February is typically the beginning of the Brant season in the Salish Sea in general and the Parksville-Qualicum region in particular. Brant have been showing up in increasing numbers for the past few weeks, and it is gratifying to witness the continuing cycle of life. Most of the Brant winter around Baja, California and start their northward migration in early February. Unlike their non-stop southward migration from the Arctic, the northward journey is a leisurely tourist trip up the Pacific Coast with stops fuel up on eel grass, sea lettuce and herring roe. The herring spawn from late February to mid-March is an important part of the Brant's diet as it fattens up to complete its spring migration. Besides the Brant there is a multitude of ducks, sea birds, and gulls that take advantage of the fishy smorgasbord. Many billions of eggs are deposited by the herring on eelgrass, seaweed, and rocks on shallow ocean floor. A significant portion of the eggs are torn from their moorings by wind and wave action to become fodder for the birds. Of the many eggs that survive to become young herring, only one in 10,000 survive to become adult herring.
Herring spawn activity around Denman Island was reported by Mike M. on February 23, and a seine opening was declared for February 24. There will be a frenzy of gillnet fishing in the next week or so and bird and mammal activity will reach its peak.
Generally I wait until mid-February before I start sneaking out to check on pre-spawn bird activity. Of course, everything depends on the weather. Fortunately, this was a decent year and I did enjoy a couple of successful days in the field. By success, I mean I did find a few birds to photograph. However, before Brant time there's always a quick trip to Victoria in early February for a book delivery or twitch or both and that was the case on February 14 which just happened to be Valentine's Day. Thankfully the weather was decent since I only had five books to deliver to Munro's. It isn't really worth my while to drive all the way to Victoria for five books, but if the weather is decent for some photography, it makes the trip more worthwhile.
After Munro's I decided to try Cattle Point for a Rock Sandpiper or the Western Meadowlark. As usual, Cattle Point was fairly busy, but I knew the meadowlark had been there all winter and had become accustomed to human activity. In fact, I think it was the same bird that had been there for several previous winters. There was no sign of Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, or Rock Sandpipers so it was down to the meadowlark. As I worked my way towards the northern section of the park I encountered Agnes and Dave Lynn who were participating in the Valentine's bird count contest. They weren't very optimistic about me finding the meadowlark, but I wasn't deterred. Crossing over to the quieter half of the park, a bird flushed from a small bush right beside the path. I knew right away it was the meadowlark. It landed just behind a rock towards the water. I took ten cautious steps towards the rock and had the meadowlark in my sights.
The meadowlark seemed content to sit on the rock and watch what I was up to. I was already close enough so I didn't have to move. I had time to take as many pictures as I wanted. Close encounters with birds and any form of wildlife are always enjoyable and memorable. Besides the pleasure of seeing and photographing the meadowlark, I also had a topic for my next newspaper article in the North Islander which follows.
Anyone who has lived or travelled in the grasslands of western Canada or United States will be familiar with the cheery, flutelike serenade of the Western Meadowlark. At one time the serenade was also fairly common on Vancouver Island, but meadowlark populations have declined significantly over the years and only a few isolated wintering groups remain. As I write, anyone living near the farm fields of Saanich or the grassy edge of the Nanaimo River estuary might still be enjoying the meadowlark melody. In fact, the spring serenade still might be possible in the Comox Valley around the farm fields of the Tsolum River according to a gentleman I met at the recent Campbell River Eaglefest.
Like the blackbird and oriole, the Western Meadowlark is a robin-sized member of the icterid family. It is chunkier than a robin and has a short tail and slender bill. It typically flies with short, stiff wingbeats as it glides low across the fields. Its preferred habitats are short-grass meadows, agricultural fields, or grassy estuaries where it forages for insects and seeds. Its brown and white streaked cryptic back provides excellent camouflage as if forages on the ground. Its most attractive and notable feature is its bright yellow undersides punctuated with a black v-shaped bib.
Less than a century ago the Western Meadowlark was still a common breeding species on Vancouver Island. One interesting story I heard was from the 1940ís when a teacher in a Saanich school had to close all the windows because the lusty chorus of meadowlarks was too distracting for the students. Today, the windows can be left open. As the human population increased and natural habitats were destroyed for human use, the decline of many species including the meadowlark was predictable. The last documented breeding activity (for meadowlarks) on Vancouver Island was in 1977.
The wintering populations on Vancouver Island represent the most northerly winter range of the Western Meadowlark. During the winter I normally see small flocks at the Nanaimo River estuary and the Saanich farm fields around the Martindale flats. I had one reported at Port Hardy a few years ago and saw one at the Courtenay Airpark in 2009. The most unexpected one Iíve encountered was at Cattle Point in Victoria. Cattle Point is a small, popular, coastal dog-park with less than an acre of sparse grass and weeds. Despite its limited habitat and excessive human and dog activity, it has been the winter home of at least one Western Meadowlark for the past few years, and I have photographed it several times including two weeks ago.
The presence of the Western Meadowlark at Cattle Point is another case of habitat fidelity. Birds often return to area they are familiar with as long as it can still provide the necessary food and protection. If the habitat is destroyed, the bird will have to seek a new home, but with shrinking habitats and rising real estate prices, relocating can be very stressful.
