May was marvelous. With beautiful sunny weather almost every day who could resist not going out with the camera? I can assure you that none of my photo buddies could resist and neither could pretty well anybody else who owns a camera. I can attest to that because I was encountering them everywhere I went.
There were so many oppotunities in May that I could have spent the whole month on the road, but with many other domestic and personal obligations it wouldn't have been impossible but it would have been irresponsible. Two favoritie events I regretfully passed up werethe growing stages of the Bald Eagle eaglet on Denman Island and the Vaux's Swift chimney roosting in Courtenay. Watching the eaglets grow up is always a favorite activity although one eaglet is less fun than two. In retrospect I wish I had made at least one Vaux's trip as it turned out to be one of the best years ever with over 3,500 birds congregating on several evenings. Events that I did focus on were the eagle and midshipman action at Buccaneer Beach, Great Blue Heron activities, a new White Raven discovery, the Great Horned Owl nestlings, and a Pacific Loon day.
May is generally the heart of the midshipman season when those funky, humming fish emerge from the depths of the Pacific to the shallow coastlines for their mating and breeding season. While not as well-known as the annual herring spawn, it is significant in its own right as a forage fish that may be more important for the coastal marine ecosystem than most people realize. For the nesting eagles the midshipman comprises a major portion of the diet for the parents and the rapidly growing eaglets. For the migrating eagles the bounty of midshipman provides a bounty of nutrient required for their journeys to their summer ranges. At the same time it was also nesting time for the Great Blue Herons, and they are also busy foraging for not just the midshipman but also gunnel fish, sculpins, sandlance and anything else that moves. What we can't see is the underwater interactions and the relationships between the midshipman and other species of marine life so I can only guess that it may be more significant than we imagine.
For the casual or dedicated photographer, midshipman time usually presents a number exciting Bald Eagle photo opportunities. You can never predict with certainty what you might see, but even if the eagles and herons aren't up to something a little different or unusual, there is still that eternal search for the perfect photographic image. Unfortunately, more often then not, even when that perfect image is there, Murphy's Law prevails and the only image captured is the one in your mind and not on your digital sensor.
Looking back, 2021 was the disappointing in terms of eagle abundance compared to previous years. As mentioned in my last journal, I was diappointed and mystified by the decline in the number of eagles. In past years there would be over 200 eagles perched along the coastline and many more on the treetops.. This year there was barely over two dozen along the beach on any given trip. Were the eagles elsewhere? Did the migrants leave early? Or were eagle populations down? There were many questions but no answers. Despite the lack of eagles and even herons for that matter, there were many sunny days, and it was always a pleasure to spend a few hours relaxing at the peaceful beach. As for photo opportunites, there were a few memorable occasions. The best was on May 1. It was my second visit of the year. I was disappointed not to see any eagles at the nearby tidepools, but in the distance about a 100 meters away three eagles were perched on a large boulder.
Two of the eagles decided to take off simultaneously in my general direction. With my telephoto setup I was only able to track one of them so I focused on the one on the left. A couple of seconds later I was perplexed when the eagle stalled, rolled over, and faced upwards.
Almost immediately the other eagle came into view. They locked talons and wheeled into a dramatic death spiral.
The pair of swirling eagles spun right over me giving a ringside seat to dramatic action. I fought to keep the action in the lens and managed a few quick shots before I was out of position. The action was brief, but I was relieved and happy to get a couple of in-focus images. It was a once-in-lifetime event and opportunity that I may never see again.
I had often heard of eagles locking talons, but this was the first time I had ever seen the dramatic event. It was quick, brief, and exciting, and I was grateful for the opportunity to not only see it at close range but also to capture a couple of images to prove that I wasn't fabricating the story. There doesn't seem to be a set explanation for the eagle behavior. Possible explanations include mating ritual, territorial dispute, or simply just aggressive fun. As far as I could determine the best explanation was the latter. (They look like they are having fun don't they?) The first reason seems anachronistic since mating season is usually in February or March. The second reason didn't fit either since they seemed to be a mated pair.
I only made four visits to Buccaneer in May and would have made more if there were more eagles. As mentioned, eagle abundance was down and there other birding opportunities to pursue. My second visit was short-lived. There were more people than eagles so I didn't even take out my camera. I quickly assessed the situation and decided to leave. My third visit on May 10 was reasonable. There were no other photographers around and a couple of eagles within reasonable distance. I had decent captures of an eagle catching and eating a midshipman, but the lack of eagles gave me the opportunity to focus on a couple of other midshipman predators.
