Monday, 27 August 2012

MacGillivray's Island

MacGillivray's warbler
It was another morning drive out to Metchosin for me on Saturday, as I headed out for my second visit to the access-restricted Rocky Point Bird Observatory.
I arrived later this week, at around 6.15am and after signing in at the reception I drove off along the winding gravel road that leads to the banding station and census site.
I had a little time for some pre-census birding and I quickly scoped offshore and in the tidal bay but it seemed pretty quiet. 
An osprey was sat out on a hydro pole, keeping a beady eye on the water below but there was a notable lack of seabirds to check. A few rhinoceros auklets were present along with common murres and small numbers of California, glaucous-winged, mew and Heermann’s gulls.
Shorebirds were thin on the ground too, with just black oystercatcher ‘peeping’ loudly around the rocks, and a small number of least sandpipers patrolling the stony beach.

MacGillivray's warbler
The census started at 7.20am. It was significantly cooler than it has been lately and the birds were reluctant to start the day. It was eerily quiet as I trundled around desperate for sights and sounds to add to my paltry list. Only a few red-breasted nuthatches, white-crowned sparrows and chestnut-backed chickadees seemed keen to alert me to their presence initially but once the sun started hitting the trees and enticing insects to stir things started to pick up a wee bit.
Even still there was nothing too exciting to be found over the allotted hour and a half and the warbler count was frankly terrible; 1 Wilson’s. 2 common yellowthroat. 1 Townsend’s. 1 orange-crowned. 
Even the spotted towhees and song sparrows were playing hard to get and only the sporadic small clusters of red crossbill passing overhead kept things interesting. A garrulous Steller’s jay added a bit of spice but it was only once I’d completed my rounds that the birding picked up apace.    
A pair of merlin were charging around, adding a dash of excitement to an otherwise raptor-free morning.
It had been pretty slow-going at the banding station too, but things were starting to pick up.
A personal highlight was seeing one of my all-time favourite American warblers in the hand – MacGillivray’s warbler. I don’t know why I like these geothlypis warblers so much, but ever since I saw my first one (on my first visit to Vancouver Island back in 1993, as it happens) I’ve been rather enamoured by this secretive bird’s subtle beauty.

Pacific-slope flycatcher
Other birds out-of-the-bag, so to speak, included a fine Pacific-slope flycatcher (pictured), willow flycatcher, Swainson’s thrush, white-crowned sparrows, Wilson’s warblers and a few other expected species.
I left Rocky Point late morning, spooking up a pair of spectacular, prehistoric-looking pileated woodpeckers on the way (too late to add to the census!).  
Please note that Rocky Point BO is on private D.O.D. land and access is strictly limited to those with permission. Check out the RPBO website for further information. 

The rest of the weekend was a fairly birdless affair, bar a bit of brief drive-by birding at Clover Point on Sunday afternoon. The highlight was seeing around 50 red-necked phalarope out on the water. Most of these were a fair distance away but one small flock was pretty close and gave great 'scope-views.

This morning (Monday) I stopped off at Summit Hill reservoir en route to work once again.  The 7 lesser yellowlegs were still present and I had the good fortune of getting point-blank, eye-level views of a lovely black-throated gray warbler in the pathside vegetation.
Post-work, I made a trip to Clover Point but it was pretty drab stuff to be honest, the only thing being a smart summer-plumage red-necked grebe
Jenny had walked down to meet me and so we went on to Oak Bay Marina (highlight - 84 black-bellied plover, 6 dowitcher sp. and a surfbird) and Cattle Point (highlight 12 western sandpiper) but there was little to get excited about offshore.   

Friday, 24 August 2012

Summit Happening at Local Reservoir

I noticed on one of the the Vancouver island birding forums that someone had posted seeing some yellowlegs at a small suburban site not far from home a couple of days ago. So, having never previously visited Summit Hill reservoir, I stopped off there on my way to work this morning.
There were 7 lesser yellowlegs busily feeding along a partially exposed median. they looked pretty incongruous in the concrete surroundings, but seemed to be finding plenty of food. 
A small party of northern rough-winged swallows were flying around a female black-headed grosbeak was in the adjacent oaks.
Looks like a promising visible migration spot...

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Point of Birding...

