Tuesday, October 25, 2016

From the Vault: Spotted Owl

September 5, 2013
"One does not simply walk into Mordor." Indeed! Nor does "one simply go to British Columbia and see a Spotted Owl."
The immense weight of entering the land of Sauron that laid so heavily on Frodo and Sam begins to rest with me as I write. While I am of course not going into Mordor to destroy the one ring and save the whole of middle earth, I am on a quest to find Spotted Owl, the last true sentinels of a world that once was, in the province of British Columbia. At the moment, both seem equally as daunting, especially with less than 20 individuals left in the wild.
So why would I embark such a seemingly ill-fated quest? Because folks, I am a man possessed, seeking the elation that only comes from moments where nature's hidden beauty is revealed to those that choose to look. 
With the owl's imminent demise in Canada looming, this is my shot. I procured some good intel within the ranks of those in the know. I had wheels thanks to my old swashbuckling companion Tim and his trusty Nissan Sentra, and of course the determination to venture forth in pursuit of those mysterious wraiths of the old growth forest.
So venture forth I did.
The location lay thirty-four kilometers off into the wilderness. The trail to gain access to their domain was but a mere footpath, overgrown and neglected. With steadfast determination I stepped down on the dirt track, soon to be transported to the world somewhere between here and there that comes with solo hiking in the wilderness; abstract thoughts blur with the surroundings like a dream. The first night I chanced upon another solo traveler out in the woods and we shared a tale or two by a damp fire. Rising strong, I plodded onwards constantly being checked by the neglected trail. As night time approach on my second day, I arrived at the spot. With the sun setting, and burning with anticipation for that glorious hoot to reveal the presence of a Spotted Owl, the breadth of the task I was undertaking hit me.
I had it on good authority that the owls could be found within a stretch of 3.5 km, give or take 1 km off in a perpendicular direction from the trail. In the dark, with a trail nearly impossible to follow in the daylight, that would be quite the task, I despaired. I realized that I would get lost within a second should I venture from the path. Of course with a GPS, it would have been no problem, but such a tool was not at my disposal. Nonetheless I had to try, so carefully I crept along the trail, listening and hooting at various intervals. Miraculously I made it back to my tent having covered the 3.5 km without straying, but I did not find the anticipated owls. In the blackness of the night I reflected; often something seems so simple from afar yet once you near the ultimate goal, it always seems that much harder, an impossible task.
Empty-handed, I did not have the guts to venture back out. Fear of losing my way held and I went to sleep.
At 4:30 am I arose. I would attempt it again. Still dark, I set out. I immediately lost the trail and became sopping wet and snagged in the horribly over-grown vegetation. I would not get far that morning and I knew that I would not have a chance encounter with any Spotted Owls that morning. With the arriving light I re-found the trail and returned to my camp defeated, faced with the following choice: Stick around a whole day and make another attempt at night or power out right then and there and make it to the next possible spot by nightfall. I chose the latter, and already being past 8 o'clock in the morning I trekked out. It took me seven hours and 15 minutes to cover the 34 kilometers, no small task. Up and down I went, slashing through the overgrown trail, scurrying across scree slopes and braving the devil's staircase. I strode with purpose, intensity and speed. I did not falter. Perhaps it will be the greatest hiking feat of my life. Only time will tell.
At the parking lot, the Sentra was waiting. I had a two-and-a-half-hour drive to my next destination. I made it before nightfall, and with systematic precision I owled the logging road. But the woods were silent. The sound of the rushing creek in the distance was all I heard. From the side of the mountain I looked up at the stars. What secrets do you hold I wondered? Why do I do what I do in the great vastness of the universe? What compels me, a simple human, to be there at that precise moment to look up and ask those questions. And what do the owls think? Does a Spotted Owl look at those same stars and have strange thoughts of its own based on its own understanding of life and of itself?
The next day, being today where you find me writing, I have driven to my final destination. The sound of thunder echoes in the distance, but blue skies peek out overhead. Will this night be the night?

Epilogue


The thunder roared out its warning, and the rain fell. For 3 hours I steadfastly held to the believe that I would hear a call through the rain. It did not come. That was the end. There would be no Spotted Owls on that trip, and perhaps I will never have the chance to see one in Canada. The world is ever changing. The march for “progress” and everlasting growth blunders on at the expense of things which should last for time immortal, the mighty forests to which the owls call home. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Nova Scotia Big Day - The Full Tale

Part 1

Trying to explain the premise of a birding big day to a sensible person gets you nowhere in a hurry. Hopefully anyone reading this is of the non-sensible type and thus we can get through this in one piece.

Myself (Dominic Cormier), Avery Bartels, David Bell and Lucas Berrigan had planned a Nova Scotia Birding Big Day for the end of May. We would be attempting to see as many bird species as possible in a midnight to midnight 24 hr period in the province of Nova Scotia; the goal, to surpass the record of 145 species set by Clarence Stevens Jr. et al. in June 1999. A big day can be a punishing test of physical and mental endurance birding non-stop for 24hrs, often with little sleep. Big days are usually prefaced with a full pre-Big Day scouting mission adding insult to injury. Our proposed route invited incredulity; an ambitious path that would take us from Amherst down to Upper Tantallon, then on to middle of nowhere N.S, the Valley, Digby, Pubnico, Cape Sable Island, and our final resting place for the evening, Bon Portage Island. For those not familiar with Nova Scotia geography, it is mildly demented, trust me.

Crazy or not, the wheels were set in motion on Friday May 27th when Avery, Lucas and I left Bon Portage Island where we were doing field work and made our way to Wolfville. The following morning, Dave came and picked us up bright and early for a full day of pre-big day scouting. Birding hard throughout the day, we made it to the Beaubassin research station in Sackville NB that evening, did some last minute planning, showered, and attempted some shut eye before the beginning of our big day.

Ok enough preamble.

My alarm sounded at 11:30 pm May 28th, 2016. I had slept perhaps an hour and a half, but did not feel too fatigued. In relative silence, the four of us gathered our things, snagged the food from the fridge, loaded into the van and headed off to Amherst Point Bird Sanctuary where we would try for some night-time flight calls, marsh birds, and owls. 11:55 pm, we are on the highway mere minutes from our destination. Trooper’s “Raise A Little Hell” comes on the radio and our spirits rise. That’s right, “Raise A Little Hell”, sometimes the stars just align perfectly, we were going to be raising some birding hell! 11:57 pm, wait……. yup… shit!!!… flashing blue lights behind us. The PoPo! I guess the stars weren’t all that well aligned.  “Are you serious, 115 km/hr is not speeding” exclaims Dave the driver. Well, it is if you’re in a construction zone, albeit an unoccupied one at midnight. With ticket in hand, we managed to arrive at our destination only 5 minutes behind schedule.

