Thursday, 29 September 2011

Them Crooked Vultures

Turkey vultures
After celebrating yesterday's news that I had secured very welcome full-time employment, I decided to shake off the remnants of my hangover with a stroll around the Government House grounds late morning.
There was plenty going on, and among the first bushtit flock I located 2 orange-crowned warblers and a yellow warbler. Down near the woodland trail entrance there were several yellow-rumped warbler feeding in the garry oaks. Sifting through them, I came across a single black-throated gray warbler.
Along the trails, I encountered yet more YR warblers, plus a hermit thrush and my first ruby-crowned kinglet of the autumn.

From the more elevated areas of the grounds I could see kettles of turkey vultures thermaling over the straits. As I scanned the skies along the coast, it was apparent that there was a major movement of vultures taking place.
It reminded me of being in Gibraltar during honey buzzard migration!   
I counted at least 280 turkey vultures visible at one time, but I cannot even begin to guess at the true number of birds involved.
Amazingly, not a single raptor species was spotted among these spiralling flocks.

Quite a few vultures...
The pics here do no justice to the actual spectacle itself, of course, but may at least give an idea of the scale of movement involved.
I continued to check the oaks and found another cluster of YR warblers, where among them I found a dazzling Townsend's warbler - the first I have seen in the grounds.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Day Of Large, Easy To Identify, Migrants

Following a job interview this morning, I found myself close to Panama Flats and so decided to go and check out the place, just in case any water had held after the recent rain.
Well, it hadn't and although the area that had once been pools now had something of a slimy film about them, there certainly wasn't much in the way of wader-attracting habitat. Even the now comparatively wet ditches on the eastern side were bereft of birds.

Of note, there were 3 juvenile greater white-fronted geese hanging out with some of the local Canada geese. I managed a pretty terrible pic of two of the birds, as you can see here.
There were lots of savannah sparrows around, though nowhere near the 700 or so that Ian Cruikshank had here recently. I probably kicked up around 150. And unlike Ian, I didn't see a single Lincoln's sparrow (cf. his 200). I did spot a few golden-crowned sparrow and 1 white-crowned sparrow among them.
A handful of turkey vultures drifted over, and an osprey passed through. The only other raptors included a sparrow-hunting Cooper's hawk and an overhead red-tailed hawk.
The only other interesting bird of note was a mourning dove, presumably a migrant.

Later in the day, Jenny and I took a walk down to Ross Bay. Offshore we could see several horned grebes and a single red-necked grebe as well as the expected surf scoters and harlequin ducks.
As we walked back up to Fairfield Road, 4 sandhill cranes flew over. They tentatively headed for the coast, but then turned around and headed back inland.

Monday, 26 September 2011

All Wind & No Substance

I've had a very busy few days, and as a result my birding has been limited to occasional strolls down to the Government House, Ross Bay Cemetery and Clover Point.
None of which, I hasten to add, have been terribly productive. 
After last night's howling gales and torrents of rain I was giddy with the prospect of finding an interesting gull, tern or similar down at Clover Point this morning. As it happens, there were lots of birds around - hundreds of gulls feeding at the turbulent water's edge, as the surf hit the Ross Bay beach. Scanning through, I was just waiting for something odd to stand out.
It didn't.
There were loads of mew gulls, many glaucous-winged gulls, good numbers of California gulls, around 30 Heermann's gulls and at least 3 Thayer's gulls.
The only shorebirds seen were 23 black turnstone, 3 black oystercatcher and a lone black-bellied plover. A small flock of savannah sparrows were digging around between the rocks; the only passerines of note.
Offshore, I couldn't see anything interesting between, or above, the heaving troughs.
Extremely soggy, and somewhat dejected I went home for a cup of tea and a change of clothes.

Norther flicker
Later, once the rain had eased up (slightly), I went for walk to the Gvt House - just in case some amazing migrant had been grounded and was busily feeding up before continuing south.
It wasn't.
I saw a total of 3 birds - all golden-crowned sparrows.

