TITLE PHOTO - Nov. 24, 2016 - Red Thursday, Black Friday, Blue Saturday ... I don't know what colour your Thursday was, but mine was white - story to follow.
Nov. 7/16 - WHAT'S FLYING? It was a cold blustery fall day - perfect for storm watching, or if you happened to be around Columbia Beach it was perfect for surfer watching. Like a optimist I made my obligatory stop at French Creek to check out the birds, but it was too windy for birds except for a few gulls riding the wind. However, it wasn't too windy for the surfers at Columbia Beach. At least a dozen multi-coloured kites and sailboards were skimming effortlessly over the waves. It is amazing how the the surfers materialize when the wind is up.
FARM VISITORS - Snow Geese are occasional visitors to Vancouver Island during their fall migration to their wintering grounds. Many stop on the Fraser River delta before moving on to the Skagit Valley. A few have been known to winter in the Parksville region, but that is the exception and not the rule. Usually small groups of less than ten stop for a short visit on the island. The flock of 18 Snow Geese that spent the first three weeks of November at Springford Farm in Nanoose Bay was one of the larger groups I have seen on the island.
Neck Point is one of the crown jewels of the Nanaimo park system. It features 36 acres of natural scenic rocky waterfront, mixed alder-red cedar and fir lowlands, and sensitive arbutus-Garry oak headlands. Scores of walkers, nature lovers, and photographers frequent the location, and I should visit more often.
I really didn't have time to visit Neck Point this year but the report of a rare bird caught my attention. Rare bird sightings around the mid-island have been scarce in the past few years - not because of the lack of birds, but because of the scarcity of active birders. Despite my self-imposed hiatus from birding, how could I refuse a quick twitch just twenty minutes from home? As it turned out, one twitch wasn't enough. It took three visits before I was rewarded with elusive Rock Wren.
My first visit was a quick twitch and dip to Last Beach and back to the chores in two hours. My second visit was more leisurely. After a thorough check around every log at Last Beach we wandered down to Sunset Beach. Even though the Rock Wren was not to be seen, there were many other birds to enjoy. With the tide out several ducks including a male Harlequin were on the rocks preening and cleaning their feathers.
A family of Red-breasted Mergansers were also on the rocks, but with my appearance they slipped into the water.
Red-breasted Mergansers are large, powerful ducks, but like most wild ducks they are very wary of humans. It was a rare treat to see them on land.
A Great Blue Heron was also enjoying the morning sunshine and a chance to do some grooming.
It was no surprise to see a few Double-crested Cormorants drying their wings. I think this one was singing while it was drying.
Nov. 12/16 - THIRD TIME LUCKY - With the sun shining I decided to give one last shot at the Rock Wren. I was using the "three strikes and you're out rule" so it was all or none. It was mid-morning and probably an hour before the Saturday crowds would arrive. I hustled down to Last Beach and meticulously checked every log, but not a creature was stirring. Unfazed I checked Sunset Beach, but unlike my last visit there were no birds at all. I was still optimistic when I returned to Last Beach. I started at the end of the beach and slowly worked my way along the driftwood. Half way up I saw a small bird foraging in the shadow of a log. I focussed the camera - it was the Rock Wren. I watched as it hopped up on a log then took a few long distant record shots just in case it flushed. I looked around and was pleased to see there was no one else around. I slowly followed the bird and gradually got in decent proximity for some quality shots.
Just as other birders had reported the wren was quite obliging, and eventually I managed to catch it in the act of catching some prey. According to Jeremy T. the green caterpillar is a yellow underwing larva.
I thought the caterpillar would be enough to satiate the wren but it continued to forage.
After a hundred or so shots my desire for photos was satiated and just in time. Just as I had anticipated the Saturday crowd materialized led by a kids soccer team. They started running down the beach, but when I told them about the wren they were courteous enough to move to another location. Before I left I said one last goodbye to the wren and thanked it for being such an obliging subject. I also wished it good health and a safe journey south back to its desert habitat.
Rock Wrens are no strangers to Vancouver Island. This was the third I have seen in 12 years. Last year there was one at Ft. Rod National Park for about two months. I looked for it once but didn't find it. As a rough guess I think the island records about 2 or 3 every five years.
Instead of heading north and home to some chores I decided to blow the rest of the day. I headed south to the Nanaimo River estuary. I glad I did. Just after turning down Raines Road I was greeted with a river full of Barrow's Goldeneyes. The return of the Barrow's has always been one of my favorite events. I used to plan a November visit to the Nanaimo River just to see the spectacle. Unfortunately, it was already after noon and the sun was at a bad angle so I didn't spend more than a few minutes trying for photos.
