No, that's not a typo in my title, and I'm not high on anything. (Maybe cabin fever?) I do wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR, but for those who enjoy an occasional brew, I wish you a HOPPY NEW YEAR as in pale ale or IPA. So what's that got to do with birds? Bear with me. Today as I was driving into Parksville I had to pass the Mann Farm and saw the many rows of criss-crossed poles. For years when I saw similar poles around Yakima I was mystified and had no idea what crop they were supporting. Eventually I learned they were for hops. So what's the connection to birds? Nothing direct, but I often drive down Dawson Road close to the farm looking for kestrels or hawks so I have an association with the hops planted by Debbie and her husband. As well, it is also the area where Anne N. discovered nesting Lazuli Buntings a couple of years ago, and the site of the only Cliff Swallow colony I've seen in the region.
My second association with hops was right in Parksville where one of my former students, David W., and his partners established the ARROWSMITH BREWERY in 2017. A few months after they opened they won the award as the best brewery in BC! That's an amazing achievent for David and a testament to his skill and expertise as a master brewmaster. So, what's the connection to birds? Well, when I dropped in to visit David treated meto a flight of his brews and in return I gave him one of my bird books. Birds for beer? It's a stretch, but it works for me! For anyone unfamiliar with beer, hops is an essential ingredient for ale and IPA.
Speaking of former students, there was a frightening incident on Sunday night. One of my former Ballenas students was driving home when she thought she was driving into a puddle. Instead it was a 30 foot deep crevasse where the road washed out. Her car was buried in the mud but she was able to call 911 and was rescued 3 hours later. Thank goodness she was uninjured. As the crow flies it was only about 5 km from where I live. What's that got to do with birds? Nothing unless you want to count the crow.
I bet you're waiting for me to get on with the birds. Yes, I'm procratinating because January hasn't been kind to me. Between the the snow, rain, and fog I haven't seen very many birds. As well, there hasn't been much sunshine to tempt me to grab the camera. For example, there was a hint of blue and sun today when I left home, but by the time I pulled into French Creek it was overcast, blustery, and finger numbing cold. I saw one of my photo buddies, Jim on the breakwater. When he got back to the parking lot he was half frozen, and his teeth were chattering while he was telling that there were hardly any birds around. I wasn't surprised because the creek was roaring and the muddy coloured the water was half across the strait. Unless the diving birds had sonar chances of finding prey were slim.
I'll start with a couple of weather related shots just so you know I'm not fabricating excuses. First, it was the snow, and when it snows, you make snowmen. One day just after supper we had a six inch dump of perfect snowman snow. My wife, daughter, and I dashed out, and in a half hour we had two snowmen. I wasn't on the ball or I would have planted some birdseed on one of the snowmen. I'll remember next time. After that there were a few beautiful, calm, sunny days, but that brought on the fog, and the sun was only available on the mountaintops.
Once the snow finished we transitioned to rain, rain, rain, and more rain. There was flooding everywhere with road closures, washouts, and frquent power outages. Apparently it was the 4th wettest January in history with 24 days of rain. It was good for ducks, geese, and gulls, but along Northwest Bay Road there was too much traffic to stop for bird photos.
French Creek continues to be one of my usual stops because there are always some birds around. Some of the regulars include Common Loons, Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Belted Kingfishers, Barrow and Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Horned Grebes, Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers, Bald Eagles, and a variety of gulls.There are usually a couple of Common Loons around either in the marina or near the eastern breakwater. Conditions may not be suitable for decent photography but at least you get to see some birds.
On two occasions in January I encountered Common Loons devouring fish. In both cases they were too far away for full-frame shots but it was still interesting to see them process and devour their prey.
Common Mergansers are usually busy in the creek but can also be foraging in the marina or off the breakwater. The male is always a challenge to photograph. It's difficult to capture the dark green irridescent colouring of the head without blowing out the whites on the body.
