Over and Over – James/Lucia

If I had to do it all over again….

Pelagic cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant in Bamfield

 

If I look back to  my goals for 2015, I am very happy about the results for all of them.  I discovered  many new places on the island, and I will definitely visit some of them again.  I didn’t get to every community I intended, so I hope to do so in the next couple of years.  I took more photos that I could have imagined, and some of them even turned out!  I’ve raised some much needed money for Rocky Point Bird Observatory, and all in all, had a wonderful year.

Right from my announcement that I would be doing a big year, my friend Dave Irons predicted that this would be my first–and last.  I think he’s wrong!  I had such a blast last year that I haven’t really come out of big year mode yet.  In fact,  I am actually one species ahead of where I was for the island last year at this time, and I haven’t made it past Duncan.  Admittedly, I left town on the 11th to go to the Morro Bay Birding Festival last year, but I haven’t been putting in the time or effort — and especially driving — that I did last year.

My next Vancouver Island Big Year (no, not this year!) will be different.  While I have no regrets about getting to know the island better, much of the time driving might have been better put to use birding.  I didn’t keep precise track of kilometres driven to bird since I was pretty much birding all the time.  Let’s just say that 50,000 km  is a pretty good estimate of my big year-related travel last year.  A lot of that was highway driving, so if we estimate an average of 70 km per hour,  that’s more than 700 hours, or 90 8-hour days of road time.  I deliberately did a lot of my driving at night, and in any big year there will be some driving to do, but I could probably have been in the field with ears perked and binoculars up at least 30 more days last year if I’d stuck a little closer to home.  That’s a lot of birding!

TRKI in flight2
Tropical Kingbird – Esquimalt Lagoon

 

Let’s break the results down a little more.  I racked up 251 species out of my 268 south of Nanaimo.  I should have been able to find Black Scoter, Yellow-billed Loon,  Green Heron, Iceland Gull,  Gray Jay, and Lazuli Bunting in the Victoria Checklist Area.  I might have even been able to get Leach’s Storm Petrel, Tufted Puffin, and Northern Mockingbird.  Some of the local misses might have been hits if I had been a little closer to home to follow up on them.  Some of the species I missed entirely, including Brown Pelican, Red Phalarope, Redhead, and Western Kingbird, were all ticked by other birders in Victoria.

The north island did give me my only Leach’s Storm Petrel, Yellow-billed Loon, Clark’s Nutcracker and Orchard Oriole.

The central island filled in my list with Black Scoter, Green Heron, American Avocet, Franklin’s Gull, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Lazuli Bunting and my first White-winged Crossbill (also seen on the north island).

avocet1
American Avocet

The Orchard Oriole was the only unique species found on one of the offshore island (Thanks, Great Gray Owl!), and true pelagics only contributed Black-footed Albatross and Buller’s Shearwater.

Surprisingly, all of my trips to Jordan River and Port Renfew yielded no unique species in 2015, although the Arctic Tern spectacle was worth all of the effort I put in to get out west.

After evaluating all of this, I think the best strategy for doing a Vancouver Island Big Year would be to focus on the south island and head north and west for specific targets or when rare bird reports come in.  Shorebird migration in Tofino and herring spawn in the Oceanside area would be obvious exceptions, as the chance of seeing new birds is higher in those locations than on the south island during peak seasons.

IMG_8277
Herring Roe

 

Here are tips I would share with anyone (including myself) attempting a Vancouver Island Big Year.

  1. Get lucky.   Before I started my big year, I always thought luck was a big factor in finding uncommon birds.  After my big year, I think it’s even more of a factor than I had anticipated.  No amount of skill or effort will actually make a bird materialize.  There is a LOT of luck involved.  Last year, out of six pelagic trips booked, only three went, and only one stayed out at the shelf longer than a few minutes.  That was bad luck.  I could have potentially seen up to ten more pelagic species if I had been lucky.
  2. Get skilled. Despite point 1,  all the luck in the world isn’t going to help you if you don’t have the skill to get on the bird, see or hear it well enough to identify it, and hopefully get a photo of it.  I suspect that there are birders on the island that would have hit 275 last year if they’d been travelling with me. The ability to ID an uncommon bird based on its call, the flash of a wing as it zooms past or by a distant silhouette that just looks like a dot to mere mortals, would definitely be an asset in getting the numbers up.  Study the birds that you think might be in the area and get to know them as well as you know the local birds.  (Travellers and folks who have moved to the island have an advantage here!)
  3. Put in the time. Wisely. It might be fun to visit new locations, and there should be some time spent doing that, but many of the best birding spots on the island have already been identified. Yes, you might discover some rare, off track migrant in a vacant lot, but your odds of turning up a rarity are higher by spending time at known migrant traps, popular birding locations and in neighbourhoods with lots of bird feeders.  Allocate the majority of your time to pick through hotspots and surrounding areas.
  4. Network and share.  I can’t overstate how important it is to be a part of the birding community when you undertake a big year.  One of the main reasons that more rare birds are found in the Victoria Checklist area is that there are a LOT more eyes out there looking.  Yes, we have the geographical advantage of being a jumping off point during fall migration, but the island has another pointy end, too.  I did as well as I did last year because so many people were out there looking and calling me when they found something good.   I am very grateful for all of their help.  In return, when you find something good, get the word out.  You’ll know who’s doing  a year list.  Help them out and they’ll help you.  The farther away from home the bird is, the more important this is.  You don’t want to drive for hours only to “not” find out that the bird moved to another spot a couple of hours earlier.
  5.  Talk to people about their experiences and knowledge.  Bar charts can sometimes be misleading. For instance, the Victoria checklist correctly shows a dashed line from July through October for Long-tailed Jaeger. That line means seen most years but few records per year.  However, those in the know understood that the best month for finding the jaeger was August–something I learned in late September.
  6. Use tech support.  Bulletin boards like BCVIBIRDS Yahoo group, databases like eBird, text messages and cell phone calls got me to birds that I would have otherwise missed.  You can do a big year without these modern contrivances, of course, but they give a real advantage to today’s big year listers.
  7.  Run as fast as you can!  When a bird you need is reported, get there as quickly as you can. Using this technique, I got Say’s Phoebe last year. Ignoring it cost me Brown Pelican and Redhead.  Sheesh!  Even birds that typically stick around (think Western Kingbird and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher) buzzed off in a hurry last year.  You never know if you will get a second chance.
  8.  Let life get in the way. I went to two bird festivals during my big year, fully aware that I might miss birds by doing so. You may have family events, a vacation, a home project, or something else that is important to you that causes a conflict with your big year. You alone will have to decide which is more important, which thing you will regret missing the least.  I got 268 species AND got to spend two weeks with great friends in wonderful places.  That was more important to me than getting a few more species (which, by the way, didn’t happen. Although I missed a couple of species, they were seen and gone, probably before I could have arrived in any case.)
  9.  Enjoy the ride. I admit I had the luxury of a fluid goal. My target of 275 was arbitrary and 268 was just as good at the end of the year.  The next big year birder, including me, will be chasing that number. That will add a layer of stress that I didn’t have last year.  Regardless, plan to have fun, and remember that any day out birding is better than just about any other kind of day.
BEKI hover
Belted Kingfisher

 

 

By the Numbers

Is it just me, or does this January seem birdier than last year?  There are many great holdovers from 2015 still present: Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Redpoll, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Redwing among others.  At the start of my big year, it seemed there were only a few birds to chase anywhere on the island–including that dratted Great Gray Owl that eluded me despite five trips to Quadra Island.

Pomarine jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger

 

My format for reporting my finds was a little non-traditional as I was keeping lists for each “county” (regional district) on the island.  I still have to make sure that my species table is synchronized with my eBird checklists, but the master list is accurate.  Here, for the first time, is my list of 268 species by date.  Within each date, the birds are in alphabetical order, because that’s what Excel wanted to do.  ;-)

