Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Little Grouse on the Prairie

I must admit I had the title of this post in mind for about six months. I knew eventually I would get to use it, though I didn't think a hunt for Sharp-tailed Grouse would be the last tale I would tell this year. With the way things worked out by the last 2 weeks of December it was the only bird I really had left to see. The Burrowing Owl seemed to only show up when I wasn't looking for it, and with only 3 days off left I had to go for the odds. 

On Boxing Day while everyone else was spending their money on marked down electronics, I was driving to Kamloops. I braced for a terrifying trip through the Coquihalla but luckily the road conditions were tamer than expected. By about 11 Am i was scouring Long Lake, Edith Lake, and Goose Lake roads. Back and forth on each of them I drove slowly, stopping and checking all the shrubs I could. A good blanket of snow covered everything so I didn't think it was going to be too difficult to spot one. 

Birds were few and far between, aside from a few Northern Shrikes and Mountain Chickadees it was dead quiet. Around 4pm as the sun was setting I decided to call it a day. I still had a long drive back to Vancouver, my hands and feet were frozen and I had to working the morning. The grouse had eluded me yet again.

Things were looking grim. I only had Saturday and Sunday left to see the bird. I got a few tips from legendary Kamloops birder Rick Howie. The Kamloops Christmas Bird Count had seen 15 of them in the general location I had been looking in. He mentioned they liked to travel a lot and could potentially be anywhere at any time. So basically, it was going to come down to luck. I was no stranger to luck this year, be it good or bad. I woke up early Saturday morning, and drove towards Kamloops.

This time however I took the Fraser Canyon by way of Highway 1. I didn't feel like risking the Coquihalla, it was a good choice as the roads up to cache creek were bare. The whole drive the thought kept coming to me: "maybe I should try around Clinton and 100 Mile House". There were lots of Ebird sightings in the area, specifically around Big Bar Ranch and Churn Creek. I had driven that road between Clinton and William's Lake twice this year, the habitat was definitely good. But would the road even be passable for me?

I was close now to the fork in the road where, either you would keep driving into the Cariboo. Or you would turn right to go to Kamloops. I kept going back and forth on what I should do, it was the Robert Frost dilemma times 10. I didn't make up my mind until I had no choice, I kept going strait. 

Just north of Clinton I turned onto Big Bar lake Rd. The road wasn't bad, thankfully it hadn't snowed in a few days. The road itself was compact with a light speckle of gravel, I knew people lived out here so the road couldn't be too bad. I followed Big Bar Lake road for 50 Kilometers to where it branches off towards Williams Lake. That road was not in good condition so I could not continue towards Williams Lake, instead I carried  on to the Big Bar Ranch. Scanning every willow shrub around the grasslands, I found nothing. 

There was even a Sign at the ranch about Sharp-tailed Grouse. It detailed how important the shrubs and buds were for their winter diet, the grassland Eco system. This just added to my frustrations. By now it was already 12pm and I did not have much daylight left. I turned around at the ranch back towards Clinton. A few kilometers further back I saw a shape on the road. Grouse!!!!

Its a grouse alright, just the wrong kind

Ruffed Grouse

Wrong one. a Ruffed Grouse cautiously creeped across the road. as I passed it I saw two more of them, it was just a big Ruffed Grouse party. I was not impressed but I had expected this. Ruffed Grouse are pretty common in these parts and I had already seen them around here in the Summer. 

It was now 1pm and I was starting to panic. I blamed myself for choosing this way over Long Lake road, I blamed Robert Frost and his dumb Path Less chosen poem for inspiring this random decision. I felt a big sinking feeling in my stomach, could I really miss Sharp-tailed Grouse on my big year? It was bad enough I messed up with Rock Ptarmigan but two species of ground walkers? Not cool.

I had abandoned driving slowly and started picking up speed, I wanted out off this road, I had been out here for 2 hours and panic was setting in. I wanted to get back on the highway and try an area near 70 Mile House that someone had told me was a good location. But I didn't know if I would have time. The road climbed a hill and came back down into a bit of a gully, there were some willow shrubs in a small clearing, I stared at them thinking to myself "that's the kind of habitat I'd expect these guys to be in"

And then I saw a roundish shape in the shrubs on the snow. I sort of just stared and drove by dumbfounded. It was like I was so unprepared for the event of actually seeing one that I didn't know how to react. Finally when it sunk in I slammed on the breaks and skidded 30 meters. Then I cranked into reverse and hauled it back to where I saw the shape. "this better not be another Ruffed"

Sharp-tailed Grouse

It was not another Ruffed. It was a gorgeous Sharp-tailed Grouse. There were five of them in this little open area. The one closest to me made a few clucking noises as it stood there staring me down. Another one flew into a shrub to eat its buds, I sat there in my car marvelling at them. This was not just my last year bird, but also a lifer for me, and my 380th BC bird all time. 

