February is usually our real month for winter and true to form the temperatures steadily declined in the second week until frosty mornings were the norm and fresh water ponds and lakes eventually froze over. We did have snow but not enough to even bother shoveling. About 10 cm covered our driveway, but it was no impediment if I had something important to do like chase an interesting bird or simply take advantage of some photo opportunities. As it turned out we did have quite a few sunny days and a couple of interesting birds to chase.
It was a cool, crisp, sunny morning on Feb. 3. After missing the juvenile Northern Goshawk on two previous occasions, I decided to give it one more shot. According to a couple of birding friends, the goshawk was generally seen fairly early in the morning. On my previous trips I arrived after 10 am. My plan this time was to arrive by 8:30 am.
I left home at 7:45 am and by 8:15 I was rumbling down the gravel on Blacktail Road. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning, but maybe too sunny. As I reached the final stretch of Blacktail the sun was just above the horizon and blinding as as I slowly drove straight east into the morning glare. It was so blinding that I could only see where I was going by looking sideways out of the window and using the side of the road as my guide. It was a good thing that there was no oncoming traffic because I wouldn't have seen it. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to see the goshawk when suddenly I noticed a bird flying up from the side of the road. I stopped and got out. It was the goshawk, and it had just flown up to a small tree about 20 m away. I quickly grabbed my camera and fired a few shots. Then I adjusted the camera to overexpose because the sun was at the goshawk's back. A couple of more shots and that was it. The goshawk launched and flew to a distant snag across the clearing, but I was ecstatic to have gotten a few close-ups.
The Northern Goshawk is the largest and most powerful of the three accipiters. In sporting terms the goshawk is husky and muscular linebacker whereas the Cooper's hawk is lean and swift wide-receiver.
It had been over ten years since I saw the goshawk at Jericho Park in Vancouver. Goshawks are known to nest in the rugged northern mountains of Vancouver Island, but sightings close to civilization have been quite rare and never for a sustained length of time. In fact, in 16 years of birding I have never heard of a goshawk on the island frequenting the same location for any amount of time let alone several weeks. Thanks to the diligent birding by Cathy many birders including myself we able enjoy close encounters with the awesome juvenile goshawk.
Reports of an uncommon American Bittern enticed me to Buttertubs Marsh on Feb. 8. It was another beautiful, sunny, crisp, winter morning. At Buttertubs we encountered several birders who pointed us to the correct location. A systematic survey of the area for a half hour produced no results. It was a mild disappointment but nothing worth moping about. Failure to find a target is just part of the game, and I was delighted with my consolation, a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I love the kinglets. They are charismatic little birds that always seem to appear close-up when I least expect them. They are one of our prettiest winter birds and a joy to photograph.
After Buttertubs we made a slight detour to the Lantzville foothills where beavers were the excitement of the week. Sure enough when we arrived there were about a dozen cameras focused on a pair of juvenile beavers. They were hunkered down on a small island of grass and not interested in moving. I didn't have the patience to wait around so clicked a couple of quick shots and proceeded to my next venue.
Blunden Point at the end of Sebastion Rd. is one of my regular winter stops. There's always a chance to see a Common Loon , Horned Grebe, or sea duck foraging close to shore. It is also the winter home for a Spotted Sandpiper., so there were a few possibilities. It was very quiet when we arrived, but it was peaceful and therapeutic as the waves lapped gently against the rocky shoreline. My best hope of some photo action was several Red-breasted Mergansers heading towards the point. I waited patiently for the trio to come by the point when one of them dove and surfaced triumphantly with sculpin (?) frantically in its serrated jaws.
The merganser skillfully manipulated its helpless prey until it was facing head first in its jaws. I think the fish is squeezed into submission by the powerful mandibles of the duck before it is swallowed.
With one final thrust forward the fish was directed down the throat of the duck. Bon apetit!
Catching a bird in action catching and consuming its prey is the dream of every bird photographer. It all comes down to being in the right place at the right time. In the case it was part good timing and good luck. I planned to be there before the low, winter sun got behind the trees and enshrouded the beach in shadows. The good luck was to be there just when the merganser caught the sculpin.
Our token winter arrived on Feb. 11 with a few hours of the white stuff. As mentioned previously, there was just enough snow to keep us home unless we needed some groceries or an interesting bird was reported. We were quite content with household chores and a little relaxation. All right, I did make sure the feeder was full of sunflower seeds and replenished the suet basket. I also kept one eye peeled on the holly tree and osier dogwood.
My vigilance was rewarded when I noticed a few birds out the window. Several robins flew to the holly tree and proceeded to pluck the rock solid, red berries and provided the pefect photo for a winter Christmas card.
Shortly after a few Varied Thrush materialized from the underbrush just as I expected. They are one of my favorite winter subjects, and I could watch them all day if I didn't have anything else to do. The thrush tend to very secretive until the snow drives them into the open. It helps to have a suet cake to tempt them.
I carefully opened the window just far enough to poke out my 500 mm lens and waited patiently with a steaming cup of coffee. I was rewarded when a female Varied Thrush landed on the stick beside the suet basket. It was a little nervous when I started clicking the shutter but overcame its anxiety when the suet beckoned.
There was definitely a pecking order for the thrush as one or two seemed to dominate the suet while others had to approach cautiously like this male.
Meanwhile, several hunkered down in the osier dogwood while patiently waiting there turn.
You won't be surprised to see who was the king of the suet. The male Pileated Woodpecker came an went as it pleased and was never challenged.
Despite its size the Northern Flicker was very wary. Just a slighted move on my part would send it back to the forest, but with patience and more care I got the occasional shot of the female.
This male is a little more interesting as it carries the features of a hybrid. The red markings on the back of the head and the yellowish tail feathers come from a yellow-shafted flicker.
