Friday, October 18, 2013

Mid October Update

Great Blue Heron-Iona Island

After the Tropical Kingbird and Black-necked Stilt chases, things slowed down quite a bit for me. I had to work 9 days, and nothing new really showed up in Vancouver, or elsewhere. As thanksgiving weekend approached, my plan was to go to Smithers and try for a Rock Ptarmigan on Hudson Bay Mountain. There was only a narrow window of time left for me to find this last species of Ptarmigan.

Lapland Longspur-Iona Jetty

I also stood a chance at finding something rare along the way. The lakes near Vanderhoof boast a number of extremely strange bird records including Ross's Gull and Demoissell Crane. I would be happy with something as dull as a blasted Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or even a Snow Bunting at this point.

very light Pectoral Sandpiper-Sewage Ponds

compared to regular Pectoral's he really stands out

As per usual, there is always some sort of problem that gets in the way of my master plan, this time it was a show on Friday night that my band was invited to play. I didn't really want to do it, but I was out voted, and it looked like people were actually excited to come to this one, so I figured, no harm no foul. I could do both..right?
Wrong. A day before the show, I started feeling ill, kind of flu-y. The day of the show, I really felt sick, but the show went well. However, the day after, I could not move, let alone drive to Smithers. Everything had been ruined.

Come Sunday, I was feeling okay enough to get off the couch and spend the morning birding with Russell, who was in town for Thanksgiving. We toured around all the spots at Iona, finding a mag flock of Yellow Warblers, but not much else in the way of excitement other than a Short-eared owl who thought he was a Broad-winged Hawk, soaring high above us.

Great Horned Owl-Terra Nova

Great Horned Owl-Terra Nova

That day, a Yellow Wagtail had been seen near where the old Citrine Wagtail showed up last year, just a stones throw down in the small settlement of Royston. Although I was weary of another Ferry excursion, I really had no choice but to go. Russell, Daniele Mitchel, and I all went out that morning. Operation: Wagtail Recovery.

It was a complete failure, and coming home empty handed was only made worse when I got word of a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that had been seen all day at the Pilings, which I had planned on visiting until this Wagtail Mission.

On my last day of this 4-day weekend, I set forth on a Vancouver bird marathon. I started at the Iona Jetty, walking the entire 4km one way to the very end, where I found my first Snow Bunting of the year. Oddly enough, unlike the usual way of feeding along the jetty in the grass, this one was gleaning food from the barnacles way out on the rock spit. He really made me work for him, a good 8 km round trip.

River Otters-tip of the jetty

River Otters

River Otters

River Otters

The rest of the day was spent around the Pilings, hoping to spot the Sharpy. There were hundreds of Plovers, Dunlin, even some Western Sandpipers, a few Sanderlings, a very late Baird's Sandpiper, a Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs side by side, demonstrating their differences, but no Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

Finally able to get decent photos of a Bushtit

Bushtit-Garry Point

Bushtit-Garry Point

I followed a group of Pectorals for hours, hoping the Sharp-tailed would pop out of some heap of dried seaweed, but it never did. Although my four days off were mostly unsuccessful, I at least could take pride in the fact I had been determined enough to even do the amount of birding I had done, considering how terrible I felt.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

I don't think there is another bird who I've chased more times this year than the Black-necked Stilt. Be it at Otter Lake near Vernon, Robert Lake in Kelowna, Elizabeth Lake in Cranbrook, or Duck lake in Creston, every time one has appeared, I was a day late and a dollar short.

Even when one hot August day a miraculous flock touched down at Brydon Lagoon, they were gone by the time I braved rush hour traffic to reach them. Black-necked Stilts are usually an April-May migrant, and although they have bred a few times in BC, usually by June all reports have dried up much like the ponds they feed in.

So it was a shock when one October evening I see that a Stilt had been reported at, of all places, the White Rock Pier. I was working late so there was no possible way to see it that day. Would this be another miss for the year? The last tease by these long-legged Shorebirds?

My plan was to be there by Sunlight, unfortunately band practice went until 2am that night, so I didn't manage to drag myself from slumber until 8:30 in the morning. I awoke with a text from Rob that indeed the Stilt was still there chilling on the beach.

I was that fortunate traffic was not as bad as expected, I was going against the morning rush hour, thankfully. Within the hour, I was the hurriedly walking the beach path east of the Pier, right toward a decent size flock of long-lensed Photgraphers.

Black-necked Stilt-first record for October in Vancouver

The Stilt was right on the beach, feeding with the resident Willet, of all things. At one point, their paths crossed and they had a matrix style battle for a few seconds. Then, a Bonaparte's Gull flew in to make it a trio of odd birds feeding alongside a beach. A northwestern crow, who was perhaps confused by why all these people were so excited by this bird, decided to spoil the fun by chasing the Stilt around eliciting cries of protest from the Stilt, but giving the Photographers a chance to snap some flight shots.
The resident Willet now has to share the spotlight

Bonaparte's Gull with the Stilt

Knowing his history with this bird, I couldn't resist sending Russ a text telling him "Don't hate me, but I just saw a Black-necked Stilt". He had missed it in his big year and I had believed that I was going to follow along in those footsteps until this shocker of a little bird decided to tempt fate.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt number 352

Tropical Kingbird

Every time a rare bird shows up on the Island, I cringe a little, and I can feel my chequing account shrink a little more. BC ferries should offer a big year discount, I think I'll write David Han a letter...
When I heard the news of a Tropical Kingbird showing up at Swan Lake, I bit my lip. Do I try for it? Or take the gamble and hope one would show up on the mainland?

