Friday, 29 June 2012

Brit Birder In Okanagan, BC

Western meadowlark
Last Thursday (21st) Jenny and I took the 7pm ferry from Swarz Bay, Victoria and headed over to Tsawassen on the mainland. From there we drove east to Chilliwack where we spent the night at the rather lovely Vedder River Inn.

On Friday morning, once we’d filled our bellies with a hearty cooked breakfast we continued on our way: destination Penticton, in the Okanagan Valley. 
For the most part the drive was reasonably pleasant, but wasn’t too exciting bird-wise. We saw American kestrel, Vaux’s swift and other common BC birds en route along the Coquihalla Highway, the first ‘non-island’ species really being noted once we stopped for a drink and a leg-stretch at Merritt. 

Mountain bluebird
A pair of mountain bluebirds were feeding young in a nestbox just behind the Visitor Centre, I didn’t want to get too close but I still managed to get one reasonable shot of the male, with some heavy cropping.
Close by, a couple of male Calliope hummingbirds were in dispute and showed brilliantly once they settled down on their respective territory borders. Always great to see these little gems!

Vasseux cliffs
We continued along Highway 97 stopping for a short while by Vasseaux Lake. Here I got out and explored the gravel road that runs along the foot of the cliffs and had great views of several white-throated swifts overhead. I had a trundle around and came across a smart lark sparrow, the first I’ve seen in many years (I saw a few more in the next few days). A singing Western meadowlark provided the soundtrack, but I couldn’t find any of the rock dwelling wrens I was hoping might be present.

All along the highway from here to Peachland the roadside wires and fences hosted Eastern kingbirds and we eventually wound our way to Pentiction where we found our motel and got our bearings.

Eastern kingbird
The reason we were here was because Jenny was working at the annual Elvis Festival that takes place in the town, and I had decided to come along to help her out and hopefully get some interior birding in!
That evening we made the short trip to nearby Max Lake. This wetland area sits in a small ponderosa pine clad canyon and is renowned as a good site for common poorwill, among other things.

The place was positively jumping with birds. Bullock’s orioles, black-headed grosbeaks, willow flycatchers, grey catbirds, American goldfinches and a host of other species were plentiful. And I even saw a yellow-pine chipmunk. I liked this place so much that I actually visited three times over the next couple of days.
Unfortunately, my two evening visits didn’t reward me with any sightings of the small nightjar, despite the fact that I could hear them all over the place! The weather was uncharacteristically stormy and wet, and I suspect that the muddy, pool-filled road wasn’t quite as enticing location for their bug-hunting forays as would normally be the case… 
I did bag one lifer here, Cassin’s finch. These attractive birds were easily found in the pines and their songs could be heard all around. Other interesting species at Max Lake included common nighthawk, sora (the latter heard only) and a grouse that I flushed but rapidly disappeared before I could get anything on it.

By Sunday afternoon we were all Elvised out and were looking forward to driving down to Osoyoos with a few stops on the way.

Long-billed curlew
Both Ian Cruikshank and Mike Force had given me some great tips and locations to check out so Jenny and I grabbed some grub in Oliver and headed off to Road 22 in search of grassland birds.
This area is being managed to provide a remnant of a fast-declining habitat in the Okanagan, and is famously the breeding location of long-billed curlew. More importantly, as far as I was concerned, it is also a known site for the declining bobolink. Soon after we had pulled over in the small parking area I heard and saw a stunning male bobolink in the adjacent field. During our time here we saw 3 males and 2 females – another lifer in the bag! Now it doesn’t seem so annoying that I turned down that offer to twitch one at Spurn (UK) in 2001.

Western kingbird
In this area we also saw dazzling yellow-headed blackbirds, bank swallows, a pair of redhead, a western kingbird and even a lone curlew, which I was pleased to be able to point out to another birder who seemed quite keen to see one. 

While in this area we also checked out the nearby Haynes Lease Eco Reserve; a sizeable area of sagebrush sandwiched between vineyards and other agricultural lands.
By now the weather had really improved and the sun was belting down, making the place seem more like Arizona or California than British Columbia.

Jenny in Haynes Lease Eco Reserve
More Bullock’s orioles showed nicely and we found a few western bluebirds and western meadowlarks too.
The real highlight however came in the form of my third (and long overdue) tick of the trip -  Say’s phoebe. We saw at least 3 here, which was a real blessing as we didn’t come across any anywhere else over the long weekend.
The most frustrating sighting involved 3 falcons that were noisily flying around high over ‘The Throne’ cliffs.

