Sunday, June 29, 2014

This Turkey's Playing Chicken

This post is a couple of weeks late, but as they say.....

My wife and I decided some months back to take a long weekend in June, and head into the interior.  As she had never been to Creston and I was in need of a little tidying up on my BC list, it seemed like a great idea.  With the Thursday and Friday booked off, we both left work early on Wednesday, June 11, and headed for the 5pm ferry to Vancouver.  Great plan but for the one sailing wait that left us sitting in the line up for over two hours, and put us into Princeton sometime between midnight and 1am.  Thankfully we had decided against our original plan of spending that first night in Kelowna.

Thursday dawned a little damp, with rain threatening, but it didn't dampen spirits.  I had four targets for the following four days, all long missing BC ticks, being Black-backed Woodpecker, Forster's Tern, Wild Turkey, and American White Pelican.  I had considered a run to Fernie for Common Grackle, but that one can wait.

Our first destination was Old Hedley Road, one of my favourite scenic detours and always a good birding spot.  On this morning birds were good, and we picked up two unexpected birds, Lewis' Woodpecker and a Black-chinned Hummingbird that fed on flowers right under our noses.  We also had a few mammals, including the ever present Yellow-bellied and Hoary Marmots.

Yellow-bellied Marmot
Many a time I have given the Naturalest Naturalist a hard time about posting pics of what I call "lesser winged creatures", ie bugs, and here I am posting the first of a few critters that don't even have wings..... go figure.

Trucking on east we made a few stops, including Nighthawk Road, another stellar birding location.  Sparrows were very evident, and even though we didn't find Sage Thrasher we did get good looks at Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow, and a few other species.  I thought I heard a Grasshopper Sparrow through the symphony, but couldn't be 100% sure.

The lovely Lark Sparrow
Many new birds popped up between Osoyoos and Creston, including Swainson's Hawk and Williamson's Sapsucker on Anarchist Mountain, and birding was interrupted by a delightful lunch at the Greenwood Saloon with our new friend Dave (the things that only happen in small towns).

Once into Creston we headed up Topaz FSR, an area suggested by Russ C to get good looks into Leach Lake, a body of water frequented by the pelicans and recently a group of terns as well.  We tried several vantage points but came up empty-handed, so we headed off to Duck Lake before checking into our hotel.

Our first highlight was once again not a bird, but a mother elk with a shiny new little one, swimming across a pond.

Momma was having none of our attention, and took off....

Leaving baby to go at it alone, crying the whole way....

But momma waited.....

And waited......
Until finally they were reunited.
We dipped on our targets, but it was nice to see nesting Red-necked Grebes and Cliff Swallows.  On our way back, we finally encountered one of our targets, and my BC Wild Turkey tick nearly ended in disaster, for the turkey.  Driving south from Wyndell I noticed a Wild Turkey on the side of the road and pulled over, camera at the ready despite the fading light.  The turkey was unconcerned and starting walking toward us until a large truck with accompanying muffler issues drove by and startled it.  The turkey ran across the road directly toward an oncoming car that, in true disregarding human fashion, didn`t even bother to slow down.  I held my breath, expecting to see feathers fly, but the turkey pulled up at the last second and the tire must have just grazed the bird.  Shaken, but not stirred, the turkey continued on it`s way, as much to it`s relief as mine, I`m sure.

Post near-death experience.  Hopefully it will find a crosswalk next time....
The following morning found us back at Duck Lake, again hoping for Forster`s Tern and again dipping.  Brown-headed Cowbirds were very much in evidence, it seems they are having a good year everywhere this year.  Black Terns were very visible as well, and we watched a flock feeding over the lake for 20 minutes.  A spectacular surprise was a cow Moose, only the third I have ever seen, and Thea's very first!    A nice late anniversary gift!  A trip out to the Creston Wildlife Area Interpretive Centre was a little bit of a letdown, as bird numbers were much lower than my last visit 15 years ago (a sentiment echoed by all of the locals I spoke with), but we did have some good birds.

I don't speak Tree Swallow, but I'm sure this one wasn't happy
This Wilson's Snipe could not have been more co-operative
The Least Flycatcher played hard to get, but I won!
From there were headed back up Topaz FSR, where we finally got great views of a flock of 58 American White Pelicans lounging on an island.  Not entirely sure how we missed them the previous day, but..... TICK!

