May 6/22 - The annual return of the Vaux's Swift is one of natural wonders of the island that and we are blessed having opportunity to observe. It is definitely on my itinerary every year, but I don't always make it. Coincidentally, my daughter was visiting from Vancouver, and I wanted to share the experience with her. We actually tried to drive to Courtenay the day before, but when we hit the Horn Lake intersection we encountered a torrential downpour and turned around. That evening I checked the bird reports and was surprised and disappointed - surprised that the weather was decent in Courtenay and 3,000 swifts had been counted and disappointed that we didn't have the fortitude to continue the trip.
It was even raining harder than yesterday as I looked at the western sky, but I was determined to give it another try. After a quick dinner we left home at 6 pm. At the Horn Lake intersection the sky was still dark and ominous and it was raining steadily. I stubbornly carried on despite the dubious glance fom my daughter. Finally as we passed the intersection to Buckley Bay the sky lightened and the rain stopped. When we arrived at the Courtenay Museum there were already a few swifts circling the chimney and they continued for almost the next hour before the sky darkened with the masses of swifts gathering and funneling steadily down the chimney. When it was finally over I looked at my daughter. She smiled back, and I knew she was incredulous and happy to have witnessed the amazing phenomena.
While the phenomena was a wonderful spectacle to observe, the significance of the event wasn't lost. It signified another cycle of life and the relative wellness of the various environments that hosted the swifts. Their survival reflected the health of various ecosystems from South America to Canada, and we will rue the day when the migration no longer happens.
May 6/22 - It was just another lazy spring morning when I made my usual stop at Admiral's Lagoon. In the past it had been my go-to spot for migrating shorebirds, but for the past few years shorebirds have beeen few and far between. Still, you never know what will show up and hope springs eternal.
When I arrived I was surprised to see that the few parking spaces were taken and so were the nearby roadside spaces. My first thought was to keep driving and go somewhere else that wasn't so busy, but then I saw Sam, and I knew there must be an interesting bird that attracted the birders. I stopped, and she told me there was a couple of Ruddy Turnstones on the beach. That was good enough for me. I hadn't seen a Ruddy for many years and the first I'd ever seen was right here.
I grabbed my camera and was walking in while other birders were walking out - Mark, Cathy, Melanie, Brian, ... and the lastly, Guy. After the friendly greetings and a few catc-up notes he kindly pointed out the turnstones right at the water's edge, and since no one else was left I felt no guilt about getting as close as I could. (If other birders were still wanting to see the birds I would have stayed back.) I had no problem finding the turnstones, and fortunately, they didn't mind my presence while they were busy foraging. That's why shorebirds are among my favorites and such good photo subjects. I spent about 20 minutes observing, enjoying, and photographing them before I slowly retreated while they continued to forage.
Ruddy Turnstones seem to be quite abundant along the shores of Oregon and Washington, but for some reason they seem to bypass Vancouver Island which accounts for only a few sightings every year.
May 14/22 - May is midshipman month and another of my favorite times of the year. If I could I would spend every day of the month exploring new sites and observing and photographing the Bald Eagle and other bird activity associated with the phenomena. As far as I am concerned, I think the midshipman is a foundation species, perhaps not a major as the Pacific Herring, but more important than most people think. We only get a glimpse of the imortance when we see exploitation by eagles, herons, gulls, crows, and even coatal mammals like bears, but we have no idea of what is happening underwater. How many aquatic species prey on the new generations of midshipman as they try to make their way back to the safety of the ocean depths?
I wonder if there was a time when the eagles didn't have to prey on the midshipman? An oldtimer once told me people could walk from Denman to Hornby on the backs of salmon, and that as a commercial fisherman all he needed was a rowboat and a dip net. Obviously that was an exaggeration, but there was a time when salmon and many other species were very abundant. Unfortunately, with our smash and grab mentality for resource exploitation very few were concerned about the future and most of our salmon, herring, and other fish are either gone or in jeopardy. Without the fish stocks did the eagles have to revert to other food sources like midshipman, Great Blue Heron chicks, and human gargage, or were those always part of their diet?
