Yesterday we had storms here and the rain bucketed down. Today, morning sunlight penetrates even the densest thickets. After a seriously wet day, Golden-crowned Sparrows feed as if making up for lost time. We tend to overlook common birds though many are strikingly beautiful.
Around here it’s hard not to encounter Coast Blacktail deer. Most days, I see a half dozen or more. Bucks in rut seem particularly oblivious, driven as they are by the mating urge. Today, a fine-looking fellow and at least one doe wander the shoreline within meters of passersby. He’s alert, watching and sniffing the air. What’s at stake? I took shots of two big bruisers from the neighbourhood on another October day. They’re not buddies. They’ve already had a huge battle on the roads and in gardens. Now they’re exhausted, pausing to catch their breath before they go at it again. There’s a lot at stake and they won’t stop only when one breaks off combat and leaves the field. The winner gets the does, like the chap in the bay above. The loser gets nothing. Not that a victorious buck can feel secure. There’s always a challenger.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
Swan Lake Trail
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…
Common Merganser and Bufflehead
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!
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!
Short-eared Owl – Boundary Bay, BC
Eastern Screech Owl – Aransas, Texas
Great Horned Owl – Saanich, BC
Barred Owl – Victoria, BC
Western Screech Owl – San Pedro River, Arizona
Long-eared Owl – Delta, BC