After the Spawn

Mar. 30 - Although it's "after the spawn" locally, the spawn is still underway at Gabriola Island and points south. As far as I know, the spawn in early March at Denman was the largest. There seemed to be only small spawns from Bowser to Parksville. So far I haven't found any massive flocks of ducks that have been common in past years either at Qualicum or Parksville, and the gull flocks are too dispersed to try to quantify. However, my opportunities have been limited and I have yet to do a thorough search from Deep Bay to Nanaimo. Perhaps there are no large flocks this year because of the widespread nature of the spawn, and there are no large concentrations of roe to support the mega-flocks. Part of the reason for my lack of opportunities has been the inclement weather. Sunny days have been scarce and the forecast doesn't look promising. I also haven't heard of any interesting reports from other birders and photographers except Ralph who encountered a huge flock of Surf Birds chowing down herring roe at Sunset Beach in Neck Point Park.

With only a few random observations, it's difficult to make any judgement on the success or lack of success of the herring spawn. The massive flocks of ducks were always a good sign as they reflected a fairly successful spawn. As indicated earlier, the lack of massive flocks is deceptive as it could just mean just as many sea birds but dispersed in many small flocks.

Although my preoccupation seems to be with the spawn-related activities, it's spring and migration time. I enjoyed my first Yellow-rumped Warbler on March 11 at Fairwinds followed by several sightings and a record shot on March 24 at the Garry Oak meadows. The biggest news is the return of the Rufous Hummingbirds. As usual, a female was first to arrive at my feeder on March 24. Harry the male wasn't far behind. He arrived on March 26 and has been hanging around the feeder and his usual perch on the holly tree ever since. I haven't seen the female since March 24 so she might have been passing through, or maybe she's already working on a nest. Just in case, I picked a few bulrushes and stuck them in a bucket of sand so she wouldn't have to go too far for nest lining. So far conditions haven't been favotrable for any photo shoots, but it shouldn't be too long before my first 2012 Rufous shot.

The Omen - I haven't been feeling well lately. Nothing serious - just the usual aches and pains, general malaise, and maybe a touch of SAD. At least I thought it wasn't serious until I saw a pair of Turkey Vultures land in my yard yesterday. One of them gave me the evil eye as if to ascertain my condition. My immediate reaction was to fumble for my radial artery to check the pulse and see if I had a heartbeat. I was relieved to feel the pulsing of the artery and even more relieved when the vulture turned its head in disappointment and flew off to the west. Perhaps the sickly looking yearling deer I have been seeing lately finally succumbed to its weakened condition.

The Mating Game

March 13 - Spring is here and love is in the air, but if you're over the hill like me, you'll simply have to be content with vicariously enjoying "amour" through nature's marvelous and unique displays of courtship behavior. The good news is that there is a fascinating array of routines and displays available, and all you have to do is stroll into nature and observe.

Last week I was down at Parksville Bay checking for herring spawn activity. Unlike past years there wasn't a major spawn in the bay but herring roe had drifted down from the spawn at French Creek and scattered groups of ducks, gulls, Brant, and even Dunlin were enjoying the delectable and timely annual "kazunoko" buffet. The herring roe bonanza is important for many birds bulking up for the migration to their distant breeding grounds. Among the many ducks were a small flock of Barrow's Goldeneyes, and they had more than herring roe on their minds. A pair of males were competing for the wing of one of the charming females, and in typical goldeneye fashion there was a lot of head-tossing, chest-splashing, and torso-twisting going on before a winner was declared. Of course, the winner was amply rewarded and got more than the wing of the smittened female.

