Thursday, 27 September 2012

Irritable Owl Syndrome

Great-horned owl
After a couple of relatively unremarkable visits to Clover Point and the Summit Hill reservoir in recent days I headed down to the Government House grounds yesterday morning to see if there was any migrant action going on. 
As soon as I approached the grounds just after 7.20am I could hear multiple American robins stirring in the big leaf maples, which seemed pretty promising. Soon I was hearing small groups of pine siskins calling away as they passed overhead, further adding to my optimism.
Approaching the start of the woodland trail I hit into my first flock of feeding birds. In among the usual chestnut-backed chickadees, bushtits and red-breasted nuthatches were several yellow-rumped warblers a single orange-crowned warbler and a couple of ruby-crowned kinglet
A pair of downy woodpeckers picked their way through the garry oaks and 4 northern flickers squabbled noisily as they flew from tree to tree. On the ground, newly arrived golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows were feeding along the path side, and then I noticed something quite different among them - a white-throated sparrow. This species, while not rare, is at best a scarce passage migrant on Vancouver Island and so I was rather pleased to encounter this individual.
As I continued along my regular route it became apparent that there were quite a few fox sparrows lurking in the denser areas, as well as a few Lincoln's sparrows. Joining the resident spotted towhees in the understory were at least 3 hermit thrushes, though I suspect more were scattered about the site.
Another surprise came in the form of a red-breasted sapsucker which flew low over the area, my first in the Government House grounds.
The distinctive, mournful calls of a varied thrush alerted me to the presence of a single bird sat in a fir - the first of what will doubtless be many in the coming weeks. Few birds sum up the Pacific Northwest better for us Brit birders than these dazzling forest dwellers!
As I rounded a corner at the western end of the woodland I noticed a large greyish bird preening on a branch. I couldn't see its head initially, and assumed it was a barred owl. Just as I raised my binocs for a proper look out popped its head, revealing a couple of intense yellow eyes and a couple of silly 'ears'. A cracking, if somewhat grumpy-looking great-horned owl. Only the second one I've seen in the grounds. This is without question the greyest great-horned owl that I have seen and doubtless belongs to the saturatus subspecies. 

After work yesterday I had another stab at Clover Point. Another bright and sunny day meant that disturbance levels were at optimum levels and as such the likelihood of finding any longspurs or larks were pretty close to zero. Similarly, shorebirds were notable only by their absence. Offshore it was reasonably decent with good numbers of alcids including common murres, pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets and a handful of marbled murrelets
Red-necked and horned grebes were both present and as I chatted with fellow birder Daniel Donnecke a trio of elegant western grebes swam by, always a treat to see.

I decided on a repeat visit this morning and headed down to Clover Point nice and early in an attempt to beat the dog-walkers and joggers. Even still, there were no grounded passerines, probably due to the lovely clear and calm conditions. A couple of ubiquitous savannah sparrows were all I could find.
A dozen or so black turnstone were feeding alongside a couple of black oystercatchers off the point end, and the usual gaggle of mixed gulls including California, Heermann's, mew and glaucous-winged were present.
Mallard numbers have built up in the past few days (yippee) as have harlequin ducks and I noticed 4 American wigeon, my first of the autumn, flying over. 

Turkey vultures
My lunchtime walk by Langford Lake was reasonably productive in as much as there were common migrants including hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kingletsorange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers feeding in the waterside trees and scrub. 
Overhead an impressive and steady stream of turkey vultures was moving southwest. Occasionally a group would stop and soar on a thermal before carrying on. 
I estimated around 180 passed over me as I walked back to the office from the lake.   

Monday, 24 September 2012

Barred On The Beach

Barred owl
The alarm went off at 5am on Sunday, rousing me from a happy slumber.  As I tiptoed gingerly around the bedroom in complete darkness I couldn't help wondering what the hell I was doing. Why was I getting up at this ungodly hour, only to drive for almost an hour to a relatively remote location in southern Vancouver Island so that I could count birds? 
But there dear reader is the answer; to count birds
Yep, I was heading out once more  to Rocky Point Bird Bird Observatory, during the peak season of the fall migration to assist with the ongoing census of birds using the site. It really doesn't get much better than that!  

