Thursday, 31 December 2009


I managed to get a couple of hours free this afternoon so, despite the onset of some very wet rain and poor visibility, I headed down to the Nanaimo River Estuary.
For the first time in ages there were no other vehicles in the parking area and even if hunters had been there earlier it looked as if I might have the place to myself for a while at least.
It was pretty nasty though, and my optics were rain covered in no time at all. A scan over the marsh from the viewing platform was uneventful so I decided to trudge up the long hedgerow in search of passerines.
Overall it seemed pretty quiet until I came across the regular mixed flock feeding on the deck and in the hedge. Maybe I could relocate last Sunday's yellow-rumped warbler? Scanning through, I was pleased to see a fox sparrow then something smaller and paler caught my eye as it flew up into the hawthorns. I found it with my bins and I noticed it had a bright chestnut crown, clear pale grey supercilium that extended into the nape and back onto the cheek (ie it actually had a grey face broken by a dark eyestripe), a sort of 'smudge' onto the breast which also had an indistinct dark 'spot' on it and very bright wingbars.
Now, as a north American sparrow novice I wasn't 100% as to the identity of this bird and being a pillock I hadn't brought a field guide with me, so I spent a soggy half hour getting brief scope views, and trying to find the fidgety thing amongst the mass of commoner species in the ankle deep grass and tangles of hawthorn. Tree sparrow did seem the most likely but do I really know what a winter chipping sparrow looks like? Or are there others that fit this description that I've forgotten about?
Luckily, my notes were of a good enough standard to unequivocably confirm its ID as an American tree sparrow once I got home and better still it was actually a new bird for me!

So, it just remains for me to wish everyone a Happy New Year and here's to birdy 2010!

Monday, 28 December 2009

Is there life on marsh?

Following advice from Guy Monty, my morning visit to the estuary ended with me coming away with a dead owl in a bag. I called the Ministry of Environment to log the incident and I'll be taking the corpse to the office downtown tomorrow.

Back to the estuary - today was the longest I have spent down there without seeing any short-eared owls since they arrived. As is often the case, a few hunters were out and about but the with the exception of a Canada goose which got brought down, shooting activity was at a minimum. Seems the ducks are learning to keep offshore when there are people around...
A single adult female northern harrier was seen but unlike the behaviour of these birds a month ago, this individual was keeping well clear of the marsh and restricting her hunting to the fields in the south east corner.
I don't suppose birds can perceive danger in this way and perhaps it's likely that this harrier has escaped persecution as a result of her tendency to hunt away from the marsh, as opposed to her having 'moved' to avoid incident? Whatever, it's a pretty bleak picture out there at the moment.
The good news is that at least one northern shrike is still in the area, though certainly more elusive than was previously the case.
Perhaps (despite the long-eared situation) the high water levels followed by cold weather has actually reduced prey availability and the harriers and owls have simply moved on... gotta keep an open mind on these things. Mind you, there are a few gun-toting blokes with hard-looking dogs going down there now and again, they never wear camo and are probably just shooting for shooting's sake.
To cut a short story long, there was little else of note over the 3 hours I spent down there. I didn't relocate the Lincoln's sparrow or yellow-rumped warbler we saw yesterday, though the white-crowned sparrows now numbered 3.

A quick drive around a mostly frozen Quennell Lake, with a few stops, revealed little of note other than a single Steller's jay.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

