Augarten, Vienna

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Augarten Park, Vienna

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.

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Flak Tower

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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.

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Hooded Crow

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European Blackbird

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.

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European Robin

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.

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Nuthatch

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Great Spotted Woodpecker

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Blue Tit

Neusiedlersee, Austria

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Burgenland – Salt pond, vineyards and Roe Deer

It’s October 4 and it’s late in the year for Austrian birds, especially migrants. To maximize our chances, V and I elect to take a tour with Leander Khil, the author of a (the) book on Austrian birds, to the salt sloughs around Neusiedelersee, Austria’s large, shallow, steppe lake. The National Park here is partly in Hungary and the terrain seems, to us, very Hungarian, an impression reinforced by a herd of Hungarian Grey Cattle. These animals, once common, almost went extinct. They’ve been brought back from the edge, beautiful beasts with cloud-grey hides and long, black-tipped horns. We also spot a herd of Przewalski’s Horse, sometimes abbreviated to P-Horse. They’re  too far off to see properly, much less photograph — a moving band of cinnamon and sand off in the distance. I’m delighted nevertheless. I first read about this last of the wild horse when I was a kid and hoped one day to see them. And now I have.

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Hungarian Grey Cattle

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P-Horse — Last of the Wild Horses

We pass a romantic-looking hut and draw well complete with bucket and beam, protected by law. Although they look traditional they were ‘made up’ for 1950s era films about the Empress Elizabeth, or Sisi, around whom a kind of cult has grown. They’re now preserved as genuine shepherds’ huts rather than film sets and apparently are described so on tourist brochures. I doubt I’ve ever seen a better example of history as a construct. No picture – sorry, Sisi fans.

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Greylag Geese

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Curlew

Like most of Europe, Austria has suffered drought for several years. The seasonal salt ponds here have mostly dried up and are empty of shorebirds. A lone Greenshank flies over us, its call reminiscent of our Greater Yellowlegs, its North American cousin. We do spot several Eurasian Curlew happily harvesting bugs from grassy meadows but they’re as happy working the fields as they are the ponds, so the lack of water seems less important to them. Greylag Geese are here in abundance and there are many birds in the air – Skylark, Corn Bunting, European Siskin, Linnet, Goldfinch, Black Redstart and a European Jay. We make a side trip hoping for Crested lark. At first, nothing, but then one scampers out from behind a hay bale, followed by several more. Lovely birds with their pronounced crests. I’m fond of birds with crests. Cedar waxwings are one of my favourite birds. Northern Lapwings, fashionable crests blowing in the breeze, join the favourites list.

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Crested Lark

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Northern Lapwings

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White Wagtail

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Corn Bunting

Because the National Park is a late development, much of it consists of scattered patches interrupted by vineyards, their berries protected with nets. Sometimes farmers droop acres of large mesh nets over and between rows and kill hundreds of birds. Proper netting procedure protects the fruit much better and doesn’t destroy birdlife.

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The Wrong Way to Protect Grapes

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Long-eared Owl

We side trip to a village cemetery where people are hard at work cleaning and maintaining graves, so unlike what generally happens in North America. We’re here for Long-eared Owls, which roost in this graveyard in winter. It’s V. who spots the first and then a second and finally a third. Even when she points them out to me I find it hard to see the birds. The owls located, Leander takes to a wayside with a view for a delicious lunch of local products provide by St. Martin’s Therme and Lodge. Fantastic. Thanks Leander for being such an excellent and knowledgeable guide!

 

 

 

Snowy Owls; A River Running…

 

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A Perfect Little River…

The woods around my hometown are beautiful in May. It’s a great time to walk up the Sydenham River towards Inglis Falls. I spent many boyhood hours on, or in, or near the Sydenham. In all seasons too. That hillside over there – the snow leaves it first. It’s a good place to cook a can of beans over a campfire and lie back to bask in the late winter sun. Dry, clean ground in a world of snow, the smell of wood smoke and caramelized beans. A memory. Around me the Trilliums and Dogtooth Violets are coming in nicely. And the greens – soft, warm, luminous and arrestingly pretty.

The burgeoning foliage has its downside for a birder. It’s much harder to spot the little guys. I trace a pert Ovenbird  by its ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ song. A line of bouncing leaves marks the passage of a Nashville Warbler intent on bug picking, ignoring a tail-flicking Redstart. Overhead a Baltimore Oriole flashes orange. Higher up above the ‘Mile Drive’ a couple of male Ruffed Grouse start to drum – the slow ‘whumpf — wumpf — wumpf’ quickly increasing in tempo and climaxing in a muffled and impressive super-grouse-sized roar.

