Saturday, 31 March 2012

Spaghetti Western

This morning I toured around the Metchosin area in hopes of catching up with a couple spring birds.  My first stops provided a combination of lingering winter fare and resident birds.

Gadwalls (Anas strepera), such as this male, are a resident species of waterfowl to the Victoria area

My luck changed near Weir's Beach when I heard the distinctive whir of a Rufous Hummingbird's (Selasphorus rufus) wings.  I scanned through a patch of flowering Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and spotted a male darting from flower to flower.

With a bit of persistence, I eventually managed this capture of the male Rufous Hummingbird visiting a Salmonberry blossom

The Salmonberry flowers were looking so vivid and fresh that I couldn't help but take an extra shot or two.  I'm sure you'll agree it was worth the effort!

The flowering of Salmonberry is perfectly synchronized with the arrival of Rufous Hummingbirds

I detoured over to the Goodrich Peninsula in hopes of finding Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) due to their presence a couple kilometres away at Whiffin Spit.  There were no bluebirds to be found, but I did have my first Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and migrating Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) of the year.  Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca)were in abundance again at this location, including a couple singing males.

One of the Fox Sparrows was kind enough to pose for a minute on one of the many Himalayan Blackberry (R. armeniacus) shrubs

I finished my day off at Esquimalt Lagoon where I decided to take some photos of a couple birds that would likely be identified as Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis) to the laybirder.  I personally have no idea where the spectrum of northern Western Gulls (ssp. occidentalis) stops and hybrids with Glaucous-winged Gulls (L. glaucescens) - also known as Olympic Gulls due to their prevalence around the Olympic Peninsula - begin in terms of mantle shade.  Personally, I felt these were Spaghetti Westerns.  That's really just a term I made up, but I think it's suitable.  In birding, if someone deceptively reports a bird, it is termed "stringing".  During big days (a competition to see who can find the most birds in a day), I'm sure a few stringy Western Gulls sneak onto lists.  Spaghetti is stringy, hence Spaghetti Western.  The birds I saw today appear quite similar to a typical Western Gull, but the mantle shade is a touch paler, the primaries (wingtips) don't quite seem truly black, and the orbital ring appears to have a touch of pink mixed in the yellowish tone.  It is subtle but it would be more apparent if it was side-by-side-by-side with a Western and a Glaucous-winged for an idyllic comparison.  Here are two examples of Olympic Gulls:

The hot Jerry Springer topic in the bird world is: interspecies relationships

This one's bill is a little more orange, but the wingtips are a bit greyer

If I get the chance in the next while, I'll try to get a photo of what I believe to be a pure Western Gull for comparison.  Enough of the gulls, though. Also at the lagoon, there is a big flock of blackbirds and starlings and they are quite entertaining to watch.  Surprisingly, there was a nice adult male Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) in the mix, but it flew a second after I noticed it.  I did, however, get a couple shots of male Brewer's Blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus), so that will be the finale for this entry.

For something called a "blackbird", they have a lot of nice colours coming off those feathers

Monday, 26 March 2012

Things that go croak in the night...

When I think of signs that indicate spring is upon us, I often mentally conjure up visions of blooming plants, swallows circling over bodies of water, alternate plumage Yellow-rumped Warblers, and garter snakes basking to draw in the sun's warmth.  There are, however, many auditory cues that also tell us spring is in the air.

There is a small manmade pond just outside my place that comes alive with the sound of Pacific Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) after dark each evening. As winter started winding down, the odd slow-rolling croak could be heard around the pond's edge.  Frogs must use calendars because a symphony of "rib-it" calls started just as spring kicked off.  I have never really associated this sound with the commencement of spring because I didn't grow up next to a wetland.  For the last two years, however, I have been able to enjoy the sound of dozens of chorus frogs in the background in the early spring.