When otus sings the blues

Well, I got up around 6.30am and peered out into the darkness and it didn't look too foggy.
OK, I'll do some owling.
Headed out and came to the rapid conclusion that it was in fact foggy as hell.
Oh well, you only need to hear them. I tried a few 'likely' spots but there was nothing... no response to calls played or badly imitated.
Headed to the appointed rendezvous for 8am where I met Ryan Cathers and his dad Andrew and Ryan's girlfriend Deni. Another team member, Ian, soon joined us and we discussed how best to proceed with the Christmas Bird Count, considering the poor visibility.
We headed off up Raines Rd toward the estuary counting as we went. Arriving at the estuary it was apparent that a count was going to be pretty tough given that we couldn't see more than 50 metres in any direction... and to make matters worse there seemed to be more hunters out than usual. And they were not exactly going by the book from what we could hear - it seemed that some were shooting where they shouldn't be.
Despite these setbacks we cracked on and a fair number of species made it onto the list, though numbers of individual birds were pretty low. Highlights included a yellow-rumped warbler, Lincoln's sparrow, peregrine, northern harrier and gadwall. We couldn't find any short-eared owls in the mist but it looks like a hunter had had more luck earlier with a genuinely scarce bird on Vancouver Island. See the accompanying pics which show a very fresh corpse of a long-eared owl which appears to have been shot. It was spotted by Ryan, who noticed it lying beneath a hawthorn and it looks as if it may have been shot in its roost.
Since discovering that this rare species has been recorded in the Nanaimo River Estuary area in the past, I have been diligently checking the hawthorns for roosting birds - pity this is how we had to confirm its presence... what is wrong with these people?
We carried on, albeit with a bitter taste in our mouths, and then headed to Holden Creek via Gordon Road. We added a few birds to the tally including Cooper's hawk, red crossbill and hooded merganser.
Our arrival at Biggs Park coincided with a brief break in the fog and we were able to scan the birds out on the water including common loon, greater scaup and horned grebe.
Finally we had a look around the somewhat abandoned arboretum near the industrial park which had some very nice trees but very few birds, although we were able to add red-tailed hawk as the last new bird of the day.
All in all another great day's birding with good company allowing me to overcome the crappy weather and the dead owl!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Happy Christmas, Boxing Day etc

Christmas Day passed pleasantly but was relatively birdless. We had a stroll around Hemer Park in the afternoon where the mostly frozen pool was hosting 2 trumpeter swans, 8 hooded merganser, 1 American coot and 2 gadwall. We took a couple of minutes out of our busy schedule to take the attached pic of us grinning like tourists.

Today, Boxing Day, was similarly fairly quiet aves-wise. The highlight was the arrival at the 'food pile' of a party of 17 California quail. The fuzzy pic here was taken at range through the window - these plump, delicious gamebirds are sooooo flighty.

Despite the forecast for sunshine we were shrouded in mist all day with visibility restricted to about 100 metres. With the Christmas Bird Count (part II) tomorrow, let's hope it clears otherwise I'll be back in bed for 8.30am...

Thursday, 24 December 2009

All about Eve

Again, no real opportunities for any real birding today what with having to track down a Christmas Pudding, having an informal job interview which resulted in my agreeing to start on Tuesday (Happy Christmas to me!) and sorting out some friends chickens and cats while they're off visiting family in Port Alberni.
So, with all that to deal with my avian encounters were somewhat restricted this bright, sunny Christmas Eve, though an impressive flock of 24 varied thrush were feeding on the lawned area by the condo. Offshore a group of 30ish black turnstone were clambering around on an exposed rock with a dozen dunlin and 2 black oystercatcher.

Jolly Christmas to all - whether you choose to recognise it, celebrate it or otherwise.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

All good on the Western front

With my newly rediscovered freedom, I managed a quick visit to the Nanaimo River Estuary this afternoon but it was under siege from some pre-Christmas hunters.
Nonetheless a short-eared owl was unconcerned and showing well. I didn't see any shrikes or harriers, though.
50+ trumpeter swans were present and a 150 or so dunlin were at the estuary mouth with 7 black-bellied plover. A few gadwall were in with the pintail, mallard and American wigeon.
A dozen red-winged blackbird were sat up in the hawthorns but passerines seemed pretty thin on the ground in general. A 1st year red-tailed hawk made an appearance and about 6 bald eagles were kicking around.

I dropped by at Holden Creek but that too was pretty quiet, bar a couple of hundred green-winged teal and a few wigeon. A drake hooded merganser came by and 2 killdeer were in the nearby fields. 4 crossbill chipped overhead.

