Sunday, 28 February 2010

Lincoln's Day

Left the we(s)t coast and its traditional rain mid morning, heading east back to Nanaimo. The weather was a bit drier from Port Alberni onward, and by the time we got to Parksville it was blue skies and sunshine!

By 1.30pm  I was itching to go down to the Nanaimo River estuary for a scout around, and I drove down to the patch while the rest of Cedar's residents were apparently sat watching some 'important' sporting event, or other.
Despite the sunny, Sunday afternoon, the parking area at the end of Raines Road was bereft of vehicles, and I spent the next couple of hours trudging around an eerily quiet estuary. There weren't too many birds around either - I expect they were as blissfully unaware of the Olympic hockey game as I was... I realise that mid-afternoon is probably the least productive time of day to go birding, but if given the choice of a couple of hours of crap birding or none at all, well, I think you know what I'd choose every time.
21 trumpeter swans were on the marsh and the usual large numbers of American wigeon, pintail, green-winged teal and mallard were dabbling around the water's edge. Good numbers of gadwall, bufflehead and common goldeneye were also present while further out there were a few red-breasted mergansers and greater scaup.
Gulls numbers continue to build, and many California gulls were amongst the numerous glaucous-winged.
A northern shrike was hunting from an isolated small hawthorn.
Passerines were thin on the ground, and it took quite a while to find 'the' finch/sparrow flock. The number of golden-crowneds had dropped to single figures, while there were no white-crowned sparrows amongst the group at all. Even the juncos numbered only 20 or so, and there was no sign of the white-throated sparrow. The Lincoln's sparrow put in rare sustained appearance, and I finally managed to get a couple of shots of the wee fella, as you'll see above.        

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Ucluelet tsunami warning

Finished work early Friday and hit the road west, out to Ucluelet, for the weekend.
Couldn't really believe just how birdless the drive was, not even a Steller's jay flew across the road. Ravens, ravens and some more ravens, plus the occasional bald eagle and a lone merlin, were pretty much all we encountered en route.

We got up this morning (Saturday), to be told of a tsunami warning that was in place locally, an aftermath of the serious earthquake in Chile. Hmm, could turn out to be an interesting weekend away...

Keeping the tsunami evacuation advice firmly in mind, we headed out for a hike along the Wild Pacific Trail, which to be honest, was also quite birdless. Beautiful, stunning, evocative etc, but birdless.
Offshore, there were the expected seabirds; highlights included Brandt's cormorant and a rhinoceros auklet, while several black oystercatchers were noisily peeping around.

One particularly interesting thing we came across was a singing winter wren - currently, 'technically' the same species as the one we get in Europe, though not for long, - whose song was so utterly unlike that of the form of troglodytes troglodytes that I am familiar with, that I didn't have a clue what it was that was singing until I saw it! Of course, this western wren is also much darker than those found in the UK, but that song alone should be cause enough for it be given specific status...

Anyway, back to the pending tsunami - despite making comforting sounds to Jenny, deep down I was ignoring the fears that come with hearing of such a crisis, and I couldn't help but think about the birding potential.
What if displaced South Pacific pelagic species were moving ahead of the waves...?
Was I about to be so fortunate as to be in 'the right place at the right time', and witness one of the most amazing events in ornithological history, talked about for years to come?
Was I to be one of the lucky few watching scores of albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels bouncing by the island's coast?

No. As it turned out, I wasn't.

In so many ways, I am deeply thankful that the Ucluelet tsunami amounted to very little more than some slightly boisterous waves.
From a birder's perspective however, it could have been a bit better. I did see two very distant birds that were almost certainly kittiwakes, but not even a fulmar sailed by. Even Jen was disappointed by the lack of spectacular seascape - not to say that the sea here isn't spectacular, it is - but we both anticipated more.
That said, we did see a pair of whales, presumably greys, moving slowly north offshore, so it wasn't a total wash-out!
So, natural disasters aside, we've had a wonderful day and there's always tomorrow, if any unfeasibly rare birds wish to come my way.

