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.


  1. The mystery mustelid appears to be the introduced/feral Beech Marten. Thats my best bet.

  2. On second thoughts could just be an american marten or perhaps a hybrid? White on chest area does not appear typical of beech.