Tuesday, 8 July 2014

I Heard It Through the Kiwi Vine...

A few weeks ago, if you'll recall, I managed to see my first Clay-coloured Sparrow in the Victoria checklist area.  I even made brief mention of the next five species I anticipated to add as I work towards 300.  Well, you can pretty much guarantee it won't work out the way you anticipate and I pretty instantly derailed my list.

On June 24, Ann Nightingale headed over to Livesay Rd. where Bullock's Orioles were first noted four days earlier.  Not only were the orioles still around, but a song rarely heard in Victoria was being repeated in the backdrop.  Luckily Ann recognized the repeated "che-bek" phrase as a singing Least Flycatcher.  Unfortunately for me, I was working in the interior and heading to Valemount for four more days of work.  Even worse, the trail went cold the next morning after it put in a brief appearance.  It wasn't reported over the next two days and I figured it was yet another Least Flycatcher that had slipped through my grasp due to my absence from the Victoria area.

The Newells are a persistent bunch and they not only checked in on the orioles on June 28, but they also decided to check around the kiwi farms near the intersection of Martindale and Welch.  Surprisingly enough, they relocated the Least Flycatcher singing around the kiwi farm - awesome!  I was finishing up my work that day and had a day of natural history mayhem planned for the next day down in the Okanagan.  I wasn't about to rush back to Victoria for the Least Flycatcher, but I made sure to stay updated on its status.  After a morning in Princeton and Manning Park on the 30th, I was bound for Swartz Bay on the 6 p.m. ferry.  While on the ferry, I read an update from Mike McGrenere saying that he had the Least in the morning.  I wanted to pop in to drop off some Okanagan cherries to my dad, but I planned to make it quick so I could put in a bit of time before dark trying to hear or see the flycatcher.  I mentioned it to my dad and he wanted to join me, so we hopped in my work truck and we headed on over to the kiwi farms.  I am fortunately very familiar with Least Flycatcher due to the areas I work, so I stood still and just listened.  It took a minute, but I heard a distant "che-bek" at the far end of the kiwi farm on the south side of Martindale Rd.  We tracked the bird down to the row of poplars at the south side of the farm.  I popped just inside the row of poplars along the road and managed to see a little empid with obvious white wingbars high up in one of the poplars.  It wasn't the best view, but it was most definitely my first Least Flycatcher in the Victoria checklist area!

My dad didn't really get a great view of the bird before it flew to the north end of the farm.  I listened for it to sing again and determined it was half way down the north line of poplars.  Then it stopped singing for a bit and when it restarted, it was over in the kiwi farm kitty corner to us.  We crossed over to it and there my dad was able to briefly observe the Least as it sat on a drooping kiwi vine about 10 metres away at eye level.  What a great bird to add and it didn't quite make my cut for the top five next expected species.  It was pretty close and I debated putting it on over Pink-footed Shearwater and Long-tailed Jaeger because I don't do much in the way of "pelagic" birding here.

I don't have any audio files or photos to support this blog entry, so I will have to make up for it with a photo extravaganza soon.  Photos would have been miserable anyways due to the low light conditions.  Knowing this is a new Victoria bird for me, I will do the standard update on my progress towards 300 species in the checklist area.  The Least Flycatcher is my 294th species and it was actually a tiebreaker for me to jump back ahead of Jeremy Kimm.  I probably fretted at his progress over the past few years as he quickly closed the gap and then momentarily passed me.  At the same time, I knew he was adding species I hadn't seen and it was only a matter of time before I recouped those losses.  Mission accomplished!  If that sounds extremely competitive, it's actually all in good fun.  We congratulate each other genuinely when we add new birds to our Victoria checklist and JK even prods me to hurry up and get my Grey Jay already.  I think we both enjoy the friendly competitive edge and schoolyard maturity taunting.  So... bring on the next one!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Just Behrly...

Just over a week ago, I finished up work in Valemount and had to drop a coworker off in the Vernon area.  With Janean off camping, I figured it would be nice to take advantage of the fact I was already in the Okanagan area and spend the next day and a half enjoying the natural history of the southern interior.

After dropping off my coworker, I made a quick dash south and completely forgot how busy it would be during the Canada Day weekend.  I had trouble finding accommodations in Oliver, so I kept going to Osoyoos and eventually managed to find somewhere that was not excessively expensive.  My plan for the next morning was to get up and head to Road 22 to see if dragonflies were cruising the irrigation channel.