I cut away to avoid a flooded section of  path. My detour takes me past a memory – a patch of jumbled dolomite where long ago I stashed and later lost a canvas knapsack. A peripatetic porcupine, or several, ate it right down to the buckles. Nothing left but metal. In one night!

I lost a perfectly good cheese whiz and onion sandwich wrapped in wax paper to the prickly little guys too. Today I’d worry about the harm the white bread and canvas might do to the wildlife. I’m not sure I was feeling quite so equable at the time.

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Red Trillium

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Ovenbird

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Nashville Warbler

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Redstart

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Baltimore Oriole

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Redwing Blackbirds

I leave the river and head for the country roads. As always I check the rare bird reports wherever I go. The latest surprises me – three or four Snowy Owls seen in Grey and Bruce counties. Right now? Amazing! It’s the last bird I expected to see. Likely I won’t, not with my bird luck. I take up the chase anyway. It’s a compulsion after all and not entirely rational. I spend quite a few hours searching the countryside. I pick up a few good birds – wild Turkeys, a lone Sandhill Crane, an equally lone Broad-winged Hawk. No Owl though. By this time, I’m famished and I’d really like to stop for a late lunch. One last road to try and then I’ll stop. Just when I’m about to turn back, there it is – calm as can be, sitting on a boulder at the edge of a swale that’s likely teaming with rodents. There’s no way I can get close enough for a good photo but I’m happy, thrilled actually.

After lunch, I head back to the sparkling Sydenham, likely for the last time this year. Family dinner tonight and a visit with one of my cousins. Tomorrow I’ll head south to Toronto and then the flight home. I’ll leave early just in case there’s a rare bird or two to ‘pick up’ on the way down. I’ve still got the bug.

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Snowy Owl

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Tree Swallow

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Redstart – Female

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Wild Turkey

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The Mile Drive

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A River Runs Through It

 

 

The Salton Sea: February 2018

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American Avocets and Coots

Burrowing Owls – I can’t seem to get these little guys. By ‘get’, I mean ‘add to my list’, not as in ‘I don’t understand them’. Although I don’t. Anyway, I’m determined on this trip — steely-eyed. The owls are ‘reliable’ in the intensely agricultural Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea. It’s a curiosity, the Salton Sea. An accident. Sort of. Being below sea level the Salton is a sink soaking up seasonal runoff. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘s’s!

In centuries past, runoff created a lake, which the sun quickly evaporated away. Then about 1905 or so,  a water company goof let the Colorado River fill the basin and suddenly the folks in Palm springs and LA had a big beautiful lake to visit. Great! Resort communities sprang up; probably Bogie and Bacall spent time here. In the a 1950’s it was a Beach Blanket Bingo kind of a place. That was then. Nowadays, almost no new water comes in and the lake is shrinking under the hot desert sun. Did I mention the smell? It has an unusual bouquet and when the wind’s in the wrong quarter, it’s fierce. If nothing changes, all the fish will die within seven years — even the hardy African Tilapia. Birds will suffer too as water levels drop. Where will the migrating flocks go to replenish their energy when the Sea is gone? Who knows?

The change is happening now. Three years ago squadrons of White Pelicans cruised the Sea; today not a single bird. Maybe there just aren’t enough fish anymore. Maybe the Pelis are at the other end of the lake. Lots of birds still come – they have to –  but fewer and fewer every year they say.

But I need to lighten up. It’s not all doomsday. There are folks trying to get more water for the Sea. The birding’s still good. American Avocets, which don’t need the Tilapia, still work the retreating edge of the water picking up brine shrimp. They are tall, pretty shorebirds with their French lawyer robe colouring and upturned bills. I can vouch for the upturned bill, not the other.

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Waterfowl in Transit

The  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge has Burrowing Owls — or they’re close by at any rate. Just inside the Refuge, a Roadrunner ambles by and then darts off looking, I suppose, for a snake or lizard for breakfast. Some Gambel’s Quail chuckle their way through the undergrowth. On some ponds, huge numbers of waterfowl rest on their way north; on others amazing numbers of shorebirds, including dozens of Dowitchers.

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Roadrunner

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Gambel’s Quail

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Dowitchers

I stop at the Refuge office for tips and also to ask about Sonny. Politicians tack their names on projects in which they otherwise have little interest but Sonny, once mayor of Palm Springs, really cared. So, thanks Sonny, (though not necessarily for “I Got You Babe)! As for the owls – “just walk out to the end of the parking lot and look right.” Which I do. In the wild, they’d use the abandoned burrows of other animals as they don’t dig their own. Here people have installed nesting pipes. And there they are, right on their doorstep, taking in the morning sun. So easy. How come it took me so long to get ’em’?