Tonight I decided it was time to pair the sound with the sight of a few males croaking in the shallows.  It is amazing to be able to watch the males sitting at the water's surface with their vocal sacs expanding and contracting as they give their distinctive "rib-it" calls.  Here is a photo of one of the males I observed this evening:

This Pacific Chorus Frog is broadcasting to all the lady frogs out there

If you want to observe some Pacific Chorus Frogs in action, now is the time to head down to your local marsh at night with a flashlight.  Make sure you're in a place where it isn't too creepy to be roaming around with a flashlight!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spit one day, swallows the next...

I enjoy doing a vacation late in the winter because the scene has noticeably changed by the time I return.  When I left for Panama at the end of February, murmurings of spring were starting.  The Bewick's Wrens were singing, drake waterfowl were engaging in testosterone-addled rituals, and Anna's Hummingbirds were gathering cattail fluff for nests.  I still peeked at the local sightings while I was Panama to see how things were progressing and I read news of Orange-crowned Warblers returning, swallows over Swan Lake, Brant filtering north through the Strait of Georgia, and the start of the herring spawn.  I was anxious to get out and see the signs of spring for myself this weekend and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

On Saturday, I zipped off for an afternoon jaunt to the tip of Saanichton Spit to see if anything interesting had rolled in during my absence.  The birding was actually quite slow and most sightings were more representative of winter dragging on than the transition to spring.  Near the sparse patch of conifers, the long-staying Snow Bunting put in an appearance.  It won't be long before it departs for more northerly climes.

Seen on Saturday, perhaps this Snow Bunting was hanging on
for the brief sprinkle of snow on Sunday before it heads north

The group of Western Meadowlarks that overwintered on the spit have their hormone levels shifting into high gear, with multiple males sitting up on logs singing.  Meadowlarks bred on Vancouver Island historically, but they have long since been extirpated as a breeding species and we are only able to enjoy their songs for a brief window in late winter and early spring.  My best harbinger of spring came as I was driving away and gave one last look over the gulls.  Among the usual assortment, I spotted around ten California Gulls.  I enjoy seeing them in the spring as some individuals have a leg colour that is a rather morbid shade of yellow-green, while others show off a radiant set of school bus yellow legs.

On Sunday morning, I got in touch with Jeremy K. to see if he was game to continue digging up more spring goodies.  He is a good sport and was easily convinced to head out my way so we could start with a pass through the Martindale area, head out to the Victoria waterfront, and then meander our way back.  

Our morning started rather slowly and we didn't really pick up anything of interest until we reached the Blenkinsop area.  Along Lohbrunner Rd., a pale grey spot up in a Garry Oak proved to be a Northern Shrike.  A couple minutes later, we passed the Mount Douglas Golf Course and were surprised to find a different Northern Shrike posing atop a small tree.

We carried on southeast and punched out to the waterfront at Cattle Point.  Normally Cattle Point is rather mundane in terms of gulls, but the scene livens up a little while gulls are on the move up the strait.  By bare eye, I could see a couple California Gulls on the water.  With the binoculars, several more Californias jumped out of the mix on the rocks as did a couple juvenile Thayer's and a nice adult Herring Gull.

This adult Herring Gull is stood out nicely among the usual assortment of gulls on the rocks at Cattle Point

Two of the California Gulls offered a great comparison between a third-winter (left) and an adult (right)

While being nerdy with the gulls, I made sure not to neglect a rather confiding Black Turnstone that edged its way in close enough for a decent shot.

