Rare Birds 1

This morning I drove 30 miles to a place I didn’t know, got rained on and then dropped my spotting scope, all before breakfast. This is what birding does to people. I’d actually gone to look for a Laughing Gull, a rare bird in my part of the world. Unfortunately, the gull only shows up at low tide and when I arrived at the location, the tide was full in. Now, I could have checked-I live on the ocean after all. As any sensible person mighy expect, I did not see the Laughing Gull, which was, I guess, doing its laughing some place else. Like many birders, I had succumbed to a kind of rare-birditis, a condition that tends to make “sugar plums dance through your head“. I really wanted to see that bird and I thought I might get lucky.

Rare birds fascinate most birders. And why not? The Laughing Gull is most commonly seen far to the south, on Mexican beaches, or the Florida shore. So what’s it doing in British Columbia, several thousand miles away from its natural habitat? Nobody knows for sure. Just like nobody really knows why this Tropical Kingbird would spend a few weeks at a beach in Washington State, where I saw it in October. There is some speculation that the Kingbird brain wiring gets screwed up, confusing their sense of the earth’s magnetic field. They fly north thinking they’re flying south. I just hope that never happens to me.



Tropical Kingbird, Ocean Shores, Washington

What makes a bird rare?  In some cases, a species is so reduced in numbers that seeing one is special. Usually, such birds are almost constantly under scrutiny so finding them is not difficult-so long as you don’t mind going to them-Whooping Cranes, for example. Just over 300 wild Whoopers survive. Since they nest in vast, swampy and northern Wood Buffalo National Park, you’re not likely to see one in summer. Go to their restricted winter range at Aransas near Corpus Christi in Texas, however, and you’ll almost certainly spot several, especially if you take the Whooping Crane boat tour.

Whooping Cranes, Aransas, Texas


The other rare birds are the strays, the birds who get blown off course and show up thousands of miles from home. When they do, an epidemic of rare-birditis breaks out. A rare bird search is a treasure hunt and some birders will cross the country to add the bird in question to their list.

A travelling birder checks the rare bird lists every day, as I did in northern California. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known about the Brown Shrike hanging out near Mendocino which, most of us would agree, is not a bad place to hang out. Shrike, incidentally, hunt like small falcons, catching mice, insects and small birds and impaling them on thorns. This Brown Shrike would normally live in Asia, on the other side of the Pacific.

Brown Shrike, Mendocino California

Brown Shrike, California

I’ve managed to log quite a few rare birds over the past few years. I delight in each and every one. More about them in future posts. Right now, I’ve got to go drive 30 miles to catch low tide and, hopefully, spot that darn Laughing Gull.


The Pleasure of Swamps


I think I’ve said before how much I like swamps and marshes. Bogs too. Incidentally, I can’t say the same about sewage treatment plants, which can be kind of marsh-like. Although these are often good places to find rare birds, one has to weigh the risks. By all means, avoid getting downwind of settling ponds when the breeze freshens (which is is definitely not the right word under the circumstances). By the way, I’ve seen ducks do things in sewage…well, I’d rather not say. I just might not order duck a’lorange anytime soon. But I digress.

Back to swamps. Magical things can happen in swamps. The early morning light can be wonderful. There’s usually wildlife. Normal people generally avoid swamps and bogs, which appeals to the hermit in me.

Today, I’m in a swamp looking for Virginia Rails, which I don’t really expect to see, so ‘looking‘ is a euphemism in this case. People rarely see Rails. Hearing one will be good enough.

Walking along a water-filled ditch, l  keep my ears peeled for kiddick, kiddick, kiddick calls, or swampy grunts, or marshy wheeps, the calls of the Virginia Rail. Nothing. My usual  luck with these guys.

But, really, what have I got to complain about? A clear morning, bird song, bunnies, solitude – compensations for not hearing this darn, secretive ‘skinny as a rail’ bird – again. The fledgling swallows are nice too.


I’ve paused and I’m listening. I’ve been watching birds in the air but I happen to glance down. Incredible. A Virginia Rail is in the long grass, almost at my feet, studying me. I had a similar experience in north-central Michigan with a rare Kirtland’s Warbler once. When this sort of things happens, it’s like winning a prize. In the morning light, the Rail glows chestnut, white, purple and orange –  a really beautiful little bird.


Naturally, when I bring my camera up to take a pic, the Rail vanishes. Fair enough. Then, to my amazement, two minutes later he’s back, after which he appears again, and again. I’m not hidden. I’m just not moving.