As for the past few days, my other various attempts at finding birds have been similarly unrewarding, although a flock of 20+ very active yellow-rumped warblers kept me busily searching and listening for several minutes in Ross Bay Cemetery on Saturday.  The only other highlight involved 3 hermit thrushes in the Gvt House grounds on Friday.

Song sparrow
At least the sun was out on Saturday and I was able to relieve the tedium by snapping a few common birds, as you can see here. 

So, now that it's rained a bit, and the wind has dropped, there might be some muddy pools worth investigating over at Panama Flats in the next few days. I've just got to try and find the time to get out there...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Loons and Tunes

Only found time to stop off at Clover Point for a quick look late afternoon today. The water was pretty calm, and although the low hazy sun was making very distant birds little more than silhouettes, things were reasonably easy to see and identify.
Various auks were scattered around; pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets and common murres in varying numbers.

A single marbled murrelet was seen and a common loon was fishing reasonably close inshore (pictured).
Few gulls were around, the majority now being mew gulls. A few California and glaucous-winged were loafing around, and just 3 Heermann's gulls were in the area. Following the mini-influx of Thayer's earlier in the week, there were none seen today.
Shorebirds wise, it was pretty dull - just 9 black turnstone and 2 surfbirds.
A single savannah sparrow was rummaging around, as were a couple of resident song sparrows
5 harlequin ducks were paddling around and in Ross Bay, 8 surf scoter were present, as usual.

REMember The Good Bits

On a less avian note - news came through today that REM have split up. While many readers of this blog won't give a toss about that, I have been rather fond of the band for many years. It may be the case that their more recent work was a pale imitation of their earlier recordings, but nonetheless I shall honour them by sharing this, the most birdy of their songs (well it mentions swans and hummingbirds... what else do you want?). Incidentally, my blog title of a couple of days ago 'Fall On Me' was a timely reference to another REM song. Prescient or what?! Now, maybe I should choose a Nickelback song for my next post, and just keep my fingers crossed...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

More migrants moving through...

It felt like a good morning for searching for migrants this morning, so I headed off to scrutinize the Government House grounds bright and early. The great things about this location is that if the birding's total pants, I can at least be back home in about 3 minutes and guilt-free from not having used the car!
As it happens, it was pretty good; a decent selection of passerine migrants were on site.
A mini-influx of American robins was evident with several clattering around a fruit-filled rowan tree. 3 cedar waxwings were also joining in the feast.
As I walked along the path to the rear of the main building, I became aware of the sound of yellow-rumped warblers calling as they fed high up in the oaks. Scanning through I counted 6, and also discovered 2 black-throated gray warblers (my first in the grounds, as it happens), a pair of orange-crowned warblers and a yellow warbler. At least 4 brown creepers, 2 red-breasted nuthatches, a Pacific-slope flycatcher and a Bewick's wren were also in the flock.
Further down the path I came across 3 Lincoln's sparrows, and soon another 4. All around the trail I encountered yellow-rumped warblers in ones and twos and a Wilson's warbler, plus another couple of Pacific-slope flycatchers. A delightful hermit thrush came out to investigate my pishing, as did a fox sparrow and I saw the first Pacific wren that I have ever come across down there. A bit of local low-scale movement?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Seawatching From Dry Land

Having decided not to join the big pelagic trip off the west coast of the island today (around 100 birders on one large vessel, bobbing up and down on the ocean waves? Not for me.), I headed out early this morning to see what comparatively few seabirds I could locate off Clover Point...
The first thing that was apparent was the huge number of gulls feeding offshore.
There were probably a couple of thousand birds, and one bait ball alone was simply teeming with several hundred birds. Rather annoyingly, the rising sun was right behind them and getting a decent look at was in the mix was a touch tricky. Needless to say, I couldn't pick out anything notably unusual among the throng.
All around the point there were larids, mostly California, glaucous-winged and mew gulls, as to be expected, but a considerable increase in the number of Thayer's gulls too.