From there, back to Duck Lake, where we again dipped on the tern, but waterfowl numbers were much higher, and we managed to add what was at first a very distant white bird, but which turned into a very close Ring-billed Gull.  Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bullock's Orioles were very visible but not photogenic.  We decided to call it a night and take a bit of relaxation time at this point, and loaded up at a grocery store.

Duck Lake Osprey
Duck Lake Great Blue Heron

Keeping in mind that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results each time, we headed back to Duck Lake on Saturday morning, our fourth visit in a day and a half.  Each visit to Duck Lake had added some kind of value, and this was no different.  As we were driving down Channel Rd a Coyote ran out in front of us and stood in the middle of the road, right until I had my hands on the camera.  Nice trip mammal though.  This was our most productive visit to Duck Lake, turning up 49 species in two hours.  It was also our earliest visit, as we were onsite by 6:40am to beat the traffic. We walked the length of the road between Duck Lake and the south pond for a couple hours, and a flock of pelicans, 31 in all, had decided to drop in, my first for this location.

We were also confronted time and time again by the guardian of the road, much like the troll and the bridge...

You must answer me three riddles.......
Having dipped on our 11th hour tern, we were headed back when some kind of fate caused me to stop to take a picture of a flyover pelican, knowing full well that the light was terrible.  After double checking the photo I turned to see if Thea was following me, and she was gazing toward the far end of the lake.  "I don't think I see anything" were her words, but as I looked in the direction she was I saw a white bird, flying with a very bouyant flight.  Tern!  But..... Caspian had been report at Leach Lake as well.  I quickly got the scope on it and.....  Forster's Tern!  Thank you Thea and Pelican!

At this point it was easy to start heading west again, and we decided to drive the length of Reclamation Rd, just outside of Creston.  Our first Bobolink of the trip were co-operative but again not close enough for a photo, but birds were fairly plentiful.

Talk about using available materials!  Found on Reclamation Rd.
Birding between Creston and Osoyoos, where we spent our final night, was fairly quiet.  I had hoped to do some walking around at Stagleap Park to pick up higher altitude species, but....

Bridal Lake was still half frozen, much to the chagrin of the Spotted Sandpiper that flew from chunk of ice to chunk of ice, and the fog decended very quickly, causing a fast retreat on our part.

An uneventful lunch detour to Syringa Park north of Castlegar was a great picnic, but not much more.  We stopped back in at Anarchist Mountain, and were greeted by Western and Mountain Bluebirds, our only of the trip, plus more Williamson's Sapsuckers, Pygmy Nuthatches, Red Crossbills, and a Pine Siskin.  We also added to our mammal list, in the form of Yellow Pine Chipmunk.

Another slack night ensued, and the next morning we headed for Road 22 and Black Sage Rd, the one area in Osoyoos that is my absolute must visit. We added a few misses, including Yellow-breasted Chat, Lazuli Bunting, and Veery.  From there we went to Haynes Lease, where we added Rock Wren.

Osprey pair nesting on the bridge at Road 22.
A colourful Western Meadowlark at Haynes Lease
On the way west we had a single Chukar cross the road near Spotted Lake, and a pullover gave up brief looks at a total of 8 individuals.  From there we drove Chopaka Road, a spot I have never taken the time to bird.  It was a great detour, but the "Look out for Snakes" signs proved to be lies, much like the "Watch out for Caribou" signs at Kootenay Pass.

Manning Park Lodge and the Cascade Lookout were out last stops of the trip.  The views from Cascade were amazing, but the weather was threatening and the wind came up with a vengeance.  I was in the midst of making a sandwich on the hood of the car when the wind blew half of the bun onto the ground.  Within ten seconds, a Yellow Pine Chipmunk had hold of the bun and was trying to drag it off.  It was quite hilarious to watch, keeping in mind that if I were making my sandwich out of Yellow Pine Chipmunks I could have fit three or four of them on the bun.  Eventually it gave up, broke off a piece, and a Common Raven took the rest.  At Cascade Lookout we added Grey Jay, as well as a lifer mammal, Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel.

Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel in it`s natural habitat

Columbia Ground Squirrel
Up close and personal with a Clark`s Nutcracker

The view from Cascade Lookout
On the ferry home we encountered a lone Orca.  This was our last add, and in four days we tallied 127 species of birds, including 3 of my 4 targets, as well as 11 species of mammal.  Not a bad weekend!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Endemics, Undemics, and Everything in Between

My wife and I just returned from a week in Mexico and needless to say, I couldn't resist doing a little birding.  Of the seven days, four were assigned to birding and touristing, and only a couple to lounging at the resort in Cancun.

I had a big list of targets and high expectations when we landed in Cancun on March 31, and was greeted at the airport by two old friends from Costa Rica, Great-tailed Grackle and Gray-breasted Martin.  As we landed late, those were my only two birds of the day, and darkness found me without a lifer to start the trip with.  No matter, packing a new a camera and a lens I stole from Jeremy G, I was ready for the week!

After waking up to Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Laughing Gulls the next morning we took advantage of the resort, and spent a few hours exploring the Hotel Zone.  My first two lifers showed within seconds of each other, as we added Tropical Mockingbird and Black Catbird.  Shortly behind them were Vucatan Vireo, Yellow-Green Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, and Prothonotary Warbler.  The entire trip was a nice blend of Yucatan endemics, partial endemics (or, undemics as I have been calling them), southern species, and North American migrants.

Our second full day in Mexico was a day trip to Isla Cozumel.  I had a car rented, a number of areas to check out, and three target species.  Unfortunately the car pickup took longer than we thought it would and the lack of road signs contributed to less birding time than we had expected, but the main spot I had in mind, an abandoned subdivision south of town, delivered for us.

One of two Western Spindalis we found, neither got close enough for a great picture.
The first bird to show was perhaps my most wanted bird, Western Spindalis.  Immediately following that sighting, we had great looks at the distinct Cozumel subspecies of Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, though none of my pictures turned out well.

Another endemic, Cozumel Emerald, was frequenting the garden of one of two actual houses in the subdivision:

While on Cozumel, we also added Yucatan Woodpecker, White-crowned Pigeon, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and Caribbean Eleania.  We missed Cozumel Vireo, so I will need to go back at some point, but there are definitely worse places to go to!

The next three days were the bulk of birding, as we picked up our second rental car at Cancun Airport in the early morning, and headed off into the Yucatan.  Our plan was to spend some time at Chichen Itza before heading north to Rio Lagartos for an afternoon guided boat birding trip, guided land trip the next day before heading to Coba, then night in Tulum before working our way back to Cancun.

We threw in a couple of roadside stops on the way to Chichen Itza, which added lifer Mangrove Vireo, Plain Chachalaca, Yucatan Jay, Black-throated Green Warbler, Altamira OrioleBlack-headed Saltator, Black-crowned Tityra, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.  Chichen Itza was spectacular for the scenery, but the throngs of vendors lining every path between ruins detracted a little.

The trip up to Rio Lagartos added White-tailed Hawk, but the wind was blowing when we arrived.  Our guide, Diego Nunez of Rio Lagartos Adventures, made the decision that we would be better off land birding without sacrificing birds.  We quickly added Mexican Sheartail, American Flamingo, Tri-coloured Heron, Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, Great Black-Hawk, Zenaida Dove, and a few others.  I will save the photos for the end of the post.  Early the next morning, following a breakfast of croissants with ham and cheese, we headed back out and ran into some more spectacular birding.  Aztex (Olive-throated) Parakeet, Lesser Roadrunner, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Orange Oriole, Painted Bunting, Rose-throated Becard, Yucatan Wren, Common Black-Hawk, Gray-necked Woodrail, White-tipped Dove, White-bellied Emerald, Northern Parula, a Turquoise-browed Motmot colony, Carolina Wren, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Wood Stork, Limpkin, Green Jay, and more.

That afternoon we drove to Coba, where the ruins were also spectacular.  Green Vine Snake was one of the first highlights, but we added very few birds.  My lifer Masked Tityra was a nice add.    A night in Tulum followed, and we spent the next day working our way back to Cancun.  We added very few birds, but found Olive Sparrow and Yellow-lored Parrot north of Chemuyil, and  Gartered TrogonWedge-tailed Sabrewing, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager, the final lifer of the trip, at Dr Alfredo Marin Botanical Gardens.

