Friday, 26 October 2012

Totting 'em up: 'spur

Before starting work this morning I managed to find a bit of time to check out the Government House grounds where I found precisely nothing interesting whatsoever. The place was positively aflutter with American robins, but very little else (bar the juvenile Cooper's hawk that was taking advantage of this mass of potential food).
I did locate a bushtit / chickadee flock but it was a total warbler-free zone.

Bonaparte's gull
With a few more minutes to spare I took off to Clover Point. As I walked along the seawall between Ross Bay Cemetery and the Point I noticed several Bonaparte's gulls feeding over the water (1stw pictured). Further out common loons, surf scoters, horned grebes and bufflehead were visible through the drizzle.
As I walked along the wall toward the boathouse I casually dismissed the handful of Lincoln's sparrows that flitted around in the grass and on the beach before flushing a larger bird with obvious white outer tail feathers. 

Lapland longspur
Getting my bins on it, I was delighted to finally add Lapland longspur to my BC list! Despite the persistent rain, I managed one almost acceptable pic.
As any Brit birder knows, folks from the 'old-country' call these enigmatic circumpolar passerines Lapland buntings and UK birdwatchers equally look forward to their arrival every autumn.

Yesterday, my lunchtime meander down to Langford Lake was reasonably rewarding as far as common fall birds was concerned. 

Ruddy duck
The mass of aythya ducks were again present out on the water and among the flotilla of ring-necked ducks and lesser scaups there were a couple of canvasbacks and a female ruddy duck (pictured). American coots, pied-billed grebes and buffleheads added further variety.
Along the trail yellow-rumped warblers were busy gleaning insects from the leaves and occasionally posing to allow for a photo or two. A hermit thrush showed well, but too briefly for a snap.

Yellow-rumped warbler
The feeling that we're moving steadfastly into winter seems to be unavoidable as wildfowl numbers continue to build and those few remaining passage migrants start to thin out.
As many birders in this part of the world have mentioned, it's been a pretty crappy autumn for off-passage stuff this year. The very lovely weather we had through late summer into autumn simply allowed so many southbound birds to just bypass us completely and as a result larger numbers of common migrants simply failed to materialize, and thus rarer congeners were practically absent.

On another note: the mystery bird voting tool (upper right) seems to have had a bit of a fit and is no longer working. So, I shall simply confirm that the vast majority of those taking part ware absolutely correct - it is indeed a black-headed grosbeak. I photographed this adult female in the Okenagan in June.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Rare Sparrow Makes The List

I've been finding it pretty tough going lately, birding wise. I've been squeezing in visits to Clover Point, Government House and Langford Lake before work, during my lunch breaks, and again after work for the past couple of weeks in the hope of finding something interesting. Of course, the autumnal movements of commoner species are interesting, but I'm really talking more about scarce migrants and the like. But alas, I've been left mostly disappointed. That however, doesn't dampen my enthusiasm (Jenny seemingly thinks it's more of an obsession, but I don't think we need to get into semantics here…)

American coot arrived back at Langford Lake this week
Anyhoo, my own paltry finds of late have included the occasional white-throated sparrow (these normally scarce birds appear to be atypically numerous this fall), at least 3 canvasback, female ruddy duck, Wilson's snipe and lingering osprey at Langford Lake plus the noting of the arrival and movements of many common autumn / winter migrants.

Harris's sparrow (pic by Daniel Arndt) 
The big news broke on Saturday when Steven Roias found a 1st year Harris's sparrow at Panama Flats. This species is a real rarity in the west, and a bird that I've long wanted to see. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get out until Monday, but thankfully the bird stuck around. My befuddled brain sadly caused me to go to the wrong area of the Flats in the morning, though I was rewarded with the sight of 3 white-throated sparrows
Having figured out my error, I returned after work, and soon discovered a sizeable flock of mixed sparrows and within a couple of minutes I was enjoying superb views of the rare vagrant as it sat out on the edge of a nearby hawthorn. The large distinctive sparrow continued to perform well, despite the drizzle and fading light. I headed home delighted! Not only was this a lifer, but it was also a really smart looking bird. Nice!
Other species in the vicinity included another couple of white-throated (1 tan-striped and 1 white-striped) sparrows, Lincoln's sparrow, song sparrow, fox sparrow and dark-eyed junco.
Determined to get even a crappy record shot, I returned the following evening but the sparrows were far less concentrated and active. The Harris's eventually showed up but only after 6pm, and the light was pretty terrible. 
Not to be put off, I returned again this morning. It was still pretty dark when I arrived around 7.40am and there was very little going on in sparrowville. 

