Friday, 23 November 2012

Citrine Wagtail Update (last sighted February 16th)

Due to the fact the last Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) in North America only put in a very brief appearance, I am sure the first-winter bird in the Comox Valley of British Columbia is looking pretty tempting to some ABA listers!

I am fortunate enough to live on southern Vancouver Island, so it was no skin off my back to hightail it north up the Island Highway and be at the wagtail site around three hours later last Sunday.  A slim fraction of birders that want to see this bird have that option, so I thought I would highlight some options for those contemplating a wagtail chase.

The wagtail has been putting in regular appearances for several weeks straight now and only recently has there been an exciting change occurring to the bird itself.  In the last few weeks, the wagtail has been molting some feathers on its face.  Recent photos by Tony Markle (seen here) are some of the finest I've seen yet and they show the hints of lemon around the eye coming in.  If you are making an attempt to see the Citrine Wagtail and strike out at the traditional location, visit Nathan Hentze's blog entry for an alternate location the bird was seen during a bout of stubbornness in the last days of 2012.  The sighting continues to amaze me and the fact that so many observers have been able to come out and see it is great!  Hopefully this bird continues to delight birders from all over the ABA area that make the trip out!  If it's still there when I get back from Ontario in the second week of January, I hope to make another trip up to see it in all its yellow splendour!

I have created some Google maps with the directions from all of the likely routes out-of-town birders might take to get to the wagtail's location. Click on your mode of transportation to Vancouver Island:

Horseshoe Bay (North Vancouver) to Departure Bay (Nanaimo) Ferry
Tsawwassen to Duke Point (Nanaimo) Ferry
Comox Valley Airport (YQQ)
Nanaimo Airport (YCD)
Victoria International Airport (YYJ)
Coho Ferry (Port Angeles, WA to Victoria)

Check to see what the most convenient, comfortable, and cost-effective means of travel is for you.  The quickest route would obviously be catching a flight right into Comox, as the airport is just over 10 minutes from the wagtail's location.  For reference, the two airlines that have service to the Comox Valley Airport are WestJet and Central Mountain Air.  This can still be tricky to arrange as WestJet only has flights in from Calgary and Edmonton, while Central Mountain Air flies in from those two cities plus Vancouver.  Check their websites for scheduling and availability.  The Nanaimo Airport offers the next most reasonable option as it puts you around an 1.5 hours away and has slightly more options than the Comox Valley Airport.  The biggest airport on Vancouver Island is the Victoria International Airport, which has many flight options so check your favourite airline to see if they have available flights.  The downside to the latter airport is the 3 hour drive you'd need to make after flying in.  The two ferries to Nanaimo are operated by BC Ferries and you should know the schedule before arriving at the terminal, and also show up a bit early to ensure you make it on.  For best results, you will want the first ferry - so that's 6:30 a.m. for the Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay Ferry and 5:15 a.m. for the Tsawwassen to Duke Point Ferry.  The Coho Ferry is run by the Black Ball Ferry Lines and is does not run as often.  The first ferry leaves at 8:20 a.m. and puts you in Victoria just before 10:00 a.m., so you wouldn't make it up to the wagtail site until around 1:30 p.m. if all goes well.

For each of the directions provided in the Google maps above, you can see that the end point is approximately 500 metres (or 1/3 of a mile to Imperial-based readers) down Comox Rd. after taking a right turn off 17th St. after crossing the Courtenay River.  Once on Comox Rd., just drive a short ways and look for a roadside pullout along a chainlink fence on the right side and there should be room to park there.  John Puschock was kind enough to post a photo of the gravel road you head down to look for the wagtail.  Note the "For Sale" sign - it's a good marker to know you're in the right spot if there isn't a line-up of cars.  Please be careful crossing the road as it can be busy with traffic at times.

As you walk down the gravel road, you will come to a cable gate and there will be some trees on your left.  Step over this gate and continue past the small patch of trees until you reach the opening on your left.  You are now looking at the field the Citrine Wagtail has been favouring.  Scan for the bird around the edge of the field.  When I saw the bird on November 18th, it spent almost all of its time in the southwest corner of the field, but it has also been reported by the burn piles further along the farm lane.  The wagtail seems to like working the perimeter of pools formed by depressions around the edge of the field.  See the embedded Google map (you'll probably need to zoom out) for some extra notes and a better visual on where the wagtail has been viewed since November 14th.  To maximize your chance of success, get to the site as early as possible.  The bird has been seen every morning for the last week, but afternoon crowds have dipped on more than one occasion.

View Citrine Wagtail field in a larger map

This is an example of the Citrine Wagtail foraging along the edge of a pool on November 18, 2012.

In this shot, you can see everyone is just past the patch of trees and they are scoping into the southwest corner where the wagtail was located.