I have a nostalgic relationship with this species, as in 2008 I found the first Lower Mainland Tropical Kingbird in 13 years. It was a big deal for me as its still the rarest bird I've ever found on my own. Since then, they have shown up almost every year, but unlike Vancouver Island, they are not an annual species.

I had two days to decide, so I waited to see more news in case the bird wasn't going to stick around. I still needed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and was okay with scouring every Pectoral Sandpiper this side of the Pacific for one.

It didn't look good as Friday rolled along. Reports were coming up negative for any trace of the bird. It looked like it was gonna be another Lower Mainland adventure, but around 7pm I saw a post that confirmed, YES, the bird had been seen that evening, I reserved the 7am Ferry.

I made it to Swan lake by 9am, and saw that a few other birders were already staked out on the floating bridge of the lake where the bird was last seen. We waited and watched, checking the masses of willow trees that bordered the pond. There was no sign of the Kingbird.

For those who have never been to Swan Lake, it is a big park with lots of adequate habitat for a Tropical Kingbird to flycatch from. I decided I should take the loop trail around the park, and maybe it would turn up at another location. Along the way I counted at least 15 Anna's Hummingbirds!

Anna's Humminbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Swan Lake was becoming a favourite location to bird in, the trees were alive with fall migrants. Many singing, perhaps the nice sunny morning had stirred up some remnants of spring in the birds. Fox, Song, and Golden Crowned all brushed off their old songs and let loose. Towhees, Chickadees, and Robins joined in. I happened upon a trio of Hermit Thrushes darting back and forth in the darkest recesses of the forest floor.

Hermit Thrush-Swan Lake

As I returned to the bridge, the same group of birders was still planted there, scanning the willow trees. There was still no Kingbird. It was now 11am and I had hoped to do some more Pelican scanning while I was on the Island, and time was closing in on my window of opportunity to see one. I decided that I should check out Jordan River and East Sooke Park, maybe I would get lucky. I figured if someone did spot the Kingbird, it would be sent out via the Vancouver Island bird group and I could rush back for it. Of course, what I neglected to consider was that there is no cell service from Sooke to Port Renfrew, so I wouldn't know if it had been seen or not until I was back in range.

I don't know why I decided to drive all the way to Port Renfrew, I guess mostly because I had never gone before and wanted to at least say that I had been there.
Mother and Cub near Port Renfrew

The birding was fairly quiet along the way. Jordan River was all but dead for the standard flock of Gulls that seemed to always be in the same place each time I visited.

Heermann's Gulls

At Beechey head, I sat on the rocks, praying to the bird gods for a Pelican. None such came, all the while messages were piling up for me in the outer reaches of cell phone space telling of the relocation of the Kingbird.

At about 5pm, I figured it was time to head back. In Langford, cell service was restored, my inbox flooded, and I figured out quickly that the Kingbird had been seen pretty much all day after 11am at a different location, with the last post saying that it was seen just after 3pm at the floating bridge. I tried gunning it, but Victoria loves to drive on Island time and I was going nowhere fast.

Once I was on the main highway though, it wasn't long before I was pulling into the Swan Lake parking lot, scrambling to get my binoculars and camera and get out of the door. In a mad scramble, I scurried down the trail towards the bridge. Right in front of the Swan Lake nature house, I met a man with binoculars, I slowed my pace and sheepishly asked "Is the Kingbird still around"?
He replied, "Yes, I just saw it down the trail, at the top of a Willow, let me show you". We walked a few meters down the trail and there it was, right where he left it, flycatching from a big weeping willow tree.
Bird 351!

Tropical Kingbird!

I was very thankful to the birder, but wish I had gotten his name to thank him. I spent ten minutes watching him move from one branch to another, darting out into the air and returning to perch with a fly in its bill. I heard a pair of Evening Grosbeaks fly over, I looked up to spot them, and when I went back to the Kinbird, it was gone.

I spent 20 minutes searching for it, but it was never seen again by me. The luck of my getting there at that moment, seeing the birder, and seeing the bird could have all have not happened had there been just a ten minute difference. Luck has definitely been on my side at pivotal times throughout this journey.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Egrets

Long-billed Dowitcher-Nanaimo Estuary

Throughout the year I feel I've done my best to manage work, a social life, a band, and a Big Year. I went in knowing that for me to be successful, the birds would have to take precedence over everything...except work of course. There are a lot of missed shows this year, birthdays, visiting friends and family, house cleaning, cat feedings, oil changes, doctors appointments, award galas...well, maybe not the last one.  All and all, I think I've managed it well...I mean, I haven't lost too many friends over it.

