Saturday, 26 May 2012

Egrets, I've Had A Few

The Victoria area really is enjoying something of remarkable spring as far as rarities goes, and on Friday news broke of yet another major find.

A snowy egret, only the 5th record for the region, was found at Panama Flats (this site is enjoying one hell of a purple patch!) and had local birders dashing to catch up with the showy heron. Again, it's a species that I have seen literally hundreds of, but by Saturday afternoon I was entertaining thoughts of heading out to add it to my growing Vancouver Island list.
And so, Jenny and I went to Panama Flats to see if we could see the bird. Within a couple of minutes of arriving we could see a distinctive white shimmering blob on the far side of the flats and satisfied that the egret was still present we took our time, checking out other birds as we walked along the southern edge toward the south eastern quadrant.

3 drake blue-winged teal were showing well, as were a few gadwall, shoveler and several mallard with fuzzy broods in tow.
As we stopped to admire a couple of nearby spotted sandpipers, I noticed an odd looking bird on a small isle of vegetation in the near distance. The sun was behind it, but it was clearly a pluvialis plover of some sort. I got my 'scope on it, and could see that it was definitely a golden plover, even in terrible light. We swiftly repositioned ourselves to get a better look at it, and managed to get a couple of record shots of it.

Meanwhile, the egret had flown into another part of the wetland where it was hidden from view. No problem, this plover was far more interesting! I have very little experience of the Nearctic golden plovers, and those few that I have seen have all been in non-breeding plumage so this bird proved to be quite a challenge. I made a note of what few salient ID points I could remember, and convinced that I would miss something critical tried to get more shoddy digi-scoped pics. I was pretty convinced that I was looking at a Pacific golden plover, but I was going to have to wait till I got home to my books to confirm it.

Anyhoo, having now perused what info I have available, I am fairly sure that it is an adult female Pacific. There were a few slightly ambiguous elements to this bird, and so I'd be more than happy if anyone wishes to correct me!
Only present for around 15 minutes (heaven only knows how long it had actually been here), the plover soon took off, calling loudly as it headed over us and away, dropping briefly before deciding to push on, gaining height as it went.

The only other off-passage shorebird was a lone dowitcher (looked like a short-billed, but...) that was limping badly as it fed at the water's edge. On closer inspection it appeared to have some injury, close to its right leg. Something long and thin was visibly dangling from the wound, and it actually looked like intestine. Nice. 

The egret did fly back onto the SW pool, and gave great views - it was still happily fishing when we left around 4.30pm.  

(Apologies for the cliched blog post title, but it was too appropriate not to recycle it...)   

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Coho Trip Penguins Surprise

Jenny and I decided to commemorate our long-dead queen Vicky by being utterly traitorous and heading across the straits to the US for the long weekend. (Brit birders and non-birders alike may not be aware, but Monday was 'Victoria Day' over here). We had never been to Port Angeles before, and so we thought it was definitely worth exploring.
The 90 minute journey across the water was great, aboard the MV Coho. Seabirds were sadly few, with just the commoner pelagic species species seen heading out there, and again on the return journey. There were good numbers of rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots and common murres, plus smaller numbers of marbled murrelet and common loon seen. A tantalising sighting of 2 distant birds flying away from me appeared very much like common/Arctic sized terns but sadly they went unidentified. They were at least heading toward the island, so you never know... 
Small flocks of red-necked phalaropes were a delight to see as they scattered before the bow. There were also plenty of harbour porpoise breaking the surface of the flat calm water. California sealions and harbour seals also joined the oceanic menagerie.

There wasn't really much birding done once we hit dry land to be honest, and the few things that I did spot were much the usual birds we'd find in the Victoria area. We really enjoyed the trip and discovered some cool little shops and some excellent beers. I would like to do the ferry journey in better sea birding conditions though, I must say.
Talking of seabirds, one of the really brilliant things about this visit was my discovering a mint condition copy of Davis and Renner's book 'Penguins' in a used bookstore. Priced at a staggeringly good $3.99 I was thrilled to find it in the rather meager natural history section. Better still was the fact that when I enquired as to whether this shop offered discounts to Canadian residents (I wasn't just being cheeky, many local stores partake in a scheme to entice Canadian shoppers to part with their loot) I was told that yes, they do. I could either have 15% off the gnome salt and pepper shakers that Jenny had chosen (don't ask...) or, get this, I could have any used book for free! So, naturally I chose the better deal and got my penguin book gratis. Happy Victoria Day indeed!