 *** The ticket was one minute before midnight, thus we engaged in no illegal activity on the actual big day in question. I have photographic proof if anyone has their doubts. ***

What about birds? Well here goes. Dave had had shorebirds present the night before, but none were to be heard in the wee hours of the morning.  With zero species at our first stop, it was at this point that Lucas realized he had forgot a key element of a birding big day, his binoculars! Could we have scripted a more tragic debut? We would have to backtrack to Beaubassin, but not before a last listen for the perennially cute Northern Saw-whet Owl and the timberdoodlin’ American Woodcock, along with any other possible bird carving tracks in the night sky at the end of May. As we hop out and I am closing the door, my tripod, which was poorly positioned in the vehicle, prevents the door from shutting. As I attempt to re-arrange a few things in the front seat, Dave and Lucas hear our first bird of the day, a night flying Grey-cheeked Thrush giving its distinct flight note. Of course, I missed it. All it took was 30 seconds of fiddling in the van and that was one species down that we wouldn’t all get on our shared list. Unbeknownst to the four of us, this would become a trend throughout the day, where not all in our birding party would get a particular species. A distant and expected Canada Goose became our second species, but no luck on anything else. With time already moving doggedly and predictably forward, we made our necessary detour to collect the forgotten binoculars and moved on. 

For the next hour or so we stalked the Amherst Sewage Ponds, and Eddy and Amherst Marshes. Lurking like foul creatures in the sewage ponds, we spotlighted dabblers and shorebirds, seeing such goodies as Semipalmated Plover (rare for time of year), Least Sandpiper, Northern Pintail, and a pair of vocal Killdeer (our only ones of the day). Arriving at Amherst Marsh, the air was oddly hushed. American Bitterns and Wilson’s Snipe, which are normally very vocal were silent. We even had to coax the Sora and Virginia Rails to call. A brief squeak, barely a whisper, from a roosting Black Tern was missed by the two older-timers (me and Avery – 28 years old) but heard by the two younger more sharp-eared birders (Dave and Lucas – 24 years old). After lingering as long as possible, we rolled into Eddy Marsh where once again the bitterns and snipe were still. A walk through the night-drenched marsh vegetation left us wet, but we heard the nesting Marsh Wrens, and enjoyed an encounter with a family of River Otter beneath the moonlight sky. This big marsh at night was oddly serene and provided some nice peace in what would otherwise be a rather hectic day.

With the Marsh Wrens bagged, we stopped at Dave’s Short-Eared Owl spot. In order to stay alert, I had drunk a fair bit of water, and in what would be a frequent occurrence during the day, I had to step away to relieve myself. This was of course the moment when the Short-eared Owl chose to call. We now had a dilemma. We were missing bittern and snipe and I hadn’t heard the short eared. Our schedule had us leaving at that moment and so we did. In retrospect we should have tarried and cut out our next night stop, Barr Settlement. This stop was planned as it was on-route and because last year it had hosted an Eastern Whip-poor-will, a species that would be a Nova Scotia lifer for all of us. While the ride was uneventful, so to were the woods at Barr Settlement. We had to leave empty-handed, always conscious of the time. We wanted to make Tantallon with the beginning of dawn. I did pound back a full bag of beef jerky to keep things interesting.

On the drive, the three of us invariably started to doze off while Dave diligently kept us going. I do remember saying something like, turn here… take Hammond’s Plains Rd. When Dave roused us we were approaching our destination, Hiking Trail Road. This area is a network of well kept logging roads that run through Bowater Mersey lands and are well used by recreators (is that even a word?) from the city. It was here we would get the bulk of our forest birds for the day. No worse for the wear, and with light in the sky, we started adding species. Swainson’s Thrush, White-throated Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Common Yellowthroat, Alder Flycatcher. Still in semi-obscurity, a woodcock scatters, followed closely by another whirring passed our heads. Dave’s sharp ears pick up a Common Nighthawk and we all turn to spot it flying into the approaching daylight. Light now starts to chase away the night, and the woods become alive with song. Like pupils diligently replying to roll call, the common species start flying on to our day list: Mourning Dove, Winter Wren, Magnolia Warbler, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher gives its far carrying whistles, while the ethereal songs of thrushes fill the space around us. In the mix, a Lincoln’s Sparrow sings. As the last moments of dawn give way to the first rays of sunlight above the horizon, two Barred Owls make their presence known. The race is now one!

For the next hour, we snake our way up the logging road periodically stopping along the way. A brief bog excursion produces Gray Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Boreal specialists Bay-breasted and Cape May Warbler are heard, but the latter’s song too high pitched and distant for Avery’s hearing. A drumming Pileated Woodpecker assures that we will not miss this easily missed species, and our familiar friends the American Redstart, Purple Finch, Black-throated Green Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler fill the airwaves.

Soaking up the dawn. Photo: Dave Bell
With the morning drawing on, we hightail it back to the highway, our list plump with most of Nova Scotia’s coniferous forest birds.  A few blank spaces remain on our checklist, notably in front of the names of Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker, and no grosbeaks or crossbills had caused our heads to turn skyward in response to their pervasive flight calls. We also missed one of my personal favorites, the surprisingly scarce Northern Waterthrush, and no raptors were spied that did not support a red tail.

Nonetheless, we were feeling good. A hodge-podge of snacks and drinks are passed around as we keep a close eye on the tree tops and skies whizzing by. Common Raven. Check. American Black Duck. Check. Blue Jay. Check.

We arrive at East River near Chester only ever so slightly behind schedule. The time is 7:48 AM. In what was a rather lamentable ten-minutes, we bolted down a cycling path to scan the river for Common Merganser with no luck. Alas, that was our only known spot for that species and we would not see another one during the day. Continuing onward, we took the little traveled highway 14 which goes across the province from Chester to Windsor. Here it was that we hoped to round out our boreal style birds for the day. As we pulled off onto a rarely used overgrown dirt path, a Nashville Warbler sung on queue, and arriving at a beaver pond, it is not long before a pair of Rusty Blackbirds made their presence known. Focused as we were, we could not find the pair of Hooded Mergansers that had graced the pond the day before, but a flock of chattering White-winged Crossbills flew overhead just in the nick of time!

It was now time for the valley, where sprawling agricultural fields, deciduous woods, and marshland would add a whole new suite of species to our already promising day. Unwittingly, the valley would also precipitate an increasing time differential between our planned route and our actual one.

The command centre. Photo: Lucas Berrigan
At our first stop in Falmouth, we added our only Chesnut-sided Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Pheobe for the day, but the minutes were dragging on and a small navigation error on my part put us another 4 minutes behind. To make matters worse, Avery went below the bridge to see if he could spy the Eastern Pheobe (it called 2 minutes later) just as three Evening Grosbeaks flew overhead, adding another partial species to our day list. Continuing, we cruised the UNESCO world heritage site of Grand Pré. I don’t think the pioneering Acadians had “making good gull habitat” in mind when they created fertile fields by diking the surrounding marshland, but pastoral intentions aside, Grand Pre is great for gulls. Out in the fields, those pesky larids were congregated, and a very late Glaucous Gull along with a couple of juv. Lesser Black-backed Gulls had us in high spirits. We viewed those two species as “bonus” birds for the day in accordance with our highly detailed and specific scouting report. A scan of Evangeline Beach proved well timed as a Semipalmated Sandpiper (very rare in spring) flew by and we scoped what we thought would be our only scoters of the day. The birds were distant but appeared to be Surf. We left at 10:09 AM. Fifteen minutes behind but so far so good.

