Dec. 4 - The glorious, warm, sunny days of summer are but a distant memory, and we are now entrenched the chaotic throes of the monsoons and the final days of fall. As I write the rain is pounding on my roof while the latest in a of a series of vicious Pacific storms is wreaking havoc with floods and fallen trees all over the island and lower mainland - not so pleasant for us, but very enjoyable for the multitude and gulls and ducks happily foraging on the flooded fields. Just in case of a power outage I've loaded a couple of pots with water so we can still make tea or coffee on the wood stove.
Yes, it's now duck season and ducks, gulls, and sea birds will probably be a common topic on my journals for a few months. I've always enjoyed seeing our winter ducks and will enjoy photographing them whenever I have the opportunity. One of my favorite ducks I saw but wasn't able to photograph was the Black Scoter. I had 10 minutes to spare on Nov. 29 before my last session at Winterfest in Qualicum so I cruised expectantly along the waterfront. It was high tide, and I was hoping to see the Black Scoters close to shore diving for varnish clams. I wasn't disappointed. Just south of the Shady Rest a flock of about 20 Blacks were diving for the clams. I wished I had my camera and time to stop, but with the craft fair on the schedule I had neither camera nor time. I was content to enjoy them for five minutes before heading for the fair. Hopefully, there'll be another opportunity. Anyone interested in photographing the Black Scoters the best time is during a high tide from about 10 am to 1 pm. After 1 the sun disappears behind the hill.
One of the ducks I did manage to photograph for this journal was a male Barrow's Goldeneye. It was a surprise sighting at French Creek. I don't keep lists, but I know it was my first ever sighting of a Barrow's in the creek. The shots were a bit distant (20 meters) but in good lighting to produce decent results. Another first for the creek was a Red-necked Grebe which I did photograph. I won't share that with you because the lighting was so bad that it was almost a silhouette. However, the sun came out 10 minutes later in time to catch a Double-crested Cormorant taking off in the creek as well as a few eagles that have taken up residence around the creek for the winter.
Signs of fall - Autumn leaves carpet the landscape, and majestic bucks quietly roam through the meadows and forests hoping for an intimate encounter.
Storms regularly whip in from the Pacific drenching the land, and often leaving a misery of floods and fallen trees before offering a brief respite of rainbows and a few welcome rays of sun.
Nov. 20 - One of my favorite photographic outings used to be the trek from San Malo mudflats in Parksville then French Creek, Qualicum Beach, and finally Deep Bay. It wasn't unusual to end the day with a flash card full of interesting images, but for the past few years this has not been the case. Finding birds in close proximity for photography has been extremely difficult. I attribute the lack of birds to rapidly declining populations and more human activity around the shorelines. Another factor may be the increasing acidity of our local waters. The shellfish industry in Baynes Sound has been seriously damaged by the increasing acidity. In particular the scallop industry was devastated in 2014 by the loss of 10 million scallops due to acidification. If the scallops were destroyed, what affect would acidification have on the rest of the ecosystem? I wouldn't be surprised if there has also been serious damage food chain required to sustain sea birds and ducks. As much as I have been disappointed with the lack of birds I still make my Deep Bay run whenever I can just to monitor the situation.
As usual my first stop was at the San Malo mudflats. When I arrived I could see a few Green-winged Teal, American Wigeons, and Mallards dabbling in the distance, but there were no other birds around. I drove slowly up to the entrance of the Englishman River Art Gallery to turn around and was just about to leave when I spotted a small, round shape on a stump close to the water's edge. I stopped and grabbed the binoculars. The hooked bill was unmistakable for the head of a Northern Shrike - my first for the fall. While I grabbed my camera from the back seat the shrike dove to the ground and then landed on my side of the stump to provide an excellent close-up view.
The Northern Shrike is one of my favorite winter birds. Despite its menacing hooked bill it is distinctively coloured and very handsome. While it is a regular during the winter it is not abundant and usually solitary.
The shrike spends its summers in northern Canada and Alaska. Its winter range is southern Canada and northern US.
My next stop was Parksville Park. During high tide there is usually a large gull roost on the roof of the curling club and on the beach volleyball courts. I quickly surveyed the flock for any unusual gull then proceeded to French Creek. French Creek was very quiet so I proceeded to Qualicum Beach.
