If March was magical for the first signs of spring, the annual herring spawn, and the beginning of spring migration, then April was amazing for migration at full speed and the birth of next generation of Bald Eagles, Great Horned Owls and many other creatures. It was also amazing for the amount of sunshine. I can't remember if we had any rain. All I can remeber was good weather for chasing birds!
April migration is always like a swinging door. Many of our winter residents like ducks, grebes, and winter shorebirds were heading north to their boreal forest or Arctic breeding grounds while our summer residents from Mexico, Central, and South America were arriving for their breeding season.. Meanwhile, some of our year-round birds like the Bald Eagle and Great Horned Owl were seeing the results of their early mating and are busy with the duties of parenthood. There is so much going on that it is sometimes difficult to decide which opportunity to pursue.
Early April is the time to observe the dramatic plumage change of the Horned Grebe, and Deep Bay is my favorite location to enjoy the spectacle. You have to be patient, but if you wait long enough you won't be disappointed. The Horned Grebes traditionally forage close to shore even when there are a few big lenses pointing at them.
In early April the grebes are in various stages of moult and most usually don't reach their prime until mid-April.
The Red-necked Grebes seem migrate little later than the Horned Grebes so tend to be a bit slower with their moult. Many weren't showing any sign of plumage change in early April.
The Common Loons were also in various stages of moult. I wonder if the distance they have to travel to their breeding lakes has any bearing in the timing of their moult. Would they moult earlier if they have to leave sooner and travel farther?
While I was at Deep Bay for the grebes I decided to check in with the nesting Bald Eagle. As expected, one of the adults was sitting on the egg(s), and that was a reminder for me to plan a visit to the eagle nest at Boyle Point.
In my backyard there was a lot of nesting activity going on with the female Rufous hummingbirds busy collecting bulrush down for their nests. I always spend a few hours trying to capture an image showing the female's coloured throat feathers while collecting fluff.
As usual, the males seemed to have a lot of time on their wings. They would harass the females at the feeder then buzz off to points unknown. I often wonder how far they range during the mating season.
The male Anna's was much less aggressive than the Rufous. It never harassed any other bird and would wait patiently for its turn at the feeder.
April 12 - Over at Morningstar Pond the number of ducks was dwindling quickly. Among the last to leave were the Ring-neckeds, Lesser Scaup, and Buffleheads. To the uninitiated the name Ring-necked is a mystery because the ring around the neck is usually not exposed. The ring is only visible when the neck is stretched out as in the above photo.
While pond activity was decreasing, activity in the trees was increasing. Scores of Yellow-rumped Warblers were hawking insects from the surrounding alders. One of my favorite spring traditions is to spend as much time as I can observing and photographing these beautiful migrants.
Typically, the Audubon subspecies (yellow throats) arrive first follwed by the Myrtle subspecies (white throats).
April 15 - Birds aren't the only creatures that fly and almost like clockwork the Oreas Commas were flying at Little Mountain. The Oreas is one of the most elusive butterflies to find, but since Mark Wynja discovered them at Little Mountain in 2018, they have appeared every year around mid-April at that same location. Within the same week Leonard Bradley sent me a photo of an Oreas from his Morrison Creek hike which is in the same vicinity.
The warm spring climate attracted another interesting species to Little Mountain. I was lucky to find not one but two California Tortoiseshells. The first was in mint condition and very cooperative for pictures The second was quite beat up with a few pieces missing from its wings. This species is uncommon for our region but fairly common on the south island around Victoria.
April 15 - With the fine spring weather things were hopping down at Rathtrevor Park. Apparently, a mountain Bluebird was the main attraction a week ago, but today I had to settle for the feral bunnies. There is a sizeable population of feral bunnies at the park, but they do serve a useful purpose.
My luck improved later when I arrived at the not so secret Great Horned Owl nest site. I had planned to be there in the late afternoon when I figured most of the day shift would be gone. I was right. There was no one around when we arrived. Shortly after, the female Great Horned flew in and landed on a branch abut 20 meters away but in full sight of the nest.
