Terns

22 December 2014. Barefoot Beach, Naples, Florida. This morning we went looking for Black Skimmers.  What a bird! They’re related to gulls and have one of the avian world’s oddest modes of feeding: in full flight, its disproportionately long lower mandible slices or skims the surface of the water to sieve and capture whatever might be there. How it distinguishes between the edible, inedible and trip-hazards I’d love to know, whatever the technique, they seem to make it okay. Below is a photo of a skimming skimmer taken near Cape May earlier this year.

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

We immediately found a large bunch of Black Skimmers along with a few gulls and terns loafing at the water’s edge, they were very approachable and I could have shot some great portraits had they cooperated.  Most of the skimmers were contentedly dozing, their beaks tucked under-wing, and any that looked up did so only momentarily; I was nowhere near quick enough. My morning’s pleasure though, came from the appreciation of three species of terns: Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern and Royal Tern.

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I had never knowingly seen a Sandwich Tern before this week. Had our friend Eric not casually noted one flying past and commented on its black-with-yellow-tip bill, I probably could have easily overlooked the few that were hanging around. The books distinguish Sandwich Terns from Common and Forster’s Terns by subtle clues: their relatively slender wings, long bill, paler grey upperparts and that yellow-tipped bill; not much to go on. It’s a widespread species and apparently gets its name from the town of Sandwich, England where the first specimen was taken (shot). Still, it’s a rather distinguished looking bird even in winter plumage; in breeding plumage the head has a full jet-black cap and a rather rakish crest, a vestige of which is visible in a couple of the shots above.

On the other hand, I have seen and admired Forster’s Terns many times. There’s a large inland marsh about a two-hour drive from home and Forster’s are more or less the default tern there in the summer months. Field guides are somewhat helpful in drawing attention to what they call the breeding adults’ ‘frosty’ wingtips seen when flying. It’s true enough, once you get the hang of it; at least it helps separate them from Common Terns, which are likely to be not far away, Common Terns’ wings look overall rather dark. These photos also show how, at close quarters, the Forster’s Tern’s red feet are very distinctive; another handsome bird.

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Most entertaining were Royal Terns, a few juveniles in particular. There was no shortage of Royal Terns along this stretch of coast, they look and behave very much like our more familiar Caspian Tern; they’re large, can be noisy and have a conspicuously shaggy crest. Last summer’s young are still being cared for by their parents and will remain somewhat dependent on them for another two or three months. One would think that by now they are able to fish for themselves, at least to some extent, but they obviously haven’t given up the expectation of a free handout. We watched a few chicks noisily begging their parent for food using a combination of posture and interminable pleading that few human parents would tolerate for many minutes. The series of shots on the gallery below shows, far more clearly than words can describe, the postures and attitudes of both parent and child, all that’s missing is the wretchedly endless pleading squeals of the youngster.

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This post contains many photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. You can also view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

Short-tailed Hawk

December 17 2014. Turner River Florida. I’m told and willingly accept that a Short-tailed Hawk seen circling low overhead should be my Bird of the Day; it has to be. Well, I’d never seen one before in my life and until moments ago I didn’t know they were rare; actually really quite rare.

With friends we had been canoeing down a river on the edge of the Everglades in Florida. This was a canoe trip like no other that I’ve ever done (and I’ve done a few).  Under the patient direction of a park employee, we paddled at least half of our journey along a faintly defined watercourse through a mangrove swamp. Mangroves are those tropical waters-edge trees that put down arching roots to create a three-dimensional low-level waterlogged prison.

Little Blue Heron, Turner River Florida

Little Blue Heron, Turner River Florida

Black-crowned Night Heron reflected in mangrove swamp

Black-crowned Night Heron reflected in mangrove swamp

I said that I’ve done a few canoe trips and that’s neither an overly modest nor an exaggerated assessment. I’m no expert paddler but I do get the mechanics of paddling, steering and progressing along an intended course. This is infinitely more than can be said for one of the other canoeing couples in our little flotilla. I think you’ll readily appreciate that it makes no sense whatsoever for both paddlers (assuming one in front and one behind) to paddle on the same side of the vessel when the intention is go straight ahead. Similarly, should you wish to avoid an obstacle it is never a good plan to point the front of the canoe at the obstacle and paddle hard. Someone should have told Ken and Irene about this; they made me feel like an expert.

