Sunday, 26 June 2011

Better Lake, Than Never

The Bridge at Swan Lake, Victoria
As far as many birders are concerned, the pace slows down quite a bit around this time of year. The majority of birds are busy with breeding duties, and other than the early movements of failed or non-breeders, the avian landscape changes relatively little from day to day. Of course, there's lots to observe and record in the way of nesting birds and such, but there's not much to get excited about as far as passage is concerned. This will all change soon enough, as the first shorebirds will start to appear, as they depart their Arctic breeding grounds and commence their journeys south.

In the meantime, it's usually a good time to get out and look for butterflies and dragonflies. Warm sunny days are best (not too many of those yet this year...) and better still, you don't have to get up particularly early to look for them!
With this in mind, I thought I'd go for walk around Swan Lake yesterday. I'd only been once before, briefly, just over a year ago and as I am currently a resident of the fair city of Victoria, I thought it was about time I reacquainted myself with this impressive reserve.
Unfortunately, the day was cooler than I'd hoped and somewhat overcast, with a few sunny spells here and there. Hence the target insects were all but absent.
Nonetheless, I walked the perimeter of the site for the first time and still saw some nice enough birds. Always a treat for a Brit birder, cedar waxwings were all around the reserve and are guaranteed to brighten any day. Better still was a lovely, singing black-headed grosbeak, the first I've seen this year. Yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, red-winged blackbird and other common species provided with me with plenty to look at on the way round.

They're geese. They're in Canada. They must be Canada geese.
The lake itself was very quiet, with just Canada geese and mallards present.
As I neared the end of my trail around the reserve I bumped into Chris Saunders, so we stopped and had a chat and did a bit of birding. While we were talking, a series of dark, foreboding clouds gathered and brought with them, as one would hope, swifts. First we picked up a couple of Vaux's swift, and soon noticed several black swifts as they moved through. Very nice. Also, while we were in the car park a young Cooper's hawk came by, upsetting the local robins, and a peregrine sailed over.
I'll make a point of getting up to this wonderful site more often, especially as autumn approaches and the birding really picks up again.

This morning (Sunday) I took a trundle around the Government House grounds, once again with butterflies on my mind. Sadly, other than a few tatty whites it was bereft of anything interesting. Birds-wise, the bushtits were extremely active, and one large feeding flock included some very recently fledged birds. It was great to see the 'extended' family members helping out with the feeding of these youngsters.
I walked on down to the waterfront and as I made my way along the pebble beach at Ross Bay I noticed a dark duck close offshore. I was somewhat surprised, once I got my bins on it, to see a very unseasonal drake black scoter. Its presence somewhat undermined my 'birding's crap at this time of year' theory... Also on the water were the more expected pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets.    

Thursday, 23 June 2011

All At Sea

Pigeon guillemot
Once again, I felt the need to get out of the house early evening and headed down to Victoria's Clover Point.
And, once again, it was fairly quiet on the bird front. The wind seemed to have switched more to the south west, and while it seemed pretty choppy out there it wasn't really so lively as to force anything in. In fact, there were fewer birds out there than on any recent visits. A few rhino auklets were seen but that was about it, other than a few glaucous-winged and California gulls.
After about 45 minutes of staring at waves I decided to move along the coast a bit and see if anything was seeking shelter off Oak Bay.

Rhinoceros auklet
Scanning from Turkey Head, just by the marina, there were good numbers of pigeon guillemot actively fishing.
The considerably calmer waters allowed for a few pics to taken, even though the birds were some way out.
Good luck to any Brit birders who fancy claiming one of these in UK waters... how you'd separate one from black guillemot at sea I really don't know. While long-billed and ancient murrelets, Pacific loons, tufted puffin and glaucous-winged gull (plus a first-summer drake white-winged scoter is also currently entertaining twitchers in Scotland) have all been recorded around the British coast in recent years, I don't see this one making it onto the list anytime soon!

