Flycatchers, Nutcrackers and Bighorn Sheep

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Down into the Valley of the Similkameen

I’m crossing the Coast Range and then following the Similkameen River down into the Okanagan. It’s not far – a few hundred miles – but the birds are different on the other side of the mountains. I make a quick stop at Manning Park Lodge where the temperature is five degrees Celsius and a dozen or more grey and black Clark’s Nutcrackers search the picnic area for leftovers. Engaging birds these. Columbian Ground Squirrels hustle around too – beautiful little creatures with their tiger belly stripes. If I wasn’t in a sort of a hurry, I’d go up to the alpine meadows to look for more high country birds and animals. Next time.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

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Columbian Ground Squirrel

Back on the twisting, mountain road, I follow the rushing Similkameen to Princeton and then on to Osoyoos. The town is at the northern tip of the great Sonoran Desert – and it’s wine country. It’s twenty-five degrees now – much more like June than it was on the coast. I pass towering Vaseaux Cliffs and make a stop, hoping for a pink, black and green Lewis’s Woodpecker, White-throated Swifts and maybe a Rock Wren or two. I hear the Lewis’s and two Rock Wrens, plus a Canyon Wren. A California Quail hops up on a post, sees me, and makes himself scarce. The Swifts are here but almost impossible to photograph, flying, reputedly, at up to 200 miles per hour!

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California Quail

Something bawls, cow-like, on the cliff face high above. A Bighorn ewe looking for something, her lamb maybe. She’s not  lost, and not trapped. While I watch she drops out of sight momentarily. Heart-stopping. But there she is, twenty feet or more down, secure on a barely discernible ledge. I keep half an eye on her. I’m curious and sympathetic. Finally, my birds recorded and the sun moving towards the horizon, I’m ready to find my motel. I watch the ewe for a few more minutes and then leave her to her search.

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Bighorn Ewe

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Bighorn Ewe – Halfway down (she’s there!)

Next morning, I’m up early, walking the dike along a canal crossed by Road 22. The morning is beautiful and birds are plentiful.  Black and white Bobolinks disappear into the long grass before I can take a picture. At least hidden five Sora Rails whinny in the marshy areas. Willow Flycatchers call – Fitz-bew – all along the dike. A Gray Catbird pops up to check me out and then flies away across the canal. Eastern Kingbirds and Western Wood Peewees are plentiful.

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Willow Flycatcher

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Western Wood Peewee

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Gray Catbird

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Eastern Kingbird

It’s time to take my leave. I’m only here for  few hours and I’ve got a long drive home. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I drive to Vaseaux, get out and search the cliff face. At first I don’t see anything but there she is, standing vigil on a spur of rock a thousand feet up. Is it the same animal as yesterday? I don’t know – Bighorn ewes all look the same to me. If it is the one from yesterday then there’s much more to these animals than I thought.

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Vigil – Bighorn Ewe

 

Road Trip

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Lazuli Bunting – W.L. Finley Refuge

Once a year I take my 86 Alfa Romeo on a birding trip, usually to Oregon. My route this year, down I-5, though the Willamette Valley, up the Oregon coast and then looping back to BC, takes me past some of the best birding spots in the northwest – Nisqually, Baskett Slough, W.L. Finley, Fern Ridge, George Reifel. The car is sparkling and bright at the start, dust covered and bug plastered when I ease her into the her parking bay at home. What lingers is the remembrance of the joy of motoring through incredibly beautiful countryside, top down, listening to snatches of bird song, alive to the smell of blossoms, new hay, and the medicinal aromas of conifers — and of the wonderful birds I saw and heard along the way.

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Bittern – Fern Ridge Refuge

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Sandhill Crane – George Reifel Refuge

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Black-headed Grosbeak –  W.L.Finley Refuge

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Spotted Towhee with Caterpillars

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Red-Breasted Sapsucker – W.L. Finley

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Live Moss – Fern Ridge

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Marsh Wren – Nisqually

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Alfa Bird – Oregon

 

 

 

 

Panama Flats

I like the name of this birding hotspot -Panama Flats. I’m surprised a blues artist hasn’t picked it up. And now, singing ‘How come my dog don’t bark when my best friend comes around?’ is the legendary Panama Flats! But I digress. This is a birding blog after all and the ‘Flats’ are, instead, a series of flooded fields that attract waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and late fall. A very pleasant, quiet place to be on a warm May morning like this one.

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In a few months, the land will be dry, plowed possibly. Water birds that nest here, like Mallards and Canada Geese, have to getting cracking (sorry) early in the year. Today, dozens of ducklings and goslings are following their mums around, learning the ropes.

