Sunday, 28 October 2012

Personal Milestone

I know some birders think lists are silly.  I maintain certain lists as a way to challenge myself.  A couple years ago, Chris Saunders called me up and asked me about my self-found Victoria list.  I had never even thought of keeping such a list, but I decided I would look over the checklist and determine where I stood.  I can't remember what the total was at that point, but it was probably around 225 species.  I thought more and more about the list and decided it was the best way to push myself to get out and find birds.

I had to set some ground rules for this list, so I searched the internet to determine if anyone had developed some guidelines for self-found listing.  A popular UK birding blog by the name of punkbirder had just the set of rules I was seeking.  That side of the pond has a much more ravenous birding scene, so I don't necessarily agreed wholeheartedly about all of the rules.  For instance, news does not always break that fast here and I don't feel the need to keep my finger on the pulse as tightly as birders do in the UK.  It would be anticlimactic to be waiting for news to happen here.  I only have one bird that fits into that loophole, anyways.  A couple years ago I was away working into the beginning of September and I thought I had been keeping up with the Victoria rare bird news.  Apparently not!  I went out to Saanichton Spit and was thrilled at finding my first Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) for Victoria!  I came home and posted it and then realized shortly thereafter that it had been found a few days earlier.  I don't abuse the system, so I feel I can take that one.  Another loophole area that doesn't work well here that I had another bird fall under is re-finding a bird.  In Victoria, when most of the birders have seen a bird they stop checking up on it.  I thought I had missed my shot at Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) off Esquimalt Lagoon while I was in Costa Rica in December, 2005.  That bird was only the fourth record for Victoria, so it drew a fair bit of attention in the eight days it was known to be hanging out in a raft of 300+ Western Grebes (A. occidentalis).  I hadn't heard a single report of that bird until I spotted a Clark's Grebe off the same beachfront nearly four months later.  A bird like that would never be passed over for four months in the UK, but it's not excessively surprising here.  I'll take that one under the re-find clause, though.

Enough background on the whole self-found listing premise.  Fast forward to the return from my last work trip up to Fort McMurray a week and a half ago.  I was anxious to get back to some local birding, so I drove around the airport and then passed through the Vantreight bulb fields.  The airport was fruitless, but a sizable blackbird flock at the bulb fields drew my attention.  I immediately found my self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) for Victoria.  It was my 250th self-found bird.  I actually thought it was my 249th until just a few minutes ago when I looked over my spreadsheet.  Somehow I had failed to mark off Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) even though I found one on my own years ago at Rocky Point.  I also had one flying over the ocean towards James Island last year.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird was a milestone I had been working towards for the last year with no idea how long it would take to reach.

What next?  I still have some moderately easy holes to fill in on my self-found list, but it's very hard to pick up new species.  For instance, I have never found an American Bittern (Botaurus letiginosus) in the Victoria checklist area.  It doesn't help that Chris Saunders and Ian Cruickshank seemingly live in sleeping bags on the lollipop boardwalk at Swan Lake.  I will have to put in some time up at Somenos Marsh or just luck into one randomly at an unconventional location if I want a self-found bittern.  Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) has evaded my attempts to find them around small reservoirs and ponds, in hedgerows lining agricultural fields, or in fall mixed feeding flocks.  Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) should be easy enough to pick up if I actually take the time to do some pelagic birding at this time of year.  So, should my next goal be to hit 275 for my self-found Victoria list?

