Archive for Canada
The new Winging It is “up” at the ABA website. Most of this issue is devoted to materials produced by young birders, which explains its very high quality, but a couple of us oldsters sneaked in there too, me with a brief piece about what to call purty duckies.
Alternate? Basic? Winter? Summer? Breeding? Non-breeding?
And what on earth is that weird-looking bird in the center, anyhow?
I’ve never really believed that getting there is anything like half the fun, but the 90-minute ferry ride from Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, to Grand Manan may yet convince me. After a dank and foggy drive from Saint John, the clouds lifted as we boarded the boat, and soon enough there were birds aplenty: Great Shearwaters skimming alongside, Atlantic Puffins flopping into panicked dives, Northern Gannets soaring glistening white against the sky and the water. Black-legged Kittiwakes, the first we would see of those natty little Arctic gulls, welcomed us as we turned the long corner around Swallowtail Light to land in North Head.
The next morning started what would quickly become our birding routine.
A pre-breakfast hour and a half at The Whistle, Pettes Cove, or Swallowtail would give us a first taste of the migrants that had made landfall the night before, while seabirds worked the rips just offshore. On most mornings, Great and Sooty Shearwaters were the most conspicuous species flying north up the Maine Channel, but we also watched large feeding boils of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Herring Gulls, often enough with a jaeger or two among them. One of the most impressive sights of the week was a Pomarine Jaeger running down a Great Blue Heron a good mile or more offshore; for an agonizing few minutes, it looked as if the heron would be forced down into the sea, but eventually the pirate lost interest and the heron flapped slowly towards land.
Early on in the week, we ran across numbers of recently arrived migrant passerines on these early morning outings. The low scrub around The Whistle was often alive with Cedar Waxwings and Black-throated Green Warblers, and even on mornings without notable landfalls, we still encountered impressive flocks of Red-breasted Nuthatches tooting from the cone-laden tips of the conifer branches.
Our first morning at Swallowtail produced two buzzing Dickcissels, which paused for a few minutes before taking off again over the Bay of Fundy. Even, or perhaps especially, roadsides and quiet driveways could be filled with birds; one morning found us simply standing still on a lane near the ferry slip, watching hordes of warblers, sparrows, and a Philadelphia Vireo hunt their way through a small, undistinguished ash, henceforward to be known as “the magic tree.”
With all those tasty, tired migrants around, we weren’t surprised to see good numbers of raptors, especially Merlins.
The “jumping-off point” of South Head hosted at least five individuals late one afternoon, where they flashed through the sky, spectacularly harassing American Kestrels and each other. One morning at The Whistle, an especially intent little Merlin chased a Cedar Waxwing right up to the low wooden deck we were standing on—and then, without a moment’s hesitation, shot right under the deck to come out the other side, taking our breath away but giving the waxwing just enough time to escape.
These and our other early morning adventures were followed by breakfast back at our hotel—and then it was out for another four or four and a half hours of birding. When it seemed that passerine numbers were high, we often returned to Whistle Road and the Alexandra Park area for more warblers; the parking lot for the Ashburton Head trail was also very good as the sun warmed the trees. On other days we birded Castalia Marsh, the one Grand Manan site everyone has heard of. All in all, the marsh was less productive than its reputation might have suggested, though we did find an American Golden-Plover and our only Bobolink here; a Western Kingbird was on the early side for that regular fall vagrant, and the first of the species ever recorded on our WINGS tour.
Another first, a fine adult Laughing Gull, was at The Anchorage Provincial Park, a site that improved with each successive visit.
The little sewage pond—an obligatory stop, as all birders know—sheltered American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal, and our only Swamp Sparrow chipped, loud and sweet, from the cattails.
Long Pond and Great Pond were favored spots for loafing and bathing Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, joined by small numbers of wigeon and Ring-necked Ducks. The short, level trails here led into some beautiful boreal forest, damp and dark, and from the upper picnic area we could watch Common Eider, gulls, and Red-necked Grebes just offshore.
After lunch at our hotel, we usually ventured farther south on the island. The Thoroughfare, where Audubon crossed from Ross Island to Grand Manan on his 1831 visit to the Bay of Fundy, gave us some of our closest looks at shorebirds, including excellent comparisons of the shapes and feeding behaviors of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; here, too, at low tide, we encountered the only mosquitoes of the week. Red Point was, aptly enough, the gathering point for Red-necked Grebes, several of which were still showing the bright rusty necks of breeding plumage.
We spent two bright, calm afternoons out on the bay aboard The Day’s Catch. For those of us used to long, dull hours of steaming out to where the birds might be, these five-hour pelagic trips were a revelation: hardly had we left the dock when we started to see Common Eider, Bald Eagles, Black Guillemots (most of them “white guillemots”), and Northern Gannets—and soon enough the real seabirds appeared.
Masses of Great and Sooty Shearwaters followed the boat, and small, shy Manx Shearwaters shot across the water. Once we were far enough out, flocks of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels pattered along the horizon, and on both trips we got close looks at the uncommon Leach’s Storm-Petrels with their nighthawk-like flight.
