Two Weeks Back

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Paper Birch

I’m not sure when I’ll ever be in these woods again, walking the once familiar nature trails near my boyhood home. I’m a stranger here now, with fewer reasons to visit. I learned years ago not to expect spring proper until May. Sure enough, we get a snow shower this morning, passing quickly but leaving cold, breezy, damp weather in its wake. I head for Hibou on the shore of Georgian Bay since the path into Bognar Marsh, my other favourite place, is too muddy for a traveller without boots.

Hibou’s nice too. I soon discover that I’m the only person here. Perfect. The landscape is partially flooded and it’s hard to tell where the beaver pond ends and the rest of the forest begins. I hear the sharp warning slap of a beaver’s tail and spot the lodge. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drums a solo on a snag, hoping to attract a mate. Two pair of Redheads cruise the shoreline. The first of the warblers have arrived – Myrtles, usually the earliest to return, and they are singing too. Cold and damp or not, there’s almost never a bad time to be in the natural world.

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The Beaver Pond

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Redheads

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Myrtle Warbler

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

 

 

 

King Eiders and Red-necked Grebes

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Red-necked Grebe

I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.

Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it is spring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.

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Tree Swallow

I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dances of the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.

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Courting Grebes

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Horned Grebe

Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.

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Aransas Memory

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Aransas Coyote

I visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in November of 2014 and saw Whooping Cranes for the first time. I subsequently wrote an article based on my visit – published in Hakai Magazine in 2015. I had hoped to see the birds last November when I was again at Aransas. Since I didn’t take a boat tour, which is the only sure way to view the birds, my expectations were low. Good job, because I saw not a single one of the 300 or so individuals parading about somewhere in these precious marshes – a reminder of how few Whoopers there are in the world. Still, Aransas is a wonderful place, with a variety of wildlife everywhere – Spoonbills, Ibis, Caracara, White-tailed Hawk, and much more. Lots and lots to see.

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Black Skimmers

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Feral Pig

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Long-billed Curlew

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Crested Caracara

As for the cranes, not much has changed. It’s still a precarious existence for these magnificent birds. Loss of habitat at either end of the migration, or a catastrophic event en route, could eliminate the species. More environmental protection is needed, not less. My article, originally titled Whooping Cranes vs Big Oil follows.

Whooping Cranes Vs Big Oil (Hakai, April 23, 2015)

I’m on a boat in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas viewing whooping cranes on their wintering grounds. They come for the blue crab that abounds in these muddy, cordgrass flats. Many forage in family groups—two white, red-capped adults and a fawn-coloured juvenile. True to their name, the “whoopers” are noisy, trumpeting and dancing to intimidate rivals or strengthen pair bonds.

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Whooping Cranes ‘Dancing’

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Whooping Cranes – On Territory

I’m delighted to see the birds at last. They belong to the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock, numbering about 300—the entire free population of the tallest bird in North America. The dozen I’ll see today, on this side trip from Harlingen and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, are my first, but I’ve followed their story since my boyhood in the 1960s. Then, fewer than 50 existed and their survival seemed doubtful.

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Crabbing

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‘Whooping’

Conserving the cranes is an ongoing challenge. They nest in remote Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winter in southern Texas—4,000 kilometers each way. Females lay two eggs but only one chick usually survives—the weaker is killed by its sibling or a predator. Ironically, the surplus chicks helped save the cranes. Scientists gathered and hatched “extra” eggs and slowly rebuilt the flock. The International Crane Foundation uses a variation of that method today in efforts to build a second flock. ICF volunteers dress as adult cranes to ensure chicks bond with other whoopers and use ultra-light aircraft to teach juveniles to fly. Crane conservation is about commitment and, I think, love.

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Drilling Rig, Port Aransas

At Aransas a barge carrying a Blowout Preventer Valve (BOP) passes a feeding crane family, temporarily blocking my view. BOPs seal underwater oil wells. Threat and threatened are instantly juxtaposed. Unlike the cranes, I know what happens when a BOP fails. When one blew on the Deep Water Horizon Well in 2010, escaping oil destroyed coastal marshes like Aransas from Louisiana to Florida. Another such spill could wipe out wild whooping cranes forever. Nor are the birds secure in Wood Buffalo—Alberta’s Oil Sands are just south of the nesting grounds.

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Crane Family

I overnight in Corpus Christi near its brightly-lit petroleum refineries, and reflect on whooping cranes and Big Oil. In the darkened marshes, the birds likely watch for prowling bobcats and coyotes, their ancestral enemies, unaware of an omnipresent and vastly greater danger.

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