Saturday, 17 October 2015

Two Notches Up on the Victoria Checklist Area Belt

I was away for 11 weeks with work and visiting family in Ontario, but I am back in Victoria and have been trying to make up for lost birding time.  Luckily were are in the midst of what is shaping up to be an interesting fall.

With more than a week of work left in Fort McMurray, I received word that a Black-throated Sparrow was found at Whiffin Spit.  The sighting was quite unprecedented for the fall; all sightings of Black-throated Sparrow in the province have been from early May to early July.  In the Victoria checklist area, we have only two previous records:

1) June 18-19, 1992 at Somenos Marsh, found by Derrick Marven
2) June 16, 1994 at Mount Tolmie, found by Keith Taylor

I didn't chase many birds when I was young, so these records were not ones I capitalized on more than 20 years ago.  For more than a week I nervously watched BCVIBIRDS to see if the Black-throated Sparrow was still being seen.  I also watched the soap opera unfold of a rapidly growing tick on the sparrow's face.  Now I was hoping not only that the bird would stay, but also that the tick would be gone.  I got home on October 8th and could have immediately zipped out to Whiffin Spit, but I just wanted to do some relaxing birding.  The next day I apparently wanted more relaxing birding, so it wasn't until October 10th that I finally made my way out to Whiffin Spit.  I left fairly early and got out to Sooke before 8:30 a.m.  The most recent reports said the bird was right by the parking lot, so I basically hopped out and started looking.  The first bird I heard was a bit surprising: a Yellow Warbler was giving some sharp call notes as it fed in a maple at the edge of the parking lot.  They are pretty scarce once the calendar rolls over to October, but this was surprisingly the second I had seen in two days.

Drab fall Yellow Warbler blending in nicely with the changing Bigleaf Maple leaves

After checking out the Yellow Warbler, I turned my attention to searching for the Black-throated Sparrow.  It was an extremely anticlimactic event as I immediately found it in the short grass at the edge of the parking lot.  The sparrow was very cooperative and looked a little worse for wear.  The tick had fallen off a couple days earlier, but the feathers around the attachment site were all missing and there was an unsightly mark in its place.  I walked the rest of the spit, but couldn't drum up anything interesting.  By the time I finished my walk, I found another birder enjoying the Black-throated Sparrow.  I didn't recognize said birder, but was soon introduced to Neil Hughes who recently moved back to southern Vancouver Island from Powell River.  I'm always happy to meet new birders and learn the community has an extra set of skilled eyes in its midst.  We chatted for a while as the Black-throated Sparrow busily fed along the edge of the beach.  The bird was sometimes too obliging for our cameras, but certainly not for our eyes.  Despite the rather bedraggled condition of this rarity from southern aridlands, it was a treat to see one on southern Vancouver Island.

The scruffy little Black-throated Sparrow scored this tasty morsel while foraging around the rocks at the base of the beach

The next day, news of another exciting bird ended up in my e-mail: Cathy Carlson had a Brown Booby about three miles offshore from Beechey Head in East Sooke.  This species has been ending up in British Columbia waters more frequently in the past five years, and there have been other sightings this year in the Strait of Juan de Fuca/Puget Sound area on the Washington side.  There has been at least one other record for the Victoria checklist area from 2007, but that record has not been formally submitted for review.  As a result, once Cathy's superb photos of the juvenile Brown Booby, seen here, will go down as the first official record for the area.