This is a view of the southwest corner.  Note the pools forming at the interface between soil and grass and also look at the thin strip of soil wrapping around the back of the field (in front of the willows).  Scan near the edge of all standing water in the field and also use a scope to follow that strip of soil around the back of the field.

One final important note relates to ownership of the land where the Citrine Wagtail is located.  Art Martell managed to contact the farmer that owns the land and he graciously granted birders access to the gravel road.  Without Art's effort we probably wouldn't have access to view the wagtail and the chances of seeing it from Comox Rd. are next to nil.  I would sincerely like to thank Art for smooth-talking the landowner to allow birders to venture down the gravel road and seek out this mega rarity.  Please respect the landowner's wishes and stick to the gravel road.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Citrine Wagtail Twitch!

Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) had only knowingly graced North American soil once before November 14th, 2012.  The first record was a mind-boggling two-day affair from Starkville, Mississippi just over 20 years ago.  On the 14th, Dave and Adele Routledge decided to check the birds down a seemingly random farm road in the Comox Valley.  The whole Comox Valley looks great for birding, with the Courtenay River Estuary being one of the most obvious features.  Why Dave and Adele chose to head to the other side of Comox Rd. that day and head down that dirt lane is a mystery, but they were amply rewarded for thinking outside the box!  Having experienced Yellow Wagtail some 50 years ago back in England, Dave knew he was looking at a wagtail when he found an unusual grey-and-white bird bobbing its tail.  He made several keen observations and presumed it was a Yellow Wagtail.  The description left no doubt that he had observed a wagtail, but no diagnostic features that separated it from other wagtails were mentioned.  I felt obliged to inquire why he thought it was a Yellow - an Eastern Yellow Wagtail (M. tschutschensis) to be precise with modern taxonomy - and not one of other potential options.  I mentioned Grey Wagtail (M. cinerea) and White Wagtail (M. alba) as other likely candidates to show up, but didn't even think of adding Citrine to the mix as it had never been recorded in Alaska.

Dave decided he had better go back out and go over the identification in greater detail.  Amazingly, he returned to the wagtail's original location two days later and managed to relocate it.  After longer looks in better light, the identification shifted towards the White Wagtail camp based on the more plain-faced appearance, grey back, two broad white wing bars, and white forehead.  The feature that didn't add up for White, though, was the lack of any kind of black markings on the chest.  At this point, no photos had been taken but the shifted identification and up-to-date sighting put a handful of birders into action the next day.  Mike Bentley was one of the few that made the journey and he came prepared with his camera and finally the bird was documented!  Once the photos were posted to BCVIBIRDS, the real excitement began.  Word soon spread that this looked like a classic 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail.  I grabbed my Birds of East Asia field guide, thumbed through to the wagtails, and could immediately tell why I couldn't come to grips with the bird being one of three more expected wagtail species.  CITRINE... expletive deleted... WAGTAIL!

Luckily I had already made travel arrangements to go up and see the wagtail.  Jeremy Kimm and I had just attempted a big day on Saturday and decided rest was for the weak.  He was a real trooper and picked me up at 5 a.m. even though I was the wrong direction.  We picked up his brother, Jason, in Duncan on the way up to the Comox Valley and the three of us were on location just after 8:30 a.m.  I rarely make my way up to the Comox Valley, so I was able to put some unfamiliar faces to familiar names as Dave Robinson, Art Martell, and Terry Thormin were there scouring the area for the wagtail.  Additionally, one familiar-yet-enigmatic face was in attendance as Keith Taylor had made the drive up the night before to be there for first light, and Mike Yip was sporting the long lens in hopes of getting some primo documentation.  They informed us they had not yet located the wagtail.  That all changed five minutes later when Art scanned around edge of the southwest corner of the field.  I was right alongside Art when he exclaimed "There it is!"  He notified the others and soon we were all taking in full frame views of the bird in our scopes!

The field marks were all there for a 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail: white completely framing its grizzled auriculars, a clean grey back with no hints of olive or brown, white supercilia connected by white over the bill, immaculate white undertail coverts, and two bold, white wing bars.

The next task was to get some photos to document the bird.  After all, we were dealing with a first Canadian and second confirmed North American record.  The bird was quite cooperative and everyone was very respectful of the bird's space, knowing that birders from the Lower Mainland were on their way.  Eventually I managed to get some decent shots when the Citrine Wagtail was at its closest.  I even took some poor footage of the bird to document its call.  Later we were joined by a half-dozen or more Lower Mainland birders that made the ferry trip over and, needless to say, they were happy twitchers!  I don't think I need any more commentary on this amazing bird, but I will close this out with a big congratulations to Dave and Adele Routledge for their amazing find!

Giant crowd... from a British Columbia perspective!

