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. 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

Northern Pygmy-Owl

October was a month for tracking down species that had managed to elude me all year. With the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, it took taking a ferry to the Island. With the Pygmy Owl, I hoped it would take a lot less travel. It would seem almost impossible to not have had at least one encounter with a Pygmy Owl by now. I had been all over this province, and had not even heard the haunting toot that sends all the songbirds into a frenzy.

I hadn't really worried too much about it, after all, it was almost certain that I would eventually have a run-in with one, especially with October being the best month as the young ones would be spreading out to find their own territories for the winter. But what if I didn't see one? What an embarrassment that would turn out to be. Luckily, Rob Lyske had found one a few days prior at the Cypress picnic area. It would be a cinch.

On a cold sunny morning, I headed for Cypress. At first light, I was strolling the quarry lookout picnic area. It was silent but for the croaking of Ravens, and chattering of a couple Stellar's Jays. As I slipped through the wet grass, I heard a distinctly familiar rattled call overhead. I believe it was a Snow Bunting.

Cypress Fungi

I must have circled the entire picnic site at least 7 times without any success. I know Pygmy Owls can cover a lot of ground over the day, so it could have been anywhere on the mountain, but I knew for sure it wasn't at the picnic area, at least for now. Since today was dedicated to finding this one species, I decided to carry on towards Squamish and check out all the hot spots. Perhaps it could result in something unexpected.

I hadn't come up this way since January 4th, the first outing of my big year. It felt like an eternity ago when I walked the lonely cold beach of Porteau Cove, admiring Harlequins and Oystercatchers. Now, the campground was busy with campers even this late in the year, and the beach was underneath the high tide. A cold wind blew up from the water, bird life almost non existent except for a few usual suspect gulls and some roosting Oystercatchers.

Squamish River Estuary

The Squamish Estuary was equally dead. I drove all the way out to the end and walked the jetty towards the end. I flushed a few Song Sparrows but there were none of the surprises I had hoped for. I tried my luck driving the road into Garibaldi Park. Surely I could call in a Pygmy Owl at some point along the 16 km long gravel road up into the mountains. I did not, however, manage to find one, even though the location looked to be prime habitat. My last idea was to return to Cypress park before sunset for one last ditch effort.

This time, I started at the top of the mountain, making stops on my way down in hopes of hearing its call somewhere, or at least catch the frenzy of small birds that usually key me in to the whereabouts of a Pygmy Owl. I walked around the Power line right of way, flushing up a late Hermit Thrush and hearing a Red-breasted Sapsucker tapping away in the fir trees.

I made a few more rounds at the Quarry lookout, thinking maybe the bird would have returned, but it was empty and silent; I guess today was just not my day to see a Pygmy Owl. As the sun sank below the horizon, I left for home.

I coasted down the rest of the winding mountain road to the bottom. As I crossed the overpass to get back on highway 1 towards Vancouver, I noticed a the back lit shape of a bird at the top of a tree to my right.
Pygmy Owl
I almost passed it off as a Robin or Starling, but the shape was unmistakable. Unfortunately for me, I was in the middle of a one way overpass with a car following closely behind. I wanted to stop but I doubt the driver behind would be as excited as I would be about the bird. So I did what any self respecting birder would do: I floored it back onto the highway.

I merged into the traffic going towards Vancouver and booked it to the next exit off the highway, turned back onto the highway going back towards cypress, and hoped that the bird would still be there when I got back off the highway and pulled up to the overpass that I had just crossed minutes before.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

It was still there! 356.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Finally some luck...maybe

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

The end of October was drawing to a finish. The flocks of migrating songbirds were dwindling down to almost nothing. The days of finding numbers of warblers were done; they had been replaced by Creepers, Chickadees and Kinglets. My list of birds left to see had also shrunk, leaving maybe ten regular species to hunt down this year. One of those birds had proven to be a major thorn in my side: The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers have become a regular migrant in September and October to the coast. This year however, they had shown up more sparsely than in previous years. One had spent a few days at Reifel, but I had come up empty in my attempts at seeing it by just a few hours. The pilings also hosted a couple of birds, but each time I attempted the chase, I was met with misfortune. By the end of October, the window was closing and it looked like the Sharpy would be my first official "miss".

I did, however, have one beacon of hope. A sharpy had shown up at the Esquimalt Lagoon near Victoria. It had been seen during the course of several consecutive days. I really didn't want to have to make another trip to the Island for a bird I should have seen here in Vancouver, but I didn't appear to have a choice in the matter. It was Monday and I managed to switch my shifts around to get Thursday off. I had three more days of waiting, and hoping the bird stayed put. I made a plea to the Vancouver Island birders to update their message board so I wouldn't be wasting a day on a bird that had already taken off.

Wednesday night reports came back positive that the bird had been seen. Thursday morning I boarded yet another 7am ferry for Victoria, which was becoming an all too familiar experience. Esquimalt Lagoon was a new location for me and it was rather beautiful that morning. The sun shone down on the fog gently lifting into the bright blue sky. From the parking lot, I walked the causeway between the Lagoon and the Ocean towards the center, where the bird had been hunkering down.

