Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Tropic Wonder

One of the many fellow birding Jeremys out there has been in a bit of a slumber, but a mini big day on November 9 seemed to rustle the beast out of sleep.  I could tell... when I dropped Jeremy Kimm off after a day that logged 100 species on the nose, he was already talking about weekend birding.  On Friday evening, he checked back in to see if I was still game for a day out on Saturday, November 12th.  Naturally, I was.  I suggested Sooke and points further west and he agreed.

We had intended to start our day at Billings Spit, but it was raining and we figured a brief check on the fields at Milnes Landing for gulls was in order.  It wasn't a bad decision because we had a nice little group of gulls to sift through and we promptly pulled an adult Ring-billed Gull out of the mix.  The salmon spawn was clearly on because we could hear a cacophony of gulls below along the Sooke River.  I guess the smell of decaying fish is another telltale sign!  We made our way over to the Sooke River Campground and pored over the gulls there, but nothing overly interesting jumped out.  The skies looked like they were going to lighten up, so we moved on to Billings Spit.

If you are from southern Vancouver Island and don't know Billings Spit, you are really missing out.  Or... maybe it's just me that enjoys the birding there.  It's a crazy mix of trailer parks, condos, houses, and industrial lots all set on a spit of land jutting out right beside where the Sooke River drains in to Sooke Harbour.  I personally had never seen anything rare in the area, but I always thought it had immense potential.  I like the area so much that I requested to do the Sooke Christmas Bird Count there last time I was around over the Christmas holidays.  Okay... enough gushing about how good Billings Spit is and on to the proof that Billings Spit is as great as I am claiming!

Jeremy and I drove out to the end of Kaltasin Rd and accessed the shoreline to see what the gull and waterfowl situation looked like at the outflow of the Sooke River.  As expected, there were hundreds of gulls and ducks to scrutinize, but alas we could not dig out anything out of the ordinary.  We then decided on Billings Rd to see if we could dig out any Townsend's Warblers.  The spit is easily one of the best places I know to search for Townsend's Warbler in the winter because there is a bunch of ivy and ornamental shrubs that seem to maintain high insect activity levels.  It was no surprise when we quickly heard the sharp "tick" call of a Townsend's from high up in an ivy-choked Doug-fir.  Next, we caught up with a small sparrow flock and Jeremy called out White-throated Sparrow.  It had momentarily popped down behind a fence, but gave itself up shortly after.  We were feeling pretty good and decided we should move along, but I wanted to make a quick stop at Lannan Flats at the end of Seabroom Rd.  This little slice of parkland is small, open, harbourside lot that is always worth a quick check.  As we pulled onto Seabroom, Jeremy and I immediately saw the silhouette of a robin-sized bird sitting on the bare branches of a small deciduous tree.  Jeremy joked "There's our Tropical Kingbird for the day."  It was one of those jokes that is one part predictive and one part hopeful... and we were both thinking it.  The bird then darted up, snapped up an insect, and returned to its perch.  We raised our binoculars as a formality, but we already knew it was indeed a Tropical Kingbird!  Through the binoculars, the lemon yellow underparts, grey head with ever-so-slightly darker auriculars, olive back, heavy bill, and lack of white outer tail feathers all cemented the identification.

Any bird with "tropical" in its name is bound to look very out of place in drab, wet Pacific Northwest weather!

We enjoyed the bird for a few minutes and then made sure to pass the word on to local birders over BCVIBIRDS.  We have had Tropical Kingbirds on the Island this fall, but they were all up in the Tofino/Ucluelet area.  Once that was out of the way, we went back to enjoying the bird for another 20 minutes or so.  As you can see in the photo above, it had started to drizzle and the bird wasn't being very cooperative.  It wanted to sit on a power line and I am not that keen on manmade features in wildlife photos.  I wanted to document the bird from more angles, so I just gave up on waiting for more organic perches.

The solid olive back really shows up nicely in this shot and perhaps the tail is trying to show a bit of a notch.

