Journal 272 (Dec. 26/08)

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas or holiday. It's Boxing Day, and it's snowing again. We've had well over 100 cm in the past two weeks, and still I'm sore all over from shovelling my 100 m driveway, clearing the barn roof, and the house roof. Typically, house roofs are designed to support a snow load of 4 feet. When the snow passes three feet, I always start to worry. Two days ago my gutters were totally iced up and as a thaw started, the mountain of snow on the roof slid two feet and ripped the gutters and barge boards right off the roof. That'll be a messy and expensive repair job if spring ever comes.

The snow has also been a concern the birds. I have been feeding them regularly and constantly clearing their feeding area next to the rhodo patch. As you can imagine, birding and bird photography has been extremely limited for the past three weeks. Several Christmas Bird Counts were even cancelled because of impassable roads. Regarding my latest photo efforts, I just happened to be in Vancouver prior to the major snowfall. It was ice cold, but I managed a quick stop at Boundary Bay to catch the Northern Mockingbird and a few, futile distant shots of a Northern Harrier. Other than that, I had one hour of sun to try some snow shots of my feeder birds, and I had the remarkable luck of Bohemian Waxwings in Port Alberni for a Christmas present.


Dec. 16 - A Brief Stop at Boundary Bay

I was tempted to place the Northern Harriers at Boundary Bay on my photo nemesis list, but that would be totally unfair. I've never had more than a few fleeting, mid-distance chances to photograph the bird. Someday I would like to spend the full day there.

The Harriers are quite abundant at Boundary where the foreshore habitat is generally ideal for many raptors. If I spent the time, the law of averages says that I would eventually get a few close-up opportunies. Of course, as I had packed up my camera and was walking to the car, one flew across the dyke right in front of me.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear that a Northern Mockingbird had taken up residence in the brambles just east of 64th on the dyke. It had been there for about two weeks, replacing the Tropical Kingbird that had been in same vicinity for the previous month. With the temperature at 5 below and a wind chill of minus 15, I didn't think the bird would stick around, but sure enough, when we arrived at 64th, Mark Wynja was already there taking National Geographic photos of the Mockingbird.

Despite the many pedestrians and the roar of the cantankerous mower (yes, they were mowing the grass on the side of the dyke), the Mockingbird remained in the same bramble, but never quite in position for a clear shot. It also had a piece of debris on its bill as you can see in the first photo. Yes, Carlo, I did erase most of it in the second photo. As you can see from the crude results, it's a procedure that I seldom use.

The only other bird I photographed was a pair of Great Blue Herons. I wasn't sure what they were up to, but I thought it was some kind of mating ritual. On the other hand, maybe it was a territorial display. In any case, nothing developed in the next five minutes so we left.

Oh yes, there was one big miss. The Rough-legged Hawk was on my wish list, and as we drove past 104th, there it was in a small tree right beside the road. I made the mistake of stopping right beside it. It was not as friendly as the one Mark told me about and departed before I could pull out the camera. I was tempted to climb up to the tracks for a photo but decided it was too cold, and it wouldn't stay. The moral of the story is never to stop at a roadside bird. Drive by and return slowly. I should have known based on multiple experiences with Red-tailed Hawks on the Island.


Home for the Holidays - In other words, snowed in!

On Dec. 17 we had a dump of over 60 cm of snow. Since then my birding was relegated mainly to my feeders. The two exceptions were a necessitated trip to Qualicum for an appointment, and maybe a not so necessary trip to Port Alberni. I'll elaborate on those later.

Hairy Woodpeckers are regulars at the suet feeder all year. Although I was concerned about the the effect of too much fat in their diet, most people (especially the suet makers) think that the birds have no difficulty burning it off.

Right on cue after our first snowfall, the Fox Sparrows became regular feeder birds. I never see them here before the snow and they usually leave shortly after the snow. In years when we don't get snow, the Fox Sparrows don't show up. Maybe they are the true snow birds.

No, I don't get American Pipits at my feeders. I had an appointment in Qualicum so I tried to look for an unusual pipit photographed recently by Guy Monty.

I had to battle my way through a waist high snow drift to get to the beach, but it was worth it. The snow-lined beach was quite birdy with Song and Fox Sparrows and American Pipits.

Despite an hour photographing the pipits, I did not encounter the odd pipit which was believed to be an Asian subspecies of the American Pipit.

Back at home, the most numerous bird at my feeders were the Dark-eyed Juncos. My challenge was to get a few sunny day shots of the birds. The problem was that there weren't any sunny days in the forecast, and if there were, the only time the sun was on my feeders was about 2:00 pm when it peeked through a break in the surrounding forest. I had one period in the past 10 days.

The Juncos were very accommodating as they would pose on the patch of snow that was full in the sun.

I was fascinated by this photo of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee because of the background colour. It looks like the sky but it isn't because I was looking down at the snow. I think the blue is the reflection of the sky that is caught by the sensor but not the human eye. The same effect is shown on the other sunny day photos.

Spotted Towhees are my second most common birds. They are at the feeders the year-round.

