Sunday, 29 December 2013

Birding On Ice

On December 21st, Ontario had mild temperatures that dropped and led to freezing rain.  The end result was a branch-shattering ice storm.  I have survived the legendary ice storm of 2013 with minimal damage.  The effects of the ice storm are still lingering, with thousands of people in the Greater Toronto Area still without power.

On the 23rd, I decided to go for a little walk around the neighbourhood where Janean's family lives.  I knew it would be icy but I figured I was pretty good on my feet and should be able to get around just fine.  I walked along the road and made it to little path that runs between two roads and promptly ended up horizontal.  I got up rather sheepishly and kept moving and a few steps later I was flat on my back again.  I had my camera with me and luckily protected it both times and wasn't hurt in the process.  At that point, I realized I was still trying to maintain a pace that is more in line with Victorian roads.  I had to tell myself to calm down and basically shuffle rather than take full steps.  This worked fine until I encountered my first slope.  I was still in my careful-stepping mode but I was getting a little too confident walking in a recent track of a snowmobile that broke the icy crust.  A small section must have been a little tougher and did not get broken.  I hit that stretch and had a rather dramatic tumble and put one hand down to slow my slide and nearly sliced it on the ice.  I triple-checked my hand to make sure it wasn't split open and spurting blood.  I think I'll just stay in the next time there is an ice storm!

Regardless of all those tumbles, I am a sucker for punishment and continued on my walk.  I also got my camera going to document some of the plants, all of which were coated in ice.  I unfortunately don't have any photos to show you some of the aftermath of the ice storm.  Driving into Whitby on the morning of the 22nd, Janean and I a tree that fell onto a powerline, a branch that narrowly missed a parked car, and many of the intersections reverted back to four-way stops because the traffic lights were out.  Despite the rather destructive nature of an ice storm, it certainly adds a certain beauty to the landscape.

Goldenrod coated in ice

Knapweed heads and stems encased in ice

I can see how an ice storm would be hard on birds that eat berries, but luckily some of these are not iced over!

A Staghorn Sumac inflorescence fringed with ice

The intricate needle pattern of a cedar traced in ice

Narrowleaf Cattail flowerhead partially covered in ice

My favourite sight was this backlit patch of cattails - you really can't do it justice with a photo!

I did see some birds along the way.  First, I heard some chickadees and their calls led me to discover a Cooper's Hawk up in a fir tree.  Or perhaps I spotted it while I was on my back... details are sketchy.

This Cooper's Hawk is likely a male based on its rather small size, and it even had me thinking Sharp-shinned at first.

Not the greatest photo, but the Cooper's took off and I reeled around just in time to snap this off.

I walked around in a little park that I checked out last year and I managed to find a little flock that included some Northern Cardinals, American Tree Sparrows, and Black-capped Chickadees.  They were a little too active, but I managed to snap off a photo of each species.

American Tree Sparrow on some icy branches 

Not a good photo, but just wanted to show a Black-capped Chickadee in the icy mayhem

Northern Cardinals never cease to brighten a dull winter day... not that it was dull on this particular day!

I finished off my day by walking over to a feeder that I recalled from last year.  It had a fair bit of activity, but unfortunately all the birds were too far away to photograph.  As a result, you'll just have to take my word for it that I also saw Mourning Doves, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a couple House Finches.  I hope you all enjoyed the ice storm imagery - it has now melted away, but some unfortunate folks in Toronto are still waiting for power to come back on so they can stock their fridges back up and thaw out.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Snowy with a Chance of Awe

That was the forecast today here in Ontario.  I managed to get out for a drive today with Janean and we visited our friend Grant.  We advised him that a Snowy Owl had been seen within a few minutes drive from his place, so the three of us piled back in the car and slowly worked our way back to the King's Highway via Scugog Line 2.  Along the way, we encountered a few Red-tailed Hawks, a small flock of American Robins, a Mourning Dove, and a Downy Woodpecker.  Not bad for an area Janean and I should be counting in a little over a week for the Uxbridge CBC.

When we got onto the highway, I pulled off to the side on a stretch between Scugog Line 3 and 4 because that is where I understood the bird had been sighted most recently.  In retrospect, I believe it might actually be seen more regularly north of Scugog Line 4.  At any rate, we scanned the fields on both sides of the road and tried to find a white blob with black vermiculations on white snow drifts.  Sounds easy, right?  After scanning for a few minutes, we decided to drive past the buildings on either side of the road and tried again.  Again, all white fields and no white bird.  We turned off onto Scugog Line 4 heading west and repeated the drill.  This was proving to be a difficult task, so I drove ahead and found a driveway to turn around in and headed back towards the highway.  Around 50 metres before the highway, I happened to notice there was a large white bird on a hydro pole. Bingo!

