Snowy Owls; A River Running…

 

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A Perfect Little River

The woods around my hometown are beautiful in May. It’s a great time to walk up the Sydenham River towards Inglis Falls. I spent many boyhood hours on, or in, or near the Sydenham. In all seasons too. That hillside over there – the snow leaves it first. It’s a good place to cook a can of beans over a campfire and lie back to bask in the late winter sun. Dry, clean ground in a world of snow, the smell of wood smoke and caramelized beans. A memory. Around me the Trilliums and Dogtooth Violets are coming in nicely. And the greens – soft, warm, luminous and arrestingly pretty.

The burgeoning foliage has its downside for a birder. It’s much harder to spot the little guys. I trace a pert Ovenbird  by its ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ song. A line of bouncing leaves marks the passage of a Nashville Warbler intent on bug picking, ignoring a tail-flicking Redstart. Overhead a Baltimore Oriole flashes orange. Higher up above the ‘Mile Drive’ a couple of male Ruffed Grouse start to drum – the slow ‘whumpf — wumpf — wumpf’ quickly increasing in tempo and climaxing in a muffled and impressive super-grouse-sized roar.

I cut away to avoid a flooded section of  path. My detour takes me past a memory – a patch of jumbled dolomite where long ago I stashed and later lost a canvas knapsack. A peripatetic porcupine, or several, ate it right down to the buckles. Nothing left but metal. In one night!

I lost a perfectly good cheese whiz and onion sandwich wrapped in wax paper to the prickly little guys too. Today I’d worry about the harm the white bread and canvas might do to the wildlife. I’m not sure I was feeling quite so equable at the time.

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Red Trillium

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Ovenbird

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Nashville Warbler

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Redstart

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Baltimore Oriole

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Redwing Blackbirds

I leave the river and head for the country roads. As always I check the rare bird reports wherever I go. The latest surprises me – three or four Snowy Owls seen in Grey and Bruce counties. Right now? Amazing! It’s the last bird I expected to see. Likely I won’t, not with my bird luck. I take up the chase anyway. It’s a compulsion after all and not entirely rational. I spend quite a few hours searching the countryside. I pick up a few good birds – wild Turkeys, a lone Sandhill Crane, an equally lone Broad-winged Hawk. No Owl though. By this time, I’m famished and I’d really like to stop for a late lunch. One last road to try and then I’ll stop. Just when I’m about to turn back, there it is – calm as can be, sitting on a boulder at the edge of a swale that’s likely teaming with rodents. There’s no way I can get close enough for a good photo but I’m happy, thrilled actually.

After lunch, I head back to the sparkling Sydenham, likely for the last time this year. Family dinner tonight and a visit with one of my cousins. Tomorrow I’ll head south to Toronto and then the flight home. I’ll leave early just in case there’s a rare bird or two to ‘pick up’ on the way down. I’ve still got the bug.

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Snowy Owl

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Tree Swallow

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Redstart – Female

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Wild Turkey

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The Mile Drive

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A River Runs Through It

 

 

The Salton Sea: February 2018

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American Avocets and Coots

Burrowing Owls – I can’t seem to get these little guys. By ‘get’, I mean ‘add to my list’, not as in ‘I don’t understand them’. Although I don’t. Anyway, I’m determined on this trip — steely-eyed. The owls are ‘reliable’ in the intensely agricultural Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea. It’s a curiosity, the Salton Sea. An accident. Sort of. Being below sea level the Salton is a sink soaking up seasonal runoff. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘s’s!

In centuries past, runoff created a lake, which the sun quickly evaporated away. Then about 1905 or so,  a water company goof let the Colorado River fill the basin and suddenly the folks in Palm springs and LA had a big beautiful lake to visit. Great! Resort communities sprang up; probably Bogie and Bacall spent time here. In the a 1950’s it was a Beach Blanket Bingo kind of a place. That was then. Nowadays, almost no new water comes in and the lake is shrinking under the hot desert sun. Did I mention the smell? It has an unusual bouquet and when the wind’s in the wrong quarter, it’s fierce. If nothing changes, all the fish will die within seven years — even the hardy African Tilapia. Birds will suffer too as water levels drop. Where will the migrating flocks go to replenish their energy when the Sea is gone? Who knows?