Crows, gulls, and herons are also partial to the fish and they are all amazingly proficient at catching them. The crow has its own interesting strategy. As it turns out a midshipman often gets stranded in a shallow crevice between rocks where it is actually exposed and easy pickings for the crows. The crow simply hops from rock to rock until it spots an exposed midshipman. Sometimes the fish is as big as the crow but the crow often prevails and penetrates the body of the fish to feast on the delicious internal organs while leaving the carcass for other less choosy predators.
The rows of photophores on the side of the fish are likened to the buttons on a midshipman's uniform which is the reason for the name of the fish. Functionally, the photophores are part of the sophisticated features of the midshipman. In the dark depths of the ocean the glowing photophores are used to attract prey for the midshipman.
Another local predator is the year-round Glaucous-winged Gull that breeds locally. They are opportunitc scavengers and take advantage of any exposed midshipman including the leftovers from the crows.
After a hiatus of three weeks I decided to make one last visit on May 26 just to see if eagle abundance had improved. It was an unusually cold, overcast morning, but the forecast was for sun in the afternoon. I got there around 9 am and surveyed the situation. The eagles were more scarce than ever, and there was only one other human on the beach. I headed east, and at the second tidepool I found Pete bundled up on his stool trying to keep warm. He had been there for an hour and never saw any eagle activity. He was cold, bored, and disappointed. I tried to cheer him up, but he was done and decided to head back to civilization for a hot cup of coffee.
Donna arrived a few minutes later, and we chatted while we waited for the eagle activity to improve. The few eagles available were all down at the tideline. I think the eagles were also bored. The only action in 30 minutes was when an eagle flying east decided to strafe another eagle perched on a rock just for fun. It was the eagle version of the game, chicken, to see who would blink first. The flying eagle maintained it's low flight straight at the perched bird. The perched bird held its position as long as possible until it teetered precariously backwards to take evasive action. I could hear the flying eagle laugh as it shouted, "Gotcha!"
The beauty of the cold, crisp morning air was no heat shimmer. Despite the action being about 75 m away, I was pleased with the relative clarity of the photos. Photos during the hot summer days are often contaminated with heat shimmer.
There was no activity for the next half hour. To pass the time I took Donna to a rock where I knew a midshipman was guarding eggs. It took a few minutes, but I was finally able to relocate the rock that was well above the tide line. I carefully lifted the rock to expose the midshipman without injuring it. Donna had never seen a midshipman nest before. She was fascinated and snapped a few photos of the midshipman and eggs with her cell phone.
Shortly after we decided to leave and headed back towards the parking area. An eagle was perched on a nearby fir with one eye on us and the other on the tidepool closest to the parking area.
Just as we passed the eagle it took flight towards the tidepool, and we were happy to see it land on a rock on the other side of the pool.
That was our cue to head down to the tidepool. It was one of those rare situations when the eagle was so engrossed in its potential prey that it completely ignored us.
The eagle perched on one rock before hopping down to another.
Donna slowly made here way to the east side of the pond while I eased down to the south side. We were both as close as we wanted with cameras ready for any action.
We didn't have to wait long before the eagle simply reached down with its beack and grabbed a fair-sized midshipman.
In most cases when an eagle catches a fish it flies immediately to a distant rock or tree to consume its prey, and some head off to their nests to feed their young ones. Occasionally, some will catch and stay, and we were fortunate that this one was in no hurry to leave.
The eagle simply hopped to another rock and proceeded to casually enjoy its meal.
Shortly after the eagle polished off the last scrap and licked its chops while it scanned the pool for another snack. A few seconds later it hopped to another rock, reached down with its left talon and grabbed another midshipman.
Believe it or not, the eagle caught three midshipman fish before flying east to the tideline leaving behind two very grateful and satisfied photographers. Close-up action with the eagles is always rare, but this was our lucky day. The weather was also in our favor with a bright overcast sky providing even lighting and no heat shimmer. I always measure the success of any birding situation by the number of decent photos, and by all the metrics this was an excellent conclusion for a mediocre midshipman season.
As usual, I spent more than a few hours enjoying bird activity at my backyard nectar and suet feeders. The main difference this year was the cessation of the black oil sunflower feeder because of the presence of invasive gray squirrels. I did my best to deter them and even caught and disposed of a couple, but they were relentless and endless. Their numbers have multiplied exponentially in the region, and are seen everywhere you go on the mid-island. The worst part is that virtually nothing is being done to control or deter their proliferation much to the detriment of our native squirrels and nesting birds.
