Tuesday, 31 July 2012

See You Later, Alligator

This time last year Panama Flats still held a fair amount of water. In fact there was enough water to attract some reasonably impressive numbers of shorebirds well into the third week of August. Mid-month we were still seeing sizeable gatherings of least and western sandpipers, plus we had pectoral sandpipers dropping in.  Not so this year, as the pools are all but gone and very few waders can be found.
So, on Sunday afternoon I thought I’d go and see what was going on up at Maber Flats, one of the few places in the Victoria area that might still have enough water to attract passing shorebirds. Jenny got out a lawn chair and her current read and settled in for a spell while I trundled off to see what I could find.
The water levels looked promising. Scanning around I could see the 5 cinnamon teal all huddled together, while rafts of mallard and Canada geese paddled around in the muddy pools.
In the shallows I picked out 4 greater yellowlegs and 2 lesser yellowlegs, plus a twittering gang of 19 long-billed dowitchers. 5 least sandpipers were picking their way around the edges and at least 11 spotted sandpiper were scattered around the site.
A couple of times my attention was drawn skyward as the swallow’s alarm calls heralded the arrival of something sinister. An immaculate adult peregrine came piling in and made a handful of unsuccessful strikes at the assembled would-be-banquet. An impressive falcon, this was surely a female given its formidable size and bulk. Each time the peregrine came in for the kill the shorebirds would wheel around calling frantically, while a cloud of agitated swallows pursued the hunting raptor, appearing like a swarm of mosquitoes.
A marsh wren was rattling away from the trackside and there were charms of American goldfinches feeding around the place, but other than savannah sparrows, chipping sparrows, Brewer’s blackbirds, etc there wasn’t too much other passerine activity on offer.
As I returned to Jenny and her al fresco lounge, we noticed a smart short-legged reptile scuttling across the gravel. At last – my first sighting of Northwestern alligator lizard! It moved rather too keenly for me to get a photo of it but I was delighted to finally see this BC native here on Vancouver Island. 

We then dropped by at Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, taking the relatively short and easy Tod Inlet Trail in the northern end of the park. I had never been to this part of the park before, although Jenny had.
Of course the forest was quiet, after all it was mid-afternoon on a sunny July day. Down by the inlet there were several purple martins still attending their nestboxes at the pilings, and filling the air with their wonderful chattering. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Barn Again

Barn owl by Mia McPherson
I recently had the good fortune of seeing a barn owl here on the island, one of my favourite birds of all time and my first in BC. In fact, this was the first sighting of the North American race of this globally widespread bird that I have ever clapped eyes on. 

As any Brit birder knows, barn owls are pretty common in many parts of the UK, though they’re not always all that easy to find. Thankfully, British barn owls are far more prone to hunting in daytime hours than their new world cousins and as a result many birdwatchers on the Olympic side of the pond get the chance to observe them with tolerable frequency.
Here in British Columbia, however barn owls are really rather scarce and in a wider Canadian context they’re seriously thin on the ground. Apparently there are fewer than 300 pairs in BC and just a tiny population found further east in southern Ontario. Compare that with the estimated 4000 or so pairs resident in the UK and it’s easy to see why I was so delighted to watch the ghostly form of a ‘barnie’ here on Vancouver Island.

One of the many interesting things about the North American barn owl is its scientific name. The nominate race is known as Tyto alba, while the one here is Tyto alba pratincola. Any globally minded birder will immediately see why the American subspecies’ name might be so intriguing...
In Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia one can find members of an unusual family of aerial feeding, swallow-like shorebirds called pratincoles. I’ve long since wondered about the provenance of that odd sounding name, but until now haven’t actually looked into it.
Well, dear reader, I blew the dust off my trusty copy of the Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names and read that the name is derived from the Latin words prātum, meaning meadow and incola which means resident. 
So there it is. It applies perfectly to those dashing pratincoles that habitually frequent short grassy meadows and plains while it also clearly reflects the preferred habitat of the barn owl.
The pic of barn owl here is clearly not my own work (it’s sharp and well-taken, if you need a clue…) but I stole (or ‘borrowed’) it from Mia McPherson’s superb OneWingPhotography – a site full of stunning wildlife images - check it out.

