Mount Hood

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Haze

I’m looking down on smoke produced by fires in British Columbia and driven out the valleys of the Fraser and Columbia. With no strong westerlies, or rain, to stop it, the haze now covers the west from Medford to Whistler. And it’s hot, very hot – a hundred and five in Portland. So I’m up here at eleven thousand feet where the air is clean and the temperature comfortable. There’s even snow. I’m looking for Mountain Bluebirds, Clark’s Nutcracker and other high country species but most other visitors aren’t so inclined. They trudge past carrying skis and snowboards heading for the runs a mile away. Good on them – they’re all a lot younger than me. Skiing in August is just about the last thing I feel like doing.

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The Ski Hill

I carry on, sidestepping rivulets of melt water and blooming alpine plants, going higher. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels seem to be everywhere, gathering and storing food for the winter. Several species of butterflies chase each other across the broken terrain, flashing orange and black. The biggest are Tortoiseshells, strong fliers and fast. I find a comfortable-looking boulder and sit to admire slopes adorned with yellow wild buckwheat, purple asters, fleabane and lupines – how clever of nature to do the complimentary colour thing. Then I empty my shoes of ash and pumice and head down the mountain towards the smoke and heat. Ah, me. At least they have good food and wine in Portland.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

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Mountain Bluebird

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Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

 

Paintbrush, Aster Fleabane, Alpine Aster

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Western Tortoiseshell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

The Owl

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View from Observatory Hill

On a whim, we drive to the top of Observatory Hill to take in the views. It’s almost noon and the temperature is perfect, on the decal edge of hot. Nice weather for a walk. After a few minutes of searching, we relocate trail head, now obscured by creamy cascades of Ocean Spray. It’s not those slightly stinky blossoms that perfumes the air. The sweet, resinous scent results, likely, from the sun heating up volatile oils on the firs and glossy-leafed Arbutus. It’s lovely.

Aside from a curious juvenile Dark-eyed Junco with his speckled belly, we hear lots of birds but see nada. Anyway, I left my camera with its dead battery in the car. That’s okay. We came for the views and the walk. What are the chances of spotting a good bird at this time of year? Good, as it turns out.

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Plaskett Telescope Dome

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The Forest – Observatory Hill

It’s when we pause to admire a view of Prospect Lake, that the birds we haven’t seen suddenly appear. They’re excited, agitated, giving alarm calls and intermittently dive-bombing a stand of firs. A phantom takes wing, a raptor. It glides out of the grove and down the hill. We ease down the slope and spot the bird. A Great Horned Owl!

Of course, the Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Juncos want it gone. After a moment, the Owl cranks its head around, exasperation showing in big, yellow eyes, and departs. Its tormentors follow. A noisy gaggle tumbles down through the trees and, suddenly, the show is over. The lesson for me is clear. Always carry a spare camera battery! In lieu of the owl that got away, I have pics of this bird, seen in April, to remind me of what might have been.

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Great Horned Owl – Stand In

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Owleyes

Those Big yellow Eyes!

 

 

When you got nothing to say, a funny bird picture might suffice…

It’s summer proper now, fall migrations are weeks away and I’m not seeing as many birds as I’d like. Summer’s the problem. Most aren’t singing, so harder to spot in heavy foliage. They’re rearing young – busy. Ah well. I make another trip to Martindale to search for the Bullock’s Orioles I missed when the tree service people showed up on site a week or so ago. They’re supposed to have fledglings now. The Orioles, not the tree service people. I do hear a Bullock-type chortle in the cottonwoods, see Robins and Waxwings briefly but spot no pretty Orioles. Not my day, I guess.

With no birding adventures to report and no new birds recorded, I got nothing. Going through my photos, I find shots of a Red-crested Cardinal from Maui that I found funny at the time. The bird even looked slightly embarrassed, as if I’d happened on him in the middle of some private and exclusive exercises. He shot me a look of reluctant approbation and carried on. I make a quick search for birds that surprised me, made me smile. Mostly, the experience was too fleeting and I too slow with my camera. Still…

 

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Red-crested Cardinal – Yoga

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Slaty-backed Gull – Washington – No Pictures, Please!