The grouse didn't stick around too long as they heard a high pitched hum of a snowmobile approaching in an instant they had exploded from the ground and flew into some tree's out of of sight. It was a remarkable feeling and pretty much indescribable how glad I was to see these birds.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Can I burrow a feeling?

Northern Shrike
 After my epic 2 bird weekend I felt like I was on a roll. I just needed to add that Sharp-tailed Grouse and one other bird and I could officially say I was #2 all time in BC big years. My plan was to spend the 2nd to last December weekend Grouse hunting. Of course to borrow a quote from John Lennon "Life happens while you are marking plans" And if you replace "life" with "birds" it pretty much holds true. Because a day before I was about to take off for Kamloops, an unbanded Burrowing Owl was reported from Comox.

Turns out it had been seen for a few days, but the exact location was being kept under wraps. The best I could get was that it was somewhere on Air Force Beach. I wasn't too worried, after all where there are rare birds, there are usually birders. And so Saturday morning I was back on that 6:20am ferry with my sidekick Vanessa.

We made it to Comox by 9am and I followed my directions to Air Force Beach. When we got there, I could see a couple other birders walking around, but they didn't seem to have found any Owl. As I caught up with one I was told that the bird had been seen about an hour earlier, unfortunately it had been chased off by unleashed dogs. Sounds about right, I mean although there was a nice bright sign saying "please keep dogs on a leash" why would any responsible dog owner follow those rules?

I kept searching regardless, who knows where the Owl could pop up, there were lots of little holes between the large boulders on the beach, and driftwood piles. After about two hours things were not looking good. More and more unleashed dogs took over the beach, including hunting dogs baying and chasing anything that moved. Part of me felt like yelling at all the people, and I figured I might as well check some other areas in hopes that the Burrowing Owl had found a quieter place to reside.

I had no such luck. I did manage a nice 1st Winter Glaucous Gull along the the estuary, always a nice find. I returned around 3pm to Air Force beach, another hour of searching revealed no Owl. We decided we should stay over night and try early in the morning Sunday, I felt as gloomy as the dark clouds that hovered on the horizon.

Sunday at Dawn I stood on the rocks at Air Force Beach. I peered through every nook and cranny. Circled back and forth up and down the sand and driftwood, but there was no sign of the Burrowing Owl. After two hours I called it quits, and headed back home. Going home defeated is never a good feeling, especially with so little time left every choice I made mattered. Now I had given a whole weekend away when I still had one species to look for in the Okanagan.

With little under two weeks left I still had to figure out a way to get two birds. On monday I found out that the Burrowing Owl had again been seen, i felt a little bitter about it. As it stands now I have 4 more days off to see Sharp-tailed Grouse, which is never easy to find, and possibly return for another attempt at the Owl. Well things are sure becoming dramatic.

Northern Shrike

Big Weekend

There were only three weeks left in 2013. I had watched November slip by almost bird less, so when I heard of the Hooded Oriole in Port McNeill I knew it was a must see. Aside from that, it was also a second chance. In September I had missed one at Jordan river by mere hours. I got in touch with the woman who's hummingbird feeders had probably saved the life of the Oriole. She gave me directions and information on how to find the Oriole, so all I had left to do was anxiously wait for the weekend.

I knew the odds were in favour of the bird sticking it out. What choice did it really have? Port McNeill is a long way from California. And being that it had found the only oasis within the endless miles of coastal coniferous forests, I doubted it could survive an escape attempt. But you never know. I had nightmares of a Cooper's Hawk picking off the Oriole which probably stuck out like a sore thumb in such bleak environs. Saturday could not come soon enough.

I would not be doing this trip alone though, Kevin Neill needed the bird for his BC and Canada lists. I jumped at the offer of splitting costs. These ferry trips have taken a big toll on the wallet. I think I've been on more ferries this year than all my years of living previous. Its also always nice to meet new birders, which I have managed to do alot of this year.

We set out early Saturday morning. The 630 Ferry was nowhere near full at this time of year. When we got to Nanaimo it was still fairly dark and we went straight up the Island Highway to Campbell River. Luckily for us the temperature had risen the last few days making the narrow winding road to Port McNeill virtually clear of snow and cutting down the expected travel time.

