After a long birding hiatus the indoor isolation of these crazy times finally caught up with me. On a whim, I took a few hours off in the afternoon and headed down to the Whitemud Creek, for the first time in seven months.
The usual suspects greeted me along the trail – Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, Magpies and Red Squirrels. But as luck would have it there was something else in store on this day. Further along the trail, high up in a tree, I was able to discern three plump shadow hoping around on the bare branches. With the bright sky as backdrop it was tricky to make out any identifying characteristics, but it was soon evident that this was a new one. While I was ogling the suspects two other birders arrived. They too were stumped by the unidentified flying objects. I always though it would take more than a wee bit of courage for birders to admit to each other that they have no clue what bird they are looking at. But here we were, the three of us staring at these three plump silhouettes and all we were able to agree on was what it could not be. To small for waxwings or robins, too large and plump to be red polls or any other common finch. After going back and forth one of us managed to find a possible match using Merlin…, Pine Grosbeaks. It immediately dawn on me – here I am birding for the first time in seven months and I spot a lifer. More specifically #167. Later on as I was looking at my stats in eBird I realized that the previous lifer was on December 15 (one year and one day ago) at the same spot, along Whitemud Creek (a Black-backed Woodpecker).
Perhaps by coincident or perhaps through some sort of subconscious decision today, December 16, also turned out to be the two year anniversary of me starting birding. Exactly two years ago I brought my newly acquired Nikon Monarchs to my first birdingouting to the Beaver Hills Bird Observatory. It was a snowy and cold day, just like today. That was 185 checklists and 167 species ago. That day I racked up my first eight lifers.
Was the Pine Grosbeak’s auspicious timing a sign that it is time to pickup the binocular and camera again and head back into the green? Is it a sign that the time is ripe to get back to this blog. Maybe. The world has changed in the past seven months. I used to always looked forward to and plan grand trips to far-off destination, binoculars and camera in hand, hunting for new birds. These days, working from home and limiting even local outing, travel is out of the question and all these plans and dreams seem out of reach. The first big trip I did as a birder was to Chile and Argentina. The birds of southern South America blew me away (and this part of the continent is not even know for its bird diversity) and before I even returned to Canadian soil, the next trip to South America was already confirmed. We would have arrived in Chile this week…, of-course none of that happened and who knows when we can dare to dream about trips like that again.
I leave you with a snapshot from a rainy and grey day in Southern Chile. Its the day we managed to finally track down the glorious Torrent Duck. Yes, it was rainy, grey, one of us was suffering from Montezuma’s Revenge and the Torrent Ducks were tiny specks in the far distance…, yet it was one of the birding highlights of the trip. I can wait returning to the land of the Torrent Duck.
Its seems surreal that I actually have reached post 366, that it has been a whole year and that this project has now been completed. So much has happened during this year, I am one year older, my teen is different person altogether and the world has changed profoundly. I was anticipating and expecting some of these changes, others I could not have imagined in even my wildest dreams. All of this in a blink of eye. This post comes in an age of upheaval and pain with an uncertain future where the world is changing at an unprecedented rate and in unpredictable directions. The last year’s development shows the limitations of foresight we humans are capable of. So much for trying to be well-informed and staying ahead of the curve.
I will be scaling back my blogging and quite likely the nature of the posts will change as well. Stay tuned for my reappearance here or somewhere else on the interwebs. I have plans that are forming, but not yet ready to see the light of day. Rest assure, however, that my focus will be creating something beautiful and timeless like a sliver of light dispelling the darkness, even if only momentarily, that has enveloped the world.
In the Whitemud Ravine one often comes across ravens around the orange pipeline that crosses the creek close to the Snow Valley end. Last spring the several raven couples even tried to build stick nests on the pipeline. None of them seemed to be successful, however. The other day I caught a raven sitting on the catwalk railing above the pipeline. Is it staking a territory? Is its choice of vantage point just a matter of a good view? Who knows why the ravens enjoy the pipeline.
