Saturday, February 26, 2011

Things That Go Boo-boo-boop In The Night

Last night I was working on a project looking at whether or not certain species at risk occur on some federally owned properties in the Comox Valley. Specifically, I was doing call play back surveys for Western Screech-Owls (Otus kennicotti). This involves walking to pre-designated survey points, and doing a combination of playing calls and listening for responses, over a 15 minute period. What this often equates to, is standing around all night in the dark, shivering from the cold, and trying to stay awake and alert, without much happening. And to be honest, calling for Western Screech-Owls in a heavily modified landscape, I wasn't expecting much.

At about 1:30 I was strolling through a golf course. It was fantastic. All too often, owl surveys on Vancouver Island mean thrashing through salal in the pitch black, wiping spider webs off your face, and waiting for a Cougar to drop on you from out of a tree. This site was different. Fast hiking on a well groomed path. A bit of ambient light from the nearby airport. Fairly quiet. Good sight lines. What more could you ask for? Well, unfortunately, it didn't seem like good screech-owl habitat, and I wondered if I weren't totally wasting my time surveying this location. But, negative results are useful too, so I kept walking, ending up about a km away from where I had parked. I set up the loudspeaker on the edge of a tidy green, sat down with my back against a healthy old Douglas fir, shut off my headlamp, and pushed "play" on the mp3 player. One call set echoed across the empty golf course, and nothing responded. I waited a few minutes, straining to hear something far off in the distance, but it was only the baying of an old hound. I pushed play to begin the second set of calls. The Western Screech-Owl has a territorial call that is a soft little "boop", repeated every few seconds, but with a shorter duration between calls, so it seems to be speeding up as it goes. Some have described it as being similar to a ping pong ball bouncing, with the bounces coming closer together as it loses energy. At any rate, the bird didn't respond by vocalizing. Seconds into the second set, I caught a dark flash out of my right eye. I turned instinctively, my heart stopped, and there was a Western Screech-Owl, a foot from my face, it's feet aimed right for my eyes with it's talons fully extended. It was like touching an electric wire. I lurched to my feet, falling backwards, my hand flying up to protect my eyes, and I clunked the back of my head against a the trunk of the very skookum tree. The owl was gone. My heartbeat was thumping hard in my ears. I shut the mp3 player off, and waited. The bird passed by again, but this time a little further off. Although it was too dark to see any real detail, the size and shape left no doubt as to what it was. It circled me in complete silence, and then disappeared off to my left. I waited. All was quiet. I slowly turned my head to left, and again got a jolt to the heart. The owl had been sitting on a low branch, only a meter to the left of my head. It hissed, clacked it's bill with a tiny "smack", and fluttered off into the darkness. Wow! As a final treat, as I was stuffing the gear into my pack, I heard the secondary call of a Western Screech-Owl. A short descending tremolo. Then a quick couple of "boops". And then all was quiet again. On the walk back to the truck I left my headlamp off and savored the dark, magnificent night.

As an aside, one of the reasons that Western Screech-Owls are declining on Vancouver Island, is predation by the Barred Owl, which is a relatively new species here. Until about 40 years ago Barred Owls were unknown here, being essentially a species of eastern North America. As settlers altered the landscapes on their advance west, Barred Owls were able to move along with them. Here on Vancouver Island, the population has exploded, and they are commonly found now in most habitats, and from one end of the island to the other. They not only prey on Western Screech-Owls, but being larger, they also out compete them on available prey, and nesting cavities. Last night I saw and heard at least 5 Barred owls. All of which came swooping in to the sounds I was playing, apparently intent on finding a meal.

Although Barred Owls get the lion's share of the blame for Western Screech-Owl declines, I have no doubt that industrial forestry, agriculture, traffic moralities, and overall biodiversity declines associated with human activities, also play a large role.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Glaucous-winged Gull X Western Gull Hybrid

This hybrid combination is all too common most of the year here on the shores of the Salish Sea. We see fewer of them during the breeding season, but they rest of the year, they outnumber "pure" Glaucous-winged Gulls in many locations. The individual above is a fairly typical example of birds that appear to be more Glaucous-winged than Western, and may well represent second generation hybrids. This bird shows a mantle shade only slightly darker than the typical Glaucous-winged Gull, but the primaries are darker yet. The bill does suggest Western Gull, being fairly heavy and showing a pronounced gonys.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Non Motorized Transportation Big Year Update

