Birding Lake Erie 1

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Solitary Sandpiper

It’s early October (almost a month ago now). We leave Leamington, the ketchup factory and Point Pelee behind and head for Hillman Marsh. I once visited there in spring, when broad expanses of apparently deep sloughs were packed with waterfowl. The ponds are seasonal though as we now discover and two very loud tractors trail hay mowers over the once marsh, kicking up dust, screeching and clanking. Today, birding here seems out of the question. But then a surprise.

Seemingly unfazed by the heat and the racket, a Solitary Sandpiper works the edges of a tiny creek, slowly, stately. Such a beautiful bird. We keep our distance, snap a few pictures and leave her to her business. Other than the Solitary there isn’t much to keep us here. Besides, there’s been a flock of American Golden Plover reported at Mitchell Wetlands. It means a jog to the north but I need the bird for my list.

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Shorebird Heaven

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Mitchell Wetlands

Mitchell Wetlands are actually part of the town’s sewage complex. The last time I visited, a stiff breeze from the primary treatment ponds made my eyes water. Today, the light breeze is in our favour, thank goodness. It’s idyllic. The marsh is full of waterfowl. honking, hissing, quacking. Lots of shorebirds too —¬† Dowitchers, Yellowlegs, several Stilt Sandpipers, and scores of Killdeer. We spot the Golden Plover mixed in with, and noticeably smaller than, their Black-bellied cousins. Many of the birds are transitioning from their striking breeding plumage and into more somber garb. Interesting.

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Plovers

By now I’ve given up on getting good pictures. The light is as bad as it gets for photography and the birds are just too distant even for my FZ300 with teleconverter. With sewage ponds, it’s pretty well up to the bird to come to you as the reverse is just not possible — or desirable. After a couple of hours of birding the pond and the nearby woodlands, we move on to Stratford. It’s getting late. A non-fast food dinner would be nice and maybe a show — Guys and Dolls is playing. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be birding again, heading back to the Lake Erie and Niagara.

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How windy is it?

I can’t leave the topic of sewage lagoons without mentioning those at Exeter, Ontario, where I went in search of a White-rumped Sandpiper. As soon as I arrived, I realized the wind was not going to be my friend – it blew my hat off before I even got out of the car. Nevertheless, a target bird is a target bird and I soldiered on. On top of the dike, the northerly was so powerful that I could barely stand, let alone hold focus on my camera. And, good grief — what a stink!

There were birds though — most distant. Some are closer, like the dozen or more feeding Pectoral Sandpipers, with their abrupt bib lines and yellow legs. They’re one of my favourite shorebirds so it’s nice to see so many. That doesn’t happen where I live in BC. I did catch a glimpse of the White-rumped, and got another ‘tick’ for the year list but, gosh, I earned it.

 

Tideline

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Morning

Nice to be up early. The tide is out and the local diners are taking advantage of the fact, like the Mew Gulls working the water’s edge. A young Oyster Catcher probes for sea worms and other delicacies among the rocks. Several young crows, jet-black adult plumage replacing their juvenile brown, follow this other black bird hoping, I suppose, for a free meal. Incidentally, Oystercatcher. It’s a cool name but is catching oysters really a skill? Seriously?

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Black Oystercatcher

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Juvenile Crow

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You sort of look like my mom…

A few seals are here. This adult is surely one of the females who have lately been using our safe little bay as a kind of creche. We counted six tiny pups last night at high tide. A Kingfisher rattles, takes a fish and retreats before I can grab a picture. Seven or eight Greater Yellowlegs have taken up residence here and the same number of Killdeer, piping as they scurry about. I reckon I’ve seen more than a hundred birds and animals in twenty minutes or so. Everybody’s doing their own thing, not minding me. Nice morning this one, nice.

 

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Harbour Seal

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Mew Gull

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Greater Yellowlegs

 

 

Killdeer Bath Time

 

 

 

Metaphorically

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Short-billed Dowitchers

We’ve had four weeks of perfect weather here on the west coast. Sunny, twenty-one degrees, enough breeze to keep the air fresh – it’s unnerving, like the year is stuck, like two tectonic plates binding, like something’s going to pop. Too dramatic? I blame it on Philip Kerr’s great Bernie Gunther mysteries. I’m reading one now. Following Bernie, I’m tempted throw similes around like a float rider tossing beads in a Mardi Gras parade. Anyway, the year isn’t stuck; shorebirds are passing through, juveniles mostly.

