Birding on the side
June 30, 2021

Welcome back! As you may have noticed, the common theme of recent has been the re-exploration of the local mountain range through varied hours and lighting conditions, of landscapes from dawn to dusk, and any and all flora and fauna I could find. I have seen quite a variety of birds over these few trips, but missed out on pictures due to a lack of necessary patience, in part because of prioritizing landscape photography. So here goes a story, starting with sunrise.

I awoke really early, excited for this change of schedule from the previous evenings' outings. The plan was to look for birds, explore a new trail and photograph sunrise. I made it out to the mountain ridge, seeing the eager streams of ecstatic sunshine wash over the smooth contours in the valley. From behind this ridge, I set the tripod in the shadow of the peak, looking for just the right framing to be had in the darkness. The sun peaked its nose just a smidgen over the ridge, and I immediately realized that the spot I had chosen wasn't actually that interesting. Luckily a few steps to the right gave a better vantage point, and I even had a few more moments before the sun would peer over to look at that side of the valley. The warmth of the orange glow emanating from an infinitely graduated palette created a complex layering far in the distance, starkly contrasted against the shadow of the valley before me, as if to hint at the future I was about to experience.

And thus began the hike on a new trail, in search of birds (and mammals, reptiles and insects, but mostly birds). Maybe I was a bit rusty when it came to photographing birds, but it seemed particularly challenging this time around. The lighting was variable, and I kept getting stuck with backlit photographs (aka the birds kept relocating between me and the sun. On top of that, the flies were relentless; I couldn't decide whether they was more disruptive than my usual arch-nemesis: mosquitoes. On top of all of that, the desert heat picked up, and despite my best attempts to drink water, I was constantly dehydrating. The good news, however, is that my birding skills are still on point, and I ended up seeing a lot of old familiar birds, and even added three species for my life list. Of course, asking for them to sit still for a momentary portrait was too much to ask, but there's always next time to perfect it.

Here are two familiar faces: the acorn woodpecker and the western scrub-jay. Both species were socially grouped, with fledgelings and adults in the vicinity. Slower moving and more abundant, they offered me the equivalent of a warm-up round before the challenge started.

The small birds were next. A pygmy nuthatch, around four inches in length, sat atop a dead tree grinning at me, probably with the knowledge that it sat at the limit of my lens's reach. Below it was a gregarious conference of house wrens discussing what to do about me. They would hop in the safety of two neighboring bushes and occasionally approach, likely calculating if my presence was truly a threat. They were far closer than the minimum focusing distance of the lens, so I only managed to get a few pictures. A grosbeak, bluebird and towhee rounded out the small bird category, but all posed similar challenges in the ever shifting sunlight, shade and strict shadows.

And then I came across a few bushtit, little, grayish-brown and highly social birds. I imagine that their impeccably round heads illustrate what Charlie Brown would look like if he were a small chaparral-based bird. They fluttered through the twigs and brambles, popping up like a periscope, before diving down into the safety of the brush.

I didn't manage to finish the hike, as the ground temperatures rose to an unbearable degree beneath the sweltering sun with practically no wind nor shade. Red ant hills and poison ivy lined the edges of the dusty trail, as well as numerous intriguing flowers, but I had little energy at that point to photograph more. There were a few notable exceptions, but the photographs were more for documentation and identification than for actual presentation.

Last but not least, was an Airbus A319. Seeing jetliners here has always been fascinating because they appear at a unique angle. Usually, such aircrafts are clearly visible from the ground when on takeoff or final approach, which means they have extended flaps and lowered landing gear. Due to the high elevation of these mountains, they are visible in cruise, and not just from its underside. Part of the reason for this is the proximity to a VORTAC, a navigational aid located just a few miles away. Aircrafts use these beacons for long-distance navigation, and this particular one is a likely component of the flight plan vectors to the local airport.

Finally, there was a sunset to cap off the day. Similar to the sunrise, the sunset was painted with smooth gradations of pastels, this time in the blue-violet sector; the landscape just appeared that much softer and calmer after a long day beneath the harshness of the afternoon sun. Without any further delay, the last of the day's light disappeared making way for the night.

I'll surely be back for more. I have a few ideas on how to approach this area differently the next time around, and can't wait to give it another try. Here's the bird list, at least those that I could remember.

Acorn woodpeckerEuropean starling
American robinHouse wren
Ash-throated flycatcherMountain bluebird
Black-headed grosbeakPygmy nuthatch
Bullock's orioleSpotted towhee
BushtitTurkey vulture
California quailWestern bluebird
Dark-eyed juncoWestern scrub-jay