Klamath Mountain Part 2

Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warbler

I don’t really want to take the Alfa up gravel roads or even drive her further south. Beatrice is a tough little bird but it’s a long drive home and I don’t want to risk it. Luckily, this isn’t necessary. I catch a ride with Vince in his ancient Izuzu SUV. I can leave the Alfa at the Science Center.

Western Wood Peewee. Bear Creek, Oregon
Western Wood Peewee. Bear Creek, Oregon

I’m not sure what I’d do if I needed repairs, or rather the car did. Mechanics at most garages make faces when I pull up and look like I might want them to work on this, an Italian sports car. I think I might have seen a garage guy make the sign against the evil eye when I pulled up in a small interior town once. My imagination surely because to make the sign must mean the mechanic was Italian and the Alfa would have been no big deal.

Bullock's Oriole and Nest, Bear Creek, Oregon
Bullock’s Oriole and Nest, Bear Creek, Oregon

I’m compressing several days here, leaving out details about highway rest areas, the slopes and canyons of the Siskyous, Emigrant Lake, North Mountain park and other great locations. All good. I get Canyon and Rock Wrens, a Western Screech Owl, several Calliope Hummingbirds, an obliging Hermit Warbler – lots of species.

Green-tailed Towhee, Mount Ashland
Green-tailed Towhee, Mount Ashland

Mount Ashland is the highlight (in both senses of the word) – the peak is at 9000 feet or so. There’s a ski resort of sorts at the top but Vince tell me that the mountain got very little snow the winter past and the hill couldn’t open. It’s a dry area and the thought that the drought crippling California could be spreading north is sobering. That aside, I’m thrilled to be up in the high country.

Mount Ashland Peak
Mount Ashland Peak

I record both species of Bluebirds – Mountain and Western – near the summit. A swath of cleared ground yields Green-tailed Towhees in relative abundance. We’re hoping for a White-headed Woodpecker but that bird eludes us. A trio of off-roader motocross-type bikers almost takes out my group, or so it seemed. Mostly it’s the shock of having the quiet of the mountain top ripped open by the roar of the bikes that irks. Still, it is a big mountain.

In consolation, I get a Mountain Quail – a life bird for me – the call incongruously loud coming from the scree area below the mountain peak. Very enjoyable this being on a mountain top, looking across meadows and seeing birds. Hearing the too. A spectacular view of Mount Shasta doesn’t hurt either. Shasta is one of a chain of volcanoes with Mount Baker in the north – I can see it from my window at home. On the drive down I passed Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helen’s with its top blown off, Mount Hood and now Mount Shasta – amazing to see four volcanoes in a single day.

Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta
Townsend's Solitaire, Mount Ashland
Townsend’s Solitaire, Mount Ashland

It’s the weekend so there are quite a few hikers up here. Some of them are porting babes with them. It even gets to the point where the pitifully few washrooms have line ups. Happily, it is a big mountain. The air’s thin up high too, noticeably so when the trail edges upward. The high country is quite beautiful and I’m really starting to dig it.

Mountain Birds

Klamath mountain Revisited

Klamath Mountain, Part 1

It’s hot in Ashland, Oregon – about 85 degrees and getting warmer – a change entire from the Scotch mist morning I woke up to the day before yesterday.

On the way down to southern Oregon, I had added in a trip to Ocean Shores, Washington to pick up a few species – if I can. Most shorebirds should be on their way to the Arctic by now but hope springs eternal, as they say. I stop at Gray’s Harbor Wildlife Refuge and make the long hike out to the tidal flats. Alas, aside from a small flock of Canada Geese and a few gulls and terns there’s nothing out there to see. I hear yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroat in the brush as I pass but see not a bird. Normally, I’d linger and wait but I’m not in the mood today.

Out on the boardwalk, I see a Common Tern and hear Caspian Terns. Four Brown Pelicans pass by in the distance too. Not much to show for the hike. There’s nobody here either. That should have been my first clue. I’m packing up my scope when, out of nowhere, three Wimbrel cruise in. I’m excited. I like all the curlews and have done since I read ‘The Last of the Curlews’ when I was eight or nine. The birds come down about a half a mile away across the mud and instantly vanish. I reset the scope and scan the flats for half an hour but I never do locate the darn things. I guess they set down in a depression. In any case, they are invisible from my vantage point. Finally, I give up and pack up. Sometimes you just have to let things go.

