Snowy Plovers

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Snowy Plover Land

In a way, this story is about misplaced assumptions. And being wrong – again. Remembering that Snowy Plovers nest (in season) near Grayland, Washington. I make a quick decision, take an access road to the beach and hope for the best. I don’t expect much, especially since pickups and jeeps are everywhere on the sand. I’m not planning on spending more than a half hour here anyway but it breaks up the long drive I’m on.

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Snowy Plover in a Rut

I walk down the last half mile down the road. A jeep passes me at speed, tears down to the tideline, does a couple of spectacular water fountaining donuts and then leaves. Now, I think, there’s no way I’ll see any of the tiny plovers. The jeep will have freaked them. Wrong.

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Come Here Often?

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I’m Thrilled

The Plovers appear. And they’re thrilled. They’re in and out of the vehicle tracks, scooting from furrow to furrow, like so many tawny mice. I can only guess why. Perhaps, the jeep tires have turned up tasty little critters, or maybe the ruts are just good to hide in. I find the vehicles irritating but, to the birds, I guess they’re like big ruminants, herds of elk maybe. And perhaps they take advantage of them in the same way egrets and other birds do in Africa when they tag along with elephants. Minus the bird advantages of elephant droppings, of course.

Swan Lake Sora

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Swan Lake

A few male Hooded Mergansers have arrived at the little bay near my home and the forecast is for rain, sure signs that summer is indeed over. Soon, the wet weather will set in. I make a last warm weather trip to Swan Lake, a local hot spot. The lake is glass smooth and flecked with, I think, fluff from Cottonwood trees. Four young Pied-billed grebes are feeding at the limit of my camera’s usable range. Plus they won’t keep still. Cute little guys but very active, diving every five seconds or so. It’s like a fairground ‘bash a mole’ game; they never reappear in the same place twice.

 

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Pied-billed Grebe

I’m hoping to add a Sora, a swamp-dwelling rail, to my year list. I know one (at least) inhabits the dense stand of bulrush at the west end but I’ve tried for this secretive bird umpteen times and it keeps eluding me. I shouldn’t take it personally. On my last visit a week or so ago,  a pair of young otters popped up through the duckweed, lifted their anvil heads to scan the shoreline and then, snakelike, slid out of the water and into the cattails. Slick, deadly and quiet. Human beings aren’t the only predators the Sora is alert to.

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Swan Lake Otters

I give up on the bird the on my first pass and carry on to the meadow. I hear birds in the trees but the foliage is so dense I don’t see much so I decide to have one more try at the Sora. A Blue Heron though sets up for a nice shot. The Herons are so commonplace that it’s nice to spend some time examining them–such a handsome bird.

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Great Blue Heron

I take some shots and, for some reason, I turn thinking the Sora might be near. And it is! Ten feet away and watching me. I have to pivot quietly to get a picture, which on a floating bridge isn’t easy but the bird seems relaxed, picking its way along the water’s edge. And then, like magic, it’s gone. I always feel  grateful when a bird shows up like this. I may have said so in an earlier post. It’s like a favour and I appreciate the gesture. Thank you, Sora!

 

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The Elusive Sora

 

 

Chincoteague Memories- 2014

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Chincoteague Sunset

We’re on Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This really is a water world, acres and acres of tidal marsh populated by terns, plovers, egrets, herons, eagles, ospreys and the ultra skinny rails. Beyond the islands, the Atlantic. Wild ponies are the big attraction here. The famous Chincoteague Ponies were featured in a children’s story decades ago and are still celebrities. We take a boat to see them and the some of the birds who inhabit this special environment.

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East Coast Bald Eagle

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Snowy Egret

Herons and egrets do especially well here. Hard to imagine now but by the early part of the 20th century, many species were almost wiped out because of fashion. That was the great age of hats, when fancy feathers enhanced the fantastic milliner creations we see today only in pictures. Plume hunters slaughtered all the adult birds in a colony and left the young to starve. Happily, largely through the efforts of two women, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, the plume trade came to an end and birds like the Snowy Egret can flourish.

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Little Blue Heron

Back to the ponies. Pony numbers are controlled for the sake of the environment. Each year, as our skipper, Barnacle Bill (it’s true) tells us, surplus ponies are swum across to Chincoteague from Assateague to be auctioned off. It make for a festival and I gather, everybody gets wet. Unfortunately, we only glimpse the ponies. Some porpoises, perhaps sent by the tourist board, swim up to help alleviate the disappointment.