Tropical Kingbird was one of the birds I had hoped I would be able to connect with for my self-found list, so it was a very gratifying sighting!  With the kingbird, my self-found list now sits at 258 for the Victoria checklist area.

I won't give an extensive recap of the remainder of the day because the kingbird was the big highlight, but I will focus on our time at Jordan River a little.  The birding at Jordan River had been decent in the weeks prior to our visit.  Cathy Carlson had a Grey Catbird there on October 27 and Donna Ross and Ed Pellizzon had reported Palm Warbler on October 19 and November 4, respectively.  The weather was mediocre and we worked hard to dig out something interesting, but the best we could muster on land was a Swamp Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat.  The most interesting sighting, however, was around 25 Red Phalaropes in the surf very close to shore just west of the bridge.  Jeremy and I walked close to the water's edge and watched as the phalaropes frenetically fed and got tossed around in the surf.  The winds were pretty strong from the southwest and seemingly pushed them right in.  I had a feeling we might see some, but it was wild to have them so close.

Red Phalaropes in the surf - a rare sight from shore on Vancouver Island

It got a little bizarre when a small group flew up and the wind pushed them over the shore and they actually landed on the sand.  I had never seen a Red Phalarope out of water, but you could tell land-walking is not their forte!  At one point, a lone phalarope landed just over a couple metres away.  We were mildly in shock, but managed to snap off some photos.

So yeah... this happened

The phalarope invasion in the Strait of Juan de Fuca continues, so if you haven't seen Red Phalaropes before you should head out with a scope sooner than later.  More recent reports off Victoria have been into the hundreds, so this is the year.  The last major invasion of Red Phalaropes that I can recall in the strait was back in 2002, so don't let another 14 years lapse before you have this kind of opportunity!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Johnson's Hairstreak Rediscovered on Vancouver Island

If you don't already know, I am a bit of a nut when it comes to species at risk.  I enjoy learning about them and seeking them out.  Additionally, I love species that have interesting adaptations or a quirk in their life history.  If you can roll those two into one species, then you can be sure I am very eager to search for it!  One species that has a certain mystique to it in British Columbia is Johnson's Hairstreak (Callophrys johnsoni).  Hairstreaks are a personal favourite in the butterfly world as it is, but Johnson's isn't content just having that going for it.  Instead, it has evolved a very intricate life history that just seems so improbable.  The species is an old-growth conifer forest obligate because it's larval host plant is mistletoe (genus Arceuthobium).  I can't even fathom how long a relationship like that takes to develop - mind blown!  Needless to say, Johnson's Hairstreak has topped my most wanted butterfly list for years.

On May 10th, Devon Parker and his father, Michael, drove up above Jordan River to one of their favourite areas to search for butterflies.  They had a great trip and when they got back Devon sent some photos to Jeremy Tatum to put up on the Invertebrate Alert.  The next day, I viewed the photos and noticed the butterfly labeled as a Cedar Hairstreak looked very peculiar.  Our Cedar Hairstreaks are usually a rich orange-brown with an almost lavender-coloured wash and they have a jagged, white postmedial line, whereas the butterfly on my computer screen was a light chocolate brown and had a much straighter postmedial line.  I immediately did an image search of Johnson's Hairstreak for comparison and was shocked that the two photos had all the same features going on.  I was in disbelief.  I immediately fired off an e-mail to Jeremy Tatum hoping to get his input, but I wanted to get a response fast so I also fired off e-mails to a couple other respected BC lepidopterists.  Luckily Cris Guppy put my mind at ease quickly - it was indeed a Johnson's Hairstreak and he had already been directed to the photos by James Miskelly.  It's good to know we have a community that will catch these exciting finds!

