Our mild January weather is kaput. February began with a seriously rainy day but now it’s gone cold and there’s snow in the forecast. A good time to look back on my favourite bird pictures. I’ll start with everybody’s favourite — owls.
Yesterday we had storms here and the rain bucketed down. Today, morning sunlight penetrates even the densest thickets. After a seriously wet day, Golden-crowned Sparrows feed as if making up for lost time. We tend to overlook common birds though many are strikingly beautiful.
I’m up early hoping to pick up a few Vienna birds before Augarten Park wakes up. The preschool isn’t yet open and early morning joggers are few. Likewise, the porcelain manufactory in Augarten Palace (established in the 18th century) is still closed. So is its pleasant cafe, which is too bad. You can buy a teacup in the shop for 500 euro (sans tea) here if that’s your thing.
The formal lanes of trees can confuse a newcomer so I use the enormous World War Two flak towers looming over the western side of the gardens as reference points. The entrance to the street or ‘gasse’ we’re staying on is in the opposite direction. Hard to believe now that this area was subject to heavy fighting in 1945 when die-hard Nazis fought the Russians for these massive reinforced concrete anti-aircraft fortresses. You can still see bullet holes and shell craters on the upper levels. Nowadays, the towers provide vantage points for the occasional Peregrine Falcon but little else I think. No Peregrines today, which means birds in the formal gardens might be active. Nothing quietens bird life so much as a cruising falcon with the afterburners on. The park’s many Hooded Crows, cocky and self-assured, don’t seem bothered by much. I fancy they’d treat the rumour of a raptor with studied disdain.
In the cool of early morning I saw few birds and then only briefly but as the sun climbs higher more appear. Even so, an unseasonably warm October has helped trees keep their leaves and their avian residents are hard to spot — noisy but invisible. They have to get hungry and at last they do. A pair of busy Nuthatches investigate a crack in the trunk of a mighty oak. Nearby a squad of European Blackbirds work a patch of shrubbery. A European Robin appears. I still call them English Robins, because my English parents did. Cute little guys — the robins, I mean, not my parents. No relation to our Robins, these birds. Ours are thrushes and kinfolk to European Blackbirds, also thrushes. The Europeans are a kind of flycatcher.
It gets busier as the morning chill lifts. Great Tit fly across the gravelled lanes as they move between forest patches. And there are Blue Tit here too. Related to out Chickadees, they’re busy, hanging from branches and picking up insects lurking on the undersides of leaves. I see several Green Woodpeckers but these large birds vanish into the treetops before I can get a picture. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is more cooperative. This bird makes a guest appearance in the movie ‘The Big Year’ – a non-migratory European bird in western North America. Well, stranger things have happened. And then its time to go, a Viennese coffee and yet another Sacher Torte await. Yes, you can eat Sacher Torte for breakfast.
A warm late summer day, or will be once the sun is up. September has a faded glory I especially like, with a touch of melancholy in it — a string quartet replacing summer’s brass band. Today I’m searching for rare sparrows, a Brewer’s at Panama Flats and a Lark Sparrow at the old rail yards in Vic West. Both birds are common in Arizona, certainly not here. I try for the Lark first. The yard is more or less deserted but there are zero birds up yet. After three quarters of an hour of fruitless searching, I’m ready to give up. I’m almost back at the car when I see a single bird coming in, a sparrow from its undulating flight. It lands next to the open door of a construction worker’s pickup, ignores the heavy metal music emanating from within, and begins to feed. It’s the Lark. Birds are weird sometimes! More and more pickups arrive and the noise level rises. Time to move on to Panama Flats and some peace and quiet. The Lark Sparrow couldn’t care less about that, apparently.
At the Flats it’s warmer and brighter. The wintertime wet meadows are now dry fields, knee-deep in snow-white Chamomile with their butter-yellow centers. The flowers’ powerful musky perfume, if ‘perfume’ is the right word, clings to my clothing as I wade through. Not unpleasant but strong!
Head-high Cattails, Queen Ann’s Lace, Horse-weed and Thistle, crowd in along the dyke trail. A pudgy vole sees me just in time and panics, his round rear end (is bum inappropriate?) disappearing into the weeds. I track him through rustling leaves, scurrying loudly away. He needs to be more careful. A Northern Harrier just floated past and there’s a dark Merlin hunting nearby, lightning fast and deadly. Incautious voles don’t last long anywhere.
Vole in a Hurry (recreation)
This is sparrow land. I catch a glimpse of the Brewer’s in a stunted willow but mostly it’s Savannah, White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows that populate the Flats, shooting left and right out of the taller vegetation like tiny, spring-loaded feathered missiles. Lots of Goldfinches here too, flitting through the branches of the taller willows. It’s the end of summer and birds are gathering for pre-migration, a wonderful time. The rains will come soon, the rampant plant growth will die down and the ponds will refill just in time to welcome the flocks of returning waterfowl and shore birds.
I’m scratching, alternating between the mosquito bite on the heel of my hand and those on my ankles. Makes me think back to when my mom used to dot us boys with calamine lotion, which helped, I think, but not much. We had lots of mosquitoes where I grew up. In summer, the kids in my neighbourhood looked like they’d contracted some kind of plague, the symptoms of which were abundant bright pink blotches and continued scratching. But I digress. I’m at Swan Lake again in spite of continuing forest fire smoke. My first bird of the day should have clued me in. The top of a very tall conifer ought to put you out of the bug zone. Not so for the Osprey who, in spite of biting insects and smoke, manages a ‘see if I care’ look. No bug repellent for wild things!
Osprey Under Attack
I’m determined to bird today so I carry on. As long as I don’t linger in any one spot, I seem to be okay. Speed doesn’t make for easy birding however. Nothing seems to want to stay put, like me. A noisy gaggle of young Waxwings zips through the higher branches, too skittish to pause for pictures. Likewise, a Bewick’s Wren appears and poses just as I turn my camera off to save the battery, and then ducks away as the machine blinks back to life. Towhees and Fox Sparrows are especially furtive. After forty minutes of fruitless searching, I’m almost done. I have just one more trail to try. It takes me under the trees and into deep shade, which is suicidal. Never mind. I hurry like I’m crossing No-Man’s Land to get to my home trench. I’m literally turning on my heel to make a run for it when I spot a young Great Horned Owl. Figures. Now I don’t care about mosquitoes — well, that’s a lie. Still, with such a beautiful bird and such beautiful light, sacrifices had to made. Now, where did I put that calamine!