I’m on the Washington coast looking for a rare Bar-tailed Godwit. Apparently, one has attached itself to a large flock of Marbled Godwits, a common enough bird here in autumn. Common, but cool. At least to me. I’m not sure why Godwits amuse me but I think Alice in Wonderland when I see them. It’s the long, pink, black-tipped upturned bill perhaps — a parliament of councillors in a Through the Looking Glass world, with their long noses poking into everyone else’s business.
In real life, the Godwit bill is a precision instrument; I suspect the tip is a bit flexible too. I’ve seen Godwits head down, bills eyeball deep in the sand. A seaworm, small crustacean or other delicacy is retrieved and slurped down. Very efficient. They nest in the prairies, by the way, and are monogamous, although how they tell each other apart is beyond me.
Finding the Bar-tailed amongst its Marbled cousins isn’t easy — a case of ‘one of these things is not like the other‘ or ‘Where’s Waldo‘. They all look pretty much the same. I finally spot the bird just as the flock, for some inexplicable reason, takes to the air and flies off. How long it will remain with the flock is anybody’s guess. Bar-tailed Godwits make the longest cross-ocean migration of any bird – some 7000 miles! That’s Alaska to New Zealand without touching down. Amazing.
Out o’ Here! – More Godwits
California Sea Lions
As the Godwits wheel by, I take ‘bursts’ of photos hoping to catch a picture of the elusive rare bird — like a gunfighter in a western movie with dozens of bullets in his six-shooter. Maybe I had success– I’m not sure. I look through my pics until my eyes wither and I still can’t pick out the Bar-tailed. As a consolation, I take shots of California Sea Lions hauled out, barking like crazy and virtually sinking the dock.
Godwits and Heermanns’s Gulls – Hard To Pick out A Bar-tail!
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.
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.
A few male Hooded Mergansers have arrived at the little bay near my home and the forecast is for rain, sure signs that summer is indeed over. Soon, the wet weather will set in. I make a last warm weather trip to Swan Lake, a local hot spot. The lake is glass smooth and flecked with, I think, fluff from Cottonwood trees. Four young Pied-billed grebes are feeding at the limit of my camera’s usable range. Plus they won’t keep still. Cute little guys but very active, diving every five seconds or so. It’s like a fairground ‘bash a mole’ game; they never reappear in the same place twice.
I’m hoping to add a Sora, a swamp-dwelling rail, to my year list. I know one (at least) inhabits the dense stand of bulrush at the west end but I’ve tried for this secretive bird umpteen times and it keeps eluding me. I shouldn’t take it personally. On my last visit a week or so ago, a pair of young otters popped up through the duckweed, lifted their anvil heads to scan the shoreline and then, snakelike, slid out of the water and into the cattails. Slick, deadly and quiet. Human beings aren’t the only predators the Sora is alert to.
Swan Lake Otters
I give up on the bird the on my first pass and carry on to the meadow. I hear birds in the trees but the foliage is so dense I don’t see much so I decide to have one more try at the Sora. A Blue Heron though sets up for a nice shot. The Herons are so commonplace that it’s nice to spend some time examining them–such a handsome bird.
Great Blue Heron
I take some shots and, for some reason, I turn thinking the Sora might be near. And it is! Ten feet away and watching me. I have to pivot quietly to get a picture, which on a floating bridge isn’t easy but the bird seems relaxed, picking its way along the water’s edge. And then, like magic, it’s gone. I always feel grateful when a bird shows up like this. I may have said so in an earlier post. It’s like a favour and I appreciate the gesture. Thank you, Sora!
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 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.