Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Longest Twitch

The email came in as Jeremy Gatten and I were standing in line at the finest Burger King in Whalley - "...weather looks good....... trip is a go..... look forward to seeing you Saturday!"

Spirits were high from that point on as we picked Nathan Hentze up from the skytrain station and headed south, Tacoma-bound. We were on our way to Westport for a scheduled January trip, an occurence even rarer than the birds we were chasing! The last Westport January trip to make it out onto the water was in 2001, as most get cancelled due to weather, but the list of possibles is enough to make any birder pull up stakes and head down. We had visions of Laysan Albatross, Mottled Petrel, and Parakeet Auklet dancing through our heads as we pulled into the South Tacoma Motel 6 (international motel chain of choice, say 8 out of 10 birders!) at 11:00pm. A few beers and a lot of stories later, the clock said 2:00am, and it was time to get some shut eye in advance of our early departure for Ocean Shores, where we planned to spend a day birding before driving around the harbor to Westport.

Any early morning fuelling session at another American cultural icon, IHOP, and we were ready to roll! The fog and cold still couldn't dampen our enthusiasm, until my phone rang somewhere outside of Olympia, and my heart sank when I saw the 360 area code..... that could only mean one thing. Sure enough, it was Chris Anderson from Westport Seabirds, calling to let me know that the weather had changed for the worse, and the trip was off. This made the third Westport trip in a row that I have been scheduled on and had cancelled, including two last year! A quick consultation and we decided that we might as well keep going, as we were just over an hour from Ocean Shores anyway, and there were still birds to be found!

Stop one, Ocean Shores Golf Course! An Emperor Goose has been hanging around the golf course for some time now, and as this would be a lifer for both Jeremy G and myself, it was a high priority. We came upon a group of geese pretty quickly, but they all turned out to be Canada Geese, along with a few American Wigeons, so we continued driving, following roads that we assumed took us through the golf course. On another side road right by the driving range, a small flock of geese were lounging and grazing. A quick look from the car revealed a small, grey-backed goose! Not only did this little flock contain our sought after Emperor Goose, it also contained two "Dusky" Canada Geese, two Greater White-fronted Geese, and a Cackling Goose! We spent a fair amount of time admiring these birds, as Yellow-rumped Warblers flew overhead, and we even ended up chatting with some of the local golfers, who asked if we had seen the Emperor. It was nice to see golfers tolerating us on their turf, and even showing an interest in their visiting celebrity!

Damon Point was our next stop, where Snowy Owls have been present, as well as a female King Eider that has been around for over a year. We eventually located the King Eider with a mixed bag of scoters, quite close to shore. As we admired it, we also kept a scope trained on the point, and watched with dismay at the zoo that was taking place as people tried to get their very own point-and-shoot reminder of the invasion year, getting much too close to the Snowies.... We never did get a look at the owls, but saw areas where they were likely hunkered down by using cameras as an indicator. Again, we had great conversations with many local birders who shared our dismay at the scene, and we decided against adding to it. It was nice to see the Parks Service patrolling the area, presumably to keep the herd under control.

Brown`s Point was our final stop before heading north again, and in the parking lot we ran into two women who had been conducting dead bird surveys. They asked if we were birders, and immediately answered themselves in the positive, as one of the women recognized me..... I guess my blog must have more readers than I had thought!

The jetty quickly turned up several Rock Sandpipers, in company with Surfbirds and Black Turnstones. This was also the point in our trip where our experience turned sombre. On the beach were two Western Grebes which had been washed in and were unable to fly or return to the water. Incoming waves would push them further up the beach, and it was almost heart-breaking to see the healthier of the two looking around, calling, as if to plead for help. We also found 4 dead Rhinoceros Auklets and two more Western Grebes (deceased). In the surf, and much out of place, was a Ruddy Duck that couldn`t stay clear of the waves and disappeared into the water, never to be seen again. The happier ending came in the form of two Parks Service employees making the rounds. When Jeremy and Nathan explained the situation to them, they immediately made a call, and two others came out shortly to collect the exhausted grebes. On our way out of town we saw them dropping the grebes off to be cared for.

