Friday, March 30, 2012

Mammals Are Birds Too!

Or not, but whatever.

The final stretch of the Great Canadian Chicken Hunt put me closer to home, spending 2 days birding with Russ Cannings in the Okanagan. Outside of Victoria, and possibly SE Arizona, the Okanagan is one of my favourite birding areas. Despite this, I have spent very little time there, and usually only at a select few spots. The final two days were my chance to see what lies beneath the surface.

With a list of targets in mind, we started off on March 26 birding from Penticton down to Vaseaux Lake. We did very well with waterfowl, finding good numbers of Horned Grebes, Redheads, Canvasbacks and others, plus lesser numbers of Barrow's Goldeneye.

At Vaseaux we heard, but didn't see, Canyon Wren, and completely missed Chukar, one of my targets. From there we worked through Deadman Lake, where we found a female Ruddy Duck and a male Eurasian Wigeon. Also hanging around were my first Say's Phoebes of the year. Closer to Osoyoos we found a roosting Long-eared Owl (owl number 6 for the trip!) and a Great Horned Owl that exhibited a bizarre blend of tan and grey, appearing to have more Barn Owl colouration than anything! While scanning Osoyoos Lake from a road along the west side, we heard, and then found, the first Osprey of the year.

Russ and I wound down the afternoon birding first at Haynes Point Provincial Park, where we dipped on the Rusty Blackbirds that have been hanging around, and then working our way through White Lake back to Penticton. Along White Lake Road we had Pygmy Nutchatches, a Rough-legged Hawk, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and a few scattered passerines and waterfowl. After a great dinner with Russ's parents and a rest, we headed out after dark to track down some owls.

My main owl target was Boreal Owl, a bird which many dream of finding, and we put in a great effort for it. Despite the blowing snow and dicey roads we plowed on, but our only reward for our efforts was two sightings of Snowshoe Hare dashing across the road.

The next, and my final, morning in the Okanagan we headed back out to OK Falls and up to Shuttleworth Creek Rd. As in Alberta, we heard a single White-winged Crossbill fly over, but couldn't get eyes on it. When we reached Rabbit Lake the birding continued to be good, with small flocks of chickadees defying the wind and flitting through the trees. One of these flocks contained a single Boreal Chickadee, my first for British Columbia. Other birds along Shuttleworth included Gray Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers, and a calling Pine Grosbeak.

Back at Haynes Point Park, we again missed Rusty Blackbird, but had better luck on Anarchist Mountain, where we located a stunning male Williamson's Sapsucker, my first for Canada, as well as another Rough-legged Hawk.

While driving along Road 22, I spotted a suspicious looking lump in a field which I dismissed as a bush, but which on closer inspection turned into the first arrival Long-billed Curlew! The Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve was also a treat despite the gusting wind and occassional rain as we flushed one, and the another Gray Partridge. Two Peregrine Falcons soared overhead, and several Canyon Wrens sang from the cliffs. Our second sheep of the trip, California Bighorn Sheep, watched inquisitively from the safety of the rocks.

The day, and my trip, ended at Vaseaux Lake again, where I finally managed a look at a very vocal Canyon Wren, plus both bluebirds, though we missed Chukar yet again.

Over the course of seven days, we tallied a list of 120 species, which isn't too bad for late winter/early spring in the interior. Of those 120, I had 6 lifers (four chickens, a woodpecker, and a redpoll), 9 Canada birds, and three BC birds. We also had 6 species of owl, and 13 species of mammals, including Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain and California Bighorn Sheep, Elk, Pine Marten, and Wild Horse.

Trips don't get much more memorable than this one, even given the season! Many thanks to Russ Cannings and Ilya Povalyaev for great company and a place to stay, and to Dick Cannings and Margaret Holm for their incredible hospitality while I was in Penticton.

Good birding in all seasons,

Thursday, March 29, 2012

O Chicken, Where Art Thou?

This is post number two, so if you haven`t read the first one already, scroll down before reading this one!

I had left off where our intrepid birders (myself, Russell Cannings, and Ilya Povalyaev) had just twitched a Barred Owl, which apparently is a rare sight within Calgary limits, and indeed in many parts of Alberta.

