Saturday, November 12, 2011

Haida Gwaii Episode 2: October 13-18 (2011)

[Haida Gwaii Pine Marten can smell a junco!]

After the success of last year’s Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) expedition in November, I thought I would try another trip this year—albeit slightly earlier. Last year I was joined by Jukka Jantunen, Jess Findlay, and Cameron Eckert. We birded the islands hard for 4 days and managed a decent collection of Haida Gwaii rarities including Chestnut-sided Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Brambling. Read up on that story HERE.

As a remote archipelago, the islands of Haida Gwaii act as a natural rarity trap, but the appeal reaches much beyond that. Isolation from the mainland has allowed for a unique ecology to develop, and this is reflected in the birdlife. Five unique subspecies are recognized including forms of Northern Goshawk (although some consider it conspecific with the Vancouver Island goshawks), Northern Saw-whet Owl, Hairy Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, and Pine Grosbeak. In addition to these unique birds, what is perhaps more notable is what species are not present. Graham Island alone covers about 6,500 square km of mountains, coniferous forest, alder groves, bogs, inlets, and shoreline… and yet… there are NO Ruffed Grouse, NO Cooper’s Hawks, NO Great Horned Owls, NO Western Screech-Owls, NO Northern Pygmy-Owls, NO Downy Woodpeckers, NO Black-capped Chickadees, NO Red-winged Blackbirds, NO House Finches, and NO House Sparrows! Only 2 species of swallow occur regularly (Tree and Barn), only 1 flycatcher (Pacific-slope), and only 3 warbler species breed: Townsend’s, Orange-crowned, and Wilson’s (Yellow-rumped and yellows are rare migrants, and there is only 1 record of Common Yellowthroat!).

So anyway, let’s get to the story and we’ll cover more interesting observations along the way!

This year I was joined by two equally crazy birders who go by the names of “Ryan Merrill” (of Kirkland, WA) and “Ilya Povalyaev” (currently of Calgary, AB). These blokes proved up to the task of over-night drives, dawn-til-dusk birding, and less than favourable outdoorsy conditions.

Oct 12—Penticton—Prince George—almost to Prince Rupert

I met up with Ryan in Penticton on the night of Oct 11th, then on the morning of the 12th we struck out north to Prince George where Ilya was due to arrive at the airport around 4:30pm. The drive north was fairly uneventful, other than a somewhat late sighting of a LEWIS’S WOODPECKER just north of Clinton—this is near the northern edge of their breeding range. We also spotted 120 SANDHILL CRANES in a field near Quesnel, and bagged our first ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK just south of Prince George in the village of Hixon.

[Ryan scans the Prince George Airport--now offering direct flights to Vegas!]

[Ilya arrives in style--looks like he's expecting some soggy terrain]


With a bit of light left in the day, we decided to head west to Vanderhoof where we checked Nulki Lake for jaegers and terns. No larids of any form showed themselves but there was a nice variety of waterfowl to look through including both SURF and WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS. After dinner in Vanderhoof we continued our voyage west, passing Fraser Lake, Burns Lake, Houston, Telkwa, Smithers, Hazelton, Terrace at night. Ryan and I traded off driving shifts until about 2 am when we reached the same rest-stop that we had used last year. After 1,400 km in the day, it was time for some sleep.

[Ruffed Grouse along the roadside near Nulki Lake--pronounced "Nuu-kai"]


OCT 13: Waking up beside a river, riding a boat, touching holy ground

We awoke around dawn… 6am maybe? I can’t remember. I always forget how wide the Skeena River is!

[Freshening up in the Skeena Valley]

We stretched our legs a bit then pressed on into Prince Rupert for breakfast. We had a few hours to spare until we needed to check-in at the ferry terminal (2pm sailing), so we took this time to bird the waterfront. Several hundred THAYER’S GULLS greeted us at the fish plant near the ferry terminal, along with scads of MEW GULLS and all sorts of GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL hybrid mixes.

[Scanning for blacks ones or white ones]

Next we moved over to the Cow Bay area where a mixed warbler/kinglet flock produced not one but *3 YELLOW WARBLERS (Common in Aug/Sep, but by mid-Oct they are quite scarce in BC let alone the north coast!). There was a nice variety of forest birds and waterbirds in the area but we were most excited about the journey that was to come!

[100% Thayer's Gulls in this photo; doesn't happen every day!]