Around noon we arrived in Port McNeill. It wasn't too hard to find the house with the hummingbird feeders. As we parked in front, the sun had broken through the clouds for the first time that day. Creating an odd lighting effect as the wind blew the sprinkling rain, it glistened. The Oriole was not around, so we staked out, sitting in the car to avoid the wind. I felt the familiar anxious feeling when looking for a rarity.

After about 15 minutes of waiting, we exclaimed as a bright yellow/orange bird popped up in front of the house. Hooded Oriole! Three Hundred and Sixty One.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

We oo'd and ahh'd at the tropical looking bird, looking much out of place. It finally flew off to make its rounds and I was relieved. I had finally gotten out of the longest bird less period of my year. On the way back I got an Ebird report of a Black Phoebe in Chilliwack! Well, looks like my Sunday had just been planned for me. Overall it was a 15 hour 750km trip for one bird. I guess this is how the last month of a big year goes, it was well worth it though.

Sunday Morning me and Vanessa set out for Chilliwack. Vanessa had come in from San Jose the night before, because of the Oriole I wasn't able to pick her up from the airport. I'm sure she was happy this year was coming to and end almost as much as I was. The Phoebe had been seen by Fraser Valley birder Dave Beeke during the Chilliwack Christmas Bird Count. What a count bird.

I followed my Google Map directions making a multitude of turns down suburban streets until I arrived at Kitchen Rd. The Black Phoebe had been observed hawking insects along the slough bordering the road. I felt like it would turn out to be needle in the haystack searching, but to my relief I came upon two birders who waved me in. They had found the Phoebe!

A Phoebe on the ice. A rare sight indeed
Black Phoebe

As I opened the car door I could already hear the Phoebe. It was hunting along the slough, landing on the Ice, hovering over the open water, going from perch to perch persistently giving its fuzzy one note call. I managed a few poorly lit photos. After about 15 minutes the Phoebe seemed to become more vocal and agitated, we couldn't tell what was causing the commotion.

The bird flew up from the slough across Kitchen rd into a large tree. It called again, and took off, flying high up into the sky and over the farm fields until it became a dot on the horizon not to be seen again. I don't believe in fate really, but I had to think about the timing involved. Had I arrived 15 minutes later, I would not have that bird on my year list. Talk about a wild weekend. I scored a Hooded Oriole and a Black Phoebe in mid December. Lets hope my last two weekends pan out as well.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Where have all the birds gone?

Gone to warmer places every one.

Snow Buntings-Ferry Jetty

Since we last left off I had reached a new milestone: 360. A marvelous Glaucous Gull at the Chehalis estuary. And since then? Lets just say the words "dry spell" have never been more appropriate. November certainly did not pan out as I had hoped and all the rare birds I expected decided British Columbia was not the place to be.

Cooper's Hawk-Killed a Pigeon outside my house

I spent most of my days off around Vancouver picking through Gull flocks for a Slaty-backed or Iceland gull. Checking through thousands of ducks at Roberts Bank hoping for a Baikal Teal, or just walking the dykes of Boundary Bay in hopes of flushing up a Mega rarity. Every day I Checked Ebird, the rare bird alert, and every message board I could find for any reports of anything new.

American Robin-64th Street

The weather has now turned as bleak as my hopes, with temperatures below freezing and snow on the ground, but there is a glimmer. A Hooded Oriole has shown up in Port Mcneil of all places, and its been there for over a week! I will be chasing it this weekend, and if all goes well, I will update the blog with my sucess, or failure.

I leave this update with some pictures of the highlight of November, a lovely pair of Long-eared Owls from boundary bay. After years of only brief looks as I accidentally flushed them from dense bush. These two were as tame as farm cats, allowing for some good shots.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Ruffed Grouse-Vancouver Island
November, where to begin? Failing to see the Great-crested Flycatcher? And an epic 4 day journey to Port Hardy? The complete lack of any rarities from the 2nd of November up until the last week?
To say this November was unexpectedly dull is an understatement. Last year, British Columbia had, in no particular order: Cave Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brown Pelican, Citrine Wagtail, and Elegant Tern all showing up for multiple days.

Western Gull-Ferry Terminal

Western Meadowlark-Port Hardy Airport

This year, we had a Great-crested Flycatcher (which I tried for and missed) and an Ash-throated Flycatcher that spent 2 days in Prince George; I seriously considered going for it, but it was not seen after November 2nd, probably because Prince George is not a good place for a Flycatcher to be fly-catching in November. 

