Thursday 12 October 2017

Digging Deep: Clay-coloured Sparrow

It has been a long time since I've touched this blog.  I've had plenty of fodder, but a busy field work schedule really zapped my motivation.  My field season wrapped up last Friday and I have been trying to make up for lost birding time.

This is a very interesting time of year for birding.  There are a lot of stragglers trickling through, but you really have to sift through roving chicklet flocks, frenetic blackbird flocks, and hide-and-seek sparrow flocks popping in and out of shrubs and weedy patches.  At the same time, you can't neglect estuaries, agricultural fields, and nearshore waters.  With days shortening, I continuously feel like there just aren't enough hours in a day.

There are several strategies to birding.  You can sit on a jutting point of land with a scope and scan offshore for hours and try to find such tantalizing birds as puffins, Brown Pelicans, boobies, jaegers, shearwaters, Yellow-billed Loons, Clark's Grebe, rare alcids, and eiders.  I often don't have the patience for this style of birding because the reward might be a distant view of a jaeger that you can't quite nail the identification due to distance.  I am very impressed that we have a few birders in Victoria that do the odd seawatch because the resulting list of birds seen usually beats the average day of land birding.  Another method of birding at this time of year is to just do some very coarse searches of many locations.  In other words, you bounce from site to site just doing cursory scans of key habitat features.  There is nothing wrong with this method and I am guilty of this style of birding a lot of the time.  When birding in this way, it helps to know what kind of rarities might be passing through.  That way, when you spot a flock of the usual suspects, you can efficiently scan through in hopes of finding the outlier.  An example of this would be a whirling flock of blackbirds that settles on a field.  When I see a nice blackbird flock that appears to be a mix of Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and maybe the odd Brown-headed Cowbird, I get excited for the possibility of Yellow-headed or Rusty Blackbirds, and at the same time I don't discount the potential for a higher magnitude rarity like a Common Grackle or... BC's first Tricolored Blackbird.  It helps to know these common associations where birds of a feather flock together.  Finally, the last style I will mention is the very slow-paced, methodical, on-the-ground search.  This is the digging deep style of birding that I am trying to adopt a little more this year.  The more time your feet are on the ground and not on a gas pedal, the better your chances are of connecting with something unusual.  We've had some rarities over the past few years that really show the importance of being in an area for an extended period.  The Redwing epitomizes the difficulty of connecting with a single rarity.  Even when this bird was known to be in the South Valley Dr area, it proved elusive to many birders over several visits.  In hindsight, I am shocked this bird was ever found.  If you're really digging deep, it helps to know the vocalizations of the suite of local species.  Sometimes all a rare bird will offer up is a call note, so you need to know it's not one of the usual suspects in order to work for a visual on it.  Swamp Sparrow is a prime example of an uncommon species that almost always gives itself away by its call.  They are often extremely hard to get a look at and you need to stay put and wait for it to show itself.  All of these birding strategies have merit and I think a good balance of all three of these is probably the most rewarding.  I suppose backyard birding is another method and the only option for some folks... and some of the most staggering rarities are attracted to a seed feeder, birdbath, or suet.  Whatever method you employ, remember it's just a hobby and go out and enjoy yourself.  Don't get bent out of shape if you're just seeing local species.  This is actually some of the most important data to collect, so consider keeping track of numbers and submitting them to a citizen science project like eBird.

Okay... enough birding philosophy.  Digging deep.  I had an opportunity to get out on Monday (October 9), but I had to run some errands first.  One of my errands was picking up a few groceries, so I decided to do a combination birding-grocery run to Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd.  After heading to Panama Flats a few weeks ago to search for the Bobolinks, I was shocked at the number of sparrows lurking in the weed-laden flats.  I thought Tod Creek Flats (behind Red Barn Market) also deserved some coverage, but I didn't have time to search at that time.  As I entered the flats on Monday, I was immediately struck by the number of sparrows darting from the ground up into the willow and alders.  The edge of the flats was lined with chamomile and other weedy species, so there was an abundance of food for the sparrows.  I walked the edge of the flats and good numbers of White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Savannah, Song, Lincoln's, and Fox Sparrows were present.  As I walked along, I pushed up a small, paler sparrow and my rarity senses began to tingle a little.  The bird had dropped out in view among the chamomile, so I slowly advanced and watched as the bird flew up into a willow.  I raised my bins and was pleased to see it was along the lines of what I was hoping: a Spizella sparrow.  We don't expect any species of Spizella in October, as the majority of Chipping Sparrows are typically gone by the end of August and smaller numbers continue to migrate through in September.  Clay-coloured Sparrow is rare on Vancouver Island, but we usually get one or two records every year in the Victoria checklist area.  Brewer's Sparrow is very rare here and most records in the area have occurred in the spring.  Field Sparrow is accidental and we only have two records in British Columbia, one of which was a bird found at Esquimalt Lagoon last November.

