Monday, August 27, 2012

Going the Distance

This weekend was not only a great weekend of birding, it was also a weekend of distances and somewhat non-traditional transportation.  That is if you consider, as I do, cars to be the usual means of conveyance for birding.

Early Saturday morning found a group of 12 of us at Mariner's Village in Sooke, gathered for a 6am departure bound for Swiftsure Bank, at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (the open ocean), for Rocky Point Bird Observatory's Pelagic trip.  After the fog that settled over the last trip I was expecting the worst and hoping for the best. The stars must have aligned somehow, as there was absolutely no fog on the water Saturday, anywhere!  Another factor, the water, also proved to be a non-issue, as it was the calmest day I have ever seen out on the bank.

Anyway, back to the birds.  There was little in evidence in the Strait itself, aside from the expected Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets, and a group of resident Orcas, but once we crossed an invisible line running from Cape Flattery to Carmanah Point, boy did it ever pick up!  Our first birds came during a drift to allow for washroom breaks, when two Pink-footed Shearwaters cut across the bow, followed by two more, then two more, and soon we were surrounded by gliding shearwaters, some coming very close alongside and allowing those with cameras an incredible opportunity!  Before too long, a Sooty Shearwater, which should have greatly outnumbered its pink-footed relatives, passed in front of the boat and disappeared.

With everyone ready to go again, we started heading further into the open water, quickly coming upon a jaeger drifting on the surface.  We puzzled over it until it took off, revealing a long, twisted tail with a spatula tip.  Pomarine Jaeger!  Before long we would find another Pom, and three unidentified jaegers that did exactly what I figured they would do, give a quick pass and then fly directly away from us, disguising all useful field marks.

Once we were out among the sport fishing boats, Capt Russ Nicks spotted a cloud of birds from his perch above, and we headed toward them, stumbling upon a massive gathering of Pink-footed Shearwaters and the odd Sooty Shearwater.  We estimated roughly 300 Pink-foots, an absolutely incredible number!  Also weaving among the shearwaters, and forming their own clouds, were about 200 Sabine's Gulls, another incredible count!  Add in the 30-40 Humpback Whales, 6 or 8 of which we got good looks at, and one that surfaced in the middle of a flock of shearwaters not far from the boat, and everyone was in awe.  We also had a distant look at a small pod of transient Orcas at the edge of the bank.  California Gulls and Red-necked Phalaropes rounded off the seabird count, and we also had flyover (and new pelagic ticks for most, if not all) American Goldfinch, Anna's Hummingbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

The trip back in gave everyone great close looks at our resident Orca "superpod", plus closeups of Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, Harbour Seal, and more Red-necked Phalaropes, plus a small gathering of California Gulls just outside Whiffin Spit.

All in all, a great trip!  This is the first time I have ever been either fishing or birding offshore and had not a single person succumb to seasickness.  Notable, however, was the lack of Northern Fulmars and low numbers of Sooty Shearwaters.  There have been upwards of 500,000 Sooties off Ocean Shores lately, so maybe no mystery there, but where are our fulmars?

Sunday was a target birding day, and another shot at Tugwell Lake.  My father-in-law decided to join my wife and I on this, our second hike of the year up Butler Main Line, just west of Sooke.  The weather was mild, if not a bit on the chilly side, and the sky was grey.  Perfect longer distance hiking conditions!

The birding was much slower than it was a couple of months ago when my wife and I went up there, with very few birds calling.  It didn't take long to stumble upon one of my targets, as we flushed a male Ruffed Grouse around km 1.5, which flew to a low branch nearby, then disappeared when I switched from binos to camera.  Newly fledged Dark-eyed Juncos were a common sight, and once we hit the more open habitat from km 4-8, small numbers of MacGillivray's Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows were seen.  Also in the first 8 kilometres we encountered single Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Hammond's Flycatcher, and Western Tanager.

We were looking forward to a quick rest at km 8 after the long approach hill, but any weariness disappeared when two Gray Jays flew left across the road in front of us, followed by another flying right.  Cameras were out, and we waited for the birds to reappear.  The single that had flown right flew back directly over our heads and then disappeared into a clump of trees in the middle of the clearing.  I was so intent on refinding the birds that it took my father-in-law three tries to get my attention and point out another bird 200ft or so further down the road, just past the clearing.  A good look revealed the bird to be a female Sooty Grouse.  I tried to get close enough for a picture, but the bird strutted off into the trees before I could get much more than a dot.  Two grouse and two jays!  Not a bad start to a day of birding in the Victoria Checklist Area!

