Trail Mix Day

Feb. 21 - Before Christmas I received an email from Shannon at the "Food for Thought" bulk food store at Cadboro Bay Village. She was interested in my bird poster. Unfortunately, my poster is 55"x33" and to reproduce another would cost $176. There were only two things wrong. The poster was too big and too expensive, but I promised Shannon that if I ever got some smaller ones made I would deliver her one at cost. She countered-offered with cost plus a bag of special trail mix featuring their self-roasted nuts. I finally got around to getting a reduced-sized poster (30"x17.8") at Staples last week. Since I had to be in Nanaimo for an interview with the Bulletin newspaper today, I decided to continue on to Victoria to deliver the poster and do a little photography.

I was early for my 9:30 am interview at Buttertubs so that gave me a chance to photograph some male Mallards in the excellent morning light. A Fox Sparrow and Song Sparrow just happened to be in the blackberry thicket beside me for a few more shots, and then Keith M., another photographer, showed up so the time went quickly. When Chris, the reporter, arrived I dragged Keith along just to add more variety to the interview and photo session. I think that all went well, and I was on my way by 10:15.

I was mentally planning my photo shoots for Victoria as I headed south: first, Esquimalt Lagoon for Common Goldeneye mating rituals and Northern Pintail flight shots; second, Swan Lake for the Bittern, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Anna's Hummingbirds; third, King's Pond for Wood Duck and Lesser Scaup photos; and finally, Cattle Point for the Western Meadowlarks. However, as they say, "The best laid plans of mice and Mike ..." By the time I neared Mill Bay the clear blue sky had degenereated into dark gray clouds. That pretty well eliminated my first three plans. They weren't worth pursuing without the sunshine and blue sky. That just left the trail mix and Western Meadowlarks.

Shannon said their custom made trail mix was to die for, and she was right. I couldn't help dipping into the bag for the store-roasted pecans and almonds mixed with raisins, cranberries, papayas, and other goodies as I headed for nearby Cattle Point. Since I had photographed the Rock Sandpipers on my last trip, my target today were the two meadowlarks that Victoria birders have been reporting regularly. I didn't even see them last time so I figured I was due. With the cold, dull weather Cattle Point wasn't as busy as usual, but still too busy for my liking. I slowly worked my way through the little park without seeing a single bird. There was only the small section beyond the boat ramp left. I crossed the ramp, and as I neared the first bench, two birds flushed from bottom of the rocks. They were the meadowlarks. I couldn't see where they landed so I had to carefully work my way back. I finally spotted a bobbing head just east of the fenced section. Unfortunately, a family of two kids, a dog, and man were heading in that direction. I hastened my pace and quickly set up to take some pictures. I got a few shots before the group closed in. Instead of stopping to see what I was shooting, the man kept charging and asking what I was looking at. As the meadowlarks flew off, I bit my lip and politely answered, "Western Meadowlarks."

Fortunately, the group was heading in the opposite direction from the meadowlarks which landed on the rocks about 30 meters down the beach. This time I was able to approach undisturbed. I wasn't as close as I wanted, but it was as close as I thought I could get. Despite the dull light, the cryptic pattern showed very well and when the birds showed their chests, it was a bit of "winter sunshine." The Western Meadowlark is a grassland prairie bird, but a few like to winter on Vancouver Island's grassy estuaries and farmlands. Martindale valley and the bulb fields are good locations to look for them. The meadowlarks made my day, and that always makes the trip home seem a little bit shorter.

Oh no, not another Fox Sparrow. Yes, I seem to see them everywhere I go, and they are photogenic. But, you're right. Enough is enough. I've overdone it this winter. It's not that I don't like the Foxes. I just have to work harder to provide a little more variety.

Oh no! Another Song Sparrow. Ditto my previous comment about the Fox Sparrow. This will be my last for a long time.

Practical joke or an act of cruelty? We all know it's the latter. The sring and feather just might cause digestive complications and prank can easily become a homicide... (at Buttertubs Marsh)

It's always a challenge to catch the Mallard in the perfect light, and despite the frigid temp, I was pleased with the morning sun.

I love the sunshine and beautiful blue water, but shooting from above is not the best angle.

Hello Victoria!