After some preening, cleaning, stretching, and regurgitating she flew to the nest. If you are wondering about the regurgitating, it will be explained in a later photo.
She carefully climbed down into the nest and snuggled in with the fuzzy owlets. Eventually, word of the owl nest spread, and it became a feature attraction in the park. In my several visits I saw many people quietly and considerately watching the owl activity. Some of the older folks even brought their lawn chairs to relax while watching this amazing natural phenomena. It would have been the perfect setup to organize this an natural history theatre with a park naturalist on hand to monitor the situation and educate the public about the Great Horned Owl. But, of course, that never happened.
April 19 - With so many photo options it was difficult to decide what to do, but I had to make time to look for the Western Pine Elfins on Cross Road. It was a beautiful sunny day with the mid-day temperatue at 16°. In the past the elfins were located near the beginning of the trail and at the top end of the straight stretch. I was disappointed to see that the first location had grown in quite a bit. I checked carefully but saw no butterflies then headed up the straight stretch. A medium-sized butterfly flew from the road, but I never saw it again. I guessed that it was a comma. The top of the straight stretch was still quite open and looked good for butterflies. I walked slowly back and forth but didn't even see a moth. Undeterred I tried again. This time a small, dark butterfly flew from an alder to a small fir and landed. It was a Western Pine Elfin. Before I could focus my camera it was flushed by another elfin, but I knew it would return. I was right and it returned several times. This beautiful little butterfly is always a joy to see, and I had no problem getting a few pictures.
Mission accomplished. I had found and recorded one of our most petit and beautiful butterflies. On my way back I had another surprise. When I was working on my butterfly book in 2014 I had found several Mourning Cloaks on the trail, but I hadn't seen any here since then. Today was my lucky day - a Mourning Cloak flew by and landed on a fir branch in perfect camera range and in the sun. It was the first Mourning Cloak in that location in 7 years.
April 20 - April is also maternity month for the Bald Eagles at Boyle Point. Two eggs were laid in late March and right on schedule about 5 weeks later the first egg hatched on April 17. I timed my visit 3 days later hoping to see the second egg hatch, but it didn't happen. Another interested observer was the local Common Raven. I'm sure it had an eagle omlette on its mind.
Down at the nest the lone, fluffy, 3 day old eaglet was getting close attention from its mother. It was feeding the eaglet small morsels of fish.
Shortly after the second parent flew in with a frsh fish for lunch.
The bright spring sunshine was glorious, but not for photographing the eagles at Boyle Point. The shadows were too harsh for decent photos. We stayed a few minutes longer but decided leave and look for butterflies. We looked briefly along the roadside at Denman Provincial Park but conditions were dry and dusty, and we had no success.
Several days later I saw Jim Morrison at Rathtrevor. He had just reurned from Boyle Point and reported that the second egg hadn't hatched. It was now over a week which indicated that there wouldn't be a second eaglet.
On the way home from Denman we stopped at French Creek. It was low tide, and there was a flock of shorebirds near the end of the estuary. I slowly hiked along the creekside to avoid flushing the birds. Thankfully there were no Killdeer in the mix which allowed me to get close enough for a few record shots of the Dunlin. Some of them were starting to moult into breeding plumage.
April 26 - A week later we ventured to Deep Bay to see if there were any late Horned Grebes or Long-tailed Ducks at the end of the spit. Last year the Long-taileds lingered until April 29, but that was last year. Today there was nothing. On the way out I decided to stop at Mapleguard and spotted a Black-bellied Plover at the water's edge. It looked like a British magistrate waiting for a trial in its breeding plumage.
After a few shots of the plover a flock of shorebirds landed along the beach foraging rapidly. I hurried to catch up to them, but they decided turn around and flew past me. The flock consisted mainly of Dunlin with a few Black-bellied Plovers in the mix.
The real reason for our trip was to check out the Bald Eagles and midshipman fish at Buccaneer. Based on past experience the best time is the last week of April to the last week of May. When we arrived we counted about 2 dozen eagles perched at various locations along the beach and tidepools. I was happy to see the eagles, but it was a far cry from the 8 or 9 dozen we saw last year. The lack of immature eagles led me to surmise that many of the migrant eagles had left early for their summer ranges, and it was mostly resident nesting eagles that were present.