Back at the condo I noticed a Western grebe offshore - not a regular bird here since I've been at Yellow Point. As you can see I managed to photograph it badly. As ever.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Bird on a wire

Didn't get any birding in today as such, but on our way home from Nanaimo this evening (7.30pm) we had ace views of a barred owl sat on a telegraph wire near the condo, on Yellow Point Road. We turned around and pulled up slowly, eventually sitting right below it. It didn't give a hoot (sorry about that...) and just perched there, staring down into the verge. Nice.

Oh, and I passed my BC driving test this afternoon (thank goodness) so regular reports from the Nanaimo River Estuary will resume shortly...

Monday, 21 December 2009

Happy Christmas Bird Count

Having read about these things for many years it was a privilege to be invited to join a team for the Christmas Bird Count on Sunday. The count area was further north than my relative comfort zone and all the sites visited were all new to me.
Having spent the night at Rich & Lori's house we emerged into the damp and dark and kicked off with an attempt at some early morning owling which despite the rain, wasn't altogether unsuccessful.
Thanks to some canny impersonations Rich lured a northern saw-whet owl that responded with vigour and approached within metres, but the lack of light meant that it remained unseen. Good bird for the count, but a bummer for me as it's a lifer and I ain't ticking one on call alone!
Despite zero response following our attempts to attract other owls, a great-horned happened to fly across the road to the joy of Rich and Lori, both of whom saw it. Mike Ashbee and I missed it from the back seat of the car!
As it got lighter we headed for a few spots to locate some key species and then spent some time at the the Little Qualicum River hatcheries - a brilliant site which yielded American dipper (great views and it even started singing) plus a few other important birds for the day and incredible numbers of bald eagle. At one point I could see 18 individuals in one binocular view!
Unfortunately the tide was particularly high which meant that the estuary was full of water and therefore lacking in non-saline species of wildfowl etc. Offshore, numbers of all 3 scoter species were present along with grebes, loons, murres, buffleheads, etc. 1000s of gulls were present with particularly large numbers of mew gull amongst them. And it was really, really pissing it down. As you can probably tell from the attached pic...
Passerines were tricky throughout the day and some common species went unseen. A last minute stroll down a trail known to Mike had us finally bag both downy and hairy woodpeckers in the fading light.
We went to the post-count round-up and it became apparent that our total of 65 species for the day wasn't atypical, although one team led by Guy Monty managed an astonishing 98. In fact, this team even saw two species (Hutton's vireo & ancient murrelet) that would have been lifers for me!
All in all it was a great experience and I was delighted to be involved in such a renowned institution as the CBC.
Also, it has to be said, that we had a really good laugh throughout the day and the company of Rich, Lori and Mike made the whole thing that bit more enjoyable. Roll on the Big Day in spring...

For a more thorough assessment of the day and full count figures, check out Rich's blog via the links on the left...

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Hawks and Doves

Had an early trundle around Buttertubs Marsh this morning, having been dropped off by Jen as she headed off to work, God bless her!
Much of the water was still ice covered and consequently birdless. In fact the only 'waterbirds' seen in an hour and a half were 2 hooded merganser, 2 great blue heron and glaucous-winged gull! Of course, a few mallard and wood duck had sought sanctuary on the river but the lakes were bereft of wildfowl.
A couple of flocks of bushtit and many varied thrushes kept me alert while other regular passerines included robins, towhees, fox & song sparrows, house & purple finches, chestnut-backed chickadees, brown creeper and a lone American goldfinch.
A juv bald eagle circled over the marsh and headed east pursued by a couple of ravens.
Two trumpeter swans flew high north-west.

I then walked through Bowen Park which while birdier than last week was still relatively quiet. The highlights here included a Cooper's and a sharp-shinned hawk - the latter feeding on a luckless red-breasted nuthatch. Hairy woodpecker, golden-crowned kinglets, flickers, Bewick's wren and such added to the tally.