My recording was sent to Brent Beach and Ian Cruickshank to try to enhance its quality.  Ian kindly put the recording up on xeno-canto and I managed to figure out how to embed it here:

The above recording has a bland X-ray style sonogram, but you can enjoy Ian's Amazing Technicolor Dream Sonogram below:

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Swan Song

On Saturday I decided to get out check some of the local flats to check of the waterfowl numbers and diversity.  In the last few weeks there has been multiple reports of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and there were other sightings involving Redheads (Aythya americana), Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria), and Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis).  This was motivation enough for me to see what I could turn up close to home.

I started off at Tod Creek Flats behind the Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd.  As I came down the hill towards the Red Barn Market, I could see the number of large white dots on the water had gone up significantly in the last week.

The bustle of waterfowl on Tod Creek Flats is accentuated by a picture perfect fall scene with loaded hawthorn shrubs, dead grasses, and turning leaves contrasting the evergreen wall of conifers.

I was excited to get out and sort through those large white dots to see how many were Tundra Swans.  The last Victoria checklist was produced in 2001 and it asserts that Tundra Swans as rare for this area, which means they are annual but typically limited to a few records.  I think the timing of rainfall this fall has resulted in higher-than-average numbers in our area.  The first report this fall came from Ian Cruickshank on October 23rd when he noted nine Tundras (4 adults, 5 juveniles) flying over the appropriately named Swan Lake.  These birds landed on Viaduct Ducts where they were enjoyed by many Victoria birders.  On October 31st, Mike McGrenere noted a flock of 17 adult Tundras passing west over Martindale Flats and the next day he found a group of nine resting on the fields at Martindale that likely constituted a different flock.  Considering Mike is one of the most active birders in Victoria, this quote from BCVIBIRDS says it all: "I think this must be close to the number that I have seen in Victoria since I moved here in 1985."  I don't get to study Tundra Swans very often, so that puts my excitement in perspective.  I was not hoping to find a Tundra, I was expecting it!

Spoiler alert!  Yes I did see some Tundras!  The front and centre cygnet and adult are Tundra Swans.  Compare them to the back right cygnet and adult Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator).  When adult Tundras have a yellow spot in front of their eye, they are much easier to identify as you can see here.  The juvenile Tundra has a bill that is largely pink, including the base and sometimes extending into the lores.

Almost immediately I spied my first Tundra.  In fact, it turned out to be a group of five.  There were three adults and two juveniles travelling together.  I looked through the whole flock twice and found four more adults, making a total of nine Tundra Swans mixed in with 50 Trumpeters.  There are many subtle features involving the bill that can be used to the separate the two species.  If you're interested in learning more about distinguishing these two species, please check out this swan identification article by David Sibley from his blog.  I spent a fair amount of time scanning through the ducks after sifting through the swans and was tickled to hear the Tundras making their higher-pitched honks for several minutes.  It was a perfect encounter!

I estimated there were more than 2500 waterfowl out on Tod Creek Flats, and you can see the breakdown of that from my eBird checklist here.  I thought I heard Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) when I first arrived and eventually tracked one down.  As you may have seen from the checklist, it turned out there was actually a flock of 14 that I was able to observe after they flushed, circled the flats a couple times, then settled back on the water.  I was also pleased to pick out three male Eurasian Wigeons (Anas penelope) amongst the American Wigeons (Anas americana).

Flock of Greater White-fronted Geese about to land on Tod Creek Flats

I went to Viaduct Flats next as there had already been one report of Redheads this fall from Duncan and Viaduct was the location I last saw them in Victoria.  These hunches occasionally work out and this was one of those times.  In with the mix of diving and dabbling ducks were three Redheads and ten Canvasbacks!

I had hour-long birding sessions at Hastings Flats and Tower Point afterwards and just saw a nice variety of the usual suspects.  The only bird I don't encounter all too often that I came across was a male Red-breasted Sapsucker near the parking lot at Tower Point.  I ended the day with 78 species, which was a little surprising considering I wasn't specifically trying to amass a high species total for the day.  I think a big day could easily churn out over 100 species right now.  I do believe a certain Victoria birder with a blog about unsuccessful big years was prodding me to do a November big day.  Maybe that's on the horizon?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect

Why not start our own local version of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect?  For those not familiar with the phenomenon, it apparently spans back to a rest area in Patagonia back in 1971.  Some birders stopped in for lunch and ended up finding the first record of Black-capped Gnatcatcher north of Mexico.  A swarm of birders descended on this little rest area and consequently turned up the first North American record of Yellow Grosbeak, as well.  The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect now refers to any instance where an unusual bird is reported and those looking for the rarity turn up another stray.

