Saturday, 28 May 2011

Life's A Beach (and other unimaginative headlines)

Desperate to get out for the day, Jenny and I chose to head up the Sannich Peninsula and have a snoop around Sidney-by-the-Sea.
Of course, I had my trusty binocs to hand, just in case...

A bronzed local spots a passing bald eagle
The weather was glorious and we had a great time bimbling about the book shops and thrift stores. Didn't manage to locate a copy of Birds of British Columbia Vol IV unfortunately; that gaping hole on my groaning book shelves will have to remain unfilled for now.
In between looking at the numerous seated statues, having a great lunch in a Greek restaurant, and bouts of buying things variously needed and not, I cast my eyes offshore where I noticed plenty of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets, plus the usual cormorants and gulls, etc.

After we left Sidney, we headed down to Island View Beach Regional Park. I'd stopped here on my recent recce with Ian Cruikshank, and thought that Jen would like it. I was right.
We enjoyed a stroll up to the end of Saanich Spit (coincidentally, a willet - a regional rarity - was seen here yesterday in the company of a pair of whimbrel) and back, in brilliant late afternoon sunshine.
As it happens, we came across the whimbrels but the willet had obviously tired of their company and moved on. Again, it was fab to be able to have a good look at this race of whimbrel - so very different to the birds I've been used to seeing in Europe.
More alcids were seen offshore and an osprey performed nicely, passing low overhead. A couple of mourning doves were a pleasant treat, as always.
It actually felt like spring was starting to get to grips with itself today, though I'm sure we shan't be packing away the waterproofs just yet...

Friday, 27 May 2011

Swift & Sure

Managed to drag myself out of bed this morning and made my bleary-eyed way to Mount Tolmie for around 6.45am. Yes, it had rained overnight, and yes it was overcast - but (why does there always have to be a but?) that wind had rather too much west in it for my liking...
Unperturbed, I spent close to 2 hours creeping around the place in search of lurking migrants. If they were there, they were lurking well and completely evaded detection.
The local chipping and white-crowned sparrows were seen, as were northern flickers, dark-eyed junco, spotted towhees, Bewick's wrens and both orange-crowned and Wilson's warblers. Oh, and several brown-headed cowbirds.
The only thing that may have been a grounded transient was a female 'Myrtle' warbler, which I came across after about an hour and a half of staring at trees.
Just as I was despairing at the lack of avian goodies, I noticed 7 black swifts heading northwest ahead of the clear band moving in from the south. A year-tick, if nothing else.
Despite the relatively poor showing this morning, I'll certainly be giving this excellent spot a few more chances before deciding to take up stamp collecting.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Tanagers and Mystery Revealed

The highlight of my day working from home, came in the form of a female western tanager in an arbutus, as seen from my kitchen window around 1pm. She sat there quite happily for some time but was spooked by 'castle' seeking tourists before I was able to get a pic. Oh well, not a bad addition to my kitchen list.
A late wander around the Government House grounds proved pretty fruitless. If that rain does move in overnight, I'm going to head over to Mount Tolmie bright and early tomorrow just to see what's to be seen...

It's a Mystery...

Can you tell what it is yet?
So, given the relative lack of news, I'll do the old mystery bird thing.
If you can cast your mind back, it was grainy shot of a duck. Given the 4 options, only 2 species attracted votes.
Therefore, we can ignore mallard and wood duck as no-one was even remotely tempted to choose either.
So, we're left with ruddy duck and shoveler.
The former garnered some 11 votes - accounting for 17% of the total.
The latter species was the clear front runner and got a whopping 51 votes in favour of it being that spatula-billed anas.
So, what convinced so many of its identity as a shoveler?
The rufousy flanks could suggest either species, but at any age and stage of moult would a ruddy duck ever show a white, or very pale breast? And how about the dark mantle? Could an eclipse drake ruddy show such demarcation between flanks and uperparts?