What is black and white and red all over? Both Hairy an Downy Woodpeckers unfortunately. I like this picture because it nicely shows the feature that distinguished the Hairy Woodpecker from the almost identical Downy Woodpecker. The bill in the Hairy Woodpecker is chisel-like and nearly the same length as the head. In contrast the bill in the Downy Woodpecker is dainty and noticeably shorter relative to the width of the head. Its not, however, always easy to see the bill as it usually is facing the tree trunk, that is why I like this picture.
On our walk along the Whitemud Creek we came across a Red Squirrel that seemed to be just resting on a tree branch. Our presence did not bother it. Even when I slowly walked up to only about 5 feet away it did not budge. It did not seem to be afraid or worried, it just sort of was in a restful position and was eyeing us with equanimity. Squirrels along the trail are used to people so many of them are completely desensitize to human presence.
The forest was filled with excited buzzing trills. It was a familiar sound, yet I could not put my finger on who was making it. Fleeting fast shadows passed between the tree tops overhead. I was still stumped. I had it on the tip of my tongue…, until my teenager triumphantly declared “Look, Bohemian Waxwings”. Indeed, there must have been a few dozen Bohemian Waxwings gorging themselves in on berries in a tree on the bank of the creek. One can never grow tired of waxwings, Bohemian nor Cedar Waxwings. Just as stunningly beautiful they are charismatic and gregarious chatter boxes that love to eat berries and the occasional good intoxication. In these times of “social distancing”, Bohemian Waxwings represent the complete opposite behavior. You will never find a waxwing on its own and typically you will hear them long before you see them. Nothing a like beautiful bird to brighten up ones day in these gloomy and anxious times.
So finally we have reached the end of the official winter season. Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, at least astronomically speaking. While the landscape remain snow covered and the creeks and rivers frozen over the forest is changing. You can hear and see the changes. There is more bird song carrying through the forest, the Great Horned Owls are nesting, and today we saw our first Canada Geese flyby in many months. We had finished our walk along the Whitemud Creek and were heading back to our vehicle. As we were crossing the parking lot, out of nowhere, three Canada geese swooped in. Circled overhead, almost as if they were looking for a place to land, and then decided not to land and disappeared over the tree tops.
Yesterday’s post was about an audacious and carefree Black-backed Woodpecker. Well, today’s post is about the damage he caused. The picture shows the “trail of destruction” he left behind. On our way back the woodpecker was gone but the handiwork of his activity was clearly visible. The woodpecker’s strategy seems to have been to focus on peeling the bark off the pine tree and then “dig” deeper at promising locations under the bark. This seems like a pretty effective strategy for a smaller woodpecker. Larger woodpeckers, such as the Pileated Woodpecker, typically seems to focus more on digging deeper into the tree, which makes sense considering their substantially larger size.
We had just spotted two glorious Pileated Woodpeckers having a feast in a stand of old growth trees. As we continued walking down the trail we met another birder. As good birding citizens we shared birding intel. We told him about the Pileated Woodpeckers and he informed us that there was a Black-backed Woodpecker just off the trail just around the bend in the trail.Sure enough. The little fella was hard to miss. At a tree trunk, right off the trail, at face height there it was – a male Black-backed Woodpecker. With its black back and yellow head patch it was unmistakable. It was busy feeling the bark off the tree in big chunks, clearly with its mind set on finding a morsel to eat. This was clearly a woodpecker on a mission and it was not the least bothered by the five gawking humans standing just a few meters away. The careless attitude of woodpecker never ceases to amaze me. A defining characteristics of most woodpeckers I have encountered in these neck of the woods is their complete absence of shyness. They really just could not care less about a human standing mere feet away checking them out.
Last weekend we went by the Great Horned Owl nesting site in the Whitemud Ravine. Since the beginning of March the female has been in her cavity every day with the male perching high up in a nearby pine tree. This time, however, there was not sight of the female in the cavity. It is unlikely that the female would leave her tree, particularly during the day. A quick scan of the nearby trees revealed that the male was sitting in the same spot where I saw him the previous week. It is even more unlikely that the male would be there if the female would have left the nest. I concluded that the female indeed must have been in the nest, but quite likely was hunkered down inside the cavity making it impossible to see her from the outside. Based on our experience from last year nesting it appears that the cavity is quite deep as it was able to accommodate the large female and two sizable chicks.