Friday, September 9, 2016

A NS Big Day - Part 2

We left Wolfville over the 100 species mark. 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.

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 focused 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. For a bunch of dudes, I actually think our communication skills were half decent!

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 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 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 and final 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 Part 3, the last push!

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 PrĂ©. 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.


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.

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.

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!!!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Flammulated Owls and a birding itinerary.

Dominic Cormier. Present. Tim Sneider. Present. Fueled up Nissan? Birding beers? Personal birding itinerary for the Okanagan written up by Russ Cannings? Check, check and check.

Let's get this party started!!!!!!!!!!!!

The summer is on, and so are the adventures! Me and Tim are working together in Revelstoke this summer but with some days off, it was time to hit the road in search of owls and whatever else Russ could get us on.

We drove into Penticton to crash at the Cannings' residence, a home that has seen its fair share of famous birders stay there, Steve Howell and Paul Lehman come to mind. Now it boasts two more birding luminaries after our nights stay.

Up at 4:30 we hit the road. Our first stop was Shuttlecreek Rd. where the Ponderosa Pine gives way to Larch/Spruce forest and a boreal feel. Lewis' Woodpecker and Pygmy Nuthatch were our prime targets and with little effort we saw both. Chilling with them were Western Bluebird, Western Tanager, Say's Pheobe, Spotted Towhee, Calliope Hummingbird and others. So far so good!

With high hopes we hit the more boreal zone, hoping to spy one of the most sought after woodpeckers in North America, the Williamson's Sapsucker. Quickly our luck ran out. Try as we might we could not find one. The splendid Western Larch remained void of sapsuckers. Tooting like owls, playing the calls, and scratching at trees with suitable nest holes did nothing. The day was getting on. It was time to switch focus. We had intel on a Boreal Owl box which needed checking. With deft skill I scaled the tree only to find the box empty, back to the Willy search. Finally I catch a glimpse of a female in the distance, but before I could get the scope it was gone. Frustration was setting in. After 6 and a half hours looking we conceded defeat.

Setting out further south we followed Russ' wise plans, adding Okanagan specialties like White-throated Swift, Canyon Wren, Black-chinned Hummingbird and Yellow-breasted Chat to our list.

Gray Flycatchers? No problem, we even found a nest!

In the hills east of Osoyoos, there is also the possibility of the White-headed Woodpecker, but with our luck so far with the woodpecker family we didn't linger long to search. Back up into the larch/spruce forest we were set on Great-gray Owl. And not just any one, but a nest.

Setting foot into the quiet forest we peered into the gloom of the canopy. After a false start or two there it was. And wouldn't you know but a baby Great-gray was even poking its head out of the top of the nest. Not many people have the fortune of witnessing a adult feed its young a mouse, but we were cashing in some karma coins and reaping the benefit. The female fed the young while the male continued his watchful vigil over the surrounding fields for more prey to feed the ever demanding young.

 "Preik". Whoa that sounded like a Williamson's Sapsucker! Could it be, and where's Tim? The woods remained silent. Finally I decide to go investigate. I quickly spot Tim beckoning through the forest. He had found a nest in a large snag and had watched as the male and female Williamson's switched incubation duties. Unfortunately, though I remained there for over an hour they did not reveal themselves. With dark setting in and still under the eye of the female Great-grey we left only to have the male delivering a parting call from within.

We awoke with hopes of a Black-throated Sparrow in the little sagebrush habitat that BC has to offer. Lark Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow reined supreme but we could not find the black-throat. With the wind howling we took shelter in a cave. One must always be weary when entering caves as they are seldom unoccupied. Thankfully this cave was not the front porch to a goblin city but a geocache and like a wise sage I left any future occupants a message.

In the end the quest was not in vain for Tim in fine form spotted us a Western (Pacific race) Rattlesnake. This particular one was an immaculate juvenile and we corralled it with great deft and cunning.

Ah but the itinerary kept us going ever onward, though no where did it say risk our lives climbing a massive cliff, which we of course did with great gusto and intense concentration when there was nothing but our own guts and glory between the top and potential Chukar glory and an impending death below.

We survived and even made it back to Penticiton where Dick showed us one of his famous Flammulated Owl nest boxes which happened to have a female sitting nice and pretty on some eggs. Incredible and quite surreal to climb up a latter, lift the lid of a box and see one of North Americas most elusive and tricky owls!

Sun burnt and weary we high-tailed it back to Revelstoke eager for our next adventures and the unexpected.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Part 6 - Mt. Lewis

This was it. Golden Bowerbirds would put out of mind the sweat drenched nights camping, the Chowchillas would make us forget our over-drawn bank accounts and the Blue-faced Parrot Finch would be a good substitute for the Gouldian Finch that would not be seen on this trip.

All those cans of beans that we ate to sustain us would be worth it once we saw the birds of Mt. Lewis!

The hills calling our names
So it was with great anticipation that we set out that morning up the mountain. The cleared valley soon gave way to tropical forest as we diligently took our Hyundai up the dirt road. We stopped to observe Thornbills and Gerygones work the canopy, and the Bassian Thrush poke around the shaded road edges. Our main targets still remained higher up so we hopped back into the car and continued on.

Not too long afterward we spied some birdwatchers enjoying some Thornbills and Gerygones of their own. Out we got; introductions were made, battle plans laid out. Joy of the time and space expressed, and with it, espousal of the glory of the natural world. Many generations older then us, our 3 new companions nevertheless shared our passion for our feathered friends, and showed to be be young at heart.

All was good with the world until about 500 meters farther along the road. In its endless fury across the land, the wind had wrapped a young but promising tree in its fluid grasps and cast it across our path.

