End of Summer

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Roundhouse Railyards

A warm late summer day, or will be once the sun is up. September has a faded glory I especially like, with a touch of melancholy in it — a string quartet replacing summer’s brass band. Today I’m searching for rare sparrows, a Brewer’s at Panama Flats and a Lark Sparrow at the old rail yards in Vic West. Both birds are common in Arizona, certainly not here. I try for the Lark first. The yard is more or less deserted but there are zero birds up yet. After three quarters of an hour of fruitless searching, I’m ready to give up. I’m almost back at the car when I see a single bird coming in, a sparrow from its undulating flight. It lands next to the open door of a construction worker’s pickup, ignores the heavy metal music emanating from within, and begins to feed. It’s the Lark. Birds are weird sometimes! More and more pickups arrive and the noise level rises. Time to move on to Panama Flats and some peace and quiet. The Lark Sparrow couldn’t care less about that, apparently.

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Lark Sparrow

At the Flats it’s warmer and brighter. The wintertime wet meadows are now dry fields,  knee-deep in snow-white Chamomile with their butter-yellow centers. The flowers’ powerful musky perfume, if ‘perfume’ is the right word, clings to my clothing as I wade through. Not unpleasant but strong!

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Panama Flats

Head-high Cattails, Queen Ann’s Lace, Horse-weed and Thistle, crowd in along the dyke trail. A pudgy vole sees me just in time and panics, his round rear end (is bum inappropriate?) disappearing into the weeds. I track him through rustling leaves, scurrying loudly away. He needs to be more careful. A Northern Harrier just floated past and there’s a dark Merlin hunting nearby, lightning fast and deadly. Incautious voles don’t last long anywhere.

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Vole in a Hurry (recreation)

This is sparrow land. I catch a glimpse of the Brewer’s in a stunted willow but mostly it’s Savannah, White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows that populate the Flats, shooting left and right out of the taller vegetation like tiny, spring-loaded feathered missiles. Lots of Goldfinches here too, flitting through the branches of the taller willows. It’s the end of summer and birds are gathering for pre-migration, a wonderful time. The rains will come soon, the rampant plant growth will die down and the ponds will refill just in time to welcome the flocks of returning waterfowl and shore birds.

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Savannah Sparrow

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Lincoln’s Sparrow

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Goldfinch

 

 

Owl+Mosquitoes Squared

I’m scratching, alternating between the mosquito bite on the heel of my hand and those on my ankles. Makes me think back to when my mom used to dot us boys with calamine lotion, which helped, I think, but not much. We had lots of mosquitoes where I grew up. In summer, the kids in my neighbourhood looked like they’d contracted some kind of plague, the symptoms of which were abundant bright pink blotches and continued scratching. But I digress. I’m at Swan Lake again in spite of continuing forest fire smoke. My first bird of the day should have clued me in. The top of a very tall conifer ought to put you out of the bug zone. Not so for the Osprey who, in spite of biting insects and smoke, manages a ‘see if I care’ look. No bug repellent for wild things!

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Osprey Under Attack

I’m determined to bird today so I carry on. As long as I don’t linger in any one spot, I seem to be okay. Speed doesn’t make for easy birding however. Nothing seems to want to stay put, like me. A noisy gaggle of young Waxwings zips through the higher branches, too skittish to pause for pictures. Likewise, a Bewick’s Wren appears and poses just as I turn my camera off to save the battery, and then ducks away as the machine blinks back to life. Towhees and Fox Sparrows are especially furtive. After forty minutes of fruitless searching, I’m almost done. I have just one more trail to try. It takes me under the trees and into deep shade, which is suicidal. Never mind. I hurry like I’m crossing No-Man’s Land to get to my home trench. I’m literally turning on my heel to make a run for it when I spot a young Great Horned Owl. Figures. Now I don’t care about mosquitoes — well, that’s a lie. Still, with such a beautiful bird and such beautiful light, sacrifices had to made. Now, where did I put that calamine!

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Snowy Owls; A River Running…

 

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A Perfect Little River…

The woods around my hometown are beautiful in May. It’s a great time to walk up the Sydenham River towards Inglis Falls. I spent many boyhood hours on, or in, or near the Sydenham. In all seasons too. That hillside over there – the snow leaves it first. It’s a good place to cook a can of beans over a campfire and lie back to bask in the late winter sun. Dry, clean ground in a world of snow, the smell of wood smoke and caramelized beans. A memory. Around me the Trilliums and Dogtooth Violets are coming in nicely. And the greens – soft, warm, luminous and arrestingly pretty.