We hung around the kilometre 8 clearing for just over half an hour, hoping for the jays to come closer, but only managed to get distant looks at the north end of the clearing.  We also heard two Gray Jays calling just south of the clearing.  I am not sure if these were two of the three and had managed to sneak past us, or if there were actually 5 birds.  These are definitely not picnic area Whiskey Jacks, as they kept their distance from us.  Of note, this is the same location where a family of Gray Jays hung around last August, and this is also a fairly low elevation for them.  There were none present (detected) when I was there a couple of months ago, and they are known to breed at Tugwell Lake itself, so perhaps this is a favoured post-breeding dispersal site. 

While we were waiting for the return of the jays, the sky darkened a bit, thunder rolled, and the wind picked up.  We figured that this was probably a sign to cut our hike short, and checked as far as km 8.5 before turning around.  Highlights on the way down were two black headed, young-of-the-year Turkey Vultures, good numbers of Steller's Jays (which were also pretty much absent a couple of months ago), and the odd Band-tailed Pigeon.  Of note, zero Red Crossbills.  Back down near the gate, a family of California Quail were in the middle of the road, and a single Evening Grosbeak called.

The weekends birding entailed (aside from driving) 17 kilometres by foot and 100 kilometres or so by boat, not to mentioned great looks at a number of birds that are a treat locally.

Only two species were seen within the confines of the Victoria Checklist Area (bordered in the west by a line drawn from the Otter Point picnic table to Ladysmith), bringing the year's total to 219 so far.

Bird on!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Green Birding and other Miscellany

It's always nice to pick up a bird that I missed last year, it gives me a bit of hope that maybe there is still hope to hit 252 this year!  So far this year, I have seen a couple of regular/semi-regular species that didn't end up on my Big Year 2011 list, including Common Redpoll, Lazuli Bunting, and Ruddy Turnstone.  Another such bird decided to show up yesterday at Swan Lake, courtesy of a visiting birder named Jose.

Green Heron is a bird that I have only seen once on Vancouver Island, and that was 13 years ago at the Duncan Forest Museum Pond.  I have had no problems seeing them anywhere else from here to Ontario to Arizona to Costa Rica, but they have always eluded me (and most other local birders) right here on my own home turf.

Ann Nightingale sent out a text yesterday morning that an individual had been discovered near the south end of the bridge at Swan Lake, and by some happy coincidence I was due to be passing through the area between meetings with clients, so I figured I might as well drop in!

When I arrived, everyone there had seen the bird, but it had dropped out of view as I stepped on to the bridge.  Go figure.  After about 5 minutes or so of staring into the willows, the Green Heron flew up, and eventually ended up perched on an exposed branch, giving dynamite views.

This long-standing local nemesis bird made a great number 217, and puts me only 35 away from my target.  20 or so of these should be fairly easy, but we need a good fall migration to make up for the terrible spring window.

Now, on to the miscellany......

The weather is looking superb for tomorrow's RPBO Swiftsure Bank expedition.  This will be my first of three full pelagic trips this year, with a Tofino trip and Westport trip to follow.  Birds that have been seen in the past out yonder have included Black-footed Albatross, South Polar Skua, all three jaegers, Sooty, Pink-footed, Manx, and Short-tailed Shearwaters, Sabine's Gull, Arctic Tern, Northern Fulmar, etc, etc.

I remain with my fingers firmly crossed, as I have not been out into the open ocean since July 31, 2010, and have had three Westport trips (2 January and 1 September) cancelled since then due to weather.

As an offering to the birding gods for good luck, I post these pictures, which were taken off Grays Canyon, Westport, WA, on that long ago trip.

And this one, from a Swiftsure Bank fishing trip a few years back:

Good birding,

Monday, August 13, 2012

Visibility Zero

To say I was disappointed by the Mini Pelagic that I organized as a small fundraiser for Rocky Point Bird Observatory on August 11 would be a bit of an understatement.

