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

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Winter Birds

It’s damp and it’s been cold, which notwithstanding, I’ve been out birding. For listers like me, the new year means the start of the count again. I like that. And it’s easy to pick up species now — common birds are just as important as uncommon ones. I did try for several rarities – a Bullock’s Oriole, a Lesser Goldfinch and a Mountain Bluebird. I struck out on all counts until yesterday when I finally (after 6 tries) caught the Goldfinch at a backyard feeder. Such a thrill to finally ‘strike pay dirt’. Even so, just to be outside, looking for birds and listening to the sounds of nature is its own reward. The new year revives old challenges too. I hear my old nemesis, the Glaucous Gull has been sighted up coast – a life bird for me. Worth a trip? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

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Steller’s Jay

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Northern Pintail

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Common Merganser and Bufflehead

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Redpoll

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Downy Woodpecker

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Ringneck Duck

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Barred Owl

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Northern Flicker

Owls

Lately a friend sent me a beautiful photo of a Barred Owl perched on his sun deck. Others see owls on balconies, shrubs, ‘the old owl tree’ — you name it. I never get anything like that. I searched for a Barred Owl five days in a row recently. Nada. It’s like that for me, except when it isn’t. Sometimes, you’re in the forest, wandering, looking for whatever and an owl appears. Thrilling!

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Mostly I spot owls after I’ve spent hours, or days, searching. They’re seldom ‘handy’; they’re seldom posed. Nine times out of ten, they’re half-hidden by branches, or in back of the one branch that the camera decides it must have in focus. And I have to work darn hard to get good bokeh, that nice blurred background we all like. Good bokeh – ah, if only. I’ll keep trying. But now I’m whining. No reason for it either. I’ve seen quite a few owls when I’ve been out birding and sometimes I even get good shots. Besides any day you get to see an owl, never mind photograph one, is a good day!

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Short-eared Owl – Boundary Bay, BC

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Eastern Screech Owl – Aransas, Texas

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Great Horned Owl – Saanich, BC

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Barred Owl – Victoria, BC

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Western Screech Owl – San Pedro River, Arizona

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Long-eared Owl – Delta, BC

 

 

October Pelagic

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Race Rocks Light

It’s an easy cruise today – a flat sea and mild temperatures. I’m not expecting to see anything remarkable as it’s late in the year for migrants and we’re not going very far from shore. The October day is gorgeous. Our dry summer and fall have resulted in more leaf colour than usual this year, a beautiful backdrop for the old Fisgard Light.

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Fisgard Light

We smell Race Rocks almost before we see it. The island is a wildlife sanctuary, home to many California and Steller’s Sealions, as well as a few Elephant Seals. Dozens of very large marine mammals cohabiting a small island really do perfume the air! The Californias are noisy too, barking at each other constantly, even when they’re in the water catching salmon. We motor on, trailed by Glaucous-winged, Bonaparte’s and pretty Heermann’s Gulls picking off the dog chow we’re using as chum.

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The Salmon I wish I’d caught

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Heermann’s Gulls

Circling the rocks, we spot Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Common Murres, a single Sooty Shearwater, and a few dozen Rhinoceros Auklets. Above Beachy Head, Turkey Vultures and Redtail Hawks ‘kettle’ ready to make the short flight across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Washington State. On the way home, a couple of Humpback Whales appear. One sounds, flukes up and the other moves off. As I put down my camera and pour a coffee another whale breaches not far from the boat. It would have made for a spectacular shot. It was ever thus!

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Ancient Murrelet

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Sooty Shearwater and Common Murre

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More Sealions

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Humpback Whale

Time to dress for fall…

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Waist High Veg

The title, from the song in the old movie The Summer of 42, seems apt. It’s gotten cooler here on the coast and migrating birds are passing through. Local birds are flocking too, many fattening up for their own long journey south. I’m at Panama Flats this cool, changeable morning, flushing Savannah and Lincoln’s Sparrows right and left as I push through chest high weeds. Nearby, Goldfinches attack weed heads with precision, scattering chaff. And every berry bush has its diners, including the Savannahs, drawn to insects and the seeds of ‘past it’ berries no doubt.

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Goldfinch

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Savannah Sparrows

The week’s rarities are three Bobolinks here from the interior. I tried to locate them the other morning and failed. Today’s another day. I’m hopeful until a Merlin flashes by, and then a Northern Harrier hunting voles. The zillion sparrows, which were everywhere moments ago, vanish like summer snow. After perching on a snag and surveying the fields, the Merlin plunges towards the brambles, and then is gone — blindingly fast. It took a sparrow likely, the concussion of the stoop killing the prey in the air. It’s the way of things.

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Northern Harrier

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Merlin

The danger past, sparrows and Goldfinches soon return, with feeding the priority now. No sign of the Bobolink yet. Luckily, I have a fallback strategy. When you can’t find a rare bird, look for excited birders, as I do now. I spot two expert members of the clan along the dike trail glassing a clump of Blackberry. They’ve located one of the Bobolinks,and point it out to me. Great people, birders.

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Bobolink

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Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow

The target is a long way away, a mere yellowish smudge from where I stand. Even using a monopod, I can’t keep my Lumix FZ300 steady enough for a well-focussed shot. With the converter I think I’m out to about 1200 mm, way beyond good picture range. Still, I figure, record photos are better than none at all.

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Too far…

The Bobolink is a short-tailed member of the (new world) blackbird tribe; in breeding plumage the males are mostly black and white, with Naples Yellow skull caps. This one seems to be a juvenile, its feathers washed with lemon, perching like a Meadowlark. Later on, I find a second bird all on my own, a female this time, much paler.

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I’m about done here. A flight of Canada Geese cruise over the treetops and land, honking, out of sight in the lush vegetation. Within a few weeks, the autumn rains will come in earnest. Then the waist high weeds will wither, the ponds will fill with water and the Teal, Pintails, Gadwalls, and many other ‘winter birds’ will return. It is, indeed, time to dress for fall…