The Prelude

Feb. 13/12 - For the past few days the activity and ruckus at Beachcomber Park was obscene. Hundreds of sea lions, ducks, and gulls were partying in an orgy of herring consumption. According to the long-time locals, the sea lion population here has doubled from the norm of 300 to over 600. (The increase of sea lions has been noted in other local areas as well.) Was the attraction an exceptional abundance of local herring, or was it the shortage of herring in other areas? Maybe both answers are correct, or maybe there isn't local abundance. In other words the local herring population just might be normal and not depleted like other areas. If this is the case than doubling the sea lion population might prove fatal to our local herring stocks. Add to this the double whammy of increasing the local herring fishery quota by over 20 times (from about 250 tons to 6,000 tons) from Nov. to Feb. Could it be the prelude to the collapse of our local herring stock?

For those of your who are just slightly more confused than I am, apparently there are local residential herring stocks and migratory stocks. The migratory stocks are the main target for the herring roe fishery which generally takes place from early to mid March. The only complication is I think the local and migratory stocks all spawn at the same time. I haven't found any info otherwise. That means a triple whammy for the local stocks if they are also part of the roe fishery. Okay, there's more questions than answers so I'll just quit while my foot is just half way in.

Beachcomber Park is just a few kilometers for me so I managed to sneak down for a couple of quick visits while the sun was shining. It was exciting to see all the sea lion activity at close proximity. It was also interesting to see how interested the sea lions were at the many humans that were watching them. There was no problem capturing my quota of sea lion images and also a few bird pics.

Other than the Beachcomber visits, birding opportunities have been rather sparse. As I suspected, book sales have dried up, and with no new book project in mind there's no excuse to be out in the field more often. So it's no more procrastination on the domestic chores that I've been promising to complete for the past 7 years.

Fortunately, there have also been fewer requests for public appearances to distract me from the "to-do" list. The only extra-curricular activities on the books are: Mar. 22 - Strathcona Probus Club presentatio in Comox; Mar. 29; Mar. 29 - Brant Festival book and photo display in Parksville; and Apr. 14 -15 artist-vendor at the Pacific Brant Woodcarvers' Show in Sidney.

Hey! Let's get on with the show. Did I mention how charming and inquisitive the sea lions were? All right, the ball's in your court. Are these steller or California sea lions? You're right if you chose the latter. Here's a clue. The Cals are almost black and they have a prominent saggital crest (lump on the forehead).

Lesson 2: Notice the difference in colour and size between the stellers and Cals. The male stellers go up to 1200 pounds whereas the male Cals top out at 800. The females of both species are leas than half the size as the males.

Lesson 3: Why were there so many sea lions at Beachcomber? Yes, they were attracted by the herring, but there just happens to be a colony? rookery? lion's den? on log booms at the end of the bay.

Lesson 4: Sea lions are only seasonal visitors to the area. The Cals are all males and immatures that have migrated north for the winter. The adult females all live down south from Oregon to California. They don't have passports to allow them to visit us. The males have to go south for the mating season.The stellers breed from northern Vancouver island to Alaska.

Gull frenzy - Gulls are opportunists. They just loaf around until they spot some sea lions diving. That triggers their action and they mob the scene looking any leftovers. The gull on the right has scored with a sausage.

Red-breated Mergansers also to part in the mob scence. The advantage they had on the gulls was their diving ability. This female came up empty.

And the winner is ... the male Red-breasted Merganser.

One duck that wasn't excited by the sea lion pandemonium was the female Barrow's Goldeneye.

The female and her two male friends didn't have any interest in scavenging herring body parts.

They stayed away from the action and quietly foraged along shallow waters near the shoreline.

The Barrow's normal dietary preference is aquatic insects.

Depending on the angle of the light, the velvety hood of the male can appear coal black, iridescent purple, or subtle green.

When the annual herring spawn occurs, the Barrow's Goldeneyes will join the mega-flocks of ducks that feast of the bounty of roe.

The local Harlequin Ducks also ignored the sea lion commotion as they foraged close to shore.

At one point a pair of Harlequins were swimming towards me. I took the camera off the tripod and lay down on the rock. The result was a optimum distance photo of the female.

Eventually the female was alerted by the clicking of the camera and decided to retreat.

The male also turned around and headed towards its favorite roosting rock.

Despite being built for the water, ducks also love to sit (or stand) in the sun just like the rest of us.

Of course, wherever the male went, the female followed. It's probably safe to assume they were a couple.

Gull attack! Not really but it almost looks that way. This gives you a good idea how big gulls really are.