Female hooded mergansers-Port Hardy

Shell Creek

Kalamalka Lake unsuccessful search for LBGU

I don't really have any epic stories of tracking down birds, which is the usual for this blog, and all I can really say is I have been digging down deep and working hard to find anything I can. Right now, there are maybe 4 birds that I can get. These include: Sharp-tailed Grouse, which I have already tried for on several occasions between Merrit and Kamloops; Lesser Black-backed Gull, of which, according to reports, there may still be one residing somewhere between Penticton and Vernon; Hoary Redpoll, which hasn't shown up in BC yet this winter, but hopefully does shortly. How I will chase it down, short of flying to Fort St. John, I don't really know. I've looked into flying and its 500 dollars round trip. At this point, I am debating on whether this is something I want to do or not. 

Fox Sparrow-Englishman Estuary

Fox Sparrow-Englishman Estuary

The fourth bird was Glaucous Gull, which I managed to see last Thursday, finding one amongst the thousands of Gulls around the Chehalis estuary. 

I also managed to find Red Phalarope on my trip to Pt. Hardy where I was scoping out the ocean from the Kelly Wharf in Sayward. I had been checking out the Alcids and Boneparts gulls when a small flock of shorebirds came whizzing by. Soon, they landed in the water and there was no doubt they were Phalaropes. That was a nice win for me, as I was maybe the only one who didn't spot one Red Phalarope on the Pelagics.

Probably the craziest thing I've ever seen in my birding days happened while driving from Port Hardy to the Port Hardy airport. As I turned onto the road to the airport, I noticed a falcon like bird flying erratically around the area. At first I figured it was a Kestrel, which would be a weird enough bird way up there. Then I thought, maybe even weirder, a Common Nighthawk. When I pulled over and got my binoculars on the bird, I couldn't believe it: A Leach's Storm Petrel!!! I had already seen one on the pelagic trip, but it was a distant view of a few seconds. This time I got to savour the looks. It was buoyantly floating above the fir trees. it was definitely an unexpected surprise. 

Sunset Port Hardy

Ferry to Malcom Island

And the other bird I've added kind of felt a little dirty: American Black Duck. These ducks were introduced near Nanaimo in the 60's and have dwindled into almost nothingness since. Most of them have hybridized with Mallards, thus making finding a pure one more and more difficult. I wasn't planning on even looking for one, but Russ Cannings had found a few pure looking ones, and since he and Mike Toochin both counted the Yellow point birds on their big years, I decided I might as well have a look.

The pond they were in was filled with ducks, including many American Black x Mallard hybrids, but among them I counted 3 that I would consider still as being American Black Duck.What can I say, I was desperate. 
So here I sit at 360 species, still hoping I can see 4 more birds and be at least number two in Big Years for BC. I think I might have to write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a Rustic Bunting and Red-faced Cormorant. Maybe I will go write that letter now.

Take care

Cooper's Hawk-Goose Spit

Ruffed Grouse

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The last train to Owlsville

When I first started birding as a kid, learning how to see Owls was one of the biggest mysteries to me. I looked through the field guides displaying all these differing kinds of Owls that were supposed to live in British Columbia, and yet for my first several years, I never saw any of them. 

My first official Owl was a Short-eared Owl, who was sitting on a fence along the Irrigation fields one summer. My second came one winter along the forest trail where I startled my first Great Horned Owl. My first Pygmy Owl came on the Kimberly Christmas bird count that same year. It wasn't until I started to gain an awareness of bird behaviour, and of my own surroundings, did finding Owls come much easier for me.

This year, I had done a good job of tracking down all the Owls except one: The Boreal Owl. I don't consider Burrowing Owl, which I did see but couldn't count, nor Spotted Owl, which barely exists in BC, as Owls on my list to see. So, excluding them, I had just this last little Owl to see. Of course, this is what most would consider the hardest one to find, and I just had to have left it for last. 

I had set aside two days at the end of October for Boreal Owl searching. Russ had given me some good spots near Penticton to look, and it would probably be my last chance to find one of these little guys. The snow was coming soon, and the probability of finding one outside of their Mountain forests was slim. It was a "must win" situation for sure. 

To make things a little more interesting, a Lesser Black-backed Gull had been found along the Penticton waterfront. It would be oh-so-sweet to nab that bird as well. I left for Penticton after work and made it into town by 9pm. I got a hotel, dropped off my stuff and headed for the hills. Cami Rd wound its way through the hills above Penticton, providing lovely views of the city at night. 