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Tourist Board Porpoises – Chincoteague

Just before dark, we turn back towards the harbour. Now the only sounds are lapping water, the flutey whistles of shorebirds, and the hum of the outboard. It’s cooled down too, and we have to zip up our jackets and hunker. As we round the mole, we see the lights and towers of nearby NASA’s Wallops Island launch center from which rockets regularly thunder up into the sky. It’s a strange contrast to this marshy outpost where the locals seem to have their own way of speaking, and where crabbing and fishing have been mainstays for centuries. Speaking of which, seafood might be the correct choice for dinner.

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Wallops Island Flight Facility

 

 

Fog Birds

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Raven in Fog

The thick fog I saw from the highway waits for me at Saanichton Spit, a long, sandy tongue of land south of Sidney, BC. Tsawout ancestral territory. Now I must make a decision.Two recent sightings brought me here – a Willet and an Upland Sandpiper. The Willet is a large shorebird and uncommon in these parts; the Upland Sandpiper is a prairie bird and quite rare on the coast. I can’t see much yet but you never know with fog, which can clear away in minutes. I decide to stay. A Raven watches me set up my scope and then flies off, disappearing almost immediately. He’s probably thinking something like — ‘a scope, you’ve got to be kidding – in this?’

 

 

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 Beyond the Grass, Nothing

Visibility decreases as I walk and sound takes on a new quality, suppressed unless the source is close; then it’s enhanced. A foghorn sounds from somewhere, the familiar basso profundo moan and close by the soft sibilant call of Savannah Sparrows, clear and bright in the damp air. One hops up on a fence post and then vanishes like a magician’s bird from a hat. A pretty bird with its pale mustard eyebrow.

 

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Savannah Sparrow

Even the commonest structures look different today – a tumbledown lean-to, for example. I passed this wreck dozens of times but, today, I observe it and take in details I haven’t noticed before. Sherlock Holmes tried to teach Watson about this power. ‘You see Watson, but you do not observe‘, he says, when Watson can’t tell him how many stairs he walks up every day at 221B Baker. I think it’s in A Scandal in Bohemia. Birding is great for observing, by the way. Attention to detail is what makes it all work.

 

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When You’ve Seen Better Days

And likewise, the row of shells in a tide channel on the beach. The quality of light and the elimination of visual distraction helps me see this commonplace differently–beach debris now transformed into a string of precious jewels, or a garden. Usually, I’d just crunch on through. Today, I step around it so as not to disturb this most ephemeral of art pieces.

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Beach Garden

A small squadron of  Western Sandpipers hums past somewhere off to my left, chattering –jeet, jeet. Invisible. I never do see the Willet or the Upland Sandpiper. Likely they were just passing through anyway but I could easily have walked by them. And a hundred other birds, for all I know. I do see a large dark shape in a dead tree. I think eagle but it turns out to be a despondent-looking Turkey Vulture, waiting for the sun and some nice juicy thermals to lift him up into a blue late summer sky.

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 Turkey Vulture – Fogbound

 

 

 

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.

 

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

Birding in the Pais Vasco, Spain

The seaside town of San Sebastian draws many visitors to the the Pais Vasco – Basque Country. San Sebastian is beautifully situated on a beach-fringed bay. Irun and the bird sanctuary at Txingudi Plaiaundiko is not far away, nor is Biarritz in France where I hoped to see some new gulls and seabirds.

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San Sebastian

I liked San Sebastian, also called Donostia. Lots of bars with pinchxos, called tapas elsewhere in Spain. Our accommodation was a pension complete with pink satin bedspreads and embroidered linen. Granny-chic, my wife calls it. I can’t complain. In North America, I’m used to staying in the type of places where signs ask you not to clean your fish in your room. So granny-chic is okay. By the way, they stay up late in Spain. We waited for a taxi while trying to catch an early train, lined up with the kids going home from nightclubs. This was at eight in the morning.