Late Glaucous Gull. Photo: David Bell

As an objective observer, I have to say that the next hour was somewhat of a mess, our big day novice badges shining bright. We had failed to pin down a Merlin nest in our hometown of Wolfville, and made a shot in the dark stop at the reservoir for non existent Veery. Had we known there were Veery to be had down in Yarmouth county, we could have cut out a painful and time consuming run down the Kentville Ravine to get them. At least we had a good chuckle watching Lucas sprint through the woods atop a steep slope while the rest of us cruised along a well travelled path! Novice badges in hand, we stopped for Great-crested Flycatcher and dipped (not surprising given no one had seen or heard the pair outside of dawn and dusk). At least the staked out Baltimore Oriole and Canada Warbler at Miner’s Marsh were quick and easy, and we avoided any unpleasant traffic (I swear Wolfville takes the prize for “most traffic ever” for a small town in Canada). We even managed to avoid talking to anyone; no time could be wasted talking to mere plebs, non-initiates into the madness that is big day birding.

With many sites of brief duration, this leg had a real whirlwind feel to it. It was also in this whirlwind that Avery and I missed, for the second time, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. One had called that morning along Hiking Trail Rd. which we did not hear, and one called again in Port Williams that was drowned out by other bird song.

With the next leg of our journey a straight path down the valley, we ended our morning having cracked the 100 species mark and comfortably on our way to big day glory.

Part 2

Wolfville was in the rear-view mirror. Our list numbered over the 100 species mark and we were feeling fly. Dave thought it would be a good idea not to count our total anymore, leaving our effort in suspense for the rest of the day. In hindsight this was probably not the best strategy as we could have prioritized certain spots over others had we known our total later in the day. C’est la vie.

With our innards being filled by sandwiches deftly crafted by Avery, we made our first stop of the afternoon at Clairmont PP. Calling this small pine stand wedged between farm fields and small communities a provincial park might be a bit of a stretch, but in previous years it had hosted breeding Pine Warblers, a rare breeder in Nova Scotia. Leaning out of the windows and the open door of the van like drunk hooligans, we slowly drove the loop listening intently for our favorite pine specialist, binoculars clutched in our hands in lieu of beer. While we did not get Pine Warbler, I enjoyed our little loop; there is just something about driving around with half your body leaning out of the vehicle that revives the spirit.

Our next stop was also for just one species, another scarce breeder in Nova Scotia, the Vesper Sparrow. This time it was “veni, vidi, vici”. Easy peasy, and not a second wasted.

Vesper Sparrow peeking through the fence. Photo: David Bell
It was now time for our scheduled 10-minute pit stop in Bridgetown. This involved gassing up, using the bathroom, grabbing a bite to eat if need be and scoping the nesting Cliff Swallows under the bridge right behind the gas station. While we were no F1 pit crew, we kept the stop to 10 minutes and arrived at Belleisle Marsh not too long afterwards.

Belleisle is a beautiful network of marshes along the Annapolis Basin and a spot that deserves more than the cursory ten minutes we gave it. With the far carrying calls of the Greater Yellowlegs invading our senses, we were able to locate the nesting Willow Flycatchers. Bobolinks sang from the fields, a song which softens the most hardened of souls, and for the naturalists of old, moved them to prose: “It is as if he touched his harp within a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the trembling strings (Thoreau).” I can just picture Thoreau waxing poetic in a tweed jacket, pipe and notebook in hand. Sans tweed jackets or pipes notwithstanding, we still enjoyed the “bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne (Bent)” while focussed on efforts to locate a lingering American Coot. These brief efforts were unsuccessful, and the snipe and bittern once again remained quiet. Well perhaps not quite. According to eBird, the other three heard a snipe call, but that species remains conspicuously absent from my checklist - I'm a good birder I swear!  As we were driving out, a Hooded Merganser flashed across the van. Easily seen by the two in the front seat, one of the back seat passengers missed it. I am actually surprised that this didn’t happen more often during our day, as car flybys are easy to miss.

I should note that at this point we still only had Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle and Turkey Vulture for raptors. The day before we had scored Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin and American Kestrel no problem, but today we were running out of time. An overcast sky wasn’t helping things and coupled with the fact that we had yet to see an Osprey and a Ring-billed Gull a slight feeling of panic took hold inside my gut. Trust me, no one wants to finish a big day minus an Osprey and a Ring-billed Gull. No one!

So it went that after Belleisle came the French Basin Trail, another marsh full of life. A lingering Bufflehead and a singing Wilson’s Warbler whose insistent trill just barely pierced through the cacophony of Yellow Warblers put our minds at ease; we were still adding species at a steady pace despite running behind schedule, and I even briefly forgot about the Osprey and the Ring-billed Gull. As we headed to our next stop, the Ring-billed Gull drifted back into my consciousness and I finally voiced my concerns aloud. We were headed to Digby and I said, “look dudes, we need an effin RBGU, Digby has to have one by the water or something… if we don’t get one soon we could totally miss it for the day.” My companions didn’t seem too concerned, but perhaps after 32+ hours of being awake (minus the 1.5-hour nap at Beaubassin), communication was starting to fall apart.

The town of Digby is an unassuming hamlet renowned worldwide for its delicious scallops, but we were not there to sample those delicious fruits from the sea. On a serious note, Digby has a bunch of tourist trap restaurants so do your homework beforehand if you want to eat there; I’ve learned the bland, mediocre, soul-crushing hard way. However, unlike the food, Digby delivered in a HUGE way on our big day and we rode that high until the bitter end. Here is how it unfolded. The key was a seawatch at the Point Prim lighthouse just outside of town. This was Dave’s idea and kudos to him, because in a fifteen minute seawatch we scoped some Razorbill, a Common Murre and two Red-throated Loons. We then managed all three scoter species in in the bay and the reliable House Finches on Montague Row were, well, reliable. Still no Ring-billed Gull though. Damn gulls. However, as Avery was packing the scopes up I saw Lucas staring dumbfounded into a tree. A quick look into the tree revealed a female Scarlet Tanager. As I try and call Dave and Avery over it flies off into a yard. Dave managed to see the bird fly away but Avery did not. Despite Lucas’ lapse in communication, he immediately made up for it in one of the deftest displays of communication I have ever seen (I am dead serious!). The tanager had flown into someone’s yard, and as we peered into it to see if the tanager was still visible, a friendly looking elderly women smiled and walked over. Her property was well stocked with bird feeders and shrubs. “What are you seeing”, she asks. “A Scarlet Tanager,” replies Lucas.  “No you didn’t, those are cardinals”, she replies bluntly. I was tongue tied and did not know how to respond, however Lucas worked his magic. He somehow was able to convey all our knowledge about birds, our familiarity with cardinals and tanagers, the finer points of the id of all the birds present in her backyard while pointing them out to her, explain that we were doing a big day, and get her feeling lucky about the fact that her yard had just hosted a Scarlet Tanager. Amazing! Her incredulity dissipated, we made merry, her husband came over for a brief chat, and we were on our way. 