From most reports Rufous Hummingbird numbers were very low this year. Several of my friends were barely feeding a cup a week. I was pleased that my nectar consumption of 2 cups a day which translated to about 200 hummers according to Can Finlay's formula. Cam developed his formula based on capturing and banding hummers so I think it's more reliable than other projections. In any case I had plenty of hummers to keep me preoccupied during my photo sessions when the afternoon sun was at the right position for my kitchen window vantage point. Obviously, I had a lot of decent images, but there is a lot of repetition so I'm only going a few shots from my May 5 session.
It's interesting to note that since I only took photos in the late afternoon, hummer activity at the bulrushes was slow. Bulrush fluff was disappearing at a steady rate, but in an hour I would be lucky to see one hummer harvesting down for its nest. Of course, the answer was obvious. Most of the bulrush activity happened in the morning. My photo challenge was to capture images of the females not just gathering down but also with their coloured neck feathers shining. If you think that is easy, give a try.
The majority of my hummers were Rufous. I think I only have about a half dozen Anna's. Contrary to some reports the two species seem to coexist nicely, and I have never seen any conflicts. Despite their larger size, the Anna's are not aggressive and simply take their turn at the feeder when a spot is available, and they often feed side-by-side with the Rufous. There was no problem getting photos while the Anna's were perched, but flight shots were extremely difficult. In most cases, the Anna's would pop into the feeder and either land or depart with no hovering. None of my flight shots are impressive so I'm just offering a portrait of a perched male.
Occasionally there are non-hummers at the feeder like warblers, butterflies, ants, and bees. Orange-crowned Warblers are well-known for their sweet beaks. I thought it was too early in the year for a juvenile, but Orange-crowneds are known for their early spring arrivals.
It's always fun to see the juvenile hummers at the feeder. Sometimes they spend a lot of time inspecting the feeders looking for the right place to insert their bills and tongues. When they do settle in for a drink, they are oblivious to the pecking order. Normally, the adults leave when prompted by other adults. The juvenile Anna's wasn't familiar with the pecking order and refused to give up its spot to the hovering Rufous.
The gangly, long-legged Great Blue Heron looks awkward on the ground but very graceful in the sky. In the air it is as graceful as a ballerina.
Down at Rathtrevor Park the Disney real life special of the Great Horned Owls continued much to the delight of many visitors and photographers. The area close to the nest was roped off but the best views were from a distance so that was not a problem.
The owlets were growing quickly, and the nest was getting more crowded every day.
Mom was always close at hand and ready to react if any danger was imminent.
There was no longer any room for mom in the nest. She had to perch on top to feed and look after the owlets. All her hard work and dedication paid of as the owlets successfully fledged a week later.
Every year it is just a guess if I will see another White Raven. According to the science there is a one in four chance of the parents producing another white offspring, but the average doesn't have to hold true every year. They could miss a year and produce two or more the next year. My success in finding a White Raven often depends on the help of residents in the Coombs-Hilliers region which seems to be the most consistent for their sightings. For those who aren't familiar with my past reports, I have never seen a second year White Raven so I assume that most of them do not survive the winter. My theory is that their feathers aren't durable enough to provide the termal insulation required during those sub-zero winter nights. Others suggest their white colour could subject them to more predation as well as disdain and aggression from their black counterparts. All the White Ravens I have seen have been juveniles and most seem to be born in the month of May. I have heard of the occasional second year bird but still haven't seen any documentation. Since it was May I was hopeful to hear about and see another White Raven.
My hopes were answered on May 13 when I received a call from a resident in Coombs. She had discovered a raven nest in her neighborhood and seen a White Raven. That was amazing because one of the great mysteries was where they were born. Over the years I have heard many residents claim that the nest was near their home, but no one had ever seen a nest.
The raven nest was a pile of sticks in a tall fir. The White Raven was barely visible through the tangle of branches. Two of its four black siblings are in the foreground.
Three days later the raven family had left the nest but still remained in the trees close to the nest.
A few days later the ravens had dispersed but could still be heard and occasionally seen in the general neighborhood.
Spreading their wings - The White Raven and its siblings were often seen together, but as in past years, it was often on its own and needed to be encouraged to join the family after resting. Was that a sign of things to come? Survival might be dependent on the being part of the flock.