We carefully pulled off to the side of road, turned off the engine, and I got my camera ready.  We noticed it had prey in its talons and this was a good sign.  Sometimes when Snowy Owls get forced south due to a crash in the lemming population, they end up in areas that are not very hospitable and seemingly lack food resources to sustain them.  I was hoping this wasn't the case with this particular individual because it could well be the highlight bird for Janean and I if we can locate it during the Uxbridge CBC on December 27th.

I think one of the coolest things about this scene was how well the sky matched the Snowy Owl!

At this point, the Snowy Owl had tried to swallow too much and gagged it back up

Graphic and utterly awesome!

We enjoyed watching the Snowy Owl for over 15 minutes and the fact that we were able to watch it devour its prey made it an amazing experience.  I wish my first Snowy Owl encounter - this was a lifer for Janean and Grant - was even half as exciting as this sighting!

I've been purposely ambiguous about what the Snowy Owl had predated.  This deserves its own little extra note!  I suspected the Snowy Owl had a vole while I was watching it, but I was taking photos and let Janean use my binoculars.  Grant and Janean were watching the whole act of the Snowy devouring a small mammal through binoculars and it was suspected that it was a mole.  When a couple of my photos are zoomed in, you can see features that seem to confirm it was indeed a Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)!  I'm only a few days in to this trip out east, but it will be pretty darn hard to top this sighting!

The thick, long tail seems to point to Star-nosed Mole... I would like to see one alive some day!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Jingle Bell Rock... Wren

Christmas came a little early on the seasonally appropriate Christmas Hill!  On December 11, a birder by the name of Courtney Cameron photographed an interesting wren near the summit of Christmas Hill and she wondered whether it was a Rock Wren.  There is always that moment where you're not quite sure what you're about to see as you check a photo of a possible rarity.  In this case, the very nice photo did not result in a cringe - it was a classic Rock Wren!

I have been quite busy over the past week or so and there wasn't a daylight moment to spare until today.  Even today was a little slim for time, but I decided I wanted decompress with a little bit of rarity chasing.  When I arrived, I dashed along the trail and bounded up rock steps to get up to the top as quickly as possible.  I bumped into Mike Ashbee on the hill and he hadn't had luck connecting with the wren.  We chatted while covering ground and soon found our party size doubled, with Warren Lee and his daughter Rebecca hoping to spy the rare wren from the interior.

We tried fanning out and it was starting to look like we were going to dip on the wren that likes to dip on rocks.  Mike and I made our way to the southwest corner of the hilltop and suddenly a buffy wren darted up from a little gap in a rock outcrop and started bobbing on a patch of moss.  "That's it!" I exclaimed and I immediately looked around for Warren and Rebecca.  They weren't in sight, but I figured they were likely right at the main summit.  Mike kept tabs on the wren and I hustled up to the top and found them moping about and gave them the secret hand signals to indicate the wren had been found - for the record, the signals included a closed fist resting on an open hand for "rock" and both hands being lowered as fingers fluttered for "rain".  It seemed close enough and got the point across.

We all followed the wren around for the next half an hour or so as it actively fed and bobbed up on top of rock outcrop peaks.  It was an extremely cooperative bird and we all enjoyed watching this charismatic, wayward wren do its thing.

Rock Wren with lots of mosses and lichens to pick through for food

Like I said... cooperative!

One last shot of the Rock Wren on Christmas Hill

For some awe-inspiring shots, stop in at Mike Ashbee's photography page to see his shots of the Rock Wren and much more.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


I had to run an errand today at Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd., so I decided I would step out and check Tod Creek Flats while I was at it.  My intention was to quickly scan over the flats and then continue on to Mount Newton Valley to see what I could dig up there.  In reality, I spent around an hour and a half at Tod Creek Flats and had very little time for birding elsewhere.

When I got out of the car at the Red Barn, I just grabbed my binoculars and wandered down through the opening leading to the flats.  A couple minutes later, I found myself heading back to the car to get my camera because a Swamp Sparrow popped up along the shoreline in the weedy vegetation.  As I made my way back to where I had initially seen the Swamp, I noticed there were several sparrows in the weedy vegetation.  The clumps of rushes and weedy vegetation must provide a good combination of food and cover because there were a half dozen Song Sparrows and, as I was very surprised to find, at least five Swamp Sparrows!

Swamp Sparrows are found in low numbers every winter - usually it's just one or two at Swan Lake and another at either Viaduct Flats, Panama Flats, Rithet's Bog, or perhaps somewhere near Martindale Flats.  This year has been exceptional for them so far: one at Rocky Point, three at Swan Lake, three at the Cowichan Bay Dock Rd., and one at Panama Flats.  Add the five I had today at Tod Creek Flats and you can see we have a pretty good total locally.