At the viewing platform on the north side of Qualicum I did my usual scan for bird activity. The local gulls and Black Oystercatchers were on site as well as a juvenile eagle sitting on a large rock. The eagle was staring down at something on the far side of the rock. I grabbed my camera and tripod and slowly walked toward the eagle. It flew immediately. I noticed some splashing by the rock then saw an otter peeking at me. As I neared the rock a second otter appeared with a fish in its paws.
I stood and watched for a few minutes while the otters played peek-a-boo with me from behind the rock. Eventually the otter without the fish swam to another rock trying to decide if were safe to stay or should it leave.
The two otters decided leave so they swam to another rock further out. I took a few more shots then headed towards the parking lot.
On the way I saw an oystercatcher probing for a snack with its bright orange bill.
I wasn't surprised to see it emerge with a clam in its bill. It set the clam down between some rocks and proceeded to insert its bill to sever the clam's abductor muscle. It only took a few seconds for the oystercatcher to enjoy its snack.
It's another 30 km from Qualicum to Deep Bay so you can see why I'm reluctant to make the trip these days especially when there's often nothing to show for it. Today was another one of those disappointing days. Maybe I should qualify this statement. There are always birds, but I only look for birds close to shore, not the scope jobs a kilometer from shore. In particular I was hoping for the Long-tailed Ducks that were always close to the point a few years ago. All I could find today were a few Buffleheads in close, a Red-necked Grebe, and two Common Loons about 50 meters offshore.
On the way out I stopped at the marina just in case the local Kingfisher was feeling photogenic. To my surprise it was sitting on the red wharf railing right by the parking lot. I took a couple of shots but a Kingfisher on a red railing doesn't make for an interesting photo. However, just below the Kingfisher a Great Blue Heron was quietly stalking its prey. With a quick thrust of its head it emerged with a tasty little fish.
It's always fun watching a heron manipulating its prey before swallowing it. However, there was no challenge with this small fish. It simply flipped it around and let it swim down its throat.
Since I had killed most of the day I decided to carry on to Courtenay. I saw three more Kingfishers on the way. One was beautifully perched on a tree just past the Fanny Bay dock. I actually pulled over on the narrow shoulder to try to get a photo. I was off the pavement, but that didn't stop a passing motorist from honking his horn.You guessed it. The Kingfisher was flushed before I could grab my camera.
Further along just before Union Bay I spotted a large flock of scoters diving close to shore. This time there was no problem with passing motorists as I was on a pullout.
Like most birders I'm always vigilant when I see a flock of scoters just in case there's a rare duck in the mix. No luck this time as the flock was pure Surf Scoters.
As expected, the scoters were diving for varnish clams. I managed to get a few shots just before the sun ducked behind the trees.
I could have saved a couple of hours if I had turned around at this point, but it had been a long time since I had checked the Courtenay Airpark. Past visits have yielded fine birds such as Green Heron, Barred Owl, Western Meadowlark, Wilson's Snipe, Red-throated Loon and Black-tailed Gull. There was only one way to see if there was any interesting birds today. Despite the protests of my sore knees I lugged my camera and tripod around the airpark and was rewarded with nothing. I was disappointed, tired, and hungry. There was only one solution - a Whitespot hamburger at the Chevron drive-in. I have been a Whitespot fan since the early 60's when I relied on hamburgers and Chicken-pickens for sustenance to get me through university.
The Original Combo with cheese hit the spot even though it wasn't as good as the original Original. As I recall the original Original had a perfectly toasted bun which is no longer part of the recipe. The steaming cup of mint tea was also invigorating, and as I sipped I quietly reviewed today's results. I have long learned not to be disappointed by the lack of birds. On the bright side I did find some quality time with the Northern Shrike, River otters, Great Blue Heron, and Surf Scoters, and it was a bright, sunny day - perfect for exploration. Besides the spots mentioned I also I managed to check in on several other spots like Ship's Point and Royston Wrecks. The more I think about it, it was a very good day!
Pardon my spelling. You know I'm talking about French Creek which has been my favorite photography site ever since I was corrupted by a digital camera 11 years ago. For newcomers to the area and/or my website, French Creek is not just a creek. It's also a marina and a small bay. In other words, it's a multiplicity of habitats in one small area - creek, tidal estuary, gravel shoreline, rocky breakwater, protective marina, offshore waters, and sheltered bay. It has seen a few rarities over the years like Northern Wheatear and Rock Wren, but it's also a great venue for common birds like the ducks, grebes, eagles, song birds, kingfishers, etc. throughout the year. The only downside is the abundance of human traffic including other photographers which will only get worse as I continue to spread the word.
