I intended this post to be about seabirds, about the Albatrosses, Skuas, Jaegers, Fulmars, and the other birds of the deep water zone forty miles from shore, the kind you have to go on a ‘pelagic’ to see. We saw all of them, which was great. A few rarities too. But the real story arrived at twenty-seven miles from port, on our way home.
We left Westport, Washington at six-thirty in the morning, fought ten foot swells most of the way out, saw seabirds, tried to take pictures, and tried not to be seasick. Luckily, the seas calmed on the way back and the journey less of a challenge. With lower swells to deal with, the pictures got better too.
It’s getting on to mid afternoon. We’ve been looking at the sea for hours and some people have gone into the cabin and crashed. Not all of us though. Good thing too. A tiny bird appears in the western sky, a passerine, a land bird, flying a steady direct path towards us. It’s a Grey Wagtail, an Eurasian bird. It’s flown many miles, thousands likely. From where? Siberia or Japan seem most likely. The pluck of that little creature, weighing only a few ounces is astonishing! We are a long way from even seeing land. The Wagtail is working against a slight headwind but his course is arrow-straight.
Yellow Wagtail in Spain
I get no pictures of the gallant, little bird (although I do get good shots of the back of another birder’s head). The Wagtail above is a cousin, a Yellow Wagtail from Spain. Did our bird make it? Who can say? One showed up in California years ago, and two in British Columbia, again a long time ago. The thing is, how does he even know where he’s going? How does he keep that straight course across leagues of featureless ocean? It’s another example of birds as mysteries. I like to think he made it okay. He seemed determined – and strong.
We’re on Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This really is a water world, acres and acres of tidal marsh populated by terns, plovers, egrets, herons, eagles, ospreys and the ultra skinny rails. Beyond the islands, the Atlantic. Wild ponies are the big attraction here. The famous Chincoteague Ponies were featured in a children’s story decades ago and are still celebrities. We take a boat to see them and the some of the birds who inhabit this special environment.
East Coast Bald Eagle
Herons and egrets do especially well here. Hard to imagine now but by the early part of the 20th century, many species were almost wiped out because of fashion. That was the great age of hats, when fancy feathers enhanced the fantastic milliner creations we see today only in pictures. Plume hunters slaughtered all the adult birds in a colony and left the young to starve. Happily, largely through the efforts of two women, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, the plume trade came to an end and birds like the Snowy Egret can flourish.
Little Blue Heron
Back to the ponies. Pony numbers are controlled for the sake of the environment. Each year, as our skipper, Barnacle Bill (it’s true) tells us, surplus ponies are swum across to Chincoteague from Assateague to be auctioned off. It make for a festival and I gather, everybody gets wet. Unfortunately, we only glimpse the ponies. Some porpoises, perhaps sent by the tourist board, swim up to help alleviate the disappointment.
Tourist Board Porpoises – Chincoteague
Just before dark, we turn back towards the harbour. Now the only sounds are lapping water, the flutey whistles of shorebirds, and the hum of the outboard. It’s cooled down too, and we have to zip up our jackets and hunker. As we round the mole, we see the lights and towers of nearby NASA’s Wallops Island launch center from which rockets regularly thunder up into the sky. It’s a strange contrast to this marshy outpost where the locals seem to have their own way of speaking, and where crabbing and fishing have been mainstays for centuries. Speaking of which, seafood might be the correct choice for dinner.
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.
Lucky for me, digital cameras came along when they did. Photoshop too. I well remember the days of 24 or 36 shots. You had to be pretty careful then, and be a much more skilful photographer that I could ever hope to be. Now I shoot lots of images and keep most of them. Usually, I use the camera like a spotting scope. It’s more portable and I can look at what I’ve shot later when I can consult the bird books. Several times, I’ve found birds in images I’ve shot I didn’t know were there. Cool!
I use a Panasonic FZ200 with an extender and converter. This gets me out to the 600mm range. Lots of my shots are out of focus, overexposed or otherwise substandard. It’s darned hard to hold a camera still at the 600mm equivalent but the Pansonic does surprisingly well. If I were more of a photographer, I’d really learn to use it. Most people would trash their extra and or flawed images but I’ll hang onto them until my computer screams at me that it’s running out of storage. So far so good. Images are grist for the mill if they have strong patterns, colours, line, and for want of a better word, drama. I’m also a painter and sculptor so I’m attracted to that sort of thing.
Most of the images in this gallery were slightly our of focus to start with, or parts of them were at any rate. They were junk. Not the Cardinal though. I always liked that one. The Sora, however, was clear until the camera decided to focus on reeds rather than on the hind quarters of the bird – sharply-focussed head and chest and a fuzzy behind. It sounds like a TV commercial for a condition that needs a health and fitness product to eradicate. Folks – do you have a fuzzy behind? Is the top part of you sharp but the rest of you embarrassing? Take Birdmarsh Supplements for 10 days and go to parties with new confidence!
But I digress.
The California quail was more or less in silouette. The Ukiyo-e was a patch of ocean water with a bit of wave action, the whole thing no more than ten feet from me. There was supposed to be a Surf Scoter in the shot. I’ve got scores of images of empty branches, empty water, empty patches of field, empty bits of sky. Every one should include a bird but doesn’t. I keep those shots too because, well, who knows when I’ll need them.
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.