Arriving back in BC on Monday afternoon I took a trek over to the Government House, aware that while we were gone the Victoria area had been awash with really good birds! Tufted puffins seen from my fairly regular haunt of McMicking Point, western kingbird and lazuli bunting at Christmas Hill and Brewer's sparrow near Swan Lake - surely something exciting was waiting for me in the garry oaks of Rockland? Apparently not.

Black-tailed deer
There was lots of brown-headed cowbird action going on, with birds chasing one another all over the place but otherwise there was nothing out of the ordinary. There were a few young bucks hanging around, all looking resplendent with their antlers in velvet.

 This evening I had another pootle around the grounds after work, and found myself dazzled by two fabulous male western tanagers. No matter how often I see these gaudy tropicalesque birds I never fail to have my breath taken away by their sheer beauty. Wish I could say the same about the cowbirds...

Saturday, 19 May 2012

New Arrivals and Lingering Bunting

Got out for a bit of early birding around the garry oak woodlands down at Government House this morning in the hope of finding a migrant or two.
As I walked along Joan Crescent I came across a fine willow flycatcher, sat in a silver birch in the yard of a house. That was a good start! A year tick just yards from home. What wonderful delight would be awaiting me in some proper habitat, I wondered?
Not much as it turned out. A male yellow warbler managed to further ignited my optimism soon after I arrived on the woodland trail, and there were Wilson's warblers singing all over the place but I soon came to realise that I had very much peaked early, and the rest of the morning's walk around the site was deathly quiet apart from 3 fly-over band-tailed pigeons and of course the common 'residents'.
I didn't meet another soul and had the place to myself for a good hour, which was rather pleasant.

Late in the afternoon I managed a quick swing by Clover Point. It was, as to be expected, extremely busy with people and hounds all over the place. Nonetheless, I was pleased to see that the snow bunting was still hanging around. I found it feeding initially along the concrete seawall on the east side of the point, and it soon flew up and started rooting around for seeds among the grass and, appropriately enough the clover, where I managed to take this utterly terrible shot. At least it shows clearly that it isn't a wayward McKay's bunting!  

Friday, 18 May 2012

A Pack of Pecs

I finally managed to get a snap of one the black-headed grosbeaks down at Langford Lake today, albeit a distant one.
These birds are a pain in the rear, always staying nicely out of range whenever I have a camera at hand and then practically landing on my head and singing whenever I don't...

There wasn't much else down there, apart from several bullfrogs. As non-natives to the island, these voracious amphibians are not particularly popular among local naturalists, with good reason. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist taking a pic or two.

I had planned to pay a visit to Panama Flats after work today, and so was even more determined when I heard that a flock of some FIFTY pectoral sandpipers had been seen there this morning. Pecs are relatively common passage migrants here but usually occur in small numbers, so I expect that this wad of waders was quite a sight to behold!
I arrived at the Flats after work to discover to my surprise that I was the only birder present. I assume the local listers had already been throughout the day to check the shorebird action. Almost immediately I came across a gang of 5 blue-winged teal in the SW quadrant - 3 drakes and 2 ducks. A nice year-tick to start the evening's birding!

Soon I could see several calidrid shapes feeding distantly on the muddy fringes of the SE quad. Within a short time I was scoping through a mass of pectoral sandpipers, and counted an astonishing 148 of the things! While counting the pecs, I also noticed a couple of spotted sandpipers, 7 dowitcher spp, 2 least sandpipers, a dunlin and a single western sandpiper. Bloody amazing stuff. Now THIS is what I call birding!