Indian Pipe
Things have been extremely hectic at work just lately, and as a result my lunchtime ambles have been severely compromised. I did manage a quick wander out to Langford Lake on Tuesday, and while the birding was fairly quiet (Swainson’s thrush, cedar waxwings, etc) I did come across a cluster of one of the most intriguing plants one can find in BC. 
The Indian pipe, also known as ghost plant and corpse plant, is an uncommon species often found in shaded, dark forest floors. The most bizarre thing about this odd plant is that it doesn’t contain chlorophyll, hence its eerie colouration. That also means that it doesn’t photosynthesize, and therefore can survive perfectly well in locations where sunlight is at a premium. The Indian pipe gets its energy via specific fungi, which thrive off the roots of trees. Quite a complex set of parasitical relationships!  

Blue Dasher
Around the lake edge, there were scores of dragonflies including the smart blue dasher pictured here (this is one of mine).

Later on Tuesday, I stopped off at Panama Flats to see if any waders were still probing around in what few pools still remain. There were still 20-plus least sandpipers, 6 western sandpipers, 2 lesser yellowlegs, 1 greater yellowlegs, 4 spotted sandpiper and a single long-billed dowitcher hanging in there, as well as multiple killdeer.
A smaller accipter was seen briefly flying around the perimeter of the site, but I couldn’t tell whether it was a sharp-shinned hawk or just a wee male Cooper’s from the crappy views I got.
It looks like the flats will drop off most local birders’ radars now that it’s almost completely dry, but it still looks pretty promising for enticing passing ‘prairie’ shorebirds – buff-breasted or upland sandpiper anyone?       

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Wandering tattler wanders back...

Wandering tattler - Ogden Point
As I mentioned in my post More Flats Birding last week, it's about that time of year for the first wandering tattler to show up in the Victoria area.
These charismatic waders are not exactly rare on Vancouver Island, but they're uncommon enough to generate a fair amount of interest from local birdwatchers. Most years there are usually a handful of records from scattered localities, but here in the south island Ogden Point is just about the most consistent site for them.
Having failed to locate one last weekend, this afternoon I decided to give it another go. The tide was pretty high and as I scanned around the few exposed rocks in the pilot dock harbour I soon spotted the distinctive shape of a snoozing tattler.

A fisherman walking along the lower tier of the breakpoint soon flushed it and it flew fortuitously toward me, landing just a few metres away. Thrusting my pocket digital camera up to the eyepiece of my 'scope, I got a quick shot of it before it few off once again (pic above). The bird was quite mobile, moving frequently from one area to another, but eventually settled back on its original rock (second pic).
If last year is anything to go by, this bird could well stick around for a while. One remained at Ogden Point into August in 2011, and there were 2 birds tattlers present on one day in late July. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Little Change In Shorebird Numbers

Semipalmated sandpiper
I just can't keep away from those Flats!
Managed to stop by for an hour at Panama Flats after work on Thursday evening. Nothing much had changed, with the exception of the further diminished water levels.
There were still around 60 small waders present, again the majority being least sandpipers and western sandpipers. I could only find one semipalmated sandpiper today (pictured) in among a group on the NW quadrant.
There were 2 greater yellowlegs and 1 lesser yellowlegs moving around the place. A single dowitcher sp. was present again, but remained silent.
I couldn't see the solitary sandpiper anywhere, but there were 3 or 4 unspotted juvenile spotted sandpipers creeping around. I only checked the SW and NW quadrants, so it may have been elsewhere.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A shore thing...

This evening I retraced yesterday's footsteps and had a trundle around those Flats known locally as Panama.
Once again, the sun was bright and warm. This makes viewing small waders as they beetle around the muddy fringes of a rapidly diminishing wetland an absolute delight - each feather and subtle structural detail comes alive in the 'scope. However, it's bloody awful for digiscoping and everything comes out hideously contrasty and fuzzy. No mind.
There were still low numbers of birds present, but it was all about quality rather than quantity once again. Among the 50 or so peeps in the SW quadrant, there were two cracking semipalmated sandpipers. The remainder were made up of least and western sandpipers, with slightly more of the former than the latter species. Anyone wanting to scrutinise the subtle differences between smaller calidrids could do worse than visit Panama Flats right now while there are relatively few birds to sift through.