I recognized the needle-in-a-haystack luck required in relocating the booby, but decided to give it a shot.  The bird was seen from Beechey Head in East Sooke, so I decided to head to a spot that not many birders think to visit.  I drove out to the westernmost point of East Sooke, which puts you at a rather unpleasant development called Silver Spray.  This development has been around for ages, but it seemed to get put on the backburner for more than a decade.  I was surprised to see there was an open house within the gates of the development, so it appears a developer is well underway to finish off this project.  It's a real shame, but hopefully they will retain some public land there because it is a great vantage point for seawatching.  I followed a crude crushed rock trail down to a leveled off area and set up the scope.  I started by checking the rocks below, but only had California, Heermann's, Thayer's, Mew, and Glaucous-winged Gulls.  On the water, Common Murres were plentiful.  The close waters had no oddball birds, so I pushed my scan further offshore.  I quickly spotted the fluke of a Humpback Whale way out in the strait.  While scanning back and forth for a blow from the Humpback, I spotted a log with a few birds sitting on it.  If you're going to spot a booby, it'll either be flying (and hopefully plunge-diving), resting on a log, or sitting on a boat mast.  One of the birds on the log was dark and bulky.  I was immediately intrigued by its relatively squat-legged, pot-bellied, long-tailed appearance, but I wanted to ensure it wasn't a cormorant with its neck coiled or even just a juvenile gull.

The bird was content sitting on the log and after over an hour it had only budged a few times.  I tried to maintain focus on the bird, but had to give my eyes periodic relief due to the monochromatic pale grey sea and sky that provided a backdrop.  On a couple occasions, the bird stretched its wings and these events provided glimmers of hope that it was indeed a booby.  I would have expected a cormorant to uncoil its neck, but when the dark bird on the log flapped, it maintained a thick neck.  The wings looked long and pointed, too, much like one of the photos Cathy managed.  I got really hopefully when a large Glaucous-winged Gull circled over the log and decided to land on it.  The gull flushed off a couple other gulls and began to walk over to the booby-like bird.  The bird again flapped up its wings, but did not budge.  I watched the bird for more than an hour and half under conditions that occasionally saw wisps of fog add to already trying conditions.  The entire time I watched the bird, I knew I had stay on it until it flew.  I had no idea if I would just be sitting there until sundown or not.  Finally, however, the bird raised its wings and pushed off the log and took flight.  This was the moment I had been waiting for and it could have deflated me in an instant if a snake-like neck had shot out and squared-off wings carried the bird off low over the water.  Instead, everything crystalized.  The bird maintained a long, thick neck blending right into the head.  The wings were long, and slightly swept back, the tail was also long.  The bird gave lumbering-but-strong wing beats with the occasional glide thrown in.  I have seen many Northern Gannets off Newfoundland, both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies in waters off Mexico, Central America and South America, and Masked Boobies off O'ahu.  In other words, I know what a sulid looks like in flight.  For a moment, I thought the Brown Booby was going to hitch a ride on a large tug that had passed by 15 minutes earlier, but instead it swirled down and dropped onto another log.  I was riding pretty high and had hoped to stay on the bird for a while longer, but after another 10 minutes a light drizzle started over land and soon the band of water containing the booby was enveloped in a veil of light fog.

I have been told this photo does my observation more harm than good, but I don't really understand why one would disregard the written description and focus on something not really in focus - the photo is grainy, pixellated, and heavily cropped.  The photo borders on useless, but I still see some features there that I view as booby-like.  The bird is dark, pot-bellied, and long-tailed.  I am including the photo just to show that you can't always get effective documentation.  In the birding world, photographic evidence has pretty much become the standard and anything less is suspect.  Gone are the days of careful observation, written notes, and field sketches.  Instead, it seems you'll gain more traction if you just raise your camera and snap a shot.  I frequently have to make difficult decisions about observations just like this on the British Columbia Bird Records Committee.  I have found it quite refreshing to see that careful written descriptions can sometimes inspire more confidence than a photograph.  In fact, some records get shelved due to a lack of a written description when the photographic evidence fails.  You can tell some identifications are an afterthought and actually the result of putting too much emphasis on a photo that may not accurately portray a bird.  Okay... I think that's enough of that little tangent.

With the Black-throated Sparrow and Brown Booby, the two notches added to my Victoria checklist area belt, I have edged very close to the 300 milestone.  I currently sit at 298.  Perhaps I will have to take a run up to Spectacle Lake to see if I can finally pick up a checklist area Grey Jay.  I like to think of it a bird in my back pocket, but it will probably be more difficult than I think to connect with one.  Hopefully this El NiƱo has a few more surprises in store for us!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Alliteration Saturday: Solitary Sandpiper, succumbed Sandhill, and Self-found Success

I got a text this morning from Jody Wells about some shorebird activity at Saanichton Spit.  After a couple texts back-and-forth, I called him and we chatted for a bit.  At some point in the conversation, I was reminded that some people actually read this blog and that I suck at updating it.  That more or less forced me to get out and find some birds today and even though I could easily dig through the vault from the past month, I will post my current sightings instead.

