I started this website in 2004 to share my photos and experiences with the hope of educating and inspiring non-birders and beginning photographers about the birds of Vancouver Island. For the first 6 or 7 years it averaged 300 - 400 hits per day and peaked at over 6,000 hits one day during the Polish White Raven scandal. The frequency of visitors to my site and many emails of thanks were gratifying and certainly vindicated my efforts.
Unfortunately, all things must come to an end. For personal reasons my birding and photography has been on life support for the past few years. I still manage to get out a couple of times a month, but with bird abundance diminishing every year, it has been more difficult to find interesting photographic subjects. Consequently, contributions to my website have been reduced from once or twice a week to once a month, and it is no surprise to see traffic to my site drop to about 50 hits per day. (Interestingly, 80% of the hits are from new visitors.) With the drop in traffic and the increasing cost of web hosting I am now at a crossroads about the future of this website. Is it time to quit or should I continue? Does this site still have significant value in educating and inspiring viewers? Is it worth maintaining for its archival value? I still get more than a few requests a year for photographs from environmental and conservation groups, students, publishers, and artists, so I know it is still a viable archive. But, with the abundance of nature photographers increasing every year there now are many other sources for photos.
Another less significant concern is the expense of the web hosting. I started with yahoo 12 years ago and have been happy with its service and reliability, but it is expensive, especially in US dollars. While it isn't my prime concern, finding a less expensive but equally reliable host is desirable.
For the time being I will continue for at least a year. To make up for my lack of birding and photography I will be adding photos from other birders and photographers. In the meantime I will be weighing the pros and cons, and it would be helpful to hear your thoughts about this site as well as alternate web hosting companies. Please feel free to email me.
My focus for guest photos will be rare and interesting birds, and I'm grateful for the contributions by Cathy Carlson, Aziza Cooper, and Shelley Penner. First up is Cathy's Brown Booby which is a bird I'm sure many VI birders including myself haven't had a chance to enjoy. Second is Aziza's perky Blue-gray Gnatcatcher which is quite rare but previously seen by many both at Swan Lake and Beacon Hill Park a few years ago. Third is the American Tree Sparrow and Iceland Gull by Shelley Penner. I've included the Tree Sparrow because while it is a regular, it is difficult to find, and we seldom see photos from Port Alberni. The Iceland Gull is featured because despite the fact that Guy Monty sees Iceland Gulls around Qualicum Beach every year, it is still on my wish list.
By definition a booby prize is a humorous award given for a poor performance or last place finish. However, for Cathy Carlson, her booby prize was just the opposite. On Oct. 15 she was enjoying a beautiful fall day boating on the Strait of Juan de Fuca with her husband when she found her prize perched on a piece of floating driftwood. When she got close enough to identify and photograph it, she was elated to discover that it was a juvenile Brown Booby, a rare bird for Vancouver Island and the ultimate reward for a dedicated birder. Many birders can go for years without being the first to discover a rare bird. Although it isn't a contest you certainly feel like a winner when it happens.
The Brown Booby is a large tropical seabird slightly larger than our common Glaucous-winged Gull measuring about 30” in length and 57” in wingspan. Cathy's bird was mostly brown which identified it as a juvenile. An adult bird has a brown head, chest, back, and tail, but white undersides. Like a pelican, it known for its spectacular plunge-diving for fish and squid.
The brown Booby a paratropical bird found mainly from the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico and Central America to the eastern extremities of Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Sightings north of the Gulf of California have been rare until the current decade which makes Cathy’s discovery extra special. In fact, prior to 2008 there were no BC records for the Brown Booby. The first record wasn't until Oct. 2008 when one landed on fishboat near Dundas Island west of Prince Rupert. Since then sightings have increased. Recent reports include Knight Inlet (Aug. 28/15), Bamfield (Oct. 22/15), Tofino (Sept. 21/14), and Sooke (Aug. 2009). There is no known reason for the increase in local sightings but global warming is often part of the discussion.
The Brown Booby nests on small offshore islands. The mature adult builds a nest of sticks, grasses, bones, debris, and garbage. Unfortunately, most of its normal habitats have been compromised by human activity and/or introduced predators. It was no surprise to see their populations plummet. In fact, the Brown Booby has been placed on the 2014 State of Birds Watch list and classified as in danger if significant conservation measures aren’t undertaken.
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a delightful, diminutive songbird with a long tail and a straight, slender bill. It's summer range covers the south half of the the US, and its winter range extends from southern California to Costa Rica. No gnatcatcher in its right mind would be hanging out on Vancouver island in November, but that's exactly what's happening right now.
On November 2 at 10 am Barb and Mike McGrenere were conducting their seabird survey by the Chinese Cemetery at Harling Point in Victoria. I can only imagine their surprise and excitement when they discovered a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraging in the low windswept bushes. Thanks to Barb and Mike's selflessness in sharing their discoveries, prolific birder Aziza Cooper was soon on the scene to document the casual, misdirected visitor with her trusty Panasonic. The gnatcatcher was last seen at 10:15 am, but there is a good chance that it is still in the area.
