March 21 or thereabouts is the usual day of the spring equinox and my favorite time of year. It is the usual day for the return of the Rufous Hummingbirds to my neighborhood. Over the years the Rufous have been very punctual although it varies whether the female or male shows up first. For me it's time to rejoice and celebrate another successful migration of these amazing avian acrobats. As you will see later, I am enjoying their beauty, colour, and activity.
The equinox also marks the last few weeks to enjoy our winter birds. Most of them like the Horned Grebes and Common Loons have started to develop their handsome breeding plumage. Although I didn't have time to seek out the grebes or loons, I did make a point of photographing the stylish Bonaparte's in their black hoodies. I also had several opportunities for some fun photography and decided to focus on the Harlequin Ducks. Apparently, they were quite abundant along the shorelines from Parksville to Deep Bay, but I chose Qualicum because it was the closest location for me.
On the dark side of the ledger, I was truly disappointed with the closure of the COURIER ISLANDER and NORTH ISLANDER newspapers on March 27. I know it was a tragic circumstance for the employees, but it also ended my 10 year career as their bi-monthly bird columnist. For me, bird photography is all about educating the public about the birds and our environment, and I regret losing one of my best opportunities to keep in touch with the public.
My goal was to work on Harlequin flight shots, and to get the rare shot of a Harlequin feeding on herring roe. That required carefully approaching their roosting site without disturbing the whole flock. The ideal situation was just for a few birds to fly while the rest of the flock continued their preening, resting, and feeding. That worked to a certain extent, and I was rewarded with a few shots as a few birds flew out to sea then circled back to join the flock.
The second scenario was to wait for birds to fly in from sea to join the roost. That also worked, but the trick was to locate them in the distance and track their flights in. More than once I was disappointed to see birds land close by without detection by my radar. They were easy to miss while I was focussed on other subjects. However, my radar functioned well on a few occasions, and I was rewarded with the above shot of two pairs flying in.
As the birds began their descent I had to decide which bird to track. In this case it was the female which I didn't mind at all since the males usually get all the attention.
I was lucky that the Harlequins grew quite used to my presence. I would have liked to be closer, but I knew there was a fine line between when they would tolerate me or take off. I decided not to move and hope that a few would mosey towards me.
Eventually a pair of Harlequins swam towards me as they foraged underwater for herring roe. Mostly they were able to find and devour floating or submerged roe with no problem. That provided no photo opportunity because they quickly devoured the roe. I had to hope that they would find a clump of roe on a piece of seaweed. I got lucky. The male Harlequin found a small branch or piece of seaweed encrusted with roe and had to work on it for several minutes. Cut! It's a wrap.
Yes, the hormones have been running rampant in the bird world, and the ladies were the focus of attention like the Surf Scoters above. It's ladies' choice for many of the species as the males always seem to outnumber the females by many times. It is often quite humorous to watch the males trying to outdo each other to impress the coy female.
Some partnerships had already been established and couples weren't uncommon. Mr. and Mrs. Common Merganser were hanging out a French Creek. I was hoping they would be fishing instead of grooming, but grooming was their scheduled activity while I watched.
As usual, the preening process was meticulous with every feather carefully cleaned and oiled.
An occasional shower was all part of the grooming process.
A common sight since November at Parksville park were a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in the company of a Snow Goose. It was unusual for them to stay the whole winter. As of April 24 they were still present and joined by several others.
Snow Geese aren't unusual for part of the winter, but I don't recall any staying the whole winter in the same place. Obviously the grass at the park was to its liking.
Mysterious wings - I'm still perplexed by this photo I took at French Creek. Do those wings belong to the Great Blue Heron or one of the gulls in the background?
Taken for granted - Mallards are so common around here that they are ignored by most photographers. However, in all fairness I do take the occasional shot.
Like many other gulls, the Bonaparte's arrive in time to feast on the herring roe.
Most of them are found along the shoreline where the roe is easy picking. Notice the herring roe in the bill.
Yes, I just couldn't pass up a few more Harlie shots. High tide is a good time because that's when they like to sit on the rocks to groom and rest.
Mew Gulls are common winter residents. After the herring spawn they migrate to to their breeding grounds. Some of them use higher altitude lakes for their nesting areas. Apparently they build their nests on trees.
Hooded Mergansers are another local breeding species that have consolidated their partnerships. The French Creek Hoodies were busy fishing when I caught up with them.
It was a good day for the Hoodies. They were both successful with their fishing.
The San Pareil mud flat is always a good location for Green-winged Teal. As expected they were on site although their numbers have declined significantly.
Like many species, the female is an earthy brown colour to provide camouflage during the breeding season. Regardless of colour she was very attractive to the male.
The Green-winged Teals didn't need any courtship routine. They must have a secret signal because with no warning they were engaged in reproduction.
Most of the immature eagles have moved on leaving only the mature mating pairs. The San Pareil pair seemed to be eye-balling the Green-winged Teals.
Three weeks ago most of the bonies had white heads. By late April most were wearing their stylish black hoodies.
Yard birds are certainly an enjoyable part of my birding experience. For example, throughout the winter the beautifully coloured Varied Thrush has kept me entertained as it foraged near the edge of the forest for insects and seeds, but it was most fun to see it jostling with the towhees and juncos for suet scraps under the feeder pole. It was a male that laid claim to the feeder area, and it would put the chase on any other intruding thrushes. I haven't seen it since mid-April, so I don't know if it has moved on. Another wintering yard bird was the Pacific Wren. I would hear it chipping from the garden every morning when I first went outside, but it seems to moved on by late February.
