Site Fidelity

Feb. 7/12 - Loosely speaking, site fidelity refers to the habitual return of various species to the same location year after year for breeding, staging, and wintering. A few examples are the Long-tailed Ducks wintering at Deep Bay, the Harlequins molting at Hornby Island, and the Brant spring-time staging around Parksville. I'm not sure how it works but it seems to be part of the genetic make-up of the species. Site fidelity is important for the survival because it ensures that the species can return to areas where previous generations had sufficient food resources and safety for for their nesting, staging, or wintering. Evidence that it is hereditary is the ability of juvenile shorebirds to find their own way to their southern staging and wintering grounds after their parents have abandoned them. There is also evidence that it can become learned behavior. Just think about the Tsawwassen Willet. It has been returning to the same wintering site for years despite the fact that the rest of its flock is enjoying the winter in California. Learned behavior is extremely important especially when prime habitats have been destroyed by pollution, development, or natural disaters. If the species can't learn and adjust to new locations or situations, it won't survive. A good example is the Purple Martins that have learned to survive in nest boxes.

In some ways my annual visit to Deep Bay is also a version of site fidelity of the learned variety. In fact, site fidelity on my part is the key to much of my photography. Another example was yesterday (Feb. 6/12) when I decided to visit Boundary Bay to look for the Gyr Falcons and Northern Harriers. I bombed on the Gyrs, but I had a marvellous time with the Northern Harriers. Boundary Bay is probably the best location in the province for harriers. I don't know if there is any recent population data available, but there are always a number of them cruising around the salt marsh and adjacent fields.

The Snowy Owls were still abundant, but that is not an example of site fidelity unless every six years counts.

One last example of site fidelity is YOU. Over 200 people check into this site every day, and I assume they are mostly the same people. (The most I've ever had was about 650 in a day.) I know you are hoping to find new content each time, but that is impossible. I'm not going to apologize for that, but, once again I thank you for your fidelity. While I'm at it I want to thank Farid from Uppsala, Sweden who was kind enough let me know that he enjoys this site even if the same birds get recycled every year. Of course, the pictures are all new, and sometimes they even get better. For example, I got my best-ever Northern Harrier photos yesterday, and I'm pleased to be sharing them in this journal.

One little housekeeping item I need to repeat is, "Please mention birds or some bird-related topic in your subject line if you want to email me." I get so much spam that I JUNK everything without a bird reference. I'm pretty sure that's what happened to someone who was trying to book a presentation. She finally phoned and asked why I hadn't replied. I had to explain that I thought her vague subject line was spam. So if you don't want to be junked, mention a bird topic or just birds. Mentioning easy money or cheap viagra will definitely get you junked.

Jan. 26 - Many of you know that Deep Bay is one of my favorite venues especially for the Long-tailed ducks. Whenever it's convenient and I have time, I'll stop to check for photo opportunities. This time I was on my way to Courtenay to settle my account with the Comox Valley Naturalists. They had partnered with me and my books for fundraising which I appreciated very much. (Thanks, Murray, for your assistance.). Anyway, back to the Long-taileds. There were about 40 present - the largest group I've seen all winter. I love hearing their gentle calls and seeing the puppy-dog looks of the males. They were very cooperative so I didn't have to stay long to get a few decent shots. It was just as well because the temperature was about minus 4 and my fingers were soon numb despite wearing gloves.

I got a kick out of watching this male coming in for a landing. It looked like it was gliding in for the perfect landing.

BOINNNNG! I couldn't belive the splash and bounce. It reminded me of the time that a delightful nurse named Audrey offered to take me on a flight to Aklavik in a small Cessna. The take-off and flight was perfect, but the landing was BOINNNNG! bounce! bounce! bounce! I still get white knuckles thinking about that. Oh yes, I'm happy to be here. By the way, I wonder if the Long-tailed was just having fun and bounced on purpose????

In case you're wondering why the water looks so dark, I'll have to take you to Deep Bay some time. The darkness is from the reflection of mountains in the west. That makes exposure compensation an essential factor. I had to underexpose by -1.0 to avoid more serious blow-outs.

In the name of equality I always try to photograph some tailess females.

The variety of species was limited on this occasion, but you can always count on the little Horned Grebe. As usual it made two passes past me. The first was a little furtive and anxious as it slipped by with one eye on me. The second was definitely more relaxed as it cruised within 6.3 m of my lens.

I couldn't leave without a couple of flight shots and the first volunteer was a Pelagic Cormorant coming from Denman. It caught me off-guard so it's not in pefect focus.