Pretty classic fall Spizella appearance - 50 shades of brown.
I studied up on fall Spizella sparrows for last winter's Clay-coloured Sparrows in the Martindale Valley, so I was felt mentally equipped to identify the bird in front of me as a Clay-coloured Sparrow.  The general impression of a fall Spizella is a small sparrow with plain, tan underparts, a pinkish bill, a brownish back with darker streaks, and a relatively long tail.  After that, a combination of subtler features on the head and nape set the species apart.  The bird in the willows had unmarked lores, bold white malars, a prominent, solid grey collar, and two brown crown stripes (albeit a little indistinct).  These features all pointed to Clay-coloured Sparrow.  Because Chipping is the most expected species on Vancouver Island, the loral area is a good area to check once you know you're looking at a Spizella in the fall.  Chipping Sparrows have a dark line leading from the eye to the base of the bill that creates a bit of a dark-line-through-the-eye look when combined with the dark postocular stripe.  They also have more noticeable white eye arcs, which is also easy to see if you're focused on the loral area.  Brewer's Sparrow looks like a very dingy, muted version of Clay-coloured Sparrow, with lots of fine streaking on the crown, less contrasted malars, and an indistinct grey collar with fine streaking across the middle.  More advanced articles that articulate the subtle features and address variation found within each species can be found here and here.

Note the contrasted white malar, lack of a dark line across the loral area, and prominent grey collar
This was only the fourth Clay-coloured Sparrow I have seen in the Victoria checklist area, with the first being in July 2014 and the second and third came in short order as the aforementioned records in the Martindale Valley last winter.  This was my first self-found Clay-coloured Sparrow locally, which brings my Victoria self-found total to 262!

Well, that concludes my first blog posting in ages.  I feel like it was all over the board, but perhaps that's a good thing.  Now, get out there and dig deep, do a seawatch, dart all over town and check snags and fence lines, or have a cup of joe and watch your feeder.  There are some really good birds out there to be found and I am antsy to see something like a Rustic Bunting, Tropical Kingbird, or Brown Booby!

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Tropic Wonder

One of the many fellow birding Jeremys out there has been in a bit of a slumber, but a mini big day on November 9 seemed to rustle the beast out of sleep.  I could tell... when I dropped Jeremy Kimm off after a day that logged 100 species on the nose, he was already talking about weekend birding.  On Friday evening, he checked back in to see if I was still game for a day out on Saturday, November 12th.  Naturally, I was.  I suggested Sooke and points further west and he agreed.

We had intended to start our day at Billings Spit, but it was raining and we figured a brief check on the fields at Milnes Landing for gulls was in order.  It wasn't a bad decision because we had a nice little group of gulls to sift through and we promptly pulled an adult Ring-billed Gull out of the mix.  The salmon spawn was clearly on because we could hear a cacophony of gulls below along the Sooke River.  I guess the smell of decaying fish is another telltale sign!  We made our way over to the Sooke River Campground and pored over the gulls there, but nothing overly interesting jumped out.  The skies looked like they were going to lighten up, so we moved on to Billings Spit.

If you are from southern Vancouver Island and don't know Billings Spit, you are really missing out.  Or... maybe it's just me that enjoys the birding there.  It's a crazy mix of trailer parks, condos, houses, and industrial lots all set on a spit of land jutting out right beside where the Sooke River drains in to Sooke Harbour.  I personally had never seen anything rare in the area, but I always thought it had immense potential.  I like the area so much that I requested to do the Sooke Christmas Bird Count there last time I was around over the Christmas holidays.  Okay... enough gushing about how good Billings Spit is and on to the proof that Billings Spit is as great as I am claiming!

Jeremy and I drove out to the end of Kaltasin Rd and accessed the shoreline to see what the gull and waterfowl situation looked like at the outflow of the Sooke River.  As expected, there were hundreds of gulls and ducks to scrutinize, but alas we could not dig out anything out of the ordinary.  We then decided on Billings Rd to see if we could dig out any Townsend's Warblers.  The spit is easily one of the best places I know to search for Townsend's Warbler in the winter because there is a bunch of ivy and ornamental shrubs that seem to maintain high insect activity levels.  It was no surprise when we quickly heard the sharp "tick" call of a Townsend's from high up in an ivy-choked Doug-fir.  Next, we caught up with a small sparrow flock and Jeremy called out White-throated Sparrow.  It had momentarily popped down behind a fence, but gave itself up shortly after.  We were feeling pretty good and decided we should move along, but I wanted to make a quick stop at Lannan Flats at the end of Seabroom Rd.  This little slice of parkland is small, open, harbourside lot that is always worth a quick check.  As we pulled onto Seabroom, Jeremy and I immediately saw the silhouette of a robin-sized bird sitting on the bare branches of a small deciduous tree.  Jeremy joked "There's our Tropical Kingbird for the day."  It was one of those jokes that is one part predictive and one part hopeful... and we were both thinking it.  The bird then darted up, snapped up an insect, and returned to its perch.  We raised our binoculars as a formality, but we already knew it was indeed a Tropical Kingbird!  Through the binoculars, the lemon yellow underparts, grey head with ever-so-slightly darker auriculars, olive back, heavy bill, and lack of white outer tail feathers all cemented the identification.