Early morning at Panama Flats
I took a few moments to scan the flats and soon picked up a short-eared owl hunting low over the area. 
Scanning through the wildfowl it was the expected mix of mallard, gadwall, shoveler, green-winged teal, pintail and American wigeon plus Canada geese, cackling geese and a single greater white-fronted goose
A red-tailed hawk was sat up in a tree while a Cooper's hawk patrolled the Flats.

I always like to keep up to date with the Brit birding scene, and I am especially keen on what's going on in my old local area. I regularly check the Aldcliffe and Heysham Observatory blogs, plus the Lancaster & District Birdwatching Society website for details of movements and arrivals of birds. 
I have been particularly interested in the recent discovery of a lesser yellowlegs on my old patch at Aldcliffe. This species, while one of the commonest 'rare' nearctic shorebirds that occurs in the UK with individuals showing up annually, is still a good bird to find in Lancashire and so many local birders have been flocking to see this 'yank wader' on home turf. 
Reading this exciting news from here in Canada however, I'm amused by the fact that any one of the supporting cast of birds associating with the yellowlegs (including green and wood sandpipers, ruff, black-tailed godwit and redshank) would solicit a significant twitch on this side of the pond. 
Just goes to show, one birder's redwing is another birder's American robin.  

Photo of Harris's sparrow taken in Calgary, from Daniel Arndt's Flickr page.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Owls About That Then

Northern saw-whet owl
Last night I finally managed to find the time to go out and help out with the owl banding at Rocky Point Bird Observatory (RPBO). Naturally, the catching and ringing of owls is a nocturnal pursuit and the shifts available to volunteers and experienced banders alike are pretty late affairs.
Given the distance to the site, and the fact that I have a half-hour morning commute I haven't really been able to figure out a convenient way of helping out during the week and of course weekend shifts are often fully booked.  But the organizers kindly offered a way where I could turn up for a partial shift, finishing at 11pm. That gives me time to drive home and get a reasonable amount of shut-eye.

I arrived at Rocky Point just before 7pm and once bander Jessie Fanucchi arrived, we headed along to the banding station. As we approached the parking area I noticed the distinctive silhouette of a great-horned owl sat on top of a snag.
Owl and Cheezy Brit Birder
They have been conducting owl banding sessions at RPBO for a decade now, with the sole target species being northern saw-whet owl.
Relatively little is known about this small owl, and until recently it was thought by many to be primarily sedentary. Night-time banding activities across North America seem to have put that flimsy theory well and truly to bed, as large numbers are routinely monitored every autumn. This isn't simply post-breeding dispersal but clearly seasonal migration on a significant scale. Research of this nature will hopefully help determine the destination and routes these owls take, and whether only birds of a certain age and sex are prone to long-range movements. 
2012 has been a remarkable year at Rocky Point with well over 600 saw-whets caught and processed thus far, smashing previous years' records. 
My role here was minimal, other seasoned volunteers and the chief banders Jessie and Anne Nightingale did all the real work extracting the birds, processing the data and ringing the owls. I did get to release a couple and joined in on the net rounds, but more importantly I got to witness first-hand yet more of the invaluable work being conducted by the band of dedicated ornithologists at Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

Please note that Rocky Point is located on Department of National Defence land and there is NO public access. For further details about the work being carried out at the observatory, and for information about volunteer opportunities visit the RPBO website.
You can also read the RPBO blog for more musings. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Giving Thanks For A Long Weekend

Yesterday (Monday) was Thanksgiving here in Canada and as such we enjoyed a nice long weekend. The weather continues to hold out, and we had bright, calm, warm conditions which is all very pleasant for almost everyone, but it does mean that migratory species are not quite so prone to dropping in with occasional downpours or getting blown off-course. We birders really need some rain…

I got out for a while yesterday afternoon and spent a couple of hours scouring the stretch of coast from McMicking Point to Clover Point, taking in the Chinese cemetery and Harling Point on the way. 
The main reason for my choice of location was heavily influenced by my desire to try to find that intriguing grebe I saw last week, but as it happened I only saw one western grebe (and was definitely a western grebe).

