was listen for a different call.  With it being spring, we had no problem locating our birds. 

During courtship, the male will lower his head in a bow to the female.  The nest is built in the fork of a tree.  The adult pair may have 2-3 broods a year. Again this bird is not ABA countable in CA....yet. I think they are countable in Florida. I put the ABA part on now because I have several readers who are actually ABA listers.  My purpose in birding is to seek out new bird species(on the official list or not) and learn about them. 

And finally, we discovered an adorable nest of Bushtits.  They are cute little gray birds that often forage together in groups of 8-12 individuals. 

What beautiful views they have from their hanging nest!  

And for you trinket lovers out there, they have a shop with all kinds of knickknacks. They also have a coffee shop and small restaurant for a snack after your walk is done. 

Overall, we had a fabulous morning out.  I'd like to thank Julia Ray for showing us around this beautiful botanical garden. For more about the birds, click on our ebird checklist here. Until next time....

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Magic of Migration

Red-tailed Hawk
Just when it seems like you've run out of birds to find, there are more heading your way!  As each new season approaches, one set of birds leave while another arrives.

Peter Collins searches the skyway for hawks
In Arizona, migration truly begins with Peter Collins' Hawk Watch.  Every March, hundreds of hawks and vultures venture north from their wintering homes in Central America and Mexico.  Peter monitors a riparian area near the artsy village of Tubac each day. It's close to the US/Mexican border and it's a favorite place for the migrating birds to rest after a long day of flight. Hundreds of birders join him each week in the count as they watch Common Black Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Gray Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Zone-tailed Hawks and even one or two random and rare Short-tailed Hawks take flight!  They are often joined by thousands of Black and Turkey Vultures.  For me, this event says, "Spring has arrived."

Snowbirders amass and study hawk photos and flight patterns.  For many, it's their first time watching birds!
I like to join the group at least once a year and watch all the amazing hawks fly over our heads.  I pull my folding chair out from the trunk of my car and monitor the skies.  It's some of the easiest birding I've ever done.  Just sit and watch!

A pair of Common Black Hawks fly over my head.  The Cottonwood trees are in bloom sending cotton looking particles into the air giving it the appearance of snowflakes. 
Soon after the hawks arrive, other birds, like our Western warblers, begin to make their move North into the state of Arizona. 

An Olive Warbler calls
You realize that each season brings with it a new song. 

A male Olive Warbler
Each Spring, I find myself habitually returning to these spaces. Why?  I've seen the birds.  Why must I go and see them again?  And the closest answer I've found is that I quite simply miss them.  They make me happy.  For me, it's a different style of birding for these locations. I walk the trails alone listening for every sound while searching for movement among the vibrantly green new buds on trees and bushes. While I can travel to new lands and find life birds, these birds are different.  They are the ones I know best. My birds.  My friends. 

During a walk at Agua Caliente park, I subconsciously text my friend Kathie. The Lucy's Warblers have arrived and are singing while they are foraging for bugs on the mesquite trees. I forget that this is where I met Kathie for the first time and where I submitted my first ever ebird report.  It seems like so long ago. And I guess it was.  Five years ago, I was a birder nobody:)  Life certainly has changed! 

Lucy's Warbler
After the warblers start to trickle into our mountains and deserts, the shorebirds begin their migration.  Hummingbirds and Orioles all have begun their move.  Then the Tanagers arrive and so on and so forth.  With the arrival of spring migration, the landscape changes and brings with it hope. Renewal. And incredible bird song. I don't know about you, but I find myself having to relearn their calls again!

A Bell's Vireo flies from one tree to the next
From now until the end of May, Arizona birding starts to get exciting.  Which bird are you always happy to see return to your patch?  For my Grandma, it's the Orioles and Hummingbirds.  For me, it's the Nightjar and Owl family.  I love their calls on a hot summer night under the stars.  It's quite a magical experience. Here is a video on Birding Stereotypes created by talented birders Tommy D and Laurence Butler. There are really people like this out in the birding world! I thought it was a joke until I met my first "Hawks Hawks Hawks" guy.  Wow! Until next time......