There are many forms of courtship behavior, but the ultimate purpose is to find the best mate to ensure viable reproduction and survival of the species. Although we don't have anything as flamboyant as the display of the Riflebird of Paradise in Australia or as delightful as the lively Latin-American tango of the Western Grebe, we still have lots of interesting behavior to observe around Vancouver Island. The best I've seen is the intricate courtship ballet of the Horned Grebes. I've only been lucky enough to witness it once about seven years ago and would dearly love to see and photograph it again. Birds like the American Robin try to attract mates with their prolonged singing which sometimes lasts well into the dark of night. The Marsh Wren serenades from the top of marsh reeds but also tries to seduce partners with its nest-building skills. The Dusky Grouse (formerly Blue Grouse) and Ruffed Grouse try to appeal to the basic rhythmic instincts of the female with their drumming to go along with their plumage and skin sac displays. Northern Flickers also use the drumming technique by pounding on metal gates or chimneys. Raptors like the Peregrine Falcon and hummingbirds like the Rufous try to impress females with their dramatic aerial displays. True to their competitive nature, some males turn courtship into a competition. Birds like the Ruffed Grouse gather in groups or leks and try to outdo each other to attract females with their physical, vocal, and plumage displays.

I can't say whether it's luck or karma, but I've had the privilege of witnessing the Barrow's Goldeneye's ritual several times in the past few years at Parksville Bay. The photos tell the story.

The competition - two males were vying for the ducky damsel's wing.

It was a furious battle of head tossing, torso twisting, and body splashing ...

Finally, after an exhaustive head-to-head battle the winner was declared.

The ducky damsel wasn't shy in rewarding the gallant winner ...

She waited submissively for her hero to assume the position ...

The beauty of procreation - It looked barbaric, but the male was gentle and held her head so she wouldn't drown.

After fantasizing for a few more minutes, I turned my attention to some shorebirds along the shoreline. About 50 Dunlin and a few Black-bellied Plovers were cleaning up the washed-up roe along the shoreline. That was one aspect of the after-spawn that I had never seen before and should have taken a few more photos to document the event, but time was short and I wanted to check out Qualicum before getting back to the grindstone.

On the way to Qualicum I made the obligatory stop at French Creek. I was greeted by the King who was thoroughly disgusted with the hundreds of gulls that were plugging his favorite fishing spot. He could barely see the water through the mass of gulls let alone find a fish. I teased him for awhile saying he was too fat anyway before I turned my attention to the gulls. Despite the multitude of white and gray feathers, I didn't find anything other than the usual suspects.

My target in Qualicum was a Slaty-backed (or any unusual) Gull, but there were only a few of the regulars hanging around. It was a medium low tide and Harlequins adorned every rock near the waterline.

There were also the usual Black Turnstones and they had to share the rocks with the harlequins. Contrary to a comment I read recently, Black Turnstones are common here all winter.

By far the most abundant species was the Brant. I estimated about 700 before a passing eagle flushed most of them to the north. About 200 stayed around and weren't deterred from enjoying their herring roe snacks.

Most of the Brant were foraging along the shoreline but a few managed to dredge up seaweed laden with the pearly white treat.

Although there were only a handful of gulls at the viewing stand, there was no shortage across the sandbar.

Before I left Qualicum I decided to take a few few photos of the gulls at the east end of the beach. Most of them were Mew Gulls. but the expected invasion of Bonaparte's Gulls had now materialized.

The Mew Gulls are normally our smallest gull, but they look big next to the Bonies.

It was fairly windy out making it easy for flight shots as the gulls drifted in the breeze.

Most of the Bonies were still in transition from their standard plumage, but I knew it wouldn't be long before the black heads would predominate.

The transition to breeding plumage will be almost complete in two to three weeks

In three weeks the head on this bird will be completely black.

Neck Check

March 24 - I seldom get down to Neck Point, but it is definitely an excellent venue to check for birds. Several days earlier Ralph had reported hundreds of Surf Birds feasting on the roe. I knew they wouldn't still be there but since I was in the area, it was worth checking. As I guessed, there was no sign of any Surf Birds nor any herring roe for that matter. However, I couldn't pass up a few more shots of the Barrow's Goldeneyes.