My excuse for the Harlequins is that they were a bit out of range.

After the Long-tailed crash landing, a female Surf Scoter decided to demonstrate the proper technique.

The gentle glide ...

And a perfect two-point landing! I hope the Long-tailed was paying attention.

Next stop, Goose Spit. Goose Spit is great for White-winged and Surf Scoters but not Black Scoters. In fact, I have never seen a Black Scoter there. It's a great location because you can just park and stick your lens out the car window and shoot when the scoters are diving for varnish clams. This is a female White-winged after a successful dive. The only downside of the location is its popularity. It's rare to get more than 10 minutes in before someone walks by and flushes the ducks.

The ducks come in at high tide because the varnish clams utilize the highest substrate of the beach.

It was interesting to see that the females were doing much better than the males. Here's another male after an unsuccessful dive.

Oh well, if there's no more clams the ducks can always tend to their grooming.

I know this is the third journal in a row featuring the Eurasian Wigeons. That's because the previous pictures weren't as good as these. I promise this will be the last posting of Eurasians for this winter.

The Eurasians have been a fixture at Goose Spit for years, and I have to say this is probably my favorite location for photographing them. Once again, the car serves as the perfect blind, and if it's anywhere near high tide, full-framed shots are available.

Here's another female Eurasian. I wonder why I had so much trouble with the females in past years? Anyway, there seems to be no shortage of them this year, and I was happy to see her. It just gave me another chance to consolidate my identification skills.

See if you can pick out the important field marks of the female Eurasian. I'll summarize them later with a graphic in an appendix.

In past years I've been completely fooled by the companion of the male Eurasian. In all cases they were hybrids. So far this year they have all been Eurasians.

Depending on the angle of the light, the head stripe on this American Wigeon was either orange or green.

Here's a female American for you to compare with the female Eurasian. Again, I've prepared a graphic in the appendix to point out the field marks.

These two American Wigeons seemed to be a couple. They even shared seaweed together.

It's not just the scoters that like clams. Here's one very happy Glaucous-winged Gull. Unlike the scoters, the gull just couldn't swallow the clam. It had to fly up and drop it on the road.

Out of about 20 scoters, only one was a male Surf Scoter. Other ducks in the lagoon included Buffleheads and Greater Scaup.

By the time we reached the Airpark it was almost noon and birds were fairly scarce. There were a few ducks in the lagoon, but there was nothing close enough to photograph. The best opportunity was in the river where this male Common Merganser was diving.

The only other ducks close enough were a couple of Common Goldeneye near the seaplane ramp.


Jan. 27 - Business in Nanaimo gave me the opportunity to check out a couple of locations. My target was the Common Redpoll which meant finding some Pine Siskins. For some unknown reason I decided to check the end of Morden Road by Colliery trail. I hit the jackpot for siskins, but after exhaustively checking close to a hundered birds, there was no sign of red. I had to settle with a few siskins shots.

It was interesting to note the correlation between form and function. The narrow-tipped bill of the siskin is perfectly adapted for picking out the seeds in the alder cones.

Next stop, Nanaimo River estuary. After checking the tower, broom bushes, and pond, I was disappointed to see only a couple of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. I was ready to call it a day but decided to linger for another 10 minutes in the hopes that the Northern Shrike would soon by coming by. Two minutes later the Shrike showed up. It landed on a small alder but disappeared behind the tower before I could get a shot.

I decided to climb the tower for one last look before heading home. The shrike was nowhere to be seen. As I was pondering where it could be, it flew out from under some brambles to a small tree by the river. I thought I was too far away for decent shots, but the lighting was good and the results were much better than I expected.

I thought I was done after the shrike, but a flock of Western Meadowlarks landed in the grass near the entrance. I have never been closer than about 25 m to the meadowlarks in this location, but I had to try. I approached as quietly as I could, but as I expected, the meadowlarks were extremely wary. The best I could do was a well-cropped pic from about 25 m.


Appendix A - Identification of Female Eurasian Wigeon


Appendix B - Identification of Female American Wigeon

The white axillaries and underwing coverts contrasting with the rest of the underwing are also diagnostic for the female American. On the Eurasian these features are a darker gray similar to the rest of the underwing.