The ferry crossing to Haida Gwaii is notoriously rough at this time of year, but today we were in luck. The Hecate Strait was remarkable smooth as we cruised westward on the “Northern Experience.” Stationed on the bow, protected from the wind and rain, we scoped and binned from Prince Rupert all the way out to Dog Bank (just west of Skidegate) where it got too dark to see.

Even before hitting the open Strait, we started picking up some nice seabirds around Digby Island. A single RED-NECKED PHALAROPE was a tad late we thought, but my first 4 RED PHALAROPES of the year were right on time! BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES were common in the stretch with around 120 recorded, and a few jaegers flew past; one appearing to be a PARASITIC JAEGER, the other was probably a POMARINE but the views were too brief to say for sure.

[Somewhere at the end of the rainbow... there is a Glaucous-winged Gull...]

Once we got out into the Hecate things continued to improve as the first tubenoses started to appear. Mostly SOOTY SHEARWATERS, but at least one SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER was noted, then NORTHERN FULMARS took over as the most common tubie (~60 individuals). A lone juvenile SABINE’S GULL was nice to see, then a small group of CASSIN’S AUKLETS buzzed by. 3 POMARINE JAEGERS powered past us including this guy (pictured below)—shoulda been there Carlo!

[Pomarine "spooning" across the starboard beam]

Some significant CANADA GOOSE migration was clearly in evidence as 1500+ flew right over the ferry, along with 25 CACKLING GEESE and 1 lone AMERICAN WIGEON. The most common loon was clearly PACIFIC LOON with over 300 tallied, but we couldn’t complain after seeing “only” 2 YELLOW-BILLED LOONS—both adults in alternate plumage!

[One of the YB Loons]

We arrived in Skidegate (Graham Island) around 830pm, then after a bit of driving around in circles, finally found the Premier Creek Hostel (Link: http://www.qcislands.net/premier/hostel.htm). Not surprisingly for this time of year, we were the only ones there so we each got our own room and plently of lounging space!

[The boys looking rather civilized]


Oct 14—Queen Charlotte City—Sandspit—Skidegate

We awoke bright and early to a beautiful sunrise over Skidegate Inlet—a rare phenomenon at this time of year!

The first few hours of the day saw us “pishing around” the backstreets of Queen Charlotte City, checking each and every DARK-EYED JUNCO flock for lost “Sibes” such as Brambling or Little Bunting… one can dream right? Our only flock of RED CROSSBILLS flew over near the Skidegate ferry terminal, followed by one of our only 2 detections of PINE GROSBEAK (heard only unfortunately). The usual variety of seaducks, alcids, and gulls were scattered out on the water… I say “usual” but as a birder who grew up in the land-locked Okanagan Valley, how can I possibly get used to large flotillas of RHINOCEROS AUKETS floating 20 feet offshore, or flocks of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES wheeling in the air above jousting STELLER’S SEA-LIONS???

[Francesca II posing in front of some multi-million-dollar longhouses]

Having missed the first ferry to Alliford Bay (Moresby Island), we hopped on the 10am—Sandspit ho!

[Ilya taking advantage of the ferry's custom "binocular holes"]

On this short crossing to Moresby Island (the southern main island of Haida Gwaii), we were able to get a little closer to many of the birds we had been scoping from shore, while soaking in the fresh sun of a breezy morning.

[Explaining the difference between kittiwake and thayer's gull leg-colour]

Once on Moresby, we drove east to the only “town” on the island. The settlement of Sandspit, is of course named after a spit of sand—in fact there are two spits: the “Big Spit” and the “Little Spit.” Both of these just out from the airport, which is essentially on an even larger spit… why do I keep talking about spits? Birds LOVE spits, and Sandspit is probably one of the best birding spits in Canada! Simply by looking at a map of Haida Gwaii, and the placement of Sandspit (jutting out into the Hecate Strait), you will understand why this can act as a magnet for all sort of birds migrating south along the coast, or blown off course.

["Here bunting bunting!"]

The large grassy area around the airport gives grass-loving birds (e.g. longspurs, pipits, geese, shorebirds) a rare foraging opportunity that does not exist elsewhere in a coast dominate by thick rainforests, and rocky shorelines. A large list of rarities have been recorded here including BAIKAL TEAL, STELLER’S EIDER, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT, RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE, LEAST TERN, RED-NECKED and LITTLE STINTS, RED-THROATED PIPIT, and SMITH’S LONGSPURS. Last November in this same area, we found HG’s first ever GRASSHOPPER SPARROW and CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER--- practically anything is possible here!