The parade of spring migrants usually starts with the Yellow-rumped Warblers in early March followed by the Orange-crowned Warblers, Rufous Hummingbirds, Band-tailed Pigeons, Purple Finches, Chipping Sparrows, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Swainson's Thrushes, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Black-headed Grosbeaks. Most of these nest in the area.
Regular year-round yard birds include the woodpeckers (Northern Flicker, Pileated, Hairy, and Downey), Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhees, American Robins, Pine Siskins, and Common Ravens.
The Golden-crowned Sparrows, aka Pea-birds usually arrive in early April coinciding with the sprouting of the garden peas. I never connected them to the mysterious disappearance of pea sprouts until I was on Quadra Island last spring. At my presentation to the Horticultural Club one of the attendees asked if I knew what a pea bird was. She explained it was the Golden-crowned Sparrow that always arrived in time to snack on the pea sprouts. It's now late April, and they're still here. I'll be glad when they move on to their breeding grounds s we can uncover our peas.
Hairy Woodpeckers are third on the pecking order at the feeder pole, but they are patient and don't seem to mind waiting for their turn behind the Northern Flicker and Pileated.
White-crowned Sparrows have always had a spring presence in my yard, but a pair has adopted us for the past couple of years for their nesting yard.
Purple Finches typically show up in early April, and I'm pretty sure they nest close by.
As usual it is the male that is endowed with the bright colours. Colour is an important feature with birds. Brighter colours usually mean stronger and healthier birds and better genetic stock, a point not missed by the females.
It hasn't been a prolific year for the Pine Siskins, but I've enjoyed a few in the yard for most of the winter. Some years we have none and other years they are abundant.
The most impressive of the yard birds is the Pileated. I always stop to watch as it drops in for its regular visits. Remeber it's the male that has the full red crest. The female has the smaller crest.
Angela's Bunting - Last year I had a call about a Mackay's Bunting. It turned out to be a leucistic Fox Sparrow. This year I had a call about a Snow Bunting. It turned out to be a leucistic Fox Sparrow. Remember, try to identify your bird by size and shape. Colour doesn't always work.
Rufous Hummingbirds have always been one of my favorite birds. I have spent hundreds of hours photographing them and will probably continue to do so. All of my shots are in natural light - I don't use flash. Many of the shots are early evening and shot at high ISO (800 - 1000) which accounts more noise than I like. Even at 1000 ISO I was only getting shutter speeds of 125 - 250 at f6.3. With such a slow shutter speed, there is no way to freeze the wing motion. The blurred patterns are interesting because they suggest a rotational wing movement while the bird is hovering.
At the other end of the speed dial, the bulrush shots were in the sun with the ISO at 800 and aperture at f7.1. That provided me with shutter speeds up to up to 1/2000th of a second and was sufficient to freeze wing action which is supposed to be 50 beats per second.
I haven't found a reference regarding the rotational wing movement of the Rufous, but that's what I see in my slow shutter speed photos. However, that's not what I was trying to show in this photo. I've always been fascinated by the female hummingbird's gorget. Compared to the male, it is only a mini-gorget, but like a collection of jewels it is very attractive.
Someone out there must have studied the female gorget, but I haven't been able to find a reference on the net. I would like to know the correlation of the jewels to the age of the female. Intuitively, more jewels should reflect more age. By my theory, the above hummer is a youngster while the previous is a veteran.
It's interesting how the colours in the gorget can vary. I read somewhere it all depends on the refraction of light.
Nothing yo report on my annual challenge to get a better shot of the male's gorget. I think I've got shots of every angle possible.
Regardless of how many shots I have of the male I still enjoy trying for more. There's one shot that I still trying for is the flight shot with the flaming gorget and the spread tail feathers.
Party time! Early evening is the busiest time at the feeder. That's when they all load up with nectar for the night.
Just a slight variation of the gorget changes the colours. Notice the orangey brown sides of the bird. That's how you can tell it's a Rufous and not an Anna's.
I thought all my hummers were Rufous until this young lady showed up. Notice no rufous colouring. It's a female Anna's with its beautiful gorget. Contrary to reports from others, there appeared to be no animosity between the two species.
Another favorite trick is to place a few bulrushes in a bucket of sand. It's great fun to sit and take pictures of the females collecting nest material. I'm still waiting to see one of the gals flying into the lower branches of a tree but most fly fairly high into the firs.
Here's a surprise visitor to the bulrushes. Last year I saw a Pine Siskin collecting fluff. Now I can add Chestnut-backed Chickadee.
Just to prove that the Anna's wasn't a transient or one-time visitor. I've seen her several times at the feeder.
It was fun to see the Anna's join into the fluff-gathering. I have yet to see the male Anna's.
All of the hummers hovered as they gathered the bulrush down except for this one. It does save energy and I surprised it isn't common practice.
I could easily spend the whole day sitting, watching, and photographing the hummers and any other bird that ventures by, but as they say, "There's more to life ..."
My first opportunity for a butterfly outing was on April 20. A brief walk at the end of Cross road yielded a female Western-tailed Blue. At the corner by the small alders I thought I saw two Western Pine Elfins, but when they landed, one was a Gray Hairstreak. I saw two more Western Pine Elfins and several more Western Tailed Blues further up the road. I also spent a quick 15 minutes at the Notch and saw several Sara's Orangetips and Propertius Duskywings. Hopefully, there will be a lot more sunny days for some butterfly outings. My photo wish list for this year includes Dreamy Duskywing, Northern Cloudywing, Red Admiral, California Tortoiseshell, Compton Tortoiseshell, American Lady, and West Coast Lady.
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.)