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

 

 

Chincoteague Memories- 2014

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Chincoteague Sunset

We’re on Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This really is a water world, acres and acres of tidal marsh populated by terns, plovers, egrets, herons, eagles, ospreys and the ultra skinny rails. Beyond the islands, the Atlantic. Wild ponies are the big attraction here. The famous Chincoteague Ponies were featured in a children’s story decades ago and are still celebrities. We take a boat to see them and the some of the birds who inhabit this special environment.

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East Coast Bald Eagle

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Snowy Egret

Herons and egrets do especially well here. Hard to imagine now but by the early part of the 20th century, many species were almost wiped out because of fashion. That was the great age of hats, when fancy feathers enhanced the fantastic milliner creations we see today only in pictures. Plume hunters slaughtered all the adult birds in a colony and left the young to starve. Happily, largely through the efforts of two women, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, the plume trade came to an end and birds like the Snowy Egret can flourish.

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Little Blue Heron

Back to the ponies. Pony numbers are controlled for the sake of the environment. Each year, as our skipper, Barnacle Bill (it’s true) tells us, surplus ponies are swum across to Chincoteague from Assateague to be auctioned off. It make for a festival and I gather, everybody gets wet. Unfortunately, we only glimpse the ponies. Some porpoises, perhaps sent by the tourist board, swim up to help alleviate the disappointment.

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Tourist Board Porpoises – Chincoteague

Just before dark, we turn back towards the harbour. Now the only sounds are lapping water, the flutey whistles of shorebirds, and the hum of the outboard. It’s cooled down too, and we have to zip up our jackets and hunker. As we round the mole, we see the lights and towers of nearby NASA’s Wallops Island launch center from which rockets regularly thunder up into the sky. It’s a strange contrast to this marshy outpost where the locals seem to have their own way of speaking, and where crabbing and fishing have been mainstays for centuries. Speaking of which, seafood might be the correct choice for dinner.

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Wallops Island Flight Facility

 

 

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

 

 

 

Birding in the Pais Vasco, Spain

The seaside town of San Sebastian draws many visitors to the the Pais Vasco – Basque Country. San Sebastian is beautifully situated on a beach-fringed bay. Irun and the bird sanctuary at Txingudi Plaiaundiko is not far away, nor is Biarritz in France where I hoped to see some new gulls and seabirds.

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San Sebastian

I liked San Sebastian, also called Donostia. Lots of bars with pinchxos, called tapas elsewhere in Spain. Our accommodation was a pension complete with pink satin bedspreads and embroidered linen. Granny-chic, my wife calls it. I can’t complain. In North America, I’m used to staying in the type of places where signs ask you not to clean your fish in your room. So granny-chic is okay. By the way, they stay up late in Spain. We waited for a taxi while trying to catch an early train, lined up with the kids going home from nightclubs. This was at eight in the morning.

Basque country is hill country. Swiss-looking houses perch on steep slopes; swift rivers run through narrow ravines on their way to the sea. A great place to look for eagles, although I saw none. Too early in the year perhaps. This used to be, and maybe still is, the most important industrial region in Spain. Now many of the riverside factories are closed and abandoned. With windows broken and walls covered with graffiti, they are symptomatic, perhaps, of the economic forces that have driven the unemployment rate in Spain to 25% or more.

The largest city, Bilbao, has transformed itself into a cultural mecca. The famous Frank Gerhy-designed Guggenheim Museum, situated on a beautiful stretch of the Nervion River, is the crown jewel of the redevelopment, although I was encouraged to see a maritime museum nearby. The Basques have always been great seafarers, being among the first to visit North American waters. i think, but don’t know, that the ruthless explorer, Vasco da Gama, was Basque. In Spanish, Vasco means Basque.

I’d heard unflattering things about industrial Bilbao but I found it quite pleasant. To the south is the wine growing region of La Rioja where I saw White Wagtails and heard thrushes by the score as well as sampling some very fine wine.

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Bilbao Riverside

The next day we went to Biarritz in France with a stop on the way back at Txingudi Plaiaundiko, near the town of Irun. Txingudi is a nature reserve with trails and walkways through marshes, ponds and along the estuary foreshore. Well-placed viewing blinds allow views of the muddy shallows favoured by shorebirds. As is the case everywhere in the Pais Vasco, all signs are in Spanish and Basque.