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Birding Ethics

The singing Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
How far would you go to get "that" shot?  Apparently for some, they'll do anything including endangering a bird's life to get that branch-free, close-up picture of their subject.  When birding in large groups (or around others), you can pick out the various degrees of birder or photographer.

The Gilded Flicker at sunset
As most of us already know, birds, in general, are tricky to capture on camera.  So finding them posing perfectly out in the open can be a wonderful opportunity. Take for example this Gilded Flicker.  At Saguaro National Park, it tends to be skittish.  When I do find the birds here, they cling closely to the Ocotillo like in the pic above.  Sometimes, they can be very accommodating like the one we found in Scottsdale below. The bird just flew in and sat on the wall staring back at us. 

Naturally we chase birds.  Sometimes playback is used a couple times.  Sometimes we pish and hope for the best. On this evening, I pished and had a curious Black-throated Sparrow come and visit me. 

Black-throated Sparrow
So here's where my story begins.  Another birder was searching for the very tricky Long-eared Owl in Arizona. To cut the time and make use of our bird schedule, we had to join this walk. I was with a lister(a person who tries to add as many species of birds as they can onto a list.  In this case, his Arizona list.) I knew of several Long-eared Owls that were being seen in a location that required a bird walk. The only drawback?  Crowds of birders! 

Female Northern Shoveler
PS.  Arizona is amazing.  If you've never been here, you've got to come and bird.  You're going to love it!  Anyhow, everyone came to the Audubon lead Arivaca-Cienaga Boardwalk on a Saturday morning to see the Long-eared Owl.  As I had anticipated, there were nearly 30 people from all over the country on this trek.  All hoping to find the owl(s).  An internal groan happened on both our parts as large groups are not our thing. But sometimes you have to do them.  However, I will say that the group was a great bunch. Sometimes they can be very talkative!  If you're talking, you're not listening or watching for the birds:)

Snowbirds enjoy the varied landscapes of Arizona
I came once before to find these owls. This time, I wanted to see if I had looked in the right area.  And I had! So that little information made me happy and confirmed my investigative powers are increasing! BUT these owls are super tricky to find because they camouflage so well into the hackberry trees/bushes along the trail.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we couldn't stay for the entire walk and had to leave early.  This is something I should have told our guide before we got on the trails.  

This is the owl that everyone got to see during our walk.  Lots of branches!  But they aren't always inside the branches. 
The word "owl" makes people go crazy.  You don't even have to be a birder to love them.  Anyhow, our guide was excellent and a very nice person.  I didn't know him nor the visiting out-of-state birders.  But we understood our guide when he told us that he didn't want to disturb the owls roosting.  We all agreed to the rules and got our quick glances and quickly moved on.  It's what I would have asked my group if I had been leading a tour.  It's what I always do when I have several visitors coming into town to find owls. 

Sometimes they perch at your campsite in the evening!
Once we saw the owl, we did some more birding with the group. However, we had to take off soon afterwards because there were several other birds we had to find for the day. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to see everything before sundown.  While our guide was chatting with the group, we took off to stay on schedule.  I didn't want to interrupt the talk.  I had intended to email him that night and thank him for the wonderful job, etc.  

Peña Blanca Lake for the Rufous-capped Warbler

So we left to search for the Rufous-capped Warbler. Yet I felt an uneasiness in my stomach.  Not a good sign.  Then the unthinkable happened. I got word that rumors were spreading throughout the birding community that we had gone back to disturb the owls and get better photos.  My new lens has been getting a lot of attention which I hate.  They thought we were going to try for better photos.  And so did the guide!  If they knew me, they would have known better.  I am one of the most responsible birders out there. That night I sent emails out. More work for my carelessness! 