This phenomenon occurred locally on November 1st when Ian Cruickshank put out the word that he had briefly observed a Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) in the oaks at the entrance to Cattle Point.  Several birders quickly launched into action to try to relocate the kingbird.  Steven Roias tried in vain to find this once-every-couple-years rarity from the south, but he did find a tern feeding just offshore.  He jotted down some detailed notes on the bird and left thinking it was just a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), which is actually a decent bird here these days.  When he got home and broke out a field guide, he realized all the features he had seen did not add up for Common and were bang on for an Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans)!

Elegant Tern on the rocks off Bowker Ave. in Oak Bay, taken on November 2, 2012 (Photo: Daniel Donnecke)

The next morning, Daniel Donnecke and Val George were on scene and managed to relocate the Elegant Tern on the rocks at the end of Bowker Ave.  This news made me very anxious because I was working and the feeling was so overwhelming that I buckled and went out to search for the bird.  I decided to head right to Bowker Ave.  When I arrived just over an hour after the morning report, not a soul was in sight.  I raised by binoculars and scanned over to Cattle Point and could see a scope set up and a group milling around it.  I hopped back in the car and raced over to the point.  I was greeted by Aziza Cooper who said the bird had flown south and seemingly landed behind one of the islands.  I looked over at the rest of the group and they were intently looking at something.  Barb McGrenere waved over to me and I thought it was just a "hello" wave, but then Mike McGrenere announced "The tern's over here!"  I darted over and set up the scope just in time to not see the tern.  So I played the waiting game.  I waited for over an hour and kept checking my watch.  I had intended to be back at work at 1 p.m. and that time was approaching rapidly.  I decided to cut my losses at Cattle Point and put in quick check at Spoon Bay and Cadboro Bay, the latter being the assumed destination of the tern as it went out of view to the north.

I scanned the rocks in Spoon Bay and checked every passing Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), but no sign of the tern.  I was going to head to Gyro Beach, but as I passed Loon Bay I noticed several Bonies and figured it was worth a check.  A scan out beyond Loon Bay into Cadboro Bay revealed a lone adult Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens), but again no tern.  I was starting to pack up when I noticed multiple birders that I had been chatting with at Cattle Point had decided to check here as well.  I went over to let them know about the goose and realized I could see a whole new sliver of water from where they were standing.  I set up the scope again as a last ditch effort.  As I scanned out over Cadboro Bay, a bird with a black crown flew through my field of view and I excitedly proclaimed "I've got the tern!"  Everyone there managed to observe the tern circling for half a minute before we lost sight of it as it headed back south towards Cattle Point.  After celebratory high fives or verbal equivalents, I had to get back to work.  I left very happy as Elegant Tern was my 289th Victoria checklist area bird.  Still knocking them down ever so slowly!

So how rare were the two birds involved in the Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect?  Tropical Kingbirds are annual in British Columbia and one is seemingly turned up approximately every second year in Victoria.  They are almost certainly annual, but there might be a lack of focused searching in appropriate habitats for this species from mid-October through November.  Elegant Terns, on the other hand, are typically reported during El Niño years.  There is no regular pattern to El Niños, so it can't be predicted when Elegant Terns might put in an appearance in our waters.  Previous records in the Victoria checklist area are surprisingly numerous, but they are the result of several reports in certain El Niño years.  Using the E-Fauna "British Columbia Rare Bird Records" document, Elegant Terns were reported in 1983 (5 records), 1992 (7 records), 1993 (1 record), and 2008 (2 records), with some records potentially referring to the same bird or birds.

The 2012 record of Elegant Tern is anomalously late and may be in part due to a weak El Niño that really started showing effects in September.  Elegant Terns breed in southern California and Mexico and then have a brief northbound dispersal.  The late summer arrival of Heermann's Gulls (Larus heermanni) in our waters is due to a similar pattern.  Elegant Terns typically only head as far north as northern California before they turn back south and head to South American shores from Peru to Chile.  The warmer ocean temperatures during El Niño years draw southern marine life northward, and Elegants Terns follow suit with this trend.

I was more interested in catching up with the Elegant Tern because the really pronounced El Niño years occurred before I was in the habit of consistently chasing rarities.  As a result, I haven't had much of a chance to see one locally.  I was, however, fortunate enough to see my lifer Tropical Kingbird way back in 1998 at Esquimalt Lagoon.  I certainly wouldn't have passed up a view of the Tropical Kingbird that Ian found, but I can wait for the next one or just be content with the hundreds I've seen in the Neotropics.

I'll just wrap this up with a congratulatory note to Ian Cruickshank for finding the Tropical Kingbird and initiating the Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect, and Steven Roias for completing the phenomenon with his sharp eyes and detailed notes leading to the identification of the Elegant Tern.  What's next?  The Swan Lake Lollipop Boardwalk Bonanza?  The Esquimalt Lagoon Hump Hoedown?  The Whiffin Spit Breakwater Blitz?  The Island View Beach Boat Launchapalooza?  Whatever goes down, I look forward to catching up with familiar faces and sharing some laughs.