I'm not sure if there is a correlation between eagle abundance during midshipman time and the failure of the herring season, but there was a definite drop in the number of eagles present. My theory is that the many of the migratory eagles left by late March when there was no herring available. Two years ago we estimated around 300 eagles at Buccaneer Beach for the midshipman feast. This year it was down to about 30 - a decline of 90%. Did the eagles leave early, go elsewhere, or was their abundance just down?
It is always a guess as to where an eagle might decide to dine with its midshipman prey. Most of the time it's lunch on the rocks followed by the tree-top diner and then occasionally mid-air snack. I think the aerie comes last. When the eagle has been satiated it takes the next catch to the aerie for its mate and offspring.
Photographing eagles is always a challenge depending on the lighting conditions. Just ask Pius. On our Jimmy Judd trip he shot over 2,000 images and dumped them all because it was a bright, sunny day and blowout was a problem on all his images. They were on mine too, but Im not the perfectionist like he is so I've saved a few to share later. Anyway, we all agree that bright overcast is the best situation to avoid blowout and the harsh shadows. In most cases when the eagle is chowing down with its head down the shadows often obscure the face, bill, and prey. In the photo above, the bright overcast and position of the eagle was ideal.
Fish and fibre - It's not uncommon for the catch to include protein and fibre. Close to the low tide line there is always a bed of stringy seaweed that is the perfect hiding place for the midshipman. However, it's no deterrent for the Bald Eagle to grab the seaweed and the fish. In this case a perched eagle didn't realize there was a nearby midshipman until another eagle swooped in and grabbed.
The favorite dining spot for an eagle is usually away from other eagles. This eagle flew past several other eagles before reaching the rock in front of me. My presence was actually helpful in keeeping the other eagles away the area.
Crow-magnon! - Ithat's what I've named the seaside subspecies of the American Crow. It definitely has a more specialized diet than most crows, and it has developed its own skill-set for finding the midshipman. I'm sure DNA analysis will reveal other factors like a different language and superior IQ.
Heading for the beach - The crows usually dine on the pebbly beach where they meticulously penetrate the skin and extract the heart an other gourmet items from the fish. The rest of the fish is then left for other predators like gulls and eagles.
Most of the literature focuses on how the male midshipman is left behind to fend for the nest while the female escapes on the high tide. In general that is true, but not all the females get away as shown by the eggs dropping from the eagle's meal. Obviously, this female was either just coming in to the tidal pools as the tide was starting to rise or was stranded on the outgoing tide before she had a chance to mate.
Most of the eagles seemed to dine on the catches on the beach or on nearby trees. Only a few flew off to the nest with their catches. This eagle called several times then headed east across Parksville Bay with its catch. It looked like it was heading for Nanoose Bay. I wondered how far its call could carry, and if it were really calling to the nest.
It's a well know fact that female raptors are about 25% larger than their male counterparts but it is difficult to tell even if they are sise-by-side. After many tries I finally have a shot to illustrate the difference. The female in the background is definitely heftier than the male.
When the tide rises and falls along the open coast it is an almost imperceptible event, but when billions of gallons are forced through a narrow opening like between two Jimmy Judd and its neighbouring island it surges at high speed like a rushing river. When a reef in the middle of the channel is added to the mix a unique situation occurs. The water at the bottom shoots up carrying all underwater creatures to the surface. The change of pressure is fatal to the fish leaving a smorgasbord of bottom fish floating on the surface for the ravenous eagles waiting on the shoreline trees.
The feeding frenzy of the eagles is a remarkable scene not lost to the various whale and tour operators from nearby Campbell River and interested tourists and photographers
Most of the fish scooped up by the eagles are hake which is a type of cod. While it is nutritious and abundant it is largely shunned by North Americans and harvested mainly for the export market.