The Starling is not my favorite bird. I know its been over 30 years since some Starlings plundered my flicker nest, killed the female, and took over the nest in the alder tree in front of my house. I wasn't happy and retaliated by cutting down the alder and using it for firewood. The incident was so brutal and gruesome that it has been indelibly etched in my mind, and I still haven't forgiven the Starlings. Yes, I know it's a long time to hold a grudge, but some things are unforgiveable aren't they? Anyway, for the most part I'm glad the Starlings generally stay away, but with the snow I wasn't surprised to see one at the suet. I didn't have any weapons handy so I shot it with my camera.
It's been a long time since I've seen a real freeze-up when you can drive across the Fraser River, go ice-fishing, or trap muskrats in their push-ups. The norm nowadays seems to be a few subzero days and a thin layer of ice on fresh water ponds and marshes. Such was the case in the third week of the month.
Morningstar pond was partly frozen over with patches of open water here and there. A pair of Green-winged Teal took advantage of the ice for some sun-bathing, but they were in for a surprise. Out of nowhere a river otter surged up through the ice trying for a ducky meal. Luckily the ducks were quick enough to escape. The action was so quick and unexpected that all I could do was watch in awe.
Elsewhere in the pond a few Hooded Mergansers were going about their usual business. Other ducks included a few Ring-necks, Mallards, Lesser Scaup, and Buffleheads.
Feb. 17 was supposed to be herring day. I was invited by Grant Scott for a trip on his retired troller to look for herring balls and bird activity associated with the herring. We were trying to get photos for the educational video he is producing regarding the herring spawn sponsored by Conservancy Hornby Island. The video is to be one of the many creative initiatives to promote herring conservation in the Salish Sea. Weather conditions were ideal with sunny skies and just a light breeze. Unfortunately, the herring were a no-show so I had to be content with a cormorant day.
The first cormorant appeared while I was waiting on the dock at Deep Bay marina. A Pelagic was diving in the area just off the main loading dock where I was waiting. Without any hesitation I set up my camera and tripod and waited for the cormorant to show its better side which could be any side as long as its emerald green eyes were illuminated by the sun. The cormorant dove and surfaced several times but never with any prey in its bill so I had to settle for the plain back-shoulder shot.
Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants are seen regularly flying to and fro off the end of Deep Bay spit, but the Brandt's have eluded my lens from that location. In the past I have seen them from a boat roosting on Chrome Island, but I can't recall any local locations where I have seen them from shore. For shoreline views I had to go to Campbell River where they are frequently seen on the offshore rocks at high tide.
As we were cruising from Deep Bay harbour towards Chrome Island I spotted a crowd of cormorants on a marker buoy. I thought they would be the usual Pelagic and D-C's, but, to my surprise, they were all Brandt's with their distinctive tan cheeks and white whiskers. Later on we would see many more in bunches offshore and on Norris Rocks. It was a treat to finally catch up to the Brandt's.
Was it Frank Sinatra that was known as old blue eyes? Well, he's certainly got a lot of company with the Brandt's.
The most common cormorant I've encountered is the Double-crested. There is always is bunch hanging out on the breakwater rocks at French Creek, and they are seen regularly flying by Deep Bay spit.
The islets off Hornby are the home of numerous sea lions. They were extremely curious and surrounded the boat as we drifted close to the rocks. Some had bright pink lesions which I Frank explained were cancerous tumours. Another interesting sight was the female sea lion in the centre of the photo nursing its young.
The most interesting sight of all was a gull feasting on a still-born sea lion fetus.
Overall, the trip was a disappointment in terms of observing herring and bird activity, but nothing is guaranteed. Herring balls were seen a few days earlier and there were probably some when we were out but we just didn't find them. It was simply a case of being in the right place at the right time.
However, in terms of the fresh ocean breeze, gulf island scenery, and camaraderie it was a wonderful experience. By the way, that's a lone Common Murre in the photo.
A large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers was hanging out around Norris Rocks.
Recognize the Orca? Apparently the orcas all have their distinctive fin profile. I sent this photo to Jared Towers, and he kindly identified the orca as TO46D.
A view from the other side - It was interesting to see the Boyle Point eagle tree from the water side. Before you criticize very poor photo quality, please note that we were over a half kilometer away, and the photo is a major crop. If you look carefully you can see the eagle's nest on the branches a short ways below the perched eagle. I would have never picked out the tree without the eagle as a marker. (It's not always possible to get the award winning photo, but my intention is to tell the story, not win the award ... )
Northern Hawkowls are rare on Vancouver Island. It had been over a decade since I had seen one, and that was on Morden Road in Cedar. Although there has been at least one reported on the island since then, there hasn't been one that took up temporary residence for an extended period of time like the one near the hospital in Courtenay. I'm guessing it stayed close to two months. I first heard about it in early February but didn't get up to see it until late February. Apparently it was still around near the end of March.
When we first saw the hawkowl it was still having its morning siesta in a tall fir. I was amazed at its patience as a couple of Steller's Jays decided to play "harass the hawkowl." The hawkowl barely flinched as the jays made several close passes at it. Eventually, the jays got tired of their little game and moved on to ore productive activities like foraging for food.
A short while later the hawkowl got mobile and flew to a mid-sized cedar to survey the situation and decide where it should look for its breakfast.
It flew to the tallest tree around the clearing then dove down to a small tree by the forest. Whatever he had seen there disappeared so it flew across the clearing to a group of small firs.
Once again it surveyed the scene for any mice, voles, or small birds ,but came up empty.
Finally, it decided to check across the road and flew to the distant hydro lines. Meanwhile, after two hours of strenuous photography, we decided to go for lunch. It was another exhilarating experience to observe a magnificent bird of prey far from its normal range, and I am grateful to those who discovered the bird and shared the information.