TITLE PHOTO - Bohemian Waxwings at Holmes Road, Nanaimo on January 7/17
January 2017 - What a month for Vancouver Island birders! The Purple Sandpiper in Victoria (first ever for VI and 2nd for the west coast), Pink-footed Geese in Saanich (first ever for VI), Red-flanked Bluetail in Comox (first ever on VI and 2nd in Canada), Bohemian Waxwing invasion in Nanaimo (first VI invasion since 2008), and a very unusual winter Gray Catbird. It'll be long time before we have that much excitement in any month. In fact, the number of unusual birds in January would be a great kick-start for anyone interested in going for the VI BIG YEAR record.
How did I fare during all the January excitement? For my photography score I'll take an A for the Bohemians, a B for the bluetail, a C for the Pink-footeds, and an F for the Purple Sandpiper. After three trips to Victoria I still haven't seen the "little Purple people eater," but one of the trips was for the Pink-footed, another yielded a consolation Snow Bunting, and one was for book delivery to Bolen.
I have mentioned in the past that I have learned a lot about birds and bird behavior through my photography, and I did learn something new from the Bohemians - they eat snow. Okay, I've always suspected that birds get their liquid fix from snow when liquid sources are all frozen, but I have never seen or recorded it. It was sub-zero for many of the days while the Bohemians were in Nanaimo so there was no open water in the immediate area. I saw them eating snow several times. They did have the option of flying to the nearby Millstream River, but maybe it was just easier to eat snow. In any case, I saw them eating snow and was able to record them in the act as indicated in a couple of the follow photos. I'll let you decide if eating snow was a substitute for drinking or just a little treat like eating a popsicle.
"Snow, snow everywhere and not a drop to drink." Snow and ice were the predominant conditions for most of the time when the Bohemians were in Nanaimo.
Snow and ice probably made the Bohemians feel right at home since that is the situation in most of their winter habitats.
Is the snow just an icy treat or is it a substitute for water? Of course, there is also the liquid content of the berries they consume. The answer is probably all of the above.
Snow on the bill was a dead giveaway to what this Bohemian was doing.
After the excitement of January it was back to enjoying the birds in my home area. I'm not complaining. There is a certain amount of comfort and pleasure in visiting my usual haunts and seeing my usual birds. Take Junior for example. He is one of the regular juvenile Bald Eagles that has been hanging out around French Creek. He is always good for a laugh. All the geese, ducks, and gulls are so used to him that they barely notice when he flies in. I featured him a couple of journals ago and compared him to Rodney Dangerfield who also got no respect. Well, Junior flew down to the creek again on Jan. 15, and I was the only one who noticed. He landed a few feet from a bunch of geese that paid no attention to him.
When other eagles fly in or even over the creek there is usually a mass exodus or at least a repositioning of the ducks, geese, and gulls. That doesn't seem to be the case for Junior. Like I said before, he gets no respect.
Junior stomped around for awhile, went to the creek for a drink, flew up to a log, then eventually flew away. It's interesting how some birds can tolerate others even when they are an enemy or predator. The co-existence of Junior and the French Creek birds reminded me of the Canada Goose and Mute Swan at Fairwinds. The Mute Swans are territorial and spend most of their time keeping the geese out of their respective ponds and general area. However, Garnet the Goose somehow established personal rapport with Steve the Swan. Every day Garnet would fly in to the second pond and spend a couple of hours socializing with Steve like the best of friends. They would swim together in the pond then lounge together on the grassy bank. I was incredulous when I heard the story but was a believer after witnessing it several times. This went on every day for the whole summer.
I've frequently mentioned that marinas can be excellent locations to photograph birds. For example, on two occasion in the past 10 years Schooner Cove Marinahas hosted a Yellow-billed Loon. Both times the loons stayed for at least two weeks and provided many good photo opportunities. I've also seen Pacific Loons and a Red-throated Loon there. French Creek Marina has also been productive. Right now it is hosting two very attractive duck species - a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers and a small family of Barrow's Goldeneyes. Both are difficult to photograph in the wild, but in the marina it's almost like shooting fish in a barrel. The only challenges are finding a calm, sunny day and a time when there is not too much human activity to distract the birds.