Basque country is hill country. Swiss-looking houses perch on steep slopes; swift rivers run through narrow ravines on their way to the sea. A great place to look for eagles, although I saw none. Too early in the year perhaps. This used to be, and maybe still is, the most important industrial region in Spain. Now many of the riverside factories are closed and abandoned. With windows broken and walls covered with graffiti, they are symptomatic, perhaps, of the economic forces that have driven the unemployment rate in Spain to 25% or more.

The largest city, Bilbao, has transformed itself into a cultural mecca. The famous Frank Gerhy-designed Guggenheim Museum, situated on a beautiful stretch of the Nervion River, is the crown jewel of the redevelopment, although I was encouraged to see a maritime museum nearby. The Basques have always been great seafarers, being among the first to visit North American waters. i think, but don’t know, that the ruthless explorer, Vasco da Gama, was Basque. In Spanish, Vasco means Basque.

I’d heard unflattering things about industrial Bilbao but I found it quite pleasant. To the south is the wine growing region of La Rioja where I saw White Wagtails and heard thrushes by the score as well as sampling some very fine wine.

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Bilbao Riverside

The next day we went to Biarritz in France with a stop on the way back at Txingudi Plaiaundiko, near the town of Irun. Txingudi is a nature reserve with trails and walkways through marshes, ponds and along the estuary foreshore. Well-placed viewing blinds allow views of the muddy shallows favoured by shorebirds. As is the case everywhere in the Pais Vasco, all signs are in Spanish and Basque.

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Park Sign in Spanish and Basque

I was probably a little early for the full migration but lots of birds were in, including many Chiffchaffs and some other warblers, European Robins, Eurasian Blackbirds, Black and Red Kites, and Song Thrushes. The day was cool but sunny, with birds seemingly everywhere. The park buildings and  structures seem to be deteriorating, a likely indication of lack of funding and a struggling economy. There seems to be a bit too much trash lying around too, especially in the water.

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Chiffchaff

Shorebirds were plentiful. I was delighted to see both Redshanks and Greenshanks. Little and Cattle Egrets wandered the flats spearing fish.A half dozen Little Grebe chased each other in deeper water. A Squacco Heron mingled with gulls on an island in the estuary, hardly larger than they.

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Redshank

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Little Grebe

We left Txingudi late in the day. The wind had picked up and cooled off – it was still March. Back in San Sebastian we had to find parking for our rental car, there being none near the pension. That accomplished, we headed into Old Town for pinxchos and crianza. Two countries, and a major birding site. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Bird Art

Lucky for me, digital cameras came along when they did. Photoshop too. I well remember the days of 24 or 36 shots. You had to be pretty careful then, and be a much more skilful photographer that I could ever hope to be. Now I shoot lots of images and keep most of them. Usually, I use the camera like a spotting scope. It’s more portable and I can look at what I’ve shot later when I can consult the bird books. Several times, I’ve found birds in images I’ve shot I didn’t know were there. Cool!

I use a Panasonic FZ200 with an extender and converter. This gets me out to the 600mm range. Lots of my shots are out of focus, overexposed or otherwise substandard. It’s darned hard to hold a camera still at the 600mm equivalent but the Pansonic does surprisingly well. If I were more of a photographer, I’d really learn to use it. Most people would trash their extra and or flawed images but I’ll hang onto them until my computer screams at me that it’s running out of storage. So far so good. Images are grist for the mill if they have strong patterns, colours, line, and for want of a better word, drama. I’m also a painter and sculptor so I’m attracted to that sort of thing.

Most of the images in this gallery were slightly our of focus to start with, or parts of them were at any rate. They were junk. Not the Cardinal though. I always liked that one. The Sora, however, was clear until the camera decided to focus on reeds rather than on the hind quarters of the bird – sharply-focussed head and chest and a fuzzy behind. It sounds like a TV commercial for a condition that needs a health and fitness product to eradicate. Folks – do you have a fuzzy behind? Is the top part of you sharp but the rest of you embarrassing? Take Birdmarsh Supplements for 10 days and go to parties with new confidence!

But I digress.

The California quail was more or less in silouette. The Ukiyo-e was a patch of ocean water with a bit of wave action, the whole thing no more than ten feet from me. There was supposed to be a Surf Scoter in the shot. I’ve got scores of images of empty branches, empty water, empty patches of field, empty bits of sky. Every one should include a bird but doesn’t. I keep those shots too because, well, who knows when I’ll need them.