The burgeoning foliage has its downside for a birder. It’s much harder to spot the little guys. I trace a pert Ovenbird  by its ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ song. A line of bouncing leaves marks the passage of a Nashville Warbler intent on bug picking, ignoring a tail-flicking Redstart. Overhead a Baltimore Oriole flashes orange. Higher up above the ‘Mile Drive’ a couple of male Ruffed Grouse start to drum – the slow ‘whumpf — wumpf — wumpf’ quickly increasing in tempo and climaxing in a muffled and impressive super-grouse-sized roar.

I cut away to avoid a flooded section of  path. My detour takes me past a memory – a patch of jumbled dolomite where long ago I stashed and later lost a canvas knapsack. A peripatetic porcupine, or several, ate it right down to the buckles. Nothing left but metal. In one night!

I lost a perfectly good cheese whiz and onion sandwich wrapped in wax paper to the prickly little guys too. Today I’d worry about the harm the white bread and canvas might do to the wildlife. I’m not sure I was feeling quite so equable at the time.

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Red Trillium

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Ovenbird

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Nashville Warbler

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Redstart

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Baltimore Oriole

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Redwing Blackbirds

I leave the river and head for the country roads. As always I check the rare bird reports wherever I go. The latest surprises me – three or four Snowy Owls seen in Grey and Bruce counties. Right now? Amazing! It’s the last bird I expected to see. Likely I won’t, not with my bird luck. I take up the chase anyway. It’s a compulsion after all and not entirely rational. I spend quite a few hours searching the countryside. I pick up a few good birds – wild Turkeys, a lone Sandhill Crane, an equally lone Broad-winged Hawk. No Owl though. By this time, I’m famished and I’d really like to stop for a late lunch. One last road to try and then I’ll stop. Just when I’m about to turn back, there it is – calm as can be, sitting on a boulder at the edge of a swale that’s likely teaming with rodents. There’s no way I can get close enough for a good photo but I’m happy, thrilled actually.

After lunch, I head back to the sparkling Sydenham, likely for the last time this year. Family dinner tonight and a visit with one of my cousins. Tomorrow I’ll head south to Toronto and then the flight home. I’ll leave early just in case there’s a rare bird or two to ‘pick up’ on the way down. I’ve still got the bug.

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Snowy Owl

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Tree Swallow

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Redstart – Female

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Wild Turkey

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The Mile Drive

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A River Runs Through It

 

 

Madera Canyon: February 2018

I didn’t expect the Coatis. A troop has discovered the bird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. Big ones, little ones. I’m here with my brother Steve, who flew down from Ontario for some Arizona birding. I know Coatimundis from my zoo days decades past. Mischievous, rubber-nosed, ring-tailed bandits, very engaging. Lots of personality. I still remember them lying on their backs, lapping eggs out of the shell, grunting at each other, recalling some caper or other. All those years ago. Seeing them again makes me wonder how ground-nesting birds manage to hatch out chicks at all. Is it possible to avoid the ever-searching, wiffling noses? Me, I think of them as old friends.

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Coatimundi

Early morning and the viewing chairs are already taken. Popular spot this. One of the best feeding stations anywhere, maintained by the kind folks at Santa Rita Lodge, supported hopefully by donations that help buy the enormous amounts of feed needed to constantly replenish the feeders.  The Coatis won’t be welcome here, not  those appetites on four legs.

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Pine Siskins

They don’t seem to bother these birds. A Rufous-crowned Sparrow in a tangle of dead wood. Rufous-winged Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Siskins, Mexican Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos and a beautiful Yellow-eyed Junco work the feeders. A bright Hepatic Tanager puts in a brief appearance, its place on a half orange grabbed immediately by a clown-faced Acorn Woodpecker. An Arizona Woodpecker, a life bird for me, shows up. Lovely – with its chocolate-brown mantle. We hoped for a Painted Redstart on the trails but kept missing the bird everybody else seemed to see. A Red-naped Sapsucker posing photogenically eases our disappointment.

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Coatimundis (Coatis) – Parent and Child

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Mexican Jay

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Acorn Woodpecker

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Yellow-eyed Junco

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Arizona Woodpecker

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Red-naped Sapsucker

 

 

 

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

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Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail

 

 

Cabo Birding

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The Arco at Cabo San Lucas

Los Cabos — the brightness and warmth is nice after some very gloomy months plus I finally get a chance to visit a location that figures prominently in the historical novel I’m writing. The story involves the capture of the Manila Galleon by the English privateer, Thomas Cavendish in 1587,  Cavendish seized a vast treasure and then left half of it behind with his mutinous second ship, the Content, which almost immediately disappeared from history. It all took place right out there.