Later on in Nanaimo I noticed both Cooper's hawk and peregrine over the downtown area, my attention being drawn in each case by the panicking pigeons (rock doves).

Friday, 18 December 2009

Short tale of long-tail

Confined to barracks again today, so kicked off the day with a trawl around Roberts Memorial which was quiet even by the standards of that often tranquil park.
The stroll back home wasn't too exciting either and the most thrilling thing to report was reasonable views of some red crossbills and again there were lots of pine siskin around, unfortunately I couldn't hear any redpolls amongst them.

Spent a part of the afternoon staring out to sea, not in a gormless/glazed-over way you understand, but intentionally looking for waterbirds.
I heard an unusual duck sound and spotted 4 birds flying in and was chuffed to see that they were long-tailed duck. Two drakes and two ducks (pictured). The males were being very vocal - I can't recall the last time I heard a long-tailed duck! Not too common a sound in Morecambe Bay... (older readers in the UK may remember that this species used to go by the rather un-PC name of Oldsquaw in American field guides).
Otherwise, it was pretty much business as usual: common loons (pictured), buffleheads, American wigeon (fewer since the thaw), both goldeneye species (common pictured), horned grebes, red-breasted mergansers, double-crested and pelagic cormorants, surf scoters, mew & Thayer's gulls and 3 common murres. Also the ever-present harbour seals and regular river otters were doing the rounds.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Warbler brightens already bright morning

Well, after the sub-zero temperatures, carpets of snow and some grim drizzle it was a pleasure to awake to a morning with bright-ish skies and an almost balmy mildness about it.
Jen dropped me off at Roberts Memorial Park on her way to the metropolis that is Nanaimo, and I had a stumble about in there for an hour or so. Even the Pacific tree frogs were impressed with the change in the weather and several were calling, but despite my best efforts I couldn't actually see any of the small beasties.
The forest was typically fairly quiet bar the occasional red-breasted nuthatch or crossbill calling until I came across a nice feeding flock near the car park. Brown creepers, r.b. nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadees all responded half-heartedly to my pishing and then a cracking male Townsend's warbler appeared amongst them. Lovely.
Walking back to the condo there were a few flocks of pine siskin passing over, the largest numbering about 70 birds. A downy woodpecker was once again in the apple tress over the road.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Great-horned owl, great!

I was delighted to bag a long anticipated, new bird this morning (very early this morning) when Jenny and I had pretty good views of a great-horned owl hunting around the slipway of the Duke Point Highway and McMillan Road around 12.30am. Nice!
I'll have to count up my Vancouver Island list one of these days...

Today, we went for a walk down to Hemer Park and back into Cedar along the Morden Colliery Trail.
Just before we got to the car park we flushed a couple of Wilson's snipe from a ditch by the roadside.
The pool in Hemer was still frozen over but there were still 9 trumpeter swans present in a small area of water at the water's edge. Here too were a pair of gadwall and 5 hooded mergansers.
The woods were typically quiet and little else of note was seen but the walk was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours on a cool December afternoon.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Freezy does it

Got dropped off at Buttertubs this morning with thoughts of iced-out reed dwellers... Naturally all the wildfowl had cleared out although a few mallard and a handful of wood duck were on the river.
Having defied logic by not emerging when the place was undergoing its near-Biblical flooding recently I was absolutely confident that slow scrutiny would reveal either American bittern or Virginia rail - preferably both. Back home, denizens of the deepest reedbeds are virtually guaranteed to show themselves in such icy conditions but I was left, once again, disappointed.
An Anna's hummingbird was again in the same area as when I last visited, keeping very close to a well-filled hummer feeder. A few of the expected passerines were also around some feeders and a bushtit flock came through with the attendant chickadees and a single golden-crowned kinglet.
After a couple of hours of scanning the reed edges I walked over to Bowen Park where I had an equally fruitless wander. The duck pond (just about the only place where there were any birds) had attracted a belted kingfisher and the swarm of mallard were joined by a pair of hooded mergansers and a lone female American wigeon. Yippee.
I then went to the guitar shop, forgot about birds for a bit and drooled over a very affordable Gretsch semi-acoustic... all I need now is a job so I can justify buying one!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Ice, ice baby