As the elevation climbed, I watched the temperature drop to -3; it had been a while since I had seen a minus sign on my car thermometer. The habitat also changed, shifting from dry Ponderosa Pine to Douglas Fir and finally to the Subalpine Boreal forest. The road switched from pavement, to dirt, to snow. I was now in Owl Territory. 

Road 201

I stopped my car and got out to listen. The air was eerily silent, the skies were clear, and the stars so bright and so plentiful that they bathed the snow covered forest in dim light. I played a Boreal Owl call, nothing responded. This would be repeated for the next four hours, over and over again. Listen...play the call...listen. I eventually had traversed all of Cami Rd, Rd 201, down to Shuttleworth Creek Rd, coming out to the highway just before Okanagan Falls. Just before the highway, a Great Horned Owl stared at me through the headlights. Well, at least I found an Owl. 

I was tired and cold, it was time for bed. The next morning, I started early at the waterfront. Though the sun was shining when it came over the  mountains, the wind was blowing wildly. I quickly discovered that I needed a few more layers. To make things even more annoying, most of the waterfront had been blocked off for construction. I could see a nice flock of gulls was in the enclosure, but the only way I could view them was against the sun, making the entire situation very  difficult. 
Gull Flocks along the Waterfront

I checked the river next to the SS Minnow, where I had seen an ebird report of the gull. It was all the normal gulls: a couple Glaucous Winged, in amongst the Herring, California and Ring-billed. I picked out one Thayer's. I made the rounds back and forth from one end of the Waterfront to the other, each time finding good numbers of Gulls, but nothing rare, and certainly nothing with a dark back and light eye. 
Maude Roxby

One thing I have learned from reading through the records in the Okanagan for Lesser Black-backed Gulls, is that they can move around a large area fairly quickly. It made sense to continue to Kelowna and check all those sites in hopes that it was still around. Maude Roxby was deathly quiet, with the only birds being a pair of Mallards. I decided to try the mouth of Mission Creek, a location I have never actually visited before. It's in a weird location that most people probably wouldn't find, and I almost didn't find it, but luckily enough ran into Ryan Tomlinson, one of the Okanagan's star birders. I had met him the night of the Flammulated Owl search. It was good luck on my part as he showed me the way to get to Mission Creek. 
California Gull

2nd Winter Ring-billed Gull

Sadly, there was no Black-backed Gull, but it was still nice to chat with Ryan, and to finally see what Mission Creek was. I bid adieu and hit up Robert Lake, which only held one juvy California Gull. The dump in Kelowna also yielded nothing special, and it seriously didn't help that the workers were shooting off fireworks to scare the gulls. I turned around and headed for Penticton again to check the waterfront. Again, it was empty.

Ellis Creek Reservoir

At Sunset it was time to go back into the mountains, taking the same Cami Rd, although this time, I walked the reservoir at dusk, hoping to hear or see a Boreal Owl. The air became chilly as the sky got dark. I walked around the trees hoping for something, playing the tape but getting no response. Just before it was too dark to see where I was walking, I got back in the car and carried on along the same snow covered road, doing the same loop I had done the night before, with the same lack of success.
Cami Rd
When I made it back onto the highway at Okanagan Falls, I still hadn't given up. It was time to visit a new location: Apex Mountain. Apex is about 35 km from Penticton, a paved winding road. Russ said that he had had Boreal Owls just past the resort, and then further up at the Nickel Plate Cross country trails. Up I went til the snow was already a foot deep. It was minus 8 degrees, and 12am when I reached the spot Russell had told me about. I got out and I could feel my nostrils start to freeze. I played the Boreal owl call and listened, I don't know if I have ever felt so much silence. 

I thought about turning around, that perhaps this wasn't my weekend, but I decided to drive a bit further. I came down a hill and saw what looked like good habitat, though to be honest, I couldn't really tell what good habitat was anymore. I had been looking at dark snow covered trees for so long now that it was all a blur. I got out and halfheartedly played the tape. Immediately, I heard something. It was so unexpected, I thought I had made the noise by brushing my jacket against something. I waited, played the tape again.

"Skiew Skiew!" came from the trees right beside the road. Boreal Owl! I shone a small pen light into them, it called one more time, I saw a little Owl peering out, and then it was gone.

The next morning, I again checked the Gulls around the Penticton Waterfront to no avail. I checked the same places around Kelowna again with no luck. I even went to the mouth of Vernon Creek in Vernon, but found no Lesser Black-backed. It was time to go home, but I left the Okanagan satisfied that I had found the last Owl for my year list. 

Herring Gull