On July 26 I received an intriguing phone call from Peony, a resident at Eaglecrest. She had spotted a white hummingbird in her flower-filled backyard and amazingly, managed a record photo with her point and shoot camera. The next day I was at her door and hospitably ushered to her backyard sanctuary which resembled a mini Butchart Gardens. Her bountiful collection of flowers was a colourful feast for the eyes and the floral fragrances were mildly intoxicating. Peony kindly supplied a comfortable lawn chair while I set up my tripod and camera and settled in for the patient vigil.
It was no hardship waiting, but after an hour and a half, the only hummingbirds to visit were two juvenile Anna's. I stood up to stretch and noticed a commotion in the neighbor's yard. A robin flushed out of a tree and headed for the mountain ash between the two houses. In hot pursuit was the playful white hummingbird. The robin landed in the tree while the hummingbird hovered menacingly above the tree. I quickly turned the camera and rattled off four shots before the hummer zipped off to a weeping willow in the middle of the neighbor's yard.
Just by chance the neighbor was working in her garden. I tentatively interrupted her and asked if I could come over to search for the white bird. She pleasantly said, "Come on over Mike." I was surprised and confused when she called me by name. Sensing my bewilderment she reminded me that her name was Verdelle, a former special ed colleague I hadn't seen for about 20 years. It was a treat to get reaquainted and catch up a few of the lost years. After a few minutes the elusive white missile landed on another tree and perched for a few pictures before zooming off to harass a couple of Anna's. I waited for another 30 minutes and was just packing up when Whitey suddenly appeared at a low flower. I grabbed the camera and managed a couple of handheld shots before it left.
White hummingbirds are quite rare but a few have been documented and can be found on the internet. Some are albinistic which means they cannot produce any natural colour, and some are leucistic which means they can produce natural colour, but it is not distributed all over the bird. In this case Whitey had the normal dark bill, legs, and eyes, but was missing normal colour on the rest of the bird. based on the short, straight bill, and the association with other Anna's my best guess was "leucistic Anna's." For confirmation I sent my photos to Derek Mathews who is an expert bird bander in Vancouver. Based on the bill, wing tips, and tail feathers Derek agreed and bet the bank that it was a leucistic Anna's.
Leucistic and albinistic birds are wonders of nature that are fascinating to see and photograph. Coincidentally, the Qualicum region is already internationally famous for WHITE RAVENS. I have had the privilege and pleasure to photograph both, but it wouldn't have been possible for the Anna's without the assistance of Peony and Verdelle. So, my thank you both once again for making it possible. (ps - the photo has been published in the latest copy of the ISLAND TIDES. Google islandtides.com and select the current edition - Aug. 11 - 24)
When the hummingbird finally appeared about 15 meters away I was able to rattle off 4 quick shots. I had the camera set at ISO 800 f 5.6 for the shaded garden, but when the bird appeared in the bright sun I got a shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second which was more than enough to freeze the wings.
The only time the hummer stayed still was when it perched on a branch about 7 meters above me.
I had already taken my camera off the tripod when the hummer appeared at a flower. I had to hand hold for this shot and couldn't pinpoint the focus on the bird, but the leaves are in focus.
August is shorebird time. That's when breeding adults and new juveniles head south from their northern breeding grounds. Quite often the adults arrive first and the juveniles follow later - a phenomena that has always perplexed me. It seems reasonable to me that the juveniles should be travelling and learning from their parents, but that usually doesn't happen. I don't know why, but the juveniles apparently have the DNA to tell them where and when to go and how to survive. Except for a long distant flyers like the Bar-tailed Godwit the migrating birds have to stop and fuel up at various shorelines and mudflats along the route. The Fraser River estuary and Boundary Bay is a major feeding ground for many along the Pacific flyway. The best Vancouver Island has to offer is the Tofino mudflats. On the east side of the island there are only a few mudflats and shorelines like Oyster Bay and the Englishman River estuary (San malo mudflats) that consistently host the migrants.
Over the years migrating shorebird populations have diminished considerably around the mid-island. For example, Admiral's Lagoon was one of my favorite locations, but in the past few years I have hardly seen any in that location. Despite the lack of success I still make a point of searching for shorebirds every year. My first shorebird foray was on July 27 when I stopped to check out the mudflats at San Malo Crescent. The tide had just receded and the the flats were still wet up to the edge of the mud. A flock of peeps foraged in the distance at the receding edge of the water, but a pair of larger shorebirds foraged near the high tide line. Fortuitously, they were working their way towards me so I calmly waited hoping that no one would come by walking their dog. It was my lucky day. No dog walkers appeared and the shorebirds were almost right in front of me. I had assumed they would both be Greater Yellowlegs, but I was lucky again. The first one with the long up-curved bill was a Greater Yellowlegs, but the second had a short, straight bill. It was a a less common Lesser Yellowlegs. Oblivious of my presence they both foraged for small insects and other critters in the mud. It was a good start for my shorebird day.
The Greater Yellowlegs is usually one of the first shorebirds to arrive, and it usually stays around for awhile. In fact, some have even spend the winter here. I'm not sure if they go by the Farmer's Almanac or some other long-range weather forecasting program, but they seem to know when a milder winter is coming.
The long, upcurved bill multi-note calls are the distinguishing features of the Greater Yellowlegs.
The Lesser Yellowleg is generally smaller than the Greater yellowlegs and has a shorter and straighter bill.
In general, the Lesser Yellowleg is less common around here than the Greater Yellowlegs, and I have never seen any during the winter.