Paddling through the mangroves

Paddling through the mangroves

How or why anyone found our route to begin with is beyond me, much of our progress was achieved by grasping overhead branches and pulling our canoes along, we spent a lot of time bent double avoiding a skull-raking or neck-snapping obstruction. Mangrove swamps are essentially impenetrable to humans; somehow we paddled one of the few that is not, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t close in behind us after we’d gone through.

Going through the mangrove tunnel was not a birding experience, but once clear of it we found ourselves in the middle of an expanse of Florida’s wild land; and there were some interesting birds. An American Bittern standing on the river’s edge was a gasp-making sighting for most of our party, and so it should be. I’ve had the good fortune to see perhaps five or six bitterns this year, a goodly number; and I would have counted it as my Bird of he Day had I not seen a Short-tailed Hawk shortly afterwards.

American Bittern, Turner River Florida

American Bittern, Turner River Florida

Our companion Eric had earlier mentioned to always check soaring kettles of Turkey or Black Vultures lest a Short-tailed Hawk or some other oddity had somehow found its way to join them. So at lunch, standing wet-footed where the canoes had been pulled ashore, I dutifully scanned a rather low group of wheeling Turkey Vultures for just that eventuality; and there, sure enough, was a hawk that I didn’t recognise but knew by elimination had to be a Short-tailed. I nudged Eric, gestured skyward with my cheese sandwich and casually noted the Short-tailed Hawk as expected. It wasn’t a wow moment for me but it sure was for Eric; grabbing for his binoculars he almost lost his sandwich and fell back over a canoe he was so thunderstruck. This, he assured me, was a very fine bird indeed, a real rarity. And here’s the thing, I just took it as yet another new-to-me-in-this-lifetime bird; there had been several over the past 48 hours and while they were all eye-brow raising events none had yet made me choke with excitement.  Perhaps the Short-tailed Hawk will grow on me; for now it’s Bird of the Day thanks to Eric.

You can view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

Short-tailed Hawk, Turner River Florida

Short-tailed Hawk, Turner River Florida

 

 

Piping Plover

December 16 2014. Naples Florida.  This and the next few posts are about birds enjoyed on a pre-Christmas week escape to summery Florida. It’s not just poolside lolling around for us though, we’re with friends whose idea of a good day is one spent birding, scrutinising leafless trees for orchids, wading hip-deep through dark swamps in alligator country, or anything else necessary to explore the natural riches of the state.

Today, as an introduction to the state’s wonders, we walked to a long white beach where shorebirds and beach-combers share the water’s edge on equal terms. In much the same way you enter a supermarket and are beset by lettuce here, oranges straight ahead and breads and muffins to the left, so it was here with birds: Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings in front, Willets right behind them and Snowy Egrets just a short distance away.

Sanderlings - a bit soft-focus but...

Sanderlings – a bit soft-focus I know, but…

The beach captivated me with Sanderlings like miniature wind-up toys skittering along the advancing and retreating wave-edges, Willets oh-so-stoically letting the water wash around them, and Semi-palmated Plovers wandering up and down, sometimes hopping up onto much drier ground to pick for food wherever it may be found. Ahead of us, the Tri-colored Heron, in the gallery below, stood, sometimes washed by the waves, watchful and waiting for fish and every now and then it would thrust deep into the surf and bring up something small, silver and wriggly.

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Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plovers are anything but black-bellied at this time of year. When we see them in Ontario, usually in August or September, it’s quite clear how they get their name, but that black undersides is a breeding plumage affectation and is moulted away to leave a generally mottled and greyish-brown bird (above). Grey Plover is how the same species is known in the U.K.; both names have their time and place. Whichever name you give them, they, like most plovers, are endearing birds, they have an earnestly vulnerable look about them that makes you want to love and protect them.

