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.          

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