Here's one I prepared earlier...
One can see a hint of a pale area around the base of the bill, but anywhere enough to imply the extensive white cheeks of ruddy? Structurally, it doesn't really look like a stifftial, but photographs can, admittedly, be deceptive. But that tail is neither low on the water or raised - again more suggestive of shoveler. Finally, and perhaps most crucially - that bill! It looks pretty huge and distinctively spatula-shaped - further confirming the birds identity as a northern shoveler.
As always, please feel free to argue with my reasoning, or add any other obvious pointers that I have omitted.      
And, don't forget to have a go at the current one on the right...

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Swallows and Swallowtails

The lovely bright morning was a pleasure, even if such weather implies that the birding's going to be a bit on the crappy side...
A single Townsend's warbler, and a couple of Wilson's warblers were seen, and heard. A silent flycatcher (probably a Hammond's, on appearance) briefly showed too, but it was a touch quiet along the Government House Woodland Trail otherwise. The usual Bewick's wrens and orange crowned warblers joined the towhees and robins in their vocal declarations, while tree and barn swallows chirupped busily overhead.

Yesterday, Jenny and I headed up to Mount Tolmie (after observing some of the Victoria Day Parade, of course). We'd been meaning to go and take a peek at this place for a while, and we took a picnic up there. Given the lovely clear conditions, the views were spectacular. I can see now, why this spot would be worth checking out in good fall conditions - the habitat, and elevation, make it a great place to search for early morning migrants.

I saw my first Anise swallowtail (pictured) of the year - always a treat!
Bird-wise it wasn't too thrilling, hardly surprising given the time of day. We did see red-tailed hawk, 5 turkey vultures, a warbling vireo, chipping sparrows, an olive-sided flycatcher, a single brown-headed cowbird and the usual Anna's hummers, Bewick's wrens etc. Given that it took less than 10 minutes to drive there from home, I'll certainly be heading that way next time we get some promising conditions.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Cacophonous Cowbirds Cause Concern

I wasn't going to bother going birding this morning, but the gloomy skies and overnight rain convinced me otherwise. I just couldn't get the image of a kingbird perched on top of a garry oak out of my head...
Anyhoo, my premonition proved unfounded (in all honesty, I'm rather relieved that I haven't suddenly developed some life-changing extra sensory perception) and the Government House grounds were pretty quiet.
A Wilson's warbler was enticed out from some dense, verdant undergrowth courtesy of some gentle pishing, and a pair of noisy male brown-headed cowbirds were busily pursuing a female. Even the local starlings seemed unimpressed by these brood-parasites' presence. 
The usual other suspects; red-breasted nuthatches, bushtits, orange-crowned warbler, Cooper's hawk, spotted towhee etc, etc, were all seen or heard around the woodland trail.
I left just in time - a photographer, along with his subjects, was just revving up for the finals of the Great Canadian Shouting Contest. He was very good at it. 

Around mid-day a group of c20 cedar waxwings were at the junction of Pentrelew Place and Fort Street.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

When The Red, Red Robin etc...

Not much to report today...
I went down to Government House early this morning, but given the 'nice' weather - calm, clear skies overnight and same this morning - it was obviously not a day for grounded migrants.
Nonetheless, I had a root about and confirmed my thoughts. Other than the resident breeders etc al, it was dead. One thing warmed my cockles however; a doe with a very, very young fawn. It was all a bit Bambi...

Working from home all day, with the windows open, the robins were making their presence felt with their continual singing. Given their mega-rare status back home (yes, I once twitched one) I thought I'd put a pic up that I took through my living room window, just for the folks in dear old Blighty.   

Yesterday evening, Jenny and I had a stroll sown to the waterfront and en route, we saw a male western tanager. It was flying around at the western end of the Ross Bay Cemetery. Nice to get a year-tick so casually!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Solitaire's Not The Only Bird In Town

