Winter Birding West Coast Style…

I needed to go to Washington state to pick up copies of my latest mystery novel, the Bent Box, and figured I might as well also pick up a few birds while I’m down there. There’s been a female Common Eider hanging out at a place I’ve never heard of called Purdy Spit near Gig Harbor. The Eider is a rare, rare bird on the west coast so, what the heck, I’ll go have a look. And since I’m going that far, I plan to visit some of my favourite places in Oregon, like Baskett Slough and the Finley Reserve. Weather is a problem though. It’s still unseasonably cold and snow is a possibility.

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Rough-legged Hawk

I take a side trip to Samish Flats and spot at least a dozen Red-tailed Hawks, tons of Trumpeter Swans, some Great Blue Herons, scores of Bald Eagles, ducks by the hundreds and a Rough-legged Hawk or two. At Tacoma, I turn towards Gig Harbor and Purdy Spit. When I’m a few miles from my destination, my GPS capriciously decides I’m an hour and a half away. Foiled. I turn back. Who cares about a stupid rare bird anyway? I pay the bridge toll and continue to Nisqually. Nisqually’s nice but the wind is cutting. And it’s damp too. After an hour of birding there, I’m chilled to the bone. When I get to the motel, my fingers are still numb.

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Great Blue Heron on Ice

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Nisqually – Frozen

I’m booked into a cheap highway motel in Centralia figuring that I can go south or west from there the next morning. I know nothing about Centralia except what I’ve seen from the highway, which hasn’t been all that impressive. Off the highway, however, Centralia is quite nice. It’s one of the things I really like out these birding trips, the chance to explore, to discover places I would never have seen otherwise. It gets better. I luck into McMenamin’s Olympic Club – a pleasant surprise!

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The Olympic Club, Centralia

With its built-in movie theater and a huge wood-burning stove, the Olympic Club is a treasure. The smell of the fire, the warmth, the food, the glass of Hammerhead Ale, well, on a cold night who could ask for more. Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok would feel right at home here.

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Common Eider

Next morning I hear Portland and the coast are expecting a big dump of snow so I turn back north. I decide to have one last stab at the Eider. When I get to Purdy Spit, which turns out to be ten minutes away from where I was yesterday, I find some birders already scoping the water. They’re kind enough to point out the duck to me, which is good because it’s a mile away on the other side of the bay. I can see it with my scope but I’m just shooting blind with my camera. Luckily I got a few pictures but nothing I’d submit to Audubon.

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Bohemian Waxwings

I’ve booked a motel in Bellingham. It’s just a few hours away so I’ve got time to bird some more. I follow up on reports of Bohemian Waxwings in Magnuson Park in Seattle. Happily they’re easy to find (with help from another birder already viewing them). I know these attractive birds quite well from my years living in northern BC and I’m surprised I never added them to my life list before. Now I do. Before I get to Bellingham, I head back down to Samish Flats. It’ll be dark soon and the Short-eared Owls that winter there should be hunting.

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Short-eared Owl

Sure enough I spot one – a beautiful bird, one of the most prettiest owls, I think. Unfortunately, the light’s too low and the bird moving around too much to get a good shot. For this post, I’ll use a stand-in, a bird I photographed last year. But I’m frozen again. I don’t think I’ve been really warm since I sat by the Olympic Club’s towering wood stove last night and ate my dinner. I know – whine, whine, whine. If it wasn’t for that fantastic view and the wonderful birds, well…

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Mount Baker

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Rare Birds – The Emperor Goose

I got the rare bird report when I was in Salem, Oregon in September. A number of people had reported an Emperor Goose near Coos Bay, also in Oregon, and I don’t have one on my list. Coos Bay is bit of a drive from Salem but what the heck — I’m at location around noon. It’s a nice sunny day and there are thousands of Canada Geese around but that’s it. After an hour or so, I abandon the quest. I decide to make one more try at the top of a bluff. Unfortunately, I can only see about six feet of beach from my vantage point which, it turns out, is all I need. The Goose in question obliging walks into the frame. Sometimes you just get lucky! This one is lovely blue-gray bird with pinky legs and a white topknot, a young bird a long way from the Aleutians, where it probably ought to be at this time of the year.

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Emperor Goose

 

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