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here… we started off a little west of the airport at the coast guard base, where I was pleased to find my first ROCK SANDPIPER of the season—always a treat! Moving east around Shingle Bay, we began our walk through the houses of Sandspit before heading out to the airport. With a well-documented history of rarities in the area, it is important to check EVERYBODY’S yard as you just never know what might be hopping around. This proved true within the first 30 minutes. As we walked past a large house with a tall wooden fence, a call-note caught our attention. This is why “ear-birding” can be so important. We knew right away that this was not one of the regular song or fox sparrows common in everyone else’s yards, nor was it a warbler expected on the west coast at this time of year. This sounded “different.” We peered through the only part of the fence that had a gap in it—revealing a well-kept garden of exotic plantings, perfect for attracting a lost warbler. Then suddenly the bird came into view! Bins up—shit! It flitted behind a slat of wood… there it is again! Bins up, and once again in hopped just out of view. After a few agonizing seconds of none of us getting satisfying views, Ryan finally got a good angle on it, “if it’s a North American warbler, it has to be a CAPE MAY!” Ilya and I continued to try to get better looks as it hopped about on the other side of the fence but in the end I had to be satisfied with brief naked eye impressions—“definitely a drab streaky bird,” I said. Luckily Ryan had his camera in hand, and fired off a bunch of shots as it flitted about. None of them really show the whole thing but by piecing together every angle, it was pretty clear that this was indeed the first Haida Gwaii record of CAPE MAY WARBLER!

[Ryan's best shot of this sneaky gleaner--shouldn't you be in Jamaica?]

*We ever saw the bird again despite three more visits in the following days, however Peter Hamel and Margo Hearne re-found it on October 23rd feeding on berries in the same yard!!!

So things were off to a brilliant start! Was this the first of many mega-rares to come or were we peaking early? Only time would tell…
We continued our tramp around the airport, finding a couple more ROCK SANDPIPERS (pictured), cruising around with a group of DUNLIN, and SANDERLINGS.

[2 Rock Sandpipers (Left) with Dunlin]

As we rounded our way over to the east side of the airport, Ilya flushed a SHORT-EARED OWL, who ended up spending the next hour or so following us around.

As always, large numbers of waterbirds were not too far offshore. The most notable tally was probably that of RED-NECKED GREBE = 385! Other impressive numbers included 68 “DUSKY” CANADA GEESE, 320 BLACK SCOTERS, 65 HARLEQUIN DUCKS, 112 RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, and 116 BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES. Also in the fields were 6 SNOW GEESE, 3 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, 27 latish SAVANNAH SPARROWS, a few LINCOLN’S SPARROWS, 1 WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (all zonos are surprisingly scarce on migration in Haida Gwaii), and 41 LAPLAND LONGSPURS. Near the SW corner of the airport complex we bumped into a couple more SHORT-EARED OWLS, as well as a large PEREGRINE FALCON. 3 LESSER SCAUPS in a creek oxbow was a nice find for Sandspit… great birding so far.

Next, we checked out the Sandspit Golf Course (aka “The Willows”). Long lines of crab-apple trees and willows provide for great migrant habitat but it was fairly quiet today. 4 YELLOW-RUMPED (MYRTLE) WARBLERS were the best we can manage.

We continued south on the Copper Bay Road to the last line of houses in Sandspit—an area I call Chroustcheff Point (after the point of the same name which is right there…). This is the area where we found the grasshopper sparrow and chestnut-sided warbler last year. There’s a nice mix of beach scrub and alder trees, where stray passerines are bound to turn up now and then. We bumped into another group of YELLOW-RUMPED (MYRTLE) WARBLERS but couldn’t dig up anything else amongst the trees. A group of carlottae STELLER’S JAYS sparked our interest as they foraged on the ground and in some old alders. This subspecies is a bit larger than its mainland compatriots and are noticeably darker with a very distinct border between the black and blue patterning of the upper-parts. We also noted that many of their vocalizations are noticeably different-sounding than typical Steller’s Jay; hopefully more research can be carried out and who knows… maybe one day Haida Gwaii will have its very own jay!