I arrived at the access restricted site (for information see the RPBO website) just after 6am and once the small team of banders and I had signed in at the security hut we set off along the gravel road in the emerging twilight to the observatory area.
With plenty of time for some pre-census birding, I first checked out a small reed-fringed pool where I was treated to the site of a sora slowly picking its way along the water's edge. Not a bad start to the day!
Checking the nearby bay, there was little shorebird activity although a long-billed dowitcher flew by calling. At one point I 'scoped through a group of 11 killdeer and came across a single pectoral sandpiper among them. Before long the lone caladrid flew off, and seemed to head determinedly east. What was presumably the same bird reappeared some time later, flying around with what was also presumably the same dowitcher…
As the the sun started to rise things really started to move with red-winged blackbirds, red crossbills, Steller's jays, American robins and cedar waxwings all starting to move around the site in varying numbers. 
I commenced the 1.5 hour census at the designated time (8am) and set off to see what I could see and hear. 
As I'm still a relative newcomer to BC my knowledge of calls is still pretty much in its infancy and on a timed route I simply have to let quite a few skulking birds go unidentified as they 'tick' or 'pseet' from the undergrowth or pass high overhead. This can get quite frustrating as I am aware that my counts are always going to be an underestimate. Worse still, I know that my rock-and-roll-shattered ears don't even register some calls at range, so there's even more going on that I am ever aware! Nonetheless, during the census period I was still able to identify a good range of species and it's good to know that my contributions, however small, are of at least some value. While some of the more exciting aspects of birding can involve rarity-chasing or adding new ticks to our lists, it's always good to put something back.
Just to give you an idea of the birds I saw and / or heard during the morning, both during the census and either side of it, here's a list (specific numbers omitted):

  1. Common loon
  2. Double-crested cormorant
  3. Great blue heron
  4. Turkey vulture
  5. Canada goose
  6. Mallard
  7. Northern pintail
  8. Harlequin duck
  9. Northern harrier
  10. Cooper's hawk
  11. Merlin
  12. Sora
  13. Killdeer
  14. Black oystercatcher
  15. Greater yellowlegs
  16. Black turnstone
  17. Western sandpiper
  18. Pectoral sandpiper
  19. Long-billed dowitcher
  20. Heermann's gull
  21. Mew gull
  22. California gull
  23. Thayer's gull
  24. Glaucous-winged gull
  25. Common murre
  26. Rhinoceros auklet
  27. Band-tailed pigeon
  28. Barred owl
  29. Belted kingfisher
  30. Downy woodpecker
  31. Northern flicker
  32. Steller's jay
  33. Common raven
  34. Chestnut-backed chickadee
  35. Red-breasted nuthatch
  36. Brown creeper  
  37. Bewick's wren
  38. Pacific wren
  39. Marsh wren
  40. Golden-crowned kinglet
  41. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  42. Hermit thrush
  43. American thrush
  44. Varied thrush
  45. American pipit
  46. Cedar waxwing
  47. Orange-crowned warbler
  48. Yellow-rumped warbler
  49. Spotted towhee
  50. Savannah sparrow
  51. Fox sparrow
  52. Song sparrow
  53. Lincoln's sparrow
  54. White-crowned sparrow
  55. Golden-crowned sparrow
  56. Dark-eyed junco
  57. Red-winged blackbird
  58. Purple finch
  59. Red crossbill
  60. Pine siskin
Of course, the banders and other volunteers saw additional species during the morning including common yellowthroat and pileated woodpecker.

As the summer visitors start to dwindle, fall-passage and wintering birds are becoming more numerous. Such species as Steller's jay, fox sparrow, golden-crowned sparrow and dark-eyed junco will continue to build as the weeks go by. 
One of the most impressive elements of autumn migration in this part of the world is the vulture and raptor passage. Once things had heated up enough by mid-morning large kettles of turkey vultures were starting to gather, thermalling in anticipation of making the relatively short crossing over the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the USA. 
At least 150 vultures were wheeling around at one point before deciding to head back inland. Associating with these large vulture flocks one will often see other migratory birds and although I only picked out a couple of Cooper's hawks and a northern harrier while I was watching, good numbers of red-tailed hawks and sharp-shinned hawks can also be seen. Broad-winged hawks, a local scarcity, are annual in small numbers as are golden eagles while American kestrel, goshawk and rough-legged hawk are also possibilities. Peregrine and merlin frequently add to the tallies.  
Large groups of band-tailed pigeon also cross the straits and one flock of around 120 birds headed out over the water as I was watching. 
There are always barred owls around Rocky Point, as there are in fact pretty much everywhere in BC nowadays. Having spread north and west from the southern US is recent decades this large, opportunistic owl has been cited along with habitat loss as one of the causes of the steady decline of the imperilled spotted owl
We see barred owls all over the place on Vancouver Island, from downtown parks and gardens to remote forests in the back of beyond. Despite their relative common-ness, when one poses as nicely as the one pictured here (see above) did yesterday, it's hard not to be taken in by their enduring appeal!

