Mountain Birds


Mount Hood, July

Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood at 8:30 on a bright late July day. It’s warm up here, maybe 75 degrees, but skiers are already on the slopes of the volcano; one trudges past me towards the chair lift. I’m thinking – what, you’re going back up? But they’re all young and full of enthusiasm. It’s great. Me, I’m looking for birds. I pick my way over flower-strewn pumice, filling my shoes with grit at every step and wishing the management had thought to install a water fountain somewhere close.


Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge was used in the movie The Shining – the exteriors anyway. We stayed here once and the scariest thing I saw was the look on my wife’s face when she saw the bunk bed dormitory room I’d booked us into. No ‘redrum‘ written on any mirrors now.



The  day really is marvellous. Alpine flowers splash the slopes with vivid colour; chipmunks dash about stocking up their larders; mountain birds flash through the conifers. And the vistas – wow! I find all the birds I came for – Hermit Warblers with their bright yellow faces, sleek Townsend’s Solitaires, raucous Clark’s Nutcrackers and the beautiful stone-gray and azure Mountain Bluebirds.


Mountain Bluebird

I’m just about to start down the mountain when a chipmunk crosses my path. He pauses and I pause. For a few minutes we look at each other. I wondering how he can take the time off and I imagine he’s wondering what I did with my snowboard. Of course I may just be flattering myself, a side effect of the thin mountain air perhaps.


Chipmunk with a Question





Night Birds



Sunset Near Ocean Shores Beach

Dunes, the surf and birds. I’m in Ocean Shores, Washington-again. It’s the height of summer but it’s not busy here. I think OS is just far enough from Seattle and Portland that it doesn’t get overcrowded. My theory, anyway. It reminds me of Sauble Beach, near where I grew up, also stuck in a species of time warp-quite pleasant too.

I’ve picked up a couple of rare gulls on my way down here but mostly now, I want owls. I know a spot where both Barn Owls and a Western Screech Owl work the dunes at night, which means waiting until dusk. I won’t likely see the birds but I might hear them, which is good enough for me.

They have fires on the beach here at night. People drive on on the (generally) packed sand too but, mostly, they stay near the access roads so it’s not too bad. It’s a nice evening for a walk; the subdued thunder of the surf almost a companion. I walk for a mile or more; pass shattered sand dollars and crab carapaces by the dozen, but no birds other than gulls.


The Constant Surf

And then something remarkable happens. I spot a moving smudge at the tideline, which turns into a flock of Western Sandpipers. They are so busy feeding, they scarcely notice me, and soon a few hundred are scampering around my feet, like little mice. A car goes by and they take to the air. Now they are all around me, wheeling and crying – jeet, jeet, jeet– close enough I could reach out and touch some. Soon they settle again, invisible now in the darkness, and carry on feeding.


Shorebirds at Night

I head up into the dunes, following, as best I can, the deer and people trails through the Sea Grass and Seashore Lupin. The air is sweet with a faint overlay of beach fire wood smoke and the ozone tang of salt water. I’m about to give up on my quarry, to go in search of my dinner when I hear the baby dragon rasp of a hunting barn owl as it cruises the dunes on silent wings, looking for something to eat – like a fat vole. My mission is accomplished and I’m hungry too. Fresh vole – maybe not!


Sandpipers (What’s in a Name)

After five early morning attempts I finally spotted the Wandering Tattler on the Breakwater. I’m not complaining. The sea is flat and the days are warm. The Tattler is a sandpiper, one species in a large family. Like the Wandering Tattler, many have magical names, like characters in a book – Dowitcher, Whimbrel, Willet, Ruff, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Godwit, Stint, Red Knot, Yellowlegs. A children’s book, I think.


Wandering Tattler, Victoria, BC

I like their Latin names too. Calidris and Tringa are my favourites. Members of the Tringa family are lanky, like the Tattler. The Calidris folks tend to be shorter and  stockier, more sandpiper like. Red Knots, for example. Makes me think of stories in classical mythology-Calidris met Tringa in Poseidon’s garden one evening and incurred his wrath – that type of thing.


Red Knots and Friends, Ocean Shores, WA

And they migrate, often thousands of miles. The bird I saw this morning left the mountains of Alaska days ago. It’s just the beginning of the shorebird season and lots of them are showing up. Yesterday, ten Greater Yellowlegs and a Black-bellied Plover plunked down in the little bay near my home and frolicked. And why not?  After the sun set somewhere north of here, they lifted off and flew all night. Time for a morning bath and a bit of fun!  Is it my imagination or is there a bit of ‘do you mind?’ in the glance of this chap?


Greater Yellowlegs, Victoria, BC

The Yellowlegs and Plovers are in the first wave of sandpipers. Soon, I’ll be out in the autumn gales, plashing through marshes in my wellies, looking for more species, and always hoping something rare will drop in. A Siberian sandpiper would be nice.



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.



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!


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.


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.



Rare Birds 2

I used to drive my kids across the continent every summer so they could visit their grandparents in southern Ontario. They’re grown now. For the first time in many years, I’ll be driving cross-country to Ontario, a journey which, for me, will have a slight tinge of melancholy attached to it-a sense of times gone and never to return.

But I like driving. My route takes me  through Pendleton, Oregon,  Laramie, Wyoming, Kearney, Nebraska, Bettendorf, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s a lot of miles, not to mention the return journey. And then, of course, there are the road hazards, like this alleged BLT.


Road Hazard, Michigan

The Kirtland’s Warbler is a rare bird I’d like for my list. To see one means a side trip to  Grayling, Michigan-many extra miles and no guarantees. The birds nest in a tiny area of second-growth pine forest in north central Michigan, and that’s pretty well it. Winters are spent in the Bahamas. The Kirtland’s is very unlikely to come to you; you have to go to it, especially if you’re a westerner.

In Grayling, I find my motel and take a break. Grayling is a small town, very small, surrounded by pine forest. I’m going to be here for two nights! Grayling has a nice little independent movie house though so if I get bored on the second night I could take in a show. I check the marquee. The movie is Minions, so maybe not.


Kirtland’s Warbler habitat

The Warblers are supposed to be in a patch of pines just outside of town. I don’t plan on going too far into the nesting area although the season is pretty well over and the new birds fledged. Some Clay-colored Sparrows appear and check me out. However, it’s a very nice day  and I’m enjoying the quiet of the forest with its wide, sandy trails.


Clay-colored Sparrow

I pass a Cowbird trap. Cowbirds are a particular menace because they lay their eggs in warbler nests. The much bigger Cowbird hatchling pushes the warbler chicks out to die, after which tiny warbler parents bust their you-know-whats to feed and raise the monster changeling.


 Cowbird Trap

Now, I’ve checked pictures people have taken of the Kirtland’s. For reason, I think the birds are usually near the tops of the small pines, which I where I look for them. Other than the rather scruffy yellow and gray-blue bird watching me from a patch of brush, waist-high, I’ve seen nothing. Then it dawns on me-the bird looking at me is a Kirtland’s Warbler! This is another case of not reading the whole description. Every bird book tells us that the Kirtland’s Warbler stays low. I have no idea how many I walked past while I was searching the treetops.



Young Kirtland’s Warbler

So…it’s evening, it’s Grayling, Michigan. I’m alone. What to do? Luckily, there’s a small movie house in town…




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.