Panama Flats

I like the name of this birding hotspot -Panama Flats. I’m surprised a blues artist hasn’t picked it up. And now, singing ‘How come my dog don’t bark when my best friend comes around?’ is the legendary Panama Flats! But I digress. This is a birding blog after all and the ‘Flats’ are, instead, a series of flooded fields that attract waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and late fall. A very pleasant, quiet place to be on a warm May morning like this one.

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In a few months, the land will be dry, plowed possibly. Water birds that nest here, like Mallards and Canada Geese, have to getting cracking (sorry) early in the year. Today, dozens of ducklings and goslings are following their mums around, learning the ropes.

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Spotted Sandpiper

I’m here for a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I see briefly soon after arriving-on its way out, heading north I guess. Not so, the Spotted Sandpipers, actively displaying and chasing each other around the edges of the ponds, carried here and there by the staccato beats of their short wings. A Long-billed Dowitcher, stalking the perimeter surprises itself when it spots me, angling off into a swarm of young Mallards. I’m not fooled, not with that beak.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

I follow the dykes between the ponds, balancing on the planks and bits of scrap wood people have used to span the cross ditches. A Marsh Wren scolds me from the cattails, a complex series of chuckles and buzzes. Quite charming – if they did but know it.

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Marsh Wren

As the day warms, Barn Swallows appear, darting around after insects. A glossy Purple Martin crisscrosses the larger pond, the distinctive half flapping, half-gliding flight style an added giveaway. A Common Yellowthroat sings his ‘witchity, witchity, witchity’ nearby, looking handsome with his white forehead, black mask and lemon-yellow throat. Forget the blues. It’d be hard to write a good, downer song here, today.

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Common Yellowthroat

 

Malheur Memories

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The Road to Burns

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Malheur

I visited Malheur National Wildlife Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in the middle of the summer a few years ago – before the unhappy events there in 2016. I’m delighted to report that the temperature was moderate and I heard only a single mosquito – in spite of warnings of excessive heat and a plaque of bugs. Not surprisingly, with that kind of a rep, few birders visit here at the end of July.

The Refuge certainly wasn’t busy. I saw no more than a half dozen people, including rangers monitoring the narrow track that leads, ultimately, to less than teeming metropolis of Frenchglen. Of course, for wildlife, the fewer people the better. Young animals and birds seemed to be everywhere reminding me again how important Wildlife Refuges, like Malheur, are for breeding species, as well as being vital stopovers for migrating birds.

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Great Egret

Phalaropes

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Gadwall Family

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Loggerhead Shrike Family

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Eared Grebe Family

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Young Coyote on the track to Frenchglen

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Fawn at Malheur

 

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King Eiders and Red-necked Grebes

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Red-necked Grebe

I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.

Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it is spring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.

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Tree Swallow

I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dances of the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.

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Courting Grebes

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Horned Grebe

Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.

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Bufflehead Ballet

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It’s on

The squads of Buffleheads visiting the bay are in full mating mode now. Neat, tiny ducks ‘hooking up’ or fending off rivals. Buffleheads are monogamous but young birds need to find a partner. They’ll try to steal one if there’s no other way. The activity out there is close to frantic. Everybody’s zooming around, the strikingly-patterned males and the more tastefully-garbed females. And there’s lots of splashing too. The tiny ducks don’t even notice the much larger Common Mergansers who cruise through the melee.

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Common Mergansers-where?

It’s all necessary, of course. Things have to happen now, or never. Soon, the Buffleheads will leave the coast and migrate into the interior. The females will rear their young in nesting holes originally made by Northern Flickers in trees on small streams and ponds sans Northern Pike, those notorious duckling eaters. For a time, they’ll stop being sea ducks and become freshwater ducks (that’s remarkable too if you think about it). I won’t see them again until the fall, likely on the same date as last year–October 15. Buffleheads are the most punctual of waterfowl.

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It’s how you look…

I should have more information about these charming little guys at my fingertips. I used to have a detailed monograph devoted to them, a surprise gift from my printer father years ago. Consistent with my life pattern of not needing something until after I’ve thrown it away, I got rid of it -reluctantly – a year or so ago. I’d carried ‘Buffleheads ‘ by Erskine around for decades even though it smelled rather strongly of the aquarium it fell into way back when. Plus its pages stuck together. It had to go. But now, I’m watching Buffleheads doing bobbing neck stretches, chasing each other in circles, flapping, displaying wing patterns and otherwise carrying on and, boy, I wish I still had that book. Sorry, Dad.

 

Bumper Birds

Now that I think about it, Bufflehead Bumper Boats might be a better title for this post. It’s the closest analogy I can think of. Males circle each other heads down, plowing through the water, raising the vertical crests on the back of their heads, show off the striking white patches on their wings, tearing around as fast as their little pink legs can drive them, bearing off just before the collision, like kids doing bumper boats. The myriad behavioural nuances obviously mean something. Erskine could have told me.

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Picking Up Speed

Amongst themselves there must be worlds of difference between participants but I can’t tell one of these little showboats from another. And which bird wins? A better black and white pattern might carry the day, or the intensity of the iridescent purple sheen on a male’s head, or good ‘cheeks’ and nape ruff, or maybe the whole package. I suspect nerve and aggression figures in big time.

