South Texas

Normally I like to ramble on a bit, maybe even get philosophical. This time I think I’ll just stick to the photos, all of which I took when V and I were at the Rio Grande Birding Festival. Some great birds, including a Tamaulipas Crow, which was a life bird for me. Just like in the movie, The Big Year, we got it at the Brownsville Dump, even though Brownsville wasn’t part of the plan for the day. We just got lost and ended up there, like we were meant to see that small, rare, grackle-like crow. Isn’t birding fun?

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Altamira Oriole

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Tropical Kingbird

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Snowy Egret

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Long-billed Thrasher

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Harris’s Hawk

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Kiskadee

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Eastern Screech Owl

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Parauque

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Long-billed Curlew

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Green Jay

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Tamaulipas Crow (from across the Brownsville dump)

 

 

Birding Lake Erie 1

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Solitary Sandpiper

It’s early October (almost a month ago now). We leave Leamington, the ketchup factory and Point Pelee behind and head for Hillman Marsh. I once visited there in spring, when broad expanses of apparently deep sloughs were packed with waterfowl. The ponds are seasonal though as we now discover and two very loud tractors trail hay mowers over the once marsh, kicking up dust, screeching and clanking. Today, birding here seems out of the question. But then a surprise.

Seemingly unfazed by the heat and the racket, a Solitary Sandpiper works the edges of a tiny creek, slowly, stately. Such a beautiful bird. We keep our distance, snap a few pictures and leave her to her business. Other than the Solitary there isn’t much to keep us here. Besides, there’s been a flock of American Golden Plover reported at Mitchell Wetlands. It means a jog to the north but I need the bird for my list.

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Shorebird Heaven

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Mitchell Wetlands

Mitchell Wetlands are actually part of the town’s sewage complex. The last time I visited, a stiff breeze from the primary treatment ponds made my eyes water. Today, the light breeze is in our favour, thank goodness. It’s idyllic. The marsh is full of waterfowl. honking, hissing, quacking. Lots of shorebirds too —  Dowitchers, Yellowlegs, several Stilt Sandpipers, and scores of Killdeer. We spot the Golden Plover mixed in with, and noticeably smaller than, their Black-bellied cousins. Many of the birds are transitioning from their striking breeding plumage and into more somber garb. Interesting.

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Plovers

By now I’ve given up on getting good pictures. The light is as bad as it gets for photography and the birds are just too distant even for my FZ300 with teleconverter. With sewage ponds, it’s pretty well up to the bird to come to you as the reverse is just not possible — or desirable. After a couple of hours of birding the pond and the nearby woodlands, we move on to Stratford. It’s getting late. A non-fast food dinner would be nice and maybe a show — Guys and Dolls is playing. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be birding again, heading back to the Lake Erie and Niagara.

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How windy is it?

I can’t leave the topic of sewage lagoons without mentioning those at Exeter, Ontario, where I went in search of a White-rumped Sandpiper. As soon as I arrived, I realized the wind was not going to be my friend – it blew my hat off before I even got out of the car. Nevertheless, a target bird is a target bird and I soldiered on. On top of the dike, the northerly was so powerful that I could barely stand, let alone hold focus on my camera. And, good grief — what a stink!

There were birds though — most distant. Some are closer, like the dozen or more feeding Pectoral Sandpipers, with their abrupt bib lines and yellow legs. They’re one of my favourite shorebirds so it’s nice to see so many. That doesn’t happen where I live in BC. I did catch a glimpse of the White-rumped, and got another ‘tick’ for the year list but, gosh, I earned it.

 

Point Pelee Raptors

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Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (or Sharpie)

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.

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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!

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Kestrel

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Peregrine Falcon

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Bald Eagle at Point Pelee tip

 

 

Time to dress for fall…

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Waist High Veg

The title, from the song in the old movie The Summer of 42, seems apt. It’s gotten cooler here on the coast and migrating birds are passing through. Local birds are flocking too, many fattening up for their own long journey south. I’m at Panama Flats this cool, changeable morning, flushing Savannah and Lincoln’s Sparrows right and left as I push through chest high weeds. Nearby, Goldfinches attack weed heads with precision, scattering chaff. And every berry bush has its diners, including the Savannahs, drawn to insects and the seeds of ‘past it’ berries no doubt.

