Sunday, January 29, 2012

Losing Dad

    When I was working in the Radiation Safety Office at USC, I walked over to help a marine biologist, with the improbable name of Jeb Fuhrman, who couldn't get the campus-wide computer network to update his inventory of radioactive chemicals.
     I said, "Hey, I'm going to stand here, right behind you, and watch.  You have the font set too small on your computer."
     He peered up at me through glasses that looked like a matching pair of magnifying lenses, and groused, "How old are you?"
     "Forty.  Why?"
     He swiveled away from me and said, "Yeah, that's when it happens."

     A couple of weeks later I was the proud owner of a set of prescription reading glasses.

     My father died when I was 22 months old.  I don't remember him.  I have a few things of his: his East German 35 mm film camera, a brass button from his Hungarian army uniform, his wedding ring from when he was married to my mom (it is now my wedding ring for being married to my wife), his cuff links, and his glasses.  Lately, through a miracle of heredity, I have been able to wear his glasses. 

     Wow, I'm wearing Dad's glasses.  And they work perfectly for my eyes. Interesting, how we like to wear somebody else's stuff: a kid wears his dad's coat, a wife wears her husband's shirt.  It really does make you feel closer to that other person.

     So, of course, this week I put the glasses on, and the frame broke.  It exploded.  It flew apart with a dry crunch that only 50 year old plastic can give.

    My first instinct was to keep them, anyway.  Logic prevailed, and after I snapped a picture, I threw them out.  What you don't see in this photo are the multiple small shards of plastic from when the frame exploded.  Still, the act of tossing my father's glasses into the kitchen trash can was painful.

     The same thing happens to Oskar Schell in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close".  The movie trailers and newspaper advertisements make it clear that this movie is about a kid who lost his father--played by Tom Hanks--on 9/11.  Despite knowing this, and knowing that the movie is about how young Oskar sets out on his journey to heal his soul by connecting with others who knew his father, I wanted to see what happens.  I wanted to see how the story unfolds.  I'm glad I went to see this movie. 

     I remember where I was when 9/11 happened.  I was married to my first wife, and it was two months since my mom had died.  I was getting ready to go to work, making coffee in the kitchen, while listening to the local NPR station, KPCC, which used to broadcast from the campus of Pasadena City Collge (hence the name KPCC).  They announced that a large plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  Well, that was weird.  I went into the living room, turned on the TV, and saw the second plane crash into the second tower.

     I could kiss the screenwriter, Eric Roth.  I hope they give him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.  He didn't make the movie unbearably saccharine e.g. a post-9/11 version of "Terms of Endearment".  The lady in the row behind me said to her husband, "This was intense."  Good description.  I'd like to know what all of the room-temperature IQ film critics out there were smoking when they wrote their scathing reviews of tis movie.  They're idiots.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Claremont: Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor
No wonder people hate California: It's January, and swallowtails are flying around.  I was surprised to see Pipevine Swallowtails in Claremont--let alone in January.
Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
American Robin, Turdus migratorius
Never was a bird more aptly named.  Its Hungarian name, Vándor Rigó, literally tranlates as "wandering thrush".

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
These guys are notoriously difficult to see--let alone photograph.  The reason for the trip, today, was the ultra-high tide that flushes them out of their hiding spots in the marshes.

Great Blue Herons

Long-legged Singer (left), Bearded Sosensky (center), Bucolic Benson (right)
Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

 Ferruginous Hawk, Buteo regalis
Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
Coyote, Canis latrans

Lapland Longspur (center) among Horned Larks

Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas

Oh, man!  I have been promising myself for 3 years that I am going to go see these guys.  They are a resident colony that was discovered in the San Gabriel River, 2 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean, in 2008.They are HUGE!  Seriously, they're humoungous.  The adults' head was around the size of an American football.  Csaba and Istvan saw their entire body.  The problem is that trying to photograph them when they momentarily surface for a gulp of air is like playing "wack a mole".  First, you see one surface here, so you focus your camera at that distance, and wait for him to come up in the same area, but he pops up over there, at a different distance, you that by the time you adjust your focus, he's down under, again.  We spent an hour not getting pictures i.e. taking pictures of the water surface, with the turtle gone. 
female American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Compare this little girl to the gigantic Gyrfalcon
Common Teal a.k.a. Eurasian Green-winged Teal
American scientists consider this and American Green-winged Teal to be two races of one species.  The American birds have a vertical white stripe, like the one on the left.  The Eurasian birds--like the one onthe right--have a horizontal stripe.  European scientists consider them to be two separate species.  Makes sense to me.