So I had a four day weekend the last of weekend of September, and things were getting wild. Red-throated Pipit were showing up in various places, an Oriental Turtle Dove was spotted in Tofino, a Booby species near Sechelt, and who knows what other birds could have been around that people weren't seeing. To top things off, a big storm was a-brewing, and my mouth watered while I dreamt of all the possible birds that could be blown in. Everything in me said this would be a Mega weekend, unfortunately, I had to explain that to my girlfriend, Vanessa, who was visiting from California, and my best friend who happened to be having her birthday party the same weekend.

To make things even better, Russell Cannings called me on Thursday to tell me he was currently staring at a Great Egret in the Nanaimo Estuary. I rolled my eyes. My friend's birthday party was Saturday and my girlfriend had just flown in, and I was working on how to explain to them I was going to Nanaimo at 5am. Luckily, I worked it out so we would only be gone the day, and would be able to make the party.

By 8am, we were in Nanaimo. The rain had eased off over night, the air was crisp with that tangible texture of Fall. The soggy estuary was busy with birds. Ravens croaking, and the "chit chit" of Ruby-crowned Kinglets was ever present. I heard my first Golden-crown of the fall, its buzzy, off-key whistle resounded over the estuary.

Nanaimo Estuary

The first ponds by the viewing tower were empty so we slogged our way out into the estuary. For some reason I thought there was a trail out there, but was mistaken, as it is basically a find your own way to the water's edge, this meant navigating through all kinds of wet grass and shrubbery, as well as hopping over tributaries. Vanessa came ill prepared, wearing some sort of slip on shoes, which were soon soaked entirely through. We met a photographer who had been searching since sunrise without so much as a glimpse of the white Heron.

Out on the shores there were at least 10 Great Blues. Russell had said that they were harassing the Egret constantly, so perhaps by now they had finally driven if off completely. By the time we got back to the car, we were thoroughly drenched. Vanessa had to abandon her shoes and wear a pair of my dress shoes and continue sock-less for the rest of the day.

We dried out in the car as I checked out various other vantages to the estuary, but still no sign of the Egret. I figured best bet would be to drive up the Island and check out a few other hot spots in hopes of finding something rare, or maybe even relocating the Egret.

Englishman River was buzzing with birds: large flocks of American Robin devoured berries along the trail, with a few Varied Thrush, lots of Waterfowl filled the river and marsh. I spotted one soggy looking Orange-crowned Warbler, and had a close encounter with one of Parksvilles tiny Black-tailed Deer.

Black-tailed Deer-Englishman River Estuary 

Qualicum Beach had a large raft of Bonepart's Gulls. I checked over the flock with a fine toothed comb for anything rare like a Black-headed or Little Gull. At Little Qualicum Estuary, the winds were starting to pick up and a few Black-bellied Plover huddled together, bracing themselves against the cold. The rain had started to fall in buckets again. Autumn birding does not leave a lot of daytime hours and with only three left before sunset and a ferry reservation waiting, it was time to make one last ditch effort at the Nanaimo estuary.


Russell was meeting us nearby at a campground that has a good trail underneath a power line right of way. I found him down the trail pishing up a storm of Kinglets that included a pair of Townsend's Warblers. We continued down the trail, hoping to find something good, when he received a text that another birder was currently watching the Egret by the viewing tower. It was all the info we needed to book it back to our vehicles and beat it to the estuary.

When we got there, the birder was waving us over. The pond the Egret was in was well concealed, but as we got closer, I could see his pure white head and yellow bill through the tall grass. I stopped to get a good view in my binoculars. Success! As we approached the bird, a Great Blue Heron flew in and flushed the Egret up into the air. The obnoxious Heron kept chase, and the Egret drifted far out to the estuary, touching down in some far, out-of-reach puddle.

While not the greatest view, we still saw our bird. And it was a special one at that, my 350th of the year. 350 was the number I had chosen as my goal. A number that throughout the year had seemed so daunting, and it was. It took me exactly 9 and 1/2 months, that's like a baby right there.

I was proud of myself for accomplishing something that was reachable, but by no means easy. It took a huge amount of work; I spent so so many hours becoming more and more determined throughout the year. Without people like Russell, and Mark Phinney, or Rob Lyske, I doubt I could have done it on my own. Pure luck has also played a part in it as much as anything else, because who really has a Chestnut-sided Warbler just fall into their boat 30 miles out to sea?

Long-billed Dowitcher

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The American Golden Plover controversy

During my time in the Peace I had seen a report of an American Golden Plover at the sewage ponds in Ft. St. John. Now it wasn't exactly a Peace specialty but seeing as I was there I might as well knock that one off early. So I hit up the ponds and saw the bird, albeit briefly. As I was about to get a closer look I was kicked out of the ponds by security.

Now being that it was reported as an American Golden Plover, when I saw the Plover, I naturally assumed that is what it was. Well it turned out not to be as simple as that. The original person who saw the bird sent Russell Cannings photo's of the bird and it showed that it was likely a female Pacific Golden Plover.