As dusk fell, we flushed some shorebirds off the beach—4 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS, and 2 PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS!

After a long day of birding, we were… hungry. The obvious remedy to this was of course: Dick’s Wok In (also spelled “Inn” on another sign). This is the only restaurant in Sandspit, but a must-do for any visitor. Dick and his wife treated us to some generous portions of Chinese delights, and we chatted for a bit about his life in Sandspit. In true islander-fashion, Dick has lived on Haida Gwaii for 25 years but hasn’t left Moresby Island in 11 years, and hasn’t been up to Masset in over 20 years! He also apparently doesn’t get to practise much English as it took Ilya about 2 minutes to order an orange juice. “Oh… OLAN juice!” Dick needs more customers! Get up there people!

Anyhoo, it was obviously quite dark when we said goodbye to Dick’s. Plus we had some time to kill before the next ferry across, so OBVIOUSLY it was TIME TO GO OWLING! We were treated to relative silence at our first two stops, but at the third stop—success! A brooksi NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL came in to check us out, and proceeded to vocalize like no mainland saw-whet I’ve ever heard before. Instead of counter-singing, it gave repetitive “kuuw-eeet” calls that were consistently higher-pitched than anything I’ve heard elsewhere in BC. Ryan took some recordings of this, so hopefully we can provide you all with some of that soon. **As a side note-- I have heard from various biologists and eye-witnesses that these owls actually feed on invertebrates at night, out along the beaches---hopping around in the kelp piles! To see a photo of a Brooksi saw-whet, click HERE.

After the owl, it was time for the ferry back and a well-deserved sleep!

[Starting to lose our composure]


Oct 15—Tlell—Port Clements—Masset—North Beach

[Scraping ice off the windshield with a plate]

We left Queen Charlotte City right at dawn—today was our full-on northern trip up to Masset and North Beach. First we birded the beaches of farms of Tlell; this is the area where we had the Brambling last year. Unfortunately the fields that had been flooded last year were high and dry…er damp. No ducks or shorebirds, just a flock of 22 CACKLING GEESE. We pressed on through Naikoon Provincial Park, then pulled into the forestry-oriented settlement of Port Clements. We didn’t stop here last year so I just had to see it! From the main docks in town we had a pretty good view of the massive Masset Inlet; unfortunately there were almost zero birds out there. A small tidal flat back near the eastern side of town had a small group of GREEN-WINGED TEAL and NORTHERN PINTAIL as well as 2 “DUSKY” CANADA GEESE. Just as we were about to leave Ryan spotted a pair of MARBLED GODWITS as they flew around the bay and eventually landed in the water—just like a couple of regular waterfowl! This species is a nice find anywhere in BC, but mid-Oct this far north is even more satisfying.

Having little else to look at, we left Port Clements and headed straight up to Masset (Haida Gwaii’s largest town, boasting 940 residents) where we had arranged to meet up with the Island’s 2 top birders—Peter Hamel and Margo Hearne.

[Coincidentally--they needed a couch moved. Hmmmm..... Happy to help!]

After a few cups of coffee and talk about birds, Peter and Margo took us out to Entry Point, a peninsula that allows for good views of the entrance to Masset Inlet.

[Birding Entry Point with Peter and Margo]

The calm weather made for great viewing conditions but unfortunately it also meant that few seabirds were around. Well that’s not entirely true—there were around 300 RHINOCEROS AUKLETS not too far out including a couple individuals that swam within a few feet of shore!

We thanks Peter and Margo for their awesome hospitality, then headed east along the North Beach Road to the Dixon Entrance Golf Course. Like the Sandspit course, this spot offers some unique habitats that might be attractive to rare passerines including willow, salmonberry, and crab-apples, as well as some small freshwater marshes/ditches, and of course open grassy areas. Last year we flushed loads of Wilson’s Snipe in this area but surprisingly, we only found 1 this time around! The bushes were very quiet as well with only a few DARK-EYED JUNCOS, PACIFIC WRENS, SONG SPARROWS, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS, and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES detected.

[Scenic view of Ilya taking a wizz, me, and the Dixon Entrance Golf Course]

By the time we finished up at the golf course, I was feeling pretty down… not because we weren’t finding anything uber-rare… well maybe a bit… but more-so because it was becoming clear that I was coming down with some sort of flu/fever situation that was greatly depleting my will to move, let alone bird.

