Monday, September 24, 2012

I'm on a Boat (again.....)

For those of you that follow, ever since an incredible pelagic trip with Westport Seabirds in July, 2010, I have had a bit of a run of bad luck, having had 3 trips in a row since then cancelled due to weather (Jan '11, Sept '11, and Jan '12).  In fact this January Nathan Hentze, Jeremy Gatten, and I ended up all the way down in Ocean Shores prior to the cancellation of the trip, but still enjoyed a couple of rarites (see my post "The Longest Twitch").

My brother and I were keeping our fingers crossed from start to finish.  We lucked out early on, getting the second to last spot on the Coho despite showing up two and a half hours early for the 10:30am sailing on Friday morning.

The crossing was very quiet, with very few birds and no pelagic types present.  From Port Angeles, we headed south along Highway 101, enjoying the scenery and the odd bird enroute to Ocean Shores, where we planned to hunt down a number of vagrant shorebirds that had been reported recently.

Lake Crescent, between Port Angeles and Forks.  This lake is an
incredible blue-green, my pictures do it no justice.

 We really didn't run into anything of interest until we pulled into Ruby Beach, a unit of Olympic National Park.  We were greeted by Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and a little surprised when we set up our scopes and quickly noticed a line of Sooty Shearwaters moving north to south, and we estimated 3000 in the 15 minutes we were watching.  Also at Ruby Beach, our first Brown Pelican of the trip (and apparently my Jefferson County life tick, if I were keeping track!).  We took the long way around to get to Ocean Shores, making the turnoff onto the Moclips Highway.  The detour proved very worthwhile, as we encountered a stunning male Ruffed Grouse along the highway.

The Game Range at Ocean Shores was our first stop, as Ruff and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had both been reported the day before.  Unfortunately for us, a Peregrine Falcon had the same idea, to go looking for shorebirds!  We located a good number of Pectoral Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Greater Yellowlegs, and a single Baird's Sandpiper, but nothing with an accent.  From there we checked out the Ocean Shores Sewage Treatment Plant followed by the Point Brown Jetty, but only succeeded in adding my first for Washington Northern Shoveler, an American Pipit, Savannah Sparrows, and a seemingly endless stream of Brown Pelicans.

The next morning we were up early and at the dock, greeted by a harbour covered in fog, and assurances that it wouldn't last.  The boat loaded and the lecture given, we headed out into the harbour and the ocean beyond.

The way out.

We immediately found more Brown Pelicans and various mutt gulls.  Soon, Common Murres began to show, followed by Sooty Shearwaters.  Eventually we came upon a fin sticking out of the water, which created a buzz among the birders on deck, many commenting on the shark we had come across.  It wasn't, however, a shark showing us its fin, but something much, much better!

This was the best of many pictures showing the Ocean Sunfish, or Mola Mola that we had come across.  Everyone on board was in awe at the size of this fish, the first and biggest of the 10 or 12 that we would come across.  Our next surprise came shortly after the first sunfish, when Captain Phil slowed the boat down very quickly, and Ryan Shaw called out the next bird....


