Friday, December 30, 2011

Never, never, ever

As I have explained before, every night we have to walk up the road to close the gate to the park. It is a fairly mundane task generally. If not for our love of walking in the forest at night, it would be downright dull most of the time. But one never knows when excitement of the worst kind will find you. And this, I know very well. One never lets down their guard. Never. Never. Ever.
It had been a wonderful night. Our grandson Cedar, almost through his third year, was staying the night while his parents celebrated a birthday. We had cooked sausages and beans. Had watched some incomprehensible foreign children's shows. And had played several games all of which seemed to revolve around Cedar having imaginary conversations with Spider man and a squirrel puppet. As the evening wore on and the couch and the food and the voice of a child threatened to send me into a nodding coma, I realized that the hour had come to close the gate. I forced myself into my rain gear and grabbed my key ring and headlamp. Outside a storm was raging, surprising in intensity when compared with the peaceful goings on in the caretakers cottage. I stood in the doorway and watched the rain pound against the porch, hearing trees groaning in the dark, battered by warm southeasterly winds. It was black. It was blowing a gale. And it was raining hard. I stepped out onto the porch, and had the door almost closed when Cedar spoke up. "Papa..." he asked in his meek voice, "can you take me to see the beavers now?" I had forgotten until that moment, that I had promised to take him with me when I closed the gate, to see if the beavers were repairing the dam that we prudently breached as the storm hit earlier in the evening. If nothing else, it meant a few more dry moments while I waited for him and his grandma to find rain gear, flashlights and various other paraphernalia they thought they needed for the short walk up to the gate and a stop at the pond on the way back.
It was raining hard. Water blasting into us from underneath up top and sideways and all ways all at the same time. A gasping, snorting nostril filling deluge. And it was great. Cedar must have stomped in every one of the thousand puddles between the house and the gate, singing to himself and paying the weather and the pitch black of night no heed at all. Donna and I walked on either side of him, laughing every time he stomped his feet and splashed us with muddy water. We were all soaked by the time we got the gate locked. We had to shout to each other to be heard over the wind. In weather like this, I knew it was a waste of time to go look for beavers, but it was worth a visit just to re-check the level of the pond one more time. It was up. And there were no beavers around. Even in the heavy rain and wind I could smell them though. The stink of a male beaver was all over the dam, and there were new sprigs of willow and a bit of moss in the hole I had breached just a few hours earlier. I thought about pulling them too, but decided against it. I couldn't hear a thing, and a beaver dam on a flooding pond in night with a raging storm is nowhere to fool around. And Cedar was beginning to wander a bit. Not acceptable. No fooling around in the dark in the forest. Especially when the weather takes away one's hearing and sense of smell to add to the near blindness of night. We headed back to the house, and I sternly told Cedar to stay close. Just because that is what we do.
Near the house it is as black as it was near the pond. When the street light in the parking area burned out last month, that was the end of having an outdoor light in the park. Welcome to the new austerity. But no matter. We had headlamps and Cedar had a flashlight, and besides, there was nothing to see anyway. I knew this from 94 other walks just like this. And I knew that wasn't right either, and it bothered me, but I pushed it further into the background. We were almost home. We strolled quickly down the main road towards the house, looking straight ahead into the rain and wind and dark.
Almost home.
Looking forward to a warm dry bed.
A story for Cedar.
Sleep after chasing a three year old all afternoon.
Guard down.
Cedar is three steps ahead of Donna.
I notice, and shake the sleep off, and open my mouth to say something.
He is another half step ahead now.
I am wide awake.
I don't know if I felt it before I saw it.
But I knew. And time changed.
A million ages of man pass in the splashing of one raindrop into the green eyes speeding past me 10 meters to my left.
Green eyes.
Low to the ground.
Impossibly fast.
Time stops.
Completely stops.
The voice erupts from inside me. I lunge towards the edge of the forest, quicker than I imagined I could still move.
Wrath, terrible terrible terrible rage fills me.
"Donna, grab him!" are the words that come, so loud. In the black I sense her throw him over her shoulder as she begins sprinting for the porch before the next word comes.
The word fills me with more hatred.
"You cunt"!
You will not take my grandson. The words form in my head in a universe different and distinct from the one unfolding here in the dark and the rain and the wind.
"You motherfucker!"
"Fuck youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!"
"Get out of here!"
In my headlamp the cat shoots forward, a blurry tawny image with glowing green eyes crouched impossibly low in the wet salal but moving at an incredible speed, angling out of the woods to get between Donna and Cedar and the house.
I lunge into the forest, and I hear the door slam closed. I realize I am still screaming the worst obscenities at nothing. The cat is gone. I have no idea which direction it has gone.
My headlamp is dimming. The wind and rain is increasing. I glance left and right, stepping back against the trunk of a fir before I glance overhead. Time now resumes it's normal pace. Hearing and feeling returning like awaking from a nightmare.
My headlamp, now in need of a charge, begins to die. I back slowly to the porch and the light goes out.
The cougar is no longer here. It is gone.
I close the door, and Donna and Cedar are standing there.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Every night we have to walk up the road and close the main gate to the park. Virtually every night we hear the barking of California Sea-Lions from Northwest Bay, or the growling of Steller's Sea-Lions out at West Ballenas Island. Some nights we see Coastal Black-tailed Deer browsing in the forest along the road, or Raccoons slinking back up trees. A little less commonly, we hear an owl calling. Most often it is a Northern Saw-whet Owl whistling in the forest, but we have also heard Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls calls. Actually seeing an owl in the dark as we walk to the gate has only happened a few times. Tonight as I was headed out to lock the gate for the night, I saw a movement in the dark, and turned on my headlamp to see what it was. There, atop the sign in the parking area, was a Barred Owl. I quickly pulled my camera from my vest pocket, and snapped a quick shot as the owl dove into the nearby bushes, scuffling with something briefly, before fluttering back across the road and into the forest.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shorebirds At Moorecroft

