The time to look for birds is during a heavy southeaster. It’s not comfortable, our gear gets wet but that’s when the birds come down. Plovers, longspurs, sparrows and hawks. Even a few late migrant warblers. They hang around for an hour or so and then leave. We are not fond of sopping weather, but sometimes, like the birds, we get caught in it.
A tiny Taiga Merlin hunches on on a stump like a piece of driftwood. It takes a while to ensure that it is actually a bird, but there is always a life-light that emanates from living things. Maybe it’s the lift of a feather, the twitch of a tail, the head’s quiet turn. The Merlin was not really interested in flying away in the hard rain so it just sat and watched us as we went by. A Sharp-shinned Hawk sat on the fence for as long as it could before giving way to yet another annoying human. We almost stepped on a Pectoral Sandpiper hiding in the long grass beside the path, it didn’t fly but ducked under the fence out of our way. There were eight pectorals in all; they are a mid-sized shorebird often coming through in small numbers, unlike the large flocks of peeps that swirl over the dunes and disappear.
A small flock of Golden Plovers lands in the meadow. We don’t often see them at this time of year, but there they are, travelling south. They have a lovely, mellow call as they fly overhead, not harsh like their cousins the yellowlegs. The plovers have nested in the far north; members of this flock are losing their vibrant black breeding colours and fading to buff. They look golden in some lights, when they sit on their eggs on the tundra they practically disappear.
Barn Swallows continue on their way. Last week the island nesters gathered on the wires before taking off, this week it’s the migrants. They follow the coast to southern California and Mexico. When they run into foul weather they take a break. Even though birds are part of the land and air they don’t all survive harsh weather but they know they have to go and so they must.
Out in the Inlet thousands of Rhinocerous Auklets and Common Murres feed in calm waters. They join the Kittiwakes and California Gulls feeding on a ball of ‘feed’. There’s enough for all, including cormorants and loons. Here on Haida Gwaii we are accustomed to seeing birds almost year round but it’s not the case in other parts of North America. Visitors are amazed at the numbers of what we would consider common, for instance, Barn Swallows. They are not common elsewhere and getting rarer. Friends from Connecticut told us recently that the drop in bird numbers is truly alarming. Not only are birds losing their habitat on their nesting grounds in the north, they are also losing their wintering habitat as more and more wild places are deforested or ploughed under.
And, speaking of northern nesting birds, large flocks of Lapland Longspurs arrived this week. They flew up over the dunes at Skonun Point, called overhead and kept right on going. We met them again in Sandspit as they fed on grass seeds and insects. Once on the ground they are fairly tame, unlike the migratory Savannah Sparrows beside them which hardly sit still for a second.