Between Storms Again

 

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Squall Line

I’m out  between squalls, following up reports of owl sightings–a Pygmy Owl on Observatory hill and a possible Snowy Owl at Panama Flats. Lately, my owl luck has been pitiful, even when I concentrate really, really hard. You’d expect some cooperation, but no. Still, it’s always worth a shot.

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Time to Change Lodgings!

Panama Flats, a series of diked cattail-rimmed pools, resemble the real Panama not at all. Lots of waterfowl here though. I exit the car and most of them take to the air — Teal, Mallards, Widgeon, Pintails. It’s not me – I’m too far away. I suspect a hunting Peregrine but it’s a Bald Eagle that’s causing all the fuss, cruising the ponds like a diner at a buffet. A flock of Glaucous-winged Gulls is first up. Being an important food item for the Eagles, they can’t afford to linger. I’ve seen an eagle pick a gull out of the air.

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Hmmm – tasty!

By the time I get to Observatory Hill, the rain is almost on me. It’s windy – and cold. A half dozen Ravens seem to welcome the prospect of the coming storm, cavorting and croaking, doing aerials, zooming past the dome covering the Observatory’s large telescope faster than I can focus on them. Using the wind.

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Raven Ballet

Below me, the valley is in mist. To the south, someone burns slash–the blue smoke contrasting with the rising, steaming vapours. A maintenance guy comes to do leaf blowing. Jeepers! I can’t figure out the logic here — it’s a mountain top after all. The noise grates and the rain begins in earnest. Time to go. Not a darn owl anywhere anyway!

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Smoke and Mist

Cold morning:Good Light

The bird in question is a Field Sparrow, the first ever recorded here, perhaps the first ever in the province. Just about every birder I know saw the sparrow and many took great pictures. Word is that it’s almost stupidly tame, often hopping around peoples’ feet like a little, brown mouse. The problem is that, when I get to the Lagoon , it’s vanished. What a difference a day makes (darn – now I’ve got the song in my head – Dinah Washington. I think). It was clear last night and the winds, I guess, were favourable. The ‘once in a blue moon’ bird has gone, flown. Too bad for me and the thirty forlorn birders who wander the shores, occasional stopping to peer (hopefully) under the driftwood. Luckily, there are compensations. The light is wonderful and common birds are stunningly beautiful.

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Common Goldeneye

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House Finch

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Trumpeter Swan

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Northern Pintail

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Bufflehead

 

Chachalacas

Chachalacas are quite common in southern Texas. Noisy too. Very. I met Texans who admitted to homicidal thoughts around these chicken-like birds. They are up with the sun, even if you’re not. Still, I’m fond of them. Mind you, I also think the poultry barns are the best part of a fall fair, so there’s that. These two seemed to be out on a date.

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I didn’t see you. I’m looking at whatever it is over there.

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Are you sure?

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I thought you’d never ask…

Flycatchers

 

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Tropical Kingbird

It’s mid-November in British Columbia but I’m out looking for a Tropical Kingbird. Yes –  tropical!  I think I’ve mentioned these wayward birds before. A few of them seem to show up somewhere on the coast each winter. It’s their brain wiring apparently – a misread of the magnetosphere by mostly young birds.

The Kingbird belongs to the Tyrant flycatcher clan, a family that includes some spectacular and engaging species. And they are tyrants in terms of attitude. Fierce little birds when they need to be, and very protective, driving away even the largest raptors.

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Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatchers are favourites of mine. I think they look more tropical than the Kingbirds. Easy to imagine these small, bright red birds flitting through a jungle canopy somewhere far to the south, maybe near a squad of Toucans. Like many flycatchers, they don’t try to hide, so photographing them is relatively easy. The same is true of Scissortail Flycatchers like the ones I saw recently in Texas. Extravagantly long tails and peach-coloured sides – beautiful!

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Scissortail Flycatcher

 

 

 

 

 

The Owl

The woods around the visitor center at Laguna Atascosas in Texas. Like almost every other birder here, I’m looking for a Tropical Parula, a rare and pretty warbler that nobody’s seen today. I pass little knots of people scanning the trees with their binoculars. Soon we’re all on nodding terms.

It’s hot and too late in the day for birds to move around much, which means that the Parula (if it’s still here) will be hunkered down deep in the foliage. I still haven’t had breakfast and it seems silly to stick around. Then the amazing happens. A raucous group of Green Jays push out an Eastern Screech Owl. The bird stops for pictures about ten feet away! The chances of this are remote but when it happens it’s wonderful, like finding treasure. It’s one of the things I love about birding.

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Eastern Screech Owl

 

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So you’re here!

Raptor Day

I’m at a birding festival in Texas. It’s unseasonably hot and very humid. My destination is the Laguna Atascosas Wildlife Refuge where I’m hoping to see rare Aplomado Falcons. The day doesn’t start well. I’m up early and keen but my GPS takes me to a bridge that is out and poorly marked detours have me driving around in circles for three hours. Twenty miles of so in three hours! I finally luck out and spot the road in, which turns to be one of the worst thoroughfares I’ve ever been on. I do see a gorgeous White-tailed Hawk but then nothing.