What a difference the sun makes. The iridescent purple heads were resplendent as they glistened in the full sunshine. Not surprisingly there was a lot of courtship behavior in play, but from my cliffside perch about 100 feet away, I couldn't do it any justice.

When I finally got down to the shoreline a pair rambunctuous kids ran towards me and ditrurbed the ducks.

I managed a few shots as the ducks swam away and was surprised to find what looks to be a cross with a Common Goldeneye. (I stand to be corrected if this is just a not quite mature male Common, but the smallish bill and pointed oval ...)

It has been a long time since I've photographed a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They are usually too active to photograph, but I managed one reasonable shot while it was in the sunlight along one of the trails.

Hey! My first Yellow-rumped photo of the year. I'm glad we stopped at the Garry Oak meadows near Fairwinds on the way home. It was a treat to hear Yellow-rumpeds singing from the trees again.

Random shot - Brant at Qualicum.

Random Shot - Immature Common Goldeneye at Dolphin Beach

Random shot - Rainbow over Ballenas Island. This shot was inspired by my friend Judy who issued the rainbow challenge when she sent me her magnificent rainbow masterpiece from neck Point. Her spectacular image included a full rainbow beautifully arching over an islet of roosting gulls. My feeble effort doesn't come close to the power and beauty of Judy's capture, but it's the only rainbow I've seen since... wait till the next storm Judy ...

A Bonie-roe Day

March 30 - One of my annual after-spawn rites is to photograph the Bonies feasting on the herring roe. I usually like a sunny day, but it's been mostly umbrella weather in March and opportunities have been scarce. I finally thought I caught a break today as a blast of blue sky magically parted the storm clouds, and I was on my way.

My first stop was Parksville Bay just to check up on the Brant activities. It was high tide, and the sandbar was jammed wall-to-wall with with Brant, gulls, crows, and ducks. Meanwhile a steady stream of small flocks of Brant winged their way low over the water to join the throng on the bar.

I set up at the water's edge hoping for some flight shots. Before long a pair of ducks hit my radar towards Lasquiti. I engaged my tracking gear and watched as the pair of Common Goldeneyes approached ... click, click, click ...

They passed within 50 feet. I was pleased with the result.

5 minutes later a pair of female Buffleheads flew by - just a record shot at about 80 feet away.

With clouds looming over the mountains I hustled over to French Creek. Although my target was the Bonies, I couldn't resist a few shots of the Wigeons. A male American obliged by displaying a wing stretch.

Have I ever passed up the Eurasian? Not that I can remember, and I wasn't about to start now. You can see why. The male is a beautiful bird.

As you may recall, I've really been focussing on the female for the past winter. In particular, I've been trying to get a good look at the greater coverts to illustrate the black centres and white edges.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. Neither do I. However, I think the greater coverts are visible, but the white edges are quite fine and not too prominent.

After checking over about 200 gulls by the creek, it was off to the bay. I was disappointed that the sun had disappeared, but that wasn't going to deter my Bonie shoot.

It's always interesting to note how gulls of a species generally stick together. For example, here's a bundle of Californians.

Now here's a group of Bonies. I won't bore you with a group of Mews.

Okay, time for the Bonie-roe shoot. Although the gulls scattered on my arrival, with a little patience they all returned and settled down to the roe buffet. Look closely and you can see some roe in the Bonie's bill.

The Cal Gulls were also enjoying the feast to fatten up for their migration inland.

There was no shortage of roe. I was standing in 4 inches of the squishy stuff. Oh, did you notice the black head of the Bonie. 7 days ago black heads were scarce. Today about a quarter of the heads were black. Just wait till next week.

The scene on the beach was wall-to-wall gulls and roe. I guess it was like gull heaven.

One last shot for the road. I didn't take time to look for a Herring Gull, but maybe next time. I did look for a Glaucous or Slaty-backed but struck out.

