TITLE PHOTO - Dec. 23/16
SURF RIDERS - Red-breasted Mergansers at Long Beach.
Happy New Year everyone. If the current trend continues, 2017 could be one of the best years for birders on Vancouver Island. In fact, it might be considered a good year just based on the first week. The first week of the year has been blessed with not one but two mega-rarities for birders to enjoy as well as several other very desirable uncommon avian visitors.
Thanks to the keen intuition and persistence of Victoria birders a Purple Sandpiper was discovered on December 30, photographed on December 31, and finally undisputedly confirmed by excellent diagnostic photos on Jan. 3 at the Kitty Islets. The Purple Sandpiper breeds in the high Arctic and normally winters along the Atlantic coast, but it is a rarity on the west coast. This was only the second documented on the Pacific coast.
Meanwhile, the Red-flanked Bluetail discovered by the Comox Valley Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 22 has also been attracting birders from all over Vancouver Island and the mainland. Apparently, the bird is a skulker but sightings have been regular which indicates that it may be growing accustomed to binocular and camera toting visitors.
Even without the mega-rarities there were several choice birds for avid birders to pursue. A Red-throated Pipit has been seen and heard in the Martindale Valley where a Harris's and a couple of Clay-coloured Sparrows are also lurking. Further up island the big excitement is the first Bohemian waxwing invasion in many years. Initial reports placed the flock at about 40 birds, but more recent sightings have raised the count to about 90. Oh, while you're passing through Duncan you might as well stop at Second Street where a Northern Mockingbird has been camping for the past month. Meanwhile, anyone twitching for the bluetail can also tick off an American Golden Plover at Kye Bay. Not to be outdone, the west coast has another beautiful rarity to share if you're willing to water taxi from Tofino to Ahousaht. One of the local residents has been feeding a juvenile male Baltimore Oriole. Both the resident and oriole have been receptive to any visitors who wish to view the bird. That's all I can think of for now. If you are serious, you should also check the reports on BCVIBIRDS and ebird.
One of the benefits of the polar vortex was that it deflected most of our wet winter storms for the past month and provided some excellent sunny days much to my liking. The only downside was the sub-zero temperatures, but without wind it was quite manageable. Besides providing some birding opportunities the weather also produced optimum conditions for photography - the vibrancy of sunlight and silky smooth water for seabird photos.
One of my favorite targets on morning stops at San Malo is the petite Green-winged Teal. During receding mid-tide it can be found dabbling in the shallow water and mud. The male is a striking bird with beautiful striped feathering and a cinnamon head dramatically accented by a silky green crescent. I've also been on the lookout for the Common Teal, but so far I'm zero-for-12 years.
French Creek is undisputedly the most popular photographic venue on the mid-island. It's multiple habitats provides a variety of settings for a many different birds. If it's songbirds you want, check out the blackberry jungle and deciduous forest north of the creek. One of the common blackberry residents is the Fox Sparrow.
Desiccated blackberries provide a tasty winter treat for the Fox Sparrow and other residents of the blackberry jungle.
It's always a treat to encounter a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. As usual, it was a challenge to get a photo. This one gave me one click before pulling the Houdini trick.
The Queen can be found on either side of the creek, on the breakwater, or in the marina. I first spotted her on the breakwater perched on one of her favorite rocks. I was hoping she would do her hover and dive routine, but there was nothing in the creek to tempt her.
She eventually flew into the marina to one of her favorite marina perches. The snow on the rock provided a nice cushion for her. I was waiting for her to dive, but she was too quick for me. Before I could get a shot she dove, caught a small fish, flew to another rock, and then to a piling where she finished her meal.
By the time I manoeuvered into position to photograph her on the metal-capped piling she was smacking her lips and planning her next move.
After my visit with the Queen I drove back to the creek and was pleased to find the family of Northern Shovelers and a pair of female Common Mergansers. One of the mergansers gave a demonstration on the fine art of feather conditioning.
The shovelers had been around for the past week probably because all of the flooded farm fields and shallow ponds and creeks were frozen. The ones with brown eyes are juveniles.