The change is happening now. Three years ago squadrons of White Pelicans cruised the Sea; today not a single bird. Maybe there just aren’t enough fish anymore. Maybe the Pelis are at the other end of the lake. Lots of birds still come – they have to –  but fewer and fewer every year they say.

But I need to lighten up. It’s not all doomsday. There are folks trying to get more water for the Sea. The birding’s still good. American Avocets, which don’t need the Tilapia, still work the retreating edge of the water picking up brine shrimp. They are tall, pretty shorebirds with their French lawyer robe colouring and upturned bills. I can vouch for the upturned bill, not the other.

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Waterfowl in Transit

The  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge has Burrowing Owls — or they’re close by at any rate. Just inside the Refuge, a Roadrunner ambles by and then darts off looking, I suppose, for a snake or lizard for breakfast. Some Gambel’s Quail chuckle their way through the undergrowth. On some ponds, huge numbers of waterfowl rest on their way north; on others amazing numbers of shorebirds, including dozens of Dowitchers.

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Roadrunner

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Gambel’s Quail

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Dowitchers

I stop at the Refuge office for tips and also to ask about Sonny. Politicians tack their names on projects in which they otherwise have little interest but Sonny, once mayor of Palm Springs, really cared. So, thanks Sonny, (though not necessarily for “I Got You Babe)! As for the owls – “just walk out to the end of the parking lot and look right.” Which I do. In the wild, they’d use the abandoned burrows of other animals as they don’t dig their own. Here people have installed nesting pipes. And there they are, right on their doorstep, taking in the morning sun. So easy. How come it took me so long to get ’em’?

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Burrowing Owls

 

Madera Canyon: February 2018

I didn’t expect the Coatis. A troop has discovered the bird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. Big ones, little ones. I’m here with my brother Steve, who flew down from Ontario for some Arizona birding. I know Coatimundis from my zoo days decades past. Mischievous, rubber-nosed, ring-tailed bandits, very engaging. Lots of personality. I still remember them lying on their backs, lapping eggs out of the shell, grunting at each other, recalling some caper or other. All those years ago. Seeing them again makes me wonder how ground-nesting birds manage to hatch out chicks at all. Is it possible to avoid the ever-searching, wiffling noses? Me, I think of them as old friends.

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Coatimundi

Early morning and the viewing chairs are already taken. Popular spot this. One of the best feeding stations anywhere, maintained by the kind folks at Santa Rita Lodge, supported hopefully by donations that help buy the enormous amounts of feed needed to constantly replenish the feeders.  The Coatis won’t be welcome here, not  those appetites on four legs.

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Pine Siskins

They don’t seem to bother these birds. A Rufous-crowned Sparrow in a tangle of dead wood. Rufous-winged Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Siskins, Mexican Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos and a beautiful Yellow-eyed Junco work the feeders. A bright Hepatic Tanager puts in a brief appearance, its place on a half orange grabbed immediately by a clown-faced Acorn Woodpecker. An Arizona Woodpecker, a life bird for me, shows up. Lovely – with its chocolate-brown mantle. We hoped for a Painted Redstart on the trails but kept missing the bird everybody else seemed to see. A Red-naped Sapsucker posing photogenically eases our disappointment.

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Coatimundis (Coatis) – Parent and Child

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Mexican Jay

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Acorn Woodpecker

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Yellow-eyed Junco

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Arizona Woodpecker

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Red-naped Sapsucker

 

 

 

 

California Birding – Central Valley February 2018

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Central Valley, California

Driving in from Eureka on the coast, I overnight in Redding. Next night, Colusa. Birding takes you to places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Colusa, for example. Nice little town, tucked under the levees of the Sacramento River. Not terribly lively, in my opinion – the best restaurant in town closed at 5 last night. It was Sunday, but still. Never mind.

