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.

Tideline Birds

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Harbor Seals – Now that I have your attention.

With the tide as low as it is during the night and the waxing moon, shorebirds are moving at night now. I’m awake before dawn and hear the drawn out piping of Black-bellied Plovers passing overhead and the three syllable cheer of the Yellowlegs in the cove. Geese are flying too although these are not going anywhere in particular. They’re local. But their honking reminds me of my years in the north. In the fall, huge flocks of Canadas pass through on their way south, making a kind of music, until one frosty morning, the skies are empty and quiet. After that, winter.

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Black Oystercatcher

I’m ready at first light to go to the point, to take advantage of the slowly rising tide, to check out who arrived during the night. I’m hoping for something on the rarer end of the spectrum, a Pacific Golden Plover perhaps. I know the Black-bellied Plovers will be there for sure. And they are. Along with Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Black Oystercatchers – and gulls.

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Ready to Spar – Black-bellied Plovers

A scuffle breaks out between two young Plovers.  It’s hard to tell how serious the fight is but in the natural world everything counts.The birds look identical to me but one drives the other off. What does it mean? I guess that when they head to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, the winner will succeed there and the loser will fail. It’s all about dominance. But, who knows? Breeding is months and several thousand miles of hazards from here, and now.

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To the Victor Go The Spoils?

I scan for rarities but find nothing remarkable. It’s still very early and the usual irritation here-people letting their dogs roam the tideline freely in spite of the birds-hasn’t yet occurred. It’s so quiet.

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Blacktails at the Tideline

A Blacktail doe appears and sniffs the air. She gives some subtle signal of reassurance and a fawn steps out onto the rocks, and then another. Finally, her whole family is there-two fawns from this year and two from last year and a young buck. All healthy looking,sleek from grazing on flowers in the local gardens, likely. The buck might be one of the doe’s offspring from two years ago, or he might just be a flirty hanger on, a teenager with high hopes. Certainly, he won’t be sticking around once the big bucks with their huge, many-tined racks show up.

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Blacktail Deer Confab

And speaking of youngsters, the Harbor Seal that has hawled out on a rock in the bay for the past several years, each time with with a new pup, is back. She always seems so tender with the young one, and so patient.

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Harbor Seals

 

 

 

Gray’s Harbor, Washington: Shorebirds Revisited

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I’m looking back here, putting last year’s Mini Big Year in perspective as I plot out what I want to do this year. It’s already good —265 birds so far and it’s the beginning of May. I missed the Shorebird Festival this year because I’m writing another history text and my Toronto editor winced (over the phone) when I suggested I wander down to the Washington coat for a few days of wind, rain, and birds. So, I’m looking back, remembering and reviewing.

Gray’s Harbor Shorebirds April 25-27, 2014

Gray’s Harbor is a huge shallow bay on the coast of Washington state and it is a magnet for shorebirds and waterfowl. Aberdeen is the biggest town in the area and the hometown, I believe, of the late singer Curt Cobain. The city has seen better days but what lumber town hasn’t? Now it’s a matter of too few people in too many buildings and it’s spread out too. I always admire the spirit of those who love their town and try everything they can think of to revive the place. Sometimes it even works.

The Gray’s Harbor Shorebird Festival has its headquarters in Hoquiam — another logging town. I’m used to logging towns —I lived in one for years That was in Vanderhoof in northern British Columbia. It means I know what a cunit is. I also know what happens to these towns when the price of lumber falls, or jobs are replaced by new and better machinery. A mill bear Vanderhoof once hired 600 people but now provides work for less than a third of that. That’s what I heard. The thing is that those 150 to 200 people produce three times as much lumber as 600 did in the old days. That’s the hard reality and one reason why Aberdeen and towns like it are half empty.

I decide to stay in Ocean Shores, a beach town on the open Pacific coast that never seems overly busy. Mind you, I only come here in the spring or fall so it could be hopping in mid-summer for all I know. I’ve come to like Ocean Shores and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because it reminds me of a beach town I frequented in my youth — Sauble beach, which never seems to change. There’s comfort in that.

But I digress. I’m here to bird, man. I think that’s what Jack says in the movie Sideways — or something like it. I get lost a few times and but finally sort things out after two stops for coffee and donuts.

I find Registration at the Wildlife Refuge office near Hoquiam, a bunker-like building half hidden by trees. I think I’ve driven by this place at least twice today. I pull in and pick up my reg. package. I also check out the birding stuff for sale. I’m a sucker for this stuff. You can’t have too many bird festival caps, right? I buy a couple of bird books I’ve wanted, Rite in the Rain notebooks, a rite in the Rain pen and, of course, caps so I can, when the time comes, write in the rain. Too bad they didn’t sell ponchos. I needed all the ‘in the rain’ gear I lay my hands on as it turned out.

The rain passes and, now outside, I enjoy a brier glimpse of the sun. Someone points out the Great Horned Owl on a nesting platform in a row of trees. I have the owl on my life list but not on my year list (this is early last year, remember).

Except that I haven’t yet thought about keeping a year list. That thought gels over the next few days.  I drive to the local airport because that’s where the entrance to the Gray Harbor National wildlife Refuge is hidden away. A heavy rain thunders down and then stops. I’m not really equipped for heavy rain but another patch of blue in the sky gives me hope. If there’s enough blue in the sky to make a man a pair of pants, it will clear, my mother told me. You can see the problem here. To start with, how big is the man? Are we talking overalls or shorts? Anyway, the hope was false as it turned out.

The rest of the afternoon is blustery, to put it mildly. The driving rain and the gale force winds confirm that I’m definitely at the Shorebird Festival in Gray’s Harbour.

I nearly kill myself a few times on a treacherously slick walkway before I arrive at the viewing area. This is half way around a boardwalk loop where a dozen or so birders, coated and hatted against the elements, hunch over their spotting scopes. They’re a friendly bunch and several offer me views through their glass. There isn’t much to see, the tide is just starting to ebb and the mudflats where the birds feed are underwater. Some greater white-fronted geese float in gray rafts along a distant shore.

After a half hour or so, I’m very wet and growing impatient. This is not a good quality in a birder. But then I see the tide is in fact ebbing and sections of mud slowly appear like a magical reveal. Almost at once, large flocks of birds swing into view, searching for places to land. A cloud made up of several thousand Western Sandpipers hums by our station, flying low and fast, swirling like autumn leaves caught up in a north wind.

Two Yellowlegs pass over, tip down, circle and then carry on looking for somewhere better. Several hundred dumpy Dowitchers cruise past, their white rumps flashing in the gloom. More mudflats appear as the water level drops. Peeps begin to alight en masse and immediately begin to feed.

I find half a granola bar in a pocket and scarf it down. It’s exciting, all these birds. A thousand Dunlins materialize to my right. The birds move constantly. Suddenly all take wing. We look skyward. A Peregrine is hunting the marsh, even without the fabled and lethal stoop its speed is blinding.

The peeps rise up in bewildering clouds, a seemingly choreographed display of white, brown and gray, designed to confuse the raptor. It’s their only chance. The attacking bird plummets through the knotty center of a sub-flock and then it lumbers up into the sky, talons empty – a miss this time. The ‘confuse winged death’ tactic worked.

I’m now soaked to the skin and hungry too. Time to go back to the motel in Ocean Shores to change clothes. I slip and slide back my way down the boardwalk and walk out past the hangers of the airport to my car. Two hours later, I’m in Ocean Shores, in dry clothes. The beach is on the other side of a line of dunes and small marshes. I’ll go there later. I need food.