In early January Blair D. discovered a Gyrfalcon in Cedar. I think it was the only Gyr documented on the island since I started birding. I had never seen one so I had to make the trip. Unfortunately, it was foggy onmy first trip, and I may not have found it even if it were around. On Jan. 10 I tried again, and it was still in the same location where it was first seen. It was in a tall tree on private property about 150 m from the road so only distant record shots were possible.
In case you didn't know, the Gyrfalcon is the largest falcon. I breeds in the Arctic and spends most of its time there but a few often disperse to southern locations. In fact, one or two have been regularly seen in the Vancouver region for the past several years. I think one hung out around the grain elevators where pigeons were easy prey. Down at Cedar the Gyrfalcon was probably making its living on waterfowl.
Regarding the pronunciation, without knowing any better I used Gyr as in deer, but I googled a documentatary, and they said Gry as in fire. Mind you, it was a British youtube so I don't know if the pronunciation is universal or local.
While we're talking about rare birds check out the following link of a bird found on Ogden Point (Victoria) on Jan. 31. I wish I were there.
Jan. 22 was one of the rare sunny days. There was no question as to what I was going to do. After a quick breakfast I grabbed the camera and headed for San Malo. I was hoping to check out the Green-winged Teal flock and look for a Common Teal. Unfortunately, it was high tide and the teals were nowhere to be found. French Creek was also a bust with most of the ducks too distant for photos. The usual Horned Grebe and Common Loons were off the breakwater, but there were no photo opportunities. I also checked Qualicum, but as suspected I was too early. The scoter flock was close to shore, but the sun was still too low and the ducks were in shadows.
My last stop was Coldwater Road hoping for a Tundra Swan. Most of the swans were at the far end of the field - too far for photos or identification without a scope. I took a shot of some trumpeters just for a chance to press the shutter release.
I turned around and was heading out when a hawk flew out of some deep grass and landed on an alder behind me. I turned around and took a distant shot to confirm that it was a juvenile Cooper's. Turning an heading back out again I spotted a bird on a snag not too far from the road. I drove as close as I dared before parking and poking the camera out the passenger side window. It was another juvenile Cooper's. It had its back to me and seemed to be just enjoying the sun. Eventually it stretched, fluffed its feathers, then flew across the field. As I put my camera down I wondered why I have only been seeing juvenile hawks. In the past 3 months I had seen over 20 Cooper's and they were all juveniles. Where were the adults?
As I neared the entrance to Coldwater a Bald Eagle landed on the field. I slowed and drove until I had a clear view over the fence and watched the eagle. I wondered what the eagle was up to. Had it spotted a rodent or some other prey?
Unfortunately, there was no rodent or carcass around. The eagle looked around then walked over to a pool of water and took a drink.
I laughed to myself as the eagle flew off. I didn't get a rodent shot, but how often do you see a photo of an eagle taking a drink?
Back on Church Road I decided to take first road to the right which was through an industrial park. I'd often seen ravens there but nothing else. Question answered. A few minutes ago I was wondered where the adult Cooper's Hawks were. Just past the log home building site there was a small grove of alders. There was a gorgeous rufous-breasted adult Cooper's perched on a branch. So, 1 adult out of 20. I'm still wondering where the adults are. Do they migrate further south leaving the juveniles behind?
After a few minutes I pulled forward to try for a better view. Unfortunately, there was a branch right in front of the hawk which I had to photoshop out. My movement also disturbed the hawk so after it did its business it flew.
Back on Church Road I spotted a bunch of eagles near the recycle depot. They hang around the depot to help recycle the organic waste.
A trio of 3 year old eagles on a treetop caught my attention. It's difficult enough to get a shot of a pair of eagles let alone a trio (and nowhere near Pam's group of 9). I pulled over and set up my tripod and camera.
One of the eagles was drying its wings while the other two were just enjoying the sun. All was quiet until a rambunctious raven decided to make a pass at the eagles. It wasn't an isolated incident. This was the second raven attck that I witnessed.
There were a few ruffled feathers and complaining then the eagles settled down. I wonder what the ravens were thinking.
After a few more eagle shots I packed up and headed for Starbucks to warm up. With the hawks and eagles it was a good day. In fact, it was my first good day for photography in 2018.