I tried and tried to locate a more interesting interloper and checked all the pecs for something with nice chevrons on the flanks and a rusty cap but my optimism went unrewarded.
A handsome solitary sandpiper was showing well along the vegetated edges.
As I approached the central berm I saw that were still yet more pectoral sandpipers on the pool in front of the grey building - a further 45. So, at the very least there were 193 pectoral sandpipers in the area! I expect you could probably add another 40 or so to that figure to have something close to a real estimate.  
One thing for sure, I saw more pec sandpipers today that I have collectively seen in my life.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

That Was The Week That Was

On Tuesday evening I was joined by Lynette Browne for a walk around the Government House grounds, to see if any interesting migrants had dropped in. The wind had picked up considerably during the day, and as a result there were very few birds feeding in the oak canopy, or anywhere else for that matter!
The highlight was my first olive-sided flycatcher of the spring, hunting from a tall snag. We bumped into Steven Roias who similarly reported little of note.

Earlier in the day I had stopped off at Clover Point before heading out to work. 
I was hoping that the snow bunting reported for last couple of days might still be around, and after a bit of searching I located it feeding among some kelp strewn rocks on the water’s edge. 

It appears to be a female, still moulting into breeding plumage. I managed a couple of record shots, as you can see here.
A single ‘Hudsonian’ whimbrel (photographed) was also present feeding on the weedy rocks on the western edge of the point, as were a pair of dunlin and a handful of black oystercatchers, harlequins, etc. Several rhinoceros auklet were close inshore.
A smart summer plumaged spotted sandpiper was picking its way along the tideline by the boat slipway.

At lunchtime I went out for my daily stroll down by Langford Lake. 3 black-headed grosbeaks showed well, including one in full spectacular courtship flight / song.
Rufous hummingbirds continue to show in good numbers (pic below) and I also saw my first monarch butterfly of the year.  

I didn’t get chance to check out the 2 Wilson’s phalaropes at Panama Flats over the weekend, so I made an effort to get there for an hour or so early on Monday morning. Unfortunately the phalaropes had moved on, and shorebirds were generally thin on the ground.  
I could only find 4 greater yellowlegs, 2 spotted sandpiper, 1 dunlin, 6 western sandpiper, 1 least sandpiper and 9 dowitchers (both long-billed and short-billed present, thanks to calls!). 4 American pipits feeding on the muddy grass were joined by a further 19 that dropped in. I met Ian Cruickshank, who I hadn't seen for a while and he was doing a survey of the site, in an effort to provide some meaningful data in the hope that Panama Flats can be managed with birds in mind in the future.

I didn’t get too much birding done over the weekend, although Jenny and I enjoyed a day out on Sunday exploring the Jordan River and Port Renfrew areas. Birds were minimal, other than the expected species. 3 California gulls were a pleasant surprise at Jordan River (they have been pretty scarce this spring) and I did see 3 Steller’s jays, which also seem to be pretty hard to find in the south of the island lately. The scenery was spectacular of course, and we had a great deal of fun exploring the rock pools and watching the crashing waves at Botanical Beach.

I had managed a quick blast around the Government House before we headed out, the highlight of this visit being my first western tanager of the spring (a female) pus a Townsend’s warbler and an apparent overnight arrival of yellow-rumped warblers which were all over the place! A late nesting Anna’s hummingbird (pic) is presumably having a go at a second brood?

On Saturday I had done my Coastal Birds Survey from McMicking Point to Harling Point, but there wasn’t much going on. The highlight of the survey being the 4 whimbrel near the golf course. A check of the Government House revealed a house wren and Townsend’s warbler.

On Friday I spied my first warbling vireo of the year in the Gov. House grounds along with a couple of Townsend’s warblers and several Wilson’s warblers.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

At last - I Saw A Sora

It was a tad breezy yesterday (Tuesday) but I thought I’d head out to Panama Flats for a spot of post-work birding, just in case anything interesting had dropped in. Given the enticing solitary sandpipers, blue-winged teals and redheads that have been found in the Victoria area over the past couple of days it seemed that things were certainly on the move.

Cackling goose
However, Panama Flats was pretty quiet and it was clear from the moment that I arrived that there were few birds around. A handful each of northern shoveler and gadwall graced the pools, along with 3 bufflehead, a few green-winged teal and American wigeon. There were also mallards with ducklings, Canada geese sat on nests, a lone cackling goose (pictured) and 15 greater white-fronted geese present.
There was a dearth of shorebirds, with just 20 or so least sandpipers and 6 western sandpipers to be found. A couple of pairs of killdeer were also on site.

