Flycatchers, Nutcrackers and Bighorn Sheep

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Down into the Valley of the Similkameen

I’m crossing the Coast Range and then following the Similkameen River down into the Okanagan. It’s not far – a few hundred miles – but the birds are different on the other side of the mountains. I make a quick stop at Manning Park Lodge where the temperature is five degrees Celsius and a dozen or more grey and black Clark’s Nutcrackers search the picnic area for leftovers. Engaging birds these. Columbian Ground Squirrels hustle around too – beautiful little creatures with their tiger belly stripes. If I wasn’t in a sort of a hurry, I’d go up to the alpine meadows to look for more high country birds and animals. Next time.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

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Columbian Ground Squirrel

Back on the twisting, mountain road, I follow the rushing Similkameen to Princeton and then on to Osoyoos. The town is at the northern tip of the great Sonoran Desert – and it’s wine country. It’s twenty-five degrees now – much more like June than it was on the coast. I pass towering Vaseaux Cliffs and make a stop, hoping for a pink, black and green Lewis’s Woodpecker, White-throated Swifts and maybe a Rock Wren or two. I hear the Lewis’s and two Rock Wrens, plus a Canyon Wren. A California Quail hops up on a post, sees me, and makes himself scarce. The Swifts are here but almost impossible to photograph, flying, reputedly, at up to 200 miles per hour!

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California Quail

Something bawls, cow-like, on the cliff face high above. A Bighorn ewe looking for something, her lamb maybe. She’s not  lost, and not trapped. While I watch she drops out of sight momentarily. Heart-stopping. But there she is, twenty feet or more down, secure on a barely discernible ledge. I keep half an eye on her. I’m curious and sympathetic. Finally, my birds recorded and the sun moving towards the horizon, I’m ready to find my motel. I watch the ewe for a few more minutes and then leave her to her search.

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Bighorn Ewe

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Bighorn Ewe – Halfway down (she’s there!)

Next morning, I’m up early, walking the dike along a canal crossed by Road 22. The morning is beautiful and birds are plentiful.  Black and white Bobolinks disappear into the long grass before I can take a picture. At least hidden five Sora Rails whinny in the marshy areas. Willow Flycatchers call – Fitz-bew – all along the dike. A Gray Catbird pops up to check me out and then flies away across the canal. Eastern Kingbirds and Western Wood Peewees are plentiful.

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Willow Flycatcher

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Western Wood Peewee

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Gray Catbird

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Eastern Kingbird

It’s time to take my leave. I’m only here for  few hours and I’ve got a long drive home. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I drive to Vaseaux, get out and search the cliff face. At first I don’t see anything but there she is, standing vigil on a spur of rock a thousand feet up. Is it the same animal as yesterday? I don’t know – Bighorn ewes all look the same to me. If it is the one from yesterday then there’s much more to these animals than I thought.

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Vigil – Bighorn Ewe

 

Powerline Birding

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The Olympics

Power lines are among the ugliest by-products of our electronic age but the ‘cut’ also provides wonderful habitat for birds, particularly flycatchers and warblers. I’m up on Goldstream Heights, picking my way over the rocks. Before long, I’m too focussed on the calls of birds to be aware of the huge metal towers looming nearby. A Song Sparrow chips a warning – I’m the topic certainly. As I stop to take in the view of the Olympics across the Strait of Georgia in Washington state, four Band-tailed Pigeons flash by overhead, streamlined, swift flyers like all pigeons. Below them, a tropically-coloured Western Tanager flashes yellow and red, landing briefly on a distant treetop. My mind is on flying birds. Suddenly a MacGillvary’s Warbler startles me with a blast of song. He pops into view, giving me some great looks. Lovely. Even with the towers and high-voltage lines, there are worse places to be than here on a mild May morning.

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MacGillvary’s Warbler

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Song Sparrow

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Powerline Trail

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Western Tanager

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Band-tailed Pigeon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated  ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.

 

Hosmer Grove

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Haleakala Morning

At 7000 feet on the slopes of Haleakala, it’s easy to forget the tropical heat at beach level. It’s cold and windy up here, so much so that we’ve had to drag out the winter jackets we wore to the airport in Victoria during the snowstorm. I could use my toque too (stocking cap for American readers). A few hardy campers take down their tiny tents and pack up. Europeans. Wearing shorts! Crikey!

 

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Eucalypts – Hosmer Grove

Happily, no noisy campers hike the trail through the eucalyptus forest. Nice to hear the wind soughing and the birds singing. Shaggy gum trees, the Eucalypts, exude a volatile resin, a perfume, and the air is scented with it. And the breeze carries another fragrance too – sandalwood. There is a single remaining Sandalwood tree here somewhere. We see movement in the canopy and strain for a glimpse of birdlife but, aside from a single flash of red, nothing. The trail isn’t long, half a mile at most. An overlook at the edge of a deep, brushy ravine is more productive. Finally, a bird shows itself – a House Finch, with a yellow face rather than the scarlet of lower elevations. It’s the first time I’ve seen this phase although I think it’s a fairly common variation on the theme. Left alone, introduced birds would, in time I suppose, evolve into new species – Maui’s versions of Darwin’s Finches perhaps.

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House Finch

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I’Iwi

The forest protects us from the wind, which is welcome, and the view is good. Another flash of red on the other side of the cut. I’m going to be limited to distance shots I reckon, not great with my hand-held camera – a Panasonic Lumix FZ200 with a converter.

I hear what I think are I’Iwi – a series of duck-like mini-quacks. For a few minutes, nothing, and then a blur of red in amongst the vermilion flowers of an ‘Ohi’a bush on the other side of a forested ravine, an endemic forest bird a last — my first I’Iwi. Other birds too – a bright green Amakihi, an olive-green Maui Creeper – nectar feeders like the I’Iwi. A half a dozen crimson and black Apanane flit about the bushy slopes too fast to photograph this morning. I like the name – Apanane – also a kind of honey creeper.

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‘Ohi’a Lehua flower

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Amakihi

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I’Iwi – nectar gathering

 

Party Time on the Mountain

 

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Birds can become intoxicated on fermented berries. I remember a translation in a high school French class (or was it German?) about chickens getting drunk on overripe cherries — overdoing it on home brew kirsch. Not really a scientific source but then I’m no scientist so I’m prepared to accept it.

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What?

Certainly, the Cedar Waxwings and Robins up here on Observatory Hill are acting like they’re well into their cups. The Robins shoot me belligerent looks and pretend they run the place. A couple even faux buzz-bomb me. They obviously didn’t see the Peregrine that just overflew the mountain!

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The Peregrine

There must dozens of birds here and they’re goofing around big time, flitting from Arbutus to Arbutus, eating berries, chirping – loud. Their landings seem unsteady too. The Waxwings seem more sedate. Maybe they’re just at a different stage in the party. Most of them. There’s always the odd goofball, of course, who doesn’t know when to quit.

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