Say's phoebe
The brief and distant views were highly suggestive of prairie falcon, but I wasn’t able to confidently clinch them 100%. The light was above them, and they appeared to have wholly dark underwings that contrasted heavily with whitish underparts and when they banked they appeared to have pale rumps/uppertail areas. I’m pretty positive they weren’t peregrines, and they definitely weren’t either of the smaller common falcons, but as I have never seen prairie falcon I’m certainly not ticking it on those stringy views!

We left the Road 22 area and headed on to Osoyoos where we stayed our last night in the Okanagan. I had plans to go and look for Williamsons' sapsuckers at a reliable site on Monday morning, but the rain returned in force overnight and scuppered those plans. So, we set off and drove back via the Crowsnest Highway, seeing little of note on the way - a gray jay and red-breasted sapsucker being the scant highlights.
We just made it to Tsawassen by the skin of our teeth, in time to catch the 5pm ferry.
So, with 3 new birds happily added to my world list, but several still eluding me I expect another trip to the beautiful OK valley must be made - only next time, I'll be hoping for some better weather.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Summertime Blues

Mid-June. It was always the same back in the UK. We get into the summer months and every active Brit birder becomes somewhat despondent. The weather fails to live up to the promise of the season and birds are generally quieter, busily getting on with the job of raising the next generation or quietly skulking around and taking advantage of the bounty of available food in advance of the onset of the autumn.
Some failed breeders may start moving south already, but they’re generally thin on the ground and while mid-summer historically throws up some really stunning mega rarities, for the most part we birders have a hard time finding anything to ruffle our feathers until the post-nesting shorebirds start moving through in earnest.
Like other keen naturalists I do at least get a kick from butterflies and dragonflies, and enjoy trying to identify and photograph the many species found here in BC. Recently I’ve been getting frequent looks at big easy-to-identify critters such as mourning cloak (aka Camberwell beauty) and western tiger swallowtails.
Another way to get something out of the leaner summer months is to go somewhere where even the commoner birds are different, and with this in mind I’m hoping to find a few goodies as I travel to the Okanagan next week. As it happens, Jenny has a couple of days’ work in Penticton so I chivalrously opted to join her. It had nothing to do with the likelihood of seeing Eastern and Western kingbirds, Western bluebirds, Lewis’s woodpeckers, rock wrens or any of the other interior specialities I might encounter en route… In fact, there are actually a handful of potential ticks for me out there, so the option of spending my free time walking around Victoria's Government House grounds looking at Bewick’s wrens and bushtits hardly seems like an alluring alternative.  

Anna's hummingbird nest - Government House grounds
Despite the onset of the summertime blues, I have noticed a couple of interesting things just lately, from occasional olive-sided flycatchers in the aforementioned Government House – where I also had good looks at a peregrine as it drifted leisurely over the garry oak woodland yesterday – to hearing a Pacific-slope flycatcher calling by the house this morning. 
My apres-lunch stroll down by Langford Lake today afforded me superb views of Swainson's thrush, black-headed grosbeak and a willow flycatcher - all in song. Lovely! 
This evening it was nice to see recently fledged chipping sparrows noisily following their parents around the G.H. grounds, while another lone willow flycatcher implied the ongoing arrival of a few tardier summer migrants.

Last Friday Lynette Brown and I had an early evening scout around Panama Flats where the highlights included a surprise mourning dove, a very showy singing marsh wren and a female purple martin that kindly dropped in for a short while.  

To be included in the ‘ones that got away’ file; while I was in Chemainus on Sunday with Jenny I noticed a flock of around 20 large birds flying very high, in a raggle-taggle‘v’ formation. They were huge birds, heading west-south-west over the town and I couldn’t think for the life of me what they might be. I was, uncharacteristically, binocularless and the only things I could imagine them being were maybe unseasonal, wandering sandhill cranes. They really were a long way up, and I couldn’t get anything on them at all, other than the fact that were clearly very big birds.
On Monday a flock of 20 American white pelican (a major rarity on the island) were reported flying over Highway 17, near Saanichton. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but boy do I wish I’d had my bins with me on Sunday… 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rails and Railways

