End of Summer

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Roundhouse Railyards

A warm late summer day, or will be once the sun is up. September has a faded glory I especially like, with a touch of melancholy in it — a string quartet replacing summer’s brass band. Today I’m searching for rare sparrows, a Brewer’s at Panama Flats and a Lark Sparrow at the old rail yards in Vic West. Both birds are common in Arizona, certainly not here. I try for the Lark first. The yard is more or less deserted but there are zero birds up yet. After three quarters of an hour of fruitless searching, I’m ready to give up. I’m almost back at the car when I see a single bird coming in, a sparrow from its undulating flight. It lands next to the open door of a construction worker’s pickup, ignores the heavy metal music emanating from within, and begins to feed. It’s the Lark. Birds are weird sometimes! More and more pickups arrive and the noise level rises. Time to move on to Panama Flats and some peace and quiet. The Lark Sparrow couldn’t care less about that, apparently.

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Lark Sparrow

At the Flats it’s warmer and brighter. The wintertime wet meadows are now dry fields,  knee-deep in snow-white Chamomile with their butter-yellow centers. The flowers’ powerful musky perfume, if ‘perfume’ is the right word, clings to my clothing as I wade through. Not unpleasant but strong!

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Panama Flats

Head-high Cattails, Queen Ann’s Lace, Horse-weed and Thistle, crowd in along the dyke trail. A pudgy vole sees me just in time and panics, his round rear end (is bum inappropriate?) disappearing into the weeds. I track him through rustling leaves, scurrying loudly away. He needs to be more careful. A Northern Harrier just floated past and there’s a dark Merlin hunting nearby, lightning fast and deadly. Incautious voles don’t last long anywhere.

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Vole in a Hurry (recreation)

This is sparrow land. I catch a glimpse of the Brewer’s in a stunted willow but mostly it’s Savannah, White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows that populate the Flats, shooting left and right out of the taller vegetation like tiny, spring-loaded feathered missiles. Lots of Goldfinches here too, flitting through the branches of the taller willows. It’s the end of summer and birds are gathering for pre-migration, a wonderful time. The rains will come soon, the rampant plant growth will die down and the ponds will refill just in time to welcome the flocks of returning waterfowl and shore birds.

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Savannah Sparrow

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Lincoln’s Sparrow

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Goldfinch

 

 

Owl+Mosquitoes Squared

I’m scratching, alternating between the mosquito bite on the heel of my hand and those on my ankles. Makes me think back to when my mom used to dot us boys with calamine lotion, which helped, I think, but not much. We had lots of mosquitoes where I grew up. In summer, the kids in my neighbourhood looked like they’d contracted some kind of plague, the symptoms of which were abundant bright pink blotches and continued scratching. But I digress. I’m at Swan Lake again in spite of continuing forest fire smoke. My first bird of the day should have clued me in. The top of a very tall conifer ought to put you out of the bug zone. Not so for the Osprey who, in spite of biting insects and smoke, manages a ‘see if I care’ look. No bug repellent for wild things!

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Osprey Under Attack

I’m determined to bird today so I carry on. As long as I don’t linger in any one spot, I seem to be okay. Speed doesn’t make for easy birding however. Nothing seems to want to stay put, like me. A noisy gaggle of young Waxwings zips through the higher branches, too skittish to pause for pictures. Likewise, a Bewick’s Wren appears and poses just as I turn my camera off to save the battery, and then ducks away as the machine blinks back to life. Towhees and Fox Sparrows are especially furtive. After forty minutes of fruitless searching, I’m almost done. I have just one more trail to try. It takes me under the trees and into deep shade, which is suicidal. Never mind. I hurry like I’m crossing No-Man’s Land to get to my home trench. I’m literally turning on my heel to make a run for it when I spot a young Great Horned Owl. Figures. Now I don’t care about mosquitoes — well, that’s a lie. Still, with such a beautiful bird and such beautiful light, sacrifices had to made. Now, where did I put that calamine!

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Summer Birding

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Smoke Over the Lake

It’s smoky, even here on the coast. Makes one long for a cold, wet February day — I’m kidding. As for birding, the migration hasn’t really started yet although the odd rarity is showing up here and there. Not much to see really. I chased reports of a Franklin’s Gull for days and never saw it. Luck of the draw, I guess. With most of the marshes dry, I’m back at Swan Lake, now green with duckweed. The smoke cuts the light and many of the trails are shadowed, almost eerie.

