Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated¬† ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.

 

Bufflehead Ballet

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It’s on

The squads of Buffleheads visiting the bay are in full mating mode now. Neat, tiny ducks ‘hooking up’ or fending off rivals. Buffleheads are monogamous but young birds need to find a partner. They’ll try to steal one if there’s no other way. The activity out there is close to frantic. Everybody’s zooming around, the strikingly-patterned males and the more tastefully-garbed females. And there’s lots of splashing too. The tiny ducks don’t even notice the much larger Common Mergansers who cruise through the melee.

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Common Mergansers-where?

It’s all necessary, of course. Things have to happen now, or never. Soon, the Buffleheads will leave the coast and migrate into the interior. The females will rear their young in nesting holes originally made by Northern Flickers in trees on small streams and ponds sans Northern Pike, those notorious duckling eaters. For a time, they’ll stop being sea ducks and become freshwater ducks (that’s remarkable too if you think about it). I won’t see them again until the fall, likely on the same date as last year–October 15. Buffleheads are the most punctual of waterfowl.

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It’s how you look…

I should have more information about these charming little guys at my fingertips. I used to have a detailed monograph devoted to them, a surprise gift from my printer father years ago. Consistent with my life pattern of not needing something until after I’ve thrown it away, I got rid of it -reluctantly – a year or so ago. I’d carried ‘Buffleheads ‘ by Erskine around for decades even though it smelled rather strongly of the aquarium it fell into way back when. Plus its pages stuck together. It had to go. But now, I’m watching Buffleheads doing bobbing neck stretches, chasing each other in circles, flapping, displaying wing patterns and otherwise carrying on and, boy, I wish I still had that book. Sorry, Dad.

 

Bumper Birds

Now that I think about it, Bufflehead Bumper Boats might be a better title for this post. It’s the closest analogy I can think of. Males circle each other heads down, plowing through the water, raising the vertical crests on the back of their heads, show off the striking white patches on their wings, tearing around as fast as their little pink legs can drive them, bearing off just before the collision, like kids doing bumper boats. The myriad behavioural nuances obviously mean something. Erskine could have told me.

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Picking Up Speed

Amongst themselves there must be worlds of difference between participants but I can’t tell one of these little showboats from another. And which bird wins? A better black and white pattern might carry the day, or the intensity of the iridescent purple sheen on a male’s head, or good ‘cheeks’ and nape ruff, or maybe the whole package. I suspect nerve and aggression figures in big time.

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Any day now, they’ll be gone, off to their northern lakes and rivers and their nesting holes, not to return until October 15 when dozens will suddenly show up in the bay. I’ll miss the little guys, the smallest of the sea ducks.

 

The Heronry

I’m hoping for a Great Horned Owl this morning. I know several live in Beacon Hill Park but I’ll be darned if I can find them. Pity I’m not looking for Mallards, which are here in abundance. How long has it been since they made the Rare Bird list? A Eurasian Widgeon is grazing near one of the artificial channels and the American Black Duck that has wintered at Fountain Lake for the past few years is still around. A couple of female Hooded Mergansers cruise past, fishing for Pumpkinseeds, I guess. Nice birds but familiar.

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Eurasian Widgeon

It’s very still. There are few people around and I’m focussed on the trees looking in vain for owl shapes, my mind wandering. I suddenly remember the Hippopotamus poem by Patrick Barrington and it sticks, hard. I can remember some but not all. “I had a hippopotamus, I kept him in a shed; I fed him up on vitamins and vegetable bread...”¬† After that, there was a hippo “portrait done by a celebrity in chalks.” Oh, dear.

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Hooded Merganser

The guy’s landlady does the hippo in with a machine gun she borrows from “her soldier nephew Percy “- I’m sure of that. So sad. But what’s the rest? I’m really concentrating now, so much so that a horrific gurgling yawk! startles me — someone’s being strangled and shockingly close by too! It’s not that, of course, although it takes me a fraction of a second to realize this. A big ungainly bird flaps and climbs upwards through the dark branches of the cedar I’m under, and then another – Great Blue Herons on the move. It’s mating season and nests are being built. This will be the new heronry. I definitely do not want to be standing beneath a heronry and take my leave. When I finally get a view of the treetops, I see something for the first time – male Herons raising their crests. Wonderful. Even the quietest birding days offer us something marvellous.

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Position One

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The Finale

And, oh, yes…

“No longer now he gambols in the orchard in the spring; no longer do I lead him through the village on a string.

No longer in the mornings does the neighbourhood rejoice; to his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.”

And then it gets sadder.

Well, they don’t write ’em like that anymore…

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the light is just right…

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Good grief, snow again!

None of my target birds seem to want to make themselves available today. It’s cold again at Swan Lake. A chill east wind generated, they say, by La Nina (with a tilde) persists. Even today in March, when we should be counting blooms, we’re getting transient and unexpected snow squalls. Happily, they pass quickly but the sky stays overcast, threatening. In this weather, few people are out on the trails so it’s quiet. Nice. I like the solitude. It’s when I feel closest to nature, the closest I come to walking meditation. I take a number of shots of Anna’s Hummingbirds just because, and of a young Redtail watching the meadow. A proper photographer would probably have picked up on the quality of the light. Not me. I’m just hoping for the best. It’s when I’m home, and have uploaded the day’s ‘catch’ that I discover, once again, that it’s good to keeping shooting because, well, you never know. I couldn’t have gotten better views of the male’s fantastic gorget and head colours if I’d schemed and planned, or got the depth of field as right as I think I did.

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Redtail Hawk

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hosmer Grove

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Haleakala Morning

At 7000 feet on the slopes of Haleakala, it’s easy to forget the tropical heat at beach level. It’s cold and windy up here, so much so that we’ve had to drag out the winter jackets we wore to the airport in Victoria during the snowstorm. I could use my toque too (stocking cap for American readers). A few hardy campers take down their tiny tents and pack up. Europeans. Wearing shorts! Crikey!

 

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Eucalypts – Hosmer Grove

Happily, no noisy campers hike the trail through the eucalyptus forest. Nice to hear the wind soughing and the birds singing. Shaggy gum trees, the Eucalypts, exude a volatile resin, a perfume, and the air is scented with it. And the breeze carries another fragrance too – sandalwood. There is a single remaining Sandalwood tree here somewhere. We see movement in the canopy and strain for a glimpse of birdlife but, aside from a single flash of red, nothing. The trail isn’t long, half a mile at most. An overlook at the edge of a deep, brushy ravine is more productive. Finally, a bird shows itself – a House Finch, with a yellow face rather than the scarlet of lower elevations. It’s the first time I’ve seen this phase although I think it’s a fairly common variation on the theme. Left alone, introduced birds would, in time I suppose, evolve into new species – Maui’s versions of Darwin’s Finches perhaps.

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House Finch

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I’Iwi

The forest protects us from the wind, which is welcome, and the view is good. Another flash of red on the other side of the cut. I’m going to be limited to distance shots I reckon, not great with my hand-held camera – a Panasonic Lumix FZ200 with a converter.

I hear what I think are I’Iwi – a series of duck-like mini-quacks. For a few minutes, nothing, and then a blur of red in amongst the vermilion flowers of an ‘Ohi’a bush on the other side of a forested ravine, an endemic forest bird a last — my first I’Iwi. Other birds too – a bright green Amakihi, an olive-green Maui Creeper – nectar feeders like the I’Iwi. A half a dozen crimson and black Apanane flit about the bushy slopes too fast to photograph this morning. I like the name – Apanane – also a kind of honey creeper.

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‘Ohi’a Lehua flower

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Amakihi

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I’Iwi – nectar gathering