Sunday, May 3, 2009


Covington Park in Morongo Valley.

Every year my old college roommate and dear friend of 30+ years, Gloria, and I head out to one of our favorite places to see one of our favorite birds: Morongo Valley to see the Vermilion Flycatcher. For the last four years my goal has become more complicated. Now it is to get a clear picture of the male Vermilion Flycatcher with my zoom digital camera. This year her husband Steve joined us in our search for the Vermilion Flycatcher.

Male American Robin--Turdus migratorius foraging on the ground at Covington Park in Morongo Valley.

We decided to start in the place we always start--Covington Park. I especially wanted to go there before going to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve because the Vermilions are always at Covington Park. They are either near the tennis courts or near the playground. I wanted lots of time to try to get shots of the Vermilion Flycatchers. However, the first birds we saw were a pair of American Robins. I like American Robins. They are colorful, lively, and cute. They are full-figured birds, and at this point in my life I can relate to that. Time and hormones happen to us all.

Summer Tanager in a tree. The Vermilion Flycatcher is not the only red bird in the park.

As we watched the American Robins, suddenly there was a flash of red. We all simultaneously called out, "There he is!" He was on the chain-link fence surrounding the tennis court. Then down on the grass, up into the tree, and back onto the fence. I thought I had gotten a picture of the Vermilion Flycatcher. I switched from the viewfinder to the LCD screen to review my picture. (I never take pictures by looking at the LCD screen. It slows me down.) It was a red bird all right. However, the red bird on my LCD screen had a light, thick bill, not a thin, black bill, and no black through the eye. It was a Summer Tanager, not Vermilion Flycatcher. I like them, too, but I get a picture of one every year. I always think I get a good shot of the Vermilion, and then look at the picture, and it's a Summer Tanager.

Unfortunately, this is how all my Vermilion Flycatcher photos come out every year.

I cannot get my camera to focus on the brightly colored bird. It focuses on the trees or the fence, but not the Vermilion Flycatcher. It is a frustrating experience and I had hoped Gloria and Steve's pictures would come out better, but they didn't. If anyone knows the secret of taking good pictures of a Vermilion Flycatcher, let me know because it is driving me stark-raving bonkers. Every year I think I have it and every year I blow it.

Steve using his know-how to get a shot.

This year, Gloria is starting to learn about photography and her husband is already an experienced photographer, though not a wildlife photographer. Their equipment was better than mine for sure. Mine is a Kodak Easy Share Z812 IS, It has 8 megapixels and a 12x optical zoom with some digital zoom on top. It is a point and shoot with aspirations. The newer version has 24x optical zoom and 12 megapixels. Maybe next year.

Blurry Western Bluebird and blurry Vermilion Flycatcher.

My two problematic birds in one shot. The Western Bluebird--Sialia mexicana which I have had intermittent trouble shooting in the past, and the Vermilion Flycatcher which I always photograph as a red blur. I thought I had conquered the Western Bluebird, but on this trip, I was back to square one.

Western Tanager up in a eucalyptus tree.

There were Western Tanagers and Orioles in the Eucalyptus trees here just like there are just about everywhere. (There are Western Tanagers and Orioles in Huntington Central Park in the eucalyptus along the fence bordering the homes adjacent to the park near Shipley Nature Center.) In addition to Eucalyptus, Western Tanagers and Orioles also like Silk Oak trees which have similar flowers.

Photographer/birders with more fire power in their lenses than I have.

Sometimes I feel embarrassed as I go out with my wannabe SLR point-and-shoot camera and see the big ole hunking lenses and hoods these people have. Oh, well, I have what I can afford for now. I do get good shots with it, and Gloria said that there is a lot more I can do with it than I am doing. I have to read the manual. If all else fails.....well, you know the rest.

A Lawrence's Goldfinch way up in a tree. There were several in Covington.

Several Lawrence's Goldfinches were up in the trees in Covington Park. They are pretty little finches, and not ones we in the OC see every day.

American Robin couple on the grass together.

We stayed around the park area for a while taking pictures because there were so many great birds to see. The American Robins were foraging in the grass the whole time we were in Covington Park.