Later, at Ocean Shores, to my surprise I find mixed flocks of Godwits, Red Knots, Sanderlings and a few peeps working the line between beach and surf. I thought I’d see rien. It’s the first time I’ve seen Red Knots in their breeding plumage. I’d love some pictures of these birds but, as it happens, I’ve decided not to bring my camera on my walk, mostly because the sun was so low in the west. I could have got some great shots nevertheless. There’s a lesson in that somewhere. So, in place of a gloriously colored Red Knot, a picture of a charming Yellowlegs will have to do.

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The next morning, the Scotch Mist one, I drive out to Hoquiam and then take 101 south to Astoria and Cannon Beach. Cannon Beach has Haystack rock and Haystack Rock has Tufted Puffins. They’re nesting now and I have to hit it right if I’m going to see the birds because the parent providing the food is way out to sea collecting it. They return en masse and I know from having watched a documentary on the subject that the flock of the returning birds swings back and forth with individuals dropping out over their burrows. The behavior is supposed to confuse gulls which will seize the chicks if they can find them.

Well, I did hit it right. The flock returns and, for the better part of a half hour does its confuse-a-gull back and forth manoeuvrings. It’s remarkable and a real thrill to see. I wish I had a picture, or a video but I left my camera – darn it – in the car.

I visit Baskett Slough, which is one of my favorite birding sites. More about Baskett Slough in another post. I overnight in Salem and then take i-5 to Ashland.

Ashland is a small university town with theaters, book stores, coffee shops and some decent restaurants. It’s got a nice vibe to it. Apparently, Lithia water had something to do with the founding of the town but I’m not sure how. The town square does have a battery of antique fountains that constantly flow with the aforementioned Lithia water so the story must be true.

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I’m driving my ’86 Alfa Romeo this trip. I had fun getting the car ready for the journey. Actually, fun is the wrong word. I feel like one the folks who drive the Mille Miglia in Italy. My mechanic, Sam, takes a propitiatory interest in the car and does lots gratis. Sam’s an Eritrean who lived for years in Italy so he knows the car and doesn’t flinch when bizarre Alfa things come up – as they often do. He also speaks Italian.

I really like driving the Alfa. The sound of the tuned exhaust, the pleasant vibration of the steering wheel in my hands, the sun, the sound and smells make for an intoxicating combination. I think so anyway.

I’m here for the Klamath Mountain Bird Festival. I’m at the Nature Center in time for a glass of wine and the opening speeches. My first field trip is that evening. We’re going out to see and hear the barn owls that have taken residence in a nesting box in a small barn near Medford, which is about 10 miles away.

Vince drives slowly. He’s afraid to hit a deer. in fact, we see deer often, including a herd of ten in a ditch right beside the road. It is getting dusk when we arrive. Our host, the woman who owns the property, meets us and after introductions takes us to the small barn and shows us the nest box. The intense smell of dry grass, flowers perfume the summer night air. We wait, seated in a semi-circle, far enough away (we hope) so that we don’t alarm the birds.

The first hint that the birds are there is the faint mewing of a chick. Long minutes pass. The light is almost gone. Motion! An adult bird leaves the box on silent wings and hunts the nearby field. We can hear its hoot and then a blood-curdling squeal. Suddenly, the owl materializes out of the darkness in front of us, hangs in silhouette, long wings black against the sky and then vanishes. We listen to the owls for another half hour and then it’s time to go. Vince drives us back to Ashland and we disperse to out various lodgings. It’s been a great day but I’m beat. and so to bed, as Pepys said.

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Point Pelee Revisited

CatbirdMay

May, 2014

The warm front that brought birds to Bognor Marsh passed through quickly up north on Georgian Bay. Here, in the south it lingers, or a new front is passing – I’m not enough of a meteorologist to know. Front or not, it brings high humidity and the threat of storms.The thunderheads I saw along the southern horizon on my drive down now seem menacingly close.

