Where Are the Birds?

Oct. 03/12 I had a good laugh today when I read an email from Joanne and Bruce. They assumed that I was probably on a road trip because of my lack of postings for the past month and a half. I wish I had been on a roadtrip. Birding on Vancouver Island has been the worst I have ever seen since I started birding in 2003. Normally, I would photograph at least one bird on every trip, but I've made over twelve trips since my last journal and only managed to photograph birds twice.

So, what's the problem? There are probably a few reasons, but the main culprit has been the weather. It's ironic that I always wish for clear, sunny weather for my best photography, but because of the great weather for the past two months, the birds have been scarce. We need bad weather to "knock down" the birds during migration. This is a phenomena known as "fallout." Experienced birders will tell you that some of the best birding occurs because of fallout. We haven't had a single incident of fallout in the past two or three months so migrating birds have been few and far between. Another reason why migrants might stop is to feed and replenish their fat deposits, and shorebirds, in particular, have their favorite feeding or staging areas. Vancouver Island isn't a major staging area for shorebirds. Boundary Bay is a major staging area. When the birds are flying over V.I. they can see Boundary Bay in the distance. Unless there is a major storm to knock them down on Vancouver Island, they can basically stop flapping their wings and just glide over to Boundary Bay. We also depend on bad weather to knock down migrating passerines, but as mentioned, the weather has been too good.

My lack of production certainly hasn't been because of lack of effort. I've scoured the shorelines from Victoria to Campbell River too many times with nothing to show for it. In over a half dozen stops at my favorite local location, Admiral's Lagoon, I found ZERO shorebirds. Three stops at another favorite location, Oyster Bay, ZERO again. Out of desperation I even checked out Holden Creek which used to be one of the best shorebird locations on the island. I'll never go there again. The habitat has been mostly infilled with salicornia and other brackish weeds, and the few remaining patches of water are covered with an oily film. As well, the pulp mill aerial pollution is the worst I have ever experienced. The whole area reeks of the foulest smelling odor imagineable. I'm sure the odor alone is enough to repell shorebirds and other migrants. The best I could do was a handful of Western Sandpipers at Whiffin Spit along with the wintering Black Turnstones.

However, we are surrounded by beauty and many other marvelous creatures besides birds like butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. They are also wonderful photographic subjects, and Jeremy Tatum of the Victoria Natural History Society has been extremely helpful in identifying many of my photos. Jeremy also looks after the VNHS Invertebrate Alert website which contains the submissions of many Island naturalists. It's a great resource for identifying island invertebrates.


As mentioned, Whiffin Spit was one of the few places where I found shorebirds. Two years ago a juvenile Ruff camped there for a week, and on the day I visited, I also found a Lark Sparrow. My very first visit to Whiffin was in 2004 when I photographed the Grasshopper Sparrow. On this occasion, the only shorebirds were Western Sandpipers and Black Turnstones.

As usual, the sandpipers were located at the end of the rock breakwater that is sheltered by a rocky spit.

The sandpipers were busy gleaning aquatic insects from the washed up seaweed.

Black Turnstones were also busy foraging in the same area.

Once the turnstones get used to you, they are easy to photograph. There always seems to be a couple that stop foraging to rest and preen.

Savannah Sparrows are known as grassland birds, but there are subgroups that migrate down the Pacific shoreline and prefer foraging in the washed up seaweed.

I searched in vain for an uncommon migrating passerine, but came up empty. Sensing my disappointment, a resident White-crowned put on its best pose for a consolation photo.

Heading North

I had three opportunities to bird from Nanoose to Campbell River and only needed the bird lens on one occasion. Each time I stopped at San Malo, French Creek, Admiral's Lagoon, Qualicum Beach, Nile Creek, Deep Bay, Courtenay Airpark, and Oyster Bay.

My first stop was always San Malo Mud Flats and my only shot was an early Northern Pintail on Sept. 15, the Ides of September. On the other two occasions the tide was out, and there were no shorebirds or ducks in sight.

The Ides of September was my lucky day. When we stopped at Deep Bay my wife asked what I was looking for. I short-listed it to Common Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine Gull, or Marbled Murrelet, and then chose Marbled Murrelet. I wish I were as good in selecting lottery numbers. As it often is, the waters of Deep Bay were almost glassy calm with just gentle curving waves. Birds were scarce, but a white and black object bobbing close to shore caught my attention. It was the right colour for a juvenile murrelet, but could it be? In a flash I had the camera set up and the picture in the viewfinder confirmed my suspicions. It was a murrelet.

Like a stalking cougar I was able to sneak up shielded by a driftwood stump. When I finally peaked around the stump, the murrelet was warily eyeing me from about fourty feet away. It was too far for a full-framed shot, but the lighting was excellent with the sun at my back and the water was silky smooth. Two favorable elements out of three made for some pleasing shots. ( The Marbled Murreelet is a small bird - smaller than a robin. It is difficult to ever get close enough for a full-framed shot. I had an opportunity once at the same place a few years ago, but I never expected the murrelet to surface right in front of me and couldn't find it in the viewfinder quick enough for a focussed shot.)

Alpine Shots

Besides my several visits to Mt. Washington, I also had a semi-alpine experience on the way to Whiffen Spit. We took the long-cut via Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew and then Whiffen. On the way we stopped at several clearcuts to look for butterflies and other invertebrates.

