Bird Count

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The temperature hasn’t risen above zero and it’s snowing. Not much. At the southern tip of Vancouver Island, it’s enough to keep people home. I’m at Cattle Point in Victoria taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count. A small group this year, led by young Geoffrey, a talented birder. It’s only just light and he’s already spotted three owls — two Barred and a Great Horned. Amazing.

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Barred Owl

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The Perilous Trail

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It’s quiet. A somber day — a dusting of white and a leaden sky. We move back into the park to get out of the wind. Except for small flocks of noisy Robins, most birds are lying low. The visibility is lousy too. I never do see the Goldfinch somebody spots, immobile and invisible (to me) in a nearby birch. But red pops. Robins, Housefinches, an active Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, its chest gluey with sap from its wells, really stand out.

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Red-breasted Sapsucker

I took a course in colour theory once, the upshot of which was that every colour has a shape. I tried. I stared at various hues until my eyes crossed and that never sunk in. Now I try to figure out if there’s some sort of complimentary dealy going on. Red intensified by the green-blue light of the morning but, really, I have no idea. I like it the effect though. Scarlet rose hips and dark red haws on the thorns help too. What with snow and shades of red and green, it’s kind of Christmassy – nice.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

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Housefinch

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Haws

 

 

Eagle Time

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An Arctic wind has set in from the northeast and I don’t feel much like travelling far. I’m too lazy – and cold. Someone spotted a Mountain Bluebird at Saanichton Spit yesterday but I’m not ambitious enough to hike out to look for it. Not on that exposed strip of sand anyway. Not today.

I take a stroll around Turkey Head instead. Uncommon birds drop into into the bay sometimes. Nothing but the usual Buffleheads and American Widgeon here this morning. Handsome birds even so. But then something more interesting – two Bald Eagles courting, riding the winds, looking to hook up – literally. I’ve seen this once before. A pair flies very high, link talons and spiral towards the ground. Occasionally, they don’t let go – a death spiral. I follow them as best I can, the male is calling, a Frankie Valli falsetto that doesn’t seem to match the bird at all.

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Are they a pair? I have no way of knowing. My impression is that it’s not happening. Not yet at any rate. Apparently, Bald Eagles mate for life and ‘reconnect’ after a short northward migration. It’s hard to know what’s up with these two. Not elevation anyway. They’re not going super high as they would for the death spiral. Just chirping and riding the winds – having fun. Later I see a solitary eagle. Is this the unlucky suitor, or a lonesome bird waiting for its mate?  I think he or she looks hopeful but maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing (gosh, what a word!).

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I almost always think of the Tennyson poem, The Eagle, when I see the great birds. Of course, he was thinking of Golden Eagles, probably up in Scotland, not the fish loving, gull eating Bald Eagle. It doesn’t matter. It’s one of my favourite bird poems: He clasps the crag with crooked hands; close to the sun in lonely lands – and four more great lines.

 

 

 

Party Time on the Mountain

 

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Birds can become intoxicated on fermented berries. I remember a translation in a high school French class (or was it German?) about chickens getting drunk on overripe cherries — overdoing it on home brew kirsch. Not really a scientific source but then I’m no scientist so I’m prepared to accept it.

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What?

Certainly, the Cedar Waxwings and Robins up here on Observatory Hill are acting like they’re well into their cups. The Robins shoot me belligerent looks and pretend they run the place. A couple even faux buzz-bomb me. They obviously didn’t see the Peregrine that just overflew the mountain!

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The Peregrine

There must dozens of birds here and they’re goofing around big time, flitting from Arbutus to Arbutus, eating berries, chirping – loud. Their landings seem unsteady too. The Waxwings seem more sedate. Maybe they’re just at a different stage in the party. Most of them. There’s always the odd goofball, of course, who doesn’t know when to quit.

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Between Storms Again

 

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Squall Line

I’m out  between squalls, following up reports of owl sightings–a Pygmy Owl on Observatory hill and a possible Snowy Owl at Panama Flats. Lately, my owl luck has been pitiful, even when I concentrate really, really hard. You’d expect some cooperation, but no. Still, it’s always worth a shot.

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Time to Change Lodgings!

