Worn.

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Uplands Park View

Today, the Park seems like the Hundred Acre Wood, intimate, private. It’s breezy closer to the sea but I’m out of the wind here in the meadow. I have the trails to myself too. With no runners or dogs to disturb them, young Chickadees and Towhees are active, chasing each other through the foliage like kids. They seemed not to mark the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk that cruised silently past a moment earlier, a serious lapse. Carelessness can get a bird killed here, unless it’s lucky, or the wide-eyed hawk is equally inexperienced and inept, which is not impossible.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Meadow Flowers

Mostly I see signs of the turning of the year – flowers past their peak, older birds, worn now and replacing feathers. Gone the flamboyant colours and behaviours of mating season. Not completely, perhaps. A Yellow-rumped Warbler is still handsome, a ( pardon me ) ratty Spotted Towhee trills and fidgets a display of sorts nearby, a Bewick’s Wren sings half-hardheartedly in the shade. A Chipping Sparrow, on the other hand, seems content to feed up for the fall migration, keeping its own counsel. An Anna’s Hummingbird takes in the sun, as relaxed as a hummingbird ever gets

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Spotted Towhee

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Bewick’s Wren

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Chipping Sparrow

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Anna’s Hummingbird

A strikingly-patterned butterfly appears. It’s a Lorquin’s Admiral, looking great from a distance but close up, not so good. Its wings are in tatters, a sign that it’s at the end of its short life. Nice name though – Lorquin’s Admiral.

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Lorquin’s Admiral

Speaking of names, those of butterflies seem more poetic than those of birds – Skippers, Fritillaries, Azures, Parnassians, Hairstreaks. Admirals are Brushfoots. Brushfoots – makes me think of Hobbits. So – I started my walk with Winnie the Pooh and now I’m in Middle Earth. It’s that kind of a morning.

Once assigned, of course, names frequently stick. The competition to put the labels on things must be fierce. Bicycles were originally called velocipedes, which seems so much better. The same people who named birds must have insisted upon ‘bikes’; butterfly aficionados probably would have gone with ‘velos’. Boy, my mind really is wandering now. Talk about worn.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the light is just right…

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Good grief, snow again!

None of my target birds seem to want to make themselves available today. It’s cold again at Swan Lake. A chill east wind generated, they say, by La Nina (with a tilde) persists. Even today in March, when we should be counting blooms, we’re getting transient and unexpected snow squalls. Happily, they pass quickly but the sky stays overcast, threatening. In this weather, few people are out on the trails so it’s quiet. Nice. I like the solitude. It’s when I feel closest to nature, the closest I come to walking meditation. I take a number of shots of Anna’s Hummingbirds just because, and of a young Redtail watching the meadow. A proper photographer would probably have picked up on the quality of the light. Not me. I’m just hoping for the best. It’s when I’m home, and have uploaded the day’s ‘catch’ that I discover, once again, that it’s good to keeping shooting because, well, you never know. I couldn’t have gotten better views of the male’s fantastic gorget and head colours if I’d schemed and planned, or got the depth of field as right as I think I did.

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Redtail Hawk

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Winter Birding West Coast Style…

I needed to go to Washington state to pick up copies of my latest mystery novel, the Bent Box, and figured I might as well also pick up a few birds while I’m down there. There’s been a female Common Eider hanging out at a place I’ve never heard of called Purdy Spit near Gig Harbor. The Eider is a rare, rare bird on the west coast so, what the heck, I’ll go have a look. And since I’m going that far, I plan to visit some of my favourite places in Oregon, like Baskett Slough and the Finley Reserve. Weather is a problem though. It’s still unseasonably cold and snow is a possibility.

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Rough-legged Hawk

I take a side trip to Samish Flats and spot at least a dozen Red-tailed Hawks, tons of Trumpeter Swans, some Great Blue Herons, scores of Bald Eagles, ducks by the hundreds and a Rough-legged Hawk or two. At Tacoma, I turn towards Gig Harbor and Purdy Spit. When I’m a few miles from my destination, my GPS capriciously decides I’m an hour and a half away. Foiled. I turn back. Who cares about a stupid rare bird anyway? I pay the bridge toll and continue to Nisqually. Nisqually’s nice but the wind is cutting. And it’s damp too. After an hour of birding there, I’m chilled to the bone. When I get to the motel, my fingers are still numb.

