The Wild Coast


Point Brown Jetty

I’ll say one thing for the west coast of Washington – it’s atmospheric. Well into May and many days are cool, windy and wet – still. Parts of them are anyway. Other parts are glorious.

Lots of  storm detritus too and even a shipwreck of sorts. It’s poetic. Lines from Arnold, Masefield, Tennyson spring to mind. Perhaps that old jingoist, Kipling. ‘Harp Song of the Dane Women’ – “What is a woman that you forsake her; line; and go to the the cold, grey widow-maker.” You get my drift.

Tide, storm, sunset, season, birth, death, renewal, and all that jazz. Still, it’s easy to get into a certain frame of mind, to begin to imagine how wild this coast once was, especially when Elk come down through the dunes to visit the sea. Years ago, an old timer told me that the Sasquatch used visit these beaches in the winter to harvest shellfish. I can just about believe it.


Roosevelt Elk


Lost Cargo


The Wreck of the Privateer



Red Knots (and friends)

The Red Knots, Plovers, Godwits, Dunlins and the other shorebirds passing through aren’t too concerned with poetry. Their lives are too short and purposeful, and the distances they travel from wintering ground to breeding ground too great. Some Knots travel from South America and back every year.These have probably come from southern Mexico and are on their way to Alaska. I doubt if they’ve heard of Kipling.



I’m kind of attached to Whimbrels and other members of the curlew tribe. One of my favorite boyhood books was ‘The Last of the Curlews’ by Fred Bosworth. It was also my first conservation book too. There were three Whimbrels at Bottle Beach when I was there. I took this picture just before a rain squall drove me under cover. The birds didn’t seem to mind the slanting, drenching rain one bit.


The Clouds Lift

And then, at the end of the day, comes the glorious part…






Like most birders, I have lots of pictures of empty branches or, alternately, of foreground branches in perfect focus and a fuzzy ball in the background that ought to be a warbler. Sometimes, however, you get lucky.



Blackburnian Warbler, Point Pelee, May 2016



Point Pelee Revisted

I’m back in Ontario, hoping to catch the spring migration, to see the eastern birds I’d otherwise miss. I’m starting at Point Pelee, the southernmost point in Canada (if you don’t count Pelee Island and, I believe, a few other dots in Lake Erie).


Point Pelee is a major birding site because it’s the first land birds crossing the Lake encounter. After flying all night, they have to touch down here to rest and feed. Many will lift off once darkness falls and head for northern forests to stake out territories and start breeding. When conditions are right, the woods can be teeming with birds, using the word teeming somewhat loosely. Lots of birds anyway.Turkey’s don’t migrate so they’re always here. Now is the time for gobblers to strut their stuff, hoping to entice the seemingly oblivious hens.


My brother has decided to join me. He’s a sommelier not a birder. Still, having a wine guy around for a few days ain’t all bad. Until he gets here, I bird alone. Like most birders, I  don’t mind that, for a time anyway.


Spring here has been cool and I realize immediately that maybe I’m a week early. Mornings are positively frigid and, aside from the turkeys, not much is moving around. The little trolley train that takes us to the Point might as well be taking us to look for polar bears, it’s that cold. Happily, the air begins to warm as the sun rises higher and, i think, the wind had shifted so that it’s now coming from the south. I won’t need to buy gloves after all.

The warblers have been waiting for this too. I glimpse movement and spot a beautiful Black and White Warbler, moving Nuthatch-like around a tree trunk and then the trees low branches. It’s my first Ontario warbler of the year and it’s a beaut.


I hop off the tram and head down a trail. As the temperature climbs more birds appear. Yellow Warblers are suddenly everywhere, calling from almost every other bush – sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.


I’m still convinced I’m a week early. I see a couple of Nashville Warblers and a few other birds but the other warblers and the Orioles, Thrashers, and the like are scarce. I stop for lunch, in this case a huge donut and a coffee and then head out to the Point again. Hope springs eternal!


I arrive in time to see a flock of 50 or so Black-bellied Plovers wheeling around trying to touch down on the small triangle of exposed sand. For some reason, the fact that these birds are desperate to land hasn’t occurred to the group of photographers waiting for this to happen, standing ten feet from the spot. No way these birds are going to land. I back off down the trail. The birds fly by me as I go, still looking to touch down somewhere. I get some great shots and I’m not anywhere near the landing pad.

I’m considerably warmer than I was but I’m beat. I’m learning that donuts don’t have much nutritional value no matter how big they are. My brother is due in and we’ve planned dinner together. Steve’s a thrift shop type of guy (and proudly so) and i have no idea how he’s going to be equipped. With a superb bottle of wine, I hope.



Cape Saint Vincent

Cape Saint Vincent (Cabo de Sao Vicente) in Portugal is the precipitous and spectacular tip of southwestern Europe.  Henry the Navigator established his famous nautical training school here and so began the age of Portuguese exploration, which resulted, as we all know, in the Rio Olympics.


Cape Saint Vincent: a watchtower

The Cape has history – lots of it. For the Greeks and Romans, it was literally the end of the world, the place where the sun went down into the sea. Neolithic peoples erected standing stones on the site. Who knows what rituals and mysteries were enacted here all those thousands of years ago. A number of famous sea battles were fought near the Cape too, including one involving Horatio Nelson. And Francis Drake plundered the place 200 years before that.