To give a bit more background, we had ventured east in the hopes of tracking down the elusive and critically endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, once numerous in Canada and now limited to less than 100 individuals in Alberta and Saskatchewan. When Russ and I arrived in Alberta, we found out that our original plans to see this bird had fallen through, leaving us with two options - find our own, or head even further east to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. We opted for the first and, with Ilya behind the wheel, headed south towards Medicine Hat for the night (en route to which we picked up our Alberta Barred Owl tick).

After a brief nights sleep in Medicine Hat, we packed our gear and headed toward Manyberries, a collection of three buildings that passes for a town. Sage-Grouse have historically been found in the areas surrounding Manyberries, and we were committed (or should be committed, as the case may be) to searching the surrounding habitat for this big, dark chicken. We began driving the backroads, scanning any patches of sage, while enjoying flights of Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, and hundreds of Horned Larks, along with the occassional flock of Common Redpolls and American Tree Sparrows (yes, Virginia, flocks of Tree Sparrows!)

Somewhere in thousands of square miles.....

Before long, in an area I can`t recall, we found a promising expanse of grass and sage, and began scanning it in earnest, turning up Rough-legged Hawk, Nothern Harrier, and more Horned Larks. After what seemed an eternity, but was likely closer to 20 minutes, Russ called out "I have three gallinaceous birds, they may be partridge", followed closely by " sh*t, they have long tails, they're SAGE GROUSE!"

Indeed, Russ had located three foraging male Greater Sage-Grouse slowly working their way through the prairie about a kilometre away from us, stopping to occassionally eye each other up. We watched the birds for over an hour, savouring every look at these spectacular grouse in the cold morning air.

Russ and Ilya Celebrating

Eventually, the birds disappeared from view, and we aimed south, where we hoped to find a couple of other, albeit less tricky, targets.

The first came very quickly, as we rounded a bend to find a large hawk on a fencepost, our first Ferruginous Hawk of the day. Another kilometre or so down the road, and Ilya pulled over to check a small passerine that had flown across the road. We never refound the mystery bird, but Ilya spotted a Sharp-tailed Grouse instead, again the first of many for the day.

All of our targets neatly located before 9am, we headed north to Elkwater and Cypress Hills Park (an Inter-Provincial Park, or so the sign says). Along the way, we stopped to check our various flocks, and such lucked into a surprise bird. We had been scanning a large flock of Common Redpolls along a road, when Russ and I noticed a very pale bird among them, which stood out and then flew, giving even more looks. Not only was this my first Hoary Redpoll, it was only Russ's third, (having seen his first two only days previous) and a great bird for southern Alberta!

On our way into Elkwater, we turned up three Snowy Owls fairly close to one another on telephone poles, a nice addition to the one from the previous day. Cypress Hills was quiet, but the restaurant at Elkwater sure makes a great burger!

From Elkwater we worked our way north, finding three more Snowy Owls near Brooks, plus more Sharp-tailed Grouse, a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, and others. Back in Calgary, we checked a hotspot for Prairie Falcon, with no luck in the fading light and low cloud. After a celebratory dinner at Boston Pizza, we headed to Weaselhead Park, and Russ quickly called up a Northern Saw-whet Owl to end the day.

The plan for the next morning was to head for Penticton but first, some birding. Back at Inglewood Sanctuary, we again were treated to looks at the Lesser Black-backed Gull that we had found two days previous, plus brief glimpses of an adult Glaucous Gull. There had been a report the previous day of a Snow Goose and Ross' Goose in the area, but neither were present during our time along the Bow. From there we headed slightly upriver to Pearce Park, where we found two adult Glaucous Gulls lounging along the river.

The fields at 51st and 68th didn't disappoint on this day, and we quickly found the Harris's Sparrow that we had previously missed, though a trek back to the Prairie Falcon spot let us down again. We had no trouble locating a Great Horned Owl nest in its usual spot in a certain city park, the male an impressive, pale member of the arctic subspecies. From there our last Calgary stop was Weaselhead Park once again, this time in search of two finches. Pine Grosbeak entertained us in small numbers, being very approachable and very vocal. My main target, White-winged Crossbill, proved more elusive, as we heard only a single individual and saw it not. At Weaselhead Ilya showed us this sign, can you spot the problem?