On Jan. 16 I decided to take a chance on the weather to deliver some books to the Laughing Oyster in Courtenay and Blue Heron in Comox. The forecast was mainly cloud and showers with the chance of sun. I wasn't optimistic, but the long range forecast didn't offer anything better. As expected it was rainy and windy all the to Courtenay. After my stop at the Laughing Oyster I headed for Comox and was happy to see a few breaks in the clouds.
By the time I finished my delivery to the Blue Heron there was a lot of blue sky. It was still very windy but the sun was shining. I decided to check out the waterfront at the government wharf where I has delighted to find a few ducks.
The lee side of the wharf was in full sun and protected from the wind. A couple of Hooded Mergansers were enjoying a crab smorgasbord. After the crabs they encountered a school of small fish right below me. The 3 Hooded Mergansers snagged about a half dozen fish each before moving out of the harbour.
There were also a few Common Goldenye busy having lunch.
They were too far out to get a good shot and identify their prey. My best guess was crabs.
The sun was only out for about 30 minutes, but it was an unexpected bonus for which I was grateful. It rained all the way home.
Jan. 22 - The Black Scoters at Qualicum are one of my annual photo fixes, and it was time to check them out. Conditions were favorable. It was sunny and not foggy, high tide around noon, and fairly calm. This would be my first scoter session in a year. Now that the sun is higher in the sky it would be shining along the shoreline for a couple of hours.
Of course, I always stop at French Creek on the way. I didn't expect to see much, but I did want to see who was roosting on the log in the creek. It was no surprise to see a couple of Common Mergansers perched on the log.
Luckily, both ducks were in the process of grooming so there was a chance of getting some interesting poses. Sleeping ducks don't make interesting subjects.
I'm sure this was a yoga pose, but I don't know what it's called. For now let's call it the "merganser!"
At Qualicum the good news was the scoter flock was close the the change rooms where they have been for the past week. The bad news was the number of pedestrians and dog walkers. The scoters were skittish and headed out whenever there was an uncontrolled dog on the beach or people stopping to wonder what I was doing. In a way I was surprised to see the scoters in the same location as last week. Usually when they clean out an area the move on. I wondered if the stormy weather in the past few weeks washed up a lot of clams in that location.
I was used to all the disturances and waited until I got a couple of decent photos. One of the females stayed around while the rest of the flock was heading south.
When the flock finally returned I waited for a clam shot. I was rewarded with a 2 for 1 - a male Black Scoter and female Surf Scoter each with a varnish clam.
It's a challenge to get a group shot with every subject in focus. This was the best of the bunch.
One duck attracts another. Besides the Black Scoters there were a couple of Common Goldeneye and a Bufflehead.
While I was focussed on the scoters a large posse of about 30 mergansers passed right in front of me heading east. They were chasing a school of fish along the shoreline.
It's always exciting to see a flock of mergansers in action. Most of them were Common but there were a few Red-breasted in the mix.
They were too close to me so I packed up and drove down to the next beach access for more photos.
After a few shots I headed for the next access where the activity finally slowed down. Some of the ducks were still chasing but half of them were just swimming leisurely after the flock. Perhaps they were already full.
I had a good three hours with the ducks and loved every minute of it. It's not often that you find the right conditions and today was one of them. When you only get two useable days in the month you have to make the best of it. In a few weeks most of the ducks will be gone. They're not migrating, but they will be chasing the herring during the herring spawn.
While it may have seemd that I was complaining about the January weather, that wasn't my intention. I was just objectively stating the facts. To put it in perspective, the inclement weather wasn't unexpected and, at most, was only a minor inconvenience. Around the world there have been scores or tragic weather events where lives and properties were lost. The disastrous flash flooding and mudslides (debris flows) in California come to mind as well as countless other active weather tragedies around the globe.
Next week I am booked for a hearing aid fitting. That means I'll soon be able to hear the birds. For the past decade I thought the birds were mute, but I've been told they actually sing. That's going to open a whole new world for me. I'll even be able to hear some of you when I see you in the field. Looking forward to hearing you!
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.)