My next stop was Admiral's Lagoon where I was greeted by the juvenile Bald Eagles that had just gotten their wings last week. They were still hanging around their nest tree and making short flights in the area. If you ever want to see a perfect nest tree, that's the one to look for. It's in a large fir tree that that has split like a tuning fork, and the nest is in the crotch of the fork.
As expected (power of negative thinking didn't work) there were no migrating shorebirds at Admiral's, but the tide was rising and the expected local flock of Black-bellied Plovers and Black Turnstones flew onto their usual roosting spot. They also migrate, but this is their winter destination.
I wasn't going to try to photograph them, but occasionally they are joined by some migrating shorebirds like an American Golden Plover or Ruddy Turnstone. Since I was there, I had to check. Unfortunately, no strange birds accompanied the flock, but like I said, since I was there, I decided to take a few photos anyway.
Normally, the plovers and turnstones will tolerate my proximity to about ten meters before they flush. However, one of the juveniles wasn't familiar with limit and decided to fly when I was at twelve meters. It kept circling frantically trying to warn the others of the imminent danger, but no one paid attention except me. It was an excellent opportunity for some flight shots.
The rest of the plovers and turnstones continued to roost while the young juvenile circled.
Finally one of the juvenile eagles cruised by. The flock of shorebirds was in no danger, but they took flight anyway. They didn't go far. As usual, they simply landed at the end of the sandbar. If you're ever looking for a plover or turnstone fix, high tide at Admiral's Lagoon is usually a sure thing.
Yes, this it the thousandth time I'm going to mention the Kingfisher, and I'm not apologizing. It is still one of my most elusive photographic targets, and I am undeterred. I will continue pursue it whenever I have the opportunity. That's called persistence, one of the basics of bird photography. Besides persistence you also need a little luck, and I had the horseshoe on this day. I started off by parking at one of the favored perching spots for the Kingfisher. I was there for about ten minutes when some inconsiderate yahoo parked right behind me. If his intention was to annoy me into leaving, he succeeded. After ten minutes I decided to leave and let the turkey have my spot, and that worked in my favor. I returned to the other side of the creek at the marina and drove slowly along the creek. The Kingfisher was there, perched on top of a one of her favorite rocks. I parked at an advantageous spot with the sun at my back and slowly pulled out my camera. Before I could stick the camera out of the window she dove and caught a small brown gunnel fish. Luckily she returned to the same rock and proceeded to immobilize her prey.
The gunnel fish looks like an eel, but it is a common fish in local waters. They seem to come in several colours. Green and orange come to mind.
The Kingfisher has to kill or immobilize its prey before it swallows it. With no tools except its bill it has to utilize the techniques in its playbook. It can slam the prey against the rock or post it is perching on, crunch it with its bill, or snap it with a quick twist of the head. The photo shows the head snap action. Notice the drop of fluid from the gunnel's head. For those of you interested in the photo details - D500, 500 mm x 1.4, ISO 800, f 8, shutter speed 1/3200.
It usually takes quite a few minutes for the Kingfisher to process its prey - more if the prey is larger. When the prey is suitable processed, it's down the hatch.
After the hearty meal it was time for a good stretch and a call of satisfaction. I seconded the motion. It was an excellent photo opportunity for me - in fact, the best of the year.
With a face that only a mother can love, the Turkey Vulture is not on anyone's favorite bird list. I've yet to meet anyone with the intention of going out to see or photograph this lowly member of the raptor family, but if it's a bird, my camera is ready. In fact, I can remember when Robin Robinson offered to guide me to a Turkey Vulture nest at Gowland Tod Provincial Park. I didn't hesitate in accepting his offer, and I still have fond memories of seeing the two white plumaged nestlings. Thanks again, Robin.
Turkey Vultures are common in southern BC during the spring and summer breeding season. With the exception of a few hearty birds most of them head south for the deserts by the end of September. In fact, one of the great bird spectacles on the island is the gathering of Turkey Vultures and other raptors near East Sooke Park in late September. The weak-flying Turkey Vultures wait for the favorable wind conditions and thermals to usher them across the strait. While most of them head south, there are a few that stay and winter on the island. I've often wondered if they stayed by choice or were left behind because they were too old or weak to make the flight. In any case, the Christmas bird counters are always happy to see them in December around Metchosin. I've also heard of reports that a few winter south of Nanaimo, but I have yet to see or hear of any confirmation. With global warming there may be an increase in the wintering population.
Turkey Vultures are carrion-eaters and you'll often see them around road kill along the highway. I once saw a gathering of raptors at a roadkill deer carcass along the Northwest Bay logging road. A Bald Eagle was ripping at the carcass while the Ravens and Turkey Vultures stood in line waiting for their turn. In this case the carrion was a fish carcass that someone had disposed on the beach for the gulls to clean up. Whether attracted by the sight of the gathering or the odor of the carcass the Turkey Vultures soon arrived. Without any Bald Eagles in sight, the Turkey Vultures were at the top of the food chain while the gulls and crows stood in line.
At first there was only one Turkey Vulture, but it didn't take long for others to join in the fray.
I always thought Turkey Vultures were patient and considerate waiting for their turn at the plate, but I learned something today. The Turkey Vultures aren't quite as patient and considerate as I thought. In fact, they have their own pecking order and are quite aggressive at asserting their rank.
Can you guess which Turkey Vulture has the higher rank? The crows were enjoying the scuffle and encouraging the confrontation.
The action was furious while the crow and gull watched. They were enjoying the fight but actually waiting for their chance at the carcass.
Bold as brass and just as sassy one of the crows couldn't resist encouraging the Turkey Vulture to leave the carcass. It was fun watching the melee. I could have stayed a little longer, but with all that fighting for food I was reminded that I didn't have breakfast, and it was time for a coffee and snack.
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.)