Powerline Birding

GoldHGHTSMay82017

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.

Mac'swarblmay82017

MacGillvary’s Warbler

SngSprwMay82017

Song Sparrow

GoldpowlineMay82017

Powerline Trail

WestTnMay82017

Western Tanager

BTpigeonMay82017

Band-tailed Pigeon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bufflehead Ballet

Buffles1Ma192017

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.

Buff;leand mergsmar192017

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 The females will rear their young in nesting holes originally made by Northern Flickers in trees on small streams and ponds sans Northern Pike, those notorious duckling eaters.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.

Buffle3Mar192017

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.

buffle11

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.

buffle10

buffle9

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.

 

Snow on Maui

 

kanahapndsfeb212017

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.

snowgeesemauife212017

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.

hawgeese

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.

pacgoldplovfe212017

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.

tattlermaui2017

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.

chestnutmuniafe212017

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.

northcardmaui

Northern Cardinal

rccardmauife212017

Red-crested Cardinal

rjfmaui

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.

 

 

The Lake

The last time I visited Swan Lake a week or two ago, most of its remaining  waterfowl clustered around a small lead of open water, some swimming, others skating comically around the perimeter. Now the Lake is open and busy. Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese are here. Fleets of Common Mergansers fish, diving in unison. A squadron of sleepy Ruddy Ducks passes, stiff tails held at the traditional forty-five degree angle; the birds move together, either pushed by the breeze or through some coordinated, semi-conscious and unseen paddling.

mergsja312017

Common Mergansers

ruddysja312017

Ruddy Ducks

heronja312017

Great Blue Heron

Half-concealed in the rushes, a Blue Heron watches from the rushes, alert to something. There it is — a Bald Eagle. It comes in over the lake like a warplane, hidden at first behind a screen of firs and then dropping down to settle into a stealthy glide. The target is a mixed flock of Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s Gulls but the lookouts are on the ball this time and the intended victims disperse in a hurry. The Eagle, looking slightly irritated, makes a half-hearted stoop and then is gone.

eagleja312017

Bald Eagle

The breeze is suddenly quite cold so I leave the lakeside and take one of my favourite owling paths where it’s more sheltered. No owls today unfortunately. A pair of Steller’s Jays makes it clear I’m not welcome and sends me on my way with a series of raspy calls. It’s mating season preliminary time; male Red-winged Blackbirds are also starting to sing, although singing might not be the right word to describe their familiar, spring-heralding call.

walwayslkja312017

selljyja242017

Steller’s Jay

Out in the sunlight again, I’m startled by a very loud ‘peep’ and then another, which I realize is the sound made by the extended tail feathers of an Anna’s Hummingbird at the bottom of its courtship dive. A moment of two later, the bird alights close by and gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’, its purple gorget extended and catching the sun.

annnasja312017

Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone Gulls and Pink-footed Geese

I’ve been to the sewage ponds again searching for a Glaucous Gull that’s supposed to be there and, once again, it’s not. Sewage ponds, for crying out loud! I know I keep harping on about Glaucous Gulls. This is the last time — I give up. Plus I’m starting to think the reference picture a rival birder gave me is throwing me off.

gull3a

Glaucous Gull

On the other hand, I did view two Pink-footed Geese at Martindale Flats. These birds summer in Greenland and I never expected to see them on our coast — or anywhere. I think they arrived on one of the fierce Nor’easters that recently plagued us but who knows. The geese stayed with a flock of Canada and Cackling Geese. Geese are sociable that way — accommodating. They never did come close enough for me to get good pictures but then you can’t have everything. They also attracted a flock of birders including some who had come long distances just to be able to record these rare birds – and to get their own lousy shots.

pfootedgeese3ja232017

Pink-footed Geese

birdersja232017

Birder Flock

Winter Birding West Coast Style…

I needed to go to Washington state to pick up copies of my latest mystery novel, the Bent Box, and figured I might as well also pick up a few birds while I’m down there. There’s been a female Common Eider hanging out at a place I’ve never heard of called Purdy Spit near Gig Harbor. The Eider is a rare, rare bird on the west coast so, what the heck, I’ll go have a look. And since I’m going that far, I plan to visit some of my favourite places in Oregon, like Baskett Slough and the Finley Reserve. Weather is a problem though. It’s still unseasonably cold and snow is a possibility.

rlghawkja92017

Rough-legged Hawk

I take a side trip to Samish Flats and spot at least a dozen Red-tailed Hawks, tons of Trumpeter Swans, some Great Blue Herons, scores of Bald Eagles, ducks by the hundreds and a Rough-legged Hawk or two. At Tacoma, I turn towards Gig Harbor and Purdy Spit. When I’m a few miles from my destination, my GPS capriciously decides I’m an hour and a half away. Foiled. I turn back. Who cares about a stupid rare bird anyway? I pay the bridge toll and continue to Nisqually. Nisqually’s nice but the wind is cutting. And it’s damp too. After an hour of birding there, I’m chilled to the bone. When I get to the motel, my fingers are still numb.