As mentioned, the overcast conditions wiped out my other plans so I was down to the Western Meadowlarks. Fortunately, they were home at cattle Point. It's amazing that Meadowlarks like to hang out there. It is one of the smallest and busiest parks in Victoria, and there isn't very much meadowlark habitat.

Despite the negatives it's not unusual to find meadowlarks and other interesting birds there every winter.

The meadowlarks are generally very wary, but this pair had to be accustomed to people and dogs by now.

After I flushed the meadowlarks they seemed content to stay on the shoreline rocks. There weren't too many people around but they were spaced from one end of the park to the other. I think the meadowlarks were just waiting for their patch of grass to be vacated.

The meadowlarks were a joy to see. I hadn't seen one since we drove through Saskatchewan in May, 2010.

I was on my way to the Roost when I stopped at Martindale flats. There were Mallards in every field grubbing away in the shallow puddles. The only dry bird I saw was this Great Blue Heron foraging for mice in the grassy field. After that I changed my mind about lunch and headed home.

Birds in the Snow

Feb. 24 - Tuesday I was in Victoria. Wednesday it snowed about 30 cm. Thursday was my chance to try a little snow photography after shovelling the 200' driveway. I noticed a few Varied Thrush trying to scratch a living from a small patch of my yard where a bit of running water had melted the snow. I took out my snow shovel and enlarged the area for them then settled in for some photography. Would this male thrush dare to come out from the seclusion of the willow tree?

At first I wondered if I should park my car nearby to use it for a blind, but decided to just stand and wait. Needless to say, it was nippy out as the mercury stayed below zero. But when your bird lands right in front of you, you forget the fingers were frozen.

I had my doubts about seeing a Varied Thrush in the open. They are usually as wary and elusive as any bird, but when there's snow on the ground, they'll forage anywhere they can.

It was interesting that several varied Thrush came, but they were all males.

Finally, a female showed up but it stayed away from the open patch of ground. I wouldn't solve this puzzle until the next day.

When I retreated to the warmth of my house, I noticed that the sun was just about to shine on my feeder post. I decided to open the window to wait for some customers. I was in luck. The dapper-looking male Pileated dropping by for a taste of suet. The pole wasn't quite in the sun yet.

There, three minutes later the sun was out and the Pileated had finished its snack and was ready to depart.

The Dark-eyed Junco was next. It always lands on the perch before jumping down to the suet feeder.

Just like the other woodpeckers, the Hairy landed near the top of the pole and shinnied down to the feeder.

When it was even with the feeder it hopped over and started pecking. It hopped back and forth to the pole where it stashed some of the suet.

The Chestnut-backed Chickadees have a circuit and seemed to arrive at the suet about once an hour.

They were very quick. The would land on the perch, hop onto the feeder, and take one peck in less than one of my breaths.

Day 2 in the Snow

Feb. 25 - I wasn't happy with the lack of female representation in my Varied Thrush shoot yesterday so I decided to give it one more try. In preparation I shovelled another area for the thrushes to forage in as well as enlarging the original area.

On my first vigil I was only able to photograph a couple of robins. They were definitely more confiding in photographers than the thrushes.

What goes down must come up. Isn;t that one of the laws of anti-gravity? Anyway, what a surprise to see the robin vomit a holly berry! I guess the holly berries aren't as good as they look.

In the first half hour I only had visits from two male Varied Thrushes. They were beautiful, but today was ladies day.

There was a female in the other patch that I was watching. It was too far for a picture so I just watched and noticed that when a male flew in it would chase her away. I saw that happen several times, but when another female flew in they just foraged together. Yes, I hate to tell on them, but the males are bullies!

Finally, after about 20 minutes when the patch in front of me was vacant, a female worked her way towards me from behind the large willow tree.

A second female flew in so I had my choice of which bird to shoot.

The females were certainly less intense in colour than the males, but just as pretty. You can fill in the commentary for the next few pictures if you like. I'm just going to skip to the last one.

Last but not least. This was my favorite shot of the day. I like the composition. The clean background of snow on the front half and the moss and bark on the back half... great lighting on the thrush to highlight the bill and body plumage and the critical catch-light... also an interesting pose. You probably think I staged the shot, but it was just a product of perserverence and luck. I certainly enjoyed my time with the Varied Thrush. I hope you'll also enjoy them.

