Panama Flats

I like the name of this birding hotspot -Panama Flats. I’m surprised a blues artist hasn’t picked it up. And now, singing ‘How come my dog don’t bark when my best friend comes around?’ is the legendary Panama Flats! But I digress. This is a birding blog after all and the ‘Flats’ are, instead, a series of flooded fields that attract waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and late fall. A very pleasant, quiet place to be on a warm May morning like this one.

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In a few months, the land will be dry, plowed possibly. Water birds that nest here, like Mallards and Canada Geese, have to getting cracking (sorry) early in the year. Today, dozens of ducklings and goslings are following their mums around, learning the ropes.

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Spotted Sandpiper

I’m here for a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I see briefly soon after arriving-on its way out, heading north I guess. Not so, the Spotted Sandpipers, actively displaying and chasing each other around the edges of the ponds, carried here and there by the staccato beats of their short wings. A Long-billed Dowitcher, stalking the perimeter surprises itself when it spots me, angling off into a swarm of young Mallards. I’m not fooled, not with that beak.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

I follow the dykes between the ponds, balancing on the planks and bits of scrap wood people have used to span the cross ditches. A Marsh Wren scolds me from the cattails, a complex series of chuckles and buzzes. Quite charming – if they did but know it.

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Marsh Wren

As the day warms, Barn Swallows appear, darting around after insects. A glossy Purple Martin crisscrosses the larger pond, the distinctive half flapping, half-gliding flight style an added giveaway. A Common Yellowthroat sings his ‘witchity, witchity, witchity’ nearby, looking handsome with his white forehead, black mask and lemon-yellow throat. Forget the blues. It’d be hard to write a good, downer song here, today.

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Common Yellowthroat

 

Malheur Memories

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The Road to Burns

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Malheur

I visited Malheur National Wildlife Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in the middle of the summer a few years ago – before the unhappy events there in 2016. I’m delighted to report that the temperature was moderate and I heard only a single mosquito – in spite of warnings of excessive heat and a plaque of bugs. Not surprisingly, with that kind of a rep, few birders visit here at the end of July.

The Refuge certainly wasn’t busy. I saw no more than a half dozen people, including rangers monitoring the narrow track that leads, ultimately, to less than teeming metropolis of Frenchglen. Of course, for wildlife, the fewer people the better. Young animals and birds seemed to be everywhere reminding me again how important Wildlife Refuges, like Malheur, are for breeding species, as well as being vital stopovers for migrating birds.

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Great Egret

Phalaropes

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Gadwall Family

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Loggerhead Shrike Family

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Eared Grebe Family

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Young Coyote on the track to Frenchglen

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Fawn at Malheur

 

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King Eiders and Red-necked Grebes

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Red-necked Grebe

I need to be at the airport by ten thirty in the morning for my flight home from Toronto. The problem is that I’m staying in historic Niagara-on-the Lake, maybe two hours away. A sensible person would relax and enjoy breakfast at the pleasant B&B where I spent the night, but a rare King Eider lingers at Etobicoke’s Col. Sam Smith Park. It’s out of my way and I’m pressed for time but I do what any half-crazed birder would do under the circumstances. I get up at six, skip breakfast and head out to try to add the Eider to my Life List.

Col. Sam Smith Park is new to me and it’s a lovely spot. It doesn’t hurt that the day is so spring-like. Well, it is spring but I saw snow farther north not two days before and I’m wary. The Tree Swallows are convinced. Dozens of these pretty birds have arrived from Mexico or Central America, claiming the nest boxes volunteers (I think) have set up for them.

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Tree Swallow

I’m hoping to see the Eider but not overly optimistic. I hadn’t counted on the abundance here of other birds. Red-Necked Grebes – hundreds of them – are courting noisily. Of all waterbirds, grebes have the most spectacular courting rituals, the dances of the various species. My opinion, of course. Today’s gathering of these engaging birds makes for a phenomenal show, all colour, posturing and noise.

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Courting Grebes

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Horned Grebe

Nor are the Red-necks the only birds caught up in the show. Here and there, Horned and Pied Grebes are scattered amongst their Red-Necked cousins. Numerous Long-tailed Ducks forage for food, gathering energy for their upcoming return to the Arctic. Most of these attractive birds have already paired up. Waiting for them to pop back up to the surface for a picture requires patience. They are the deepest diving of all ducks.