Several Heermann's gulls were also in the area, and just lately the number of 1st winter birds (rather scruffy individual pictured) has started to really build up.
When out at sea, these very dark, slender gulls can really look like jaegers (or skuas, as we Brits birders would have it) - particularly parastic (Arctic).
When Ian Cruikshank mentioned this to me a few months ago, before I'd really had any experience of viewing distant 1stW Heermann's, I found it rather hard to swallow, but as I have discovered recently their overall jizz can really suggest those piratical seabirds.
I've followed more than a few in recent weeks only to be disappointed!
As it happens, no jaegers were attracted to the feeding mass of gulls in the two hours or so, that I was down there this morning.

Aside of the gulls, other stuff offshore included good numbers of common murre, several pigeon guillemots, a couple of marbled murrelets, and a red-necked grebe (pictured, with customary lack of skill), up to 3 horned grebe, 11 surf scoter and 3 harlequin ducks
Shorebirds were fairly thin on the ground, with just 3 surfbirds and 10 black turnstone, 1 black oystercatcher seen, plus 4 fly-by least sandpipers.       
Visible migration was pretty uneventful too, with just 3 southbound American pipit and around a dozen barn swallows heading out toward the USA.
At one point I heard a killdeer, but I have no idea whether it was flying through undetected, or was simply lurking somewhere out of sight.
The regular mink was busy weaseling around in search of grub.

So, now I'm just waiting to hear about the amazing seabirds that a percentage of those seafaring birders bagged out in the Pacific today... I feel a bout of envy and regret coming on.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Having a Lark at Island View Beach

Jenny had a rare day off yesterday, so we headed to one of her favourite spots for the afternoon - Island View Beach, on the Saanich peninsula. Of course, I wasn't too unhappy about this as it would cause us to pass right through the area where sandhill cranes have been seen for the last couple of days!
As we headed alongside the farm fields in this widely agricultural area, we kept an eye out for the large birds, but failed to spot them. At McIntyre Road, we did see a northern harrier cruising the fields, flushing large numbers of savannah sparrows and American pipits as it went.

We drove down to the far car park, and headed out along the beach and on to Saanichton Spit. There wasn't too much going on offshore, although we did see a few horned grebes in various states of moult (one pictured), a pair of fly-by white-winged scoter and a handful of Heermann's gulls.
Just as we came to the outfalls area, a merlin flew in and flushed a small group of peeps from the shore. Unfortunately they all flew off across the water and away. They seemed to be mainly least sandpiper, although a couple of larger birds seemed highly suggestive of Baird's. We came across another 4 leasts later, but nothing else shorebirds-wise.

In the grassy spit area we did find a group of 6 horned lark (pictured), and an American pipit. The birds were incredibly difficult to locate when feeding on the ground, and only gave their presence away by calling in flight, and then dropping down quite close to us. These are the first horned larks that I've had the pleasure of seeing in BC (I saw lots in Alberta a few years ago) and these looked way different to the birds that I've seen in Europe.
I assume that these are arcticola birds, given their hefty build and overall paleness. Birders back home will see from this pic just how unlike 'our' shore larks these are!
We returned to the car and drove along a short way, stopping down at the parking area at the end of Island View Road to eat our egg sarnies. I went and had a route around in the fields here and came across good numbers of American goldfinches feeding in the brambles. A northern harrier came through, exciting the 100 or so swallows present, and flushing a flock of around 70 American pipit from the field. Other than a few savannah sparrows, I couldn't see or hear anything else among them.
As I stood watching the pipits flying around my eye was caught by some distant large birds over, and beyond, the trees.

Lifting my bins, I could see that they were clearly 5 sandhill cranes!
They kept appearing and disappearing from view behind the trees and were seemingly flying around over the Martindale area fields in search of somewhere to pitch down.
As I was looking at these great birds, a merlin whizzed by, once again causing much panic among the hirundines and pipits.

