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.