Our mild January weather is kaput. February began with a seriously rainy day but now it’s gone cold and there’s snow in the forecast. A good time to look back on my favourite bird pictures. I’ll start with everybody’s favourite — owls.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
It’s damp and it’s been cold, which notwithstanding, I’ve been out birding. For listers like me, the new year means the start of the count again. I like that. And it’s easy to pick up species now — common birds are just as important as uncommon ones. I did try for several rarities – a Bullock’s Oriole, a Lesser Goldfinch and a Mountain Bluebird. I struck out on all counts until yesterday when I finally (after 6 tries) caught the Goldfinch at a backyard feeder. Such a thrill to finally ‘strike pay dirt’. Even so, just to be outside, looking for birds and listening to the sounds of nature is its own reward. The new year revives old challenges too. I hear my old nemesis, the Glaucous Gull has been sighted up coast – a life bird for me. Worth a trip? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…
Lately a friend sent me a beautiful photo of a Barred Owl perched on his sun deck. Others see owls on balconies, shrubs, ‘the old owl tree’ — you name it. I never get anything like that. I searched for a Barred Owl five days in a row recently. Nada. It’s like that for me, except when it isn’t. Sometimes, you’re in the forest, wandering, looking for whatever and an owl appears. Thrilling!
Mostly I spot owls after I’ve spent hours, or days, searching. They’re seldom ‘handy’; they’re seldom posed. Nine times out of ten, they’re half-hidden by branches, or in back of the one branch that the camera decides it must have in focus. And I have to work darn hard to get good bokeh, that nice blurred background we all like. Good bokeh – ah, if only. I’ll keep trying. But now I’m whining. No reason for it either. I’ve seen quite a few owls when I’ve been out birding and sometimes I even get good shots. Besides any day you get to see an owl, never mind photograph one, is a good day!
Point Pelee in autumn – it’s a first for me. I’ve been here twice in spring; once at the peak of the northward bird migration; the second time a week or two too early, which meant that sighting a warbler of any kind was a thrill. I’m not sure what to expect this time. We’re nearing the end of September and a little late for many species. And the weather has been very warm. We need a cold front to get the stragglers moving and that won’t happen for a few days yet. With trees and shrubs still in full leaf and birds more secretive, finding the little guys will be a challenge — very challenging as it turns out. Certain other birds are heading south. Raptors are everywhere today and the woods are silent.
Point Pelee is famous for ‘funnelling’ Sharp-shinned Hawks and other raptors as they head across Lake Erie. There may be some Cooper’s Hawk in the mix too but they are hard to distinguish from Sharp-shinned Hawks at the best of times. Dozens and dozens of birds of prey pass overhead, singly and in scattered groups. In the space of an hour, we see over fifty Sharpies. Other raptors are on the move too. A Kestrel perches on a distant snag; a Peregrine rockets by; a Harrier floats past. There’s even a Bald Eagle sitting at the very tip of Canada! A songbird would have to be feeling suicidal, or just plain dumb to show itself. No late warblers for us today!