Saturday, 22 September 2012

Rock out with your hawks out!

Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) alert!  In that last few decades, the mystery of Broad-winged Hawk migration has been slowly unraveling on southern Vancouver Island.  Every fall, the species is now recorded in small numbers (usually <10 individuals) primarily from hawk watch efforts at Rocky Point Bird Observatory and Beechey Head.

I had an unfortunately brief but exciting encounter with a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk at Mount Tolmie on Friday (September 21, 2012) afternoon.  I had never seen a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk on southern Vancouver Island and I'm not sure if that's because I primarily hone in on the more obvious pattern of adults or if they're genuinely less frequent here.  I always enjoy actually identifying something rather than complacently accepting it as the obvious choice by range.  As a result, I decided to go through the identification of this bird as a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk and not a Red-shouldered Hawk (B. lineatus).  Before a well-documented record of an adult Red-shouldered Hawk over Rocky Point in 2009, the species was considered hypothetical based on a handful of sightings with insufficient details.  Obviously I had a vested interest in trying to make it a Red-shouldered, but seeing a juvenile Broad-winged would be quite exciting as well.

I managed a couple photos which I mildly adjusted due to compensate for the extremely backlit conditions.  When I first saw the bird, it had its wings swept back and was moving rapidly past me.  It was much smaller (approximately two-thirds the size) than the Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis) just ahead of it, so my immediate reaction was Broad-winged Hawk.  I thought I was never going to be able to say for sure because I lost sight of it in seconds, but I jogged up to upper viewpoint of Mount Tolmie on the off chance that it would find a thermal to rise up on and start circling again.  And that's what happened.  With a better look at the bird, I still suspected it was a Broad-winged Hawk but felt like I was in slightly over my head because it was a juvenile.  I noted the pointed wings which seemed reminiscent of my previous encounters with adults, and that proved to be a helpful feature.  Here are a couple cropped shots of the bird in question.  I know the lighting is still bad, but I didn't want to make it too unnatural and possibly distort the actual appearance.

This bird lacks dark patagial marks (the "shoulder" area) on the leading edge of the wings and a band of streaks on the belly that form a distinct band.  Instead, you see the chest and belly is uniformly streaked, the underwing coverts are  flecked with dark spots with no strong patagial mark, and the throat has a central dark stripe, which matches a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk.

This shot shows the pointed wings off nicely, which is apparently good for Broad-winged Hawks and should distinguish it from the more squared look of a Red-shouldered Hawk's wings.  Additionally, a pale crescent near the  wing tips would likely be visible in this backlit shot if it was a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Aside from the wing shape and pale wing crescents, I was having trouble finding obvious differences between Broad-wingeds and Red-shouldered Hawks.  I then realized most of the references I was looking over referred to the lineatus subspecies from the east and I should have been comparing to the western subspecies elegans.  The bird documented in 2009 belonged to the latter and it is expected more will show up with their slow-but-continual northward expansion.  Western juveniles have stronger barring on their flight feathers and are heavily marked with rufous-brown on the underwing coverts not unlike an adult, as indicated by a helpful information sheet from Princeton Press found here.  As a result, if my bird was a Red-shouldered Hawk it would show some rusty tones on the underside of the wings.  The individual I saw definitely did not possess any rusty tones under the wings.  There has been one record of an eastern Red-shouldered in California, however, so it was good that I noted the pointed wings and lack of crescent-shaped panels near the wing tips just to eliminate this unlikely scenario, as well.

This exercise has been very enlightening for me and I think I will be that much more ready if a Red-shouldered Hawk decides to cross my path.  Hopefully you gained something from this breakdown analysis as well.  If you want to see more photos to compare some juvenile hawks, check this juvenile hawks in flight entry on the Stokes Birding Blog.  Now get out and enjoy the hawk migration while you can!


Fall is upon us now if you haven't noticed.  Head out to the maples and see for yourself - the leaves getting mottled and starting to drop.  Some telltale birds are also moving in to our area and I found one such example on the last day of summer at Saanichton Spit.

I got to the spit late in the afternoon and it felt much darker than usual because it was the first day with full cloud cover in a couple weeks.  I made my way out to the north-facing shoreline and could see a group of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) resting at the water's edge.  They got nervous at my presence and pushed off into the water and I was able to see the entire group with ease.  One bird stood out due to its more delicate structure, dull orange-brown head that smoothly grades into the grey of the chest and flanks, lack of a white chin, darker back, and spikier crest.  It was a lone Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) in with the Commons.

The bird at the back in the center is noticeably different in this group.  It is a Red-breasted Merganser and its head is a dull gingery colour compared to the rich orange-brown of the dozen Common Mergansers around it, and the crest is more upswept and spikier.  The first Red-breasted Mergansers return in mid-September but they are not considered common until more return in October.
Looking at that photo a little closer, you can see the straight-lined separation of the rich orange-brown head and paler chest and grey back and flanks of the Common Mergansers compared to the smooth transition of the lone Red-breasted Merganser (far back on left).