1/01/15 – Running total 56
American Robin
American Wigeon
Anna’s Hummingbird
Bald Eagle
Bewick’s Wren
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown Creeper
Bufflehead
California Quail
Canada Goose
Canvasback
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Common Merganser
Common Raven
Cooper’s Hawk
Dark-eyed Junco
Downy Woodpecker
Eurasian Collared-Dove
European Starling
Evening Grosbeak
Fox Sparrow
Gadwall
Glaucous-winged Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Herring Gull
House Finch
House Sparrow
Killdeer
Lesser Scaup
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Mallard
Merlin
Mew Gull
Northern Flicker
Northern Shoveler
Northwestern Crow
Pacific Wren
Pine Siskin
Purple Finch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-necked Duck
Rock Pigeon
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Steller’s Jay
Thayer’s Gull
Trumpeter Swan
Varied Thrush
Wood Duck
1/02/15 – 86
American Pipit
Ancient Murrelet
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Belted Kingfisher
Black Turnstone
Brandt’s Cormorant
Common Goldeneye
Common Loon
Common Murre
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Greater Scaup
Green-winged Teal
Harlequin Duck
Hooded Merganser
Horned Grebe
Long-tailed Duck
Marbled Murrelet
Northern Harrier
Northern Pintail
Pacific Loon
Pelagic Cormorant
Peregrine Falcon
Pigeon Guillemot
Red Crossbill
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-necked Grebe
Rough-legged Hawk
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
1/03/15 – 101
Barred Owl
Black-bellied Plover
Cackling Goose
Cedar Waxwing
Dunlin
Great Horned Owl
Hermit Thrush
Marsh Wren
Mourning Dove
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Pileated Woodpecker
Western Meadowlark
Western Screech-Owl
White-crowned Sparrow
1/04/15 – 102
Mute Swan
1/05/15 – 105
Black Oystercatcher
Savannah Sparrow
Wilson’s Snipe
1/06/15 – 111
American Goldfinch
Bushtit
Eurasian Wigeon
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Surfbird
1/08/15 -112
Ruffed Grouse
1/09/15 – 118
American Coot
American Dipper
American Kestrel
Palm Warbler
Sky Lark
Yellow-rumped Warbler
1/11/15 -121
Pied-billed Grebe
Western Grebe
Western Gull
1/22/15 – 122
Chipping Sparrow
1/23/15 – 123
Swamp Sparrow
1/24/15 – 125
American Black Duck
Greater Yellowlegs
1/25/15 – 129
Common Redpoll
Orange-crowned Warbler
Ruddy Duck
Turkey Vulture
1/26/15 – 130
Eared Grebe
2/02/15 – 133
Short-eared Owl
Tundra Swan
White-throated Sparrow
2/03/15 – 134
Gray Jay
2/07/15 – 135
Sandhill Crane
2/09/15 – 137
Brant
California Gull
2/10/15 -140
Marbled Godwit
Mountain Bluebird
Ring-billed Gull
2/11/15 -142
Northern Shrike
Red-throated Loon
2/13/15 -143
Virginia Rail
2/14/15 -146
Hutton’s Vireo
Pine Grosbeak
Rhinoceros Auklet
2/15/15 -147
Black Scoter
2/16/15 -148
Northern Goshawk
2/26/15 – 149
Golden Eagle
2/27/15 – 150
Tree Swallow
2/28/15 – 151
Sanderling
3/02/15 -152
Violet-green Swallow
3/03/15 -153
Rock Sandpiper
3/05/15 -154
Ring-necked Pheasant
3/06/15 – 155
Barn Swallow
3/08/15 -157
Bonaparte’s Gull
Iceland Gull*
3/11/15 – 158
Rufous Hummingbird
3/12/15 – 159
Band-tailed Pigeon
3/25/15 – 160
Say’s Phoebe
3/26/15 -161
American Bittern
3/31/15 – 162
Barn Owl
4/02/15 – 163
Common Yellowthroat
4/03/15 -164
Spotted Sandpiper
4/05/15 – 165
Osprey
4/07/15 – 166
House Wren
4/08/15 – 169
Brown-headed Cowbird
Sooty Grouse
Western Bluebird
4/09/15 – 170
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
4/11/15 – 171
Whimbrel
4/12/15 – 172
Cliff Swallow
4/14/15 – 177
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Cassin’s Vireo
Least Sandpiper
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Townsend’s Warbler
4/16/15 -178
Sabine’s Gull
4/18/15 – 183
Baird’s Sandpiper
Cinnamon Teal
Purple Martin
Short-billed Dowitcher
Townsend’s Solitaire
4/19/15 – 185
Hammond’s Flycatcher
Lesser Yellowlegs
4/20/15 – 187
Long-billed Curlew
Western Sandpiper
4/21/15 -189
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Sora
4/23/15 – 190
American Avocet
4/24/15 – 192
Semipalmated Plover
Solitary Sandpiper
4/27/15 – 194
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow Warbler
4/29/15 – 196
Long-billed Dowitcher
Yellow-billed Loon
5/02/15 -198
Caspian Tern
Semipalmated Sandpiper
5/03/15 – 205
Black-footed Albatross
Black-legged Kittiwake
Cassin’s Auklet
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Northern Fulmar
Pink-footed Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
5/04/15 – 206
Blue-winged Teal
5/05/15 – 209
Black-headed Grosbeak
Warbling Vireo
Western Tanager
5/06/15 – 210
Olive-sided Flycatcher
5/07/15 – 212
Swainson’s Thrush
Wilson’s Phalarope
5/08/15 – 215
Bullock’s Oriole
Pectoral Sandpiper
Vaux’s Swift
5/11/15 – 216
American White Pelican
5/14/15 – 217
Ruddy Turnstone
5/16/15 – 219
Great Egret
Lapland Longspur
5/18/15 – 220
Pacific Golden-Plover
5/20/15 -221
Willow Flycatcher
5/25/15 – 222
Western Wood-Pewee
6/03/15 – 223
Red-eyed Vireo
6/06/15 – 224
Common Nighthawk
6/08/15 – 225
Lazuli Bunting
6/09/15 – 227
Arctic Tern
Black Swift
6/17/15 – 228
Heermann’s Gull
6/19/15 – 229
American Three-toed Woodpecker
6/20/15 – 230
Green Heron
7/04/15 –  231
Clark’s Nutcracker
7/24/15 – 234
Red-necked Phalarope
Tufted Puffin
Wandering Tattler
8/02/15 – 235
Stilt Sandpiper
8/11/15 – 236
Bank Swallow
8/18/15 – 237
Franklin’s Gull
8/23/15 – 239
Red Knot
Yellow-headed Blackbird
8/25/15 – 240
Blue Grosbeak
8/29/15 – 241
Common Tern
8/31/15 -242
Eastern Kingbird
9/03/15 – 243
Horned Lark
9/04/15 – 244
American Golden-Plover
9/07/15 – 245
Broad-winged Hawk
9/08/15 -246
Northern Waterthrush
9/09/15 – 247
Magnolia Warbler
9/10/15 – 248
Rock Wren
9/16/15 – 249
Pomarine Jaeger
9/20/15 – 251
Buller’s Shearwater
Parasitic Jaeger
9/21/15 – 252
Northern Mockingbird
9/27/15 -253
Swainson’s Hawk
9/30/15 – 254
Orchard Oriole
10/01/15 – 256
Black-throated Sparrow
Leach’s Storm-Petrel
10/04/15 – 257
Cattle Egret
10/15/15 – 258
Tropical Kingbird
10/18/15 -259
Clark’s Grebe
10/20/15 – 260
Red-naped Sapsucker
10/22/15 -261
Harris’s Sparrow
10/27/15 – 262
Rusty Blackbird
11/10/15 – 263
Glaucous Gull
11/29/15 – 264
Snow Bunting
11/30/15 – 265
Yellow-breasted Chat
12/08/15 – 266
Long-eared Owl
12/16/15 – 267
White-winged Crossbill
12/19/15 – 268
Redwing

 

Redwing3
Last new species of the year: Redwing

You might be wondering what I missed in 2015.  From eBird:

Redhead – 3 reports, many hours spent looking for this species
Wild Turkey – 1 report, don’t believe it is a “countable” bird.
Laysan Albatross – 1 report, from cruise ship
Flesh-footed Shearwater – 2 reports from well offshore
Short-tailed Shearwater-3 reports, several boat trips and shorewatches looking for this species.
Brown Booby – 2 reports, several boat trips and shorewatches looking for this species.
Brown Pelican – 2 reports, several boat trips and shorewatches looking for this species.
Willet – 1 report, chased but not found
Hudsonian Godwit – 1 report, chased but not found
Red Phalarope – 2 reports (one from a tour with many participants); several boat trips and shorewatches looking for this species.
South Polar Skua – several offshore reports; possibly most hard to take miss
Long-tailed Jaeger – 2 “local” and several offshore reports
Horned Puffin – 1 report from cruise ship
Crested Caracara – 1 report, chased hard for two full days
Western Kingbird – several reports over 2 days
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 1 report, 3 observers;
Red-throated Pipit – 1 report, but 2nd known; chased hard for several days
Nashville Warbler – 3 reports, chased all of them without success
American Redstart – 1 report, chased
American Tree Sparrow – 2 reports; chased 1
Clay-colored Sparrow -1 report, 2 others known; chased
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch – 2 reports, not chased

 

Of course, eBird isn’t the only source of bird information, and there were a few more that didn’t make this list.  The Great Gray Owl on Quadra Island was the most expensive miss of the year, and a Sage Thrasher in Black Creek also failed to materialize. Both Ruff and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper were reported at Long Beach, but not relocated by anyone.

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan

 

Near misses–birds that I think I caught a glimpse of, but not clearly enough  to add to the list include a Northern Parula found by Chris Saunders at Swan Lake,  and Short-tailed Shearwaters and Red Phalaropes observed from Sheringham Point.  For the Victoria checklist area,  the Ambiguous Loon wins the prize.  Ian Cruickshank, Rick Schortinghuis were fairly sure that it was a Yellow-billed Loon, but we could not provide good enough photos to add it to the list. I did get the species in Port Hardy earlier in the year.