The real avian prizes on these trips, though, were the skuas. Both days gave us great views of mean and massive South Polar Skuas, almost buteo-like in their size and power. This species is a rare and infrequently recorded visitor to the Bay of Fundy, and we were very fortunate to see it, and to see it so well.
Not even the most single-minded birder can ignore sea mammals. Our first pelagic trip produced good sightings of Fin and Humpback Whales, but the second trip was the occasion for some of the best whale watching we’d ever experienced. In addition to no fewer than 15 Fin Whales surrounding the boat, a Humpback Whale waved and splashed at us for a quarter of an hour before finally showing its impressive flukes and diving.
Even that show was outdone by a mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale, diving, surfacing, and spouting near the boat; with a population of not even 500 individuals, these knobby-headed cetaceans are among the rarest vertebrates in the world.
Our short ferry trip to White Head Island was less exciting, but even on that quick 25-minute ride we saw many of the marine species we were quickly becoming familiar with; a juvenile Razorbill was one of just three of that species we found all week. Our target, however, was not a seabird at all. Once common on Grand Manan itself, Boreal Chickadees are now very hard to find on that island, and persist in numbers only in the stunted boreal forests of the smaller members of the Fundy Archipelago.
It took some searching on a fine, bright morning, but with some help from the locals, we finally ran across a flock of Black-capped Chickadees and warblers that also contained about five Boreals, wheezing their way through the wet spruce tangles.
Birding time is different from other time—it’s faster. Almost before we knew it, we were sitting in the line for the ferry back to Blacks Harbour. It was another beautiful morning, bright and calm, and Black-legged Kittiwakes dotted the water as we swung around Swallowtail Light. Getting there just may be half the fun—but going back will be the other half.
Creston, BC, is east.
Maybe not all year long, but certainly in the breeding season, the beautiful marshes and woodlands of southeastern British Columbia are full of sights and sounds that remind me more of New England and the Midwest than the Rockies.
Alison and I stopped briefly Friday morning on our way out of mapleland; rolling down the windows as we turned off the highway, our ears were filled with the caroling of Red-eyed Vireos and the homely chirping of Least Flycatchers. A Nashville Warbler sang from the slope, and the roadsides were haunted by elegantly plumed, electric-voiced Eastern Kingbirds.
Best of all? The song par excellence of New England bogs, the rich, low-pitched, gurgling chant of Northern Waterthrush.
To Alison’s slight disappointment, we never so much as glimpsed the singers, but just hearing them was enough to prove that we’d left the true west behind–and so on to Arizona.
I’ve still seen more ursids in New Jersey than anywhere else in the world, but this weekend, British Columbia suddenly and startlingly became the only place I’ve ever seen two species of bear.
I was eight hours late arriving in Vancouver Friday morning, a circumstance that combined with the drizzle to more or less put paid to our plans to bird the Okanagan that day. Instead, we drooped in at our motel in Osoyoos and had a good night’s sleep before starting out early the next morning for Nelson.
We’d seen a couple of black bears in Manning Park on Friday, but not until nearly Castlegar did we glimpse another dark shape on the roadside Saturday afternoon. Alison: “That’s a … !” And so it was, a great mother grizzly bear daintily carrying the better part of a deer across the highway, her big shaggy cubs right behind her.
They settled in right on the edge of the forest, the mother keeping watchful eye on the watchful humans as the yearlings gorged on venison.
When we arrived in Nelson that evening, we casually showed Walter and David the photos of “a couple of bears” we’d encountered–and enjoyed their widened eyes almost as much as the sight of the grizzlies itself.
I knew that yesterday would be my last birding day in Vancouver, so Daniel and I set out at dawn to see what we could see. It turned out to be a great day, with excellent looks at six owls of three species: Barn, Great Horned, and Barred, plus a few migrants here and there.
But nothing could match the first notable bird of the day.
On a tip from David, we headed straight to Burnaby Mountain. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the parking lot, we heard it: the almost inaudibly low-pitched hooting of a male Sooty Grouse. Walking along the clifftop, we knew that we were not only close to the bird–close enough to tell when it moved its head–but perhaps even at something like the same elevation; but long minutes passed as we stared into the dark tree tops.
Just as we were about to resign ourselves to yet another purely aural encounter, a rush of wings announced the arrival of the bird on a bare broken branch just yards away. It looked around a couple of times, then started to boom–five, sometimes six deep, owl-like hoots, softer and louder as the bird directed its voice towards us, then away.
It was obviously a matter of great exertion to make such a sound. The bird leaned slightly forward, puffed out its belly, then its breast, and the tail vibrated with each emanation. The combs were visible, but the neck sacs remained almost entirely covered by feathers the entire time.
After nearly half an hour of watching, I muttered something about not even wishing for a better look. The grouse took my speaking as its cue to fly towards and between us, landing on the green lawn and strolling a couple of feet into–get this–a bed of daffodils, where it plucked at the flowers for a few seconds before something, probably an introduced eastern gray squirrel, flushed it; it flew back across the fence and down the cliff, landing somewhere out of sight.
This was the first Sooty Grouse I’d ever actually seen, and to watch it boom and perch and fly and feed was almost overwhelming–and a wonderful way to say goodbye to Vancouver.