Any bird with "tropical" in its name is bound to look very out of place in drab, wet Pacific Northwest weather!

We enjoyed the bird for a few minutes and then made sure to pass the word on to local birders over BCVIBIRDS.  We have had Tropical Kingbirds on the Island this fall, but they were all up in the Tofino/Ucluelet area.  Once that was out of the way, we went back to enjoying the bird for another 20 minutes or so.  As you can see in the photo above, it had started to drizzle and the bird wasn't being very cooperative.  It wanted to sit on a power line and I am not that keen on manmade features in wildlife photos.  I wanted to document the bird from more angles, so I just gave up on waiting for more organic perches.

The solid olive back really shows up nicely in this shot and perhaps the tail is trying to show a bit of a notch.

Tropical Kingbird was one of the birds I had hoped I would be able to connect with for my self-found list, so it was a very gratifying sighting!  With the kingbird, my self-found list now sits at 258 for the Victoria checklist area.

I won't give an extensive recap of the remainder of the day because the kingbird was the big highlight, but I will focus on our time at Jordan River a little.  The birding at Jordan River had been decent in the weeks prior to our visit.  Cathy Carlson had a Grey Catbird there on October 27 and Donna Ross and Ed Pellizzon had reported Palm Warbler on October 19 and November 4, respectively.  The weather was mediocre and we worked hard to dig out something interesting, but the best we could muster on land was a Swamp Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat.  The most interesting sighting, however, was around 25 Red Phalaropes in the surf very close to shore just west of the bridge.  Jeremy and I walked close to the water's edge and watched as the phalaropes frenetically fed and got tossed around in the surf.  The winds were pretty strong from the southwest and seemingly pushed them right in.  I had a feeling we might see some, but it was wild to have them so close.

Red Phalaropes in the surf - a rare sight from shore on Vancouver Island

It got a little bizarre when a small group flew up and the wind pushed them over the shore and they actually landed on the sand.  I had never seen a Red Phalarope out of water, but you could tell land-walking is not their forte!  At one point, a lone phalarope landed just over a couple metres away.  We were mildly in shock, but managed to snap off some photos.

So yeah... this happened

The phalarope invasion in the Strait of Juan de Fuca continues, so if you haven't seen Red Phalaropes before you should head out with a scope sooner than later.  More recent reports off Victoria have been into the hundreds, so this is the year.  The last major invasion of Red Phalaropes that I can recall in the strait was back in 2002, so don't let another 14 years lapse before you have this kind of opportunity!

Sunday 5 June 2016

Johnson's Hairstreak Rediscovered on Vancouver Island

If you don't already know, I am a bit of a nut when it comes to species at risk.  I enjoy learning about them and seeking them out.  Additionally, I love species that have interesting adaptations or a quirk in their life history.  If you can roll those two into one species, then you can be sure I am very eager to search for it!  One species that has a certain mystique to it in British Columbia is Johnson's Hairstreak (Callophrys johnsoni).  Hairstreaks are a personal favourite in the butterfly world as it is, but Johnson's isn't content just having that going for it.  Instead, it has evolved a very intricate life history that just seems so improbable.  The species is an old-growth conifer forest obligate because it's larval host plant is mistletoe (genus Arceuthobium).  I can't even fathom how long a relationship like that takes to develop - mind blown!  Needless to say, Johnson's Hairstreak has topped my most wanted butterfly list for years.

On May 10th, Devon Parker and his father, Michael, drove up above Jordan River to one of their favourite areas to search for butterflies.  They had a great trip and when they got back Devon sent some photos to Jeremy Tatum to put up on the Invertebrate Alert.  The next day, I viewed the photos and noticed the butterfly labeled as a Cedar Hairstreak looked very peculiar.  Our Cedar Hairstreaks are usually a rich orange-brown with an almost lavender-coloured wash and they have a jagged, white postmedial line, whereas the butterfly on my computer screen was a light chocolate brown and had a much straighter postmedial line.  I immediately did an image search of Johnson's Hairstreak for comparison and was shocked that the two photos had all the same features going on.  I was in disbelief.  I immediately fired off an e-mail to Jeremy Tatum hoping to get his input, but I wanted to get a response fast so I also fired off e-mails to a couple other respected BC lepidopterists.  Luckily Cris Guppy put my mind at ease quickly - it was indeed a Johnson's Hairstreak and he had already been directed to the photos by James Miskelly.  It's good to know we have a community that will catch these exciting finds!