A semi-blurry picture of a female Vermilion Flycatcher.

I had a little success with the female Vermilion Flycatchers.

Looks like sapsucker holes in this tree, but we didn't see a sapsucker.

There was a tree that seemed to have circles of sapsucker holes. No sapsucker in evidence there that day at all. However, the bird checklist for Big Morongo Canyon Preserve Lists these sapsuckers:

Williamson's Sapsucker ..........Extremely rare or accidental spring and or fall transient.
Red-breasted Sapsucker........Uncommon, winter visitor.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.......Extremely rare or accidental winter visitor.
Red-naped Sapsucker.............Uncommon winter visitor.

Well, in winter, this appears to be the tree to stake out.

Last look at an American Robin--Turdus migratorius in Covington before we headed for the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Notice the sapsucker holes in this eucalyptus tree as well. Even the branch the American Robin--Turdus migratorius is sitting on has sapsucker holes.

A semi-decent shot of a female Vermilion Flycatcher.

We decided to head for the Host's bird feeder station at the entrance to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and crossed the park from the green grass and trees to a dry patch of grass.

Nice views of the hills. Saw some far away Turkey Vultures--Cathartes aura soaring as we walked., but can't see them in this picture.

We walked over the dry grass and the small parking lot, across the narrow street and down to the Morongo Host's trailer and their outside feeding station. There are a number of seats on the porch and in front of the feeder area. We each sat down in one of the cushioned chairs. They welcome birders and photographers here at the feeding station.

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker at a nectar feeder.

Hummingbirds of several species--Anna's, Black-chinned, and Costa's--buzzed around the nectar feeders. There were also Hooded Orioles, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and other birds drinking out of the nectar feeders.

Baby House Finch--Carpodacus mexicanus asks to be fed.

There were quite a few House Finches, and the male above was feeding a fledgling. It was quite sweet. At least to me.

Daddy obliges.

We were early enough that we had it mostly to ourselves. Focus was a major problem with the autofocus focusing on the trees in the background and other inappropriate subjects other than the birds. We all had the same issue. I took over a hundred shots and some turned out. It was so exciting to see so many species so close.

Lesser Goldfinch getting a drink out of the spigot.

There were Lesser Goldfinches at the thistle feeders and at the water drip.

Lesser Goldfinches feast on thistle seed.

Lesser Goldfinches are pretty little birds. This time of year it is common to see Lesser Goldfinches and American Goldfinches in Orange County. We saw two kinds of Goldfinches at Morongo--Lesser Goldfinches and the Lawrence's Goldfinches we saw at Covington Park. Not bad.

Two female hummingbirds share a feeder.

Several times lately I have seen female hummingbirds share a feeder. They seem to share feeders more often than the male hummingbirds. At least that seems to be what I am seeing.

Female Hooded Oriole has no hood and is more yellow than Orange.

Hooded Orioles are common at the Oriole feeders at the Station. The hummingbirds use the Oriole feeders, too. I find that at my house, too. I have an Oriole feeder, but have yet to see an Oriole feeding at the Oriole feeder. Just hummingbirds. Anna's Hummingbird--Calypte anna or Allen's Hummingbird---Selasphorus sasin.

A Male Hooded Oriole peeks out from behind an Oriole feeder.

The male and female Hooded Oriole are common at the feeders here, but still get comments. All the feeders are numbered so that people can call out the number and direct birders' attention to a feeder with an interesting bird. "Hooded Oriole on six!" And every head pivots to feeder number six. But it was pretty quiet now.

Male House Finch--Carpodacus mexicanus at the jelly feeder.

A jelly feeder filled with what looked like raspberry preserves was out on a platform and attracted lots of Orioles that I couldn't focus on and this House Finch that I finally got in focus. Jelly feeders are commonly put out to attract Orioles.

Male Ladderbacked Woodpecker--note the red head--hanging from a suet feeder.

People started to come and we decided to head out onto the trails.

Looking down the street from the feeder station.

The little street near the feeder station is a tree-lined desert country lane. Peaceful.

Beyond the kiosk--a reminder that there are wild animals out in Morongo.