The next day I went out with my friend Cynthia to go birding. The ill rumors had still lingered and made me upset. Thankfully the guide wrote me back and we were able to clear up the misunderstandings.  So what did I learn? When in a group, I need tell the guide what our plan is before starting the trek.  From the guide's part, he apologized for assuming the worst. But honestly, I would have done the same thing. And thanks to my reputation, he discovered quickly that I was one of the "good" birders.  Your reputation is everything in the birding world.  The honor code is an unwritten book of rules that are known by all birders. Break a rule and you will quickly feel their wrath! Birders can be as ruthless as a Great Blue Heron filling up on a newly hatched nest of Red-winged Blackbirds!

And sometimes, when you least expect it, the bird will pose for you just like the Gilded Flicker did.  That's what's fun about birding.  Just be patient and it will happen. 
Like most things in life, it all comes down to communication.  Lesson learned.  I'm so used to being an independent birder that I forget how the whole group mentality works:)  And how about you?  Any similar stories or mishaps while on the birding trail with others? Until next time.....

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Much Needed Upgrade

Violet-crowned Hummingbird
As the birder inside of me has grown, so has the need for better pictures.  When you get your first camera, you think, "WOW!  How can it get any better than this?"  Then a better lens comes along......

Broad-billed Hummingbird
......or your eyes start searching for the details that are missing in your pics.  Last year around November, Nikon came out with their new 200-500 mm lens.  Word on the trails was that it was an awesome lens for a good price. The problem? The lens was on back order because it was so popular. 

There isn't anything more exciting than finding something rare and special out on the trails.  The feeling is only heightened when I am able to capture the bird feeding or doing something interesting.  The problem?  My camera wasn't capturing what I was observing anymore. All the cool behavioral stuff came out blurred.

Since Las Aventuras began 6 years ago, I have upgraded my camera gear 5 times.  I found myself taking landscape shots with my phone instead of using my camera. However, I did use the lens for close"r" bird photos. 

My former operation was a Nikon 70-300 mm lens.  And I will admit that I have had to be stealthier to get closer to my birds.  This has helped me now with my newer lens which extends my power to 200 mm more!!!  And that is a game changer!

During our Mexico trip, Gordon graciously let me try out the lens.  It is heavy and akin to lifting weights, but nothing my harness can't handle:)  When I snapped the lens onto my base, I instantly saw the quality of image increase. My eyes have to get used to tracking birds in flight with the new lens, but it takes time and practice.  Something I'm more than willing to do for a quality image.

All the photography rules still apply.  Better pics happen with the sun behind your back.  I now have to be careful about hitting others with the lens. People stop.  People look.  And people comment.  I honestly don't like the attention because I'm out there to find birds who generally don't like being around talking people.  While filming the Violet-crowned Hummingbird featured in today's post, I accidentally smacked my Canadian friend in the head. I heard her whisper, "Okay Rohrer..." I had a good chuckle.  Hey! It takes time to get used to the new weight and extension on the camera:)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Some of the hardest birds are the red ones.  When I bought the lens, they were the first ones I went after:) And the tests began!  The bright sun on a Vermilion Flycatcher or Northern Cardinal can make these birds "flare" and blur in the pic.  But this lens did a great job toning it down:)

Vermilion Flycatcher

As for the smaller birds?  Excellent.  I caught this really cool Orange-crowned Warbler taking a bath in a stream.  I was at a distance and did not distract the warbler in the activity.  This is what I'm most excited about presenting to you all now on this blog.  You'll be able to "observe" with me some of the really cool behaviors I see out in the field but can never capture properly.

Orange-crowned Warbler
The detail is everything. 

Arizona Woodpecker
For now, this lens has reanimated my work out in the field.  I love the work by National Geographic and strive to be that good.  Maybe I'll never make their ranks, but I will certainly try. The one thing I DO know.  Birds. 

Next week, we investigate a botanical garden in LA for some fun exotics and cross the ocean to search for a rare(for the US) Spotted Dove.

Bridled Titmouse

For now, I'll be taking part in the annual Hawk Watch in Tubac:)  Lots of fun starting up with migration.  Until next time....

Broad-billed Hummingbird