The photo tells the story. First, the Northern Shrike tells you that it's late October or November which is generally the time the shrikes arrive from their boreal forest nesting grounds. Second, I'm probably down at the Nanaimo River estuary which is one of the most reliable shrike locations with the best photo opportunities. Third, I'm probably looking for Short-eared Owls but would be happy with Northern Harrier or good photo opportunities of any other bird. Third, I won't be surprised if I see Steve and Pius also looking for Shortie. And, finally, there's a good chance I'll be having a mouth-watering beef dip lunch at the Crow & Gate.
The vibrant blasts of yellow, red, and orange foliage on the willows, maples, and other deciduous trees that brightened our landscape are long gone, and with the the winter solstice just over a week away we have already experienced a week of sub-zero temperatures. Stormy, wet and windy weather is now the norm and sunny days are scarce fueling the urgency to grab the camera and go whenever the skies are blue. It is truly weather for the ducks, and we have no choice but to embrace it. On the brighter side it is time to celebrate the return of our winter birds. A few late migrants like the Snow, White-fronted, and Cackling Geese have graced already us with their brief presence before continuing south while our wintering Trumpeter Swans have become a common sight on local fields and estuaries. Ducks, loons, and grebes are now common sights along the waterfront while Bald Eagles adorn the snags and tallest trees along the rivers and shorelines.
Sure signs of impending winter are snow on the mountaintops and the migration of Snow Geese. While most of the Snow Geese stage around the Fraser River estuary before heading south to the Skagit Valley, a few generally stop on the island before carrying on. My first sighting was on Nov. 4 at Fairwinds golf course while I was busy winning dimes from Barry and Garnet. I didn't have a camera with me, but when Holly sent me a photo of them the next day I was prompted to grab the camera and go. When I arrived at Fairwinds the Snow Geese were gone. Undeterred, I headed to Parksville Park, and just as I hoped, there were five Snow Geese associating with the Canada and Cackling Geese.
Nov. 5 - While the geese were reasonably sure that I wasn't a hunter, they kept their distance and one eye on me as they grazed. Five of the six were had dark bills which indicated that they were immature or first winter birds.
Adult Snow Geese have orange bills with a very distinct grin patch. fd
Nov. 19 - Two weeks later another batch of Snow Geese staged at Fairwinds on the 11th Fairway. I was a 100 meters away when the spooked with the American Wigeons and flew into the pond. I looked to see if there was a raptor overhead or someone walking the course but saw nothing so it's a mystery why they flushed. Like the bunch in Parksville there was one adult with several juveniles which I assumed was one family. one of them had a bluish back but not blue enough to be a blue morph.
The Nanaimo River estuary is the largest on Vancouver Island and definitely an important bird area. Unfortunately, it is just too far away from Nanoose Bay to visit as frequently as I would like to. 15 years ago when I was more obsessive you couldn't keep me away during shorebird season, but changes have degraded the habitat, and shorebird numbers have plummeted. Nature Trust did modify the habitat to favor waterfowl, but there was also the infill of vegetation especially salicornia. Another factor that I've often wondered about was the stench from the composting plant. I know it certainly deterred me from more frequent visits, and I've often wondered if it was also an olfactory deterrent for the birds.
Although I haven't checked for shorebirds at the estuary for over five years, I have continued occasional visits in the fall to look for other birds. One of the fall regulars is the Northern Shrike. If you stand in one spot long enough you will eventually see one as it makes its rounds around the estuary. The brown feathers on its head and back tell you that it is a juvenile. Adults are gray and black.
Nov. 7 - Northern Flickers are quite abundant during the fall. Last week I saw several dining on the arbutus berries near the viewing tower.
Nov. 10 - This Marsh Wren was very secretive. I saw it dive under a log and had to wait 15 minutes before it popped out. The Marsh Wren is a year-round species near the coast but higher elevation populations migrate to warmer areas for the winter.
The gull population grows significantly along the river during the herring spawn. Last year Blair spotted a rare Slatey-backed in the mix. Glaucous Gulls aren't as rare and at least two have been reported so far.
This Glaucous was a loner working its way along the river bank dining on salmon carcasses.
Most of the carcasses appeared to be well past their prime based not only on their appearance but also the amount of time spent at each carcass by the gull.
One of my favorite sights is the return of the Barrow's Goldeneyes. At the peak of their return there would be hundreds foraging and frolicking in the river.
The Pacific crabapple beside the viewing tower is a magnet for birds like the Purple Finch.
I would never turn down an invitation to go birding with a musician. Dave Baird was by the viewing stand when the flock of sparrows arrived. Not only was he able to immediately identify the call of the Harris's Sparrow, he was also able to tell me the name of the song it was singing.
The adult Harris's was very obliging and allowed for some close-up shots.
The Harris's usually migrates from the Arctic down the prairie flyway, but a couple are reported on Vancouver Island in most years. In fact, two were reported right at the estuary.
Speaking of pairs, there was also a pair of American Tree Sparrows in the same area.
Just as I mentioned for the shrike, the best way to see the Tree Sparrows was to sit and wait at a spot near the end of the pond.
Amazingly, the Tree Sparrows returned to the same spot repeatedly. I had to wait for almost two hours one day, but they showed up foraging on seeds in the same exact spot. At last report the sparrows had been around for almost a month. Will the stay the winter?
American Tree Sparrows are common winter migrants on the west coast but not very abundant.
As mentioned, fall and winter are ducky times, and it was only a matter of time before I photographed one. This year the American Wigeons were late so I think the Bufflehead was the first migrating duck I saw. (I don't count the Mallards because some are a year-round birds, and I wouldn't be able to tell which ones were migratory.)