As we walk out into the preserve, a reminder that there are wild animals here and small children do need to be supervised at all times. Mountain Lions are not the only animal on the prowl. See the Morongo list of animals here.

A fire a few years ago left this burned and broken tree.

A few years ago a fire swept through here and the charred remains are still here.

The paths into the oasis/wetland area are boardwalks.

One reason Morongo is such a draw for wildlife is the water. There are streams and wetland areas. This is an oasis in the midst of the desert and the boardwalks are here because the ground is sometimes soggy. Big Morongo Creek is here and other smaller streams. This a riparian area in the midst of a desert. Cottonwoods and willows abound and it is a perfect stopover and nesting place for birds. The cottonwoods provide lots of nesting material.

Steve walks down the path a ways to check things out.

The preserve covers 31,000 acres. You can follow trails of up to 11 miles. Check out the map of the trails here.

Townsend's Warbler gleaning insects off the tree.

Here in the riparian zone is a Townsend's Warbler. Many warblers find their way through Morongo in fall and spring. This little guy drew the attention of a group of people on a field trip, and he remained in the tree foraging after they moved on to see other birds.

A peaceful resting place in the wetlands.

There are some very green and restful areas within the preserve. It is like a green cocoon. A great place to rest and look for birds.

The benches in the greenery make nice sanctuaries. Good places to rest and think.

While we sat and chatted on and on about photography and birding, a Scrub Jay few into the tree above Steve's head and checked us out.

Very nice areas with small streams.

Another shot.

We come back out into the dry, desert landscape.

After walking among the greenery for a while and not seeing a lot of birds, we come out again into the dry grassy area. New growth was pushing up through the dry grass and plants.

The parking lot in the distance and the trees beyond mark Covington Park.

A lizard on the way back to the park.

Lots of lizards out here at Morongo. We walked through the kiosk with the Morongo literature and displays about the wildlife here and crossed the parking lot, the country lane, and then another parking lot. We crossed a dry field and tried to avoid getting foxtails in our shoes and socks. I had to pause when we got to the irrigated Covington Park grass to pluck foxtails out of my shoes and socks. I am a magnet for foxtails!

Back in the Covington Park, a tree full of mistletoe. Great berries for the birds including American Robins and Phainopeplas.

After the heat of the drier areas as we crossed from Morongo to Covington, it was nice to have the shade of the larger trees. The mistletoe growing in the trees provides food for birds including the Phainopepla and the American Robin. The Phainopepla (pronounced fay-no-PEHP-lah by Kevin McGowan at Cornell and every one else I know) is a year-round resident, and although we didn't see any this year, we have seen many here in the past. A very cool bird. Check it out on All About Birds: Phainopepla.

Time for another blurry shot of a male Vermilion Flycatcher.

We tried again to get more shots of the Vermilion Flycatcher. We were having no luck at all as far as photographs, but enjoyed watching the birds regardless.

The Covington Park marker and dedication with a blurry little Vermilion Flycatcher perched on top.

One last try, and then we headed out for lunch. Though not satisfied with our photographs of the Vermilion Flycatcher, we were all satisfied with the birds we'd seen out in Morongo. On the way back, Gloria looked at my camera and changed the focus to see if that would help. We'll see. As for the photographs of the Vermilion Flycatcher, next year at Morongo, we'll try again.

Morongo is about 1.5 hours away from Orange County. Take the 55 Newport Freeway north to the 91 East and head out to Riverside. Take the CA-60 E/I-215 S toward Indio.
Take the exit onto CA-60 E/I-215 S toward Indio. CA-60 E/Moreno Valley Fwy to Indio5.1 mi
Take the ramp onto I-10 E for a long way until you get to CA-62/Palms Hwy toward Yucca Valley/29 Palms. Drive a bit over 10 miles and turn right on Vale. Covington is where the street turns right. You can't miss it. Park on the left in front of the park. Park address is 11165 Vale DrMorongo Valley, CA 92256. There are outhouse bathrooms, but if the park buildings are open, go down the hall and there are civilized bathrooms there. There is no place to get food or drinks, so make sure you bring some. There are a few restaurants down 29 Palms Highway.

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