A handful of rhinoceros auklet were also present and, again, the flat sea meant that I was able to get some slightly better shots (pair pictured). A flotilla of harlequin ducks too, were seen.
Clamorous black oystercatchers made their presence felt, as they careened about the place in noisy packs.
Lounging around on exposed rocky islets offshore, were several blubbery seals.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Eight-legged Groove Machine

Pieces of Eight...
After yesterday's chat casing fun in the sun, I opted to stay local this evening at went for a spot of post-work seawatching.
The wind had picked up a fair bit today, but by the time I arrived at Clover Point it was blowing in what seemed to be a pretty unproductive direction.
I stuck it out for an hour but it didn't seem very promising. Even rhinoceros auklets were thin on the ground and I only picked up a single pigeon guilllemot.
The glaucous-winged and California gulls were being bounced around from one roost to the other by boisterous people, and numbers were fairly low even off shore.

A young bald eagle (pictured) was dining on the washed up carcass of an octopus, before being discovered by gawping hordes who soon flushed it.
As you can see from the photo, it was a formidable beast (I'm talking about the octopus) and must have been an impressive sight when intact! For scale, I've placed my cell phone alongside the stinky mollusc remains...

Incidentally, Bernard got back to me, and reckons that the 'winter plumage' marbled murrelet that I saw a few days ago is actually likely to one of this year's juveniles. I'd assumed it was too early for one to be offshore here so soon, but he assures me that it's about the right time for the first young to be showing up. Cheers Bernard!    

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Fancy a Chat?

After driving Jenny up to Swartz Bay to catch the 8am ferry over to the mainland this morning, I got back home with enough time to squeeze in a quick trundle around the Government House grounds before starting work.
As has been the case for several days now, it was pretty much the domain of the local breeding birds. Along with good numbers of fledged bushits, the chestnut-backed chickadees, Bewick's wrens and downy woodpeckers seem to have done reasonably well with family parties busily feeding all around the site. Lots of pine siskins around too (including a flyover flock of c40 birds), indicating a successful breeding season.
Cooper's hawks were patrolling the woodland, both nests seemingly still active. A very showy warbling vireo was singing his heart out by the parking area.

After a day's scribing, I decided to spend the evening birding and thought I'd go and check out the place by Prospect Lake Road where the yellow-breasted chat has been hanging around for several days. For those reading this back in dear old Blighty, this species is a major rarity in these parts.

Somewhere in that lot, there's a chat...
I found the place easily enough, but was rather over awed by the size of the area!
So, I've got try and locate a an extremely skulking warbler which has occasionally been betraying its presence by letting out bursts of song, often keeping hidden while doing so. Marvelous. 
Oh well, it was a great, birdy place to spend a couple of hours, chat or no chat. Another couple of birders eventually came along, one was trying to see the chat for the 5th time, the other for the 4th. Kind of put things in perspective.

I got ace looks at several of my all-time favourite American warblers; MacGillivray's warbler. I even managed a crappy snap of a cracking male, as you can see here. There were also rufous hummingbirds zipping about, willow flycatchers catching flies, northern flickers and a pileated woodpecker, Swainson's thrush, California quail and all manner of obliging common species. But no sight or sound of the chat.
After 2 hours, I gave up (I'm not overly bothered, it's not a tick - but a wonderful bird to see, nonetheless...) and decided to pop by Charlton Pond, as I was driving right past it.
The water levels were way down from my last visit, and the vegetation had grown considerably making viewing slightly less than convenient. A pair of killdeer with a well grown young 'un were present, and common yellowthroats were seen and heard. I also spotted a couple of Virginia rails feeding in a corner - 2 well grown, adult-sized juvs., though no sign of the parent birds.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Clover and Out

I put in another hour, or so, seawatching early evening today down at Clover Point, Victoria.
The number of rhinoceros auklets seemed considerably diminished compared to yesterday, although they were still relatively plentiful. Again, there were a few pigeon guillemots further out and a lone common murre, moulting into winter plumage was just off the point.
A pair of Caspian terns came through, and the number of California gulls was seemingly greater than yesterday, and even an adult bird was present.
A couple of bald eagles kept the roosting gulls and foraging crows active, as did numerous rock-hopping humans. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

I Wish They All Could Be California Gulls

Following a thoroughly dull trundle around the Government House woodland trail this morning, I headed down to Clover Point for a spot of afternoon seawatching. The idea had been place in my mind by Ian Cruikshank who had called to say he was going to do that very thing; I didn't get out until later, and obviously missed him.

