Saturday, 28 January 2012

Scarce Sparrow Provides a Rare Tree-t

Aahhh, the weekend rolls around once more. I had entertained thoughts of heading up island today, partly to spend a bit of time birding the Nanaimo River estuary and partly to have a go at trying to relocate the slaty-backed gull that was reported to be in the Mill Bay area.

A wet Panama Flats
In the end I did neither, opting for a bit of a lie-in and a few hours squelching around Panama Flats in my wellies.
I haven't been to the flats for ages, and there have been some good wintering passerines being seen at the site over the past couple of months. As you can see from the pic, water levels are pretty high and as a result there are tons of ducks dabbling around.
Good numbers of pintail, northern shoveler, mallard, green-winged teal and American wigeon were very much present. I had a good scan through the teal but couldn't find any 'commons' in among them. I picked up a drake Eurasian wigeon at either end of the flats - was it the same mobile bird or were there 2 present?

A couple of bufflehead, and 2 pairs of gadwall were also seen and then I noticed an aythya emerging from a pack of shoveler on the southern pool - it was a female canvasback. Not a bird I expected to see at Panama Flats! I don't think it stuck around too long, as I couldn't see it when I returned to the same area an hour or so later.

Raptors-wise, a peregrine was sat up in its usual tree overlooking the flats, and a red-tailed hawk was doing similar until it was chased off by Northwestern crows. A juv bald eagle flapped lazily overhead.

As I walked along the western path, I came across 3 western meadowlarks feeding in the boggy grass. Other than multiple song sparrows and a few golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, I didn't see many other songbirds as I trudged around the flats in the cool drizzle. As I neared the grey building things changed somewhat; several Lincoln's sparrows showed, mixed in with yet more song sparrows.

American tree sparrow
Then the American tree sparrow popped up. By all accounts, this bird has been pretty reliable since its arrival earlier in the winter, often showing in the same general area. After a while, I managed to get a crummy shot of it as it fed briefly on the path. American tree sparrows are pretty scarce on Vancouver Island, and my only previous experience of this charming species involves the ones that I found at the Nanaimo estuary back in December 2009. 

Another other 'good' bird regularly being spotted here recently is a skylark. Now, as one of my least-wanted birds that appears on the North American list, I was rather hoping to bump into it today just to get it out of the way. I rue the day when I have to go actually looking for one... Unlike numerous other European 'imports' (starling and house sparrow among them) skylarks aren't despised by local birders, and following a serious reduction in numbers, somewhat mirroring the population crash in their native lands, they have become highly sought after by North America's birding elite. Vancouver Island is the only place on the continent where they can be found, and they're in rapid decline. Anyway, I was spared an encounter with this most familiar of birds - perhaps I will have to wait until I jam into one whilst out looking for something more interesting!
I searched through the numerous, very mobile savannah sparrows as best I could, but couldn't pull anything different out from among them.
I had a good three hours covering the area, and left soggy but very happy!        

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Varied and Sundry

The snow continues... forecasts imply a hideous day of 'freezing rain' tomorrow, whatever that may be. Water halfway between liquid and ice? Oh, so a sort of snow then.
I don't believe that's one of Kate Bush's 50 Words For Snow...
Anyhoo, I was working from home again yesterday and once again the apple tree was notably attracting many of the neighbourhood birds.
A couple of varied thrushes have pretty much taken to residing in it, pecking at the remaining fruit for hours on end.

I absolutely love these delicately patterned thrushes, easily one of my favourite North American birds. As you can see I snapped a couple of shots.

British birders of a certain vintage will doubtless recall the first, and still only, UK record of this species back in November 1982 when a 1st year bird in aberrant plumage was found in the rarity hotspot of Nanquidno, Cornwall. At the time it was also the first record for the Western Palearctic, only surpassed by a spring 2004 record from eastern Iceland. 