With its wild hairdo the male Red-breasted Merganser looks like it just escaped from a hair-raising adventure with the Sasquatch. The Red-breasted Merganser is one of the larger ducks, and it has a very long body. When photographing it I like to try for a quartering shot where the length of the body isn't obvious.
Likewise the female also has the long body and I prefer shots that don't expose the length of the body.
Two for the price of one - It's hard enough to get a decent shot of one Red-breasted Merganser. A shot with both the male and female in relative focus is fortunate to say the least. This was the result of a fairly distant shot with both birds close to the same plane.
The Barrow's Goldeneye is another of my favorite ducks, and I did post some photos in Journal 428. However, I recently took this photo of an immature Barrow's that is moulting into its adult male plumage. The telltale mark is the white crescent forming just behind the gape of the bill. Once again, the rich, blue sky reflecting in the water contributes to the attractiveness of this photo.
In contrast to the previous photo, the murky gray of the light overcast sky doesn't provide an appealing background. When the whole sky is overcast there isn't much you can do, but sometimes the clouds only cover part of the sky. By repositioning you can sometimes get the blue reflection if the bird is cooperative. The main reason for posting this photo is to compare the Common Goldeneye in this photo with the Barrow's in the previous. When trying to identify goldeneyes, head shape is very useful. Notice the short forehead and long crown on the Common versus the long (tall) forehead and minimal crown on the Barrow's. If you're a Sesame Street product Bert is the Barrow's and Ernie is the Common.
While I'm talking about ducks, I might as well get on to the shovelers. I was happy to see that the Northern Shovelers are still at French Creek. They were at the northern side of the creek when I arrived, but were flushed to my side by some dog walkers. They must have been in the middle of their preening session because that's exactly what they proceeded to do as soon as they landed. This has been the first winter I've ever seen the shovelers at French Creek, and I have certainly enjoyed seeing them on several occasions.
The shoveler isn't he most attractive duck, but it was my inspiration bird and will always have a special place in my heart.
Double-crested Cormorants are common residents at the marina. They regularly roost on the rocks of the breakwater and the artificial log booms. It's not uncommon to see them forage for food in the marina. I always thought they were after live food so was surprised to see one in the lineup with the ducks and gulls waiting for handouts from a person peeling shrimp at the end of the ferry wharf.
Referring to the previous photo I was surprised to see a cormorant hanging around close to a human. The usual scenario is more like the cormorant in this photo. It popped up right in front of where I was parked at the marina but was gone like a shot as soon as it saw me.
Common Loons have always been regular customers in the marina. Every time I've been there this winter I've seen 3 or 4, and most of the time they were just leisurely drifting or preening. This one just finished a lengthy session of grooming and was just shaking its feathers back in place.
After the grooming it was more lounging around. Just like the rest of us it likes to put a foot up when its relaxing. Did you notice the new feathers with white spots? It's starting to moult into its summer plumage.
I've mentioned Northern Shovelers, and a Lesser Scaup as new French Creek ducks this winter. Now you an add another. On February 2nd I spotted a sleeping duck drifting just past the coast guard station. When it awake and showed its head I saw that it was a female Gadwall. Gadwalls aren't that common in the area and usually seen in fresh water. However, with the current winter conditions many of the fresh water ducks have ended up in salt water locations.
On January 25 I stopped by the Little Qualicum Fish Hatchery to look for an American Dipper. I hadn't seen one there for the past two years in about five visits. I didn't seen one on this occasion either. My consolation bird was a juvenile Bald Eagle perched in a tall alder beside the river. It was enjoying the sunshine too much to be concerned with my presence.
I wasn't too interested in the eagle either as they are quite numerous during the winter. I was more interested in a pair of ducks across the river. I didn't recognize them at first because they were out of their usual habitat at the creek and river estuaries. But it didn't take long to figure that they were female Northern Pintails.
Pintails have the sleek long neck and the shiny dark bills. The darker one was probably an adult female while the other was a juvenile.
Taking advantage of the sunny winter day I decided to drive through Errington to to the Englishman River Estates. It didn't seem so long ago the area was just being developed, but it is now a mature and aging subdivision. Birds were scarce, and I only saw a couple of fly by robins until I encountered a hawk on the telephone lines. I carefully stopped about thirty meters away for a distant shot then edged my way closer and closer. I expected it to fly any time, but it was surprisingly unconcerned about my presence.