hrnoniceja112017

Great Blue Heron on Ice

froznisqlja92017

Nisqually – Frozen

I’m booked into a cheap highway motel in Centralia figuring that I can go south or west from there the next morning. I know nothing about Centralia except what I’ve seen from the highway, which hasn’t been all that impressive. Off the highway, however, Centralia is quite nice. It’s one of the things I really like out these birding trips, the chance to explore, to discover places I would never have seen otherwise. It gets better. I luck into McMenamin’s Olympic Club – a pleasant surprise!

olymicstoveja92017

The Olympic Club, Centralia

With its built-in movie theater and a huge wood-burning stove, the Olympic Club is a treasure. The smell of the fire, the warmth, the food, the glass of Hammerhead Ale, well, on a cold night who could ask for more. Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok would feel right at home here.

comeidrja102017

Common Eider

Next morning I hear Portland and the coast are expecting a big dump of snow so I turn back north. I decide to have one last stab at the Eider. When I get to Purdy Spit, which turns out to be ten minutes away from where I was yesterday, I find some birders already scoping the water. They’re kind enough to point out the duck to me, which is good because it’s a mile away on the other side of the bay. I can see it with my scope but I’m just shooting blind with my camera. Luckily I got a few pictures but nothing I’d submit to Audubon.

bohemwaxwgsja102017

Bohemian Waxwings

I’ve booked a motel in Bellingham. It’s just a few hours away so I’ve got time to bird some more. I follow up on reports of Bohemian Waxwings in Magnuson Park in Seattle. Happily they’re easy to find (with help from another birder already viewing them). I know these attractive birds quite well from my years living in northern BC and I’m surprised I never added them to my life list before. Now I do. Before I get to Bellingham, I head back down to Samish Flats. It’ll be dark soon and the Short-eared Owls that winter there should be hunting.

shrtearedowlfeb12016

Short-eared Owl

Sure enough I spot one – a beautiful bird, one of the most prettiest owls, I think. Unfortunately, the light’s too low and the bird moving around too much to get a good shot. For this post, I’ll use a stand-in, a bird I photographed last year. But I’m frozen again. I don’t think I’ve been really warm since I sat by the Olympic Club’s towering wood stove last night and ate my dinner. I know – whine, whine, whine. If it wasn’t for that fantastic view and the wonderful birds, well…

mtbakrja102017

Mount Baker

 

 

 

 

Wind Storm

A cold Northeaster blew up a couple of days ago and its still moaning through the shrouds of the sailboats moored across the bay. Last night, the howling outside the window reminded me of a passage in Moonlight, one of my favourite childhood books.

“The sea has little mercy…people turn in their beds and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach.”

Or something like that. Anyway, I was happy not to be fighting the sea anywhere around here.

When the sun comes up, we learn what the wind can do — a sailboat pushed up on the reef where I usually spot Greater Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plovers. Beyond the San Juans, Mount Baker stands sharp and clear against a robin’s egg sky but the sea is white-capped and the breakwater regularly washed with torrents of seawater. I’m not feeling rugged enough to go scope for seabirds. Time to go inland.

agroundd2ja22017

We head out to Martindale Flats in the vain hope that going to an area of flatlands northeast of here will get us out of a nor’easter. Fat chance. However, a number of rare and rarish birds have been sighted in the fields recently — a Clay-colored Sparrow (maybe 2), a Harris’s Sparrow,¬† and a Harlan’s Hawk, and I want those birds.

It’s just as windy at Martindale as it is in town, maybe more so, but there are birds everywhere, using the wind. It’s what they do. A Merlin zooms by before we can park, and moments later, a Peregrine, both too fast to photograph. The Peregrine means nothing to flocks of Canada and Cackling Geese, nor to the mighty Trumpeter Swans. It’s the Widgeon who panic; hundreds take to the air, wing-patches and bellies flashing white in the bright sunlight.

widgnpnicjan22017

American Widgeon

And there are a dozen or so Bald Eagles, one of which is feeding on a kill (either a Raven or a Turkey Vulture). On the other side of the road, a pair sit close, bonded, nesting in a month or so perhaps.

eaglsja22017

eaglepairja22016

Bald Eagles

We catch glimpses of the Harlan’s Hawk and the Clay-colored Sparrow but the Harris’s Sparrow eludes us. The wind is bone-chilling but it brought an unexpected visitor – a Snow Bunting. Beautiful and very cooperative. And then later, at a feeder, a Dark-eyed Junco speckled with white, a condition ornithologists call leucistic.

snwbuntja22017

Snow Bunting

leucjuncoja22017

Dark-eyed Junco (Leucistic)

It’s getting on and we’re frozen. The Harris’s Sparrow will have to wait for another day. One of us spoke the words ‘coffee shop’ and that was that. Time to hurry to the car and exit ‘stage left’.