photo - Late February and early March is herring spawn time.

February Blues

I was going to say February weather was brutal, but putting it in perspective with weather disasters around the world, let's just say it wasn't conducive for much photography or any other outdoor activities except skiing. We had very little sunshine and temperatures hovered on either side of zero for most of the month. To quantify my photo activity I was out with the camera for all of 4 days in February. Fortunately, March rolled in like a lamb or should I say Brant or herring?

Some years I see quite a few Greater White-fronted geese during the fall and winter, but this winter there was only one. I saw it at French Creek on Feb. 12, and it was probably the same one seen a few weeks later at Parksville Park.

My favorite bird at French Creek is always the Belted Kingfisher. I was disappointed that I didn't see any new fledglings last year and neither did Wayne or Pete. Maybe this will be the year.

It snowed on Feb. 18 and the next day I had a visit from an Anna's Hummingbird. It was the first I had seen since November.

I was hoping to get a photo of the junco sitting on snow, but for some strange reason my wife went out a swept the snow off the rhodo bush. Guess I'll have to wait for next year for my snow shot.

Feb. 22 was a photography day, and I was desperate to photograph anything with wings. At Qualicum Beach I spotted some ducks and shorebirds along the shoreline. The first bird I got close to was a Black Turnstone studying the rock it was standing on. It stood there for several minutes while I took a couple of shots.

Next I turned my attention to several Killdeer foraging nearby. They usually sound the alarm and scare all the birds away, but they were quite obliging today.

There was a group of American Wigeons foraging a the water's edge. Every once in awhile a few more would fly in to join them.

I took a break from the camera to survey the scene and noticed a lone Black-bellied Plover a short distance from the turnstone. It was a bit unusual to see a lone plover away from its flock, but it happens occasionally. It was also very cooperative for some close up shots.

The shorebird that really attracted my attention was a small white one foraging in the shallow water. I knew it was a Sanderling because of its diminuitive size and whiteness. They are uncommon in the area so it's always fun to see one. I took a few shots then tried to get closer. As I expected, it didn't stay around. I flew down the beach a short distance past the wigeons and Killdeer. I knew I wouldn't get past the Killdeer and Wigeons without flushing the whole menagerie so I decided to move on.

As I returned to the parking lot I spotted a Song Sparrow foraging on the packed snow. I slowly drove around to the sunny side and took a few photos. I forgot to mention earlier that it had snowed the day before, and I was hoping for a bird on the snow shot. Well, this was it.

Next I stopped on the western side of French Creek. There were scores of American Robins foraging all around the creek. A bush with hawthorne-like berries seemed to be very popular. A lot of them had been migrating through all February. One day I counted over 30 in my yard. I usually don't photograph them, but today every bird was fair game.

On the way out from French Creek along Admiral Tryon Boulevard two eagles were still perched on their respective trees. I had seen them on the way in but because of the traffic I didn't stop. Now on my way out there was no traffic so it was the perfect time to stop. The eagles were quite content to enjoy the sunshine and scan the water looking for a possible lunch.

The trees along the road are not very tall, but they are virtually on the waterfront so they are popular perches for the eagles. That is also favorable for photography because of the low angle for the shot.

Oh, I did manage to get one other bird-on-the-snow shot off Church Road. The open field there is a popular haunt for Common Ravens an even Bald Eagles. Today there were several pairs of ravens looking like they were in the courtship mood. Unfortunately, it was afternoon and I was looking right into the sun so all I got were the silhouettes. But today was anything with wings so this was another opportunity.

I did mention that it had snowed the day before. This was what it looked like as I drove out of my driveway. No, it wasn't fun shovelling my way out.

This was the same day at the San Malo mudflats. Needless to say, the snow depended on location. At sea level there was none.

Feb. 26 - It was getting close to herring spawn time, and I wanted to check for any early spawn. I didn't see any from Nanoose Bay to Deep Bay, but at Deep Bay the Long-tailed Ducks were still off the spit. The fact that they were still there meant there wasn't any spawn yet.

While I was watching the ducks a Horned Grebe flew by to the west. It was a fair ways off, but it's not often you see them fying so I had to try for a record shot.

The Long-taileds are one of my favorite ducks, and I enjoyed another opportunity to photograph them. I knew it would be my last opportunity to photograph them before they disappeared for the herring spawn.

As usual the male Long-taileds kept their distance. I had to be happy with a couple of well- cropped shots.