The merging of mergansers was great to see and I always enjoy seeing two related species side by side for comparison.  If you struggle with these two, I hope you can see a couple differences in this photo.  If not, feel free to pipe up and I'll do my best to break down the identification even further.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Pelagic Magic

Jeremy K. gave me the heads up that there was an opportunity to do a pelagic trip in the second week of September and asked whether I'd be game.  Three of the Fur & Feathers 500 were chartering a boat to head out of Tofino in hopes of pushing towards their goal.  Knowing full well my schedule was open, I wanted in on the action.  I have never been able to get out on a proper pelagic birding trip in British Columbia.  I signed up for one years ago with the British Columbia Field Ornithologists (BCFO), but the weather was marginally too rough to head out.  My hopes for this trip were to see pelagic species I had never seen in Canada, such as Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus), Buller's Shearwater (Puffinus bulleri), Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes), and Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus), and also catch up with a couple I had never seen before like Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Scripps' Murrelet (Synthliboramphus scrippsi).  On top of all the birds, I always get excited by marine mammal encounters and was hoping to see something new like Risso's Dolphin (Grampus griseus), Pacific White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), or Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus).

The pelagic trip was set to take place on Wednesday, September 12 so Jeremy K. and I set out at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to get some birding in on the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park and the Tofino waterfront.  After the long haul up, we started at Wickaninnish Beach where we hoped to get out and find a bevy of shorebirds.  Instead we found a bevy of biped mammals walking up and down the beach, ensuring any shorebird flocks were long gone.  We moved on to Combers Beach which was nearly shorebirdless as well, but we eventually spied a couple of Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) flying in.  We also had a nice flock of gulls on the beach that contained around 30 American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus) among California Gulls (L. californicus) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (L. glaucescens).

I managed to catch the American Herring Gull stretching out its wings.  Compared to the California Gull (right), it has pink legs, a paler mantle, no black spot on its bill, a pale yellowish iris, and is slightly larger overall.

We zipped in to the airport due to the numerous reports we had read over the years from this location.  Unfortunately the terminal is not the place to go, so it was rather disappointing.  That didn't stop me from photographing a nice Western Tiger Beetle (Cicindela oregona) and Pine White (Neophasia menapia).

Tiger beetles are predatory as evidenced by their impressive large, serrated mandibles

This Pine White is posing on Heather (Calluna vulgaris) which is introduced and very common in the Tofino area

Long Beach was our next stop and we finally found a decent shorebird.  It was nothing earth-shattering, but we were pleased with fantastic looks at a Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus).

This individual effectively using its long, decurved bill to probe the sand for invertebrates

This angle shows the Whimbrel's diagnostic dark cap split by a thin pale stripe

And one last shot of this amazingly cooperative Whimbrel that really shows off its blue-grey legs

We made a quick and disappointing stop at Grice Bay before visiting Chesterman Beach.  We eventually came across a small but rewarding flock of peeps.  The group of eight birds had seven Western Sandpipers and a single Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii).  I managed to settle in close to the flock and they eventually worked their way towards me for some absolutely crippling views!

One of these peeps is not like the others

One of these peeps just doesn't belong

Can you tell which peep is not like the others by the time I finish my blog?

The scalloped mantle, long primary projection, and slightly down-curved bill are good indicators you've got a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper.

Baird's Sandpipers are not unusual to encounter during fall migration on the West Coast and only occasionally do we encounter adult birds

It looks like a good catch for the Baird's, but I was pretty darn happy myself with catching this shot!

This feeding juvenile Western Sandpiper shows the distinctive rufous-and-black upper scapulars contrasting drab grey lower scapulars

The bill of a typical Western Sandpiper is slightly drooping and has a fine tip, unlike that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper which is usually much straighter and has an ever-so-slightly bulbous tip

Just another shot of a juvenile Western Sandpiper because the peeps were so obliging

This will be the last Western shot - the lighting truly was great for photographing these sharp little shorebirds!

While watching the peeps, Jeremy K. spotted a flock of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) flying by and I went in for a couple shots as we headed back to the car.

Sanderlings running at the edge of the water - how cliché!

The Sanderlings were not overly cooperative, but I think you get the picture - nice birds on a nice shoreline

We poked in to a couple other local lookouts along the shoreline and even retraced our steps to end the day, but the only other decent sighting we could muster was a continuous flow of heat-shimmered Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) undulating along the horizon.  We hoped it was a good omen for the pelagic.

The view towards Incinerator Rock from Long Beach after the sun dropped below the trees

Looking the other direction over Long Beach, you get a very different view that is equally spectacular!

We managed to get to bed early enough to take in a solid sleep and were up at 6 a.m. the next day to meet with the rest of our seabound crew.  From the Fur & Feathers 500 we had Phil Cram, Brian Elder, and Ray Woods, then we had a nice fellow with a big lens named Charles Smith from Ontario, and longtime birding pal Rick Schortinghuis out for his first pelagic adventure.  The trip was chartered through the Whale Centre and we had a very Captain Highliner-like skipper named Mike and a spotter named Artie.  We donned floater suits and made our way down to our seaworthy vessel.

