Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Jeremy and the Golden Thrasher

This is destined to become a tale of legend not unlike Jason and the Golden Fleece.  Actually, none of my adventures are destined to work their way into local folklore.  They will almost certainly just fade into the internet ether.  Enough of that depressive musing about not having a legacy... rare bird story time!

I was doing some work in the Bush Arm of Kinbasket Lake, northwest of Golden, when I encountered a bird a little off course.  In the spring, Sage Thrashers can turn up just about anywhere.  Anywhere can be the middle of nowhere and that's exactly where I was!  While doing surveys on May 18th, my co-worker said "What's that?", pointing at a tan-coloured bird approximately 50 metres away.  I shot up my binoculars and caught a quick glimpse of the bird hopping up to the base of a cedar stump, cocking its tail once and then vanishing under the stump.  I was thoroughly intrigued so I dashed over to further investigate.  As I swiftly walked towards the mystery bird, two American Pipits flushed up and made me wonder if my sanity was in check.  That wouldn't make sense for what I saw!  The bird then popped out on the other side of the stump and for a split second I thought it was a female Mountain Bluebird because I wasn't ready for such a rarity. My binoculars went up and my jaw went down... a Sage Thrasher had wandered up the Rocky Mountain Trench and ended up right in front of me!

This Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus) definitely looked out of
place running from cedar stump to cedar stump like a roadrunner!

I have only seen Sage Thrashers in B.C. a handful of times within their very restricted breeding range.  I have seen them once or twice on Nighthawk Rd. (west of Osoyoos), once or twice at White Lake (southwest of Okanagan Falls), and once on Anarchist Mountain (east of Osoyoos).  The advantage of seeing them in a very open landscape is obvious - I was able to watch the thrasher running across open patches!  I have heard of other species of thrashers doing this, such as LeConte's and Crissal, but I didn't know Sage Thrashers did it.  It was very cool to watch.  It would raise its tail and take long strides as it scurried through the open, which seemed almost roadrunner-like.

I have been fairly lucky the last few years with rare birds found during work.  In 2009, I serendipitously found a singing Northern Parula and followed it up with a male Chestnut-collared Longspur a couple days later while working south of Nakusp.  The next year, once again working south of Nakusp, I had a Red Phalarope in the fall which is an excellent bird to find away from the coast.  With a Sage Thrasher already under my belt for 2012, it's hard not to be optimistic about the prospects of another exciting find!  As it stands, I feel I can run off the seratonin from the thrasher sighting if nothing else materializes this year!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Interiorly Decorated

How ironic... or something resembling irony!  On International Migratory Bird Day, two species decided to show us they are not so apt at finding their normal range.

I woke up early this morning after getting to bed earlier than usual last night, so I opted to go for a walk at Saanichton Spit.  The spit was deader than I've seen it in ages, so I decided to make tracks and head out to the airport.  I had nearly finished my circuit around the airport when I made one last stop just east of the terminal.  I scanned out over the fence lines and fields and noticed a hawk low over the field.  I thought "Hmmm... that has quite the dihedral going on!"  When it banked, it showed black primaries and secondaries - it was a classic light phase Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)!  I hopped out and put it in the scope and saw other key features, such as a brown hood, a clean white chest, and a sandy grey-brown back.  I even watched it dive into the grass a couple of times in hopes of snagging a vole or a snake!  I called up Jeremy K. and he was in the exact spot he didn't want to be at that moment, which was smack dab on the top of Mount Wells.  He booked it down the mountain, met me at my place and we zipped out to the airport, which ended up being a shade under two hours since I last saw the bird.  We pulled over at the spot I had originally seen the hawk and started scanning - is it that one?  Nope... Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  That one above it?  Nope... another Red-tailed Hawk.  How about the one over the control tower?  Yes!  We watched the light phase Swainson's Hawk wheeling around over the fields for a couple minutes before noticing another interesting dark phase hawk.  It had several features in line with the light phase, but its chest was uniformly chocolate brown.  When it banked and showed its back, we could see it was the same sandy grey-brown colour as the light phase's and it graded abruptly stopped at the blackish primaries and secondaries.  Additionally, the tail didn't have a trace of rusty-red like any of the dark version of Red-tailed Hawks.  After watching it for a while, we were quite certain it was another Swainson's Hawk!  Below are pictures (not great) of the two different Swainson's seen today.

Light phase Swainson's Hawk - no doubt about this classic bird!

Dark phase Swainson's Hawk at the Victoria International Airport - note the white undertail coverts (if you squint)

I managed to capture the light phase and dark phase Swainson's in the same frame for comparison - awesome!

We continued on to the Vantreight bulb fields where things were slow, then Jeremy K. abruptly said "We have to go!"  I thought that was a tad urgent, but I knew he had early afternoon plans.  He then clarified by turning his phone to show me a message indicating there was a Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) at Panama Flats.  We turned tail, hopped in the car, hit the highway, and made our way out to the flats.  We luckily picked the right corner of the flats and were soon looking at two female Wilson's Phalaropes!  What a great day of birding with two species normally found in the interior of the province!  And two of each to boot!

One of the Wilson's Phalaropes in the southeast pond at Panama Flats

Female Wilson's Phalaropes exemplify a rare case (aside from humans) where the females are more striking than the males.  Their mating system is polyandrous, which means there is a role reversal where males perform most of the parental duties while the female competes for mates.