Bonus Day

Fe. 28 - Sometimes good deeds get rewarded. Take today for example. Out of the goodness of my heart I offered to pay some of my wife's bills - one being in Qualicum. (In other words, there was a bit of morning sun, and I wanted to check to see if there was any sign of a herring spawn. Fisheries had reported 50,000 tons from French Creek to Nanoose so they're around.) The weather forecast was unfavorable but the satellite map showed patches of cloud with sunny breaks. Well, the breaks were with me as I neared Qualicum. It was sunny as I scanned the gull flock at Beach Creek only to find nothing unusual except a pair of Trumpeters cruising just offshore. My luck changed on the way to the viewing stand. The Black Scoter flock was close to the seawall diving for clams. One of my favorite annual shoots was the scoters, but because of various distractions I hadn't gotten around to it this winter. I didn't hesitate. I was lucky that 90% of the flock were Black Scoters. For some reason they don't seem to be as skittish as the White-winged or Surf Scoters. Maybe it's because they're the main ones that hang around the beach all winter. Anyway, they swam out as I positioned myself at the tideline, but within a few minutes they turned and headed right for me. Before I knew it, some were within twenty feet of me. For the next hour I was in scoter heaven. When I finally looked at my counter, I had taken 433 images. Most were Black Scoters but there were a few White-winged in the crowd.

There were no signs of the herring spawn anywhere. The gull population wasn't as large as I've seen it in past years. In fact, the presence of the scoter flock was another indicator that the spawn wasn't happening yet. As soon as the spawn happens all the ducks in the region coalesce into massive flocks drifting around to feast on the floating herring roe. Thousands of gulls and Brant also indulge in the sumptuous banquet of caviar, but they prefer to pluck the delicacy from the tideline or on the beach.

Scoter segregation - It's not unusual to see flocks of predominantly one species of scoter. The Parksville flock is dominated by Surf Scoters while the Qualicum flock is mainly Black Scoters.

it was unusual to see a pair of Trumpeters just offshore. Usually at this time of day they are off to there favorite feeding field.

I was hoping the swans would get into their amorous mood, but they flew off instead.

Needless to say I had an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable day with the scoters. I don't know if this good deed thing works all the time, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Give it a try sometime.

Bald Eagle Festival Recap

Kudos to Maj and the MARS staff and volunteers for another stimulating and enjoyable festival. The event is priceless as an educational tool for raising community awareness and empathy for our avian creatures. All the sessions were well-attended: the Burrowing Owl recovery program by Mike MacIntosh; live raptor display by Pacific Northwest Raptors; population dynamics of coastal birds by Art Martell; Hornby Eagle Cam and Phoenix Legacy by Doug Carrick; Merlin Falcon Foundation by Dave Drummond; wildlife art by W. A. Hancock; and bird photography by yours truly.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by the overflow crowd at my bird photography session. Bird photography plays an important role in increasing public awareness in birds. Although not everyone has a website, publishes books, writes articles, or does presentations, they all share their photos in one way or another. The fact that so many are interested means that the birds will be getting a lot more exposure in more ways than one.

My next festival appearance will be at the Tofino Shorebird Fest (May 6 - 8). Initially I had planned to be in Gray's Harbour at that time for shorebird photography, but my plans fell through. So maybe fate has a way of making decisions for me. Anyway, I'm looking forward to Tofino. Why not come along, and we can all have fun.

As far as I know the only three bird festivals on the Island are the Bald Eagle, Shorebird, and Brant. There is clearly room for a lot more, but sadly the trend is just the opposite. Didn't the Comox Valley have a Trumpeter Swan Festival at one time? The Parksville Brant Festival is currently on life support by the Nature Trust which is expecting to pull the plug soon. Aside from the positive benefits for avian and wildlife education there is also a signifcant economic spin-off for local merchants and accommodation providers. Instead of grumbling about the recession, get out and promote the natural richness in your area, and generate more business for your town. If Comox Valley doesn't want the Trumpeter Festival maybe Duncan should take it. How about Victoria doing the Great Spring Bird Count Festival - an April or May version of the CBC. A natural for Sooke would be the Great Hawk Watch Festival. Who's got lots of Blue Herons? Wouldn't it be cool to have a Great Blue Heron Festival? Okay, I know I'm talking to the wind so I'll say adios for now. See you during the herring spawn.




Bird Poster

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

























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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