So for the next few hours, Ilya and Ryan took up the gauntlet and birded the scenic Naikoon Provincial Park, where massive sand-dunes face toward the southern tip of Alaska, barely visible in the distance. Luckily (for me), they didn’t see anything extraordinary (in the bird department) so we headed back to Masset where I bought various cold-remedies and continued by vehicular slumber, while the dynamic duo birded the backstreets of Masset under constant drizzle.

Once again it was fortunate (for me) that nothing mind-blowing was turned up; just loads more juncos, song sparrows, etc., and “a couple snipe behind the church.” Time to head south for a hot bowl of chicken-noodle!

By the time we reached Tlell, the sun was setting; we scoped through some gull flocks along the stony beach but couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary so we pressed on to QC City where I cooked up two batches of soup and tucked into bed fairly swiftly… that night I was glad to be living in the 21st century, where warm blankets, heaters, and sturdy buildings are the norm—even on remote archipelagos!

Oct 16—Return to Sandspit

Today we headed back across to Alliford Bay, for one more crack at Sandspit and Moresby Island. I was feeling a lot better but still fairly tired, kind of similar to how I feel right now as I type… tiiiirrred. Essentially this day was a repeat of Oct 14th except that we were barred from birding the golf course--will have to dress nicer next time perhaps!

Anyway, we tried to concentrate on birding the houses around Sandspit a little harder today. Once again we failed to turn up the previously-seen Cape May, but added a few new trip birds including AMERICAN DIPPER, RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW (remember, all zonos are good here!), and 3 EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVES—Yep they’re here too apparently!

[Can you guess what this is? Correct!]

We also found a couple TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS near the coast guard base, and Ilya spotted an immature YELLOW-BILLED LOON out in Shingle Bay.

After recording mostly the same ol’ species at the airport (“Oh never mind, it’s just ANOTHER Short-eared Owl”), we headed down toward Chroustcheff Point to check my carefully laid out network of millet seed.

[Ryan checking out one of my feeding stations—no obvious bird activity but a small slug was found nearby...]

The rain started to really settle in, so we decided to head back across to QC City and get some well-deserved rest/see if any of the old VHSs at the hostel were watchable.

Oct 17—Last day on the Islands: Birding QC City and Skidegate townsite

Today we tried to hit every single back alley in Queen Charlotte City and Skidegate; plus every line of alders, and every stretch of tidal flat. We started off at the waterfront where a large concentration of crows and gulls had gathered to take advantage of the last few salmon making a go of it up the creek (Steelhead?). A mixed flock of EUROPEAN STARLINGS and BLACK TURNSTONES (yep that’s right) foraged along the water’s edge and were joined by at least 1 ROCK SANDPIPER and exactly 40 BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS. The salmonberry hedges around town produced little else other than the expected groupings of sparrows, kinglets, and chickadees. If I were forced to put together a package of highlights, I suppose our second WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW of the caused a stir from the audience, along with 5 TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS, and 22 EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVES… utter domination! As we headed east toward Skidegate, our two big finds of the day popped out in quick succession: First, Ilya scoped a lone ANCIENT MURRELET casually floating out in the bay amongst 250 RHINOCEROS AUKLETS, then… as if sensing we were in need a morale boost, the bird gods sent in grayish-green boost of excitement in the form of an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER!!!!!!!! (It’s all about context people; that’s a good bird in mid-October ;))

Our birding on Haida Gwaii concluded along the back-alleys of Skidegate (Yes I’m aware I use “back-alley” and “back-street” a lot but that is exactly what we were doing!).

There was a nice mix of birds around Skidegate, but nothing that we hadn’t seen many more of elsewhere on the previous days, with the exception of this HAIRY WOODPECKER (we had heard a few but this was the first one to actually land in plain sight).

[Hairy Woodpecker—presumed to be the endemic picoideus subspecies although it does not show any barring on the outer recs---comments?]


With more heavy rain coming our way, we spent the rest of daylight buying awesome but overpriced Haida trinkets from locals, attempting to sneak into the Haida cultural museum (pictured below), and trying to round up a few ducks that had escaped from their pen (behind the hostel)… never did find the chickens…

5 episodes of Fawlty Towers later, it was time for bed. Another Haida Gwaii trip in the bag, plus one more ferry trip tomorrow! Oh and I must not forget--EVERYONE SHOULD STAY AT THE PREMIER CREEK LODGE; thanks to us there is now an official "birder's discount!"

