Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Swallows and Warblers

Despite the cold, grey, wet weather today, it at least sounded more like Spring. At Rathtrevor Provincial Park, there were several Orange-crowned Warblers singing. These are the first I have encountered this year. At the Morningstar Golf Course water quality ponds, the air was alive with swallows darting this way and that, and the songs of Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers. I estimated that there were somewhere around 200 Violet-green Swallows over the ponds, and saw at least 4 Tree Swallows in with them. Several Rufous Hummingbirds zipped by while I was enjoying the swallows.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rufous Hummingbirds Arrive At Last

Tonight just as we were sitting down to dinner, a male Rufous Hummingbird visited our feeder for the first time in 2011. I've been out looking for them in good patches of salmon berry in the past week, with no success. Today's date, March 28, is the latest I have ever noted them arriving on Vancouver Island, in the 16 years I have been keeping notes here. In the lowlands around Parksville, March 18 is about normal for an arrival date. What a winter we have had, and still appear to be having!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pacific Herring Spawn Attracts Herring Gulls

Today I was helping Vancouver photographer Andrew Klaver lead a Nature photography tour for the Brant Wildlife Festival. The little bit of focused birding I was able to do, convinced me that Herring Gull migration through the area must be peaking right now. I saw literally hundreds of Herring Gulls today, of all ages. In fact, I'm not sure that I have ever seen such large numbers of Herring Gulls in the area. At the Brant viewing stand at the north end of Qualicum Beach alone, I saw over 150 Herring Gulls. Just the numbers from this one site, were considerably higher than what we would normally expect in this region. Although I have seen several Vega type Herring Gulls in the past few weeks, I was not able to find any today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bird Numbers In The Local Area:

The Pacific Herring Spawn appears to have fizzled out this year, but multitudes of birds continue to swarm the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area searching for a meal of herring or herring roe. Although numbers appear to have peaked, and birds some groups, like gulls, are declining in numbers daily, there are still plenty of birds around.

The following are counts or estimates of the numbers I saw in the area today;

Brant: 2587
Gadwall: 11
Eurasian Wigeon: 6
American Wigeon: 345
Mallard: 110
Northern Pintail: 50
Green-winged Teal: 50
Greater Scaup: 8000
Lesser scaup: 4
Harlequin Duck: 150
Surf Scoter: 23,500
White-winged Scoter: 700
Black Scoter: 400
Long-tailed Duck: 3000
Bufflehead: 600
Common Goldeneye: 1300
Barrow's Goldeneye: 300
Hooded Merganser: 10
Common Merganser: 350
Red-breasted Merganser: 550
Pacific Loon: 1500
Common Loon: 400
Horned Grebe: 250
Red-necked Grebe: 80
Western Grebe: 4
Brandt's Cormorant: 200
Double-crested Cormorant: 75
Pelagic Cormorant: 100
Turkey Vulture: 26
Bald Eagle: 315
Merlin: 4
Peregrine Falcon: 1
Black-bellied Plover: 200
Killdeer: 30
Black Oystercatcher: 120
Greater Yellowlegs: 1
Black Turnstone: 600
Dunlin: 1450
Bonaparte's Gull: 50
Mew Gull: 11,000
Ring-billed Gull: 2
California Gull: 12,000
Herring Gull: 900
Thayer's Gull: 4000
Iceland Gull: 2
Western Gull: 11
Glaucous-winged Gull (including various hybrids): 30,000
Glaucous-Gull: 3

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An old, old, Brant

Back in 2000 when I started Brant monitoring, yellow leg bands were one of the more numerous colors we encountered. This isn't surprising. In the five years prior to the year 2000, almost 8000 Brant were banded with yellow leg bands, which featured a unique, three digit alpha-numeric code. Now, over 10 years after the last yellow bands were applied, they are getting to be fairly rare. Well, today, for the first time this season, I saw a Brant with a yellow leg band. The code read, "VGL". Although I don't have specific banding information for this individual, I do know that the "V" series of bands was applied to Brant nesting on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska, in 1989. That makes this bird over 21 years old at a minimum, and if it were banded as an adult, even older. This bird has been seen in the Parksville - Qualicum Wildlife Management Area most Springs since at least 1993. I have seen this bird dozens of times myself, since 2000. As this will be my last year monitoring Brant in this area, I likely will not see Yellow VGL again, regardless of whether it survives another year, and continues to make the epic flights between Mexico and Alaska. But I hope it does. With all my heart.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another Glaucous X Glaucous-winged Gull?