It's not only birds that interest the vast majority of naturalists helping out at RPBO, and the site also boasts an impressive list of mammals spotted over the years. Last week Ian Cruikshank was fortunate enough to come across some elk while he was out doing the census. I wasn't quite so fortunate and only spotted the usual mink, racoongrey squirrel, harbor seal etc, plus the curious mustelid pictured here. 
Having gone through a few books I can only conclude that it is an atypical mink. All of the ones that I have seen are dark concolourous animals, so this rufous beast with pale ear tips and whitish breast patch caught me well off-guard. It's snout also seemed too long for a mink, but in the absence of any other possibilities I guess it's just a mink after all.      

Please note that Rocky Point is located on Department of Defence land and there is NO public access.

This morning (Monday ) I made one of my now-regular stops at Summit Hill reservoir en route to work. A fine drake hooded merganser was having a snooze on the central berm, alongside a trio of northern shoveler. The water levels at the reservoir are now so low that the whole berm is now fully proud of the water, rendering it useless for the majority of passing shorebirds. As a result, just a single killdeer was present, daintily picking its way along the gull-feather-and-goose-crap festooned concrete.
The garry oaks were hopping with yellow-rumped warblers, all frantically searching for invertebrates on the undersides of the leaves. The only other thing I saw among them was a single black-throated gray warbler.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

All Confusing On The Western Front

On Thursday morning I popped down to Clover Point for a pre-work amble; migrants on my mind.
Scanning the partly submerged rocks off the end of the point I could see that were still good numbers of Heermann's gulls hanging around.
Post-breeding mew gulls are becoming increasingly numerous now, as expected. 
Out on the kelp there was a bird that looked like a pretty credible 3rd winter western gull. When I first saw it appeared extremely dark-mantled and my mind raced through slaty-backed gull features.
By all accounts just about all the 'westerns' that occur in this part of the world are likely to have at least some glaucous-winged gull genes mixed in as the two readily hybridise. Many are fairly easy to identify as mutts, but others show a fairly convincing suite of features, which doesn't help in the slightest... 

The dark head and heavy breast streaking seems a little at odds with pure western, from what I have read, so any comments from readers would be most welcome!
Far less controversial was my first Thayer's gull of the season, sat among a huddle of roosting glaucous-winged and California gulls.
As for off-passage passerine migrants, just a couple of American pipits and a few savannah sparrows were encountered.
Shorebirds were limited to several black oystercatchers and a trio of foraging black turnstone.
Harlequin ducks are now back in force, with double figures present. The newly moulted drakes are really something to behold!

Later, at Langford Lake at lunchtime I came across my first ruby-crowned kinglet of the fall, in among a flock of bushtits, and 2 hooded mergansers were back on the lake.
A quick stop at Summit Hill Reservoir on my way home revealed one each of greater and lesser yellowlegs, a killdeer and a pair of western sandpiper. 3 shoveler were paddling around. 

On Friday morning as I arrived at work in Langford, there was a small flock of c.15 Vaux's swifts feeding overhead, just below some murky clouds.

I had a leisurely trundle around the Government House grounds on Saturday morning and there was quite a bit of activity going on. One small flock of birds feeding in the garry oaks included the expected chestnut-backed chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches, plus 2 western tanagers, a warbling vireo and a Pacific-slope flycatcher.
There seems to have been a bit of an influx of northern flickers with multiple birds around the site. The return of 'wintering' finches continues with my first golden-crowned sparrows of the autumn, plus a few more dark-eyed juncos passing through.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