At 2:30 it was time to head north, with the perfect plan of catching the 9:00pm boat from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay. It was not to be, as the virtual gridlock from Olympia to Marysville cost us dearly in time. Despite desperately needing coffee and a stretch, we kept on the road, scared that if we took an exit, we wouldn't get back on the I-5! Finally we made the border where we had to explain our trip, much to the amusement and disbelief of the CBP officer. Apparently birders don't cross the border too often!

As luck would have it, Jeremy G and I managed to roll onto the ferry bound for Nanaimo at 9:45, going straight from ticket to topside, and we settled in for a long boat ride and longer drive. Our last bird of the trip showed itself outside of Duncan, where a sideroad detour led to a Barn Owl flushing from a roadside fencepost!

After dropping Jeremy off at just before 3:00am (where he found himself locked out), I took the backroads home, hoping to run into a Great Horned Owl on a wire (catchy movie title maybe?), but it was not to be. Twenty-one hours of travel on five hours of sleep found me home.

What was to be a winter pelagic turned into what I can only call the "longest twitch", but it was a great trip with great company and great birds, and I wouldn't be entirely comfortable asking for more!

Good birding,

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A new one!

Due to the weather and work, it has been almost a week since I have added a new species to my year list.

Today, I took advantage of a break in precipitation (in the case of today, rain) to head down to one of my favourite local patches, Albert Head Lagoon. Albert Head Lagoon is a gem, and during migration features many shorebird species, including Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Western, Least, Pectoral, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and has hosted American Golden-Plover. This small park is also a great location to pick up Spotted Sandpiper in almost any month of the year. Today my aims were to find my first Turkey Vulture of the year, as well as add Spotted Sandpiper.

My first target was no problem. As we approached Duke Rd, the turnoff for Albert Head Lagoon, a large raptor flew over the road, displaying the upturned wings, and eventually the pink head, of my first Turkey Vulture of the year. This species is found consistently during the winter in the Metchosin area, usually over the Gravel Pits, and anywhere from Latoria Rd to Witty's Lagoon. This bird is number 125 for the year, and officially puts me ahead of my January, 2011, species count. This with several "easy" species still missing.

The lagoon itself was another story. There were only three other people there, all on the ocean side. This was a nice change from good weather days, when the parking lot can fill up quickly. Luckily, most of the surf-gazers and dogwalkers prefer the beach vs. the lagoon. Today, the birds were few and far between, and the rain came on with a vengeance when I was halfway down the trail. I managed to see the resident pair of Mute Swan, a pair of Gadwall, and good numbers of Bufflehead, plus a few others, but nothing spectacular.

Either way, it was great to actually get out and spend some time birding. Tomorrow will be a day of birding, as there is a Slaty-backed Gull up in Mill Bay that is just begging to be refound and photographed.

Fingers still crossed for good weather in Westport next weekend!

Stay Tuned,

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Bright Spot

I never did like to be one to overstate the obvious, but it is snowing.

Luckily, in all of this, there is one creature that seems to be oblivious to the snow. In a small tree perhaps 20ft from my office window there is a male Anna's Hummingbird that, despite the fluffy white onslaught from above, is singing his heart out against what we here in Victoria call a blizzard.

Even with the decidely unmusical qualities of the Anna's "song", it provides a bright spot in the cold. Where else, I ask, can one find a hummingbird singing in the snow? I have also seen them displaying in the last few days which, I believe, is designed to lull the rest of us into a false sense of spring. Looking out at the plows, I will take what I can get!

I must apologize to some, who will no doubt be offended at my anthropomorphic references. To those, go find your own ray of sunshine in the blizzard!

Stay warm,

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Trade Off....

Well, my planned trip today to Port Angeles on the Coho didn't pan out, but I still managed to add a couple of species this weekend, during a quick stop owing to a very timely post from Derrick Marven.