In all my years of birding in the Victoria area, this sighting is easily the best for Swamp Sparrows.  There have been occasions where I've seen two individuals at one location, but having five in one small stretch of shoreline was incredible!  I may have to go down there again to see if I can determine whether my count was low.

Hopefully anyone who has had trouble catching up with Swamp Sparrows locally can head on down to Tod Creek Flats and see at least one or two of the relatively cooperative bunch.

This stretch of weedy shoreline at Tod Creek Flats hosted at least five Swamp Sparrows
One of the five Swamp Sparrows, most of which were being uncharacteristically cooperative for views

Another Swamp Sparrow perched on rushes and calling at Tod Creek Flats today

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

November Big Day

While I was drifting around at sea, the idea of a November big day was floated by Russ Cannings.  The proposed date made me wilt because I was almost certainly going to be on the boat still, but I put on bitter-yet-brave face and said Jeremy Kimm, Ian Cruickshank, and Russ should go on without me.  As luck would have it, the date did not work and it was pushed back.  I selfishly suggested waiting until I got back and the suckers took the bait!

On Saturday, November 16th, I was picked up by Russ and Ian at the totally reasonable hour of 2 a.m. Next, we picked up Jeremy K. at his local Tim Horton's, obtained our birding fuel, and headed up to Duncan.  From Cowichan Station to Duncan, we put in a few hours of owling and ended up hearing a handful of Great Horned Owls and a couple Barn Owls before first light.

Our first daylight stop was Quamichan Lake and we got the ball rolling quickly.  Waterfowl and common bush birds were tallied rapidly.  We held out hopes we might be able to pull out Redheads or Canvasbacks, but we settled for our only Ruddy Ducks and Barrow's Goldeneyes of the day and our sought after Ring-billed Gulls.

From Quamichan, we traveled our way toward Cowichan Bay and stopped along the way when Ian and I noticed a sapsucker fly across Tzouhalem Rd.  We hopped out and found not one, but three Red-breasted Sapsuckers in the area!  We realized the shrubs were hopping with activity and decided we should pish and sift through the birds a little before heading on.  This turned out to be an extremely good decision as Russ soon exclaimed "There's a warbler... it's a Wilson's!"  Wilson's Warbler is a very rare bird in late fall and winter, and this turned out to be the most unexpected species of the day.

At Cowichan Bay, we walked the dock road and picked up our hoped for Northern Shrike, Northern Harrier, Swamp Sparrow, and Eurasian Wigeon.  At Dinsdale Farm, the Sandhill Crane that has been mixed in with the swans and geese cooperated nicely.  At this point, we decided to cut our ties with sites north of the Malahat and head back towards Victoria.

Ian had suggested we take a quick run up Stebbings Rd. off Shawnigan Lake Rd. and we debated long and hard about the merits of this potentially time-consuming endeavor.  We opted to pull off on Shawnigan Lake Rd. and give a quick listen and perhaps head a little further down if it seemed warranted.  The stop did net us our only Red Crossbills of the day, which have been very scarce in lower areas around Victoria.  We happened to be birding right at someone's driveway and the lady of the house decided to come out after being called by her husband who had just left, and she proceeded to take pictures of us and Russ' car.  At that point, we were all rather underwhelmed by hill folk and decided to continue on to Goldstream.

We had only one target at Goldstream Provincial Park: American Dipper.  Luckily the spawn is fully on right now and dippers are definitely going to be around.  It still took five minutes or so to catch up with one, but we picked up our target.

My record shot of the American Dipper just happened to capture its white eyelid - I love that feature!

From Goldstream, we knocked down a series of waterfront stops, including Esquimalt Lagoon, Ogden Point, Clover Point, McMicking Point, Queen's Park, and Cattle Point.  The wind was up a bit and the seabirding was actually quite difficult.  We managed most of the birds you'd expect along the waterfront, but shorebirds were a little hard to come by.  Clover Point had Black Turnstones and a lone Black-bellied Plover, Black Oystercatchers were seen on rocks off Kitty Islet, and we managed to find a mixed group with Surfbirds, Black-bellied Plovers, Black Turnstones, and Dunlin on Trial Island viewed from McMicking Point.  Queen's Park had the usual combination of Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs, but the Long-billed Dowitcher and Spotted Sandpiper that have been around the Oak Bay area were nowhere to be found.

As we rolled through the Uplands, we had our windows down in hopes of picking up American Goldfinch.  Instead, we had Ian's bionic ears pick out a weak White-throated Sparrow song.  We backed up and found there was a feeder and when I got out, I located the nice white-striped male on the neighboring yard's driveway.  We figured we would need to get one at Swan Lake, so it was a convenient species to pick up on the fly.