So, while he may well come back with reports of tufted puffins, terns  and shearwaters, my hour and a half of scanning the ocean waves revealed little to cause excitement.
As usual, there were good numbers of rhinoceros auklet around (pictured), mainly in pairs or small feeding groups. Further out, pigeon guillemots were seen in small numbers and I was delighted to pick up a pair of marbled murrelet fairly close in. A third murrelet was also noted, but surprisingly was in non-breeding plumage. I'll have to ask my pal, and marbled murrelet aficionado, Bernard Schroeder if this is typical for some non-breeders at this time of year...

Other than a few pelagic cormorants, I failed to turn up anything else of note offshore.
The noisy alarm calls of black oystercatchers drew my attention to a passing flock of 11 birds and I noticed that gull numbers were starting to build up quite a bit. Among the numbers of glaucous-winged gulls, of all ages, there appears to have been something of an influx of California gulls (pictured), mainly 2 & 3CY birds from what I could figure out.  

* Apologies to Brian Wilson (I'm sure he reads this blog, avidly) for the terrible title pun...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Birding in the Nanaimo Area

Yesterday, Jenny had to go up-island to deliver some pieces to Chemainus Theatre Gallery for an up-coming exhibition of her work. After which, she needed to go to Nanaimo for the afternoon on business -so, being the loyal husband that I am, I decided to accompany her. Well, when I say accompany her I mean on the journey - as soon as we got to Nanaimo, I dropped her off and went straight to Holden Creek. After all, if I'm going to take a day off, I may as well make it worth my while, eh? Oh, and on the way we saw an American kestrel hunting at Nanaimo airport.

The tide was way out, and thanks to the below par weather the mosquitoes were just about tolerable. While I lamented the fact that it was a little too late for northbound shorebirds, and a little too early for post/non-breeding birds I still enjoyed trudging around, checking the muddy pools and creeks.
I counted a total of 7 spotted sandpiper (pictured) and 3 killdeer. With every step I wondered what had passed through a couple of weeks ago, unnoticed and unrecorded...
The expected swallows were all present in fair numbers: cliff, barn, violet-green, tree and northern rough-winged. American goldfinches seemed especially conspicuous, and other typical birds of the area were seen and heard including yellow warbler, Swainson's thrush, red-tailed hawk, purple finch, northern flicker and willow flycatcher (pictured).

I then paid a visit to the Nanaimo River estuary, where the undoubted highlight was a group of 17 Caspian terns out on the mudflats. Another couple of spotted sandpiper were present here, with a fine displaying male. Again, the regular swallows were all busy feeding over the river and turkey vultures and bald eagles punctuated the overcast sky.
A western wood-pewee was a nice surprise - in almost the exact same spot that I found one last spring! Common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrow and more goldfinches added to the list.

With an hour left to kill before collecting Jen, I decided to pay a visit to Buttertubs Marsh.
Few birds were on the water; a few mallard, 3 hooded merganser and around 20 or so wood duck (drake pictured), including a female with a brood. A pied-billed grebe with 2 stripey headed youngsters was a nice sight. The vegetation around the pools was exploding with the constant sound of singing yellowthroats, marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds while song sparrows and yellow warblers did their best to compete from the thickets. A male brown-headed cowbird posed nicely for a pic.