After a rather late start, I headed out towards Thetis Lake Regional Park.  On the way, I thought I would check to see if any water remained at Hastings Flats.  Well, there is just enough water to host a couple dozen Least Sandpipers on the flats on the south side of the road and a decent-sized patch of standing water on the north side had a single Solitary Sandpiper.  Having just watched the one in the flooded area off Welch Rd. near Livesay St., I knew it was a Solitary without even raising my binoculars.  I probably see anywhere from two to ten in Victoria in a given year, so they're somewhat uncommon and always a treat to observe.

The barred tail, dark olive back with white spots, yellow-green legs, and prominent "spectacles" all point to Solitary Sandpiper

Last weekend, a Sandhill Crane was found at Hastings Flats and by early evening it was suggested it was not in good shape.  The bird was seen on Monday, but the reports ceased after that.  Today, I noticed a trail of feathers leading to a carcass on the southern flat.  I walked out to it and confirmed it was the Sandhill Crane.  I wonder if the long journey north was too energetically demanding for this bird and it couldn't rebound.  It was a cruel fate and I know some people don't like to hear about death in nature.  Well... if you're one of those people, you should probably stop reading now because you'll hate the next picture!

Turkey Vulture looming over Sandhill Crane carcass

Carrying on the theme of how cruel nature can be, I witnessed a rather remarkable scene just before leaving the flats.  I watched a Red-tailed Hawk heading rapidly to the patch of oaks flanking the southern flats on the east side.  It had its talons dropped and dashed right in to the oak.  It flushed out a second Red-tailed Hawk, which zipped out of the oaks and was soon followed by the first.  The first Red-tailed aggressively swooped at the second, which forced it to drop a meal from its talons. It turned out to be either a duckling or gosling, and the first Red-tailed pounced immediately and carried it up to the oaks.  Quite the macabre place today, but it instills awe over any other emotion for me.

Thetis Lake was pretty much a bust.  I was hoping to bump in to Dusky Flycatcher, but I would have settled for a Hammond's.  Neither obliged.  I did, however, hear my first Black-headed Grosbeak of the year and plenty of Wilson's Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, and Pacific-slope Flycatchers were singing and/or calling.

I headed back to the Saanich Peninsula before 6:00 p.m. because I had to pick up Janean from the airport.  I had time to scan some of the fence lines around the airport and also a nice plowed field off Willingdon Rd.  The plowed field was where the magic happened.  I learned to check this particular field a couple years ago when I had a single Whimbrel standing on the turned-over soil.  The field was plowed in the last week, so I have made a couple visits recently, but no shorebirds were found other than Killdeer.  This time, I scanned over the field with my binoculars and very quickly spotted a large shorebird with a decurved bill.  I have been able to observe several Whimbrel over the past week and could tell immediately this was no Whimbrel.  The overall colour was a warm tan with dark checkering and the bill was LONG.  I zipped back to the car to get the scope and confirmed my suspicion: a Long-billed Curlew!  The slightly closer views revealed the signature bill shape, indistinct crown stripes, and a prominent teardrop-shaped eyering.  I soaked in a minute of views and then rushed off to get Janean.  Even though she had just endured nearly a day of travel coming from Dublin, I informed her I was up to my usual antics and had to go back to document my curlew.  She's always a trooper and even joined me to watch the curlew through the scope while I snapped off some pictures.

Classic Long-billed Curlew!

We watched the curlew for maybe five minutes before it decided to take flight.  The bird called as it flew northeast over the airport.