Although Moorecroft Regional Park has about 1200 meters of rocky shoreline habitat, and is located in the vicinity of the Winchelsea Islands, a well known site for "rock-pipers", we have found it to be nothing but disapointing since we began our stint as caretakers here, at least until today. Up until this point, we had only seen very distant flocks of "rock-pipers" flying between the Winchelsea Islands, and a few Black Oystercatchers flying by a few times. A single Black Oystercatcher was the only shorebird that ever spent any time on shore here.
Today, while walking down to Jinglepot Bay, we heard the distinctive call of Black Turnstones. Arriving at the shore, we found the small rocks in the bay which are exposed by the falling tide, to be alive with Black Turnstones. It took awhile to count them, as many seemed to prefer to hide on the far side of the rocks, but we eventually counted 53 of them. A great number considering that the total count recorded on this years Nanoose Christmas Bird Count, was 1! With them, were 4 Surfbirds, and the same Black Oystercatcher that we have been seeing for the past month.
Having done some survey work in the Winchelseas over the past 10 years, I know that there are much larger flocks of "rock-pipers" out there, and likely a few Rock Sandpipers mixed in with them. Will we ever see them here in Moorecroft though? Only time will tell.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thayer's Gull

Just cleaning out the gull files here, and thought I would post a few photos of adult Thayer'sGulls. All photos taken on the central east coast of Vancouver Island, between October and April.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Alcid Hunt:

For the 2011 Solstice, Donna and I decided to row as far offshore as safely possible, searching for rarer alcids until sundown. Although they are not rare in terms of winter distribution, Ancient Murrelets can be difficult to view from shore in this area, as they tend to feed far offshore. Recently, larger than normal numbers have been reported locally, including over 500 on the Parksville-Qualicum Christmas Bird Count, more than 200 on the Nanoose Bay count, and an incredible 21,000 on the Sechelt count. With this in mind, we headed out past Gerald Island, with high hopes.
Unfortunately, the weather was against us and we were forced to turn back after about two hours of rowing when the swell hit over a meter in height. We did see four species of alcids (including the Rniceros Auklet and Common Murre in the above photographs), but none were Ancient Murrelets. Overall, the birding was slow. It would seem that the bait fish which were attracting large numbers of birds over the past month have moved on.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Moorecroft Christmas Bird Count