Jenny's been working up in north Nanaimo for the past few days and so I've been stranded, car-less, at Yellow Point. Haven't even been able to find a decent second-hand bike to get about on... consequently, I've been wandering around the local area desperately trying to find some birds to look at.
The past three mornings I've checked out Roberts Memorial Park (the beach bit, complete with small flotilla of wigeon, pictured above) but as is typical of forests in winter, it's been pretty quiet. The occasional varied thrush, golden-crowned kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadees and winter wrens have hardly enthralled and the constant sound of tooting red-breasted nutchatches is now too familiar to solicit much interest.

Walking the 2.5km of road between the park and the condo has actually been more productive, though only slightly!

Yesterday I had ace views of a ruby-crowned kinglet that had unzipped its astonishing scarlet head stripe, only the second time I've actually seen the, usually concealed, crown on this species! Presumably this bird had fluffed out its feathers to trap air, in an effort to keep warm in the freezing conditions and thus it's crown was revealed.
Both downy and hairy woodpeckers have shown well along the roadside and good numbers of red crossbill and pine siskin are regularly heard and seen.
While checking the slightly thawed edges of a large pond, inhabited by a group of mallard and 2 hooded mergansers, I noticed a mink working its way around the water's edge and bank. I think that might be the first I've seen on the island.

Offshore, the only notable change has been a minor influx of American wigeon, doubtless escaping whichever frozen lake they had been on previously.
Otherwise, the usual cormorants, buffleheads, loons, grebes, surf scoters, goldeneyes etc, and a lone pigeon guillemot, were all present.

Things area little milder today, even the hummingbird feeder wasn't frozen solid this morning. Not that I've had any hummers anywhere near it since I put it up a couple of months ago...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Through the square window...

Didn't get out to do any birding today so the highlights came from mainly staring out at the sea for a while this morning.
A couple of distant marbled murrelets had me trying desperately to string them as ancients but when they turned and the sun illuminated them properly I had to concede...
A pigeon guillemot spent some time blogging around offshore while the other usual occupants of the water (common loon, horned grebe, harlequin, bufflehead, surf scoter etc) were all present and correct.
An otter was fishing, succesfully, and a small group of American wigeon came into the small bay at Blue Heron Park.
A California quail once again came to the food pile although the number of passerines visiting my generous avian festive feast was much reduced. Just 2 juncos, 1 fox sparrow and a towhee in the time I was watching.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The swanny river

It was bright, crisp, clear and cold when I made my visit to the Nanaimo River estuary this morning.
An obvious mini-influx of American robins had taken place and they were 'chacking' all the place. A female downy woodpecker was in the large oak and a Lincoln's sparrow was seen amongst the many golden-crowned sparrows and house finches moving through the hedges. The expected juncos, towhees, fox & song sparrows were also much in evidence.
A northern shrike kept watch from a hawthorn.
A single brant flew over the saltmarsh and the high tide resulted in the semi-flooded marsh being covered in pintail, mallard and American wigeon.
Scoping from the viewpoint I was able to pick out 1 Eurasian wigeon, 12 gadwall and a drake lesser scaup from amongst the masses.
On the sea there were many buffleheads, both goldeneyes in small numbers and a few trumpeter swans. A family flew in and of the 3 juvs, 1 was notably smaller and appeared shorter necked than all the other birds in the party but once they landed on the water, (and the structural difference was still apparent) I wasn't really able to determine anything other than it was a runty trumpeter (bill shape and pattern didn't suggest tundra, though it was distant). Maybe if it sticks around I'll get a better look at it and satisfy my curiosity.
Yet more swans were on the river adjacent to Raines Road.
A couple of red-tailed hawks were seen and a short-eared owl put in an all-too brief appearance.