Marbled murrelet
The birding was pretty good overall and there were large numbers of birds out on the water. Surf scoter numbers have really built up in the past few days and there were at least 240 present. Other sea ducks were pretty much absent, with the exception of several harlequins.
Alcids were well represented with common murres, rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots scattered around the water. I also saw at least 8 marbled murrelets, including a pair fairly close in that were constantly calling, in-between dives (one pictured, mid-call). I've never heard this species vocalising before, so that was quite a treat!
The absolute highlight was a pair of ancient murrelet, seen between Harling Point and Trial Island. Rather coincidentally, I saw my first ancient murrelets on the same date last year when I joined a mini-pelagic trip out from Victoria, and these were the first that I have seen since! 
The expected shorebirds were all seen picking their way along the coastal rocks - surfbirds, black oystercatchers and black turnstones. At least 4 western sandpiper remain at Clover Point. 
A single Pacific loon and several common loons, many starting to moult out of breeding plumage, were sighted. 
There was nothing of note among the many common gull species. Heermann's, California, mew, glaucous-winged and Thayer's were all seen in varying numbers.   

Census Working Over Time

The previous day I had the pleasure of doing the census at Pedder Bay, Rocky Point Bird Observatory's sister site out at Metchosin.
While the banders were extremely busy processing large numbers of migrant sparrows and the like, I went off to see what I could find along the census route. Generally speaking it was fairly unremarkable, though as always enjoyable. In fact the highlights came pre- and post-census, with a northern shrike hunting below the bluff, and flock of 9 dazzling evening grosbeaks and a pair of red-breasted sapsuckers around the RV park. 
Another notable highlight was a European starling doing a very credible imitation of a California quail - I've heard them mimic Eurasian curlew many times in the UK, but this was a totally new one for me! 
I left Pedder Bay late morning and drove the short distance to Aylard's Farm, in East Sooke Regional Park to see if the northern hawk owl found there the day before was still in the area. I only saw 2 other birders looking for the diurnal owl, so I guessed that it had moved on. I had a look around, checking any likely looking spots but drew a blank. A single American kestrel was scant compensation.
The vagrant owl had been discovered late in the afternoon on Saturday, characteristically hunting from a perch overlooking a large open area of tall dry grass. Given the limited suitable habitat, and the fact that this is a renowned raptor migration watchpoint, it wouldn't surprise me if it simply continued across the straits or maybe just moved along the coast, where it may yet get relocated. Areas of clearcut forest or open farmland with handy exposed hunting perches are likely sites to check, but it is a bit of needle in a  haystack situation!  

Little To See at Sea

Me and Race Rocks Lighthouse
On Saturday Jenny joined me for a mini-pelagic trip organised by the Victoria Natural History Society. The day was warm, sunny and extremely calm. Ideal for a nice boat journey I'm sure you'll agree, but not much use when it comes to good seabirding conditions.
It was pretty dead out there and we struggled to find anything that we couldn't easily see from shore. Alcid numbers were pretty low, there were no phalaropes, loons and grebes were at something of a premium and other than a smart adult western gull at Race Rocks and the Bonaparte's gulls hanging around the kelp off Rocky Point, larids were seriously lacking in diversity.  

We did get great looks at (and quite a noseful of) the belching, garrulous California and Steller's sealions at Race Rocks (pictured), but despite a couple of claims from others on board I certainly didn't pick out any of the handful of elephant seals that have been present lately. 
Pity, it would have been a mammal tick!