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Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs are back. A few weeks ago, I heard their rapid, three-syllable calls at night — weet-weet-weet – and now seven are working the shoreline, dashing about, heads bobbing. Black-bellied Plovers are in the area too; a large flock cruised past the Marina yesterday on their way to Discovery Island, clear, piping voices carrying far, even above the breeze and the chiming shrouds of moored sailboats.

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Black-bellied Plovers

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Short-billed Dowitcher

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Storm Sewer Bonanza!

Four young short-billed Dowitchers surprise me by landing near a storm sewer outlet a dozen feet from a busy walkway and begin probing for treats. Seems a bit stinky to me but they seem to like it. They’ve come from nesting grounds in Alaska or northern Alberta. If they came by way of the Interior Plateau, they’ve flown above the massive forest fires threatening Williams Lake, Hundred Mile and other Cariboo communities.

So, the migration has begun, with lots of sandpipers and plovers reported in the area. It’s going to get really hot here in a day or two. Makes me long for cool fall days and soggy birding – no, not really. A rainy night though, that might be nice – like an ice-cream sundae on a…no, like a bowl of cold strawberries after a…nope…aww, forget it.

 

 

Panama Flats

I like the name of this birding hotspot -Panama Flats. I’m surprised a blues artist hasn’t picked it up. And now, singing ‘How come my dog don’t bark when my best friend comes around?’ is the legendary Panama Flats! But I digress. This is a birding blog after all and the ‘Flats’ are, instead, a series of flooded fields that attract waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and late fall. A very pleasant, quiet place to be on a warm May morning like this one.

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In a few months, the land will be dry, plowed possibly. Water birds that nest here, like Mallards and Canada Geese, have to getting cracking (sorry) early in the year. Today, dozens of ducklings and goslings are following their mums around, learning the ropes.

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Spotted Sandpiper

I’m here for a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I see briefly soon after arriving-on its way out, heading north I guess. Not so, the Spotted Sandpipers, actively displaying and chasing each other around the edges of the ponds, carried here and there by the staccato beats of their short wings. A Long-billed Dowitcher, stalking the perimeter surprises itself when it spots me, angling off into a swarm of young Mallards. I’m not fooled, not with that beak.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

I follow the dykes between the ponds, balancing on the planks and bits of scrap wood people have used to span the cross ditches. A Marsh Wren scolds me from the cattails, a complex series of chuckles and buzzes. Quite charming – if they did but know it.

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Marsh Wren

As the day warms, Barn Swallows appear, darting around after insects. A glossy Purple Martin crisscrosses the larger pond, the distinctive half flapping, half-gliding flight style an added giveaway. A Common Yellowthroat sings his ‘witchity, witchity, witchity’ nearby, looking handsome with his white forehead, black mask and lemon-yellow throat. Forget the blues. It’d be hard to write a good, downer song here, today.

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Common Yellowthroat

 

Snow on Maui

 

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Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Maui

Oh -my title – sorry about that. Agatha Christie once joked that a writer who opened a story with the line “Hell!” said the Duchess couldn’t help but grab the attention of a reader. I’m hoping the title of this post will perform the same function. Happily, no snow is falling on Maui. No need to abort a vacation — or panic. Still, to me, the six young Snow Geese I saw at Kanaha Ponds seem almost as out of place as the white stuff.

I’m fascinated with rare birds and their stories. What freak wind or event sent these teenagers off into the vast Pacific? How did they find this remote island thousands of miles away from the Arctic sloughs where they hatched? How will they find their way back? It’s a work in progress, I suppose. For the time being, at least, their futures are linked, this little band of goose kids a long way from home.

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Snow on Maui

The Snow Geese rarities aren’t the only fascinating birds at Kanaha. NeNe Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to meet since I was a boy, nests here. Not terribly long ago, NeNes were one of the rarest birds in the world, only thirty individuals on their way to extinction, saved at the last minute by captive breeding and the heroic efforts of volunteers and governments. NeNe live from here at sea level to the cinder plains high up on Haleakala, the volcano that looms nearby. They’re quite tame and still need protection. Slim, fast, ferocious Mongooses are a particular threat, killing goslings and, I think, eating eggs. NeNe are still the rarest geese in the world, by the way.