The Shovelers were filter-feeding in the creek - a procedure similar to baleen whales. They would scoop up water and filter out the nutrients.
One of the shovelers was darker-coloured, and I assumed it was a non-breeding adult.
The hydro poles on the parking lot often provide roosting spots for Bald Eagles like this juvenile. Despite the numerous ducks, gulls, and other birds in the area I have yet to see an eagle catch its lunch there.
Killdeer are commonly found on the mudflats beside the creek. I was surpised to find one on the grassy bank beside the parking lot. I think it was catching the early morning sunlight.
After checking the creekside I made one last pass along the marina. At the loading dock for the Lasqueti ferry I spotted a diving duck.
When it emerged from the water I was surprised to see a female Long-tailed Duck. It was the first female Long-tailed I had ever seen at the marina. Last year was the first time I had seen a male there.
A few Barrow's Goldeneyes have taken up residence in the marina. I was lucky to find them by the loading dock one morning when no one else was around. That meant I could take my time to wait for them to get into a good location where there was only blue sky reflecting behind them. There's nothing more distracting than the reflection of red or white boat. The dark bill indicated that this was a juvenile.
The goldeneyes are generally wary, but had become accustomed to human activity in the marina. This male swam as close as three meters from me.
One last shot - as I was leaving the marina I spotted a Pelagic Cormorant taxiing towards me. I stopped, waited, and took a shot. The close proximity provided a close, detailed shot, but the ripples on the water were very distracting.
Althought there hasn't been much variety at Qualicum it was still fun to photograph in the full sun and fairly smooth water. The handsome male Common Goldeneye always provides a challenge to capture the glossy green head without blowing out the white body.
It's always fun to catch the birds in action even if it's a female Black Scoter bathing.
It looks like she's ready to dive but this is just the end of her shaking and stretching after her bath.
One morning I arrived in time to see some Black Scoter courtship activity. Here's the male trying to get the attention of the female. Once he got her attention he took a short run, launched himself in the air, then splashed down for a belly-glide on the water.
After the show he would stand up hoping for her approval. Despite many attempts the female seemed unimpressed.
I wernt to Qualicum several times in one week hoping to find the silky, calm, blue water. On most days there was a small ripple but I finally lucked out on January 2.
One of the problems at Qualicum is that the cliff on the town side blocks out the sun and only provides winter sun through the occasional window through the trees. That limits where and what you can shoot. On this day only a couple of Common Goldeneyes were in the sun. I think you can see why I like the smooth water with blue sky in the next two photos.
It's not often that I encounter these bathtub-like conditions, but it makes for some fun photography.
The yellow tip on the bill is typical for female Common Goldeneye.
Dec. 23/16 - Winter is storm watching season on the Pacific Rim, but for me there's nothing more enjoyable than a calm, sunny day when the surf is tamed to a dull rumble in the distance and the birds are frolicking in the waves. My son, daughter, and I checked into the Pacific Rim National Park at 11:30 am on December 23 and spent two days in winter bliss exploring all the beaches in the park.
There was the occasional monster wave in the distance, but the waves were generally quite tame.
Red-breasted Mergansers were the duck of the day. A group of them were busy working as a posse to scare small schools of fish onto the beach while others continued to fly by.
The one avian sight I was hoping to see was a large flock of Sanderlings and other shorebirds. I wasn't disappointed.
I found the flock at the north end of Long Beach just south of Incinerator Rock. The flock consisted mainly of Sanderlings with a few Dunlin mixed in. I looked for Westerns and Least but came up empty.
The birds was fairly skittish. They would land and frantically forage in the sand until they were flushed by a beach walker or some other distraction.
I'm not sure how they find their prey in the sand, but that's what they were doing.
It was almost sunset and as if there were some magic signal the flock flew out to the tideline and lined up.
They stood for a few seconds then disappeared probably to their overnight roosting spot.
I looked round to find a good location for a sunset shot. Unfortunately, my options were limited with my 500 mm lens.
