Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Chase

There are no pictures and no recordings. No corroborators of my story or hard evidence to present. There are only the vivid memories etched into my brain, the memory of the rush and these words to remind me of one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life!

It starts out like most of my mornings this summer. I'm up before dawn to do breeding bird surveys under the employment of AMEC. This particular week, I'm at a site up in the Rainy River area of Ontario (the westernmost corner of the province).

The day is clear and warm, and I'm walking an old forest road for the second round of bird surveys. The first time around my highlight was a pair of Golden-winged Warblers foraging together oblivious to my presence. This morning I hoped for the same. Little did I know, I'd get much much much more.

Half-way through a ten minute point count, my reverie and the bird songs are interrupted by a noise coming from up the road. I turn my head in curiosity. Moments later, a buck white-tailed deer is charging down the path straight at me.  Quickly I try to think, what is it doing?! I wave my arms and clipboard in the air and call out to the deer. About ten meters away it finally catches sight of me and tears off into the woods to my right. That was weird I think to myself.

With the adrenaline running high and the sounds of the buck fading into the woods I finally understand why he was running. A wolf, yellow eyes ablaze and ears pricked, is sprinting down the path straight at me. Every hair on my body raises. Two thoughts compete in my brain; is this really happening and there are no records of wolves attacking people right? In the blink of an eye, the wolf is 15 meters away. It catches sight of me standing in its way. With a look of annoyance, it darts to the right and it follows the buck's path into the forest.

At this point the rush is incredible and would only get better. Out of nowhere from my right, a doe comes charging out of the woods almost straight at me. I could taste its fear. Never before in my life have I seen terror written so plain on any being's face. Her eyes were practically rolling into the back of her head while saliva flicked from her face. Cutting right in front of me the doe crashes through the woods to my left. With thoughts barely formed in my head, and trying to take in what was happening, the chase is joined. Two wolves materialize out of thin air! One on the path in front of me and one slightly to my left. Completely rooted to my spot along the forest path, and utterly transfixed by what is happening around me, I watch in complete amazement as the one wolf gets 5 meters from me before it realizes I'm blocking its way. With a look like 'who the hell are you', it stops, takes a little jump back and peels off to the left with its partner in pursuit of the doe. Eyes following and ears listening, the chase swings to my left and in behind me. I hear the doe putting distance on the wolves, and they let up a bit, grey shadows weaving their way through the green understory.

Thinking perhaps that was the end of it, I once again try to collect my thoughts. However, in a flash I am transported right back to the chase. A fawn, hidden in the forest undergrowth, can take it no longer. With two wolves set on blood, the terrified beast comes bolting out of the woods straight at me. As it lands its feet on the path, it swerves behind me and back into the woods. Being between the fawn and the wolves, they do not pursue. At that same moment, something up the road catches my eye. I look up and see a new wolf, bigger then the others staring at me. What it was thinking I'll never know, but as quick as it had appeared, it disappeared. Turning back around to see where the other two had gotten, I see nothing. The woods are silent and still once again.

Only at this point do I become fully aware of the adrenaline and blood pumping through my body. Thoughts of utter disbelieve and exhilaration float into my head and my spirit is lifted to an incredible height. Hands shaking, birds forgotten I try to collect my wits. I check my watch. Still 2 minutes left on my point count. Could that have only been a little more than a minute? It seemed like an eternity. As water flows around a rock in the midst of river, so too did the chase flow around me. In all my years of tramping through woods and meadow, beach and mountain, I've never had an experience like this one. To observe a chase is one thing, but to be a part of it is another. To see the look on each animal's face and to feel their fear and excitement is incredible.

As I walk off along the road, all I can think of is how very lucky I am!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Where are you Red-breasted Sapsucker?

After successfully seeing the Emperor Geese, me and Tim knocked off the following birds in quick succession; Anna's Hummingbird, California Quail, Pacific Wren, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Marbled Murrelet, Rhinocerous Aucklet, Black Turnstone, Pelagic Cormorant and Northwestern Crow. With exhaustion competing with excitement, we left the coast and headed through the Cascade Mountains. Our target birds were Varied Thrush, American Dipper and Red-breasted Sapsucker. We had already tried numerous times that day for the sapsucker and we were starting to wonder if it actually existed. At one stop called silver forks, instead of birds, we were greeted by a Washington State Trooper. Thankfully, he was nice and let us off with a warning! To be fair we were only going 60 km/h but it was a 40 zone unbeknownst to the driver Tim! The day continued without the birds though driving into the Cascades was quite spectacular. The peaks were still snow capped and one could not help but feel at peace up in the mountains.

With the afternoon waning, we pulled down a mountain road which would be our last chance for the sapsuckers. As we were driving down the road I see two geese in a small pond and tell Tim to pull over. They were only Canada Geese, but as is often the case when birding, when you stop for one thing, you're rewarded with another. Sure enough, out of nowhere a male Red-breasted Sapsucker flies across the road and lands on a favorite tree of his to drink sap to his heart's content, and leaves me to enjoy its beauty to my heart's content.