This morning's amble around the grounds of Victoria's Government House was pretty interesting. One of the first birds I saw was a Townsend's solitaire, as it flew across the path into the area of garry oaks on the south side of the grounds. It was quite active for a while flycatching from an oak. As I watched it, my eye was caught by another bird close by. It was an olive-sided flycatcher. Hmm - things were looking pretty promising!
The duration of my visit however, was pretty uneventful and other than around 5 Wilson's warblers and a Lincoln's sparrow the birding was quiet.
Until I heard a strange call (mind you, maany call's are pretty strange to me over here...).
Looking up, I eventually located a flycatcher. It was a pretty drab thing - brownish overall, with concolourous greyish throat and underparts, discernible but pale wing-bars, long notched tail, largish bicloured bill, weak eye-ring - stronger at the front and back of the eye. A bit of a crest, but not much of one. Western wood pewee was my first thought.
Its call (song?) was particularly striking, a resonant 'liquid' call I wrote down as; disyllabic 'schpil-ip' followed by a monosyllabic 'schlip'. Listening to recordings once I got home, I have to say I'm none the wiser!  Troubled by this, I returned with my recorder and 'scope in an effort to relocate the bird. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it. I'm sure it was probably something really obvious. If anyone can decipher my garbled description, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts!

* Empid Update
Chris Saunders contacted me to suggest I listen to the song of Hammond's flycatcher. I did, and - problem solved! I think I discounted this species on my incorrect assessment of the bird having a largish bill and long tail, two things that Hammond's shouldn't have. I've only previously heard Hammond's call - a high, sharp note - and I didn't recognise this sound as a song, which it was. These empids are great for taxing the brain!
Thanks to Chris for the tip-off.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Shorebirds Bonanza

After a night of constant rain, we awoke to find Victoria grey, and still under attack from persistent precipitation.
By late morning I'd decided that while songbirds were likely going to be hard to find today, I could at least go out and see what watery aves were to be had. I used my new-found knowledge of the area's top spots and chose to explore Panama Flats a little bit more than I had when I was out with Ian last week.
I started off scanning, in the pouring rain, from the vantage point off Carey Road. Again, the place was alive with literally hundreds of hirundines. Among the numerous tree, violet-green and barn swallows were several cliff and handful of northern rough-winged swallows.
Out on the water I could see 5 northern shoveler, 8 gadwall, 4 green-winged teal, 6 bufflehead and 2 pintail, as well as several mallard.

Dunlin & long-billed dowitcher
Toward the back of the flooded fields were groups of dowitchers, all those I could tentatively ID looked like long-billed. I counted a total of 52. A single dunlin and other smaller peeps were just about visible through the falling rain.
After a while I decided to head round and check out access from the other side.
Parking up on Roy Road, I soon found an access point and walked in through some promising looking mixed habitat, until I found myself on the western edge of the waterlogged area.
The rain was easing off slightly and visibility was considerably better from this side.
I could even be sure about the identity of at least some of the dowitchers now as they could be heard from time to time. All those that called were long-billed dowitchers.
I could also see the smaller calidrids too, and there were 5 least and 10 western sandpipers feeding alongside the dowitchers and the lone breeding plumage dunlin.
A sudden deterioration in the weather at least brought a couple of Vaux's swift down and they briefly joined the hawking swallows over the water.

A Wilson's snipe was feeding on a grassy spit, surrounded by several American pipits (pic). At least 3 spotted sandpiper were also present, but sadly no solitary sandpiper - my 'target' bird of the day...
A common yellowthroat was singing in some waterside vegetation and a female appeared alongside a ditch at the southern edge of the pools.
I was quite surprised to see a late female common goldeneye; she didn't hang around to long and flew off north. 

Pectoral sandpiper (left) & western sandpiper
On my return back up the pool edge I noticed another wader out in the water that had suddenly 'appeared'. Through bins it appeared largish and pale, with a distinct breast and yellowish legs... a pec? I got my scope on it - yep, a pectoral sandpiper. Close by, another dunlin had joined the first. Had these two birds arrived together in the last downpour or had they been hiding somewhere?
Unfortunately the crappy weather prevented me from getting any decent shots, but the pic here should at least confirm its identity!
I found a few of these last spring, up island at Holden Creek (including a couple of males in breeding plumage), but I'm aware that they are pretty scarce down here at this time of year.

