The Pleasure of Swamps


I think I’ve said before how much I like swamps and marshes. Bogs too. Incidentally, I can’t say the same about sewage treatment plants, which can be kind of marsh-like. Although these are often good places to find rare birds, one has to weigh the risks. By all means, avoid getting downwind of settling ponds when the breeze freshens (which is is definitely not the right word under the circumstances). By the way, I’ve seen ducks do things in sewage…well, I’d rather not say. I just might not order duck a’lorange anytime soon. But I digress.

Back to swamps. Magical things can happen in swamps. The early morning light can be wonderful. There’s usually wildlife. Normal people generally avoid swamps and bogs, which appeals to the hermit in me.

Today, I’m in a swamp looking for Virginia Rails, which I don’t really expect to see, so ‘looking‘ is a euphemism in this case. People rarely see Rails. Hearing one will be good enough.

Walking along a water-filled ditch, l  keep my ears peeled for kiddick, kiddick, kiddick calls, or swampy grunts, or marshy wheeps, the calls of the Virginia Rail. Nothing. My usual  luck with these guys.

But, really, what have I got to complain about? A clear morning, bird song, bunnies, solitude – compensations for not hearing this darn, secretive ‘skinny as a rail’ bird – again. The fledgling swallows are nice too.


I’ve paused and I’m listening. I’ve been watching birds in the air but I happen to glance down. Incredible. A Virginia Rail is in the long grass, almost at my feet, studying me. I had a similar experience in north-central Michigan with a rare Kirtland’s Warbler once. When this sort of things happens, it’s like winning a prize. In the morning light, the Rail glows chestnut, white, purple and orange –  a really beautiful little bird.


Naturally, when I bring my camera up to take a pic, the Rail vanishes. Fair enough. Then, to my amazement, two minutes later he’s back, after which he appears again, and again. I’m not hidden. I’m just not moving.

Rail2016june25The VR darts back and forth across the path. It’s a male. He’s working, carrying worms.  So, a man on a mission. And he’s calling too – kiddick-kiddick, grunt, wheep – softly. I’m now wondering if there’s a nesting female nearby and he’s feeding her. He is! A second VR stands on the verge. Fantastic – two Rails! The second must be the female. She looks both ways and edges back.


And now the really good part. Her partner wheeps from the other side of the path –  a nice little ‘it’s safe and don’t mind that goofy whatever it is standing there with the camera,’ watery sound. She makes a little ‘seep ‘ in response and out they come – the kids, just a few days old.  Four black, golf ball-sized fluff balls with bi-coloured bills, heading for the big water, which is the ditch.





The male appears once more, a quick look up the path. I hear the family move down the ditch and then silence. A couple of Eastern Cottontails show up for second breakfasts, and some California Quail do likewise. Feeding swallows zoom past.


I hear runners in the distance. They’re coming my way, talking loudly, galumphing. The spell is broken and the Rails will not reappear. Time for me to go anyway. I’m seizing up from standing motionless for thirty minutes or more and, I’ve just remembered, I haven’t  had my own breakfast yet.

The Wild Coast


Point Brown Jetty

I’ll say one thing for the west coast of Washington – it’s atmospheric. Well into May and many days are cool, windy and wet – still. Parts of them are anyway. Other parts are glorious.

Lots of  storm detritus too and even a shipwreck of sorts. It’s poetic. Lines from Arnold, Masefield, Tennyson spring to mind. Perhaps that old jingoist, Kipling. ‘Harp Song of the Dane Women’ – “What is a woman that you forsake her; line; and go to the the cold, grey widow-maker.” You get my drift.

Tide, storm, sunset, season, birth, death, renewal, and all that jazz. Still, it’s easy to get into a certain frame of mind, to begin to imagine how wild this coast once was, especially when Elk come down through the dunes to visit the sea. Years ago, an old timer told me that the Sasquatch used visit these beaches in the winter to harvest shellfish. I can just about believe it.


Roosevelt Elk


Lost Cargo


The Wreck of the Privateer



Red Knots (and friends)

The Red Knots, Plovers, Godwits, Dunlins and the other shorebirds passing through aren’t too concerned with poetry. Their lives are too short and purposeful, and the distances they travel from wintering ground to breeding ground too great. Some Knots travel from South America and back every year.These have probably come from southern Mexico and are on their way to Alaska. I doubt if they’ve heard of Kipling.



I’m kind of attached to Whimbrels and other members of the curlew tribe. One of my favorite boyhood books was ‘The Last of the Curlews’ by Fred Bosworth. It was also my first conservation book too. There were three Whimbrels at Bottle Beach when I was there. I took this picture just before a rain squall drove me under cover. The birds didn’t seem to mind the slanting, drenching rain one bit.


The Clouds Lift

And then, at the end of the day, comes the glorious part…






Like most birders, I have lots of pictures of empty branches or, alternately, of foreground branches in perfect focus and a fuzzy ball in the background that ought to be a warbler. Sometimes, however, you get lucky.



Blackburnian Warbler, Point Pelee, May 2016