There has been no sign of the western tanager for a couple of days, perhaps it has succumbed to the freezing overnight temperatures and perished.
Or maybe it just realised that it's a relatively short flight down to California from here.
Anna's hummingbirds, dark-eyed juncos, golden-crowned kinglet and Bewick's wren have all been seen visiting the apple tree, while house finch and American robin have joined the queue to get a bit of their five a day.
Having taken the hummingbird feeder in overnight, I was greeted at first light by the distinctive, and rather impatient 'tick-ticking' of the resident male Anna's, eager for his first energy boost of the morning. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

All White On The Night

Western tanager tries to blend in with the apples...
It threw a fair bit of snow down last night, so rather than risk sharing the road with the bewildered drivers of Victoria I worked from home today. And I'm rather glad I did, as the snow just kept coming throughout much of the day and I wouldn't have much enjoyed the homeward-bound bumper-car session on the highway. In the dark.
So, being confined to barracks I was pleased to note that the western tanager visited the apple tree outside the house several times during the course of the day. I managed to get a shot of it as it fed intently on an apple. I don't suppose there are too many pics of western tanagers in snow!   

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Anas Penelope Pitstop

It's been a pretty quiet week on the bird front, for me at least.
My regular lunchtime sorties around the southwestern edge of Langford Lake have been reasonably interesting, if hardly spectacular. The highlight this week was the appearance, on two days, of a smart Townsend's warbler in the small park (it's called Kitty La Quesne Family Park, or something along those lines). Small groups of red crossbill pass over the area frequently, but the large pine siskin flock seems to have moved on - pity, as I was hoping they might attract a passing redpoll.

The Tanager Tree with Sunday morning snow.
The western tanager keeps appearing in the apple tree outside the kitchen window, though its movements are unpredictable to say the least. Some days it arrives with foraging bushtits and chestnut-backed chickadees, other days it's just there on its own. Mostly however, it's nowhere to be seen. This popular tree also hosted its first varied thrush midweek and the resident Anna's hummingbird, now resplendent in full breeding garb appears to have lured a potential mate... watch this space!

A rare thing happened this weekend. Jenny had both days off, so while it was great to be able to spend the time together, it rather curtailed my birding.

Me, battling the elements.
That said, we took a stroll out on Saturday and headed down to Clover Point, battling the stiff onshore breeze and very wintry temperatures.
It was fairly unremarkable bird-wise, though we did see 5 sanderling, along with the usual dunlins, black turnstones and what have you. It was business as usual offshore, with the expected seaducks, grebes, loons and gulls all present and correct.
We then walked on to Beacon Hill Park. We passed the ponds and made a quick pitstop to check through the American wigeon in search of scarcer interlopers. We found just 5 males and 1 female Eurasian wigeon. Other quackers included small numbers of ring-necked duck and lesser scaup plus 15 northern shoveler.
We then headed into downtown, where the ornithological highlight was a yellow-rumped warbler feeding on a store awning along Douglas Street! An excellent lunch at Pagliacci's was another considerable highlight.

Adult cedar waxwing
Today's (Sunday) trundle took us along Oak Bay Avenue and down to the waterfront near the Marina. Shorebirds seen included the usual turnstone, dunlin, black-bellied plover and killdeer plus a lone greater yellowlegs. A trio of river otters entertained us as they fished off the end of Turkey Head (they were in the water, not stood around with rods. Obviously). A red-tailed hawk sailed over, keenly pursued by a pair of garrulous ravens.
We walked back along the coast via the golf course and Chinese Cemetery, seeing little of note along the way. Heading back up into Rockland along St Charles Street we spotted a hermit thrush feeding on some ornamental berry tree in the company of several American robins.

Cedar waxwings
After a well-earned mug of tea and a few biccies at Chez Carter, I went to see if anything interesting was lurking in the Government House grounds. It was pretty quiet, with the exception of a flock of 56 cedar waxwings, some of which are pictured here. It was interesting to note that the majority of the waxwings were 1st year birds.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Rusty Blackbird Makes The List