It is difficult to explain why a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher would be 5,000 km north of its normal winter range. While it is uncommon, it isn't unusual. Previous sightings in the past few years include Dec. 2011 at Beacon Hill Park, Oct. to Dec. 2012 at Swan Lake, and Aug. 2013 at Rocky Point. It is difficult to assess the frequency of Blue-grays in northern locations because not all birds are sighted. If it is indeed a frequent winter flyer up here then a case can be made for reverse migration like the Tropical Kingbird which is seen every fall. However, the infrequency of sightings is more indicative of vagrancy when the birds are simply lost like the Port McNeil Hooded Oriole and Dickcissel in the winter of 2014.
Shelley Penner is a talented artist in Port Alberni who draws much of her inspiration from nature. She has a curiosity and interest in all creatures especially birds. In the past she kindly directed me to my first-ever Green Heron and Red-eyed Vireo - both at Kitsuksis Creek. On Nov. 1 she and husband, John, were checking out the birds around the sewage ponds when she spotted a spunky little rufous crowned sparrow jousting with the larger Golden-crowned Sparrows for patches of vegetation. She took some photos and correctly identified the small bird as an American Tree Sparrow.
The American Tree Sparrow breeds in northern Canada and Alaska. It is a regular wintering species from the southern edge of Canada to the northern half of the US. Sightings on Vancouver Island are sporadic from November through the winter. Swan Lake and the Nanaimo River Estuary are two fairly reliable areas to find the elusive birds, but there are probably many other good locations like the Port Alberni sewage ponds that haven't been thoroughly surveyed. Other sightings in the past few weeks have occurred at Panama Flats on Nov. 7 and Swan Lake on Nov. 14.
For the past 12 years I have probably checked Qualicum Beach over a 100 times hoping to find an Iceland Gull. I know it is around because Guy Monty reports it regularly, but like a classic nemesis bird, it disappears when I show up. Just to add insult to injury, Shelley Penner from Port Alberni rarely stops there, but on Nov. 3 guess what she found? Yes, it was an Iceland mischievously posing with a Harlequin Duck. As well, two days later Guy reported another one at Moorcroft Park. In the 12 years I have found 3 Slatey-backed Gulls, but the Iceland is still a nemesis.
On Sept. 29 Kim Beardmore and her brother spotted a scruffy looking sparrow at Whiffin Spit in Sooke. They suspected it was a wayward Black-throated Sparrow, and it was soon confirmed by other birders. Later photos showed a cyst or growth on its cheek that was later identified as a blood-sucking tick. Fortunately, the tick fell off within a week and sparrow seemed to be no worse for wear. I finally got my chance to visit Whiffin Spit on Oct. 16 when I had to deliver some 2016 calendars to Metchosin. It was a dull overcast morning when I arrived at the spit, but the area was buzzing with pedestrians and dogs as expected. After checking around the parking lot I set off down the trail and soon encountered a group of sparrows foraging beside the trail. I focussed my camera on the first bird, and there it was - a dishevelled little brown sparrow that was sorely in need of some grooming. Like the American Tree Sparrow it was in the company of much larger Golden-crowned Sparrows. It was very obliging and totally preoccupied while foraging for seeds in the sparse vegetation which allowed me to set up as close as I wanted. It showed an amazing tolerance for the passing walkers and only flew up when someone came within 2 m.
The Black-throated Sparrow is a rare bird on Vancouver Island but no stranger. I couldn't find any records for the past 20 years, but prior to that it seems to have been found at least once or twice every ten years. My only encounters with the bird have been in Oregon (Malheur), Utah (Arches National Park), and California (Joshua Tree National Park). It is a southwestern bird with a breeding range as far north as Oregon and a winter range as far south as Mexico and Central America.
If you can't go to the birds maybe they will come to you. I decided to test that premise on Oct. 19 when I noticed a flurry of birds from my garden every time I went outside. I decided to set up the camera and wait. Of course, when I entered the garden the birds all disappeared. The question was, "Would they come back?" It was no hardship waiting in the warm afternoon sun, and before long a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees landed a sunflower seed head. Shortly after it was joined by a Red-breasted Nuthatch that was soon making regular trips to and from its various hiding spots to cache the seeds. It's interesting why some birds prepare for the winter by caching for while others like the chickadees are content to live from day to do day with no worries about the future. When the chickadees found a seed they were content to perch nearby and dine on their windfall.
A few minutes later a Northern Flicker landed on my hydro pole next to the garden. I know it was eyeing the apples on the ground but it decided to wait until I was gone.