Friday, 13 May 2011

That Was The Week That Was

Blogger's been ill, so I haven't been able to post until now. So, if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin...
This morning, it was fairly quiet down at Government House with nothing to indicate any birds new in. What was presumably a remnant of yesterday's fall; 12 yellow-rumped warbler, 1 Townsend's warbler and a warbling vireo were moving around in a single feeding flock, and a single Lincoln's sparrow emerged to check out my pishing but that was about it.

Thursday Fall

A bit of a fall was evident early Thursday morning in the grounds of Government House, Victoria.
It seemed pretty quiet until I jammed into a flock of around 30 yellow-rumped warblers feeding high up in some garry oaks, along the lower path. Scanning through I came across 6 Townsend's warblers, 2 ruby-crowned kinglet and a Wilson's warbler. An empidonax flycatcher showed briefly but flew off, silently.
As I moved along the path, a Cooper’s hawk came bombing along and just missed my head.
The distinctive clucking of a hermit thrush was emanating from the understory, and a little persuasive pishing lured it out, but nothing else.
I came across another active warbler flock, this time comprising around 10 yellow-rumped and 2 Townsend's along with a warbling vireo (my first of the year).
Then I noticed a smart olive-sided flycatcher (another year-tick) sallying from a snag.
I decided to gain some height, to check the tree tops and went to the small ‘balcony’ outlook where I was surprised to come eye to eye with a varied thrush.
The olive-sided was visible from here too, and gave better views but there was nothing in the upper branches of the trees.
On the eastern bluffs I saw another olive-sided flycatcher, but otherwise there was little activity there so I headed home for breakfast.

Wednesday Whirlwind

On Wednesday afternoon I had the pleasure of being given something of a guide tour of Victoria and Saanich Peninsula birding hotspots by Ian Cruickshank.
We started off at Panama Flats where, thanks the persistent downpour, the flooded fields were swarming with 100s of hirundines, including a few cliff swallows and one or two northern rough-winged swallows, plus good numbers of Vaux’s swifts (year tick).
Scanning the muddy fringes we noticed a congregation of feeding dowitchers, and a few least sandpipers.
Three spotted sandpiper (year tick) were also working the edges and common dabbling ducks punctuated the water’s surface including several shoveler and a pair of gadwall.

Among other places we visited included Observatory Hill - an impressive spot affording immaculate views. Here we added such things as chipping sparrow, Pacific-slope flycatcher (YT), American goldfinch and house wren (YT).
We came across dowitchers, mostly looking like long-billeds, at several sites including a group of just over 100 at 'Red Barn Flats'. This interesting site, (so named for its location right by, yep, you guessed it - a red barn, well the Red Barn Country Market more precisely.. ) was also teeming with swallows.

purple martin
A stop at Maber Flats proved interesting with a breeding plumage black-bellied plover, more dowitchers and 18 purple martin (2 of which, pictured).
A flock of 40 cackling geese dropped in and a single greater white-fronted goose made an unexpected appearance.
Along the path, the hedgerow was jumping with YR warblers and I finally caught sight of my first yellow warbler of the year.

Later, we had a brief check of the Martindale area where the highlight was an adult female northern harrier.

After a quick stop at Island View Beach where we watched a Caspian tern fishing, we headed back.
It was great to be in the company of someone who knows not only the area, but the birds so well.
Ian's incredibly acute hearing, and ability to ID everything that calls, was a grim reminder that my battle-worn ears are well and truly past their sell-by date.
Add to that, my relative lack of familiarity with the region's birds' vocalisations and it's fairly obvious that I could be missing a not inconsiderable percentage of passerines while out birding. Oh well, at least my eyesight's still 20/20. For now...
Thanks again to Ian for his enthusiasm, and generous welcome to Victoria's birding scene!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Walking In A Whimbrel Wonderland

The wind had turned a little too much to the west for my liking when I got up this morning, but I headed down to the grounds of Government House nonetheless - just in case.
Passing the solitaire's hangout, I noticed that the holly was almost completely bereft of berries, and that the bird was nowhere to be seen. Not so surprising.
As I trawled the Woodland Trail, I was increasingly aware of the apparent lack of new birds and the only migrants noted were a couple of Wilson's warblers and a hermit thrush, along with the regular orange-crowned warblers. Both adult Cooper's hawks came out to play, but otherwise it was pretty quiet and I found myself at home by 8.45am.