Nine long years ago, I decided that we needed another Christmas Bird Count circle in this area. Although it was impossible to sandwich a full sized circle in between the Nanaimo and Parksville circles, a circle about 15% smaller could fit, and would cover the very interesting habitats of the Nanoose Peninsula, the Winchelsea Islands, north Nanaimo, Lantzville, and the fascinating Lantzville Uplands. After getting Dick Cannings blessing to squeeze this circle in, and doing a little stick handling with the compilers of the adjacent counts, the Nanoose Bay-Lantzville Christmas Bird Counts was born. Us locals continue to proudly refer to this count as the "Best Little CBC on Vancouver Island". And although we don't get the number of species as Parksville or Nanaimo, we always get a few interesting species, and it is such a lovely place to bird in.

Some years later, I moved to northern Vancouver Island for awhile, so I had to step aside from the compiling duties. This worked out great, as a new naturalist club, The Nanoose Naturalists, had formed in the area, and included some very keen birders, eager to make this count a highlight of each year. The count is now organized and compiled very capably by Rhys Harrison, with support from the Nanoose Naturalists. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this count.
This year, Donna and I have moved back into the count circle, after being absent for about three years, and with our work as caretakers for Moorecroft Regional Park, we were eager to do a thorough count of the park, as part of the Nanoose-Lantzville Christmas Bird Count circle. We were excited for the day, and all looked good, until the evening before, when the local weather forecast mysteriously changed from fair to ugly, at about 21:00 on the 15th of December, three hours before the count was to begin. Our plan had been to begin owling in the park at midnight, and then head back to bed until dawn, which isn't coming until about 8:00 these days. Poking my head out the door at midnight showed that the weather forecast was bang on. It was snowing, and blowing a gale. As owls are nearly impossible to locate in weather like this, we headed for bed, and I set the alarm for 2:00. Another quick look out the front door, and the snow had turned to rain, but the wind was blowing just as hard. I woke up every 20 minutes the rest of the night and did a quick check. Each time it was more difficult to get back to sleep, and at 4:00 I said the heck with it, and out the door we went. And, like magic, the wind died down and the rain stopped. One wonders if that would have worked at midnight? A quick walk up to the beaver pond netted us our first owl, a Northern Saw-whet. It also gave us an opportunity to visit with the beavers, who were attempting to repair the breach I had made in their dam the afternoon before, and were none to happy to encounter us at 4:30 in the pitch dark. With a mighty slap of a beaver tail, they were gone and we went back to searching for owls. We eventually found another saw-whet and heard a distant Barred Owl calling at dawn. Three owls is a good count for any island CBC, so we started the day with some hope.
At dawn we were crouched at Vesper Point, huddled together for warmth, with wind blasting us from a very strong SE storm that had blown in overnight. The plan was to catch the crow flocks coming from their night roosts on Gerald Island. The only problem was, we had seen very few crows going offshore to roost in the past month. In years past, as many as 4000 Northwestern Crows would fly offshore each night to roost at Gerald Island, and if you caught them coming ashore first thing in the4 morning, you were done counting crows for the day. You could even go back at the end of the day to do a second count to check your accuracy. Although we hadn't been seeing that many crows locally, we decided it was a good way to start the day. And it was. Gulls blasted past us in the near dark, some just a few feet above us. Marbled Murrelets gave their distinctive "keer" calls from somewhere offshore in the dark, just barely audible above the roar of the wind. And there came the crows! In the course of about 10 minutes, we counted 1487 Northwestern Crows flying past us. I don't know where they are roosting these days, but it is somewhere west of us, possibly on Mistaken Island? Anyway, we got our crows as the sun came up. Well, that isn't right. The sun may have come up, but we never saw it. All was grey and cold. The wind blasted, and we shivered in the dull gray of the day. And from the looks of the waves and the swaying of the trees, it would be a difficult day for counting birds.