The last day and a bit we spent relaxing at the resort and exploring the Hotel Zone, but didn`t add much else.

All in all, Mexico turned up 158 species, including 65 lifers.  Cancun turned out to be a great base of operations, and if only there weren`t so many other places to visit, I would go back in a heartbeat!  Now, for some more pictures!

Tricoloured Heron at Rio Lagartos

Four of the 1000 or so American Flamingos we found
Lifer Least Tern at Rio Larartos
Yucatan Wren near Rio Lagartos
Another view of the Yucatan Wren
The Lesser Roadrunner wouldn`t give up a better shot
My favourite bird of the trip, Turquoise-browed Motmot, which also wouldn`t give up a good picture.
Common Black-Hawk
Green Vine Snake at Coba
White-winged Dove
Black-headed Trogon
Green Jay at the Doctor Alfredo Botanical Garden
What would Mexico be without Iguanas......
Or monkeys......

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Killdeer For The Win!

Not words I ever thought I would say, but come a little after 6:00pm on Sunday I was indeed, and I wasn't the only one.

Ever since Jeremy G, Russ C, Ian C, and I topped the Canada November Big Day record last year with 122 species, we have been looking for an opportunity to bring down another, and the existing Canadian March record of 105 looked ripe for the taking.  Russ and Ian were unavailable, so Jeremy G and I decided to venture out on March 16th to take a run.

As per usual, we met at the Langford Tim Horton's for a fuel up before heading into the dark for owls.  Between the wind, rain, and running water, owls were a wash, so we headed to Sooke with the hopes of getting a jump on a few much needed species before it was really light.

Our first stop was the Journey Middle School field, an area where Greater White-fronted Geese have been consistent.  We located Canada Geese and Cackling Geese at the Demamiel Creek Golf Course beside the school, but no others.  Driving back down Throup Rd I noticed some shapes in the pre-dawn light, in a field at the corner of Throup and Church.  A quick scan revealed Sooke's flock of Greater White-fronts!  From there we headed to Whiffin Spit where we added the usuals, as well as Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark!  These two great birds have been present for some time, but we dipped on a long-staying Savannah Sparrow.  In the intense wind, we also had six Brant being blown sideways over the spit.  Sooke kept the hits coming as Billings Spit turned up one, then two, then seven Herring Gulls, much to the amazement of the Jeremies.

Another... and another.... and another.....
Billings Spit also provided Barrow's Goldeneyes, and a couple of Eurasian Collared-Doves, a species that has been scarce in Victoria lately.  The Goodridge Peninsula added a few more species, and then we turned for Victoria.

The Tim Hortons below Skirt Mountain was our next stop, where we added Steller's Jay, Golden Eagle, and coffee.  Goldstream Park itself added an easy American Dipper, and a couple of Asian tourists (mother and daughter) that provided our morning entertainment first by taking pictures of us, and then by alternately posing for several shots with us.  The Jeremies are going to China!  A little before 10am, and we were flying high at 57 species with Metchosin next on the list.

Metchosin was a must-have on two fronts.  Firstly, our only reliable (and, as it turned out, our only) California Quail of the day were found at the end of Swanwick Rd.  Secondly, Taylor Beach is a great spot to scope for seabirds, and it definitely delivered!  Red-throated, Pacific, and Common Loons, Horned, Red-necked, and a huge raft of Western Grebes were seen, as well as a few others.  Despite the amazing lighting, we couldn't pull a Clark's Grebe out of the raft.  On the way back to Victoria we lucked into what we thought would likely be our only Turkey Vulture of the day, hunkered down in a tree, and also a bushel more of Collared-Doves.  So much for scarce.

The only thing that beats a long-staying Mega on a Big Day is a newly discovered Mega, but in the absence of that we opted to try for the Esquimalt Lagoon Eastern Phoebe.  We puddle slogged, we waited, we hoped, and we dipped, but the Aquattro area and Esquimalt Lagoon added more species, including Wilson's Snipe and our only Lincoln's SparrowWestern Gulls, Common Murre, and Mute and Trumpeter Swans of the day.  Oh, and Collared-Doves!

Quick stops at Portage Inlet, Beacon Hill Park, and Clover Point yielded a few adds, the hightlight being three male and one female Eurasian Wigeons.

