Monday, May 28, 2012

The Least of my Worries......

As with every weekend, this one dawned with promise.  I always look forward to sleeping in on the weekend, and always end up out the door much before I normally would during the week.

Ten minutes before seven on Saturday found me at the base of Mount Wells for try number two at our resident big chicken, the grouse formerly known as Blue.  I went up a couple of weeks ago, and the wind was enough of a factor to keep the birds down, or so I kept telling myself at the time.  I was feeling a little bit of pressure on the grouse, as in past years I have found them at Wells as early as late April, and others have found them even earlier.

There was no breeze during the climb up, and I had the mountain all to myself!  The dawn chorus was in full force as well, with the biggest surprise being a calling Willow Flycatcher about halfway up.  At the first summit, three separate House Wrens were singing and calling, and I thought I heard my quarry further up the hill toward the real summit (this one fools a lot of people!).  Just below the actual top, the grouse began calling again, and even though they are notorious ventriloquists, I figured this one had to be close.  A small, rough path branched off to the left, and I had hoped it would give me a better view.  The grouse continued to call as I looked left and right, scanning the trees with no luck.  Then I looked up.

Another quality record shot brought to you by the makers of Blackberry

The male Sooty Grouse continued its quest for love, puffing up its chest and pumping its tail as it called out for all to hear.  After watching for 10 minutes, it was time to continue the hike, and make it up island for an 11am coffee with my wife's parents.

I always complain (well, not really complain) about the inopportune times that rare birds decide to appear.  Had I found the Least Flycatcher that was reported from Cherry Point on Saturday, it would have been a most opportune time, as Chris Saunders called me about the bird as I was driving up the Malahat, planning a quick Red-eyed Vireo stop en route to the Oceanfront in Cowichan Bay.  Unfortunately, despite a thorough search, the bird could not be found.  Red-eyed Vireo also eluded me after the coffee.

Sunday was another early day, up and out the door at 5:30am to do some birding with Sooke Councillor Kerrie Reay as part of the Baillie Birdathon Municipal Challenge.  I stopped in at the Goodridge Peninsula on the way, and found eight Purple Martins overhead.

Councillor Reay and I started at Whiffin Spit.  While it was devoid of dogs, a good start, there were also very few birds.  Ditto for Gordon's Beach and area.  We finally got into a few warblers along Otter Point Rd, and found a great number of birds at Butler Main, including Western Tanager, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, many Swainson's Thrush, and a Yellow Warbler singing its song the fastest I have ever heard.  Out last stop was Sun River, where we added a few last-minute species including Red-winged and Brewer's Blackbird, and Eurasian Collared-Dove.  There is still time to sponsor Councillor Reay or any of our Municipal Challenge Participants at

Coun. Reay tries to track down the "whit" call

While birding in Sooke, I got another call from Chris Saunders, reporting another Least Flycatcher, this one near the parking lot at Swan Lake.  I did some quick mental math, figuring leave Sooke at 10, quick stop at home to grab some papers, meeting at 11..... how long does that leave me to find the flycatcher?  Not a heck of a lot if you run into a crew working on the telephone wires it seems, as I got to Swan Lake at 10:55am and immediately heard the bird chebecking away from the aspens.  I spent 15 frustrating minutes trying to get a look as hordes of birders showed up, and finally had to leave, hoping it would still be around when my meeting wrapped up at 2pm.

I shouldn't have been surprised by the lack of cooperation the bird showed.  I found my "lifer" Least Flycatcher last year in Gatineau Park (Parc?), where they were singing everywhere.  Despite their numbers, they held so tight into the leaves and bushes that it still took a fair bit of effort to find one!

Turns out the bird was still there after my meeting, or had been.  I arrived back at the octagon just after 2pm and sure enough, the bird had been there...... 20 minutes earlier, and not a peep, whit, or chebeck since!  To add to the challenge, as we shall call it, the neighbour decided that my arrival was as a good a reason as any to mow his lawn, just on the other side of the aspen patch.  It wasn't long before I was alone, straining to hear anything over the lawnmower with no luck.  Luckily, Ann Scarfe showed up before long.  An absence of wayward empids loves company!