On my way up to Duncan where, on a non-birding note, I was privileged to witness my young nieces very first steps (!!!), I stopped in along Koksilah Road, hoping to find the Tundra Swan that had been reported there. All along Koksilah there were small groups of Trumpeter Swans, as well as a good number of curious neighbours and passersby, stopping or slowing to inquire as to my activities. Finding no small swan among them, I circled around the back end of the fields by driving down Wilmot Rd. There I found a large group of grazing waterfowl, which had been hidden from view from the other side by a hill. Among them were more Trumpeter Swans, good numbers of Canada Geese, and, after some scope searching, the Tundra Swan! I don't know if the bird had a mud-caked beak (as many of the Trumpeters did), or if it was one of the individuals that show very little to no yellow on the beak, but luckily it was standing next to a Trumpeter, allowing a nice close comparison of size and build.

While I was scanning the fields, I also heard several birds calling as they passed overhead in ones and twos, and managed to get my first visual Evening Grosbeaks of the year. Jeremy Gatten and I found a number of these in Cobble Hill on Jan 1 but they all remained out of sight in the clouds. Rules being rules, I wanted my look!

Still no Red Crossbills, but they should show themselves before too long.

The weather is also still looking good for the scheduled Westport Pelagic for Jan 28. Last year's trip got winded out and we never made the trip down. As fate would have it, a Mountain Plover showed up just across the bay near Ocean Shores that same weekend, which would have been a nice add-on to the trip. Currently there is an Emperor Goose in Ocean Shores which will make for a really good add-on, on top of the great possibles that show up offshore in winter (Laysan Albatross is my want bird!).

Stay tuned, stay birding, and stay warm!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

They do get easier.....

The first look is always the toughest, is it not? After chasing the Rusty Blackbird around Martindale Flats for the entire month of December, all for just one look, then checking for it almost every day for the first week of this year (finally, with success), I have now seen it for the last three days.

I seem to recall having the same adventure with the Willet that was present at the foot of Bowker a couple of years ago.... it took seven visits before I finally saw it, but I had it on every subsequent trip.

Anyway, back to the present....

I am now at the point where, as Mike McGrenere put it, the law of diminishing returns kicks in with a vengeance. In the entire month of January 2011, I found 124 species. So far this month, as of the 12th, I am at 122. At just short of half of my years goal, it has quickly become a game of target birding.

One of the birds I have been missing is (was) Northern Harrier. Agnes Lynn had tipped me off to a male that had been hanging around Maber Flats, so I figured I should give it a try, having missed the species at Martindale, Vantreight, and other spots. It took all of 10 seconds of scanning Maber Flats to locate the Northern Harrier, cruising over the flats.

What happened next I should have guessed at, as I stopped in at Martindale on the way back (hoping for Snow Goose or Tundra Swan), and the first bird I encountered was another stunning male Northern Harrier. No extra-pale geese were in evidence, and all the swans were a little on the large side, so I guess those two will have to wait.

Still missing for the month is Red Crossbill. This is a bird I usually have on the first, but haven't run into it yet. I am also still missing the murrelets, so with the Coho schedule being a little more accomodating this weekend (we can actually go down and come back on the same day!!!!), I think that may be a possibility for a day trip.

Anyway, stay tuned!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The First Week Wraps!

The first week of 2012 wrapped with a full weekend of birding.

Yesterday, my brother and I started the day with three male Eurasian Wigeons at Demamiel Creek Golf Course in Sooke. This species has been represented this winter by many more individuals than normal, with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 currently present in the Victoria area (that I know of). We had no luck locating either the Snow Goose or Ring-necked Pheasant that have been reported lately in Sooke.

From there, we headed to Otter Point, where we scanned the water for an hour and a half, seeing one Black-legged Kittiwake, and numbers of Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, Common Murres streaming by in small groups, and many others.

Whiffin Spit itself was quiet, but there were over 500 Pine Siskins along Whiffin Spit Rd and Dufour Rd. Along Possession Pt Rd we located a small flock of siskins, and when they flew a single bird held back before taking off to join the flock. The single bird began calling as it passed over our heads, tipping us off that it was a Common Redpoll. We managed to follow the bird until it landed, and got great looks.