The South Polar Skua was one of the most disappointing misses.  Apparently, two were seen on the Ucluelet pelagic trip in September, but the word was not shared with most of the participants.  I was within feet of getting this species.

baby BDOW5
Begging baby Barred Owl

You might be wondering how 2015 compared to other recent years, birdwise.  Realizing that not everything is getting reported on eBird, all years are likely underestimates of birds seen, here are the numbers reported on eBird since 2010:

2015 – 290
2014 – 298
2013 – 296
2012 – 286
2011 – 287
2010 – 280

Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I think I might have been able to add  a few species to my year list with just a few changes in strategy. In my next blog post, I’ll share my thoughts about strategy for those who might be tempted to do a big year–or maybe it will outline what I’ll do next time!

I Like Birds – Everett (Eels)

Here’s a little video to get you in the mood:

With only two days left in the year, my best bet for a new species was on the water. Despite many hours of searching, I was still missing Brown Pelican and Red Phalarope (among others) for my year list, and Yellow-billed Loon and Black Scoter for my Victoria Checklist list.

But there was still that lingering American Tree Sparrow at Panama Flats.  Although it hadn’t been seen for weeks, I thought I would give it one last try.  The flats looked very different than the last time I’d been through.  Although the days have been bright and sunny here since Monday, the overnight temperatures were quite low.  The ducks didn’t seem to know what to do with the solid water.

Panama Solid Mallard on iceI checked the mixed flock of sparrows at the Carey Rd gate and even left an offering in hopes of attracting more for my return after checking the last place it was seen, but American Tree Sparrow was not to be!

I headed to town for a whale watching trip from Victoria’s Inner Harbour. As I arrived, I got a call from Rick Schortinghuis. He had an “interesting” gull all the way across town. Cathy Reader and her daughters, Emma and Rebecca, were at Tower Point, too, and the four of them were not sure if they had a really, really, good bird or just an “in between” stage of something more common.  I had to decide whether to throw away my non-refundable reservation for the tour and chase the bird, or continue as planned.  It would have taken me the better part of an hour to reach Tower Point, and I had seen pelicans just two days earlier in Port Angeles….  I decided to stay the course.

It was a nice day, with not much wind, but it was cold.  By the time I had four layers and a survival suit on, I could barely move!

Ann going whale watching

Visitors from Mexico and Belgium joined the Canadians in the Zodiac and off we went, first east to the Chain Islets then out past Discovery. No whales (or pelicans), but some amazing scenery.

Bald Eagle 3
Bald Eagle looking for lunch

 

Mt Baker
Mt Baker in the sun

By this time, there was a light chop on the water, occasionally sending spray into the boat. It was clear that the camera was going to have to be put away in my dry bag, but where could I put it to make sure it didn’t take the pounding we were already getting?  In the end, I balanced it on my upturned feet, making me feel a lot like a King Penguin guarding its egg!  I hoped my body and boots would provide enough shock absorption to keep my gear operational.

Whale watching boats are built for speed, and Gary sure knew how to manage this one.  As we turned and headed west, the pressure of the air going by us threatened to strip off hats and gloves. Eventually, the insulating hats had to go.  I was sure glad I was wearing a hoodie!

We took a tour around Race Rocks, then headed out past East Sooke Park with still no whales or pelicans.  A Black-legged Kittiwake flew alongside the boat for a little while, but I think I was the only one who fully appreciated the moment.  Gary’s track record for finding whales had been pretty good all year, and he was not one to go down easily to defeat.  He asked all on board if we should go for another 20 minutes–and we did, almost all the way to Sheringham Point.

With no whales in sight, and the sun threatening to set before we got back, Gary put the pedal to  the metal and back we headed, full speed.  By this time, the chop had gotten heavier and with the sun descending, the air had gotten cooler.  We pounded our way back to Victoria.  They warn people with back issues not to take these Zodiac trips.  I could see why!  We arrived back before the sun was down, warmed up with hot chocolate, and for those who could try again, picked up rainchecks, a standard procedure if no whales are found.  Interestingly, six boats went out on Wednesday and none found whales.  I wonder if this was a side effect of the previous night’s earthquake.

It was definitely nice to get home and into a hot bath!  I went to check the Spot track for the day and…  Nothing.  I will say more about this in another post or a review, but let’s just say that I didn’t get my full year’s worth of service.  So, I have made my own maps for the last two days of the year.  They won’t be as accurate as the Spot maps, but they’ll give you an idea of our route.

whale watching route
Whale watching route

 

Thursday was the final day of my big year and I enlisted the help of Rick Schortinghuis and Ian Cruickshank to do a north to south blitz of the Victoria Checklist area.

We started at dawn in Ladysmith (which, of course, meant we had to leave Victoria well before dawn).

Ladysmith Sunrise

Surely there must be Black Scoters or Yellow-billed Loons out there somewhere!

IMG_9971
Plumes from the Crofton Mill show just how windless it was.

Most stops along the way were decidedly un-birdy.  We made stops in Saltair, Chemainus, Mill Point, Crofton, and Maple Bay  before we came across Princess Holly near Quamichan Lake. The property owner allowed us to check his holly farm for the thrushes and waxwings we could hear from the road, but nothing out of the ordinary turned up.

There were lots of ducks at Quamichan Lake, but they mostly clung along the very farthest shore. Why does this always seem to be the way?

Quamichan Lake
Snow on the mountain tops above Quamichan Lake.

 

After a couple of stops on the lake, we headed to look for sparrows on Richard’s Trail and a couple of other spots, hit Somenos Lake and Tim Hortons, then went on to the prime destination: the Duncan sewage ponds.  Barrow’s Goldeneyes joined the regulars–Wood Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks and others, along with several gull species, but no Redhead, no Tufted Duck and no Iceland Gull.

As the light started to fade, we headed to Cowichan Bay, Dougan Lake, and Cherry Point.

Dec 31 route
The last day of my big year.

Finally, we spotted something interesting.  A pale-billed loon was a couple of hundred metres away from shore.  As loons do, it kept diving just as soon as we could get our scopes on it. The bill was held at a slight upward tilt, the colour was paler than the Common Loons nearby, the face was whiter and the colour transition gentler than on the Commons.  Could this be a Yellow-billed Loon?  Could it?

P1060404
Photo by Ian Cruickshank of our last find of the day.

 

We studied it for about 30 minutes as the light got dimmer and dimmer.  By the time we left, we were about 90% certain that this bird was good for Yellow-billed Loon, which wouldn’t change my year total, but would set a new record for the Victoria Checklist area.  I’ve sent the photos to a few other records committee types to get their evaluation.

A quick,  post sunset trip along the waterfront in Mill Bay didn’t turn up anything new.  And then it was over.

Mill Bay sunset

This has been an incredible year.  I ended 2015 with 268 species on and around Vancouver Island, a total that would not have been possible without considerable help and support from the birding community on the island.  If I start to name names here, I’m sure that I would miss someone, but their names and contributions are peppered liberally through this blog.  I hope to get the chance to thank each and every one of them in person in 2016.

The quest may be over, but the blog isn’t quite yet.  Over the next week or two, I’ll be writing a few more posts–a post-game analysis, thoughts on strategy, things I’ve taken away from this wonderful adventure.  I’ll also update everyone on the funds raised in support of Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

At the beginning of the year, my friend Dave Irons said that this would likely be my first–and last–big year.  Don’t bet on it!

And to all of you who have been following my travels, thank you for your interest.  I hope you have been entertained and maybe even inspired by my adventures. May you all have your own wonderful year in 2016!

 

Come On and Do the Jailhouse Rock with Me – Leiber and Stoller

A quick almost end of the year update to bring everyone who is following up to speed!

Sunday was the Sooke Christmas Bird Count, the final of my big year.  My attention is split between two zones due to security clearance requirements.  The morning was spent with John Costello at Rocky Point Ammunition Depot.  While en route, I spotted a Barred Owl along the power lines for my first bird of the count.  It was a lot darker than it appears in this photo, so I felt lucky to catch this one!

Barred Owl 2

 

The weather was less than perfect–the only CBC this month where we started out in wind and rain.  So much so that the boat at Race Rocks was unable to launch to pick up Jim Danzenbaker and Garry Fletcher. Alex Fletcher did his count from his staion on the rocks, and Garry augmented it using the web cams.

At Rocky Point, John and I checked the fields and shores, turning up the expected subjects, but as most people commented, in lower numbers than usual. A notable miss was Red-breasted Nuthatch, a normally common and vocal resident. When we were about half done, I looked at my watch and realized we only had 30 minutes before we were supposed to rendezvous with Jim for the afternoon component of the count.  We quickly headed to the Rocky Point Bird Observatory sites at Edye Point and the pond to tally up as many birds as we could, and we were on our way.  Next year, I hope to add a couple more people with RP security clearance to give better coverage to this site.