Later, after some work and a few more job applications dealt with, Jenny and I took a walk down to the waterfront and followed Beach Drive, through the golf course (no whimbrels, but lots of golfers) up to Oak Bay Marina. While sat on a bench enjoying a cup of tea at the evocatively titled Turkey Head, we watched as a bald eagle flew across from one of the islands clutching a nearly fledged gull. Lovely.
Soon after, the distinctive call of a whimbrel alerted me to a single bird flying by, heading due south, low over the water. I believe that may well be the first I've seen on the island, and certainly the first hudsonicus I've seen anywhere for a few years.
Used as I am to seeing the nominate race back in the UK, it was great to see this bird in flight, showing the diagnostic features of this distinctive form. It made the considerable walk back along Oak Bay Ave to Rocklands that bit more bearable!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Neat Townsend's...

Following three rather hectic but extremely enjoyable evenings (The Pixies on Thursday, and Olympic-qualifying ale swilling on Friday and Saturday nights) I needed a bit of a lie-in this morning.
Rising just after 8am, I just got on with work. By midday Jenny and I decided a stroll down to Thrifty was in order and we trolled off, finding it pleasantly mild and overcast.

Townsend's Solitaire - no, really...
On our way back, we came eye-to-eye with a Townsend's solitaire on Joan Crescent - it showed exceptionally well, just a couple of metres away from us. It was in the very same garden that the recent cedar waxwing flock had favoured, and the fruiting holly bush was the apparent reason for its current location.
The photo here is pathetic even by my usual poor standards, and is helped even less by the fact that I forgot to take it off black and white mode before shooting. Genius. 
Delighted with this unexpected year-tick we headed home where I was rather surprised to spot a hermit thrush under, then in, the apple tree outside the kitchen window. It then struck me that perhaps I should have been out early...
Half an hour later, and I couldn't concentrate on my work for thinking about what other grounded migrant might be lurking in the neighbourhood. So, I set off to the Government House grounds in search of avian delights.
Now, by this time it was mid-afternoon and quite possibly the worst time of the day for finding birds. Add to that the Crufts-esque parade, the walkers, the cyclists and what-not and my expectations lowered significantly as I set off along the trails. Almost immediately, I located a Hammond's flycatcher and watched it at close quarters as it sallied from the garry oaks just below the car park. 
Along the lower path I caught some movement high up in a tree and was, let's say, a little disappointed to see a female house sparrow busily nipping buds. But then I noticed another bird, and got my first Townsend's warbler for the year, swiftly followed by a second. What cracking birds!
The rest of my amble was comparatively dull, with little else on show. I couldn't help but wonder what I may have encountered had I been down here at 7am...
Oh, and walking back around 3.45pm I was pleased to see that the solitaire was still present in the same spot.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Cinnamon Adds Spice

Despite the lack of activity on this blog during the last week I have been out and about but, to be honest, I've seen little worth reporting.
This all changed on Friday when Jenny and I were back up mid-island, primarily to attend the wedding of Rich Mooney and Lori Lynch at Quallicum on Saturday. We tied in a visit to our friends David and Susan in Nanaimo on Friday evening, but prior to that I managed to squeeze a few hours of birding in, while Jen attended to work matters.

western sandpiper
I started off at Holden Creek. I was delighted to find some shorebirds upon arrival and over the course of the following hour or so I located approximately 100 least sandpiper and around 50 western sandpipers (pictured). A lone greater yellowlegs was the only other wader present - disappointingly, there were no spotted sandpipers in yet.
Among the Canada geese out in the fields were 8 greater white-fronted geese and in excess of 40 American pipit. Hirundines were here in force and good numbers of cliff swallow and a single northern rough-winged swallow were among the barn, violet-green and tree swallows. A couple of purple martins appeared overhead and then I noticed a flock of 11 sat in a small tree (pictured). 
Other birds seen here included common yellowthroat, American goldfinch, Audubon's yellow-rumped warblers and good numbers of white-crowned and savannah sparrows.
Next, I headed for the Nanaimo River estuary. The tide was way out, and the birding was hard, with little showing. I flushed a Wilson's snipe, and found a handful of yellow-rumped warblers (both Audubon's and myrtle) 2 Lincoln's sparrows and American goldfinch but little else of note.
Finally I checked out Quennell Lake, which was teeming with birds.

