Monday, January 20, 2014

White on White

It was Friday night and Kyle and I were driving North to look for Gyrfalcons and other goodies. After several hours of driving we made it to a hotel at a very reasonable time. I think it was about 10 o'clock.

We unpacked our things and carefully placed them where they would be accessible in the morning. It was a good prelude to what was to be a good morning. Then, I made the mistake of venturing down into the lobby to look for a vending machine. The receptionist was cute. I was thirsty. It was Friday. We all knew this was a recipe for disaster.

"Where would someone like you be on a Friday night in Sudbury?"

I had a place and time. It wouldn't hurt to have a few friendly beverages before our quest... I mean, it was a big bird, and we needed to celebrate our impending victory. So we went to the bar.

Enter the Saturday. Kyle had already packed. I hauled myself out of bed with the elegance of a pregnant seal. 

(Thanks BuzzFeed)

The room looked like ground zero. Some blurry memories of airborne microwave ovens remained. Thankfully it wasn't too bad, and we (mostly Kyle) cleaned it up and it looked just like new. Sort of.

"You tried to hit on the bartender. She was unattractive."

Good Morning. I was ready for a day-long nap. Kyle was all pumped and for it. He didn't have any tequila.

I was somewhat hoping that we'd arrive at the bird sitting on a duck in some parking lot so that I could continue dying in the back of the car, but that was not the case. We scanned some popular spots from the car and the bird was not to be seen.

"Let's go for a little walk" said Kyle. "We might see the falcon out in the lake" he said.

It was time to kick up dirt. It was a pretty big lake. I was suffering. We walked for a few hours, seeing nothing but ravens and ducks flying around. The creek was kept open as a byproduct of carefully treated and tightly regulated human sewage, and the Gyrs were hunting the Mallards, Black Ducks and Goldeneye that were congregating here. 

We saw some ravens. Pointed-winged ravens, blunt-winged ravens, light-reflecting ravens, long-tailed ravens, blunt-headed ravens, ravens chasing ducks etc.. 

At one point, we encountered a lone Trumpeter Swan in the middle of the lake. I sat down for a while to take a break, and the swan emerged from the creek and beelined for us. All things considered, I wasn't ready to fight a swan and did nothing. The swan approached to within a few inches of us, and sat down beside us and honked gently. I pet it. I was convinced I'd gone off the deep end.

As much as this perverse scene was entertaining, before my vision of riding the swan into battle became reality, we got hungry.

"I'm so hungry, I could eat at Arby's."

We ate at Arby's. It was getting late. The sun was setting. It was getting colder. We'd lost our spirits. We did the rounds again. Nothing. I was waiting for Kyle to say it.

"Let's go for a little walk" said Kyle. "We might see the falcon out in the lake" he said.

On any other day, it would have been fine. I blame the receptionist. She did lie. I looked for her at the bar. Perhaps we'd see her out on the lake.

After another couple of hours walking I actually felt much better and we did spot a fox (ha-ha-ha) stalking the ducks in the creek. It was a beautiful one, very big, very red, and with a mange-free coat.

We watched the fox for a few minutes until it disappeared. It started to snow slightly. Suddenly, Kyle pointed.


In the air, a pair of goldeneye were hauling ass towards the creek at an ungodly speed. Trailing them was a massive, long-tailed, blunt-winged, short-headed white falcon

In the final stretch, the goldeneye pulled in and hurtled towards the creek. The Gyr also pulled in but wasn't quick enough and the ducks hit the water before it could grab one. It didn't stop. It didn't perch. It merely strafed the ducks and continued at the same pace into the gloom.

The Gyr is one of those birds that you imagine seeing. I've always decided on how I wanted to see my lifer Gyrfalcon - it's always been while it was snowing, I wanted to work for it, I wanted it to appear rather than finding it, but more than those things, I've always wanted it to be a white one. Dark and gray birds are beautiful, but there's something about the white Gyr. 