We spent some time listening, and eventually the lawn mower moved to the opposite side of his house.  Just before 3pm, almost a full hour since I had arrived and even more since it's last appearance, we finally heard a sharp "chebeck!" not too far away.  Another minute passed, and "chebeck!" a little closer, then "chebeck!" really close.  "I have it!"  Ann had moved to the right for a different view, and had the bird perched midway up an aspen, singing away.  It took me a second to get onto the bird, but there it was, my first Least Flycatcher for BC!  We watched it flycatch a couple of times, perched out in the semi-open.  It sang a few more times, including a couple while it was in binocular view (gotta make sure, right?) before it flew over us and went silent.

It isn't often you get two tries in two days at a bird like this, but my wife turned out to be right when she said on Saturday (on the way to Cherry Point) that Least Flycatcher would be a great bird #201 for the year.  So it was.

What next?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Snowy in May?

During the winter, I used the term a couple of times to refer to the weather, but today, it is anything but!

I was enjoying the sun through my office window this morning, peering over a stack of files that still needed to be cleaned and organized, when my phone kicked out its "Surfin' Bird" ringtone.  This ringtone is reserved for those who actively bird, and it tells me "you had better answer me!"  This time it was Chris Saunders on the other end, and he only left me wondering for a moment at what might have shown up at Swan Lake before telling me some of the more exciting news I have heard recently, "Warren Drinnan found a Snowy Egret at Panama Flats!".

What an inopportune time for one of my many most-wanted Victoria birds to show up, as I had walked to work and my wife had taken the car.  She was preparing to leave work to come and pick me up when I finally had a bright idea, and hijacked a coworkers car.  With a quick pitstop at home to pick up my binoculars (and to forget my camera) I made it to the Carey Road entrance in record time.  Mary R was already there admiring the stunning adult Snowy Egret, and I quickly snapped this, my contribution to the record books, through her scope with my blackberry:

Hard to believe that this is the best shot I got!

We enjoyed the egret for about half an hour or so as more birders showed up in drips, drabs, and hordes.  It darted from one end of the water to the next, chasing whatever morsel it could turn up, and stopped several times to stir the water up with its foot.  What neat behaviour, something I had never seen them do before!  I always hate walking away from a bird like this, but I had a lot more work to do back at the office.

This was not only a new Victoria bird for me (and #196 for the year), but a new BC and Canada bird as well!

This has been an exciting couple of weeks here in Victoria, and I am going to officially predict that American Avocet is due to put in an appearance......

Good hunting,

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When it comes to Big Days, size DOES matter....

After the build up, it was finally time to head out for my Baillie Birdathon Big Day on Sunday.

I had enlisted Jeremy Gatten as a co-pilot for the day and we met at my place at 11:30pm on Saturday, with the plan of heading north to the Cowichan Valley for owls.  The official start time, midnight, found us at the Mill Bay Tim Hortons with much coffee but no birds.

 Our first bird and only owl of the day, a begging young Barn Owl, came at 12:35.  It was a great start to the birding, and turned out to be one of a very few "staked out" birds that actually stuck around.  The next couple of hours were slow, and we added two Pacific-slope Flycatchers dueling on territory at 1:00am along Herd Rd in Duncan, two Marsh Wrens at Somenos Marsh at 2:00am, and three Killdeer back down the island at the breakfast sandwich-less Tim Hortons on Westshore Parkway.  A quick refueling stop at McDonald's for coffee and chicken (and Gatten charming the young guy at the drive-thru into throwing in some extra apple pies and french fries) and we headed west.

At Gordon's Beach the 4:30am pre-dawn chorus began, and we added Swainson's Thrush, Common Yellowthroat, and others to our list.  At a clearcut near Shirley we encountered our first Varied Thrushes and a MacGiillivray's Warbler.  The MacGillivray's Warbler spoke volumes to the skill and dedication of Jeremy G, as he was actually sleeping in the passenger seat when it began calling right beside the car.  He not only identified the call in his sleep, but commented on how it was the first bird we heard, and then later asked me if he had dreamed the warbler into existence!