On Sunday I eventually gave up on Brant monitoring due to the extreme amount of human disturbance, and rode my bike over to Doehle Rd. to look at gulls. There are app. 80,000 - 100,000 gulls in the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area right now, so there is plenty to look at. I always seem to fixate on the ones I just cannot unravel. This one is a perfect example. I only got brief looks at as it flew by, but it instantly impressed me with it's size, and pale mantle color. The bill shape and much of the plumage says 2nd cycle Glaucous-winged Gull. The mantle shade is quite pale, and the bird is overall, quite pale for this species at this age. Still, it isn't typical Glaucous Gull white. So, is it just an odd Glaucous-winged Gull, or perhaps a Glaucous-winged Gull x Glaucous Gull hybrid? I'm really not sure.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saw-whets Under The Perigee Moon

Last night we went to Rathtrevor Provincial Park to view and photograph the full moon. We had heard that this would be the largest full moon in the last 20 years, and we were not disappointed. As it rose over the Salish Sea to the east, it was as big and orange and grand as any moon I've ever seen. Just as it rolled up over the top of Winchelsea Island, a Northern Saw-whet Owl began calling in the Douglas fir forest behind us, and another answered a hundred meters down the beach. It doesn't get any better than that.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Oiled Birds

For the past few weeks I have been seeing oiled birds around Parksville. No idea where the oil is coming from, but a call to a couple of agencies got me nowhere, which is pretty typical here in third world BC. Remember, criminally low taxes for business means no government services for anyone. And certainly none for wildlife. That's where citizens step up to the plate. A trio of eager birders led by Jeremiah Kennedy arrived in town today, and while looking through the massive gull and sea ducks at Parksville Bay, they came upon an adult White-winged Scoter that was oiled and too weak to fly. It took them a few tries and some pretty heroic barefoot running through the cold waters of Parksville Bay, but they eventually caught the poor bird, and hustled it off to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Center. Good work guys. A job well done.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Spawn Explodes!

It's been more than a decade since it took this long for the annual spawn of Pacific Herring to take place in the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area. After what I experienced today, I'm beginning to think it was worth all the waiting and worry! From Northwest Bay in the southeast, to the Little Qualicum River in the northwest, there was over 40 continuous kilometers of spawn along the shoreline today. Essentially, the entire WMA was seeing active spawning at the same time. In places, the spawn was so heavy, that milt churned into foam by the stormy weather, was forming drifts a meter deep, and covering hundreds of meters of shoreline. At the Little Qualicum River mouth, the bay was covered by foamy milt, as far as the eye could see. Near the mouth of the Englishman River Estuary, I took a quick lunch break from doing Brant research, and fed heartily on fresh herring roe on seaweed, cast up by the storms. It was delicious. The Mew Gulls watched me jealously at every bite.
Parksville Bay was the hot spot for birds today, with many thousands of scoters, long-tails, scaup, Brant, and various gulls. This weekend should probably produce the peak numbers of birds in the Wildlife Management Area for this year. I can't wait.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spawn Picks Up!

This afternoon we noticed the unmistakable odor of herring spawn from our place here in Parksville. We went for a look down at the Englishman River estuary, and sure enough, a long line of pale blue green water extending from the San Pareil neighborhood all the way west to Columbia Beach, about three kms away. Although a lot of the roe may be washed up on shore during these heavy seas, it also means that the fishing fleet is tied up inside of the marinas. The herring got a break today. go fish!

Hopefully we will see a big influx of gulls and sea ducks this week and possibly more spawn. I did see a first winter Glaucous Gull and a second winter Iceland Gull between the Englishman River and the old Hovercraft Base at Parksville Bay. There app. 8000 gulls in that area, along with decent flock of scoters, scaup, and Long-tailed Ducks. No really large flocks yet though.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mew Gull (Larus canus)

Probably the second most numerous gull along the east coast of Vancouver Island in winter, is the tiny Mew Gull. The birds pictured above, are all adult Mew Gulls in non-breeding plumage. These photographs were taken near French Creek, Vancouver Island, BC, on 12 March 2011.