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Goldfinch

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Savannah Sparrows

The week’s rarities are three Bobolinks here from the interior. I tried to locate them the other morning and failed. Today’s another day. I’m hopeful until a Merlin flashes by, and then a Northern Harrier hunting voles. The zillion sparrows, which were everywhere moments ago, vanish like summer snow. After perching on a snag and surveying the fields, the Merlin plunges towards the brambles, and then is gone — blindingly fast. It took a sparrow likely, the concussion of the stoop killing the prey in the air. It’s the way of things.

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Northern Harrier

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Merlin

The danger past, sparrows and Goldfinches soon return, with feeding the priority now. No sign of the Bobolink yet. Luckily, I have a fallback strategy. When you can’t find a rare bird, look for excited birders, as I do now. I spot two expert members of the clan along the dike trail glassing a clump of Blackberry. They’ve located one of the Bobolinks,and point it out to me. Great people, birders.

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Bobolink

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Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow

The target is a long way away, a mere yellowish smudge from where I stand. Even using a monopod, I can’t keep my Lumix FZ300 steady enough for a well-focussed shot. With the converter I think I’m out to about 1200 mm, way beyond good picture range. Still, I figure, record photos are better than none at all.

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Too far…

The Bobolink is a short-tailed member of the (new world) blackbird tribe; in breeding plumage the males are mostly black and white, with Naples Yellow skull caps. This one seems to be a juvenile, its feathers washed with lemon, perching like a Meadowlark. Later on, I find a second bird all on my own, a female this time, much paler.

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I’m about done here. A flight of Canada Geese cruise over the treetops and land, honking, out of sight in the lush vegetation. Within a few weeks, the autumn rains will come in earnest. Then the waist high weeds will wither, the ponds will fill with water and the Teal, Pintails, Gadwalls, and many other ‘winter birds’ will return. It is, indeed, time to dress for fall…

 

Mount Hood

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Haze

I’m looking down on smoke produced by fires in British Columbia and driven out the valleys of the Fraser and Columbia. With no strong westerlies, or rain, to stop it, the haze now covers the west from Medford to Whistler. And it’s hot, very hot – a hundred and five in Portland. So I’m up here at eleven thousand feet where the air is clean and the temperature comfortable. There’s even snow. I’m looking for Mountain Bluebirds, Clark’s Nutcracker and other high country species but most other visitors aren’t so inclined. They trudge past carrying skis and snowboards heading for the runs a mile away. Good on them – they’re all a lot younger than me. Skiing in August is just about the last thing I feel like doing.

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The Ski Hill

I carry on, sidestepping rivulets of melt water and blooming alpine plants, going higher. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels seem to be everywhere, gathering and storing food for the winter. Several species of butterflies chase each other across the broken terrain, flashing orange and black. The biggest are Tortoiseshells, strong fliers and fast. I find a comfortable-looking boulder and sit to admire slopes adorned with yellow wild buckwheat, purple asters, fleabane and lupines – how clever of nature to do the complimentary colour thing. Then I empty my shoes of ash and pumice and head down the mountain towards the smoke and heat. Ah, me. At least they have good food and wine in Portland.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

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Mountain Bluebird

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Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

 

Paintbrush, Aster Fleabane, Alpine Aster

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Western Tortoiseshell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worn.

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Uplands Park View

Today, the Park seems like the Hundred Acre Wood, intimate, private. It’s breezy closer to the sea but I’m out of the wind here in the meadow. I have the trails to myself too. With no runners or dogs to disturb them, young Chickadees and Towhees are active, chasing each other through the foliage like kids. They seemed not to mark the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk that cruised silently past a moment earlier, a serious lapse. Carelessness can get a bird killed here, unless it’s lucky, or the wide-eyed hawk is equally inexperienced and inept, which is not impossible.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Meadow Flowers

Mostly I see signs of the turning of the year – flowers past their peak, older birds, worn now and replacing feathers. Gone the flamboyant colours and behaviours of mating season. Not completely, perhaps. A Yellow-rumped Warbler is still handsome, a ( pardon me ) ratty Spotted Towhee trills and fidgets a display of sorts nearby, a Bewick’s Wren sings half-hardheartedly in the shade. A Chipping Sparrow, on the other hand, seems content to feed up for the fall migration, keeping its own counsel. An Anna’s Hummingbird takes in the sun, as relaxed as a hummingbird ever gets

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Spotted Towhee

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Bewick’s Wren

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Chipping Sparrow

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Anna’s Hummingbird

A strikingly-patterned butterfly appears. It’s a Lorquin’s Admiral, looking great from a distance but close up, not so good. Its wings are in tatters, a sign that it’s at the end of its short life. Nice name though – Lorquin’s Admiral.