The Fortress: the one remaining wall

Most of the buildings here are modern, or nearly so. For a place with such great significance, there’s not much here to attract regular tourists though. The great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed pretty well everything. For birders, it’s a wonderful place to watch migrating raptors when they cross from Africa to Europe. We  missed this by a few days, I think. Some Black Redstarts are here though, some to nest on the rocky slopes and others moving off in their turn to northern Europe.


Black Redstart

The Jackdaws are here too, a pair building a nest somewhere below the rim. I like these mini-crows with their grey heads. Anyone who has watched an English mystery on television, or a Scandinavian one for that matter, will recognize their calls.  When we hear the Jackdaws during the opening titles, we know darn well that somebody has been murdered and that the likeable detective with personal problems will soon arrive on the scene.


 Jackdaws on the edge

It’s been bright and sunny at the Cape though windy, and surfers are already in the sheltered bays 300 feet below us. They’ve got more nerve than I have.  We search the skies for raptors but the wind is from the northwest and certainly not favourable for migrating birds. In any case, we see exactly none. Luckily, a shop that sells those delicious Portuguese custard tarts is not far off. My mother made two kinds of pies from scratch – jam pie and custard pie. I’m not sure how they got her custard pie recipe here in Portugal.




Piping Plover Drama

The few Piping Plovers nesting at Sauble Beach, Ontario are part of a small and precarious population that may soon disappear entirely. I knew of only two small groups of these engaging birds there, one near the north end of this beautiful, five mile long beach; the other several miles away to the south.

Merlins, dazzling fast and deadly, take some Piping Plovers and the numerous crows and gulls will certainly eat the tiny chicks. And the beach has plenty of human traffic, particularly in the summer. The birds, of course, don’t know about their predicament. Each year they arrive from their wintering grounds on the southern coasts of the United States and begin to mate, with males fighting it out for the privilege, a long, multistage process. Confusing too. I watched these birds for a half hour and was never sure who was who, nor could I figure out who was winning.



Except here. I presume the female is on the right in a  scene that reminded me of a high school dance. In this case it’s deadly serious. Maybe it was at the dance too, now that I think about it.


The conflict begins.


A dramatic turn.


An attack.


Off balance.




Taking a breather.


Back at it.

The squabbling continued and I left the scene. The birds moved around but stayed  within twenty-five meters or so of where I first saw them. The conflict ebbed and flowed. A crow took an irritable peck or two at them but they avoided the much larger bird and continued their combat. I suppose by now, a week later, they will have mated and the loser will have gone away to accept whatever fate lay in store for him. Soon, the crows will be waiting for the eggs to be laid and the chicks to be born. Later in the day I saw a Merlin in the area. The birds will carry on regardless. I heard it was snowing at the beach this weekend, by the way.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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.




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.

Birding in Spain: El Rocio and Cota Donana

El Rocio

A strange town, El Rocio. A Spanish pilgrimage town with unpaved, sand streets, hitching rails, low white faced buildings – a spaghetti-western place. Not my comparison, someone else’s, but it works. The pilgrimage, an incredible procession of horses and wagons with participants in traditional Andalusian costume ends up in El Rocio around Pentacost. Then the population of town tops a million, they say. Now, it’s a semi-ghost town.  It’s been raining and the streets are barely passable because big sections of them are lakes.

On my GPS, the car icon floats on a block of ‘no streets’ and real car almost floats on some real ones. We take the better part of an hour to find the hotel we’ve booked. At one point, my wife claims we must be going wrong because she recognized a pile of dirt! We pass many of the combo stables and lodgings for the ‘hermandades’, the brotherhoods who will fight it out for possession of the statue of the Virgin when the ‘Festival’ begins. The hotel’s dry and we get coffee there but there’s something odd about it too. More about that later.

That night, we eat in the best restaurant in town. It’s on the water, with views of the marshes. A table of English birders, and a young Spanish couple are the only guests. Another young couple arrives – with binoculars. Most of the birders are up and down, dashing to the windows to catch glimpses of birds spotted through the windows by the guide. Not the Greater Flamingos, which are everywhere. A Booted Eagle perhaps. But I can’t see much from where we sit. I’ve only brought my cheap monocular with me and the light is failing.


Greater Flamingos

The waiters in this place speak so low and quick that it’s impossible to catch what they say. I think it’s deliberate; my wife thinks I’m a conspiricist. My Spanish is adequate but these guys seem to mock the fact that you try. The food is good though. Anyway, Andalusians aren’t overly welcoming. Maybe it’s the family thing. Outsiders are obviously not family and that’s that. Nobody’s rude. The Spanish have invariably been polite in our experience. Except maybe the waiters in the ‘best restaurant in town’. The Pilgrimage is like that I’m told, as is the week-long Feria in Seville. Don’t expect to join in. It’s an ‘our thing’ thing. Understandable, perhaps. Still….