After getting the crows, we headed back to the house for a quick cup of warm liquid, and then headed off to count the 85 acres of forest in the park. It didn't take us long to get into a big chick-let flock, which also included a Hutton's Vireo and a few Red-breasted Nuthatches. Brown Creepers were calling. A male Anna's Hummingbird sang from a perch high in a red cedar. Varied Thrush "chucked" from the high in the few arbutus that still held berries. The Bald Eagle pair called from their nest tree. All was good. And then we found the garbage. Some moron had dumped what appeared to be a dump truck load of garbage in front of the upper gate! Bird counting came to an end, as we went back to our caretaking duties.
Several hours later, with garbage taken care of, and law enforcement on the trail of the evil-doers, we were able to resume counting birds. By now the wind had settled into a steady 50 miles an our straight out of the south-southeast. This piled the waves smack onto Vesper Point in great white-capped swells, making sea-watching seem futile. But it didn't take long to figure out that the wind was on our side. It was blowing so hard, that those seabirds that generally feed in deeper water far offshore, were getting blown towards shore, and then had to take to the air to fly back out to where they preferred to be. This meant that birds which were normally too far offshore to see, were flying right past us, and in great numbers. This year, our counts of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and especially, Ancient Murrelets, were counted in numbers several magnitudes higher than ever before. We also got a new species for a park list, as a pair of Black Scoters flew past. We ended up spending most of the rest of the day huddled in the rocks near Vesper Point, staring offshore as the wind pounded the shoreline. It was a great day, and we very much enjoyed it. The wind did make getting a decent count in the forest fairly difficult tough, and we did miss at least 10 species that we knew were there. Except for a couple of Northern Flickers, we totally dipped on woodpeckers, and had a similar experience with sparrows and finches. Not getting a single Dark-eyed Junco on a count like this is downright poor. But, such is counting birds at Christmas on Vancouver Island. Rain, wind, and more rain are about as much as one can expect. Still, it's a blast, and I can't wait for next year.
Birds seen in the Moorecroft Regional Park sub-area of the Nanoose - Lantzville Christmas Bird Count: Friday, 16 December 2011:
45 Species
3315 individual birds
Harlequin Duck: 8
Surf Scoter: 27
White-winged Scoter: 1
Black Scoter: 2
Long-tailed Duck: 4
Bufflehead: 8
Barrow's Goldeneye: 2
Common Merganser: 7
Red-breasted Merganser: 17
Pacific Loon: 386
Common Loon: 7
Horned Grebe: 3
Red-necked Grebe: 1
Brandt's Cormorant: 6
Double-crested Cormorant: 17
Pelagic Cormorant: 14
Great Blue Heron: 1
Bald Eagle: 24 (17 adults and 7 immature birds)
Black Oystercatcher: 3
Mew Gull: 140
Herring Gull: 2
Thayer's Gull: 6
Glaucous-winged Gull: 33
Common Murre: 496
Pigeon Guillemot: 5
Marbled Murrelet: 25
Ancient Murrelet: 207
Rhinoceros Auklet: 1
Barred Owl: 1
Northern Saw-whet Owl: 2
Anna's Hummingbird: 4
Northern Flicker: 2
Hutton's Vireo: 2
Northwestern Crow: 1487
Common Raven: 6
Chestnut-backed Chickadee: 42
Red-breasted Nuthatch: 2
Brown Creeper: 18
Bewick's Wren: 3
Pacific Wren: 22
Golden-crowned Kinglet: 219
Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 12
American Robin: 3
Varied Thrush: 36
Spotted Towhee: 2

Thursday, December 15, 2011

White-winged Crossbills

In the past month, we have encountered White-winged Crossbills here at Moorecroft Regional Park, on two occasions, and we had another small flock on a rowing trip offshore to Gerald Island. It seems odd that we have not heard other reports from elsewhere on Vancouver Island. Maybe people just don't recognize the call of this species as being distinct from Red Crossbills?