I have been watching the weather for a week, making sure that everything would be good for the trip, and all signs pointed to the positive.  Trips like this are full of possibility, as the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are very poorly birded aside from trip on the MV Coho to Port Angeles.  These trips still turn up good birds, but are much further inside the Strait than what I had planned.

Anyway, back to Saturday.  My heart sank when we reached the dock, and there was very little visibility.  12 other eager birders had made the trip out, hoping for the same exciting birds as I was.  A quick consult with Russ Nicks, skipper for our trip, confirmed my worst fears, that after a week of quite clear weather, the Strait was completely socked in with thick fog to the east and the west, with some patchy clear areas around Race Rocks.  So much for going west to Otter Point and closer to open water!

We headed out, chasing the clear patches to the east, and hoping for some bait ball action on the water.  Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets were visible on the water, but that was about it.  When we finally broke through the fog, somewhere around Pedder Bay, there were very few birds evident on the water, and definitely not the large gatherings of swarming gulls and accompanying Jaegers I was hoping for.  Again, lots of alcids were visible, but nothing along the lines of Tufted Puffin or, dare I say it, Long-billed Murrelet!

We counted a large number of California Gulls, Heermann's Gulls, and Glaucous-winged Gulls, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murres, and Pigeon Guillemots.  Chumming failed to attract any birds, and I find myself wondering if maybe someone had been out to feed them earlier in the morning!

Back into the fog, we circled Race Rocks, hoping to find a Brown Pelican or something of the like.  Sharp eyes quickly located a Spotted Sandpiper on the rocks, followed by a Surfbird in its breeding finery, and a few Black Turnstones and a Black Oystercatcher among the intimidating masses of sea lions.  Making a pass of the main island/rock, I noticed a shorebird that reflected very brightly in the light, and we all ended up getting good looks at a stunning breeding plumaged Ruddy Turnstone!  Add in Red-necked Phalaropes, and there you have our list for the day.

The trip back to Sooke to end our 3 hour tour was also foggy, and turned up nothing new.  A trip scheduled 4 months ago turned out to be the foggiest day of the year so far, but I did receive positive feedback from a couple of the participants, and I hope the rest won`t hold the weather against me!

There are still a couple of spots left for the Swiftsure trip in two weeks, which will be 8 hours out into the open ocean.

Thanks to those who came out in support of Rocky Point!

Good birding, land and sea,

Friday, August 10, 2012

Records were made to be broken!

While pursuing a record of one kind (again), I figure there are a few more that could potentially be taken down.

According to the ABA Big Day Report, the following are Big Day (for those non-birders, birding like a bat out of hell for 24 hours, and living on a steady stream of legal, liquid stimulants and fast food, all in the hopes of seeing as many species as possible) records for British Columbia.  Even being stuck on an island, we have potential to beat a few of them:

January - 127
February - 131
March - 105
April - 163
May - 202
June - 162
July - 176
August - 120
September - 136
October - 121
November - 117
December - 121

To me, the March, August, and October records look particularly doable, and I would definitely welcome anyone that wanted to join in on taking a run at one of them! (or any of them, or all of them, just for fun!)

A Big Day is a bit about birding, and a lot about strategy and the thrill of the chase.  Also, you never know what will turn up.  Jeremy G mentioned a few weeks ago that everytime we do a "Big-ish" or straight up Big Day, we always turn up some great birds, and he isn't sure why we don't do them all the time!  (Field work in Fort Mac and Golden may have something to do with it Jeremy.... just sayin').

Being that this blog is also dedicated to Victoria Birding in general, and a little beyond the boundaries of our fair city, I am going to create another tab of Big Day and Big Year Records, and yet another for local highlights.  There used to be a list floating around of month by month records, if anyone may know where to find it, please let me know!  Or, in the absence, if you have pulled off an amazing Big Day or Year within BC, also drop me a line and it will go on the list barring a bigger one coming to light.

The weather and chum are all set, and the boat full for tomorrow's Rocky Point Bird Observatory fundraising Mini-Pelagic with Capt Russ Nicks from Sooke Coastal Explorations.  Hopefully the birds will cooperate, and I will have some tales and photos to regale you with tomorrow.

Good birding (and listing)!