Monday, 22 April 2013

Migrant Worker

This weekend I was out searching for migrants and was actually relatively successful!  In my last post, I was griping about the lack of results I was getting while scanning the fields and hilltops for Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend's Solitaires, and Say's Phoebes.  I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of shorebirds on the flooded fields and couldn't wait for the next wave of spring arrivals.  That time has arrived!

I must admit, after writing that post I went out the next day and had a bird I was quite pleased to encounter.  I spent a few hours out with Jeremy K. and we started at Summit Park.  Before he arrived, I booked around the northern half of the park and lucked out with my first Chipping Sparrow of the year.  When Jeremy K. arrived, we were walking around the reservoir and I picked up on a familiar song.  It's wasn't familiar from a Victoria standpoint, but rather from the work I do in northern Alberta.  It was the song of a White-throated Sparrow and we managed to quickly locate the bird.  It was an immaculate specimen and I had to work a bit to get a shot of it, but it was worth the effort.  I think that sighting was how I got my groove back.  In your face, Stella!

White-throated Sparrows don't get much sweeter than this one!  It was great to hear it belt out its signature "Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada" song.

Alright, now let's get back to this weekend where my groove was in full effect.  Apparently my direction-reading skills were pretty diminished as I did my volunteer Sky Lark census a day early, but my bird-finding skills were going strong.  While circling the Victoria International Airport on Saturday morning, I had two female American Kestrels, an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, and - the big highlight - a Whimbrel.  The Whimbrel was calling as it flew over and then it doubled back and landed in a recently plowed field along Willingdon Rd.  I was really hoping for a Long-billed Curlew, but a Whimbrel is certainly a good find!

After the survey was over, I made a stop in at Saanichton Spit and kept the trend of interesting birds rolling when I spotted a bulky swallow-like bird overhead.  A quick look through the bins confirmed this all-dark bird was the first reported Purple Martin of the spring in British Columbia.  The only other birds of note there were a lone breeding-plumaged Dunlin, two Greater Yellowlegs, a couple of peeps (presumably Leasts) that I only saw flying, and an American Pipit calling as it flew over.

I decided to drive home by cutting across Central Saanich Rd. and this turned out to be a very good plan!  While passing the rather tantalizing agricultural fields on the west side of the road, I pulled over on a whim, hopped and jumped the ditch, and then scanned the field from the fence.  One skinny, plastic pole out in the middle of the fields appeared to have a bird-like shape on top of it and that object appeared to be blue.  I quickly jumped back over the ditch, grabbed my scope, hopped back over the ditch, checked if the shape was still there, dropped the tripod legs, and finally had the scope focused on the spot.  At that moment I knew what the bluebird of happiness was all about - I was thrilled to see a male Mountain Bluebird after putting in the hours over the last two weeks!  I watched it for a bit and then got distracted by a flock of American Pipits.  When I went to look at the bluebird again, that sky blue scoundrel had given me the slip.  It was nice while it lasted.

I thought I'd hit up the flooded fields and flats around my place in the early afternoon in hopes of more good shorebirds.  I started at Maber Flats where the only shorebirds were two Killdeer and a couple of Greater Yellowlegs.  I moved on to Oldfield Rd. and bumped in to Ed Pellizzon and we played catch up while enjoying an incredible raptor display.  The first raptor was a Cooper's Hawk that I spotted sitting on the ground while walking to meet Ed.  The hawk spotted me and took off with something in its talons.  I just managed to discern that it had taken a European Starling - keep up the good work!  Next, we watched a single immature Bald Eagle circling with a kettle of ravens (I counted approximately 40 at one point).  Shortly after, two Red-tailed Hawks crossed over the flats and we were surprised at how pale one of them appeared.  I am not sure if it's a light-morph Harlan's Red-tailed or a light-morph of our usual Western Red-taileds, but it certainly stood out.  We also tallied a Sharp-shinned passing over and then a Peregrine Falcon made an impressive pass over the flooded fields.  Just before Ed and I parted, we were treated to a return pass from the Sharp-shinned Hawk and this time it was carrying what appeared to be a vole in its talons.

Moving ahead to Sunday, I tried birding out a Ten Mile Point which was not all too exciting.  The best sighting was a pair of Marbled Murrelets - one in breeding plumage and the other still wearing its winter duds.  I also enjoyed a group of cooperative Pine Siskins and managed to snap a close-up shot when one delicately perched on a dead grass stems only a couple metres away.