Barn swallows
Huge numbers of swallows kept things interesting, the bulk being barn (pictured) and violet-greens. Small numbers of tree swallows were hawking over the water, as were 3 or 4 each of cliff and northern rough-winged swallows.
Brit birders will notice from the attached pic, just how much more ‘pink’ the underparts are on north American erythrogaster race barn swallows, compared with nominate European birds. The blue breast band is also much reduced, and often altogether absent on the American subspecies.

Weekend round-up

On Saturday I had a quick root around the Government House grounds late in the afternoon. There wasn't much going on, though a Townsend's solitaire managed to brighten up the proceedings. A drifting gaggle of 8 turkey vultures were heading slowly along the coast, and stopped off over the Gvt House for a good sniff around.
The female Cooper's hawk was sat on top of the nest; she's quite a formidable bird! There appears to be just the one pair breeding here this year, and they have chosen a far less obscure location in a more ornamental part of the grounds. 

Fairy Slipper Orchid
Sunday, Jenny and I decided we’d head out to Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, given that the weather was wonderful, sunny and warm. Our last visit to this area was marred somewhat by low cloud and drizzle, so we wanted to go back and walk up to Squally Reach to take in the legendary views of the Saanich Inlet and the Malahat.  

En route however, we made a short detour and stopped by at Maber Flats. I wasn’t too sure if the black-necked stilts were still present, but what I did know was that a couple of sora had been heard calling here in recent days. And as exciting as the stilts are in a local context, the secretive rails were of far greater interest to me as they are something of a 'bogey-bird'.

We arrived to find Jeremy Gatten and Jeremy Kimm (what is the collective noun for Jeremies?) busily scanning the watery vegetation, also in search of the diminutive rails.
They had determined that at least 2 birds were calling, but weren’t being terribly cooperative. After a while we figured out that there were in fact 3 vocalising, but as to be expected they were keeping a low profile.

At one point Jenny asked for my bins. Having learnt through many years’ experience that this request isn't to be ignored, I handed them over immediately (Jen has found several good birds with the power of her keen naked eye, so I never refuse…). Then came the immortal words “I think I have one”, and indeed she did! It emerged briefly, as I grappled the binocs away from her as it did an about-turn, scurrying off into the dense grasses once more, calling all the way. At last, I had seen a sora!
Despite the tolerable frequency with which the they turn up in the UK as vagrants, I had never bothered twitching one, convinced that I would run into one in the Americas somewhere, eventually.  And while the views were hardly crippling, they would certainly do. I will be going back for an attempt to get a better look, as soon as I get a nice calm rail-finding-friendly day.   
Oh, and while we were there at Maber Flats we did see those 4 black-necked stilts that everyone’s been raving about. Thanks to the inept fieldcraft of a camo-bedecked photographer we also saw a cinnamon teal, which was unceremoniously flushed while the snapper crept ever closer to the stilts. I suspect any attempts by these handsome waders to breed (it would be a first for Vancouver Island, incidentally) may be jeopardized by such shoddy behavior. Sigh…

Picnic time at Squally Reach
Our trek up to Squally Reach was great fun, and I even added multiple Pacific-slope flycatchers to my year-list. Other birds seen and heard along the way included pileated woodpecker, Townsend’s warbler and other common denizens of the uplands. The walk was brightened further by the many wildflowers encountered along the way, including western trillium, shooting stars and fairy slipper orchids (pictured above).

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Water, water everywhere.

Just got back from a few days in Portland, Oregon where I was attending a conference on water quality. The fun never ends!
Anyhoo, if anyone up here is wondering where 'their' yellow-rumped warblers are, I can tell you; they're still in Portland. The city was absolutely awash with them. I saw literally hundreds every time I stepped out from the hotel or conference centre. Small clouds of them were descending and landing all over the place, flitting from pavement (sidewalk) to bushes to small trees surrounding car parks. I didn't see or hear any other warbler species among them.
The only other notable northbound birds included a skein of approximately 80 greater white-fronted geese over the east side of the city.
The undoubted avian highlight of my short visit was the smart western scrub jay that I came across in a slightly less than salubrious part of town while heading out to a gig by the wonderful Lambchop. I suppose I didn't really expect to see the jay so far north, and in such urban habitat.
Shows what I know.