Pictured above: Jenny sports my hat, the 'tsunami' as we saw it...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Everything damp but my spirits

Well, it was back to normal today with customary grey skies and rain. I took a soggy wander down to the seafront in Nanaimo for a spot of lunchtime birding, where a fine breeding plumage pigeon guillemot was paddling around near the float plane jetty.
Otherwise it was pretty quiet, with the usual common goldeneyes, buffeheads & double-crested cormorants  on the water. A handful of mew and glaucous-winged gulls were kicking around.
Several American robins and dark-eyed juncos were feeding together on the grassed areas - passing through?

Regular readers of this blog may recall my moaning about how Virginia rails were failing to behave properly at Buttertubs Marsh, when it was flooded, and then frozen over recently. To put things into perspective, the attached pic, taken by one of my chums back on my old patch back in Blighty, demonstrates clearly just how they should go about their business. The photo, for those who don't know, shows a European water rail (Rallus aquaticus). 

Check out the Aldcliffe blog, in the links on the bottom of the sidebar to the left of this page, to see more pics of these, usually, secretive birds.    

Monday, 22 February 2010

owls about that...

Thought I'd have a scout around, or more appropriately a listen, at Hemer Park this evening and chose dusk to see if any emerging owls were being vocally territorial.
The signs were good, there were no cars in the parking area and the skies were clear as could be - the half moon was helpfully bright. Unfortunately the two dogs that reside at the house down there, spotted me lurking about and decided to kick of a chorus of barks and yelps, which in turn enticed every other canine in hearing distance to join in. Great. After a few minutes of this I crept off and hid behind a tree, which did the trick and they soon stopped their protests.
Meanwhile no owls were calling.
Then, I was overjoyed as a truck being barely controlled by a young halfwit, came screeching down the road. I think he was a bit upset at my being there, as I imagine he and his hillbilly girlfriend had romance on their mind. He displayed his displeasure by revving his silly truck very loudly and screeching off at what seemed to me to be rather inappropriate speed. He cleverly emphasised his frustration further by stopping, revving loudly again and once more launching off with the sound of screeching tyres and gravel ringing in his ears. After a couple more versions of this pointless exercise, even he got bored and sped off toward some other dark spot, to seduce the soon-to-be-mother-of-his-child.
After this little incident, I decided that I'd go home and think about where I could go owling next time...        

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Spring-like day punctuated by comma...

Jenny and I walked to Hemer Park this afternoon, once again in glorious sunshine.
The woods were alive with the sounds of nuthatches, chickadees and kinglets. Flickers and hairy woodpeckers were drumming (the former, on the metal junction box of a telegraph pole) and robins were gathering nest material. A winter-soon-to-be-Pacific wren was singing and juncos were chasing each other around the shrubbery.
On the marshy pool, the trumpeter swans had gone, and just a few birds were present including hooded and common merganser, ring-necked duck, bufflehead and mallard.
We came across our first butterfly of the year, a comma of some sort... (green comma?) I don't yet have a butterfly guide for this part of the world, that's another thing I need to buy! If anyone reading this can identify it from the above pic, I'd be very grateful.
On Hemer Lake, a pair each of trumpeter and mute swans were present, as were good number of common mergansers and ring-necked ducks plus smaller numbers of lesser scaup, bufflehead and a pair of Barrow's goldeneye.
We left Hemer via the Morden Colliery trail back into Cedar. En route, we noticed a couple of dozen very excited ravens, and a couple of eagles, feasting on the corpse of some unfortunate, sizeable creature, by a small farm. Benevolent farmer helping out his local corvids? Poisoned bait? Who knows...
A red-tailed hawk was perched up by the path as we neared the town.
The best bird of the day, however, was feeding on the front lawn when we got home - a slate-coloured, dark-eyed junco. Very nice!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Here comes the sun