Sunrise at Rocky Point
I finally made it out to Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO) on Saturday, having enlisted as a volunteer some weeks ago.  
This mixed-habitat site is located on the grounds of the Department of National Defence's Rocky Point Ammunition Depot in Metchosin, southwest of Victoria here on Vancouver Island.
As a newcomer to the obs, I thought it would be a good idea to join Ian Cruikshank as he undertook a site census. 
We arrived at RPBO around 5.30am, signed in at the security gate, and made our way to the banding (or ringing as a Brit birder would say) station and the start of the census trail.

Semipalmated plover
With some time to kill before the census start time, Ian and I did a bit of birding along the shore. A few waders were present in the early morning sunlight, including least and spotted sandpipers, 6 distant dowitchers and a semipalmated plover (pictured).
Out on the water we could see common murres and rhinoceros auklets, and among the many California gulls we picked out a handful of mew gulls and a single ring-billed gull.

We started along the census trail at 7.15am and kept to the allotted 1.5 hours as required. The place was pretty lively bird-wise, despite the fact that the weather has been consistently ‘pleasant’ lately (sunny, hot, calm) with passage migrants consequently thin on the ground.
We covered a range of habitats, including mixed deciduous, conifer, grassy meadow, scrubby brush, fresh water pools and the shoreline, as well as offshore.
Amongst other things, we came across numerous yellow warblers, Wilson’s warblers, orange-crowned warblersblack-throated gray warblers and warbling vireo plus willow, Hammond’s and Pacific-slope flycatchers. As we checked one the smaller ponds we got great looks at a young sora as it stood out on the water’s edge in full view.

The banding station at Rocky Point Bird Observatory
After we had completed the census, we spent some time birding around the site. 
I made a point of hanging around at the banding station (pictured), watching the small team process the catches. 
Having spent a fair amount of time observing the ringing of birds at a number of observatories and ringing sites back in the UK I was interested to see how they do things in North America. 

Wilson's warbler - a bird in the hand, etc...
And, it gave me the opportunity to see some cracking birds in the hand - better still; I got to release a banded Anna’s hummingbird! You don't find too many of those in the nets at Heysham Obs!

While Ian and I were scouring the bushes for interesting migrants, he heard a distant call that he thought was probably a northern waterthrush. Ian’s knowledge of bird calls is somewhat legendary, and his hearing is immaculate. Half the birds he identifies by sound alone, I don’t even hear. His youthful, untainted lugs are a miracle of biology compared to the battered old rock and roll scarred things flapping about on the side of my head…

Willow flycatcher
Anyway, we checked out the area – a boggy creek, perfect for a lurking waterthrush – but we didn’t hear anything to support Ian’s initial thoughts. We went our separate ways, with me heading off to scour the gulls and shorebirds once more. Shortly after, Ian came running out to tell me that he had not only heard the warbler again but also seen it. 
I returned to the scene. 
This time the bird was calling frequently, but keeping well hidden from view. I hadn’t seen a northern waterthrush for well over a decade, and I was rather keen to clap eyes on this individual.

Yellow warbler
As Ian went off in search of seabirds, I decided to stick it out and my patience was eventually rewarded when the bird started flying around calling. It eventually settled, and landed on a log before giving wonderful views as it slowly picked its way around the weedy edges of the water, calling occasionally. I watched it out in the open for about 3- and-a-half minutes before it once again vanished into the emergent vegetation. Fabulous!

We left RPBO just before 1pm having seen some 70+ species. I can’t wait to go back and help out in any way that I can, be it conducting bird censuses, assisting with banding duties or adding general observations to the records.     
Read more about Rocky Point Bird Observatory. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Holy Quail

Out near my workplace in Langford I see California quails pretty frequently. Most days, if I bother to look out my office window for long enough one or two will come trotting by.
Admittedly, most birders in BC would hardly give these small gamebirds a second glance, but now that the local quails are escorting their growing broods around, they are forming large creches and today at least 30 were dashing around the lawned area by the FTS building.
I only had my little compact camera handy, so I took a couple of pics through the glass. Pretty bloody awful, eh?  (Oh, and that 'eh' there isn't a sign of my becoming Canada-ised, we Lancastrians and other folk from Northern England use it habitually too).

Eight-spotted skimmer
While taking my lunchtime constitutional to Langford Lake and back, the highlight was a very vocal male western tanager.
It was calling constantly from some small trees adjacent to the railway line before flying off south.
Otherwise it was fairly birdless with just belted kingfisher, Anna's hummingbird and a juvenile orange-crowned warbler to deviate from the ultra common species.

Blue dasher female
As usual there were lots of 8-spotted skimmers and blue dashers around, taking advantage of the soaring temperatures, so I grabbed a couple of snaps.
Thank goodness for dragonflies on days when the birds are keeping a low profile...