Despite those three relatively easy pick-up species, I actually inched my way up to 251 on October 24th after an enjoyable but fruitless outing with Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson from San Diego.  They were hoping to see their first Harris' Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) for British Columbia, but the Harris' had other plans.  They only had time for a morning's worth of Victoria birding before I had to drop them back off for their Holland America repositioning cruise to San Diego.  I had taken the day off work, so I figured I'd get in more birding before picking up Janean back in Sidney at 5 p.m.  I was struggling to figure out what to do and through a rather convoluted thought process I eventually ended up at Uplands Park.  I was only out of the car for a couple minutes before a bird knocked my socks off!  I stood next to a patch of blackberry brambles and started pishing.  An unusual call started up and I wasn't able to process it.  I eagerly watched a patch of Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) for the source of the call to pop into the open.  And there it was.  But I still couldn't come to grips with what I seeing - a yellowish patch on the wing?  The bird's tail flicked and revealed salmon-yellow flashes.  American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)!  I then saw all the glorious features you'd want to see even though the encounter was brief.  It was a female-type bird sporting a grey hood, brownish back, and those characteristic salmon-yellow flashes in the wings and tail.  The Victoria checklist published in 2001 lists only two records of American Redstart, but four or five more records have come in over the last decade.  Of those records, none of the birds have really been chaseable.

The American Redstart was not only my 251st self-found Victoria bird, it was my 288th Victoria checklist area bird.  The relevance of this is my next milestone.  I am trying to push towards 300 species in the Victoria checklist area.  I am much more likely to see 12 new species for my Victoria list versus 24 new self-found Victoria birds.  I have only one "easy" tick left to pick up for Victoria, which is Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).  I have been picking up several species each year for the last two years because I have been helping Jeremy K. on his big year quests.  Every time I add a new species, the difficulty of achieving the next seems to get incrementally harder.  I love the challenge and I hope I can keep inching my way along, slow and steady.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Crosses and Crossbills

I'm back on familiar birding grounds and making up for lost time.  On Friday, I stopped in at the Vantreight bulb fields and had my first self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) in a sizable blackbird flock and yesterday (Saturday) I met up with Jeremy K. and did the Sooke-Metchosin-Esquimalt circuit to see if we could turn up any interesting fall birds.

Our day started with a frigid stroll to the tip of Whiffin Spit and back.  This walk always seems to be the football equivalent of a Hail Mary pass - nine times out of ten it doesn't pan out, but the rewards are huge for the one time you make the pass.  Today was not the big payoff we had hoped.  Bird activity was plentiful with flocks of Zonotrichia sparrows, but we just couldn't seem to dig out anything unusual.  We did manage to start a running theme for the day here when we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) cruise over, followed by a few Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and a Merlin (Falco columbarius) zipped through in pursuit of a morning meal.  Every stop hereafter we managed to see a raptor of some sort.

A stop in at the Goodrich Peninsula wasn't quite as brisk as Whiffin, but the level of success was similar.  My personal highlights for this stop were a lone Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flying over the marina and a flock of Black Turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala) and Surfbirds (Aphriza virgata) on the floating logs by the docks.

We continued on to Metchosin via Lindholm Rd. and stopped to check out the small farm pond near the Galloping Goose crossing.  The pond was quiet but we located a huge, uncooperative blackbird flock.  We only managed short, partial views of the flock and consequently came up empty.

The best stop of the day was Swanwick Rd.  We started with a nice flock of geese on the main field, which contained 26 Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) and 30 Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii) in with the usual Canada Geese (B. canadensis).

Three species of goose in one flock is always a nice sight!

My personal highlight for the day came next as three Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) descended from the top of a conifer to a couple of puddles right in front of us.  I believe it was a family group as there was a single juvenile bird with an adult male and female.

The male Red Crossbill is the reddish bird with dark wings, while the streaky, olive-infused is a juvenile.

Here's a better look at the streaky appearance of the juvenile Red Crossbill.

This is the female Red Crossbill and she is really showing off her namesake crossed bill!

Swanwick Rd. was also our best raptor location of the day with two Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperi), a Peregrine Falcon (F. peregrinus), and seven Turky Vultures (Cathartes aura).

After a rather fruitless stop in at Albert Head Lagoon, we finished our day off at Esquimalt Lagoon.  The high  tide limited the amount of birds along the shore and the close flocks of ducks and gulls all seemed to be at the north end of the lagoon.  We were starting to study a male Eurasian x American Wigeon (Anas penelope x A. americana) when a Bald Eagle put all the birds.  I managed one distant shot that shows some of the key characteristics, including mottled grey and pinky-brown flanks and oddly-coloured head pattern.