cinnamon teal
The flooded fields at the northern end were being drained and there was a huge amount of black sludgy porridge to attract hungry shorebirds. There were around 400 least sandpipers plus a few scattered westerns here and there busily feeding on the muddy edges. A pair of greater yellowlegs came into view, as did another Wilson's snipe, and a flock of 12 dowitchers were busy mud-probing on the far shore. It really looks good for a solitary sandpiper, or something of that ilk... if only it gets checked by birders.
Among the 146 green-winged teal and 58 northern shoveler were two pairs of cinnamon teal (drake pictured).
Once again, I couldn't help think about what great birds must pass through these sites, unseen and unrecorded... it could keep me awake at night worrying about such stuff!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Today's New Bird For The Year Is...

Spurred on by the overnight rain and the persistent drizzle this morning, I headed off to check the grounds of Government House. As I walked along the sodden streets, thoughts of sparkling neotropical migrants dripping from the trees whirled through my over-active mind.
Well, as it happens the only things dripping from the trees, were actual drips. Even the resident birds were keeping their heads down and only the robins and a lone Bewick's wren were even bothering to sing.
After a lot of pishing and creeping around in the waterlogged shrubbery, I eventually came across a bushtit flock which had attracted a Wilson's warbler. Encouraged, I plodded on until I caught the shadowy rear end of something flitting away from me beneath a bush. I got down low and tried my patented warbler-scaring pishing and squeeking. Again, it flitted, and vanished. This went on for a few minutes and eventually I got a look at it as it sat for what seemed like a nano-second before silently slipping off into the understory once more. Good enough, though. It was a cracking male MacGillivray's warbler. Common enough, but a personal favourite. I emerged soggier, but significantly happer.
The juvenile Cooper's hawk was, meanwhile, sat above me throughout my endeavours.
The remainder of my visit was unremarkable. On my way out an adult Cooper's hawk came by, landing in a bare tree close to me. I could see that it was banded on the right leg, but with just binocs the number was indecipherable.   

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Another New Bird For the Year

This morning's 'first for the year' was a lovely bright Wilson's warbler, seen along the lower path at the Government House grounds. It really was something of a saving grace, as until I had the pleasure of seeing it the birding had been dull as ditch water.
It didn't really pick up much after that to be honest, and the remainder of my visit was taken up with seeing the regular birds in-residence.

For those reading this blog who may be unfamiliar with the commoner birds of western Canada (or at least this wee pocket of Victoria...) here's a full list of birds seen and heard this morning.

Great blue heron (flyover)
Cooper's hawk
Glaucous-winged gull
Anna's hummingbird
Hairy woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
Northwestern crow
Violet-green swallow
Chestnut-backed chickadee
Red-breasted nuthatch
Brown creeper
Bewick's wren
Golden-crowned kinglet
American robin
Eurasian starling
Orange-crowned warbler
Wilson's warbler
Spotted towhee
Song sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
House finch
Pine siskin
House sparrow

So, while that would be an exceptional day on the Scillies or the Outer Hebrides, down here that's fairly mundane stuff.

I'm surprised, as others seem to be, at the lack of number of common migrants passing through so far this spring. I have had no falls of anything - last year I was regularly encountering 30+ groups of yellow-rumped warblers and such, and I find it quite amazing that I have only seen 1 rufous hummingbird so far...
Perhaps the 'good' weather has allowed direct passage to breeding grounds, allowing migrants to bypass stop-offs? There doesn't seem to be any blocking weather to the south of us, so I can't see any reason for a hold-up. Be interesting to see how the spring develops.

* Oh, and thanks the Nathan Hentze for providing the relevant contact info regarding the Nanaimo vesper sparrow. Cheers.