This is where the ethics of birding come in to play. Do I count it now as a Pacific? Even though I didn't get a good enough view of the bird to I.D. it myself? No, I couldn't. If this wasn't a Big Year, it really wouldn't matter, but I wanted every bird to count 100 percent. So instead of gaining a Pacific Golden Plover, I was losing an American Golden Plover, and now I had to find both of them again.

As you know I recently found the Pacific, after much searching. It was a major relief, but I still needed the American. American Golden Plover is the more common of the two but it had been giving me grief for a while now. It was either bad timing, bad tides, bad light or all three. Other people seemed to be finding them left and right, but I resolved this would be my week. The tides were going to be high in the late morning giving me enough time before work to put in a good 3 hours of searching.

I arrived early to a very low tide, looking like another miscalculation on my part. Was the tide really going to come in all this way before I had to leave for work? I could only wait and see. I set up my scope and hoped for the best.

The light wasn't doing me any favours either, as it was a clear sky and the sunlight was creating back lighting and casting shadows on the birds. Finding a Golden Plover in a flock of Black-bellies is all about picking out the smaller darker bird, and when they all look dark, it makes it that much harder.

Gradually, the tide began to ebb closer and closer in, bringing the feeding flock of Plovers nearer. They all seemed to be Black-bellied. A couple Red Knots darted in between them, then three Dowitchers entered the fray. I checked the clock and realized I had to be leaving soon.

I scanned from left to right, the same flock of Plovers, back and forth, back and forth with nothing new. Time was winding down for me. I heard an odd Plover call, not like the regular "Pew Wee" the Black-bellies give, and I was certain it had to be a Golden Plover. I looked up from my scope to see two birds jetting down out of the sky onto the mudflats in front of the large flock. Through my scope I could tell they were Americans. Their darker overall plumage and thinner shape combined with the elongated primary projection clinched it. A few moments later, all the birds lifted into the sky off towards the pilings, a Peregrine Falcon in quick pursuit.

The Plover conspiracy was finally put to rest, as was the last of my Big Year baggage.

Those pesky Plovers

There are a lot of things I've learned through birding over the years. One of the main virtues I've taken from my experiences is patience. In my earlier years, if I went looking for a rare bird, I often never spent more than an hour or so; my success rate was not very good. Now when it's something I'm looking for, I can spend hours, even days, on the hunt for one bird.

In the case of the Nelson's Sparrow, for instance, I can easily attribute a good 16 hours spent directly searching for that one bird..
I stood four hours for the Smith's Longspur. Others gave up after three, and never reaped the reward. I only wish I had been as dedicated as I am now at the beginning of this year.  For instance, when I should have been standing for hours waiting for the Citrine Wagtail, I ended up succumbing to impatience much too easily, and gave up.

The other lesson I've learned: Don't make assumptions. The day I visited Sooke after the Pelagics I made it as far as the Whiffen Spit Parking Lot, saw a bunch of dog walkers, and decided not to bother going further. The next day a Pacific Golden Plover was reported, mere minutes from where I stood.
My mistake would cost me a ferry ride and a day I could've spent looking for other species. Lesson learned.

Today was my do over. Daniele Mitchel texted me the night before proposing a joint Plover retrieval mission. We had both spent hours combing the Tofino airport together, and I was glad to have him come along, these Ferries were becoming costly.

We took the 7am ferry and were in Sooke by 9:30am. The weather was abominable: absolute pouring rain. My binoculars and scope were fogged up soon after leaving the car. We trudged along the Spit, noting Oystercatchers, Turnstones, a plethora of Sparrows, but no Plover.

It wasn't looking good. We split up to cover more ground but aside from turning up more Turnstones, there wasn't much else. It seemed like this was a bust. We were ready to give up and go look for Pelicans, deciding that maybe if we returned later in the day it would show up. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, like leaving would be a big mistake. I hurriedly scanned the middle of the spit again. My binoculars were barely functional from the raindrops, but just enough to make out a little Golden Plover tucked in between some rocks.

"I've got it! I've got it!"
I danced excitedly as sheer relief filled me. I set up the scope for a better look, and even risked my camera in the rain for a few photos.

Pacific Golden Plover

We savoured the Plover while enduring the downpour. Moments later, I happened to check my phone and saw a message from the Vancouver Island bird forum: Jeremy Kimm had just found a Hooded Oriole at Jordan River, a mere 25 km from where we stood. Could it be fate?

We pushed on to Jordan River, driving through the torrential downpour. As we reached the beaches, the clouds lifted, revealing the warm sun. I pulled into the parking lot and we set about checking all the deciduous growth we could. There was a Yellow Warbler, and lots of Sparrows but no Oriole. A few Dowitchers flew by but nothing too exciting, bummer. We decided to go to Victoria for some Pelican twitching.

Turns out we picked the worst possible day to try and get to the Victoria Waterfront, as there was some sort of bike race going on. Half the roads were blocked off, and the other ones were crammed with cars probably as confused about where to go as we were. After about an hour of zig zagging down side streets, we reached Clover Point.

Spotting a Pelican seemed easy enough, we just needed one to fly by. After 20 minutes of scanning the waters off Clover point, I noticed a large shape carousing through the fog. It glided from far out, close to the water with slow wing beats, everything said Brown Pelican, except for the fact it was like 2 miles out and through my binoculars, there was no way of a good identification. I hoped it would fly in closer, but instead, it cruised further and further out until it disappeared.

Was it a Brown Pelican? Me and Daniel agreed it probably was, but as anyone who knows Brown Pelicans can say, if you can't tell that it's a Pelican, you didn't see a Pelican. It was time to head back, and while there were more misses than hits, it was still a great day, with good company.

the Whiffin Spit Plover

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Longspur

American Pipit-Boundary Bay

If there's one thing this big year hasn't lacked, its drama. I've climbed three mountains for a Ptarmigan species, missed birds by mere minutes, and had rare Warblers fall right into my boat. This blog basically writes itself, except for the fact that sadly, I still have to type it all out. That being said, it was no surprise that moments after returning from a successful Pelagic trip, I found out that my last two days on the Island were going to be ruined by a Smith's Longspur that decided to show up back home in Vancouver.

My plan was to drive to Sooke for the night and spend a few hours trying to track down a Brown Pelican or two. Since other people, namely Rob Lyske, would be looking for the Smith's in the morning, I would know if it had been spotted again or not, preventing a premature return home in case the little guy had taken off.

That night, there was a big rainstorm and I decided to stay in my car at the Sooke visitor info center. In the morning, I first hit up Jordan River, a notorious hot spot for rarities. Through the rain, I scoped a big flock of Gulls, picking out a Hermann's Gull. There were no rarities to be seen in the shrubbery surrounding the beach so I turned around and hit up East Sooke Park. 

Beechey Head Point is the main attraction of the park; it is a famed Hawk watching locale, the best place in southern BC to find rare migrating Broad-winged Hawks. Its also one of the best places near Victoria for sea watching. In this rain storm however, I would get neither migrating hawks, nor Brown Pelicans. I spent about an hour getting soaked and hoping for one of the massive prehistoric birds to fly by. Unfortunately, all I was met with were more Hermann's Gulls. 

I figured I should check out some spots in Victoria; Cattle Point was another good place to scope the ocean. I never made it there, however, as on my way, I received a text that the Smith's Longspur had been found. I booked it to the ferry, and thankfully caught the 12pm crossing.

By 3 pm I was back on the Mainland and racing to Boundary Bay. As I hurried to the old familiar dyke, the anxious hope began to build inside me. Near the Pilings I could see a large crowd of birders with their scopes fixed not on the mudflats, like they usually were, but on the opposite side of the dyke, in the adjacent potato field. Before I got to them, I found a few American Pipits that were unusually tame compared to the regular "flying over my head" way I usually see them.

American Pipit-Boundary Bay

Mike Toochin, who had originally discovered that the bird was there, was amidst the whole flock of birders, intently staring into their scopes. I found out that the bird had been seen a few hours before, but not since. I set up alongside them and began the patient waiting game. Catching a glimpse of a small bird in this massive field seemed like a daunting task. Things did not look good, to say the least. 

I waited, watched, waited, waited, and watched. My scope scanned back and forth for what would be another hour or so. The September sun beat down as my eyes began feeling crossed from staring so hard. It seemed all but hopeless, but we heard it call...once. All our scopes shot to the left, the direction of its rapid twittering. It was as if it had flown in from somewhere without our realizing.

My legs began to ache from standing in one spot, and with the weariness of the day, I almost didn't notice it at first. My scope, moving back and forth, suddenly hit on a small bird poking up from the dirt. At first I thought it was a pipit, but a pipit wasn't that orange...Mike called out he had the bird! Did I have the bird too? Birders rushed to his scope one by one, to get a look, I managed to sneak a peak, and yes! Through a nice Swarovski you could definitely tell it was a Smith's Longspur. 

I rushed back to my scope to keep looking, but it had already dropped back out of sight. A half hour later, it popped back up, for another 15 seconds and was gone again. Yes, this is what birding can sometimes be like, but it still counts and was well worth the effort.
With a Smith's Longspur in the bag, I had now seen all the breeding songbirds of BC in one year. 
What a weekend. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pelagics pt 2

After 8 hours on a boat birding, there wasn't much to do but well, keep birding!
A large group of us ventured back to the Airport, this time from a different location where we would have a better chance of not being escorted out. We altered our tactic and decided to split up and search all the open grass along the runways for those pesky plovers. After an hour in the hot afternoon sun, we called it quits and went to Combers Beach for another scan of the Gull flock. This time, we had a pure Western Gull, which is always nice to see.

Me and Daniele ended up spending another hour, just before sunset, back at the airport, but again, there were no Plovers. It had been a long day and I was just happy to crawl into the back of my car and call it a night.

The next morning, I found the big boat in the Ucluelet Marina fairly easily, but then again, it wasn't difficult when there was a mass of birders already congregating. Once aboard, I was happy to see some familiar faces from the Vancouver birding scene: Rob Lyske, John Reynolds, Brian Self, Rogers Foxall, Wayne Diakow and even Wayne Webber. This would be fun!

The boat slowly pulled out of the Marina and out of the harbour. Right away, I could tell this would be a vastly different Pelagic than yesterday. With the crowd of birders and the large deck, I could only envision how difficult it would be to catch onto a speedy Shearwater if you were on the wrong side at the wrong time. Not to mention, the small chance of having any visibility through a crowd of eager birders all doing the same as you. I was very happy that I could just concentrate on the birds that I needed to see, those remaining few that I hadn't seen the day before, instead of having to see all of them on this one trip.

Things were fairly quiet for a while, with not much but the steady stream of California Gulls following the boat to pick up all the chum we were dropping. The first exciting bird was an adult Black-legged Kittiwake who flew in from behind the California's and carried on past us. A few Sabine's Gulls also passed us by. Soon, Sooty Shearwaters began appearing, then Pink-footed, and a couple Buller's. We got a good look at a Flesh-footed floating along beside the boat.

Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwaters
Flesh-footed Shearwater in front, Pink-footed behind

A Parasitic Jaeger literally tackled a California Gull for a piece of fish behind the boat, it was an awesome sight. The bird really did his name justice.

I was glad to be standing again next to Devon, this guy had already gotten me a tonne of lifers the day previous, the guy is as sharp-eyed as the come. And I was again thankful for my choice of position near this hawk-eyed man as soon enough, he shouted out "small Shearwater to the right!".
We dashed to the side in time to see a Dark Shearwater jetting across the water with stiff rapid wing beats; it was pure white underneath. Manx Shearwater!
Well the trip paid for itself right there, an amazing bird, and a rare one at that.

Fulmar, Albatross, and Jaegers began showing up, attracted by the Chum and Fish oil that was dumped into the water. Every now and then, a flock of Phalaropes would whiz by, but I still could not pick out a Red one.

The oddest thing started to happen about midway out into open ocean: warblers began showing up, bouncing through the air towards the boat. Some of them landed, and sadly some of them were pursued by Gulls, or ended up drowning. Some of the lucky ones that landed on the boat were: Yellow-rumped, Yellow, and Townsends Warbler. Even a White-throated Sparrow attempted to land.

Townsend's Warbler lands

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Townsend's Warbler looking for insects

gleaning spiders from under the speaker
But there was another Warbler that had us all puzzled. At first, we thought maybe it could be a Blackpoll Warbler, as it had an almost lime green back, a full eye ring and grayish face. A few photographers managed to snap shots, and when Russell Cannings saw the photo, he would amaze us all when he ID-ed the bird as a "Chestnut-sided Warbler...female"!

The star of the trip, a female Chestnut-sided Warbler

I was incredulous, how did a warbler from northern Alberta end up on our boat??
The poor bird ended up landing inside the seating area below, and was caught and kept in a box until we went back to shore where it was released.

The boat came to a stop and floated around while photographers got chances to take pictures of all the seabirds. It was a great day, and to be able to chat with all the elite birders was definitely an experience to treasure. On our way back, we got the third shocker of the trip. Someone spotted a Storm Petrel off the right side of the boat, blasting over the waters in a weird bat-like flight. I first thought it was another Fork-tailed, but then I noticed it was a dark bird, with a white rump. A photographer snapped a photo and we all marveled as we realized it was a Leach's Storm Petrel!!!

This was a bird I had already pretty much written off as the first breeding species I wouldn't be seeing this year, but here it was, on a Pelagic Trip that almost never sees them. Amazing is all I can say.

For anyone who has never gone on a Pelagic trip, after my two experiences I can only say its something you need to do. The Wild Research one in particular would be a great choice for the first time. The boat is big, has amenities, and also a plethora of keen birders who are always willing to share their expertise.

As we pulled into the marina, with our cell service restored, Rob Lyske got a call from a birder in Vancouver, they were looking at a Smith's Longspur at the pilings on Boundary Bay!
I looked at him in shock...
Here we go agaaaain.

3 Horned Grebe
3 Red-necked Grebe
3 Black-footed Albatross
3 Northern Fulmar
30 Pink-footed Shearwater
1 Flesh-footed Shearwater
2 Buller's Shearwater
300 Sooty Shearwater
1 Manx Shearwater 
1 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
1 Leach's Storm-Petrel 
2 Sanderling
50 Red-necked Phalarope
3 Black-legged Kittiwake
2 Sabine's Gull
50 California Gull
2 South Polar Skua
3 Pomarine Jaeger
1 Parasitic Jaeger
100 Common Murre
30 Pigeon Guillemot
2 Yellow Warbler
1 Chestnut-sided Warbler 
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
1 Townsend's Warbler 1 White-throated Sparrow  

The Pelagics Part 1

Rathtrevor Beach at sunrise

It was finally time. Four days that had been marked down on my calendar for months stood staring back at me. When the Wild Research Pelagic was announced, I think I was registered within 15 minutes; this was an integral part of my big year. I had at least 20 species on my "to see" list that are only possible by venturing far out into the open ocean. Additionally, I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a second Pelagic, organized by Russell Cannings. It was out of Tofino and on a smaller boat. This gave us the ability to chase some birds around, and granted me better odds of seeing some species, as only having one chance in a situation like this is a big gamble. If I didn't see a certain species on these two trips, it would likely stay off my Year list for good. 

Thursday after work it was straight to the Ferries. I took the Tsawwassen to Duke point ferry because, as rumour has it, it is the best ferry to see a rare Pelagic bird within the Georgia Straight. I did see a Storm Petrel, but it was too far from the vessel to get an I.D. I watched the small bird zoom into the sunset erratically. It was a sign I think, that this would be a killer weekend. 

I camped over in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park. In the morning, I had an hour to roam the incredible mudflats that stretched out to the horizon. I found pools filled with living Sand dollars, a creature I had never seen alive before. I picked one up and was mesmerized by its fur moving in unison. It was quite the trip.

Sand dollar

I birded my way up to Tofino, not finding anything particularly interesting, but enjoying the habitat. Englishmen River Estuary is a notorious site for rarities, but with the tide being out still, it left little in its wake. I moved on through the highway that cuts through Port Alberni, and then finally into Ucluelet. My next stop would be the Tofino Airport where I had seen reports of Pacific Golden Plover. On my way there, I ran into Daniele Mitchell. I recognized him from our meeting during the search for the Flammulated Owls in Penticton. Soon more birders showed up, including the Big C, Russel Cannings himself. We headed into the airport, but were soon cut off by workers who said we weren't allowed to be there. Well, this is was deja-vu all over again. Coincidentally, when I was at the Fort St. John Sewage Lagoons, I got kicked off before I got a good look at an American Golden Plover. Well, it turned out that Plover was a Pacific Golden Plover, so I decided I couldn't count it as either species since my glimpse was not enough to tell which one it was. And here I was being denied another opportunity to see the is my luck, I guess.

We spent the rest of the day scanning Combers Beach, where we had a good diversity of Gulls, including my first Heermann's Gull of the year. Far offshore, we could see Sooty Shearwaters cutting the air just above the water, like they were just waiting for us.

I stayed over in a campground in Ucluelet. I was surprised to see that I had chosen a spot next to Russell and his crew, including birder Daniel Cormier. Before bed we huddled around a picnic table by flashlight, going through the Sibley's Guide and discussing all the birds we had a chance to see the next morning. I felt like a kid on Christmas eve.

In the morning, we all drove to Tofino to the Whale Center. Since it was a small boat, we all had to put on these big life vest body suits. I had decided not to eat or drink in the morning because I didn't feel like having to pee at the back of the boat, and I was worried about getting seasick. Russell had told me that there was always one person who spent the whole trip unable to even look at birds on account of horrible seasickness. Well, this trip was no exception, but thankfully I wasn't that person.

When we finally got to the boat, I stepped on in, and sat down in the back: the air was cool, the sky overcast, and it had rained overnight, but at that moment, we were all relatively dry. The engines started and I felt my stomach lurch as we pulled out of the harbour, I closed my eyes and held on for dear life. "You can do this" I told myself. I had to, there was no other option.

The motor hummed in my ears and I had to keep reminding myself to open my eyes and look for birds. We buzzed by groups of Common Murres, Rhinocerous Aukletts, and California Gulls.
We slowed by a Kelp bed to see a Sea Otter, lying on its back. It sat up in the water, gave us a curious look and dove down. The further out we got, the calmer I began to feel as I grew used to the engines hum and the constant rocking from the waves.
Rhinocerous Auklet

We closed in on Cleland Island to check out the rocks, and were rewarded by a Wandering Tattler, some Turnstones, and a Surfbird. A large group of Stellar's Sea Lions were lazing about on the rocks, the males keeping their heads held high like kings.

 It was now time to head out into the open waters of the Pacific. But not before Devon Anderson, who was sitting next to me on the boat, yelled out "Puffin!". I jumped up excitedly, a lone Tufted Puffin sat in the water 100 feet away. I was startled to see it had already gone into winter plumage, as I had hoped they would still be in alternate, but I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. There were high fives all around, my first lifer of the day.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin
I would count my blessings that I ended up sitting next to Devon, as his sharp eye would point out a lot of great birds for me on this trip. We pushed on further and further until all sign of land had vanished, swallowed by the ocean moving into the horizon. A feeling of pure isolation crept up inside me, but I shook it off. Among the California Gulls, we caught sight of an unexpected Black-legged Kittiwake! That was a relief for me, saving me a winter trip back here.

Soon, the first sooty shearwaters began appearing, their dark bodies with silvery under wings cut across the waves in a frenzy. Moments later, Pink-footed Shearwaters began showing in numbers. They were dark gray on top with pale undersides, and of course pink feet.

Sooty Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Dominic Cormier interrupted my shearwater studies when he suddenly yelled out "Sabines Gull!". I turned to see several Gulls elegantly piercing the sky, their gorgeous "M" shaped wing pattern is the touchstone of identification. Another lifer!

Further out Russel yelled "Bullers!", and everyone stood up to see it. Sadly, being in the back meant I was in a bad position to see anything directly in front of the boat, and my heart sank as the shearwaters flew off before I could get a look. I was dismayed, Bullers Shearwater was a bird I hadn't even been counting on. Well, my sadness wouldn't last as we would see an egregious forty Buller's Shearwaters!!

Bullers Shearwater with Sooty behind him

As we moved on I noticed a very large, dark Gull-shaped bird flying slowly and low on the water. This being my first Pelagic, I had no idea what I was looking at, but yelled out "What's that big thing?" Everyone turned around and we had soon locked onto our first South Polar Skua! We would see six in all. The flocks of Shearwaters started to get bigger and bigger; Pink-footed started to become the more common of the species, and there seemed to be a Bullers or two in each flock. 

Northern Fulmars started to become common. It was a treat to see these guys after I had rescued one a year earlier, and seeing them clumsily fly about brought me back to that day I found Salty Pete at the Westport Jetty.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

Someone called out "Flesh Foot!" and through my binoculars I locked onto a large Shearwater with a laid back flight, quite like a Pink-Footed but very unlike the quick 3 beats of the Sooty. I was lucky enough to catch his barely pink bill and flesh coloured feet, as well as his pure dark undersides. 

Recounting this story a month later, I am sure I am missing things, or perhaps recounting incorrectly exactly when each new species occurred. I will mention now that we saw all three species of Jaegers. This is something I had not counted on, and it is not at all common. Our first was a big Pomarine Jaeger, flying high up slowly over the boat, we could all see his weird shovel turned tail.

A Long-tailed came in from the rear right up over the boat, his small black cap, and no breast band were the diagnostic identifiers for this bird, not to mention his small thin wings, and he was missing his long tail, which is common in Jaegers after breeding. Parasitics, were not common on the trip, and we only had one, surprisingly.

At one point the fog rolled in and we soon found ourselves inside a raft of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. These birds are a marvel to see, they are like little bat-like doves that hover above the water. There had to have been five hundred to a thousand of them, numbers most people do not see. Sadly the birder that I am, I did miss a lot of photo opportunities on this trip.

It was in that fog that we first saw the silhouette of the bird I had been hoping for, Black-footed Albatross! I watched in awe as the monstrous bird slowly glided in and landed. There would be more, at least 50 of them, it was a magical moment for me. I saw them doing the famous albatross take off and landing. It was amazing to see them glide with total ease around the boat and to swim alongside. 
It was definitely the highlight of the trip.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

In the distance, we saw 3 large fishing vessells, and we all knew that that was where the action was. I looked through my binoculars and just saw a cloud of seabirds on the horizon. The captain booked it towards them. We spent about an hour cruising through flock after monstrous flock of Shearwaters, Albatross, and Fulmars. There was nothing rare in any of the flocks, but the sheer numbers of birds was awesome. Devon remarked to me, he didn't even know where to look there were just too many birds. 

Shearwaters Albatross and Fulmars

Sadly, it looked as though it was time to head back, but not before we found a large concentration of Cassin's Auklets. These little fatties were so round, they could barely fly out of the boats way. This was another bird I was nervous about not seeing, as they can be sporadic at best. 

Cassin's Auklet
On the way back we passed through a few flocks of Phalaropes, most of them appeared to be Red-necked, and there were a few Red Phalaropes up front but, sadly I could never manage to get a look at one. As the shore came into view, we again passed Cleland Island. This time, we had good looks at four Orcas. I have never seen them so close in the wild, a lovely way to end one of the best birding experiences of my life.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross and Pink Footed Shearwater

Black-footed Albatross

The Albatross

Orcas off Cleland Island


Although I was sad to be off the boat, I can't say I wasn't happy to use the washroom and get a coffee. I will include a checklist of this Pelagic because, as someone who spent many hours researching what people ended up seeing on these kinds of Pelagics, I know that it will make a useful reference for anyone who is interested in doing a Pelagic.

1 Northern Pintail
2 Pacific Loon
50 Black-footed Albatross
200 Northern Fulmar
100 Pink-footed Shearwater
3 Flesh-footed Shearwater
40 Buller's Shearwater
1000 Sooty Shearwater
500 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
3 Western Sandpiper
10 Red-necked Phalarope
1 Black-legged Kittiwake
50 Sabine's Gull
1 Heermann's Gull
100 California Gull
5 South Polar Skua
2 Pomarine Jaeger
1 Parasitic Jaeger
1 Long-tailed Jaeger
300 Common Murre
20 Pigeon Guillemot
200 Cassin's Auklet
25 Rhinoceros Auklet
1 Tufted Puffin
2 American Pipit