Monday, 30 April 2012

Playing solitaire

Common camas - Government House
It turns out that the black-necked stilts had relocated to Maber Flats, and doubled in number to boot. With 4 birds present, this really is a major local event! As I write, I believe that they're still present and one pair have even been observed copulating. Whether they stay and attempt to raise a brood or move on shortly remains to be seen. I'm pretty sure that several species of shorebird will mate in advance of arrival at the breeding grounds, presumably to speed the whole process up, but while that would make sense to tundra nesters I'm not sure about stilts... I'll have to look into that.
Anyway, the upshot is I still haven't been to see them and as I'm currently in Portland, Oregon I'll have to see if they hang around until weekend. More importantly (as far as I'm concerned anyway) a sora has been regularly calling at the same site and so I expect I'll put some time in trying to catch a glimpse of this elusive rail.

Spotted towhee
Birds that I have actually seen this past week include my first Vaux's swifts of the year, with 3 among the many swallows at Panama Flats on the Wednesday evening of my return to look for those pesky stilts. Many of the shorebirds present that morning (see the post below) had cleared out, but there were still at least 16 greater yellowlegs, 40+ least sandpiper and around 20 western sandpipers kicking around. The 9 white-fronted geese had become 6 and another first for the year, a high flying osprey, was brought to my attention by the panicking swallows. Earlier they had also alerted me to a peregrine slowly spiraling over the southern edge of the flats. 

Highlights from my Langford Lake strolls included yet more Vaux's swifts hawking among a large number of drizzle-dropped swallows. All the five common hirundine species were present including a single cliff swallow and a couple of northern rough-winged swallows.
I spotted a single collared dove close to work on Friday, and a couple of hours later I saw two nearby. Boy, these things really do colonise quickly...

Townsend's solitaire
In other pigeon news, I had seen a lone band-tailed pigeon flying over the Government House grounds early that very morning, in an otherwise migrant-free check around the site.
The following day, Saturday, wasn't a vast improvement although a Townsend's solitaire was some compensation. I even managed a couple of pics. As you can clearly see.
Townsend's solitaire
While I had my camera out I also rattled off a snap of the lovely spotted towhee (above) - a bird taken very much for granted locally, yet as a Brit birder first visiting this part of the world.
I was rather captivated by them. Having recently been back to Britain and being blow away by just how fabulously gorgeous common birds like goldfinches and chaffinches are, I'm re-appreciating the aesthetics of the throw-away birds on my current doorstep!

Pine siskin
Though, no matter how much I try I can't really get too excited by the uber-subtle plumage of pine siskins. The bird pictured here was busy tearing a dandelion head apart on the roadside verge along Joan Crescent and wasn't going to move for anything. Not even a prying camera lens. 
Other birds to have graced my binocs and ears in Government House lately include multiple hermit thrushes and only the second ever hairy woodpecker that I have seen in the grounds. Of course downy woodpeckers are easy to find at this location, with at least 2 breeding pairs, but I was quite surprised to one of their larger cousins here.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Spring birding gathers apace

Exciting news rippled through the local birding community yesterday (Tuesday) following the discovery of a pair of black-necked stilts at Panama Flats. Apparently only the 4th record for the Victoria area, these dainty waders drew a good deal of attention from the region’s birdwatchers. Unfortunately, I was car-sharing with my boss and so a post-work dash wasn’t on the cards… just as well I’ve seen the species before, or I may have been tempted to turn around and head back out there once I’d got home.
As it happens, I took a stroll around the Government House grounds instead. The place was positively dripping with warblers. Every tree seemed to have multiple foraging yellow-rumped warblers, mostly Audubon’s, but a small number of Myrtles present too. Good numbers of orange-crowned warblers were also in the area and their distinctive trilling song could be heard all around the site. Scanning through the many YRs I could only find a pair of Townsend’s warblers among them – no sign of the black-throated grey warblers I’d seen while there early the previous morning.
At least 3 chipping sparrows continued to sing and show well, while off-passage ruby-crowned kinglets were still passing through. A single Lincoln's sparrow popped up and there were still a couple of fox sparrows kicking around.
Hermit thrushes have been a feature this week and several were heard ‘clucking’ from the undergrowth, and occasionally showing well.
Highlight was a Wilson’s warbler – my first of the spring.
Earlier in the day, my daily Langford Lake lunchtime stroll had brought me another first for the year, in the shape of a cliff swallow. It was among 100s of violet-green, barn and tree swallows, plus 2 northern rough-winged swallows that were feeding low over the lake in the drizzle.