Incidentally, I came across a yellowthroat feeding a young cowbird - as with cuckoos back in Britain, I'm always amazed at the evolutionary genius of brood parasitism. How do these birds 'identify' themselves as cowbirds once they leave their foster parents? How do they avoid having their host species imprinted upon them? Brilliant, sinister stuff...
Meanwhile, an osprey was sat upon the nest-free 'osprey platform'. Other birds of note included California quail, cedar waxwings and a pair of highly vocal Eurasian collared doves.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Fun With Flycatchers

Olive-sided flycatcher
Howdy. This morning, I decided to take my 'scope down to Victoria's Government House grounds in the hope of getting a few snaps of olive-sided flycatcher. Their proclivity for sitting on exposed perches makes them ideal birds to try and photograph, and the morning was bright but somewhat overcast - great for highly amateur digi-scoping!
Within minutes of arrival I located an olive-sided flycatcher and soon had a few pics in the bag.

Western Wood-pewee
Close by, a western-wood pewee was also flycatching, and eventually posed for a couple of shots. With the exception of yesterday's bird (presumably the same one) the pewees (or pewee singular) that I have seen here have all been pretty silent.
I suppose I may be sticking my neck out with the identification of this bird, but unless I'm very much mistaken, pewees are fairly straightforward birds to ID. Of course, specific identification of pewee species is another matter altogether, but they seem easy enough to separate from the empidonax flycatchers in this part of the world. 

Less easy to put a name to were the 2 silent empids that I also came across today (one of which is pictured here). I'm edging toward willow flycatcher, based on the lack of prominent eye-ring, pale throat, weakish wing-bars and broad bill. Opinions would be gratefully received!
Willow flycatcher?

There appeared to be other birds 'new -in' this morning too. A pair of rufous hummingbirds were chasing each other around, the first I've seen at this site, and a warbling vireo was silently feeding in a garry oak.  


Friday, 10 June 2011

Pewee's Big Adventure

I've barely found the time to get out birding this week and my scant forays have been pretty much limited to bumbling around on the Government House woodland trail.
Yesterday morning the highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher.
Today's highlight was an olive-sided flycatcher.
Actually, as well as the flycatcher, there was also a western wood-pewee there early evening, so technically that was the highlight.
Otherwise, it was down to the usual bits and bobs to keep me on my toes.
Yesterday Jenny and I did find the time to go for a stroll around Uplands Park in the late afternoon - it's a place we had never been to previously. It looks like very productive habitat, and so close to Cattle Point that one could imagine it positively hopping with migrants under the right conditions.
We didn't see too much in there, a purple finch and 22 cedar waxwings were the most notable birds present. Jenny enjoyed eye-level looks at a downy woodpecker, and she even tolerated my explaining the difference between European and American barn swallows...    

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Breeding Season Bounds Along

Can't see the birds for the trees...
It's been rather quiet the past couple of days, bird-wise, down at the Government House grounds. Well, as far as unexpected or passage birds is concerned, at least.
There is actually plenty of activity - house sparrows and house finches are all over the place, mainly foraging for invertebrates in the oaks.
Violet-green and barn swallows are equally busy, as are the downy woodpeckers. Some bushtits have already fledged, and family groups can be heard pinging in the undergrowth.
Meanwhile, the Cooper's hawks seem to be keeping a low profile, though I imagine it's more a case of them being less visible in the heavily leafed trees. There are two active nests, one with an adult female the other with a sub-adult female (banded - red darvic on left leg, metal ring on the right). I suspect there is just one, polygamous, male but I can't be 100% sure. 
The highlights of a wander down there yesterday evening included 4 flyover Caspian terns and the first chipping sparrow that I have seen on the site.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bunting hunting

The lazuli bunting was seen yesterday morning by at least one early birder, but I didn't get down there until late afternoon / early evening when there was no sight nor sound of it. Mind you, the couple who seemed to be cavorting right in the middle of the area where the bird was, might not have encouraged it to stick around.
It's a particular bugbear of mine; despite signs asking visitors not to let their dogs off the leash, do not cycle around the woodland trail, please keep to the paths and do not disturb the fenced off areas (labeled, clearly, if perhaps over-emotively, as a delicate ecosystem), I witness all the above being flouted with frustrating frequency. I suppose if there's one thing you can guarantee about people - build a lovely path around something, and a significant number will feel the need to crash through the middle of it.
Anyhoo, grumble over, a silent Pacific-slope type empid was the only other thing noted.