We stopped briefly at Panama Flats before realizing it was going to be a time sink if we didn't get out quickly.  We opted to head over to Viaduct Flats instead and we finally managed to catch up with Canvasbacks.  We were starting to near crunch time and needed to stay on the move and limit our stops to places with specific targets.  We decided we better make our way over to Martindale Flats as there were numerous species we could get there with a little luck.

We headed to Martindale via Dooley Rd. where we hoped to find Mourning Doves.  Unfortunately, the yard that has great feeders also had the homeowner out working in the yard.  There were many birds around still, but none we were hoping to find!  We rolled on through the flats and made a couple quick stops, picking up Savannah Sparrow, American Pipit, and Cooper's Hawk.  When we got to McIntyre Rd., we headed down the path and worked our way out to the western edge of Garcia Nursery to look for the Palm Warblers that have been around for over a week.  As we passed by the marshy patch by the end of the lane, we finally got to tally Wilson's Snipe.  Russ had one at Cowichan Bay, but he was the only one to record it.  That was a sigh of relief, and catching up with the Palm Warblers a couple minutes later was also a welcome sight.

Next, we crossed the highway and drove down Shady Creek Dr. in hopes that it would have Mourning Doves.  They were not there either.  This species was proving to be a much harder task than anticipated.  We then headed over to the Vantreight bulb fields and I had hoped we would get Western Meadowlark and Peregrine Falcon there.  Instead, we got a couple Sky Larks and an American Kestrel.  That was actually not a bad trade as it eliminated the need to head to the airport.

From my standpoint, this is where the big day got interesting.  We were deep in crunch time.  It was after 4:00 p.m. and we had to make some tough decisions.  We were sitting at 112 species and we had a number of species within our grasp, but we had to pick where to invest our efforts.  We started by heading to Saanich Bay because we were missing Greater Scaup and Long-tailed Duck still.  We set up on the James Bay wharf and I heard the good news over my shoulder that there Greater Scaup at approximately the same time I found a large group of Long-tailed Ducks.  113 and 114.  Perfect execution... now what?

This exact moment tormented me because I had a moment where I thought it might be a good idea to walk Saanichton Spit.  We could definitely get Western Meadowlarks there, but the Horned Larks that were reported several days earlier could easily be gone.  Would Sanderlings be on the shoreline?  Maybe we could luck into a Short-eared Owl, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, or who knows what else?  It was too late to gamble like that, though, so we decided to retrace our path back to Martindale, including checking a yard along East Saanich Rd. that had a good number of blackbirds and Eurasian Collared-Doves.  Mourning Doves eluded us yet again, but there were multiple Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with the blackbirds.  115.  We continued back east across the highway, then went south along Lochside Dr. Our timing was amazing - a flock of Western Meadowlarks flew over the car and landed in a field on the west side of the road.  116.  We went to the pig farm and couldn't add anything.  We then headed back to Martindale Rd. and were going to make our way to Dooley again, but were stopped short when two Mourning Doves flew over the car.  There was a tense moment when only two of us had seen the doves, but then a straggler zipped by and everyone saw it.  Phew!  117.  We had tied the old November big day record at this point and we still had enough light to pick up a couple more if we played it smart.

We had done poorly with geese at this point.  We had seen plenty of Cackling Geese, but we'd missed Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese and we knew they were around somewhere.  I suggested we check Mount Newton Valley because it can be good for geese and then if that fails we could continue on to Tod Creek Flats.  Well, Mount Newton Valley was barren in the goose department and we added a quick pass by Maber Flats, too, with the same assessment.  Tod Creek Flats turned out to be our promised land.  When we stepped out to view the flats, it was not long before we had both of our hoped-for geese in our sights.  118 and 119.

We did not have much light left, so we figured we had only one option: Swan Lake for Barred Owl, Virginia Rail, and, if extremely lucky, American Bittern.  None of those wanted to cooperate.  We tried Hyacinth Park for Barred Owl and struck out there, too.  We had been up for a long time and were content with our effort, so we decided to give my place a shot for Barred Owl and call it a day.  Russ gave his last effort Barred Owl - a rather impressive rendition as anyone that has gone owling with Russ can surely attest - and we all stood around reminiscing for a few minutes.  In the distance, a rather ugly hissing screech of a Barred Owl made us all smile.  That capped our day off at 120 species.

I wouldn't want to claim this record is going to hold up for years to come.  We really went in to this with no scouting and we had plenty of misses.  I think with a little preparation and luck, a total of 130 would be a solid-yet-attainable total.

Thanks to Ian, Jeremy K., and Russ for a great day out and I hope we can get together again soon to try to knock down more records!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Palm Monday

After spending eight weeks on a boat, I am glad to be back on solid ground.  All I want to do is wander around back on familiar territory and get reacquainted with the local birds.  I did exactly that today and decided to take my time and walk around some nice habitats on the Saanich Peninsula.

