title photo: Barrow's Goldeneye at the Nanaimo River.
Dec. 2 - Another of my favorite fall scenes is the return of the Barrow's Goldeneyes to the Nanaimo River. This usually corresponds with the salmon run (mid Nov. to early Dec.) so I think the goldeneyes are chowing down on herring roe. I've always enjoyed seeing the Barrow's, especially the male with its white cheek crescent and white patches on the sides. Because of its contrasting colours, it is an extreme photographic challenge especially against a dark background. The perfect situation is a light background with the sun at the right angle to reveal the rich, iridescent, royal purple colour of the hood. The Nanaimo River wasn't the best situation. There is virually no access to the river bank where the ducks seem to frequent which meant a low angle shot was not available. The best I could do was to find a slight opening over the blackberry thickets to permit a partial view looking down from the road. To compound the difficulties it was windy and mostly cloudy with the occasional sunny break. I would be lucky to get any reasonable pictures. Despite the photographic obstacles the joy of seeing the return of the goldeneyes wasn't diminished.
The ducks seem to congregate in a few select locations along the river. My best guess is that there is some kind of back-eddy where the salmon roe is available in larger concentrations. By the way, that's the female in the middle.
I imagine that the ducks were enjoying their fall reunion after their summer nesting season in the alpine lakes and waterways. In the past I've seen a nesting pair with ducklings in an alpine lake on the way to Kwai Lake up Mt. Washington as well as family in the stream at the Whistler Golf Club. In May 2010 I saw quite a few adult Barrow's in the Yellowstone River. I don't know if they were non-breeding adults or just the spring congregation before heading to their individual nesting areas. Apparently they favor fish-free lakes where there is less competition for aquatic insects.
In most cases getting close to the subject with the sun at your back would yield a good picture. That doen't quite work with the male Barrow's. The light has to be at the perfect angle to reflect the rich purple colour of the hood, otherwise, the hood and back just look black.
Here's another even closer shot. Still the wrong angle to reveal the exquisite hue.
No time to lower the exposure compensation when a Barrow's flew in to join the group. I've got the purple glow off the head, but also the over-exposed snow white undersides. My exposure comp was set at -1/3, but I needed at least -2/3.
The over-exposure was no fluke. I'm a master at it. The dark background didn't make it any easier. It's a delicate balance between blowing out the whites and capturing the purple.
That's better. There's the purple glow I mentioned. It only took about a hundred shots before I caught it. With the restrictive window to shoot through, it was up to the ducks whether they would present well or not.
Despite being in the river, the scene was almost like a duck pond. The flock continued to congregate in a small area in front of me. Some of the ducks were sleeping and some were ...
preening. This duck is an enigma. The round cheek patch says Common Goldeneye. However, there were no other Common Goldeneyes around. However, the white patches on the side suggest Barrow's so that's what I'll place my dollar on. Oh, another option I haven't considered - a hybrid?
After their time in the river the goldeneyes spend the rest of the winter in the coastal waters close to shore where they feed on molluscs, crustaceans, and invertebrates. Favorite locations to see them include Chemainus, Wall Beach in Nanoose, and Qualicum Beach during the herring spawn.
The female Barrow's is easy to identify with its orange bill. The female Common Goldeneye looks similar, but its bill is just orange at the tip.
The ducks weren't aware of my presence on the road which permitted a few full-framed shots, however, only a few had the correct angle for keeper shots.
As usual, I had places to go and things to do so reluctantly, I clicked a few more shots and packed up.
Here's the last shot which includes a juvenile in the foreground.
The identification of Eurasian Wigeons can be interesting. There is usually no doubt about the male Eurasian, but the question is whether it is 100% Euasian or is there some American heritage present. I think the Eurasian in the next 3 photos is pure although some dark colouring on the top of its head has me wondering. Female Eurasians are generally much more difficult to isolate because they are very simialr to female Americans. However, with perseverence it should only be a matter of time before you find one. The first field mark to look for is the warm brown colour of the head of the female Eurasian compared to the cooler gray of the American. Once you've found the brown head, check the gape at the base of the bill. If it has a black margin, it is a hybrid. The pure Eurasian does not have the black margin. I think the female in this section is Eurasian. It seems to fit the criteria, but I won't bet the bank on it.
I think the three 3 photos in this set are all of the same male Eurasian even if they appear slightly different.
The varying lighting and angle don't reveal any trace hybridization to my untrained eye; however, don't be surprised if some more knowledgeable person detects some subtle field marks.
There were three possible males in this flock so it's possible that there is more than one individual depicted in this set.
