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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Great Blue Heron on Ice
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
The Perilous Trail
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 redpops. Robins, Housefinches, an active Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, its chest gluey with sap from its wells, really stand out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The warm front that brought birds to Bognor Marsh passed through quickly up north on Georgian Bay. Here, in the south it lingers, or a new front is passing – I’m not enough of a meteorologist to know. Front or not, it brings high humidity and the threat of storms.The thunderheads I saw along the southern horizon on my drive down now seem menacingly close.
I leave the frenetic pace of the 401 and drop down through the plane table flatness of Kent County towards Lake Erie. The cans of tomatoes, green beans and the peas and carrots that were the vegetables in my youth came from around here. Actually, green beans were a little too exotic, too continental for my English parents who thought garlic was a kind of a curse and spice of any kind was a form of assault.
The towns are small, farming towns with vaguely familiar names — Palmyra, Morpeth, Dealtown. It’s nice country – a bit flat for a B.C. boy but okay. Nice views across the Lake. The air is heavy with humidity. More storm clouds mass to the south. Providentially, I buy a poncho at at a dollar store just in case. More about the Poncho later.
I check in at my overpriced and underfunded motel in Leamington. I stay at a lot of cheap motels but this is priced way above its class. Its tiny and chill. It’s also near the huge Heinz factory which produced millions of bottles of ketchup and countless cans of things though the decades including the aforementioned peas and carrots. Not very long after my visit, the factory shut its doors and over 700 people lost their jobs. Those folks were the last of generations who found work at Heinz since the turn of the last century – 105 years of families, of lives, of stories. Very sad.
At the 42nd parallel, Point Pelee is, for all practical purposes, the southernmost place in Canada. Being the first landfall for birds flying across the lake during migration season, Point Pelee is also one of the top birding destinations in North America and it shows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much fine optical glass and so many Tilly hats in one place in my life. I sign in, scout around a bit and buy yet another cap. I’m tired and famished. Luckily, there’s a decent restaurant not far from my motel.
Next morning, the Rain (the capital is deliberate) arrives in big-drop, wind-driven curtains. I meet the young tour leader in the northwest parking area and we wait. I tough it out for a few minutes but reluctantly haul out my dollar store plastic poncho. Ugly thing. It keeps me dry where where it counts but a lot of me is still ‘outside’. Soon I feel like the bedraggled Brown Thrasher I passed on my way here. Another birder arrives and we’re off at last. We pick up relatively few birds until the present storm passes and birds start to move about.
The first real goody is a Summer Tanager, a female, a plump, green-yellow bird, lemon-bright in this strange inter-storm light. Somebody spots an Eastern Screech Owl. By the time we get to the spot, a dozen birders are already there, glassing and photographing the grey mass half-hidden mid way up an evergreen.
A Kentucky Warbler is in the brush between two roads – it’s a rarity here. It’s singing and we mark it in the dense new foliage of the forest understory. Only a few have actually seen the bird but I’m hopeful. The singing stops abruptly and, reluctantly, my group moves on. There are lots of birds – many species of warblers, Brown Thrashers, Kingbirds, Empi flycatchers, orioles, swifts, Grey Catbirds and many others.
Someone calls out that the Kentucky is up again. I’m half way though a protein bar – my mid-morning snack/breakfast. I clamp the bar in my teeth and, camera and bins abounce, galumph over to the place where the Kentucky Warbler was last heard. Suddenly someone hears it on the other side of the broad strip of woodland we’ve been covering and the flock of birders dash off to the other side. This happens three times, back and forth and back. It’s hilarious and fun, like a scene from the movie The Big Year. I never did see the bird.
Finally, the day comes to a close, this part of it anyway. I still have an evening tour planned. I passed a roadside restaurant near the park entrance and drive back. The owner, complaining about the business, looks like he’s ready to close the joint. I order chips and gravy before he goes through with it — grease on grease on carbs is the perfect antidote to the wet. Quite tasty too.
I rise from my chair and the heavy denim of my jeans falls cold and wet on my calves. Not for the first time I ask myself the question – Why am I doing this? I’m wet and black clouds are threateningly near but I head back into the park anyway. I have the whole evening in front of me. What else am I going to do in Leamington in a micro room in a motel near the Heinz factory?
The light level is now so depressingly low that it’s more or less dark. The rain once started seems like its not going to let up at all. Nevertheless, a few of us optimists gather in a parking lot. The tour will culminate near a broad thicket of scrub. American Woodcock live here and males regularly make their courting flights at dusk.
More thunderstorms roll in with each one seemingly fiercer than the last. My dollar store poncho is barely holding its own. I’m flapping in the wind and each flap sends more water under the plastic. Another King Lear-style mini-storm ends the walk almost before it begins. The rain we can handle but lightning is a different story. The leader cancels the walk and we run for our vehicles.
I’m almost out of the park when I notice, in my rear-view mirror, that the horizon is bright. I slow, think about that damp, chill, tiny motel room with its 14 inch cathode ray tube TV, pull a U-turn and drive back to the Woodcock thicket.
A miracle – the rain stops! I pull into the empty parking lot and settle in for a wait. It’s still too early for the birds to do their mating flights. I’m alone but I don’t mind that.
I walk back to the beach to kill some time. The Brown thrasher, who was the very first bird I saw at Point Pelee, is where I first saw him huddled in a low willow. An old friend now. He looks the same, wet and bedraggled, He stares forlornly out to the lake but turns his head to shoot me an empathetic look. I nod a greeting. He blinks and shakes his feathers. We’re conversing. “I have to be here but what about you?”, he says. I lift my shoulders in a “Beats me” shrug and then move on. It’s none of his business anyway – plus I don’t want to discuss it.
