Powerline Birding

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The Olympics

Power lines are among the ugliest by-products of our electronic age but the ‘cut’ also provides wonderful habitat for birds, particularly flycatchers and warblers. I’m up on Goldstream Heights, picking my way over the rocks. Before long, I’m too focussed on the calls of birds to be aware of the huge metal towers looming nearby. A Song Sparrow chips a warning – I’m the topic certainly. As I stop to take in the view of the Olympics across the Strait of Georgia in Washington state, four Band-tailed Pigeons flash by overhead, streamlined, swift flyers like all pigeons. Below them, a tropically-coloured Western Tanager flashes yellow and red, landing briefly on a distant treetop. My mind is on flying birds. Suddenly a MacGillvary’s Warbler startles me with a blast of song. He pops into view, giving me some great looks. Lovely. Even with the towers and high-voltage lines, there are worse places to be than here on a mild May morning.

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MacGillvary’s Warbler

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Song Sparrow

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Powerline Trail

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Western Tanager

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Band-tailed Pigeon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated  ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.

 

Bufflehead Ballet

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It’s on

The squads of Buffleheads visiting the bay are in full mating mode now. Neat, tiny ducks ‘hooking up’ or fending off rivals. Buffleheads are monogamous but young birds need to find a partner. They’ll try to steal one if there’s no other way. The activity out there is close to frantic. Everybody’s zooming around, the strikingly-patterned males and the more tastefully-garbed females. And there’s lots of splashing too. The tiny ducks don’t even notice the much larger Common Mergansers who cruise through the melee.

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Common Mergansers-where?

It’s all necessary, of course. Things have to happen now, or never. Soon, the Buffleheads will leave the coast and migrate into the interior. The females will rear their young in nesting holes originally made by Northern Flickers in trees on small streams and ponds sans Northern Pike, those notorious duckling eaters. For a time, they’ll stop being sea ducks and become freshwater ducks (that’s remarkable too if you think about it). I won’t see them again until the fall, likely on the same date as last year–October 15. Buffleheads are the most punctual of waterfowl.

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It’s how you look…

I should have more information about these charming little guys at my fingertips. I used to have a detailed monograph devoted to them, a surprise gift from my printer father years ago. Consistent with my life pattern of not needing something until after I’ve thrown it away, I got rid of it -reluctantly – a year or so ago. I’d carried ‘Buffleheads ‘ by Erskine around for decades even though it smelled rather strongly of the aquarium it fell into way back when. Plus its pages stuck together. It had to go. But now, I’m watching Buffleheads doing bobbing neck stretches, chasing each other in circles, flapping, displaying wing patterns and otherwise carrying on and, boy, I wish I still had that book. Sorry, Dad.

 

Bumper Birds

Now that I think about it, Bufflehead Bumper Boats might be a better title for this post. It’s the closest analogy I can think of. Males circle each other heads down, plowing through the water, raising the vertical crests on the back of their heads, show off the striking white patches on their wings, tearing around as fast as their little pink legs can drive them, bearing off just before the collision, like kids doing bumper boats. The myriad behavioural nuances obviously mean something. Erskine could have told me.

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Picking Up Speed

Amongst themselves there must be worlds of difference between participants but I can’t tell one of these little showboats from another. And which bird wins? A better black and white pattern might carry the day, or the intensity of the iridescent purple sheen on a male’s head, or good ‘cheeks’ and nape ruff, or maybe the whole package. I suspect nerve and aggression figures in big time.

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Any day now, they’ll be gone, off to their northern lakes and rivers and their nesting holes, not to return until October 15 when dozens will suddenly show up in the bay. I’ll miss the little guys, the smallest of the sea ducks.

 

The Heronry

I’m hoping for a Great Horned Owl this morning. I know several live in Beacon Hill Park but I’ll be darned if I can find them. Pity I’m not looking for Mallards, which are here in abundance. How long has it been since they made the Rare Bird list? A Eurasian Widgeon is grazing near one of the artificial channels and the American Black Duck that has wintered at Fountain Lake for the past few years is still around. A couple of female Hooded Mergansers cruise past, fishing for Pumpkinseeds, I guess. Nice birds but familiar.