Rough Justice

After posting Friday's blog, I went for a quick evening stroll around the grounds of the Government House, a short walk from our apartment here in the Rocklands area of Victoria.
Within seconds of passing through the gates it was quite clear that there was lots going on, with small feeding groups of sparrows and robins all around the place. I soon found a smart tan-striped white-throated sparrow in among mixed bunch of golden-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows and a couple each of song and fox sparrows.
Buoyed by this locally scarce migrant (my second of the fall at this site) I trudged on, feeling quite pleased that I'd made the effort to come down. The remainder of the grounds seemed pretty quiet, with just a couple of ruby-crowned kinglets and yet more juncos to keep me entertained.
A raptor caught my eye as it passed overhead, and getting my bins on it it was immediately apparent that this was no Cooper's or red-tailed hawk. Pale underparts, a broad diffuse dark tail band with 'wrap-around' pale base, dark belly, primary tips and striking black carpal patches; clearly a pale juvenile rough-legged hawk (known as rough-legged buzzard to a Brit birder). My first 'rough-leg' in Canada and the last bird I expected to see flying over Victoria!
Interesting fact - the bird's feathered feet (an adaptation for Arctic life) are reflected in its scientific name Buteo lagopus, lagopus meaning 'hare-footed'. Cool eh?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Morning Glories

It's been a fairly unremarkable week for me bird wise. While rarities such as clay-colored sparrow and blue gray gnatcatcher have had the local twitchers on full alert I've been drawing blanks at my regular haunts.
I've been making a point of checking out Clover Point just around sunrise every morning this week in the hope of finding a grounded lapland longspur, horned lark or similar.
And every morning I've thus far been unsuccessful.
Despite the lack of enticing off-passage migrants, there's actually been a fair bit of activity on show. Large numbers of common murres and rhinoceros auklets can be seen offshore, and dotted among them there are always a few pigeon guillemots and a handful of marbled murrelets.
The surf scoter flocks continue to build, as do the numbers of harlequin duck along the rocky shoreline. Horned grebes and red-necked grebes are increasing too, and all week there have been up to three western grebes.
Yesterday I happened to take a pic of a pair of distant western grebes as they were elegantly silhouetted by the rising sun. As you can see here, the resulting snap (taken through my 'scope) was pretty terrible.

Both western grebes?
However, when I looked at the photo on my computer I noticed a couple of things that got me thinking. 
The bird on the left appears to have a brighter, slightly upturned bill and it's eye is clearly visible against its white cheek. 
The angle isn't great but as I peered at it I couldn't help thinking that there was enough to set small alarm bells tinkling... I just wish I'd noticed at the time!
I expect that this is well within the range of western, but having never seen a Clarke's grebe I thought it might be worth gathering some input from other birders. 

Naturally, I have looked for the grebe again but have so far only seen 1 western in the area.

Anyhoo, dodgy dubious grebes aside, other things of note down at Clover Point this week include the arrival of at least 4 common loons, a fly-by mini-skein of 4 greater white-fronted geese and a few more Thayer's gulls joining the larid masses. There are still lots of Heermann's gulls around while California gulls are starting to thin out. Mew gull numbers increase daily.  

Western sandpipers roosting on kelp
Shorebirds haven't been too thrilling, but around a dozen black turnstone have been present most mornings along with up to 5 surfbirds, 6 western sandpipers (pictured) and the regular black oystercatchers.
Of the few passerines passing through, savannah sparrow numbers peaked at an unremarkable 8 this morning (Friday), with a few American pipits passing over most days. Good numbers of American robins were on the move on Tuesday and on Thursday 4 Brewer's blackbirds were something of a surprise.

Otherwise, I made a couple of brief stops at Summit Hill reservoir where I saw my first lesser scaup of the autumn. A couple of shoveler remain on the water and the garry oaks continue to attract good numbers of yellow-rumped warblers 

My lunchtime saunters by Langford Lake have turned up a cackling goose, which flew in with some bog-standard Canada geese, a pair of merlin harassing a norther flicker, plus increases in common 'winter' sparrows, yet more YR warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets etc.
One day, as I walked to the lake I stumbled across the impressive fellow in the picture here. I assume it's a field cricket. Very nice!