Nov. 27 - There's no point trying to photograph a male Bufflehead unless the sun is shining. I had a book delivery to Bolen on so stopped at the Esquimalt Lagoon on the way while the sun was out. The lagoon is an excellent venue for photography because there are usually birds around and the sun is at your back.
There were Buffleheads close to shore so I had to pull out the camera despite the finger-numbing cold. It was worth it to capture the subtle geen and purple on the head revealed by the reflection of the sun.
The sun continued to shine for the first 20 minutes while I was at King's Pond, and I enjoyed the Wood Ducks. Just as for the Bufflehead, the sunlight brings out all the colours.
Who's the fairest of them all - the Wood Duck or the Mandarin? The Mandarin is special, but the Wood Duck is ours so I'm sticking with the Woodie.
Wood Ducks do breed on Vancouver Island but I expect some of our winter birds migrate inland for the nesting season.
As you will see later, the Wood Ducks pair up during the winter and the females are very protective and affectionate.
There were sparrows in the shrubs all around the pond and they weren't shy at all. I couldn't resist a shot of my first Fox Sparrow of the fall.
With the limited amount of daylight I had to choose my targets carefully. Clover and Cattle Points have always been favoritie destinations, but I hadn't seen the American Dipper at Goldstream for many years. With the added incentive of escaping rush hour traffic I opted for the dipper. Of course, it was salmon spawning time and I didn't need the full parking lot to tell me. Just one sniff told me I was in the right place. I walked downstream until the path was flooded and impassible without seeing a dipper or interesting gull. On the way back the dipper was right beside the path.
It was having a wonderful time bathing. Time and time again it jumped in the water splashing vigorously. I watched it for a half hour before it started to rain and I left. By the way, it was quite dark, and I had to shoot at 2400 ISO.
Photographers of water birds dream of those windless days when the water is like a sheet of glass. The reflection pool shots can be stunning with the right sky or background colour, and there is nothing to detract from the beauty of the bird. I was fortunate to enjoy two days glasy conditions on Dec. 3 and 4th.
Dec. 3 - When I arrived at French Creek and saw the glassy calm water I knew the conditions would be great for pictures. All I needed to do was find some birds. I spotted a Pelagic Cormorant diving by the breakwater and was just starting to set up my tripod when it surfaced with a shrimp in its bill. Talk about wary. Before I could mount the camera it saw me and was gone. Disappointed, I packed up and drove past the Coast Guard station and spotted a female Common Merganser heading straight for me. She probably saw me too, but didn't change her course as I set up and clicked a few shots.
The sun was filtered so the colours weren't as bright as they might have been, but you can't win them all. Eventually she stopped and obligingly turned for the profile shot then retreated towards the breakwater.
As the merganser retreated a pair of Red-necked Grebes showed up in their black and white winter dress. This was the first time I had ever seen Red-necked Grebes in the marina. .
I was in luck as the grebes stopped right in front of me to rest and preen.
This is a classic grebe pose with one foot sticking out of the water.
Oh yes, it feels so good to stretch - just another avian yoga position.
The next day I had to go to Comox so I had a chance to visit French Creek again. This time I spotted a Long-tailed Duck by the far breakwater. II waited an hour before it started swimming towards the fish plant when it was probably going to dine on junk food - scraps from the unloading pump. That meant it had to swim right past me.
With the calm water and deep blue sky I couldn't ask for better conditions. I could have moved to be at eye-level with the duck, but that would have brought the rusty pilings and breakwater into the reflection. The blue sky was better.
Next stop - Deep Bay and no surprise to see the eagle on the small fir by Mapleguard Point. Sometimes I stop and sometimes i don't. This time i did. At first the eagle just sat looking over to Denman Island. Afte 10 minutes my arms were aching from holding my posistion against the car door. I was just about to pack up when the eagle's mate called from the marina. the eagle perked right up and did a few fancy dance steps to face its mate. Thank you Mr. & Mrs. Deep Bay Eagle.
I expected to see a flock of Long-tailed Ducks off the spit, but there was only a pair - a male and female . The female left immediately. Thankfully, the male stayed. I waited an hour hoping it would come closer. It didn't, but I was still happy to have gotten some distant shots.
While waiting for the Long-tailed a few pelagic Cormorants flew by. They were either too close or too far. I had to settle for a distant well-cropped shot.
As I was leaving I spotted some American Wigeons foraging along the shoreline. One of them looked a little different. I managed to get a distant shot that indicates that it is a Eurasian- American hybrid.
The rest of the wigeons were Americans - this is a male.
This is a female.
Back at French Creek the resident Common Loon lazed right beside the parking lot in the calm water.
A lone Double-crested Cormorant was by the Coast Guard station. I was surprised by the turbulence it created before it created enough thrust for lift-off.
Dec. 7 - I couldn't believe a second book order from Bolen in a week. That gave me another chance to visit the Wood Ducks at King's Pond. Do you remember I mentioned earlier that the Woodies were paired up, and the females were very affectionate and protective?
In the wild the Woodies are super-wary and you can't get within 50 m. At King's Pond they almost hop into your lap if they think you have some food for them. This on hopped onto the fence almost touching the end of my lens.
Conditions were windy and cold at Esquimalt Lagoon. I only stopped for 10 minutes but did manage a cute shot of a Dunlin flying with the American Wigeons.
This is my last installment for the year so i'm wishing you lots of birds for the holidays and an even better year for 2019.
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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.)