In the Midst of Spring ...

May 1 - A few lingering signs of winter - The large flocks of Brant must be nearing the Yukon and Alaska, but small flocks up to about 200 are still present from Rathtrevor to Deep Bay; a lone Snow Goose continues at the Englishman Estuary and might have been the same one I photographed at Parksville Park last week; sea birds seen in the past include Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, one Pacific Loon, Buffleheads, and Harlequins. The Bonaparte's Gulls are the most common gull along the shorelines and many have molted into their handsome black-headed breeding dress.

Highlights of the spring migration include a pair of Long-billed Curlews and several Nashville Warblers in the Victoria region. For me it was the flock of about 1,500 shorebirds at Parksville Beach two days ago. Most were Dunlin and Western Sandpipers in their splendid rufous breeding plumage. Meanwhile the maternity wards are in full swing. Apparently the world witnessed the hatching of the Hornby Island Bald Eagles a few days ago, and someone sent me photos of Rufous Hummingbird hatchlings in Courtenay.

On April 22 I was down to the south end of the Island delivering books to Munro's in Victoria and Tanners in Sidney. I struck out with the Nashville Warbler at King's Pond and the Curlews at Martindale but enjoyed visits with Dunlin at Clover Point and the Herons at Mystic Pond.

There are about a dozen nests at Mystic and most of them were occupied by brooding herons. The exception was one nest where three Great Blues were socializing and enjoying the sun.

Did I say there was a dozen nests being brooded? I think there will be one more pretty soon.

Clover Point was fairly quiet. The only shorebirds were a few Black Turnstones and Dunlin. Savannah Sparrows were common foraging in the grass. I got one to pose in the daisies for me.

The Dunlin were in the process of molting into their attractive breeding plumage with rufous scapulars and black bellies.

The Dunlin were busily foraging at the water's edge and relatively easy to approach.


Clinging to Survival

April 22 - Every spring I stop at the south end of the Nanaimo Airport as many times as I can hoping to see and photograph a Vesper Sparrow. I have a visceral fear that last year's photo might be the last I'll ever get. My feelings are not that unrealistic when you consider how mankind managed to exterminate one of the most abundandant birds on the continent - the Passenger Pigeon. It was a simple case of market hunting and habitat destruction. That was a hundred years ago. Have things improved since then?

Fortunately, sparrow pie isn't a restaurant delicacy, but its still on the menu for raptors and feral and domestic cats. We can't control the raptors, but cats can and should be controlled. For starters cats should not be allowed to roam free to decimate avian populations. I love cats, but not when they are a menace to birds. What's the difference between dogs running and butchering deer than marauding cats stalking wild birds? Some scientists estimate that 30% of bird fatalities are caused by cats. What if the world's last Vesper Sparrow was killed by a cat?

The earliest date I've seen the Vespers was April 17 in 2007. However, since I don't check regularly, it could have arrived much earlier. This year I was happy to see my first one on April 21. It was foraging under the trailers at the south end of the airport. The habitat is truly desolate with gravelly soil and sparse short grass and weeds, but apparently that's where the Vespers like to forage for seeds and insects.

The Airport Vespers are the coastal or "affinis" subspecies of the Vesper. They are endangered because most of their west coast habitat has been lost to agriculture or development.

The last remaining population of Vespers on Vancouver Island is at the Nanaimo Airport. Historically, their range extended from Parksville to Victoria.

Fortunately, the Nanaimo Airport has recognized the existence and importance of the Vespers. In an agreement with the Garry Oaks Ecosystem Recovery Team, the Airport has agreed to protect the breeding area and to adjust mowing schedules to facilitate the presence of the Vespers.

However, with only less than 10 nesting pairs last year, the Vespers are barely clingling to existence. Who knows how many will have survived the treacherous migration to and from the southern states or Mexico.

For those that have survived the migration, there are still raptors, cats, and human disturbance to cope with. If you think life is tough, fly a mile with the Vespers.


Snow in the Park

Last week I stopped at Parksville Park to enjoy the lingering Brant. I wasn't disappointed as there were about 50 Brant foraging at the water's edge. As a bonus I noticed a white goose grazing with a few Canada's on the grassy field. It was a Snow Goose. At least two have been in the area for most of the winter. One had been regularly seen at the Englishman estuary, the other at Kaye Road. I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the two birds. It's always a pleasure to see one at the Park. When it's grazing with the local domestic goose flock, it feels safe as long as the local geese feel safe. In other words, it is easier to approach and photograph.

This is my favorite shot - Snow Goose in the dandelions.


Hummer Gallery - No need for any commentary. By now you know that an abundance of hummer photos is part of my rites of spring. It's too easy to lose track of time when I'm being entertained by the amazing antics of the hummers as they buzz around the feeders.