After saying our goodbyes to Ilya, we carried on to the Grand Valley area north of Cochrane, where we were treated to great views of a perched Northern Hawk-Owl, while I spotted its mate peaking out of a cavity in a tree, its nest.

Lastly, a stop in Lake Lousie yielded Clark's Nutcracker and Boreal Chickadee, the former a trip bird and the latter a much wanted Canadian bird for me. To cap off the day, we found ourselves briefly stopping in Revelstoke at 10pm or so, where we enjoyed home-cooked chicken curry and some great company (thanks Kait!) before heading down the home stretch to Penticton.

To have such a great few days in Alberta, with great company and great birds, is unforgettable. We had the privilege of lucking into 3 of the perhaps 10 male Greater Sage-Grouse left in the wild in Alberta, finding what may be the 10th or 12th provincial record of Lesser Black-backed Gull, seeing the second provincial record of Red-bellied Woodpecker, and connecting with many other great birds. Russ and I ended the Alberta portion of our trip with a little over 80 species, and some great memories!

I still had two full days of birding ahead of me before bussing back to Victoria, but that is a story for tomorrow, and post number three.

Eastward Bound......

A single trip report would be a little on the long side, so I am going to post my recent trip in three pieces, this being the first.

I will skip over the boredom of the overnight bus trip from Victoria to Penticton, the ferry company of a Londoner who drank an entire bottle of wine on the deck of the boat while regaling me with tales of a vagabond life, and the sleep deprivation that followed, and get right to the story.

I met Russ Cannings at the Pentiction bus station at 6:00am on March 22, having travelled through the night, and we immediately headed north and east, with a particular set of targets. Throughout the Okanagan Valley, we saw good numbers of gulls, mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but didn't start seriously birding until we hit the mountains near the Alberta border, as we were both looking to make the most of our time, as well as add to our Alberta lists. The snow picked up with elevation, and we ended up making few stops until we hit Banff, home of our first target for the trip.

Russ had tracked down a couple of "hotspots" along Icefield Parkway, which runs through Banff National Park from Lake Louise up to Jasper, and we spent an hour and a bit checking these spots, hoping to make out a white shape among the white snow. Having no luck, we turned back, intent on heading for Calgary. Partway back down the Icefield Parkway, and ten kilometers or so from any of the hotspots, a hillside caught our attention and we pulled over to look. It wasn't long before I heard a call, and spotted a perfectly winter plumaged White-tailed Ptarmigan against the snow. The bird was one of a group of three that we saw, and there were two more calling from up the hill.

We enjoyed great views of the ptarmigan and then, mindful of the time, continued on our way, opting for Highway 1a, which passed though an array of incredible habitat, seemingly devoid of birds. We lost light by the time we reached Ilya Povalyaev's house in Calgary, and planned out our approach for the next few days.

The next morning found Russ and I at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in SE Calgary, where we had a number of birds in mind, most notably ducks, gulls and geese, and the resident Northern Goshawks. The river through the sanctuary had a large number of birds, mostly Canada Geese, California Gulls, Herring Gulls, etc. We were both scanning the birds when Russ called out that he had found a bird neither of us had thought to expect. Careful looks confirmed a Lesser Black-backed Gull in amongst the others, and standing out by virtue of its much darker back.

After hearing of the sighting, Ilya and Yousif Attia joined us in admiring the bird, though none of us did any better than a record shot of the bird, seen here just behind the rear end of the Canada Goose. A couple of other Calgary birders also came running when they heard about the bird, and we stayed to point it out before heading on to our next destination.

We headed south to the town of High River next, hoping to catch up with Alberta's long-staying second record of Red-bellied Woodpecker. Despite meeting a gentleman at Inglewood who let us know that a group of birders had missed the bird the previous day, our spirits remained bouyed by the gull sighting. We both fully expected to search for the woodpecker, and were a little surprised when it began calling almost as soon as we had gotten out of the car. The female Red-bellied Woodpecker had not even given me time to get my boots laced, and provided crippling looks! This great bird was joined in the park and neighbourhood by several Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings, a Blue Jay, and others, though Russ couldn't locate his much sought-after Alberta Eurasian Collared-Dove.

From High River and a quick Taco Time lunch, Frank Lake called out to us. With a fair amount of thawed surface area, Frank Lake is a ducks spring-time paradise, and we quickly located numbers of Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, Canada Geese, and the other expected ducks, plus a couple of Killdeer hanging out on the ice. A thorough search of the surrounding fields failed to turn up my much wanted Gray Partridge.