Westwood Ho!
After picking up Jen from work at 2pm, we headed off to take a leisurely hike up Westwood Ridge. It's a great walk up through mainly conifer forest, before opening out into mossy bluffs with mixed woodland, predominantly oak and arbutus. Some amazing views to be had, particularly on a day like today.
The major highlight for me though, less so for Jenny, was the finding of a Hutton's vireo! I heard an unfamiliar call (not too unusual in itself...) from amongst a group of chickadees, so I commenced with some finely tuned pishing. Within a couple of seconds a bird caught my eye and as soon as I had my bins on it, I knew what it was. Now, I realise that this is a common bird, but nonetheless it was a tick! having scrutinised countless ruby-crowned kinglets in earnest, here was the real deal. And despite what the books tell you, it's not so much like the kinglet that it isn't immediately obvious what it is, when you're looking at it.
The jizz is totally different, and those thick blue-grey legs coupled with its overall stockiness and fat bill are surprisingly apparent. Other, less diverting, aves included red-breasted nuthatch, red crossbill, pine siskin, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, et al.

The pic above shows the view looking over Westwood Lake, beyond Nanaimo and toward the coastal mountains on the mainland. If you get a chance, do this walk!


Down the estuary

Despite having to de-ice the windscreen before taking Jenny to work, the morning turned out to be quite stunning. I soon found myself bathed in sunshine and there was, as Phil Collins would so irritatingly put it, no jacket required.
Down at the Nanaimo River estuary, the birds weren't quite so convinced by this spring-like weather and most, rather than expending valuable energy showing off and singing, were mindful of the night's freezing temperatures and were busily seeking out food.
The usual mixed finch/sparrow group was immediately apparent, between the big oak and the platform. Practically the first bird I noticed was the white-throated sparrow, looking glorious in the bright sunlight.  
The other typical species were here such as juncos, song sparrows, white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows, towhees, a Bewick's wren and a fox sparrow.
A western meadowlark was singing from the hawthorns in the fields.
An minor influx of American robins was apparent, I'd noticed small groups all along Raines Road too.
A walk up the 'long hedge' proved quiet, with the exception of the juv northern harrier (pictured) and the usual norther flickers, though 3 pine siskin feeding in the hawthorns was something of a surprise.
All the trumpeter swans had gone, except for one lone bird. Maybe this is the 'resident' swan that was here when I first arrived back in October - a couple of local dogwalkers tell me that it stayed all summer.
A red-tailed hawk was sat up in an arbutus tree and other than the regulation bald eagles, it was uneventful on the raptor front.
The bulk of the wildfowl was out on the water and scoping through them it appeared to be as normal - pintail, American wigeon, green-winged teal, mallard, gadwall, bufflehead, common goldeneye, greater scaup, common and red-breasted merganser.
Trampling back to the viewing platform, the WT sparrow showed again. It's become quite an obliging bird of late, I'll miss it when it goes!
Although it is very spring-like here today, I imagine that the chance of early migrants has been seriously hampered by the very wintry conditions in the US. I doubt any north-bound birds are going to want to pass through, or over, that just yet...

Friday, 19 February 2010

Nanaimo River estuary

Popped by the Nanaimo River estuary on my way home from work this evening - ever optimistic...
My enthusiasm was a little more founded today at least, and I soon had sight of the juvenile northern harrier perched on a dead tree stump up by the 'long hedge'. It soon took off, and hunted briefly over the fields in the fading light.
A quick scan from the viewing platform revealed little - although I did notice that the tide was very low and  as a result all the silhouetted birds were way, way off. A couple of hundred gulls came over from somewhere inland, and settled to roost out on the mudflats.
Then a short-eared owl appeared. It was hunting along the river's edge on the opposite bank.

I left as a rather lovely sunset was taking over the landscape...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Cygnus olor-dy...

With almost the same amount of excitement that was solicited by the sight of that dazzling pheasant last week, I noticed a magnificent mute swan dabbling around the Nanaimo harbour at lunchtime today. Be still, my trembling heart...
The male Anna's hummer was again keeping watch from his favourite tree in the nearby park.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Mystery solved...