I started off my day around the Victoria Airport.  While driving along, I spied a hawk sitting out on a perch near the runways and decided to turn around and check it out.  While determining it was just a Red-tailed, I was fortunate enough to have seven Sky Larks fly up and circle around for a few minutes.  Not a bad start!

On a whim, I decided to get out and scour the hawthorns and blackberries around Sandown Park, which is the location of the old horse racing track.  It is certainly an interesting area and I could see something interesting turning up there.  I couldn't draw anything exotic out of the shrubs today, but I had a good variety of the usual suspects.  The highlight was a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows that offered up good views with a bit of coaxing.

Next, I made my way over to John Rd. to see if I could track down any good sparrow flocks or perhaps find a shrike out in the fields.  While driving, I spotted an American Kestrel as it flew off the top of a tree and proceeded to land on a snag.  Before hopping back in the car, I looked at another snag and was graced by a nice adult Cooper's Hawk.  I didn't make it too far before I noticed a decent-sized blackbird flock and I put in a rather frustrating effort trying to sift through it for either a Rusty or Yellow-headed.  The flock never did cooperate, but I have a feeling it could hold a gem.  I'll keep it in the back of my mind for a visit in the near future.  The rest of the fields were rather barren, which was disappointing.

I put in a quick stop at Patricia Bay to see if I could spot the Snow Goose that was reported there.  I always like to double check reports of white geese for Ross', but the only non-Canadas I could find were a couple of juvenile Greater White-fronted Geese.  Other waterbirds in the bay included: Greater Scaup, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Horned Grebe, Common and Pacific Loons, Common Goldeneye, and Red-breasted Merganser.

Next on my agenda was a stroll around the Vantreight bulb fields.  The birding was relatively slow, but I managed to spot a few decent birds.  The fields just north of the greenhouses had a single Western Meadowlark and four American Pipits.  Over by the westernmost reservoir, I had a pair of Mourning Doves, a Wilson's Snipe, and a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows.

Two dapper Mourning Doves showing off at the Vantreight bulb fields

This House Finch also looked very sharp posing on a cabbage leaf

By the end of the day, I gave up on trying to dig out my own uncommon birds and decided to see if the two Palm Warblers reported from Martindale Flats were still around.  As I drove along McIntyre Rd., I got extremely distracted by the geese.  I enjoy the variety of geese you can encounter in Victoria from fall through spring.  In one flock, I had Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii minima), Lesser Canada Geese (Branta canadensis parvipes), Dusky Canada Geese (B. c. occidentalis), and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons).  If I took my time and analyzed them a little closer, perhaps there was another subspecies or two in there like taverneri and whatever our mutant residents are called.

The darkest geese in our local flocks over the winter are Dusky Canada Geese.  The middle bird, I suspect, is a Lesser Canada Goose.

The three birds on the right are Cackling Geese and the four on the left are Dusky Canada Geese.  I believe the Cackling Geese belong to the subspecies minima.

The six birds in front are Greater White-fronted Geese and the ones in behind appear to be Lesser Canada Geese.

All of the aforementioned taxa are in this photo - test yourself!

Finally, we'll get to the star species of the day: Palm Warblers.  I rounded the bend at the end of the lane that leads to the western edge of Garcia Nursery and recognized the Reader-Lee family unit all aiming cameras at some ornamental maples.  I figured this was a good sign.  As suspected, they had located both Palm Warblers and were documenting the tail-bobbing birds.  Despite the light starting to get a little low, we all worked our camera skills to the best of our abilities.  It was nice to hear this was a lifer for Emma and Rebecca and it caused me to recall that my lifer Palm Warbler was only a few hundred metres away... twenty some-odd rotations around the sun ago!  It was a great way to cap off a relaxing day of birding back on my home turf.

When you capture a Palm Warbler in dull light, it really doesn't do them justice.  The vivid yellow undertail created great contrast to the drab brown back and the cap still had the slightest hint of chestnut.

This is even worse - I make Palm Warblers look like the drabbest birds in the world.  You'll just have to take my word for it when I say it rocked its own style of charisma!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Water World

Well, for over a month now I may as well consider myself Kevin Costner.  I guess the parallels are not that dramatic.  I'm not drifting around a post-apocalyptic land-free world... I'm just off Newfoundland and Labrador working on a seismic vessel.  When you don't see land for a few weeks, though, you begin to wonder.

I don't have any wild tales from the high seas.  I literally mean high seas because we've had days where the waves have registered in at over 10 metres high.  All in all, the whole process gets routine very quickly and you look forward to anything out of the ordinary.  The usual suspects quickly establish themselves.  As soon as you get out of any bay or harbour, you will be followed by Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes.  Those two are pretty much the poster birds for the North Atlantic.  Other species that are regular include: Great Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Great Skua, Pomarine Jaeger, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Thick-billed Murre, Dovekie, and Atlantic Puffin.  In the waters off Newfoundland, as you get closer to shore, you are likely to see Northern Gannets, Common Murres, Red Phalaropes, and, if the waves are up a little, Leach's Storm-Petrels.