When I got there it was still a little early, so I continued on to Black Sage Rd. and realized the area sported an abundance of antelope-brush.  I had a feeling the area was Haines Lease Ecological Reserve due to provincial government signs indicating it was a management area.  If I have an area I can just wander without worrying about trespassing, I am happy.  Off I went in sandals... into the sage, antelope-brush, cheatgrass, and cactus.  After a couple minutes, I marched back to the truck and replaced my sandals with hiking shoes.  I always underestimate how effective cacti and cheatgrass are at transporting themselves from just the slightest brush of a foot.  The shoes made it a bit more comfortable, but I still had hundreds of cheatgrass  seeds embedded in my shoelaces and socks and cacti were embedded in my soles and adhering to my pants.  So why was I putting myself through this treacherous foot gauntlet?  The relatively intact antelope-brush community hosts a butterfly that has a very limited range in British Columbia: Behr's Hairstreak.

I spent hours roaming around a slope covered in antelope-brush and, despite finding dozens of Grey Hairstreaks, a few California Hairstreaks, a couple Common Sootywings, and several amazing robberflies, I just couldn't connect with Behr's Hairstreak.  I have seen one before, but it a very brief sighting at the Osoyoos Desert Centre a few years ago.  I have been told the desert centre's parking lot is one of the best places to see them due to the abundance of yarrow in the garden.  I am stubborn and wanted to get it in a more natural setting.  Haines Lease has a good supply of its host plant (antelope-brush), but I feel it was lacking nectar plants.  Pretty much all of the yarrow I encountered was already dried out.  I was happy I explored this location despite missing my target.  I even scrambled up onto the rocky slope above the antelope-brush community and got one heck of a surprise from a Western Rattlesnake!  This encounter happened so quickly that I didn't manage any photos, unfortunately.  Instead, I can offer shots of a Grey Hairstreak, Common Sootywing, and a Brown-spotted Range Grasshopper.

This dark little skipper patterned with white spots on the forewing is a Common Sootywing

Several of the Grey Hairstreaks were in pristine condition and this is one such individual

Thanks to James Miskelly, I have this identified as a Brown-spotted Range Grasshopper (Psoloessa delicatula)

I decided that I had to abandon my search for Behr's Hairstreak.  Between my time at Haines Lease Ecological Reserve and another little patch of antelope-brush further northwest on Black Sage Rd., I had dedicated enough time to one species.  I cut decided to shift my focus to Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle (Cicindela parowana), which is currently only known from one location in Canada.  For this species, I headed out east of Oliver.  I didn't have the exact location for it, but a description of the area that I did my best to figure out.  I later found out I wasn't quite in the right spot.  I was having a hard time finding good tiger beetle habitat, so I was sticking to a dirt track that occasionally had some looser, sandier soil.  Based on a report chronicling the search effort for Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle in recent years, I thought I should be looking around alkali flats.  I got on my phone and used Google Maps to look for any water features that might have an alkali edge.  From my little iPhone screen, I found one spot that looked like a decent candidate.  I drove a few kilometres on the dirt track and ended up at a little watering hole that seemingly gets used by horses.  This wasn't looking too promising.

I hopped out and started searching the dried edge for tiger beetles and the wetter areas for interesting plants or puddling butterflies.  Nothing.  I then continued to walk down the dirt track.  As I walked along, my eyes were drawn to a dark spot on the flat-topped flower cluster of a yarrow plant.  It was a butterfly and the combination of its size and brown tone stopped me dead in my tracks.  Behr's Hairstreak!  I had given up on finding one, but that's often how it goes.  This stunning hairstreak cooperatively nectared from flower to flower on the yarrow.

Behr's Hairstreak is easily one of my favourite butterflies in British Columbia - what a beauty!

I should really end with the Behr's Hairstreak as it was really the high point of the day.  Unfortunately, I am a sucker for chronology and, after enjoying the above Behr's plus another individual that was a little more worn, I had a cooperative California Hairstreak.  Yarrow is such a great nectar plant even if it is rather weedy, and it's also what the California Hairstreak was using for a nectar source.  I may have spent my entire day searching for two main targets, but it was a very rewarding day and I hope you enjoyed ride-along narrative.

This California Hairstreak had the most vibrant markings of the four that I saw over the course of the day