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.

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