Thanks for finding the Common Teal, Istvan!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


This, ladies & gentlemen, is a Gyrfalcon: Falco rusticolis.  It showed up at a wildlife refuge in Riverside County, California.  Here's the crazy thing: just in case it is an escaped falconer's bird, they don't want us specifying where exactly the bird is hanging out.

I don't think the bird is an escapee from a falconer for multiple reasons:

1) It is a juvenile.  Juvenile Gyrfalcons are known for vagrancy. They show up much further south than the adults.  That said, this is ridiculously fr south for a Gyr.
2) It is a brown bird.  Gyrfalcons used for falconry are the white morph birds of the high arctic. For an intellectual exercise, I went on the internet to buy a Gyrflcon.  There are not a lot for sale, and they are very expensive. The odds of some dumb guy losing his $50,000 imature brown bird are absurd in totum.

3) The bird that showed up in Orange County was an adult white Gyrfalcon with a jess on its leg.  Enough said.  Click here to see photographs and read about that obvious escapee.

4) It's not wearing a jess, or other falconry equipment.

4) The length of the tail vs the wingtips.  A very knowledgeable bird expert (who I know, like, and respect) pointed out that the bird's primaries i.e. wingtips should be proportionately much shorter, when compared to the length of the tail.  This raises the suspicion that this falcon is a captive-bred hybrid of Gyrfalcon with some other species.  I think it just happens to have long wings i.e. there is probably a lot more naturally occuring variation than we are aware of.  Otherwise, the plumage looks good.

The constant clicking of camera shutters was deafening.
  Rough-legged Hawk
Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk perching on a thin branch.
Rough-legs are known for doing this, and are portrayed in this pose in many books.  Unlike other large hawks, they are light enough to do this.
Rough-legged Hawk
     Look closely at this hawk's legs: they are feathered all the way down to the toes, unlike other members of the genus Buteo.  This is because they live in the high north, where it is cold.  Eagles are essentially large hawks with feathered legs.  Gyrfalcons have this same oddity that separates them from other members of Falco. 
     DNA analysis has shown that falcons and hawks are not at all closely related.  Rather, they have arrived at the same hunting lifestyle through convergent evolution.  Unsurprisingly, falcons are related to parrots.

Western Meadowlark
Sturnella neglecta
Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolis) and American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
The Kestrel constantly harassed the Gyr.
That's like a Dachshund attacking a Pit Bull.
Note the size difference between North America's largest and smallest species of falcon, both in the genus Falco.  The species of kestrel found in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada is a different species from the bird simply called Kestrel in Eurasia.  Click here to see a beautiful close-up photo of an American Kestrel.  Click here to see a Eurasian Kestrel.
American Kestrels eat large insects like grasshoppers and dragonflies, and small birds like House Sparrows.  Gyrfalcons eat ducks and rabbits.
Lee Swanberg (left), retired teacher.
Lee and I have carried out winter bird censuses up in Mount Baldy's Ice House Canyon, together.

The smallest falcon I've ever seen is the Bat Falcon in the tropics. Yes, they eat bats.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Riverside County

So the wife tells me, "We're hiking Mount Rubidoux this weekend."
It turns out that the trail to the top of Mt Rubidoux is paved, and cars are not allowed.  Lots of people brought their dogs, including 4 different morons with Pit Bull Terriers (I hate pit bulls: I've x-rayed too many victims of their attacks).

Rock Wren Salpinctes obsoletus
Mount Rubidoux, Riverside
Canon T2/ with 70- 300mm zoom.  ISO 100/ 0.1 sec/5.6 f

Yeah, we're almost at the top!
On the trail.
It's 2 miles uphill, then a 1 mile trail back down to the parking lot.

My reward was that we went from Mt Rubidoux over to San Jacinto Wildlife Area. Didn't see either Rough-legged Hawk, but saw a Golden Eagle, 2 White-tailed Kites, tons of Red-tails, and at least 15 Ferruginous Hawks.

American Pipit Anthus rubescens
San Jacinto Wildlife Area
San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday the 13th, my ass.

     On the way to work I stopped at Chavez Ravine, down the road from Dodger Stadium (Goodbye Frank; don't let the door slap you on the ass). 

  Start walking north from the parking lot just north of the intersection of Academy Road and Stadium Way.  Keep walking north from the parking lot, staying on the 2 foot wide concrete drainage ditch.  The bird hangs out in the bare, leafless oak tree right here (where the blue balloon is on the Google map), the last tree before you get to the bathrooms a few hundred yards north of where you parked.