A quick drive up towards Blackie also held a target bird for us in the form of a single young Snowy Owl on a fencepost.

Next, in the spirit of adding Alberta birds and generally just enjoying rarities, we headed for the fields in the area of 51st St and 68th Ave in SE Calgary, looking for a Harris's Sparrow that had been present all winter. We had no luck with the sparrow, but we both managed to get looks at Gray Partridge that flushed up from the brushy areas to the side of the road and along the train tracks.

The last bird of the day saw Ilya, Russ, and myself twitching a Barred Owl. Yes, twitching a Barred Owl. Not a sentence I ever thought I would use, but there were a total of seven birders admiring the owl, perched in a residential front yard, and a lifer for a couple of the observers!

Stay tuned for the next post, and our journey south!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Weekend Roundup

While the title of this post isn't nearly as provocative as some of the more recent posts on a number of local birding blogs, it pretty well says it all....

I have been hoping to catch up with a few missing birds before heading off on the "Great Canadian Chicken Hunt" tomorrow, and decided to take advantage of the longer days to start the weekend off properly on Friday with a post-office swing through Metchosin.

The recent weather conditions have been perfect for some wind-blown vagrants to show up and Metchosin, being along the water, is a perfect place for them. Endless fields and shrubbery interspersed with ponds and the like would definitely be my idea of a safe place to land, were I a phoebe or bluebird!

Unfortunately it wasn't to be, and I checked several areas without turning up much of anything. There were still good numbers of Golden-crowned Sparrows along Swanwick Rd along with the other expected species, but nary a rare Zonotrichia to be seen. Off Taylor Beach, there was a raft of 178 Western Grebes, heads tucked in for the most part. I scanned the flock back and forth half a dozen times in hopes of finding a Clark's but couldn't find anything even resembling a hybrid between the two.

Tower Point, part of the Witty's Lagoon complex, provided me with my one new bird for the year. A scan of the shore to the east of the point turned up a small brown and white bird bobbing along the rocks, which a turn of both the zoom and focus knobs revealed to be a Spotted Sandpiper. This bird has been regular in the area of Albert Head Lagoon for the past couple of winters, but it hasn't turned up there yet this year. Maybe it has decided that this area has something lacking in the lagoon!

With light fading fast, I managed to make out 8 Brant at Esquimalt Lagoon, feeding on the ocean side near the bridge. Numbers so far this year in this spot have ranged from 2 to 38, and everything in between. This is a spot I will be watching closely in hopes that when Sequim's 2 Emperor Geese depart for parts north, they decide to simply cross the water and stay for a few days.

Saturday morning I headed up to the Goldstream Group Campground after another, usually reliable, species. A group of youngsters were camped out in the top group site so I stayed low, scanning the skies and keeping an ear to the bushes. My first Orange-crowned Warbler of the year was calling from the top site, and I never did get a look at it. I also almost missed my target de jour as I had glanced down to check the time at the 30 minute mark, and looked up just in time to see a certain dark raptor with a brilliant golden sheen to its head and nape pass very low overhead, wings folded for descent. The Golden Eagle circled back, and provided crippling views before finally disappearing behind the trees. As they nest nearby, this is a travelling lane for them and as good a spot as any for Golden Eagle in the Victoria area.

Some random birding in the afternoon turned up four male Eurasian Wigeons still at Hastings Flats (in the same scope view, no less!), and a few other interesting sightings, including my first Band-tailed Pigeon of the year near Otter Point Rd and Laronde Rd in Sooke, but nothing I would classify as spectacular.

Here is where I will end my post, halfway through the weekend, and instead of continuing, direct viewers to Jeremy Gatten's account of Sunday's adventure:

Before clicking his link, please be advised that this post may not be suitable for small children, or for those easily offended by gratuitous gull photos.

The iPod is all loaded up for tomorrows overnight, 12 hour bus trip to Penticton. I may be able to post some progress reports from the road, courtesy of my blackberry, but more likely you will be in for a long, coffee-fueled post when I get back next week!

Oh, and if those Emperor Geese show up while I am away, could someone please slip them a little seed to make sure they stay?

