Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Holy Crap: Duncan's Sewage Treatment Ponds

Last Sunday, I decided to reward myself for putting in a day of shopping for my upcoming trip to Thailand.  My plan for the day was to seek out crossbill flocks around Shawnigan Lake due to the prevalence of Western Hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla).  The White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) irruption this year spurred me to check this area because hemlocks are the conifer of choice for that species.  It was a total bust due to my impatience and the lack of good treetop viewing conditions.  I only had two Red Crossbills (L. curvirostris) in the area.  My consolation for the area was a Hutton's Vireo (Vireo huttoni) on West Shawnigan Lake Rd.

Due to the lack of crossbill action, I quickly cut the reigns on my idea and decided to head up to Duncan.  I opted to take a side route in to the town, passing Cowichan Bay on the way.  I turned on to the Cowichan Bay Dock Rd. (Westcan Terminal Rd. on Google Maps) and immediately was deterred by the horde of cars parked by the gate.  I decided to continue on and found a trail I had never taken before around a kilometre further along Tzouhalem Rd.  The trail follows a dike around one of the Dinsdale's farm fields, if memory serves me correctly, and it overlooks a section of the Cowichan River estuary that I have never checked before.  The outing wasn't overly productive, but I turned up a couple of Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus), three male Eurasian Wigeons (Anas penelope) among 90 or so Americans (Anas americana), and the most intriguing was a flock of 20+ American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) that vanished into the relatively short grass.  Normally I wouldn't say that a flock of pipits is intriguing, but the paucity of reports this winter locally paired with the fact that the Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) is still in the farm fields near Courtenay made me really want to scan through them carefully.  Perhaps there's something interesting like a japonicus American Pipit mixed in?  Unfortunately I only managed to see only two or three of them peeking up above the grass.  Very frustrating!

I was feeling a little defeated after putting in a pretty solid day's effort and coming out pretty empty-handed, so I decided to hit up the Duncan sewage treatment ponds as a last resort.  I think most people know how enamoured birders are with garbage dumps and sewage treatment facilities, but there is a reason!  Birds find our toilet flushings to be the best thing since sliced bread.  I think that saying even works because gulls and ducks love bread.

Look at all those gloriously disgusting scaups and gulls drawn to our waste!

I am now back from Thailand and see that I did not complete this post.  Nice!  I guess three weeks late is better than no post at all.  So, rather than wax poetic about fuzzy details, I'll just get to the stars of the show. One bird that immediately jumped out from the group of gulls closest to the corner I was viewing the ponds (near the Freshwater Eco-Centre) was a second-winter Glaucous Gull!

The overall creamy white colouration and pale iris point to this Glaucous Gull being a second year.

Mmmm... Duncan leavings!

Can you tell the Glaucous Gull ruled the roost?

The other bird was found while carefully scanning through the Lesser Scaups (Aythya affinis) and Ring-necked Ducks (A. collaris) for something like a Tufted Duck (A. fuligula).  One bird had a dark back much like a Ring-necked Duck, but everything else about it was more scaup-like.  It turned out that it was both - a hybrid Ring-necked Duck x Scaup sp.!  Have a look for yourself:

You'll have to forgive the quality, but the bird was quite far away!  The second duck from the left on the back pipe is the hybrid.  You can see the mantle shade is lighter than the black chest, the bird has a broad pale band on its bill, and lacks the obvious white shoulder spur of a Ring-necked.  For reference, you can see all the other birds on the pipes are Lesser Scaup with the exception of the rightmost bird on the second closest pipe (I'm including the pipe you can only see a sliver of in the bottom left), which is a Ring-necked Duck.

Flapping, but blurry so you can't really get much out of it.

You can see the broad pale band on the bill a little better here.

And just one last horrible record shot just for in case it adds a little something.

If you want to see the Glaucous Gull, it has now probably moved its way up to the Parksville-Qualicum area, so head up there for some great gulling in the next few weeks!

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