The winter of 2010-2011 has been one of the longest I have ever experienced. Beyond the weather, which has been dreadful at best, my work situation has been poor, the birding has been dull, and I suppose I have been about as depressed about the general state of the world as one can be. So today, when the rain stopped abruptly, the sun broke through the clouds, the temperature suddenly began to climb making these musty old Stanflields seem like a bit too much clothing, and then to top it all off, a Yellow-rumped Warbler flew across the beach and into a cottonwood at the Little Qualicum Estuary. I felt a great sense of relief. Although the crappy weather may well continue, and nothing appears to be getting any better, a little blue and yellow bird, newly arrived from the warm lands to the south, has brought a whole lotta sunshine along with it. Winter is over. Spring is here. Time for a new start.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Herring Spawn Tour

For the past two days I have hosted a group of birders as part of a British Columbia Field Ornithologist's field trip, focused on birds attracted by spawning Pacific Herring within the Parksville-Qualicum Wildlife Management Area. It was a great group of people, and I really enjoyed myself. It was a difficult couple of days though, because the weather, the fish, and the birds, all made things difficult. We experienced heavy rain for much of the first day, cold wind and rain for part of the second day, an oddly low count of birds for this time of year, and worst of all, the herring did not spawn much at all! Agh!!!
However, the last 4 hours of Friday made it all worthwhile. The sky cleared, we found a nice amount of fish at Columbia Beach, and there were about six thousand gulls, along with over 40 Bald Eagles and great flocks of Brant and sea-ducks. I was also able to give everyone on the tour excellent scope views of a second cycle Iceland Gull, which brought smiles to many faces.
Thanks to all of the participants, for showing patience and grace in the face of what could have been a disastrous tour. And please come back to Parksville-Qualicum in the future, when hopefully, the spawns get back to normal!
We ended up seeing 68 species of birds, which is pretty good for the time of year, and considering that we really only birded along the shoreline.
Birds seen between Parksville and Deep Bay on March 10 and 11, 2011:
Canada Goose
Mute Swan x Trumpeter Swan hybrid
Trumpeter Swan
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Harlequin Duck
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Barrow's Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Brandt's Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Black-bellied Plover
Black Oystercatcher
Black Turnstone
Bonaparte's Gull
Mew Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Thayer's Gull
Iceland Gull
Western Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Common Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Rock Pigeon
Northern Flicker
Northwestern Crow
Common Raven
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Pacific Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Varied Thrush
European Starling
Spotted Towhee
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
House Sparrow

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

Spawn At Last!

This morning we awoke to the smell of spawning Pacific Herring here in Parksville. Although it was only a minor spawning event, the sounds of thousands of gulls and the smell of herring milt and roe in the water was obvious. This spawn, the first of 2011, took place near the foot of Doehle Rd, which is between Parksville Bay and French Creek. It's typical for earlier spawns to take place here. Hopefully, we start seeing some major spawning activity in the next few days.

Although today's event was relatively small, it still attracted an impressive number of birds and mammals. My estimates for approximately 300 metres of shoreline are as follows;

Brant: 31
Eurasian Wigeon: 2
American Wigeon: 106
Mallard: 37
Greater Scaup: 150
Harlequin Duck: 11
Surf Scoter: 580
White-winged Scoter: 4
Black Scoter: 10
Long-tailed Duck: 26
Bufflehead: 18
Common Goldeneye: 37
Barrow's Goldeneye: 12
Common Merganser: 21
Red-breasted Merganser: 53
Pacific Loon: 3
Common Loon: 5
Horned Grebe: 8
Red-necked Grebe" 2
Double-crested Cormorant: 9
Pelagic Cormorant: 1
Bald Eagle: 34
Black Oystercatcher: 10
Mew Gull: 4800
California Gull: 1460
Herring Gull: 18
Thayer's Gull: 1850
Iceland Gull: 1 (Kumlien's type)
Western Gull: 6
Glaucous-winged Gull: 4700 (including various Western Gull and Herring Gull hybrids)
Glaucous Gull: 1
Belted Kingfisher: 1
Northwestern Crow: 89

River Otter: 4
Harbor Seal: 24
California Sea Lion: 46
Steller's Sea Lion: 12

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Waiting For The Spawn......

I spent today doing Brant surveys in the Parksville - Qualicum Wildlife Management Area. It's odd to be into March and still have so few Brant, gulls, and scoters in the area. This is the first time in years that we haven't seen a spawn of Pacific Herring in this area by early march, and thus, bird numbers are at an all time low. My total count of Brant today was under 500 birds, and this is one of the lowest totals for March we have ever had.