When we got to the Metchosin Cafe, many of the counters from the WIlliam Head Road group were already there warming up.  They had news of a good count bird: Black-legged Kittiwake!  While I had this bird already for the year, I did not have it for the Victoria Checklist area.  If I could refind it, it would tie me with Chris Saunders for the checklist year high total. Jim had spotted two at a great distance from Weir’s Beach. The birds were headed towards William Head prison.

There are advantages to having someone from the “inside” to gain access to high security areas.  John worked for many years at the William Head Instititute and has managed to gain access for us for the last three years to do the Christmas Bird Count.  There are other ways to gain access to prison, but they don’t all include the freedom to leave at the end of the day!

When we arrived, we headed straight to the bay where the kittiwakes had been heading. Nothing. We went to the point.  Nothing. At this point, I was working on Plan B for the next day.  We’d been counting birds for about 45 minutes when Jim looked through his scope across the water to Edye Point (yes, the same Edye Point that John and I had been at earlier in the day) and said “I’ve got one!”

I looked through his scope and got a not-great look at several gull-like birds at a great distance, but between the height of the scope and the tiny images, I couldn’t honestly say that I’d seen one. Sigh. Jim lowered the scope (ahh, the trials of being height-challenged) and was trying to refind the birds–which, of course, had moved farther away–when I said, “Nevermind.  I’ll count this one!”  A Black-legged Kittiwake passed just about 40 feet in front of us.  Success!  I was now tied with Chris at 251 species for the checklist area!  Then we saw another kittiwake.  And another.  And a young one, for a total of three adults and one immature, feeding, whorling, and zooming right in front of us.  Flying birds are difficult to photograph, but I was snapping away. I’d brought my older, higher zoom, lower resolution camera this time, but managed to get a few in-focus shots.

Kittiwake Race Rocks
Black-legged Kittiwake, with Race Rocks in the background.

Notice the solid black “ink-tipped” look on the wings. I had my evidence shots, so of course, now the birds could relax and come closer.  And they did!  Two perched on a nearby outcrop for a couple of easier shots.

jailhouse rock
Black-legged Kittwakes on a jailhouse rock.

These were easily the best birds of my day and several other CBC teams also added this species to their lists.

Monday was Jim’s trip home, and again I joined him on the ferry for a chance look at a Brown Pelican, Red Phalarope or any other new bird for my list.   The trip would have been entirerly uneventful except that we ran into Ron Melcer and Rachel Gardiner on board.

As Jim headed home from Port Angeles, I walked the new pathway west along the shore.  And then it happened–a list bird on the wrong side of the border!  I’m not printing the species here as I have avoided posting the names of birds that I’ve seen outside my count region, but let’s just say that two very large brown, huge-billed birds were perched on top of one of the pilings in the Port Angeles harbour.  Ergh!  The only good thing about this is that means they have come this far into the strait and I just might find one in my final days of the year.

There were even fewer birds on the way home and certainly none to add to the list.  At dusk, I had tea with Megan Lyden, who had been visiting Victoria over Christmas.  It seems I only socialize after dark these days.  :-)

On Tuesday, I signed up for a whale watching trip for another chance at those errant seabirds, but it was cancelled for low registration.   I headed north to take the Thetis Island ferry for the first time in my life and with hopes of finding a Black Scoter for the checklist area.  The ferry travels quickly, but you can use a scope while it is underway.  There were lots of seabirds in this waterway, including a good density of loons.  I picked up several species for my “county” list, but nothing new for the checklist.  There was one scoter that looked like a Black Scoter through my scope, but close examination of the distant photos showed a slightly lighter patch on the back of the head–just another deceptive immature male Surf Scoter.

Thetis Island Ferry
From the Thetis Island ferry

There was still a bit of light left when we landed, so I headed up to Ladysmith and Yellow-Point Lodge, arriving just as the sun was setting.  There were a few birds on the water, but not the elusive Black Scoter.  This species used to be regular to common along the east coast of Vancouver Island, but is difficult to find south of Parksville these days.

Ladysmith sunset
Ladysmith Sunset

Last night, we had a 4.8 earthquake, centred about 8 km from where I live.  Let’s hope that it didn’t chase away the Redwing, but shook the other birds up a little. I’ll be making another attempt on the water today, and unless something new is spotted, tomorrow, the last day of the year,  will be a checklist area blitz from dawn to dusk.  My last new species was on December 19 (Redwing).  Will I end the year with 268?

Or maybe you can help me to 269.  While looking at the kittiwake photos, I came across a picture I took on Sarita Lake on December 13.  It was a VERY long way away, and not identifiable through the scope.  We couldn’t find a closer access point, so the bird was put out of our minds.  Any suggestions?

mystery bird 1

 

 

 

 

 

There Never Seems to be Enough Time – Jim Croce

This week I crossed that magical line.  I have less than one week left in my Vancouver Island Big Year.  I had expected that Christmas Bird Counts up and down the island would turn up a few rarities that I could chase, but so far, the Redwing has been the only one. Chased and counted!  With no counts between December 20 and December 27, I had planned another trip to the north island.  When I mentioned it to Guy Monty, he not only said that he’d be interested in coming along, he’d drive the logging roads to the Palmerston Recreational Area on the west coast, just south of San Josef Bay.  This would be a new place for me, adding to the locations visited during my year.  As you may recall, one of my goals for the year was to explore the island, so this was a super trip to include in the dwindling days of December.

First, though, I had another boat trip to do.  Jim Danzenbaker was coming from Washington to help with a Christmas Bird Count and add another set of great birder eyes to the trip north.  I couldn’t risk him finding something on the Coho without me, so I headed to Port Angeles to meet him.  Mike McGrenere came along as well.  The US side of the strait has been having a phenomenal run of pelagic birds making their way inland.  They’ve had thousands of kittiwakes, dozens of storm-petrels, and even a Laysan Albatross in recent days.

The trip over, like pretty much every trip I’ve taken on the Coho this year, was incredibly birdless.  Once we got past the line of Effluent Gulls, there were very few alcids, and most of those were Common Murres.  Finally, a less common bird appeared right off the bow.  A Fork-tailed Storm-petrel came off the water and flew for a few hundred metres alongside the ferry.

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-petrel

 

I already had this species for my year list, but not for my Capital Region or Victoria Checklist Lists.  This bird puts me at 250 for the checklist area, one below the current record held by Chris Saunders.  Can I find another bird or two for the area in then next six days? I didn’t set out to break this particular record, but now that I’m so close, I feel I need to put a little effort into it.

Coming back was more of the same.  In fact, almost exactly the same.  Shortly after returning to Canadian waters, we crossed paths with a single Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, possibly the same bird we’d seen a few hours earlier.  Two Brant also flew by the bow, but like the storm-petrel, too far from shore to make it into the count week for the Victoria CBC. More and more of these birds seem to be wintering in the area.  Thousands were reported on CBCs to the south, and the Sidney count had 200 just one day after Victoria dipped on this species.

Brant
Brant

From the ferry to the long drive north, Jim and I headed to Campbell River for the night. It was a little surprising as we passed Parksville that we started to see snow.  By the time we reached Campbell River, it had been sticking to the highways for a while, making the drive more challenging than usual.

In the morning, we met up with Guy and Donna Monty and continued north.  It was snowing a lot on some sections of the drive, particularly north of Sayward.  I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea.

We stopped at Sayward and Kelsey Bay, Port McNeill and the Cluxewe campground on the way to Port Hardy for the night.I managed to add about a dozen species to my Mt. Waddington “county”, but no new species for the list. Despite interesting weather patterns and apparently an el Nino year, there is little evidence that is bringing many birds to the island.

We did manage to find a flock of White-winged Crossbills as well as a Marsh Wren at the Cluxewe campground.  Both species are considered rare for the area.

The next morning we headed out just about dawn. The road to Holberg was better than when I travelled it last April, but made more treacherous by compacted icy snow in some sections.  Dec 24 2015-2

The closer we got to the coast, though, the clearer the roads became.  We stopped in Holberg to check out the inlet as the sun was coming over the hills.

Holberg Sunrise
Holberg at dawn

It was still cold, but we were happy to be dealing with frost rather than snow.

Frosty berriesFrom Holberg to Palmerston, the road was surprisingly well maintained.  My Fit would have easily handled this section, although as Guy pointed out, it’s the blast rock that is the issue.  My tires could have been shredded.

The road to Cape Palmerston has a little problem.  It seems that a landslide caused some trees to make their way to the creek. Not only did they block the road, but they pushed the bridge about 10 metres down the creek.

Palmerston Road Closed 20151224_130837_resizedWe opted to walk the trail to Palmerston Bay.

The scenery was spectacular, and the wildlife less wary than we see on the south island.  Here are a few photos I took there.