I got a little history lesson on the Johnson's Hairstreak records on Vancouver Island.  I knew they had been documented on the Island, but I figured they had been extirpated because of the extensive clearcut logging that has left only fragments of awe-inspiring old-growth forest.  The three historical records, provided by James Miskelly on the BCButterflies Yahoo Group, are: Shawnigan Lake (1925), Robertson River (1959), and Nitinat Lake (1970).  Cris Guppy added a little more information, which I found to be quite interesting.  The Shawnigan Lake record was a specimen record of an adult caught on June 17th, while the Robertson River and Nitinat Lake records were reared specimens.  The Canadian Forest Service had a program that lasted decades, which involved beating trees, collecting the larvae that fell, and rearing them to determine which species were defoliating forest resources (conifers).  The reared specimens mentioned above came from this program.  Johnson's Hairstreak is truly an enigmatic species on Vancouver Island and it`s exceedingly exciting to have a record after not being recorded for more than 45 years!

After Cris Guppy confirmed the record, I tried to get in touch with Devon about the location.  I was starting to get anxious because the weekend was rapidly approaching and I thought it might be my only chance to attempt to find one this year.  Luckily, I got a text on Friday afternoon asking if I'd like to join Devon, Michael, and Jeremy Tatum on a trip the next day up to the area to look for the Johnson's.  I jumped at the opportunity!  We met at 10:00 a.m. and headed right out to Jordan River.  Out of respect for Devon, I won't disclose the location.  I would just suggest getting out to the Jordan River area and exploring some logging roads.  Some patches of older cedar-hemlock forest have not met chainsaws yet and I think there is potential that Johnson's Hairstreak could be found more extensively.  We arrived at the spot a little before noon and we started to search the roadside vegetation.  Shortly thereafter, Jeremy Tatum exclaimed something along the lines of "Brown butterfly overhead!  Small!"  I looked up to see a hairstreak-sized butterfly arcing over and landing on a blueberry shrub.  It was in a bad spot, but I leaned forward and saw tails... it was a hairstreak!  Just like that, we were glimpsing a butterfly I had thought was extirpated... a ghost.  I had chills.  But that was all that individual gave us for looks.  It rose back up and we lost it against the old-growth coniferous backdrop.  Luckily, it wasn't long before another (or perhaps the same one had doubled back) was found nectaring on a roadside willow.  This was pure bliss.  This one was approachable and allowed me to get very close, but it was a miserable model!  It only offered split second profile views and I kept missing the shot, but I got some decent ones in the end.

Johnson's Hairstreak nectaring on willow

Finally some cooperation!

Occasionally we would briefly get our hopes up that we had found another one, but every time it turned out to be Western Pine Elfin.  I am okay with that!

This is the blue-listed sheltonensis subspecies found west of the Coast and Cascade Mountains

I returned a couple times the following week and unfortunately the weather did not cooperate.  I did, however, remember to take some habitat shots and I was excited to find Hemlock Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium tsugense) up in one of the roadside hemlocks.

Johnson's Hairstreak habitat: old-growth cedar-hemlock forest

This is potentially Arceuthobium tsugense ssp. mertensianae as it parasitizing Mountain Hemlock

I am grateful to Devon and Michael Parker for not only getting out and exploring areas that have not received adequate butterfly surveying in recent years, but also for extending the invite out to me and Jeremy Tatum to join them on a return visit.  I will return to the area in future years to try to find more sites this highly specialized butterfly persists on Vancouver Island and hopefully get a better sense of its local status.

I think it's important to add a note about the implications of a local find of this magnitude.  We have lost several butterfly species, including some regional endemic subspecies, on Vancouver Island over the last century, including: Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus ssp. californicus), Island Marble (Euchloe ausonides ssp. insulanus), Taylor's Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha ssp. taylori), and Island Blue (Plebejus saepiolus ssp. insulanus).  The latter was a Vancouver Island endemic subspecies and has not been recorded since 1979.  Rediscoveries like the Johnson's Hairstreak sighting provide a glimmer of hope that some of those species thought lost might persist out there and it just takes a bit of luck and the right set of eyes.  I wouldn't mind if that set of eyes happens to be mine, but I'd just be happy to learn we haven't let another taxon fizzle out.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Two Notches Up on the Victoria Checklist Area Belt

I was away for 11 weeks with work and visiting family in Ontario, but I am back in Victoria and have been trying to make up for lost birding time.  Luckily were are in the midst of what is shaping up to be an interesting fall.