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NeNe

At home, I go to great lengths to try to see a Pacific Golden Plover, vainly searching every passing flock of Black-bellied Plovers for a bird without black armpits, a good identifier. Pacific Goldens are common here, seen on most lawns and boulevards. Now, in February, they are already forming pair bonds and defending territory. In a few months they’ll start for Alaska, a distance of almost five thousand kilometers, and they’ll do the flight in three days. Non-stop, sixty-five kilometers an hour! Then they’ll come back to exactly the same place in Maui in the fall. The birds I’m seeing here are truly home, on their special spots at Kanaha, on Maui.

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Pacific Golden Plover

Wandering Tattlers also make the long journey from northwestern North America to Hawaii. I love that name! Hawaiians call them Ulili, after the sound of their call. Lovely too. Messenger birds. The Hawaiian singer Iz wrote a song about them. Two Ulili wander amongst the many noisy Black-necked Stilts who populate the shallows. There are Sanderling and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones here too. Nice.

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Wandering Tattler

I’ve quickly grown fond of Kanaha Ponds but then I always like the solitude, and the life, of marshes, especially early in the day. This morning, the warm wind blows strong and the handsome Chestnut Munia which forage in small flocks use it to move quickly from place to place — and are consequently very hard to photograph.

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Chestnut Munia

Both Northern and Red-crested Cardinals are more cooperative. Both species are active enough to indicate mating season is in progress, although the Northern Cardinal looks a bit shabby. Now I’m wondering – when is mating season here? Both Cardinals are introduced birds as are the Munia and others, like Common Mynahs. There are few native Hawaiian species at sea level now. Most have succumbed to mosquito borne diseases (mosquitoes are also not native to Hawaii). You have to go high up the mountain to find the beautiful, colourful honey creepers. I’ll do that soon.

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Northern Cardinal

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Red-crested Cardinal

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Red Junglefowl

A few Red Junglefowl forage in amongst the low plants at the edges of the ponds. Junglefowl, the ancestors of chickens. Quite spectacular really — if you don’t think chicken.

 

 

Boxing Day

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Harlequin Ducks

It’s the day after Christmas and some of the tumult has died down. I take a quick walk around Turkey Head to see what birds are around. It’s still cool and a brisk southeaster keeps me moving, dodging the occasional, and unpredictable, jet of icy salt spray that fountains up along the rocky seawall. The surf doesn’t bother several groups of beautiful Harlequin Ducks of course, bright and showy on this generally grey afternoon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

I hear birds rather than see them. A few dozen chattering Bushtits¬† parallel me but I spot only one. Tonight they’ll likely be holed up – literally – huddled together in a bunch for warmth like tiny, feathered mice. And then there’s the Anna’s Hummingbird that flashes by. When the temperature drops, so will its internal temperature. On a cold night like tonight, the bird will zone off into torpor as its heart beat slows to a minimum and it edges into hypothermia. They survive in this way, dropping their metabolic rate by 95 percent.

With the tide out, most of the seabirds are out working the chop. I hear Black-bellied Plovers and see small rafts of Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers. Black Oystercatchers are working the rocks in the bay. Common birds for us here but still remarkable.

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Black Oystercatcher

 

 

Snowy Plovers

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Snowy Plover Land

In a way, this story is about misplaced assumptions. And being wrong – again. Remembering that Snowy Plovers nest (in season) near Grayland, Washington. I make a quick decision, take an access road to the beach and hope for the best. I don’t expect much, especially since pickups and jeeps are everywhere on the sand. I’m not planning on spending more than a half hour here anyway but it breaks up the long drive I’m on.

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Snowy Plover in a Rut

I walk down the last half mile down the road. A jeep passes me at speed, tears down to the tideline, does a couple of spectacular water fountaining donuts and then leaves. Now, I think, there’s no way I’ll see any of the tiny plovers. The jeep will have freaked them. Wrong.

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Come Here Often?

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I’m Thrilled

The Plovers appear. And they’re thrilled. They’re in and out of the vehicle tracks, scooting from furrow to furrow, like so many tawny mice. I can only guess why. Perhaps, the jeep tires have turned up tasty little critters, or maybe the ruts are just good to hide in. I find the vehicles irritating but, to the birds, I guess they’re like big ruminants, herds of elk maybe. And perhaps they take advantage of them in the same way egrets and other birds do in Africa when they tag along with elephants. Minus the bird advantages of elephant droppings, of course.