Between Pacific Storms: October Memories

Our perennial Low in the Gulf of Alaska is setting up nicely, so the autumn storms are starting. And the remnants of a ‘weather event’ in the western Pacific are heading our way too. Makes me think the archaic word ‘tempest’ ought to be revived. Even so, birding between fronts is not a bad idea. You never know what will arrive on the heels of a great storm. The big blow is due in a day or so but I won’t go far today. Out past the pumpkin patch, I think, and Swan Lake.

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Picked Over

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Canada Geese Incoming

Rain softens everything and I mean more than the mud-making mixing of earth and water, although there’s plenty of that too. For all its pleasures, summer has a bright, loud harshness to it that needs to be relieved by early mornings and late evenings. Fall pleases me more.

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Mallards Flaps Down

Migrating waterfowl are passing through. Lots of them. A mixed flock of Mallard, Pintail and Widgeon drops into a now harvested grain field, sounding off as they land. Skeins of vocalizing Canada Geese and the smaller Cackling Geese decorate the skies in every direction.

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Wilson’s Snipe

I see nothing unusual in the fields so I check out some newly replenished ponds. The rain quietens my footsteps and makes it easier for me to arrive at a finger of slough undetected. I’m in luck. A Wilson’s Snipe is out and very visible. Somehow these secretive birds must know that hawks generally avoid flying in the rain. I stand dead still, watching, until the bird wanders off into the long grass.

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Rain Bird – Wilson’s Snipe

There are other birds to see too. A young, slightly bedraggled Cedar Waxwing looks like he’s going to a punk event somewhere. The black mask only adds to the illusion. He gives me the ‘once over’ as I go by but stays put. The punk attitude, I guess — I don’t care what you think as long as you notice me. Not to be outdone, a Steller’s Jay hops into view. I think the blue is Cerulean (more or less). Must be Crest Day at the Lake.

 

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Waxwing Punk

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Another Crest – Steller’s Jay

And speaking of illusions, I catch a glimpse of a Barred Owl, too deep in a thicket to get a good photo, but looking very ghostly on this pre-Halloween ramble. He or she is wide awake in the half light of the interval between storms. No flying tonight perhaps. Not in the teeth of (at least) gale-force winds. Not in a tempest!

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 Ghost Owl

The Wagtail

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Leaving Port

I intended this post to be about seabirds, about the Albatrosses, Skuas, Jaegers, Fulmars, and the other birds of the deep water zone forty miles from shore, the kind you have to go on a ‘pelagic’ to see. We saw all of them, which was great. A few rarities too. But the real story arrived at twenty-seven miles from port, on our way home.

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Black-footed Albatross

We left Westport, Washington at six-thirty in the morning, fought ten foot swells most of the way out, saw seabirds, tried to take pictures, and tried not to be seasick. Luckily, the seas calmed on the way back and the journey less of a challenge. With lower swells to deal with, the pictures got better too.

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Northern Fulmar

It’s getting on to mid afternoon. We’ve been looking at the sea for hours and some people have gone into the cabin and crashed. Not all of us though. Good thing too. A tiny bird appears in the western sky, a passerine, a land bird, flying a steady direct path towards us. It’s a  Grey Wagtail, an Eurasian bird. It’s flown many miles, thousands likely. From where? Siberia or Japan seem most likely. The pluck of that little creature, weighing only a few ounces is astonishing! We are a long way from even seeing land. The Wagtail is working against a slight headwind but his course is arrow-straight.

 

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Yellow Wagtail in Spain

I get no pictures of the gallant, little bird (although I do get good shots of the back of another birder’s head). The Wagtail above is a cousin, a Yellow Wagtail from Spain. Did our bird make it? Who can say? One showed up in California years ago, and two in British Columbia, again a long time ago. The thing is, how does he even know where he’s going? How does he keep that straight course across leagues of featureless ocean? It’s another example of birds as mysteries. I like to think he made it okay. He seemed determined – and strong.

 

Snowy Plovers

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Snowy Plover Land

In a way, this story is about misplaced assumptions. And being wrong – again. Remembering that Snowy Plovers nest (in season) near Grayland, Washington. I make a quick decision, take an access road to the beach and hope for the best. I don’t expect much, especially since pickups and jeeps are everywhere on the sand. I’m not planning on spending more than a half hour here anyway but it breaks up the long drive I’m on.

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Snowy Plover in a Rut

I walk down the last half mile down the road. A jeep passes me at speed, tears down to the tideline, does a couple of spectacular water fountaining donuts and then leaves. Now, I think, there’s no way I’ll see any of the tiny plovers. The jeep will have freaked them. Wrong.

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Come Here Often?