With more than a week of work left in Fort McMurray, I received word that a Black-throated Sparrow was found at Whiffin Spit.  The sighting was quite unprecedented for the fall; all sightings of Black-throated Sparrow in the province have been from early May to early July.  In the Victoria checklist area, we have only two previous records:

1) June 18-19, 1992 at Somenos Marsh, found by Derrick Marven
2) June 16, 1994 at Mount Tolmie, found by Keith Taylor

I didn't chase many birds when I was young, so these records were not ones I capitalized on more than 20 years ago.  For more than a week I nervously watched BCVIBIRDS to see if the Black-throated Sparrow was still being seen.  I also watched the soap opera unfold of a rapidly growing tick on the sparrow's face.  Now I was hoping not only that the bird would stay, but also that the tick would be gone.  I got home on October 8th and could have immediately zipped out to Whiffin Spit, but I just wanted to do some relaxing birding.  The next day I apparently wanted more relaxing birding, so it wasn't until October 10th that I finally made my way out to Whiffin Spit.  I left fairly early and got out to Sooke before 8:30 a.m.  The most recent reports said the bird was right by the parking lot, so I basically hopped out and started looking.  The first bird I heard was a bit surprising: a Yellow Warbler was giving some sharp call notes as it fed in a maple at the edge of the parking lot.  They are pretty scarce once the calendar rolls over to October, but this was surprisingly the second I had seen in two days.

Drab fall Yellow Warbler blending in nicely with the changing Bigleaf Maple leaves

After checking out the Yellow Warbler, I turned my attention to searching for the Black-throated Sparrow.  It was an extremely anticlimactic event as I immediately found it in the short grass at the edge of the parking lot.  The sparrow was very cooperative and looked a little worse for wear.  The tick had fallen off a couple days earlier, but the feathers around the attachment site were all missing and there was an unsightly mark in its place.  I walked the rest of the spit, but couldn't drum up anything interesting.  By the time I finished my walk, I found another birder enjoying the Black-throated Sparrow.  I didn't recognize said birder, but was soon introduced to Neil Hughes who recently moved back to southern Vancouver Island from Powell River.  I'm always happy to meet new birders and learn the community has an extra set of skilled eyes in its midst.  We chatted for a while as the Black-throated Sparrow busily fed along the edge of the beach.  The bird was sometimes too obliging for our cameras, but certainly not for our eyes.  Despite the rather bedraggled condition of this rarity from southern aridlands, it was a treat to see one on southern Vancouver Island.

The scruffy little Black-throated Sparrow scored this tasty morsel while foraging around the rocks at the base of the beach

The next day, news of another exciting bird ended up in my e-mail: Cathy Carlson had a Brown Booby about three miles offshore from Beechey Head in East Sooke.  This species has been ending up in British Columbia waters more frequently in the past five years, and there have been other sightings this year in the Strait of Juan de Fuca/Puget Sound area on the Washington side.  There has been at least one other record for the Victoria checklist area from 2007, but that record has not been formally submitted for review.  As a result, once Cathy's superb photos of the juvenile Brown Booby, seen here, will go down as the first official record for the area.

I recognized the needle-in-a-haystack luck required in relocating the booby, but decided to give it a shot.  The bird was seen from Beechey Head in East Sooke, so I decided to head to a spot that not many birders think to visit.  I drove out to the westernmost point of East Sooke, which puts you at a rather unpleasant development called Silver Spray.  This development has been around for ages, but it seemed to get put on the backburner for more than a decade.  I was surprised to see there was an open house within the gates of the development, so it appears a developer is well underway to finish off this project.  It's a real shame, but hopefully they will retain some public land there because it is a great vantage point for seawatching.  I followed a crude crushed rock trail down to a leveled off area and set up the scope.  I started by checking the rocks below, but only had California, Heermann's, Thayer's, Mew, and Glaucous-winged Gulls.  On the water, Common Murres were plentiful.  The close waters had no oddball birds, so I pushed my scan further offshore.  I quickly spotted the fluke of a Humpback Whale way out in the strait.  While scanning back and forth for a blow from the Humpback, I spotted a log with a few birds sitting on it.  If you're going to spot a booby, it'll either be flying (and hopefully plunge-diving), resting on a log, or sitting on a boat mast.  One of the birds on the log was dark and bulky.  I was immediately intrigued by its relatively squat-legged, pot-bellied, long-tailed appearance, but I wanted to ensure it wasn't a cormorant with its neck coiled or even just a juvenile gull.

