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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