title photo: Jan. 8, 2012 - Life in the Duck Pond. 20 years ago Fairwinds acquired a pair of Mute Swans to assist in goose countrol. Unfortunately, the Mutes only seemed to be aggressive during the mating season, and the geese had no problems avoiding the swans. Over the years the Mutes produced offspring every year, but most of them were given away and the only swans left are non-breeding males.

Good Bird - Poor Photo

For the first time since I was stricken in '03 with the mysterious obsession for pursuing avian creatures, Common Redpolls have irrupted to Vancouver Island. It's not a huge irruption, but there seems to be a few sprinkled in with every flock of Pine Siskins. They have been reported from all part of the island since mid-fall. I was probably the last birder on the island to see one, but I was finally privileged to host a flock of about 60 siskins and a few redpolls on Jan. 8.

I was doing some yard work when a rush of wings and chirping caught my attention. The flock of siskins swirled and landed in a grove of alders. As they proceeded to forage their way down from the top of the trees, I hastily set up my camera and started searching for a bird with red on its head. Despite the dull overcast skies and poor photo conditions, I was excited with the chance to find a redpoll.

The dim light, constant motion of the birds, and distance of the birds made the task difficult, but I eventually focussed on a bird with more white on its undersides. When it finally turned around, I spotted the red on top of the head. Eventually I found another just a bit closer, but its head was again away from me as it hung downside up and picked seeds from the alder cones.

As it reached the bottom cone of the cluster it swung around for a brief profile, and then it swirled off with the rest of the flock. As an old buddy named Buddy used to say, "Beggars can't be choosy." I was actually delighted with my first redpoll encounter on the island.

Earlier in the day I was down at Fairwinds looking unsuccessfully for the siskins. While I was there I decided to check the duck flock for Eurasian Wigeons. Here's one of the two males I saw. Later in the day I saw Guy and Donna, and they told me they had seen three males. Over the years the most I had ever seen was 2 males.

In past years I never even bothered looking for female Eurasians, but I trying to be more astute in 2012. I had a good chance to study them in a previous journal, and I think this is a good candidate for a female. The head was a warmer brown than the female Americans (which were a cool gray) and if you enlarge this photo I think you will see there is no black marking on the base of the bill.

Somenos to Nanaimo

On Jan. 10 I had some business in Duncan which gave me an opportunity to check out the Outdoor Education boardwalk at Somenoes Marsh. I stopped at the blackberry brambles near the beginning of the look and enjoyed a pair of Fox Sparrows and a Song Sparrow. My clattering on the path spooked a pair of Wood Ducks that furtively swam away through the jungle of marsh willows and vegetation. Further on a male Mallard laboriously lifted straight up from through the thick brush to escape my menacing presence. Pacific Wrens chipped away without on both sides without showing themselves. At the viewing area a trio of Northern Pintails celebrated my arrival by flying off, and a trio of Canada Geese followed immediately. Just as I was about to continue the loop I heard some low-pitched honk of Trumpeter Swans lifting off and heading my way and managed to set up for a few shots just as they were passed by. As I neared the large tree at the corner a Cooper's Hawk flew out and landed in the next large tree down the loop. I stopped to check out the next resting spot and caught a glimpse of a sparrow diving into the brambles. I didn't get a good look at it and wondered if it might have been a Swamp Sparrow. As I tried to pish the sparrow another bird landed in a nearby tree. As I focussed I could see that it was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. It was at the perfect distance and lighting for a good shot except for the small twig right across its face. I continued around the loop with one eye on the Cooper's. It didn't seem concerned as I walked by about 30 feet below. A flurry of birds greeted me as I neared the thicket at the beginning of the loop, but by this time I was looking towards the sun and didn't try to take any pictures. Although I didn't score any great pictures I thoroughly enjoyed my leisurely half hour stroll and could see the potential for student learning and nature enjoyment in nature's classroom. My congratulations to the Cowichan Valley Naturalists who had worked long and hard to complete this magnificent facility.

I love seeing Fox Sparrows. They are always so perky and curious and don't mind posing for a few photos.