Today, I decided to go and look for a specific bird.
No, not the BC mega - a brambling that local birders have been getting all excited about, but a rusty blackbird that has been seen on and off in the Martindale Road area in Saanich.
I did try and see one of these a couple of years ago when one was in the Victoria area but I dipped, and have since been rather keen to catch up with one. 
According to the limited info available, the rusty blackbird has been seen hanging out with a flock of Brewer's blackbirds and European starlings in the agricultural area to the southwest of Island View Beach.
Jenny had a desire to visit nearby Michell's Farms Market, rather conveniently, so it provided an ideal opportunity to do some birding in this large open area.
The wet fields had attracted lots of Canada geese and a small number of cackling geese. Two Canadas were sporting red collars, but they were too far away for me to read the numbers. A pair of adult trumpeter swans were by one flooded field while a lone juvenile was close by.
A sizable flock of American wigeon contained no Eurasians, though 4 gadwall were a pleasant sight in among the many mallards.

Ring-billed gull
Scanning through the mew and glaucous-winged gulls I came across a smart ring-billed gull (pictured), always a treat to see on the island.       
After checking a few stubble fields and likely looking roosting trees we eventually came across a flock of mixed starlings and blackbirds along Welch Road. The birds were sat up in roadside trees and after quite some time I located the rusty among the squawking throng. It wasn't exactly giving itself up easily, keeping its back to me and remaining in the centre of the tree. I managed a few crappy shots (one of the better ones seen here) before the birds flew down to feed in the roadside field.

Rusty blackbird
Here the rusty blackbird really came into its own and looked spectacular, even if the flock was constantly moving at a rapid pace. Another icterid in the bag!
Pleased with our fine find, Jenny and I headed over to the Indian Food Store on Cook St, procured some pakoras and samosas and went to Swan Lake for an impromptu picnic and a walk around the nature reserve.
We didn't see much, but the stroll was a pleasant enough way to spend the early afternoon. 
Despite the obvious attraction of the brambling (UK readers may find this amusing, but consider the excitement that any Yank passerine causes in Blighty - after all aren't twitchers back home chasing a dark-eyed junco around Hampshire at the moment?), I've been more interested in a visitor in my own back yard this week.

Every morning there has been a western tanager in the apple tree outside our kitchen window (pictured). Now the reason that this bird hasn't attracted much attention from the locals, despite its incredibly rare status as a wintering bird in this part of the world, is that western tanagers are pretty easy to find in spring and summer. So, I suppose it's a bit like finding a wintering sedge warbler at Leighton Moss - certainly noteworthy but not exactly front-page news!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Good Walk Out Workout

Yesterday, having spent the morning with Jenny and walking her to work downtown for midday, I took off for a stroll along the waterfront. I headed along to Ogden Point and made my way from there to Beacon Hill Park. I didn't see too much en route, just the usual bits and pieces. Buffleheads, harlequin ducks, red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters and the like were reasonably plentiful offshore, while the occasional black turnstones and surfbirds were spotted on the exposed rocks.
Anna's hummingbirds seemed to be absolutely everywhere, and singing birds were heard all over the place. In fact I had even heard one right in the heart of Chinatown on Fisgard Street.

As I made my way into the park from Dallas Road, I thought I'd go and see if I could locate any Eurasian wigeon on the park ponds. It didn't take long. I came across 3 males and a female among the first group of grazing American wigeon on the lawns, and soon spotted another couple nearby.
On the pond there were yet more and I counted a minimum of 9 drakes and 2 ducks. It's quite likely that there were more females present, given the variability of duck wigeons. 11 Eurasian wigeon certainly seems a disproportionate amount given the relatively small numbers of American wigeon in the park.
A single Thayer's gull was in among the throng of glaucous-winged gulls hoping for a handout from the families gleefully feeding the duckies.
The other reason for my visit to the park was to see, once again, if I could relocate the blue-gray gnatcatcher seen there recently. Even when it was being pursued by the island's listers it did a very good job of being extremely elusive, but ever the optimist I thought I'd give it a shot anyway. Needless to say, I didn't find it.

Having year-ticked a few common species, I left the park and walked along toward Clover Point. There was nothing much going on on the water, though I did add a lone common murre to the day's birds. 12 dunlin were feeding with black turnstones and a couple of surfbirds off the point and 6 black oystercatchers were hugging the nearby rocks (pictured).
Yet more common seaducks were seen around the point and into Ross Bay. A common loon and small numbers of horned grebes and red-necked grebes were diving offshore.

