End of Summer

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Roundhouse Railyards

A warm late summer day, or will be once the sun is up. September has a faded glory I especially like, with a touch of melancholy in it — a string quartet replacing summer’s brass band. Today I’m searching for rare sparrows, a Brewer’s at Panama Flats and a Lark Sparrow at the old rail yards in Vic West. Both birds are common in Arizona, certainly not here. I try for the Lark first. The yard is more or less deserted but there are zero birds up yet. After three quarters of an hour of fruitless searching, I’m ready to give up. I’m almost back at the car when I see a single bird coming in, a sparrow from its undulating flight. It lands next to the open door of a construction worker’s pickup, ignores the heavy metal music emanating from within, and begins to feed. It’s the Lark. Birds are weird sometimes! More and more pickups arrive and the noise level rises. Time to move on to Panama Flats and some peace and quiet. The Lark Sparrow couldn’t care less about that, apparently.

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Lark Sparrow

At the Flats it’s warmer and brighter. The wintertime wet meadows are now dry fields,  knee-deep in snow-white Chamomile with their butter-yellow centers. The flowers’ powerful musky perfume, if ‘perfume’ is the right word, clings to my clothing as I wade through. Not unpleasant but strong!

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Panama Flats

Head-high Cattails, Queen Ann’s Lace, Horse-weed and Thistle, crowd in along the dyke trail. A pudgy vole sees me just in time and panics, his round rear end (is bum inappropriate?) disappearing into the weeds. I track him through rustling leaves, scurrying loudly away. He needs to be more careful. A Northern Harrier just floated past and there’s a dark Merlin hunting nearby, lightning fast and deadly. Incautious voles don’t last long anywhere.

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Vole in a Hurry (recreation)

This is sparrow land. I catch a glimpse of the Brewer’s in a stunted willow but mostly it’s Savannah, White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows that populate the Flats, shooting left and right out of the taller vegetation like tiny, spring-loaded feathered missiles. Lots of Goldfinches here too, flitting through the branches of the taller willows. It’s the end of summer and birds are gathering for pre-migration, a wonderful time. The rains will come soon, the rampant plant growth will die down and the ponds will refill just in time to welcome the flocks of returning waterfowl and shore birds.

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Savannah Sparrow

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Lincoln’s Sparrow

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Goldfinch

 

 

Owl+Mosquitoes Squared

I’m scratching, alternating between the mosquito bite on the heel of my hand and those on my ankles. Makes me think back to when my mom used to dot us boys with calamine lotion, which helped, I think, but not much. We had lots of mosquitoes where I grew up. In summer, the kids in my neighbourhood looked like they’d contracted some kind of plague, the symptoms of which were abundant bright pink blotches and continued scratching. But I digress. I’m at Swan Lake again in spite of continuing forest fire smoke. My first bird of the day should have clued me in. The top of a very tall conifer ought to put you out of the bug zone. Not so for the Osprey who, in spite of biting insects and smoke, manages a ‘see if I care’ look. No bug repellent for wild things!

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Osprey Under Attack

I’m determined to bird today so I carry on. As long as I don’t linger in any one spot, I seem to be okay. Speed doesn’t make for easy birding however. Nothing seems to want to stay put, like me. A noisy gaggle of young Waxwings zips through the higher branches, too skittish to pause for pictures. Likewise, a Bewick’s Wren appears and poses just as I turn my camera off to save the battery, and then ducks away as the machine blinks back to life. Towhees and Fox Sparrows are especially furtive. After forty minutes of fruitless searching, I’m almost done. I have just one more trail to try. It takes me under the trees and into deep shade, which is suicidal. Never mind. I hurry like I’m crossing No-Man’s Land to get to my home trench. I’m literally turning on my heel to make a run for it when I spot a young Great Horned Owl. Figures. Now I don’t care about mosquitoes — well, that’s a lie. Still, with such a beautiful bird and such beautiful light, sacrifices had to made. Now, where did I put that calamine!