Since 2009,
I have been primarily birding by bicycle. It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy to be continually complaining about biodiversity loss, at the same time I was driving an internal combustion vehicle all over the place chasing birds. So sometime near the end of 2008, I decided to keep the car parked as much as possible, and use the bike and my hiking boots to go search for birds. Being a typical birder, I thought I might as well add a listing component, so I started what I called, a Non-Motorized Big Year, or NMT Big Year, for short. Essentially, I would try and see how many species of birds I could find without using a motorized vehicle. In 2009 I saw 215 species, and went on some very long rides to Victoria and Port Alberni, amongst other insane hair brained schemes. I ended up birding 289 kilometres by foot, and 2371 kilometres by bike that year. In 2010, I decided to just bird within the Parksville-Qualicum Checklist Area, and I ended up with 193 species, covering 120 kilometres by foot, and 2672 by bike. Interestingly, after announcing my plan on a local bird chat group, others joined in. By 2010, the idea had spread to the mainland, the southern interior, and as far east as Manitoba. There are now dozens of birders across Canada doing their own versions of an NMT Big Year. And many of them are doing far better at it than I am. A birder in Victoria last year rode over 10,000 kilometers and saw well over 200 species. Incredible! Others have crossed the coast range, tallying large numbers of birds by seeing both coastal and interior birds in the process.

So far this year, I just haven't had the time to put into it like I did in previous years. The unusually poor weather hasn't helped, nor has my work schedule. But I am planning to ramp it up a notch here in the next few weeks. I love birding from my bike, and I can't imagine going back to driving all over the country chasing birds again. Yuck.

Today Donna and I did a 19 km ride down to the Englishman River Estuary and back. Although it was blowing a gale and bitterly cold (headache and burning lungs type cold) I did manage to see a new species for the year. While we were standing on the banks of the Englishman admiring the river, a pair of Barred Owls started calling in the forest just behind us. These birds have been in this forest for years now, and although I generally don't have much problem finding this species ;locally, this was the first sighting for me in 2011. They were both up in a cedar about 10 metres apart, trying to sit perfectly still, but every now and then peeking around a branch to see what we were up to.

Totalling up my list when I got home, I see that I have now seen 90 species for the year, and walked 18 kilometres and ridden 176 kilometres in the process. Hopefully, with the improving weather, the coming herring extravaganza, and northbound migrants moving in, I should start seeing some more new species. I can't wait.

Species: Recorded in 2011 So Far:

Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
California Quail
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Yellow-billed Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Brandt's Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Black-bellied Plover
Black Oystercatcher
Black Turnstone
Mew Gull
California Gull
Thayer's Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Glaucous Gull
Common Murre
Ancient Murrelet
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove (Not counted)
Barred Owl
Anna's Humminbird
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Steller's Jay
Northwestern Crow
Common Raven
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Bewick's Wren
Winter Wren
Marsh Wren
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Varied Thrush
European Starling
Spotted Towhee
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

Monday, February 21, 2011

Just Another Saturday

Excuse me, did you know that this area is off limits to dogs?

Did you know that I don't care?

Hi, I was wondering if you could stop your dog from flushing these Brant?

Fuck you

Good afternoon. Any Chance you could leash that dog?

No. Any chance you could go fuck yourself?

Sir, that is a protected species you are throwing rocks at.

Yeah, would you rather I came over there and hit you?

Hi, I was wondering if I could talk to you about those geese you just flushed?

What? Geese? Those are seagulls and I want them all off this beach.

You need to leash that dog.

Come over here and make me!

Do you kids realize how much damage it does to run into flocks of birds like that?


Get away from my kids you bastard!

Hi folks. Do you think there is any chance you could walk around that flock of Brant instead of flushing them?

No. And you can go fuck yourself.

Did you know that urging your dog to chase those birds is a violation of at least three different laws, and can net you some serious fines?

Yeah, well show me a badge or shut the fuck up.

Excuse me, but would it be possible to stop your dog from chasing those Brant?

Hey! Everybody hates Canadian Geese so fuck off!

Sir, it's illegal to allow a dog off leash in a Provincial Park, and it's even worse to urge it to chase birds.

Up yours! Parks are for people!

Hi, could I talk to you a minute about what you just did to those Brant?

No. Go to hell.

Hi, do you think you could step back about 50 feet so the Brant could come in and feed?

Oh for Christs sake. You wanna fucking go? Huh? Come on! You wanna go? Come on!

Sir, if you give me a chance I can explain exactly why it's important not to harass these birds.

You don't get it do you? The NDP lost, and we don't have to put up with this bullshit anymore.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Just Ducky

Today we birded from Nile Creek north to the Comox Marina, with a long stop at the Deep Bay Spit.

Nile Creek had the following gulls;
Mew Gull: 31
California Gull: 18 (all albertensis subspecies)
Herring Gull: 3
Thayer's Gull: 461 (18 showed pale eyes)
Glaucous-winged Gull: 21
Glaucous-winged mutts: 11
Harlequin Duck numbers at this site seemed oddly low. It's normal to see 25-30 here most visits and we only saw 6 today.