Pine Siskins are currently here in full force and it's hard to go anywhere without encountering several flocks.

After Ten Mile Point, I then flip-flopped on where to go and ended up putting in half an hour at Mount Tolmie.  I parked in the lot just below the summit and walked out to a viewpoint that looks over the north slope.  I braved the heavy drizzle and scanned the oaks with my bare eyes just hoping for movement.  On cue, a bird crossed the gap and I managed to get my bins on it just in time to see the bird was sporting nice buffy wing bars.  I've filed that field mark in my head as Townsend's Solitaire and when the bird landed, I was able to confirm that's exactly what it was.  I carefully made my way down the slope and managed to get great views and some photos of the solitaire.  What a treat!

This seems to be how I see most of my Townsend's Solitaires locally - they love open, rocky Garry Oak hillsides!

Next weekend I will be heading off to Fort McMurray for work, so hopefully I will have time to take a day off this week that I can dedicate to birding.  I want to hit up Jordan River or even further west in hopes of turning up some interesting migrants.  If it doesn't happen, the next update might come from far afield.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Lull

It shouldn't feel like we're in a lull, should it?  There is, however, just a hint of a lull in the air.  We had that brilliant wave of warm weather and migrants came rushing in.  It went from a bunch of the resident songbirds starting to warm up their pipes to flashy Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers singing all over the place, Rufous Hummingbirds whirring by, and swallows darting over the local water bodies.  We're past that now, it's quite chilly again, and I find myself waiting for the next wave of excitement.

There are a few birds that could bring delight during this lull, but I haven't been into chasing them and I can't seem to find my own.  This is the window that you can find Mountain Bluebirds and Townsend's Solitaires on rocky hilltops, estuaries, or open areas with lots of perches.  Additionally, we're in that blink-and-you-miss-it frame where Say's Phoebes could be found.  I have circumnavigated the airport several times, visited some unconventional hilltops, checked tree farms, and even visited sites that had Mountain Bluebirds a few days earlier, but I still haven't connected with any of them.

Despite my lack of success in the bluebird/solitaire/phoebe department, I have managed to dig out a couple of birds that I am always happy to encounter.  I have checked in on the flooded fields along Oldfield Rd. a couple times in the past week in anticipation of shorebirds rolling in.  I am always greeted by Killdeer, but no yellowlegs or peeps yet.  At this time of year, though, it is always worth sorting through the teal.  Common ("Eurasian") Teal (Anas crecca crecca) is one of the birds I seem to have a knack for finding.  I manage to find at least one every winter or spring at either Maber Flats, Tod Creek Flats, Panama Flats, or along Oldfield Rd.  On April 8th, I had a rather striking male Common Teal flashing its prominent white stripe across its side, which is the result of the lower scapulars being edged in white.

Our local Green-winged Teals (Anas crecca americana) have a vertical white stripe at the shoulder.  On this bird, that mark is absent, but there is an obvious horizontal white stripe that is indicative of a Common Teal.  Other features that point to this being the Eurasian counterpart to our local Green-winged is the courser vermiculations on the flanks, bolder white markings in the facial pattern, and the cream-coloured sliver in front of the vertical black mark near the tail.

I went back to Oldfield yesterday in hopes that the rain had pushed down some shorebirds.  We're still a touch early, but I thought it was worth a shot.  The fields were very quiet so I headed back to the car.  Just as I reached the car, I saw a Common Raven harassing a larger bird.  The combination of the bird's shape and the location threw me off, so I raised my binoculars and immediately noticed a white tail base.  As the bird banked, the wings showed immaculate white flashes.  Picture perfect immature Golden Eagle!  I went to get my camera as I was right beside the car, but the eagle decided to try to shake the raven.  When I reeled around to snap off a couple shots, the Golden Eagle was no longer directly overhead and I had to try to get the shot through the trees.  My manual settings were not ready for the backlighting, so it's really just a record shot of this unexpected beauty!

Even in this underwhelming photo, the white flashes in the wing and size compared to the Common Raven (top) make it easy to tell this is a classic immature Golden Eagle!

So... when is this micro-lull over?  I would say some time in the next week to week and a half.  If you look back through the BCVIBIRDS archives - a very valuable resource - you can see that some of the good shorebirds should start turning up in a week or so.  My fingers are crossed for a self-found Long-billed Curlew or Pacific Golden-Plover, but I am really hoping that someone will turn up a Say's Phoebe.  That is my Victoria nemesis!