Semi-palmated plover, complete with semi-palmations!
This morning, I headed out to work early, allowing a stop at Panama Flats en route. The night had been relatively good for avian departure, so I wasn’t surprised when I arrived to find no sign of the stilts. There was tons of great birding action going on though, and I spent a brilliant hour sifting through the wildfowl and shorebirds.
There were literally 100s of western sandpipers feeding around the place, and around 50 least sandpipers and a dozen smart summer-plumaged dunlin too. I couldn’t locate any stringy semi-palmated sandpipers among the calidrid hordes but I was pleased to come across 4 semi-palmated plovers (photographed, clearly showing the famous semi-palmations!).
A total of 19 greater yellowlegs and 5 dowitcher species were also feeding in the shallows.
9 greater white-fronted geese were busily grazing in the dense grasses on the water’s edge, later eclipsed by a skein of around 200 heading north over the flats.
Wildfowl included the expected shoveler, gadwall, green-winged teal, pintail, mallard and bufflehead, plus a female cinnamon teal. In flight it was clearly this species or blue-winged teal, but once I scoped it on the water it certainly looked like a cinnamon. 
At one point the waders, ducks and swallows went berserk, clearly indicating a raptor of some kind. Scanning the sky for the expected peregrine, I couldn’t locate a suspect. Then I noticed a female northern harrier quartering the water edges for a short time before gaining height and moving off north. 
Sadly work beckoned and I had to abandon my morning’s birding… man, I love spring!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Let's Twitch Again...

Well, it's been a week now since I got back from the Motherland and it seems like an age ago.

My daily lunchtime strolls down by Langford Lake have yielded a few notable sightings, my first orange-crowned warblers of the year plus yet more yellow-rumped warblers. On Tuesday, a little drizzle dropped around 200 swallows over the lake, mostly violet-green and tree swallows, with a handful of barns thrown in. At least 2 rufous hummingbirds are firmly defending territory, and the red-winged blackbirds continue to make their decidedly tropical racket from within the dense lakeside vegetation. White-crowned sparrows are now all over the place, singing their hearts out and a lone Lincoln's sparrow midweek was presumably off-passage. A couple of brown-headed cowbirds were my first for the year. No sign of osprey yet.

I've also had a couple of looks around the Government House grounds but there's been little going on there, beyond the usual stuff. Neotropical migrants remain distinctly thin on the ground, though this morning I had my first hermit thrushes of the spring - I heard at least 5, before finally seeing a couple. And a common yellowthroat was half-heartedly sub-singing from the shrubbery. A couple of Lincoln's sparrows were also seen, again presumably making their way through.

Today, I'd arranged to meet my pal Lynette at 2pm for a trek out to Island View Beach, so with time on my hands I thought I'd go to Panama Flats to see if I could catch sight of the yellow-headed blackbird found there this morning. These attractive icterids are scarce birds on the island, and with the added charm of a pair of cinnamon teal having been at the same location recently it seemed like I'd be silly not to go for a root about. And besides, I love birding at Panama Flats!

The place was teeming with wildfowl; lots of northern shovelers and green-winged teal, plus smaller numbers of mallard, Canada geese and bufflehead, along with 4 American wigeon and half a dozen gadwall. Oh, and the pair of cinnamon teal, that I first saw in flight, then later relocated having a snooze (pic). A single American coot was picking it way around the vegetated edges.
A single greater yellowlegs was the only wader I saw, with the exception of a couple of killdeer.

I found the yellow-headed blackbird sat in small tree by the grey building off Carey Road and managed to get a couple of crappy digi-snaps. It was hanging out with starlings and at one point was scrabbling around on the side of the road where it used its comparative bulk to steal a piece of nice white sliced bread from one of the starlings.
Common yellowthroats certainly seem to be back in force, I heard 3 or 4 and saw at least one. 

After grabbing a coffee and a snack Lynette and I headed off to Island View Beach to see what, if anything, we could find. We walked up to Saanichton spit and back but it wasn't particularly birdy - hardly surprising given the time of day.
Offshore, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, buffleheads and red-breasted mergansers were busily fishing. A couple of fine long-tailed ducks gave great views. Around 140 black brant were on the shore edge, and we had a low-flying skein of c80 greater white-fronted geese pass over.
Five greater yellowlegs and 2 dunlin were on the lagoon and a pair of Caspian terns (year-tick!) were roosting with the gulls.
Another first for the year, were 4 northern rough-winged swallows - one of which was gathering nesting material.
All in all, with lovely sunny weather and few year birds under the belt, it was a pretty great day. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Bit of Casual Birding in Blighty

The River Wenning, with Hornby Castle in the distance.
I have just returned from a brief but very enjoyable trip back to the motherland to attend my brother Dave's wedding.
With only a few days at my disposal I had to do the unthinkable and put birding to one side in favour of spending time with family and friends. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but notice a few things here and there and I expect that most north Americans reading this would be quite content to see many of the species that I spotted as I went about my business.

My hometown Lancaster is in north west England (above Manchester, below Scotland, on the edge of Morecambe Bay and close to the Lake District) and is a fairly rural city, surrounded by easily accessed countryside and a wide range of habitats. Therefore, it's pretty easy to see plenty of common British birds without having to go to any great lengths.