Pacific Wren1
Pacific Wren
Steller's Jay 5
Steller’s Jay with a discoloured tail. I’m hoping that is just water!
Steller's Jay 7
The Jays went about their business searching for food, almost oblivious of us.
Donna and the waves
Donna couldn’t resist geting closer looks at the waves.
Hermit thrush 3
Hermit Thrush
Palmerston driftwood
Beache wood.
Mermaid's Purse
Mermaid’s purse – the egg case of a skate
20151224_100912_resized
Who would have imagined bright sun and blue sky for the northwest corner of the island on December 24?

Palmerston Surf Palmerston surf2It’s only about 90 minutes from Port Hardy to Palmerston, yet it feels like a place that very few people have seen.  There was plastic on the beach, but it seemed that all of it was from boats or the Japan tsunami.

Oh, yeah–birds.  Offshore, we had hoped for some tubenoses and alcids, but neither were seen.  There were very few birds overall, the “best” being a distant look at a Black-legged Kittiwake.  Despite the lack of birds, this was a phenomenal place to visit.

The most interesting bird of the day was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is not a particularly unusual species, but this individual was. Rather than holding up in a tree and searching out prey, it had decided to take on a whole flock of crows.  We watched for an hour as it sat amongst them for a while, then would take to the air and chase one around. It didn’t pick on just one bird, repeatedly moving them around and getting them cawing.

Sharp-shinned Hawk SSHA and NOCR SSHA and NOCRs

We stopped at the Quatse Estuary on the way out, but again did not find anything new. Just as the sun was starting to set, we headed on home. It was Christmas Eve, and the first Tim Hortons was more than two hours away!

Tims shops were allowed to set their own holiday hours, but I think most of them were closed that night.  Certainly, all of the ones on our route were, so we managed to make the trip back in record time, taking just about 6 1/2 hours from Port Hardy to Saanichton.

On Christmas Day, we set out to find the Redwing again, and were stymied in the morning.  While taking a lunch break to warm up, Rebecca Clark-Coates called. She had seen an unusual thrush in her parents’ yard just about 4 km away.  Several birders decended on the Cedar Hill X Rd neighbourhood, but we didn’t manage to relocate the bird. The area is full of holly hedges though, so there may well be another errant thrush there.

Back at the South Valley site, we spent the last two hours of daylight waiting for the Redwing.  Sadly, we didn’t see it.

Fungus in a can
Can of mushroom at the South Valley Redwing site.

 

On Boxing Day, it looked like it was going to be a repeat of Christmas.  No thrush love in the morning.  While several birders held the fort at South Valley, Jim and I headed back to Cedar Hill.  There were almost no birds there at all this time around.  Disappointed, we went for a bit of smile time with the ducks at King’s Pond.

We’d just left the pond when I got a text message (one of my favourites for the year) from Guy.  “Rewibered” it said.  I had no trouble translating: Redwing in the holly bush!  We rushed back, missing Guy, as he had departed, but finding about six other birders trying to relocate the bird.  A few minutes later, Jim spotted it.  Success!

Redwing3Susan Clark was among the birders who got to see the Redwing.  She had just flown in from Michigan to see it, outdistancing the birder from Minnesota who drove here a few days ago.  Let’s hope this bird sticks around for many to see!

My count remains 268 for the year, 250 for the Victoria Checklist area.

 

 

 

 

 

The Moon Shines Tonight on Pretty Red Wing – Traditional

In a normal year, I participate in three Christmas Bird Counts.  This week, I was doing five.  There was a method in this madness.  The more people out looking for birds, the better the chances of them finding something unusual.  If I was in the area for the count, I hoped that I would get a tip and be able to go for the bird.

Friday was my third count of the week, this time in Nanoose on a team with Guy Monty and Garrett Beisel.  We started out on the water at Vesper Point in Moorecroft Regional Park and later spent time at Enos Lake.  It was quite quiet, but a very pleasant day.

Moorecroft pond
Natural art in a Moorecroft pond

What was noticeable was the lack of thrushes and other berry eaters.  Very few robins or Varied Thrushes. No Hermit Thrushes or Cedar Waxwings. It was far too quiet in the woods.  The lack of berries on the trees is undoubtedly the result of the lack of rain in the last spring and summer.  Is this the shape of things to come?

For the last fifteen years or so, I have coordinated the Victoria Christmas Bird Count. This year, with my Big Year underway, I will admit to being remiss in some of the tasks I usually undertake in preparation for the count.  Thank goodness I have 23 fantastic zone leaders to manage approximately 200 volunteers for our count day!

I was in disbelief as the fourth of my Christmas Bird Counts started out in great weather.  The forecast had been for stiff winds, but it was calm on land and on much of the surrounding waters.  I cover parts of two zones on count day as my RPBO security clearance is required for access to Department of National Defence lands.

Albert Head
Rod Mitchell and Rob Gowan count seabirds from Albert Head, a restricted access site in our count circle.

Two days before the official start of winter, and we found Spring Gold in bloom!

Spring gold two days before winter
Spring Gold in bloom
Turkey Vulture2
Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures have become an expected bird on our counts.  Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t easily accept a winter sighting of this species.

We moved on to our next sites in the afternoon.  My next stop is another restricted area, the DND Diving Dock in Colwood.  In the summer, this spot has a good Purple Martin colony.  On Saturday, things were slow, just as we were seeing elsewhere.

DC Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant taking in the spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains

This is, until my phone rang.  Nathan Hentze had just found a Redwing!  Two years ago, a birder from Calgary had photographed a bird he didn’t recognize while in Victoria in mid-December.  Those photos didn’t surface until three months later when Dick Cannings was asked for identification help.  It was a Redwing.  Oh, the angst among the birding community, and in particular, in a certain Christmas Bird Count coordinator.  It did get recorded as a count week bird, but despite many hours of searching (albeit months after the sighting), we could not relocate the bird.  And now, two years later to the week, Nathan had another–less than 100m from where the earlier sighting had occurred.

Redwing2
The Redwing is a common thrush in Asia and Europe. This was only the second sighting ever in BC.

 

With my counting of my area more than half done, yes, I abandoned the count to go look for this bird.  And I even called a few other folks that keep local lists, several of whom guiltily left their count sites as well. The more eyes the better for relocating a cryptic bird like a Redwing.  Two hours later, the group of about a dozen birders who were holding out hopes still hadn’t seen the bird when all of a sudden, it appeared.  Before the spotter could describe where it was, it flew across the road and into some dense brush.  A few people caught a glimpse.  I wasn’t one of them. Neither were the handful of people who had left just fifteen minutes earlier.

I wandered around the houses to the back side of the brush to see if it had snuck through.  My phone rang.  It was back on the other side! Of course, by the time I got there, it was gone.  Frustration was growing as the light was dimming. Was I ever going to see this bird?

Just about at the last possible light, Steven Roias and Amelie Rousseau came up the street.  I had called them earlier and intercepted them to point out where the bird had been seen. At the last “Vanna White” type sweep of my hand over to a holly thicket, Steven put up his binoculars and said, “Oh, there it is.”  I don’t think he’d even broken his stride!  Thankfully, in the one minute or so the bird stayed in the bush, almost everyone got on it, including me. Bird #268! Sadly, there was one birder  (who I will leave nameless) who had wandered just down the block, but it was too late for him.

The next day was the Sidney/South Salt Spring count, and a few zones got a bit of a late start while the participants tried to get an early morning glimpse of the bird.  Others had come from the BC Mainland and up island.  Dawn to dusk, the Redwing failed to show.

In the meantime, teams were spread out over the Saanich Peninsula, Salt Spring Island and in boats on the surrounding waters on yet another gorgeous morning.  The best bird IMHO was a Fork-tailed Storm Petrel in the Saanich Inlet, found by Marilyn Lambert. This is the second year she’s found this species in this unlikely location.

Anna's Hummingbird2
Anna’s Hummingbirds were plentiful
woodpeckers
Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker sharing a very good tree
Red-breasted Sapsucker2
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

 

We did get a couple of good showers in the afternoon, which provided an opportunity for another rainbow shot.

Landsend Rainbow

 

I also saw my best Cadborosaurus ever!

cadborosaurus
A drifting log provided a great image of -insert mythical character here-

At the wrap up, it was clear that owls had not been cooperative.  These were the only ones I’d seen that day.

Deep Cove OwlsI went out after the wrap up and managed to add one species, Barn Owl, to the list.

Five CBCs done!  Five wonderful days.  Now on to the next adventure. The clock is definitely ticking!

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to You, Dear Shawneen!

What I couldn’t tell you in my last post was that I was going to sneak away from the island last Friday  for a couple of days–always a dangerous thing.

A surprise party in Portland for Shawneen Finnegan had been in the works for several months, and I was determined to go.  It gave me another opportunity to find a Red Phalarope or other marine bird on the trip across to Port Angeles, but I had to turn my GPS tracker off after that.  Didn’t want to tip Shawneen off just in case she checked my “where’s Ann” page!