After Nile Creek we headed for Deep Bay. Driving towards the tip of the Maplegaurd Spit, we saw three adult Brant. A good sign, as the past few years have produced few to none at this site. Sadly, this area hosted thousands only two decades ago. In the harbor, one of the hybrid Trumpeter X Mute Swans continues to persist. I believe this bird was hatched in 2001. At the spit pugetensis subspecies White-crowned Sparrows were starting to tune up, while Song and Golden-crowned Sparrows were in full song. At the tip we were delighted to find 41 Long-tailed Ducks yakking up a storm. The spit has to be the best place in British Columbia to observe Long-tailed Ducks up close. And today was no exception. We planted ourselves on the cold gravel beach and waited. It took them about 20 minutes before they came in close to dive and feed mere meters from us. They were also actively courting today, and extremely vocal, which was a special treat. Mixed in with them were Bufflehead, Surf Scoters, and the odd Common Loon.

At the Comox Marina, we had great looks at Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. Off in the bay were thousands of Surf, White-winged, and Black Scoters, along with Long-tailed Ducks and Greater and Lesser Scaup.

A great day with sunshine, gulls and waterfowl. It doesn't get much better than that!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)

Who says common birds are boring?

Kowa Prominar TSN-884 Spotting Scope

OK. This is all crazy.

Last summer we were at a friends house, and having a discussion over dinner about how tough it is to do field work properly, when one's field equipment gets destroyed (some natives in Nanaimo took exception to the bird surveys we were doing, and shot my scope with a 12 gauge) and the jobs aren't paying enough to replace gear. I realized during this discussion that I have been working with a scope for the past 5 years, that barely even functioned any longer, but, I really could not afford to replace it. And spending 8-12 hours a day trying to read leg bands on Brant, or monitoring migrant raptors for wind farm proposals, can have really negative effects on the eyes. Even in the few days I've done Brant surveys this year, my scope has been killing my eyes.

I never would have put 2 + 2 together.......

A few weeks back, our friend Lyndia contacted me because she was looking for a new spotting scope, and wanted some advice as to which one to buy. We went through the pros and cons of various models, and the e-mails went back and forth for weeks. At some point, Lyndia asked me, "If you were buying a scope, and price wasn't a factor, which one would you buy"? That's an interesting question, because that isn't usually how I think about these things. I thought about it for awhile, and decided that the best scope I had looked through in the past few years, was the Kowa Prominar TSN-884, but I felt I had to warn her that it was a really expensive scope. She said, she understood that, but just wondered what the best one really was.

And now I know why.......

Flash ahead to today. I got to unwrap two brand new Kowas, fresh out of the mail from Pelee Wings Nature Store. One angled model for Lyndia to use. And one straight model for my own use. Lyndia decided that the work I was doing demanded proper tools, and she performed an act of incredible generosity. A brand new Kowa 88mm scope, for me to use, for as long as I continue to do this type of work. I am still in shock. Absolutely floored.

And the scope is nothing short of spectacular.

I started the day looking through a beat to hell Pentax with bullet holes in it, and ended the day looking through some of the best optics I have ever seen. The metallic green sheen on a pelagic Cormorant off the Englishman Estuary, just about brought me to tears.

Lyndia, just when I was about to give up on humans......

Thank you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

First Brant Presentation of 2011 Tonight

Tonight I'll be at
St Columba's Church in French Creek doing the first of many Brant presentations over the next two months. Since 2003, I would estimate that I have done about 50 of these presentations, trying to get the word out about keeping dogs off of the beaches within the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area. I've given this same talk at various community groups, churches, for the mayor and council of three different municipalities, at various government offices, at several different universities, and on TV and radio. The message in all of my talks is always the same; Allowing a domestic dog to harass wildlife can have serious consequences. Our research in this area has shown that it is taking longer and longer each year for the Brant to reach the peak condition needed to make the flight from here to Izembek Lagoon in Alaska, which is the next stepping stone on the long flight between Baja and the breeding grounds. The evidence is also mounting that birds which arrive in less than perfect condition on the nesting grounds, are far less likely to successfully fledge young. It is becoming obvious that human recreation in staging areas far to the south, is having negative effects on the breeding grounds, thousands of miles away. So when I hear excuse after excuse from dog owners again and again and again, I really have to chant the "serenity now" phrase to keep my patience.

Sadly, despite all of these talks, the work of the Brant Wildlife Festival over the past 21 years, the hard work of student volunteers from the Resource Management Officer Training (RMOT) program at Malaspina Univsersity, Conservation Officers and bylaw officials writing $230 tickets, and numerous signs posted all over the place, we still have people determined to allow their pets to pursue and harass Brant and other wildlife on our local beaches.

