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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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Common Mergansers

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Ruddy Ducks

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pink-footed Geese

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Birder Flock