Sunday, 20 November 2011

Birding Points of Interest

I actually found some time for a little local birding today. The day was calm, clear and cold and I headed out for Harling Point and the Chinese Cemetery for a scout about (or scoot aboot in Canadian).
Offshore it was business as usual, although certain species are increasing notably, such as bufflehead which are now all over the place.
Red-necked and horned grebes, common loon, surf scoter, the 3 cormorants, hooded and red-breasted mergansers, harlequin ducks and the like were all present in varying numbers. A few marbled murrelets and pigeon guillemots were seen as were a handful of rhinoceros auklets.
On the rocks there were 26 surfbirds, a couple of black turnstone and a black-bellied plover.
I couldn't find anything interesting passerine-wise scrabbling about in the tideline, just a lone 1st winter white-crowned sparrow.
Nearby Trafalgar Park was quiet, so I headed along to McMicking Point. There wasn't too much to get excited about here, just more of the same stuff really.
Next stop, Cattle Point. The high tide resulted in there being barely any exposed rocks for foraging shorebirds and as such there was little here, with the exception of single black oystercatcher and black turnstone
The usual seaducks, alcids and gulls were present, plus a few American wigeon. I thought I'd check out the Uplands Park area on the other side of the road - it looks good for a shrike (or maybe something like a displaced tropical kingbird kicked off Cattle Point by dogwalkers?). Not today Josephine. Other than the common sparrows (golden-crowned, white-crowned, fox & song), juncos, towhees, downy woodpeckers and what-have-you it wasn't exactly jumping. I did see my second 'yellow-shafted' northern flicker of the fall though, and came face-to-face with a roosting barred owl

I headed back toward home, making a detour to Clover Point en route. Again, the birds on the water were much the same as I'd seen at various places along the coast. Around 20 dunlin (pictured) were feeding around the area, alongside a few black-bellied plover, black turnstone, oystercatchers and surfbirds.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Birding the Nanaimo River Estuary

We headed up to Nanaimo over the weekend for a spot of mid-island socialising and I managed to squeeze in stops on Saturday at Quennell Lake and the Nanaimo River estuary for a bit of birding.
The lake, and adjacent field, was absolutely alive with wildfowl. 
On the water I counted over 2,000 mallard. Scattered among them were smaller numbers of other species including northern shoveler, pintail, gadwall, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, common merganser, hooded merganser, bufflehead, wood duck, American wigeon and common goldeneye.
Around 20 American coot were also present, but strangely not a single teal.

Trumpeter swans
A large herd of swans were roosting and feeding in the, as yet unflooded, field immediately north of the lake. A small number were on the lake itself. I counted approximately 230 trumpeter swans and found a single tundra swan among them. None were ringed, or bore neck collars. There were only 12 young birds among them... sign of a poor nesting season?
Also in the area were several hundred Canada geese (no Cackling geese found with them) and 14 greater white-fronted geese. An adult northern shrike was showing well and a juvenile northern harrier was quartering the fields between the lake and the Crow & Gate (where, incidentally we enjoyed a fine roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner on Saturday evening...).

We then moved on to the Nanaimo River estuary. I really miss birding at this place, and I was delighted to be back on my old local patch. Better still, I had the place to myself.
There were 4 trumpeter swans on the river and a further 6 flew in. Up near the bridge the annual arrival of Barrow's goldeneye had taken place with well over 50 birds present.
Down at the estuary, I scanned from the raised platform and soon found an adult female northern harrier sat up on a post. As I checked the area for other interesting birds I noticed a very late barn swallow flying over the marsh. I watched it for some timeas it actively flew up and down the water's edge.
As seems to be the case when the salmon are running, there were scores of bald eagles sat out around the the estuary.
After a short while, I walked out onto the marsh, (optimistic as ever, I was secretly hoping to relocate the Gabriola Island snowy owl...) and soon came across a single western meadowlark.