The excitement of the Jimmy Judd phenomena is attracting tourist interest south of the border from the likes of Mark Smith who has already sold out several sessions with interested photographers. I have no objections, but I wonder if we have any regulations for Americans working in Canada. I know that when I head south the border officials want to know if I plan to do any work in the US.
While the eagle show was amazing, our encounter with humpback whales was equally sensational.
It's difficult to imagine power and strength required to hoist a 40 ton creature into the air.
There are many charter operators in Campbell River. For our Jimmy Judd trip we used Nick Templeman of CRWHALESAFARIS. He was very knowledgeable and his Boston Whaler was an excellent platform for photography. As a bonus the first mate was the very amiable Yukon, the Alaskan Husky.
The most exciting and apprehensive time of any bird's life is fledging time. Its like a teenager leaving home for the first time. He/she proceeds on blind faith but never knows what's going to happen. For a fledgling eagle, it is visions joining the adults and cruising proudly through the air knowing that someday it will take its place as one of most majestic and iconic creatures on earth. For some the first flight is smooth and successful but often cautiously short before returning to the safety of the nest. For others the dreams come crashing disappointedly to the ground. The literature claims that 50% of the fledglings end up on the ground. I dont know if thats true, but I know there are many that fail on their initial effort.
July 13/22 - Both juveniles were still in or near the nest on Mallard Road.
July 14/22 - Boo Boo was found on the driveway of the house across the street from the nest while Bo Bo was off testing its wings.
July 16/22 - Boo Boo was still on the ground. Some neighbors reported that it was being fed by the adults, but two days later it was captured and taken to the wildlife recovery centre in Errington.<
July 16/22 - Bo Bo was back on the nest tree showing off its wings.
July 22/22 - Bo Bo was capable of feeding itself but just to keep it quiet the adult shared its lunch. This was the last time I saw Bo Bo. His flight training was almost complete and migration north was only a couple of days off.
The fledging timeline for most of the eagles I was tracking was very close around the end of July. The exception was the Beachcomber eaglet that ended up on the ground two weeks earlier. However, I'm not sure it it fledged voluntarily or inadvertently fell out of the nest.
Late July is Nighthawk time and it is mesmerizing watching the flocks zooming through the evening air chasing aerial insects. As much as I enjoyed seeing the nighthawks, I was completely frustrated by the ineptness of my Nikon D500 with 500 mm pf and 1.4x converter to autofocus. My gear was painfully slow and the majority of the shots were out of focus resulting about 10% decent captures. Fortunately, one of the captures wasmy prize shot of a nighthawk ready to snap on an insect.
November 26/22 - The days of chasing every rare bird have long passed, but the lure and temptation is always there. The rare Whooper Swan in Courtenay was just too much to resist, and all I'll tell you is that it took more than one trip. I was almost ready to give up but an excuse to shop at Costco bought us one last twitch. Melissa Hafting's morning report on the RBA indicated the Whooper was on Percy Road at the last spot we had checked a day earlier. It wasn't raining and a good time to pick up some needed groceries. We arrived at the farm on Percy at 2 pm. I was disappointed not to see a throng of birders and worried that the sway was AWOL again. However, there was one lonely observer just standing around. I asked her if she knew about the swan. She replied that it was somewhere over there by the forest. That cheered me right up because it narrowed the search down to about 10 swans out of about a hundred scattered around the farm. A quick glance through my camera located the yellow-billed swan right away, and I was happy to finally catch up to the fascinating and elusive bird. I had time, and it wasn't raining so I decided I could wait an hour to see if the bird would come any closer. It took all of the hour, but finally the swan met me half way for some mid-distant shots. I was satisfied and pleased to see and photograph another new bird. I am also thankful to those that first discovered and reported it and to those who kept Melissa updated for the RBA. Yes, thank you too, Melissa.
Coincidentally, the Whooper hasn't been reported since the day I saw it. It may still be around and not seen or just not reported, but from the way it moved from location to location I wouldn't be surprised if it moved on.221126CRTNY-006.jpg Uploaded successfully 221126CRTNY-235.jpg