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Winter Birds

It’s damp and it’s been cold, which notwithstanding, I’ve been out birding. For listers like me, the new year means the start of the count again. I like that. And it’s easy to pick up species now — common birds are just as important as uncommon ones. I did try for several rarities – a Bullock’s Oriole, a Lesser Goldfinch and a Mountain Bluebird. I struck out on all counts until yesterday when I finally (after 6 tries) caught the Goldfinch at a backyard feeder. Such a thrill to finally ‘strike pay dirt’. Even so, just to be outside, looking for birds and listening to the sounds of nature is its own reward. The new year revives old challenges too. I hear my old nemesis, the Glaucous Gull has been sighted up coast – a life bird for me. Worth a trip? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

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Steller’s Jay

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Northern Pintail

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Common Merganser and Bufflehead

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Redpoll

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Downy Woodpecker

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Ringneck Duck

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Barred Owl

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Northern Flicker

Metaphorically

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Short-billed Dowitchers

We’ve had four weeks of perfect weather here on the west coast. Sunny, twenty-one degrees, enough breeze to keep the air fresh – it’s unnerving, like the year is stuck, like two tectonic plates binding, like something’s going to pop. Too dramatic? I blame it on Philip Kerr’s great Bernie Gunther mysteries. I’m reading one now. Following Bernie, I’m tempted throw similes around like a float rider tossing beads in a Mardi Gras parade. Anyway, the year isn’t stuck; shorebirds are passing through, juveniles mostly.

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Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs are back. A few weeks ago, I heard their rapid, three-syllable calls at night — weet-weet-weet – and now seven are working the shoreline, dashing about, heads bobbing. Black-bellied Plovers are in the area too; a large flock cruised past the Marina yesterday on their way to Discovery Island, clear, piping voices carrying far, even above the breeze and the chiming shrouds of moored sailboats.

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Black-bellied Plovers

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Short-billed Dowitcher

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Storm Sewer Bonanza!

Four young short-billed Dowitchers surprise me by landing near a storm sewer outlet a dozen feet from a busy walkway and begin probing for treats. Seems a bit stinky to me but they seem to like it. They’ve come from nesting grounds in Alaska or northern Alberta. If they came by way of the Interior Plateau, they’ve flown above the massive forest fires threatening Williams Lake, Hundred Mile and other Cariboo communities.

So, the migration has begun, with lots of sandpipers and plovers reported in the area. It’s going to get really hot here in a day or two. Makes me long for cool fall days and soggy birding – no, not really. A rainy night though, that might be nice – like an ice-cream sundae on a…no, like a bowl of cold strawberries after a…nope…aww, forget it.

 

 

Pigeons! Good grief!

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It’s a measure, perhaps, of how slow mid-summer birding has been for me that I offer up this post on pigeons. I don’t mean the sleek, pearl-grey Band-tailed Pigeons, those lovely forest birds, but ordinary Rock Doves. Not well liked generally, these ‘rats of the air’, but I’ve always had a fondness for them.

I won’t bore you with stories of boyhood attempts to become a ‘pigeon fancier’, or of nabbing sleeping birds from under the eaves of the abandoned, towering old Coop with its rotten floors, or of the strange assortment of culled birds begged from real pigeon people, or of the beautiful red Homer, with its mighty chest and prominent cere, the one my friend Lloyd and I grabbed from off a downtown sidewalk. Gosh, that bird was something – a prince among pigeons. He stayed with us for a few days, ate our gleaned scratch grain, gathered his strength and then continued his journey home-at ninety miles an hour if he wanted to kick in the afterburners. Where home was, Lloyd and I never knew. We ought to have recorded his band number but twelve-year-olds often don’t think of these things until it’s too late.

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To make this more like a birding post, I mount a photographic expedition in support of it. I soon discover that there are really good-looking birds in most flocks. When I park out on Turkey Head, the locals descend, ready for a handout. They obviously don’t understand I’m here to do a photo essay, because I have to keep chasing them off the hood of my newly-washed car. It’s very disrespectful (Hey- I’m working here!).

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Begging for handouts, incidentally, doesn’t interrupt the mating process with Rock Doves. I’m not sure anything less than a Peregrine Falcon attack would accomplish that. The cooing and billing goes on through the year, which is why there are so many of these feathered ‘rats’ around the world. It’s not their fault. I watch a movie star among Rock Doves as he pouts his way from one female to another until he finally gets his way. He’s got it all going on!

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When a more promising car drives by, the flock lifts off, whirls around, performs some aerial acrobatics and, disappointed, re-descends near me. Pigeons are beautiful flyers, agile and swift, with those wing-tip clapping takeoffs. It’s worth watching pigeons fly; there aren’t many birds who do it better. See how they soar and turn, tumble and dive, flight feathers whistling. Wonderful! It’s those big chest muscles and the area and shape of the wing that does it.