View of the Long-billed Curlew flying off

So, to account for the final alliterative component to the title, this was a self-found Victoria tick for me.  As you may know from previous entries, my Victoria checklist area self-found list is one I take great pride in, so I was pretty thrilled to finally find my own curlew.  I even hoped it might be in that exact field.  When I had that Whimbrel two years ago, I was certain it was going to be a Long-billed Curlew.  Try as I might, I couldn't turn it into one.  I had a similar scenario last Tuesday when rolling along Lochside Dr. between Island View and Martindale Rds.  A field there had recently been plowed and there was a lighter brown spot that contrasted the darker, turned-over soil.  I was hoping for Long-billed Curlew because one had been reported by Mike McGrenere the day before.  It, too, turned out to be a Whimbrel.  For comparison, I have an even worse record shot of the Whimbrel.  It should give you an idea of how they differ even at a distance.  Features to look at, include: colder overall colouration, bolder head pattern, lack of a prominent eyering, comparatively shorter and more evenly decurved bill, and indistinct (less bold) checkering on the back and wings.

Record shot of Whimbrel from Martindale Flats

To wrap this up, the Long-billed Curlew was my 254th self-found bird for Victoria.  Catching up with one was a great way to end my sunny Saturday session.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Field Birding Season: Mountain Bluebirds!

I've been off on some adventures and if I know what's good for me I'll eventually post something about my travels in Colombia.  For now, though, I'll write up on my Saturday birding on the Saanich Peninsula.

As soon as it nears mid-March, the birding options really open up locally.  You can either head up to the Parksville/Qualicum area to take in the hordes of waterfowl and gulls that descend upon the area to partake in the feast presented by the herring spawn or you can search estuaries, driftwood-dotted shorelines, open Garry Oak hills, and any fields (e.g., airports or agricultural areas) in hopes of catching up with Say's Phoebes or Mountain Bluebirds.

Despite wanting to sift through the gulls and waterfowl up Island, I was a little too festive the night before to get up early.  I decided to visit some of my favourite field haunts on the Saanich Peninsula, starting at Maber Flats and ending around the airport.

At Maber Flats, I ran in to Randy Dzenkiw and we sifted through the waterfowl, but other than a couple Eurasian Wigeons there wasn't anything too exciting.  I told him my intentions to continue north up the peninsula and he had planned to check out Panama Flats, so we went our own ways.  I snaked my way along West Saanich Rd., up Mount Newton X Rd., and back south down East Saanich Rd. to the eastern portion Hovey Rd.  In 2007 I found a group of 12 Mountain Bluebirds at the tree farm on Mount Newton X Rd. and in 2013 I found a lone male Mountain Bluebird in the field between Central Saanich Rd. and the eastern end of Hovey Rd.  Both of those sightings were in the second week of April, but I know it is not without precedent to be searching now because there are sightings of both Say's Phoebe and Mountain Bluebirds from the Lower Mainland already this year.  Unfortunately I was unable to recreate the magic of those past sightings at either of those sites.

I then made my way over the Vantreight bulb fields (I refuse to call it Longview Farms) so check a small tree farm of Newman Rd., but also to check in on the Sky Larks.  As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, I could hear the continuous song of a Sky Lark from above.  I don't check in on them often enough, so I'm always happy to confirm their persistence so I can continue to recommend this spot as the best place to get good views of the Sky Larks.  I walked north past the greenhouses and spotted a couple more and hoped I would be able to spot one sitting in a little open patch of ground for a photo.  As luck would have it, I did spot one just in the grass near the edge of the road.  My luck wasn't picture perfect, though, because some of said grass was in front of the bird and prevented a clean shot.  I was still happy with the results.

They're a pretty drab bird, but Sky Larks to more are more about the song.  Everyone should hear them at least once!

