Despite the COVID restrictions and the limitations of winter, January proved to be very conducive to birding and and outdoor activities. Staying away from crowds was easy since most birding venues were fairly remote and away from the beaten path. Interest in birding was certainly increased and occasionally, some of the more popular locations were fairly busy, but there was no problem physical-distancing or one could simply choose another locaton. As for winter, It was relatively mild with of a decent number of sunny days
GOLF COURSE BIRDING
Some golf courses can offer excellent birding at times especially during the winter when ponds attract a variety of waterfowl. However, one needs to be aware of which courses are receptive to birders and which ones do not appreciate trespassers. It goes without saying if you are on a course, you must never interfere with the golfers, and you must treat the facilities with utmost respect. It only takes one unacceptable incident to wear out the welcome matt.
There are several ponds on Fairwinds that attract waterfowl. American Wigeons, Mallards, Ring-neckeds, and Buffleheads are the most common, but you never know when a stranger might appear. Last year I was lucky to catch fairly rare male Redhead that stopped by for several days. Although it isn't a waterfowl, the rarest bird I've ever seen at Fairwinds was a Black Tern many years ago.
It was a sunny January 3 when I decided to check out the pond on the 11th fairway at Fairwinds. Because of a frost delay I knew I had at least 2 hours before any golfers would show up. As I approached the pond the menagerie of dabblers cautiously paddled to the far side. It is uncanny how they can trust me when I'm carrying a golf club but not when I'm carrying my camera gear. Most of ducks were American Wigeons, but there were two Eurasians in the mix. I decided to take a few distant group shots before checking the other end of the pond. The poor lighting and distance wasn't ideal for anything but a record shot. However, I did want to illustrate the presence of a couple of Eurasian Wigeons.
At the eastern end of the pond a small group of Ring-neckeds was busy dabbling near the far shore. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together and that was illustrated by scene today. Fortunately, the far shore was a lot closer and allowed for some decent shots. The ducks were wary, but as long as I moved slowly, they were willing stay around. Most of them were in the shade of a large weeping willow which eliminated the glare of the harsh sun light. I've always considered the Ringed-neckeds to be one of the most handsome ducks and i always enjoy seeing and photographing them.
THE MASTER OF POND 18
For the past few years a Trumpeter Swan has been the permanent resident at the pond on the 18th fairway. No one knows exactly when it arrived, but it displaced the Mute Swan that was in that location previously. Over the years most of the Mute Swans at Fairwinds had been transferred to other courses and parks, but there are still two or three, and they each have their own ponds. The swans appear to be territorial and don't like sharing the same pond. Just in case you are wondering why there are two swans in the second pond, a closer look reveals that they are plastic replica trumpeters. So there are actually no real swans in that pond.
During the late fall of 2020 a new swan arrived at Fairwinds and took up residence on the 18th pond with the local adult Trumpeter. Everyone was surprised that the newcomer was accepted by the adult when intruding Mute Swans were routinely ushered away. My explanation was that it was a juvenile trumpeter and a distant relative to the adult. Because the newcomer looked quite different compared to the resident adult, I was quite busy for a few weeks explaining to golfers that it was a typical juvenile. Although the two swans were never close, they did share the little weeping willow island in the middle of the pond where they preened and rested. In any case the two co-existed peacefully for about two months before the juvenile mysteriously disappeared.
CATCHING UP WITH RUSTY
During the fall and winter the demand for books was quite brisk to say the least and trips to Victoria were quite frequent. With the shorter days there wasn't much daylight for birding except at a few local venues. King's Pond was one of those locations and one of my favorite places for duck photos. One of the birds reported regularly at that time was a Rusty Blackbird, and since I hadn't seen one for several years I made it one of my targets. On my first two visits I had to settle for the Wood, Ringed-necked, and Lesser Scaup which I always enjoyed seeing, but I went all out for my third visit. I picked up a bag of chicken scratch at Buckerfields, and when I arrived at King's I soon had hundreds of Mallards and Wood Ducks surrounding me. I knew it was only a matter of time before Rusty showed up with the rest of the blackbird flock. It didn't take long before the flock of Brewer's arrived and started foraging for the smaller bits of corn that the ducks passed up. Ten minutes later there were lots of Brewer's but no Rusty. I was almost ready to give up when brownish-coloured blackbird popped into the scene and joined in the feast.
Rusty Blackbirds generally migrate south for the winter but a few find the west coast suitable for their Christmas holidays. A few are found every winter on the south island congregating with flocks of Brewer's Blackbirds.
The Rusty was a going concern as it briskly foraged for any remaining scraps of corn in competition with the Brewer's flock.
It was slim pickings, but Rusty managed to find its share of scraps.
After the feast was over, the ducks and Brewer's reluctantly retreated to the trail and trees waiting for the next visitor with a bag of treats. They generally don't have to wait long because parents love to bring their children to feed the ducks. Meanwhile, Rusty headed to the pond for a drink and then disappeared in the foliage to forage some natural food.
It was a real treat to see Rusty and I got my photo fix for the day. But, since I was at the pond I couldn't resist a few photos of the Wood Ducks. They are usually scattered around the pond, but my presence suggested the possibility of some treats so they hung around for awhile.