Panama Flats, a series of diked cattail-rimmed pools, resemble the real Panama not at all. Lots of waterfowl here though. I exit the car and most of them take to the air — Teal, Mallards, Widgeon, Pintails. It’s not me – I’m too far away. I suspect a hunting Peregrine but it’s a Bald Eagle that’s causing all the fuss, cruising the ponds like a diner at a buffet. A flock of Glaucous-winged Gulls is first up. Being an important food item for the Eagles, they can’t afford to linger. I’ve seen an eagle pick a gull out of the air.

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Hmmm – tasty!

By the time I get to Observatory Hill, the rain is almost on me. It’s windy – and cold. A half dozen Ravens seem to welcome the prospect of the coming storm, cavorting and croaking, doing aerials, zooming past the dome covering the Observatory’s large telescope faster than I can focus on them. Using the wind.

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Raven Ballet

Below me, the valley is in mist. To the south, someone burns slash–the blue smoke contrasting with the rising, steaming vapours. A maintenance guy comes to do leaf blowing. Jeepers! I can’t figure out the logic here — it’s a mountain top after all. The noise grates and the rain begins in earnest. Time to go. Not a darn owl anywhere anyway!

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Smoke and Mist

Cold morning:Good Light

The bird in question is a Field Sparrow, the first ever recorded here, perhaps the first ever in the province. Just about every birder I know saw the sparrow and many took great pictures. Word is that it’s almost stupidly tame, often hopping around peoples’ feet like a little, brown mouse. The problem is that, when I get to the Lagoon , it’s vanished. What a difference a day makes (darn – now I’ve got the song in my head – Dinah Washington. I think). It was clear last night and the winds, I guess, were favourable. The ‘once in a blue moon’ bird has gone, flown. Too bad for me and the thirty forlorn birders who wander the shores, occasional stopping to peer (hopefully) under the driftwood. Luckily, there are compensations. The light is wonderful and common birds are stunningly beautiful.

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Common Goldeneye

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House Finch

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Trumpeter Swan

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Northern Pintail

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Bufflehead

 

Flycatchers

 

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Tropical Kingbird

It’s mid-November in British Columbia but I’m out looking for a Tropical Kingbird. Yes –  tropical!  I think I’ve mentioned these wayward birds before. A few of them seem to show up somewhere on the coast each winter. It’s their brain wiring apparently – a misread of the magnetosphere by mostly young birds.

The Kingbird belongs to the Tyrant flycatcher clan, a family that includes some spectacular and engaging species. And they are tyrants in terms of attitude. Fierce little birds when they need to be, and very protective, driving away even the largest raptors.

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Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatchers are favourites of mine. I think they look more tropical than the Kingbirds. Easy to imagine these small, bright red birds flitting through a jungle canopy somewhere far to the south, maybe near a squad of Toucans. Like many flycatchers, they don’t try to hide, so photographing them is relatively easy. The same is true of Scissortail Flycatchers like the ones I saw recently in Texas. Extravagantly long tails and peach-coloured sides – beautiful!

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Scissortail Flycatcher

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Ducks: Hooded Merganser

Is there a prettier duck than the ‘Hoodie’? A group has just arrived in our little bay, the males posturing and flashing their crests as they compete for females. Buffleheads are here too, right on time – the 3rd week in October for us. And our Widgeon have returned, tumbling in on the winds of the last October storm. Coming home for the winter, I guess, and soon to be grazing on the local park lawns. No sign (yet) of the crimson-headed Eurasian Widgeon that spent last winter here. A squadron of young Surf Scoters has joined the Buffleheads, a bit of a surprise in such shallow water.

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Hooded Merganser Drake

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Surf Scoter Teens

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Competition

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Today’s Champion

 

Between Pacific Storms: October Memories

Our perennial Low in the Gulf of Alaska is setting up nicely, so the autumn storms are starting. And the remnants of a ‘weather event’ in the western Pacific are heading our way too. Makes me think the archaic word ‘tempest’ ought to be revived. Even so, birding between fronts is not a bad idea. You never know what will arrive on the heels of a great storm. The big blow is due in a day or so but I won’t go far today. Out past the pumpkin patch, I think, and Swan Lake.