Protect them we must, for a least one plover species, the Piping Plover, is in trouble and is considered an Endangered Species in the U.S.A. and Canada. It is a sparrow-sized bird of wide sandy shorelines and chooses to nest on open sand beaches where a bare scrape or hollow is all it needs by way of a nest. The big problem is that such beaches are popular with people too, some of whom bring dogs or ATVs with them or are just plain unwittingly careless; bad for Piping Plovers.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

I was ready to call the Tri-colored Heron my Bird of the Day until we turned a corner and found another group of Sanderlings pottering around and with them a single Piping Plover; a wow bird to be sure. We sat quietly and it paid us no heed, gradually moving in closer. I took several pictures and then we noticed that it bore a small green flag on its right leg, a sign that it had been part of a closely studied brood somewhere and, as a chick, most likely captured, weighed, tagged and released. Reviewing my photos later, we realised that the letters on the flag were readable – E3Y, and that it had an orange band above its right knee. With a bit of on-line research I determined that researchers from Virginia Tech had originally tagged this bird, so I excitedly sent them an email. The next day I received a reply which, condensed a little, read: “Thanks for reporting this banded plover! … this bird was banded as a chick by researchers from Virginia Tech on Fire Island NS, NY in June 2014. It has been re-sighted around the Naples area for the past month. What a life!

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover,

Piping Plover

Above and below are a few photos of this magical little bird. Knowing just that little bit more, about one individual in a species hanging on by a thread, was really quite a thrill. That it had hatched just six months ago, grew to maturity on an Atlantic beach and subsequently migrated down the coast and across peninsular Florida was more than enough to make it my Bird of the Day.

You can view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

 

Winter Wren

14 December 2014. Burlington ON. I walked a long muddy creek-side trail this morning resolving to repeat the route on a regular basis and record all birds seen and heard, tallying individual numbers as well as species. I find it more rewarding doing this sort of thing, I call it project-birding, studying, observing and recording birds as part of a greater effort rather than just list-ticking or aimlessly wandering. If my resolve holds, it will be a mini-study that will not only get me out of the house, but should also shed light on changes in the winter species mix from now until spring.

The day was overcast, dank and just a touch above freezing, we’d had drizzle earlier this morning and melting snow made it soggy underfoot; a gloomy December day.

My Bird of the Day, a single Winter Wren, was found towards the end of the walk. It was poking through a thick tangle of roots, branches and dried grasses in search of food. Dense piles of debris, upturned root-balls or tiny crevices are almost the exclusive preserve of Winter Wrens; most other birds are much too large. If they have to fly they do so in short bursts from one deeply inaccessible spot to another. They’re tiny, about the size (and shape) of a golf ball, but much more interesting.

Our Winter Wren used to be found more or less right around the temperate northern hemisphere, from coast to coast across North America and straddling the entire expanse of Eurasia. Recently, skeptical scientists, doubting that one species could possibly be so widespread, took a closer look and spoiled all the fun. They have decided that henceforth there are really three separate (though virtually identical) species, so now there’s the Eurasian Wren and, in North America, the Winter Wren and Pacific Wren.

Wrens are a New World family so undoubtedly the ancestor of all of them originated in North America. But the question is, did it the precursor species spread westward into Eurasia across the Bering Straits, or did it make its way east across the Atlantic somehow; or both? There are no answers to this yet, but whatever its origins it is a very successful creature.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

For the most part, my other observations this morning were pretty much as expected: Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mallards made up the majority of birds seen. A small group of Blue Jays became noisily agitated about something out of my line of sight and a pair of American Crows likewise started harassing the top of a White Pine, probably an an owl or hawk got them excited.

I enjoyed watching a large group of Slate-colored Juncos and American Tree Sparrows working over the seed-heads of a large expanse of faded goldenrod and a two male Northern Cardinals seemed to want to chase each other around but lacked conviction.

