The Final Chapter of the Year

Finally, a little extra time and a chance to complete my final journal of the year. Of course, being behind is my own fault because I'm inefficient and easily distracted. It would have been worse if the weather had been decent. At least I wasn't tempted to go birding for the past two weeks. Just to give you an idea of how easily I'm distracted, this morning I got a call from three friends to meet for coffee when I was supposed to be working on this journal. It was a good idea since I hadn't seen them for quite awhile, and it was a chance to check out the new restaurant down the road called the "Rusted Rake." With all the bs and reminscing we managed to kill the whole morning which I don't regret, but it's just another example of how easy it is to get distracted and lose a morning or day. (Later on I'll tell you how I killed a whole day on a Mandarin Duck shoot.) As for the restaurant, it's very plain and modest from the outside but very spacious and homey inside with beautiful wooden tables. The coffee and food items were good, but the service while efficient was cold and indifferent. In other words, you might as well have been served by robots. Example, I ordered coffee. My money was taken, and a cup was plopped down in front of me with no comment or instruction. I was able to figure out that I had to serve myself from a carafe or decanter, but it would have been nice to be pointed in the right direction. My three friends also commented on the lack of personality and indifference of the servers. Friendly, courteous service doesn't cost anything and should be part of the menu.

Sorry for the digression. Back to the task at hand. First, an apology to those who sent me Christmas greetings. I do appreciate hearing from you, and I do intend replying sometime soon. Besides this journal I also have to prepare for a presentation on bird photography on Jan. 2 to the Harbour City Photo Club. I think I was there last year or was it the year before? I don't know how many of them are interested in birds, but as long as they keep inviting me I guess I'll keep going. Thankfully I don't have many scheduled presentations on the books for 2018. It may seem easy to prepare for a presentation, but it can easily take a couple of days by the time I've selected all the photos and refined my lesson plan.

Ok - this journal ... I'm picking up on the morning of Oct. 2 - my 12th visit of the year up Little Mountain just southwest of Parksville. Don't be deceived by the word mountain. It's just an oversized hill like the pimple on an elephant's back, and there is a paved road to the top to service the microwave tower. Anyway, Pygmy Owls are occasionally seen there, and I was still trying to get my Christmas card quality shot. The day started off well. As soon as I set up my gear and walked towards the southwestern cliff I spotted four photographers pointing their lens at a nearby snag. The Pygmy Owl was perched on the bare top of the dead tree. Unfortunately, just as I set my camera down it flew. First it landed on a small fir right beside us, but it was buried in the branches. Then it flew west and I finally located it on a fir about 10 meters off the cliff where it was cradled on the top two branches of the tree. It sat there for about two minutes while we all got our shots. Despite the significant cropping of the photo (small bird) I was pleased with the results. I got the aesthetic card pose I wanted. There's still lots of room for improvement, but the green branches really frame the owl beautifully, the owl was facing back towards us with both eyes visible, and the slightly filtered morning light was excellent for no glare or blowout.

After that the owl diappeared down into the valley. I decided to sit and wait at the westernmost viewpoint. I was joined by one of the photographers. She turned out to be Pam Mullins, one of Pete Cajouw's flickr contacts and an excellent wildlife photographer currently based in Sechelt. It was a pleasure to meet Pam and learn a bit about her photo experiences and interests. Pam's flickr photo of 9 Bald Eagles sitting shoulder to shoulder is to die for.

Out of 12 visits to Little Mountain I managed to see the Pygmy three times, but it's a peaceful and beautiful location to visit and occasionally there are other birds. One day while I was waiting a Sooty Grouse slowly walked towards me and stopped to nibble on some salal before flying into a fir tree. Another day a couple of Townsend's Solitaires landed on a snag right in front of me for a couple of close-up shots. Anyway, the Pygmys spend most of there time in the forests below the mountain but fly to the top to catch grasshoppers and the occasional Junco. There are also snags and treetops just off the cliff where the owls perch while watching for suitable prey. In the photo below the owl has just caught a grasshopper and is flying back to a snag.

Although it is not always seen, the Sooty Grouse is a regular on Little Mountain, and I have seen it in past years. Its main diet is conifer leaves, but I now know that it also eats salal (next photo).

On the same day I met Pam I also checked Rathtrevor for the Tropical Kingbird someone had reported. I found it in a grove of trees right next to the beach where it had been seen the day before. The beach was an excellent vantage point for photos, and the kingbird was quite cooperative. It didn't do any wasp-catching while I was there, but it did do the classic wing stretch for me.

Steller's Jays - The Love-Hate Relationship

You miss them when you don't see them for a winter, but you can be annoyed when they show up. This year is an irruption year for the Steller's. They arrived with a bang in mid-September, and as I write they are still around. Fortunately, they have thinned out and claimed their own territories. When they first arrived I counted over 20 in the yard. Now I think I'm down to 2 or 3.