So, I'll keep trying to get the word out there, and someday, maybe, people will stop disturbing these birds as they attempt to rebuild their fat reserves, and continue on to the far north.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Glaucous Gull X Glaucous-winged Gull Hybrid

Donna and I first came across this bird in the Parksville Community Park on 17 January 2011. We are still seeing it several times a week around Parksville. It scrounges in parking lots, parks, and residential neighborhoods, looking for hand outs and other discarded human waste. In this sense, it certainly takes after it's Glaucous-winged Gull ancestors.

Some short video clips of the bird can be seen here;

The 2011 Brant Monitoring Season Is Underway!

Since the Spring of 1999,
I have worked as a contractor, monitoring Brant in the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area here on Vancouver Island. I generally spend 5-7 days a week from mid February to late April, counting Brant, noting how many juveniles are in each flock, recording every flight disturbance, it's severity, and it's cause, reading led bands, and assessing how fat or skinny each banded bird is. The Brant which pass through here each Spring are virtually all Pacific Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) although we do see a few Western High Arctic, or "Grey-bellied Brant" each year. The Pacific Black Brant which stage here are migrants on their way north tho the breeding grounds. Most will have spent the winter in Baja California, Mexico. They stop here to load up on the roe of Pacific Herring, which is abundant most years, and helps them to load fat in a relatively short period of time. Like most birds, Brant have an incredibly high metabolism, and they must spend most of each day eating, just to stay alive. To actually gain weight for migration, they switch from their normal vegetarian diet of sea weeds, algae, and especially eelgrass, and begin eating the roe of the Pacific Herring, which washes up on beaches here after storms, sometimes in strand lines meters wide.
In general, Brant which stage in this region have been declining for years, and are a conservation concern. As such, the Canadian Wildlife Service has funded a local monitoring project since 1988, aimed at monitoring the population in an effort to discover whether there are any conservation activities which might help this population. Research in this area has shown that Pacific Black Brant suffer more disturbance from human activities, than any other species of goose, and that the disturbance rates in this region are amongst the highest known anywhere. This leads to the Brant here suffering from not getting enough to eat. They simply spend too much time burning calories trying to get away from walkers, dogs, kite fliers, surfers, clam diggers, joggers, etc, etc, etc. It just never seems easy for these birds. Because this is a tourist area with some of the best beaches on the east coast of Vancouver Island, people flock here, just like the birds do. It's a bad situation, but we are making progress, slowly.
This week I started my first Brant monitoring surveys of 2011, and despite horrific rain and wind, it's been a great week. On Monday I counted 483 at Rathtrevor Provincial park, which is a very good count for this early in February. Each year the Spring migration seems to creep up a little bit earlier. When I started back in 1999, we didn't even start looking for Brant until the last week of February. Climate change? Who knows.
Today was terribly stormy, and I think most of the Brant were staying offshore, as they do sometimes during periods of foul weather. I could only find 137 today, and got soaked to the ass trying. Better weather is coming, but not for at least a month. Brant surveys at this time of year are generally miserable, wet and cold. Did I mention the rain?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Greetings Gyrfunkers!

Welcome to my blog.

I guess I'm a little late jumping on this blogging bandwagon, but I've been busy. There have been birds to see, habitat to save, dragons to slay, twangers to plunk, and occasionally I have to work. I've also used up a considerable portion of the last ten years trying to maintain an online bird chat group for Vancouver Island. Ha! Never again. The Internet seems to make rational people hostile, and hostile people, well, more hostile. I'm all done with that world. No desire to stop birding. Just completely done with being part of the pissing match/humiliate your peers/make yourself feel better about yourself by crapping on others/freak show that seems to be the bane of birding all over the planet. Not that the great majority of birders are like that. Not at all. But there are a few. Jesus Quintana, are there ever.....

But I don't intend for this blog to just be about birds though. Birds and birding are but one aspect of my life.

I have an interesting family that generally tolerates me

I have worked as a wildlife consultant, specializing in field ornithology for the past 15 years

I have the wittiest, if not the smartest, friends this side of Humptulips

I like hiking and backpacking, especially if it leads to birding

I like biking, and spend quite a bit of time birding from my bikes

I'm involved with a number of community groups, including the British Columbia Field Ornithologists

I read a lot, and I write occasionally

I play around with radios and am studying for my Canadian Basic Amateur Radio License

I have an interest in a language called Chinook Jargon, which although not really spoken any longer, has provided many words to conversational British Columbian English

I am maybe too passionate about politics. Well, maybe not

I cook, fairly well

I eat, far too much, or rather I did. Now I'm on a fairly strict diet which is utterly depressing

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to solve unsolvable problems

I sometimes hurl insults at strangers who deserve it

I am occasionally nostalgic for Puget Sound in the 80's

I once helped Abbie Hoffman get laid

I can't play the accordion, but there is still time

And doggone it, a couple of people like me

So there it is. My first blog post at Gyrfunken. Wish me luck.