This Black Turnstone was working the water's edge on one of the rocks off Cattle Point

The remainder of the day went to a few somewhat rapid-fire searches.  We met up with Jon Carter - a birder I had corresponded with before but never had the pleasure of meeting - who treated us with a showing of a Great Horned Owl.  Harling and Clover Points and Mounts Tolmie and Douglas were all checked, but the stints of sunshine brought out the masses and kept bird activity at bay.  That and it's just a touch early for some of our hoped-for targets.  I still enjoy the usual suspects, though, so this Dark-eyed Junco got a little attention while we were up on Mount Doug:

I would almost say the lichen-covered Garry Oak branch is just as photogenic as the Dark-eyed Junco

Jeremy K. is already getting a little antsy about picking up Redhead for his big year, so we stopped in at Elk Lake to see if one had magically shown up in the last while and avoided detection.  His worry is not unfounded as he saw a grand total of two last year - a male and female that made a brief appearance at Viaduct Flats.  Aside from that, they were not reported on the Island last year.  That background is largely irrelevant because we didn't find one.  We were a little stunned to scan out on the lake and see a Red-throated Loon floating in the distance.  I decided I would take a miserable record shot, crop it, and present it.  Why not?

Sasquatch or Red-throated Loon?  You make the call!

I'll add a couple more shots from the lake for good measure.  First, probably one of the more emblematic birds of North America that is definitely taken for granted most of the time.

The uniformly dark head contrasting the grey back of this American Robin distinguishes it as a male

At the Beaver Lake side, we came across a flock of approximately 80 American Coots that looked great in the late sun from the southwest.

Unfortunately this shot doesn't show off the American Coots' outrageous feet

While scanning out over Elk Lake, I could see a handful of very distant swallows seemingly feeding over the water.  We came across perhaps the same group from the Beaver Lake side as they swirled over the conifers at the far end of the lake.  We finished our day at the fields along Oldfield Rd. and were once again treated to a group of swallows.  Rather than distant views, they made several low passes over the fields and we were able to identify the majority as Violet-greens with a smattering of Trees mixed in.  A flooded section hosted a nice selection of ducks, including at least a couple Gadwalls, dozens of American Wigeons and Green-winged Teals, a bird Jeremy K. identified as a female Eurasian Wigeon, and another teal that was either a hybrid Green-winged x Common or pure Common Teal.  The bird lacked the white shoulder spur, had an unimpressive white horizontal stripe, but the face had a very pronounced facial pattern.  Below, another cryptozoology-style photo shows the bird in question and might even reveal one or two of the aforementioned features.

The right bird has no white shoulder spur, vaguely visible white horizontal stripe on the body, and well-defined
 facial pattern that peg it as either a Common Teal or a bird with some Eurasian genes flowing through it

In addition to all the spring bird action, the plants were perhaps even a better indicator of the times.  Two flowering shrubs, Indian Plum and Red-flowering Currant, were conspicuous with their flowers in full bloom.  With the latter typically synchronous with the arrival of Rufous Hummingbirds, it is only a matter of time before I glimpse a flash of orange followed by the characteristic whir created by their wings.  At Harling Point, Bear's-foot Sanicle dotted the grass edge in a fashion that lends itself more to its other common name: Footsteps-of-Spring.  Finally, at Mount Douglas the first wave of plants I locally associate with Garry Oak habitats had pushed out some blooms, including Chickweed Monkeyflower, Small-flowered Blue-eyed Mary, and Spring-gold.

Regardless of the brief snowy interlude today, I know spring has arrived and I look forward to all that the season brings.  Feel free to drop a comment on spring activity you've noted or just your favourite sign of spring.

Friday, 9 March 2012

A Short Tale About a Long Tail

Janean and I are currently in the western highlands of Panama above Cerro Punta at Los Quetzales Ecolodge.  We walked part of the Los Quetzales Trail in Parque Nacional Volcan Baru and a ranger took us to a draw where we saw two male and one female Resplendent Quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinna)!  I have seen quetzals on more than one occasion but this was definitely the most amazing setting.  Here is a photo of from the breathtaking event:

I have to say that the quetzal is one of the most beautiful birds I have encountered in the wild.  I'm sure I could see thousands more and still rank this bird in the top three.  It must be something about the setting - the perpetual breeze that causes their tail feathers to drift off to one side and the lush vegetation with trees all draped in moss.  Stunning!