The next morning while walking the beach from Schooner Cove to Incinerator Rock I stopped to enjoy the sight of a flock of Black Oystercatchers bathing in the waves.
The tranquil scene was shattered when a couple unleashed their dog and sent it after every bird on the beach. Its first target was the oystercatchers that tried several times to to find a safe place away from the dog. However, the dog was unrelenting as it dashed after then no matter where they landed. The frustrated oystercatchers finally left and the dog tore after some Mew Gulls until they left. After 20 minutes of harassing the birds the owners called their dog and left. Unfortunately, there was no one around to enforce the off leash rule or the migratory bird act. They were too far away for me to say anything. I don't mind talking to dog offenders, but I've gotten some pretty nasty replies in the past. Except for the dog incident, my west coast visit was perfect.
Although most people focus on the beach and the ocean I also kept an eye on the forest edge looking for song birds. Besides a couple of Song Sparrows I encountered a couple of Hermit Thrush. The Thrush were more inquisitive than wary. The one I saw in the bush at South Beach hopped out of the bush onto a log in front of me. After posing for a few shots it hopped down to the gravelly beach and did some foraging.
The second Hermit Thrush I found was down at Florencia Bay. It popped out onto a branch and stared at me for a minute before hopping back into the forest.
Ah, to be young again ... the kids dragged me to every beach in the park and still wanted more
A large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos with a few Spotted Towhees, and Song, Orange-crowned,and Fox Sparrows continue to be regular ground feeders in my yard. At the suet feeder Downys, Hairys, and Northern Flickers have been decimating a suet block every two days. Meanwhile the smallest surprise was a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets that stopped by for three days.
At first I thought a small leaf had been flipped by the wind, but there was no wind. It had to be a kinglet. I slowly approached a little closer and sure enough there were Golden-crowned Kinglets foraging in the grass.
The kinglets were quite wary at first and disappeared into the trees but returned about ten minutes later.
It took several attempts before I was able to get some reasonable photos.I've been close to them in the past with no camera. With the camera I was only able to get within 8 or 9 meters.
There's several holly trees right outside my bedroom window, and I've tried several times to get some winter-themed photos with the red berries, snow, and a bird. I thought my first effort was a winner until I noticed the towhee had no tail.
The second effort was better but the snow wasn't very evident.
Jan. 4/17 - Why not start the new year with a twitch especially if a mega-rarity is involved? The day before Purple Sandpiper seekers were rewarded with stunning close-up views of the rare visitor from the east coast. I had to make at least one trip to search for the Rock Sandpiper look-alike. The weather was excellent and it seemed a perfect day for birding so off we went. On the way we pulled into Second Street in Duncan for a peek at the Northern Mockingbird but it wasn't showing. Mind you we could have given it more than a minute, but I was anxious to get to Victoria. To make a long story short, when we arrived at Kitty Islets at 11:45 am the only birds around were Black-bellied Plovers, Black Turnstones, and a few ducks. The few photographers there informed us that the Purple Sandpiper had been there an hour earlier. Disappointed but still hopeful we prepared ourselves for the long haul. I was set up close to shore where the sandpiper had landed the day before and waited patiently, but patience wasn't rewarded. At 2:45 pm I admitted defeat and headed home.
Before heading for Kitty Islets we detoured to the model airplane field where we found Jody and the Snow Bunting.
The bunting was busy foraging in the grass when we arrived but hopped on the wooden catwalk to strut its stuff for us.
I had missed the Snow Bunting at French Creek in November and hadn't seen one for quite a few years. It was a pleasure to see one again, and as it turned out, it was our consolation bird for the trip. However, bird or no bird, it was fun to get out and do what I enjoy the most. Was it Casey Stengel who said, "You can't win 'em all."
I've only reached Jan. 4 in my photos and am working on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY to celebrate our once in a decade visit of the Bohemians. (Better than the Royal Visit.)
ps - BRUCE & JOANNE - I haven't forgotten you. Thanks for your continual encouragement.