For an hour, I wander the forest edge, dodging huge puddles, checking off a few birds, listening in vain for the Kentucky Warbler who has, it seems, moved on.
When do the Woodcock flights begin? I’m not sure. I’m back in the parking lot in plenty of time, waiting and scanning the skies. At least it’s not raining but I’ve got a good half hour before dark. I’m not warm. I’d kill for a cup of coffee. The breeze is chill – a cold front coming in, I guess.
A ranger in a pickup checks the parking lot. She looks me over sympathetically and moves on. Thick clouds threaten more rain but they move off to the east. A pair of Common Nighthawk take to the air. A raptor I can’t identify moves swiftly through heading towards the storm. It’s almost too dark to see and my motel room seems more appealing now.
Then, quite suddenly, I hear the twittering flight calls of Woodcock. A female buzz bombs out over the willows and, I think, just misses my head and then is gone out of sight. I listen to the males for a half an hour. And then darkness truly falls. Hungry and shivering, I can leave with a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling of victory.
The morning brings a change in the weather — cool sun and no rain. Yeah, me! My tour begins at the Nature Center. Yellow Warblers seem to be everywhere here. Our destination is the “tip’ of the Point and we board the tram that takes us there. Today, birds are everywhere and abundant. A new crop of migrants arrived in the night and everyone is excited. Almost frenetically, we glass the bushes and point out birds, here, over there, just to the left of the big branch at ten o’clock, a meter off the ground at six o’clock – and on it goes. I log lots of species – my best day yet after Bognor Marsh and tons of fun.
By eleven in the morning, I have to leave. I don’t want to go but I have no margin for error. If I don’t leave now, I’ll miss my flight. Goodbye Point Pelee. I’m reluctant to go. My Mini Big Year count is now 145 — only 225 species to go!
Saw Whet Owl
It’s treat when I see an owl. Most of them are strictly nocturnal and they fly on silent wings. People hear them call rather than see them. Owls also populate literature and mythology — witness Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s messenger owl. The ancient Greeks, among others, thought they were wise, partly because they had big eyes and stared knowingly. In fact, owls are, by all reports, rather dimwitted. Their eyes take up so much room in their skulls that there’s little room left for brain.
I’m had a few experiences with owls but one stands out. When I was young I worked as a keeper in a small zoo. I looked after all kinds of animals, including elephants, hippos and tigers. I also became the ‘bird keeper’. The zoo was respectable and connected with a university. We cared for many orphaned animals — I’ve hand-reared dozens of bears, raccoons, squirrels and foxes. I even raised a moose called Susie. Susie and I took
regular evening walks together.
The zoo also took in injured animals, many of which were too far gone to save, which is where the owl comes into this story. Someone brought in a Saw Whet Owl for treatment. Saw Whets are small, relatively tame owls that sometimes take up residence in garden sheds. The poor bird had flown across a road and collided with the side of the car. The good souls in the car hoped we could save it. Now, it was pretty obvious when we saw the bird that wasn’t going to happen but we said we would do our best.
The rescuers had the owl in a cardboard box and had wrapped it in a blue baby blanket with only its head showing. I believe the blanket had singing birds on it, which shows how sentimental people can be. I took box and bird to the aptly named Bird House where I set up a heat lamp. I also prepared some high-energy food. I would need to try to feed the owl if and when it revived enough to eat.
In the meantime, I had hungry birds to feed, including parrots (who treat complaining as a sport) so I had to leave. Anyway, I was also sure the Saw Whet wouldn’t last the hour. When I returned, the little owl was indeed dead, or so it seemed.
I sighed, reached into the box and picked up the little limp body ready to dispose of it. At my touch, the yellow eyes snapped open and the head leaned forward. The owl yawned and inhaled the tip of my little finger.
T.H. White, the author of ‘The Once and Future King’ also wrote a book about raising a Goshawk. He says about that bird that “the beak was not formidable, but in the talons there was death”. The same must be true of owls. The little beggar I was holding tore a groove in my pinkie and then flipped around, contorted, and nailed my thumb with its talons.
Now, I had heard that an owl’s fore and aft talons ‘locked’ on prey and couldn’t easily be released. I can attest to the truth of that assertion. I could not get that flippin’ owl to release my thumb and it bleeding hurt. The talons had found good, responsive nerves and the more I tried to ease the pressure, the deeper in went those rapier points.
I’m making a very long story out of it. I’d like to say that the owl survived and went back to the wild but, alas, it died soon after its last heroic effort. Some time later, with difficulty, I finally got my thumb out of that formidable grasp. I bandaged up finger and thumb, grabbed a quick meal. I still had to take Susie out for her evening walk.
A pair of Great Horned Owls nested high in a Doug Fir. The owlets are now in the ‘brancher’ phase and make quite hilarious little murderers as they move out of the nest and explore. Yesterday, the little guys were sleeping but today they were more active. As I watched, the mom (or dad?) came in on silent wings and visited with the owlets. I didn’t see any feeding but the adult talked to the chicks in low hoots. Every once in a while, one or the other stared down in my direction but, as i was at was at least a hundred yards away, I doubt if they were thinking much of me. Lots of cyclists, dog-walkers and joggers also use the same path. The ‘nest’ itself is pretty shabby — no good housekeeping awards here.