The bird was content sitting on the log and after over an hour it had only budged a few times.  I tried to maintain focus on the bird, but had to give my eyes periodic relief due to the monochromatic pale grey sea and sky that provided a backdrop.  On a couple occasions, the bird stretched its wings and these events provided glimmers of hope that it was indeed a booby.  I would have expected a cormorant to uncoil its neck, but when the dark bird on the log flapped, it maintained a thick neck.  The wings looked long and pointed, too, much like one of the photos Cathy managed.  I got really hopefully when a large Glaucous-winged Gull circled over the log and decided to land on it.  The gull flushed off a couple other gulls and began to walk over to the booby-like bird.  The bird again flapped up its wings, but did not budge.  I watched the bird for more than an hour and half under conditions that occasionally saw wisps of fog add to already trying conditions.  The entire time I watched the bird, I knew I had stay on it until it flew.  I had no idea if I would just be sitting there until sundown or not.  Finally, however, the bird raised its wings and pushed off the log and took flight.  This was the moment I had been waiting for and it could have deflated me in an instant if a snake-like neck had shot out and squared-off wings carried the bird off low over the water.  Instead, everything crystalized.  The bird maintained a long, thick neck blending right into the head.  The wings were long, and slightly swept back, the tail was also long.  The bird gave lumbering-but-strong wing beats with the occasional glide thrown in.  I have seen many Northern Gannets off Newfoundland, both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies in waters off Mexico, Central America and South America, and Masked Boobies off O'ahu.  In other words, I know what a sulid looks like in flight.  For a moment, I thought the Brown Booby was going to hitch a ride on a large tug that had passed by 15 minutes earlier, but instead it swirled down and dropped onto another log.  I was riding pretty high and had hoped to stay on the bird for a while longer, but after another 10 minutes a light drizzle started over land and soon the band of water containing the booby was enveloped in a veil of light fog.

I have been told this photo does my observation more harm than good, but I don't really understand why one would disregard the written description and focus on something not really in focus - the photo is grainy, pixellated, and heavily cropped.  The photo borders on useless, but I still see some features there that I view as booby-like.  The bird is dark, pot-bellied, and long-tailed.  I am including the photo just to show that you can't always get effective documentation.  In the birding world, photographic evidence has pretty much become the standard and anything less is suspect.  Gone are the days of careful observation, written notes, and field sketches.  Instead, it seems you'll gain more traction if you just raise your camera and snap a shot.  I frequently have to make difficult decisions about observations just like this on the British Columbia Bird Records Committee.  I have found it quite refreshing to see that careful written descriptions can sometimes inspire more confidence than a photograph.  In fact, some records get shelved due to a lack of a written description when the photographic evidence fails.  You can tell some identifications are an afterthought and actually the result of putting too much emphasis on a photo that may not accurately portray a bird.  Okay... I think that's enough of that little tangent.

With the Black-throated Sparrow and Brown Booby, the two notches added to my Victoria checklist area belt, I have edged very close to the 300 milestone.  I currently sit at 298.  Perhaps I will have to take a run up to Spectacle Lake to see if I can finally pick up a checklist area Grey Jay.  I like to think of it a bird in my back pocket, but it will probably be more difficult than I think to connect with one.  Hopefully this El NiƱo has a few more surprises in store for us!

Sunday 3 May 2015

Alliteration Saturday: Solitary Sandpiper, succumbed Sandhill, and Self-found Success

I got a text this morning from Jody Wells about some shorebird activity at Saanichton Spit.  After a couple texts back-and-forth, I called him and we chatted for a bit.  At some point in the conversation, I was reminded that some people actually read this blog and that I suck at updating it.  That more or less forced me to get out and find some birds today and even though I could easily dig through the vault from the past month, I will post my current sightings instead.

After a rather late start, I headed out towards Thetis Lake Regional Park.  On the way, I thought I would check to see if any water remained at Hastings Flats.  Well, there is just enough water to host a couple dozen Least Sandpipers on the flats on the south side of the road and a decent-sized patch of standing water on the north side had a single Solitary Sandpiper.  Having just watched the one in the flooded area off Welch Rd. near Livesay St., I knew it was a Solitary without even raising my binoculars.  I probably see anywhere from two to ten in Victoria in a given year, so they're somewhat uncommon and always a treat to observe.

The barred tail, dark olive back with white spots, yellow-green legs, and prominent "spectacles" all point to Solitary Sandpiper

Last weekend, a Sandhill Crane was found at Hastings Flats and by early evening it was suggested it was not in good shape.  The bird was seen on Monday, but the reports ceased after that.  Today, I noticed a trail of feathers leading to a carcass on the southern flat.  I walked out to it and confirmed it was the Sandhill Crane.  I wonder if the long journey north was too energetically demanding for this bird and it couldn't rebound.  It was a cruel fate and I know some people don't like to hear about death in nature.  Well... if you're one of those people, you should probably stop reading now because you'll hate the next picture!

