October 17, 2014 - For a variety of reasons including the recent loss of a family member, I have been unable to enjoy the usual bounty of fall sightings. Just to give you a brief update of the activity for the past few weeks, an extremely rare Gray-cheeked Thrush was banded at Rocky Point in mid-September; a Brambling appeared around Mt. Tolmie for a few days at the end of September; Franklin Gulls were seen around Courtenay, Parksville, and Esquimalt; good numbers of Broadwing Hawks were seen in migration over Beechy Head; a Yellow-billed Loon was seen off French Creek; Marbled Godwits were reported around Victoria and Courtenay; a vagrant Ross' Goose was photographed in Port Alberni; a Black-throated Blue Warbler was banded at Rocky Point; last year's Red-throated Pipit has reappeared around Martindale Flats; and a pair of Tropical Kingbirds have been hanging around Swan Lake. Yes, it would have been fun just to see a couple of these birds, but hopefully, there will be a few more opportunities in the coming weeks. By the way, all the sightings mentioned are gleaned from birder reports in BCVIBIRDS which is a YAHOO group for sharing birding information. The birders who share their information in this group are to be commended not only for their birding skill and dedication but also for sharing their information with the community.
Meanwhile, I actually used the camera on a couple of occasions around home just to keep in practice. The garden has been a buzz of activity with the chickadees and nuthatches cleaning up the sunflowere seeds. The usual invasion of American Goldfinches never materialized - at least not when I was present. The only decent shot I managed in one feeble effort was the nuthatch photo on the masthead of this journal. I couldn't let the year slip by without a shot of the Pileated family so I timed my coffee break one day to their scheduled feeding break. It worked! - and I caught a northern Flicker enjoying the sun while I was at it. One last item. I did stop at Sebastion Point last week. Although there was only one lone distant Common Loon on the water, I was heartened to see good old Spotty foraging on the rocks. Like I've said many a time, "The most photographed Spotted Sandpiper in the world!" It was like seeing a long lost friend again. Spotty has been there for at least a decade. As usual Spotty was nervous so I settled for a couple of distant shots.
Without much to offer, I've reprinted my last two North Islander articles which I hope you'll enjoy. But, remember, you should be out there enjoying the birds and nature in living colour!
VANCOUVER ISLAND BUTTERFLIES is scheduled to arrive in the first week of November. As a small time publisher I'm in no position to finance the publicity and expense of book launches and have always relied on word of mouth for my public relations and promotion. Thanks to all of you who have passed the word in the past. Hopefully, with your help, my new book will flutter quickly off the shelves. So far, I have confirmed orders from MUNRO'S in Victoria, TANNER'S in Sidney, COHO in Campbell River, and BLUE HERON in Comox in response to a promotional email 2 days ago. As well, I have confirmation from most of the people who ordered the book last year (including Jim from Minnesota), an order from Norway, and one from Hawaii.
One of the most anticipated and heart-warming summer events in my backyard is the appearance of the new generation of Pileated Woodpeckers. Typically they usually debut in August and one juvenile at a time would appear in tow with one of the parents. This year was no exception, and I stopped my chores many times to witness and enjoy the parental scene.
For the past week Papa Pileated and Junior have been arriving on my cedar feeder pole around 2 pm as if they had an appointment. Typically, Junior would climb up the pole probing cracks and crevices with its long sticky tongue for insects or larvae while Papa shimmied down to the suet for a snack. Eventually, after some magical secret signal Junior shimmied down while Papa worked his way up. They both stopped when Papa was half a bird-length above Junior. Junior then opened his bill while Papa reached down to feed him. (Juniorís full-length crest indicated he was a male.)
The regular schedule of the Pileateds was very convenient for a little photography. I simply set up my camera and tripod by the kitchen window at 1:45 pm, brewed a fresh coffee, and waited a few minutes for the woodpeckers to arrive. I didnít even have to watch as they always announced their arrival with piercing wuk-wuk-wuk calls.
Iím always impressed when I see the crow-sized Pileated with its trademark flaming red crest, white neck stripes, and tuxedo black body. It is truly one of our most striking and magnificent forest birds. With the extinction of the Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers, it is the largest woodpecker left in North America. Its range extends from the eastern half of the United States, across central Canada, most of British Columbia, and down the Pacific coast into California.
Although the Pileated is still fairly abundant, nothing can be taken for granted, and the possibility of extinction often crosses my mind. After all, humans had no trouble killing off billions of Passenger Pigeons, the most abundant bird on earth. The gregarious pigeons were relentlessly slaughtered into extinction despite the protests of a few conservationists. Humans also efficiently terminated the existence of the magnificent Ivory-billed Woodpecker by cutting down the massive tracts of bottomland hardwood forests for lumber in the American southwest. The dead and dying trees in the forest provided nesting habitat and beetle larvae that was the mainstay of the Ivory-billedís diet. By the 1940ís only a few fragmented forests remained, and that wasnít sufficient to sustain any Ivory-billed populations. Can the same fate befall the Pileateds? They also require specific forest habitat with a mix of large dead and dying trees for their survival. Unfortunately, most of the larger trees are found at lower elevations where land development and logging continue unabated. The reduction of woodpecker habitat probably contributed to the extirpation of the Lewisí Woodpecker from Vancouver Island. Will the Pileateds be next?
Photo: Papa Pileated feeding Junior was a common scene at my feeder during August and September.