Okay, here it is folks. The result of the first ever, bad bird photo identification quiz.
So, where to start. It’s obviously a sparrow; no one fell for my pathetic attempt to mislead by throwing redpoll in there. Well done! Hurdle one accomplished.
Now, one of the obvious things about it is that it has unstreaked flanks, thus ruling out the likes of song sparrow, fox sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow and, er, savannah sparrow. So, two down, two remaining.
Staying with the underparts, they appear dull and concolourous, suggestive of either of the two remaining species.  Okay, how about the wings? There is certainly one clear wing bar, and maybe the hint of a second. Again, it could indicate either white-crowned or American tree sparrow. How about the head patter, or at least what’s visible?  Rusty cap, and a dark eye stripe. Hmm, very suggestive of tree, but far from conclusive.
But what about that bill? Very pale orangey colour… on BOTH upper and lower mandible. Ah! That means it has to be white-crowned right? Right. In my limited experience, tree sparrow is a much brighter, paler bird but that's not always easy to detect from a rubbish photo...
So, there we have it. Quite a surprising result! It’s a first winter white-crowned sparrow.  So, congratulations to 31% of you! And thanks for having a go – to be honest, as a relative novice at American bird ID, this has been very instructive for me. I hope it has been for others too.

Results: Savannah Sparrow 18% | White-crowned Sparrow 31% | American Tree Sparrow 50%

I've made the next one a bit less problematic - maybe... it was taken during one my 'pre-residence' visits to BC about 4 years ago.

Incidentally, a male Anna's hummingbird was again in Sutton-Mafeo Park in Nanaimo when I took my daily lunchtime stroll down there. Not much else to get excited about... I even dropped by the Nanaimo River Estuary on my way home from work, as it was almost still light. Thought something crepuscular might be out and about but it was rather quiet.     

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Saltspring Spring

As correctly predicted by those, doubtless bearded, boffins at the Canadian equivalent of the Met Office, today was glorious. It was warm and sunny and still. Jenny and I headed out for a trundle around Saltspring Island.
We had a rather lovely day even if the birding was a bit on the dull side. A few bits and pieces were singing away, some of which I was able to identify. Problem is, I've not been here long enough to have learnt a lot of Canadian birds' songs, but I'm hoping that the coming spring will be something of an education. Listening to the Stokes CDs is great, but out of context it's hard to commit any but the most simple songs to memory. Having visited this part of the world a couple of times in the past, during the spring and early summer, I've got a bit of a grasp of some of the commoner ones but I've got a loooong way to go before I can step out into the field with anything like confidence. That said, even back in Britain I had iritatingly bad aural retention where birds were concerned. Funny, seeing as I can identify any Clash song from the first 2 notes...
Anyhoo - highlights from out Saltspring visit included a fine breeding plumaged pigeon guillemot and good numbers of Barrow's and common goldeneyes, surf scoters, American wigeons, horned grebes and frankly, not much else to get excited about.
Seeing as it's Valentine's Day I've stuck a pic of Jen and myself lurking around on a wee jetty at Fernwood Point.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Spring has sprung a leak

Having been seduced by last weekend's spring-like weather, it was a bit of let down to go out this morning in such cold and soggy conditions. What a blunt and unwelcome reminder that it is still winter...  The birds didn't seem too pleased either and, for the most part, kept a pretty low profile.
Things started off well though, and within minutes of arriving at the Nanaimo River Estuary I noticed the golden-crowned sparrow/junco flock around the viewing platform. Within a few seconds the white-throated sparrow was showing well and a very weak sun even managed to puncture the greyness for a moment. I added 'non-indiginous-rabbit' to my estuary mammal list.
The next couple of hours were somewhat less productive, and the only other significant bird was a drake Eurasian wigeon. Up to 60 trumpeter swans were again present on the marsh (pictured) plus there were plenty of pintail, American wigeon and green-winged teal around. Out on the river mouth, there was a group of gadwall, common goldeneye, common merganser, mallard and yet more wigeon.
Along the 'long hedge', I came across a 60+ flock of dark-eyed junco but there appeared to little else with them other than the expected song sparrows and  spotted towhees.
Gull numbers appear to building up nicely, but I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary amongst the distant groups.

