Skagit Wildlife Area, Washington, with Mount Baker

It’s late afternoon, warm but not too warm. There’s even a hint of a breeze from the sea. I’m in the Skagit Wildlife Area looking for a Stilt Sandpiper, a rare bird here and a new one to add to my list. I’ve never been in this location before which makes the search more difficult. Plus the tide is in. Shorebirds like the Sandpiper can’t feed in these winding brackish channels when the water is high. I’ll have to depend on my luck. Funny thing is, I don’t really care, not on a jewel of a day like this. Not with a snow-capped volcano as a backdrop.


American Goldfinch -Peeved

An American Goldfinch decides I’m not enough of a threat to actually move off and parallels me as I walk. He stays a little ahead, taking short hops through the alders, slightly irritated, I think. Finally he shoots me a ‘can I not eat in peace?’ look and flips back behind me. I feel strangely apologetic. Goldfinches are common birds but no less spectacular for that, which is true for many of the little feathered miracles we see every day. Even our every day Robin is a very handsome bird.


Young Yellowlegs

A dozen Yellowlegs fly in and drop down a hundred feet away. Their calls, chiew, chiew, chiew, lead me to them, and to a small knot of birders  already set up for good viewing – a nice bunch of folks.  Yes, the Stilt Sandpiper was there until a Merlin, a small falcon, flew past, at which point the Sandpiper left in a hurry. I missed it by five minutes and never do find it. It’s the luck of the draw.


Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (Lesser on the Right)


Short-billed Dowitcher (dozing off)

The Yellowlegs – Greater and Lesser – come back, accompanied by a few Short-billed Dowitchers. Some are wary, ready to fly but others are sleepy. The big Tringa sandpipers are too big for the blindingly fast but relatively small Merlin. Not so, the Least Sandpipers I saw on my way in, heading in the opposite direction, making speed, like they’d fired up their afterburners. They’d better move, even motoring like they were, the Merlin can catch them.


Ready to Fly – Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitcher


Brewer’s Blackbird Swimming Hole

I finish the day at a slough where some of a thousand or more Brewer’s Blackbirds are bathing. Like all blackbirds, these are noisy, raucous almost. They squawk and splash, and preen, surprisingly childlike. Are they having fun? It’s hard not to think so. It’s been a long hot day and now it’s time for a swim. The chap in the foreground is just about to dive in, for the second time! It’s something we see over and over in our own, human swimming holes.


Mountain Birds


Mount Hood, July

Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood at 8:30 on a bright late July day. It’s warm up here, maybe 75 degrees, but skiers are already on the slopes of the volcano; one trudges past me towards the chair lift. I’m thinking – what, you’re going back up? But they’re all young and full of enthusiasm. It’s great. Me, I’m looking for birds. I pick my way over flower-strewn pumice, filling my shoes with grit at every step and wishing the management had thought to install a water fountain somewhere close.


Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge was used in the movie The Shining – the exteriors anyway. We stayed here once and the scariest thing I saw was the look on my wife’s face when she saw the bunk bed dormitory room I’d booked us into. No ‘redrum‘ written on any mirrors now.



The  day really is marvellous. Alpine flowers splash the slopes with vivid colour; chipmunks dash about stocking up their larders; mountain birds flash through the conifers. And the vistas – wow! I find all the birds I came for – Hermit Warblers with their bright yellow faces, sleek Townsend’s Solitaires, raucous Clark’s Nutcrackers and the beautiful stone-gray and azure Mountain Bluebirds.


Mountain Bluebird

I’m just about to start down the mountain when a chipmunk crosses my path. He pauses and I pause. For a few minutes we look at each other. I wondering how he can take the time off and I imagine he’s wondering what I did with my snowboard. Of course I may just be flattering myself, a side effect of the thin mountain air perhaps.


Chipmunk with a Question





Night Birds



Sunset Near Ocean Shores Beach

Dunes, the surf and birds. I’m in Ocean Shores, Washington-again. It’s the height of summer but it’s not busy here. I think OS is just far enough from Seattle and Portland that it doesn’t get overcrowded. My theory, anyway. It reminds me of Sauble Beach, near where I grew up, also stuck in a species of time warp-quite pleasant too.

I’ve picked up a couple of rare gulls on my way down here but mostly now, I want owls. I know a spot where both Barn Owls and a Western Screech Owl work the dunes at night, which means waiting until dusk. I won’t likely see the birds but I might hear them, which is good enough for me.

They have fires on the beach here at night. People drive on on the (generally) packed sand too but, mostly, they stay near the access roads so it’s not too bad. It’s a nice evening for a walk; the subdued thunder of the surf almost a companion. I walk for a mile or more; pass shattered sand dollars and crab carapaces by the dozen, but no birds other than gulls.