Kyle and I exchanged victory hugs and high fives. He called his wife Caitlin. We were yelling and raving about the bird. It was just like when I used to skip high school to chase birds.

We decided to check the lake again to see if it had come around. We still had about two hours of daylight, and now that we've seen the Gyr, we could continue further north for our other target bird.

I was watching a raven fly over the lake when it suddenly slowed down to a glide and turned onto a tree a few feet from the creek. It sat down and was paying attention to something - I put my bins on the raven.

"Hey Kyle, the Gyr is sitting right there in that tree."

Black and White.

Studying the bird perched, it became clear that not only was this bird white, it was very white. It's back and wings had a few dark spots, but its tail was clear as well as its belly. It was looking at the raven nervously.

Eventually the raven hopped even closer and the falcon decided that this was too much and took off, flying only a short distance away from us, giving crippling views, while the raven gave it some hell. Once it got past the creek, it did a bit of a roll and strafed the raven, and then disappeared into the snow, not to be seen again.

(This is Kyle's photo)

We woke up in Timmins on Sunday. We looked outside. It was white. The weather people said it was supposed to be sunny. Evidently it was not. I checked my email hopefully for discount flights, Boston Pizza coupons and reports of Slaty-backed Gulls. Instead I found a whole cluttered mess about owls and feeding and name-calling and all sorts of things I hadn't signed up for. It was the early morning. I'm usually not one to say anything, but I was tired, hadn't had a cigarette, and something had to be said. I thought it was somewhat polite. I even said "please". I just didn't want to see Ontbirds turn into *shudder* MassBird, where one must filter through dozens of irrelevancies whilst woefully searching for a spot to find a Dovekie.

Then, in reply to the few sentences I wrote, I got the most glorious e-mail I think I've ever had:

"You are not speaking for the collective. You are just another low live f******g moron, who does not care about the birds. You should be fed to the GGOW"

(Thanks Google)

Wouldn't that be baiting? know, murder? Luckily, they apologized and we kept it real. I had a good laugh in the woods about it. Especially whilst driving past all the owl boxes I put up last fall.

En route, the visibility at times was almost nil due to the vast amounts of blowing snow. It was less-than-ideal conditions to look for woodpeckers. By the time we got there however, it had cleared a tad and while there was still wind and snow, at least we could see our hands in front of our faces.

We snowshoed into the scorched woods. It was a surreal, beautiful landscape. Very, very boreal. Only spruce and aspen. And several feet of snow. At times I felt that we were swimming rather than hiking, and we both had snowshoes.

We made some owl sounds and squeaked, but got no responses. We then entered an area I thought looked particularly good so I brought out the iPod and laid down some beats.

Immediately, an enraged pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers were summoned. Yellow crown bristling, wings outstretched, white rectricies flared, the male flew only a few trees away from us and started loudly and aggressively spik-spikking and display-drumming. The female was not far behind.

A third bird flew in, further back. This immediately looked suspicious. It was kinda in-and-out, so once again I played the tape and it immediately came rocketing towards us - it was a Three-toed Woodpecker!

It was a lifer for Kyle and I hadn't seen once since 2007, so we high-fived to this bird as well. We watched it for several minutes, and at one point it and the male Black-backed were drumming on the same tree, side-by-side. It can be a difficult bird to pin-down in Ontario, but thanks to a tip from Tyler Hoar and the Fire 9 burn creating miles of excellent habitat, here it was.

It was a wonderful trip to a wonderful habitat. It had all the elements of a good bird trip, and all the elements of a brutal boreal winter that I have missed in the past years. It's good to be back!


  1. Entertaining read and nice work. Visit the burn this spring. I have a strong feeling of a few nesting Hawk Owls there in addition to all the woodpeckers and nighthawks.

  2. Very nice I always enjoy reading your blog lev!

  3. Still laughing to myself. Hilarious tale well told.