Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Calm After The Storm

The rain overnight, and throughout the early part of the morning, had the desired effect and Clover Point was relatively people/dog-free when I got down there. 
Even so, the birding was pretty unremarkable. There were no shorebirds bar a lone black turnstone around the rocks and gulls were thin on the ground. The water was where the action was, and scanning around I could see good numbers of common murre, pigeon guillemot, harlequin duck and surf scoter. Scattered among the more numerous species were several red-necked and horned grebes, marbled murrelets, bufflehead, rhinoceros auklet, common and Pacific loon, a pair of white-winged scoter and my first long-tailed duck of the autumn.

Moving along the coast, my next stop was at Harling Point and the Chinese Cemetery. Here things were even quiter disturbance-wise, and as a result there were good numbers of shorebirds present.
On the nearby rocks were 28 surfbirds, 22 black-bellied plover (pictured) and 11 black turnstone, plus a couple of black oystercatchers.
Offshore, it was much the same as from Clover Point. A flotilla of some 14 Pacific loons in various state of moult was a lovely sight.
I made the short stroll round to Trafalgar Park, but it was pretty quiet. The same waterbirds could be seen and a peregrine was sat out on Trial Island.
The total absence of Bonaparte's gulls was notable and I only picked up 3 or 4 Heermann's gulls along the whole stretch of shore.

McMicking Point was my next, and final, port of call. Once again, the birds offshore were much the same as seen from elsewhere. A group of cormorants roosting up on the rocks behind the golf course contained all three common species: Brandt's, pelagic and double-crested (pictured).

Early afternoon, I went to the Government House grounds in search of feeding sparrow or bushtit flocks. There were few juncos and sparrows around, but I did locate a very active group of golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. Among the throng were the expected chestnut-backed chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers and a downy woodpecker but nothing out of the ordinary.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

'Owls of Delight...

Well, this working 5 days a week is certainly having an effect on my birding life... No time to get out in the mornings and none in the evenings, makes the weekends extra special.
Though, I have been grabbing a few short lunch breaks around Langford Lake, near my workplace and I've clocked up some decentish birds in the last couple of weeks.
Highlights so far have included common loon, pied-billed grebe, lesser scaup, American coot, opsrey, merlin, bald eagle, varied thrush, hermit thrush, belted kingfisher, Townend's warbler, fox sparrow, and the like.
If I can manage a couple of visits a week it'll at least stop me from going completely mad.

Friday night, it absolutely pelted down and I woke on Saturday morning, expecting a thoroughly rainy day. As it turned out, it brightened up early on and in between occasional showers, it stayed reasonable for most of the day.

A minor herd of black-tailed deer had wandered round the back of the house and were nibbling away at some shrubbery in the grounds of Craigdarroch Castle that seemed to appeal to them. The buck was a particularly handsome beast, as you can see in the snap taken from our back door.
I dropped Jenny off at work and headed first to Clover Point. The previous night's wet weather had obviously kept many people indoors, and although it was bright and dry the Point was uncharacteristically quiet, people-wise.
Consequently, there were 14 surfbirds feeding on the rocks, along with around 10 black turnstone and a couple of black oystercatchers. A handful of Bonaparte's gulls were feeding over the water, and a couple Heermann's gulls were also present.
Offshore.all the usual suspects were seen; common loon, common murre, marbled murrelet, rhinoceros auklet, pigeon guillemot, horned grebe, harlequin duck, surf scoter, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, and good numbers of red-necked grebe. I saw my first drake buffleheads of the autumn too.
A couple of savannah sparrows were the only passerines of note.

I then headed along to the Chinese Cemetery and Harling Point. Here it was much the same, with the usual species seen offshore in varying numbers. As I was looking out to sea, I spotted the Victoria Natural History Society mini-pelagic crowd aboard the 'Fantasea' - it looked like a good turnout despite the potentially wet conditions!

White-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows were feeding on the shoreline with a few savannah and song sparrows.

A change of scenery beckoned, and I headed inland to Swan Lake. A few evenings ago, I had made a brief stop here on my way home and had seen an American bittern flying around the floating bridge.
This time, I'd take my camera and see if I could get a snap of one. Ian Cruikshank was pretty certain that there were 3 birds present recently, so you never know, I might just be lucky...

