King Eiders and Red-necked Grebes

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Red-necked Grebe

I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.

Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it is spring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.

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Tree Swallow

I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dances of the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.

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Courting Grebes

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Horned Grebe

Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.

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Gone Gulls and Pink-footed Geese

I’ve been to the sewage ponds again searching for a Glaucous Gull that’s supposed to be there and, once again, it’s not. Sewage ponds, for crying out loud! I know I keep harping on about Glaucous Gulls. This is the last time — I give up. Plus I’m starting to think the reference picture a rival birder gave me is throwing me off.

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Glaucous Gull

On the other hand, I did view two Pink-footed Geese at Martindale Flats. These birds summer in Greenland and I never expected to see them on our coast — or anywhere. I think they arrived on one of the fierce Nor’easters that recently plagued us but who knows. The geese stayed with a flock of Canada and Cackling Geese. Geese are sociable that way — accommodating. They never did come close enough for me to get good pictures but then you can’t have everything. They also attracted a flock of birders including some who had come long distances just to be able to record these rare birds – and to get their own lousy shots.

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Pink-footed Geese

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Birder Flock

Rare Birds – The Emperor Goose

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.

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Emperor Goose

 

The Godwits

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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.

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Godwits

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.

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More Godwits

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.

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Out o’ Here! – More Godwits

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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.

 

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Godwits and Heermanns’s Gulls – Hard To Pick out A Bar-tail!

The Wagtail

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Leaving Port

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.

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Black-footed Albatross

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.

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Northern Fulmar

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.

 

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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.

 

Rare Birding: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California

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Rare Birds! I hear about a sighting and I go looking. It’s fun, like a treasure hunt. And frustrating too – also like a treasure hunt. Half the time, I feel I’m on a futile quest, like the folks on TV looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine, Sasquatches, or Blackbeard’s hoard of gold and jewels. You know they’re not going to find anything and you know why.

Then there are those birds that everybody sees but you. In March, I spent three hours watching two piles of brush in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco for a Rustic Bunting — nothing. I didn’t have the courage to check the reports for the day because I know for a fact that somebody will have seen it five minutes after I gave up. At other times, a long wait is rewarded with the briefest of glimpses, as happened to me with a Brambling up on a mountain road near Issaquah, Washington.

“Don’t play me for a sap!” — that (or something like it) is Humphrey Bogart’s line in The Maltese Falcon, which, by the way, is another rare bird. More than one bird played me for a sap over the past year. That’s how I saw it at the time anyway. Cold, wind, rain, hunger, need for a washroom – and nothing nowhere. Need I say more.

Which brings me to method. You can spend a good deal of time watching an empty field, stretch of water or patch of brush when you don’t know exactly where is da boid. Boy, have I done this. Last winter, I spent several days watching a feeder for a Common Redpoll (a rare bird where I live), when the right feeder was a half a block away. Luckily, on one of these days, I happened to look up the street where a small knot of bino types were glassing some other poor soul’s back yard and clued in — I was watching the wrong back yard! You had to be there.

Which brings me to the best way to hone in on a rare bird. Find the birders who know where the little devil is hanging out and most of the work is done. This works, believe me. A good GPS helps too. Still, it’s a thrill when you find the bird when you’re all by yourself. I reported a Tropical Kingbird near Ocean Shores, Washington in October – a first sighting. That’s a kick.

Speaking of birders. The folks that find these treasures and report them, often with detailed directions as to where to find the little rascals deserve huge thanks. Such generosity.

On that note, I rely hugely on Rare bird alerts on eBird. Checking Washington Tweeters has helped me a lot and many thanks to the folk that post there. In California, I checked Calbirds. ABA posts are very helpful. Thanks to all.