Harling Point, Oak Bay
On Sunday I did my Coastal Waterbird Survey from Gonzales Point to Harling Point in Oak Bay . Although the optimum season for the survey runs from fall to spring, it's interesting to see which species can be found during the summer months.
Offshore there was quite a bit of activity with lots of rhinoceros auklets, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, as well as the ubiquitous glaucous-winged gulls, all hitting into a common food source. Despite growing numbers of California gulls at nearby Clover Point, I only found a single bird on the entire count stretch.
Several non-breeding harlequin ducks were present at McMicking Point, while the only shorebirds seen were the resident black oystercatchers.
As the summer progresses I will doubtless see the steady movement of southbound waders, and if I’m lucky something more unusual might well appear along the commoner bird species.

The abandoned railway line by Langford Lake
My daily trundle alongside Langford Lake on Monday was vastly improved by the fact that the sun came out and as a result, so did the insects. Another mourning cloak flitted by, as did a dazzling western tiger swallowtail while a couple of fast moving dragonflies evaded specific identification.
As I walked along the old rail line adjacent to he footpath, three black-headed grosbeaks continued to sing, with two showing well in the glorious sunshine. Also singing but keeping resolutely hidden from view were a couple of Swainson’s thrushes. Closer to the office, an adult chipping sparrow was gathering food for a fledged youngster nearby.

Panama Flats, Victoria
By late afternoon the clouds had rolled in and it looked as thought some rain might be on the way. Regardless, I headed for Panama Flats after work just to see what was going on there. I was pleased to see that there is still quite a bit of water around, and as a result a reasonable selection of birds.
At least 3 pairs of spotted sandpiper were noted, and a trio of fledged killdeer were keeping their noisy parents on edge. 
There were plenty of Canada geese with goslings at various stages of development and numerous mallard broods were scattered around the site. Unseasonal wildfowl was represented by a couple of pairs of gadwall and, perhaps more surprisingly, a pair of blue-winged teal remain on site.
A Virginia rail, unlike good Victorian children, was heard and not seen as it squeeled away from the depths of the dense vegetation surrounding the small deep pool just south of the grey building.
Just as I was leaving the Flats I noticed the distinctive shapes of two purple martins moving high toward the site. As they approached I was surprised to see a pair of violet-green swallows intercept them, scolding the larger swallows until they drifted off back in the direction from which they’d come. A brief but welcome sight, these were the first purps that I’ve seen this year!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Birds and Otters and Snakes, Oh My!

On Thursday evening, I met with Lynette Brown and Steven Roias for a spot of local birding.
Lynette’s bins are in the optics hospital, so I was happy to lend her my spare pair (my trusty old Swift Audubons that accompanied me on many twitching and birding forays around Britain, Europe and beyond for many years).

We started out at a breezy Clover Point, and despite our best efforts found little of note. The expected multitude of sub-adult California gulls were much in evidence, among the regular glaucous-winged gulls. Offshore all we could see were pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants and the other typical birds to be found here at this time of year. A river otter showed nicely as it inspected the tideline rocks.

We next headed up to the Government House grounds, with migrants on our minds. It wasn’t excessively birdy, but we did come across a couple of Pacific-slope flycatchers (the first I’ve seen in the grounds this spring). At one point I mentioned how I had yet to see a rufous hummingbird within the Government House gardens and woodlands this year, and we had a discussion about the high density of Anna's hummingbirds and how these larger resident birds doubtless out-compete the smaller summer visitors. Coincidentally, we soon came across a rufous hummer... perhaps, while fortune was shining on us we should have talked about how I hadn't seen a black phoebe instead?

My lunchtime trek by Langford Lake yesterday (Friday) started off with a fly-by Eurasian collared dove, soon after which a band-tailed pigeon flapped by. There was nothing much doing on the lake itself, but a lone bald eagle was keeping sentinel from a dead tree on one the small islands. Turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk were soaring over the forest-clad hillsides. 
A warbling vireo was flitting around gathering caterpillars in the willows near the boardwalk while Swainson's thrush, red-winged blackbird, brown-headed cowbirds and other common birds provided the soundtrack.
A western wood-pewee was actively flycatching from a snag alongside the railway line, and I came across the lovely little herp shown here as I walked along the tracks. I believe it's a western garter snake, but I'll be happy to be corrected if anyone wishes to tell me otherwise. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