Boundary Bay Day

Feb. 6 - The forecast was for warm, sunny skies on Monday and Tuesday. Based on my theory of always taking the first of two or more consecutive days of good weather, I decided that Monday was my day to search for a new bird - the Gyr Falcon. The Gyr has been a regular feature at Boundary Bay for the past few winters, and it was a bird I wanted to see. Any trip to Boundary Bay is a win-win situation. If I couldn't find the Gyr there would be other birds to enjoy. There are usually Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls, the occasional Peregrine, and for the first time in six years, the Snowy Owls. Not surprisingly, Murphy's Law prevailed and after 2.5 hours, my search for the Gyr was officially declared a "dip." That left me 4 hours to join the happy mob on the dyke at the end of 72nd. St.

Bald Eagles of every description seemed to be perched on every tree and hydro pole around Boundary Bay. There were actually six on this tree.

There was also no shortage of Great Blue Herons stalking the fields in search of prey.

My second task for the day was to photograph Northern Harriers. They are scarce on Vancouver Island, and I only know of two locations where they can be regularly seen - the Nanaimo River Estuary and Comox Bay Farm. I think there is only one at each location and you have to wait for a couple of hours before it completes its circuit around each area. When the harrier finally appears it usually catches me off-guard, and have never come close to getting a decent photo. That's not the case at Boundary Bay. The harriers are usually present in abundance, both on the salt marsh and the adjacent fields. You only have to wait a few minutes to see one fly by.

Male and female harriers are quite different. In the first photo the male is on the left and the female on the right. They both have white rumps, but the similarity ends there. The second, third, fourth, and fifth photos are all females. Notice the heavy black barring on the ventral side of the wings, especially on the secondary feathers.

Note that the white on the underwings extends almost to the tips of the outermost primaries. This is not the case for the males.

Another significant feature is the brown feathers on the back of the female.

Adult males are predominantly gray on the dorsal side and white on the underside.

The bottom side of the male body and wings is lightly marked and mainly white. There is no heavy black barring on the underside of the wings and the wingtips are solid black.

After and hour and a half working on flight shots, I was delighted to see a harrier land on a post right in front of me. I never imagined that I would ever get a full-framed shot of this bird, but it just shows that patience and perseverence is sometimes rewarded.

The harrier sat for about a minute and just as I was moving for a better angle, it flew right over my head to the salt marsh. Had I not moved, I might have gotten an interesting flight shot.

Here's the last male Northern Harrier before I retired to the Snowy Owls.

Boundary Bay Dyke has always been a popular recreation area for walkers, joggers, doggers, bikers, and naturalists, but this winter it has also been paparazziville. The Snowy Owl invasion has attracted every photographer and would-be photographer from miles around and everything from monster lenses to tiny point-and-shooters. For the most part, most were content to sit on the dyke and photograph the fifteen Snowies that were about 10 to 20 m from the dyke. Unfortunately, about 10% felt it was necessary to pursue the Snowies on the salt marsh for the perfect photo.

The family scene - young, old, canines, disabled, walkers, joggers, bikers, naturalists, photogs ...

Most of the Snowies were dozing and enjoying the springlike sunshine. Pinkfoot was about 20 m from the dyke and caught my attention when it finally opened its eyes. That was my first clue that there might be a little action. Sure enough Pinkfoot yawned and then did the right foot stretch. It held the pose for about 20 seconds just like it said in the yoga manual.

I bet you'll never guess why I called it Pinkfoot. Just kidding - I'm not trying to insult your intelligence. Obviously, Pinkfoot was a very proficient hunter and probably dined on Wigeon-under-glass during the night.

Junior was another owl that I was watching. It was only about 10 m from the dyke and right in front of me. I was focussed on it while it was grooming its claw. When it finished it straighted up just when there was a loud noise form the dyke. That caused it to raise its wings momentarily before it went back to sleep.

Here's a Snowy that was just flushed from the marsh by some over-zealous photographers. Ironically, the zone next to the dyke and all the people seemed to be the most peaceful place for the birds. I watched three Snowies retreat to the dyke in the time I was there.

This was my shot for the road. It was time to leave. Like a creature of habit, I always catch the 5:45 pm ferry home. I'm not sure if that's when my endurance runs out just my homing instinct. Another reason is that I don't like driving too late at night. However, there's also another reason. Have you ever noticed how much earlier the light fades in Vancouver? That's right. It's really obvious for photography. By 4 o'clock the sun was still pretty high in the sky but I had trouble getting decent shutter speeds for flight shots especially with the field in the background. It's the smog. It just makes the light disappear. Visually, there seems to be a lot of light, but through the lens, you lose at least an hour of good shooting light. Anyway, I always enjoy the 5:45 because it's one of the new ferries, and it is usually not busy. I get to sit wherever I want without being crowded or bothered, and I can even snooze when I'm tired.


Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)
























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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