I leave the frenetic pace of the 401 and drop down through the plane table flatness of Kent County towards Lake Erie. The cans of tomatoes, green beans and the peas and carrots that were the vegetables in my youth came from around here. Actually, green beans were a little too exotic, too continental for my English parents who thought garlic was a kind of a curse and spice of any kind was a form of assault.

The towns are small, farming towns with vaguely familiar names — Palmyra, Morpeth, Dealtown. It’s nice country – a bit flat for a B.C. boy but okay. Nice views across the Lake. The air is heavy with humidity. More storm clouds mass to the south. Providentially, I buy a poncho at at a dollar store just in case. More about the Poncho later.

I check in at my overpriced and underfunded motel in Leamington. I stay at a lot of cheap motels but this is priced way above its class. Its tiny and chill. It’s also near the huge Heinz factory which produced millions of bottles of ketchup and countless cans of things though the decades including the aforementioned peas and carrots. Not very long after my visit, the factory shut its doors and over 700 people lost their jobs. Those folks were the last of generations who found work at Heinz since the turn of the last century – 105 years of families, of lives, of stories. Very sad.

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At the 42nd parallel, Point Pelee is, for all practical purposes, the southernmost place in Canada. Being the first landfall for birds flying across the lake during migration season, Point Pelee is also one of the top birding destinations in North America and it shows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fine optical glass and so many Tilly hats in one place in my life. I sign in, scout around a bit and buy yet another cap. I’m tired and famished. Luckily, there’s a decent restaurant not far from my motel.

Next morning, the Rain (the capital is deliberate) arrives in big-drop, wind-driven curtains. I meet the young tour leader in the northwest parking area and we wait. I tough it out for a few minutes but reluctantly haul out my dollar store plastic poncho. Ugly thing. It keeps me dry where where it counts but a lot of me is still ‘outside’. Soon I feel like the bedraggled Brown Thrasher I passed on my way here. Another birder arrives and we’re off at last. We pick up relatively few birds until the present storm passes and birds start to move about.

The first real goody is a Summer Tanager, a female, a plump, green-yellow bird, lemon-bright in this strange inter-storm light. Somebody spots an Eastern Screech Owl. By the time we get to the spot, a dozen birders are already there, glassing and photographing the grey mass half-hidden mid way up an evergreen.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

A Kentucky Warbler is in the brush between two roads – it’s a rarity here. It’s singing and we mark it in the dense new foliage of the forest understory. Only a few have actually seen the bird but I’m hopeful. The singing stops abruptly and, reluctantly, my group moves on. There are lots of birds – many species of warblers, Brown Thrashers, Kingbirds, Empi flycatchers, orioles, swifts, Grey Catbirds and many others.

Someone calls out that the Kentucky is up again. I’m half way though a protein bar – my mid-morning snack/breakfast. I clamp the bar in my teeth and, camera and bins abounce, galumph over to the place where the Kentucky Warbler was last heard. Suddenly someone hears it on the other side of the broad strip of woodland we’ve been covering and the flock of birders dash off to the other side. This happens three times, back and forth and back. It’s hilarious and fun, like a scene from the movie The Big Year. I never did see the bird.

Finally, the day comes to a close, this part of it anyway. I still have an evening tour planned. I passed a roadside restaurant near the park entrance and drive back. The owner, complaining about the business, looks like he’s ready to close the joint. I order chips and gravy before he goes through with it — grease on grease on carbs is the perfect antidote to the wet. Quite tasty too.

I rise from my chair and the heavy denim of my jeans falls cold and wet on my calves. Not for the first time I ask myself the question – Why am I doing this? I’m wet and black clouds are threateningly near but I head back into the park anyway. I have the whole evening in front of me. What else am I going to do in Leamington in a micro room in a motel near the Heinz factory?

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The light level is now so depressingly low that it’s more or less dark. The rain once started seems like its not going to let up at all. Nevertheless, a few of us optimists gather in a parking lot. The tour will culminate near a broad thicket of scrub. American Woodcock live here and males regularly make their courting flights at dusk.