The weather was good, and while the seas were not flat, I was sure that if there was a Red Phalarope or Brown Pelican out there (or even a kittiwake to add to my Victoria list), I’d have a great shot at seeing them.  Alas, it was not to be, and I hit the US border without a new species.  Jim Danzenbaker hosted me and I almost blew the subterfuge by posting an eBird checklist from Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge when we birded there on Saturday morning.  I deleted the list within a minute of posting it, so nothing was given away!  Shawneen’s surprise party was a great success, with guests from New Jersey and California as well as many members of the Washington and Oregon birding communities. Not only did we get to celebrate her special birthday, two days earlier David Irons had proposed and she said “Yes”!  Great reasons to celebrate with friends!

Even though I was only gone for two days, I watched the bird reports nervously.  Thankfully, nothing new was reported on the island while I was out of range.

It was a quick turnaround, travelling home overnight Saturday to catch the first ferry from Tsawwassen so that I could head to Bamfield for their Christmas Bird Count.  I arrived at the terminal in a gale; the last four ferries of the day on Saturday had been cancelled.  I was definitely concerned that the first Sunday ferry might be cancelled too, but we managed to leave the dock about 30 minutes late.  Given the wind at 2 in the morning, I was surprised by how calm it was once we got to the Gulf Islands.

I met up with Daniel and Leo Donnecke in time to make the trip to Bamfield in daylight.  Thankfully, Daniel was driving, so I just got to snooze in the back seat.  While we were enroute, though, the reports started to come in.  Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm Petrels in Sooke, Black-legged Kittiwakes all over Victoria during the next two days.I have  all of those species on my year list, but sadly not on my Capital or VNHS Checklist list.

We arrived in Bamfield with just enough light to visit Pachena Bay, the first time I’d been there since the early 1980s. Pacheena Sunset

 

A surprise was the number of California Gulls still in the area. A Barred Owl was an interesting addition to our first evening’s list.

The Bamfield Christmas Bird Count included two parts–the morning on the water and the afternoon on land.

bamfield

 

It was a beautiful but cold day in Bamfield.  I was assisted by new birders Nelson and Jan and driver Dylan as we travelled north and among the islands along the coast.Bamfield map

We got a good variety of species, although nothing really unexpected.  It was a very scenic way to spend the morning.

Bamfield log sort

Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Buffleheads dodged the logs in the log sort. A large flock of Surfbirds flew past and settled on small rocks along the shoreline.

Surfbirds in flight Surfbirds on the rocks

Western Grebes appeared first in ones and twos, but ultimately we came across a raft of more than 150.Western Grebe

Black Oystercatchers put on a show for us. Note the dark bill tip on the individual at the top. This is a sign that it is a younger bird.Black Oystercatchers

Daniel and Leo got a much rougher ride out into the Broken Group on the Coast Guard boat.  We joined up after lunch for a return trip to Pachena Beach with local birder Gordie.

At the Pachena Campground, we came across a lone Tundra Swan, possibly the first for a Bamfield Christmas Bird Count.   We finished up the day rounding up a few ducks on the small lakes in the area.  One crossbill flew over, making a strange enough call that we wondered if it was a White-winged, but we couldn’t get our eyes on it.

Thanks to Anne Stewart for coordinating this count and making arrangements with Shirley at the Bamfield Marine Station for accommodation for us!  It was great to have a clean warm place to call “home” while we were there.

Tuesday was a travel day back to Victoria and just enough time for me to put up my Christmas tree before heading north again for the Deep Bay Christmas Bird Count.   I met up with coordinator Bill Stewart, team leader Mike Miller, and several other experienced birders to cover their traditional area.  We had the south part of the circle, from the Big Qualicum River area up to Jamison Rd.

It was another beautiful day, and the comeraderie was good!  I kept mentioning White-winged Crossbills (you know if you say the name enough, the bird will show up, right?) to the point that I was getting teased a little about it.  Several groups of crossbills flew over and even landed in view, but no white wing bars to be seen.

Shane Tillapaugh found a Western Meadowlark on the north side of the river, a good bird for this circle.  At the hatchery, eagles were “singing” loudly from the trees.

singing eagles

 

We found a few birds we couldn’t count, but we still could photograph.

peacocks

We had about a dozen places to visit, including a playing field off Lions Way.  It was pretty quiet there with just a few  Killdeer in the field and a few birds in the trees.  I started scanning the treetops with my scope looking for falcons, when a small flock of 15 crossbills crossed my field of view.  Plain, plain, plain, white wing-bars, plain, WAIT!  White wing-bars!  I finally had my White-winged Crossbill. There was a pair in this little flock.  Species 267!

Another great sighting was an iceberg in Georgia Strait.

icebergOkay, it wasn’t really an iceberg.  This is the tip of Mount Baker, barely visible above the horizon.  If you didn’t know local geography, though, it would have been easy to mistake this for an iceberg.  we birded until dark, then I headed home.

Thursday was an errand and prep day.  WIth Christmas Bird Counts on the next three days, I was a little grateful for the rain.  I did a bit of gull watching at Esquimalt Lagoon, but it was not a good day for birding.   The weather gave me an excuse to take care of business–well a little bit of business, anyway.

In a few hours, I head to Nanoose to meet up with Guy Monty for the count there, then Saturday is Victoria’s and Sunday is Sidney’s.  Will we turn up a couple more species this weekend?  Only time will tell!

 

 

 

The Tide is High – John Holt

The quest for a Great Gray Owl remained true to form with no sign of the bird, or even of the woman who claimed to see it.  Guy Mondy joined in the search, but ultimately had to move on to more productive tasks. I visited a number of probably locations in the area and put up posters in the hopes that someone had seen it and would call.

wanted poster

Anytime you do something like that, you run the risk of some pretty bizarre sightings.  I’m glad to say that I haven’t had any of those, but sad to say , I haven’t had anyone report a sighting of this owl, either.

I went to the end of the Lowry’s Rd and found an amazing cheeseworks and winery.  The cheese was good (I bought Brie), but what was amazing was their willingness for people to roam their property. Here is the sign at the entrance to the Little Qualicum Cheeseworks:received_10153812508309306

 

I didn’t have time to roam the property on that stop, but I’ll be back.  Free cheese and wine samples, too!

You may have noticed that the weather this week has been… well, weather!  There has been rain and there has been wind. Surely, all this wind must be blowing a pelican or two this way!

Technology has provided many new ways for us to get a better sense of what is going on out there.   One of my personal favourites is the Earth Wind Map at http://earth.nullsoft.com.  If yuo haven’t visited this site, prepare to be mesmorized. I’m providing a screenshot here, but the site is an animated globe of the world’s winds.

EarthwindmapIn this photo, you can see that the wind is slamming the island from the south/southwest.  But notice where the wind is coming from!  It’s passing over the Aleutians and then on to us.  There could be a Brambling or ten, or some other special bird being blown in.

With a lot of that going on, Jeremy Gatten and I hit the road last weekend to check out what might have ended up in Port Renfrew.  Try as we may, we couldn’t come up with any new birds for my list, but we did run across one uncommon sighting: Ed Pellizzon. Ed is a surfing birder–heavy on the surfing these days–and had come for the waves instead of the birds. He wasn’t having much better luck than Jeremy and me.  We birded together a bit, finding an interesting spot at the end of Island Rd where we found a Cackling Goose, Greater White-fronted Geese, and a Swamp Sparrow. Closer to the townsite, we found a Hermit Thrush working the shoreline.

hermit thrush
Hermit Thrush on the San Juan River in Port Renfrew.

By late afternoon, the rain was pretty persistent, pushing us home.

A report of a white wing-tipped gull in Cobble Hill influenced my decision on where to bird on Monday.  I think I might have found the flock, but the taget bird stayed out of range for me as it had for others.

white winged gull
Hmmm…. is this a special bird??

Gulls are difficult even if you get a close look.  At this distance, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. I did get an interesting photo of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

 

Tuesday morning brought even more rain and a special trip to Prospect Lake Golf Course, which in the midst of a change of use.  Only four of us were stupid, er, bold enough to bird in the rain.  I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the habitat seemed suitable for a Long-eared Owl.  This is a species that I believe is vastly underreported on the island, and I’d missed not one, but two, in the first part of the year.  We looked and looked, but didn’t find an owl.

I met up with some other birders for lunch and a birthday celebration of David Sterling’s 95th trip around the sun. Just as I was leaving, I got a call from Mike and Barb McGrenere.  They had just found a Long-eared Owl!  I raced to the site (which will remain out of this post for now) to find a lovely Long-eared out in the open for good looks and species number 266!  Thanks, Mike!

Long-eared Owl 3
Jays gave this bird away and were the focus of its attention when I took this shot. Taken with a 250mm lens from approximately 35 ft away.

There’s always a fine line between protecting sensitive species and sharing unusual bird sightings, and in this case, many birders had an opportunity to see this bird.  Sadly, there are those who are not satisfied with a look or a capture taken from a distance that doesn’t harass the bird who feel the need to get as close as possible. That has led to a general “rule” that says that such sightings don’t get posted immediately and that the exact location only be spread by word of mouth.