Up the Creek
I then spent a short time at Holden Creek, which was quiet. A group of around 200 Canada geese were feeding in the nearby fields, but there was nothing of note among them.

What a cock!
By now (early afternoon), the rain had become somewhat more persistent so I took a leisurely drive around Quennel Lake, primarily on the lookout for wildfowl on the move.
As I approached the lake, a movement caught my eye in a nearby field and I smirked at the sight of a cock ring-necked pheasant picking through some long grass. Now, I know that these birds are quite sought after by many Vancouver Island birders, but I have to say it will a cold day in Hell before I get excited by seeing one - outside of their native range, that is.
Just 1 swan was on the lake, and relatively few Canada geese were present. 7 American coot were the first I'd seen for a while and a flotilla of 11 lesser scaup made for a pleasant sight.
A bedraggled 1stw northern shrike was hunting from nearby fenceposts.
I was rather surprised to find a soggy red crossbill singing away from the exposed branches of a small fruit tree by the roadside.

With the forecast looking better for the majority of the week, perhaps we can get back to convincing ourselves that spring really is around the corner..!

Don't forget to have a go at guessing (or studying and making and educated assessment, if you'd rather) the Mystery Bird on the left - only a short time left remains before I reveal the answer. And, of course there will be a new pic for you all to scratch your heads (or not) over.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Anna's song

A lovely male Anna's hummingbird was singing away in the Mafeo Sutton Park in Nanaimo, early afternoon today. And a song sparrow was having a tuneful mutter too, just to contradict my recent post about there being no songbirds down there - although I did predict their imminent arrival. Hardly makes me Nostradamus, I know...
Bufflehead, goldeneye, harlequin, double-crested cormorant etc on the water.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Snow business like goose business

Following a morning's communication with friends and family back in Blighty, via the magic of Skype and the good old-fashioned telephone, we decided to take advantage of the decent weather and go for a walk around Westwood Lake. Unfortunately, when we got there, a low cloud/mist meant that things weren't quite so bright, but we circumnavigated the lake anyway.
The paths were busy-ish and, being early afternoon, bird activity was at a minimum. We heard crossbills, red-breasted nuthatch and Steller's jay, saw a few chestnut-backed chickadees, a downy 'pecker and a bald eagle but it wasn't really birdy at all. Which suited Jenny.
Something of a surprise though, was a juvenile snow goose in with a group of Canadas at the north end of the lake. I think I'm right in saying that this is the first time I've seen the species on the island, and this really wasn't the sort of place I expected to find one...
The attached pic, which is terrible even by my usually low standards, was taken by holding my camera up to my binocular eyepiece, so under the circumstances I think it's pretty good! Mike Yip, Ralph Hocken et al, can all rest easy...
Other wildfowl present on the lake included common mergansers and buffleheads.

We left Westwood and headed for the relative peace and quiet of the Nanaimo River Regional Park. Again, it wasn't very birdy, but the place has a good feel and I reckon it should be pretty productive once  spring really gets going. We'll see.