Okay, here we go again with a possible female. So far, my historical record is about zero for seven. In all cases I went for the lighter brown on the head, but didn't look carefully enough for the black marking around the gape. Subsequent examination of the photos revealed the black marking. There are also other field marks to consider, but I'm just presenting the two most obvious.
My other mistake in the past was assuming that since the females were in close companionship with the male Eurasian, that it could also be of the same species. Apparently, that's a fallacy as the presence of hybrids seem to indicate.
Okay, here's a direct comparison. No doubt about the American Wigeon on the left with the cool gray head. I've been wrong every time in the past, but I'm sticking with my guns that I've finally got a female Eurasian on the right. No, I'm not taking bets. Here's the catch. The female Euraian never has the black marking on the bill at the gape. However, while most Americans have the black marking, it is possible for some Americans and the hybrids not to have it.
This little ducky was hanging around French Creek. I think it's a young Common Goldeneye based mainly on the long bill. If you scroll back to the Barrow's you'll notice that the barrow's has a shorter and deeper bill.
When I first spotted the duck it was close to the bank I was standing on. By the time I was finally set it had moved about 15 m away which accounts for the cropping and loss of definition.
However, the duck was putting on a good show, and I enjoyed taking the pictures.
This isn't the best profile, but another field mark of the Common Goldeneye is the sloping forhead. The Barrow's forehead should be steeper.
Dec. 12 - The winter sun felt good and Salty was enjoying all he could as he lounged on the big rock at the north end of Qualicum Beach. Salty laid claim to the rock two hours ago when the tide was higher and just the tip of the rock was exposed. He was tired of the cold water and couldn't resist the opportunity for a little R 'n R on his favorite tanning bed. Normally it's a competition with the otters and other seals to see who would get the rock, but for some reason it was available today. Salty didn't bother asking why. He staked his claim before anyone else showed up.
Salty quickly fell asleep and when he looked up two hours later, he was high and dry. That suited him fine because no other seal or otter would be able to disturb him. However, he didn't count on the pesky gulls. The gulls are well-known for their scavenging, but they also have a mean streak and delight in annoying sleeping seals.
Salty wasn't very happy when he opened his eyes and saw a gull striding boldly towards him.
Salty decided to play possum as the gull strode up an pecked him on the head.
Salty barked and scared the #*"+@ out of the gull.
Salty had a good laugh and told the gull he was just having fun. He apologized and invited to gull back for a visit.
The gull had its reservations but it also wanted to relax on the rock. It accepted Salty's apology but this time it didn't get too close to Salty.
While I was photographing the seal a young lady with a cell phone camera approached wanting a picture of the seal. Of course, I invited her to come closer so she could get a better picture which is the collegial thing to do. As a pseudo-photographer and naturalist, I'm more than happy to share anything I see or anything I know. I've benefitted from the knowledge of others and it always feel good to pass it on to others. In fact, I was extremely disturbed to read the pontifications of a so-called photographer at Boundary Bay who bragged about keeping others awy from some owls he was shooting. In the first place, the owls weren't his and he was on public property. As far as I'm concerned, his actions were totally selfish and unwarranted. Most of the photogs I know are more than happy to share.
Sorry for digression. It just seems that collegiality in birding and bird photography is going the way of the Ivory-billed. So what's with the moonsnail shell you're wondering. The gal with the cell phone probably wasn't close enough for a decent picture but for her efforts she found a beautiful shell in the water. As well, I sent her a set of pics which I know she appreciated.
After I finished with the seal I wandered over to check on the Harlequins and Black Oystercatchers. One of the oystercatchers was foraging behind a rock and was surprised to see me about 7 m away.
It must have been close to siesta time because the oystercatcher climbed up the next rock and prepared for a snooze.
A few rocks further down one of the Harlequin Ducks was resting. I think it was also thinking about siesta time.
After my session at Qualicum I detoured down Kaye Road on the way home hoping to catch a raptor sunning on a snag. The best I could find was a Northern Shrike, but it didn't cooperate for a photo. On my way out I passed a raven enjoying the winter sun in a tall alder. That was my last chance for a photo so I turned around to manoever the car for a shot. I didn't expect the raven to cooperate, but it was still there. I think 97.5% of the time when I go back for a shot the bird disappears.
Dec. 15 - I try to pick a sunny day for book deliveries, but the weatherman doesn't always cooperate. I can forgive him for that as long as he gives me a few good days in return. This was one of those dull days. Blue Heron Books in Comox needed some books. I always try to keep my clients happy so off I went. Despite the overcast conditions I did the circle tour to the airport and along the waterfront to Goose Spit before delivering the books in Comox.