French Creek is great for eagles for most of the year, but late November and early December is the best. That's when the winter flocks arrive to clean up the spent salmon that is usually plentiful in the creek. When I stopped on Nov. 24 there were 3 eagles beside the creek - one eating a salmon carcass and two waiting their turns. Within 10 meters there was another sitting on the remains of a piling and at least 3 more nearby. None of them were the mature adults that reside in the area for most of the year.
Bad hair day - It takes about 5 years for eagles to reach adult status and plumage. From the dark streaks on the head and its yellow bill I'm guessing this is a 4th year bird.
Dark head, mottled white on chest and back, half dark bill - 2nd year?
Another 4th year or a mature needing a wash job?
Dark eyestripe - 3rd year?
Did I mention that ducks will become a common theme during the winter? American Wigeons are still one of the most abundant ducks, and you can be sure to find some in the creek. The black edge at the gape is definitive for a female American.
All ducks exhibit sexual dimorphism. The male American Wigeon is distinctively different from the female.
Common Mergansers are regulars at the creek for most of the year. They briefly disappear during the breeding season but return by the end of May when the ducklings have fledged.
Buffleheads nest inland away from the coast. I recall seeing a female like the photo above fly into a tree cavity in Banff National Park. They winter in coastal areas from October to late May.
The scrub riparian vegetation along the creek is host to the usual winter like the adult White-crowned Sparrow. A dense patch of gorse and blackberry thickets provide impenetrable fortresses for protection from avian predators and even marauding feline strays.
I found this juvenile White-crowned foraging in the grass and weeds on the edge of the breakwater.
Golden-crowned Sparrows are often found in company with the White-crowneds. Song and Savannah Sparrows also frequent the area.
The protected waters inside the marine is an artificial lagoon and the habitat for many small fishes and other marine life despite being contaminated by oil and other chemicals spilled and washed off boats and docks. It is a favorite place for the Common Loon to and Double-crested Cormorants to forage for food.
It is not surprising to see one or two Common Loons in the marina at the same time.
There goes another immature eagle. I did mention they are quite common at this time of the year.
The Barrow's Golden was a surprise bird for me at French Creek on Nov. 30. The forecast was for clouds shower and possible sunny breaks and I had a hour to spare before heading for my meeting in Nanaimo. With the uncertain weather I normally wouldn't have bothered to check out French Creek, but it was king tide time and the weather was calm. If the sun came out and birds were present it would be perfect for photography. The Barrow's made my trip worthwhile especially since it was my first for that venue.
High tide seems to be a popular time for ducks to preen and groom themselves. I've noticed it with Harlequins, Common Mergansers, and even Brant. I think it's because the birds can stay relatively stable and not fight the currents or tides. That allows them to do a better job with their grooming.
After the grooming comes the shower. The Barrow's is just about to turn on the faucet.
The faucet is on full blast - free shower for anyone close by.
Grooming and washing completed - time to look for lunch.
Taking off isn't a simple task for waterlogged birds like cormorants, loons, and grebes. It takes a maximum effort with the feet and wings to get airborne.
I had a ringside seat watching a Double-crested Cormorant take flight right in front of more. I tracked it as it was cruising down the creek towards me. I was still about 30 meters from me when its early warning radar detected me and my camera. It immediately went into takeoff mode with its feet and wings churning synchronously.
Lift -off! With one final push and flap the cormorant freed itself from the surface tension of the water and launched itself into the air.
Another eagle just landed across the creek. It looks like one of the mature, resident adults.
The fellow next to me pointed behind me. A three year old landed on the pole 7 meters from me. Unlike the mature birds, it's not uncommon for the immature eagles to land close by.