Also pictured: the spooky northern end of Westwood Lake and Jenny inspects the Nanaimo River.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

A slight hint of spring

I awoke to be thrilled by the beautiful, calm, bright morning - seems a while since I've seen any blue sky...
As per usual, dropped Jenny off at work then headed off to the Nanaimo River Estuary for a dig around.
Once again, I arrived to find that I had the place to myself and I set off toward the big oak with something of a spring in my step, thanks to the sound of birdsong in the air.
House finches, Bewick's wrens and song sparrows were all being motivated to give their lungs a good blast in the sunshine.
The 'big' flock was in and around the brambles just by the tree, and I soon picked up the white-throated sparrow feeding on the ground with some golden-crowneds. The sound of a Western meadowlark drew my attention away and I noticed 3 birds close by, with a small group of starlings.
As I looked up I noticed that Ralph Hocken had arrived and was taking pics of the meadowlarks from the path up from the parking area.
I headed off down the long hedge for a while but it was pretty quiet. A lone Northern shrike and a bunch of flickers were the only things of note.
I could hear the lovely sound of a singing meadowlark and looking round, noticed the three birds in a hawthorn in the adjacent field.
I headed back and caught up with Ralph, who had got some great shots of the 'larks. He hadn't seen the WT sparrow though, so we decided to try and find it again. Unfortunately, a concerted effort failed to come up with the goods and despite grilling the flock, the target bird remained elusive. We did, at least, get views of the Lincoln's sparrow.
Out on the marsh, the trumpeter swans numbered fewer than 30 birds though, like last week, they had pretty much all cleared out by midday.
As usual, the majority of wildfowl consisted of American wigeon, pintail and green-winged teal with smaller numbers of gadwall and mallard. The drake Eurasian wigeon was present and a few bufflehead, greater scaup, common merganser, common goldeneye and gaggle of Canada geese completed the set of web-footed wonders.
A pair of amorous red-tailed hawks were having fun in the distance and a couple of peregrine zipped through.
26 great blue heron were hanging out on the marsh and a belted kingfisher was on the river.

Early afternoon, I made my customary pre-Jenny-pick-up, stop at Buttertubs Marsh but it was pretty unremarkable. Still a dozen or so ring-necked duck and a few hooded merganser, plus 3 pied-billed grebe on the water. Very little in the way of notable passerines - just a couple of varied thrush, a brown creeper, ruby-crowned kinglet and some singing red-winged blackbirds.
A Cooper's hawk nearly took my head off though...
Later, on our way back to Cedar, a merlin flew over the road just south of Nanaimo.

Late afternoon we took a stroll around Hemer Park.
Five trumpeter swans were still on the pool, along with a few hooded mergs, couple of bufflehead, 3 RN duck and a common merganser. A pileated woodpecker was making a racket up in the trees, but I didn't see it. A hairy woodpecker put in a, silent, appearance.

I had a real sense of the coming spring out there today, and although I realise it's only just into February and things could still get very wintry yet, the feeling that things were about to change was really overwhelming. For a newcomer like me, it's going to be absolutely thrilling (and doubtless mind-boggling) to witness a first full Vancouver Island spring. Bring it on...!  

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Birdless in Nanaimo

While I was taking my lunchtime stroll down to the water front today, I realised just how quiet the downtown Nanaimo and area it is, as far as songbirds are concerned.
In any reasonable UK town you'd be seeing or hearing a blackbird, song thrush, dunnock, robin, wren, goldfinch, greenfinch, starling, house sparrows, collared dove, blue tit, pied wagtail, etc. or, at least a selection of those and/or others.
Today, I didn't see or hear a single passerine.
At least yesterday, in a moment of Hitchcockian paranoia, I noticed a bunch of around 20 Northwestern crows hanging around menacingly, in a tree outside the office. Oh, and there are always the scabby pigeons kicking around, of course.
But on the whole, the bushes, lawns and skies of Nanaimo are bereft of smaller birds. Thank goodness for the gulls and seaducks to scan through once I get to the seafront.
I'm sure it'll all change soon, and I'll be sifting through hungry grounded migrants as they flit around any small piece of vegetation they come across. I hope..!

Talking of small birds, have a go at the mystery bird thing on the left - it's just for fun, and no-one has any way of knowing who votes for what, so your secret's safe if you get it woefully wrong. All pics will be of birds I have seen on Vancouver Island. Though that probably doesn't help. 

Depending on the response to this one, I intend to do one every couple of weeks. Believe me I have LOTS of terrible photos of birds I can stick on there.