Several male Wood Ducks cruised along the shoreline towards me and presented some good photo opportunities. The quarter view of the head is my favorite pose for the Wood Duck especially at full frame with the light coming over my right shoulder.
Why not finish off with a full wing-spread?
I thought I was finished but as I was leaving, a delightful little White-throated Sparrow popped into view. The White-throated is always a joy to see, and with global warming we can expect more regular winter residents.
It's about 50 km from home but well worth the trip if I'm looking for a little photo fix. Nothing is guaranteed, but as far as I am concerned, it has the best potential for some interesting photo opportunities. The best location is the end of the spit where a variety of ducks, grebes, alcids, and shorebirds often show up.
One of the regulars off the end of the spit is the Horned Grebe, and it is often very obliging by foraging close to shore.
On the other hand, the Red-necked Grebe is usually just too far offshore for the desired close-up shots. I guess it's because its desired prey is found in deeper water.
Over the years close up opportunities have been few and far between.
I've seen Pied-billed Grebes in many salt water locations, but this was a first for me at Deep Bay.
With a fairly steep shoreline the spit is not a favorite location for shorebirds, but occasional sightings can be expected. For the past week strong westerly winds have been blowing a lot of debris, insects, and even oysters onto the western side of the spit which attracted the regular appearance of a flock of Black Turnstones.
As usual, when the birds are busy foraging they are less wary of photographers and presented easy clos-up views.
Most of the shorebirds were Black Turnstones, but the occasional Dunlin, Rock Sandpiper, and Ruddy Turnstone was reported. I was able to see a few Dunlin, but the other species eluded me.
As mentioned, oysters was among the debris washed in by the westerly winds. That wasn't a surprise as there are several oyster farms on the west side of the bay.
Not surprisingly, the oysters attracted Black Oystercatchers, and it was unusual to actually see the oystercatchers feeding on oysters. You might wonder how any bird can open an oyster shell when it takes a skilled effort with a shucking knife to access the tasty contents of the shell, but they are called oystercatchers for a reason. Their slim tapered bills are designed to slip in the shell and severe the abducter muscle to unlock the treasure.
The main attraction at Deep Bay is the handsome Long-tailed Duck. It is one of the most desired targets for photographers and Deep Bay is one of the few locations on Vancouver island that presents reasonable photo opportunities. The Long-taileds have been seen regularly off the end of the spit for years, but their abundance has declined considerably over the years. I don't know if their populations have declined, or they have just found other locations to forage. In any case, there were a few present for most of the winter.
Like any target getting the optimum photo of the Long-tailed was a challenge. Being present for the ideal lighting and water conditions was as difficult as winning the lottery. Early morning was the best time for the sun to be at your back, but the water conditions were dependent on the wind and always unpredictable. Calm, flat water was always the best but a light ripple was always the worst. Surprising, a strong wind and rough seas sometimes provided excellent conditions.
The other factor was the bird itself. There are certain poses I prefer over others. My favorite for most birds is the back shoulder view and that goes for the Long-tailed as well. In about a half dozen visits over the winter I finally got one shot that I really liked, and this is it - back shoulder, tail up, sun at my back, and fairly smooth water.
From the birding point of view I always like to capture the bird preening or winging (?) just to expose any unusual field marks.
Although the male gets most of the attention, one must never forget the female.
The Long-taileds were the most regular ducks off the spit, but many other species often flew by and some landed like the female Surf Scoter.
During this past winter the Surf Scoter was probably the second most common duck seen off the spit.
Some years the Bufflehead is a regular duck at the spit, but this year they weren't as common and i had to settle for the occasional fly-by.
As mentioned, the Horned Grebe was the most obliging of birds at the spit.
Over the years I've only birded the locations I've been familiar with and mostly in the Nanaimo region which extends as far as Deep Bay. There haven't been very many new locations discovered lately but BLACKTAIL ROAD near Spider Lake has potential. Cath C. from Deep Bay discovered the location and birders flocked to the area when she reported White-winged Crossbills and a Northern Goshawk. After seeing reports for several days, I couldn't resist and made the trip. On my first visit a found a couple of birders but nothing else except a few common species like the Bewick Wren and Lincoln's Sparrow. My second visit on Jan. 21 was more productive when a flock of White-winged Crossbills were foraging in the hemlocks.
White-winged Crossbills have eluded me for years and I finally had the chance to see them. Like several other species the White-winged Crossbills tend to be irruptive and this was one of those occasional years when they were quite abundant on the island. Although the crossbills kept their distance and the skies were mainly overcast, it was a treat to finally see the striking birds.
The unique design of the crossed bills is especially suited to pry open the cones to expose the seed that is consumed by the bird.
Apparently there are several subspecies of White-winged, but I couldn't tell one from the other.
The flock of crossbills methodically worked their way around the trees as they foraged on the cones.
Sometimes it was easier just to take the whole cone
The crossbills were a treat to see, but the Goshawk was nowhere to be seen. Rumours had it that it was seen earlier in the day. Apparently, Eric D. had seen it capturing a rabbit and had video of the fur flying as the goshawk dismembered the rodent. It was good news to hear that the goshawk was still in the area. Perhaps there will be another chance to find it.