Spring Sightings

First time is always the most exciting. These past weeks, I came across three sightings of something I’d never seen before. They may be common for other birders or nature watchers, but what’s important for me is, those were my first time.

From afar, I knew that wasn’t a Chickadee or a Nuthatch, albeit about the same size but plumper. I took the picture and later looked it up. It was a Dark-eyed Junco. Sure I’ve heard of the junco before, but have never come face to face with one. I further found out that it was one of the most common birds in Canada. Oh really? This was the first time I saw it, and that made it special for me. Love that tiny pink beak.

Another first-time is this photo here. Someone’s having a hearty meal, its delicate hands holding up a green shoot and chomping away. Can you guess what it is? Not a mouse:

Here, its tail gives it away… a baby muskrat. I’ve seen the adult ones but sighting a pint-size muskrat was my first time. At first I thought it was a baby beaver, but the narrow, long tail distinguishes it from the beaver, which has a flattened, paddle-like tail. Here’s a helpful page.

But the following is the most exciting find for me. In a shimmering pond lined with cattails…

I found a water bird I’d never seen before. It had a greyish white patch on its cheek:

I learned later that it was a Red-necked Grebe, breeding mainly in Canada (distribution map here). A grebe is not a duck; it doesn’t have webbed feet. I went back several times and found there were two pairs of them. I look forward to seeing their babies on their back in the coming days or weeks. I’ll be visiting them often.

Their colour features are fine and distinct, rusty red long neck and breast, with a yellow strip along their beak. Loud and distinct calls. Male and female have similar appearance.

I can’t explain it… I’m mesmerized by their serene movement, and yes, crazy calls. I’ve gone back a few times already, at different times of the day and in different weather. Nature’s calming sessions.

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Heralds of Spring

April is unpredictable. One day we have warm, sunny weather, the next there would be flurries. But the creek and pond have mostly melted. A new sound I heard a few weeks ago when I was walking by a stream, something I had never encountered before. The sound of melting: the cracking of ice, like a small firecracker had gone off.

But this is the true herald. When I saw the first robin, I knew Spring had arrived. There were many of them during my walk last week, turning the woods into a convivial nesting playground.

And up in the sky, a red-tailed hawk flew by. Sunlight seeping through its feathers:

At the bird sanctuary, the wood ducks are back, brightening up a cold morning:

But here’s what made my day: my first time sighting a Hooded Merganser. This is rare in our locale. From their range map, they’re only passing through during migration.

I often think of the female Common Merganser as having hair like Lucille Ball’s. I’ve found another celeb look-alike… the male Hooded Merganser’s hair sure has an Elvis look:

As for the female, I always find them to be more playful than the male, both the Common and now as I observed the Hooded one. Wish I’d taken a video to share. She was splashing and calling out in exuberance, while Elvis glanced back in nonchalant coolness:

Sure, shake your sillies out… Spring has sprung!

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Swans in February

Previously on Ripple, I posted pictures of song birds that stay here in the winter. The House Finches surprised me, still chirping away in -24C (-10F) wintry air. But today, as I walk along the river, basking in the balmy weather (just at freezing point), I behold an even rarer sight. Trumpeter Swans!

Normally, they fly to the south and the Pacific Northwest beginning October, but ‘normal’ is no longer a term with relevance these days. Maybe the birds already knew that. With Texas bombarded with arctic storm and sub-zero F. temperatures this week, the Trumpeter Swans must have decided not to bother months before. Staying close by the river here above the 49th at least there’s food. And, as they say, if you don’t like the weather, just wait––normally five minutes––I’ll give it a few days.

An adult Trumpeter Swan with two juveniles on the river close by the shore, unafraid of the few of us birding paparazzi shooting away.

Interestingly, two Mallards cling to the Swans closely, reminds me of the term ‘imprinting’. Parent Swan keeps an eye on them fondly. Neighbourhood watch.

Half a mile up the river, there’s another juvenile all on its own. I gather it must be a teenager, as the plumage is more white than grey as the younger ones, also for its personality. This one just wants some alone time, seeking independence. Note the black foot out:

A fruitful day of birding and workout chasing after swans.

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Which birds still sing in the deep, cold Winter?

First caught my eyes when I looked out the window were the movements of flight. It was -23C (-9F), which birds were still active in these temperatures? I could hear them chirping cheerfully out on the trees in my backyard.

House Finches are not supposed to be hanging out in this latitude, according to Audubon. But here they are, right in my own backyard, saving me a birding trip which I’d never take in this weather.

House Finches eating the remaining fruits on trees. Apparently not just for the food, but the drink. Never thought how birds in winter get their water from, since everything’s frozen. The snow, of course! Here they are taking in the snow. Not very clear picture, but you can see the snow on their beaks if you enlarge the pic. Trust me, they were feasting on the snow.