Delivery Day

A timely book order from Coho Books in Campbell River gave me the opportunity to check out a few of my favorite birding spots like Parksville Bay, Qualicum, Deep Bay, and Courtenay Airpark. It wasn't a busy day for birds, but as it is quite often, one good opportunity and picture can make the day. As it turned out, it wasn't even a bird the was the highlight.

My first stop was Parksville Bay. I checked the field to see if the Snow Goose was still around. I would have liked to try some sunny day photos as opposed to the overcast day photos I posted earlier. The only geese in sight were a few Brant on the bay, but across the bay a familiar sight caught my eye - the swirling flash of peeps as they turned their bellies up then nothing when they flipped to their dark topsides. I turned the car around and headed for the Beach Club or the former site of the Island Hall.

In amongst the thousand or so peeps were a late bunch of Northern Pintails.

It's always a treat to see the spring migration of peeps. I set up as close as I dared along the water line and waited to see if they would work their way towards me. They were skittish and twice they flushed only to circle and return. I estimated about 1,500, mostly Dunlin and Westerns. Guy later confirmed the same number with a few Least and Dunlin included. I never checked for any other species since I was focused only on the birds closest to me.

The Western Sandpipers looked great with their rufous colour and black chevrons marking the chest.

It took a half hour to get the shorebirds used to me. I was all set for some serious shooting when an erratic Merlin flew in. The peeps disappeared out to sea, the Merlin headed for some tall firs, and I departed for French Creek.


Highlight of the day - I was thinking Marbled Murrelet or late breeding plumaged Long-tailed as I headed out to Deep Bay Spit. It was peaceful and pretty in the morning sun, but there wasn't even a feather on the beach. But, wait - what's that?

There was an otter making itself inconspicuous further down the beach towards Denman. It eyed me suspiciously as I slowly moved towards it.

I stopped about 50 feet away for a few quick shots just in case I couldn't get any closer. I was surprised to see that the otter was munching on a Pacific Sole or some type of flatfish. Sole are bottom fish - I wondered whether the otter went down or the sole came up.

The otter retreated to the water and resumed eating as I got into my desired range.

We were comfortable with each other. The otter kept eating, and I kept shooting.

I don't know how long the otter was going to take so I excused myself and headed north.

I had heard the news that the Hornby Eagles had hatched so I thought I would stop and check a nest in Parksville. Of course, I couldn't see what was happening in the nest, but I wanted a shot of the adult if it were home.

It was a long day - Campbell River and back, but there was still more to do. I had a presentation for the French Creek Conservation Society. They are a proactive group working to preserve Hamilton Marsh. Just as I was leaving the house I spotted Grey Ghost, aka the Townsend's Solitaire. For the 5th year out of 6 Grey Ghost has shown up in my yard at the end of April. The one year I missed I was on vacation so i don't know if it had shown up. I have no idea if it were the same bird, but it's possible. For now, that's what I'm believing, and it was a great treat to see it again.


Dining With the Bonie

May 1 - I've often seen the Bonies flying around and diving in the distance but never had a chance to see what they were dining on until the past week in Lantzville. It was a cold windy day and high tide at the end of Sebastion. On top of the blustery conditions there was hardly a bird in sight. I wasn't very enthused as I pondered whether it was worthwhile to set up the camera, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

A lone Bonaparte's Gull was swirling close to the rocks. It would circle out, cruise downwind, and then circle up wind back along the rocks. If nothing else, I could try for some flight shots. I was all set when the Bonie fluttered around again. It hovered for a few seconds then dove into the water right in front of me. I aimed the camera and clicked. When it emerged I was surprised to see a fish in its bill.

The Bonie's pattern was to cruise downwind towards Nanaimo before circling back upwind.

Heading slowly upwind, the Bonie spotted its prey, hovered, then dove into and under the water.

Bingo! Lunch was served. I'm not sure what kind of fish this was, but it was close to the surface. There must have been a school of them as they were jumping frequently.

The Bonie quickly demonstrated it's bill dexterity by flipping the fish around and grasping it by the head.

With the fish oriented in the right position, it was down the hatch.

The Bonie was quite proficient at finding and catching the fish despite the stormy conditions. It caught 3 fish in 10 minutes.

After the third fish, the Bonie rode the wind south and landed on the end of the point. I followed and was surprised to see seven Bonies hunkered down on the seaweed out of the wind. It was a great setting for a parting shot and the end of an exciting little photo shoot. My lens is useless for group shots, so I was happy to find one Bonie separated from the rest.


Merganser Racing - Ever go to Red-breasted Merganser races? It's a regular event down at the waterfront. It's not much different than horse or greyhound racing. You just place your bet on your favorite merganser and hope for the best. Just look at the photos.

And the winner by a bill is ... darn, my merganser lost by a bill!



Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House

























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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