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

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.

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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.

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Great Blue Heron on Ice

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Snow Bunting

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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’.

Boxing Day

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Harlequin Ducks

It’s the day after Christmas and some of the tumult has died down. I take a quick walk around Turkey Head to see what birds are around. It’s still cool and a brisk southeaster keeps me moving, dodging the occasional, and unpredictable, jet of icy salt spray that fountains up along the rocky seawall. The surf doesn’t bother several groups of beautiful Harlequin Ducks of course, bright and showy on this generally grey afternoon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

I hear birds rather than see them. A few dozen chattering Bushtits  parallel me but I spot only one. Tonight they’ll likely be holed up – literally – huddled together in a bunch for warmth like tiny, feathered mice. And then there’s the Anna’s Hummingbird that flashes by. When the temperature drops, so will its internal temperature. On a cold night like tonight, the bird will zone off into torpor as its heart beat slows to a minimum and it edges into hypothermia. They survive in this way, dropping their metabolic rate by 95 percent.

With the tide out, most of the seabirds are out working the chop. I hear Black-bellied Plovers and see small rafts of Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers. Black Oystercatchers are working the rocks in the bay. Common birds for us here but still remarkable.

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Black Oystercatcher

 

 

Bird Count

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The temperature hasn’t risen above zero and it’s snowing. Not much. At the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it’s enough to keep people home. I’m at Cattle Point in Victoria taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count. A small group this year, led by young Geoffrey, a talented birder. It’s only just light and he’s already spotted three owls — two Barred and a Great Horned. Amazing.

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Barred Owl

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The Perilous Trail

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It’s quiet. A somber day — a dusting of white and a leaden sky. We move back into the park to get out of the wind. Except for small flocks of noisy Robins, most birds are lying low. The visibility is lousy too. I never do see the Goldfinch somebody spots, immobile and invisible (to me) in a nearby birch. But red pops. Robins, Housefinches, an active Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, its chest gluey with sap from its wells, really stand out.

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Red-breasted Sapsucker

I took a course in colour theory once, the upshot of which was that every colour has a shape. I tried. I stared at various hues until my eyes crossed and that never sunk in. Now I try to figure out if there’s some sort of complimentary dealy going on. Red intensified by the green-blue light of the morning but, really, I have no idea. I like it the effect though. Scarlet rose hips and dark red haws on the thorns help too. What with snow and shades of red and green, it’s kind of Christmassy – nice.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

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Housefinch

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Haws

 

 

Eagle Time

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An Arctic wind has set in from the northeast and I don’t feel much like travelling far. I’m too lazy – and cold. Someone spotted a Mountain Bluebird at Saanichton Spit yesterday but I’m not ambitious enough to hike out to look for it. Not on that exposed strip of sand anyway. Not today.

I take a stroll around Turkey Head instead. Uncommon birds drop into into the bay sometimes. Nothing but the usual Buffleheads and American Widgeon here this morning. Handsome birds even so. But then something more interesting – two Bald Eagles courting, riding the winds, looking to hook up – literally. I’ve seen this once before. A pair flies very high, link talons and spiral towards the ground. Occasionally, they don’t let go – a death spiral. I follow them as best I can, the male is calling, a Frankie Valli falsetto that doesn’t seem to match the bird at all.

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Are they a pair? I have no way of knowing. My impression is that it’s not happening. Not yet at any rate. Apparently, Bald Eagles mate for life and ‘reconnect’ after a short northward migration. It’s hard to know what’s up with these two. Not elevation anyway. They’re not going super high as they would for the death spiral. Just chirping and riding the winds – having fun. Later I see a solitary eagle. Is this the unlucky suitor, or a lonesome bird waiting for its mate?  I think he or she looks hopeful but maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing (gosh, what a word!).

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I almost always think of the Tennyson poem, The Eagle, when I see the great birds. Of course, he was thinking of Golden Eagles, probably up in Scotland, not the fish loving, gull eating Bald Eagle. It doesn’t matter. It’s one of my favourite bird poems: He clasps the crag with crooked hands; close to the sun in lonely lands – and four more great lines.

 

 

 

Party Time on the Mountain

 

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Birds can become intoxicated on fermented berries. I remember a translation in a high school French class (or was it German?) about chickens getting drunk on overripe cherries — overdoing it on home brew kirsch. Not really a scientific source but then I’m no scientist so I’m prepared to accept it.

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What?

Certainly, the Cedar Waxwings and Robins up here on Observatory Hill are acting like they’re well into their cups. The Robins shoot me belligerent looks and pretend they run the place. A couple even faux buzz-bomb me. They obviously didn’t see the Peregrine that just overflew the mountain!

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The Peregrine

There must dozens of birds here and they’re goofing around big time, flitting from Arbutus to Arbutus, eating berries, chirping – loud. Their landings seem unsteady too. The Waxwings seem more sedate. Maybe they’re just at a different stage in the party. Most of them. There’s always the odd goofball, of course, who doesn’t know when to quit.

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Between Storms Again

 

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Squall Line

I’m out  between squalls, following up reports of owl sightings–a Pygmy Owl on Observatory hill and a possible Snowy Owl at Panama Flats. Lately, my owl luck has been pitiful, even when I concentrate really, really hard. You’d expect some cooperation, but no. Still, it’s always worth a shot.

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Time to Change Lodgings!

Panama Flats, a series of diked cattail-rimmed pools, resemble the real Panama not at all. Lots of waterfowl here though. I exit the car and most of them take to the air — Teal, Mallards, Widgeon, Pintails. It’s not me – I’m too far away. I suspect a hunting Peregrine but it’s a Bald Eagle that’s causing all the fuss, cruising the ponds like a diner at a buffet. A flock of Glaucous-winged Gulls is first up. Being an important food item for the Eagles, they can’t afford to linger. I’ve seen an eagle pick a gull out of the air.

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Hmmm – tasty!

By the time I get to Observatory Hill, the rain is almost on me. It’s windy – and cold. A half dozen Ravens seem to welcome the prospect of the coming storm, cavorting and croaking, doing aerials, zooming past the dome covering the Observatory’s large telescope faster than I can focus on them. Using the wind.

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Raven Ballet

Below me, the valley is in mist. To the south, someone burns slash–the blue smoke contrasting with the rising, steaming vapours. A maintenance guy comes to do leaf blowing. Jeepers! I can’t figure out the logic here — it’s a mountain top after all. The noise grates and the rain begins in earnest. Time to go. Not a darn owl anywhere anyway!

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Smoke and Mist