I'm not sure what prompted this pose but it seemed interesting and worthy of publication.

They also have a pecking order and the higher status birds don't hesitate to intimidate the younger ones. This activity took place on an improvised perch using an arbutus branch.

My goal was to get a decent horizontal photo for my 2019 calendar. (2018 is over.) I decided to try a fir branch set up so the jay had to walk towards where the feeder was hanging. The jays were cooperative, and I the above photo is a good candidate for my next calendar.

A Black Day with the Black Vulture

On Oct. 4 I had the pleasure of delivering a butterfly presentation to the enthusiastic members of the Metchosin Garden Club. Since it was an evening meeting in Metchosin I decided to overnight in Sooke and spend some time birding the next day. During the evening I checked the BCVIBIRDS site and discovered that the exotic Black Vulture was spotted in Metchosin. That left little doubt as to what my target would be.

First, I had to check Whiffin Spit since I was in the neighborhood then it was on to the vulture. Following the posted directions it didn't take long to join the throng of excited birders focused on a large fir tree. About 2/3's up the tree perched the large black bird. For many like myself it was a new bird, and I was quietly excited to see the rare vistor. Unfortunately, the excitement was soon mitigated by the news that the Pacific Raptor Centre north of Duncan was rehabilitating four Black Vultures from the US, and one of them had escaped. It might be extreme to call it a black day so let's compromise with a gray day for birding.

The Metchosin region is a popular site for raptors migrating south. Many kettle in the area until suitable thermals and winds help them cross the strait. While watching the Black Vulture many Turkey Vultures and several Red-tailed Hawks circled above us.

Later at Martindale flats I spotted a Red-tailed circling the fieds.

The Red-tailed eventually landed on a hydro line and was staring down at the weeds looking for prey.

It eventually dove down and landed in the tall weeds. I couldn't see what it caught or missed, but when it took flight it didn't have anything in its bill or talons.

The only birds I could find at Whiffin were some Black Turnstones, Dunlin, and one Long-billed Dowitcher.

Garden Show

All fall the birds have been enjoying the bumper crop of sunflower and amaranth seeds in the garden. The sunflowers provided the preferred seed for the Spotted Towhees.

The favorite for the Golden-crowned Sparrows was the colourful Amaranth. I also saw Juncos in the amaranth.

The Song Sparrow was another sunflower bird and so were the Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and the Steller's Jays.

Shorebird Migration

As usual the shorebird migration was only slightly more than a trickle through our area. The best numbers were seen at the San Malo Mudflats with only a few at French Creek and none at Admiral's Lagoon. Obviously, my count depends on the number of outings I had which was probably about a dozen. At San Malo the shorebirds were always at a distance and with binoculars I only saw Western and Least Sandpipers. At French Creek I saw Westerns, Least, two Baird's, one spotted, and two Greater Yellowlegs. I didn't make any effort to photograph any shorebirds except during a visit to Columbia Beach off Johnson Road.

On Oct. 10 I was enjoying a sunny day of birding when I spotted 4 Greater Yellowlegs in a tidepool off Johnson Road. They were busy catching small landlocked fish, and I knew I could get fairly close for some photos before the sun disappeared behind the trees.

It's always a treat to be able to observe shorebirds at close range, and the best time is when they are busy foraging.


After about 10 minutes I think the yellowlegs had cleaned out the tidepool, and it was time to relax with a cool vigorous bathing session.

Obviously the yellowlegs were enjoying the bathing session as it continued for at least 15 minutes.

French Creek Favorite

The French Creek Kingfisher ranks high on my favorites list, and I look for it everytime I'm there. For years it was a male but for the past 5 years at least it has been a female. Getting decent kingfisher photos is an extreme challenge, and good flight shots are nearly impossible. On Oct. 26 I arrived at French Creek on a dull, overcast day. The parking lot was along the creek was empty, and I was the only person around. There was nothing but gulls in the creek and nothing to entice me to stay. I was just getting back in the car when I heard the familiar chatter of the kingfisher. I looked around and spotted it on the hydro lines then I heard another from a different direction. I knew it wasn't an echo.

Suddenly there were two kingfishers chasing each other all around the marina and up and down the creek. It was a territorial dispute between two females. I set up my tripod and waited. Every time they passed by I clicked the shutter. 50% of the time I got nothing because they were too fast. 40% of the time I got something but they were totally out of focus or moving too fast. 10% of the time I got a kingfisher in focus but some were only part of the kingfisher, some were too distant, and some were actually in focus. This was one of my best shots, but I'm not too fond of the brown and gray background.

I really like this shot and the next two but remember I said it was overcast. So I did a little filling with photoshop to make a blue sky.