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I’ve added a few of pictures of Winter Wrens from summer days when they were more inclined to show themselves, particularly the singing one in the gallery above. I was able to use the video feature on my camera to capture some of its exuberant song, click this link to see and hear it.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

10 December 2014. Burlington ON. In past years I have offered food to our backyard birds but found that by December they’d all flown south and my urban neighbourhood became an avian wasteland; so I don’t do it much anymore. A touch paradoxical you might think, that a guy who clearly spends so much time in the study of birds doesn’t even hang up a piece of suet. Still, that’s the way it is. The upside is that my birding gets me out of the house.

But this morning, wandering into a back room, I look out to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched on the top rail of my back yard fence; It was certainly a wow! moment. It was looking around with quick movements, searching for food I imagine, and a few moments later it took off. Bird of the Day before the day had really got started.

Adult  Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

I frequently hear from people that a hawk of some kind had appeared from nowhere to seize a Morning Dove from their bird feeder. As often as not it’s about the explosion of dove feathers amid the carnage, but sometimes it’s a tale of woe and rage against the vile hawk. My bet is that the hawk of some kind is a Cooper’s Hawk (which have a preference for larger birds like mourning Doves) or maybe a Sharp-shinned Hawk (which, being smaller, will usually go for smaller birds like juncos); both are ambush hunters built to fly fast through dense woodlands and grab unwitting prey. Backyards with bird feeders are nothing if not well-stocked wintering habitat.

Cooper's Hawk, a first year bird.  Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Cooper’s Hawk, a first year bird. Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Northern Parula

5 December 2014. Oakville ON.  If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for the birder in your life, you might want to consider a field trip to a sewage treatment plant; he or she will surely love it! These past two days, I’ve spent a couple of morning hours at a treatment plant not far from home; it has a lot going for it really: free parking, out of the wind and crowds are small.

I should probably explain. It’s not that birders really like the sewage treatment plant itself, it’s the unusual and unexpected birds that hang around there that make them special. The ponds of warmish, biological froth generate lots of flies and mosquitoey things which are perfect for small insectivorous birds. Apparently some birds on the fall migratory trek are seduced by this man-made warmth and food and, ignoring their instincts (which would be telling them they’ve got another two thousand kilometers to go) decide to hang around. If their gamble pays off they will have a head start next spring and could reach and claim prime breeding sites ahead of anyone else. But chances are that sooner or later the winter will bite really hard, the insect life will dwindle to nothingness and the birds will perish; it’s a gamble, maybe even a microcosm of evolutionary effort. The only probable winners are the birders who hold their noses and prowl the perimeter on the lookout for special birds; I was one of them.

I’d heard there were Winter Wrens, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several warbler species to be found. I was lucky to see many of them and more besides; the best in many ways was a Northern Parula. Parulas are always breathtakingly beautiful, today’s bird certainly was. They can be devilishly difficult to photograph because they rarely stay still, usually hang around well above eye level and seem to bury themselves deep in the overhead foliage; today’s bird actually did quite the opposite and although it was hunting for food, it well, judge for yourself…

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(The parula is in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.) An Orange-crowned Warbler, a much overlooked and rarely encountered species was there too, as were a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Tennessee and a Wilson’s Warbler, all marvelous birds at any time.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

I have posted lots more photos of the parula on another site where you can see them as full size files, to enjoy them click this link.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

2 December 2014. I have a favourite wooded valley, I’ve mentioned it many times before, most recently a couple of weeks ago in connection with my enjoyment of Black-capped Chickadees. The thing is, it’s close to home, sheltered from the worst of winter winds, full of birds and just a good place to walk around.

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So many walkers scatter seed along the trails that you can easily watch birds close up; anyone can take good photos of many perennially popular species like Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I spent a couple of hours there today and enjoyed watching those many always-expected birds and a few other common species like American Tree Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher and American Goldfinches. A solitary but wary Golden Crowned Kinglet came close and a couple of Purple Finches lingered for a moment.