We had a number of target birds for Jordan River and in a little over two hours we got them all - Fox Sparrow, Marbled Murrelet, etc, plus some surprises including a young male Bullock's Oriole, a drumming Ruffed Grouse, and large numbers of Wilson's Warblers and Swainson's Thrushes.  The return trip through Sooke netted us Band-tailed Pigeon, but our high hopes for Whiffin Spit were dashed, and it became 30 minutes that we will never get back.

The Western Communities from Metchosin to Langford were likewise quiet.  My staked out Sandhill Cranes had been replaced by a guy on a seed spreader chasing a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers from one end of the field to the other, and Witty's Lagoon/Tower Point was as quiet as I have ever seen it.  Birds were also mostly absent from Esquimalt Lagoon, but we did manage to add Caspian Tern, Cackling Goose, the resident Trumpeter Swan, and a very late female Black Scoter.

After our next Tim Hortons stop (coffee was a common theme throughout the day), we added the Colwood Corners Osprey and headed for the waterfront, where Clover Point also disappointed.  We were a little surprised to see small numbers of Marbled Murrelets at almost every stop along the waterfront, as we had banked on it only being far to the west in Jordan River.

We made it to McMicking Point just past the midway point of the day and set up to scope Trial Island, the golf course, and the open ocean.  As I was scanning up the golf course, having already done a sweep of Trial Island, Jeremy G started jumping up and down, calling for me to get over to his scope quickly, before I missed it.

I managed to get a "record shot" of one of the two Tufted Puffins that Jeremy had spotted lazily floating to the east of Trial Island.  Big Surprise Bird number three for the day!

We added very few birds between Cattle Point, King's Pond, Mt Tolmie, and Mt Doug, though the scooter parade putting down Mt Doug was a sight to behold!  After picking up Ian Cruickshank, we headed for Martindale Flats.

A very accomodating Mourning Dove was exactly where we expected in on the wires along Dooley Rd, and several other species, all repeats, were present in the various areas of the flats.  Surprise number four came about when we parked along Puckle Rd, hoping for a pheasant squawk.  We did get the Ring-necked Pheasant, but were taken aback when Jeremy G said "Kingbird!"  Indeed there was a Western Kingbird on a stake in the tree farm, and Ian quickly located a second!  We then headed to the airport, where a mob of American Robins and an  Anna's Hummingbird quickly betrayed the location of a dark phase Swainson`s Hawk.  No Sky Larks were seen or heard there or at the bulb fields, where we had gone in search (unsuccessfully) for American Kestrel.

We made it to Maber Flats just after 5:00pm, and quickly added Peregrine Falcon, Black-necked Stilt, all three teal, as well as all the other puddle ducks we had missed all day.  We also had six species of swallow, only missing Bank.  Unfortunately no rails of any type were calling.  Red Barn Flats was the next stop, for birds and a bite (can you have a turkey sandwich while birding....) and we added our only Greater Yellowlegs of the day.

With only six hours left on the clock we added Pied-billed Grebe and Hooded Merganser at Viaduct Flats, several shorebirds at Panama Flats, and made our way to Swan Lake.  Chris Saunders was down by the lollipop boardwalk when we arrived, and pointed out another Western Kingbird in the trees.  Old news for us, but a great bird nonetheless.  We added the Bufflehead tick and headed out, desperately hoping to add some of our missing passerines.  A quick stop at the bulb fields again yielded a singing Sky Lark, but searches along Thompson Place and Pat Bay failed to turn up anything new.  Saanichton Spit also had no new birds, not even Brandt`s Cormorant (which we ended up missing).

It became dark too quickly for our liking, and we changed strategy back to rail hunting.  Nothing was calling at Maber Flats, and we gave up completely when a couple of idiots on quads came down the hill and started riding around the fields and trails.  Panama Flats and Quick`s Bottom were also quiet.  After dropping Ian off, Jeremy and I spent some time at Rithet`s Bog, which had earlier failed to produce any new species.  Like other stops, no rails were calling.  Our final stop was Charlton Pond.  I don`t know if rails were just not present, or if it might have had something to do with me accidentally hitting the panic button on my car alarm (not sure how Jeremy G managed to sleep through that one!) but again there was nothing to be heard besides frogs and Killdeer.

