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!

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