On the birding side, Baja Sur has species found nowhere else, such as Belding’s Yellowthroat, Xantus’ Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. Our hotel is right beside a major bird sanctuary — the Estero San Jose. Coincidence? I think not. Spectacular Hooded and Scott’s Orioles are among the first birds we see.

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Scott’s Oriole

So, a successful, combined research and birding trip all in all.  Did I mention the glorious sun and sparkling blue water? Never mind. For a week it’s been birding in the morning and composing galleon action scenes and  treasure stories in the afternoon. Not a bad thing – birding in sandals, imagining history on the beach. Later, a Baja Birding tour will help me get the Xantus’ and the Gray Thrasher, both life birds, as was the Yellow-footed Gull I saw at the ‘Arco’.  Great!

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Damage from Hurricane Odile (2014)

As for the Sanctuary, at the moment it exists, it seems, in name only. No one to blame, I suppose, economics being what it is. Hurricane Odile smashed through here in 2014 and the effects are still visible. Littering and illegal dumping are a problem too and dogs and horses roam the trails. One can only hope that conservation efforts will revive once Odile and its costs slide into the more distant past.

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Yellow-footed Gull

Otherwise, the Estero is fantastic. Happily, birds don’t seem to mind many of those things that irritate us humans. Water birds are abundant and relatively easy to find — Cinnamon and Blue-wing Teal, American Coots and Gallinules, Herons and Egrets. Glossy, black White-faced Ibises gather like mini conventions of funeral directors. Lots of stuff here. I particularly like watching the numerous Reddish Egrets as they dash about and pounce in the peculiar way they do. It’s like it just occurred to these birds that they are supposed to be working! It’s a fishing strategy that seems to me, well, goofy. It must be successful but I think they’re hilarious.

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White-faced Ibises

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Reddish Egret

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Hooded Oriole

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Female Belding’s Yellowthroat

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Eared Grebe

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Gilded Flicker

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Lark Sparrow

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Crested Caracara

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Gray Thrasher — a supercilious look methinks!

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Verdin

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Xantus’ Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

South Texas

Normally I like to ramble on a bit, maybe even get philosophical. This time I think I’ll just stick to the photos, all of which I took when V and I were at the Rio Grande Birding Festival. Some great birds, including a Tamaulipas Crow, which was a life bird for me. Just like in the movie, The Big Year, we got it at the Brownsville Dump, even though Brownsville wasn’t part of the plan for the day. We just got lost and ended up there, like we were meant to see that small, rare, grackle-like crow. Isn’t birding fun?

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Altamira Oriole

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Tropical Kingbird

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Snowy Egret

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Long-billed Thrasher

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Harris’s Hawk

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Kiskadee

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Eastern Screech Owl

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Parauque

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Long-billed Curlew

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Green Jay

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Tamaulipas Crow (from across the Brownsville dump)

 

 

Birding Lake Erie 1

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Solitary Sandpiper

It’s early October (almost a month ago now). We leave Leamington, the ketchup factory and Point Pelee behind and head for Hillman Marsh. I once visited there in spring, when broad expanses of apparently deep sloughs were packed with waterfowl. The ponds are seasonal though as we now discover and two very loud tractors trail hay mowers over the once marsh, kicking up dust, screeching and clanking. Today, birding here seems out of the question. But then a surprise.

Seemingly unfazed by the heat and the racket, a Solitary Sandpiper works the edges of a tiny creek, slowly, stately. Such a beautiful bird. We keep our distance, snap a few pictures and leave her to her business. Other than the Solitary there isn’t much to keep us here. Besides, there’s been a flock of American Golden Plover reported at Mitchell Wetlands. It means a jog to the north but I need the bird for my list.

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Shorebird Heaven

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Mitchell Wetlands

Mitchell Wetlands are actually part of the town’s sewage complex. The last time I visited, a stiff breeze from the primary treatment ponds made my eyes water. Today, the light breeze is in our favour, thank goodness. It’s idyllic. The marsh is full of waterfowl. honking, hissing, quacking. Lots of shorebirds too —  Dowitchers, Yellowlegs, several Stilt Sandpipers, and scores of Killdeer. We spot the Golden Plover mixed in with, and noticeably smaller than, their Black-bellied cousins. Many of the birds are transitioning from their striking breeding plumage and into more somber garb. Interesting.

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Plovers

By now I’ve given up on getting good pictures. The light is as bad as it gets for photography and the birds are just too distant even for my FZ300 with teleconverter. With sewage ponds, it’s pretty well up to the bird to come to you as the reverse is just not possible — or desirable. After a couple of hours of birding the pond and the nearby woodlands, we move on to Stratford. It’s getting late. A non-fast food dinner would be nice and maybe a show — Guys and Dolls is playing. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be birding again, heading back to the Lake Erie and Niagara.