Back in the van, everything onward is somewhat of a blur. While Digby was unequivocally a success, we were now well behind schedule, and the 33+ hours were taking their toll. The drive to the next spot on our never ending list of stops for the day, took us through lots and lots of forest. This was basically one of our last chances to get our missing raptors. I also had to pee REALLY badly, as did a few others for that matter, and so we pulled over on the side of the highway. While enjoying a quiet moment in nature, the unmistakable song of a Veery drifted our way, totally negating 25 minutes of effort in Wolfville. Next big day we’ll plan to get our Veeries along that stretch of road but at that moment, we just had to suck it up and move on. 

At Mavillette Beach, we had thoughts of epic rarities, and three additions to our day list: a newly returned Nelson’s Sparrow, a recently spotted Brown Thrasher, and an unseasonal Purple Sandpiper. Too pressed for time, we only managed to hear the Nelson’s Sparrow (Avery couldn’t hear it over the wind) and we saw or heard nothing else of note. This also ate into our eventual time to spend on Cape Sable Island where the bang for the buck is much higher. A foolish move and one that will be dropped should we do another big day. At least between Mavilette and Pubnico we FINALLY managed to see an Osprey. Who knew it would take until 4:18PM of a full day of birding to see our provincial bird. I sure didn’t!

Man this narrative is dragging on, so just imagine the actual day. Plus, the afternoon had turned very dark and sombre, making it feel like the end of the day was just around the corner, and probably suppressing the birdlife somewhat.

Anyway, much like I will summon my energy to keep recounting this tale in the next part, the 4 weary birders summoned their strengths with the waning day, still buoyed by the success in Digby, but beginning to be keenly aware that time was running out and that the last hooray was just around the corner. 

Stay tuned for the last push!

Part 3

And so the last push began. Our stops were - Pond Rd in Pubnico, Overton (Yarmouth), Cape Sable Island and finally Shag Harbour to catch our boat ride to Bon Portage Island.

If there was one guarantee on our big day, it was Pubnico. From the shore at Pond Road, the tern colony of the Brothers Islands is visible through a scope, with Common, Arctic and Roseate Terns coming to and fro. These terns are harder-to-find species that are simply not missed if you bother to show up in good weather. Pond Rd. also had an added bonus in the form of a long staying Little Blue Heron. Driving up, we all turned expectantly towards the pond, hoping to glimpse the white form of the juvenile Little Blue Heron. Luck was with us, and we easily spotted the wayward wader who wandered hither from the south.

Little Blue Heron. Photo: David Bell
This was also a moment of note for another reason. As birders, we keep lists of the birds we see. Some are important (our life lists), others sentimental (childhood backyard), others tongue in cheek (while h***** s**). Recently, Dave and I had begun a friendly competition for our home and native land, Canada. As a bluenoser, Little Blue Herons are a regular occurrence for me. Dave on the other hand, despite gracing our province since 2013, had yet to see one in Canada. Ok, a bird he should have seen by now but didn’t, so what? We all have those nemesis birds. True, but the lack of Little Blue Heron was symptomatic of something else. Despite birding Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick like a fiend, and finding rare birds left right and center, Dave could not find or twitch a new Canada bird for his list for a good long stretch. I’ve seen bad birding luck, but this was garbage, a genuine curse. Of course, with one fell swoop, it was gone. Our big day had brought Dave out of Canada lifer purgatory and he has since added six more to his Canada life list, slowly creeping ahead of me in our “friendly” competition.

As the boys set up the scopes to scan the colony, I take a brief moment off. Returning to find them actively scanning the colony, I spy a lingering female Long-tailed Duck calmly riding the waves, unseen by their concentrated faces. Quite satisfied with this unexpected addition to our day list, I work on getting the obligatory views of the scarcest of the terns, the Roseate Tern. As I try to pick out the white upperwing flashes in the melee of swarming terns, a gull draws our attention for a moment. It’s a ringer! The bird causes some mild excitement, but undeniably “mild” is the highest order of excited I have ever been to see a Ring-billed Gull. Perhaps one day I’ll be in Peru, China, or Australia and find the first one for that country and the excitement level will surpass this day, but for now, “mild” was as good as it gets. Returning to the terns, I am finally satisfied with my views of a few Roseates and away we go. Miserably behind schedule, we decide to make only one stop in Yarmouth. We had originally planned on trying to chase down both a Red-bellied and a Red-headed Woodpecker but that was completely out of the question. Instead we take a direct route to Overton where we hope there will be a Snowy Egret or two politely waiting for us. We should have known better that Snowy Egrets aren’t polite. With time fully dictating our birding, we made our way to the penultimate stop of the evening, Cape Sable Island.

Taking a break while Dave scopes the Little Blue Heron in the background. Photo: Avery Bartels

We had hoped to spend a minimum of an hour and a half on CSI where the birds can be quite plentiful, but all we managed was a measly 25 minutes. Now I must confess that I thought I knew how the tide schedule worked for the shorebirds at “The Hawk”. According to the charts, high tide was at 4:19 pm, and I thought that when we got to “The Hawk” two hours and ten minutes after later, the mud would be nicely exposed and teeming with a diverse array of shorebirds that had made 2016 an exceptional spring shorebird season in Nova Scotia. Alas, imagine our collective dismay when we pulled up and saw the flats still firmly covered in water. I was utterly crestfallen. What we thought would be a veritable bonanza of Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher and Sanderling (all seen that morning) did not come to pass. We were left feeling empty, scrounging for the breeding American Oystercatcher and Piping Plover, and the common migrant Black-bellied Plover with the little time we had. Completely unsatisfied, we made the briefest of stops at Daniel’s Head in case an obvious Jabiru, Roseate Spoonbill or Western Reef Heron was kicking around undetected and unreported. Not likely my friends, not likely.

At least we had the foresight to order some pizza and garlic fingers, a personal east coast favorite of mine, to be picked up in Barrington Passage on our way to catch the boat over to Bon Portage. Grabbing the pizza, we met Lee at the wharf right on schedule, and we were soon chugging across the channel to the island. The shame I felt from our poor showing on CSI was covered up by the food. The feeling when that hot greasy garlic goodness hits your stomach after a long day is something to cherish. Embrace your carnal instincts folks, devour the food without shame. Almost maniacal at this point from lack of sleep, I still spun the yarn with Lee and Gerry like a true Maritimer. If you ever want some spice in your life, a visit to Shelburne County might do the trick, especially if you’re interested in hanging around folks with nick names like Marsha Mudturtle, Douchebag Dan and Dicky Eyeball, just to name a few!