There seems to be one or more Fox Sparrows in every blackberry bramble I come across during the winter. Our subspecies is the Sooty or Pacific and it is found along the Pacific Coast from California to Vancouver Island in the winter. During the breeding season their nesting range extends up the coast all the way to Alaska.

Is there anything more magnificent than Trumpeter Swans in flight? They are North America's largest waterfowl and our heaviest flying bird.

According to Derrick Maarven's Cowichan Valley Swan count on Dec. 28/11, there were 9 Mutes, 358 Trumpeters, and 2 Tundras.

On my way home from Duncan I decided to check out the Nanaimo Estuary. The Nanaimo CBC had recorded a Rough-legged Hawk and it was recently confirmed by Guy and other birders. As usual my timing was perfect. I didn't see any birds except for a few distant ravens, gulls, and ducks. However, I couldn't complain about the consolation otter. Cute isn't it?

After unsuccessfully scanning the esturary for raptors, owls, and passerines from the viewing tower I was going to leave, but I impulsively decided to walk over to the pond hoping that the Northern Shrike would be shopping nearby. Well, there was no shrike but as I neared the pond I spotted some ripples emanating form the near bank. I speculated Common Mergansers, but as I peered over, I spooked a startled river otter.

The otter swam to the middle of the pond casting suspicious glances my way. It eventually stopped and recognized that I was merely an innocuous photographer. Without any further concern it proceeded to dive for fish. I could see it swimming around under the water and then it would surface with the prize in its jaws. If it were a small fish, it would simply munch away right in the water. If it were a larger fish like the second picture, it would swim to the far shore to start the digestive process.

This is about the tenth fish that I watched it catch. I thought it would take a break after that but it continued.

Now we're at the twentieth fish at the non-stop fish buffet. Talk about an eating machine. When was it going to stop.

Okay, number 25. I had been there for about an hour. My counter said I had taken 450 shots. I was getting cold, and the fish weren't getting any bigger. The otter wasn't stopping, but I was. I thanked the otter for the wonderful show and headed towards home, but there was still plenty of sunshine. Next stop, Buttertubs Marsh.

I used to spend a lot more time at Buttertubs, but for some reason I've all but neglected it in the past few years. After Jon Carter scored the American Bittern here in the fall I thought I could squeeze in a few more visits this year. As much as I enjoyed the 2.1 km hike, I was a bit disappointed with the level of bird activity. After I passed on a few closer Hooded Mergansers I thought I had better take at least a distant shot as a momento of my visit.

This was the best of the day. I love seeing birds perched on the skeletons of the dead oaks beside the middle dyke. The bird of the day was the Great Blue Heron posed beautifully in the waning afternoon sun. This picture alone made my stop worthwhile.



Snow Birds

When I woke up to a foot of snow on Jan. 18 I knew that I would soon be seeing the Varied Thrushes. Normally they skulk in the shadows of the forest, but snow always drives them out in the open and quite often to my feeders. I carefully cleared the snow from under the feeders and threw a few extra handfuls of seed under each one. The weather was heavy overcast all day which wasn't conducive to any photography, but it gave me a chance to observe the action. Not surprisingly, the juncos were the most abundant species, and all of the expected culprits - chickadees, nuthatches, Purple Finches, Varied Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, and Song Sparrows attended the seed banquet. The next day the sky lightened for about an hour which gave me the opportunity I was looking for. I set up my tripod and camera about 9 m from the feeder, threw out some extra seed, and waited. It didn't take long before the birds accepted my seedy invitation. The Fox Sparrows and juncos were first, but a couple of Varied Thrushes soon joined the party.

The Song Sparrow is a year-round yard bird although I sometimes wonder if it is the same bird. Does this bird just winter here then moves north or wherever for its nesting season and is replaced by another bird for the summer?

Fox Sparrows generally show up during the spring and fall migrations but don't stay all winter. However, when the snow falls you can pretty bet that they'll visit the feeders. I suspect that they prefer their natural habitat of blackberry thickets and heavy underbrush but don't mind joining the foodlines during hard times.

