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.
Yesterday we had storms here and the rain bucketed down. Today, morning sunlight penetrates even the densest thickets. After a seriously wet day, Golden-crowned Sparrows feed as if making up for lost time. We tend to overlook common birds though many are strikingly beautiful.
I’ve been to Arcata before. It’s one of the most productive birding sites in northern California. It’s too early in the year for migrants, in spite of what I might wish. I know because I’ve been checking ebird, hoping for some rarity. Not that I’m complaining. I’m happy to be in the marsh enjoying the late morning sun and the warmth. And there are plenty of birds around — Anna’s Hummingbirds glittering like emeralds, busy Yellow-rumped Warblers, Snowy and Great Egrets, Pied-billed Grebes. Lots of waterfowl too — Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks. As I finish my circuit, I spot the prize of the day in a row of distant Cottonwoods. It’s a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk intent and focussed, glowing a lovely burnt sienna. With that it’s time to go. I’ve got mountains to cross and a long drive to Redding. Arcata marsh – I’ll be back.
I’m driving from British Columbia to southeastern Arizona to spend time with my kid brother, Steve. I’m birding as I go, checking rarity reports daily, which is how is how I ‘got’ the Garganey in Waller Park in Santa Maria, California, a life bird for me. The little Eurasian teal touched down a few months back and now ambles about with the locals filling up on handouts. Easy. I almost don’t see her in the crowd of Mallards and Swan Geese. She’s tiny. She’s also one of the easiest rare birds I’ve ever found. Properly rare too. Most species on the reports are common at other times of the year so finding them is no biggie. Not to me anyway. In a few months the Garganey will likely lift off and head for home, thousands of miles away.
Garganey – Santa Maria
But I’m skipping ahead. I left home three days ago. Bright and early on the second day, I stop at a tiny community park in Washington state where a Mandarin Duck has been hanging out. Another visitor from Asia – if it isn’t an escapee from a zoo or suchlike. There are lots of fantastically beautiful Wood Ducks but not its kin, the Mandarin. I never found it but I notice it’s back on the rare bird list. So, another miss.
The morning air is still and bright. A pair of Redtail Hawks engage in their mating dance, gliding acrobatically through the branches of the bare cottonwoods. They seem playful. Not so the fierce looking young Cooper’s Hawk across the lawn, scanning for prey. The intensity in her bright eye! Awesome.
As I stare at the pond, a very handsome muskrat ambles out and pauses a few feet away and we both take in the same scene. It’s as if he (?) hopes to help out by spotting the elusive Mandarin. After a minute or so, he shakes his head and carries on. Charming. One of the attractions of birding is the likelihood that often you’ll end up in places you would otherwise never visit. And see new things too. It’s the experience that’s rare.
Meanwhile I have many miles ahead of me. I’ve checked the pass through the Siskyou mountains and there’s snow on I-5. To avoid it, I have to head to the coast, to Gold Beach, before I cut back across to central California. I’m lucky, the warmish spring weather continues. I leave the mountains and almost immediately the Pacific comes into view. Surf, sun, the stacks and the other features of Oregon’s remarkable coastline, Beautiful. Not every detour makes going out of one’s way seem worthwhile. This one did. Meanwhile, that Garganey I’m fated to see is still 800 miles away, cadging snacks.
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!
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.
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.
The Salmon I wish I’d caught
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!