The Constant Surf

And then something remarkable happens. I spot a moving smudge at the tideline, which turns into a flock of Western Sandpipers. They are so busy feeding, they scarcely notice me, and soon a few hundred are scampering around my feet, like little mice. A car goes by and they take to the air. Now they are all around me, wheeling and crying – jeet, jeet, jeet– close enough I could reach out and touch some. Soon they settle again, invisible now in the darkness, and carry on feeding.


Shorebirds at Night

I head up into the dunes, following, as best I can, the deer and people trails through the Sea Grass and Seashore Lupin. The air is sweet with a faint overlay of beach fire wood smoke and the ozone tang of salt water. I’m about to give up on my quarry, to go in search of my dinner when I hear the baby dragon rasp of a hunting barn owl as it cruises the dunes on silent wings, looking for something to eat – like a fat vole. My mission is accomplished and I’m hungry too. Fresh vole – maybe not!


Sandpipers (What’s in a Name)

After five early morning attempts I finally spotted the Wandering Tattler on the Breakwater. I’m not complaining. The sea is flat and the days are warm. The Tattler is a sandpiper, one species in a large family. Like the Wandering Tattler, many have magical names, like characters in a book – Dowitcher, Whimbrel, Willet, Ruff, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Godwit, Stint, Red Knot, Yellowlegs. A children’s book, I think.


Wandering Tattler, Victoria, BC

I like their Latin names too. Calidris and Tringa are my favourites. Members of the Tringa family are lanky, like the Tattler. The Calidris folks tend to be shorter and  stockier, more sandpiper like. Red Knots, for example. Makes me think of stories in classical mythology-Calidris met Tringa in Poseidon’s garden one evening and incurred his wrath – that type of thing.


Red Knots and Friends, Ocean Shores, WA

And they migrate, often thousands of miles. The bird I saw this morning left the mountains of Alaska days ago. It’s just the beginning of the shorebird season and lots of them are showing up. Yesterday, ten Greater Yellowlegs and a Black-bellied Plover plunked down in the little bay near my home and frolicked. And why not?  After the sun set somewhere north of here, they lifted off and flew all night. Time for a morning bath and a bit of fun!  Is it my imagination or is there a bit of ‘do you mind?’ in the glance of this chap?


Greater Yellowlegs, Victoria, BC

The Yellowlegs and Plovers are in the first wave of sandpipers. Soon, I’ll be out in the autumn gales, plashing through marshes in my wellies, looking for more species, and always hoping something rare will drop in. A Siberian sandpiper would be nice.



The Hawk (or Youth)

Mid summer is the hinge in the birding year. The spring migration is long past and the fall migration has yet to begin, although a few birds do start south now. It’s hot. Foliage is thick. Birds are hard to spot and most aren’t singing. Nesting season is over and most nestlings have fledged and on their own. No guidance from mom and dad now. With almost zero experience, they’re out bumbling around trying to survive.



Sharp-Shinned Hawk – (body-double)

The young Sharp-shinned Hawk is a case in point. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sharpies are accipters, bird hawks, like their cousins the Cooper’s Hawk. Designed to fly at speed through the foliage, they have short broad wings and long tail. If you’re a songbird, these are the guys you fret about. And it’s not enough to find a twig and hunker down, protected by branches from attacks from above. I’ve seen accipters climb up almost monkey-like among the tree branches. Sparrow – be afraid, be very afraid!


Cooper’s Hawk – Juvenile

My young hawk is, however, comically inept. Diving into bushes right, left and center, he’s killed nothing. People are walking past him not five feet away. He doesn’t notice. He’s intent on catching a meal. He needs focus. Unfortunately, each attempt sends birds zooming in all directions like playing cards tossed away by a magician. Not only don’t they seem worried, it’s almost like they’re laughing at the newest murderer on the block. They don’t go very far. The Robin sits on a wire twenty feet away; two sparrows preen on a branch in a neighbouring tree. Worse still, the Rock Doves, AKA pigeons, drop down to pick up crumbs from the road.  Finally, the young hawk flies away, crestfallen. I’m on my way to a rowing lesson, so no camera. Hence the body-double!

We find very few dead juvenile Sharpies and mine will no doubt find success soon. He’s not the only juvenile no longer protected by his parents. Plenty of inexperienced recently fledged songbirds are making their debuts. It’s what the natural world is all about really – life, death, survival, which is probably why this Spotted Towhee looks so worried.


So, laugh while you can songbirds. With each failure, the young Sharpy is learning. When he’s mastered the ability to strike quickly and silently, he might come for you.