More thunderstorms roll in with each one seemingly fiercer than the last. My dollar store poncho is barely holding its own. I’m flapping in the wind and each flap sends more water under the plastic. Another King Lear-style mini-storm ends the walk almost before it begins. The rain we can handle but lightning is a different story. The leader cancels the walk and we run for our vehicles.

I’m almost out of the park when I notice, in my rear-view mirror, that the horizon is bright. I slow, think about that damp, chill, tiny motel room with its 14 inch cathode ray tube TV, pull a U-turn and drive back to the Woodcock thicket.

A miracle – the rain stops! I pull into the empty parking lot and settle in for a wait. It’s still too early for the birds to do their mating flights. I’m alone but I don’t mind that.

I walk back to the beach to kill some time. The Brown thrasher, who was the very first bird I saw at Point Pelee, is where I first saw him huddled in a low willow. An old friend now. He looks the same, wet and bedraggled, He stares forlornly out to the lake but turns his head to shoot me an empathetic look. I nod a greeting. He blinks and shakes his feathers. We’re conversing. “I have to be here but what about you?”, he says. I lift my shoulders in a “Beats me” shrug and then move on. It’s none of his business anyway – plus I don’t want to discuss it.

For an hour, I wander the forest edge, dodging huge puddles, checking off a few birds, listening in vain for the Kentucky Warbler who has, it seems, moved on.

When do the Woodcock flights begin? I’m not sure. I’m back in the parking lot in plenty of time, waiting and scanning the skies. At least it’s not raining but I’ve got a good half hour before dark. I’m not warm. I’d kill for a cup of coffee. The breeze is chill – a cold front coming in, I guess.

A ranger in a pickup checks the parking lot. She looks me over sympathetically and moves on. Thick clouds threaten more rain but they move off to the east. A pair of Common Nighthawk take to the air. A raptor I can’t identify moves swiftly through heading towards the storm. It’s almost too dark to see and my motel room seems more appealing now.

Then, quite suddenly, I hear the twittering flight calls of Woodcock. A female buzz bombs out over the willows and, I think, just misses my head and then is gone out of sight. I listen to the males for a half an hour. And then darkness truly falls. Hungry and shivering, I can leave with a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling of victory.

The morning brings a change in the weather — cool sun and no rain. Yeah, me! My tour begins at the Nature Center. Yellow Warblers seem to be everywhere here. Our destination is the “tip’ of the Point and we board the tram that takes us there. Today, birds are everywhere and abundant. A new crop of migrants arrived in the night and everyone is excited. Almost frenetically, we glass the bushes and point out birds, here, over there, just to the left of the big branch at ten o’clock, a meter off the ground at six o’clock – and on it goes. I log lots of species – my best day yet after Bognor Marsh and tons of fun.

By eleven in the morning, I have to leave. I don’t want to go but I have no margin for error. If I don’t leave now, I’ll miss my flight. Goodbye Point Pelee. I’m reluctant to go. My Mini Big Year count is now 145 — only 225 species to go!

Gray’s Harbor, Washington: Shorebirds Revisited

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I’m looking back here, putting last year’s Mini Big Year in perspective as I plot out what I want to do this year. It’s already good —265 birds so far and it’s the beginning of May. I missed the Shorebird Festival this year because I’m writing another history text and my Toronto editor winced (over the phone) when I suggested I wander down to the Washington coat for a few days of wind, rain, and birds. So, I’m looking back, remembering and reviewing.

Gray’s Harbor Shorebirds April 25-27, 2014

Gray’s Harbor is a huge shallow bay on the coast of Washington state and it is a magnet for shorebirds and waterfowl. Aberdeen is the biggest town in the area and the hometown, I believe, of the late singer Curt Cobain. The city has seen better days but what lumber town hasn’t? Now it’s a matter of too few people in too many buildings and it’s spread out too. I always admire the spirit of those who love their town and try everything they can think of to revive the place. Sometimes it even works.