The something about our hotel that bothered me before still does. I can’t put my finger on it. The windows open onto a kind of corridor, tarped over against the rain but there aren’t any back windows. The room is comfortable enough,the beds are good, breakfast included but it’s unlike any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There’s even a loft over our heads. Then it dawns on me. It’s like a stable; it is a stable – or was. Horses don’t need a back window in their stalls. I think of the lodgings of the hermandades, which are a lot like this hotel. Okay, I’m a conspiricist. I’ve also slept in stables before, including one with an elephant in it. Never mind, I’m mostly here for the birds and this odd town is on the edge one of the best birding spots in Europe.

Cota Donana and Birds

As one of the largest nature reserves on the continent, Cota Donana is a place that warrants more time. It also warrants more accent marks and  a tilde but I can’t figure out how to stick these on the words in the right places, so there it is. The marsh is fantastic with hundreds of birds here now. It’ll be dry in few months, really dry. Then all these flamingos , Glossy Ibises, Eurasian Teal, Shelducks, Coots and Marsh Hens will be gone, gone north, along with most of the birds of prey that hunt here.


Glossy Ibises

The Cork Oak Forest

The drive to the Cork Oak forest reminds me of some of the roads I’ve travelled in Texas, grass and scrub and lots of open spaces – a birdy kind of place. I like the road in but I really like the Cork Oak forest at its end. This looks kind of ‘Middle Earth’ ancient but is in fact what’s left of the commercial Eucalyptus plantation laid in decades ago. Now the Eucalypts with their peeling ghost grey boles and pale leaves tower above the gnarled and twisted Cork Oaks and other trees. Here and there, the thick cork on damaged oaks can be seen. Weird stuff. I’d heard of these trees but this is the first time I’ve seen them. Hard to imagine a piece of that funky bark in the neck of a wine bottle.



The Cork Oak Forest

Many birds are singing here, thrushes and warblers mostly, but few are flying; it’s too wet. We follow a bold Chaffinch for a hundred yards of more, his strategy being to fly a few feet ahead and hope we go away. When we don’t he repeats. Finally, he loses patience and flies behind us and gets back to his dinner. And then a delight – a Hoopoe! I see the unmistakable striped wings as he flies off. And then another bird dodges away through the oaks. Fantastic. I’ve wanted to see a Hoopoe ever since I saw a picture of one, striped and crested,  in my first bird book, the one my aunt sent me from England when I was eleven. I would have loved a photo of the bird but I have to content myself with a snap of my new friend the Chaffinch. His picture was in the same book.



We carry on and close in on the parking lot, the end of a wonderful walk through a beautiful, likely unique forest.  Suddenly, a half dozen colourful and noisy Bea-eaters light in a tree and chase each other around before departing. Just before we go, a Black Kite appears floating, the way these birds do, above the scrub. The two species make a nice end point for our trip to Donana, the almost tropical Bea-eaters particularly.  It would be nice to linger but it’s started to rain again and time to go.




Black Kite




Mallorca Birding

Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands of Spain, is rugged. Much of the agricultural land I saw  on the western side of the island was terraced for olive and lemon trees and other crops. Walking the paths and roadways among the terraces in the early morning produced many species new to me, including Blackcaps, Song Thrushes, Chiffchaff, Black Redstart, Wood Pigeons. On the north coast, extensive coastal marshes hold many shorebirds, such as Black-winged Stilts and many others.


It helps that Mallorca is on a migration flyway between Africa and Europe, I was there in mid-March, at the beginning of the migration.We’re staying in the mountain town of Valledemossa. Georges Sand and Chopin stayed here too and hated it, apparently. Times change. Valledemossa is beautiful.


Mallorca Terraces


Main Street, Valledemossa



Albufera, a wildlife sanctuary at the north end of the island near Can Picafort, is one of Mallorca’s birding jewels. One of the few places in Europe where the threatened Red-crested (or Red-knobbed) Coot still lives, it covers many hectares of marshland crises-crossed with trails and walkways.


Red-crested Coot

Black-winged Stilts are plentiful at Albufera. They don’t mean to be hilarious but I smile whenever I see them. They’re so serious too. I guess you have to be to pull it off, what with those extra long ‘red vine’ legs!


Black-winged Stilt

European warblers are not related to our warblers, which are wood warblers. Often the European types are brown and, for me as a newcomer, not easy to identify. That’s putting it mildly. I think this guy is a Moustached Warbler, scolding me from a thicket. Of course, I could be wrong.


 Moustached Warbler?

And then there are the Moorhens, some of them quite bold. This bird ran ahead of me down the walkway and then, chicken-like, hopped onto a rail and lingered a moment before jumping down into the scrub. A water bird with a vermilion beak, lemon yellow-tipped with extra long toes to boot — great.



Back in Valledemossa,  a few tiny Scops Owls start calling at nightfall. This is a monotonous rounded peep, repeated at regular intervals. It sounds, at least to me, like water dripping (loudly), or like an attenuated sonar ping – slow and amplified, a submarine sound. I read somewhere that having a Scops Owl in your garden during mating season can drive you mad. Peep-peep-peep-peep—peep-peep-peep. You get the idea. I’m delighted to hear the little blighters though. Then again I’m only here for a few days.