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Long-tailed Ducks

But now, it’s getting on and I still haven’t spotted the Eider. It’s not where it’s been repeatedly sighted. I hold position as long as I dare, leaving myself barely enough time to get my rental back and to go through security. As I hurry to the parking lot, I spot an unusual looking duck in amongst the floats in the boat basin. It’s strongly back-lit but ‘different’. I take a dozen or so shots. And then I’m gone. At home, I upload my photos. Sure enough, as often happens, the parting (or Parthian) shots are the winners. I have my King Eider. Not great photos perhaps, but good enough for an ID. I’ll miss breakfast anytime for this.

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

Snow on Maui

 

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Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Maui

Oh -my title – sorry about that. Agatha Christie once joked that a writer who opened a story with the line “Hell!” said the Duchess couldn’t help but grab the attention of a reader. I’m hoping the title of this post will perform the same function. Happily, no snow is falling on Maui. No need to abort a vacation — or panic. Still, to me, the six young Snow Geese I saw at Kanaha Ponds seem almost as out of place as the white stuff.

I’m fascinated with rare birds and their stories. What freak wind or event sent these teenagers off into the vast Pacific? How did they find this remote island thousands of miles away from the Arctic sloughs where they hatched? How will they find their way back? It’s a work in progress, I suppose. For the time being, at least, their futures are linked, this little band of goose kids a long way from home.

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Snow on Maui

The Snow Geese rarities aren’t the only fascinating birds at Kanaha. NeNe Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to meet since I was a boy, nests here. Not terribly long ago, NeNes were one of the rarest birds in the world, only thirty individuals on their way to extinction, saved at the last minute by captive breeding and the heroic efforts of volunteers and governments. NeNe live from here at sea level to the cinder plains high up on Haleakala, the volcano that looms nearby. They’re quite tame and still need protection. Slim, fast, ferocious Mongooses are a particular threat, killing goslings and, I think, eating eggs. NeNe are still the rarest geese in the world, by the way.

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NeNe

At home, I go to great lengths to try to see a Pacific Golden Plover, vainly searching every passing flock of Black-bellied Plovers for a bird without black armpits, a good identifier. Pacific Goldens are common here, seen on most lawns and boulevards. Now, in February, they are already forming pair bonds and defending territory. In a few months they’ll start for Alaska, a distance of almost five thousand kilometers, and they’ll do the flight in three days. Non-stop, sixty-five kilometers an hour! Then they’ll come back to exactly the same place in Maui in the fall. The birds I’m seeing here are truly home, on their special spots at Kanaha, on Maui.

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Pacific Golden Plover

Wandering Tattlers also make the long journey from northwestern North America to Hawaii. I love that name! Hawaiians call them Ulili, after the sound of their call. Lovely too. Messenger birds. The Hawaiian singer Iz wrote a song about them. Two Ulili wander amongst the many noisy Black-necked Stilts who populate the shallows. There are Sanderling and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones here too. Nice.

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Wandering Tattler

I’ve quickly grown fond of Kanaha Ponds but then I always like the solitude, and the life, of marshes, especially early in the day. This morning, the warm wind blows strong and the handsome Chestnut Munia which forage in small flocks use it to move quickly from place to place — and are consequently very hard to photograph.

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Chestnut Munia

Both Northern and Red-crested Cardinals are more cooperative. Both species are active enough to indicate mating season is in progress, although the Northern Cardinal looks a bit shabby. Now I’m wondering – when is mating season here? Both Cardinals are introduced birds as are the Munia and others, like Common Mynahs. There are few native Hawaiian species at sea level now. Most have succumbed to mosquito borne diseases (mosquitoes are also not native to Hawaii). You have to go high up the mountain to find the beautiful, colourful honey creepers. I’ll do that soon.

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Northern Cardinal

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Red-crested Cardinal

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Red Junglefowl

A few Red Junglefowl forage in amongst the low plants at the edges of the ponds. Junglefowl, the ancestors of chickens. Quite spectacular really — if you don’t think chicken.

 

 

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.