In a way, this story is about misplaced assumptions. And being wrong – again. Remembering that Snowy Plovers nest (in season) near Grayland, Washington. I make a quick decision, take an access road to the beach and hope for the best. I don’t expect much, especially since pickups and jeeps are everywhere on the sand. I’m not planning on spending more than a half hour here anyway but it breaks up the long drive I’m on.
Snowy Plover in a Rut
I walk down the last half mile down the road. A jeep passes me at speed, tears down to the tideline, does a couple of spectacular water fountaining donuts and then leaves. Now, I think, there’s no way I’ll see any of the tiny plovers. The jeep will have freaked them. Wrong.
Come Here Often?
The Plovers appear. And they’re thrilled. They’re in and out of the vehicle tracks, scooting from furrow to furrow, like so many tawny mice. I can only guess why. Perhaps, the jeep tires have turned up tasty little critters, or maybe the ruts are just good to hide in. I find the vehicles irritating but, to the birds, I guess they’re like big ruminants, herds of elk maybe. And perhaps they take advantage of them in the same way egrets and other birds do in Africa when they tag along with elephants. Minus the bird advantages of elephant droppings, of course.
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.
With the tide as low as it is during the night and the waxing moon, shorebirds are moving at night now. I’m awake before dawn and hear the drawn out piping of Black-bellied Plovers passing overhead and the three syllable cheer of the Yellowlegs in the cove. Geese are flying too although these are not going anywhere in particular. They’re local. But their honking reminds me of my years in the north. In the fall, huge flocks of Canadas pass through on their way south, making a kind of music, until one frosty morning, the skies are empty and quiet. After that, winter.
I’m ready at first light to go to the point, to take advantage of the slowly rising tide, to check out who arrived during the night. I’m hoping for something on the rarer end of the spectrum, a Pacific Golden Plover perhaps. I know the Black-bellied Plovers will be there for sure. And they are. Along with Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Black Oystercatchers – and gulls.
Ready to Spar – Black-bellied Plovers
A scuffle breaks out between two young Plovers. It’s hard to tell how serious the fight is but in the natural world everything counts.The birds look identical to me but one drives the other off. What does it mean? I guess that when they head to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, the winner will succeed there and the loser will fail. It’s all about dominance. But, who knows? Breeding is months and several thousand miles of hazards from here, and now.
To the Victor Go The Spoils?
I scan for rarities but find nothing remarkable. It’s still very early and the usual irritation here-people letting their dogs roam the tideline freely in spite of the birds-hasn’t yet occurred. It’s so quiet.
Blacktails at the Tideline
A Blacktail doe appears and sniffs the air. She gives some subtle signal of reassurance and a fawn steps out onto the rocks, and then another. Finally, her whole family is there-two fawns from this year and two from last year and a young buck. All healthy looking,sleek from grazing on flowers in the local gardens, likely. The buck might be one of the doe’s offspring from two years ago, or he might just be a flirty hanger on, a teenager with high hopes. Certainly, he won’t be sticking around once the big bucks with their huge, many-tined racks show up.
Blacktail Deer Confab
And speaking of youngsters, the Harbor Seal that has hawled out on a rock in the bay for the past several years, each time with with a new pup, is back. She always seems so tender with the young one, and so patient.
The thick fog I saw from the highway waits for me at Saanichton Spit, a long, sandy tongue of land south of Sidney, BC. Tsawout ancestral territory. Now I must make a decision.Two recent sightings brought me here – a Willet and an Upland Sandpiper. The Willet is a large shorebird and uncommon in these parts; the Upland Sandpiper is a prairie bird and quite rare on the coast. I can’t see much yet but you never know with fog, which can clear away in minutes. I decide to stay. A Raven watches me set up my scope and then flies off, disappearing almost immediately. He’s probably thinking something like — ‘a scope, you’ve got to be kidding – in this?’
Beyond the Grass, Nothing
Visibility decreases as I walk and sound takes on a new quality, suppressed unless the source is close; then it’s enhanced. A foghorn sounds from somewhere, the familiar basso profundo moan and close by the soft sibilant call of Savannah Sparrows, clear and bright in the damp air. One hops up on a fence post and then vanishes like a magician’s bird from a hat. A pretty bird with its pale mustard eyebrow.
Even the commonest structures look different today – a tumbledown lean-to, for example. I passed this wreck dozens of times but, today, I observe it and take in details I haven’t noticed before. Sherlock Holmes tried to teach Watson about this power. ‘You see Watson, but you do not observe‘, he says, when Watson can’t tell him how many stairs he walks up every day at 221B Baker. I think it’s in A Scandal in Bohemia. Birding is great for observing, by the way. Attention to detail is what makes it all work.
When You’ve Seen Better Days
And likewise, the row of shells in a tide channel on the beach. The quality of light and the elimination of visual distraction helps me see this commonplace differently–beach debris now transformed into a string of precious jewels, or a garden. Usually, I’d just crunch on through. Today, I step around it so as not to disturb this most ephemeral of art pieces.
A small squadron of Western Sandpipers hums past somewhere off to my left, chattering –jeet, jeet. Invisible. I never do see the Willet or the Upland Sandpiper. Likely they were just passing through anyway but I could easily have walked by them. And a hundred other birds, for all I know. I do see a large dark shape in a dead tree. I think eagle but it turns out to be a despondent-looking Turkey Vulture, waiting for the sun and some nice juicy thermals to lift him up into a blue late summer sky.
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.
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!