Journal 206


Apr. 27 - A Marsh Mystery


Ever since I started birding in 2003, I've heard regular reports of the mythical Virginia Rail. Sure enough, Sibley's Guide enen indicated that such birds existed, but can you believe everything you read? Ever hear of Piltdown Man? On my many visits to Buttertubs Marsh in Nanaimo, despite my best observation skills, I had never seen or heard a real rail. Mind you, in 2005 when Art Morgan was showing me around Comox, we did spot 2 two fuzzy balls of charcoal skittering across a marsh. I even managed a fuzzy picture of one of the fuzz-balls. Art assured me that they were Virginia Rail, but they sure didn't look like rails to me. I never doubted Art, and presumably, tiny charcoal rails do come from adult rails, but as the world's greatest skeptic, there was room for doubt. (Ever hear of immaculate creation?) I wasn't going to concede that Virginia Rails were real until I actually saw one.

Two events last summer came close to dispelling my doubts about the rails. At Buttertubs I actually saw and photographed the Sora. I guess I never believed in Sora's either, but there it was, sneaking out of the bullrushes into the duck feeding area to gobble a few seeds. Since Soras are cousins to the Virginias, maybe Virginias were real too. The second event was at the Nanoose Creek Estuary. I was prowling around the deep grass one day when a strange clicking sound caught my attention. I was fascinated and perplexed. I listened for a few minutes and tried to locate the source to no avail in the waist high grass and reeds. Later I checked the sound of a Virginia Rail on the Cornell website. It definitely sounded like the creature I heard. I was closer to believing the Virginia Rail was a real bird, but all the evidence was still circumstantial. Chris Saunders could have been pulling my leg last year with his report of Virginia Rails on the path at Rithet's Bog, and Lori and Richard could have been in cahoots with their report at Buttertubs. The mind can play nasty tricks and you never know who to believe. Art and the charcoal fuzz-balls, the Sora, and the clicking could have all been figments of my imagination. I'm a visual learner and I needed the visual connection.

Virginia Rails have always been reported at Dolphin Lake on the Christmas Bird Counts. Was that part of the hoax too? (Maybe the egg nog was spiked?) Dolphin is close to me, and I stop there regularly but have never seen a rail. I was supposed to be home doing chores yesterday when a filtered ray of sun poked through the blanket of clouds and beckoned. Like a hypnotized mouse I followed the Pied Piper to Dolphin. I was greeted by 2 pairs of Wood Ducks, a Redwing Blackbird, a male Yellow-rumped Warbler, and several Goldfinches. It was warm and peaceful, and I was enjoying the solitude when I saw some movement in the marsh below me. I was incredulous. There wasn't just one but TWO VIRGINIA RAILS feeding just below me!!!!! They were remarkable birds - similar to the Sora, but with a longer, thinner orange bill. They were dabbling in the shallow water for worms or insects or whatever they eat. I clicked the shutter furiously for about a minute before they headed through the grass and weeds for deeper water. I watched intently as they neared some open water. Suddenly I spotted a black cotton ball skittering across the water, then another, and another. I had just seen five Virginia Rail, and I have some photos to prove it. I now believe in the Virginia Rail, but the American Bittern? That's like the Phoenix - it's definitely a myth.

I think this is a typical Virginia Rail photo. There's always some bullrushes or reeds in the way.

Finally, out of the weeds. I took a whole sequence of shots of the rail preening, but because of the poor lighting, only one was presentable.

Charcoal fuzz-balls. I would love to get a close-up of one of these cuties.


Feeder Shots - When I have some spare time I like to sit with my camera and watch the feeder visitors.

Gold-crowned Sparrows arrived at my feeders about a week ago. There at least a half dozen hanging around.

Purple Finches are regulars all year around my yard.

I'm pretty sure that a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers nest around my yard as they have been regular feeder vistors for most of the past couple of springs. I love the deep rich yellow patches on the male.


The Many Faces of Harry

Harry is the master of disguise. He can give a lot of different looks, and they all have some meaning. Just ask the other hummers.

Serious Harry - Sometimes Harry tries to look serious and scholarly just to attract the intellectual hummers.

Indy Car Racer - Harry's favorite role is race car driver. He's revving up the engines. The gals love the fast lane.

The Tall Man - Harry heard the tales of female groupies from the basketball players. Looking tall might attract a few more babes.

The Contortionist - This is just Harry all wrapped up with himself.

Right Turn - Still pretending to be the race car driver banking through a right turn. This is one of my favorite Harry poses. Too bad he can't flash the gorget in this position.


Bye Bye Bonie - It's getting close to farewell time for the Bonies. I was actually hoping for some peeps, but there were none yet. I'm glad I got to say goodbye to the last few Bonies. There wasn't much left of the herring spawn for them.


Apr. 28 - Finally, another sunny day - there hasn't been many. I'm glad birding was my agenda for most of the day. The day certainly started on the right foot as I was greeted by the sweet song of the Cassin's Vireo as soon as I stepped out the door. After a couple of hours around Dolphin Lake, I stopped in at the Backyard Wild Bird Store in Nanaimo to talk about birds and photography with the customers and sign a few books. By 2:00 pm we were on our way to revisit the Evening Grosbeaks in Duncan and whatever else we could find. We had distant looks at Gadwall and Cliff Swallows but nothing close enough for photos. Our last stop on the way home was to check for the Vesper Sparrows at Cassidy. It was third time lucky as we finally caught up to one of the Island's most endangered birds. I had stopped twice in the previous two weeks with no success.

The Cassin's Vireo has a wonderul deep voice that resonates down from the tops of my arbutus and firs. I was fortunate to finally catch one down at eye-level.

I'm always amazed at the marvellous eye-ring of the Cassin's. It's the visible from a long distance. It's a very attractive little bird.

Orange-crowned Warblers are everywhere. Their gentle twitter seems to emanate from every bush no matter where I go.

The Cowichan Evening Grosbeaks are such an impressive bird that I had to return for a second visit. (Thanks, Jennifer.)

The female grosbeaks were a duller colour than the males but every bit as attractive.

I had to post at least one photo of the male just so he wouldn't feel discriminated against.

While we were waiting to the grosbeaks, a couple of Chipping Sparrows kept us entertained.

Bondage - As if it isn't enough to see the Vesper Sparrows cofined within the chain link fences of Nanaimo Airport, do they also have to be weighed down by human paraphernalia? Does the scientific data justify the trauma of banding or is the data available by other means?








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