The other day, I took these photos as I saw a group of birds perched high on some tall trees in a distance. I heard their electrifying trills. Yes, Waxwings! But in the winter, the Cedar Waxwings have all flown away. What we have here are the Bohemian Waxwings, the vagabonds of birds, kind of rare for some birders located in the eastern and southern parts of North America:

They are more plump in the body than the Cedar Waxwings, but with the same spiky crest and yellow-tipped tail. Don’t have anything closer than these photos as they were so far away.

These birds still sing in -20’sC weather, plus the chickadees and the nuthatches, the downy woodpeckers too. Not to mention the ducks.

Life goes on.

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Swans on frozen lake

Half frozen or half melted? Not a trick question, or a philosophical pondering on half full or half empty. The answer is factual. By mid October, the lake was frozen already. But by the end of the month, it began to melt. So there you go, beauty in double measure, not half. As for the birds, they can handle both.

And on that half frozen, half melted lake I saw them. Thanks to some fellow birders alerting me. Who would have expected to see swans stopping by here? They must be migrating from the Tundra, flying south to the US. And we’re their midway rest stop. Just a few days of respite here in sunny (most of the time) Southern Alberta.

The following pics are from a long distance, so quite blurry. I think I saw a Trumpeter here with a juvenile. Ice on lake? No problem. It’s Nature’s dance floor. Let’s just call it a father-daughter dance here:


Here are several Tundra Swans, noting the yellow edge of the bill:

A couple of days later, I saw this solitary juvenile swan at the Pond some distance away from the lake. Not sure if it was lost. Even though just by itself, I could sense its calmness… eat some, swim some, preen some, always congenial, thoroughly enjoying the environs there. How do I know it’s a juvenile? From its greyish plumage, pink bill, and yellowish tan feet:

While I was taking its photos, I saw in a distance a group of large birds in the sky heading my way. What an opportune timing! I quickly snapped these shots as they flew over me. When I uploaded the pics, lo and behold, I saw they were Tundra Swans. This time quite clearly. The yellow patch by the edge of the bill is the distinct difference from the Trumpeter. And learned a new word to call them: a wedge of swans (in flight).

I don’t have a garden, so no canning of harvest for the winter. But these photos and sightings will be my canned treats for the frozen months ahead… yes, something like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.

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Related Posts:

Proust’s madeleine? Here it is.

One duck at a time

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

Parable of the Migratory Birds

Fall is migration season. The Pond is a stopover for avian migrants enroute to coastal NW United States, or further south to the Gulf Coast and even Mexico. This year, for some reasons, the traffic at the Pond and the adjacent lake is particularly busy, all to a birder’s delight.

October came in like a lion and out like a lamb. We had heavy snow by the middle of the month when the leaves had not all fallen off from the trees and the grass was still green. The lowest temperature reached was -18°C, that, my friend to the south, is 1°F. The water at the Pond was frozen by the third week. But after that premature winter, we were blessed with warmer days towards the end of the month, and even breaking a one day record high on Nov. 2, reaching 23°C, or 73°F.

But it’s not the temperature that interests me. What I find amazing is the variety of waterfowl converging here on their way to the south and the way they come together.

Here are some photos in the past couple of weeks. Mallards, Mergansers, and Ring-billed Gulls side by side. I think I heard Lady Merganser say: so what if my Lucille Ball hairstyle or its colour is different from yours, just let me be and swim to my heart’s delight. Whether you dip or dive for your food, these diverse avian species know how to get along and enjoy the warm sun, fresh air, and clear water:


What does it matter that a female Goldeneye is leading a flock of Buffleheads:

From the front of the line: Female Goldeneye, Male Buffleheads (wearing white hoodies), followed by two Female Buffleheads (white patch on cheek).

At a lake nearby, more migrants converged. It was a pool party of diversity: Canada Geese, Goldeneyes, Mallards, Coots, Gulls… those were just the ones I could see from afar. Only when there’s peaceful coexistence can they conserve energy for the long haul, and leisurely soak up the sun, preen their plumage, do yoga stretch, and of course, fuel up on nature’s buffet.

Thanks to other birders alerting me, that’s the first time I saw Swans here. From a far distance, I sighted several of them on the half frozen lake (or, half melting lake):


I can’t decide even after researching online whether they were Trumpeters or Tundra Swans as I was unable to see their bills from so far away, not even from the enlarged photo later. The two on the right in the picture above are juveniles as they’re greyish in colour. The one in the middle in the foreground standing on one leg is a Canada goose. Note the difference in size.

That day, I had my fill of avian sightings, albeit just watching from the shore far from the activity. The swans stood out in their sheer physical impression among all the ducks and geese, yet they were gentle and not bullies.


Maybe the migratory birds know that they’re only here temporarily, as they’re all in transit. As time is short and their presence ephemeral, might as well be at peace with each other and indulge in what they are given: Nature’s bounty, and enjoy their fill of common grace.

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Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:

Oriole

For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.  They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:

RWBB

How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

GB Fly away

GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.

