A "Ruff" Day

Sept. 22 - Chasing rare birds is a crap shoot at the best of times. I'd rather not say how many times I've driven for hours not to find my intended target. Just to mention a few, there was the elusive Hooded Warbler in Campbell River, the invisible Brambling in Duncan, and the phantom Blue Gray Gnat-catcher in Esquimalt. But, when chasing birds is what you do, it's really difficult to stay home when a rare bird is reported.

On September 17 an extremely rare Ruff Sandpiper was reported at Whiffin Spit in Sooke. I'd seen one two years ago but failed to get any decent photos. I was tempted and severely tested, but I resisted making the 350 km round trip the next day. My problem was that I was scheduled for a presentation at the University of Victoria for the Victoria Natural History Society on September 22. Being concerned about the extra pollution from making two trips, I decided to wait for my scheduled trip.

I had my doubts as I headed south on the 22nd. It had now been six days since the Ruff was first reported at Whiffin. My previous experiences with the Ruff were that it was very wary and never stayed long in one place. I only managed a distant glimpse of the one at Courtenay Airpark in 2004, and only got a quick flight shot of one in Parksville in 2008. However, Whiffin is a great birding location when there aren't too many pedestrians and dogs around, and there is always the chance of finding other interesting birds.

My doubts turned to optimism as I pulled into the parking lot at the spit. The parking lot was less than half full (fewer walkers and dogs), the filtered light from the thin clouds was ideal for photography, and sparrows flushed from the long grass at the side of the parking lot. There was a feeling of excitement in the air as I headed briskly to the shorebird area just past the rocky breakwater. Peering over the bank I could see Black Turnstones busily foraging on the seaweed at the water's edge. Suddenly my heart stopped as a medium-sized, buffy coloured shorebird wandered into view. It was the Ruff! It was the size of a dowitcher but with a shorter bill and long greenish yellow legs. It stopped for a moment when it saw me but then continued to scour the rocks for insects and and other small aquatic creatures.

I was amazed at how confiding it was as I clicked away with my camera from close range. After about 200 clicks, I had all the shots I wanted. I stopped and just enjoyed watching the rare Eurasian visitor for a few minutes. I wondered how it felt being thousands of miles from its normal range in Africa or southern Europe or Asia and wondered if it would ever reunite with other Ruffs. The Ruff continued its foraging for awhile then hopped on a large rock. It preened and scratched for a few minutes, lifted and folded one leg under its body, and then closed its eyes for a bird nap. That was my cue to leave.

I was definitely feeling good as I headed back to the parking lot. I had just gotten my best-ever shots of a remarkable bird, and there was more to come. At the beginning of the trail a sparrow flashed the white edges of its tail as it flew to the beach. I suspected it was an unusual bird as I focused my camera. I couldn't believe my eyes. My "Ruff" day had just gotten better. The bird was uncommon visitor from the south Okanagan and prairies, a Lark Sparrow.

Unlike my previous Ruff experiences, the Whiffin bird was quite relaxed and confiding. At first it appeared wary, but it didn't take long before it settled back to its foraging.

I'm sure the Ruff was foraging for insects in the seaweed, but I didn't know it also liked a little salad (next pic).

I'm not sure if the Ruff was eating the seaweed or just wearing it.

Almost the record bird - The Ruff was initially the record setting bird for Russ Cannings' Big Year. However, because of a little tallying problem, it only turned out to be the tying bird.

Nap time - After a good meal I always feel a little drowsy. Apparently, so did the Ruff.

Ready to fly? Apparently the Ruff was last seen on Sept. 24. It had stayed over a week and was enjoyed by many birders and walkers.

Bonus bird! Whiffin Spit is known for its surprises, and the Lark Sparrow was a pleasant surprise for my Ruff day.

I tried for a better shot of the Lark Sparrow but couldn't relocate it. The best I could do was a juvenile White-crowned before I headed to UVIC for my presentation on Pelagic birds.


A Few Local Birds

Sept. 28 - If it seemed like months since I've ventured up to Deep Bay, it's because it was. An order from Graham's Jewellers in Courtenay for more books gave me the opportunity for a b&b (birds and books) day, and Deep Bay was on the way. It was a beautiful, calm sunny day - perfect for photography if any birds were present. If I were lucky I might see some Common Terns, alcids, seabirds, or shorebirds. Unfortunately, none of the above were present, but I did find a surprising consolation bird - a lonely-looking juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose.

I usually find the Greater White-fronteds on a grassy field like Parksville Park or Fairwinds Golf Course. It was totally out of character to find one on the fairly barren sandy spit.

The goose definitely looked abandoned. Adrian over in Tofino told a touching story of a similarly lost juvenile, but its parents returned to rescue the young bird.

Greater White-fronteds have been reported regularly for the past two weeks so there was a good chance that the youngster found a flock to join.

The goose seemed to be content to hang out on the spit. After I took a few pictures I went to look for other birds. When I returned 20 minutes later, it was resting on the sand.