With a suite of birds that are fairly novel to southern Vancouver Island birder, you'd think I would be out trying to get good photographs all the time.  Well, that would be true if the birds were more cooperative and it wasn't so darn cold standing out on the decks.  Additionally, the vessel is quite high up over the water which immediately puts most birds over 20 metres away.  I have to hope that birds do close passes to the vessel and I have to have my camera ready and set properly according to the light conditions.  For most birds, I purely have record shots.  I have not had a good photo opportunity for a good number of the species listed above.  Some birds have been downright frustrating!  Because Great Skua is a fairly sought after species from a North American birding standpoint, I have been trying to get a good photo of one right from the start.  Five weeks later and I just have record shots to show for it.  I am humbled by good seabird photos now!

Now that I've made a bunch of excuses for my photography and lowered your expectations, let's get on with the show!

Dark phase Northern Fulmar

Light phase Northern Fulmar

Black-legged Kittiwake

Glaucous Gull

Thick-billed Murre

Group of Thick-billed Murres

Life on the ship would be one step closer towards dull if it wasn't for the element of the unexpected.  During my time at sea, having a passerine land on the boat is as exciting as Christmas.  Any time a little bird was spotted circling the boat, I would keep my fingers crossed that it would land on the back deck and stay a while.  I even told most of the vessel's staff to let me know if they saw "little birds" anywhere on the boat.  Often, the passerines that find the boat are very lost and perhaps doing locked in a tragic mirror migration.  Off Labrador, the most interesting visitors were a female Prairie Warbler and two Clay-coloured Sparrows.  If you check their range maps, you'll see they were hopeless navigators!  Here is a selection of some visitors from terra firma.

One of  two Clay-coloured Sparrows spotted off Labrador

An eastern Orange-crowned Warbler puffed up and tired

In October, Newfoundland had a little invasion of Northern Wheatears.  I had already seen one on the vessel off Labrador where you could say it is not overly unexpected, but I only had my binoculars when I spotted it.  Luckily, a second one found its way to boat while I was off Newfoundland during the invasion.  It spent the day on the boat and was very cooperative.  I only spent around 15 minutes with it in total and then I left it to rest.  Hopefully it had the energy to get to land!

One of two Northern Wheatears seen on the boat - awesome!

That's all I'll post for now.  Hopefully I obtain some better photos in the next short while or perhaps have a passerine or two drop in.  If not, you'll be getting the bottom-of-the-barrel record shots in my next installment.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Phalarope Without A Hope

I stopped in at Harling Point - known also as the Chinese Cemetary - and scanned out to sea for a while this evening.  In the last couple weeks, it has been quite easy to spot Red-necked Phalaropes bobbing along the tide rips.  This evening was no exception.  In fact, one group was close enough that I was alerted to them by hearing a couple call notes as they lifted off the water and flew off to the east.

One straggler phalarope met with a very unfortunate end in what was one of the most amazing sightings I've had in a while.  I always think that you will witness some incredible events if you set yourself up in an area with lots of activity and just observe.  When I took a break from scanning through the scope, I noticed a very fast-flying dark bird over the water and realized it was a Peregrine Falcon in full hunting mode.  The object of his interest was the lone Red-necked Phalarope.  The initial attempt was easily dodged by the phalarope as it made a quick turn as the falcon rapidly approached.  The falcon was undeterred and doubled back, gained some height, and then dove to gain speed again.  The falcon broke into some powerful wing beats and was quickly back on the trail of the phalarope.  This time the phalarope was forced to hit the water to avoid getting wrapped up in the Peregrine's talons.  The falcon then tightened the turnarounds, which forced the phalarope to have to continually dive under the water to avoid being plucked off the surface.

The Peregrine Falcon is turning back for another pass at the Red-necked Phalarope on the water's surface

The falcon would drop its talons down on the water's surface right where the phalarope had just dove

Every pass the falcon made, the phalarope would dive under the water with a split second to spare.  Several times the Peregrine even momentarily stuttered its pace in hopes that the phalarope would pop up.  The repeated aggressive attempts to catch the phalarope eventually drew the attention of a juvenile Glaucous-winged Gull.  The Peregrine continued to pursue the phalarope while minimizing harassment from the young gull.

Peregrine Falcons are apparently good multi-taskers - this one avoided the gull and still attempted to get the phalarope

The young Glaucous-winged eventually dropped the chase and an adult California Gull entered the scene with some raucous calling as it chased the Peregrine.  Even in the midst of being chased by the adult gull, the Peregrine finally managed to time its attempt perfectly and it snapped the phalarope off the water.