Rail2016june25The VR darts back and forth across the path. It’s a male. He’s working, carrying worms.  So, a man on a mission. And he’s calling too – kiddick-kiddick, grunt, wheep – softly. I’m now wondering if there’s a nesting female nearby and he’s feeding her. He is! A second VR stands on the verge. Fantastic – two Rails! The second must be the female. She looks both ways and edges back.


And now the really good part. Her partner wheeps from the other side of the path –  a nice little ‘it’s safe and don’t mind that goofy whatever it is standing there with the camera,’ watery sound. She makes a little ‘seep ‘ in response and out they come – the kids, just a few days old.  Four black, golf ball-sized fluff balls with bi-coloured bills, heading for the big water, which is the ditch.





The male appears once more, a quick look up the path. I hear the family move down the ditch and then silence. A couple of Eastern Cottontails show up for second breakfasts, and some California Quail do likewise. Feeding swallows zoom past.


I hear runners in the distance. They’re coming my way, talking loudly, galumphing. The spell is broken and the Rails will not reappear. Time for me to go anyway. I’m seizing up from standing motionless for thirty minutes or more and, I’ve just remembered, I haven’t  had my own breakfast yet.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.




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.

Bognor Marsh

May, 2014

I guess I’m starting early today. I’ve been up since first light, a hazard when you stay in cheap motels. In this case, a flaw in the drapes focussed a beam of light on my left eyeball at the wrong time in my sleep cycle. No chance of lying abed here. I rise and get dressed. This time of the morning in Owen Sound options for breakfast are limited. I get a muffin and coffee at Tim Horton’s and check my email. I likely know some of the denizens in here but, if so, they’re unrecognizable to me now after so many years.

I’m visiting my mother today but we haven’t set a time and her recent memory lapses add an odd timelessness to everything. She has to eat breakfast at a regular time and has a few other things to do, I know. I’ve got time to bird and I’m up with them. Now I just have to find them.

I drive out into the countryside, past the old hardwood bush where, as young teenagers, my friend Lloyd and I, having walked up the hill from the town, made a camp in the snow. It was four in the morning, a moonlit night, and we were out to hunt rabbits. Our companions were a black and tan hound puppy with ears so long it couldn’t not step on them and a beagle named Penny I’d rescued from a death sentence.


It was a magical time, the fire chewing up the dry wood we fed it continually. Its light illuminated the boles of dark and massive hardwoods with each flicker or flare. I remember a Great Horned Owl hooting somewhere close by. I also remember beans cooked in the can so that one side of the mass was mouth-burning hot and the other icy cold. We did not, by the way, shoot any rabbits.

Back to the present. I’ve always liked early May in southern Ontario. I grew up in this town but I’ve lived in the west for decades. Now when I come home, I come in May if I can. In a region with well-marked seasons, the land wakes up in early May. It’s winter, or close to it one day, and then, quite suddenly, it’s spring. This May, the first leaves are barely showing, no more than a haze of green-gold lights the forest. A peculiarity of the season is that sounds carry for miles. The air is hollow like a bell, like it is on a cold, still day after a snow in winter.

This cold morning will become a fine spring day once the temperature gets up a bit. I head for Bognor Marsh. My brother’s best gift to me was to tell me about this place. Go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. You can’t miss it.

Of course, you can miss it. And I do. I shuck the false confidence that comes with pretending to know my way around these back roads. I have a GPS, such a handy tool for a birder so I pull over and hook it up. A quick search and there it is, Bognor marsh, no more than a fifteen minute drive from where I am. I drive down what I guess is the right ‘Line’, pass the sign, double back and park – mine the only vehicle in small lot.

The temperature is rising quickly and a little breeze becomes the first Zephyr fingers of a warm front. A week or so before there was frost; there will be wet snow one day before I leave Owen Sound. Now wildflowers carpet the shallow earth that covers the limestone and songs of a dozen bird species ring through the woods. A windfall of bird species has arrived with the warm front. Without leaves on the trees, spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and wait and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and finally see him no more than 5 feet away. He moves on. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red, yellow and white and then they’re gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another, and another.


I count five species in as many minutes and move on. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers works the trunk like nuthatches. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees.

The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and Whites, Blackburnians, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumpeds, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises — a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, a Wild Turkey.


The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther into the sedge, a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song. A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. Others ‘winnow’ in the middle distance.

I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, its back a rusty-brown, strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. Another Broad-winged Hawk appears going north and then disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.

I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, reluctantly, I leave. I’ll come back as often as I’m able. My mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning in that regard and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound. I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings.The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave each time when I ought to. May, that’s the time to be there.


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.