A stakeout at the feeder where the Brambling has been reported lately turned up nothing, and our final stop of the day was Goldstream Park. We quickly located two American Dippers along the river, though Red-breasted Sapsucker, another of my targets, was absent.

This morning my wife and I made the rounds, starting at Swan Lake where we ran into Chris Saunders and David Caudwell. Chris put me onto a Ruddy Duck at the far side of the lake, and before long Ian C called out a Common Redpoll flying over.

Martindale was the next stop. I had been lamenting to my wife that many other birders had managed to easily find the Rusty Blackbird and have it right at the side of the road. No sooner had I finished than we located the Rusty Blackbird, right at the side of the road, within 15 seconds of stopping. On the way back down Martindale Rd we located a Ring-billed Gull with Mew Gulls. Islandview Beach was also quiet, and we walked the trails from one end to the other without locating either Brant or a Northern Shrike.

A quick stop and scan at Elk Lake turned up very few birds, the highlight being a single Western Grebe. At this time last year, there were large flocks of Canvasback and Ruddy Ducks on the lake. So far this year, I have only seen 8 or so Canvasbacks, and zero Ruddy Ducks.

After a so-so lunch at Applebee's, we headed out on the hunt for a certain pale-throated Zonotrichia. Bow Park, which has been a reliable location for them, turned up none. We next headed to Uplands Park, where Ian C had found five of them in December. Near the corner of Lansdowne and Midland, I found one White-throated Sparrow, a tan-striped individual. This has always been one of my favourite sparrows, and I took a fair bit of extra time to watch it moving about the branches of the small tree it was frequenting.

The last stop before taking my wife home was Cattle Point, where there was very little of interest. I was hoping for Rock Sandpiper, but will have to keep trying.

After dropping Thea off at home, I headed for Goldstream Boathouse, where I found four Barrow's Goldeneyes very quickly. From there I headed down into Goldstream Park, where I found American Dipper again along the water, and finally Red-breasted Sapsucker.

With the light fading, I went up in search of a fairly reliable Northern Pygmy-Owl, without luck.

Eight days in, and my new Big Year attempt sits at 120 species, with 10 of those being sparrows! Many years end without this many species of sparrow appearing in Victoria, so I am excited for what is to come!

Good birding!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Chase is On!

With the Duncan Christmas Bird Count on January 1st, I took advantage of the 2nd to chase down some of the great birds that have been hanging around Victoria recently.

At 7:30am, coffee in hand, I met Jeremy G and his dad at the Beacon Hill Park tennis courts, hoping to turn up the gnatcatcher that was last reported in the middle of December. As the dawn chorus began, there was nothing even remotely gnatcatcher-like to be heard. I wasn't hoping for much, and even less when a Barred Owl flew into the middle of the patch of trees we were working. After the owl decided to heed my cursing and fly off, a Cooper's Hawk flew in to take its place.

From there, we birded the waterfront down as far as Cattle Point. Nothing spectacular showed up, but we did find three of Victoria's wintering Greater Yellowlegs near the Oak Bay Marina, as well as several other shorebird species. A quick walk along Midland Rd near Uplands Park turned up 30 Cedar Waxwings, 5 American Goldfinches, and a Hermit Thrush.

After another coffee stop, Panama Flats was the place to be. While there, we met up with Mike McGrenere, Rick Shortinghuis, Cheryl Mackie, and Mary Robichaud, all of us in search of the same few sparrows. Mary let us know that she had seen the American Tree Sparrow just before we got there, so we immediately turned our attention to the bigger prize, the Vesper. Being the only one fully equipped for the task, Jeremy G crossed to the west side of the flats, and quickly located the bird, which eventually flew unnoticed behind the rest of us, until it flushed out into the middle of the flats. Rick found a dry route for us, and eventually the Vesper Sparrow made a brief appearance at the side of the trail, and then again in a clearing in the grass. Also in the area were a Sky Lark, and several Savannah Sparrows and singing Western Meadowlarks. It was short work after that to find the American Tree Sparrow, which was basking in the sun near the top of the clump of bushes just out from the building. A fairly thorough search of the south end of the flats turned up zero Swamp Sparrows, but we did see a Eurasian "Common" Green-winged Teal, and have a few good laughs (most at my expense, I think - I owe you one Gatten!).