The task at hand was to find an eagle that wasn't too far away. I spotted one about 50 meters to my right and slowly approached as close as I could without flushing it. Now it was the waiting game and patience was the key. The raptor stayed in the same spot only moving its head to scan for any midshipman activity. I could hear the humming of the midshipman fish so I fully expected some action. Finally after 30 minutes which seemed like eternity the eagle launched from the rock with its eyes focused on its lunch.
With talons ready it reached down and grabbed a hapless midsipman with its razor-sharp claws.
Quite often the eagle will fly off to its favorite rock ot back to the forest to eat its prey, but this one cooperated and landed close by.
It didn't take long for the eagle to devour the midshipman which was probably just an appetizer. Last year I saw an eagle catch and eat five midspman fish before flying off. I didn't know if it were full or just changing locations to look for more.
Generally we would have stayed longer, but fishing activity was painfully slow, and we were ready for lunch. It was time to visit Sarah at Tidal Taco for a couple of her delicious fish tacos.
April 29 - If at first you don't succeed, try again. That is my modus operandi for photography. For some of my buddies it's "Buy a new camera." I wasn't satisfied with my previous visit to Buccaneer so it was time to try again. As usual we built in an extra hour to check out Deep Bay. I was quite sure there would be no Long-taileds or Horned Grebes, but I was open for any surprise. I wasn't disappointed. The first bird I sure was a Bonaparte's Gull in its handsome breeding plumage.
The only bird in the water was a male Red-breasted Merganser. I saw it dive and waited for it to emerge. When it did it was grappling with a wiggling gunnel fish. The gunnel fish was no match for the serrated bill of the merganser, and the fish soon disappeared down the throat of the duck.
The lone gull and merganser were the only birds in the water or on the beach, but a trio of songbirds flew onto one of the few trees on the spit. One of them was a fine-looking Lincoln's Sparrow stopping by on its migration north.
Another bird landed on ground and foraged amongst the weeds Its yellow eye-brow was the tell-tale field mark for a Savannah Sparrow.
An hour later we were back at Buccaneer. We were disappointed to see only about a dozen eagles scattered in the distance along the shoreline. The only bird close to me was a Great Blue Heron gobbling sandlance.
While I was filming the heron I spotted a second one heading towards me. It presented a good opportunity to record the flight and landing sequence.
Looking around I was a bit disappointed not to see any eagles close by. However, I did see an eagle flying in my direction towards one of the several large boulders scattered along the beach. I aimed my camera and focussed waiting for it to come closer, but little did I know it had something else in mind. As it neared the rock it flushed a juvenile eagle then landed behind the rock. What was the attraction?
I worked my way towards the rock until I could see the eagle. I was amazed to see it chewing on an octopus arm.
I watched for about five minutes then slowly walked closer for a better look. The eagle hated to give up its lunch but finally decided I was too close. It tried to fly away with the octopus, but the load was too heavy and slippery so the eagle left empty-clawed. That gave me a chance to check out the octopus. I picked it up and there was only one arm and a small part of the body. I was holding about 7 or 8 pounds of octo-carcass. Multiply that by 8, and you get something well over 50 pounds. An eagle would be no match for a large 8-armed octopus so I assumed the octopus was already dead when it got exposed by the low tide.
There was one stop left before we got home - Rathtrevor Park again. It was late afternoon and like before the paparazzi was gone, and we had the owls to ourselves. We spotted the female on one of her usual perches, and I set up the camera to record any interesting moves. On our last visit I had witnessed her going through a vomit routine cilminating with the ejection of a pellet. It all happened so quickly that I didn't get it on film. This time when I saw the tell-tale posture I was ready.In case you didn't know, the pellet is the way the owl handles bones and other bits of materials it can't digest.
I was also ready for the flight to the nest, but the owl deaked me out by dropping down before I could grab the focus. I was lucky to get one frame in focus.
I think there were actually 4 owlets in the nest, but the most I ever got in one frame was three.