Scanning the distant posts I spotted a short-eared owl (pictured, with customary crapness) and within a couple of minutes was watching a second one as it hunted over the saltmarsh, occasionally drawing attention from the local ravens.  
I checked the hedgerows for sparrows and such, but it was relatively quiet. Among a group of dark-eyed juncos, I could only see song, golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows.
A second adult female northern harrier appeared, and for a while both birds were hunting in the same area.
As I headed back to the car a short-eared owl sailed across in front of me - maybe it was one of the birds I'd seen earlier, but I suspect it was actually a third owl as it came in from a different direction.

Seeing as I mentioned snowy owl - are we seeing the first signs of an 'invasion' year? There have been three reports from different areas of Vancouver Island in the past week, and as with other tundra breeders, snowy owl populations are closely tied to lemming/vole cycles. Has this been a boom year for Arctic rodents? Might we see yet more snowy owls on the island in the coming months, and will other northern migrant predators be more plentiful too?
Time will tell...!   

Friday, 11 November 2011

Snow Show for Owl on Trial

For those reading this back in the UK, today is Remembrance Day here in Canada and a 'stat' holiday. So, with Jenny working I decided I might as well do my Coastal Waterbird Survey.
It had been pouring down all night, though by late morning it was starting to ease off considerably. To compensate, the wind was picking up and gusting like a good 'un.
As I went about counting the various waterbirds off and onshore, I kept scanning Trial Island in the hope of picking up the snowy owl that was present out there all day yesterday. To be honest, had I been a snowy owl I would have been hunkered down in the long grass, or in a sheltered crevice somewhere rather than sat out in the open in those conditions.
Other than spotting a white plastic bucket nestled among some logs, I wasn't able to see anything Hedwig-like. A bald eagle was doing its best to keep upright, facing into the wind.
The survey was unremarkable, despite the howling winds and choppy seas. Alcids were notably few, with just a handful of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets seen while seaducks were equally unimpressive in number. A feeding group of 97 American wigeon alongside a dozen buffleheads were seeking relative shelter in the bay between McMicking and Harling Points.

Later, I took a wander around the Govt House grounds where I saw and heard very little. A few juncos, golden-crowned sparrows and golden-crowned kinglets were about the only passerines encountered.
Not quite in the league as its Arctic cousin, a barred owl was seen and snapped.

Right, it's about time I gave the answer to the last Mystery Bird

Only one vote each was cast in favour of Tennessee warbler and common yellowthroat.
3 votes went for orange-crowned warbler while a further 4 participants chose northern waterthrush.
However 65% of the votes supported palm warbler. And indeed that's what it is. The photo shows an eastern 'yellow' bird, which I thought might throw some of you... maybe it did.

I've posted a new one - enjoy!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Aloha from Hawaii - A Brit Birder Abroad

The Koko Crater, Oahu
Only a month after starting my new job I found myself in the position of heading to a tradeshow, in order to gain some experience in how the company markets its key products and services. I was to be joining the Marketing Director (Eric) and one of the sales team (Jaime) to the Society of American Foresters annual conference. And where was this taking place? Oh, only Honolulu. On the island of Oahu. In Hawaii. In the middle of the bloody Pacific Ocean.

Naturally, my mind was filled with all the endemic birds that I wouldn't see, due to my being in this tropical paradise for work, rather than leisure. However, it dawned on me that despite my limited time there, I may just be able to see at least a couple of decent birds.

We flew out last Tuesday morning and arrived in Honolulu in the early afternoon. En route from the airport to the hotel in Waikiki I noticed a few birds, in particular several Pacific golden plovers which seemed to occupy any piece of grass or open ground available. Other less inspiring birds seen included several of the many exotic species which festoon the Honolulu landscape.
Having checked into the hotel and done some work related stuff such as assist with the erection of the exhibition booth at the conference centre, I managed to find a little time to explore the local area. An oceanside park was located close to the hotel and I headed there with my trusty bins and vague idea of what avian delights I might be looking for.

Various cage birds at large
I can't recall ever being in a place so littered with birds. They were absolutely everywhere. Well, everywhere that they shouldn't be, that is. There were zebra doves and Java sparrows, common waxbills, red-vented bulbuls, spotted doves and common mynhas all over the place. Spectacular red-headed cardinals and cattle egrets looked very much at home in this tropical environment but were equally untickable.