But perhaps one of the best moments came when a hungry Red-bellied Woodpecker showed off its red belly and allowed me to get a couple of illustrative shots.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker – and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker 1-2

The question is frequently asked why the Red-bellied Woodpecker is so named when clearly it has a red head, not a red belly. I guess there’s a two-part answer: Firstly, the thoroughly well named Red-headed Woodpecker already has the name; and secondly,the Red-bellied actually does have a reddish belly — even though you can hardly ever see it. I suspect some nineteenth century biologist who was holding a museum specimen belly-up in his hand, originally gave it the name. Still, it’s not the best choice, surely someone in that arcane corner of ornithology that dishes out names, can come up with something less misleading.

Downloading my morning’s photos I realized how the morning’s Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers discredit my earlier gripe about the lack of colour in this December world. It would be a bit much to post all of the day’s photos here, the ones above are quite enough. But if you’d enjoy more of today’s full colour, eye-popping birds in reds and blues, follow this link to another site, it’s where I sometimes post photo collections. Feel free to browse around it.

This post contains six photos in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Rough-legged hawk.

30 November 2014. On a mild, yet monochromatic, day I walked various sometimes-birdy stretches of the perimeter of the large industrial harbour that dominates our local geography. It was warm enough but, the bright orange berries of Bittersweet notwithstanding, I was quite conscious of how much natural colour had drained away. It was, as I noted above, a monochromatic day.

Interestingly, the few bird species I made note of were low on colour too. To wit: Several Horned Grebes in their winter greys and whites instead of summer gold and chestnut; A Northern Mockingbird, always pearly grey; A handful of Hooded Mergansers, the young ones in dusky brownish grey and the handsome adult males in black and white; And a young Common Loon, so people-shy that it seemed reluctant to admit to any buoyancy, showing only its mottled grey brown back.

A howling west wind, whipping up whitecaps, kept a windsurfer happy and I watched him for a while. I wondered about the efficacy of his dry-suit, the cold on his exposed hands and face and the advisability of spending any time whatsoever doused in the waters of this famously polluted industrial harbour. As I turned to leave, I noticed a Rough-legged Hawk high overhead making its way efficiently against the wind. At first I thought I was a Northern Harrier because it was so strikingly long-winged. But through binoculars I could see the diagnostic black belly and under-wing patches that mark a Rough-legged Hawk. I suspect the effort and dynamics of flying into the wind accentuated the relative long-winged-ness of this species, a characteristic that gives them a rather languid, floppy appearance when hunting low over winter fields.

I was glad of this Rough-legged Hawk for adding some metaphorical colour to the day even though splotches of black had been the keys to my identification of it.

Pied-billed Grebe and Ruddy Ducks.

28 November 2014.  As October wears on and the birding just keeps on going, I invariably make a mental note that this winter I’ll be hardier, I’ll dress for the weather (whatever it may be) and I’ll be out there keeping active and birding. The thought that there will be many fewer birds doesn’t matter, it’ll be fine. Then the first bite of winter arrives and my resolve fades.

Today, after a morning of domestic errands, I faced a choice: Take a long walk sheltered from the icy wind and hope for some interesting lingering migrants, or head home for a hot lunch? I opted for lunch, but a bit of internal nagging directed me to make a few diversions along the lakeshore, just in case. It was hardly vigorous exercise but it turned out to be worthwhile.