This fairly distant shot would almost make a good quiz bird.  Here is a heavily cropped picture that my brother got of the Scipps's Murrelet, of which everyone on the boat got incredible looks.
Scripps's Murrelet is a recent split, having formerly (up until a couple of months ago) comprised one half of Xantus's Murrelet.  The Northern population was split off as Scripps's, while the Southern population, which shows white above and in front of the eye, became Guadalupe Murrelet.  I believe the bird pictured above is the first Washington record since the split.
In short order we added Sabine's Gulls, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Black-footed Albatross, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and a couple of Pomarine Jaegers, plus a very distant Buller's Shearwater, before stopping well offshore to chum.  The chumming brought in few birds, due in no small part to the lack of wind.  From there, Captain Phil decided to chase after a shrimp boat that we had seen in the distance.  The shrimp boat hosted a large crowd of birds, mostly Northern Fulmars and California Gulls.
With a couple of Black-footed Albatross mixed in......
With time running short, we turned in the general direction of Westport, having taken a long detour to chase the "Jackpot".  On the way back in we finally got good looks at a Buller's Shearwater that cut right beside the boat, and then the boat stopped quickly for a log.  Wait, a log?
This Northern Fur Seal put on a show for us, stretching in every way possible and peering at us over its body.  We added a mystery shark, and as we got closer to shore we ran into more shearwaters including another Buller's Shearwater, this one perhaps only 3 miles offshore.  We also ran into a very early Yellow-billed Loon, and a bit of nostalgia - a cloud of Common Terns being chased by Parasitic Jaegers.
For some great pictures from the trip out of Westport, and many other pictures of Westport, Washington, and other birds, you can also check out Ryan Shaw's Flickr Page.
After returning to the dock we headed first to Bottle Beach, where there were no shorebirds, and then headed for Midway Beach south of Grayland, where we spent almost 2 hours on a wild Snowy Plover hunt.  There were good numbers of dowitchers, Sanderling, and Pectoral Sandpipers (including a couple of very bright individuals), and an American Bittern that my brother spotted in the reeds.
Sadly, this is the closest we got to Snowy Plover
 As the sun set over Midway Beach, we finished up with dinner at the One-eyed Crab. 
Sunday morning found us headed to Bottle Beach as soon as it was light enough to see.  We had no problem finding the shorebirds we were seeking, and we quickly located Western, Least, and Baird's Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers American and Pacific Golden-Plover (one of each), Short-billed DowitchersSanderlingRed Knots, and a large squawking mass of Marbled Godwits.  We had scanned the beach up and down a couple of times when a small group of peeps flew in, and with them a larger bird, a juvenile Ruff.  Later in the day, after we had departed to ensure our passage on the Coho, a female Bobolink was seen and photographed along the trail at Bottle Beach as well.
Our return trip was very uneventful, and the Coho trip from Port Angeles to Victoria was even quieter than the trip down.
All in all though, it was a great trip, huge thanks to Westport Seabirds (and to Capt Phil, Chris, Bruce, Bill, and Ryan!) and to everyone who posts to Tweeters for the timely sightings!  I found one of my targets (Buller's Shearwater) plus another bonus lifer in Scripps's Murrelet.
I am not sure when my next Westport Trip will be, but I am definitely looking forward to it!
Good birding,

Friday, September 14, 2012

Further West? AKA: The Jeremies and the Search for the Holy Grail....

Port Renfrew is about as far west as you can get, right?

Maybe not..... Jeremy Gatten and I joined up with Rick Shortinghuis, Charles Smith, and Ray Woods, Phil Cram, and Brian Elder of "Fur and Feathers 500" fame on a pelagic trip out of Tofino on September 12th.

With visions of pterodromas dancing in our heads, we left Victoria at 8am on Tuesday, Pacific Rim National Park in our sights.  After a quick stop at the Tim Hortons in Port Alberni, which netted us a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Eurasian Collared-Dove, in addition to coffee, the all great life-sustaining bean beverage, we headed on to our first serious stop, Wikkaninnish Beach.

The Long Beach Airport, which chose to deny us on this day.  The next day, the FF500
found 2 Pacific Golden-Plovers here.

We found the beach to be fairly quiet, with very few passerines, including a single Fox Sparrow, and only a few Red-necked Grebes (recent arrivals) in the surf.  From there we headed to Comber's Beach, where we a few more species, including an incredible 30 Herring Gulls, but only Black Oystercatcher and Western Sandpiper in the shorebird category, the main reason for our many stops.  Long Beach provided a bit more excitement, with a Whimbrel feeding high on the beach, and another Black Oystercatcher.  Grice Bay was also quiet.

A cropped shot of the Long Beach Whimbrel, I will leave the award winning
photography to The Naturalest Naturalist

Chesterman Beach is a location that neither Jeremy nor I had visited in the past, and we made a point of walking the entire length.  This stretch of sand and rock turned out to be the highlight of our days birding, as we turned up a single Baird's Sandpiper foraging with 14 Western Sandpipers, a flock of 14 Sanderling, and 8 Black Oystercatchers and 4 Black Turnstones. Not bad at all, but still none of the Asian vagrants we had hoped for.

Chesterman Beach, mecca for Surfers and Shorebirds

Our last pre-dinner stop was the end of Sharp Rd, where we scoped 200+ Western Sandpipers without so much as a Semi-palm or Least.  A quick stop at Wildside Grill was dinner, after which we headed back to Long Beach.  The Whimbrel we had found earlier was still in pretty much the same spot (and pretty much the only bird around), but we did manage to add 100+ Sooty Shearwaters streaming by over the horizon.

Wednesday morning dawned full of promise, with a Swainson's Thrush calling outside our five star room at the Dolphin Motel (chosen for convenience, as it is located at the corner of Sharp Rd and right near Chesterman Beach.  Nice rooms, but definitely no resort!).  We made our way to the rendezvous point with a coffee stop along the way, and were suited up and on the boat just after 7am.

