Rare Birding: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California

I’m looking for a Slatey-backed Gull in Tacoma, in an industrial area, on the river, near the mill. The Rare Bird alert gives specific directions but there are hundreds of gulls here, Glaucous-winged, Western, Hybrids, etc. Not a Slatey-backed in sight.

Bird Noetz

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Rare Birds! I hear about a sighting and I go looking. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. And frustrating too – also like a treasure hunt. Half the time, I feel I’m on a futile quest, like the folks on TV looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Sasquatches, or Blackbeard’s hoard of gold and jewels. You know they’re not going to find anything and you know why.

Then there are those birds that everybody sees but you. In March, I spent three hours watching two piles of brush in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco for a Rustic Bunting — nothing. I didn’t have the courage to check the reports for the day because I know for a fact that somebody will have seen it five minutes after I gave up. At other times, a long wait is rewarded with the briefest of glimpses, as happened to me with a…

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Waddya mean I’m not rare!

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Beautiful Mendocino County, California. The target bird was a Brown Shrike, an Asian bird that had, for a time anyway, relocated to a creek mouth in California. As often happens, I went to the slightly wrong location first. The weather changed as I looked for the right spot and the day turned bright. If I’d got it right first time i may not have seen this chap. I was walking down a decommissioned road where the Shrike had been seen, Nice country, lots of Bluebirds. This Wrentit bounded out of the vegetation and  gave me a hard look. A tiny bird but his attitude was big, big. Later, i did see the Shrike eating bumblebees but the Wrentit made my day. Charisma plus. The punk haircut fits the personality — a little bird I’d like to meet again

Rare Birding: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California

Featured image

Rare Birds! I hear about a sighting and I go looking. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. And frustrating too – also like a treasure hunt. Half the time, I feel I’m on a futile quest, like the folks on TV looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Sasquatches, or Blackbeard’s hoard of gold and jewels. You know they’re not going to find anything and you know why.

Then there are those birds that everybody sees but you. In March, I spent three hours watching two piles of brush in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco for a Rustic Bunting — nothing. I didn’t have the courage to check the reports for the day because I know for a fact that somebody will have seen it five minutes after I gave up. At other times, a long wait is rewarded with the briefest of glimpses, as happened to me with a Brambling up on a mountain road near Issaquah, Washington.

“Don’t play me for a sap!” — that (or something like it) is Humphrey Bogart’s line in The Maltese Falcon, which, by the way, is another rare bird. More than one bird played me for a sap over the past year. That’s how I saw it at the time anyway. Cold, wind, rain, hunger, need for a washroom – and nothing nowhere. Need I say more.

Which brings me to method. You can spend a good deal of time watching an empty field, stretch of water or patch of brush when you don’t know exactly where is da boid. Boy, have I done this. Last winter, I spent several days watching a feeder for a Common Redpoll (a rare bird where I live), when the right feeder was a half a block away. Luckily, on one of these days, I happened to look up the street where a small knot of bino types were glassing some other poor soul’s back yard and clued in — I was watching the wrong back yard! You had to be there.

Which brings me to the best way to hone in on a rare bird. Find the birders who know where the little devil is hanging out and most of the work is done. This works, believe me. A good GPS helps too. Still, it’s a thrill when you find the bird when you’re all by yourself. I reported a Tropical Kingbird near Ocean Shores, Washington in October – a first sighting. That’s a kick.

Speaking of birders. The folks that find these treasures and report them, often with detailed directions as to where to find the little rascals deserve huge thanks. Such generosity.

On that note, I rely hugely on Rare bird alerts on eBird. Checking Washington Tweeters has helped me a lot and many thanks to the folk that post there. In California, I checked Calbirds. ABA posts are very helpful. Thanks to all.

Owl Story

Owls

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Saw Whet Owl
It’s treat when I see an owl. Most of them are strictly nocturnal and they fly on silent wings. People hear them call rather than see them. Owls also populate literature and mythology — witness Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s messenger owl. The ancient Greeks, among others, thought they were wise, partly because they had big eyes and stared knowingly. In fact, owls are, by all reports, rather dimwitted. Their eyes take up so much room in their skulls that there’s little room left for brain.

I’m had a few experiences with owls but one stands out. When I was young I worked as a keeper in a small zoo. I looked after all kinds of animals, including elephants, hippos and tigers. I also became the ‘bird keeper’. The zoo was respectable and connected with a university. We cared for many orphaned animals — I’ve hand-reared dozens of bears, raccoons, squirrels and foxes. I even raised a moose called Susie. Susie and I took
regular evening walks together.

The zoo also took in injured animals, many of which were too far gone to save, which is where the owl comes into this story. Someone brought in a Saw Whet Owl for treatment. Saw Whets are small, relatively tame owls that sometimes take up residence in garden sheds. The poor bird had flown across a road and collided with the side of the car. The good souls in the car hoped we could save it. Now, it was pretty obvious when we saw the bird that wasn’t going to happen but we said we would do our best.

The rescuers had the owl in a cardboard box and had wrapped it in a blue baby blanket with only its head showing. I believe the blanket had singing birds on it, which shows how sentimental people can be. I took box and bird to the aptly named Bird House where I set up a heat lamp. I also prepared some high-energy food. I would need to try to feed the owl if and when it revived enough to eat.

In the meantime, I had hungry birds to feed, including parrots (who treat complaining as a sport) so I had to leave. Anyway, I was also sure the Saw Whet wouldn’t last the hour. When I returned, the little owl was indeed dead, or so it seemed.

I sighed, reached into the box and picked up the little limp body ready to dispose of it. At my touch, the yellow eyes snapped open and the head leaned forward. The owl yawned and inhaled the tip of my little finger.

T.H. White, the author of ‘The Once and Future King’ also wrote a book about raising a Goshawk. He says about that bird that “the beak was not formidable, but in the talons there was death”. The same must be true of owls. The little beggar I was holding tore a groove in my pinkie and then flipped around, contorted, and nailed my thumb with its talons.

Now, I had heard that an owl’s fore and aft talons ‘locked’ on prey and couldn’t easily be released. I can attest to the truth of that assertion. I could not get that flippin’ owl to release my thumb and it bleeding hurt. The talons had found good, responsive nerves and the more I tried to ease the pressure, the deeper in went those rapier points.

I’m making a very long story out of it. I’d like to say that the owl survived and went back to the wild but, alas, it died soon after its last heroic effort. Some time later, with difficulty, I finally got my thumb out of that formidable grasp. I bandaged up finger and thumb, grabbed a quick meal. I still had to take Susie out for her evening walk.