The area was known as the "hump", a small piece of sea grass that jutted out in a sort of semi-circular pattern. After a few minutes of scanning, the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper poked his head up from a mound of grasses. Bird 354.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper-Esquimalt Lagoon

It was a lovely Juvenile, and unlike other Sharp-tails I had seen, I managed to get great close up looks. I spent about half an hour watching him make his way back and forth along the hump. A few pipits darted in, one photo-bombed the Sandpiper, passing by so fast I didn't even realize til I was looking through my pictures.

Pipit Bomb

 It was interesting to see him poking around a bunch of Gulls, they looked massive compared to him.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

From Esquimalt, I decided to carry on towards Jordan River. Although I had yet to find anything special in my trips there, it was always worth checking for that one special rare bird I might one day come upon. I found the beach of Jordan River cloaked in fog. The resident Gull flock contained the same species I had seen before, although this time without the Heerman's Gulls, which had probably started making their way south by now.

Albert's head Lagoon

Albert's Head Lagoon
I wandered the "community forest", which is really just a scattering of vacant houses with some deciduous plantings. Passerines were few and far between with most of them being made up of Fox and Song Sparrows, although I did come into a sizable flock of Bushtit's. The only real surprise was flushing up one lone Band-tailed Pigeon.

It was about time to head back to Victoria, it was 3pm and I figured I would go visit a friend for a while before I caught the ferry home. While sitting in Victoria area traffic, I noticed an email reporting a possible Chestnut-collard Longspur at Cattle point. It had been seen at 2pm, it was only 20 minutes from where I was! I said "Sorry, Kristin", and turned off at the next street so I could figure out how to get to Cattle point from where I was. Luckily, traffic on the side streets wasn't as bad, and I was soon out of the car and rushing down from the Cattle point parking lot.

I found a few birders gathered around a fenced off section, the bird had apparently been seen inside the fencing in the grass. One of the birders was Aziza Cooper, who had originally found the bird. She said it hadn't been seen for about an hour, the compound was currently empty. I wasn't really surprised, nothing was easy at this point.

I decided I would walk around the area, in hopes the bird was still around. While I was nonchalantly strolling the grass and rocks, my phone rang, it was Russell Cannings. I answered it by saying:
"Let me guess, your calling about the Longspur?"
Russell replied with a laugh and asked if I had seen it, I explained that it was MIA for the time being, he joked that he was relieved since he had a cold and didn't feel like coming to Victoria. Just as I was going to say something else, I flushed a small bird from the ground. It landed a 5 feet away, I stared at it for a moment and said to Russell "I think I just found it, I gotta go".

Chestnut-Collared Longspur!

A voice from behind me called "Yeah dude, that's the bird".
I turned to see a familiar face, Mike Ashbee, who I had met for the first time at Gray's Harbour, and then again at the Citrine Wagtail twitch. He had re-found the Longspur and I had blindly walked right into it while on the phone.

The Longspur seemed fairly indifferent to our presence and continued mousing about in the grass, foraging. It was a definite oddball of a bird, resembling a Chestnut-Collared Longspur, in its smudgy streaked breast and gray bill, but looking through my Sibley's, it wasn't a dead on ringer. It was definitely a first winter bird as its plumage was about as fresh as could be.

Bird 355?

The group of other birders finally clued in that we were looking at the bird, and gathered round. I felt that the general consensus was that this was indeed a Chestnut, just a weird one. How lucky was I to have come to Vancouver Island to get a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and end up with A Chestnut-collared Longspur? Talk about a bonus. After a good hour of photos, I figured I should probably meet up with my friend Kristin before I had to go home.

A few hours later while on the ferry, I got some disturbing news. Some birders had seen evidence that this was not actually a Chestnut-collared Longspur, but a Smith's! Their reasoning was that they had seen it in flight, and the tail more matched Smith's, as well as its primary projection was longish, and the bill wasn't short enough. I could almost cry! It was like winning the Gold medal and then having it taken away to be replaced with a bronze instead.

Most birders would be just as pleased with a Smith's, as both are terribly rare on Vancouver Island, with only a few records each. But I had already seen a Smith's this year, and not to mention had gone through an ordeal and a half to see it. I sat in my car on the ferry, pouring over the photos I had taken, comparing them to as many images on the Internet I could find of first winter Longspurs.

I wanted to say I was sure it was a Chestnut-collared, but I had to admit, it was confusing, and I felt like whatever I said, it was going to be biased, because I wanted it to be one, and that wasn't very objective. I decided the best thing was to just hold off on saying it was 355, and just wait and see how this all played out.

It would be more of a wait than I realized, and it wasn't until 2 days later that I felt everyone had unanimously agreed it was indeed a Chestnut-collared Longspur. Man, birding can be dramatic.