As it turned out a bittern was showing very well, right by the bridge - as the accompanying photos testify. Chris Saunders and I also saw another bird flying by, confirming the presence of at least two bitterns on the reserve.
While at Swan Lake we were treated to the sight of an adult peregrine piling in and driving a northern flicker into the water, which it casually plucked from the lake and took up into a large oak to devour. A second peregrine struck at a starling flock, but failed to emerge with lunch.
There wasn't much on the lake bar a few American coots, a couple of ring-necked duck, and some snoozing ruddy ducks
A few yellow-rumped warblers were seen, along with common sparrows species, red-winged blackbirds, cedar waxwings, downy woodpecker, etc.

On Sunday morning, I took a stroll around the Government House grounds. It was pretty quiet overall, with fewer juncos and sparrows around than on my last visit. I didn't even see or hear any kinglets. A couple of Pacific wrens were notable, but there was little to keep me there for long.
I then headed out to Cattle Point. There were at least 30 surfbirds here, along with smaller numbers of black turnstone. Offshore it was business as usual, although the Bonaparte's gulls here numbered somewhere in the region of 70 birds, certainly the highest concentration of the species along the coast from Clover Point to here.
I stopped off at Oak Bay, where there were 3 greater yellowlegs, a couple of black-bellied plover and 3 killdeer. Just off Bowker rocks there were around 100 American wigeon, plus a few hooded mergansers.
A quick look around Harling Point concluded my day's birding (other 'important' things to do...). Again, it was pretty much as expected, with the usual stuff seen. A juvenile peregrine passed over, but that was the only thing of note.
The undoubted highlight of my weekend was finally seeing a northern saw-whet owl. This diminutive owl has been hovering in the upper reaches of my 'wants' list for years, and I was absolutely delighted to catch up with one at last.
Located in a daytime roost, the owl was being lightly mobbed by local passerines but seemed relatively unperturbed by the minor commotion.
A truly stunning creature, this gorgeous bird was my second world-lifer this month! As you can see, I even managed to get a pic of it.
What will November bring?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Seeing red

Had an early bimble around the Government House grounds this morning and found the place positively jumping with dark-eyed juncos. There were literally hundreds of them around the site, though I wasn't able to relocate the 'slate-coloured' bird that was there the other day.
Another obvious feature was the large number of American robins, and a significant increase in northern flickers. There were at least 9 flickers in the area including one very interesting bird. I have seen many intergrade red-shafted/yellow-shafted flickers on the island, but this was the first one that I've come across that had totally bright yellow underwings and under tail. As far as its head pattern was concerned it was certainly more in the yellow-shaft camp too. A pretty different looking flicker indeed!
Otherwise, it was ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, fox sparrows, a Lincoln's sparrow, yellow-rumped warblers and such that kept me busy.

Later, I headed out to the Chinese Cemetery where the highlights included a moulding adult red-throated loon (actually my first in BC - ironic, as they're the commonest diver/loon back in Blighty). A couple of American pipits were feeding among the tombstones, and a few common sparrows were scrabbling around on the tideline.
Offshore good numbers of marbled murrelet, rhinoceros auklet, common murres and a few pigeon guillemot were seen along with red-necked grebe, common loon and lots of surf scoters. Bonaparte's gulls seem to be dropping off in number, though there are still lots of Heermann's gulls around.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Orcas, auklets and hawks... oh my!

As is often the case, I had things to do before I was able to get out birding today and it was just past noon by the time I grabbed my bins and headed out.

I started out at Cattle Point, once again with Lapland longspurs on my mind. The day was clear and bright, but rather chilly and as a result there were fewer people trampling about the place as one would expect. I flushed a few savannah sparrows, then a western meadowlark flew across in front of me. It ditched down briefly, before being chased off by a northwestern crow.
There was nothing out of the ordinary offshore - all 3 cormorant species, rhino auklets, harlequin ducks, surf scoters, Bonaparte's and Heermann's gulls, etc.
A group of 5 black turnstone and a single surfbird flew in, alighting on the rocks by the slipway.
A couple of yellow-rumped warblers were with some chestnut-backed chickadees in the area of small oaks by the big bluff, and a single hermit thrush put in an appearance. A sharp-shinned hawk came through, causing a bit of excitement among the chickadees.