Good birding,

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Swallowing in the Snow

After turning up nothing but a couple of Orcas during a brief jaunt to Sooke yesterday (and don't get me wrong, I like whales, just not as much as birds!), I decided to head out to Swan Lake this afternoon to see if any migrants might be kicking around.

Outside of the regulars, the first birds I saw were three Bald Eagles flying in formation high over the lake. Under them, and almost blending into the cloud, was a flock of 12 swallows. At the distance that I saw them, it was impossible to make out a species.

Eventually, the flock came close enough to make out two year birds, 5 Violet-Green Swallows and 2 Tree Swallows. The other 5 remained far enough away in poor light that I couldn't make them out.

It is nice to see the migrants showing up, but I'm sure the snow that followed caused them a little confusion. With any luck, we will be seeing more (birds) before too long.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait......

And wait...... and wait........

I spent the day birding the waterfront today, and decided to cap it off with a quick walk around Swan Lake. The action started right at the parking lot, wtih Cedar Waxwings, Pine Siskins, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and others.

I was hoping to run across some of the recently seen swallows, but had no luck. The Marsh Wrens around the lake were very vocal, and there were good numbers of Bushtits flitting along the lakeside. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers were present around the lake as well.

When I reached the south end of the lake, my plans for a quick walk were derailed when I stopped at a small vantage point, and immediately heard a "glunk-a-lunk" coming from the grass, very close. For the next hour, the American Bittern stayed in the same spot, calling every ten minutes or so. It then moved ten feet or so to the west, and continued calling every ten minutes for another half an hour. Despite staring intently into the grass for 90 minutes, looking for a three foot tall heron that was vocalizing, I had no luck.

See the Bittern? Me neither!

After 90 minutes, the bittern became very active, calling almost constantly (every minute or two) and moving around. I would see the grass moving, and started feeling like I was watching "E.T.", seeing scurrying and no small heron. Finally, after almost two hours, I caught a quick glimpse of the bird! A couple of more glimpses as the bird trucked around the flooded field, and then it came out into a small opening in the grass, head and neck pointed skyward in some sort of display.

The bird eventually moved further away. We took this as a sign to head home, and could still hear the glunk-a-lunking for some distance down the trail.

A couple of days with a combined observation time of almost four hours, and finally I got my year look at #142. Well worth the wait!

Good birding,

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Slow, but sunny!

The weather thinks it is spring, the Bewick's Wren singing non-stop outside my window thinks it is spring, and I am beginning to believe it myself.

We are still short of our migrant influx, though swallows and warblers are starting to show up in very small numbers, a vanguard to the invasion that no doubt awaits us. I have managed to catch up with one swallow so far, a Barn Swallow at Swan Lake last week. Two other species (Tree and Violet-Green) have shown up since then, but I haven`t found either during my frequent checks. They can wait.....

Speaking of Swan Lake, my wife and I decided to walk the trail around the lake this past weekend, where we ran into Ian Cruickshank and the Sunday Bird Walkers. Ian and I chatted briefly about bitterns as we leap-frogged each other a few times on the trail, and were stopped dead in our tracks along the south end of the lake by a pumping call coming from the reeds. We have both been treated to these calls in the past, but to that date, neither of us had heard an American Bittern calling at Swan Lake! It was a treat to spend an hour or so listening as the bird would call occassionally, a few clicks before glunk-a-lunking away. The bird moved around a fair bit, never calling from the same spot twice, but also never seeing fit to cross one of the many small, open areas. We never did get a look, and eventually continued on our way, enjoying great numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Spotted Towhees, and the other lake regulars. At Tuesday Pond there was a small collection of ducks including Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails.

Elsewhere, my birding has been quiet. I headed over to Port Angeles on the Coho last Friday (first trip of the year!) now that they have returned to two trips a day. There were very few birds on the water, and only small numbers of alcids. I did see my first California Gull of the year, as well as 5 Brant out on the water, but my target birds were nowhere to be found. It wasn`t a total waste of a trip, as I did discover the Dungeness Spit Pale Ale, brewed up by Peaks Brew Pub (, as well as add Brant to my Washington State list (or so eBird tells me!).

Hopefully the weather holds long enough for a lightning Okanagan and Alberta trip at the end of the month.....

Good birding,