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 www.rpbo.org/birdathon.html.
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.