Turkey Vulture looming over Sandhill Crane carcass

Carrying on the theme of how cruel nature can be, I witnessed a rather remarkable scene just before leaving the flats.  I watched a Red-tailed Hawk heading rapidly to the patch of oaks flanking the southern flats on the east side.  It had its talons dropped and dashed right in to the oak.  It flushed out a second Red-tailed Hawk, which zipped out of the oaks and was soon followed by the first.  The first Red-tailed aggressively swooped at the second, which forced it to drop a meal from its talons. It turned out to be either a duckling or gosling, and the first Red-tailed pounced immediately and carried it up to the oaks.  Quite the macabre place today, but it instills awe over any other emotion for me.

Thetis Lake was pretty much a bust.  I was hoping to bump in to Dusky Flycatcher, but I would have settled for a Hammond's.  Neither obliged.  I did, however, hear my first Black-headed Grosbeak of the year and plenty of Wilson's Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, and Pacific-slope Flycatchers were singing and/or calling.

I headed back to the Saanich Peninsula before 6:00 p.m. because I had to pick up Janean from the airport.  I had time to scan some of the fence lines around the airport and also a nice plowed field off Willingdon Rd.  The plowed field was where the magic happened.  I learned to check this particular field a couple years ago when I had a single Whimbrel standing on the turned-over soil.  The field was plowed in the last week, so I have made a couple visits recently, but no shorebirds were found other than Killdeer.  This time, I scanned over the field with my binoculars and very quickly spotted a large shorebird with a decurved bill.  I have been able to observe several Whimbrel over the past week and could tell immediately this was no Whimbrel.  The overall colour was a warm tan with dark checkering and the bill was LONG.  I zipped back to the car to get the scope and confirmed my suspicion: a Long-billed Curlew!  The slightly closer views revealed the signature bill shape, indistinct crown stripes, and a prominent teardrop-shaped eyering.  I soaked in a minute of views and then rushed off to get Janean.  Even though she had just endured nearly a day of travel coming from Dublin, I informed her I was up to my usual antics and had to go back to document my curlew.  She's always a trooper and even joined me to watch the curlew through the scope while I snapped off some pictures.

Classic Long-billed Curlew!

We watched the curlew for maybe five minutes before it decided to take flight.  The bird called as it flew northeast over the airport.

View of the Long-billed Curlew flying off

So, to account for the final alliterative component to the title, this was a self-found Victoria tick for me.  As you may know from previous entries, my Victoria checklist area self-found list is one I take great pride in, so I was pretty thrilled to finally find my own curlew.  I even hoped it might be in that exact field.  When I had that Whimbrel two years ago, I was certain it was going to be a Long-billed Curlew.  Try as I might, I couldn't turn it into one.  I had a similar scenario last Tuesday when rolling along Lochside Dr. between Island View and Martindale Rds.  A field there had recently been plowed and there was a lighter brown spot that contrasted the darker, turned-over soil.  I was hoping for Long-billed Curlew because one had been reported by Mike McGrenere the day before.  It, too, turned out to be a Whimbrel.  For comparison, I have an even worse record shot of the Whimbrel.  It should give you an idea of how they differ even at a distance.  Features to look at, include: colder overall colouration, bolder head pattern, lack of a prominent eyering, comparatively shorter and more evenly decurved bill, and indistinct (less bold) checkering on the back and wings.

Record shot of Whimbrel from Martindale Flats

To wrap this up, the Long-billed Curlew was my 254th self-found bird for Victoria.  Catching up with one was a great way to end my sunny Saturday session.

Sunday 22 March 2015

Field Birding Season: Mountain Bluebirds!

I've been off on some adventures and if I know what's good for me I'll eventually post something about my travels in Colombia.  For now, though, I'll write up on my Saturday birding on the Saanich Peninsula.

As soon as it nears mid-March, the birding options really open up locally.  You can either head up to the Parksville/Qualicum area to take in the hordes of waterfowl and gulls that descend upon the area to partake in the feast presented by the herring spawn or you can search estuaries, driftwood-dotted shorelines, open Garry Oak hills, and any fields (e.g., airports or agricultural areas) in hopes of catching up with Say's Phoebes or Mountain Bluebirds.

Despite wanting to sift through the gulls and waterfowl up Island, I was a little too festive the night before to get up early.  I decided to visit some of my favourite field haunts on the Saanich Peninsula, starting at Maber Flats and ending around the airport.