My first butterfly was right along the roadside where it was trying to nectar on some roadside wildflowers. It was a little beat up, but I instantly recognized it a Mylitta Crescent like the one I had recently photographed at Legacy Marsh in Lantzville.

The next little citter I encountered was a fierce-looking wasp-like devil that Jeremy thinks is an Ichneumonidae. I was glad that it was more interested in vegetation than photographers.

Half way down to Port Renfrew I drove a short ways into a hillside clearcut to look for butterflies. I wasn't disappointed. Before long I spotted one heading up the hill. It stopped briefly on some leaves to allow one quick picture before it flew. The continuous white fringe around the wings told me it was a Purplish Copper.

I wasn't surprised to see my next customer. It is one of the most abundant species on the Island, a Woodland Skipper. I wuld see several more before the day was done.

While I was documenting the skipper, my wife found another beauty, a Painted Lady nectaring on pink clover. This is a migratory species from the southern U.S. It is totally inconceiveable for me to imagine how such a flimsy creature can migrate so far.

The peace, beauty, and tranquility of Paradise Meadows is well worth the time and effort to make the trip from anywhere on Vancouver Island. If photography is your interest, there is no shortage of subject matter from alpine scenery and wildflowers to butterflies. I guess I should also include birds like the Three-toed Woodpecker, but I haven't seen one since 2003.

Cloak but no dagger! On Sept. 10 a large butterfly flew by me at Paradise Meadows. I was disappointed that it never stopped. (If you want to photograph butterflies, you have to get used to them flying by. A lot of them don't stop.) Luck was with me on that day when I found another one at the downhill slope. I managed to get a couple of quick shots while it was nectaring on everlasting. Unfortunately, it was in a hurry and didn't let me get a decent dorsal view. Like the Zephyr, the ventral wing is not too colourful.

I best I can offer you is a glimpse of the dorsal wing which definitely has more colour.

On Sept. 15 we took advantage of the 50% off online coupon to ride the chair to the summit. I was curious to see if there would be butterflies up there. I wasn't disappointed. just below the upper station we encountered several butterflies trying to bask in the sun. They would land, open their wings, then close them again. I think despite the sunshine it was still too cool to bask. Most of the butterflies were dark orange and in good condition but not very cooperative for photos.

Later I found one that was cooperative, but it was well-worn and beat up. Someone had told me that the only fritillaries on Mt. Washington were of the meadow variety, but thanks to Jeremy's intuition, we were able to identify it as a Hydaspe Fritillary

The trail down from the summit was 2.1 kilometers which I decided was not too demanding for my sore knees. I'm glad we made the hike. On the way down I spotted a large patch of Alpine Daisies. I decided to check it out for possible nectaring butterflies and was rewarded by several Zephyr Commas nectaring persistently.

This photo is to show you the comma on the underside of the wing. We saw many Zephyrs on our trip down.

I thought Mariposa Coppers would be common, but they weren't. I managed to find one on the way down. Notice the scalloped pattern of the white fringe around the wings as opposed to the continuous fringe on Purplish Copper.

The one butterfly I saw on every trip to Mt. Washington was the Anna's Blue. It wasn't abundant, but it was common on the way down. The number one butterfly on my wish list was an Apollo. I actually saw one fly tantalizingly close to me, but I watched wistfully as it continued into the forest.

On Sept. 22 my daughter, Jasmin, decided it was time for a visit. That gave me another excuse to visit Mt. Washington. Unfortunately, the weather was great in Nanoose Bay but cold and overcast up the mountain. I was disappointed for Jasmin and the butterflies, but we had a surprise waiting for us - the Marmots. On the way up the chairlift we saw several. We tried for shots from the chair, but the chair was too bumpy and the lighting too dark for sharp pictures.

Our luck changed on the way down when we encountered a pair of Marmots near their den. Despite the dullish weather, we got some decent shots. This was my first encounter with the Mt. Washington Marmots, and I must admit, they are adorable.

Obviously, I couldn't post a journal about Mt. Washington without the signature Gray Jays. We were almost back to the village when we finally found a few close to the works yard. There were also a couple of Stellars with them, but they weren't nearly as cooperative.

One of the chores I have been working on is to seal the openngs in my roof to keep the bats out. However, I'm waiting for all the bats to migrate before I complete the job. I think 99% have departed, but I know there's at least one that I saw today. I wonder if it got left behind?

With the scarcity of birds, I had to shoot something. In this case, Jeremy tells me that I was focussing on Spotted Spreadwings. I'm sure they are very common damselflies.

I almost had Rob Cannings fooled with this one. The first picture I took wasn't quite as clear and he thought it might be an uncommon Cherry-faced Meadowhawk. I decided to go out to get some better shots which allowed him to identify it as a very common Striped Meadowhawk.

I've never tried to photograph a flying dragonfly but thought the best weapon to use would be a telephoto lens and not a macro lens. It would almost be impossible to get close enough to a hovering dragonfly with a macro lens, but as they say, "the difficult is easy and the impossible just takes a little longer." I was waiting for a Paddle-tailed Darner to land for a picture yesterday when one huvered in front of my nose. I said, "Smile," and quickly clicked three shots. Two of them were good!

Well, Joanne and Bruce, you shamed me into sitting down for seven hours to hammer out a new journal. (It usually takes about 10 - 12 hours.) Now, I notice that you haven't been too active on your own site, Butterfly on My Shoulder ...)


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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