We were only a few kilometers out when we started seeing our first birds, Sooty Shearwaters, followed not long after by the odd Pink-footed Shearwater.  Soon, Red-necked Phalaropes and Cassin's Auklets began showing, the latter providing stunning, boatside looks.  A real treat for any birder!

As we approached the edge of Clayoquot Canyon and began to contemplate chumming, we were surprised by a lone Black-footed Albatross that had managed to sneak up behind us, no doubt following the trail of orange peels I had left for it.  After ascertaining that we had nothing to offer, the albatross left us as suddenly as it had appeared, and we continued on to set out some chum.  At this point we also had distant looks at what appeared to be a Long-tailed Jaeger harassing Sabine's Gulls.  We gave chase, but the jaeger proved faster than the boat, and we lost sight of it.

Getting no bird love from the chum we moved further into the canyon, to a point our guide, Artie, called "The Abyss".  A little daunting, and perhaps melodramatic, but this is where we set out our second bit of chum, a concoction of fish bits and cheerios (even tubenoses need to watch their cholesterol, apparently).  Before long we had a taker, a Black-footed Albatross, which was quickly joined by another, then by a stunning Parasitic Jaeger.  Eventually, the mixed feeding flock totalled 6 Black-footed Albatross, 2 Pink-footed Shearwaters, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, the jaeger, and a drop-in Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel that gave everyone looks before taking off.

Two of our lunch guests
After the lunch show we turned for the 42 mile journey back to terra firma, finding the occassional flock of phalaropes or flyby shearwater.  Among a scattered flock of alcids, we located 3 Tufted Puffins, always a treat to see!  These birds were in various stages of acquiring their winter look, which trades snappy black and white with gold edging for all black, maintaining the honking orange bill.  Luckily, these birds still had their golden "tufts".
About 11 miles off Cleland Island, we encountered another treat, a group of Humpback Whales.  True, they aren't birds (and how would Victoria Whaler sound as a blog title?) but they were absolutely stunning as they approached us.  We had cut all power and had been drifting for 10 minutes or so when they passed closely beside us, thrilling all on board, and carried on to where ever it is that whales go.  For a very shaky YouTube video of the encounter, check here
We added a few other birds on the way back in, including Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, and Red-necked Grebe, but the last highlight was definitely sightings of 4 Sea Otters drifting in the kelp!
The trip back in.
The weather and company couldn't have been any better for this trip.  While the birds were not as dense as we had all hoped, you just never know what those pelagic species are going to do!
Huge thanks to Ray, Brian, and Phil for organizing this trip and having us along, and to Rick and Charles for rounding out a fantastic group!  For another perspective on the trip and some fabulous pictures, see the Fur & Feathers 500 blog hereThe Naturalest Naturalist also got some fantastic pictures over both days, and should have those posted soon as well.
A quick lunch at Big Daddy's Fish Fry and Jeremy G and I were headed south again, making one fruitless stop at Long Beach before heading straight for Victoria, with breaks only for coffee in Port Alberni and Ladysmith.
All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of days, the countdown clock is now on for the September 22 Westport Trip!
Good birding,


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Go West Young Man, Go West!

Wow, 5am comes early!

Jeremy G and I decided to head west to Port Renfrew and Jordan River today, in search of shorebirds and trans-Pacific vagrants, and as such met up at 5:20am at the Langford Tim Hortons, our usual meet up and breakfast stop.

A quick fuel up for me at Tim's, and for Jeremy G at the Sooke McDonald's (where we found two Lincoln's Sparrows), and we were on the ground at Whiffen Spit by 6:20.  Whiffen is a spot full of potential, and has turned up birds such as Lesser Nighthawk, Ruff, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and many others, but today we had to settle for Western Sandpipers, Black Turnstones, California Gulls, Mew Gulls, and a single female Harlequin Duck.  There were no different sparrows with the 20-odd Savannah's or the few White-crowneds.

Jordan River was our next stop, another migrant trap that can greatly reward those willing to make the drive.  We found 41 species along the waterfront and back in the trees, including Bewick's Wren (unusual that far west), 300+ California Gulls, 2 Herring Gulls, a Spotted Sandpiper, a flyover Greater Yellowlegs, and a great variety (of garden variety) passerines.  We didn`t encounter anything of the magnitude we had hoped, but the birding was great anyway!