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Anna’s Hummingbird – Victoria – Pilates

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Raven – Observatory Hill, Victoria – So relaxed!

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I’Iwi – Maui, Hosmer Grove – Coming Right At you!

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Wrentit – California – Yes, I’m only two inches tall. Want to make something out if it!

 

Flycatchers, Nutcrackers and Bighorn Sheep

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Down into the Valley of the Similkameen

I’m crossing the Coast Range and then following the Similkameen River down into the Okanagan. It’s not far – a few hundred miles – but the birds are different on the other side of the mountains. I make a quick stop at Manning Park Lodge where the temperature is five degrees Celsius and a dozen or more grey and black Clark’s Nutcrackers search the picnic area for leftovers. Engaging birds these. Columbian Ground Squirrels hustle around too – beautiful little creatures with their tiger belly stripes. If I wasn’t in a sort of a hurry, I’d go up to the alpine meadows to look for more high country birds and animals. Next time.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

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Columbian Ground Squirrel

Back on the twisting, mountain road, I follow the rushing Similkameen to Princeton and then on to Osoyoos. The town is at the northern tip of the great Sonoran Desert – and it’s wine country. It’s twenty-five degrees now – much more like June than it was on the coast. I pass towering Vaseaux Cliffs and make a stop, hoping for a pink, black and green Lewis’s Woodpecker, White-throated Swifts and maybe a Rock Wren or two. I hear the Lewis’s and two Rock Wrens, plus a Canyon Wren. A California Quail hops up on a post, sees me, and makes himself scarce. The Swifts are here but almost impossible to photograph, flying, reputedly, at up to 200 miles per hour!

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California Quail

Something bawls, cow-like, on the cliff face high above. A Bighorn ewe looking for something, her lamb maybe. She’s not  lost, and not trapped. While I watch she drops out of sight momentarily. Heart-stopping. But there she is, twenty feet or more down, secure on a barely discernible ledge. I keep half an eye on her. I’m curious and sympathetic. Finally, my birds recorded and the sun moving towards the horizon, I’m ready to find my motel. I watch the ewe for a few more minutes and then leave her to her search.

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Bighorn Ewe

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Bighorn Ewe – Halfway down (she’s there!)

Next morning, I’m up early, walking the dike along a canal crossed by Road 22. The morning is beautiful and birds are plentiful.  Black and white Bobolinks disappear into the long grass before I can take a picture. At least hidden five Sora Rails whinny in the marshy areas. Willow Flycatchers call – Fitz-bew – all along the dike. A Gray Catbird pops up to check me out and then flies away across the canal. Eastern Kingbirds and Western Wood Peewees are plentiful.

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Willow Flycatcher

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Western Wood Peewee

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Gray Catbird

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Eastern Kingbird

It’s time to take my leave. I’m only here for  few hours and I’ve got a long drive home. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I drive to Vaseaux, get out and search the cliff face. At first I don’t see anything but there she is, standing vigil on a spur of rock a thousand feet up. Is it the same animal as yesterday? I don’t know – Bighorn ewes all look the same to me. If it is the one from yesterday then there’s much more to these animals than I thought.

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Vigil – Bighorn Ewe

 

Road Trip

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Lazuli Bunting – W.L. Finley Refuge

Once a year I take my 86 Alfa Romeo on a birding trip, usually to Oregon. My route this year, down I-5, though the Willamette Valley, up the Oregon coast and then looping back to BC, takes me past some of the best birding spots in the northwest – Nisqually, Baskett Slough, W.L. Finley, Fern Ridge, George Reifel. The car is sparkling and bright at the start, dust covered and bug plastered when I ease her into the her parking bay at home. What lingers is the remembrance of the joy of motoring through incredibly beautiful countryside, top down, listening to snatches of bird song, alive to the smell of blossoms, new hay, and the medicinal aromas of conifers — and of the wonderful birds I saw and heard along the way.

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Bittern – Fern Ridge Refuge

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Sandhill Crane – George Reifel Refuge

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Black-headed Grosbeak –  W.L.Finley Refuge

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Spotted Towhee with Caterpillars

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Red-Breasted Sapsucker – W.L. Finley

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Live Moss – Fern Ridge

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Marsh Wren – Nisqually

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Alfa Bird – Oregon