The Gray’s Harbor Shorebird Festival has its headquarters in Hoquiam — another logging town. I’m used to logging towns —I lived in one for years That was in Vanderhoof in northern British Columbia. It means I know what a cunit is. I also know what happens to these towns when the price of lumber falls, or jobs are replaced by new and better machinery. A mill bear Vanderhoof once hired 600 people but now provides work for less than a third of that. That’s what I heard. The thing is that those 150 to 200 people produce three times as much lumber as 600 did in the old days. That’s the hard reality and one reason why Aberdeen and towns like it are half empty.

I decide to stay in Ocean Shores, a beach town on the open Pacific coast that never seems overly busy. Mind you, I only come here in the spring or fall so it could be hopping in mid-summer for all I know. I’ve come to like Ocean Shores and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because it reminds me of a beach town I frequented in my youth — Sauble beach, which never seems to change. There’s comfort in that.

But I digress. I’m here to bird, man. I think that’s what Jack says in the movie Sideways — or something like it. I get lost a few times and but finally sort things out after two stops for coffee and donuts.

I find Registration at the Wildlife Refuge office near Hoquiam, a bunker-like building half hidden by trees. I think I’ve driven by this place at least twice today. I pull in and pick up my reg. package. I also check out the birding stuff for sale. I’m a sucker for this stuff. You can’t have too many bird festival caps, right? I buy a couple of bird books I’ve wanted, Rite in the Rain notebooks, a rite in the Rain pen and, of course, caps so I can, when the time comes, write in the rain. Too bad they didn’t sell ponchos. I needed all the ‘in the rain’ gear I lay my hands on as it turned out.

The rain passes and, now outside, I enjoy a brier glimpse of the sun. Someone points out the Great Horned Owl on a nesting platform in a row of trees. I have the owl on my life list but not on my year list (this is early last year, remember).

Except that I haven’t yet thought about keeping a year list. That thought gels over the next few days.  I drive to the local airport because that’s where the entrance to the Gray Harbor National wildlife Refuge is hidden away. A heavy rain thunders down and then stops. I’m not really equipped for heavy rain but another patch of blue in the sky gives me hope. If there’s enough blue in the sky to make a man a pair of pants, it will clear, my mother told me. You can see the problem here. To start with, how big is the man? Are we talking overalls or shorts? Anyway, the hope was false as it turned out.

The rest of the afternoon is blustery, to put it mildly. The driving rain and the gale force winds confirm that I’m definitely at the Shorebird Festival in Gray’s Harbour.

I nearly kill myself a few times on a treacherously slick walkway before I arrive at the viewing area. This is half way around a boardwalk loop where a dozen or so birders, coated and hatted against the elements, hunch over their spotting scopes. They’re a friendly bunch and several offer me views through their glass. There isn’t much to see, the tide is just starting to ebb and the mudflats where the birds feed are underwater. Some greater white-fronted geese float in gray rafts along a distant shore.

After a half hour or so, I’m very wet and growing impatient. This is not a good quality in a birder. But then I see the tide is in fact ebbing and sections of mud slowly appear like a magical reveal. Almost at once, large flocks of birds swing into view, searching for places to land. A cloud made up of several thousand Western Sandpipers hums by our station, flying low and fast, swirling like autumn leaves caught up in a north wind.

Two Yellowlegs pass over, tip down, circle and then carry on looking for somewhere better. Several hundred dumpy Dowitchers cruise past, their white rumps flashing in the gloom. More mudflats appear as the water level drops. Peeps begin to alight en masse and immediately begin to feed.

I find half a granola bar in a pocket and scarf it down. It’s exciting, all these birds. A thousand Dunlins materialize to my right. The birds move constantly. Suddenly all take wing. We look skyward. A Peregrine is hunting the marsh, even without the fabled and lethal stoop its speed is blinding.

The peeps rise up in bewildering clouds, a seemingly choreographed display of white, brown and gray, designed to confuse the raptor. It’s their only chance. The attacking bird plummets through the knotty center of a sub-flock and then it lumbers up into the sky, talons empty – a miss this time. The ‘confuse winged death’ tactic worked.