I didn't see anything unusual on my circle tour, but if it were a clear sunny day it would have been exceptional for duck photos at Goose Spit. The tide was high and the scoters were close to shore harvesting varnish clams. Here's a full-framed shot of a male White-winged Scoter shaking the sand off before swallowing the clam. Several species were present including Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Bufflehead, and Lesser Scaup.
On the way south as I was crossing the Big Qualicum bridge, I spotted one nature's Christmas trees. It was a tall snag decorated with Bald Eagles. It took a while to turn around and return, but it was a shot I wanted to get. Despite the dull skies and a distance of about 75 m I was satisfied with the results.
For some unknown reason I decided to take the exit south of Parksville. It was longer than taking the highway to Nanoose, but I had to follow my instincts and it didn't take long to see why. From the access back towards Parksville I spotted a raptor on the top of a tall fir on Northwest Bay Road. After I passed the tree I pulled over to examine the situation. The good news was that it was a Cooper's Hawk (I think) with its tail fanned out to dry. The bad news was that it was about 40 m away. However, with very few photo ops for the day and an itchy finger, it was time to feed the beast.
After about 50 shots in 20 minutes the hawk did nothing but look around. I think we were both bored, and I was glad it finally ended my vigil by flying into the Craig Bay complex.
I drove into the housing complex hoping to find a hawk munching on lunch, but mo such luck. As a consolation I parked by the duck pond waiting for the Hooded Mergansers to get a little closer. You guessed it. Murphy's Law prevailed again. In other words, "Just when your target gets into range, you can expect some walkers or disturbance to flush your subject." In this case it was several walkers. I had to settle for a distant shot of a pair of males. That was it for my birding day. It wasn't the best of days, but any day out in the field is better than a day doing chores at home.
Dec. 20 - The forecast for Christmas is 7 degrees with precipitation, and that is unlikely to be snow. So, if you want a white Christmas, I recommend a trip to Boundary Bay. Not only will you enjoy a a fascinating sight and white Christmas, you won't have to bundle up in your snow suits. You'll be enjoying one of Mother Nature's splendid spectacles - an irruption of Snowy Owls. Once in awhile conditions are optimum for the Arctic breeding season of the Snowies resulting in a high survival rate and population explosion. As a result the owls disperse further south and west than their normal winter dispersion into south central and eastern Canada and north central and eastern U.S. The last irruption occured during the winter of '05 - '06, and it'll probably be another 5 - 6 years before it repeats.
Lady Luck tossed me a bone on Dec. by sending me on a chore to YVR which is conveniently close to Boundary Bay. That gave me the opportunity to to enjoy the Snowies for a couple of hours. Catching the 7:45 am at Duke Point got me to Boundary by 10:30, and there was no problem finding the Snowies. Several were perched on logs within 20 m of the dyke and a few clusters were roosting on logs about 70 m out in the salt marsh. There was no problem getting pictures from the dyke except for my monumental mistake of forgetting to bring my tripod. Normally, my tripod lives in my vehicle, but during a little cleanup a few days ago it was put in the house. I didn't realize my ommission until I was waiting for the ferry at Duke Point. I was able to improvise a shakey monopod with a piece of driftwood for the static shots, but as we all know, Murphy's Law was sure to raise its ugly head. All I could do was curse Murphy as a couple of Snowies flew tantalizingly close by and a pair of Northern Harriers taunted me on the way out.
Even without the invasion of Snowy Owls, Boundary Bay is one of my favorite places to visit in the winter. Last year I drove right by a Rough-legged Hawk on a bush beside the road near Boundary. Of course, when I finally stopped to go back for that eye-level portrait, it decided to fly. That's another bird that's still on my wish list. And, I've yet to see one of those Gyr Falcons that Mike Tabak has been reporting and photographing every year ...
There were about a dozen Snowies visible from the dyke just north of 72nd. Most of them were about 60 - 80 m away, but several were only about 20 m from the dyke where all my pictures were taken from. It was overcast and cool but a pleasant, refreshing cool with the usual collection of hikers, photographers, and scopers on the scene as well as a few hunters.
Several Snowies were perched about 20 m from the dyke. They appeared to be unconcerned while scores of humans passed by.
Several groups of Snowies were perched on logs or stumps about 60 - 80 m from the dyke.
With the forecast of 7 degrees and rain for Christmas your best bet for a white Christmas is a visit to Boundary Bay. This is probably my last report for the year so I'm signing off for 2011 with wishes to you for the merriest Christmas and happiest 2012 - ie, lots of fine birding.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)