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Any day now, they’ll be gone, off to their northern lakes and rivers and their nesting holes, not to return until October 15 when dozens will suddenly show up in the bay. I’ll miss the little guys, the smallest of the sea ducks.

 

The Heronry

I’m hoping for a Great Horned Owl this morning. I know several live in Beacon Hill Park but I’ll be darned if I can find them. Pity I’m not looking for Mallards, which are here in abundance. How long has it been since they made the Rare Bird list? A Eurasian Widgeon is grazing near one of the artificial channels and the American Black Duck that has wintered at Fountain Lake for the past few years is still around. A couple of female Hooded Mergansers cruise past, fishing for Pumpkinseeds, I guess. Nice birds but familiar.

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Eurasian Widgeon

It’s very still. There are few people around and I’m focussed on the trees looking in vain for owl shapes, my mind wandering. I suddenly remember the Hippopotamus poem by Patrick Barrington and it sticks, hard. I can remember some but not all. “I had a hippopotamus, I kept him in a shed; I fed him up on vitamins and vegetable bread...”¬† After that, there was a hippo “portrait done by a celebrity in chalks.” Oh, dear.

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Hooded Merganser

The guy’s landlady does the hippo in with a machine gun she borrows from “her soldier nephew Percy “- I’m sure of that. So sad. But what’s the rest? I’m really concentrating now, so much so that a horrific gurgling yawk! startles me — someone’s being strangled and shockingly close by too! It’s not that, of course, although it takes me a fraction of a second to realize this. A big ungainly bird flaps and climbs upwards through the dark branches of the cedar I’m under, and then another – Great Blue Herons on the move. It’s mating season and nests are being built. This will be the new heronry. I definitely do not want to be standing beneath a heronry and take my leave. When I finally get a view of the treetops, I see something for the first time – male Herons raising their crests. Wonderful. Even the quietest birding days offer us something marvellous.

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Position One

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The Finale

And, oh, yes…

“No longer now he gambols in the orchard in the spring; no longer do I lead him through the village on a string.

No longer in the mornings does the neighbourhood rejoice; to his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.”

And then it gets sadder.

Well, they don’t write ’em like that anymore…

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Bl**dy February Again…

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Drear!

I lifted title from a line in an old Flanders and Swann song about the weather. They talk about January but February works for me. It’s drear this morning in the park and cold enough to keep some ice on the ponds. Delightful word, drear, and apt. I’m looking for birds but they are are hardly stirring. The Peafowl are still perched high in a fir, almost out of sight, ‘staying in bed’ on this grey Sunday morning, a dozen lumps like enormous chickens. Most of the Mallards and Widgeon are dozing too but the Black Duck that has shown up here for the past three or four winters is out trying to cadge a meal.

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American Black Duck

Small birds are moving but mostly staying out of sight. I spot a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Towhee but mostly it’s a turned into a ‘birding by ear’ day. The still, damp air seems to amplify bird sounds. No singing yet, just the thin ‘yawk’ of Red-breasted Nuthatches, the chitter of Kinglets, the harsh faulty-doorbell call of Spotted Towhees.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

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Spotted Towhee

I hoped to see the Sharp-shinned Hawk I spotted the other day but have no luck in that regard. Luckily, I got some good shots last time so I’m going to pretend.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk

Back to the word bl**dy in my title. My English mother used to scold me if I used it, saying that ‘we don’t use that word around this house’. It’s blasphemy rather than swearing, I think, but likely my mother just thought it was ‘common’. To this day, I’m reluctant to spell it out. My father, usually very proper, often used the word, as in ‘get you bl**dy feet off the table!’. But I digress. Still, it really felt like bl**dy February again — today –in the park.

The Lake

The last time I visited Swan Lake a week or two ago, most of its remaining  waterfowl clustered around a small lead of open water, some swimming, others skating comically around the perimeter. Now the Lake is open and busy. Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese are here. Fleets of Common Mergansers fish, diving in unison. A squadron of sleepy Ruddy Ducks passes, stiff tails held at the traditional forty-five degree angle; the birds move together, either pushed by the breeze or through some coordinated, semi-conscious and unseen paddling.

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Common Mergansers

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Ruddy Ducks

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Great Blue Heron

Half-concealed in the rushes, a Blue Heron watches from the rushes, alert to something. There it is — a Bald Eagle. It comes in over the lake like a warplane, hidden at first behind a screen of firs and then dropping down to settle into a stealthy glide. The target is a mixed flock of Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s Gulls but the lookouts are on the ball this time and the intended victims disperse in a hurry. The Eagle, looking slightly irritated, makes a half-hearted stoop and then is gone.

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Bald Eagle

The breeze is suddenly quite cold so I leave the lakeside and take one of my favourite owling paths where it’s more sheltered. No owls today unfortunately. A pair of Steller’s Jays makes it clear I’m not welcome and sends me on my way with a series of raspy calls. It’s mating season preliminary time; male Red-winged Blackbirds are also starting to sing, although singing might not be the right word to describe their familiar, spring-heralding call.

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Steller’s Jay

Out in the sunlight again, I’m startled by a very loud ‘peep’ and then another, which I realize is the sound made by the extended tail feathers of an Anna’s Hummingbird at the bottom of its courtship dive. A moment of two later, the bird alights close by and gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’, its purple gorget extended and catching the sun.

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Anna’s Hummingbird