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Burrowing Owls

 

Madera Canyon: February 2018

I didn’t expect the Coatis. A troop has discovered the bird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. Big ones, little ones. I’m here with my brother Steve, who flew down from Ontario for some Arizona birding. I know Coatimundis from my zoo days decades past. Mischievous, rubber-nosed, ring-tailed bandits, very engaging. Lots of personality. I still remember them lying on their backs, lapping eggs out of the shell, grunting at each other, recalling some caper or other. All those years ago. Seeing them again makes me wonder how ground-nesting birds manage to hatch out chicks at all. Is it possible to avoid the ever-searching, wiffling noses? Me, I think of them as old friends.

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Coatimundi

Early morning and the viewing chairs are already taken. Popular spot this. One of the best feeding stations anywhere, maintained by the kind folks at Santa Rita Lodge, supported hopefully by donations that help buy the enormous amounts of feed needed to constantly replenish the feeders.  The Coatis won’t be welcome here, not  those appetites on four legs.

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Pine Siskins

They don’t seem to bother these birds. A Rufous-crowned Sparrow in a tangle of dead wood. Rufous-winged Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Siskins, Mexican Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos and a beautiful Yellow-eyed Junco work the feeders. A bright Hepatic Tanager puts in a brief appearance, its place on a half orange grabbed immediately by a clown-faced Acorn Woodpecker. An Arizona Woodpecker, a life bird for me, shows up. Lovely – with its chocolate-brown mantle. We hoped for a Painted Redstart on the trails but kept missing the bird everybody else seemed to see. A Red-naped Sapsucker posing photogenically eases our disappointment.

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Coatimundis (Coatis) – Parent and Child

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Mexican Jay

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Acorn Woodpecker

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Yellow-eyed Junco

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Arizona Woodpecker

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Red-naped Sapsucker

 

 

 

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

Mittry Lake

Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail

 

 

Travel Birding

I’m driving from British Columbia to southeastern Arizona to spend time with my kid brother, Steve. I’m birding as I go, checking rarity reports daily, which is how is how I ‘got’ the Garganey in Waller Park in Santa Maria, California, a life bird for me. The little Eurasian teal touched down a few months back and now ambles about with the locals filling up on handouts. Easy. I almost don’t see her in the crowd of Mallards and Swan Geese. She’s tiny. She’s also one of the easiest rare birds I’ve ever found. Properly rare too. Most species on the reports are common at other times of the year so finding them is no biggie. Not to me anyway. In a few months the Garganey will likely lift off and head for home, thousands of miles away.

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Garganey – Santa Maria

But I’m skipping ahead. I left home three days ago. Bright and early on the second day, I stop at a tiny community park in Washington state where a Mandarin Duck has been hanging out. Another visitor from Asia – if it isn’t an escapee from a zoo or suchlike. There are lots of fantastically beautiful Wood Ducks but not its kin, the Mandarin. I never found it but I notice it’s back on the rare bird list. So, another miss.

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Wood Duck

The morning air is still and bright. A pair of Redtail Hawks engage in their mating dance, gliding acrobatically through the branches of the bare cottonwoods. They seem playful. Not so the fierce looking young Cooper’s Hawk across the lawn, scanning for prey. The intensity in her bright eye! Awesome.

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Cooper’s Hawk

As I stare at the pond, a very handsome muskrat ambles out and pauses a few feet away and we both take in the same scene. It’s as if he (?) hopes to help out by spotting the elusive Mandarin. After a minute or so, he shakes his head and carries on. Charming. One of the attractions of birding is the likelihood that often you’ll end up in places you would otherwise never visit. And see new things too. It’s the experience that’s rare.

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Muskrat

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Redtail A-courting

Meanwhile I have many miles ahead of me. I’ve checked the pass through the Siskyou mountains and there’s snow on I-5. To avoid it, I have to head to the coast, to Gold Beach, before I cut back across to central California. I’m lucky, the warmish spring weather continues. I leave the mountains and almost immediately the Pacific comes into view. Surf, sun, the stacks and the other features of Oregon’s remarkable coastline, Beautiful. Not every detour makes going out of one’s way seem worthwhile. This one did. Meanwhile, that Garganey I’m fated to see is still 800 miles away, cadging snacks.

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The Oregon Coast