Yet another lesser yellowlegs pic...
Also probing around in the gloop were a lesser yellowlegs and a single dowitcher that was highly suggestive of short-billed.
A solitary sandpiper was still present, creeping around on the vegetated edges of the receding pool.
Over in the NW quadrant, a greater yellowlegs was busily fishing in the shallows.
As I walked along the central bund the swallows alerted me to the arrival of a sub-adult male northern harrier. It came in from the direction of Carey Road and briefly quartered the SE quad before gaining height and proceeding to circle high over the flats. The swallows then got really excited and as I looked up to see what the fuss was about a peregrine appeared. These swallows are really good at raptor ID, reserving their more manic calls for genuinely threatening species!
Soon afterwards, a tatty Cooper's hawk had a go at snatching a bit of supper from the gathered waders but went away empty taloned.

Solitary sandpipers defy convention

Yesterday (Tues) evening, I stopped off at Panama Flats on my way home.
The water levels were extremely low, and unless we get a bit of decent rain in the next few weeks we may just end up missing  some of the peak shorebird passage.
Even with little water, there were enough birds present to indicate that post-breeeding dispersal is well underway.

The undoubted highlight was a smart solitary sandpiper that showed well intermittently - when it wasn't hiding among the emergent vegetation. I bumped into another birder there (a fellow ex-pat Brit by the name of Mark) and we were quite convinced that there were two solitaries.
I didn't actually see two birds at any one time, but I fail to see how one individual could have been quite so mobile, and fly unseen, as to get from one area of the quadrant to the other so frequently. At one point Mark was quite sure that he could see two birds in his field of view.

Lesser yellowlegs, Panama Flats
There were fewer than 40 peeps in the SW quadrant, the majority being least sandpipers. A few western sandpipers were also in the mix, as were a pair of classic semipalmated sandpipers.
A lone greater yellowlegs was also feeding in the quadrant, as well as a single juvenile spotted sandpiper and good numbers of killdeer.

Over on the NW quadrant, there was a little more standing water and a dainty lesser yellowlegs (my first of the 'fall' - pictured) was wading around alongside a single killdeer and couple more least sands.

On Monday, I managed a quick walk out of the office to Langford Lake at lunchtime and noticed that a couple of belted kingfishers were back in the area. An osprey passed over, the first I've seen at the lake this year.
Dragonflies were much in evidence with four-spotted skimmer, common whitetail and blue dasher all adding a splash of colour to my wee amble.

Monday, 16 July 2012

More Flats Birding

I didn’t get much birding in over the weekend, but I did manage an hour or so at Panama Flats late Saturday morning and a spell at Maber Flats in the afternoon.

Greater yellowlegs
At Panama there was a little shorebird activity with up to 200 ‘peeps’ present. A careful scan through revealed a relatively equal mix of least and western sandpipers with nothing else obvious amongst them.
5 greater yellowlegs were busily feeding in the diminishing pools, as were 5 long-billed dowitchers. Spotted sandpipers and killdeers of course, were also very much in evidence.
There was quite a lot of odonata activity around the site with cardinal meadowhawks and common whitetails especially noticeable, along with various damselflies.

Yet another stilt photo...
On my way to collect Jenny from the ferry terminal at Swartz Bay later in the day, I was able to squeeze in a convenient stop at Maber Flats en route.
All 11 black-necked stilts were still in the area, and showing well – an adult is pictured here.
Off-passage shorebirds were surprisingly thin on the ground with just a handful of least sandpipers, 7 greater yellowlegs and 4 silent dowitchers.

Cinnamon teal brood

As I scanned through the mass of moulting mallards on the bank I picked out a couple of juvenile cinnamon teal, and soon added a further pair of youngster and an adult. The adult actually looked more like an eclipse drake, but I suspect it was perhaps just a bright female with her 4 offspring. The photo here shows the 5 teal snoozing.  