A trip to Esquimalt Lagoon provided some of the highest tides of the year. Here’s a photo I took at the hump.  (There was no hump.)

bathers

The young Tundra Swan is stil there, hanging out with the Trumpeter.

A cruise by the site formerly known as Rapers’ Pond provided an update on the changes there.  The field is flooded, as the owner anticipated, and there were a few ducks.  The lack of cover doesn’t seem to deter dabblers and both Gadwall and Mallards were present.   There was also a change that the owner probably didn’t expect, and confirms some of my feelings about invasive plants in my own yard, where my house sits at the top of a steep bank.  Denuded of roots and vegetation to mitigate the rain flow, the bank above the field has given way and a numbe of very heavy retaining wall blocks aren’t retaining anything anymore.  It looks like a big chunch of the hill dropped a couple of feet.

Raper's Pond2

Later in the afternoon, a trip to Blenkinsop Lake revealed a roosting Northern Saw-whet Owl.  As I said earlier, caution must be taken when releasing information about sensitive species, but I’d defy anyone to find this owl based on this photo!

NSWO

blenkinsop2

 

Here’s a hint. It was somewhere near the bridge. The point, with both the Long-eared and the Northern Saw-whet Owl, is that they are out there, and we probably walk by them on a regular basis. Listen to the smaller birds.  They are probably your best allies in finding owls.

Thursday morning, I found myself in the rain yet again.  I ran into Aziza Cooper at Clover Point, both of us looking for something the storms might have brought in.  There was one dark-backed gull, but judging his behaviour and response to people, I think he must have been there a while.

dark-backed gull
How slaty does a bird have to be?

 

Gulls are hard!  Trust me when I tell you that even people who are gull experts argue about them. One of the really big differences between bird ID today and bird ID even 20 years ago is that with digital photography, debates can continue almost indefinitely.  I really wanted this bird to be a Slaty-backed Gull, but the eye, despite having a dark smudge isn’t mean enough and the orbital ring isn’t red enough, in my opinion.  If there are any gull experts who would like to turn this into species 267, I could be persuaded!  ;-)

The wind was blowing so hard the rain drops were leaving horizontal streaks on my windshield.  Not fine weather for birding, but as I left the point to head to the next stop, I was greeted by sunshine, waves crashing against the seawall, and a double rainbow. That’s supposed to be lucky, right?

Clover Point storm

Within about half an hour, I got an email from Germaine Taylor with news of an odd bird at a friend’s feeder. Joyce Nordwall had just seen a fairly large and definitely bright, orange bird at her suet feeder. It was chased off by a flicker.  I was about a half hour away, but off I went.

I didn’t miss anything in my travels.  Joyce had not seen the bird again — yet. One of the nice things about feeder birds and some hosts is that I got to sit inside drinking tea and eating cookies while watching for the bird.  And watch I did.  After three hours, no sign of what is most likely an oriole.  A Baltimore?  That would be fantastic.  A Bullock’s?  Also fantastic for a record, but not helpful for my list.  Joyce is going to keep a watch for it, and I’ll definitely be making a return visit.  It goes to show, though, that an unusual bird can turn up anywhere–maybe even at your feeder!

flicker
Dastardly flicker that may have chased off bird 267!

Next week promises to be one of the most strenous of the year. I am planning, weather permitting, to do five Christmas Bird Counts in a week, starting with Bamfield on Monday.  This may put me in the right place at the right time for some additions, or may put me many miles away as birds are discovered in other locations.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for luck and will try to post an update mid-week, but like the bird sightings, no guarantees!

 

One Thing Leads To Another – The Fixx

After my last post, I continued searching for birds that refused to show up for several more days before I had a bit of an epiphany.   While not finding Gray Jays (but getting a flat tire) on the Malahat, I had plenty of time for introspection and review of my year to date.  It has been awesome to get out birding almost every day this year, but admittedly, some days have been better than others.  I started to build a ranked list of what kind of birding days were the best and what were the worst.  Here’s what I came up with, from best to worst.

1. Finding an unexpected bird while out with friends
2. Finding an unexpected bird by myself
3. Finding a target bird with friends
4. Not finding a target bird with friends
5. Finding a target bird by myself
6. Birding with friends without a specific target
7. Birding by myself without a specific target
8. Not finding a target bird by myself
9. Being the first person to see the last person who saw a target bird.

varied thrush
Varied Thrush – Malahat

 

At this point I had 263 species on my list (including Gray Jay — I was trying to augment my Victoria list), and the chances of many more days where I might find a new bird was very low.    A few days earlier, Mike McGrenere had told me that one year, he didn’t get one new species in the last 6 weeks of the year. How would I feel if I was done–if I didn’t get even one new bird for my list?  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 263 was a fantastic number!  I’d known since about June that my arbitrary total of 275 was probably going to be unattainable without an awful lot of luck.  I thought I might end the year with around 265.  I was pretty much there!

When I put all of these thoughts together, I had a strategy for the rest of my big year.  I didn’t want most of my days to be a #8 kind of day.  I would certainly continue to chase any rarities that showed up, but I am not going to dwell on adding new birds.  I am just going to get out birding every day, preferably with friends, and enjoy the days.  I have plans for the Christmas Bird Count season, and an idea for Christmas week, but I decided I was really going to be fine if 263 was it.  December will be filled with good birding days!

Friday birding at Maber Flats was atypical.  The cold weather had frozen most of the water and all of the ducks were huddled together in one spot.  Raptors were the highlight of the day, though.  A Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle were playing “chicken” with each other above us, while closer to us, an American Kestrel snagged a Townsend’s Vole for breakfast.

kestrel with vole3
American Kestrel with Townsend’s Vole

 

 

Later I met up with Jenna McCullough and her dad, Mike, from Idaho. They were doing a whirlwind trip of Vancouver Island, so we hit birding hotspots Goldstream Park and Esquimalt Lagoon, then headed to Victoria Harbour for some sunset shots.

Arbutus sunset
Arbutus at sunset
sunset plane
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Yeah, it’s a plane.

 

On Saturday, Derrick Marven phoned with news that the errant Snow Buntings were still in the Cowichan Bay estuary, most recently seen on the central dike.  He recommended an early start would be the most likely way to get them.  Unfortunately, I had a commitment on Sunday afternoon, so I thought I would try for the buntings on Saturday afternoon.  I called Mary Robichaud and the two of us patrolled the dike. We didn’t find Snow Buntings, but we did find an unexpected Least Sandpiper  and  even less expected Common Redpoll,  feeding all by itself in a small alder tree.  That made it a #1 kind of day! We checked a couple of other potential Snow Bunting places, but still didn’t find them.

Least Sandpiper 2 - Cowichan Nov 28 2014
Least Sandpipers are not common this time of year.
Common Redpoll 2 Cowichan Bay Nov 28 2015
When I think of all the hours I spent last January looking for a Common Redpoll….

 

Despite my plans on Sunday, I decided I had to go back for another try.  I’d headed out on the dike and came across a couple with an energetic dog coming the other way.  They hadn’t seen the buntings, which I was sure their dog would have flushed.  I turned around, set to check out the dock road and was almost at my car when I got a text from Mary.  “Two SNBU 2/3 of the way out”.  Texting is a great communication tool, but sometimes you just need to talk. I called Mary, who it turned out was already out on the dike.  She’d found the birds, but they had flown off!  Erggghh!   I hurried out to find the point last seen to start my own search.  At least they were still in the general area. We walked the rest of the way out to the viewing platform, where I was determined to stay until I saw  the buntings moving in the field.  I’d been up there about 10 minutes when an unfamiliar sound came up behind me.  Sure enough, they passed over my head and into the field where Mary had seen them earlier. #264!

snow bunting
Snow Bunting, or more accurately, Ice Bunting at Cowichan Bay

 

Seconds later, Jody Wells called with a potential Redhead at Martindale Flats.  Now that I’d decided that 263 was okay and after an 18 day drought, could I possibly get two new birds in one day?  A confirmation call a few minutes later said it was a false alarm.  The duck was a scaup. Mary and I looked around for a Redhead for a bit, then I had to get back to Victoria to do a slide show for the Cridge Seniors Centre.  (I do these shows to raise funds for RPBO.  If you belong to a garden club, seniors group or any other community group, and want a birdy slide show, let me know!) After the presentation, I had a text from Mary. She’d checked out the duck and thought it might just be a Redhead.  Off I went.  The light was fading, but I got a few bad  pictures–just enough to be optimistic about the ID of the bird.  It was hanging out with a Canvasback, just like a Redhead should.  Richard James managed to get some better shots which I shared with some folks that were more knowledgeable in duck ID than I am,  but felt good that I had #265.   However, it was not to be. The final consensus was that the bird was a weird scaup, just as Jody had suspected.

canvasback and possible redhead4I so wanted this bird (right) to be a Redhead. But it was ruled a scaup.