Another opportunistic scavenger was a juvenile Bald Eagle just eye-balling the scene for an easy meal.

Checking Out Deep Bay

Feb. 27 - With the pending herring spawn and a book order from Lighthouse Gifts in Bowser it was a good opportunity to check Deep Bay again. I was looking for signs of the herring spawn as well as noting the any changes in the plumage of the Longtaileds. I have been trying unsuccessfully for years to photograph a Long-tailed in breeding plumage. I knew this was too early in the season, but one can always hope. My visit turned out to be very brief. The usual flock of Long-taileds were leisurely enjoying the morning sun off the spit, and a trio of Horned Grebes were diving right next to shore. There were no signs of herring. (I was a week early.)

Spottie Time

Mar. 1 - A brief stop at Blunden Point was rewarded by another visit with Spottie1, the most photographed Spotted Sandpiper in North America. It was low tide and Spottie1's presence was betrayed its movement near the end of the point.

I quietly approached to about 15 meters and hoped that it would forage towards me. However, Murphy's Law prevailed and Spottie1 flew out to the furthest rock of the point that was another 10 m across the water. Spottie1 is usually quite wary, but I don't think it was totally my fault that it flew away. One of the neighborhood dogs was on the beach barking at me as if to scold me for intruding on its private beach. That may have contributed to Spottie1's flight.

Meet Spottie2.

On my way home from Blunden I decided on a quick detour to Beachcomber Park to take advantage of the morning sun. I was hoping for a murrelet, murre, or auklet, but there was only one bird in sight, Spottie2.

Spottie2 was foraging along the tide line and heading towards me. Notice the raised rump in the previous photo. Now look at the lowered rump here. The pumping action is typical for the Spotted Sandpiper.

Unlike Spottie1, Spottie2 was very cooperative and foraged to within 7 m of me which was perfect for my lens.

I'm not sure what Spottie2 was eating, but it was regularly picking up little beach snacks.

I was supposed to go home after Beachcomber, but it was too sunny to be doing chores. I just had to check out French Creek to see if the gull population had expanded significantly in the past week as it normally does when the herring spawn approaches. To my surprise the gull flock had only increased by one. I'll explain later. Meanwhile, this Double-crested Cormorant was trying to be my consolation bird.

The D-C tried everything from drying wings to preening the butt. I was quite impressed.

Not to be out done, a Pelagic Cormorant paddled by, looking back to see if I was impressed.

Okay, back to the gulls. I was just kidding about the population increasing by one. It hasn't changed much, but there was one newcomer, the Western Gull. Notice how dark it is compared to the gull in the background.

Western gulls are common but not abundant around here. They are extremely abundant just further south in Washington and Oregon.


Mar. 5 - South sea blue in the northern hemisphere - it's one of nature's spectacular natural wonders, and let me say it was a spectacular view from Denman Road today - Bald Eagles soaring and swooping down to snatch herring from the milky green waters; sea lions and seals leisurely gliding through the turquois broth; squadrons of ducks winging back and forth trying to decide on the best place to dine; and fishermen in skiffs reeling in gill nets laden with thrashing herring.

Apparently the spawn and fishery at Denman began the day before. There was no other significant spawn at that time. The spawn from Bowser to Parksville was three days later on Mar. 7.

My trip to Hornby was unplanned, but I had promised Judi at 32 BOOKS that I would deliver some books in the near future. I consulted my weekly planner aka the Weather Channel long-range forecast, and Monday looked promising for sunshine. The positive forecast plus my suspicions of a possible herring spawn got me on the road for the 10 am at Buckley Bay. As it turned out, I took care of business with Judi, enjoyed a delicious cup of tea with Anna and a fascinating recap of her Cuba visit, and spent a couple of relaxing hours photographing herring spawn, fishermen and eagles from Denman Road. One final bonus was to catch Juan at Abraxas Books where he was more than happy to pay me for his past order and order another 10 copies.

There was plenty of eagle activity to keep me entertained. Most of it was anout 200 m away out in the water, but occasionally a few eagles would fly towards me to their favorite perching tree.

Eagles love to harass each other. Despite the fact that they had all they wanted in the water, they still delighted in attacking each other. Perhaps that's how they maintain their aggressive nature.

Most of the attacks came close to the shoreline. Once the eagles got past that point, they seemed to be home free. That was one of the rules of the game.

It was easy pickings for young and old and it coincided with the breeding season of the eagles.

As of Mar. 7 the gill netters had caught 2,500 tons of their 4,850 quota.

Meanwhile, the seiners had netted 2,400 tons of their 6,850 quota.


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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