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White-Tailed Hawk

I’m getting discouraged but then, wonder of wonders, I spot two Aplomados and brake. They’re on adjacent fence posts about thirty feet away – beautiful- but when I get out to take pictures, my lens fogs up – something about air conditioners, humidity, and glass. Physics again, my nemesis!

I finally clear things up but as I try to line up a shot, the falcons, disgusted, hightail it. It’s not my day. Or is it? Birding is funny. After I resign myself to failure, my luck changes. The day becomes a raptor day – and one of the my best. I see a dozen birds of prey – the Aplomados, Peregrine Falcons, White-tailed Kites, Kestrels, Harriers, Crested Caracaras, White-tailed Hawks and the highlight, an Eastern Screech Owl. I’ll talk about that marvellous bird in the next post.

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Crested Caracara

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Peregrine Falcon

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White-tailed Kite

For those who don’t know the Aplomado, I offer a picture of a bird rehabilitated by the Raptor Project, an organization that looks after injured birds who are too damaged to be released. You can see what I missed when my lens fogged up back at Atascosas! The wild birds looked angular and deadly, not the least bit cute like this chap.

 

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 Raptor Project Aplomado, with Harris’s Hawk

Autumn Ducks: Hooded Merganser

Is there a prettier duck than the ‘Hoodie’? A group has just arrived in our little bay, the males posturing and flashing their crests as they compete for females. Buffleheads are here too, right on time – the 3rd week in October for us. And our Widgeon have returned, tumbling in on the winds of the last October storm. Coming home for the winter, I guess, and soon to be grazing on the local park lawns. No sign (yet) of the crimson-headed Eurasian Widgeon that spent last winter here. A squadron of young Surf Scoters has joined the Buffleheads, a bit of a surprise in such shallow water.

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Hooded Merganser Drake

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Surf Scoter Teens

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Competition

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Today’s Champion

 

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Amid the ruins of Muyil, a Mayan city in the Quintana Roo, an Violaceous Trogon. Seeing a marvellous bird like this in a place like Muyil helps one forget about the heat, the bugs, and the early morning. The guide’s cheese loaf at mid-morning was nothing to write home about either.

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Violaceous Trogon

The excavated part of a much larger city. Muyil, a trading center, was inhabited for over a thousand years and abandoned more than five hundred years ago.

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Muyil, Quintana Roo

 

 

Rare Birds – The Emperor Goose

I got the rare bird report when I was in Salem, Oregon in September. A number of people had reported an Emperor Goose near Coos Bay, also in Oregon, and I don’t have one on my list. Coos Bay is bit of a drive from Salem but what the heck — I’m at location around noon. It’s a nice sunny day and there are thousands of Canada Geese around but that’s it. After an hour or so, I abandon the quest. I decide to make one more try at the top of a bluff. Unfortunately, I can only see about six feet of beach from my vantage point which, it turns out, is all I need. The Goose in question obliging walks into the frame. Sometimes you just get lucky! This one is lovely blue-gray bird with pinky legs and a white topknot, a young bird a long way from the Aleutians, where it probably ought to be at this time of the year.

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Emperor Goose

 

Between Pacific Storms: October Memories

Our perennial Low in the Gulf of Alaska is setting up nicely, so the autumn storms are starting. And the remnants of a ‘weather event’ in the western Pacific are heading our way too. Makes me think the archaic word ‘tempest’ ought to be revived. Even so, birding between fronts is not a bad idea. You never know what will arrive on the heels of a great storm. The big blow is due in a day or so but I won’t go far today. Out past the pumpkin patch, I think, and Swan Lake.

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Picked Over

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Canada Geese Incoming

Rain softens everything and I mean more than the mud-making mixing of earth and water, although there’s plenty of that too. For all its pleasures, summer has a bright, loud harshness to it that needs to be relieved by early mornings and late evenings. Fall pleases me more.

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Mallards Flaps Down

Migrating waterfowl are passing through. Lots of them. A mixed flock of Mallard, Pintail and Widgeon drops into a now harvested grain field, sounding off as they land. Skeins of vocalizing Canada Geese and the smaller Cackling Geese decorate the skies in every direction.

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Wilson’s Snipe

I see nothing unusual in the fields so I check out some newly replenished ponds. The rain quietens my footsteps and makes it easier for me to arrive at a finger of slough undetected. I’m in luck. A Wilson’s Snipe is out and very visible. Somehow these secretive birds must know that hawks generally avoid flying in the rain. I stand dead still, watching, until the bird wanders off into the long grass.

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Rain Bird – Wilson’s Snipe

There are other birds to see too. A young, slightly bedraggled Cedar Waxwing looks like he’s going to a punk event somewhere. The black mask only adds to the illusion. He gives me the ‘once over’ as I go by but stays put. The punk attitude, I guess — I don’t care what you think as long as you notice me. Not to be outdone, a Steller’s Jay hops into view. I think the blue is Cerulean (more or less). Must be Crest Day at the Lake.

 

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Waxwing Punk

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Another Crest – Steller’s Jay

And speaking of illusions, I catch a glimpse of a Barred Owl, too deep in a thicket to get a good photo, but looking very ghostly on this pre-Halloween ramble. He or she is wide awake in the half light of the interval between storms. No flying tonight perhaps. Not in the teeth of (at least) gale-force winds. Not in a tempest!

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 Ghost Owl