Other than swallows, most of the birds I see are recently fledged  — feathered teenagers noisily blundering about wondering where mom has gone. A baker’s dozen of immature Cedar Waxwings flips Hawthorn berries onto the path — and me. They’re too deep in the foliage for decent pictures. A pretty little Warbling Vireo is in the berry patch too, as are a couple of young Olive-sided Flycatchers. Lots of activity but mostly out of sight. The flycatchers are not often seen here, at least by me, and I’m not sure what they’re doing amongst the berries. I guess bugs aren’t the only thing on the menu! Out in the meadow, a flock of young Chipping Sparrows don’t mind posing and I finally get a chance to take a decent shot.

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Chipping Sparrow

Back at the Nature House a couple of young Brown-headed Cowbirds keep company with a neat Savannah Sparrow, their surrogate parent perhaps. I can’t imagine how she feeds these monsters! Strangely enough, I’ve seen no raptors here at all. Once the migration begins in earnest, the young birds will have to wizen up quickly. A Copper’s Hawk would make short work of the goofy Northern Flicker trying to make friends with a less than interested Northern Cottontail

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Swan Lake Trail

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Brown-headed Cowbird

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Northern Flicker

Disinterested Bunny

Snowy Owls; A River Running…

 

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A Perfect Little River…

The woods around my hometown are beautiful in May. It’s a great time to walk up the Sydenham River towards Inglis Falls. I spent many boyhood hours on, or in, or near the Sydenham. In all seasons too. That hillside over there – the snow leaves it first. It’s a good place to cook a can of beans over a campfire and lie back to bask in the late winter sun. Dry, clean ground in a world of snow, the smell of wood smoke and caramelized beans. A memory. Around me the Trilliums and Dogtooth Violets are coming in nicely. And the greens – soft, warm, luminous and arrestingly pretty.

The burgeoning foliage has its downside for a birder. It’s much harder to spot the little guys. I trace a pert Ovenbird  by its ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ song. A line of bouncing leaves marks the passage of a Nashville Warbler intent on bug picking, ignoring a tail-flicking Redstart. Overhead a Baltimore Oriole flashes orange. Higher up above the ‘Mile Drive’ a couple of male Ruffed Grouse start to drum – the slow ‘whumpf — wumpf — wumpf’ quickly increasing in tempo and climaxing in a muffled and impressive super-grouse-sized roar.

I cut away to avoid a flooded section of  path. My detour takes me past a memory – a patch of jumbled dolomite where long ago I stashed and later lost a canvas knapsack. A peripatetic porcupine, or several, ate it right down to the buckles. Nothing left but metal. In one night!

I lost a perfectly good cheese whiz and onion sandwich wrapped in wax paper to the prickly little guys too. Today I’d worry about the harm the white bread and canvas might do to the wildlife. I’m not sure I was feeling quite so equable at the time.

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Red Trillium

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Ovenbird

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Nashville Warbler

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Redstart

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Baltimore Oriole

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Redwing Blackbirds

I leave the river and head for the country roads. As always I check the rare bird reports wherever I go. The latest surprises me – three or four Snowy Owls seen in Grey and Bruce counties. Right now? Amazing! It’s the last bird I expected to see. Likely I won’t, not with my bird luck. I take up the chase anyway. It’s a compulsion after all and not entirely rational. I spend quite a few hours searching the countryside. I pick up a few good birds – wild Turkeys, a lone Sandhill Crane, an equally lone Broad-winged Hawk. No Owl though. By this time, I’m famished and I’d really like to stop for a late lunch. One last road to try and then I’ll stop. Just when I’m about to turn back, there it is – calm as can be, sitting on a boulder at the edge of a swale that’s likely teaming with rodents. There’s no way I can get close enough for a good photo but I’m happy, thrilled actually.

After lunch, I head back to the sparkling Sydenham, likely for the last time this year. Family dinner tonight and a visit with one of my cousins. Tomorrow I’ll head south to Toronto and then the flight home. I’ll leave early just in case there’s a rare bird or two to ‘pick up’ on the way down. I’ve still got the bug.

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Snowy Owl

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Tree Swallow

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Redstart – Female

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Wild Turkey

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The Mile Drive

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A River Runs Through It

 

 

The Salton Sea: February 2018

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American Avocets and Coots

Burrowing Owls – I can’t seem to get these little guys. By ‘get’, I mean ‘add to my list’, not as in ‘I don’t understand them’. Although I don’t. Anyway, I’m determined on this trip — steely-eyed. The owls are ‘reliable’ in the intensely agricultural Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea. It’s a curiosity, the Salton Sea. An accident. Sort of. Being below sea level the Salton is a sink soaking up seasonal runoff. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘s’s!