Did you notice any strange dark gray gulls with orange bills on the local beaches during the early fall? Birders from Nile Creek to Hornby Island certainly did. On September 23 a pair of Victoria birders counted over 100 on Hornby and a few days later 140 were counted at Nile Creek just south of Bowser. On July 27 I counted about 50 at Nile Creek, but most were gone a week later. The unusual birds were Heermannís Gulls. Unlike most of our gulls with white bodies, gray backs, and yellow bills, the Heermannís Gulls have unmistakeable dark gray bodies and orange bills. The large numbers of Heermannís Gulls in the Salish Sea was an unprecedented event and an enigma to many expert birders.
The Heermanís Gulls are not unusual for Vancouver Island. They winter and breed along the Pacific coast from Oregon to Central America. During the summer many expand their range north to southwest Vancouver Island, and are common during June to September from Victoria to Tofino. Occasionally a few show up in the Salish Sea, but no more than a handful at a time. The most Iíve ever seen in the Salish Sea was five at Columbia Beach just north of Parksville. In contrast, a few years ago I counted well over 300 around East Sooke Park while I was hiking along the coast to the September hawk watch location.
When fall rolls around the Heermannís Gulls head south down the outer coast. It is a mystery why large numbers showed up in the Salish Sea. The only theory Iíve heard was that food may have been scarce on the west coast and more abundant in the strait, but there is no proof and no scientific studies have been undertaken. However, it may not be too significant since the geographic difference from the west coast to the east coast isnít very far as the gull flies and occasional migration deviations can be expected. If the trend continues there may be some correlation to general range expansion or a geographic shift because of food resources or other factors.
The departure of the Heermannís to the south actually signals the beginning of the gull season on Vancouver Island. The only gull that has been around all summer is the Glaucous-winged Gull that breeds locally in the Salish Sea and along the Pacific coast. The rest of our gulls nest in distant locations during the summer and are now returning for the winter. The Thayerís Gulls have the longest migration all the way to the high Arctic, but a few have already returned and many more will soon follow. California Gulls have also been returning from their prairie nesting grounds along with a smattering of Bonaparteís Gulls from northern Canada and Alaska. In all you can expect about nine regular species for the winter and if youíre lucky, maybe one or two vagrants.
Which one doesn't belong? Even the gulls were confused when a sudden invasion of Heermann's disrupted the peaceful gull scene at Nile Creek.
The Heermann's invasion was unprecedented and incomprehensible to most birders. However, an isolated anomaly may be insignificant. If the trend continues next year, it may be worth some scientific study.
Meanwhile, the Heermann's Gulls were non-plussed about the whole event. To them it was simply a slight migration detour to test the hospitality of the Salish Sea.
After watching the gulls for an hour the only sign of food foraging was a lone gull walking up the beach to retrieve a small fish carcass.
The annual migration stopover of the Greater White-fronted Geese was no mystery or surprise to experienced birders, but they were definitely curiosities to most casual observers. When the first flock touched down at Fairwinds Golf Course in mid-September I had to answer the "what are they?" question at least twenty times in two days. I didn't mind as it showed a growing interest in nature. I've even trained a few of my friends to recognize the American Pipits.
Over the course of the next three weeks several flocks averaging about 15 birds each touched down for a taste of fairway grass. Most seemed to stay about two days before leaving.
Most of the Greater White-fronted geese that we see probably belong to the coastal population the nests in Alaska and migrate to coastal locations in Oregon and California. Populations that nest in the Canadian Arctic migrate south down the central or prairie flyway winter in Mexico
Remember Spotty? He's still there at Sebastion Point. I don't know how many years I've seen him there, but it must be getting close to a decade.
I did mention the Northern Flicker in my introduction. Sometimes it would land on the feeder pole and hang on the side for up to a half hour. Often it's sunny so could that be the reason. On this occasion the feeder was empty. Maybe it was waiting for a refill? In any case, I did enjoy watching it and taking a few leisurely photos.
On Sept. 24 I received an invitation from Martin to rendezvous at Carl's house in Port Alberni. Earlier in the day he enjoyed several views of a giant hummingbird in Carl's backyard. It was the largest hummer Martin and Carl had ever seen. Both Carl and Martin had reasonable photographs, but were anxious to try for some better ones the next day. I was happy to be included. Unfortunately, despite the perfect sunny weather and our high expectations, the Green Violetear was a no-show, and I was relegated to a little backyard photography of some local birds. By the way, the giant hummer is native to South America and several birders concluded that it was an escapee from possibly a place like the San Diego Zoo. However, if a small hummer like the Rufous has no problem migrating from Mexico to Alaska, there is absolutely no reason why a Green Violetear can't make the shorter distance from South America to Port Alberni. So my vote is that it is a vagrant and not an escapee.
Carl's backyard was adjacent to a forested area and his garden was loaded with hummingbird-attracting flowers. The first bird I focussed on was a Pileated in a dogwood tree. I wasn't sure what the attraction was until I spotted a bright red dogwood berry in its bill.
The only hummers present were a few Anna's most were juveniles.
There was no shortage of nectar flowers for the hummers.
A furtive Orange-crowned Warbler materialized from under the foliage of a creeping morningglory.
How can you tell this is a juvenile male hummer?
Despite the dip on the Green Violetear, it was a pleasant morning of casual photography and great company.
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My plans for 2013 were to photograph as many butterflies as possible from the Vancouver Island list and then produce and publish VANCOUVER ISLAND BUTTERFLIES. Unfortunately, I only managed to find 50 out of the 69 species, and not all of them were suitably photographed. Consequently, I have decided to delay the publication until the fall of 2014. That has also worked out well for James Miskelly who was very busy with other commitments. James is still onboard as my co-editor and will provide as much updated information as possible. My apologies to all those who were waiting anxiously for the book launch, but theoretically, with more time we should be able to produce a higher quality publication.
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.)