As we motored out, the water was only slightly rippled but we had a little swell - overall the conditions were great for viewing but far from optimal for pelagic birding.  Our first pelagic species was Sooty Shearwater, which could well have been the same continual stream that we spied the evening before in the distance.  From there on out, we had small waves of shearwaters pass by and among them was our first Pink-footed Shearwater.  More expected offshore species like Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini) and Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) were found in short order, as well.

The real action began as we approached Clayoquot Canyon when Artie announced "Black-footed Albatross!"  We all looked back to see a long-winged, large bird lumbering low over the water.  This was immediately followed by obligatory oohs and aahs.  We pushed on and spotted a few more Black-footeds and decided it was time to set out the first batch of chum.  We decided to move along and set out another batch and check on it later.  At the second batch of chum, we had rapid success when a lone Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata) darted in and fluttered over the slick with floating fish skins.  We watched for several more minutes and it seemed like the action had fizzled as quick as it had started.  We started to move back to the first batch when I noticed a jaeger checking out the action.  We moved in for closer inspection and were treated to great views of a classic adult Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus).

Parasitic Jaegers are mid-sized jaegers with short, pointed central tail feathers 

Adult Parasitic Jaegers have a dusky collar which is quite faded in this individual

This angle of the Parasitic Jaeger shows off the short, pointed central tail feathers

Multiple Black-footed Albatrosses soon moved in to check things out, followed by a couple Sooty Shearwaters and a few Pink-footed Shearwaters.

I had only seen Black-footed Albatross once prior to this trip and the views in Clayoquot Canyon far trumped my first experience!

The Black-footed Albatrosses were definitely the stars of the show out there

These photos don't do these hefty-yet-graceful birds justice

Here's a 2-for-1 shot: Black-footed Albatross taking off in the foreground and a Pink-footed Shearwater cruising by in the background

I caught this Pink-footed Shearwater banking, which shows of their white belly and underwing coverts and namesake pink feet

I see some great pelagic bird photos and I have a new appreciation for them - it is hard to get a good shot on a rocking boat!

One last mediocre shot of a Pink-footed Shearwater that made several passes over the chum before finally landing

We made our way back slowly, searching along the way for any new pelagic species and only managed one more: Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).

I had never seen a Tufted Puffin transitioning between breeding and non-breeding plumage and I must say it's an interesting look!

We also encountered several more small groups of Cassin's Auklets and I managed to get a couple record photos of them.

Cassin's Auklets are small and ashy-grey with a short, thick grey bill

You can just make out the small white dab above the eye of the Cassin's Auklet in the back.  Unfortunately you can't see that they have pale irises, which can be seen at close range.

Even though some of the pelagic birds were pretty spectacular, I won't deny that encountering a group 14 Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) was the highlight.  As the whales surfaced, we were able to hear deep groans and rushes of air.  I certainly hope this wasn't a once in a lifetime experience, but I can say it was unforgettable.  Let's see if these shots give a sense of how amazing it was to be right alongside these impressive creatures.

Here's an example of the characteristic stubby, irregularly-shaped dorsal fin of a Humpback Whale

This dorsal fin has a couple barnacles growing on it

Individual Humpback Whales can be identified by the pattern on the underside of their tail or "flukes".  Compare this individual's pattern with a limited amount of white and a scar on the left fluke to the one below.

The extensive gleaming white underside of the flukes easily separates this individual from the above whale

The right tail is the same at the one above and the left is a different individual from the one with a scar on its left fluke

Pretty spectacular sight set against a nice mountainscape

Three surfacing at once - awesome!  On the back individual you can see small bumps on the head which are called tubercles, and they are actually large hair follicles.

This photo ups the ante to four individuals surfaced at the same time!

I really wanted to get some shots of them blowing, so here is a moment with three Humpbacks just surfacing

This is right in the middle of the blow, so you don't get a good sense of the shape of the characteristic low, bushy blow Humpbacks make

I think I captured this one right to get a sense of the shape of the blow

Apparently a giant, dark solid object surfacing right beside these Red-necked Phalaropes is not that startling!

I momentarily broke away from the whales when we approached a couple groups of alcids.  First I got a shot of a Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) and not long after got a group of Common Murres (Uria aalge).

This Rhinoceros Auklet doesn't really represent its name very well.  In the breeding season, adults boast a "horn" on their bill.

The two Common Murres on the right are transitioning out of breeding plumage into the non-breeding plumage shown by the two left birds

We cruised around a few islands on the way back and were treated to a couple sightings of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) floating in the kelp beds.  Knowing the history of this species along the coast of British Columbia, it's always encouraging to see them doing well since their reintroduction from 1969 to 1972.

Sea Otters can often be spotted floating on their backs wrapped up in the kelp like this one

Another Sea Otter lounging in the kelp

Some of the treed islands we passed on the transit back in to Tofino were rather picturesque

This island was my personal favourite with a lone tree permanently angled away from the wind it has endured over the years

In the end, I picked up a couple birds I had never seen in Canada but couldn't connect with my grail birds.  I guess I'll just have to see what opportunities arise and do it all again!