Malheur Memories

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The Road to Burns

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Malheur

I visited Malheur National Wildlife Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in the middle of the summer a few years ago – before the unhappy events there in 2016. I’m delighted to report that the temperature was moderate and I heard only a single mosquito – in spite of warnings of excessive heat and a plaque of bugs. Not surprisingly, with that kind of a rep, few birders visit here at the end of July.

The Refuge certainly wasn’t busy. I saw no more than a half dozen people, including rangers monitoring the narrow track that leads, ultimately, to less than teeming metropolis of Frenchglen. Of course, for wildlife, the fewer people the better. Young animals and birds seemed to be everywhere reminding me again how important Wildlife Refuges, like Malheur, are for breeding species, as well as being vital stopovers for migrating birds.

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Great Egret

Phalaropes

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Gadwall Family

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Loggerhead Shrike Family

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Eared Grebe Family

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Young Coyote on the track to Frenchglen

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Fawn at Malheur

 

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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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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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow on Maui

 

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Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Maui

Oh -my title – sorry about that. Agatha Christie once joked that a writer who opened a story with the line “Hell!” said the Duchess couldn’t help but grab the attention of a reader. I’m hoping the title of this post will perform the same function. Happily, no snow is falling on Maui. No need to abort a vacation — or panic. Still, to me, the six young Snow Geese I saw at Kanaha Ponds seem almost as out of place as the white stuff.

I’m fascinated with rare birds and their stories. What freak wind or event sent these teenagers off into the vast Pacific? How did they find this remote island thousands of miles away from the Arctic sloughs where they hatched? How will they find their way back? It’s a work in progress, I suppose. For the time being, at least, their futures are linked, this little band of goose kids a long way from home.

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Snow on Maui

The Snow Geese rarities aren’t the only fascinating birds at Kanaha. NeNe Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to meet since I was a boy, nests here. Not terribly long ago, NeNes were one of the rarest birds in the world, only thirty individuals on their way to extinction, saved at the last minute by captive breeding and the heroic efforts of volunteers and governments. NeNe live from here at sea level to the cinder plains high up on Haleakala, the volcano that looms nearby. They’re quite tame and still need protection. Slim, fast, ferocious Mongooses are a particular threat, killing goslings and, I think, eating eggs. NeNe are still the rarest geese in the world, by the way.

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NeNe

At home, I go to great lengths to try to see a Pacific Golden Plover, vainly searching every passing flock of Black-bellied Plovers for a bird without black armpits, a good identifier. Pacific Goldens are common here, seen on most lawns and boulevards. Now, in February, they are already forming pair bonds and defending territory. In a few months they’ll start for Alaska, a distance of almost five thousand kilometers, and they’ll do the flight in three days. Non-stop, sixty-five kilometers an hour! Then they’ll come back to exactly the same place in Maui in the fall. The birds I’m seeing here are truly home, on their special spots at Kanaha, on Maui.

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Pacific Golden Plover

Wandering Tattlers also make the long journey from northwestern North America to Hawaii. I love that name! Hawaiians call them Ulili, after the sound of their call. Lovely too. Messenger birds. The Hawaiian singer Iz wrote a song about them. Two Ulili wander amongst the many noisy Black-necked Stilts who populate the shallows. There are Sanderling and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones here too. Nice.

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Wandering Tattler

I’ve quickly grown fond of Kanaha Ponds but then I always like the solitude, and the life, of marshes, especially early in the day. This morning, the warm wind blows strong and the handsome Chestnut Munia which forage in small flocks use it to move quickly from place to place — and are consequently very hard to photograph.

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Chestnut Munia

Both Northern and Red-crested Cardinals are more cooperative. Both species are active enough to indicate mating season is in progress, although the Northern Cardinal looks a bit shabby. Now I’m wondering – when is mating season here? Both Cardinals are introduced birds as are the Munia and others, like Common Mynahs. There are few native Hawaiian species at sea level now. Most have succumbed to mosquito borne diseases (mosquitoes are also not native to Hawaii). You have to go high up the mountain to find the beautiful, colourful honey creepers. I’ll do that soon.

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Northern Cardinal

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Red-crested Cardinal

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Red Junglefowl

A few Red Junglefowl forage in amongst the low plants at the edges of the ponds. Junglefowl, the ancestors of chickens. Quite spectacular really — if you don’t think chicken.