In centuries past, runoff created a lake, which the sun quickly evaporated away. Then about 1905 or so,  a water company goof let the Colorado River fill the basin and suddenly the folks in Palm springs and LA had a big beautiful lake to visit. Great! Resort communities sprang up; probably Bogie and Bacall spent time here. In the a 1950’s it was a Beach Blanket Bingo kind of a place. That was then. Nowadays, almost no new water comes in and the lake is shrinking under the hot desert sun. Did I mention the smell? It has an unusual bouquet and when the wind’s in the wrong quarter, it’s fierce. If nothing changes, all the fish will die within seven years — even the hardy African Tilapia. Birds will suffer too as water levels drop. Where will the migrating flocks go to replenish their energy when the Sea is gone? Who knows?

The change is happening now. Three years ago squadrons of White Pelicans cruised the Sea; today not a single bird. Maybe there just aren’t enough fish anymore. Maybe the Pelis are at the other end of the lake. Lots of birds still come – they have to –  but fewer and fewer every year they say.

But I need to lighten up. It’s not all doomsday. There are folks trying to get more water for the Sea. The birding’s still good. American Avocets, which don’t need the Tilapia, still work the retreating edge of the water picking up brine shrimp. They are tall, pretty shorebirds with their French lawyer robe colouring and upturned bills. I can vouch for the upturned bill, not the other.

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Waterfowl in Transit

The  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge has Burrowing Owls — or they’re close by at any rate. Just inside the Refuge, a Roadrunner ambles by and then darts off looking, I suppose, for a snake or lizard for breakfast. Some Gambel’s Quail chuckle their way through the undergrowth. On some ponds, huge numbers of waterfowl rest on their way north; on others amazing numbers of shorebirds, including dozens of Dowitchers.

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Roadrunner

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Gambel’s Quail

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Dowitchers

I stop at the Refuge office for tips and also to ask about Sonny. Politicians tack their names on projects in which they otherwise have little interest but Sonny, once mayor of Palm Springs, really cared. So, thanks Sonny, (though not necessarily for “I Got You Babe)! As for the owls – “just walk out to the end of the parking lot and look right.” Which I do. In the wild, they’d use the abandoned burrows of other animals as they don’t dig their own. Here people have installed nesting pipes. And there they are, right on their doorstep, taking in the morning sun. So easy. How come it took me so long to get ’em’?

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Burrowing Owls

 

California Birding – Central Valley February 2018

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Central Valley, California

Driving in from Eureka on the coast, I overnight in Redding. Next night, Colusa. Birding takes you to places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Colusa, for example. Nice little town, tucked under the levees of the Sacramento River. Not terribly lively, in my opinion – the best restaurant in town closed at 5 last night. It was Sunday, but still. Never mind.

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Bald Eagle

I visit two big wildlife refuges, Colusa and Sacramento. Both have auto routes. It’s agricultural here in the Valley – big time. The almond trees are beginning to blossom. In a week, the hills should be white with them. The extensive marshes of the refuges attract wintering birds of many species – grebes, coots, lots of ducks. So critically important, these refuges, to them, to us.

I drive slowly, past sunning Western pond Turtles, past the evidence coyotes, otters and other predators leave. A gorgeous peach bellied Say’s Phoebe shows up and then a Black Phoebe in its black and white formal-wear. An American Pipit ambles up to my car – curious, I guess. Hundreds of Snow Geese use the ponds as do many of their smaller cousins, the snub-nosed Ross’s Goose. I spot a few Long-billed Curlews and a flock of White-faced Ibises. I’m fascinated by the long, curved bills – so Alice in Wonderland. The raptors are here too. Circle of life and all that. I pass a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks, a bald Eagle. a Peregrine scanning the feeding ducks. At the Nature Center, a great Horned Owl hoots.

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Long-billed Curlew

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Say’s Phoebe

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White-faced Ibis

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Western Pond Turtles

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Peregrine Falcon

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American Pipit

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Ross’s Goose

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Snow Geese

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Redtail Hawk

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Black Phoebe

 

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Sacramento Wildlife Refuge

 

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

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Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail