Tuesday, August 27, 2013

August's last gasp

Since last we left, I have only managed to eek out 3 new species; not for lack of effort, but more for lack of birds. I've gone out as much as I could with my limited days off, but the fact stands that not much is being reported right now. It's as if birds and birders are both still on vacation. In any case, here are the accounts of my last 3 species.

*Green Heron*
This little guy has eluded me all summer. It wasn't until I switched up my game plan to visiting Hastings Park in the morning (as opposed to late evening) that I finally caught him. I decided to take a peek one early morning before work, and even at that time, it was difficult to find him. From the fishing wharf, I spied him doing early morning yoga in a large treeless shrub bordering the lake. He was stretching his neck out, along with wings and body into interesting poses. It was nice to finally get this one in the bag.

*Barn Owl*
Barn Owl has been the "easy one" that I kept putting off seeing this year. I figured I would have run into one by now, what with all the hours I've spent around Boundary Bay, and in the past it hadn't usually been an issue finding a Barn Owl here or there. However, this year they had managed to avoid me. So I decided I would just go find one. It wasn't hard, took me about 5 minutes of driving at night to come across a nice Barn Owl sitting on the power lines along 64th street.

Willet was a bird I figured I wouldn't see on my Big Year. The long time resident of the ferry jetty had passed on I guess, so there was no reliable bird left in British Columbia. I had been checking the old records for certain birds recently on Ebird, and noticed that there had been quite a few Willet at the White Rock pier in previous years. I took note of it and thought if I got the chance, I should do a walk around some morning. Well, it looks like someone else did it for me, as one morning I woke up with a text from Rob saying that a Willet had been found! It was 8:30am, and I had to work at 12. Just enough time to drive down to White Rock to see the bird.


I lucked out and saw it literally a minute before he flew off to the end of the pier to roost for high tide.

Aside from these three birds, the only other real highlight was coming into close contact with a lovely Barred Owl. It looks to be a recently fledged one, and he definitely did not seem perturbed in the slightest by my presence. We had a nice photo shoot together; I end the post with those photos. This weekend I will be off for 5 days and plan on one of my last big birding adventures of the year, except at this point I don't really know where it will be taking place. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Great White-tailed Hope

Needle Peak

This time Needles Peak would be an enjoyable hike. I had enough sleep and energy, not to mention I was definitely becoming accustomed to long uphill journeys by this time. Along the way, I caught sight of an American Three-toed Woodpecker. It was drumming, and I'm not sure if it was a juvenile or an adult male that was setting up a winter territory already, or perhaps they just drum for fun in August.

alpine lake
After a couple hours, I was where I had turned around on my last attempt for Ptarmigan, but this time I kept on to the right, not going up Needles Peak, rather turning toward a lake on another slope. I reached a magnificent lake, and at the end of it, a large rock slide of boulders. I scanned the rocks, and almost immediately spotted a round shape atop one of the rocks: Ptarmigan!
White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

I hightailed it towards the end of the lake, and climbed up the rocks to get a closer look. Turns out there were 3 more Ptarmigan, all White-tailed! These lovely birds didn't seem too upset that I was close, and seemed to be quite content to sun themselves on the rocks.
This was not only a big year bird, but also a lifer, the last of the 3 Ptarmigan I had to see. I was elated and the hike back was easy as I had another load off my shoulders.

When I was back on the Coquihalla, I carried on to Merrit and then towards Kelowna, stopping at the quaint little Laurie Gouchon grasslands area. Though it was hot out, the alder trees were busy with Western Tanagers, Western Wood Pewee and Swainson's Thrush. A Snipe was poking around the marsh.

By the time I reached Robert lake it was a sweltering 36 degrees out, there were not many shorebirds out, so it was off to Oliver where I visited the small Hack's pond just outside of town, and stumbled upon a family of Great Horned Owls! They must have been out enjoying the warm evening, and it was definitely a shock to see them out in the sun like this.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

By the time I made it to Willow Beach, the sun was on its way down. Willow Beach is a private area, but there is a pull out right where you turn onto the road with a large field (usually this area is flooded, but by this point in the summer, most of the water has dried up). The few ponds are magnets for shorebirds, and there was a fair share tonight, with both species of Yellowlegs, least Sandpiper, Solitary, a Wilson's Phalarope, and the biggest surprise of all, a Ruddy Turnstone! I had never seen one outside of Vancouver, and apparently they aren't so common here, as it came up as a rare species in Ebird. It was species 320 for me of the year, and a great way to cap off a monster weekend.

Pika-Manning Park

Pika-Manning Park

A Short Stint at Boundary Bay

On the road to somewhere

Monday Morning I awoke with the intentions on a major coverage of the interior for any shorebirds, my first stop would be Salmon Arm Bay, and Christmas Island, a Stilt Sandpiper had been reported, then on to Vernon and Otter lake, then Robert Lake in Kelowna, then Penticton oxbows where another Stilt had been reported, and then Willow Beach near Osoyoos, where yet another Stilt Sandpiper had been seen.

Salmon Arm did not yield the expected results, partly because I didn't get there til 10am, and partly because it was already quite busy with foot traffic, boaters, dog walkers and the like. The only interesting bird was a pair of Short-billed Dowitchers. At about this time Russell, my big year mentor texted me to let me know the Stint had again been seen this morning. I told him I was in Salmon Arm and debating on going back for it, he said I probably should, and could maybe make it for the High tide at 630pm.

I weighed my options, if I stayed I would probably pick up some shorebirds, but they weren't super rare, if I went, I could get a really rare bird, not to mention a Lifer, but if I didn't get it, I would have wasted a lot of gas, and time for nothing. The term indecisive comes to mind if I were to describe how I felt at this moment.

I drove towards Kamloops, i had to the turn off to Vernon to make my final decision, I mulled it over in my mind, then realized there was something I hadn't thought about, the traffic going back would probably be bad, it was a Holiday Monday, meaning everyone and their dog would be driving home to Vancouver, I might not even make it back in time for high tide...but even still, the reward outweighed the risks, so threw caution to the wind and stayed straight on towards Vancouver.

Four hours later I was stuck in traffic, it was backed up as soon as I reached hope, this did not look good. It was about 4 o'clock now and in good traffic its about an hour and a half, I got off the highway in Langley and headed for highway 10, as soon as I was off the highway the traffic was great, and I pulled in to the 104th st parking lot at around 530, I scrambled to get my stuff and myself out of the car and bolted up to the dyke. The tide was still a bit out which was a relief.

I had seen Rob Lyske's truck in the parking lot, which was a good sign because usually when we both ended up at the same place for the same bird, it was a good chance we would be seeing it. I headed west along the dyke, I saw an obvious crowd of birders further on up, always a good sign. I jogged up to them and in what was probably the most perfect timing in my birding history, Peter Candido caught the bird first in his scope and called out "I've got it!" within minutes I had a Red-necked Stint! I was so relieved I felt like I could collapse right there and fall asleep, but instead spent time watching a gorgeous little shorebird with a great group of birders.

Rob and his son's were there, his oldest Matthew already knew how many birds I was at, since he follows the Top 100 on ebird religiously, he even knows the last species birders has seen, its remarkable, and great to see birders getting into it at such a young age. I bid adieu but instead of going home, like a sane person would, I drove back to hope, my next plan was to hike Needles peak again, this time early enough so I could go after White-tailed Ptarmigan.

The Rainbow Range

Alpine Lake in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park

Birders in my opinion feel the change of season's much more early and dramatically than regular people. While people in February are in their depths of despair over the seemingly endless cloudy rain or snow filled days, we are proclaiming spring has arrived! with the first sighting of a Tree Swallow or song of a Red-winged Blackbird. And in August when people are just getting started on their sun tans and hours of beach side lounging, we are already lamenting on the end of it, the forests have become silent and we await the influx of Shorebirds.

This is how I felt this August morning, as it was the first time I really felt like Summer was over, after waking up morning after morning to birdsong, today it was almost dead quiet. The silent forest almost deafening. I felt a little melancholic as I began my hike.

The first 30-45 minutes is uphill through a giant burn, fireweed and other wildflowers added a stark contrast to the black and white charred spruce. I kept my eyes open for the shapes of Owls perched high up, It didn't seem like any were around, the hill began to get steeper and turn into switchbacks, after moving up a particularly big switchback I stopped to catch my breath, I turned around to survey what I had just ascended when I noticed right above my head, a Northern Hawk Owl drowsily staring down at me.

Northern Hawk-Owl

Hawk Owl

My eyes just about popped out of my head, to think if I had been in better shape I may not have stopped. I'm pretty sure this is a Juvenile Bird, he doesn't seem to have the complete look of an Adult, not to mention the way he is sitting is not the typical Hawk style. I tried locating the rest of the family but had no such luck.

The burned forest soon subsided into living trees, the trail passed through numerous spruce bogs, each one containing a rather angry Solitary Sandpiper who decided to fly into the nearest tree and peep away at me.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

 This brought in a surprise Northern Waterthrush, who seemed to be curious as to what the fuss was about.

Northern Waterthrush

 This must have been a bird migrating through as this wasn't typical Waterthrush Habitat. Shortly after I noticed a couple other birds in a spruce, and they turned out to be Rusty Blackbird! Another target bird! Further along I surprised a mother Spruce Grouse with a chick. Grouse number 3 of the weekend.

Female Spruce Grouse

Female Spruce Grouse

A couple Blackpoll Warblers were still around in the spruce, it was nice to see them again, the hike itself was almost too easy, after a few hours I had made it into the Alpine, from my vantage point it seemed I was surrounded by peaks in every direction, the Rainbow Range the closest ones.

View from the alpine

Named Rainbow Range because of the pink rockish rocks

Let the Ptarmigan survey commence

It was time to do some Ptarmigan hunting, I combed through the rocky hills and alpine meadows, A horned lark peered down at me from above, Spotted Sandpipers flew about, while Hoary Marmots announced my arrival at each set of new rock slides.

The Hoary Marmots here are extremely shrill

Sadly no sign of Ptarmigan, after a couple hours it was time to turn back, I was a bit dismayed but 2/3 as they say "ain't bad".

Walking back, I took a different route down through some alpine ponds, at the edge of one of them, in some wet grass I noticed a shape I at first thought was a duck. When I had my binoculars on it I quickly realized it wasn't a duck at all but a Ptarmigan! But what kind? My first area of focus was the tail..No white outer tail feathers, could it be a Rock Ptarmigan, I noticed another shape, and another it was a family, finally I got close, and realized it was a Willow Ptarmigan family.

Male Willow Ptarmigan, chick behind him
Female Willow Ptarmigan

Male and 2 Chicks

Not what I hoped for but still a bird to see. This had been one of the best hikes I'd ever been on, at least as far as bird life was concerned, a total of 32 species seen, not bad for an August day. The way back was pretty quiet except for a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers, which was nice to see, since I had not seen any since my March visit to Cranbrook.

By the time I reached my car it was afternoon and I was dog tired, it would be a long drive back to Williams Lake, along the way I checked Eagle Lake, hoping for some interesting shorebirds, my previous visit I had noted it should be a good place for them later on in migration. My idea turned out to be incorrect as there was not one shorebird about, The two Arctic Terns were still there however, in exactly the same place, not sure if they nested this year or just rested. A flock of Bonaparte Gulls were also on the lake, but not much else.

When I finally got back to Williams Lake I checked my phone to see a Red-necked Stint had been seen at Boundary Bay...I was dismayed. Again i leave and something crazy shows up. My being out of town was becoming a good luck charm for the rest of Vancouver's Birders.

Well here I was stuck up in Williams Lake, I still had 3 more days of birding in the interior, and at this point I couldn't just go back for a bird that may or may not be there, I felt a little deflated, I drove to Kamloops for a restless night.

Beautiful BC

Sunrise near Clinton

If there is one major takeaway from this year, it would have to be that British Columbia is even more amazing than I ever knew it to be. It was this fact that would stand out in my mind after my five day long BC Holiday weekend.The plan was simple enough: All out attack. There were still holes to be filled in the interior, birds that lay in the back of my mind taunting me. Prairie Falcon, Rusty Blackbird, Ptarmigan both Rock and White-tailed.  And oh there was that Sharp-tailed Grouse, how they vexed me so.

As was becoming the norm, Friday I struck out after work on that familiar highway, Treo is loving my business this year. Thankfully traffic wasn't as bad as I imagined for a Friday of a long weekend, and I managed to make it to Clinton by 10pm. I stayed at my old haunt, the rest area north of town. On the drive up there had been a terrific lightning storm causing me a bit of dread, both because I am scared of lightning, and the fact that it could cost me some birding if the heavy rains were to continue through the morning.

I woke up pleased to find the sun shining through the clouds, it felt like it was going to be a good day. My plan was to take Meadow Lake Road off highway 97 through to Dog Creek Road, then along Churn Creek protected area in to Alki lake and then Williams Lake, although technically its only about 200 Kilometers its a dirt road almost the whole way, so it takes a good amount of time to do the drive. Not far into the drive I had my first Grouse of the trip, a female Ruffed along the side of the road, a few of her chicks poked their heads from the shrubs behind her.

Ruffed Grouse

There were plenty of birds along the first part of the road, most notable being two separate pairs of Merlin's as well as American Kestrels. I kept a steady eye on the farmland and grassland patches for Sharp-tailed Grouse, and after coming down a hill I exclaimed, thinking I had finally found one, only to realize it was an almost full grown Dusky grouse juvenile, I found his mother shortly after clucking away at me.

Meadow Lake Road

Meadow Lake Road

Churn Creek

As I approached Dog Creek the Cliff Faces started to appear and I intently scoped them out managing another pair of Kestrels, but no Prairie Falcons. I had seen an Ebird report of a pair seen at a nest somewhere in these cliffs, but an exact location was not given. I carried on until driving underneath the largest bluffs to be found along this road, it had to be the location.

A Northern Harrier glided along the lower bluffs, while I checked every little crevice that had white wash coming out from it, a few White-throated Swifts cruised overhead, and then I heard a lough "Kreee Kree Kree Kree" It could only be a large Falcon! Frantically I scanned with my binoculars, finally catching sight of a medium sized raptor, it had something in its talons and was circling below the bluffs. Another Falcon called from the cliffs, it must be delivering food to its babies, the shape was good for Prairie, but I needed more than just a silhouette, finally it hit into the sunlight and I could see its brown back, and buffy streaked undersides, Prairie Falcon!

Sadly instead of keeping on the bird I tried to get my scope on it, and in the process lost the bird, and could not find where it had gone into to drop off its meal. Regardless I was extremely relieved to have this species crossed off the list, I carried on through the huge grasslands along the Fraser river, the scenery was outstanding, even more outstanding were the number of Vesper Sparrows along the road, i would imagine there could have been thousands, but at least every km I would flush about 50 off the road. With them were Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Eastern kingbirds, and even a heard of California Bighorns.

California Bighorn near Churn Creek

Churn Creek Bridge

Finally I reached Williams Lake, by this time it was 1pm and dreadfully hot out. I picked up a few supplies, and set out east along highway 20 towards Bella coola. My destination would be Tweedsmuir park, I planned on hiking to the rainbow range the next day in search of Ptarmigan, hopefully Rock, but would accept a White-tailed. There were reports of Northern hawk owl and Rusty Blackbird in the area for the previous month, and those were my other targets.

Cows are given free range along highway 20, and often are on the road

For anyone who has never done the drive, if you ever do, be prepared for two things: A complete lack of cell reception from just outside of Williams Lake for the rest of the drive, and that there are few gas stations, or other amenities along the way, so its good to fill up when you can.  The drive itself is scenic, and wild. I felt more isolated from the world here than when I was further up north, there is not a lot of traffic, and there aren't the same kind of industrial/resource developments happening, its just forest, fields and mountains the whole way. I would recommend any nature enthusiast visit.

I didn't make it to Tweedsmuir until almost sunset, I stood in a burnt out forest at the trail head marvelling at the sheer quietness, the dead trees were filled with families of Mountain Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Junco. I also found a family of American Three-toed Woodpeckers having at a tree, they were all hammering away and it sounded like an old fashioned pop corn maker.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

When I returned to my car I jumped as I noticed a Red fox sniffing my tires, when he noticed me he jumped too, and took off into the forest. As darkness came I went to bed anxiously awaiting the sunrise.

Sunset at the Rainbow Ridge trail head

Friday, August 9, 2013

And if that Mockingbird don't sing

Thankfully July was almost over. It was an absurd month of extreme heat and little to no new birds. Aside from the Costa's on Canada Day, and the Arctic Tern I felt like I was accomplishing nothing. With one day left off, July 28th, i figured I would finally make a go for White-tailed Ptarmigan. I made plans to hike up Needle Peak early Sunday Morning. As usual things changed quickly when I heard of a Northern Mockingbird in Princeton. 

At first I was apprehensive, a drive to Princeton would eat up my morning and I was a bit skeptical I would even find the bird, there were already several Mockingbird reports in BC this year, none of them had a follow up, they were all individual sightings, the bird probably moving on right away. The thought of making that drive and coming up empty made me think twice, even three times. Maybe it was just the July doldrums that had me apathetic to doing anything, but a few texts from Russell managed to convince me I could fit a Mockingbird twitch and a Ptarmigan hike into one day of insanity. This is a Big Year after all.

And with that early Sunday morning found me cruising down highway 1 towards hope. I made few stops along the way, and by seven in the morning I was in Princeton, walking Old Mill Road where the bird had been reported. Apparently the Mockingbird had been seen near a mulch pile along the road. I found the Mulch pile and scanned the area. No Mockingbird, the trees along the road, the Saskatoon berry bushes were filled with birds though. Bullock's Oriole, Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting among others. 

Pacific Slope Flycatcher's gave their uppity whistle "Peweeet". I played a Mockingbird call from my IPhone to see if that would draw the bird out, but instead i got an incensed House Wren. A Clark's Nutcracker croaked from the ridge above. It started to feel like it was another skunking in the making. If it weren't for the good variety of birds in this area I might have been a bit more choked, but I started walking back to my car. Where the road narrows near the Trans-Canada Trail a bird flew up from the Saskatoon Berry Bushes. Right away I noticed the white wing patches, and long tail, it had flown up into a Ponderosa Pine, and was partially obscured, with a little patience I managed to get a full view of it.

Mockingbird! Cue the relief. I followed the Mocker for a bit, it kept very low and skulky hiding in the bottom branches of Ponderosa Pine's extremely shy, making a good photo impossible, I decided I better not press the issue in case anyone else would be looking for the bird. Mission one Complete.

It was now on to the Coquihalla Summit. I took the highway from Princeton to Merritt, one of my favorite drives, the road traverses a few lakes, mixed forest, and near the end to highway 97 opens up into nice short grass prairie and Alder parkland. This is Sharp-tailed Grouse habitat, but failed to produce one for me, not that I was surprised. I stopped at some ponds near Kentucky Alleyne Provincial Park, scanning for Shorebirds, all of the common resident shorebirds were accounted for, up to and including at least 10 Wilson's Snipe!

I was at the trail head for Needles peak at about 1pm, not the best time to start a hike out, especially underneath the direct blare of the sun. For anyone who hasn't done Needles Peak, the first hour is basically straight up, and this being my first real hike in some time, I was not exactly prepared for this kind of exertion, especially with only 4 hours sleep, I am just thankful i quit smoking or I don't think I would've made it.

Being as it was the midday, as you can guess the birding was less than spectacular, Dark-eyed Junco's didn't seem to mind the warm temperature, as families of them were twittering away, bouncing from branch to branch along the trail.

Finally the habitat started changing from Coastal Coniferous forest to more stunted spruce, and willow shrub, I was in the Sub alpine, shortly after I had broke into the openness, to my left a large cliff face filled with broken rocks, perfect ptarmigan habitat. I explored for a bit, flushing an American Pipit

And soon after I heard a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and manged to catch it flying up above my head. Year Bird! I carried on a bit more, but by this time it was 5pm and I was starting to become overly weary and tired, I still had to drive home and then work in the morning, so I called it a day, I could come back another time in the morning and have a much better chance. All and all it was a good day and a good way to cap off a July, I was feeling much more invigorated for August and what it would bring.