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I’m Thrilled

The Plovers appear. And they’re thrilled. They’re in and out of the vehicle tracks, scooting from furrow to furrow, like so many tawny mice. I can only guess why. Perhaps, the jeep tires have turned up tasty little critters, or maybe the ruts are just good to hide in. I find the vehicles irritating but, to the birds, I guess they’re like big ruminants, herds of elk maybe. And perhaps they take advantage of them in the same way egrets and other birds do in Africa when they tag along with elephants. Minus the bird advantages of elephant droppings, of course.

Swan Lake Sora

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Swan Lake

A few male Hooded Mergansers have arrived at the little bay near my home and the forecast is for rain, sure signs that summer is indeed over. Soon, the wet weather will set in. I make a last warm weather trip to Swan Lake, a local hot spot. The lake is glass smooth and flecked with, I think, fluff from Cottonwood trees. Four young Pied-billed grebes are feeding at the limit of my camera’s usable range. Plus they won’t keep still. Cute little guys but very active, diving every five seconds or so. It’s like a fairground ‘bash a mole’ game; they never reappear in the same place twice.

 

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Pied-billed Grebe

I’m hoping to add a Sora, a swamp-dwelling rail, to my year list. I know one (at least) inhabits the dense stand of bulrush at the west end but I’ve tried for this secretive bird umpteen times and it keeps eluding me. I shouldn’t take it personally. On my last visit a week or so ago,  a pair of young otters popped up through the duckweed, lifted their anvil heads to scan the shoreline and then, snakelike, slid out of the water and into the cattails. Slick, deadly and quiet. Human beings aren’t the only predators the Sora is alert to.

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Swan Lake Otters

I give up on the bird the on my first pass and carry on to the meadow. I hear birds in the trees but the foliage is so dense I don’t see much so I decide to have one more try at the Sora. A Blue Heron though sets up for a nice shot. The Herons are so commonplace that it’s nice to spend some time examining them–such a handsome bird.

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Great Blue Heron

I take some shots and, for some reason, I turn thinking the Sora might be near. And it is! Ten feet away and watching me. I have to pivot quietly to get a picture, which on a floating bridge isn’t easy but the bird seems relaxed, picking its way along the water’s edge. And then, like magic, it’s gone. I always feel  grateful when a bird shows up like this. I may have said so in an earlier post. It’s like a favour and I appreciate the gesture. Thank you, Sora!

 

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The Elusive Sora

 

 

Tideline Birds

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Harbor Seals – Now that I have your attention.

With the tide as low as it is during the night and the waxing moon, shorebirds are moving at night now. I’m awake before dawn and hear the drawn out piping of Black-bellied Plovers passing overhead and the three syllable cheer of the Yellowlegs in the cove. Geese are flying too although these are not going anywhere in particular. They’re local. But their honking reminds me of my years in the north. In the fall, huge flocks of Canadas pass through on their way south, making a kind of music, until one frosty morning, the skies are empty and quiet. After that, winter.

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Black Oystercatcher

I’m ready at first light to go to the point, to take advantage of the slowly rising tide, to check out who arrived during the night. I’m hoping for something on the rarer end of the spectrum, a Pacific Golden Plover perhaps. I know the Black-bellied Plovers will be there for sure. And they are. Along with Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Black Oystercatchers – and gulls.

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Ready to Spar – Black-bellied Plovers

A scuffle breaks out between two young Plovers.  It’s hard to tell how serious the fight is but in the natural world everything counts.The birds look identical to me but one drives the other off. What does it mean? I guess that when they head to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, the winner will succeed there and the loser will fail. It’s all about dominance. But, who knows? Breeding is months and several thousand miles of hazards from here, and now.

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To the Victor Go The Spoils?

I scan for rarities but find nothing remarkable. It’s still very early and the usual irritation here-people letting their dogs roam the tideline freely in spite of the birds-hasn’t yet occurred. It’s so quiet.

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Blacktails at the Tideline

A Blacktail doe appears and sniffs the air. She gives some subtle signal of reassurance and a fawn steps out onto the rocks, and then another. Finally, her whole family is there-two fawns from this year and two from last year and a young buck. All healthy looking,sleek from grazing on flowers in the local gardens, likely. The buck might be one of the doe’s offspring from two years ago, or he might just be a flirty hanger on, a teenager with high hopes. Certainly, he won’t be sticking around once the big bucks with their huge, many-tined racks show up.

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Blacktail Deer Confab

And speaking of youngsters, the Harbor Seal that has hawled out on a rock in the bay for the past several years, each time with with a new pup, is back. She always seems so tender with the young one, and so patient.

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Harbor Seals