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…

 

Crows

 

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Yeeess!

They’re loud – right outside my office window and my blinds are closed but I know what’s up. I recognize the vocals – the begging caw of a young crow, followed by a strangled gawww as the parent stuffs some morsel down its gullet. Very familiar. When I was a teenage keeper in a small zoo years ago, I looked after many young animals, including two baby crows. I won’t go on about all other the infant creatures I bottle fed – fox kits, raccoons, fawns, bear cubs by the dozen, even a moose – the zoo was the local wildlife rescue center. There was also an adolescent Indian Elephant (naturally not a rescue). Anyway, I figure I’ve been bitten or clawed by half the natural world in my time. I’ve certainly shovelled the poop of a lot of it. Back then, I could tell, sight unseen, the leavings of an African Lion from a Mangabey once I got a whiff, rather like a wine connoisseur can identify fine wines. On second thought, forget that comparison. We called the crows Hecate and Poe, incidentally.

Corvids: Black-billed Magpie (BC Interior), Jackdaws (Portugal), Clark’s Nutcracker (Oregon), Mexican Jay (Arizona), Steller’s Jay (BC Coast)

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Ravens  – Display Flight

Crows are smart, very smart. Like other corvids – the ravens, jays, magpies and nutcrackers. – they solve puzzles amazingly well. They also remember through the generations apparently, with the great grandchildren of a long-deceased crow reacting negatively to a mask worn by a researcher way back when the original crow was captured. That’s what they say anyway. The Caledonia Crow is a reputed to be an especially adept tool-user.

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Tide out, table set

Anyway, I’m careful around these guys. I won’t want to offend. To this day, I always greet any crow I pass – a respectful ‘doff of the hat’ kind of thing – and sometimes I get a reply. Better to be safe than sorry, I say.  Besides, I like crows. It was fun to watch them last weekend as they quietly and unobtrusively worked the ‘scraps’ at Greek Fest while crowds of humans concentrated on souvlaki, bouzouki music and the omnipresent yellow jackets. I think they did very well, as they usually do.

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.

 

 

Worn.

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Uplands Park View

Today, the Park seems like the Hundred Acre Wood, intimate, private. It’s breezy closer to the sea but I’m out of the wind here in the meadow. I have the trails to myself too. With no runners or dogs to disturb them, young Chickadees and Towhees are active, chasing each other through the foliage like kids. They seemed not to mark the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk that cruised silently past a moment earlier, a serious lapse. Carelessness can get a bird killed here, unless it’s lucky, or the wide-eyed hawk is equally inexperienced and inept, which is not impossible.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Meadow Flowers

Mostly I see signs of the turning of the year – flowers past their peak, older birds, worn now and replacing feathers. Gone the flamboyant colours and behaviours of mating season. Not completely, perhaps. A Yellow-rumped Warbler is still handsome, a ( pardon me ) ratty Spotted Towhee trills and fidgets a display of sorts nearby, a Bewick’s Wren sings half-hardheartedly in the shade. A Chipping Sparrow, on the other hand, seems content to feed up for the fall migration, keeping its own counsel. An Anna’s Hummingbird takes in the sun, as relaxed as a hummingbird ever gets

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Spotted Towhee

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Bewick’s Wren

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Chipping Sparrow

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Anna’s Hummingbird

A strikingly-patterned butterfly appears. It’s a Lorquin’s Admiral, looking great from a distance but close up, not so good. Its wings are in tatters, a sign that it’s at the end of its short life. Nice name though – Lorquin’s Admiral.

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Lorquin’s Admiral

Speaking of names, those of butterflies seem more poetic than those of birds – Skippers, Fritillaries, Azures, Parnassians, Hairstreaks. Admirals are Brushfoots. Brushfoots – makes me think of Hobbits. So – I started my walk with Winnie the Pooh and now I’m in Middle Earth. It’s that kind of a morning.

Once assigned, of course, names frequently stick. The competition to put the labels on things must be fierce. Bicycles were originally called velocipedes, which seems so much better. The same people who named birds must have insisted upon ‘bikes’; butterfly aficionados probably would have gone with ‘velos’. Boy, my mind really is wandering now. Talk about worn.

 

 

 

 

Pigeons! Good grief!

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It’s a measure, perhaps, of how slow mid-summer birding has been for me that I offer up this post on pigeons. I don’t mean the sleek, pearl-grey Band-tailed Pigeons, those lovely forest birds, but ordinary Rock Doves. Not well liked generally, these ‘rats of the air’, but I’ve always had a fondness for them.

I won’t bore you with stories of boyhood attempts to become a ‘pigeon fancier’, or of nabbing sleeping birds from under the eaves of the abandoned, towering old Coop with its rotten floors, or of the strange assortment of culled birds begged from real pigeon people, or of the beautiful red Homer, with its mighty chest and prominent cere, the one my friend Lloyd and I grabbed from off a downtown sidewalk. Gosh, that bird was something – a prince among pigeons. He stayed with us for a few days, ate our gleaned scratch grain, gathered his strength and then continued his journey home-at ninety miles an hour if he wanted to kick in the afterburners. Where home was, Lloyd and I never knew. We ought to have recorded his band number but twelve-year-olds often don’t think of these things until it’s too late.

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To make this more like a birding post, I mount a photographic expedition in support of it. I soon discover that there are really good-looking birds in most flocks. When I park out on Turkey Head, the locals descend, ready for a handout. They obviously don’t understand I’m here to do a photo essay, because I have to keep chasing them off the hood of my newly-washed car. It’s very disrespectful (Hey- I’m working here!).

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Begging for handouts, incidentally, doesn’t interrupt the mating process with Rock Doves. I’m not sure anything less than a Peregrine Falcon attack would accomplish that. The cooing and billing goes on through the year, which is why there are so many of these feathered ‘rats’ around the world. It’s not their fault. I watch a movie star among Rock Doves as he pouts his way from one female to another until he finally gets his way. He’s got it all going on!

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When a more promising car drives by, the flock lifts off, whirls around, performs some aerial acrobatics and, disappointed, re-descends near me. Pigeons are beautiful flyers, agile and swift, with those wing-tip clapping takeoffs. It’s worth watching pigeons fly; there aren’t many birds who do it better. See how they soar and turn, tumble and dive, flight feathers whistling. Wonderful! It’s those big chest muscles and the area and shape of the wing that does it.

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They’re relatively good parents too, think ‘pigeon milk’. In the bird world, only Penguins and Flamingos and members of the dove family make ‘milk’ for their offspring. I’ve never lost my love for these birds. Most of the snarky things people say about them could also be said about our own species, which doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as too many pigeons.

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So that’s it for the Rock Dove, my old pals. Nostalgia still drives me to visit to poultry barns at fall fairs, to check out Pouters, Fantails, Rollers and Tumblers at local shows, to listen to the music of  squawks, coos and peeps and the rustle of feathers, to breathe in the once familiar smells of scratch grain and straw. Other bird smells I try to ignore. I’m selective with with nostalgia. One has to be.