After Cattle Point I decided to head home so I would have time to stop at Art Mann Park in Duncan and the Nanaimo River estuary. Art Mann can occasionally provide some surprises. The best photos I've take there in the past were male Common Mergansers catching catfish. However, I wasn't so lucky today. The usual menagerie of gulls, Mallards, and American Coots dominated the scene. The only bird that caught my attention was a dark mantled gull.
The dark mantle showed up well in contrast to the paler Glaucous-winged gull in the background. The dark mantle, orangey yellow orbital ring, and dark eye suggested a northern Western Gull to me, but I wouldn't bet my house on it.
Besides the Western Gull there wasn't anything else that attracted my camera. As I was returning to my car I spotted an American Coot foraging on the sidewalk in front of my car. I'm always intrigued at the unusual tube feet of these birds.
There was no shortage of sunny days in February, but there was also an abundance of fog which rendered most days impossible for coastal photography. February 17 was one of those foggy sunny days, but I got lucky. As I left home all I could see was sunshine towards the snowless peaks of Mt. Arrowsmith, but when I approached Parksville I was disappointed to see that the Salish Sea was enshrouded with a big, fluffy white pillow. On a hunch I decided to continue on to Qualicum where I hoped to find some breaks in the fog. I circled around the town and approached it from the north side. It was pea soup all along the shoreline. I slowly headed back towards Parksville but stopped when I spotted a small group of Brant in the water. Thinking there might be an interesting shot of the Brant in the fog, I decided to set up my camera on the beach. The Brant and a single hybrid gull were swimming towards a medium-sized rock in the water.
When I focused the camera I could see that the attraction was sea lettuce attached to the rock. Some of the sea lettuce was accessible from the water, but it was soon gone.
One of the Brant got the idea to climb on the rock where it had the salad bar all to itself.
After the Brant moved on I glanced around at the fog on the water and the sun on the land. I decided it was worth taking a chance and headed north to Deep Bay. Fog accompanied the whole way, but as I turned down to Deep Bay I could see the fog diminishing half way up Denman Island, and there was no fog at the end of Deep Bay Spit. I slowed at the corner by Mapleguard Point to see if the usual eagle was on the fir tree. The eagle was there. I quickly parked and set up my camera. Just as expected I got a couple of quick shots before it flew.
I was expecting it to fly, but as usual it was quicker than I was leaving me with just one partial almost-good shot.
At the end of the spit I was happy to see the Long-tailed Ducks fairly close in. I settled in for a satisfying photo session even though I didn't get any unusual shots. However, I wasn't complaining. The Long-taileds were just like long lost friends and it was a joy to get reaquainted.
I actually got a couple of better poses, but a small patch of fog drifted in at exactly the wrong time so the photos were smokey and not worth posting.
Along with the Long-taileds there were a few other species that occasionally drifted into camera range. A female Bufflehead was the most obliging. She crossed my lens several times at close range.
The male Bufflehead stayed out of range for the most part, but I had one well-cropped photo to share.
There are usually a few birds that fly fairly close to the spit. They often catch you off guard, but I saw a Surf Scoter heading my way and just caught it before it was out of range.
After a satisfying hour and a half I decided to leave. I was half way up the beach when I decided to try for the male Bufflehead again. The Bufflehead had other thoughts and changed course to avoid me. I was just about to pack up again when I saw a male Harlequin heading my way. I stayed as still as I could and it worked. The harlequin continued straight towards me until it was too close to focus then it veered to the west.
The male Harlequin is one of those ducks I enjoy photographing at every opportunity in pursuit of the perfect photo. One of these days ...
Okay, I really did leave after the Harlequin, but I wasn't done. Guess what was waiting for me at Mapleguard Corner.
It wasn't the same eagle, but an eagle is an eagle and its always worth a shot.
After the usual straight poses I prepared for the launch shot. Would it go left or right? Surprise! It prepared to launch straight for me, and I got one good shot just before the launch.
On February 23 I squeezed in a couple of hours before settling into the day's task of installing an above the stove microwave oven. My first two stops at San Malo Mud mudflats and French Creek were birdless and so was Qualicum Beach except for a few bathing Brant. Bathing Brant? - That's another photo opportunity I always enjoy. They were still at it when I left 30 minutes later.
It's always fun to watch the Brant bathe. They seemed to be in bathtub heaven as they dunked and splashed a torrent of water like a leaking fire hydrant.
I wasn't quite at the right angle but the water droplets do look like Christmas LED lights.
After the shower one of the Brant spotted a piece of eel grass. I'm sure it was an appetizer for a later lunch.
Like all birds the Brant take meticulous care of their feathers. Preening to oil and align the feathers is an important task.
You didn't think I would leave you with a mystery did you? Yes, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a patient undergoing rehabilitation at MARS. It was doing its public relations duty at the recent Eaglefest in Campbell River. I couldn't let the beautiful day go by without taking at least one photo. There was also a Great Horned Owl and American Kestrel which I passed up.
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.)