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Park Sign in Spanish and Basque

I was probably a little early for the full migration but lots of birds were in, including many Chiffchaffs and some other warblers, European Robins, Eurasian Blackbirds, Black and Red Kites, and Song Thrushes. The day was cool but sunny, with birds seemingly everywhere. The park buildings and  structures seem to be deteriorating, a likely indication of lack of funding and a struggling economy. There seems to be a bit too much trash lying around too, especially in the water.

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Chiffchaff

Shorebirds were plentiful. I was delighted to see both Redshanks and Greenshanks. Little and Cattle Egrets wandered the flats spearing fish.A half dozen Little Grebe chased each other in deeper water. A Squacco Heron mingled with gulls on an island in the estuary, hardly larger than they.

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Redshank

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Little Grebe

We left Txingudi late in the day. The wind had picked up and cooled off – it was still March. Back in San Sebastian we had to find parking for our rental car, there being none near the pension. That accomplished, we headed into Old Town for pinxchos and crianza. Two countries, and a major birding site. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Bognor Marsh

May, 2014

I guess I’m starting early today. I’ve been up since first light, a hazard when you stay in cheap motels. In this case, a flaw in the drapes focussed a beam of light on my left eyeball at the wrong time in my sleep cycle. No chance of lying abed here. I rise and get dressed. This time of the morning in Owen Sound options for breakfast are limited. I get a muffin and coffee at Tim Horton’s and check my email. I likely know some of the denizens in here but, if so, they’re unrecognizable to me now after so many years.

I’m visiting my mother today but we haven’t set a time and her recent memory lapses add an odd timelessness to everything. She has to eat breakfast at a regular time and has a few other things to do, I know. I’ve got time to bird and I’m up with them. Now I just have to find them.

I drive out into the countryside, past the old hardwood bush where, as young teenagers, my friend Lloyd and I, having walked up the hill from the town, made a camp in the snow. It was four in the morning, a moonlit night, and we were out to hunt rabbits. Our companions were a black and tan hound puppy with ears so long it couldn’t not step on them and a beagle named Penny I’d rescued from a death sentence.

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It was a magical time, the fire chewing up the dry wood we fed it continually. Its light illuminated the boles of dark and massive hardwoods with each flicker or flare. I remember a Great Horned Owl hooting somewhere close by. I also remember beans cooked in the can so that one side of the mass was mouth-burning hot and the other icy cold. We did not, by the way, shoot any rabbits.

Back to the present. I’ve always liked early May in southern Ontario. I grew up in this town but I’ve lived in the west for decades. Now when I come home, I come in May if I can. In a region with well-marked seasons, the land wakes up in early May. It’s winter, or close to it one day, and then, quite suddenly, it’s spring. This May, the first leaves are barely showing, no more than a haze of green-gold lights the forest. A peculiarity of the season is that sounds carry for miles. The air is hollow like a bell, like it is on a cold, still day after a snow in winter.

This cold morning will become a fine spring day once the temperature gets up a bit. I head for Bognor Marsh. My brother’s best gift to me was to tell me about this place. Go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. You can’t miss it.

Of course, you can miss it. And I do. I shuck the false confidence that comes with pretending to know my way around these back roads. I have a GPS, such a handy tool for a birder so I pull over and hook it up. A quick search and there it is, Bognor marsh, no more than a fifteen minute drive from where I am. I drive down what I guess is the right ‘Line’, pass the sign, double back and park – mine the only vehicle in small lot.

The temperature is rising quickly and a little breeze becomes the first Zephyr fingers of a warm front. A week or so before there was frost; there will be wet snow one day before I leave Owen Sound. Now wildflowers carpet the shallow earth that covers the limestone and songs of a dozen bird species ring through the woods. A windfall of bird species has arrived with the warm front. Without leaves on the trees, spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and wait and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and finally see him no more than 5 feet away. He moves on. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red, yellow and white and then they’re gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another, and another.

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I count five species in as many minutes and move on. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers works the trunk like nuthatches. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees.

The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and Whites, Blackburnians, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumpeds, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises — a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, a Wild Turkey.

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The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther into the sedge, a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song. A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. Others ‘winnow’ in the middle distance.

I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, its back a rusty-brown, strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. Another Broad-winged Hawk appears going north and then disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.

I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, reluctantly, I leave. I’ll come back as often as I’m able. My mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning in that regard and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound. I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings.The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave each time when I ought to. May, that’s the time to be there.

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