I wasn't going to post this photo because it was a large crop from about 30 meters across the creek. However, I wanted to show you the seldom seen back view with the wings open.

Great Blue Heron Challenge

Great Blue Herons are common around Vancouver Island, but getting an aesthetic shot is a frustrating challenge because of the proportions of the bird - the long legs and neck. The right pose, angle, background, and lighting is a situation you can't really define or control, but when you see it, you know it's right. I rarely stop at Piper's Lagoon and one of those rare stops was on Oct. 19. I stopped to look around and saw a Belted Kingfisher diving to the east. The only other bird around was heron standing nearby in the water to the west. I kept my camera focussed on the bird hoping for the right shot. There was a mess of feathers and water as it decided to take a bath. Just as it was finishing I had the angle I liked - click!

Despite losing the long legs which is essence of a wading bird, I like back quarter angle and the proportions of the composition. I wasn't sure about the background colour but it complements the colour of the bird, and I have grown to like it.

I wasn't ready for the next shot because I didn't see the person approaching from the east. If I were ready I would have gotten a sequence of shots as it sprang out of the water. However, I did get one fun shot just before it turned and exited stage left.

Snow Shots

Getting decent snow shots is another interesting challenge. Part of the problem is the infrequency of snow and the other is the lack of cooperation from the birds. The third part is the lack of effort by the photographer. Admittedly snow isn't my favorite substance especially after shovelling a 200 foot driveway. But when the planets align and the opportunity is there I'm up for the challenge.

On Nov. 5 we had 5 in dump of the white stuff. The next morning after the driveway I cleared a patch for the birds beside some rhodo plants close to the kitchen window. I watched as the birds were feeding and noticed that some enjoyed foraging in the snow perhaps eating snow for a drink. One of the birds was a White-throated Sparrow that had been hanging around for the past month. My window of opportunity was between 2:30 and 3:30 when the sun shone through an opening in the forest. It was a simple matter of sitting by the open and waiting for the right moment. The only inconvenience was bundling up and wearing gloves because of the sub-zero temperature. The White-throated appeared on the snow a couple of times but always blocked out by a Golden-crown or junco. Afte 30 minutes I got my chance, and this was the best of 3 frames. The bird was isolated and the pose looking back is always my favorite. The shadows in the snow ice crystals at its feet add definition that wouldn't have been there if I hadn't disturbed the snow. Like I said with the heron, "You can't define or control all the elements, but you know when you've got it right."

A Golden-crowned Sparrow also got into the act, but notice that it is on undisturbed snow with no shadows. It's like a blank page and does nothing to enhance the photo. However, the bird fanning its feathers creates enough interest on its own to merit publication.

Many newcomers from the east are surprised to see hummingbirds during the winter, but the Anna's Hummingbird has adapted well and is a common feature on the southern half of Vancouver Island. Even more surprising is the fact that they mate from late December through January and February.

Regardless of the weather the Anna's must continue to forage for food. Frost and snow do present hardships and that's when they really appreciate those who keep their nectar feeders from freezing either by taking them in or using heating devices.

By Nov. 9 the snow had melted and life was back to normal for the hummers. The green background is my lawn because I am looking downwards at my feeder.

San Malo Morning

San Malo Mudflats is a tidal mudflat in the Englishman River estuary. Morning is the best time to visit because that's when the sun is at your back. Birding activity is dependent on the time of year and the daily tides. In November it's mainly duck season, and if it's low tide to ducks are too far away. On Nov. 15 I forgot to check the tide tables so when I arrived it was low tide and I didn't expect any photo opportunites.

To my surprise instead of ducks on the mudflats there were a few eagles and gulls. Some were standing around, others were perched in surrounding trees, and still others were in the air.

I was perplexed at the presence of the eagles and gulls but soon figured it was to forage for spent salmon washed down the river. As the tide receded more fish carcasses were exposed.

As far as I could tell it was slim pickings for the birds. There wasn't much feeding going on and I couldn't see any carcasses.

There was only the occasional object picked up by the eagles and none of the usual challenges by others. It didn't take long before the eagles disappated.

Most of the eagles were juveniles or subadults, and probably recent arrivals to the coast. River estuaries were popular gathering places for the winter eagles where fish carcasses from spawned salmon were still available.

San Malo is a popular venue for Green-winged Teal. The eagle activity prompted the teal to take wing and search alternate dabbling sites.

One of the reasons I check San Malo is to photograph the teal. Low tide and eagle time was not the best time for the teal. During the rising tide the teal move in close to shore and are easier to photograph.

I stopped at San Malo again on Nov. 17 when the tide was half out and receding. The only bird on the mudflat was a Great Blue Heron foraging in the shallow water. It was quite active chasing various prey. At one point it stepped into a shallow, rippless pool providing a perfect reflection pool shot complete with a little green fish.