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Picked Over

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Canada Geese Incoming

Rain softens everything and I mean more than the mud-making mixing of earth and water, although there’s plenty of that too. For all its pleasures, summer has a bright, loud harshness to it that needs to be relieved by early mornings and late evenings. Fall pleases me more.

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Mallards Flaps Down

Migrating waterfowl are passing through. Lots of them. A mixed flock of Mallard, Pintail and Widgeon drops into a now harvested grain field, sounding off as they land. Skeins of vocalizing Canada Geese and the smaller Cackling Geese decorate the skies in every direction.

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Wilson’s Snipe

I see nothing unusual in the fields so I check out some newly replenished ponds. The rain quietens my footsteps and makes it easier for me to arrive at a finger of slough undetected. I’m in luck. A Wilson’s Snipe is out and very visible. Somehow these secretive birds must know that hawks generally avoid flying in the rain. I stand dead still, watching, until the bird wanders off into the long grass.

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Rain Bird – Wilson’s Snipe

There are other birds to see too. A young, slightly bedraggled Cedar Waxwing looks like he’s going to a punk event somewhere. The black mask only adds to the illusion. He gives me the ‘once over’ as I go by but stays put. The punk attitude, I guess — I don’t care what you think as long as you notice me. Not to be outdone, a Steller’s Jay hops into view. I think the blue is Cerulean (more or less). Must be Crest Day at the Lake.

 

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Waxwing Punk

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Another Crest – Steller’s Jay

And speaking of illusions, I catch a glimpse of a Barred Owl, too deep in a thicket to get a good photo, but looking very ghostly on this pre-Halloween ramble. He or she is wide awake in the half light of the interval between storms. No flying tonight perhaps. Not in the teeth of (at least) gale-force winds. Not in a tempest!

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 Ghost Owl

Swan Lake Sora

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Swan Lake

A few male Hooded Mergansers have arrived at the little bay near my home and the forecast is for rain, sure signs that summer is indeed over. Soon, the wet weather will set in. I make a last warm weather trip to Swan Lake, a local hot spot. The lake is glass smooth and flecked with, I think, fluff from Cottonwood trees. Four young Pied-billed grebes are feeding at the limit of my camera’s usable range. Plus they won’t keep still. Cute little guys but very active, diving every five seconds or so. It’s like a fairground ‘bash a mole’ game; they never reappear in the same place twice.

 

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Pied-billed Grebe

I’m hoping to add a Sora, a swamp-dwelling rail, to my year list. I know one (at least) inhabits the dense stand of bulrush at the west end but I’ve tried for this secretive bird umpteen times and it keeps eluding me. I shouldn’t take it personally. On my last visit a week or so ago,  a pair of young otters popped up through the duckweed, lifted their anvil heads to scan the shoreline and then, snakelike, slid out of the water and into the cattails. Slick, deadly and quiet. Human beings aren’t the only predators the Sora is alert to.

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Swan Lake Otters

I give up on the bird the on my first pass and carry on to the meadow. I hear birds in the trees but the foliage is so dense I don’t see much so I decide to have one more try at the Sora. A Blue Heron though sets up for a nice shot. The Herons are so commonplace that it’s nice to spend some time examining them–such a handsome bird.

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Great Blue Heron

I take some shots and, for some reason, I turn thinking the Sora might be near. And it is! Ten feet away and watching me. I have to pivot quietly to get a picture, which on a floating bridge isn’t easy but the bird seems relaxed, picking its way along the water’s edge. And then, like magic, it’s gone. I always feel  grateful when a bird shows up like this. I may have said so in an earlier post. It’s like a favour and I appreciate the gesture. Thank you, Sora!

 

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The Elusive Sora

 

 

Owls

 

A pair of Great Horned Owls nested high in a Doug Fir. The owlets are now in the ‘brancher’ phase and make quite hilarious little murderers as they move out of the nest and explore. Yesterday, the little guys were sleeping but today they were more active. As I watched, the mom (or dad?) came in on silent wings and visited with the owlets. I didn’t see any feeding but the adult talked to the chicks in low hoots. Every once in a while, one or the other stared down in my direction but, as i was at was at least a hundred yards away, I doubt if they were thinking much of me. Lots of cyclists, dog-walkers and joggers also use the same path. The ‘nest’ itself is pretty shabby — no good housekeeping awards here.

 

 

 

Owls.