As you are leaving the parking lot, there is a traffic circle that is designed to help cars do a U-turn.  In the middle of this traffic circle there is a set of bushes that is very attractive to birds.  Multiple species of woodpeckers, sparrows, and warblers constantly flew in and out of these bushes. 
     On the way home, I stopped at Legg Lake, where I saw a male Wood Duck who was too far away to photograph, but missed the Tropical Kingbird, the male Eurasian Wigeon, the B&W Warbler, and of course, the D .B.Cooper of Icterids, the Rusty Blackbird.
I stepped in a lot of goose poop while searching among all of the Tricolored Blackbirds, Brewer's Blackbirds, and Great-tailed Grackles for that dang Rusty Blackbird—all to no avail. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012



We find the house on Stanley Lane, Chico, where a Blue Jay has been visiting the feeders.

CAVEAT: lots of laymen i.e. non-birders see jays that are blue in color, and call them Blue Jays. They are all wrong. Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata resides in the eastern half of North America. Some winters—and it’s pretty darn rare—one or two Blue Jays from Idaho or thereabouts show up in Northern California. The “normal” jays in California—also blue in color—are Steller’s Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri, Pinyon Jay, and Western Scrub Jay Aphelocoma californica. Non-birders get really mad at them, when I try to explain this to them.

So, the point is that it’s been 5 years since the last Blue Jay was seen in the state, and—darn—this one is an hour north of the F Duck. So we spent New Year’s Eve in a Motel 6 in Chico, with a bottle of champagne.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2 with 70-300 mm lens

Well, that was problematic. In our room I took the foil of the bottle neck, and discovered that Asti Moscato is not a sparkling wine, and that the bottle did not have the usual plastic champagne cork that you pull out with your bare hand. It had a real cork shoved in, that needed a corkscrew. That’s embarrassing: I bought a bottle of the same stuff for a co-worker, and told her to drink it with his wife at New Years.

No problem, let me get my German Bundeswehr army knife. Uh, oh. It doesn’t have a corkscrew. Apparently, the Germans don’t want their soldiers drinking while shooting guns. Oh, wait! I have my Swiss fireman’s rescue knife! Uh, oh. It doesn’t have a corkscrew. Apparently, the Swiss don’t want their firemen drinking while rescuing car crash victims.

At 10:30 p.m. we gave up on getting that stupid cork out (or in), and went to bed, and fell asleep before midnight. Wow, that was one wild New Year’s party.

So now it’s 8 in the morning, and we’re in some stranger’s back yard, waiting for a bird who should be on a Toronto baseball team’s hat. While we’re waiting for the bird to show up, we are admiring the local Yellow-billed Magpies—who only occur in California—nowhere else in the world. There are quite of number of Scrub Jays in the yard, taking peanuts from the bird feeder, and I notice that one of the Scrub Jays is vigorously chasing another jay. My instincts are right: the Scrub Jay is harassing the Blue Jay. The Blue Jay lands at the feeder, and perches in a perfect circle of golden morning sunlight. I push the button on my camera, and get the world’s blurriest photograph. That’s the second time that happened to me! We saw the last Blue Jay in California 5 years ago, when my son was a baby, and right when I pushed the button to take a picture, he grabbed the lens, and I missed the shot. I have a Blue Jay photo curse. So now we have to wait half an hour, until he shows up again, for another peanut.

10:00 a.m. Esquon Road

The other birders at Stanley Lane told us to drive out here for Trumpeter Swans. They didn’t tell us about the thousands of Tundra Swans. There are tens of thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese, and the Bald Eagle wasn’t too shabby.

Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis
Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2 with 70-300 mm lens

American Pipits, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows are all over the place, along with a few California Gulls, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeers, and some Long-billed Curlews. After hours and hours of staring at thousands of swans, we head south for Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

Large swan at the rear: Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator
Smaller swan in front of it: Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus


Digiscoped photos taken with Nikon 100 pocket camera through Brunton Spotting Scope

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus
Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2 with 70-300 mm lens



Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2 with 70-300 mm lens


Canon EOS Digital Rebel T2 with 70-300 mm lens

I walk up to the crowd—and I do mean crowd—of birders who are photographing the F Duck, who has decided to pose for us. Awesome. After searching in vain among the Buffleheads, Pintails, Cackling Geese, Snow and Ross’ Geese, Coots, White-faced Ibis, and American Wigeons for one of the reported eight Eurasian Wigeons, we never found a single one. Wow, that takes talent,


Man, we are HUUUUUNNNGGRY! We have been living off of dried figs, bananas, and roasted almonds, and it’s time for some real food. And some coffee. Look at that: Starbucks is across the street! Excellent


The sun is sinking fast. I can hardly see the keys on my keyboard, any more. We are flying south on the 5, doing 80 mph while playing a Led Zeppelin CD. We only have 250 more miles to go, and tons of stuff we haven’t talked about. No problem.