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Eurasian Widgeon

It’s very still. There are few people around and I’m focussed on the trees looking in vain for owl shapes, my mind wandering. I suddenly remember the Hippopotamus poem by Patrick Barrington and it sticks, hard. I can remember some but not all. “I had a hippopotamus, I kept him in a shed; I fed him up on vitamins and vegetable bread...”  After that, there was a hippo “portrait done by a celebrity in chalks.” Oh, dear.

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Hooded Merganser

The guy’s landlady does the hippo in with a machine gun she borrows from “her soldier nephew Percy “- I’m sure of that. So sad. But what’s the rest? I’m really concentrating now, so much so that a horrific gurgling yawk! startles me — someone’s being strangled and shockingly close by too! It’s not that, of course, although it takes me a fraction of a second to realize this. A big ungainly bird flaps and climbs upwards through the dark branches of the cedar I’m under, and then another – Great Blue Herons on the move. It’s mating season and nests are being built. This will be the new heronry. I definitely do not want to be standing beneath a heronry and take my leave. When I finally get a view of the treetops, I see something for the first time – male Herons raising their crests. Wonderful. Even the quietest birding days offer us something marvellous.

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Position One

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The Finale

And, oh, yes…

“No longer now he gambols in the orchard in the spring; no longer do I lead him through the village on a string.

No longer in the mornings does the neighbourhood rejoice; to his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.”

And then it gets sadder.

Well, they don’t write ’em like that anymore…

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the light is just right…

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Good grief, snow again!

None of my target birds seem to want to make themselves available today. It’s cold again at Swan Lake. A chill east wind generated, they say, by La Nina (with a tilde) persists. Even today in March, when we should be counting blooms, we’re getting transient and unexpected snow squalls. Happily, they pass quickly but the sky stays overcast, threatening. In this weather, few people are out on the trails so it’s quiet. Nice. I like the solitude. It’s when I feel closest to nature, the closest I come to walking meditation. I take a number of shots of Anna’s Hummingbirds just because, and of a young Redtail watching the meadow. A proper photographer would probably have picked up on the quality of the light. Not me. I’m just hoping for the best. It’s when I’m home, and have uploaded the day’s ‘catch’ that I discover, once again, that it’s good to keeping shooting because, well, you never know. I couldn’t have gotten better views of the male’s fantastic gorget and head colours if I’d schemed and planned, or got the depth of field as right as I think I did.

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Redtail Hawk

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Bl**dy February Again…

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Drear!

I lifted title from a line in an old Flanders and Swann song about the weather. They talk about January but February works for me. It’s drear this morning in the park and cold enough to keep some ice on the ponds. Delightful word, drear, and apt. I’m looking for birds but they are are hardly stirring. The Peafowl are still perched high in a fir, almost out of sight, ‘staying in bed’ on this grey Sunday morning, a dozen lumps like enormous chickens. Most of the Mallards and Widgeon are dozing too but the Black Duck that has shown up here for the past three or four winters is out trying to cadge a meal.

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American Black Duck

Small birds are moving but mostly staying out of sight. I spot a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Towhee but mostly it’s a turned into a ‘birding by ear’ day. The still, damp air seems to amplify bird sounds. No singing yet, just the thin ‘yawk’ of Red-breasted Nuthatches, the chitter of Kinglets, the harsh faulty-doorbell call of Spotted Towhees.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

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Spotted Towhee

I hoped to see the Sharp-shinned Hawk I spotted the other day but have no luck in that regard. Luckily, I got some good shots last time so I’m going to pretend.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk

Back to the word bl**dy in my title. My English mother used to scold me if I used it, saying that ‘we don’t use that word around this house’. It’s blasphemy rather than swearing, I think, but likely my mother just thought it was ‘common’. To this day, I’m reluctant to spell it out. My father, usually very proper, often used the word, as in ‘get you bl**dy feet off the table!’. But I digress. Still, it really felt like bl**dy February again — today –in the park.

The Lake

The last time I visited Swan Lake a week or two ago, most of its remaining  waterfowl clustered around a small lead of open water, some swimming, others skating comically around the perimeter. Now the Lake is open and busy. Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese are here. Fleets of Common Mergansers fish, diving in unison. A squadron of sleepy Ruddy Ducks passes, stiff tails held at the traditional forty-five degree angle; the birds move together, either pushed by the breeze or through some coordinated, semi-conscious and unseen paddling.