We drove around to the fields and eventually located the cranes, some distance away. Hence the crummy pics here.
We got good 'scope views though and enjoyed seeing the birds as they restlessly moved around the area, taking off and landing frequently.
Although I've seen sandhill cranes in the US, again these were a BC first - unless you count those highly dubious ones at Reiffel... which I'm not inclined to.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Fall On Me

With the blustery conditions overnight, I found myself metaphorically dreaming of windblown seabirds. With this in mind, I headed down to Clover Point early this morning.
Clearly, things are a bit different here, as the few birds that were visible were bloody miles out. I accept that we didn't exactly have gale force winds, but I rather thought that one or two interesting things might have sought shelter close to shore... you live and learn.

As it happens, I did discover a couple of gulls that caught my eye. The first, a smart adult Thayer's gull - my first of the autumn, was briefly seen on the rocks below the point, before it flew off. As you can see, I managed a snap of it.
The second larid of note was a large, dark-mantled 3rd-winter bird that clearly stood out from the adjacent glaucous-winged gulls. At first, I thought it might actually be a genuine western gull, but on closer inspection I wasn't convinced.

I took a few pics, and having read a bit more I'm inclined toward it being a glaucous-winged / western hybrid. Of which there are many in these parts. Anyway, here's the bird - feel free to weigh in with your thoughts...
Feeding around the area were around 20 or so savannah sparrows and a single American pipit kindly dropped by, but otherwise, passerine migrants were absent.
Migrants in the Mizzle

Later in the day, as I gazed out of the window watching the drizzle finally materialise, I got the feeling that I could be missing an opportunity to find some grounded migrants. So, I took an extended late lunch and headed off to the Government House grounds to see if any birds had been dropped in the light rain.
It started off fairly quiet, but then I came across a couple of yellow warblers. Within seconds a Pacific-slope flycatcher appeared, and then the gentle call of a Swainson's thrush drew me to the bird, which proceeded to show beautifully.
Encouraged by this activity, I headed on along the path, coming across more flycatchers as I went. By the time I finished I must have seen some 20 Pacific-slope flycatchers! I also added a couple more yellow warblers, 2 Wilson's warblers, a common yellowthroat and an orange-crowned warbler.
Some scratching among the leaf litter led me to the expected spotted towhees and my first fox sparrow of the fall.
A small group of 5 golden-crowned sparrow also made it onto my 'first of the season' list, and a flock of around 30 cedar waxwings flew over.
All-in-all, pretty good stuff, though it looks like I'll have to wait for another day to find my blue-winged warbler or scarlet tanager...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Migrants Brighten Up Cloudy Morning

Following a reasonably productive early evening trundle around the Government House grounds yesterday (2 Hammond's flycatcher, 2 yellow warbler, 1 Wilson's warbler, 3 orange-crowned warbler) I decided to head there this morning. Following another overcast night, I was hopeful that a few grounded migrants might be discovered.

And I wasn't to be disappointed.
Within a few minutes of arriving I heard, and then saw my first varied thrush of the fall - it was loosely associating with a small group of American robins.
Common, resident birds seemed to be curiously notable by their absence, as I made my way along the paths.
The next thing that caught my eye was a Townsend's solitaire, sat on a snag.

It was a bit of a distance away, but I managed a shot before it flew up to the top of a conifer.
Once here, it seemed to irritate the local red-breasted nuthatches and Anna's hummingbirds, who all got very vocal and excited (pictured terribly below).

I couldn't find any of the roving bushtit flocks this morning, so I didn't come across any warblers. Other than a skulking Lincoln's sparrow, a Pacific-slope flycatcher and a couple of passing ravens that caused chaos among the northwestern crows, the remainder of my search was unproductive.
And it started out so well!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

All Points South

Delighted by the onset of some low clouds I headed down to Clover Point early this morning in the hope that a few passage migrants might be lurking in the area. I was thinking along the lines of horned lark, American pipit, etc.