It's a Frog's Life

A couple of weeks ago, while my brother Paul and Satty were still with us we took off for a couple of days to Mount Washington.
Pacific chorus frog
We broke up the journey with a couple of stops, including a walk along the trail at Roberts Memorial Provincial Park. This small but pleasant site was a regular haunt of mine when we lived in Yellowpoint. We saw pileated woodpeckers and red-breasted sapsuckers here, both always great birds to watch. A personal highlight came not in the form of a bird, but an amphibian. Despite having spent a fair bit of time trying to locate Pacific chorus frogs here on the island they have managed to evade detection, and so when I spotted one alongside the trail I was thrilled! Naturally I've heard them a thousand times but to actually see one of these diminutive tree frogs was quite a treat.
To celebrate we had lunch at the Crow and Gate pub.
The remainder of the drive up was relatively quiet bird or other-critter wise, with just occasional Steller's jays, turkey vultures and the like being seen as we headed up the highway.
Of course, things changed a bit once we arrived in the alpine region and gray jays soon became a common sight.
We spent a fair chunk of our only full day day out hiking along the relatively easy 6.8km trail to Battleship Lake - Lake Helen MacKenzie loop. We took our time and admired the stunning scenery while keeping all ears and eyes out for those bloody 3-toed woodpeckers. Unfortunately we only saw more sapsuckers, plus a few other common species including red crossbill, Cooper's hawk, band-tailed pigeon, the ever-present gray jays, etc. Of course, Paul and Sat loved the cheeky 'whiskey Jacks' and enjoyed sharing their snacks with the birds.
On Lake Helen MacKenzie I saw my first common goldeneye of the autumn, and a female common merganser was also present.
Vancouver Island marmot
While in the Mount Washington region I couldn't help but go and have another look for Vancouver Island marmots. Scrabbling around in the same general area I'd seen them last time, I came across a smart varied thrush before being being alerted to the marmot's presence by an ear-piercing whistle. I'd obviously been spotted by one! I soon located the animal on its lookout and managed a distant shot - I didn't want to spook the marmot by getting too close. Satisfied with my sighting I descended down the slopes and headed back to the condo for a celebratory beer or three with Jenny, Paul and Satty.

American dipper
When we headed back on the Friday we made a detour to Coombs Market to grab some grub and went to another favourite spot - Englishman River Falls.
I have always found this to be a reliable spot for American dipper (pictured), and we weren't to be disappointed with 2 birds seen - one above and one below the falls.

Red-legged frog
Another personal first came in the form of yet another amphibian, a red-legged frog, first spotted by Paul. With non-native bullfrogs being the only species I have consistently seen since my arrival here 3 years ago this was turning out to be something a productive trip!
The following morning, back in Rocklands, Victoria I was drawn to the sound of several American robins loudly calling outside the apartment. I stepped outside and noticed that the surrounding trees were dripping with the cacophonous thrushes. In among the 60 or so robins present, there were also at least 12 western tanagers feeding in the oaks and maples. At one point a tanager was flycatching from the turret of Craigdarroch Castle, not a sight you see every day!

Since then, it's been business as usual, with a return to work and the removal of three wisdom teeth...(ouch).
In between normal life, I have managed to squeeze in a few small birding forays including a rewarding early morning visit to Clover Point last Wednesday.
Common nighthawk
A pair of surfbirds and a couple of black turnstones were feeding along the kelp-strewn rocks along with a small flock of western sandpipers. A single black-bellied plover was also present. There was a real sense of autumn in the air, with a few savannah sparrows picking through the tideline debris, a scattering of remaining barn swallows feeding low over the beach areas and a notable increase in the number of mew gulls now appearing along the coast.
Common nighthawk - Clover Point
However, the most surprising find came in the form of a common nighthawk which flushed from the rocky beach and landed on a large rock off the point. I managed a couple of crappy pics through my 'scope as you can see here.
Having spent many an hour scrutinising horizontal tree branches in search of snoozing nighthawks (and never having found one) I was rather amazed to finally see a non-flying one in such an incongruous setting. That's the brilliant thing about birding - you can always expect the unexpected!  

I have also been making frequent stops at Summit Hill Reservoir. Wader numbers have fluctuated a little with varying numbers of western sandpiper, least sandpiper, killdeer, lesser yellowlegs and greater yellowlegs all dropping by.

Last Sunday, Jenny and I found time to go for a walk along Saanichton Spit and Island View Beach. Offshore there were lots of pigeon guillemots and small numbers of common murres and rhinoceros auklet. A pair of horned grebe were close inshore and a red-necked grebe also put in an appearance.
A flock of 12 horned lark were kicking around at the end of the point, but were very flighty.

On our way back in the afternoon we made a stop by Cordova Bay Golf Course to see if the long-billed curlew was still present. It was.
I got great views of the bird feeding on one of the greens before it was flushed by a couple of golf carts.
 Incidentally, when did people completely give up walking while golfing? This small private course hardly warrants the use of buggies. It seems even that fine old adage, "Golf, a good walk spoiled" is no longer pertinent. Lazy sods.
Anyhoo, the bird flew off calling and I was able to relocate it on the nearby beach soon afterwards. Before long it was flushed again, this time by a kayaker and it headed back toward the greens, once again calling loudly. Although it looked in good health while feeding, in flight the curlew dangled one leg, indicating some kind of injury. This was only the third time I had ever seen this species, and I certainly got better looks than on the two previous occasions.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

Pedder Late Than Never

I've had a few very busy days just lately, hence the delay in updating the blog.
The following day (Saturday 1st) I spent much of the morning at Rocky Point Bird Observatory’s sister site at Pedder Bay. Here they have a newly launched ringing station and are conducting a constant effort census. The latter being my contribution on this particular day.
Once I’d met the ‘bander-in-chief’ Rick Schortinghuis and the team of volunteers, I did a bit of birding around the site and also watched as the crew processed an array of birds including the smart Lincoln's sparrow pictured here.