Utterly exhausted after 23 hours and 50 minutes of birding covering 485 kilometers, 10 coffees, and 1 energy drink, we made it back to my place and called it a day at 120 species.

Given our list of misses (Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Cooper`s Hawk, most flycatchers, Brandt`s Cormorant, all rock-loving and marine type shorebirds), 135 could very well be my target next year.  Big thanks to Jeremy and Ian for the great company and extra eyes!!!

There is still lots of time left to sponsor my Birdathon (though at this point, I would recommend against per-species pledging!) at my fundraising link,

Already looking forward to next year!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

International Migrating Bird Day

When I set out this morning I was going to call this post "A Good Day for Grouse", but it turns out it wasn't.

I decided to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day by hunting for migrants.  7:30am found me in the parking lot of Mount Wells Regional Park, listening to calling Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and California Quail.  I had my sights set on picking up Sooty Grouse for my Big Year 2, but it seems I used up all my Grouse juju on Alberta Greater Sage-Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  I made my way up the mountain, surrounded by calling Black-throated Gray Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, Hammond's Flycatchers, House Wrens, Cassin's Vireos, and Pine Siskins.

The view from the first summit was as good as it gets, but the birdlife almost disappeared.  A fair breeze rustled the trees and played in my ears, which reduced my hope for my Gallinaceous quarry.  On the climb from the first summit to the second the wind got stronger, and at the top all I could hear was the moving trees and the sound of the wind.  Then my phone rang......

I should have expected the call, given the extreme inopportune time.  It was Jeremy Gatten, calling with news of a light phase Swainson`s Hawk at the Victoria Airport.  I spent ten more minutes at the top of Wells, cursing the wind the whole way, before heading back down to meet Jeremy and take a shot at the hawk.  When I reached the parking lot again, two hours after heading up, I finally got a look at my first year bird of the day, a singing Black-headed Grosbeak.  I had heard three year birds on the hike up, but never got the look for the tick.

I made record time to pick up Jeremy at his house and we headed for the airport, immediately noticing a number of hawks airborne.  The first couple turned out to be Red-tailed Hawks, but within a couple of minutes Jeremy noticed the light phase Swainson`s Hawk over the Purolator building, as seen from the Willingdon Rd pullof just before the terminal.  Before long, we noticed a second bird in the same area, which we eventually tagged as a dark phase Swainson`s Hawk.

After an hour of admiring the hawks, and after the light phase bird had disappeared to the south, we headed for the Vantreight Bulb Fields.  We managed to see Sky Lark, American Kestrel, and a few others in short order.  I had to make lunch for my in-laws, and was eager to get going, until I saw an email come through on my phone.  I let Jeremy know that we had to go, and left him thinking it was home time before showing him the email reporting a Wilson`s Phalarope at Panama Flats.

We made great time getting to the Carey Rd entrance to Panama Flats, and quickly located two female Wilson`s Phalaropes feeding near a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers.  What a score!

After lunch, I headed out to Metchosin to do my monthly Goose Survey.  While there were very few geese around, I got a surprise at Swanwick Rd when I noticed a couple of heads poking up from the grass.

My first Sandhill Cranes of the year (three of them!) slowly worked their way through the grass about 80ft away, and I kept my distance, not wanting to flush them.  I worried a little when a groundskeeper putted over in his tractor cart, which was extremely loud, to see what I was looking at.  As I pointed the birds out, they continued to feed, unconcerned.

Even without the grouse, I managed to add four new year species, and the phalarope was a new Canada bird for me!  It tuned out to be a great day, with a number of very unexpected migrants.  No complaints!

I am a little worried though, tomorrow I head to Vancouver for the night.  Hopefully I don`t miss anything....

Good birding!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Working for the Pot of Gold!