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Lorquin’s Admiral

Speaking of names, those of butterflies seem more poetic than those of birds – Skippers, Fritillaries, Azures, Parnassians, Hairstreaks. Admirals are Brushfoots. Brushfoots – makes me think of Hobbits. So – I started my walk with Winnie the Pooh and now I’m in Middle Earth. It’s that kind of a morning.

Once assigned, of course, names frequently stick. The competition to put the labels on things must be fierce. Bicycles were originally called velocipedes, which seems so much better. The same people who named birds must have insisted upon ‘bikes’; butterfly aficionados probably would have gone with ‘velos’. Boy, my mind really is wandering now. Talk about worn.

 

 

 

 

Pigeons! Good grief!

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It’s a measure, perhaps, of how slow mid-summer birding has been for me that I offer up this post on pigeons. I don’t mean the sleek, pearl-grey Band-tailed Pigeons, those lovely forest birds, but ordinary Rock Doves. Not well liked generally, these ‘rats of the air’, but I’ve always had a fondness for them.

I won’t bore you with stories of boyhood attempts to become a ‘pigeon fancier’, or of nabbing sleeping birds from under the eaves of the abandoned, towering old Coop with its rotten floors, or of the strange assortment of culled birds begged from real pigeon people, or of the beautiful red Homer, with its mighty chest and prominent cere, the one my friend Lloyd and I grabbed from off a downtown sidewalk. Gosh, that bird was something – a prince among pigeons. He stayed with us for a few days, ate our gleaned scratch grain, gathered his strength and then continued his journey home-at ninety miles an hour if he wanted to kick in the afterburners. Where home was, Lloyd and I never knew. We ought to have recorded his band number but twelve-year-olds often don’t think of these things until it’s too late.

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To make this more like a birding post, I mount a photographic expedition in support of it. I soon discover that there are really good-looking birds in most flocks. When I park out on Turkey Head, the locals descend, ready for a handout. They obviously don’t understand I’m here to do a photo essay, because I have to keep chasing them off the hood of my newly-washed car. It’s very disrespectful (Hey- I’m working here!).

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Begging for handouts, incidentally, doesn’t interrupt the mating process with Rock Doves. I’m not sure anything less than a Peregrine Falcon attack would accomplish that. The cooing and billing goes on through the year, which is why there are so many of these feathered ‘rats’ around the world. It’s not their fault. I watch a movie star among Rock Doves as he pouts his way from one female to another until he finally gets his way. He’s got it all going on!

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When a more promising car drives by, the flock lifts off, whirls around, performs some aerial acrobatics and, disappointed, re-descends near me. Pigeons are beautiful flyers, agile and swift, with those wing-tip clapping takeoffs. It’s worth watching pigeons fly; there aren’t many birds who do it better. See how they soar and turn, tumble and dive, flight feathers whistling. Wonderful! It’s those big chest muscles and the area and shape of the wing that does it.

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They’re relatively good parents too, think ‘pigeon milk’. In the bird world, only Penguins and Flamingos and members of the dove family make ‘milk’ for their offspring. I’ve never lost my love for these birds. Most of the snarky things people say about them could also be said about our own species, which doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as too many pigeons.

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So that’s it for the Rock Dove, my old pals. Nostalgia still drives me to visit to poultry barns at fall fairs, to check out Pouters, Fantails, Rollers and Tumblers at local shows, to listen to the music of  squawks, coos and peeps and the rustle of feathers, to breathe in the once familiar smells of scratch grain and straw. Other bird smells I try to ignore. I’m selective with with nostalgia. One has to be.