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Common Mergansers

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Ruddy Ducks

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Great Blue Heron

Half-concealed in the rushes, a Blue Heron watches from the rushes, alert to something. There it is — a Bald Eagle. It comes in over the lake like a warplane, hidden at first behind a screen of firs and then dropping down to settle into a stealthy glide. The target is a mixed flock of Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s Gulls but the lookouts are on the ball this time and the intended victims disperse in a hurry. The Eagle, looking slightly irritated, makes a half-hearted stoop and then is gone.

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Bald Eagle

The breeze is suddenly quite cold so I leave the lakeside and take one of my favourite owling paths where it’s more sheltered. No owls today unfortunately. A pair of Steller’s Jays makes it clear I’m not welcome and sends me on my way with a series of raspy calls. It’s mating season preliminary time; male Red-winged Blackbirds are also starting to sing, although singing might not be the right word to describe their familiar, spring-heralding call.

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Steller’s Jay

Out in the sunlight again, I’m startled by a very loud ‘peep’ and then another, which I realize is the sound made by the extended tail feathers of an Anna’s Hummingbird at the bottom of its courtship dive. A moment of two later, the bird alights close by and gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’, its purple gorget extended and catching the sun.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone Gulls and Pink-footed Geese

I’ve been to the sewage ponds again searching for a Glaucous Gull that’s supposed to be there and, once again, it’s not. Sewage ponds, for crying out loud! I know I keep harping on about Glaucous Gulls. This is the last time — I give up. Plus I’m starting to think the reference picture a rival birder gave me is throwing me off.

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Glaucous Gull

On the other hand, I did view two Pink-footed Geese at Martindale Flats. These birds summer in Greenland and I never expected to see them on our coast — or anywhere. I think they arrived on one of the fierce Nor’easters that recently plagued us but who knows. The geese stayed with a flock of Canada and Cackling Geese. Geese are sociable that way — accommodating. They never did come close enough for me to get good pictures but then you can’t have everything. They also attracted a flock of birders including some who had come long distances just to be able to record these rare birds – and to get their own lousy shots.

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Pink-footed Geese

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Birder Flock

Wind Storm

A cold Northeaster blew up a couple of days ago and its still moaning through the shrouds of the sailboats moored across the bay. Last night, the howling outside the window reminded me of a passage in Moonlight, one of my favourite childhood books.

“The sea has little mercy…people turn in their beds and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet Beach.”

Or something like that. Anyway, I was happy not to be fighting the sea anywhere around here.

When the sun comes up, we learn what the wind can do — a sailboat pushed up on the reef where I usually spot Greater Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plovers. Beyond the San Juans, Mount Baker stands sharp and clear against a robin’s egg sky but the sea is white-capped and the breakwater regularly washed with torrents of seawater. I’m not feeling rugged enough to go scope for seabirds. Time to go inland.

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We head out to Martindale Flats in the vain hope that going to an area of flatlands northeast of here will get us out of a nor’easter. Fat chance. However, a number of rare and rarish birds have been sighted in the fields recently — a Clay-colored Sparrow (maybe 2), a Harris’s Sparrow,  and a Harlan’s Hawk, and I want those birds.

It’s just as windy at Martindale as it is in town, maybe more so, but there are birds everywhere, using the wind. It’s what they do. A Merlin zooms by before we can park, and moments later, a Peregrine, both too fast to photograph. The Peregrine means nothing to flocks of Canada and Cackling Geese, nor to the mighty Trumpeter Swans. It’s the Widgeon who panic; hundreds take to the air, wing-patches and bellies flashing white in the bright sunlight.

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American Widgeon

And there are a dozen or so Bald Eagles, one of which is feeding on a kill (either a Raven or a Turkey Vulture). On the other side of the road, a pair sit close, bonded, nesting in a month or so perhaps.

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Bald Eagles

We catch glimpses of the Harlan’s Hawk and the Clay-colored Sparrow but the Harris’s Sparrow eludes us. The wind is bone-chilling but it brought an unexpected visitor – a Snow Bunting. Beautiful and very cooperative. And then later, at a feeder, a Dark-eyed Junco speckled with white, a condition ornithologists call leucistic.

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Snow Bunting

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Dark-eyed Junco (Leucistic)

It’s getting on and we’re frozen. The Harris’s Sparrow will have to wait for another day. One of us spoke the words ‘coffee shop’ and that was that. Time to hurry to the car and exit ‘stage left’.

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