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

Monday, 2 September 2013

Blitzing Westward

If you happen to follow the Tweeters mailing list - that is not some social media site, it's the Washington birding listserv - you would know that coastal Washington has been absolutely on fire with rarities.  In the last week alone, reports of Elegant Terns have been dotting the coastline, a Smith's Longspur and Buff-breasted Sandpiper have been seen near Ocean Shores, a Hudsonian Godwit turned up at Bottle Beach, a Great-tailed Grackle has caused a stir in Puyallup, a Long-billed Murrelet was reported from Edmonds, and pelagic birding has produced a Great Shearwater.  While writing this, I just found out a Lesser Sand-Plover was found at Ocean Shores today, too.  The bottom line is: there is no way all those rarities have skipped by us and we have no usual birds around.

Jeremy K. and I decided we needed to at least try to remedy the situation by heading out to Whiffin Spit first thing in the morning to check on the shorebirds and then continue on to Jordan River to beat the bushes for migrants.  As I told Jeremy K., the J&J style is to swing for the fences and fall short... but at least we try!  In the end, we had a great day with a few nice birds along the way, but nothing earth-shattering like the cluster of megas south of us.

At Whiffin, we got the ball rolling with a long-staying female Bufflehead.  I know that sounds rather blasé, but it is a surprisingly good bird in September!  Jeremy K. scanned along the shore and spied a flock of peeps out near the breakwater.  They had flown by the time we got out there, but we relocated them in the usual stretch that shorebirds seem to favour.  While scanning through the flock of ten or so Western Sandpipers, I passed over a Black Turnstone.  As is often the case, there wasn't just one turnstone but rather a small, well-camouflaged flock.  A Ruddy Turnstone had been reported over the past few days, so I surveyed the scene and promptly found the much rarer and sharper-patterned Ruddy partially obscured by a rock.  It eventually started to walk around and I managed to get a decent record shot of the occasion.

This Ruddy Turnstone at Whiffin Spit was one of the highlights of the morning

After Whiffin, we booked it out to Jordan River to try to catch the tail-end of heightened passerine activity.  During the drive, Jeremy K. had one of his highlights of the day when a Black Bear darted across the road.

At Jordan River, we almost immediately locked on to a nice flock of passerines and possibly muttered something about "birds dripping from the trees".  It was dizzying trying to keep up with each new source of movement.  We quickly tallied Cassin's and Warbling Vireos, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, some juvenile White-crowned Sparrows, and then a different bird came flying in.  We raised our binoculars and were surprised to see a Lazuli Bunting.  I wouldn't want to put any money on it, but it may have been a fall female.  At any rate, I did take a rather lousy record shot.  Amazingly, Rocky Point Bird Observatory banded one the day before, as well.

The sandy-brown back, whitish belly, and buffy-orange chest give this bird away as a Lazuli Bunting

We couldn't dig out anything else of interest, but the birding was consistent.  We had a good number of migrants to pore over and we hooked into some interesting mixed flocks.  We walked down the gravel road just around the corner of the "town" and, with some pishing and pygmy-owl tooting, we managed to draw out: 1 Western Tanager, 1 Black-headed Grosbeak, 1 Hutton's Vireos, 6 Yellow Warblers, 2 Wilson's Warblers, 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, 1 MacGillivray's Warbler, 1 Pacific-slope Flycatcher, 2 Golden-crowned Kinglets, and 12 Chestnut-backed Chickadees.  My personal favourite event, however, was birding along the bird-themed roads (Petrel, Cormorant, and Murrelet) just west of Jordan River.  These roads were set to be developed years ago, but an economic downturn put it on hold.  Areas that were cleared to showcase the lots have since filled in with alders and I always suspected these young deciduous swaths would be good during migration.  We initially had minimal luck, but we finally found some activity as a Pacific-slope Flycatcher darted out and back in to the dense alders.  We noticed more movement further along the road, so we walked to check it out.  We managed to find around a dozen flycatchers hawking insects through the alders, with Pacific-slope, Hammond's, and Willow all taking advantage of the insect-rich smorgasbord.  Additionally, we found a Warbling Vireo, ten or so Yellow Warblers, a couple Orange-crowned Warblers, and single Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers.  If there was a good drizzle that put the birds down, I could see this area being extremely productive!

We spent the entire morning at Jordan River and ended up with 72 species, which was better than we expected.  We headed back east to Muir Creek and found the activity to be rather underwhelming.  The highlight for me was a couple of male Saffron-winged Meadowhawks, including one that eventually posed for some photos.

You can just make out the "saffron" veins along the leading edges of all four wings of this Saffron-winged Meadowhawk

We worked our way through to Metchosin via Lindholm Rd., stopping to check a couple reservoirs along the way and coming up empty on birds worthy of mention.  At Albert Head Lagoon, we were surprised to see a flurry of gull activity straight out from the parking area.  We set up scopes and could only see Heermann's, California, and Glaucous-winged Gulls and unfortunately no signs of our hoped-for terns.  We checked the lagoon for shorebirds and that was also pretty lackluster with only a couple Greater Yellowlegs and lone Killdeer in attendance.  We sifted through the ducks at the far side of the lagoon and were surprised to find a couple of early American Wigeons.  We sat on the logs and put in another attempt find something interesting like a jaeger among the gulls.  I did eventually find a nice bird - the closest gull was actually an adult Ring-billed Gull!  We were looking way out into the heat haze and the best bird was right in front of us!

That gull with the black ring on its bill... yeah, that's a Ring-billed Gull conveniently enough!

We finished the day off at Esquimalt Lagoon.  We had more peeps than I expected, but no Semipalmated Sandpipers in the mix.  We did get our first Least Sandpipers of the day and I snapped off a few shots of a very cooperative Western Sandpiper.  Our last day bird was a lone Caspian Tern on the gravel bar near the bridge, which put us up to 93 species for the day.  We were not target birding to fill in our gaps, so we could have easily cracked 100 if we tried to fill in our easy misses and also hit up the Victoria waterfront for increased shorebird variety.  I'll close this off with one of the shots of the Western Sandpiper from Esquimalt Lagoon.

Classic Western Sandpiper showing off the rusty accents on the scapular feathers