 

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Spring Birding at the Pond

Here at the Pond, that is, the real, literal Pond, Spring is a busy time. I know, for some of you, Spring is so far behind as you’re deep into Summer already. I caught the following pics early this week while it was warm and sunny; yesterday was a downer, a chilly 5C (42F). But then the high came last night with the NBA game. We The North, Arti watches movies, birds, and basketball.

Now is a wonderful time to greet migrating friends coming back to nest.  Even if you’re just strolling in the woods near the Pond without intention to spot birds, you’re bound to see some beautiful creatures amidst the cacophony of chirps and songs. 

If you spot a furry ball like this up on a tree branch, don’t pass by without pausing:

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Wait a bit, and you’ll see what it really is. A baby owl preening:

Owlet waking up

A big yawn… nice, no teeth to brush:

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Here’s looking at you, kid.

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A ‘Where’s Waldo’ exercise: All in the family. Well, not all, some. How many owls can you see here:

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Alright, enough spotlight. Somewhere else, a Yellow Warbler is singing his heart out in the bright sunshine:

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And further away, silently perching on another tree, a Great Blue Heron. I seldom see one high up on a tree and not in the water. A bit blurry pic cause it’s so far away:

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With song birds, it’s ‘hear before you see’. By their calls, I know they’re around. Finding them is another matter. Taking a photo of them is a challenge. I can hear two Baltimore Orioles calling and responding to each other from two trees some distance apart, airmailing each other.

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Closer to the water, a Yellow-headed blackbird is posing for me:

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Enjoying a swim is Mr. Merganser:

Mr. Merganser

I always think of Lucille Ball whenever I see a female Merganser:

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How’s your Spring exploration so far? Birds, wildlife, Nature finds?

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The Colours of Fall

About this time last year, I had a post entitled “Golden Fall”. Yes, the title says it all. We don’t have much reds in our fall, no maples, but we have foliage like gold.

Here are some photos I took after returning from Toronto a few days ago, just in time to witness the changing of the seasons and catch the last remaining songbirds before they fly south. This is ‘my Pond’, home at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

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An Orange-crowned Warbler in the golden foliage. It’s goodbye until next Spring, my avian friend:

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Here’s another one. Olive against red.

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A ‘Where’s Waldo’ puzzle for you:

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The White-breasted Nuthatch against a watercolour backdrop:

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Two-frame capture of a shy subject. See it in both?

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Home is where you know every path and turn, where to shoot with the sun at your back for the best light, and where to look for your friends whatever the season, to wave goodbye as they leave, and then welcome them back for another new lease.

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First Spring Visitors to the Pond

They brought me out of hibernation.

It’s been a long winter, not record temperatures, but record snow, all the way into March and April. The Pond started to melt just last week. Then they all came, so fast. I’m amazed at the varieties, some I haven’t seen before.

One evening last week:

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American White Pelicans in the evening light, welcome back!

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And then from a distance, some I wasn’t familiar with:

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A white hood, not a Bufflehead. The sun was setting quickly, and I must say goodbye, not for long though.

Went back next morning and saw them. I wouldn’t have known if not for another photographer who told me they were Hooded Mergansers, rare visitors to the Pond. Only the male is white-hooded. The female looks like the Common Merganser female which always reminds me of Lucille Ball for some reasons:

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The Great Blue Heron, frequent visitor to the Pond, a bit shy as I approached:

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The Lesser Scaup:

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Northern Shovelers playing catch:

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Just as I was leaving, I was stunned to see these beautiful creatures flying above. I wasn’t ready but still able to snap a couple of photos. Not until I went back home and did some search did I realize I’d just seen a ballet of Trumpeter Swans in the sky:

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Swans 1

Don’t fly away, stop by the Pond next time!

 

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How Many Weeks Till Spring?

Who’s counting?

We’re having fun and really, enjoying ourselves.

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Indeed, considering the flooding problems some of you face south of the 49th, I’ve come to appreciate our snow, and the never-ending winter.

Here, makes me think of a Bruegel painting of winter scene, except replace the people with ducks and geese:

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Until then, we persevere.

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August at the Pond

Our summer is short. After a few weeks of record high temperatures, as August arrives, I can feel the cooler air creeping in.

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At the Pond, August brings a harvest of berries and edible delights for the birds:

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Here are some of the guests relishing Nature’s feast.

Forget about worms, these succulent fruits are tastier. The young Robin learns fast:

The Robin

The American Goldfinch, bending over forward:

Bend over forward

The Cedar Waxwing knows her etiquettes, always graceful and poised:

 

Wax Wing

 

Among them all, I must say my favourite is the Yellow Warbler. They are not fond of berries, but there are lots to eat around here. I’m most grateful for their taste. Here’s why: Mosquitoes eat me; warblers eat mosquitoes. Simple as that.

Warbler

Warbler 1

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What more, it’s no simple feat to sing with a mosquito in your mouth:

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In a few weeks, the Warblers will be gone, and I’ll be capturing scenes of Autumn. Yes, that soon. But for now, I’ll feast on summer sights. So, eat to your heart’s content, my Warbler friend.

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