I made my way up through the cemetery but couldn't locate any bushtit / chickadee flocks. On my trundle back home I stopped for an hour in the Government House grounds. There wasn't much to see, but there were golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all over the place. Downy woodpecker, northern flicker, good numbers of American robins, fox sparrows and all the other usual suspects kept me entertained on my rounds, but I wasn't able to find anything too diverting. A smart Cooper's hawk kept an eye on me (pictured) as I scrambled around the understory is search of interesting sparrows.
By late afternoon I felt that I'd had enough of walking and staggered back to the house for a well-deserved cup of tea.

This morning (Tuesday), I looked out of the kitchen window and saw that the apple tree was festooned with bushtits. I quickly scanned the branches in search of anything else and was amazed to see a female/first year type western tanager! I grabbed ny bins (they're never far from reach) and double-checked its identity (well, you never know with winter tanagers, could potentially be anything!). It seemed quite happy chowing down on one of the few remaining apples before taking off and disappearing from sight. It's a real pity my landlords won't allow me to put out anything other than hummingbird feeders - fear of attracting vermin apparently. It'll be interesting to see whether it makes a reappearance.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year, New Yearlist...

First of all, a very happy New Year to you all.
2011 has been a memorable year for a number of reasons. Jenny and I relocated from Nanaimo to Victoria early in the spring, and in the past few months I found loads of great new places to go birding! Thanks to Ian Cruikshank and Chris Saunders, among others, for making me feel so welcome.
I also found myself in Hawaii for a few days late in the year, thanks to my new job with FTS, and added a small but quality selection of lifers to my very slowly growing world list. An unscheduled trip to the UK in early December for the funeral of my good friend and brother-in-law Mark was less enjoyable - the pre-Christmas week in sunny Florida was something of a more pleasant experience... and again, some new birds were seen.
I actually counted up my life list the other day and it's somewhere in the region of 1,640 species. Some recent splits and lumps need to be looked into before I can be sure of a definitive figure but that's roughly where I'm at.

The loneliness of the long-distance birder...
On New Year's Eve Jenny was offered the chance of a day off work so she said she'd like to head out to Island View Beach and take a walk up Saanichton Spit. Well, I wasn't going to complain. Especially as a snowy owl had been seen in that area recently, and you never know, I might just get lucky.
Going through some old notes recently, I was gobsmacked to read that I last saw a snowy owl in Lincolnshire on January 5th 1991. Almost exactly 21 years ago! Well, that made me feel ancient. Happy New Year indeed...
Anyhoo, we arrived at the parking area to find a plague of dogs and their owners had taken over the place. I suppose that's what you get for arriving in the afternoon.
Despite the mounds of hounds we soon spied a 1st year northern shrike in a field adjacent to the rough road by the parking area. As we headed out along the beach away from the parked cars the canine crowds thinned out considerably, and we soon had the place pretty much to ourselves. 
A quick scan offshore revealed a pair of black scoter among the commoner seaduck species.

I kept checking the best-looking areas above the strand line for anything big and white but other than a couple of plastic bags and a bucket, I failed to locate anything of note.
Around the spit it was pretty quiet, and other than a flock of 7 western meadowlarks there were no interesting passerines to be found.
Although I didn't break my 21 year snowy owl absence, we had a lovely time at this wonderful spot as we always do.
Of note: earlier in the day, we had come across a frenzied flock of cedar waxwings feeding on an ornamental berry bush in our neighbourhood. There were around 40 birds, but none had those chestnut undertail coverts we're all looking for. With snowy owls, white-winged crossbills and redpolls being seen in southern BC and on the island right now, it's surely worth keeping an eye out for any other northern nomads...

While ambling around the Government House grounds today with our friends Dave and Susan I noticed a Townsend's warbler in with a bushtit flock in the gardens. My 'diligent' checks in recent weeks haven't turned up anything half as interesting, so it just goes to show that anything can turn up anywhere, at any time.