Destroying the grub. Photo: David Bell

Now to tell you how it was supposed to be, Bon Portage was the feather in our cap in what we hoped would be a record breaking big day. Off limits to most, this island which is owned by Acadia has been my home for a large part of my masters, and has been known to have a few good birds every once in a while, as well as a few mainstays that are not easily encountered elsewhere.
The skies were a bleak grey by the time we hit shore, casting a sense of gloom over the evening. We had some very clear targets. We needed to look for the Summer Tanager that had been present around the cabins up to the 27th, encounter the breeding Fox Sparrows, and then head to the lighthouse for a seawatch finale - seawatching is a birding term for the act of birding the ocean from land, usually done with a scope and from a sheltered position if the winds are up or you are in the middle of a hurricane.

The hoped for Summer Tanager. Photo: Avery Bartels
By this point in the ordeal, are brains are mush, and decision making skills non existent. As we wandered aimlessly around the cabins, I finally laid my foot down and rallied the troops to the seawatch before the light waned. It seemed the tanager was long gone and the Fox Sparrows were just not singing. Arriving at the lighthouse, we settled in with our scopes like old pros, as a distant Fox Sparrow began to sing. Avery doesn’t pick it up over the wind, and in my madness I suggest he go run off to find it. What a terrible decision - never break up the group! With Avery gone, a Sooty Shearwater cuts across the waves, and Dave starts scoping puffins arriving at their distant but visible breeding colony on Green Island. In a panic, Lucas runs off to go find Avery. Eventually they return but Avery had not heard the sparrow and we still needed to get everyone on the puffins and shearwaters. With Lucas scoping the puffins, I continue to frantically scan the ocean for another shearwater. The light starts to wane in earnest and the ocean appears lifeless. Then in the gloom, Avery mutters a mixture of jaeger and confusion, for it is not a jaeger, nor a gannet, but what is it? Something in between? Why yes! Dave quickly fills the brooding silence - guys I think its a Booby! My mind explodes, the blood pressure rises and I quickly try to get on the bird. For you see, I was still intently looking for a Sooty Shearwater to ensure it would be a bird on ALL of our checklists, not just a few, and I had not turned my scope toward the bird when Avery called. Scanning across it wasn’t hard to pick out the bird in question. Well shit… a Booby indeed! “Avy baby” Bartels coming up BIG!

While quite far, and in sombre light, the bird was still quite distinct. My notes are summarized in the following ebird checklist...

- http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S29986372 

... and Dave’s notes are here.

- http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S29986370.

The difference in viewing is easily attributable to Dave’s superior tripod head, for mine is slightly loose and gives the image a slight shake at high magnification. This may seem like a trivial matter, and for the most part it is easily overcome, but in this case it really did matter with the low light and high zoom. Note to self, buy a new tripod head!

I now must interrupt this narrative with some listing semantics. If you don’t give a hoot about crazy birder listing rules skip over this paragraph. As you may have noticed in my eBird checklist, I have the bird down as booby sp., and Dave as Brown Booby. Confident in his ID, I didn’t get enough detail to be sure it was a Brown Booby, though the other possibility, Masked, seems rather unlikely given both what I saw and the current plethora of northward Brown Boobies in the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the bird went down officially as booby sp. for our big day. This has, and is sure to raise some heckles with birders on whether you can officially count a spuh (read – the bird was either species A or B but neither species A or B were seen in the day so the bird represents at least one new species). Some would count that, others not. In this case we counted it and carried on.

Reeling from the booby, and intently discussing what we had just seen, the day came to close with a dark grey curtain washing across the sea. Stumbling back to the cabin, we made one last ditched effort to hear a Fox Sparrow to no avail. Despite adding Sooty Shearwater, Atlantic Puffin and Fox Sparrow on the island, we could not count them towards our final tally as we had not all seen/heard them. Back at the cabin, we took stock of the situation, caught our breath and returned out into the night one last wretched time.

Leach’s Storm-Petrel cover the island at night in the tens of thousands, their ghostly shapes flashing by the beams cast by our headlamps, which left us with one final quarry for the day, the Great Horned Owl. In what can only be described as pure mockery, the resident pair of owls did not utter a hoot. Frequently heard pronouncing their vespers around the cabins, not even a whisper could be heard in the night sky. Wasted from fatigue, we nonetheless stumbled through the darkness, all energy reserves directed towards our ears, hoping without real hope that we would hear the owls if we penetrated deeper into the island. Unrelieved of our pain, and not being able to stand anymore, I cast myself down in the dirt. The minutes ticked on in the breathless darkness, Dave still determined, blasted owl cries from his phone in the hopes the owls would be tricked by his electronic mimicry. At some point, I imagined the far off cry of something turned Great Horned Owl, and so we plodded along the beach stone to the southend like lost souls, the eerie laugh and cries of the storm-petrels filling the space around us. The southend held no answers and so ended our big day, not with a bang, but an exhausted sigh into our pillows. The most stout-hearted of our crew, Dave sat outside till the bitter stroke of midnight, though I know not whether it was with any hope, or simply out of pure stubbornness.  

The End.

Photo: David Bell


Actually, just kidding! You probably have a lot of questions that need answers. Had we broken the record? Did we have fun? Did it really go down the way I said it did? Was it really that miserable? What were the totals? What did we miss? Any highlights? Would you do it again?

1) Yes we broke the record (well only if we count the booby sp.).

2) Hell yeah it was fun. 

3) I left out a few things; acting like a mad pirate while sticking grapes in my eyes, our brief attempt before the last owl hunt to try and count up all our species for the day and figure out who exactly had seen what, when Avery ALMOST missed Ruby-throated Hummingbird for the day, Dave HONESTLY not speeding once (he didn’t want another ticket, and as a side note, I’m sure this is actually the only big day ever done where the participants didn’t break the speed limit), me actually eating TWO bags of beef jerky, and an infinite amount of other things that I forget but that Lucas, Avery and Dave will feel were an essential part of our Big Day experience.

4) No. I like to give a slight self-deprecating feel to my stories. After all, its only birding!

5) Shared total – 139 species, Dave - 156, Lucas - 149, Dominic - 148, Avery - 142, and total using ABA rules - 146.

6) Common species missed by all - Common Merganser, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Kestrel, Merlin, Northern Waterthrush, Red Crossbill. Species not seen by everyone - Northern Pintail, Sooty Shearwater, American Bittern, Least Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Atlantic Puffin, Black Tern, Short-eared Owl, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Cape May Warbler, Nelson's Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Brown-headed Cowbird, Evening Grosbeak.

7)      Garlic Fingers


... in a heartbeat.



The Crew

Dominic Cormier aka "The Dominator" - Navigator and Raconteur.

David Bell aka "The Squid" - Driver and Bird Whisperer.

Avery Bartels aka "Big Poppa" - Time/List Keeper and Swashbuckler
Lucas Berrigan aka "Wild Eyes" - Ebirder and Vagabond


The route with straight paths between stops.

And the official list!




Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Nova Scotia Big Day – Part 1

Trying to explain the premise of a birding big day to a sensible person gets you nowhere in a hurry. Hopefully anyone reading this is of the non-sensible type and thus we can get through this in one piece.

