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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
I guess I’m starting early today. I’ve been up since first light, a hazard when you stay in cheap motels. In this case, a flaw in the drapes focussed a beam of light on my left eyeball at the wrong time in my sleep cycle. No chance of lying abed here. I rise and get dressed. This time of the morning in Owen Sound options for breakfast are limited. I get a muffin and coffee at Tim Horton’s and check my email. I likely know some of the denizens in here but, if so, they’re unrecognizable to me now after so many years.
I’m visiting my mother today but we haven’t set a time and her recent memory lapses add an odd timelessness to everything. She has to eat breakfast at a regular time and has a few other things to do, I know. I’ve got time to bird and I’m up with them. Now I just have to find them.
I drive out into the countryside, past the old hardwood bush where, as young teenagers, my friend Lloyd and I, having walked up the hill from the town, made a camp in the snow. It was four in the morning, a moonlit night, and we were out to hunt rabbits. Our companions were a black and tan hound puppy with ears so long it couldn’t not step on them and a beagle named Penny I’d rescued from a death sentence.
It was a magical time, the fire chewing up the dry wood we fed it continually. Its light illuminated the boles of dark and massive hardwoods with each flicker or flare. I remember a Great Horned Owl hooting somewhere close by. I also remember beans cooked in the can so that one side of the mass was mouth-burning hot and the other icy cold. We did not, by the way, shoot any rabbits.
Back to the present. I’ve always liked early May in southern Ontario. I grew up in this town but I’ve lived in the west for decades. Now when I come home, I come in May if I can. In a region with well-marked seasons, the land wakes up in early May. It’s winter, or close to it one day, and then, quite suddenly, it’s spring. This May, the first leaves are barely showing, no more than a haze of green-gold lights the forest. A peculiarity of the season is that sounds carry for miles. The air is hollow like a bell, like it is on a cold, still day after a snow in winter.
This cold morning will become a fine spring day once the temperature gets up a bit. I head for Bognor Marsh. My brother’s best gift to me was to tell me about this place. Go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. You can’t miss it.
Of course, you can miss it. And I do. I shuck the false confidence that comes with pretending to know my way around these back roads. I have a GPS, such a handy tool for a birder so I pull over and hook it up. A quick search and there it is, Bognor marsh, no more than a fifteen minute drive from where I am. I drive down what I guess is the right ‘Line’, pass the sign, double back and park – mine the only vehicle in small lot.
The temperature is rising quickly and a little breeze becomes the first Zephyr fingers of a warm front. A week or so before there was frost; there will be wet snow one day before I leave Owen Sound. Now wildflowers carpet the shallow earth that covers the limestone and songs of a dozen bird species ring through the woods. A windfall of bird species has arrived with the warm front. Without leaves on the trees, spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and wait and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and finally see him no more than 5 feet away. He moves on. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red, yellow and white and then they’re gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another, and another.
I count five species in as many minutes and move on. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers works the trunk like nuthatches. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees.
The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and Whites, Blackburnians, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumpeds, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises — a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, a Wild Turkey.
The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther into the sedge, a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song. A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. Others ‘winnow’ in the middle distance.
I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, its back a rusty-brown, strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. Another Broad-winged Hawk appears going north and then disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.
I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, reluctantly, I leave. I’ll come back as often as I’m able. My mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning in that regard and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound. I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings.The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave each time when I ought to. May, that’s the time to be there.