The little tree farm by the bulb fields only produced a flock of a dozen or so Violet-green Swallows and at least one Tree Swallow, plus a flyover Northern Harrier.  I should be promoting the use of eBird periodically, so to see the utility you can check out my list from the bulb fields here:

Next, I made my way to the airport and checked almost all the fence lines around the southern half and the best I could muster was another Northern Harrier.  I was going to check the gulls where Wsikem Creek drains into Patricia Bay.  Despite it being a Saturday, there was construction going on right at the beach and the area was virtually devoid of gulls.  I continued into Deep Cove and came back to check the fields just north of the airport along Munro and John Rds.  When I got to the eastern end of Munro Rd. a short ways before it comes to a dead end, I scanned the fields to the north.  Almost immediately I spotted a mid-sized bird that had a flash of blue.  I immediately hopped out and got the scope set up.  It took a minute, but I managed to get a stunning male Mountain Bluebird in the field of view.  A search with my binoculars revealed a female Mountain Bluebird was also out there.  Now you're going to get a lesson in what record shots are all about.  I waited until the male and female could be captured in the same frame and fired off a photo.  Checking on Google Maps, the bluebirds were over 200 metres away.  It's always amazing to me to see the results when you crop in on the birds... they're still recognizable as Mountain Bluebirds!

Classic record shot: a pair of Mountain Bluebirds through a mesh plastic fence.

I finished my day with a search along John Rd., which added a Northern Shrike, Hairy Woodpecker, and a couple Yellow-rumped Warblers for the day.  As I headed home, I saw Mary Robichaud had called and by the time I got back to her she had found the bluebirds.  When I checked the computer a while later I saw Brian Starzomski had also enjoyed the bluebirds, and the following morning at least a couple more (Liam Singh and Aziza Cooper) were able to find just the female.  I love being able to report a species in a timely manner and nothing makes me happier than seeing that others have been able to catch up with a bird I have found.  It's good to be back and hopefully this spring brings some rarities to break the birding dry spell the entire province has been under!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Going Bananas With an Anna's

It has been long enough that I figured I should at least put up a little something.  I have been very frustrated by the weather as of late.  We had absolutely immaculate weather for late January for pretty much five days straight: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  The forecast was looking good for Saturday until roughly Friday when the forecast shifted to pea soup fog in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon.

On Friday afternoon I started to feel a little under the weather and this feeling extended into Saturday morning.  Despite that, I still wanted to get out for some fresh air.  I had to drop my dad off at an appointment midday, so I decided that I would check out a park I had never been to after delivering my old man.  Beckwith Park is an interesting spot that I had somehow never been to, so I figured it was high time that I paid it a visit.

The park holds a little forested pond that hosts Wood Ducks and Mallards that local residents come to feed.  In a sense, it is like King's Pond and Bow Park.  I was hoping this water might draw in something else interesting, but the best bird I came across was a Lincoln's Sparrow.  Not exactly a big score, but always nice to see.

I had my camera handy and one bird really stole the show.  We are in the midst of the Anna's Hummingbird breeding season, so they can be quite territorial.  I found one male that was very cooperative as it worked its little Garry Oak rock outcrop territory.  It was quite faithful to a few perches in particular and it allowed close approach.  Despite the suboptimal light levels, I still got the shutter clicking away.  I will sign off here and just leave you with a couple of Anna's shots that I hope you enjoy!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Two Palms and a Redpoll

First off, Happy New Year!  I have been unmotivated by the prospect of doing blog posts without photos go along with them.  I think the blog entry recession is over now that I've picked up a Canon 7D Mark II.

I've had the camera for nearly a week now and I've been able to take it out for a few sessions.  My first trial run was on Saturday, but it was pretty unsatisfying.  The weather was dull and moments of drizzle came and went.  My favourite shots of the day were had on the rocks at Cattle Point.