Short-eared Action

The Nanaimo River estuary usually attracts a couple of Short-eared Owls every fall, but they don't seem to stay very long. I'm not sure of the reason, but it may be the limited food supply which is mainly voles. According to a fellow photographer the two Short-eareds that were present in the early fall disappeared near the end of November when the king tides were happening. Of course, that led to speculation as to whether tides affected the vole population. As usual there were more questions than answers.

I haven't looked for the Short-eareds for many years but got the itch this fall. It was sunny on November 20 and I decided it was a good time to visit the estuary. When I arrived the usual photographers were there and two Short-eareds were busy scouring the estuary for voles. I set up close to one of the raised berms towards the end of the estuary and waited. It wasn't long before one of the owls cruised by in its usual zig-zag flight pattern with the conifer trees in the background. The dark trees really highlighted the colours of the owl.

Later the owl flew by a patch of deciduous trees where the orange background complemented the owl colours to provide a pleasing pastel effect.

The Nanaimo estuary is also a popular location for Common Ravens. It's never surprising to see the ravens and owls engaged in aerial games.

Another common resident at the estuary is the Northern Shrike. It usually shows up when you're not looking for it.

Watch out below! Like owls the shrike disgorges pellets of undigestible materials.

Just after the shrike expelled the pellet it flew down and caught some sort of insect or bug.

Kestrel Patience

Dec. 12 was one of the few sunny days we had in December. I needed a birding fix and was skunked at my usual venues of San Malo and French Creek. As a last resort I decided to check out Dawson Road which has never been productive for me. Just past where the road made a 90 degree turn I spotted a bird perched on the top of a medium-sized fir. I stopped, pulled out the binoculars and identified the bird as a male American Kestrel. I was please but not surprised since it was in farming area. I pulled forward and parked for the best view of the bird and waited, and waited, and waited. Twenty minutes seemed like eternity when you're holding the camera in position waiting for some action. I finally gave up and drove down to the end of the road scanning the scores of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Starlings feeding on hawthorne berries beside the road. On my return I decided to give the kestrel another try. I parked and waited.

Ten minutes later the kestrel perked up and stared down on the grass. Then it flew down and grabbed a grub or caterpillar.

The kestrel flew back to the tree and proceeded to nibble at its prey.

Shortly after the kestrel repeated the act again and caught a second prey. I wasn't quite fast enough to catch it coming or going. On the third time I managed to catch it just leaving the tree.

I tried to track it as it landed but couldn't find it. When I finally saw it in my lens it was just taking off, and I didn't have time to compose the picture. I was lucky to get an almost great shot! Despite just missing the flight shot I was glad that I had the patience to wait for the kestrel activity.

Birding at the Farm

On Dec. 12 I did something I've never done before. I went birding at a farm for a captive bird. It was one of those unexpected situations when the planets align from many different directions. First, I met a wood carver named Barry Saunders at the Winterfest craft fair in Qualicum on Nov. 24. Barry asked if I were interested in photographing a Mandarin Duck. I thought it over and declined because it wasn't a wild bird. A week later I met Steve Large down at the Nanaimo estuary. While we were waiting for the Short-eareds that never showed up we talked about various birds, and he mentioned that he would love to seen a Mandarin duck even if it were captive. Rationalizing that I would never see a wild Madarin I contacted Barry, got the number, and arranged the farm visit.

When we arrived at the farm we were warmly greeted by the owner. She eplained that she was one of the two people licenced to keep waterfowl on Vancouver Island, and she was happy to allow us access to the male and female Mandarin that were in a large caged area with a pair of Wood Ducks and three other ducks.

I had no idea how beautiful the male Mandarin was. It easily outclassed the male Wood Duck. I know it will never happen, but if I ever get a chance to see a Mandarin in the wild it would be difficult to refuse.

Christmas Tradition

For the third year in a row I was in Tofino just before Christmas. And for the third year in a row my Christmas treat was the flocks of Sanderlings.

Last year I found the Sanderlings by incinerator Rock. This year they was a flock of about 150 at Kwisitis Beach.

As usual the Sanderlings were foraging at the water's edge. When the waves receded the Sanderlings raced out following the water's edge. When the waves rolled in they raced back up the beach looking like a murmuration on the sand.

After 30 minutes of frantic feeding the Sanderlings suddenly stopped en masse and started bathing. I've often wondered if they have a leader that gives the signal to feed, bathe, or fly. Anyway, I've never tired of seeing and photographing the Sanderlings and look forward to seeing them again.

After the Sanderlings left I turned around an spotted a Song Sparrow imitating a shorebird on the sand. The only difference was that it was picking items from the surface of the sand and not probing with its bill. That was my final bird before Christmas so the humble Song Sparrow is the Christmas bird from me to you. MERRY CHRISTMAS!




Bird Poster

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.)



















Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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