I headed off along to Oak Bay Marina, to see if any shorebirds were around. On the yellow rocky islet offshore there were around 70 black-bellied plover and a dozen or so black turnstone. Roosting in their usual spot were 7 greater yellowlegs and 5 killdeer. A few hooded merganser and American wigeon were in the area, as were a couple of horned grebe. My first bufflehead of the autumn flew by.

Next, I stopped of at McMicking Point. Scanning the rocks, I couldn't find any waders but I did come across a wee gaggle of 4 greater whitefronted geese and 3 cackling geese in with the Canadas on the edge of the golf course.
There were loads of cormorants here, again all 3 species, plus the usual alcids, harlequins, scoters, gulls etc.
A group of 8 turkey vultures approached the coast, circled around a bit and then headed back inland.

The Chinese Cemetery beckoned, and here I found encouraging numbers of savannah sparrows, and a nice mix of other species including Lincoln's, golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows.
Unable to find anything tasty among them, I had to make do with a pair of American pipits that were feeding on the shoreline.
I walked over to Trafalgar Point, passing the resident California quails on my way.
Suddenly the loud blow of a cetacean caught my attention and I looked down to see a pod of orcas passing by, close offshore.

The whales remained close to shore and visible for a good ten minutes, before they continued east along the coast. Unfortunately I only had my compact point and shoot with me, so the pics here are a bit naff. A wonderful thing to see, though!
Once again a group of 6 turkey vultures with a red-tailed hawk in tow, came over, thought about crossing the straits, then decided against it.

Later, I had a walk down to Clover Point. In Ross Bay, there were 7 red-necked grebe, 8 horned grebe and 7 common loon (1 pictured above), as well as the usual harlequin ducks and surf scoters.  
Mew gulls have really increased lately and are now the dominant species. Many of the California gulls have moved on, but Heermann's gulls are still present in fair numbers.
5 surfbirds and 11 black turnstone were on the rocks below the point, and again a handful of savannah sparrows were kicking around.

Monday, 10 October 2011

By Georgiana! It's a swamp sparrow!

Well, it's Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, which doesn't exactly mean much to a Brit Birder other than, nice one, a day off! And we all know what 'day off' means don't we? Yes, that's right, more birding!

The day started out a little bit Disney as I was confronted by the creature in the accompanying picture, scrumping apples from the tree outside the kitchen window... didn't get that too often in Lancaster, that's for sure.
With one thing and another, I didn't get out birding 'proper' till mid-afternoon, but Jenny and I did manage a mid-morning stroll around the Government House grounds in between rain showers.
A few yellow-rumped warblers were seen and heard, and ruby-crowned kinglets were still present in reasonable number.  A hermit thrush showed nicely, as did a couple of Lincoln's sparrows. A pair of adult Cooper's hawks were chasing one another around the area, much to the consternation of the local golden-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. And talking of juncos, a smart 'slate-coloured' bird was seen among the 30 or so typical 'Oregon' birds. 

Once I had deposited Jenny at work in the afternoon, I struck out for Clover Point. Silly, I know, to expect there to be much around on a public holiday, post-turkey dinner. The place was not as packed as it would have been had the weather been glorious (like yesterday, for example), but a few hardy souls had still managed to get out for a bit of bird bothering.
The combination of high tide and copious rock hopping humans meant that shorebirds were practically absent. Just 6 black turnstone and couple of black oystercatchers were braving the conditions.
Offshore there was quite a bit going on, with a notable increase in surf scoters. Common murre, rhinoceros auklet, pigeon guillemot and marbled murrelet were all present in varying numbers.
At least 4 common loons, 8 horned grebe, and several harlequin ducks were busily feeding in Ross Bay, while dainty Bonaparte's gulls skimmed the surface in every direction.