I was finally as close as I wanted to be, but the hawk still showed no signs of concern or stress. This was the closest I've ever been to any perched hawk. I had lots of time to examine its features. The dark cap on the crown (like a Jewish kippah) told me it was a Cooper's Hawk. (On a Sharp-shinned the dark cap extends down the back of the neck like a gutra.) Another defining feature was the slim uniform body shape of the bird. Sharp-shinneds are usually heftier around the shoulders. The round edges of the tail also suggested Cooper's, and the orange barring on the chest indicated that it was an adult.
Normally, any perched hawk or falcon is gone by the time you are within fifty meters. I was surprised at how obliging this hawk was but made sure I got my quota of shots before it changed its mind. There's not much variety available with a bird on the wire so it didn't take long to get my shots. Just for fun I drove right up to the bird and looked it in the eye from about 7 meters. It didn't bat an eye. Finally, after a few more minutes of perplexed admiration, I paid my respects and carried on enjoying my afternoon drive.
The discovery of a pair of Pink-footed Geese in the Martindale Valley on January 22 was another shot of excitement for VI and lower mainland birders - myself included. I couldn't resist taking advantage of another picture perfect sunny winter day to check out the latest bird sensation in the Victoria region. I arrived at about 10:30 am and checked out the Lochside Road location where the bird was first discovered. The anticipated crowds were nowhere to be seen which also indicated that the geese were elsewhere. My next stop was Martindale Road which just happened to be lined with vehicles and birders. I pulled over on a farm road and wasn't surprised to see Jody Wells peering through his scope. After a quick greeting he invited me to peer through his scope. The Greater White-fronted look-alikes were about 200 meters down the field. Before I could set my camera up the geese flew to within 100 meters. Looking into the sun at 100 meters wasn't the recipe for good photography, but that's all that was possible. I wasn't disappointed knowing that geese were generally wary and close-up shots would require exceptional luck like a fly-over or fly-by. I took my time trying to get some respectable shots and enjoyed some pleasant chatter with a few other birders then headed for Mitchell's store for a snack.
There were about 30 birders enjoying the Pink-footed visitors which were possible vagrants originally from eastern Greenland or Iceland. Some birders choose not to count the Pink-footeds as wild birds because of the possibility that they were escapees from farm stock. However, there are very few if any captive birds in North America and if there are, the chances of them escaping are very rare.
The Pink-footed Geese attracted many visitors from VI and the mainland. As of February 4 they were still being observed on various Saanich fields and farms. I tried for some record shots looking into the sun at 100 meters and was pleased to actually capture a pink foot.
A few years ago I was chastised for neglecting one of our most intelligent and distinguished species, the Common Raven. It wasn't a case of willful neglect. It was simply a case of taking them for granted. I see and hear them every day and have never spent much time trying to photograph them. And, I just assumed that was the case for everyone. Well, it's time to make amends. I know I have posted an occasional raven photo here and there but never featured them with a group of photos so here we go.
In some indigenous cultures the raven is revered for its intelligence and mystique and even accorded the stature of a spiritual figure of god. In some myths it is considered a trickster. They can also be bold and creative. My favorite image was a raven plucking wool off the back of a sheep while the helpless sheep could do nothing but complain. Unfortunately, the image is just in my mind as I was unable to photograph the event.
Ravens are the largest passerines (perching birds) and can live over 20 years in the wild. They mate for life and are very territorial.
Ravens are omnivorous scavengers with a varied diet ranging from carrion and insects to fruit and berries. They are also predators but limited to prey like small rodents, snakes, and amphibians. Unfortunately, they are also know as nest-robbers and a threat to vulnerable species like Marbled Murrelets.
Ravens are territorial and generally antisocial except at landfill and roadkill parties. At roadkill parties young ravens actually invite other ravens to join the party to outnumber other interested predators. In the Qualicum region congresses of ravens also invite themselves to the annual fall spreading of fish carcasses at the Little Qualicum River hatchery. The carcasses are spread by volunteers to enrich the environment around the river. Large numbers of Bald Eagles also crash the party making it a raucous and exciting wildlife spectacle.
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.)