California Dreamin'

California gull, Clover Point
Not done too much birding in recent days, unfortunately.
I did manage to get down to Clover Point briefly on Sunday afternoon, but of course it was under siege by a thousand dog walkers, kite fliers and rock hopping day trippers. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice the sudden influx of California gulls. The majority of the 40-odd birds present were 2nd and 3rd years, plus a lone adult. (The photo of the California gull here is one that I took at Clover Point last year.)
I noticed that Ian Cruikshank had gone down there later the same day and posted some 65 birds. Looking at last year's notes, I didn't notice the first notable arrival of California gulls at Clover Point until almost two weeks after this date.
The only other things of note were 9 black oystercatchers.

The Government House grounds continued to hold up to 3 olive-sided flycatchers over much of the weekend but by Sunday afternoon they had moved on, leaving just one very vocal western wood-pewee.
Looks like we're getting a bit late for a repeat of last year's lazuli bunting sighting, but you never know...

Meanwhile, my lunchtime walks to Langford Lake continue to provide a little light birding relief, and today I added two new species for my non-existent lake-list. A pair of wood duck were paddling around near the boat launch, and the Swainson's thrush that has been loudly singing from the vegetated depths for the past few days finally gave superb views as it belted out its clamorous song.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Turn(stone) Up For The Books

It’s been a funny old week.
The weather has taken something of turn for the worse, and despite the fact that it’s now the 1st of June, there is a dank and depressing cloak of mizzle sitting over the Victoria area today.
But while the temperatures may be failing to soar, and that yellow ball in the sky remains mostly hidden, there is at least some compensation for the active birder. Drizzly conditions, even at this time of year, can often result in causing northbound birds to drop from the ether and feed up for a while before continuing their journey.
Of course, grotty weather also famously causes migrating birds to lose their bearings and get lost, which means that all manner of vagrants can show up. So it really pays to get out and see what’s lurking in those bushes, fields and headlands!

While hardly a vagrant, ruddy turnstones are a fairly scarce bird in these parts so I was delighted to spy one picking through the seaweed strewn rocks off Clover Point yesterday evening. Back in the UK, any Brit birder who lives near the coast will be pretty familiar with these common shorebirds.  I would regularly see large numbers on my daily lunchtime walks along Morecambe’s Stone Jetty, pretty much ignoring the turnstones as I scanned through them in search of a purple sandpiper or two.
Over here though, ruddy turnstones are a scarce spring passage bird. Without doubt one of the most spectacular of all waders when in full breeding plumage, the Clover Point bird was an immaculate example of the species. And, the first that I've seen in BC!

Earlier in the day, I had noticed quite an influx of passerine activity around Langford Lake. Yellow warblers seemed to be all over the place, and a couple of smart western tanagers also put in an appearance. Two of the 3 singing black-headed grosbeaks showed nicely, and the rufous hummingbirds in-residence continue to harass every passing bird. Cedar waxwings have arrived too in the last week and at least one pair appear to be on territory.

Olive-sided flycatcher
On Wednesday, I had intended to go to Maber Flats to see if the proposed water pumping had gone ahead and how that had impacted on the nesting black-necked stilts, but with one thing and another I had to postpone that visit. 
I managed to find an hour to check out the Government House after work however and the drizzly conditions had at least resulted in producing a minimum of 3 olive-sided flycatchers and a western wood-pewee. A male Wilson's warbler may have been a late off-passage bird, or perhaps a local breeder? It was good to see a couple of fledged broods of red-breasted nuthatch, comically dangling in a cluster as they fed together, and a couple of young downy woodpeckers were trailing their parents through the canopy of the garry oaks.

My lunchtime wander by the lake today was pretty uneventful, with the exception of a rather tatty looking mourning cloak butterfly (known by the name of Camberwell beauty in Britain, fact-fans) that not only showed well but actually landed on my arm! A Sara's orange-tip was was also in the same area.
After work I escaped to the Government House to see if much was going on. A couple of olive-sided flycatchers were busily catching bugs around the place and at least one, possibly two, western wood-pewees were also in the 'hood. 
A fancy male western tanager brightened up one gloomy corner, but there was little else of note aside from the usual breeding species.

With a reasonable forecast for the weekend ahead, it will be interesting to see what turns up.