November is always a busy time in the river. The spawning salmon provides nutrition for many ducks including Common Mergansers.
I don't know if the Trumpeters benefit directly from the herring spawn but I wouldn't be surprised. I have seen many mallards feasting on salmon carcasses in the Courtenay River so there is no reason think trumpeters wouldn't enjoy a little fish protein and omega-3 oil.
One of the targets at the estuary is always the Northern Shrikes. Despite their reputation as butcher birds they are very handsome birds and popular subjects for many photographers.
I'm still waiting to see a shrike catch something other than a grasshopper. I wonder what it caught on this dive.
Nov. 14/16 - After a few years of hardly any twitching, twice in one week. Definitely a lack of will power to abstain until more chores were completed, but I couldn't resist the thought of seeing Red Phalaropes at Whiffin Spit like 2005. As well, there were also a pair of Tropical Kingbirds on the books to double the potential reward, or I didn't want to think about it - failure. Fortunately, my wife agreed to come as well so that reduced the feeling of guilt for the neglected chores. Cutting to the chase, Whiffin Spit looked inviting in the morning sunshine, but the calm conditions cast an ominous spell. In 2005 there was a stiff breeze - the lingering effects of the near hurricane winds that drove the phalaropes to shore. Without the wind they would be quite happy to frolic offshore in their normal habitat. My worst fears were realized after a careful search of both sides of the spit. The phalaropes were gone.
Whiffin Spit often provides interesting consolation birds. I remember one failed twitch where the consolation bird was a Lark Sparrow, but today wasn't one of those days. There were only a few regulars available, and I settled on an obliging White-crowned Sparrow.
Plan b was the Tropical Kingbird reported down Goodridge Road. It was a short road that ended on the waterfront. It didn't look like a good bird habitat, but we were there to check it out. One good sign was a pair of vehicles and two birders - one with a spotting scope and another with a camera. After introductions we heard the good news. The kingbird was in the big tree. We watched it fly to a big snag then back into the large conifer. We got the distant record shots then waited for some closer action. We weren't disappointed. The kingbird flew to the hydro lines a short distant above us and proceeded to hawk several wasps. We were all happy with the close-up shots, but jokingly we all asked for an eye-level shot on something more natural than a hydro line?
The bird gods must have been listening and sympathetic. Shortly after it flew to some distant alder trees the returned to the top of a Nootka rose bush about 10 meters away. The clicking of shutters sounded like a machine gun ambush, but the kingbird was unfazed. It held its pose until we got all the shots we wanted then it flew into the restricted area. This was my third Tropical Kingbird and definitely the best photo opportunity.
On the way home we stopped at Art Mann Park in Duncan hoping for a Ruddy Duck. I knew they wintered at Quamichan Lake but usually at the far end of the lake. As expected, there was no Ruddy Duck - just Mallards, Coots, and gulls.
There was still an hour of sunlight when we reached Piper's Lagoon. It would have been asking too much to expect the Mountain Bluebird, but since we were there, why not. Unfortunately, the bluebird had moved from the tree where it was last seen, and I wasn't up to trekking around the peninsula. As a consolation we joined Mark to visit some Surf Birds that he had discovered.
To complete the day a pair of Black Oystercatchers flew on to the nearby rocks and posed for some shots. it had been a long day and I was happy to be heading home. (If we had continued we would have seen the bluebird a short ways along the trail.)
What's the connection between a craft fair and the Gray Jay? It just so happened that the Gray Jay had been proclaimed by the Canadian Geographic Society as the leading candidate for Canada's national bird. After a year and a half of online voting the Common Loon had gained the most votes, but it was already the provincial bird for Ontario. The Snowy Owl was second, but it belonged to Quebec. The Gray Jay was a solid third, and it wasn't claimed by any other province or territory. Furthermore it was found in every province and territory. It was a natural candidate for national bird.
At my wife's suggestion I added some Gray Jay cards to my display of cards. My customers seconded the motion. The Gray Jay card outsold my next best card by a margin of 20 to 12.
Nov. 24/16 - Red Thursday, Black Friday, and White Thursday - which would it be? It started as a black Thursday thanks to the dark morning clouds and pounding rain. The visibility was marginal but almost impossible as the morning rush of 18-wheelers repeatedly buried me in torrents of spray. I sarcastically congratulated myself for agreeing to the morning rendezvous at Buckley Bay, but it had to be done and procrastinating wasnít a reasonable solution. Fortunately, by 7:45 the rain eased, the sky was brightened, and the traffic thinned to make the journey a little more relaxed. I arrived at Buckley Bay at 8:10, gassed up for $1.01.9/l ($1.15.9 in Nanoose Bay), used the facilities, and waited for the incoming ferry which was just about to dock. Just like clockwork I received my shipment of books from CHI. They had been using my books for a fundraiser, but after five years and about $2,000 for their coffers they decided to discontinue the program. It had been a mutually beneficial program, and I was grateful for their participation.