Sadly, I wasn't in luck and nothing quite so interesting put in an appearance, although several off-passage savannah sparrows were kicking around (pictured).
The presence of these sparrows may well be what attracted a merlin, which made a couple of spirited attempts at catching some breakfast. Equally, the merlin's presence could well have been the reason for no pipits, larks etc...
Shortly after the merlin had moved on to pastures new, I noticed a peregrine approaching from inland. It circled a few times over Ross Bay, before flapping intently to gain height before heading off across the straits. Migration in action!
Offshore, there was a red-necked grebe, plus multiple common murres and pigeon guillemots, plus a few rhinoceros auklets. I couldn't pick out anything among the gulls other than the usual California and  glaucous-winged, along with a few mew and Heermann's gulls.
13 black oystercatcher were feeding on the rocks along with just 6 black turnstone - one of which had unusually bright orange legs, ruddy turnstone seekers beware!
A group of 6 sanderling flew close by, briefly thought about landing, but then carried on.
A few harlequins were seen, as were surf scoters and a drake white-winged scoter, but otherwise it was pretty quiet.
A pair of Steller's sealions passed by, close inshore.

On Sunday I did my first Coastal Waterbird Survey of the season, from Gonzales Point to Harling Point (my new stretch). The day was hot and sunny, and with the tide being late in the afternoon the light was pretty terrible, and coupled with a heat haze, it made counting distant offshore birds pretty much impossible.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the count even though highlights were few and far between. A couple of greater yellowlegs, a spotted sandpiper, 80 Heermann's gulls and 7 Brandt's cormorants were among the more interesting birds noted.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Birding Time is Tight

Black turnstone
A quick post-earthquake / pre-hightide visit to Clover Point this afternoon was disappointing as far as seabirds were concerned.
Very few alcids were visible, and even gull numbers were very low.
Among the few gulls around the point, there were 4 Heermann's gulls.

Checking the weed-strewn rocks, there were 8 black turnstone (pictured) and 5 surfbirds (also pictured) feeding. 

Thanks to some rather pressing diversions, I've found little time to do any birding this week.
I have, at least, squeezed in a few brief visits to the woodland trail at Victoria's Government House thanks to its proximity to home.
While it hasn't exactly been jumping down there, I have noted a few interesting migrants including Pacific-slope flycatcher, several Wilson's warblers and white-crowned sparrows and a juvenile male western tanager. A family of northern flickers seem to have taken up residence, and the number of American robins seems to have increased notably.

Hopefully, I'll find a few hours in the next few days to get out a bit more... after all it IS autumn and ANYTHING could be out there!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Big Year movie trailer

It was a long time coming... but the Big Year trailer has finally materialised. Starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, this comedy is based on the great book of the same title by Mark Obmascik.

Watch it here - Big Year Trailer


Saturday, 3 September 2011

A Force To Be Reckoned With...

After walking Jenny to work early this afternoon, I strolled around to Ogden Point, enjoing the glorious sunshine.
There were a handful of black turnstone in the harbour area, and a 2nd winter ring-billed gull was on the rusty metal float just by the pilot boat dock.
I carried on along the waterfront to Clover Point where I had the pleasure of bumping into top BC birder and all-round nice chap, Mike Force. I had met Mike at Rich and Lori Mooney's wedding and we had a good chat about various things, though frankly, it was mostly birds. He'd been lured west from his Okanagan home by the northern wheatear found near Vancouver Airport mid-week and was spending a few days in the area. Seems odd anyone would twitch a northern wheatear, but then I suppose most North American birders would be astonished by the reaction the discovery of a savannah sparrow would get in the UK... swings and roundabouts, and all that.
Anyhoo, there wasn't much going on at Clover Point, unsurprisingly. Highlights included 4 black turnstone, 8 Heermann's gulls and, as it happens, a savannah sparrow.