Here's a list of the birds I saw and /or heard in the few days I was there:

Wheatear (pic by Dan, nicked off the Aldcliffe blog)
Little grebe, Great cormorant, Grey heron, Mute swan, Greylag goose, Canada goose, Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Common teal, Tufted duck, Common eider, Goosander, Red-breasted merganser, Common buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Eurasian kestrel, Pheasant, Moorhen, Eurasian coot, Eurasian oystercatcher, Little ringed plover, Lapwing, Turnstone, Redshank, Spotted redshank, Greenshank, Curlew, Black-headed gull, Common gull, Herring gull, Lesser black-backed gull, Great black-backed gull, Wood pigeon, Stock dove, Collared dove, Green woodpecker, Skylark, Sand martin, Barn swallow, House martin, Water pipit, Meadow pipit, Pied wagtail, Grey wagtail, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Northern wheatear, Song thrush, Mistle thrush, Blackbird, Blackcap, Willow warbler, Chiffchaff, Great tit, Blue tit, Coal tit, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Magpie, Jackdaw, Rook, Carrion crow, Starling, House sparrow, Chaffinch, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfich, Reed bunting.

As well as Lancaster itself, I also visited Aldcliffe (my old patch), Hornby (where my parents live), the Conder Estuary, Dalton Woods, Dalton Crags and Morecambe.

The highlight was without doubt the water pipit. Not simply because of its relative scarcity, but the circumstances surrounding the sighting.
I was aware that a couple of the pipits had been present at a tidal pool by the Conder Estuary (a small river near the mouth of the much larger River Lune) for several days and as it happened the wedding reception was taking place at the the Stork Hotel, very close to this site. I casually mentioned this fact to my good pals Mark Witherall and Adrian 'Ziggy' Dawson (also wedding guests and fellow birders) and gauged their response to my suggestion that we could dash out during a lull in the proceedings. They both seemed agreeable. My brother Dave, the groom, had already been and seen the birds a couple of days previously so he wasn't to be diverted from his duties, but his blushing bride Steffi surprised the party by reaching under the dining table and grabbing her binoculars, adding "I'm coming with you, I've only seen one water pipit before!"
And so it was, that between the main course and dessert, the best man (me), the bride and two guests disappeared for half an hour as we walked briskly to the pools, spotted the bird and returned to join the celebrations.

A day to be remembered indeed... So, here's wishing Dave and Steffi a very happy future and many great birding moments together!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Spring Hopes, Eternal...

Another week has gone by, and barely a decent bird has passed my bins.
Selected highlights from my lunchtime walks around Langford Lake included my first rufous hummingbird of the spring, to the apparent consternation of one of the local Anna's hummingbirds.
A merlin was chased through by a trio of the latter species midweek, while turkey vultures, red-tailed hawk and bald eagles are seen just about daily.
Siskins are paired up and highly vocal, along with purple finches and the cacophonous red-winged blackbirds. Obvious migrants at the lake include increasing numbers of yellow-rumped warbler and a couple of violet-green swallows.
My visits to the Government House grounds in Victoria have been pretty unproductive over the past few days with no sign of any passage migrants. The local birds are getting on with the job of singing and nesting, etc. and keeping out of the way of the Cooper's hawks. A pair of presumed off-passage varied thrush were among a band of American robins on Saturday, but as many other Vancouver Island and BC birders are commenting, spring seems a little late this year. 
On Saturday night we had a barred owl hunting around the apartment and it gave us cool looks as it flew from the apple tree into the conifer by our back door.

Sunday, it was reasonably bright and dry and given the fact that I'll be away for a couple of weekends (heading back to dear old Blighty for my brother Dave's wedding) I thought I'd better get out and have what will probably be my last crack at locating a rock sandpiper this spring.
Needless to say, I didn't find one. Highlights of my coastal trawl included good numbers of black turnstone and surfbirds at many places (signs of northerly movement?). Other shorebirds included 2 each of killdeer, greater yellowlegs and dunlin (pic) at Oak Bay. A pair of hooded mergansers were close by so I took advantage and got a pic of the rather ridiculous looking drake.

Offshore, black guillemots and rhinoceros auklets were seen in their fine spring garb, a single long-tailed duck joined the multitude of surf scoters, common mergansers and buffleheads, while at Cattle Point a horned grebe almost in breeding plumage showed well (pic).
Singles of savannah sparrow and white-crowned sparrow were the only passerines of note seen here.

This time next week, I'll be tripping over northern wheatears, sand martins (bank swallows), sandwich terns, chiffchaffs, and other common stuff like that. I'll keep you posted!

* Stop Press - I forgot to mention that I saw my first butterflies of the year yesterday (Monday 2) - there were 3 Sara's orange tips flitting around down by Langford Lake in the early afternoon sunshine.