Today we had 6 White-winged Crossbills calling from tall firs in the NW part of the park. Because they were high in the tops of the firs, it was impossible to photograph them. As tomorrow is the Nanoose Bay Christmas Count, maybe I'll have to record the calls in order to confirm them? Maybe not. Nobody seems too interested in this species anyway. Too bad. They are very beautiful, and their distribution in BC is a fascinating subject.
Nothing else but the expected birds today I'm afraid. We did have a Rhinoceros Auklet fly past, a Black Oystercatcher in the bay, and a Fox Sparrow up at the beaver pond. None of these birds is terribly easy to find here at Moorecroft at this time of year. Other than that, just another beautiful day here in the park.

Monday, December 12, 2011

To Douglas Island and Back

Today we rowed our little boat from Moorecroft Regional Park, out to Douglas Island, and back via Gerald Island. Birds seen in the four hours of absolutely beautiful rowing weather were;
Harlequin Duck: 23
Surf Scoter: 4
White-winged Scoter: 1
Long-tailed Duck: 6
Bufflehead: 22
Barrow's Goldeneye: 6
Common Merganser: 17
Red-breasted Merganser: 6
Pacific Loon: 462
Common Loon: 11
Horned Gerebe: 6
Red-necked Grebe: 10
Western Grebe: 22
Brandt's Cormorant: 7
Double-crested Cormorant: 9
Pelagic Cormorant: 13
Great Blue Heron: 2
Bald Eagle: 12
Black Oystercatcher: 1
Mew Gull: 166
California Gull: 4
Herring Gull: 3
Thayer's Gull: 102
Glaucous-winged Gull: 87
Common Murre: 372
Marbled Murrelet: 41
Ancient Murrelet: 3
Snowy Owl: 1
Belted Kingfisher: 1
Northern Flicker: 1
American Robin: 1
Song Sparrow: 5

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ring-billed Gull

Although it's a common summer bird in much of the rest of the rest of southern Canada, Ring-billed Gulls are uncommon to rare in most areas of coastal British Columbia. Although they are fairly common now in Vancouver and surrounding areas of the lower mainland, this is a relatively recent development, and as little as 50 years ago, they only occurred as a migrant. On Vancouver Island, they are now seen at all times of the year, although they are much harder to find outside of the Spring and Fall migration periods. In the Parksville-Qualicum Checklist Area, they are most difficult to find in Winter, and unless one knows the location of a bird that has been frequenting a certain area over a long period of time, such as the adult that has overwintered at Parksville Bay for years now, one has little chance of finding one.

So, it was a bit of a surprise today when a lovely adult Ring-billed Gull joined the large flock of Mew and Thayer's Gulls chasing bait fish just off Jinglepot Bay, in Moorecroft Regional Park. I have been doing regular surveys here since mid October, and this is the first time I have noted this species at this site.
Other interesting species in the park today included;
Ancient Murrelet: 19
Marbled Murrelet: 28
Herring Gull: 3 (also uncommon in this area)
Anna's Hummingbird: 3
Red-breasted Sapsucker: 1 (hard to find in winter)
Townsend's Warbler: 1

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gnatcatcher Caught, But Not Shot!