If we had been alone that would have been the end. We carried neither axe nor saw, and would have left before we had even begun. Thankfully, our new friend John, with his elderly wisdom had a small hatchet and modest hacksaw in his jeep.

Wielding the hatchet, I tore into the tree with a great fury, not to be denied the joys that the mountain offered. Limb by limb the road cleared. All took turns hacking, sawing and dragging away. Pretty soon, what looked like an impassable barrier opened up. Experience combined with youthful energy had done it. We were able to pass, though slightly more sweaty and that much more determined!

As we made our way up, we began to pass little grass clearings in the forest, the home of the Blue-faced Parrot-Finch. Ever watchful, we saw many finches, but of the Red-browed variety. With John's group pushing on ahead, I saw a green flash but couldn't stay on it. Surely a our query, but we would have to continue on. Not much longer and in a much wider clearing we got our birds. Flitting through the grass they were a delight for our road weary eyes.

Red-browed Finch
With no beer, or champagne, or even a pineapple to feast on to celebrate, we began a hike into the forest to try and find the remaining endemics of the Atherton Tablelands.  Tooth-billed Bowerbird, check! Chowchillas, check! Land leeches, yeah land leeches. Those buggers had a nasty little knack of creeping into your shoes magically, or feasting on your leg before you were able to wise-up to their nefarious dealings. One particularly sneaky individual got on my toe in my shoe, and when I accidentally squashed it simply walking, my shoe filled with blood and remained slick and gross for the rest of the day.

But I digress, this is about birds not leeches right? So we continued along hoping we'd get a Golden Bowerbird, the crown endemic of the land. Alas it was not to be. Our best efforts would not suffice this day.

Back at Kingfisher Park, we decided to stake out the little stream in hopes of seeing one of Australia's most enigmatic creatures, the Platypus. It started off well, with many birds coming to drink at the stream, a Pied Monarch feeding its young, and a Thick-billed Gerygone nest overhanging the water. However, we were soon beset by mosquitoes, and no matter how hard we tried to cover up, they found a way to feast on our flesh. After too long waiting, we gave up. No Platypus, only the lingering sting of mosquitoes and defeat.

Pied Monarch performing some acrobatics
The highs a lows of the tropics were starting to become apparent, and with the Daintree Rainforest waiting, we would see if we were up to the various challenges in our path.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Part 5 - My 1000th bird.

 I awoke to an empty tent. Peeking my head out of the door I took in the inside of the Abattoir Swamp viewing blind. I noted that the snake that had kept us company the previous evening had departed for greener pastures. It was time for us to do the same. Our next stop was the famous Kingfisher Park which held untold promises of birding glory!

Of course this glory is only rewarded to the folks that rise early with the sun and exhibit an unquenchable determination to overcome any and all obstacles between them and their sought after query. When I went to find Nicole she had already snagged 2 lifers in Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and Blue-winged Kookaburra. Clearly I'd have to pick up my game at this most important of stages.

Rolling along the road with open fields on either side, the forest was not at first obvious tucked back from the road. Upon turning off, the park's welcome sign  and forest rose to greet us. Excitement began to build. As we inched along the dirt road to the park office, we barely had to wait 10 seconds for the first of many amazing and incredible birds to appear from the forest. We didn't need to guess at which species we were looking at; the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher was instantly recognizable with its striking colors, absurd tail feather, and its face on the park's welcome sign!

We make it to the park office despite ourselves, and hopping out, and are promptly greeted by another new bird, the cheery Pale-yellow Robin.

Still not having made it to the front door I look up to behold the exquisite Yellow-breasted Boatbill, a diminutive flycatcher with striking black and yellow plumage. I frantically get Nicole on the bird before it disappears into the canopy.

I will now pause this story to inform you, my dear reader, that the Yellow-breasted Boatbill was my 1000th bird species in life. There exists an adage in the birding community along the lines of : "No one but yourself cares about your bird list, not even your own mother." Perhaps that is entirely true, but seeing as this is my blog, I will bore you with the details and give you permission to take this moment to google the bird in question. Despite this auspicious milestone, I was not immediately aware that I had reached it, only vaguely cognizant that I was hovering around the 1000 marker. Anyway, there you have it folks, I had seen approximately 1/10 of the worlds bird species.

Back to the story. The formalities were taken care of so off we went with one of the owners, who graciously agreed to point out where there was a roosting Papuan Frogmouth. If you think the name sounds strange, wait till you see the bird. Bizarre and otherworldly spring to mind, and all together quite fascinating!

The rest of the day was quite incredible. We stalked the elusive Red-necked Crake, waited patiently for the Macleay's Honeyeater to eat its fruit offerings, and watched the comical Orange-footed Scrubfowl poke around in the leaf litter. I came within a foot of stepping on  Red-bellied Black Snake which bolted away faster then I have ever seen a snake move. Definitely a very shy snake considering its potent venom! We even outdid ourselves by having a proper shower for a change.
*Bird photos are Nicole's.*

Red-browed Crake in the undergrowth
Orange-footed Scrubfowl strutting down the road

Mr. Expert Guide also showed up to have a chat with the park owners. Our favorite Aussie birder even asked us where we had slept the night before. I still don't know why I lied, but I did. I quickly said, oh the park outside Mt. Molloy. In truth, as you well know, we had spent it in the viewing blind. I suspect he knew as well, having mentioned something about seeing our car in the parking lot after dark! Mr. I forget your name, I'm sorry I lied. I guess I felt slightly embarrassed and was caught off guard.

At least that night we had a nice patch of grass at the park to place our tents and rest up for our big day to Mt. Lewis the following morning. It promised to be a doozy. Stay tuned!

The tents!