After Deep Bay I stopped at Admiral's Lagoon. The usual Black-bellied Plovers were stationed at the water's edge with the Bonaparte's and California Gulls.

Across French Creek in the pond by the residences I was greeted by a small band of juvenile Long-billed Dowitchers.

The Dowis were too busy foraging in the mud to worry about my presence. They probably stayed for a few days before moving across the Salish Sea to the Fraser River estuary. Very few ever winter in the area.

On the other hand the Greater Yellowlegs is known to spend the occasional winter around French Creek.

There's been a few winters where I've seen them as late as February.

My last stop was Rascal Pond. The only birds present were a pair of bathing Killdeer.

The Killdeer were enoying a cool bath during one of our rare sunny September days.

Two days later I was watching a Common Loon down at Lantzville. It was diving close to shore.

On it's fourth dive it finally got a fish, but instead of enjoying its meal in front of me, it headed straight out to sea. I wasn't surprised knowing that the loons are always worried about losing their hard-earned meals.



Sept. 30 - One of the most interesting birding events on the Island is the annual late September Turkey Vulture-Raptor Jamboree down at East Sooke Park. Hundreds of Turkey Vultures and various raptors congregate in the area waiting for the appropriate thermals and winds to whisk them across the straits for their soutward migration. It is definitely a spectacle worth watching. In fact, the VNHS and East Sooke Park host an annual Hawk-Watch and barbeque to celebrate and witness the fascinating event. One of the best vantage points is Beechy Head which is a short 2 km walk from Aylard Farm.

Numerous raptors of all species take part in the event even though they may have the flying ability to make it without the thermal lift requird by the vultures. While waiting for the thermals it is not unusual for them to flow fairly low like this Sharp-shinned Hawk enabling some interesting photography.

Of course, the stars of the show are the Turkey Vultures that gather by the many hundreds and even thousands for the event.

The vultures circle by the hundreds as they wait for the right conditions.

I'm not sure how the vultures know when it's right to go. On this particular day they made a couple of false starts but returned while we were there.


Bad Timing

Some days nothing works. Oct. 2 was one of those days. The Reifel Gift Shop had sold out of my books ordered and ordered a few more. That gave me the excuse to visit Reifel. The best day the weatherman had to offer was the dreaded Saturday. So crowds or no crowds, I caught the ferry. As expected, the parking lot was full, and there were people everywhere. After I delivered the books to Varri, I did the tour hoping to find some interesting shorebirds at the west pond. As expected, there were hundreds of Long-billed Dowitchers in the middle, but I couldn't find any other shorebirds. Last year at this time I found a Stilt Sandpiper and some Red-necked Phalaropes, and a couple of days later a Hudsonian Godwit showed up for a few of days. However, try as I might, I couldn't conjure up anything other than the dowis. So it was off to Brunswick Point where ducks and Great Blue Herons were plentiful but shorebirds scarce. Boundary was next, and as I rode my bike onto the dyke I made eye contact with a young birder who I thought was Ilya. It had been a couple of years since I saw him. I wasn't sure so I carried on. Despite the high tide the shorebirds were scarce. I found 2 Pectorals just before the pilings and one Greater Yellowlegs by the mansion and that was it. On the way back I wasn't surprised to run into Jim Martin. If he wasn't at Reifel, I knew he would be at Boundary. It was good to see him again and catch up with the local birding and photography. I also asked him if that was Ilya that we passed on the way in. He confirmed my suspicions. So, sorry Ilya. My fault for not stopping to chat with you and to meet Mr. "B.C. Big Year," Russell Cannings. Russell is to be commended for establishing a new record for B.C. at 365 species (same number of days in a year) and then breaking his new record with #366. I think it was the Tropical Kingbird that was first then the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper both at Reifel, but I might have them reversed. Anyways, well done Russ. Not only has Russ generated a lot of publicity for his achievement, he has also generated a lot of interest for the birds and birding, and we can use a lot more of that.

By the time I found out that it was Ilya and Russ up the dyke, it was too late to catch them. That was the first bad timing event. The second was not returning to Reifel. After Boundary, we had some time to spare. If we returned to Reifel, we would have caught the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

I haven't done much shorebirding on the Island this year so I really enjoyed the three Pectorals at Boundary. These were my first of the fall and probably my last.

The trio of Pectorals were merrily working their way down the high tideline and never blinked as they foraged within 10 feet of me.

As usual the Pectorals were foraging for aquatic insects and invertebrates in the seaweed.

I couldn't leave Reifel without at least one bird. I settled on the resident Sandhill Cranes which were too far away in the salt marsh.

It was comforting to see that the fuzzy orange chick that I had seen four months ago was now the same size as the adults.

The Snow Goose migration is another spectacular sight to see, and it just happened to be the right time at Reifel as flock after flock flew over the salt marsh and landed on the distant shoreline.


Bird Poster

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

























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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