Myself (Dominic Cormier), Avery Bartels, David Bell and Lucas Berrigan had planned a Nova Scotia Birding Big Day for the end of May. We would be attempting to see as many bird species as possible in a midnight to midnight 24 hr period in the province of Nova Scotia; the goal, to surpass the record of 145 species set by Clarence Stevens Jr. et al. in June 1999. A big day can be a punishing test of physical and mental endurance, as you bird non-stop for 24hrs, often with little sleep. Big days are usually prefaced with a 12-hour-birding scouting mission the previous day to add insult to injury. Our proposed route invited incredulity; an ambitious path that would take us from Amherst down to Upper Tantallon, then on to middle of nowhere N.S, the Valley, Digby, Pubnico, and Cape Sable Island before our final resting place for the evening, Bon Portage Island. For those not familiar with Nova Scotia geography, it is mildly demented, trust me.

Crazy or not, the wheels were set in motion on Friday May 27th when Avery, Lucas and I left Bon Portage Island where we were doing field work and made our way to Wolfville. The following morning, Dave came and picked us up bright and early for a full day of pre-big day scouting. Birding hard throughout the day, we made it to the Beaubassin research station in Sckville NB that evening, did some last minute planning, showered, and attempted some shut eye before the beginning of our big day.

OK enough preamble.

My alarm sounded at 11:30pm May 28th, 2016. I had slept perhaps an hour and a half, but did not feel too fatigued. In relative silence, the four of us gathered our things, snagged the food from the fridge, loaded into the van and headed off to Amherst Point Bird Sanctuary where we would try for some night-time flight calls, marsh birds, and owls. 11:55pm, we are on the highway mere minutes from our destination. Trooper’s “Raise A Little Hell” comes on the radio and our spirits rise. That’s right, “Raise A Little Hell”, sometimes the stars just align perfectly, we were going to be raising some birding hell! 11:57pm, wait……. yup… shit!!!… flashing blue lights behind us. The PoPo! I guess the stars weren’t all that well aligned.  “Are you serious, 115 km/hr is not speeding” exclaims Dave the driver. Well, it is if you’re in a construction zone, albeit an unoccupied one at midnight. With ticket in hand, we managed to arrive at our destination only 5 minutes behind schedule.

 *** The ticket was one minute before midnight, thus we engaged in no illegal activity on the actual
big day in question. I have photographic proof if any one has their doubts. ***

What about birds? Ok here goes. Dave had had shorebirds present the night before, but none were to be heard in the wee hours of the morning.  With zero species at our first stop, it was at this point that Lucas realized he had forgot a key element of a birding big day, his binoculars! Could we have scripted a more tragic debut? We would have to backtrack to Beaubassin, but not before a last listen for the perennially cute Northern Saw-whet Owl and the timberdoodlin’ American Woodcock, along with any other possible bird carving tracks in the night sky at the end of May. As we hop out and I am closing the door, my tripod, which was poorly positioned in the vehicle, prevents the door from shutting. As I attempt to re-arrange a few things in the front seat, Dave and Lucas hear our first bird of the day, a night flying Grey-cheeked Thrush giving its distinct flight note. Of course, I missed it. All it took was 30 seconds of fiddling in the van and that was one species down that we wouldn’t all get on our shared list. Unbeknownst to the four of us, this would become a trend throughout the day, where not all in our birding party would get a particular species. A distant and expected Canada Goose became our second species, but no luck on anything else. With time already moving doggedly and predictably forward, we made our necessary detour to collect the forgotten binoculars and moved on.

For the next hour or so we stalked the Amherst Sewage Ponds, and Eddy and Amherst Marshes. Lurking like foul creatures in the sewage ponds, we spotlighted dabblers and shorebirds, seeing such goodies as Semipalmated Plover (rare for time of year), Least Sandpiper, Northern Pintail, and a pair of vocal Killdeer (our only ones of the day). Arriving at Amherst Marsh, the air was oddly hushed. American Bitterns and Wilson’s Snipe, which are normally very vocal were silent. We even had to coax the Sora and Virginia Rails to call. A brief squeak, barely a whisper, from a roosting Black Tern was missed by the two older-timers (me and Avery – 28 years old) but heard by the two younger more sharp-eared birders (Dave and Lucas – 24 years old). After lingering as long as possible, we rolled into Eddy Marsh where once again the bitterns and snipe were still. A walk through the night-drenched marsh vegetation left us wet, but we heard the nesting Marsh Wrens, and enjoyed an encounter with a family of River Otter beneath the moonlight sky. This big marsh at night was oddly serene and provided some nice peace in what would otherwise be a rather hectic day.

With the Marsh Wrens bagged, we stopped at Dave’s Short-Eared Owl spot. In order to stay alert, I had drunk a fair bit of water, and in what would be a frequent occurrence during the day, I had to step away to relieve myself. This was of course the moment when the Short-eared Owl chose to call. We now had a dilemma. We were missing bittern and snipe and I hadn’t heard the short eared. Our schedule had us leaving at that moment. We decided to push on. In retrospect we should have tarried and cut out our next night stop, Barr Settlement. We planned this stop because it was on-route and because last year it had hosted an Eastern Whip-poor-will, a species that would be a Nova Scotia lifer for all of us. While the ride was uneventful, so to were the woods at Barr Settlement. We had to leave empty-handed, always conscious of the time. We wanted to make Tantallon with the beginning of dawn. I did pound back a full bag of beef jerky to keep things interesting.

On the drive, the three of us invariably started to doze off while Dave diligently kept us going. I do remember saying something like, turn here… take Hammond’s Plains Rd. We were roused as we approached our destination, Hiking Trail Rd., no worse for the wear. This area is a network of well kept logging roads that run through Bowater Mersey lands and are well used by recreators (is that even a word?) from the city. It was here we would get the bulk of our forest birds for the day. With light in the sky, we started adding species. Swainson’ and Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrow, American Robin, Common Yellowthroat, Alder Flycatcher. Still in semi-obscurity, a woodcock scatters, followed closely by another whirring passed our heads. Dave’s sharp ears pick up a Common Nighthawk and we all turn to spot it flying into the approaching daylight. Light now starts to chase away the night, and the woods become alive with song. Like pupils diligently replying to roll call, the common species start flying on to our day list: Mourning Dove, Winter Wren, Magnolia Warbler, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher gives its far carrying whistles, while the ethereal songs of thrushes fill the space around us. In the mix, a Lincoln’s Sparrow sings. As the last moments of dawn give way to the first rays of sunlight above the horizon, two Barred Owls make their presence known. The race is now one!

For the next hour, we snake our way up the logging road periodically stopping along the way. A brief bog excursion produces Gray Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Boreal specialists Bay-breasted and Cape May Warbler are heard, but the latter’s song too high pitched and distant for Avery’s hearing. A drumming Pileated Woodpecker assures that we will not miss this easily missed species, and our familiar friends the American Redstart, Purple Finch, Black-throated Green Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler fill the airwaves.
With the morning drawing on, we hightail it back to the highway, our list plump with most of Nova Scotia’s coniferous forest birds. Of course blank spaces remain on our checklist in front of the names of Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker, and no grosbeaks or crossbills had caused our heads to turn skyward in response to their ubiquitous flight calls. We also missed one of my personal favorites, the surprisingly scarce Northern Waterthrush, and no raptors were spied that did not support a red tail.