Back in the UK, Brit birders will often recognise the distinctive sounds made by swallows when they detect a Eurasian hobby, or other predator on the hunt. This same sound is heard here in Canada too, primarily from barn swallows, and the high-pitched chatter and sudden swirling movements of the hirundines is a good clue to imminent arrival of an aerial threat. At Maber Flats on Saturday, this excitement preceded the speedy appearance of a merlin that caused considerable mayhem among the swallows as it whizzed through the site, making a couple of unsuccessful attempts at snatching a bird or two.
The many Brewer’s blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds and starlings foraging on the mud of the flats seemed unperturbed by the action overhead…

A short while later, while I was waiting at Swartz Bay, I added another raptor to the day’s tally – a peregrine that sailed leisurely over the ferry terminal.     

Heermann's & California gull
On Sunday, I just got out for a brief spell. I noticed that it was exactly a year ago that I had first come across the wandering tattler at Ogden Point, and while I thought it unlikely that it would show up on the same date, it was certainly worth having a look. 
As it happens, it wasn’t really. 
Other than a great-blue heron and 3 pigeon guillemots the harbour was pretty quiet and I could only see a small party of 8 western sandpipers on the nearby beach. A quick stop at Clover Point wasn’t much more productive with just 7 Heermann’s gulls among the many California and glaucous-winged gulls.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Panama Peregrinations

Our 16-year-old nephew Louie arrived in Victoria from England on Friday, so we spent the weekend keeping him entertained. Thankfully, our idea of entertainment included taking a few decent walks around the local area. 
On Saturday we strolled from Ogden Point to Ross Bay, and in between ice creams I managed to spy my first Heermann's gull of the year just off Holland Point. 
Sunday saw us taking advantage of the sunny weather as we headed up to Island View Beach and Saanichton Spit, picnic in tow. Again, we didn't see a great deal bird-wise but I did notice a couple of mourning doves and offshore a further 4 Heermann's gulls feeding in among a mob of commoner gull species. Great-blue herons, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots and the like provided familiar fair.

Juvenile black-necked stilt
Louie was keen to take his board and try out Sidney skatepark (he's very much a 'Brit Skater in BC'), so Jenny and I dropped him off and headed for Maber Flats for an hour or so. 
All 11 black-necked stilts were still very much present, and I couldn't resist taking a few more snaps.
We also got good views of a sora once again, and a handful of least sandpipers were feeding at the water's edge while killdeer and spotted sandpiper families were much in evidence  Good numbers of mallard and their attendant broods were obvious, but I couldn't locate any teal.

Adult stilt - Maber Flats, Victoria
On Monday evening I squeezed in a visit to Panama Flats after work. 
There were around 50 or so peeps present with roughly 30 least sandpiper to 20 western sandpiper, at least 16 killdeer and 6 spotted sandpiper. A lone and silent dowitcher looked like a short-billed.
The highlight came when an adult peregrine zoomed in over the SW quadrant, causing mass panic among the swallows, crows, waders and wildfowl. It expertly grabbed a killdeer and took off rapidly with the hapless wader secured in its talons. 
Suddenly the falcon dropped its prey, and the reason became apparent as a piratical bald eagle piled in. The killdeer took off, pursued by the eagle which missed its first attempt at snatching its quarry. The wounded plover flapped weakly to the ground from where the eagle swiftly grabbed it and took it up into to a nearby tree, pursued by a murder of noisy Northwestern crows
Who needs TV when drama like this is playing out right on the doorstep!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Semi-possible semipalmated sandpiper

I stopped by at Panama Flats for an hour or so on my way to work this morning.

There was still some reasonable shorebird activity, and I counted 41 Western sandpipers, 24 least sandpipers, 2 greater yellowlegs, 3 spotted sandpiper, several killdeer and a what appeared to be a semipalmated sandpiper.

This latter bird was even less obvious than the one I saw here on Wednesday, and I'm not entirely 100% of its identification... here are a couple of really poor pics - see what you think.

It certainly stood out as being different from the many Westerns nearby, with its relatively short, straight bill and complete lack of rufous tones.

Having done a little bit of online 'research', I'm quite happy that this is indeed a semi-p. I also had a positive response from one skilled local birder who reckons it looks good for that species.
These things aren't always straight forward and it's good to put what little knowledge I have to the test from time to time!
Now we just have to wait for the really large wader flocks to start turning up, with adults in all stages of moult, and juveniles mixed in... plus the possibility of even trickier species to dig out from among the masses. Bring it on!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Western Union - southbound sandpipers return

With the first southbound shorebirds now leaving the tundra breeding grounds and passing through the area, I headed out to Panama Flats on Wednesday evening to see what the remaining water may have attracted.