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They’re relatively good parents too, think ‘pigeon milk’. In the bird world, only Penguins and Flamingos and members of the dove family make ‘milk’ for their offspring. I’ve never lost my love for these birds. Most of the snarky things people say about them could also be said about our own species, which doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as too many pigeons.

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So that’s it for the Rock Dove, my old pals. Nostalgia still drives me to visit to poultry barns at fall fairs, to check out Pouters, Fantails, Rollers and Tumblers at local shows, to listen to the music of  squawks, coos and peeps and the rustle of feathers, to breathe in the once familiar smells of scratch grain and straw. Other bird smells I try to ignore. I’m selective with with nostalgia. One has to be.

Powerline Birding

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The Olympics

Power lines are among the ugliest by-products of our electronic age but the ‘cut’ also provides wonderful habitat for birds, particularly flycatchers and warblers. I’m up on Goldstream Heights, picking my way over the rocks. Before long, I’m too focussed on the calls of birds to be aware of the huge metal towers looming nearby. A Song Sparrow chips a warning – I’m the topic certainly. As I stop to take in the view of the Olympics across the Strait of Georgia in Washington state, four Band-tailed Pigeons flash by overhead, streamlined, swift flyers like all pigeons. Below them, a tropically-coloured Western Tanager flashes yellow and red, landing briefly on a distant treetop. My mind is on flying birds. Suddenly a MacGillvary’s Warbler startles me with a blast of song. He pops into view, giving me some great looks. Lovely. Even with the towers and high-voltage lines, there are worse places to be than here on a mild May morning.

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MacGillvary’s Warbler

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Song Sparrow

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Powerline Trail

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Western Tanager

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Band-tailed Pigeon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bufflehead Ballet

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It’s on

The squads of Buffleheads visiting the bay are in full mating mode now. Neat, tiny ducks ‘hooking up’ or fending off rivals. Buffleheads are monogamous but young birds need to find a partner. They’ll try to steal one if there’s no other way. The activity out there is close to frantic. Everybody’s zooming around, the strikingly-patterned males and the more tastefully-garbed females. And there’s lots of splashing too. The tiny ducks don’t even notice the much larger Common Mergansers who cruise through the melee.

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Common Mergansers-where?

It’s all necessary, of course. Things have to happen now, or never. Soon, the Buffleheads will leave the coast and migrate into the interior. The females will rear their young in nesting holes originally made by Northern Flickers in trees on small streams and ponds sans Northern Pike, those notorious duckling eaters. For a time, they’ll stop being sea ducks and become freshwater ducks (that’s remarkable too if you think about it). I won’t see them again until the fall, likely on the same date as last year–October 15. Buffleheads are the most punctual of waterfowl.

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It’s how you look…

I should have more information about these charming little guys at my fingertips. I used to have a detailed monograph devoted to them, a surprise gift from my printer father years ago. Consistent with my life pattern of not needing something until after I’ve thrown it away, I got rid of it -reluctantly – a year or so ago. I’d carried ‘Buffleheads ‘ by Erskine around for decades even though it smelled rather strongly of the aquarium it fell into way back when. Plus its pages stuck together. It had to go. But now, I’m watching Buffleheads doing bobbing neck stretches, chasing each other in circles, flapping, displaying wing patterns and otherwise carrying on and, boy, I wish I still had that book. Sorry, Dad.

 

Bumper Birds

Now that I think about it, Bufflehead Bumper Boats might be a better title for this post. It’s the closest analogy I can think of. Males circle each other heads down, plowing through the water, raising the vertical crests on the back of their heads, show off the striking white patches on their wings, tearing around as fast as their little pink legs can drive them, bearing off just before the collision, like kids doing bumper boats. The myriad behavioural nuances obviously mean something. Erskine could have told me.

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Picking Up Speed

Amongst themselves there must be worlds of difference between participants but I can’t tell one of these little showboats from another. And which bird wins? A better black and white pattern might carry the day, or the intensity of the iridescent purple sheen on a male’s head, or good ‘cheeks’ and nape ruff, or maybe the whole package. I suspect nerve and aggression figures in big time.

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Any day now, they’ll be gone, off to their northern lakes and rivers and their nesting holes, not to return until October 15 when dozens will suddenly show up in the bay. I’ll miss the little guys, the smallest of the sea ducks.