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How windy is it?

I can’t leave the topic of sewage lagoons without mentioning those at Exeter, Ontario, where I went in search of a White-rumped Sandpiper. As soon as I arrived, I realized the wind was not going to be my friend – it blew my hat off before I even got out of the car. Nevertheless, a target bird is a target bird and I soldiered on. On top of the dike, the northerly was so powerful that I could barely stand, let alone hold focus on my camera. And, good grief — what a stink!

There were birds though — most distant. Some are closer, like the dozen or more feeding Pectoral Sandpipers, with their abrupt bib lines and yellow legs. They’re one of my favourite shorebirds so it’s nice to see so many. That doesn’t happen where I live in BC. I did catch a glimpse of the White-rumped, and got another ‘tick’ for the year list but, gosh, I earned it.

 

October Pelagic

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Race Rocks Light

It’s an easy cruise today – a flat sea and mild temperatures. I’m not expecting to see anything remarkable as it’s late in the year for migrants and we’re not going very far from shore. The October day is gorgeous. Our dry summer and fall have resulted in more leaf colour than usual this year, a beautiful backdrop for the old Fisgard Light.

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Fisgard Light

We smell Race Rocks almost before we see it. The island is a wildlife sanctuary, home to many California and Steller’s Sealions, as well as a few Elephant Seals. Dozens of very large marine mammals cohabiting a small island really do perfume the air! The Californias are noisy too, barking at each other constantly, even when they’re in the water catching salmon. We motor on, trailed by Glaucous-winged, Bonaparte’s and pretty Heermann’s Gulls picking off the dog chow we’re using as chum.

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The Salmon I wish I’d caught

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Heermann’s Gulls

Circling the rocks, we spot Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Common Murres, a single Sooty Shearwater, and a few dozen Rhinoceros Auklets. Above Beachy Head, Turkey Vultures and Redtail Hawks ‘kettle’ ready to make the short flight across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Washington State. On the way home, a couple of Humpback Whales appear. One sounds, flukes up and the other moves off. As I put down my camera and pour a coffee another whale breaches not far from the boat. It would have made for a spectacular shot. It was ever thus!

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Ancient Murrelet

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Sooty Shearwater and Common Murre

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More Sealions

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Humpback Whale

Time to dress for fall…

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Waist High Veg

The title, from the song in the old movie The Summer of 42, seems apt. It’s gotten cooler here on the coast and migrating birds are passing through. Local birds are flocking too, many fattening up for their own long journey south. I’m at Panama Flats this cool, changeable morning, flushing Savannah and Lincoln’s Sparrows right and left as I push through chest high weeds. Nearby, Goldfinches attack weed heads with precision, scattering chaff. And every berry bush has its diners, including the Savannahs, drawn to insects and the seeds of ‘past it’ berries no doubt.

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Goldfinch

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Savannah Sparrows

The week’s rarities are three Bobolinks here from the interior. I tried to locate them the other morning and failed. Today’s another day. I’m hopeful until a Merlin flashes by, and then a Northern Harrier hunting voles. The zillion sparrows, which were everywhere moments ago, vanish like summer snow. After perching on a snag and surveying the fields, the Merlin plunges towards the brambles, and then is gone — blindingly fast. It took a sparrow likely, the concussion of the stoop killing the prey in the air. It’s the way of things.

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Northern Harrier

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Merlin

The danger past, sparrows and Goldfinches soon return, with feeding the priority now. No sign of the Bobolink yet. Luckily, I have a fallback strategy. When you can’t find a rare bird, look for excited birders, as I do now. I spot two expert members of the clan along the dike trail glassing a clump of Blackberry. They’ve located one of the Bobolinks,and point it out to me. Great people, birders.

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Bobolink

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Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow

The target is a long way away, a mere yellowish smudge from where I stand. Even using a monopod, I can’t keep my Lumix FZ300 steady enough for a well-focussed shot. With the converter I think I’m out to about 1200 mm, way beyond good picture range. Still, I figure, record photos are better than none at all.

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Too far…

The Bobolink is a short-tailed member of the (new world) blackbird tribe; in breeding plumage the males are mostly black and white, with Naples Yellow skull caps. This one seems to be a juvenile, its feathers washed with lemon, perching like a Meadowlark. Later on, I find a second bird all on my own, a female this time, much paler.

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I’m about done here. A flight of Canada Geese cruise over the treetops and land, honking, out of sight in the lush vegetation. Within a few weeks, the autumn rains will come in earnest. Then the waist high weeds will wither, the ponds will fill with water and the Teal, Pintails, Gadwalls, and many other ‘winter birds’ will return. It is, indeed, time to dress for fall…