Peregrine Falcon with phalarope in talons pursued by California Gull

The Peregrine was unable to hang on to the phalarope as the California Gull mobbed it.  The gull quickly descended on to the area where the phalarope was dropped in the water, but the Peregrine was not about to give up the meal it had worked so hard to catch.

Injured Red-necked Phalarope hitting the water after being dropped by Peregrine Falcon

I'm sure the gull probably had no idea what to do with the phalarope because it was immediately on top of the poor bird.  The Peregrine quickly circled back and reacquired its hard-earned meal.

The Peregrine Falcon takes back what it rightfully earned

The Peregrine proceeded to fly towards me with the phalarope now tightly secured in its talons.  I was watching the from the east-facing side of Harling Point and the bird flew out of view up the tiny bay just to the north.

Unfortunately falcons are fast, so I couldn't manage a better shot of the fly-by

Unfortunately, I didn't realize the Peregrine seemingly decided to land on the rocks just around the corner to north of me.  I am not entirely sure where it landed, but a few minutes after it initially passed by, I saw it flying back out to over the water with the phalarope.  Presumably, the falcon was headed to Trial Island to eat its well-deserved meal without disturbance.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Where my peeps at?

The answer is Esquimalt Lagoon!  I made a run out to Esquimalt Lagoon after work today in hopes of catching up with the Franklin's Gull that was seen off and on last week.  It hadn't been reported for a couple days and a similar-looking bird turned up at Clover Point yesterday, so I wasn't too hopeful.

As I rolled along, I saw a birder set up with a scope and thought I would hop out and see if they had found anything of interest.  The birder introduced herself as Monica and I said I was Jeremy.  Just using my first name puts birders that haven't met me in a tricky position if they follow the birding groups.  Am I Jeremy Kimm, Jeremy Tatum, Jeremiah Kennedy, or Jeremy Gatten?  She guessed Gatten and I guessed Nugent and we were both right.  Monica was over to look for a few species that are a little trickier to find over on the Lower Mainland, including Black Turnstones, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Heermann's Gull.  She had knocked off her targets and was just exploring some of the local hot spots.  When I asked if she had anything interesting at the lagoon, she said she had a group of sandpipers.  I scanned out with my binoculars and could see a handful of Leasts and a Western.  Looking further along the shoreline, I could see a couple other peeps.  One appeared to be a Western Sandpiper resting and the other appeared to be larger and quite uniform in colour on the back.  I had an inkling it was a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper and a look through Monica's scope confirmed my suspicion.

I walked along the beach to get a closer look and to try to snap off a few shots of the Baird's.  I didn't want to flush it, but I wanted to get right at the water's edge to get the light as close to being at my back as possible.  The peeps were all relatively close together and I gave them a decent amount of room, so my shots actually provide a nice comparison of the three species.  If I was better at capturing a broad depth of field, it would have been a really good comparison.  Instead, the shots have the Baird's as the primary focus and Leasts and Westerns are slightly out-of-focus.

These are always the most instructive situations - multiple species side-by-side for a perfect comparison!

In the above photo, the leftmost bird appears to be the largest and this is the juvenile Baird's Sandpiper.  Baird's are slightly bulkier than both Least and Western Sandpipers, averaging an inch longer and weighing  approximately one-third more.  In addition to their size, juvenile Baird's can be distinguished by their brown-buff upperparts, scalloped appearance to the back created by pale-edged feathers, long primary projection and ever-so-slightly decurved bill that tapers to a fine point.  It is also worth noting that the bill and legs of Baird's Sandpipers are black.  The front bird and one behind it are Western Sandpipers.  The overall impression of a Westerns is a greyish-backed bird with rufous upper scapulars, a relatively long, drooping black bill, and black legs.  Westerns average around half an inch longer and one-fifth heavier than Least Sandpipers and one of the first steps most take to separate them is to look at their legs and bill.  In addition to the front two, the first and last bird of the rightmost group of four at the back are also Westerns.  Least Sandpipers have yellow legs and a shorter, slightly more strongly decurved, finer-tipped bill.  Adult Leasts are drab brown on their upperparts, while juveniles have dark-centred back feathers that are rufous-edged.  The bird that has the Baird's Sandpiper's bill crossing it, also partially obscured by a Western, is a Least.  Even harder to tell is the centre two birds in the righmostt group of four at the back, which are also Leasts.  Nothing beats experience in the field with multiple species in close proximity.  The photo does not do the best job of showing the differences but you hopefully get the idea.