Lincoln's sparrow - Pedder Bay
The census route was relatively simple to get around, although I lost my bearings at one point before realising that I was heading in the wrong direction! That added about 10 minutes of wasted time, but otherwise it went relatively well. 
There was a good mixture of habitat and as a result a fairly interesting mix of feathery critters including band-tailed pigeon, red crossbill, Pacific-slope and willow flycatchers, a selection of common warblers, warbling vireo, sharp-shinned hawk and my first 'free-range' Lincoln’s sparrows of the autumn.
I really look forward to doing more census work here and at RPBO but time is pretty tight right now and I’ll have to manage my shifts to fit around work and other commitments.

Later that same day my brother Paul and his wife Satty arrived from Jersey in the UK Channel Islands for a week-long visit, so I had taken some vacation time to spend with them.

Tourists at Holland Point
East Sooke Park
As I almost always have my binocs at hand, this meant that a bit of casual birding was most certainly on the cards as Jenny and I showed off some of our favourite Vancouver Island locations on Sunday.
First up was a walk from downtown Victoria to Ross Bay, via Fishermans’s Wharf, Ogden Point and Clover Point. The avian highlight was a pair of wandering tattler at Ogden Point. There were also good numbers of black turnstone present. More turnstone and a lone surfbird were also seen as we made our way along Dallas Road.
A brief wander through the Government House later revealed just one obvious off-passage migrant, an olive-sided flycatcher.

With the Labour day stat holiday on Monday we all piled into the car and headed off to East Sooke Park for a bit of a hike out to Beechy Head.
The birding may have been pretty unremarkable, but Paul and Satty were naturally enthralled by the wonderful coastal BC scenery.

The ornithological highlight of the morning was a Heermann’s gull with white primary coverts – a feature shown only in a small percentage of these striking gulls. 
Later, we took a stroll along the dog- and dog-‘egg’-laden Whiffen Spit which despite the disturbance still held a nice mixture of small shorebirds. Among the 60+ western and least sandpipers feeding along the shore were a pair of semipalmated plovers. A few savannah sparrows were also picking their way through the food-filled flotsam.

The biggest disappointment of this otherwise pleasant day came when I arrived home in the evening and upon checking my emails discovered that a sharp-tailed sandpiper had been showing to all and sundry throughout the day at McIntyre Reservoir. With the last message implying that the bird had flown in the late afternoon, I was not only pissed off at missing out on this potential lifer but it also seemed unlikely that I’d be able to catch up with it the following morning.

I was back in work Tuesday morning, and decided to stop off at Summit Hill reservoir on my way. Lesser yellowlegs numbers had dropped to just 2 but these remaining diehards had at least been joined by a duo of pectoral sandpipers and 7 peeps (all least and western sandpipers). A pair of western tanagers added a splash of exotic colour to the surrounding garry oaks.

Later in the day I put out a request to Jeremy Kimm for updates on the sharp-tailed and got word back that it had returned to McIntyre, so I took an extended lunch and flew out there only to arrive to a very birdless reservoir. The juvenile northern harrier relentlessly quartering the water’s edge may have had something to do with the total absence of waders!
Unfortunately, post-work plans with our visitors meant that I couldn’t head up in the evening. And guess what? The Asian vagrant was only putting on a spectacular show for those birders who were there. From what I hear it may as well as been sporting a top hat and cane...

With the rest of the week taken off as vacation, we had firm plans to head up island for a couple of days at Mount Washington so on Wednesday morning before Jenny or our guests roused themselves I sped up the highway and arrived at McIntyre Reservoir for first light.
And I searched, and waited, and searched.
2 pectoral sandpipers later, I conceded a loss and at 8am left the site somewhat dejected. Boy do I wish I’d twitched one back in Britain! With fewer than 40 accepted records of the species in the UK and Ireland, this is something of a holy-grail bird for many Brit birders… oh well, as an annual vagrant to BC maybe I’ll get lucky yet. Better still, maybe I’ll get a call from someone when one turns up next time (hint, hint).

Details of the Mt Washington trip and the few highlights following that will be posted shortly...