Pacific golden plover
Then it happened, an actual bonafide Hawaiian bird flew over - a gorgeous white tern. It was soon followed by another and I was able to get good looks at several birds as they came over, heading out to sea. Formerly known by the far more evocative (and personally preferable) name of fairy tern, this was a species I really hoped I'd see, and was fortunate enough to do so on a daily basis during my stay.
I got the chance to scrutinise the numerous, and highly variable, Pacific golden plovers that were feeding on the grassy areas, and managed a few snaps. A handful of ruddy turnstone were feeding along the water's edge and scanning offshore I noticed a distant brown booby (no sniggering at the back...) sat on a buoy. Not a bad start, really.


Red-footed boobies
Found ourselves with some time to spare today and we were keen to explore, so Eric and I decided to hire a car and head into the hills in search of a decent hike.
After a good scout around, stopping off here and there to admire the wonderful scenery (and a stream of red-footed boobies passing close offshore - pic), we opted to check out a trail heading up into the Kuliouou Forest Reserve. We took the Kuliouou Ridge Trail, a 5-mile round trek which took us up to an elevation of around 1000ft, passing through several habitat types.
Kuliouou Forest Reserve
The place was positively jumping with birds. But once again, they were almost all exotic non-native species. At the lower levels we were seeing the now familiar spotted and zebra doves, plus house sparrows, more waxbills and red-whiskered bulbuls. As we gained height Japanese white-eyes became a common sight as they flitted phyllosc-like through the vegetation. A few beautiful white-rumped shama showed well, their plumage every bit as lovely as their song.

Me and a Banyan Tree
As we emerged from a belt of mixed pines and entered an area of true montane tropical vegetation, we hit into a very active feeding flock of birds. Again, white-eyes were prevalent, and I got dazzled by the several incredibly stunning red-billed leiothrix (also known as Pekin robin). Then a small bird really caught my eye. Sat at the top of a small snag, it appeared almost wren-like to the naked eye, but as I got my bins on it my joy was formidable. A stunning apapane - one of the few remaining native bird species to be found on this island. I let out a little profanity of delight. Eric couldn't quite share my excitement, but he was very pleased for me.
Several minutes later, as we approached the summit and the end of the trail, I saw another (or possibly the same one) and watched it at eye-level, feeding in the upper branches of a large tree.
After we'd gorged our senses on the spectacular views (and gained our breath) we headed back down. I soon came across another feeding flock of avian exotica, and was thrilled to pick out a couple of Oahu amakihi among the mix.
The remainder of our descent went without incident, and we soon found ourselves heading back along the coast to Waikiki, stopping to admire the scenery along the way.


Black-crowned night-heron
An early stroll around the park and waterfront near the hotel revealed little more than the previously seen escapees, plus the now expected white terns overhead. I also came across a few black-crowned night-herons (pictured) stalking a fisherman in the park, and a pair of wandering tattler on the breakwater, plus more brown boobies offshore. A lone sanderling was spotted making its way along the tideline and a couple of great frigatebirds drifted over. 
Much of the day was spent at the conference centre, where I was able to chat with local conservation experts and forest management professionals from around North America.


The last day. After a morning at the conference, Eric and I hired a car and headed up to the north of the island for a look around. Passing through large fruit plantations along the way, the scenery was considerably different from the south eastern region we had explored on Wednesday.
Bird life was almost restricted to yet more fence-hoppers, although things got considerably better around the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge area. Although we couldn't access the site, I was able to see Hawaiian coots plus local distinctive races of moorhen and black-necked stilt. Our brief stop didn't allow enough time to locate any Hawaiian duck or bristle-thighed curlew.
A paddle around at Shark's Cove allowed us to see some fabulous tropical fish at close quarters, and again, we stopped at various points to take in the many amazing vistas.
We flew home late on Friday night, arriving back in Victoria on Saturday. Quite possibly one of the best working weeks I've ever had...! And I added a further 4 birds to my life list. Nice.