The Varied thrush is very shy and prefers the shelter of the forest. I hear their mournful calls every morning but rarely catch a glimpse. If by chance I happen to get close to one it immediately disappears.

When it snows the Varied Thrush changes personalities. It knows where it can get an easy meal, and it knows who's providing it. Suddenly, it's not so wary of humans.

From a bird I rarely see, to one waiting tentatively a few feet away in the feeder tree. It was a privilege to be able to approach so close to admire its delightful coat of orange and gray.

The winter snow only lasted 2 days before the pseudo-chinook winds and monsoons took its toll. My brief window of opportunity for the Varied Thrush also melted away, but it was fun while it lasted.


French Creek Peek

Jan. 21 - A brief respite from our current series of turbulent winter storms allowed a quick outing to Kaye Road and French Creek. Kaye Road was disappointing despite a short hike along the nature trail and quick drive along the usual roads. The only birds I saw were a curious Song Sparrow along the trail and a wary Red-tailed on a distant snag. French Creek was busier with birds, but also people which frustrated any attempts to sit and wait for unusual opportunities. In fact, I still haven't taken a stroll out the extended breakwater as has always been busy with people. Photo opportunities were scarce. I passed on the Pied-billed Grebe that has been moored in the marina since September, but I couldn't quit without taking at least a record shot of two which I'm sharing below.

The gravel bar across the creek is always a favorite roosting spot for ducks, gulls, and shorebirds. Today was no different with a congregation of American Wigeons, Common Mergansers, Mallards, gulls, crows, and one shorebird. The only other duck was a juvenile Common Goldeneye. The usual pair of Hooded Mergansers were absent. Care to guess what the shorebird was? Normally it would be Killdeer, but on my last two visits it was the overwintering Greater Yellowlegs.

Some winters have seen two or three Greater Yellowlegs toughing it out around French Creek, but this year I've only seen one. I don't think their winter range extends too much further north. I photographed a couple on Hornby Island last winter, and I'm sure Mike Morrell has a few hanging around Denman. I wonder if Art Martell has a few hunkering around the Airpark or Goose Spit.

As usual the yellowlegs was having an afternoon snooze before it was interrupted when an eagle flushed the menagerie of birds. Everyone flew except the yellowlegs. It was a good that the eagle didn't notice.

A winter surprise - In all the years I've been visiting French Creek I've never seen The Queen (female Belted Kingfisher) during the winter. You're probably tired of seeing my pics of The King, but I've never had the opportunity for the lady. I was parked beside the creek watching the ducks when I heard the rapid trill of Belted Kingfisher almost in my left ear. Just as I turned around to wish The King a happy New Year, I was shocked to see that it wasn't The King. It was The Queen 3 m behind me. She was shocked to see me too and departed immediately across the creek to a distant tree. I was happy just to get a couple of record shots.

Belted Kingfishers have the ideal marriage arrangement. For most of the year they are separate and independent, but they reunite for the nesting season. Does the appearance of The Queen signal the onset of the kingfisher courting season?

The beach at San Pareil can be a productive photo venue at times. Today a Common Loon, Female Barrow's Goldeneye, and Horned Grebe were foraging just out of decent camera range. This was compensated by excellent lighting conditions, but the photos were still extensive crops. The Horned Grebe continues to be a common species along our shorelines. I've seen many this winter, but only as individuals.

Perhaps they get together later in the spring when they start to gather in preparation for their migration.

The female Barrow's Goldeneye was another solitary species. It's rare to see by itself. I usually see them as pairs or in small groups.

For those of you who aren't familiar with goldeneyes, the yellow-tipped bill and steep forehead are field marks that distinguish it from a Common Goldeneye.

I finally had another visit by the Pine Siskin flock, and it was in the sunshine this time. Unfortunately, it was very brief and distant, and I didn't have time to scan the flock of about 50 for the elusive and much desired Common Redpoll. They only stopped briefly before the loud traffic on the nearby road catalyzed their sudden flight.


Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)
























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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