The woods around the visitor center at Laguna Atascosas in Texas. Like almost every other birder here, I’m looking for a Tropical Parula, a rare and pretty warbler that nobody’s seen today. I pass little knots of people scanning the trees with their binoculars. Soon we’re all on nodding terms.
It’s hot and too late in the day for birds to move around much, which means that the Parula (if it’s still here) will be hunkered down deep in the foliage. I still haven’t had breakfast and it seems silly to stick around. Then the amazing happens. A raucous group of Green Jays push out an Eastern Screech Owl. The bird stops for pictures about ten feet away! The chances of this are remote but when it happens it’s wonderful, like finding treasure. It’s one of the things I love about birding.
Eastern Screech Owl
So you’re here!
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.
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.
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.
Raptor Project Aplomado, with Harris’s Hawk
Is there a prettier duck than the ‘Hoodie’? A group has just arrived in our little bay, the males posturing and flashing their crests as they compete for females. Buffleheads are here too, right on time – the 3rd week in October for us. And our Widgeon have returned, tumbling in on the winds of the last October storm. Coming home for the winter, I guess, and soon to be grazing on the local park lawns. No sign (yet) of the crimson-headed Eurasian Widgeon that spent last winter here. A squadron of young Surf Scoters has joined the Buffleheads, a bit of a surprise in such shallow water.
Hooded Merganser Drake
Surf Scoter Teens
Amid the ruins of Muyil, a Mayan city in the Quintana Roo, an Violaceous Trogon. Seeing a marvellous bird like this in a place like Muyil helps one forget about the heat, the bugs, and the early morning. The guide’s cheese loaf at mid-morning was nothing to write home about either.
The excavated part of a much larger city. Muyil, a trading center, was inhabited for over a thousand years and abandoned more than five hundred years ago.
Muyil, Quintana Roo
I got the rare bird report when I was in Salem, Oregon in September. A number of people had reported an Emperor Goose near Coos Bay, also in Oregon, and I don’t have one on my list. Coos Bay is bit of a drive from Salem but what the heck — I’m at location around noon. It’s a nice sunny day and there are thousands of Canada Geese around but that’s it. After an hour or so, I abandon the quest. I decide to make one more try at the top of a bluff. Unfortunately, I can only see about six feet of beach from my vantage point which, it turns out, is all I need. The Goose in question obliging walks into the frame. Sometimes you just get lucky! This one is lovely blue-gray bird with pinky legs and a white topknot, a young bird a long way from the Aleutians, where it probably ought to be at this time of the year.
An Alice in Wonderland Bird
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.