The one species that does seem to be around in abundance, is Bald Eagles. With alarmingly poor salmon runs last fall, these birds have faced a bleak winter. And now, with the herring runs being late, the situation is becoming dire. A few scraps thrown out onto the beach in Qualicum this morning immediately attracted the attention of a half dozen Bald Eagles, who scattered gulls in all directions as they came screaming in to grab a morsel. These birds are hungry. Lets hope the herring spawn is close at hand.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Hunter

At dusk last night I was hiking the beach at Kye Bay here in Comox, getting ready to do the three sites I am surveying for owls in the forest bordering the beach. It was a glorious evening, with spectacular white clouds against a deep blue sky, a calm sea, and the tide just beginning to drop enough to expose the vast sand beaches that Kye Bay is famous for. The light in the sky was starting to dim, but the stars weren't out yet, and the clouds were still lit from a sun that had already dropped behind the mountains to the west.

As I was plodding along the sandy beach, I noted a stick up ahead, partially buried in the sand, the only shape to break the flat bare expanse. I thought it looked a little bit like a bird. Maybe a cormorant sitting on a beach with it's head straight up? Or a hawk perched atop it's unfortunate prey maybe? I thought about all the times I have stopped walking to raise my binoculars to look at a bird-like shape in the distance, only to see a bird shaped stump, rock, or branch. I didn't stop, and I didn't raise my binoculars.

Now 100 metres closer, I glanced off to my left at the bird shaped stick in the sand, only to be brought to an immediate halt. It was a bird. I saw it move. I turned and focused on it in the dim light. Whoa. It was a hawk, and it had something! I walked about half the distance closer, careful to look away so as to reduce the feling of threat to the bird. Now I was only about 50 metres away. It was clearly a Sharp-shinned Hawk, sitting atop a Red-breasted Merganser! I looked again, and raised my binoculars to be sure. No doubt about it. But how in the world........?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small accipiter, with males averaging a bit smaller than a crow, and females only slightly larger. This was clearly a male. It was quite small, even for this species. A bird like this would generally prey upon sparrows, starlings, or maybe an American Robin if it was feeling particularly ferocious. But a Red-breasted Merganser? To begin with, this bird would outweigh the hawk by more than double it's weight, and there is no way even a female Sharp-shinned Hawk could carry a duck like this in flight, or even drag it on the ground very effectively. While Sharp-shinned Hawks spend most of their time hunting in forested habitats, and rarely venture out into large openings, especially over large bodies of water, Red-breasted Mergansers spend the entire winter in marine habitats, rarely, if ever coming ashore, and often being well out into the open sea. So how did these two come together for a dinner that I'm sure the merganser did not have in mind? The only idea that made any sense, was that the merganser must have been weak or near death, and washed up on shore, attracting the unwanted attention of the hawk. The predator did appear to be a first year bird, and juveniles are known to go after odd prey items, and to eat whatever they can find in their first difficult winter, still trying to learn to be efficient predators. Still, this all seemed odd, with the duck so far out on the open beach, away from the forest edge.

After watching the bird plucking neck feathers for a minute or so, I lowered my binoculars and went to step away, to leave the bird with it's meal. I must have spooked the hawk, because it leaped into air, and shot past me towards the forest with an impressive burst of speed. I felt bad for flushing it, especially a young bird probably looking forward to a long cold night with a bit of food in it's belly. I looked again at the merganser. It was alive! It raised it's head from the wet sand, and dropped it again. I ran over to see how badly it was hurt. It was bad, and I knew the bird was close to death. The feathers were not in good condition, indicating the bird was either, ill, starving, or had been battered badly and possibly injured in the recent storms. Blood dropped from wounds to it's neck, staining a patch of sand a deep red. The head sank back down, and with supreme effort, the bird tried to place it's head under it's wing. I thought briefly about ending it's suffering, but thought better of it. I turned away, and walked on.

After I had walked on for another 5 minutes, thinking on all of the unique and varied ways that death can find us, I turned back around for another glance at the unfortunate merganser. There was the hawk again. It was perched atop the lifeless body, it's sharp little hooked bill tearing out the feahers of the merganser, and throwing tufts of soft down into the air, where they floated off to the west in the rapidly fading light. I turned away, and walked on.