With a mini-pelagic planned for tomorrow, I hope to see some half-decent seabirds. We're not heading out too far, just to Race Rocks, so there'll be no shearwaters or albatrosses but it'll be interesting to see what we can find.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Small Wonder

Yesterday evening I finally caught up with a bird that was really starting to prove something of a nemesis. Although I have heard them several times on the island, I had yet to lay eyes on a northern pigmy owl.
These diminutive hunters are reasonably common in the right habitat but can be incredibly difficult to find (in my case, at least). I have spent more than a few hours wandering around suitable forested landscapes feebly mimicking their distinctive call but until yesterday this had never worked terribly well. Enlisting the assistance of local birder Jeremy Kimm (see his Victoria Birder blog) we set out to a site where I had tried on six previous occasions to locate the owls. Jeremy assured me that the 7th time would be the charm...
It took about half an hour but eventually a bird started to respond to our infrequent whistles, but it kept resolutely hidden from view. Suddenly the highly distinctive shape of a small owl flew over at tree top height, landing in a dense fir close by. At last!

Pigmy owl. No, really.
The owl presumably watched us from its hiding place before flying out again, over our heads, and perched up on an exposed branch some distance away.
Now we could see it out in the open and it was still pretty light allowing us decent, if long-range, views. A 'scope would have been handy, but nonetheless I was thrilled to finally see this most appealing of BC birds. I even managed a truly crap photo - as evidenced here. See the small owl shaped blob? Yep.
I know that simple listing seems a bit odd to non-birders and some strict conservationists, but having seen Eurasian pigmy owl in Finland there was something quite powerful about the allure of its North American counterpart as far as I was concerned... I'll admit that there was a definite sense of relief at finally seeing this small wonder, but far more importantly it was a genuine privilege and pleasure to watch this wonderful little owl in its natural environment.

Raptorous Displays         

Saturday morning saw me once more heading out to Rocky Point Bird Observatory. This time I had company in the form of Ian Cruikshank and fellow expat David Caudwell, which certainly made the now-familiar drive along the dark and winding roads a little more pleasurable.
I was going out to RPBO to do the census, and David joined me as he had also volunteered and wanted to familiarize himself with the route.
It was actually pretty quiet, and we struggled to find good numbers of many species. Warblers were conspicuous chiefly by their absence, and even bushtit flocks failed to materialise, depriving us of the chance to scan through a roving band of birds in search of off-passage species.
Red crossbills and pine siskins were all over the place, as were the ubiquitous red-breasted nuthatches, Steller's jays and such.
In a small patch of brush we found a few sparrows, primarily golden-crowned and white-crowned. Among them we picked out a 1st-year white-throated sparrow which certainly brightened our spirits.

American kestrel
Shortly afterwards we came across another minor highlight when we discovered a fine male American kestrel perched up by a bluff overlooking the ocean (pictured).
Indeed it turned out to be raptors that really saved the day.
As the morning wore on large numbers of turkey vultures started to gather over the coast, assessing the situation before making the decision to cross the straits to the US mainland.
On occasion kettles of vultures would take off over the water, only to return after wheeling around at altitude. It took some time, but eventually some raptors joined the melee of southbound birds and among the larger carrion-eaters we were picking out numbers of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks and red-tailed hawks. Looking toward the sun, trying to pick out less familiar raptors among these common species wasn't terribly easy but we soon clocked the considerable bulk of a northern goshawk flying through. Unlike the vultures, this bird had no issue with waiting for thermals and simply took off across the straits and disappeared rapidly toward the mountains of Washington State.
A couple of broad-winged hawks also joined in on the action, their small distinctive buteo silhouette quite easy to pick out among the various other species. The only one that I was able to see well in the 'scope was a juvenile bird.
Broad-winged hawks are now known to be regular fall migrants in southern Vancouver Island with double-figures being seen most years - 20 year ago this was pretty much unheard of and the species was considered quite a rarity.

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