My first stop was a marina that attracts lots of waterfowl. The inlets seemed to be choked with Mallards and a scattering of American Coots and Lesser Scaup. Then the anxious retreat of something smaller and rounder caught my eye, so I made my way to a better vantage point; and there I was able to watch and eventually photograph this Pied-billed Grebe.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

I was kind of enchanted because Pied-billed Grebes are rather enigmatic birds: they’re grebes, which should mean they have a certain subtle presence about them; but they don’t, they’re more chicken-like. When it comes to breeding season, when that stubby little bill turns whitish with a black band around it, (hence the name) Pied-billed Grebes hold their own; dowdy looking though they may be, they can howl like a banshee from within the obscure corners of cattail marshes. If you didn’t know what you were hearing, the territorial wails of a Pied-billed Grebe would stop you in your tracks. Cool birds.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Nearly home, I parked for a moment to get a better look at rafts of small ducks bobbing just offshore; they turned out to be Ruddy Ducks. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re unduck-like, but that little stick-up tail does set them apart, in much the same way Pied-billed Grebes don’t quite fit the mould. Ruddy Ducks are part of a group called Stifftails, a collective name for any of several small, round ducks with short wings and long spiky tail feathers. The Ruddy Duck is the only North American member of the group (ignoring questionable sub-species); there are others (but not many) in South America, Europe and Africa.

Ruddy Ducks

Ruddy Ducks

At one time, our Ruddy Duck was seen as a valuable and ornamental addition to various wildlife parks in Europe. Once settled in, it began breeding furiously with its European cousin, the White-headed Duck, and in no time hybrids started to dominate the landscape and the pure White-headed Duck was in danger of genetic extinction. Culling the Ruddy Ducks, and presumably any obvious hybrids, and leaving Europe for White-headed Ducks has solved the problem. I recall from my trip to Spain in September that the sight of a White-headed Duck quite excited my tour group leader; they had indeed become nearly extinct. So we get to keep and admire our Ruddy Ducks and there they were today all bobbing around, heads tucked in apparently asleep.

Black-capped Chickadee

20 November 2014.  This was an unusually wintery day (and week) for mid November; but not without precedent I’m sure.  It was very much more like January, with permanent-looking snow on the ground and a wickedly cold wind that blew a couple of  Red-tailed Hawks around like old newspaper pages.

Wind blown Red-tailed Hawk

Wind blown Red-tailed Hawk

This wallop of cold came, as a river of frigidity, straight from the Arctic. It got started a couple of days ago and really picked up steam yesterday. Bitter winds swept the length of Lake Erie absorbing buckets of relatively warm moisture and then dropped it as snow on the hapless City of Buffalo; two metres of snow is a lot – even for winter-savvy Buffalo.

Bundled up in clothes that haven’t been out for nine months, I walked up through one of my favourite sheltered valleys. I had hoped for some unusual birds trying to make it through this hostility. Well, there were no strangers but our resident birds were happy to scavenge for handouts. This valley is part of semi-public lands (technically private, but open to the public as long as they stay on trails). It attracts many walkers and bird-feeders, particularly families on weekends.  The resident Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches have become quite tame and will feed from an outstretched hand. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals are almost as bold; you can imagine how appealing this is to families with young children.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, chickadee & cardinal in early snow

Red-bellied Woodpecker, chickadee & cardinal in early snow

All of these birds were there, all of them hungry and engaging. But by far the most abundant were Black-capped Chickadees. Whenever I stopped to look around, they’d fly in and sometimes land on my hands for no apparent reason (other than the reasonable hope that I was offering food). I don’t have any idea how many Black-capped Chickadees live in this valley; it’s a lot, probably too many. Nor do I know how many of them are year-round residents or how many just come for the lean months.

Knowing, as we do, that birds migrate seasonally in pursuit of accessible food or breeding territory, it’s not hard to imagine that Black-capped Chickadees from miles around have always sought wintering spots like this valley for shelter and food. And this particular retreat with its superabundance of food well, it’s cute, but I think a touch unhealthy; too many birds of one species in one place.

Trumpeter Swans in snow squall

Trumpeter Swans in snow squall

Heading home, I stopped to scan the harbour waters, just in case. As I admired a group of snoozing Trumpeter Swans and a distant pair of Tundra Swans, a vigorous snow squall blew in drawing a grey curtain across the waters, coating my binoculars and sending me back to the warmth of my car and shortly thereafter, home. Nice for me, but no easier for wildlife.

Tundra Swans in snow squall

Tundra Swans in snow squall