The morning of Thursday, 8 December 2011 found Donna and I traveling south on the island highway in the dark, hoping to get to Beacon Hill Park at first light. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher had been seen on the previous day, and I desperately wanted to find this bird. Although I have seen plenty of them in California, and once spotted one at a rest stop along I-5 in extreme southern Oregon, I really wanted this one for my Vancouver Island, and BC lists. Although they do show up on extreme southern Vancouver Island in the fall and early winter with some regularity, they are famous for being very difficult to relocate. Thus, I had never even chased one before, because follow-up reports never made the thought of the two hour drive to Victoria sound very rewarding.
But this individual was frequenting the east edge of Beacon Hill Park at the extreme southern end of Vancouver Island. The area the bird had been seen in previously was sparsely wooded, and surrounded by urban sprawl. The bird was sure to stick in this end of the park, and finding it would be a cinch, right? Well, no actually. This little blue-gray devil is better than Houdini at disappearing into thin air. Quite a few birders over the past week had been foiled after arriving within minutes of birders still beaming from a successful tick, only to spend the remaining hours until darkness, standing around looking at the empty tops of trees. Our experience seems typical of how this bird has been behaving.
After fighting through the morning commuters pouring into the capitol district, we eventually found our way into Beacon Hill Park just as a red morning sky was dulling to a leaden gray. Although it wasn't freezing, it was cloudy and damp, and we knew that standing around in one spot for very long today was going to be unpleasant. We threw on our gear, locked everything else in the trunk (this park supports all too many window smashing junkies) and headed for the narrow rows of trees lining the cricket field. Not two minutes after arriving, a small bird with a blue-gray back shot past us. I raised my binoculars, but was already suspicious, as the tail seemed short and the flight all wrong. Sure enough, it was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. But, at least their was a bird here. So we waited. And we waited. And after 30 minutes, we moved on. That was the only bird we saw in that spot. Down closer to Cook St, there is a small playground with some brush in the back, intersected by a road which bordered a larger patch of trees and thick brush. This looked much better. It was. Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Red-breasted Nuthatches moved through the treetops. Downy Woodpeckers and Red-breasted Sapsucker hunted the tree trunks for insects. Anna's Hummingbirds sang and displayed all around. And there, at the top of the tallest oak at the south east end of the tennis courts, was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. "GOT IT!", I yelled to other birders stalking the other side of the small patch of bush. I pointed the bird out to Donna. She let out an exultant, "Yes!" I had another quick, satisfying look through the binoculars, and then I grabbed my camera from over my shoulder, raised it to my eye, focused right on this lovely little bird perfectly displaying it's trademark under tail pattern right above me, and clicked the shutter. It was gone. I let the camera drop, looked hard back into the tree tops, and it was gone. It had simply vanished. Donna was looking right at it as it flew to another branch, and then lost it in a tangle of boughs. The other birders were now frantically searching through the chick-let flocks, to no avail. And after 45 minutes, we all dispersed, to search the park some more. Because I felt so terrible about losing the bird seconds before the others got there for a look, Donna and I stuck around in the damp December gray cold, and searched for another three hours for the bird, with absolutely no luck at all. We did see quite a few more Anna's Hummingbirds, and spent some time with seven Eurasian, about 100 American Wigeons and a few odd exotic ducks mixed in amongst about 500 Mallards. And we watched the invasive Gray Squirrels cavorting in the tops of the oaks where the gnatcatcher should have been. But we never saw it again. And that photo I shot? It shows a bare oak branch, with no gnatcatcher, at all. Apparently, nobody got even a glimpse of it the rest of the day. As some had paid the impossibly high prices for a ferry ride over from the mainland, they decided to stay overnight and try again the next morning. We were relieved to hear that the folks that missed it came back and saw it on the 9th, just a short distance from where we had seen it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mew Gulls

On the east coast of Vancouver Island in winter, one of the most common gulls encountered is the Mew Gull (Larus canus). Mew Gulls can be found roosting or feeding in most marine shoreline habitats in winter, as well as further offshore when food is plentiful. Although they can be found up rivers when salmon are spawning, it is far more typical to find them in marine areas in the non-breeding season. By early May, virtually all Mew Gulls leave the Salish Sea, and move to freshwater areas to nest. Some will migrate far into the boreal forest or even into the low Arctic to nest, while others will only travel a short distance to nest on freshwater lakes on Vancouver Island. I have found them nesting on lakes near sea level, all the way up into the high alpine. It has become rare to find them nesting on any lake frequented by humans though.
By July, Mew Gulls begin returning to the Salish Sea, and by October, winter numbers are again present. The greatest numbers occur on the east coast of Vancouver Island during the Pacific Herring Spawn in early spring. Counts of over 20,000 Mew Gulls at one site do occur at the height of spawning activity.
Mew Gulls generally nest on the ground, but will also build nests on pilings, broken snags, and in abandoned nests of other species well above the ground in trees. Nests are usually built of sticks, roots and mosses. Occasionally, eggs will simply be laid on existing moss with no materials added. They lay from one to five eggs, with three being average. Eggs are brooded for about 25 days and it generally takes about 30 days for young to fledge. Mew Gulls can nest singly, or in colonies.