The Owl

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View from Observatory Hill

On a whim, we drive to the top of Observatory Hill to take in the views. It’s almost noon and the temperature is perfect, on the decal edge of hot. Nice weather for a walk. After a few minutes of searching, we relocate trail head, now obscured by creamy cascades of Ocean Spray. It’s not those slightly stinky blossoms that perfumes the air. The sweet, resinous scent results, likely, from the sun heating up volatile oils on the firs and glossy-leafed Arbutus. It’s lovely.

Aside from a curious juvenile Dark-eyed Junco with his speckled belly, we hear lots of birds but see nada. Anyway, I left my camera with its dead battery in the car. That’s okay. We came for the views and the walk. What are the chances of spotting a good bird at this time of year? Good, as it turns out.

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Plaskett Telescope Dome

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The Forest – Observatory Hill

It’s when we pause to admire a view of Prospect Lake, that the birds we haven’t seen suddenly appear. They’re excited, agitated, giving alarm calls and intermittently dive-bombing a stand of firs. A phantom takes wing, a raptor. It glides out of the grove and down the hill. We ease down the slope and spot the bird. A Great Horned Owl!

Of course, the Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Juncos want it gone. After a moment, the Owl cranks its head around, exasperation showing in big, yellow eyes, and departs. Its tormentors follow. A noisy gaggle tumbles down through the trees and, suddenly, the show is over. The lesson for me is clear. Always carry a spare camera battery! In lieu of the owl that got away, I have pics of this bird, seen in April, to remind me of what might have been.

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Great Horned Owl – Stand In

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Owleyes

Those Big yellow Eyes!

 

 

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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Owl

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After yet another fruitless search for a Glaucous Gull, this time at Esquimalt Lagoon, I stop at Swan Lake in hopes of spotting an owl. I’d like to get something for day, other than chilblains. On the subject of Glaucous Gulls — for some reason this species continues to elude me. I see reports of sightings from the location I’ve just checked (both before and after) but I keep missing out. I think it’s one of those ‘if you see a lineup at the whatever with me in it, you’d be smart to pick another line‘ kind of things. Never mind, I’ll keep trying.

Back to owls. I get lucky. I know where Barred Owls hang out sometimes and sure enough, there’s a bird waiting for me – a lovely, dozing owl in clear view. So there, Glaucous Gull!

Dozens of people pass by on a path not twenty feet away, completely unaware that this gem is so close. Like many birders, I prefer not to point out owls to passersby. It’s not selfishness. More activity, more photographers, more everything, will disturb the resting bird and may drive it away. Owls fascinate us but they do need their downtime. Their survival depends on it. This one gives me a few good photos. Then it closes its eyes and goes to sleep. Thank you, Barred Owl.

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Bird Count

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The temperature hasn’t risen above zero and it’s snowing. Not much. At the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it’s enough to keep people home. I’m at Cattle Point in Victoria taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count. A small group this year, led by young Geoffrey, a talented birder. It’s only just light and he’s already spotted three owls — two Barred and a Great Horned. Amazing.

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Barred Owl

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The Perilous Trail

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It’s quiet. A somber day — a dusting of white and a leaden sky. We move back into the park to get out of the wind. Except for small flocks of noisy Robins, most birds are lying low. The visibility is lousy too. I never do see the Goldfinch somebody spots, immobile and invisible (to me) in a nearby birch. But red pops. Robins, Housefinches, an active Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, its chest gluey with sap from its wells, really stand out.

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Red-breasted Sapsucker

I took a course in colour theory once, the upshot of which was that every colour has a shape. I tried. I stared at various hues until my eyes crossed and that never sunk in. Now I try to figure out if there’s some sort of complimentary dealy going on. Red intensified by the green-blue light of the morning but, really, I have no idea. I like it the effect though. Scarlet rose hips and dark red haws on the thorns help too. What with snow and shades of red and green, it’s kind of Christmassy – nice.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

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Housefinch

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Haws

 

 

The Owl

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.

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Eastern Screech Owl

 

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So you’re here!

Between Pacific Storms: October Memories

Our perennial Low in the Gulf of Alaska is setting up nicely, so the autumn storms are starting. And the remnants of a ‘weather event’ in the western Pacific are heading our way too. Makes me think the archaic word ‘tempest’ ought to be revived. Even so, birding between fronts is not a bad idea. You never know what will arrive on the heels of a great storm. The big blow is due in a day or so but I won’t go far today. Out past the pumpkin patch, I think, and Swan Lake.

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Picked Over

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Canada Geese Incoming

Rain softens everything and I mean more than the mud-making mixing of earth and water, although there’s plenty of that too. For all its pleasures, summer has a bright, loud harshness to it that needs to be relieved by early mornings and late evenings. Fall pleases me more.

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Mallards Flaps Down

Migrating waterfowl are passing through. Lots of them. A mixed flock of Mallard, Pintail and Widgeon drops into a now harvested grain field, sounding off as they land. Skeins of vocalizing Canada Geese and the smaller Cackling Geese decorate the skies in every direction.

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Wilson’s Snipe

I see nothing unusual in the fields so I check out some newly replenished ponds. The rain quietens my footsteps and makes it easier for me to arrive at a finger of slough undetected. I’m in luck. A Wilson’s Snipe is out and very visible. Somehow these secretive birds must know that hawks generally avoid flying in the rain. I stand dead still, watching, until the bird wanders off into the long grass.

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Rain Bird – Wilson’s Snipe

There are other birds to see too. A young, slightly bedraggled Cedar Waxwing looks like he’s going to a punk event somewhere. The black mask only adds to the illusion. He gives me the ‘once over’ as I go by but stays put. The punk attitude, I guess — I don’t care what you think as long as you notice me. Not to be outdone, a Steller’s Jay hops into view. I think the blue is Cerulean (more or less). Must be Crest Day at the Lake.

 

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Waxwing Punk

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Another Crest – Steller’s Jay

And speaking of illusions, I catch a glimpse of a Barred Owl, too deep in a thicket to get a good photo, but looking very ghostly on this pre-Halloween ramble. He or she is wide awake in the half light of the interval between storms. No flying tonight perhaps. Not in the teeth of (at least) gale-force winds. Not in a tempest!

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 Ghost Owl