It’s the end of the year and circumstances have me sticking close to home — despite reports of rare birds in the area I’d like to see: a Glaucous Gull at Whiffen Spit Sooke, a Clay-colored Sparrow at Martindale, a Mountain Bluebird at Saanichton Spit. If they can hang in until next week, well, I’d appreciate the gesture. We’ll see.
Nice to think back on the past twelve months and some great birds, including the Least Grebes I saw in Texas, the Sauble Beach Piping Plovers, and the Point Pelee Blackburnian Warblers, to name a few. For those of us how count species seen (and I’m one), the ‘board’ resets on January 1st and the count starts anew. The Glaucous Gull at Whiffen Spit is at the top of my New Year list!
We saw some great birding locations in 2016 — the Cork Oak Forest near El Rocio in Spain, dripping wet but ringing with birdsong, rugged, breezy Cape St. Vincent in Portugal with its nesting Jackdaws and Black Redstarts, Skagit Marsh with its shorebirds, our own British Columbia mountains, marshes and shorelines. It’s fun to imagine what 2017 will bring. It’s still cold here. I might just check the Rare Bird report for Hawaii…
The Cork Oak Forest
Cape St. Vincent
Skagit Marsh with Mount Baker
It’s the day after Christmas and some of the tumult has died down. I take a quick walk around Turkey Head to see what birds are around. It’s still cool and a brisk southeaster keeps me moving, dodging the occasional, and unpredictable, jet of icy salt spray that fountains up along the rocky seawall. The surf doesn’t bother several groups of beautiful Harlequin Ducks of course, bright and showy on this generally grey afternoon.
I hear birds rather than see them. A few dozen chattering Bushtits parallel me but I spot only one. Tonight they’ll likely be holed up – literally – huddled together in a bunch for warmth like tiny, feathered mice. And then there’s the Anna’s Hummingbird that flashes by. When the temperature drops, so will its internal temperature. On a cold night like tonight, the bird will zone off into torpor as its heart beat slows to a minimum and it edges into hypothermia. They survive in this way, dropping their metabolic rate by 95 percent.
With the tide out, most of the seabirds are out working the chop. I hear Black-bellied Plovers and see small rafts of Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers. Black Oystercatchers are working the rocks in the bay. Common birds for us here but still remarkable.
The temperature hasn’t risen above zero and it’s snowing. Not much. At the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it’s enough to keep people home. I’m at Cattle Point in Victoria taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count. A small group this year, led by young Geoffrey, a talented birder. It’s only just light and he’s already spotted three owls — two Barred and a Great Horned. Amazing.
The Perilous Trail
It’s quiet. A somber day — a dusting of white and a leaden sky. We move back into the park to get out of the wind. Except for small flocks of noisy Robins, most birds are lying low. The visibility is lousy too. I never do see the Goldfinch somebody spots, immobile and invisible (to me) in a nearby birch. But red pops. Robins, Housefinches, an active Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, its chest gluey with sap from its wells, really stand out.
I took a course in colour theory once, the upshot of which was that every colour has a shape. I tried. I stared at various hues until my eyes crossed and that never sunk in. Now I try to figure out if there’s some sort of complimentary dealy going on. Red intensified by the green-blue light of the morning but, really, I have no idea. I like it the effect though. Scarlet rose hips and dark red haws on the thorns help too. What with snow and shades of red and green, it’s kind of Christmassy – nice.
An Arctic wind has set in from the northeast and I don’t feel much like travelling far. I’m too lazy – and cold. Someone spotted a Mountain Bluebird at Saanichton Spit yesterday but I’m not ambitious enough to hike out to look for it. Not on that exposed strip of sand anyway. Not today.
I take a stroll around Turkey Head instead. Uncommon birds drop into into the bay sometimes. Nothing but the usual Buffleheads and American Widgeon here this morning. Handsome birds even so. But then something more interesting – two Bald Eagles courting, riding the winds, looking to hook up – literally. I’ve seen this once before. A pair flies very high, link talons and spiral towards the ground. Occasionally, they don’t let go – a death spiral. I follow them as best I can, the male is calling, a Frankie Valli falsetto that doesn’t seem to match the bird at all.
Are they a pair? I have no way of knowing. My impression is that it’s not happening. Not yet at any rate. Apparently, Bald Eagles mate for life and ‘reconnect’ after a short northward migration. It’s hard to know what’s up with these two. Not elevation anyway. They’re not going super high as they would for the death spiral. Just chirping and riding the winds – having fun. Later I see a solitary eagle. Is this the unlucky suitor, or a lonesome bird waiting for its mate? I think he or she looks hopeful but maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing (gosh, what a word!).
I almost always think of the Tennyson poem, The Eagle, when I see the great birds. Of course, he was thinking of Golden Eagles, probably up in Scotland, not the fish loving, gull eating Bald Eagle. It doesn’t matter. It’s one of my favourite bird poems: He clasps the crag with crooked hands; close to the sun in lonely lands – and four more great lines.
Birds can become intoxicated on fermented berries. I remember a translation in a high school French class (or was it German?) about chickens getting drunk on overripe cherries — overdoing it on home brew kirsch. Not really a scientific source but then I’m no scientist so I’m prepared to accept it.
Certainly, the Cedar Waxwings and Robins up here on Observatory Hill are acting like they’re well into their cups. The Robins shoot me belligerent looks and pretend they run the place. A couple even faux buzz-bomb me. They obviously didn’t see the Peregrine that just overflew the mountain!
There must dozens of birds here and they’re goofing around big time, flitting from Arbutus to Arbutus, eating berries, chirping – loud. Their landings seem unsteady too. The Waxwings seem more sedate. Maybe they’re just at a different stage in the party. Most of them. There’s always the odd goofball, of course, who doesn’t know when to quit.
I’m out between squalls, following up reports of owl sightings–a Pygmy Owl on Observatory hill and a possible Snowy Owl at Panama Flats. Lately, my owl luck has been pitiful, even when I concentrate really, really hard. You’d expect some cooperation, but no. Still, it’s always worth a shot.
Time to Change Lodgings!
Panama Flats, a series of diked cattail-rimmed pools, resemble the real Panama not at all. Lots of waterfowl here though. I exit the car and most of them take to the air — Teal, Mallards, Widgeon, Pintails. It’s not me – I’m too far away. I suspect a hunting Peregrine but it’s a Bald Eagle that’s causing all the fuss, cruising the ponds like a diner at a buffet. A flock of Glaucous-winged Gulls is first up. Being an important food item for the Eagles, they can’t afford to linger. I’ve seen an eagle pick a gull out of the air.
Hmmm – tasty!
By the time I get to Observatory Hill, the rain is almost on me. It’s windy – and cold. A half dozen Ravens seem to welcome the prospect of the coming storm, cavorting and croaking, doing aerials, zooming past the dome covering the Observatory’s large telescope faster than I can focus on them. Using the wind.
Below me, the valley is in mist. To the south, someone burns slash–the blue smoke contrasting with the rising, steaming vapours. A maintenance guy comes to do leaf blowing. Jeepers! I can’t figure out the logic here — it’s a mountain top after all. The noise grates and the rain begins in earnest. Time to go. Not a darn owl anywhere anyway!
Smoke and Mist