Monday, 13 August 2012

Seabirds and Shorebirds

On Saturday morning I joined a gaggle of local birders for a 'mini-pelagic' trip. 
Organised by Jeremy Kimm on behalf of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, this was a short 3-hour tip out into the waters off Sooke in search of seabirds. I went on the same trip last year and we were  rewarded with excellent views of tufted puffin and pomarine jaegers, among more common species.
This year we weren't so lucky, and the birding was slow going. A thick wall of fog had pretty much blanketed everything from Race Rocks west which hampered our search. 
In the clear spots off Rocky Point, a few gatherings of gulls revealed little of note. 
Masses of California gulls and good numbers of Heermann's gulls were present, as were loads of common murres and rhinoceros auklets and smaller numbers of pigeon guillemot. A few red-necked phalarope were seen both in flight and feeding among the floating kelp racks.
As we neared a distinctly mist-enshrouded Race Rocks, the sounds and smells of bellowing sealions filled the air. We neared the islands and got views, through the fog, of several Steller's sea lions (also known as Northern Sea lion) loafing around on the rocks. I was really hoping to see one of the elephant seals that Ian Cruikshank mentioned had recently taken up residence there, but I couldn't locate any among the blubbery mass of Steller and California sealions. As it turns out, checking out the Race Rocks blog, it appears that the elephant seals had departed just before the sealions had returned.
Scanning the rocky shores of the island we saw a few black turnstone, 2 or 3 surfbirds and a single ruddy turnstone, still sporting its summer finery. Although common back in the UK and a familiar sight to any Brit birder, ruddy turnstones are something of a scarcity on Vancouver Island and BC in general, and my floating companions were all thrilled to see this attractive shorebird as it played peek-a-boo among the rocks and roosting gulls. 
Visit Jeremy's blog at Victoria Birder for his perspective on the trip.   
The next mini-pelagic is scheduled for September 29th, so I think I'll book myself a spot on that and see just how different the avian seascape is later in the fall (can't be worse than Saturday... can it?).  

Juvenile red-necked phalarope, Maber Flats

More phalaropes...

Yesterday, Jenny and I headed out to Island View Beach and Saanichton Spit.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I wasn't expecting much in the way of birds and that's pretty much what I got. As usual there were plenty of pigeon guillemots and rhino auklets bobbing about offshore, plus the expected cormorants and gulls. The only wader was a single least sandpiper that flew onto the beach briefly before heading off. 
A merlin was patrolling the area and a turkey vulture was sat by the beach eyeing up the washed up carcass of a freshly deceased harbour seal.
On our way back we stopped off at Maber Flats, and while Jenny occupied herself by hunting and gathering some plump blackberries I 'scoped out the rapidly shrinking pool.
There was a fair bit of activity here and in among the mass of honking Canada geese, several shorebirds could be seen frantically feeding in the shallows. 
The birds that really stood out immediately were a pair of dazzling juvenile red-necked phalarope in fresh plumage.  The very bright afternoon light and heat haze over the water made digiscoping a bit of a nightmare but I did manage one shot that is almost in focus... 
Also present were around 40 peeps, the majority of which were western sandpipers, with a small number of least sandpipers thrown in for good measure. A single greater yellowlegs was joined by 3 lesser yellowlegs and a pair of adult spotted sandpipers were keeping an eye on two youngsters. Only 5 killdeer were seen.
At one point a peregrine came through, causing mild panic. It stooped half-heartedly, but left empty-taloned. Only a single sandpiper was sufficiently spooked into the air while the remaining shorebirds either hunkered down in the mud and vegetation, or in the case of the yellowlegs, actually took shelter beneath the geese.
I've never seen birds using other species as a shield before - quite extraordinary! 
With continued sunshine, high temperatures and no sign of rain in the forecasts, it looks likely that Maber Flats will soon follow the fate of Panama Flats and dry out completely. With few other inland wetlands sites in the Victoria area I suppose it will be all eyes to the coast for off-passage waders in the coming weeks.          

Friday, 10 August 2012

Mount Washington & Beyond...

The view from the Mile High Chairlift 
Last Thursday afternoon Jenny and I headed off up island (destination Mount Washington) stopping with friends overnight in south Nanaimo. As we sat out in Dave and Val’s spacious yard, joined by fellow birder Bernard Schroeder, we were treated to the wonderful sight, and sound, of up to 50 common nighthawks as they passed over in small loose flocks.