The San Juan River
The lure of vagrants and strays drew us further west, to the end of the road.  We started off birding the young alder and sand of the San Juan River estuary.  Immediately we started picking up new birds for the day, including Long-billed Dowitcher, American GoldfinchRed Crossbill, Osprey, Ring-billed Gull, and a Western Gull.  We also noticed four American Wigeon, a somewhat early arrival, while 2 Black Swifts flew overhead.
A hike through the two campgrounds along the river and bay also turned up new birds, including a Mourning Dove and a Red-necked Phalarope, both of which we flushed out of the grass.  Three Horned Grebes and two Red-throated Loons in almost perfect breeding plumage were seen in the bay, and while we saw many good-sized Coho jumping, it seems that they all managed to elude the swarm of anglers as well as the patrolling Ospreys. 
One of Port Renfrew's residential pockets was our last stop before lunch, and we turned up our first Eurasian Collared-Doves and Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as a very grey headed Orange-crowned Warbler and a couple Wilson's Warblers.
 Yours Truly Searched High and Low for Vagrants, whilst the Naturalest Naturalist took some time out to
get the perfect Collared-Dove picture
As far as I am concerned, there is only one place for lunch in Port Renfrew, and that is Coastal Kitchen Cafe.  When we ordered, the crowd was light, but it was packed by the time we left.  In order to maximize birding time, we decided to sit at one of the tables out in the garden area, where we added Rufous Hummingbird, plus another lunch companion.
This Pacific Chorus Frog chose not to order, but was still pleasant company.
After a fantastic lunch of Halibut and Chips, we decided to try the Botanical Beach parking lot before heading back to civilization.  Yet another migrant magnet, this parking lot has attracted Lark Bunting and Brewer's Sparrow in the last couple of years.  Unfortunately, the parking lot was full of cars and people, and we only managed to turn up one bird - our first and only Dark-eyed Junco of the day.
As it was getting to be home time, we headed back east without our much desired rarites but decided to make a quick swing through Metchosin on the way.  The Metchosin Golf Course turned up a female Blue-winged Teal, more Black Swifts, 4 Purple Martins, and a Pied-billed Grebe that I originally mistook for a very grebe-shaped stick, while Albert Head Lagoon added Mute Swan and Semipalmated Sandpiper to end the days adventure at 85 species.
And now for something completely different - from the rugged coast to a golf course pond!
Birding the western part of the South Island, while not as lucrative in terms of species count as Victoria and the Peninsula, is still a great time.  You just never know what could show up once away from the shelter of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Coastal Kitchen Cafe is worth the drive!
Good birding,

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sharp-shinned Vs. Sharp-tailed......

I must have dozed off on the couch, when the sweetest alarm clock rang, my "Surfin Bird" ringtone.  Much as in "The BigYear", I have assigned the above mentioned song to Victoria birders, so usually it means that something has shown up somewhere.

In this case, it was Mike McGrenere calling, with news that he had found a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at McIntyre Reservoir.  It figures that the one day I decided not to check the reservoir, something shows up!  As quickly as I could put on a pair of shoes I was out the door, texting Jeremy G. and Ann N. on my way.  Jeremy left just as quickly, and Ann put the word out to the birding community.

I decided to pass on a quick coffee stop, as a similar stop had cost me an Orchard Oriole in Tofino a couple of years ago, and got to McIntyre in record time, finding Mike and Jeremy intently scanning the fringes of a now full body of water with very little shoreline.  A couple of Pectoral Sandpipers ducked in and out of the waterside weeds, and a Greater Yellowlegs patrolled the fringe while 3 Western Sandpipers flew back and forth.  Eventually a bird that seemed a bit brighter appeared on the far side and promptly disappeared from view.  We all watched the area, Mike and Jeremy via scope, and me with binoculars as I had broken my tripod at Sidney Spit yesterday.

The bird finally came back into view, and Jeremy G was able to get the ID on it.  We all got great looks at the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper right out in the open, and managed to watch it in the company of a Pectoral Sandpiper for about 5 minutes.  Elaine P. showed up in time to get a brief look, and then disaster struck. 

A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew in low and fast, looking for a meal, and the shorebirds all scattered, sending the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper north in the company of 4 Pecs.  The birds looked for a time like they would circle back, and then disappeared just as a number of other birders showed up, an almost perfect reenactment of what happened last year with the Red-necked Stint at Witty's Lagoon.

We continued to search and eventually relocated 4 Pectoral Sandpipers as the hawk continued to patrol for dinner.  When I left at 5pm, the bird still hadn't reappeared.

A great bird for the year, and my first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper for the Victoria Checklist Area!  Many thanks to Mike for finding this bird and getting the word out!

Bring on the fall rarities!