This is same scene but a little shuffled to give better perspective on the Least Sandpiper just right of the Baird's Sandpiper

I added one more shot to show the Least Sandpiper a little better.  Based on my description above, you can see the Least is a juvenile.  Typically the majority of the adults move through first and then juveniles, so most of the birds in the late summer are juveniles.  The other feature this shot shows off nicely is the long primary projection of the juvenile Baird's - note how the primary tips project past the tail.  That's one of the classic field marks for the species.

Now is a good time to get out for peep diversity, with Least, Western, Pectoral, and Baird's as the likely species to be encountered.  Get out and see what you can find at your local shorebird hot spot!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Rainy Morning Fallout

The weather looked very promising for birding this morning.  When I woke up it was alternating between drizzle and downpour.  I was intending to go to Uplands Park, but as I meandered my way along I instead turned up to Mount Tolmie on a whim.  I hadn't been to the Mount Tolmie Reservoir in a while, so I started there.  As I walked along the perimeter, I pushed up a few Savannah Sparrows.  That was my first sign that it was quite "birdy" up there.  I continued to walk the perimeter and wracked up the species one after another: Orange-crowned Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow Warbler, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Townsend's Warbler, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  The best bird I heard here was an Evening Grosbeak giving its clear, whistled call note as it flew over.  I followed this up with my only Western Tanager of the morning.  I had seen quite a few species, but I wouldn't exactly call this a fallout.

I drove up over the top and parked in the lot just below.  From there, I walked around on the north-facing slope and this is where the real action was going on.  I surveyed the scene from a rock outcrop by the parking lot and could see Orange-crowned Warblers actively flitting through the assortment of shrubs and stunted Garry Oaks below.  The odd Yellow-rumped Warbler could be heard giving their distinctive call note while hawking insects.  I decided to move down the slope to put myself in the centre of the action.  It was amazing!  The bulk of the bustle was occurring in the Oceanspray shrubs.  I get the impression the dead, drooping flower clusters are loaded with insects and arachnids.  I figure there must have been over a hundred Orange-crowned Warblers on the hill this morning.  At one point, I stood by a small Oceanspray patch with my camera at the ready for Orange-crowned Warblers to work their way into the open and hopefully cooperate for a photo or two.  I was managing the odd photo here and there and then I heard the high-pitched "tick" note of a Townsend's Warbler right in front of me!  Somehow a Townsend's had snuck in without detection.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee hanging from an Oceanspray inflorescence

One of the many Orange-crowned Warblers voraciously feeding this morning on Mount Tolmie

This lone Townsend's Warbler was seen feeding eye-level in an Oceanspray shrub

I worked the flocks of Orange-crowned Warblers over and over, but I couldn't find anything unusual.  The area east of the upper parking lot had another wave of activity that consisted primarily of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but I also had a Hammond's Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo in the mix.

One of several Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding low in the Garry Oaks on Mount Tolmie

I decided to move on from Mount Tolmie and ended up putting in a very unfocused effort for the Franklin's Gull at Esquimalt Lagoon.  This bird was first found by Mike Ashbee on September 2 and many birders have been able to enjoy this local rarity.  I had not put in an effort and I decided I would give it a half-hearted effort on my way through to Albert Head Lagoon and Tower Point.  I pulled in to the parking area just after the bridge and was impressed by the number of gulls.  I apparently wasn't impressed enough to get my scope out and scan through, but I did give it a cursory scan.  No signs of the Franklin's there.  I went to the "hump" at the halfway point of the lagoon next as this is where the Franklin's Gull has been putting in appearances.  The usual assortment of California, Heermann's, and Glaucous-winged Gulls was there, but there was no signs of the money bird.  I was pleased, however, to find four Bonaparte's Gulls paddling their way along the water's edge.

One of the four Bonaparte's Gulls seen at Esquimalt Lagoon this afternoon
Adult California Gull resting on the shore at Esquimalt Lagoon

Adult Heermann's Gull showing off just how different it is from the other gulls

Albert Head Lagoon was quiet for shorebirds and the horde of gulls offshore was made up of the usual assortment.  The only highlight from this location was a juvenile Ring-billed Gull hanging in the southwest corner of the lagoon.

This juvenile Ring-billed Gull was a treat after seeing an adult at Albert Head last week

I finished the day off at Tower Point with a bit of a seawatch and just enjoying the nice weather.  I bumped in to Ian Cruickshank here and he had already picked over the area enough to tell me not to expect anything wild and crazy.  He did mention Horned Larks were everywhere, but I don't seem to recall him saying there was a group at the point.  When I got out to the rock outcrops at the point, however, there was a group of eight Horned Larks scurrying over the rocks and grass.  Aside from these birds, the only other bird worth mentioning from Tower Point was a lone Horned Grebe which was also my first southbound individual for the late summer.  It was another great day outside and hopefully tomorrow will be equally eventful!

One of the eight Horned Larks on the rock outcrops at Tower Point