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Great Blue Heron on Ice

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Nisqually – Frozen

I’m booked into a cheap highway motel in Centralia figuring that I can go south or west from there the next morning. I know nothing about Centralia except what I’ve seen from the highway, which hasn’t been all that impressive. Off the highway, however, Centralia is quite nice. It’s one of the things I really like out these birding trips, the chance to explore, to discover places I would never have seen otherwise. It gets better. I luck into McMenamin’s Olympic Club – a pleasant surprise!

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The Olympic Club, Centralia

With its built-in movie theater and a huge wood-burning stove, the Olympic Club is a treasure. The smell of the fire, the warmth, the food, the glass of Hammerhead Ale, well, on a cold night who could ask for more. Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok would feel right at home here.

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Common Eider

Next morning I hear Portland and the coast are expecting a big dump of snow so I turn back north. I decide to have one last stab at the Eider. When I get to Purdy Spit, which turns out to be ten minutes away from where I was yesterday, I find some birders already scoping the water. They’re kind enough to point out the duck to me, which is good because it’s a mile away on the other side of the bay. I can see it with my scope but I’m just shooting blind with my camera. Luckily I got a few pictures but nothing I’d submit to Audubon.

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Bohemian Waxwings

I’ve booked a motel in Bellingham. It’s just a few hours away so I’ve got time to bird some more. I follow up on reports of Bohemian Waxwings in Magnuson Park in Seattle. Happily they’re easy to find (with help from another birder already viewing them). I know these attractive birds quite well from my years living in northern BC and I’m surprised I never added them to my life list before. Now I do. Before I get to Bellingham, I head back down to Samish Flats. It’ll be dark soon and the Short-eared Owls that winter there should be hunting.

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Short-eared Owl

Sure enough I spot one – a beautiful bird, one of the most prettiest owls, I think. Unfortunately, the light’s too low and the bird moving around too much to get a good shot. For this post, I’ll use a stand-in, a bird I photographed last year. But I’m frozen again. I don’t think I’ve been really warm since I sat by the Olympic Club’s towering wood stove last night and ate my dinner. I know – whine, whine, whine. If it wasn’t for that fantastic view and the wonderful birds, well…

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Mount Baker

 

 

 

 

Wind Storm

A cold Northeaster blew up a couple of days ago and its still moaning through the shrouds of the sailboats moored across the bay. Last night, the howling outside the window reminded me of a passage in Moonlight, one of my favourite childhood books.

“The sea has little mercy…people turn in their beds and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach.”

Or something like that. Anyway, I was happy not to be fighting the sea anywhere around here.

When the sun comes up, we learn what the wind can do — a sailboat pushed up on the reef where I usually spot Greater Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plovers. Beyond the San Juans, Mount Baker stands sharp and clear against a robin’s egg sky but the sea is white-capped and the breakwater regularly washed with torrents of seawater. I’m not feeling rugged enough to go scope for seabirds. Time to go inland.

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We head out to Martindale Flats in the vain hope that going to an area of flatlands northeast of here will get us out of a nor’easter. Fat chance. However, a number of rare and rarish birds have been sighted in the fields recently — a Clay-colored Sparrow (maybe 2), a Harris’s Sparrow,  and a Harlan’s Hawk, and I want those birds.

It’s just as windy at Martindale as it is in town, maybe more so, but there are birds everywhere, using the wind. It’s what they do. A Merlin zooms by before we can park, and moments later, a Peregrine, both too fast to photograph. The Peregrine means nothing to flocks of Canada and Cackling Geese, nor to the mighty Trumpeter Swans. It’s the Widgeon who panic; hundreds take to the air, wing-patches and bellies flashing white in the bright sunlight.

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American Widgeon

And there are a dozen or so Bald Eagles, one of which is feeding on a kill (either a Raven or a Turkey Vulture). On the other side of the road, a pair sit close, bonded, nesting in a month or so perhaps.

