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!