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Spotted Sandpiper

I’m here for a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I see briefly soon after arriving-on its way out, heading north I guess. Not so, the Spotted Sandpipers, actively displaying and chasing each other around the edges of the ponds, carried here and there by the staccato beats of their short wings. A Long-billed Dowitcher, stalking the perimeter surprises itself when it spots me, angling off into a swarm of young Mallards. I’m not fooled, not with that beak.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

I follow the dykes between the ponds, balancing on the planks and bits of scrap wood people have used to span the cross ditches. A Marsh Wren scolds me from the cattails, a complex series of chuckles and buzzes. Quite charming – if they did but know it.

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Marsh Wren

As the day warms, Barn Swallows appear, darting around after insects. A glossy Purple Martin crisscrosses the larger pond, the distinctive half flapping, half-gliding flight style an added giveaway. A Common Yellowthroat sings his ‘witchity, witchity, witchity’ nearby, looking handsome with his white forehead, black mask and lemon-yellow throat. Forget the blues. It’d be hard to write a good, downer song here, today.

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Common Yellowthroat

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Eiders and Red-necked Grebes

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Red-necked Grebe

I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.

Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it is spring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.

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Tree Swallow

I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dances of the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.

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Courting Grebes

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Horned Grebe

Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.

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Aransas Memory

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Aransas Coyote

I visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in November of 2014 and saw Whooping Cranes for the first time. I subsequently wrote an article based on my visit – published in Hakai Magazine in 2015. I had hoped to see the birds last November when I was again at Aransas. Since I didn’t take a boat tour, which is the only sure way to view the birds, my expectations were low. Good job, because I saw not a single one of the 300 or so individuals parading about somewhere in these precious marshes – a reminder of how few Whoopers there are in the world. Still, Aransas is a wonderful place, with a variety of wildlife everywhere – Spoonbills, Ibis, Caracara, White-tailed Hawk, and much more. Lots and lots to see.

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Black Skimmers

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Feral Pig

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Long-billed Curlew

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Crested Caracara

As for the cranes, not much has changed. It’s still a precarious existence for these magnificent birds. Loss of habitat at either end of the migration, or a catastrophic event en route, could eliminate the species. More environmental protection is needed, not less. My article, originally titled Whooping Cranes vs Big Oil follows.

Whooping Cranes Vs Big Oil (Hakai, April 23, 2015)

I’m on a boat in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas viewing whooping cranes on their wintering grounds. They come for the blue crab that abounds in these muddy, cordgrass flats. Many forage in family groups—two white, red-capped adults and a fawn-coloured juvenile. True to their name, the “whoopers” are noisy, trumpeting and dancing to intimidate rivals or strengthen pair bonds.

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Whooping Cranes ‘Dancing’

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Whooping Cranes – On Territory

I’m delighted to see the birds at last. They belong to the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock, numbering about 300—the entire free population of the tallest bird in North America. The dozen I’ll see today, on this side trip from Harlingen and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, are my first, but I’ve followed their story since my boyhood in the 1960s. Then, fewer than 50 existed and their survival seemed doubtful.

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Crabbing

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‘Whooping’

Conserving the cranes is an ongoing challenge. They nest in remote Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winter in southern Texas—4,000 kilometers each way. Females lay two eggs but only one chick usually survives—the weaker is killed by its sibling or a predator. Ironically, the surplus chicks helped save the cranes. Scientists gathered and hatched “extra” eggs and slowly rebuilt the flock. The International Crane Foundation uses a variation of that method today in efforts to build a second flock. ICF volunteers dress as adult cranes to ensure chicks bond with other whoopers and use ultra-light aircraft to teach juveniles to fly. Crane conservation is about commitment and, I think, love.

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Drilling Rig, Port Aransas

At Aransas a barge carrying a Blowout Preventer Valve (BOP) passes a feeding crane family, temporarily blocking my view. BOPs seal underwater oil wells. Threat and threatened are instantly juxtaposed. Unlike the cranes, I know what happens when a BOP fails. When one blew on the Deep Water Horizon Well in 2010, escaping oil destroyed coastal marshes like Aransas from Louisiana to Florida. Another such spill could wipe out wild whooping cranes forever. Nor are the birds secure in Wood Buffalo—Alberta’s Oil Sands are just south of the nesting grounds.

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Crane Family

I overnight in Corpus Christi near its brightly-lit petroleum refineries, and reflect on whooping cranes and Big Oil. In the darkened marshes, the birds likely watch for prowling bobcats and coyotes, their ancestral enemies, unaware of an omnipresent and vastly greater danger.

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Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated  ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.