Nonetheless, we were feeling good. A hodge-podge of snacks and drinks are passed around as we keep a close eye on the tree tops and skies whizzing by. Common Raven. Check. American Black Duck. Check. Blue Jay. Check.

We arrive at East River near Chester only ever so slightly behind schedule. The time is 7:48 AM. In what was a rather lamentable ten-minutes, we bolted down a cycling path to scan the river for Common Merganser with no luck. Alas, that was our only known spot for that species and we would not see another one during the day. Continuing onward, we took the little travelled highway 14 which goes across the province from Chester to Windsor. Here it was that we hoped to round out our boreal style birds for the day. As we pulled off onto a rarely used overgrown dirt path, a Nashville Warbler sung on queue, and arriving at a beaver pond, it is not long before a pair of Rusty Blackbirds makes their presence known. Focussed as we were, we could not find the pair of Hooded Mergansers that had graced the pond the day before, but a flock of chattering White-winged Crossbills flew overhead just in the nick of time!

It was now time for the valley, where sprawling agricultural fields, deciduous woods, and marshland would add a whole new suite of species to our already promising day. Unwittingly, the valley would also precipitate an increasing time differential between our planned route and our actual one. More on that latter.

At our first stop in Falmouth, we added our only Chesnut-sided Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Pheobe for the day, but the minutes were dragging on and a small navigation error on my part put us another 4 minutes behind. To make matters worse, Avery went below the bridge to see if he could spy the Eastern Pheobe (it called 2 minutes later) just as three Evening Grosbeaks flew overhead, adding another partial species to our day list. Continuing, we cruised the UNESCO world heritage site of Grand Pré. I don’t think the pioneering Acadians had “making good gull habitat” in mind when they created fertile fields by diking the surrounding marshland, but pastoral intentions aside, Grand Pre is great for gulls. Out in the fields, those pesky larids were congregated, and a very late Glaucous Gull along with a couple of juv. Lesser Black-backed Gulls had us in high spirits. We viewed those two species as “bonus” birds for the day in accordance with our highly detailed and specific scouting report. A scan of Evangeline Beach proved well timed as a Semipalmated Sandpiper (very rare in spring) flew by and we scoped what we thought would be our only scoters of the day. The birds were distant but appeared to be Surf. We left at 10:09 AM. Fifteen minutes behind but so far so good.

As an objective observer, I have to say that the next hour was somewhat of a mess, our big day novice badges shining bright. We had failed to pin down a Merlin nest in our hometown of Wolfville, and made a shot in the dark stop at the reservoir for non existent Veery. Had we known there were Veery to be had down in Yarmouth county, we could have cut out a painful and time consuming run down the Kentville Ravine to get them. At least we had a good chuckle watching Lucas sprint through the woods atop a steep slope while the rest of us cruised along a well travelled path! Novice badges in hand, we stopped for Great-crested Flycatcher and dipped (not surprising given no one had seen or heard the pair outside of dawn and dusk). At least the staked out Baltimore Oriole and Canada Warbler at Miner’s Marsh were quick and easy, and we avoided any unpleasant traffic (I swear Wolfville takes the prize for “most traffic ever” for a small town in Canada). We even managed to avoid talking to anyone; no time could be wasted talking to mere plebs, non-initiates into the madness that is big day birding.

With many sites of brief duration, this leg of our day had a real whirlwind feel to it. It was also in this whirlwind that Avery and I missed, for the second time, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. One had called that morning along Hiking Trail Rd. which we did not hear, and one called again in Port Williams that was drowned out by other bird song.

The next leg of our journey was a straight path down the valley, and having cracked the 100 species mark and munching on sandwiches, I will end Part 1 here. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Act two: The King's Court and the Evening Sentinels (aka we saw Yellow Rail and Great Gray Owl!!)

Ladies and Gentleman, I hope you have enjoyed the performance thus far. Our first act entitled Baird's Sparrow Madness, featuring the charming Baird's Sparrow, has come to a close. It is now time to introduce you to the characters of tonight's second act.

Our two main protagonists, Dominic Cormier and Tim Sneider return. In this act they are joined by the most interesting, and rather elusive, Yellow Rail, and the majestic Great Gray Owl.

Dom

Tim
Act Two begins, the curtain rises. 

The farm fields fly by as Tim and Dom take the trusty Nissan Sentra north of Cochrane Alberta to Horse Creek Road and the home of the Yellow Rail. The Nissan Sentra, a marvel of Japanese engineering, will take its owner over 100 kilometers once the low fuel light turns on. This is welcome information for our protagonists, as they would take the poor car 60 kms past empty before re-fueling her for the return journey to Revelstoke.

Arriving onto Horse Creek Rd, the car slows as beautiful wet sedge meadows appear on either side of the road. "This looks good", remarks Tim. "Shall we.." tick tick tick tick tick. Their conversation is abruptly suspended as the sound of a remarkable call hits their ears, almost as if someone were tapping two stones together repeatedly. However, they both know better.

"Holy shit there is a Yellow Rail right by the road," exclaims Dom. The Sentra comes to an abrupt halt. Tick tick tick tick. The unmistakable call of the Yellow Rail is heard again. 

At home in wet sedge meadows, the Yellow Rail is a master of stealth. Rarely encountered, the bird stalks the sedge, its strange call heard only by the most trained of ears, and rarely revealing itself under the ever watchful eyes of its pursuers.

Can you find a Yellow Rail?
However, they are not taken unaware, for this is precisely what they came for. Parking on the opposite side of the road they disembark. Tick tick tick. The excitement reaches a feverish pitch. Bounding across the road they take stock of the situation. The call appears to come from 5 meters into the meadow. Having had their heads filled with tales of the improbability of seeing a Yellow Rail in the sedge, even if oneself is practically standing over it, they nonetheless walk into the ditch and prepare to climb over the barbed wire and test their mettle as self-described "ballin" birders.

Deciding to go barefoot, Tim takes off his shoe and begins taking off the second when Dom bursts out, "ITS FLUSHING". 

For one so reluctant to be seen, the Yellow Rail is a creature of immense beauty. Dappled with gold from the bill to the back, silver banners on its wings contrast with the deep black of its behind. The Rallidae clan could not find a more regal ambassador. A mighty king is revealed.  A few Soras, the jesters of the king's court, sing out, but the two birders show no interest. They are beyond disbelief. Never have they heard of a Yellow Rail being seen so quickly. "This must be some kind of new birding record!?" Tim states, a massive grin forming on his face. "Indeed! We just saw a Yellow Rail!!!!!!!!"

Climbing through the barbed wire, an epic dance begins to play out. Tim and Dom slide through the sedge. Their graceful lines interrupted as the Rallidae king, displeased by the intrusion into his domain, rises above the sedge four times, ever under the watchful gaze of the the two birders.

The moment is surreal. Neither wants it to end. The thrill, the pure awesomeness of the bird washes over them. Nature, once again, shows its ability to surprise and awe, and the two birders can't help but feel its magnificent power.