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Bald Eagles

We catch glimpses of the Harlan’s Hawk and the Clay-colored Sparrow but the Harris’s Sparrow eludes us. The wind is bone-chilling but it brought an unexpected visitor – a Snow Bunting. Beautiful and very cooperative. And then later, at a feeder, a Dark-eyed Junco speckled with white, a condition ornithologists call leucistic.

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Snow Bunting

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Dark-eyed Junco (Leucistic)

It’s getting on and we’re frozen. The Harris’s Sparrow will have to wait for another day. One of us spoke the words ‘coffee shop’ and that was that. Time to hurry to the car and exit ‘stage left’.

Eagle Time

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An Arctic wind has set in from the northeast and I don’t feel much like travelling far. I’m too lazy – and cold. Someone spotted a Mountain Bluebird at Saanichton Spit yesterday but I’m not ambitious enough to hike out to look for it. Not on that exposed strip of sand anyway. Not today.

I take a stroll around Turkey Head instead. Uncommon birds drop into into the bay sometimes. Nothing but the usual Buffleheads and American Widgeon here this morning. Handsome birds even so. But then something more interesting – two Bald Eagles courting, riding the winds, looking to hook up – literally. I’ve seen this once before. A pair flies very high, link talons and spiral towards the ground. Occasionally, they don’t let go – a death spiral. I follow them as best I can, the male is calling, a Frankie Valli falsetto that doesn’t seem to match the bird at all.

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Are they a pair? I have no way of knowing. My impression is that it’s not happening. Not yet at any rate. Apparently, Bald Eagles mate for life and ‘reconnect’ after a short northward migration. It’s hard to know what’s up with these two. Not elevation anyway. They’re not going super high as they would for the death spiral. Just chirping and riding the winds – having fun. Later I see a solitary eagle. Is this the unlucky suitor, or a lonesome bird waiting for its mate?  I think he or she looks hopeful but maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing (gosh, what a word!).

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I almost always think of the Tennyson poem, The Eagle, when I see the great birds. Of course, he was thinking of Golden Eagles, probably up in Scotland, not the fish loving, gull eating Bald Eagle. It doesn’t matter. It’s one of my favourite bird poems: He clasps the crag with crooked hands; close to the sun in lonely lands – and four more great lines.

 

 

 

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

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

The Hawk (or Youth)

Mid summer is the hinge in the birding year. The spring migration is long past and the fall migration has yet to begin, although a few birds do start south now. It’s hot. Foliage is thick. Birds are hard to spot and most aren’t singing. Nesting season is over and most nestlings have fledged and on their own. No guidance from mom and dad now. With almost zero experience, they’re out bumbling around trying to survive.

 

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Sharp-Shinned Hawk – (body-double)

The young Sharp-shinned Hawk is a case in point. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sharpies are accipters, bird hawks, like their cousins the Cooper’s Hawk. Designed to fly at speed through the foliage, they have short broad wings and long tail. If you’re a songbird, these are the guys you fret about. And it’s not enough to find a twig and hunker down, protected by branches from attacks from above. I’ve seen accipters climb up almost monkey-like among the tree branches. Sparrow – be afraid, be very afraid!

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Cooper’s Hawk – Juvenile

My young hawk is, however, comically inept. Diving into bushes right, left and center, he’s killed nothing. People are walking past him not five feet away. He doesn’t notice. He’s intent on catching a meal. He needs focus. Unfortunately, each attempt sends birds zooming in all directions like playing cards tossed away by a magician. Not only don’t they seem worried, it’s almost like they’re laughing at the newest murderer on the block. They don’t go very far. The Robin sits on a wire twenty feet away; two sparrows preen on a branch in a neighbouring tree. Worse still, the Rock Doves, AKA pigeons, drop down to pick up crumbs from the road.  Finally, the young hawk flies away, crestfallen. I’m on my way to a rowing lesson, so no camera. Hence the body-double!

We find very few dead juvenile Sharpies and mine will no doubt find success soon. He’s not the only juvenile no longer protected by his parents. Plenty of inexperienced recently fledged songbirds are making their debuts. It’s what the natural world is all about really – life, death, survival, which is probably why this Spotted Towhee looks so worried.

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So, laugh while you can songbirds. With each failure, the young Sharpy is learning. When he’s mastered the ability to strike quickly and silently, he might come for you.

 

 

Bognor Marsh

May, 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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