 With our spirits raised we drive to the end of the road to turn around but spy a pristine mountain stream and think perhaps a dipper could be about. Sure enough we were not mistaken, as Tim quickly spies an American Dipper up the stream. For those of you who do not know what a dipper is, I'll explain. They are passerine birds (small feathered types) which dive in the water like a duck or seabird. In the case of the American Dipper, they eat aquatic larvae and salmon eggs in the rushing mountain streams with ease and grace. This particular individual did not disappoint.  With daylight going and a spectacular day behind us we made our way into the Mountains north of Cle Elum to attempt some owling (and no not that weak sauce trend of perching on man-made structures and taking a picture of yourself). Our primary target was the endangered Spotted Owl but any owl would do. To sum up our evening and early morning in the words of Tim, "It was an abysmal failure!".

Beautiful male California Quail

Of Emperor Geese

My flight arrived at 10:30pm in Seattle on April 21st. As I exit the departures area I spy Tim at the baggage claim. He looks deep in thought. Dom he says, there are 2 Emperor Geese at Dungeness Bay, we have to go. Clearly we did! The Emperor Goose is usually only found in Westren Alaska and across the Berring straight in far east Russia. Lucky for us two had overwintered in coastal Washington and were still being seen as of a week prior. With my bag in tow, we were rushing off to try and catch a ferry to Puget Sound and on to the Bay where we hoped to car camp and rise with the sun and the geese. 
Slipping through Seattle, we got the last evening ferry just in the nick of time and enjoyed a cup of tea thanks to Tim's jet boil on the deck of the ferry as we crossed. We eventually arrived at the bay at 2 am. We promptly enjoyed a candlelight bean dinner in the car (super fancy I know!) and fell asleep. In the morning the bay was there to great us and I had my first taste of the pacific northwest.

Dungeness Bay in the morning

Olympic Mountains rising up to greet us

Out on the bay there thousands of Brant but we could not see any sign of the alaskan visitors. Having never been to the Pacific Northwest before I was delighted to get a number of lifers first thing in the morning including Pigeon Guillimot, Black Oystercatcher and Glaucous-winged Gull. With the Bramt still swirling around the bay by the thousands we decide to drive further along to another lookout in hopes that the Emperors would be there. As we start scanning around, Tim says hey Dom, look in my scope. Intrigued, I peer through and behold two beautiful geese. We had found them! With the Olympic Mountains rising up behind us we enjoyed the geese, as well as lots of shorebirds, a male Eurasian Wigeon and the joy of two old friends birding together after more than a year!

Emperor Goose magic!

There are two Emperor Geese in the middle of this photo, can you spot them with their white heads?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Across the American West

It happened in a flash. One minute I'm wallowing around in GTA waiting for my job at AMEC to start, and the next instant, I'm on the greyhound bus headed to the Detroit airport for a flight to Seattle. The reason? My old swashbuckling companion Tim Sneider was embarking on a road trip from Victoria to Ontario and in need of a partner in crime to explore the coast and mountains of Washington, the sage country of Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, the grasslands of Wyoming, the Black Hills and the Badlands of South Dakota, the prairies and then of course the shitty states in between there and Ontario. Our targets were birds, mammals, open country, and the open road. Our fuel was beans, beer, quesadillas! What we had was our own little Wild America adventure!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Beginning

This post will be what I hope is the first of many as I attempt to share my adventures with whomever would like to join me in my travels and discoveries. My inspiration for this blog comes from various friends who keep blogs of their own, but also because the more I travel and the older I get, I seek to share some of the wonderful experiences I've had lest I forget them myself!

 As a kid, my passion for nature had me pouring through my trusty set of animal encyclopedias, watching Nat Geo nature documentaries borrowed from the library, and watching the birds in my backyard. Now this passion has me tramping through the muskegs of Northern Ontario, sweeping the Texas Coast with close friends, living out of an old Nissan traveling across the American West, and zipping to new continents to snorkel the great Barrier Reef, climb Mount Doom, and discover the Amazon! I am a birder and a naturalist, seeking birds and other wildlife in all these places in the hopes of being delighted, awed, inspired and connected to the planet and all its inhabitants. In particular, I want to see and hear the birds of the world, learn their secrets and delight in their lives. They are amazing creatures, delicate yet hardy. Some travel thousands of kilometers each year to follow food abundance or to avoid the onslaught of winter.  They are beautiful, from the almost comic red green and blue of the Painted Bunting, to the cryptic browns of the American Woodcock. They sing to awaken the world, and fill forest, meadow and beaches with song, laughter and beauty. Everywhere you go, birds are there if you choose to notice. They are your constant companions and link to something entirely non-human made. They are my passion, and these are the tales of my searches to find them. Perhaps I will see every bird, or perhaps not. My hope is that in the process I see the world and its various beauties, meet its people, and come to know and understand our planet's vast natural areas and landscapes.

In the words of the wise... Bird on!!!