Late afternoon I headed out to Oak Bay Marina. The big yellow rock was, as usual, the hotspot and I spent a good hour sifting through the birds. A rather irritating heat haze didn't help too much but nonetheless, I was able to count 84 black-bellied plover, 8 black turnstone, 3 dowitchers, a surfbird and a wandering tattler. The latter had me going for ages. I just couldn't quite get enough on it for some time, and was conflicted between tattler and surfbird (bill length just wasn't clearly discernible), until it helpfully stretched and proved itself to have plain wings and rump.
Just south of the harbour, there were 5 greater yellowlegs roosting on their favoured rock, alongside 3 black oystercatchers and 7 killdeer. 3 American wigeon were my first of the autumn. A single, very confiding, least sandpiper was feeding on the beach, so I took a pic. As you can see.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Fall birding picks up a pace...

Popped down to the Government House grounds this morning in search of passage migrants. Didn't discover anything too thrilling, but there were certainly numbers of birds present.
In among a couple of bushtit flocks I came across at least 8 Wilson's warblers, 1 very grey-headed orange-crowned warbler (without a tail), 2 willow flycatchers and a drab female western tanager. Of course, the regular chestnut-backed chickadees, brown creepers, red-breasted nuthatches and what-have-you were all in attendance too.

A sharp-shinned hawk came through, hotly pursued by a trio of angry Anna's hummingbirds.
Otherwise, the other highlight was a very noisy young racoon (or racoonlet, as I like to call them) that was clambering around in an oak, while its mother kept watch below. It wouldn't keep still enough for a good pic, so here's the best I could manage.

In the evening I nipped down to Clover Point to see what was going on. Gulls. That's what was going on. Thousands of gulls. The rocks below the point were covered with glaucous-winged and California gulls, with about half a dozen Heermann's gulls thrown in. Offshore, birds simply carpeted the water. Among the large rafts of gulls were good numbers of rhinoceros auklets, common murres, a few pigeon guillemots and at least 5 marbled murrelets.

Small groups of red-necked phalaropes were moving around, and a string of phalaropes were picking delicately at the surface. I counted a total of 106. Here's a fuzzy picture of just 2 of them.
As the tide continued to rise, a moulting adult black-bellied plover flew in, joining 4 black turnstone on the rocks.

Thursday Coastal Birds
In between various bits of more important stuff, I managed a couple of hours of coastal birding yesterday.
Starting off at Clover Point, I just about managed to check through the roosting gulls before the rock-jumping hordes and cavorting canines did their best to rid the area entirely of avian life.

Among the multitude of California and glaucous-winged gulls were 9 Heermann's gulls, 5 mew gulls and a single Bonaparte's gull (pictured). Yet more gulls were scattered around offshore but the lingering morning fog made seawatching a waste of time. Within range, I could just about make out good numbers of rhinoceros auklets and common murres, but little else.
Heading along the coast toward Oak Bay I made a few stops at likely looking spots, but found little more than I'd seen at Clover Point.
At Oak Bay Marina things picked up a little. The big yellow rocky island, so beloved of roosting shorebirds, was once again the focus of attention. 'Scoping from Turkey Head, I counted 83 black-bellied plover, 1 dowitcher, 14 black turnstone and a surfbird. At one point the plovers all took to the air, showing a full complement of black axillaries, ruling out the presence of any attendant golden plovers.

On the beach, a group of 7 killdeer were feeding alongside a single spotted sandpiper. Nearby several black oystercatchers were seen, with a further 3 killdeer. 4 greater yellowlegs were feeding along the shore. 
Although I take killdeer totally for granted these days, it's not all that long ago that had I received a call telling me that one was running around on Heysham Golf Course, I'd have been off like a shot to see it. With that in mind, here's a nice pic of one of the Oak Bay birds, just to remind myself of just how smart they really are (and to rub my Brit birder buddies' noses in it a bit...).