Dec. 2/15 (note: to chat - verb for pursuing a Yellow-breasted Chat) It's not often that the planets align, but when they do, life seems so easy. Such was the case of the Yellow-breasted Chat. First of all, Ann Nightingale almost fell off her chair when she discovered a Yellow-breasted Chat report in ebird on Nov. 29. Ann is nearing the conclusion of a 2015 Vancouver Island Big Year in support of the RPBO. She has been chasing every rare bird on Vancouver Island since January. The Chat would be #265 if it stuck around. Fortunately, the ebird report was from Victoria and not Port Hardy. I doubt if Ann got any sleep that night hoping the bird would stick around for a few days. She was there at first light on Nov. 30 to greet #265 as it arrived at 7:45 am for a high energy suet breakfast.
Meanwhile, I had a meeting in Nanaimo on Dec. 30 and a commitment to haul some firewood on Dec. 1, but Dec. 2 was still open on my calendar. The good news was that the Chat was still coming to the feeders and Bolen and Munro's had ordered a few books two weeks ago. I had purposely put off delivering the books until there was some good photography weather or a rare bird to chase. The Yellow-breasted Chat answered my wishes, and the weather person cooperated by holding off the rain until late afternoon on Dec. 2. I headed out at 8:00 am and arrived on the scene at 10:00 am. I was delighted to see a few birders on site indicating I was in the right place. More importantly, more eyes always increase your chances of finding the bird. Not surprisingly, one of the birders was Ann, and surprisingly, one was Guy Monty who lives down the road from me in Nanoose Bay. We only cross paths once or twice a year, and it's usually at a rare bird sighting. Keith Riding from Vancouver was also on hand as well as two other birders I didn't recognize.
Shortly after exchanging pleasantries a junco flock arrived with the guest of honor. Like a flash of sunlight to brighten a dull, moody, morning the brightly coloured Chat quickly took over the suet feeder while keeping the juncos at bay. The Chat dominated the feeder for about a minute allowing everyone to get good looks and photos before it moved on. From my time of arrival to the appearance of the Chat - 15 minutes. That's what I call a quick twitch. (It was even quicker for Val George who arrived while the bird was on the feeder!)
The Chat breeds in the south Okanagan, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and northern US. It's wintering range is in southern US, Mexico, and Central America.
Obviously, the Chat is a rare visitor to Vancouver Island. Historical records suggest an occurence of about once every ten years.
Finding rare birds isn't easy. Thanks to the resident on Penhurst who reported it on ebird and Ann for spreading the word. My apologies to the other residents who may not have been comfortable with a few gaffling birders and photographers in the cul-de-sac.
After my chat visit I delivered the books and stopped at the Esquimalt Lagoon. The storm clouds were looming but I had time to photograph the juvenile Tundra Swan before beating the afternoon rush hour out of Dodge.
Have you ever heard Tennyson's famous words, "Ours is not to question why ..."? Although Tennyson intended his words in a military context, I think we all wonder "why" for many situations in life. For example, in September I received Autumn's email gently explaining why I had been rejected from the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair. I had been a participant in good standing for the past two years and had expected to be accepted again. I wasn't disappointed, but I wondered why? Superficially the reason was because there were more local island artisans who applied this year, but what was the deeper meaning? The reason became clear as I was nursing a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks in Nanaimo on the first day of the fair. The wind was howling and the rain was whipping down in buckets. I heard the Quadra Island ferry was cancelled, but even if the Denman ferry was running I didn't want to be on it. And, if I made it across and the ferries stopped, I would be stranded with nowhere to stay. The weather wasn't fit for man or beast and I was quite happy to be comfortably in Starbucks writing some notes for this journal. So, thank you Autumn for the rejection.
As if one reason wasn't enough, here's another. Denman was one of the two fairs that I had on my schedule, and it was truly a wonderful fair full of warmth and buzzing with activity and good cheer, but with the drive and ferry ride it was really too far for me. The rejection prompted me to apply for the Nanaimo Professional, All Decked Out, and Winterfest which were three fairs that I had always wanted to try but never got around to applying. I wasn't too optimistic when I googled the application forms and found the application deadline was June and this was September. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained so I fired in the applications. Lo and behold! I got accepted into all three, and make a long story short, they were all very successful. So thanks again, Autumn.
Four craft fairs in a month was twice my normal, but I was comfortable with the added activity and exposure. I fared well well on the business side, and even better with my bird education discussions. I was able to communicate with twice as many people who had questions about birds, butterflies, nature, and photography. (A surprising number were newcomers to the area who were interested in our local birds.)
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.)