Wielding the home made rope dragger which was ditched after only 30 seconds in favor of a more graceful technique.

But the night draws near, and finally its time to head on. There are more majestic creatures to seek in the looming foothills of the Rockies. Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl are known residents of the land and the two birders want very much  to have an evening encounter before retiring to the lonely boreal woods for the night.

The Great Gray is forever in Tim's heart, and he is constantly on the look out for the gray ghost. His wit and eyes don't fail him as he spies one sitting atop a spruce sapling across a field. Unfortunately, a warning of no trespassing is writ in plain view. A conundrum has arisen.

Scoping a Great Grey Owl

Then from a modest dwelling comes the sounds of raucous merrymaking. Perhaps the merrymakers will assist the two young adventurers. Tim leads the way and they are greeted by a most peculiar person. A women of indeterminable age is getting loaded on her lawn, good old rock-and-roll blasting forth from the house. However, this women is perhaps the most foul redneck anyone has ever encountered before, decked out in a bikini top and pink fuzzy booty shorts, and all the while taking slow painful draws from her cigarette.

It was no time for chit chat. Get the info and get out!

Finally breaking away from the pain of communicating with this person, they are at least assured no one will mind them trespassing to get a closer look at the owl. And so it went. The Great Gray dazzles with its stately demeanor and ever piercing eyes. Further down the road, another!

Self explanatory!
Two Great Grays seem like enough for one night so they slip through a texas gate and into the tent, ever reluctant to allow the mosquitos to have a banquet of their soft flesh.

Sun setting in the hills.
The sun rises over the land. The tent is packed up. The two ramblers cruise back down out of the hills for one last tour of the king's court. But first, they stop for another meeting with the gray ghost. The mighty owl cares not for our two protagonists, and allows a close approach. Infinitely satisfied, they leave the owl in peace.

Majestic!!
Much like the previous evening, the Yellow Rails are calling from the sedge. Tick tick tick tick. However, they are wise to the dance of the birders, and refuse to show themselves again. Switching focus, Le Conte's Sparrows are chased down, enjoyed and let be.

Le Conte`s Sparrow

Dance in the sedge

The King`s Court guards: Wilson`s Snipe

The curtain slowly closes as the Sentra fades away, cruising the trans-can back to Revelstoke. From the car, Daft Punk's Doin' it Right drifts to the audience's ear. With it comes the feeling that much like the song says, when it comes to life, the swashbuckling companions are indeed doin' it right! 






Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Act One: Baird's Sparrow Madness

It troubled my thoughts for weeks. With every schedule change and the breeding season creeping towards an end, I was restless. Would the chance ever come? Last weekend it did, and with it a tale for the ages.

From Revelstoke to Calgary we drove, witnessing the aftermath of nature's destructive powers. The land had been savaged, for the Albertans had dug too greedily and too deep.

Was all the unrest in the land an ill-omen? After driving six hours to get there, and another whole day cruising back roads we began to wonder... perhaps it was. Doubt crept in and a nasty little question drifted into our consciousness. When is it time to give up?

When the the sun beats you down and the mosquitos mercilessly drink your blood? When you're thirsty, hungry, have a sore throat and sunburnt? When your talk of birds and babes has circulated through for a third time and the car is already looking like a waste receptacle? Never!

For you see, this was mine and Tim's quest for Baird's Sparrow.

This bird, an icon of the prairies, has been in our minds for some time. Dull to some, it captured our imagination and occupied a place in the dark recesses of our minds. We had planned it long ago. This was the going to be the summer of the Baird's and we had every confidence we would succeed.

Sibley describes Baird's Sparrow habitat thus; tall dense grass. Sounds easy enough. After all, we were heading to the prairie country of Alberta, with intel on back roads to drive where we would get them easily. Its the breeding season after all, what could go wrong?

After a full day of searching, it turns out quite a lot. Expecting something like the beautiful grasslands I had seen in South Dakota, we were dismayed to find the country around Brooks Alberta a patch work of intensive agriculture and over-grazed grasslands. Not the home of the Baird's Sparrow! We felt cheated, like the kid who buys an ice cream cone on a hot day and just as they go to take that first glorious lick, the bloody thing plops on the ground; soiled, its sweet satisfaction wrested away.

The roads we tried seemed not to fit with the aforementioned habitat. Our intel seemed no good; the few ebird points we took down as well. Our hearts were breaking. Even the old Texas standby of fried chicken, ice tea, and beer didn't seem to help (we added donuts - a Tim Special).

Fried Chicken not pictured
In desperation, we drove to Dinosaur Provincial Park. Ebird had a few recent hits on the bird, and with naturalist staff, perhaps they'd be able to set the record straight. More failure. The only good thing in our talk with the naturalist is that I used a hilarious Jurrasic Park joke about not going into the long grass. Get it??? Dinosaur park, sparrows in long grass??

 So it was that night, under the cover of darkness that we made our bed sparrowless and sad.

We somehow managed to survive the mosquito infested hell hole that night, and rose before the sun. Tim said it was to capture the sunrise over the badlands, but really I think the stench trapped beneath the fly drove him out. Being mauled by mosquitoes seemed a more favorable proposition then smelling the contents of my bowels.

Sunrise
Ancient home of Casmosaurus
The sun rose but we did not linger. We would leave the dinosaur bones unseen in the ground, for this was a quest to enjoy the living not the dead. And finally some life!  Gray Partridge on the road side, some Bobolinks in a field. Drawing our eyes from our map, we beheld mixed grassland that stretched onto the horizon. I knew this was the spot. In my heart, I knew that salvation awaited. We would taste the sweetness of the land, we would see the Baird's Sparrow.

Marbled Godwit crossing the road raising our spirits ever slightly

We hopped the barbed wire and began the search. Combing through the grass I wandered ever farther from the road and Tim. Then, in what felt like suspended animation, the world slowed and I heard a downward trinkle on the wind. Could it be? I listened harder. The sweet sounds of the Baird's Sparrow reached my ears. I broke into a run like a wild horse on an endless field. I went forth, my spirit rising with every downward fall of that short beautiful melody. I waved frantically at Tim, who thankfully, had the good grace to gaze upward and spot me. Together we crept forward and beheld a sight that I will never forget. Perched on a small sage, a creamy bellied, golden crowned, brown streaked feathered angel practically brought us to tears. We broke down in a fit of crying laughter. Drool ran down my mouth.

The bird

Our reaction
Creeping in for a close up!
Swainson's Hawk chicks right by the road!!
The chase had been one of those moments where I had let despair enter my heart, where I had questioned the reason I even bird, and even the point of life itself. Yet, seeing that sentinel of the grassland made the despair vanish. In its place was a renewed sense of wonder and joy.

I sat there on my knees in the grass contemplating life. I thought of the dinosaurs and of the creature singing before me. I thought of how the winds of time had shaped the land, bringing once great beasts to dust and bones, yet leaving their descendant, a small yet mighty creature, to stalk their ancient homes and inspire two fools of the Homo sapiens sapiens race to continue to rage on!

Raging on!!!!