After the exchange it was time to head home. I had optimistically loaded my camera just in case the weather improved, but the steady rain showed no signs of relenting. I didnít even bother getting out of the car at Deep Bay where I was hoping to see if the Long-tailed Ducks were feeding at the end of the spit. Nile Creek looked tempting with numerous gulls circling around the creek mouth, but the rain was now coming sideways thanks to the prevailing south-easter. Despite the rain easing to a light drizzle Qualicum was also a scratch because it was high tide and all the roosting spots were under water and most of the gulls were gone. My last chance was French Creek, and I wasnít sure if I would bother to stop. I decided to leave it up to fate. At the intersection there was a long line of cars waiting for the red light but no one in the turning lane to French Creek. That was my sign. I took my usual route behind the restaurant and was perplexed and surprised to see a blizzard of white gulls circling around the creek. From their delicate features I knew they were Bonaparteís. I carefully positioned the car to see what they were up to. They were landing and congregating at the upper end of the creek and foraging in the muddy, rushing water. Despite the light rain I grabbed the camera and started shooting. I knew there wouldnít be any award-winning photos, but as a nature photographer I was also interested in the narrative or the story behind the event. In the past I was able to document the Bonies catching small fish, grabbing herring roe, and even hawking insects in mid-air. I was hoping that one of my photos would reveal salmon roe or fish parts, but that was not to be. Even though I didnít find out why the Bonies were in the creek I enjoyed watching them, and they made my white Thursday. After the bonies I had one last stop. Red Thursday at Canadian Tire was on the way home so I stopped and picked up a couple f super bargains we needed - a stainless steel roaster and a bamboo cutting board for 70% off.
The Bonaparte's has been my favorite gull since I first encountered them 12 years ago. It was in the spring of 2004 when I saw an army of mysterious black-headed gulls lined up on the beach at French Creek. I was perplexed and fascinated and immediately developed a fondness and attachment.
It was a pleasant surprise to find a flock of Bonies at French Creek this late in the year. Normally they disappear offshore in October and don't reappear until herring time in late February.
I assumed they were in the creek to forage for food. Was there any other reason possible?
There seemed to be a pattern of birds flying upstream then riding the fast flowing current down. Maybe they enjoyed the free ride?
Whatever they were doing they seemed to be having fun.
I wasn't the only one who was perplexed. A female Common Merganser was watching and wondering too.
After my Bonie fix I wandered over to the marina and found a Common Loon grooming itself.
After every grooming session the loon always flaps its wings probably to put the feathers back in alignment.
Nov. 30/16 - A trip to the medical clinic in Parksville provided me with another excuse to do a little birding. Instead of taking the direct route home I chose the circular route through Qualicum. That gave me the opportunity to check out a couple of birding locations.
My first stop was the Marshal Stevenson Refuge. It's a great habitat for ducks and marsh birds. It's great for birders, but not so great for photographers because most of the birds are usually out of range. As expected there were scores of Mallards, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeons, and Great Blue Herons. In the distance a pair of trumpeter Swans were obvious because of their size, but another white bird required closer scrutiny. It was similar in size to the Canada Goose it was fraternizing with, and the binocular view confirmed an adult Snow Goose. There haven't been any other Snow Geese reported locally for awhile.
Stop number two was at the Qualicum viewing stand. It's a great place for gulls, ducks, and winter shorebirds, but not at high tide. It was high tide when I got there. All of the roosting rocks were under water. The only gulls I found were a couple siting high and dry on a log. One of them was much darker than the other and fit the bill for a Western.
The historic Shady Rest restaurant is short ways past the viewing stand and a very popular dining venue. One of its regular customers is the local Bald Eagle. I'm not sure what the special of the day was, but the eagle was certainly enjoying it.
The eagle's private table was about 50 m offshore from the restaurant. It was a challenge to photograph because of the distance but also because of the background. It was a overcast day which meant the sky and water was almost white - not the best. The solution was to find the right level on the beach so the narrow band of mainland mountains would provide a hazy blue background.
Observing its best eating habits the eagle took its time and finally devoured every single scrap.
Feeling quite satisfied the eagle sat up at surveyed its domain.
Then it was time to prepare for lift off. Its powerful legs are important to launch itself off the piling.
Not the most graceful take-off. Looks like it ate too much.
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.)