At Maber Flats, I ran in to Randy Dzenkiw and we sifted through the waterfowl, but other than a couple Eurasian Wigeons there wasn't anything too exciting.  I told him my intentions to continue north up the peninsula and he had planned to check out Panama Flats, so we went our own ways.  I snaked my way along West Saanich Rd., up Mount Newton X Rd., and back south down East Saanich Rd. to the eastern portion Hovey Rd.  In 2007 I found a group of 12 Mountain Bluebirds at the tree farm on Mount Newton X Rd. and in 2013 I found a lone male Mountain Bluebird in the field between Central Saanich Rd. and the eastern end of Hovey Rd.  Both of those sightings were in the second week of April, but I know it is not without precedent to be searching now because there are sightings of both Say's Phoebe and Mountain Bluebirds from the Lower Mainland already this year.  Unfortunately I was unable to recreate the magic of those past sightings at either of those sites.

I then made my way over the Vantreight bulb fields (I refuse to call it Longview Farms) so check a small tree farm of Newman Rd., but also to check in on the Sky Larks.  As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, I could hear the continuous song of a Sky Lark from above.  I don't check in on them often enough, so I'm always happy to confirm their persistence so I can continue to recommend this spot as the best place to get good views of the Sky Larks.  I walked north past the greenhouses and spotted a couple more and hoped I would be able to spot one sitting in a little open patch of ground for a photo.  As luck would have it, I did spot one just in the grass near the edge of the road.  My luck wasn't picture perfect, though, because some of said grass was in front of the bird and prevented a clean shot.  I was still happy with the results.

They're a pretty drab bird, but Sky Larks to more are more about the song.  Everyone should hear them at least once!

The little tree farm by the bulb fields only produced a flock of a dozen or so Violet-green Swallows and at least one Tree Swallow, plus a flyover Northern Harrier.  I should be promoting the use of eBird periodically, so to see the utility you can check out my list from the bulb fields here:

Next, I made my way to the airport and checked almost all the fence lines around the southern half and the best I could muster was another Northern Harrier.  I was going to check the gulls where Wsikem Creek drains into Patricia Bay.  Despite it being a Saturday, there was construction going on right at the beach and the area was virtually devoid of gulls.  I continued into Deep Cove and came back to check the fields just north of the airport along Munro and John Rds.  When I got to the eastern end of Munro Rd. a short ways before it comes to a dead end, I scanned the fields to the north.  Almost immediately I spotted a mid-sized bird that had a flash of blue.  I immediately hopped out and got the scope set up.  It took a minute, but I managed to get a stunning male Mountain Bluebird in the field of view.  A search with my binoculars revealed a female Mountain Bluebird was also out there.  Now you're going to get a lesson in what record shots are all about.  I waited until the male and female could be captured in the same frame and fired off a photo.  Checking on Google Maps, the bluebirds were over 200 metres away.  It's always amazing to me to see the results when you crop in on the birds... they're still recognizable as Mountain Bluebirds!

Classic record shot: a pair of Mountain Bluebirds through a mesh plastic fence.

I finished my day with a search along John Rd., which added a Northern Shrike, Hairy Woodpecker, and a couple Yellow-rumped Warblers for the day.  As I headed home, I saw Mary Robichaud had called and by the time I got back to her she had found the bluebirds.  When I checked the computer a while later I saw Brian Starzomski had also enjoyed the bluebirds, and the following morning at least a couple more (Liam Singh and Aziza Cooper) were able to find just the female.  I love being able to report a species in a timely manner and nothing makes me happier than seeing that others have been able to catch up with a bird I have found.  It's good to be back and hopefully this spring brings some rarities to break the birding dry spell the entire province has been under!

Sunday 1 February 2015

Going Bananas With an Anna's

It has been long enough that I figured I should at least put up a little something.  I have been very frustrated by the weather as of late.  We had absolutely immaculate weather for late January for pretty much five days straight: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  The forecast was looking good for Saturday until roughly Friday when the forecast shifted to pea soup fog in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon.

On Friday afternoon I started to feel a little under the weather and this feeling extended into Saturday morning.  Despite that, I still wanted to get out for some fresh air.  I had to drop my dad off at an appointment midday, so I decided that I would check out a park I had never been to after delivering my old man.  Beckwith Park is an interesting spot that I had somehow never been to, so I figured it was high time that I paid it a visit.

The park holds a little forested pond that hosts Wood Ducks and Mallards that local residents come to feed.  In a sense, it is like King's Pond and Bow Park.  I was hoping this water might draw in something else interesting, but the best bird I came across was a Lincoln's Sparrow.  Not exactly a big score, but always nice to see.

I had my camera handy and one bird really stole the show.  We are in the midst of the Anna's Hummingbird breeding season, so they can be quite territorial.  I found one male that was very cooperative as it worked its little Garry Oak rock outcrop territory.  It was quite faithful to a few perches in particular and it allowed close approach.  Despite the suboptimal light levels, I still got the shutter clicking away.  I will sign off here and just leave you with a couple of Anna's shots that I hope you enjoy!