Misty Marbled Murrelet
The rain set in and I decided to head for the Chinese Cemetery and Harling Point to see if anything was going on there. Offshore, it was much the same stuff as at Clover Point, except that murrelets were more numerous here. One was even close enough for me to take a crappy digiscope pic. The rain didn't do much to improve my chances of getting a decent image, so I'm afraid it'll have to do.
I was rather hoping for a Lapland longspur or two, but I could only find a couple of savannah sparrows.

I walked round to Trafalgar Park, to see if anything was lurking there. I came across a covey of California quail and a couple of fox sparrows, but that was about it. Scanning the rocks below, I caught a glimpse of the back end of a departing wader, as it headed to Harling Point. Great, I'll be going back there then!

Just after I came through the perimeter fence a small sparrow popped up from some tangled weedy corner (pictured). To be honest, I didn't really know what it was right away. A very distinctive face pattern, dark forehead and streaky dark crown, with a paler median stripe, white throat, bright rufous wings and... it's gone. After a few minutes of grinding cerebral cogs, the penny dropped and I was sure it was a swamp sparrow.

Where the Wild Things Are - Sparrow Central
It's not really a species I can claim to have much experience with having only seen them once before, several years ago. I spent a good hour after the initial sighting, creeping around, pishing, and basically trying to get further views to check other salient features. Without a field guide to consult, I really needed to get good looks at the thing. It was relatively obliging, and I got three further opportunities to grill the sparrow before it, and I, gave up.

Back at the car, I consulted Sibley, and I was left with no doubt as to the bird's identity. Lovely. My BC list just went up by another 1.
Also in this weedy area, were at least 7 white-crowned, 2 Lincoln's and 3 song sparrows, plus a couple of towhees and a Bewick's wren.
Oh, and I did relocate that shorebird - it was a dunlin. In fact, there were two in winter plumage.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Larking Around

It was once again time for me to conduct my Coastal Waterbird Survey and after spending the morning with Jenny I headed out for Gonzales Point. The only problem was, there was a 28km marathon on, and almost every road I needed to go down was closed off. Added this inconvenience, was the fact that each of the 3 marshalls that I spoke to had no idea how to get around the joggers and to my destination. They all confessed to not being local and had no idea of any street names. Marvelous.
My 10 minute drive took 40 minutes, but on the upside I was just about the first person through onto the route as the marathon had come to an end by the time I'd arrived at Oak Bay! Consequently, there were fewer people and dogs around the coast as would normally be the case on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. Result.
The survey wasn't overly exciting, but did included the following highlights:
61 Bonaparte's gulls, 116 surf scoter, 35 black oystercatcher, 25 harlequin ducks, 4 horned and 2 red-necked grebes.
Various common alcids were counted, including a lowly single marbled murrelet.  
Shorebirds were extremely thin on the ground, with just the oystercatchers and handful of black turnstones seen. Trail Island was hosting good numbers of black-bellied plover, but they were all outside my count area. 
I was surprised by the lack of passerine migrants, given that the trees on our street were positively dripping with yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets this morning... I was rather hoping to stumble across some Lapland longspurs (buntings in English), but I was out of luck.

Post-survey, I headed on to Cattle Point to have a look there. The parking area was rammed when I arrived, and any thoughts of feeding sparrow/bunting/finches rapidly evaporated.
I did find 5 savannah sparrows, but that was it.
Looking offshore there were well into double figures of marbled murrelets, plus the commoner species. Around 20 Bonaparte's gulls were feeding noisily over the water.

I went and checked the bluff in the south-west corner and was pleased to find a group of 4 horned larks. The birds were quite wary were seemingly used to the flow of people who were spectacularly ignoring them, and would resume feeding soon after being disturbed. Here's a badly digiscoped pic of one of the larks.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Ocean Waves Pay Dividends

Now that I'm thankfully back in the routine of working during the week, my birding has, unfortunately, taken something of a back seat.
On the plus side, my new employers are located in the City of Langford, and the building is right next to Langford Lake. So, I've managed a couple of exploratory lunch breaks checking out this spot. As yet, I haven't seen much to get excited about, but the habitat looks very promising. The birds that I have seen include: lesser scaup, common loon, American coot, Townsend's warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet, osprey, bald eagle and such relatively common stuff. On Friday, there was even a 30ish strong flock of pine siskin flying around the area. Be interesting to see what I can turn up in the coming weeks and months...
Having completed my first week with FTS, I got home on Friday and managed to squeeze in a swift visit to the Government House grounds.