Note the male's (right) largely grey flanks which is a feature of a Eurasian Wigeon, whereas the head pattern is closer to that of an American Wigeon.  This bird looks much less Eurasian-like than most reported hybrids.

After the dust settled from the eagle stir-up, I noticed an adult Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri) had landed on the shore.  Shortly after, I found a nice American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid (L. smithsonianus x L. glaucescens).  After commenting on its identification to Jeremy K., a classic adult Western x Glaucous-winged Gull (L. occidentalis x L. glaucescens) joined the other bird.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity to photograph the two side by side!

The dove-headed look is a good way to distinguish Thayer's Gulls from the more block-headed American Herring Gulls.  With experience, this species is not too hard to identify (with exceptions of course) but it is hard to tell you exactly why it is a Thayer's and not one of superficially similar species.

The left bird is a typical Western x Glaucous-winged Gull based on the mottled head and not overly dark mantle, while the right bird appears to be an American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull due to the slight fading to the primaries and dark eyes.

Here is a closer view of the American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid, which shows the slight fading in the primaries mentioned above.  The structure of this bird is more representative of its American Herring side as it is more slender than you'd expect for a Glaucous-winged.

That's all I have from this weekend's outings.  I hope to get out during the week, but whether I'll have anything worthy of posting is another story altogether!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Take the last tern when you get to Calgary...

Sometimes you don't even need to try to find something unusual.  This was one of those occasions and it always seems this sort of event happens when I'm not on familiar ground.

After my three week work trip up to Fort McMurray, I dropped in for a visit at my uncle's place at the south end of Calgary in a community called McKenzie Towne.  Today, I offered to take my uncle and grandma out to lunch so we headed out just after noon.  While my uncle drove, I looked over at a small pond just around the corner from his place and I noticed a tern fluttering over the water.  I was quite surprised as I thought all the terns would have passed through already.  Then again, I don't really know the typical windows of all the birds in this unfamiliar territory.  I decided I would wander over when I got back from lunch.

After lunch, I looked in the corner of the pond where I saw the tern darting about, but it was nowhere to be seen.  I decided I would walk to the far end and see if it was by chance just out of view.  Once again, the tern wasn't immediately obvious.  I scanned a little patch of muddy shoreline at the far side and was happy to see not one but two terns.  Being from British Columbia, I am not very familiar with Forster's Terns (Sterna forsteri), but I know they have a black smudge over their eye as juveniles and non-breeding adults.  These two fit that description and I felt confident that's what they were.  I took some very distant record shots and then worked my way around to get better shots.  I only had a work camera that doesn't function properly, but still managed some decent shots between two visits this afternoon.

This Forster's Tern shows the classic black smudge over the eye, while the brown-tinged scalloping on the back points to this being a juvenile.

Without a DSLR handy, I only made a couple attempts at catching them in flight.  On this occasion, I happened to catch it scratching!

I rarely see terns land on water, but I watched the two juvenile Forster's Terns land on the water twice this afternoon.

Finally, here's a shot of the two juvenile Forster's Terns together in the same frame - what a nice and unexpected find!

Looking back over eBird, I can only see one report entered for Forster's Tern between October and November in the past decade.  This does not necessarily reflect reality as many people probably did not go back and enter in their older notes into eBird.  It does, however, give an indication as to how rare it is to find this species in Alberta at this time of year.  This year, you can see that all records of Forster's Terns in October are well south of the two I encountered today (although I don't know if the link will get updated or not to reflect my record).

I don't have much to add, but I figure I may as well add a shot of one of Calgary's dirt birds that we only get on Vancouver Island on very rare occasions.  This is one of those birds that everyone takes for granted if you live around them, but you see them in good light and they are just the most spectacular birds!

Unfortunately the light wasn't hitting this Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) quite right, but they're striking birds regardless of how the light hits them!

I have enjoyed some of the sights I've taken in over my stay in Alberta, but I'm excited to get home and start taking photos of some of the fall birds in Victoria.