Parting Notes

On March 22 I had the privilege of meeting the Comox-Stratcona Probus Club and would like to thank them for their warm reception and interest in birds. As is often the case, my bird presentations often reveal some interesting observations. In this case, one of the audience was delighted to see my slide of the American Bittern. She had been perplexed since she saw one in a Comox pond last summer, and was happy to finally have it identified. Aji also mentioned a strange hummingbird visiting her feeders during the winter. Sorry I haven't had time to check that out Aji. Order some good weather, and I'll try to visit.

Earlier this week I received an email from folks in Merville who had just seen a Bullock's Oriole in their yard. They wondered how common the bird was on the Island. As far as I know we are at the northern tip of their range and a few are reported each year on V.I. Of course, we all know about the ones at Buttertubs and Saanich, but Jon also had one overwintering in Victoria this year, and one over-wintered in Dashwood a few years ago. So they are to be expected but not in large numbers.

The calendar phenomena - in 2009 I produced 32 2010 calendars for craft fairs. They sold out right away, but I wasn't happy with the quality so didn't produce any for 2011. Guess what? I had a lot of disappointed people. In 2011 I produced another 32 copies for 2012 (better quality) and even sold the one I was going to give my Mother. So, I've taken the plunge and produced 50 copies (deluxe version) for 2013. I've already sold 4 at the Strathcona Probus meeting. I was surprised on Thur. night at the Brant Festival opening where I had a display along with about 40 other amazing artists. A lady approached and mentioned that she loved my books when she saw my calendar. Right away she asked if it were for sale and wanted two. I could see her disappointment when I told her it was only for display. However, when I asked her where she was from, I was delighted when she said Sidney. I was happy to tell her that I would be at the Pacific Brant Carving and Art Show in Sidney on April 14 and 15. Interest in calendars have exceeded my expectations. If you're interested let me know, and I'll put your name on one before they're all gone. Oh, they are $20 each and you don't have to buy it if you don't like it, but you can reserve until you see it.

By the way, the Brant Festival is undergoing transition and reverting to a two week format. The opening night was fun, interesting, and well-attended. Kudos to the organizers and volunteers who have stepped in to keep the festival going. In particular, thanks to Patti Lee who did a great job in organizing the artist displays.

The Pacific Brant Carving and Art Show used to be part of the Brant Festival, but has now found its own venue in Sidney. Besides being one of the premier carving shows in North America, it also features world class artists like Mark Hobson, Linda Heslop, Morgan Warren, Sue Coleman, and Craig Benson. Yes, it's an honor to be included with such a distinguished group. If you have time, stop by on Apr. 14 & 15 at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney. For more info google

One of the pleasures of doing presentations and attending festivals and special events is a chance to get feedback from various folks who read my columns, website, and books. It is gratifying to receive the positive feedback and know that my efforts are meaningful and appreciated. I was particularly delighted at the Brant Festival opening when expert glass artist, Paul Crawford, from Fanny Bay described how he has now become more obsessed about birds than I am. Way to go Paul!

Missed shows - Unfortunately, I had to decline the invitation from MARS to be a guest at their open house on April 7 (11 am - 3 pm). Maj and her volunteers have been doing an excellent job saving injured birds and wildlife as well as educating the public about birds and nature. If you have time, visit and meet the enthusiastic volunteers and some interesting birds. A second missed show will be the Tofino Shorebird Festival in the first week of May. Monique was kind enough to ask if I would be available, but, regretfully, I will be away at that time. I still have fond memories of the Great Egret, hundreds of Whimbrels, and thousands of peeps last year.

In closing, I just want to say I was humbled by the fact that Ralph Shaw from Comox wanted to meet and shake my hand at the Brant Festival opening. Besides being an expert fly fisherman, Ralph is a distinguished columinist and conservationist and was recognized for his conservation contributions with the ORDER OF CANADA in 1984. It was indeed an honor for me to shake your hand, Ralph.


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


Comments, questions, or book orders?

admin AT vancouverislandbirds DOT com