I’m now soaked to the skin and hungry too. Time to go back to the motel in Ocean Shores to change clothes. I slip and slide back my way down the boardwalk and walk out past the hangers of the airport to my car. Two hours later, I’m in Ocean Shores, in dry clothes. The beach is on the other side of a line of dunes and small marshes. I’ll go there later. I need food.

Rare Birding: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California

I’m looking for a Slatey-backed Gull in Tacoma, in an industrial area, on the river, near the mill. The Rare Bird alert gives specific directions but there are hundreds of gulls here, Glaucous-winged, Western, Hybrids, etc. Not a Slatey-backed in sight.

Bird Noetz

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Rare Birds! I hear about a sighting and I go looking. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. And frustrating too – also like a treasure hunt. Half the time, I feel I’m on a futile quest, like the folks on TV looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Sasquatches, or Blackbeard’s hoard of gold and jewels. You know they’re not going to find anything and you know why.

Then there are those birds that everybody sees but you. In March, I spent three hours watching two piles of brush in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco for a Rustic Bunting — nothing. I didn’t have the courage to check the reports for the day because I know for a fact that somebody will have seen it five minutes after I gave up. At other times, a long wait is rewarded with the briefest of glimpses, as happened to me with a…

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Waddya mean I’m not rare!

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Beautiful Mendocino County, California. The target bird was a Brown Shrike, an Asian bird that had, for a time anyway, relocated to a creek mouth in California. As often happens, I went to the slightly wrong location first. The weather changed as I looked for the right spot and the day turned bright. If I’d got it right first time i may not have seen this chap. I was walking down a decommissioned road where the Shrike had been seen, Nice country, lots of Bluebirds. This Wrentit bounded out of the vegetation and  gave me a hard look. A tiny bird but his attitude was big, big. Later, i did see the Shrike eating bumblebees but the Wrentit made my day. Charisma plus. The punk haircut fits the personality — a little bird I’d like to meet again

Rare Birding: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California

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Rare Birds! I hear about a sighting and I go looking. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. And frustrating too – also like a treasure hunt. Half the time, I feel I’m on a futile quest, like the folks on TV looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Sasquatches, or Blackbeard’s hoard of gold and jewels. You know they’re not going to find anything and you know why.

Then there are those birds that everybody sees but you. In March, I spent three hours watching two piles of brush in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco for a Rustic Bunting — nothing. I didn’t have the courage to check the reports for the day because I know for a fact that somebody will have seen it five minutes after I gave up. At other times, a long wait is rewarded with the briefest of glimpses, as happened to me with a Brambling up on a mountain road near Issaquah, Washington.

“Don’t play me for a sap!” — that (or something like it) is Humphrey Bogart’s line in The Maltese Falcon, which, by the way, is another rare bird. More than one bird played me for a sap over the past year. That’s how I saw it at the time anyway. Cold, wind, rain, hunger, need for a washroom – and nothing nowhere. Need I say more.

Which brings me to method. You can spend a good deal of time watching an empty field, stretch of water or patch of brush when you don’t know exactly where is da boid. Boy, have I done this. Last winter, I spent several days watching a feeder for a Common Redpoll (a rare bird where I live), when the right feeder was a half a block away. Luckily, on one of these days, I happened to look up the street where a small knot of bino types were glassing some other poor soul’s back yard and clued in — I was watching the wrong back yard! You had to be there.

Which brings me to the best way to hone in on a rare bird. Find the birders who know where the little devil is hanging out and most of the work is done. This works, believe me. A good GPS helps too. Still, it’s a thrill when you find the bird when you’re all by yourself. I reported a Tropical Kingbird near Ocean Shores, Washington in October – a first sighting. That’s a kick.

Speaking of birders. The folks that find these treasures and report them, often with detailed directions as to where to find the little rascals deserve huge thanks. Such generosity.

On that note, I rely hugely on Rare bird alerts on eBird. Checking Washington Tweeters has helped me a lot and many thanks to the folk that post there. In California, I checked Calbirds. ABA posts are very helpful. Thanks to all.