Black Oystercatcher

Song Sparrow picking around the rocks

The first day I had it out was on Sunday when I joined Ian Cruickshank for a bit of alley exploring in the Uplands.  The alley birding was pretty interesting, but we couldn't drum up anything unusual.  In fact, despite toting the camera in my backpack for nearly three hours, I wasn't even tempted to take it out.  I did finally pull out the new rig at the end of the day.  We decided to stop in at Clover Point where we bumped into Geoffrey and David Newell.  I asked if they'd seen anything of interest, but it was just the usual suspects.  Still, I prodded them to know whether they happened to come across the Palm Warblers.  They indicated they had not, so I asked if they had walked around the tip of the point along the beach.  They had not.  When I found the first Palm Warbler at Clover Point back in mid-November, I was standing right at the tip and it flew below me.  With this thought, I stared down at the beach and caught the movement of a bird out near some logs.  I raised my binoculars, soaked in some details, and was able to proclaim "There's a Palm Warbler down there!"  Ian and the Newells were equally elated.  After watching them for a minute, I decided I would put my 7D Mark II to its first test.  How would it perform in the dull, late day light?  It was already around 4 p.m. and I knew any photos would come out noisy.  Still, I had heard this camera has great high ISO capabilities.  I don't like to drop my ISO below 800, so I decided to see what I could at that setting.  My photos came out really cold and drab, but a little editing made the results look not too bad.  It was a nice first test, but it left me realizing there is a lot to learn on the camera.

This shot of a Palm Warbler was one of my first low light attempts with the Canon 7D Mark II

I was able to head out again the next afternoon because I was itching to try some different settings in better light.  There was a report of a Common Redpoll on January 5th from some feeders near the intersection of Southgate and Quadra Sts., but all subsequent efforts to relocate it came up empty.  I arrived at the feeders just before 2:30 p.m. and amazingly enough found the Common Redpoll in a few minutes.  It was a distant and somewhat brief look, but I knew it was the redpoll.  I posted a message on BCVIBIRDS and continued to watch the feeders.  Mary Robichaud arrived in good time and I left her to watch the feeders while I patrolled the road to the north.  From Southgate St. I could see a few Cedar Waxwings, so I wanted to get a closer look to ensure my much sought after Bohemian Waxwing wasn't in the mix.  I spent ten minutes or so dividing my attention between a berry-rich holly shrub on the St. Ann's Academy property and a birch on Academy Close.  After feeling I had given that a fair scouring, I rejoined Mary back at the feeders.  A good five minutes later, the Common Redpoll mysteriously materialized at one of the feeders.  I made sure Mary had seen all the features before making an approach with my camera.  Getting a decent photo was tricky because the feeder wasn't stationary.  It was rotating as new birds landed on the feeder, causing the redpoll to vanish in and out of view.

Side profile view of the Common Redpoll just showing a hint of its red poll

Closer view of the Common Redpoll with an American Goldfinch at the back of the feeder

Common Redpoll sitting on an oak branch near the feeder

When the redpoll decided to fly up to the top of the oak, both Mary and I had seen enough to be content with the sighting.  We head back to our vehicles and I noticed a gull across the road.  It actually appeared to be somewhat pale compared to the handful of Glaucous-winged and "Olympic" Gulls nearby, so I actually thought it might be Ring-billed.  The size wasn't right for Ring-billed, so I headed over to get some photos and Mary departed.  The gull allowed close approach and I managed to get some decent photos.  The pigeon-headed look, small bill, and pink legs pegged it as a Thayer's Gull.  The age on this bird is the tricky part.  I thought it might be a fourth-winter bird, but when I put it up on the North American Gulls page most suggested third-cycle.  Note the switch in terminology - many subscribe to the use of cycles for aging, but I am more used to referencing the season.  From my understanding, a third-cycle bird would be in its third winter so I might be a year off.  Apparently it is very hard to determine the age between third- and fourth-cycle birds.  It has a pretty strong residual tail band, so maybe third-cycle is right.  Now that I've bored you with gull musing, the bird itself will be a little anticlimactic.  I think it's a nice bird, though.

Thayer's Gull, possibly third-cycle

I finished off my afternoon's birding back at Clover Point watching the Palm Warblers.  They were quite confiding, but it still required a good deal of patience to get good photo opportunities.  I eventually ended up with a handful of respectable shots.  I will include a few different angles, including one shot that shows that one of the birds has rufous feathers on the cap indicating it's an adult.  What a treat to have them around for over a month!

Here's my favourite Palm Warbler shot of the lot

A nice side profile on a piece of driftwood

The angled piece of driftwood made for an interesting shot here, I reckon.

As you can see, this bird has rufous in the crown, which should indicate an adult Palm Warbler

That's all the material I have for now.  I hope to get out again this weekend and will write up another entry if the birds cooperate.