Last night found me in the office at 6:30pm, finishing up on some paperwork and getting ready to head out.  I had spoken with Jeremy Gatten briefly on a weekend birding matter, and he mentioned that it might be a good idea to check out Tower Point.  I have been going to Esquimalt Lagoon every day hoping for the arrival of Marbled Godwits, but without luck, and I have been neglecting other great areas like the Witty's Lagoon complex and other parts of Metchosin.

With the recent wind, Tower Point made perfect sense, you never know what could show up on the rocks or the beach!  Past birds seen there have included most tubenoses, Willet, Green-tailed Towhee, Philadephia Vireo, Sabine's Gull, and more!

I had intended to scan the rocks and beach, and then move on to Albert Head Lagoon and other areas.  My good intentions quickly disappeared when I spotted a shorebird sleeping on the rocks off the point.  Conveniently, it was sleeping on one leg, and had positioned itself facing directly away from me.  From the structure of the bird, it was no doubt a plover, and I orginially assumed it was still in mainly winter plumage from the looks I had.  Every once in a while, it would quickly lift its head before tucking back in, showing the golden-brown cap and thick white supercillium wrapping around a cheek patch.  Combined with the golden-brown back, the bird went from plover spp. to Golden-Plover spp! 

As a drawback of being a Victoria Birder, I am not as familiar with the varying plumages and sexes of the Golden-Plovers as I would like, and was determined to make a study of this one while I had the opportunity.  There was extensive white under the tail, which should have clinched the ID, but I was still under the impression that I was staring at the backside of a mid-moult bird, all the while trying to focus through a scope at 45X that was being blown around by the relentless wind.

After a couple of phone calls and 40 minutes, the bird finally started to forage around the rocks, and when it turned is showed spotty black underneath, running up to a fairly indistinct facial patch.  The supercillium, which I had previously only had spotty looks at, ran around the facial/cheek patch, through the shoulder, and along the entire flanks of the bird, creating a wide strip between the wings and the patchy black underneath.

What I had previously assumed was a moulting bird of some description became an almost full breeding plumaged female Pacific Golden-Plover, only my second in Victoria!  Looking back on it, the long-legged, heavier-billed appearance of the bird could have tipped me off much sooner, as could the extent of the white under the tail, but c'est la vie.  It was a great lesson to add to my plumages of lesser seen migrants library!

Let's see what the wind brings in next!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Time Flies!

I must apologize, I just noticed how long it has been since my last post!  In fact, 2 full weekends have passed since I last posted anything about birding!  I had been hoping to just post a link to for weekend trip reports, but he has been busy writing about moths, bugs, Garry Oak ecosystems, and other boring stuff.

Migration has been happening all over the island the past couple of weeks, and I have been trying to take full advantage of it.  This is the time of year when not only are passerines showing up all over the place, but shorebirds pass through, finding refuge in any wet field or shoreline that will sustain or shelter them.  The Black-necked Stilts first reported a week and a bit ago are still hanging around Maber Flats as of noon yesterday and were showing well while 3 Sora called from the shelter of the marshy areas, one being kind enough to briefly show itself.

Birding the last couple of days turned up a few new year birds for me, among them Warbling Vireos at Mount Tolmie on both Saturday and Sunday, Olive-sided Flycatcher at the same on Sunday, Lesser Yellowlegs at Panama Flats on Saturday, and the previously mentioned Sora at Maber Flats on Sunday.  This gives me a year-to-date total of 178 species, 9 ahead of last years pace.  If I can keep it up, I might actually be successful in topping the Victoria Checklist Area record of 251 this year!  (For those of you just tuning in, last year I hit 246)

Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, and Whimbrel are starting to be reported, but we are still lacking decent numbers of Blue-winged Teal, and some shorebirds, such as Marbled Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone, have yet to make an appearance.  There are regularly 10-12 Caspian Terns at Esquimalt Lagoon, and small numbers of peeps and dowitchers almost anywhere there is water.  Vaux`s Swifts are being seen regularly at Panama Flats, and a couple of Wandering Tattlers popped in at Ogden Point last week.

Just about anything could show up almost anywhere in the checklist area this month, as was demonstrated last year when we had a Lesser Nighthawk, Willet, and Sabine`s Gull show up on the same day!

See you out there!