Another sign that it was still early for the herring spawn was the scoter flock at Qualicum Beach. Instead of the usual 40 or so Black Scoters there were now an additional 50 or so Surf Scoters. This was the beginning of the gathering of the ducks so I knew the herring spawn wasn't far off.

Mar. 3 - There had been a report of early herring spawning up at Comox on Feb, 28. It was only a matter of time before the spawning moved down towards Parksville. with the sun greeting me in the morning I couldn't resist doing another herring check. As I entered Parksville and glanced down to Parksville Park and across Parksville Bay, I wasn't surprised to see the herring boats busy hauling in their catch from the turquoise blue waters. Opportunistic eagles were perched on trees all along the waterfront. I took a photo from Parksville Park to the trees across the bay and counted over 20 eagles. And, yes, there were rafts of sea lions dotted all around the bay.

Sea lions form rafts out in the water when there is no suitable haul-out nearby. The are actually sleeping and resting no doubt with their bellies full herring which they can catch with barely any effort during the spawn.

The unusually calm conditions were a boon for the fishermen. It was like fishing in a mill pond unlike last year when conditions were extremely windy and treacherous most of the time.

The calm weather was probably also advantageous for the survival of herring eggs. During stormy times the accelerated wave action dislodges tons of herring eggs that wash up in windrows along the beaches. Once the eggs are exposed to air they die and putrify to form and unpleasant, odorous stench. Some of it is consumed by gulls but most of it is gradually returned to the seaside ecosystem.

The gillnet season opened on March 2 and by March 7 the quota of over 12,000 tons was achieved. The seine season opened on March 5 and a similar quota was completed on March 10. The quota is based on approximated 20% of the assessed stock which most environmentalists consider too high.

For photographers there was no shortage of photo opportunites. Of course, the favorite taget was eagles and they were available at every turn. There is a stump and several posts in French Creek that are favorite perches.

Populations of migrating Brant peak during the herring spawn. The populations that stop in the Parksville region winter in Baja and Mexico and migrate north to Alaska and Siberia for their nesting season. In the Parksville region there is the bonus of herring roe in additional to their staple diet of eelgrass for them to fatten up on.

The Brant are celebrated in the Parksville region by the annual Brant festival which features guided wildlife tours and events as well as the internally famous Brant Woodcarving Show.

The Brant used to be counted and monitored by the Canadian Wildlife Service, but that program was terminated several years ago. However, the Arrowsmith Naturalist Club still conducts a volunteer count every year. The Brant migration begins approximately in mid-February and continues to late April.

Besides man the major predator for herring is probaly the sea lion. During the herring spawn the herring are so thick that it's like fishing in a barrel for the sea lions.

Most of the sea lions around Vancouver Island are the larger Steller sea lions. They are larger lack the sagittal crest of the California sea lion.

The sea lion may be awkward on land but is a powerful swimming machine in water and a ruthless predator of the herring.

Gulls are opportunistic feeders that clean up washed up roe at the water's edge. Huge flocks of gulls line the shoreline wherever there is roe washing up.

All the local dabbling ducks like American Wigeons, Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Green-winged teal also patrol the shorelines for the herring spawn treat.

Further out in the water huge rafts of diving ducks dominated by Surf scoters and Greater Scaup also take advantage of the spawn. Most of the literature say that they are feeding on roe, but to me it seems more reasonable that they are feeding on the massive schools of smolt that drift around helplessly until they develop the ability to swim properly.

All the local duck species take part in the spawn. You usually need a scope to find a long-tailed, but occasionally you'll find one close in.

If you're searching for the Brant you have to find a place where the herring roe is washing up. For awhile Columbia Beach was a good spot. I haven't been there lately so I don't know if they are still there. One of the problems in that location is the frequent pedestrians and dogs walking the beach.

I have occasionally seen a Trumpeter Swan out with the ducks, but it's unusual. I'm not sure if these swans were taking part in the spawn feast, but I did see them cruising along the shoreline near Qualicum Bay.

If you stand along the shoreline long enough you'll see ducks of all species flying one way or the other searching for the best place to feed.

The distribution of gulls along the shorelines is a good example of "birds of a feather flock together." Along Wall Beach most of the gulls were Mew. On one section at San Pareil they were all Thayer's, and at Bowser they were all Glaucous-winged.

Speaking of gulls the usual influx of Bonanparte's Gulls still hasn't happened, but I'm sure some will show up in the next few days.

For the Bald Eagles the flurry of herring activity was a welcome treat. Now that it's over they'll have to work harder to find their prey.

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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.)



















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