In the meantime, though, a report of a Yellow-breasted Chat came up through eBird.  A chat?  There were only three records for the Victoria Checklist, but one was an early November record.  And there were photos!  Definitely a chat.  I made plans to meet up at the location with Daniel Donnecke and Mary Robichaud before sunrise the next morning. Thankfully, the feeder was visible from the street and the hosts were folks who had participated in the Christmas Bird Count for years, so were birder-friendly.

An equally unlikely report of a Nashville Warbler in Port Alberni popped up.  Really?  Two uncommon summer birds on the island at the same time.  Could I get them both?

We stood in the cold and the dark Monday morning, eyes glued to the bird feeder, when just about ten minutes before sunrise, we heard a chat chatter.  Within a minute, it was up on the feeder where it had been photographed at dusk the day before. Success!  #265!

Yellow-breasted Chat
Yellow-breasted Chat

I took advantage of the early success to drive to Port Alberni, meeting up with Sandy McRuer at the spot where he’d seen the warbler.  The next few hours were spent strolling the neighbourhood and back lanes looking for this elusive bird.  I found an Orange-crowned Warbler and some very spotted Spotted Towhees, but no Nashville.

 

Spotted Towhee (2)
Very Spotted Towhee
Ruby-crowned Kinglet2
The chilly weather slowed this Ruby-crowned Kinglet down enough that I could get a shot.

 

A bio break at the nearby Tims raised a question about my gear. I told the server about my quest for the warbler, and when I got my cup of tea, she’d written a note on the lid.

Tim's lid

I’ve been back to the chat site (the bird one, not an online discussion group) a couple of times with other friends, and have gone out birding this week with Guy Monty, Kim Beardmore and Elaine Preston. Today, in the pounding rain, Kim and I did a bit of civilized pelican searching at Cathy Carlson’s place near Jordan River.  There haven’t been any more new birds, but it’s been a fun week.

Red Crossbills
Red Crossbills at Whiffin Spit

male red crossbill

Oh, and I guess I should mention that I received a second-hand report of a possible Great Gray Owl in the French Creek area of Oceanside last Sunday.  Could I…..?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! — Cahn and Styne

And by snow, I mean SNOW Buntings, SNOWy Owls, and why not just throw in a SNOWy Egret for good measure?

Despite almost daily birding and lots of help from other birders, in the last ten days, I haven’t managed to add a single new bird to my list.  This is a little frustrating for this time of year, as this is often the time that strange birds will show up.  Let’s hope that December swings back the other way.

I’ve visited a lot of places since I last wrote. An early morning trip to Maber Flats with Jeremy Gatten, Nathan Hentze and Stephen Roias in search of a Red-throated Pipit provided some great scenery, and a massive number of birds, but no pipit.

Maber Sunrise
Maber Flats sunrise
Maber Swans geese
Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese at Maber Flats
Maber ducks
Waterfowl at Maber Flats

 

A trip to Whiffin Spit with Kim Beardmore looking for a Snow Bunting produced a Lapland Longspur.  Sadly, the Snow Bunting was being seen at Island View Beach all the way across town–but I didn’t know until much later in the afternoon. I continued on to do a seawatch at Sheringham Point.

Surfbird
Surfbird at Whiffin Spit

 

boat off sheringham
It was windier than it looked at Sheringham Point.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Sheringham Point.

The birds were distant, and although I saw some shearwaters, I wasn’t able to determine if they were Sooty or Short-tailed.  I also heard some shorebirds fly by that matched the calls of Red Phalarope, but without photos, witnesses, or a solid look at them, I’m not adding them to the list.

River Otter family
River Otter family at Billings Spit.

The next day, I scoured  Island View Beach and Saanichton Spit for four hours to find the bunting but came away empty-handed.

A trip to Port Renfrew a couple of days after a pretty good windstorm which resulted in some decent waves didn’t produce new birds.  Earlier in the year, locals suggested that Brown Pelicans often came into the bay after storms, but such was not the case this time around.  It was a gorgeous day, though, and that made the visit quite pleasant.

Black Turnstones
Black Turnstones at Port Renfrew.
GCSP bathing
Golden-crowned Sparrow bathing in a log puddle at Port Renfrew.

When I went to the pub to grab a bite to eat, I was able to access wifi and found out that two Snow Buntings had been seen on the Dock Road in Cowichan Bay. My GPS said that I couldn’t make it before dark, but I had to try!

I arrived at Dock Road with a bit of light left, but the gate was locked, meaning that there was about a 15 minute walk to where the birds had been seen.  I headed out as quickly as I could, spotting a Short-eared Owl hunting in the estuary as I went.  That added one bird to my Cowichan and Victoria Checklist list.   The owl wasn’t the only one hunting.  As the light dwindled, shots were fired into the estuary.  It was a little unnerving walking in the dark when guns were being fired.  I don’t know how the hunters could have possibly picked up their ducks in that light!

Not surprisingly, no Snow Buntings materialized. I found out later that birders that arrived less than an hour after the word was put out didn’t find the birds either.  I don’t give up easily though, and was back first thing in the morning. Fellow birder, Christine Cuthill and I walked along the restricted roadway to the office, to ask permission to search the parking area where the birds had been seen.  We got permission–and news that the office staff had seen the birds several days earlier right in front of the office!  They took pictures, but didn’t know what the birds were.  There were a lot of gulls parked on the parking lot, but we couldn’t find a bunting.

industrial gulls
Industrial Gulls at Cowichan Bay.
Eagles - Cowichan
Bald Eagles bathing in a farm field. I counted more than 65 in the estuary.

 

The rain and windstorm on Tuesday provided me with a much needed day at home.  Lots of things planned–until the power went out at 10 am.  Fortunately, some of the things I needed to do were entirely analog and I was able to make a little bit of progress on my agenda.  Things started to crawl though when the power was still out several hours later.  Despite a forecast of an 8 pm return to the light, the electricity wasn’t actually restored until almost 5 am — 19 hours later.  I got up  and got ready to head to Goose Spit in Courtenay Comox in the hopes of finding something new.

That morning, there was a very bad accident on the Malahat.  I was on the mountain when an ambulance screamed by.  The radio said that southbound traffic was shut down, but a minute before I reached the accident scene, northbound traffic was also stopped.  When the word got out that it would be several hours, I turned around, heading to Esquimalt Lagoon and Portage inlet before joining up with birders Michael Simmons and Daniel Donnecke to check out the birds in Oak Bay. Small numbers of expected birds were present at all my stops, but nothing outstanding.  That is, until Rick Schortinghuis called from Esquimalt Lagoon with both an Iceland Gull and a Black-legged Kittiwake in the very spot I’d been birding three hours earlier.  Daniel, Michael and I crossed town and arrived at the lagoon to find that the birds had been abducted by aliens–vanished without a trace, despite three birders watching them at the scene.  These are birds that are already on my list, but not on my Victoria list, so would have been good adds.  It was not to be!

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan at Esquimalt Lagoon. This individual has been hanging out with the Mute Swans for several years.
Tundra Swan
A young Tundra Swan has joined the Mute Swans and single Trumpeter at Esquimalt Lagoon.
American Wigeon
American Wigeon

I finally made my way to Courtenay-Comox the next day, and despite a beautiful sunny day, Goose Spit did not produce anything unexpected.

Goose Spit
Goose Spit
Goose Spit stairs
Stairs to the Goose Spit lookout

I was just about to move along to an area where I could scope a raft of birds more easily when I got a note from Tracy Anderson, who was visiting from Hawaii. Her mentor and close friend, Maj Birch, founder of the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, had passed away the previous night. I picked up Tracy and we birded around the area, but did not find any of my “missing” birds.

Steller's Jay 4
Steller’s Jay at Cape Lazo Marsh

 

Friday and Saturday were occupied with more local birding: Maber Flats, Martindale Flats, Victoria Airport, Observatory Hill, Viaduct Flats, Outerbridge Park, Victoria airport.  All great birding places, but no new species.  On Saturday, I took a couple of visitors from Texas for a quick spin to look for Sky Larks, but we couldn’t even raise one of those.  Fortunately, both Mike Perkins and Nic Costanzo did manage to get a few life birds on their whirlwind trip.  They’ll be back for the Sky Larks another time!

Bushtit3
Bushtit at Maber Flats
Northern Shrike1
Northern Shrike at Maber Flats
Swamp Sparrow4
Swamp Sparrow at Viaduct Flats
Double-crested cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant at Fleming Beach

 

To wrap up the week, I went on the Victoria Natural History Society’s Coho crossing field trip. In other years, they have turned up Short-tailed Shearwater and Red Phalarope, and I had high hopes for Brown Pelican and maybe even Brown Booby (one was seen in Port Angeles last week).  It was a nice calm day on the water.  We passed through a large gull flock  as we left Victoria, but just as it has been everywhere else this week, all of the birds are already on my list.

Let’s hope the next week is a little more exciting!