Just as the flicker left, I finally saw my intended target, the Varied Thrush. The male landed tentatively on the hydro line above the garden and surveyed the situation. Yes, it was eyeing the Fuji apples that it had been feeding on before my arrival. It also cast an annoying glance at me as if to say, "Don't you have something else to do?" Since i showed no signs of leaving it flew off to the forest behind me.
I turned my attention back to the chickadees but a minute later the thrush was back. It couldn't resist the sweet juicy taste of the apples. It flew right over and landed in the apple tree.
It eyed me for a few moments and decided it was safe to stay.
I stood motionless knowing that any movement would spook the thrush. The thrush sensed there was no danger and proceeded to peck on the apple.
Southern Vancouver Island is blessed with an abundance of excellent birding locations thanks to a variety of habitats and the moderating climatic influence of the Pacific Ocean and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Within a short distance the habitat can range from wave swept sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, and salt marshes to open fields, deciduous forests, Garry oak meadows, and mixed Arbutus Douglas-fir highlands. During the spring and summer the areas varying terrain is host to a number of nesting songbirds including at least 8 species of warblers and a variety of swallows, flycatchers, sparrows, and wrens. During the winter the area is the home to an array of wintering sea birds, ducks, and songbirds. During the spring and fall migration the area is one of the last stopping points for north and southbound birds before they proceed to their respective nesting and wintering ranges.
The diversity of birds in the region is cogently exemplified by the numbers of birds tallied during the annual Christmas Bird Counts. It is consistently either the first or second in the country and holds the record with 156 species recorded in 2004.
A few of the popular birding locations include Clover Point, Cattle Point, Martindale Flats, Todd Creek Flats, Maber Flats, Swan Lake, King's Pond, Ogden Point, Esquimalt Lagoon, and Whiffin Spit.
One of the most productive areas on the south island is Whiffin Spit (part of Quimper Park) located in Sooke. It is easy to find. From Victoria drive west to Sooke and continue to the west side of town until you see the sign for the famous Sooke Harbour House. The naturally formed spit is located just past the resort. The spit protects the Sooke Basin to the east and is exposed to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the west. It an ideal migrant trap for passerines and shorebirds migrating along the Pacific flyway. On my first visit in Nov. 2005 I was able to photograph a vagrant Grasshopper Sparrow. On other occasions I was able to find a Lark Sparrow, Red Phalarope, Rock Sandpiper, and Ruff. The latest rare visitor to grace the spit was the wayward Black-throated Sparrow. Regulars you can expect during the fall include Western Meadowlarks, Lapland Longspurs, Snowbirds, and the occasional Tropical Kingbird.
Esquimalt Lagoon is one of seven National Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in BC. Despite its proximity to an urban centre and its popularity as a human recreation area, it is still an excellent birding and photography area. There is a variety of habitats from the sandy shoreline on the ocean side to the Douglas-fir Arbutus forests and deciduous riparian areas lining the lagoon. Besides the numerous species regularly seen over the year the lagoon has also been host to a number of rare birds such as the Mongolian Plover in 1996, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in 2006, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Rusty Blackbird in 2013.
The Ogden Point Breakwater is a popular tourist attraction, but it also provides some excellent birding opportunities. It extends 850 meters offshore and often offers close-up views of alcids like Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murres, and other seabirds. As well, the concrete blocks at the base provide a simulated rocky habitat for Surfbirds, Black-bellied Plovers, and Black Turnstones, and it is the most reliable spot in the area for migrating Wandering Tattlers.
When James Douglas landed in 1842 he stood knee deep in acres of flowering red. Sadly, today there is not a single vestige of native vegetation left and Clover Point is known more for its sewage pumping station than it is for a birding location. However, like most pieces of land that jut into the ocean, it is a great viewing spot for offshore birds; it provides a refuge and feeding area for a few migratory songbirds birds; and the rocky shoreline is habitat for its share of rockpipers, shorebirds, and gulls. It also attracts its share of rare or uncommon birds like the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and pair of Palm Warblers that stayed for much of last winter. My best find there was a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch about 10 years ago, and I have also enjoyed Ruddy Turnstones, Rock Sandpipers, Snowbirds, Horned Larks, and Marbled Godwits.
Cattle Point is part of Uplands Park in the municipality of Oak Bay. Flashback to 1860 - 1910 and you will see cattle being dumped from paddle steamers. The point was the landing spot for cattle that were being delivered to local farmers. In 1940 the municipality of Oak Bay created Uplands Park which was among one of the first urban natural preserves on the continent. Like many outcrops of land along the shorelines, the park has been known to attract many fall birds like the Horned lark, Lapland Longspur, and Western Meadowlark. Its rocky shoreline is also a regular attraction for Rock Sandpipers, Black Turnstones, and Surfbirds. Unfortunately, it is also a very popular area for pedestrians and dogs, and the natural flora of the area has been seriously degraded if not destroyed. There is an attempt to restore some natural vegetation in a small enclosed area, but the meagre effort amounts to no more than tokenism.
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.)