Here's Foxy in the sun. The previous Foxy shot was in the shade.

I enjoy watching the Downy get its turn on the suet feeder. It's at the bottom of the pecking order below the Pileated, Northern Flicker, and Hairy.

It was interesting to see one little Red-breasted Nuthatch resting near the feeders. Most of them were in and out with their sunflower seed in 2 seconds. I think this one was enjoying a few rays of sun.


A Bohemian Christmas and a Homeless Photographer.

Three weeks ago I asked Dick Cannings to send me some Bohemian Waxwings for Christmas. Little did I realize that he sent the birds to the wrong postal code - Port Alberni instead of Nanoose Bay. In fact, I wouldn't even had known that he had sent the birds if it weren't for the amazing birding ability of Rich Mooney. Rich finds more birds when he's working than I do when I'm birding. He was working at Port Alberni on Dec. 22 when he heard the Bohemians flying over his job site. (Thanks for the sighting and report, Rich.) With all the snow and preparation for Christmas, I couldn't make it over the hump before Christmas.

On Christmas eve I had pretty well given up hope of ever seeing the exquisite birds. Were they still around? How long would they stay? My question was answered that evening by Sandy McRuer. (Thanks for the update, Sandy.) His report included a photo of the Bohemians feasting on some pyracantha bushes. That told me not just that the Bohemians were still there, but abundance of berries also was a good reason for the birds to hang around. To further entice me, the weather network forecast was for sun all day in Port.

I was faced with the dilemma of sneaking out on my family on Christmas Day or missing the Bohemians. The Bohemians were near the top of my photo-wish list. What would you do? How many chances would I ever have of seeing the Bohemians on the Island? At Christmas breakfast I dropped the bombshell on my wife and two children - I told them I had to go to Port to get my Christmas present from Dick Cannings. They were not impressed with my name dropping. I was greeted with stone silence. It was unanimous that if I went, I would be disowned.

I shovelled snow and agonized for an hour as the blue skies beckoned. Ten minutes later I was on my way, burdened with guilt but buoyed by the bare roads, dazzling sunshine, and the excitement of anticipation in finding a new bird. I was making good time. The scenery was spectacular with snow-draped trees and snow-covered mountains. All was well until I crossed the hump and suddenly the visibility was minimal. I had forgotten about the Alberni Valley fog. Suddenly my spirits hit the floor and the weight of guilt was stifling. I knew I was being punished for my indiscretion, but it was too late to turn around. Before long I was spinning my way up the snow on Maitland Street. I stopped at Anderson, but there was nary a bird in sight. I parked and walked around, looking for the pyracantha bushes. I finally spotted them a few houses up on Maitland. The bushes were laden with berries just as Sandy's photos indicated, but there were no birds. I hung around for half an hour then drove to the Esso station for a bathroom break and coffee.

I returned with the coffee and parked in front of the yard with the berries. I decided that I would wait until 1:00 pm before giving up. One o'clock and still no birds. Disappointed, I started the car, and as I did my head check for oncoming traffic, I spotted the silhouettes of about 20 birds across the street in a tall, leafless deciduous tree. I grabbed my camera and focussed. They were Bohemians! I walked across the road to the alley where the tree was to get some distant record shots. After a few shots half of the birds took flight and headed right for the pyracantha bushes. I slowly walked back towards my car and was ready to focus when the birds flew back to the tree. I knew my best chance was to sit and wait in the car. Five minutes later the birds returned. This was my first close-up look at the birds - they were exquisite and prettier than any picture could portray. I clicked about ten shots before a passing car spooked the birds. I checked my camera for settings and had to go to 800 ISO and f- 6.3 to shoot at 125th of a second. Ten minutes later the birds returned for another dozen clicks. I caught the birds two more times and knew I had better head home. Shooting under overcast conditions wasn't the recipe for good pictures, but I was quite happy just to see the birds and watch and learn about their behaviour an habits for about an hour.

As you might have guessed I wasn't very welcome when I got home. I might be better off staying away for awhile so if any of you have a room to spare for a homeless photographer, give me a call. I would be willing to do some handyman chores, and light housekeeping.

The Bohemians are the larger cousins of the Cedar Waxwings and breed in the northern forests of Europe, Asia, and North America. Cedar Waxwings are found only in North America.

Like the Cedar Waxwing the Bohemians rely on berries for their winter sustenance. Mountain Ash berries and the fruit of decorative plants are their favorites.

Bohemians are common in the interior of B.C. but rare on Vancouver Island. This is the first confirmed sighting that I am aware of since 2003.

The Bohemians are nomadic and irruptive. Their presence on the Island may have just been a result of their constant search for food, but it could certainly have been assisted by the extreme sub-zero conditions in the interior and the resulting outflow winds to the Island.

I consider myself privileged just to have seen the birds. I would have loved to photgraph them in the sunshine, but I had to make do with the conditions available. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I had to make on Christmas Day just to get these pictures.


Happy 2009!

May your New Year be filled with joy, prosperity, and birds.
























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