A pair together, the female showing a much darker head than the grey of it's American counterpart (below)

Female American Wigeon

Harling Point, which you can read all about on The Naturalest Naturalist, yielded a Savannah Sparrow and another Herring Gull, plus a few alcids.  Lacking shorebirds, we set our sights on Oak Bay, with a first stop at Turkey Head and Queen's Park.  Much to our dismay, the shorebirds were on a distant isle, and all we could make out were Dunlin and Black-bellied Plovers.  The ever-present Surfbirds and Greater Yellowlegs were nowhere to be seen.  Cattle Point was up next, and we had no problems finding a large flock of Surfbirds.  One or two Rock Sandpipers have been hanging around as well, but we had no luck pulling them out of the mixed shorebird flock.  Finally, G called time, and I took one last scan, panning across the rock and wait... what the...... a smaller bird with a longer, down-curved bill popped into view.  "G, got it!" I called out, and he came to get his look at the Rock Sandpiper.  Tick.  Species 91, and what a beauty.  14 to tie, 15 to break!

We added a few more species along the water the headed to King's Pond, where we hoped to add a few.  Aside from the sharply plumaged Wood Ducks, we didn't get much, but I did get a little more practice with my new camera, and a 70-300 lens that Jeremy G may get back one day.

At this point we were getting desperate for woodpeckers, so after a fruitless search of the Galey fields for Sandhill Crane we headed to Lohbrunner, just north of Blenkinsop Lake, where Jeremy G had Pileated the day before.  Twas not to be, but we did add more Turkey Vultures and our first Violet-Green Swallows of the day.  Swan Lake added Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Coot, and Tree Swallows.

Species number 100 came at Panama Flats, where we added a pair of Ruddy Ducks!  This species has shown at various locations around Victoria this winter, but is never expected.  The pressure was on from there, as we were very cognizant of the amount of light we had left.  We figured that Martindale Flats would be the area that would add our last six species, as a number of misses have been seen in the area recently.

Snow Goose and Thayer's Gull were easy finds in the field south of the Lochside Pig Farm, but we had two frustrating misses in the form of a possible calling Brown-headed Cowbird that we couldn't pin down, and a possible juvie Ring-billed Gull that had enough mud caked on it to eliminate certain identification.  Three more Snow Geese were along Lochside between Island View and Martindale, and after a bit of searching a Northern Shrike showed itself along Puckle Rd.  103 species and the pressure was mounting to add a few more before we lost daylight.  A pair of Black Scoters were visible off of the north end of Island View beach, and we went into panic mode, racking our brains as to what species we could possbily add.

A Mourning Dove along Shady Creek tied us up and, minds racing, we headed for the Central Saanich Bulb Fields in hopes of adding Sky Lark for the record.  Despite extensive searching the birds eluded us, until Jeremy G suggested checking the lower field for Killdeer.  Killdeer?  Really?  A record broken courtesy of a species we should have added 10 hours earlier?  Alright, worth the try.  No sooner had we gotten out of the car then a Killdeer materialized against the dirt field, followed by another.  Record ours!  A further search of these fields failed to turn up anything new, and we headed out to Brentwood Bay and Gore Park in search of the Hairy Woodpeckers and Purple Finches that Jeremy G had found there the previous day.  We dipped on both, and light faded to dark while we stopped at various locations to listen to the dusk chorus.

With the record in hand we cruised along Willis Point Rd, and stops produced Barred and Great Horned Owl, but none of the much hoped for smaller owl species.

C'est la vie.  With the many misses on the day, there is a lot of potential to top this high mark by a fair margin, so perhaps we will have to try again next year.  In the meantime, there are a few other months that have BC or Canadian Big Day records just begging to be topped.  If you are up for it, come along for the 15 to 24 hours of the most fun you will ever have with a pair of binoculars!

It has been an amazing bird year so far for me, with Hooded Oriole and my lifer Dickcissel up island, my lifer Thick-billed Murre in Westport in January, and the exciting Pinteal Chase in Nanaimo.  While I wonder what will be next to show up on this little rock of ours, I am headed to Cancun at the end of next week, and will be spending a couple of nights away from the resort searching for birds in Rio Lagartos, Coba, Tulum, and others.  Stay tuned for a report, and good birding to all!