On Friday we carried on our merry way and arrived at the ski resort in the early afternoon. Glorious sunshine greeted us and we soon found ourselves heading up the mountain on the Mile High Chairlift. Although we’d already spotted a few gray jays here and there, they were a bit more, let’s say, hands-on up here. Or more precisely, a bit more on-our-hands.

Gray jay - also known as 'Whiskey Jack' 
Having learnt many years ago that humans provide a decent meal ticket to those who beg, these attractive jays, or ‘Whiskey Jacks’ as they are colloquially known, are adept scroungers. Whether they should be eating chocolate, salted peanuts, chewing gum or whatever else the tourists and skiers dole out is another matter altogether…

Me being naughty, feeding wildlife...
There wasn’t much else up there bar the occasional dark-eyed junco, raven or passing bald eagle and so after we’d got an eyeful of the spectacular Strathcona Park scenery we trekked back down the mountain on foot.
Bird-wise this was also disappointing, and I only added Steller’s jay and pine siskin to the paltry list. And we didn’t even spot any marmots. Pah.
Not long after we’d arrived at the foot of the mountain we decided to treat ourselves to another chairlift ride to the top. As we neared the halfway mark of the ascent my eyes were drawn to a dark shape below and to our delight we realised that it was a Vancouver Island marmot – an endemic rodent species, and one of the rarest mammals in the world. Bingo!

The endemic Vancouver Island marmot
Better still, when we came back down (via the lift, we weren’t walking it again…) we saw two marmots, but as we were dangling several feet above them, the pics we took were rather rubbish. As evidenced here.

On Saturday we spent the day hiking out to Kwai Lake. It was around a 14km round trip and we took our time, desperately hoping for an American three-toed woodpecker or anything else of interest. 

Nice spot for a picnic
Sadly the birding was once again scant at best, but we had a brilliant time out in the sunshine surrounded by the impressive landscape. Other than the siskins, juncos, vultures and such, we only saw red crossbills and a lowly northern flicker. I wasn’t expecting the forests to be alive with the sound of cacophonous birdsong, but I did think that a little post-breeding activity might be apparent. Maybe it was just too hot?

On our way back we had the pleasure of bumping into Daniel and Leo Donnecke who were on their way out to the Forbidden Plateau in search of white-tailed ptarmigan and other high altitude goodies. This was the first time that we had ever met, though knew of each other via our posts on the local birders’ forum BCVIBirds!
We also came across a couple of American red squirrels as we made our way through the forest (pic below).

We were back in Victoria for BC Day (Monday) and I found a couple of hours to check out Maber Flats. There’s still a bit of water here and as a result, some birds. 
Among the mass of starlings feeding at the muddy edges were some bona fide waders including 1 greater yellowlegs, 2 dowitcher sp., 8 spotted sandpipers and up to 50 killdeer. There were around 120 ‘peeps’ present, mainly least sandpipers with a few western sandpipers mixed in. A single semipalmated sandpiper was also among the gathering of small calidrids.  

American red squirrel
Later in the day I met up with visiting Brit birder Phil Bould who was in Victoria on vacation and had contacted me through this blog. 
We spent a couple of hours looking for seabirds and such, hoping to locate some key species. Starting out at Clover Point and checking a few good sites along the coast to Oak Bay Marina, we didn’t find anything out-of-the-ordinary but we were able to add a handful of birds to Phil’s life list including marbled murrelet, harlequin duck and hooded merganser.

On my home from work on Tuesday I stopped off at Ogden Point. The wandering tattler was still present, though not easy to find as it hunkered down on the ferry dock seawall. With a pretty hefty storm heading in, I made my way to Clover Point in the hope that I might pick up some storm-driven seabirds but despite the impressive lightning show, gusty winds and heavy rain I saw nothing of note over the ocean waves. I did get a frustratingly brief look at a distant large gull flying away from me that appeared to have a very dark mantle and wings…

Wednesday, I dropped in at Panama Flats on my way home from work – the previous night’s rain had done nothing to improve the dry waterless vista, and the place was pretty much birdless. A pair of Wilson’s warblers were the most notable things.   

Me & Jen deep in the woods....
On Thursday, I made a brief detour to Clover Point on my way home from work. I arrived to find Phil Bould ‘scoping from the end of the point, but he hadn’t seen much beyond the usual stuff. There was a fair bit of commotion going on close offshore with various water sports show-offs keeping the birds away. Several Heermann’s gulls were roosting with the many California gulls and various glaucous-winged mongrels.