Western sandpipers
An active flock of ‘peeps’ were feeding in the shallows of the southwest quadrant and a quick scan confirmed that the majority were western sandpipers, with a few least sandpipers mixed in.
For non-North Americans reading this, the word ‘peeps’ is the catch-all favoured phrase to describe any of the smaller calidrids
It’s a helpful word, and one that has been gaining ground in UK birding circles in recent years, that helps summarize non-specifically identified stint-like birds.

Greater yellowlegs
Anyhoo, as I checked around the edges of the pool I also noted a trio of tringas – all were greater yellowlegs, although one bird with extremely orange legs had me reminiscing about redshanks for a minute or two… I got my ‘scope out and reassured myself that it was just an atypically orange-legged yellowlegs. You can see the bird (to the left) in the photo here.
Lynette Brown arrived and we walked around the site checking all the likely spots in search of anything else of interest. There were of course the local killdeer and spotted sandpipers, plus a good mixture of swallows including northern rough-winged and cliff swallows. Last August I found a bank swallow here, so it’s always worth checking the feeding mass of hirundines for any sneaky interlopers.
A single drake green-winged teal lurking around on the edge of a vegetated pool was something of a surprise, perhaps an early returning failed breeder?

Least sandpipers
When we arrived back at the SW quadrant, I spent some time ‘scoping through the western sandpipers and was rewarded with the discovery of a lone semipalmated sandpiper. Always great to see, and often good fun to identify!
For those who like numbers, my tally was 52 western sands, 16 least sands, 3 great yellowlegs and 1 semipalmated sandpiper.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Magnificent Seven

Lorquin's admiral
For those reading this outside of the maple-tinted world in which I currently reside, yesterday was Canada Day. Which means that today, Monday is a stat (what we Brits would call a 'bank holiday'). Nice.

Sunday, we went out to Island View Beach and took our customary walk up Cordova Spit, also known as Saanichton Spit.
The birding was pretty uneventful but at least it stayed dry and mild, and there were plenty of dragonflies and butterflies to be found, including the fine Lorquin's admiral pictured here. 
Other than 8 fly-by peeps (looked like least sandpipers), we only saw regular stuff such as pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets, a common loon, and what-have-you.

Monday, I decided to head out to Maber Flats - I was keen to see the stilts again before they disappear! The place was absolutely buzzing with birds.
Hundreds of swallows were hawking low over the wetlands, while above small parties of purple martin would periodically drop by. A pair of black swift joined the aerial melee on a couple of occasions providing an overdue and very welcome year tick!

Black-necked stilt - adult
Scanning over the flats I could see an adult black-necked stilt, with a trio of snoozing youngsters close by. At the far end of the water, another pair of adults were feeding alongside their grown brood of 4.
Given the fact that this is the first known breeding record of black-necked stilt on Vancouver Island, for them to have got 7 young to fledging stage is really quite remarkable. At one point, a bald eagle passed over causing the family group of 6 to take to the air in unison - quite a sight!

Young black-necked stilts
It's a shame that Maber Flats won't be here to support successive attempts in the future... the outlook for stilts as regular nesters in this part of BC seems far from assured.
Other shorebirds seen here today included 2 least sandpipers, a Wilson's snipe and a greater yellowlegs as well several killdeers and spotted sandpipers - both the latter species with young.
I didn't see anything interesting wildfowl-wise, just multiple mallard broods. 

Marsh wren
Singing marsh wrens were showing well, posing conveniently for a couple of photos, while savannah sparrows, American goldfinches, Brewer's blackbirds and other common passerines provided welcome diversions.  

I've got a sora arse...
The last time I visited Maber Flats I saw my first ever sora. I didn't get great views, but I was at least able to confidently ID the bird from what I briefly saw.
Today, by contrast, I was given several point-blank views of two of these stunning rails. In fact, they were way too close to get decent digiscope shots, and I had to try moving further back to get them in the viewfinder.

Adult sora
This meant that there was always a ton of vegetation between me and the birds, hence the bloody horrible pics here! Next time, I'll take the other camera and hope for repeat showings. It was amazing to get such fabulous views of these often secretive 'meadow chickens'.