I got a little history lesson on the Johnson's Hairstreak records on Vancouver Island.  I knew they had been documented on the Island, but I figured they had been extirpated because of the extensive clearcut logging that has left only fragments of awe-inspiring old-growth forest.  The three historical records, provided by James Miskelly on the BCButterflies Yahoo Group, are: Shawnigan Lake (1925), Robertson River (1959), and Nitinat Lake (1970).  Cris Guppy added a little more information, which I found to be quite interesting.  The Shawnigan Lake record was a specimen record of an adult caught on June 17th, while the Robertson River and Nitinat Lake records were reared specimens.  The Canadian Forest Service had a program that lasted decades, which involved beating trees, collecting the larvae that fell, and rearing them to determine which species were defoliating forest resources (conifers).  The reared specimens mentioned above came from this program.  Johnson's Hairstreak is truly an enigmatic species on Vancouver Island and it`s exceedingly exciting to have a record after not being recorded for more than 45 years!

After Cris Guppy confirmed the record, I tried to get in touch with Devon about the location.  I was starting to get anxious because the weekend was rapidly approaching and I thought it might be my only chance to attempt to find one this year.  Luckily, I got a text on Friday afternoon asking if I'd like to join Devon, Michael, and Jeremy Tatum on a trip the next day up to the area to look for the Johnson's.  I jumped at the opportunity!  We met at 10:00 a.m. and headed right out to Jordan River.  Out of respect for Devon, I won't disclose the location.  I would just suggest getting out to the Jordan River area and exploring some logging roads.  Some patches of older cedar-hemlock forest have not met chainsaws yet and I think there is potential that Johnson's Hairstreak could be found more extensively.  We arrived at the spot a little before noon and we started to search the roadside vegetation.  Shortly thereafter, Jeremy Tatum exclaimed something along the lines of "Brown butterfly overhead!  Small!"  I looked up to see a hairstreak-sized butterfly arcing over and landing on a blueberry shrub.  It was in a bad spot, but I leaned forward and saw tails... it was a hairstreak!  Just like that, we were glimpsing a butterfly I had thought was extirpated... a ghost.  I had chills.  But that was all that individual gave us for looks.  It rose back up and we lost it against the old-growth coniferous backdrop.  Luckily, it wasn't long before another (or perhaps the same one had doubled back) was found nectaring on a roadside willow.  This was pure bliss.  This one was approachable and allowed me to get very close, but it was a miserable model!  It only offered split second profile views and I kept missing the shot, but I got some decent ones in the end.

Johnson's Hairstreak nectaring on willow

Finally some cooperation!

Occasionally we would briefly get our hopes up that we had found another one, but every time it turned out to be Western Pine Elfin.  I am okay with that!

This is the blue-listed sheltonensis subspecies found west of the Coast and Cascade Mountains

I returned a couple times the following week and unfortunately the weather did not cooperate.  I did, however, remember to take some habitat shots and I was excited to find Hemlock Dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium tsugense) up in one of the roadside hemlocks.

Johnson's Hairstreak habitat: old-growth cedar-hemlock forest

This is potentially Arceuthobium tsugense ssp. mertensianae as it parasitizing Mountain Hemlock

I am grateful to Devon and Michael Parker for not only getting out and exploring areas that have not received adequate butterfly surveying in recent years, but also for extending the invite out to me and Jeremy Tatum to join them on a return visit.  I will return to the area in future years to try to find more sites this highly specialized butterfly persists on Vancouver Island and hopefully get a better sense of its local status.

I think it's important to add a note about the implications of a local find of this magnitude.  We have lost several butterfly species, including some regional endemic subspecies, on Vancouver Island over the last century, including: Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus ssp. californicus), Island Marble (Euchloe ausonides ssp. insulanus), Taylor's Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha ssp. taylori), and Island Blue (Plebejus saepiolus ssp. insulanus).  The latter was a Vancouver Island endemic subspecies and has not been recorded since 1979.  Rediscoveries like the Johnson's Hairstreak sighting provide a glimmer of hope that some of those species thought lost might persist out there and it just takes a bit of luck and the right set of eyes.  I wouldn't mind if that set of eyes happens to be mine, but I'd just be happy to learn we haven't let another taxon fizzle out.