I decided to have a quick look at Holden Creek on my way back to Cedar but other than about 350 green-winged teal it was rather quiet. Another Lincoln's sparrow was in the brush alongside the path from the parking area, the first I've seen here.

With half an hour to spare, I went the long way home via Quennell Lake and found a flock of c500 Canada geese snoozing on the ice. A handful of trumpeters were with them as were 4 white-fronted geese.
A further 400 or so Canada geese were further along the lake plus more swans but other than a few ring-necked duck, common mergansers and coot it was unremarkable.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Dodgy ducks

Given that Jen wasn't working today my birding was pretty much restricted to what I could see from the condo, or the car. On the plus side, a new visitor to the pile of stale bread and black oil sunflower seeds that I leave outside for the regular juncos, towhees and song & fox sparrows attracted a fine California quail this morning.

We went for a walk round Westwood Lake, our first visit. Bird-wise is wasn't too rewarding (bald eagle, common mergansers, ring-necked ducks, Steller's jay, chickadees, and so on) but it was a great walk on a bright, crisp, cold day.
We treated ourselves to some nosh at the Crow & Gate pub where I was able to bag what's probably the island's entire population of American black ducks... nestled amongst some mallard and a brace of black swans. Yep, the Australian ones. I must say, the last time I saw these black ducks, dabbling in a nearby flooded field a couple of weeks ago they almost looked tickable.

I did manage to pop by the estuary yesterday afternoon where I had brilliant prolonged views of a juv harrier hunting in the grassy area by the large oak. No owls showed though a shrike put in an appearance. It was otherwise quiet.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Merlin dervish

The wee fellow in the accompanying photo was making quite a bit of noise outside our place this morning, nice of him to pose a bit while a took a couple of snaps.

With pressing deeds to be done, I was unable to get out to do any birding until mid afternoon today and eventually dropped by the estuary for an hour or so.
I hadn't even turned the engine off when a harrier drifted in front of the car and over the river. Once I'd got out of the car a short-eared owl came by, hunting over the grassy area between the car park and the big oak. Nice!
A couple of guys were out wildfowling on the marsh so the ducks were miles out. A flock of red-winged blackbirds chattered around the place and a lone ruby-crowned kinglet came to check out my pishing technique.
From the viewing platform over the next hour I noted 2 short-eared owls and 3 northern harriers including a 'new' male that I haven't seen previously. This too is a sub-adult bird though it has retained considerably more juvenile plumage than the other male that I regularly see.
A Cooper's hawk came through scattering the juncos and blackbirds while a red-tailed hawk decided to add itself to the list of raptors seen.
As I returned to the parking area 6 western meadowlark were flushed from the grassy area between the oak and the car.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Hermit saves the day

The appearance of some significant frost had me heading for Buttertubs Marsh once I'd dropped Jenny off at work. Working on the knowledge that water rails and Eurasian bitterns can be more readily seen in such conditions my optimism was on overload - well the high water levels had failed to produce the goods, so surely a bit of ice might entice a Virginia rail or American bittern out from the depths of the reedbed?
Nope, apparently not.
7 wood duck had reappeared, as had a few more mallard and hooded mergansers but otherwise it was pretty quiet waterbird-wise.
Checking the passerines around the edges, I was surprised to find a hermit thrush (in the brush by the river). Other more typical birds included a flock of bushtit and an Anna's hummingbird along with the usual varied thrushes, juncos, towhees, etc.

I then paid a visit to the Nanaimo River estuary where a short-eared owl and northern shrike soon put in an appearance. Again it was pretty quiet here, although the number of trumpeter swans had increased slightly with a number of birds along the river as well as out on the estuary.

A few stops by Quennell Lake failed to turn up much of note. Small numbers of American coot, ring-necked ducks, American wigeon, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, etc the only things seen.