This morning, I was out just after 7am. Again the place appeared to be a bunting-free zone. Another empid showed up, alerting me kindly to its presence by actually calling and confirming its identity as a Pacific-slope flycatcher. Otherwise it was the usual fare, Cooper's hawk, orange-crowned warblers, etc etc. It was a beautiful morning down at Government House, and it was a joy to get out for some fresh air before heading home to slave over a hot computer.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


After a day of doing stuff that needed doing, and of course enjoying the fabulous weather at the same time, I eventually managed to squeeze in a bit of early evening birding. Some hockey game or other was taking place, and the streets were deathly quiet as Jenny and I walked down to Government House for a stroll.

Within a couple if minutes, I stopped to scan a distant bird sat high up in a fir. Cowbird.
I then brought my bins down a touch and spotted a towhee sat on top of a snag. Just to the left of was another bird with its back to me... hmm, it appears to quite blue.
A male lazuli bunting! Lovely - just the very bird I've been half expecting to bump into down here.
As it happened, I had my digital recorder in my pocket, and the sole passerine song I have on there is - yep, you guessed it - lazuli bunting.

I played the recording and the bunting came hurtling in to check it out.
As I only had my compact camera with me, the pics are quite dreadful, but at least show the bird.
I didn't want to disturb the bunting unduly, by playing the song too much, and it soon went back to feeding among the house sparrows it seemed to have temporarily hooked up with.
We saw little else along the woodland trail, but as we returned to the area the bunting was first seen we heard it singing.
It seemed quite mobile, singing from numerous prominent, and not-so prominent, perches in one smallish area.

Friday, 3 June 2011

I Never Saw A Sora

I've been checking the Government House grounds over the past few days, and to be honest, there hasn't really been that much to report. Particularly in light of the superb birds being found by the birding elite of Victoria in the past couple of weeks!
For those not in the know, these have included British Columbia's 3rd record of lesser nighthawk (and only the 2nd one alive...), a Sabine's gull, a singing magnolia warbler, yellow-headed blackbird, and today, Ian Cruickshank located a Brewer's sparrow. Not bad going.
I'm only pleased that I don't 'need' any of these species, or I would have spent the last few days chasing rare birds, as opposed to getting on with work.
That said, I am rather keen to see something new, so I headed out with the aforementioned Ian yesterday evening to see if I could finally add sora to my life list.
I have never bothered twitching this species in the UK, despite their relative frequency, and I've been spectacularly unlucky on my various trips to this side side of the Atlantic, having never come across one. I heard one last year, but I will never tick a bird on call alone. So, aware that one had been showing at a local pond, I decided a mini-twitch was in order.

Anyhoo, Ian directed me to the controversially named Raper's Pond (known also as Rapier's Pond and Charlton Pond - though if we're all allowed to make up our own name for it, I'll call it I Never Saw A Sora Pond). We caught several glimpses of comedic fluffy black Virginia rails darting between clearings, but no adults and, as intimated above, no sign of sora. No worries, it was good to visit a new site and I'll doubtless return early one morning, or later one evening.
A drake gadwall was consorting with the local mallards and mallard-ish things, plus common yellowthroat and killdeer (pictured) were present. A foraging raccoon put everything into panic-mode for a moment, but failed to flush any rails...
While we were at the pond, Ian demonstrated once again his supernatural hearing and call recognition skills with occasional cries of 'western wood pewee' and 'black-headed grosbeak' as they called a mere 3 miles away.

Earlier yesterday I had found a very obliging western wood-pewee in the Government House grounds, but little else.
As it happens, Jenny and I were just out taking stroll around the neighborhood this evening and we came across what was presumably the same bird, feeding close by an olive-sided flycatcher, allowing for a lovely comparison. 
Minutes earlier, a single Vaux's swift had passed over.