Islandview/Martindale turned into the last stop of the day, as the cloud and eventual pouring rain snuffed out the daylight a little early. At Islandview, I located the two Black Scoters after a fair bit of searching, and they disappeared just as Jeremy G and Mike Bentley made their way down the trail. Jeremy eventually located them again, as well as spotting an Eared Grebe, to the south of the main parking area. There was also a sharp looking Merlin in the treetops up the hill to the west.

Although we missed finding the Rusty Blackbird at the Lochside Pig Farm, we ran into Mike B again, who had just seen it near the corner of Martindale and Welch. Again, we missed it, but we did find one Brown-headed Cowbird, and get scope looks at a few Cackling Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese in the fields.

This morning (Jan 3) my brother was "down island" and had an hour to spare, so we went out to Rithet's Bog, and in fairly short order found a Swamp Sparrow which obliged us with some nice poses. The bird was right where Ian C had reported two back in December, near the first bench along the trail leading SW from Fir Tree Glen.

My brother had also hoped to see the Tree Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow, so we headed to Panama Flats. It took all of 45 seconds to locate the American Tree Sparrow in a plant at the side of the trail, just south of the building. My brother had wanted to get a picture of it, so we continued to look for the bird after it disappeared, but only had brief (though excellent) views of it, not enough for him to get even a distant shot. Eventually he ran out of time, and decided to leave the Vesper-hunting for another day.

Finally, after work I headed down to Esquimalt Lagoon with the last little bit of light, to pick up a couple of final birds. On the beach by the bridge (on the inside), there was a beautifully pure Western Gull mixed in with the Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls, and mutts. Other than that it was quiet, with very little on the water. I did locate my two targets, with a number of Greater Scaup along the inside, and the ever-present Mute Swans scattered along the length of the lagoon.

Not a bad start, with yesterday and todays birds putting me at 101 for the year. There are another 39 I hope to pick up by the end of the month, plus whatever goodies happen to show up.

See you out there!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Great Weather for Christmas Bird Counting!

Well, my first day of birding for the year started off like many other birding days, with Jeremy Gatten and I stopping in at the Goldstream Ave Tim Horton's for a few morning coffees. (Tim Horton's, if you are listening, you are currently the unofficial coffee of the 2012 Victoria Checklist Area Big Year, but I am always open to sponsorships and endorsements - call me!)

From there, we headed up to Cobble Hill to start our area for the Duncan Christmas Bird Count. We started just off of Kingburne Dr, where our first bird of the year was not one, but three Great Horned Owls calling at various distances. Not a bad start!
From there, we carried on down Kingburne, picking up a few birds here and there. At one of our earlier stops, we had pulled over and were walking toward a few of what would turn out to be 440 Pine Siskins for the day, when we heard a distinctive call that stopped us both in our tracks. We immediately looked at each other, and started scanning. Jeremy quickly located the bird, a very obliging Common Redpoll, while five Evening Grosbeaks called overhead. My fifth bird of the year turned out to be one that I missed completely last year, and this was my first Redpoll for the Victoria Checklist Area!

The weather stayed good all day, and we added a few other highlight birds, including four male Eurasian Wigeons mixed in with the 900 or so American Wigeons near Dougan's Lake. We also had great looks at Pileated Woodpecker, Wilson's Snipe, Lesser Scaup, etc.

As always, one of the big highlights was catching up with everyone at the post-count gathering, especially the Cowichan Valley birders that rarely make it south of the Malahat.

The current big year count stands at 51, and tomorrow will be an all-out chase. I hope to catch up with some of the recent Victoria rarities, including a try for the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher that hasn't been seen in a couple of weeks, Vesper Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Snow Bunting, Snowy Owl, etc.....

See you all in the field!