There were reasonable numbers of birds about, the most notable being an influx of ruby-crowned kinglet. They were all over the place! Good numbers of yellow-rumped warblers were seen and heard, but I couldn't find any other warbler species. At least 5 hermit thrush were present, and fox sparrow numbers seem to have increased. A single Lincoln's sparrow was found, and an impressive flock of feeding golden-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos totalled around 60 birds.I also came across the first band-tailed pigeons that I have seen in the grounds (pictured).

All At Sea

Bait-ball Action!
On Saturday I joined the VNHS (Victoria Natural History Society) pelagic out of Victoria, to Race Rocks off the coast of Sooke.
We were out for around 5 hours and we hit into some pretty good birds.
Gull species were well accounted for, mainly thanks to a couple of sizable bait-balls attracting throngs of the garrulous birds. Thayer's, glaucous-winged, mew, Heermann's, California, western and Bonaparte's were all present.

Mew Gull
Alcids too were thick on the surface with many 100s of common murres, reasonable numbers of rhinoceros auklet, a few pigeon guilemots and best of all - up 8 ancient murrelet.
Now, here was the first lifer I've had in ages. For a reason I can't even begin to remember, I didn't twitch the Lundy (Devon, UK) one back in the early 90s so this species has been very high on my 'wants' list for some time...

Ancient murrelets
The first pair were picked up very close to the boat, and allowed for great views. By the time I reached for my camera however (well, I really wanted to have a good look at the pretty little enigmas), they'd dived, and resurfaced some distance away. Hence the crappy photo here.
Red-necked phalaropes and phalarope sp. were seen frequently, as were a few Pacific loons, and Ian Cruikshank picked up a lovely fork-tailed storm petrel as it rose from the water's surface just ahead of the boat. We got excellent views, albeit rather briefly, as it took off and flew just off the bow, and headed away.
We could see large kettles of turkey vultures soaring around the Beechey Head area, and among them several red-tailed hawks, plus sharp-shined hawks, an osprey and other unidentified raptors (not easy to be thorough when you're trying to go through 100s of vultures, at distance, on a boat...!).

As we arrived back in the harbour mouth on our return we spotted a common tern sat on a piece of driftwood. Once very common passage birds in this area, today they are quite a rarity in Victoria's waters and the bird was a very fitting end to an excellent day's birding.
Well worth the trip, I may well do another soon!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Once Bittern et cetera,...

We found ourselves up island in Nanaimo over the weekend, to celebrate our friend Dave's Canadian citizenship success. A boozy night of jollity and japes ensued.
While Jenny went off to sort out some business early this afternoon, I sought out some clear air and a few birds with a trundle around Buttertubs Marsh.

Wildfowl numbers were pretty unremarkable, but there was a decent showing of species: ring-necked duck, wood duck, hooded merganser, northern shoveler, mallard, gadwall, green-winged teal and American wigeon were all present. Pied-billed grebes and a few American coot were also seen around the site.
Water levels were relatively high, meaning that there was little in the way of exposed boggy areas to attract rails, waders, etc. I heard a couple of Virginia rails, but none showed themselves.
Scanning from the raised viewing platform I spotted something in the distance that looked rather interesting. Large, brown and streaky, and shaped something like a teardrop, it was an American bittern!

When I lived in Nanaimo I spent hours at Buttertubs Marsh looking for these bloody things, and here I am casually dropping by in the middle of a Sunday afternoon and finding one sat out on the edge of the vegetation. Unfortunately I didn't have my 'scope with me, and so had to content myself with fairly distant bins-only views of the bird as it busily preened and stretched.
The customary crappy photo here (blown up quite a bit) gives you an idea of just how far away the thing was.
This was actually the first American bittern that I have seen in North America - the last one I saw was a vagrant in Blackpool, Lancashire in 1991!
Other interesting birds of note seen while at Buttertubs included a party of 6 greater white-fronted geese that dropped in, while passerine highlights included reasonable numbers of yellow-rumped warblers, and 2 orange-crowned warblers.