As far as anyone knows, there has only been one set of parents producing White Ravens. There is a possibility that the original pair of black ravens may have been succeeded by a second pair. There is no proof but it seems logical because it has been over two decades since White Ravens were being reported. The possibility of two ravens carrying similar recessive chromosomes to produce White offspring is rare, but considering that for every four offspring produced, two of them would be carrying the recessive gene. It would only be a matter of time before two of them mated, and it finally happened this year. At the same time that I was seeing the White Raven another was discovered in nearby Errington. It was in poor condition and and admitted to the North Island Recovery Centre. where it is still under the care of a veterinarian.
lLike the two other loon species, the Pacific Loon is dressed in its dull black to gray plumage during the winter, but around mid to late May it blossoms into its sublime breeding plumage just before migrating to its northern nesting grounds. Unless you have a boat, the best location to photograph them is in Campbell River along the shoreline from Fisherman's Wharf to Tyee Spit. Pick a sunny day and you won't be disappointed. Last year I was fortunate to get some good close-up shots just south of the wharf. This year I decided to try Tyee Spit, and I wasn't disappointed. Numerous loons were still in the area and occasionally a few would come close enough for decent photos.
If you like Bonaparte's Gulls you'll find them in the same area .
If you can make it by early morning the sun should still be at your back for possible shots on the southern side of the spit where the loons are sometimes really close to shore. I was there around noon so had to focus on the northern side for the best lighting, but that was not a problem since the loons cooperated.
I like this shot but if it were facing me just a little more, the red eye and turquoise throat feathers might have shown a little better. Oh well, I hope to be back next year.
I thought I was done with Buccaneer Beach for the year until I noticed that the tide was predicted to be 0.2 m on May 28. Past experience had shown that a sand bar was exposed out from the rocky beach whenever the tide was below 0.5 m. Remebering how the eagles were catching sandlance on the sandbar last year I knew I had to explore not just the sandbar but also the channel between the sandbar and the rocky beach.
I arrived at the beach an hour before low tide which was perfect because the hidden beach was just emerging from the brine. The sandbar was almost a kilometer long, and there were a half dozen eagles perched on rocks scattered along the edge of the rocky beach. I wore an old pair of running shoes to make sure I didn't incur an injury fro a sharp shell or rock and crossed the channel near the eastern end of the sandbar and started walking east. The eagles were wary and left as soon as I was within 75 m. That didn't bother me because the sun was was in the wrong position for the eagles or any other bird for that matter.
However, despite the bad lighting I did focus my camera on a crow engrossed in a battle with a patch of seaweed. It was yanking and shaking vigorously, and I wanted to see what the crow was after.
Finally the crow won the battle and the prize was extracted. The crow was dining on a crab for lunch.
Seeing nothing of interest a the eastern end of the strand I turned around and wandered leisurely calf-deep in the channel enjoying the variety sculpins, gunnel fish, sole, unknown species, and even a midshipman or two. Just as before any eagle within 75 m. departed. I also encountered a few herons busy catching a variety of fish, but they were less wary and tolerated me within 30 m. Finally, I reached the western end of the sandbar and headed back to my entry point which was just past a huge boulder. I had just crossed the channel about 10 m. past the boulder when I turned around to see an eagle land on the boulder. I knew something fishy because previously I couldn't get within 75 m. of an eagle and now one had landed 10 from me.
The eagle was looking at the channel, and I followed its gaze just in time to see a heron trying to grab a fish.
I was amazed to see the heron emerge with a huge pile perch in its bill.
I have seen herons swallow large items before but nothing as big and wide as the perch. It reminded me of the song of the little old lady who swallowed a fly, cat, dog, goat, and horse. The heron tried several times but had to admit defeat and dropped the perch.
The eagle on the rock was waiting in anticipation of a possible handout. It didn'y hesitate and almost caught the perch before it hit the water while the heron scrambled out of the way.
With the perch securely locked in its talons the eagle turned an flew towards me showing off its prize. I complimeted it on its foresight and asked how it knew the heron wouldn't be able to handle the perch. Was it a premonition or just another example of bird intelligence? Of course, the eagle didn't reply. It had more important matters to look after.
I checked the playback on my camera and was pleased that I had successfully captured most of the action. As I slowly stepped around the slimy, seaweed covered rocks on my way back to shore I was thankful that I had made the effort to spend time at the secret beach. The secret beach, heron, perch, and eagle was serendipitous and a memorable way to end the month of May.