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Bald Eagle

I visit two big wildlife refuges, Colusa and Sacramento. Both have auto routes. It’s agricultural here in the Valley – big time. The almond trees are beginning to blossom. In a week, the hills should be white with them. The extensive marshes of the refuges attract wintering birds of many species – grebes, coots, lots of ducks. So critically important, these refuges, to them, to us.

I drive slowly, past sunning Western pond Turtles, past the evidence coyotes, otters and other predators leave. A gorgeous peach bellied Say’s Phoebe shows up and then a Black Phoebe in its black and white formal-wear. An American Pipit ambles up to my car – curious, I guess. Hundreds of Snow Geese use the ponds as do many of their smaller cousins, the snub-nosed Ross’s Goose. I spot a few Long-billed Curlews and a flock of White-faced Ibises. I’m fascinated by the long, curved bills – so Alice in Wonderland. The raptors are here too. Circle of life and all that. I pass a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks, a bald Eagle. a Peregrine scanning the feeding ducks. At the Nature Center, a great Horned Owl hoots.

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Long-billed Curlew

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Say’s Phoebe

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White-faced Ibis

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Western Pond Turtles

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Peregrine Falcon

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American Pipit

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Ross’s Goose

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Snow Geese

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Redtail Hawk

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Black Phoebe

 

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Sacramento Wildlife Refuge

 

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

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Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail

 

 

Travel Birding

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.

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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.

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Wood Duck

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.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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.

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Muskrat

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Redtail A-courting

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.

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The Oregon Coast

Cabo Birding

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The Arco at Cabo San Lucas

Los Cabos — the brightness and warmth is nice after some very gloomy months plus I finally get a chance to visit a location that figures prominently in the historical novel I’m writing. The story involves the capture of the Manila Galleon by the English privateer, Thomas Cavendish in 1587,  Cavendish seized a vast treasure and then left half of it behind with his mutinous second ship, the Content, which almost immediately disappeared from history. It all took place right out there.

On the birding side, Baja Sur has species found nowhere else, such as Belding’s Yellowthroat, Xantus’ Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. Our hotel is right beside a major bird sanctuary — the Estero San Jose. Coincidence? I think not. Spectacular Hooded and Scott’s Orioles are among the first birds we see.

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Scott’s Oriole

So, a successful, combined research and birding trip all in all.  Did I mention the glorious sun and sparkling blue water? Never mind. For a week it’s been birding in the morning and composing galleon action scenes and  treasure stories in the afternoon. Not a bad thing – birding in sandals, imagining history on the beach. Later, a Baja Birding tour will help me get the Xantus’ and the Gray Thrasher, both life birds, as was the Yellow-footed Gull I saw at the ‘Arco’.  Great!

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Damage from Hurricane Odile (2014)

As for the Sanctuary, at the moment it exists, it seems, in name only. No one to blame, I suppose, economics being what it is. Hurricane Odile smashed through here in 2014 and the effects are still visible. Littering and illegal dumping are a problem too and dogs and horses roam the trails. One can only hope that conservation efforts will revive once Odile and its costs slide into the more distant past.

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Yellow-footed Gull

Otherwise, the Estero is fantastic. Happily, birds don’t seem to mind many of those things that irritate us humans. Water birds are abundant and relatively easy to find — Cinnamon and Blue-wing Teal, American Coots and Gallinules, Herons and Egrets. Glossy, black White-faced Ibises gather like mini conventions of funeral directors. Lots of stuff here. I particularly like watching the numerous Reddish Egrets as they dash about and pounce in the peculiar way they do. It’s like it just occurred to these birds that they are supposed to be working! It’s a fishing strategy that seems to me, well, goofy. It must be successful but I think they’re hilarious.

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White-faced Ibises

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Reddish Egret

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Hooded Oriole

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Female Belding’s Yellowthroat

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Eared Grebe

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Gilded Flicker

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Lark Sparrow

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Crested Caracara

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Gray Thrasher — a supercilious look methinks!

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Verdin

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Xantus’ Hummingbird