Oct 18th—Hecate Strait ferry, then driving straight to Lac La Hache area

Because I’m getting lazier and lazier as this report goes along, I’m just going to post the full list of birds from our return ferry to Prince Rupert (9am-1pm: active watching). This will give you an idea of how great the ferry is for birding (beats Georgia Strait any day!).

American Wigeon 6
Greater Scaup 25
Surf Scoter 30
White-winged Scoter 250
Black Scoter 2
Long-tailed Duck *700
Red-breasted Merganser 12
Pacific Loon 800
Common Loon 40
Yellow-billed Loon 19
Horned Grebe 10
Red-necked Grebe 50
Western Grebe 200
Northern Fulmar 10
Buller's Shearwater 1
Sooty Shearwater 250
Short-tailed Shearwater 3
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 7
Leach's Storm-Petrel 1
Pelagic Cormorant 5
Black-legged Kittiwake 50
California Gull 2
Herring Gull 20
Thayer's Gull 15
Glaucous-winged Gull 60
Pomarine Jaeger 1
Common Murre 250
Pigeon Guillemot 7
Marbled Murrelet 4
murrelet sp. 8
Cassin's Auklet 20
Rhinoceros Auklet 80
Tufted Puffin 1

[Arriving back in "protected waters"--the rainiest place in Canada]

Once we touched solid ground in Rupert, we “hit the ground driving” and headed all the way over to Smithers for dinner… I think it was like 7pm at this point? Can’t remember anymore… anyway, Ryan drove all the way through Prince George, then I took over somewhere near Hixon and got us down past Williams Lake, somewhere in the Lac Lake Hache area (2am-ish). We grabbed some Z’s on the side of the road, then cruised into 100 Mile House for a 7am breakfast. After that we burned it down to the Okanagan where the trip officially ended!

Twas another epic test of body and mind, and once again Haida Gwaii showed us why it’s always worth the trip. Running out of ways to spit various clich├ęs about how travelling makes you a better person and how birds are awesome…
So until next time, keep on birding in the Free World!

[Ilya with his new-found friends]


[Just another big box store...]

[No unicycling on bridge]

[Russell contemplated the life-story of this poor shopping cart]

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Welcome to Burnaby,the "Lake City"? (Nov 3)

The city of Burnaby is not widely considered a hotspot for birding. As a kid growing up in Kitsilano then later the Okanagan, I knew it only as “not quite in Vancouver yet” or “the place Joe Sakic is from.” I was always baffled by signs that labeled it “The Lake City” as I could see no hint of natural splendor as I sped past on Hwy 1.

Well now I know better! I am now officially a Burnibite… Burnabian? Burnabeast? And although, yes, it is still pretty much a series of suburbs and condos… there are actually lakes here! In the past week or so I have been able to start exploring a little bit—finding the area quite birdy indeed! On my first trip to Burnaby Lake, I was surprised to find how confiding the resident Green-winged Teal and Wood Ducks were. Even at Reifel Refuge where most other ducks are quite tame, the teal and wood ducks still avoid humans when possible—but here they take seed practically out of children’s hands!

On my second trip to Burnaby Lake I was rewarded almost instantly by a local rarity—RUSTY BLACKBIRD! Not a bad start… I’m liking this town!

So to really kick-off my Burnaby birding career in style, I decided to try a “Burnaby Big Day”—an attempt to see as many species in 1 day without leaving the municipality of Burnaby. Perhaps November is not the best time to try this but what better way to get introduced to all the ornithological nooks and crannies? To aid in this quest, I enlisted the help of local young phenom, Jess Findlay, who proved invaluable in showing me the local back-roads and hotspots, as well as helpfully pointing out that the Ruby-crowned Kinglet I had just called in was “actually a Hutton’s Vireo… duh.”

BURNABY BIG DAY REPORT
The day started off around 8am at my house of course. NORTHWESTERN CROW, NORTHERN FLICKER, SONG SPARROW, and HOUSE FINCH were ticked off the list in short-order… a great start! Things picked up at the Findlay residence, thanks to a feeder and the fact that they have more than one tree in their yard. RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, PURPLE FINCH, CHESNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, and VARIED THRUSH (among others) all became victims of our keen eyes and ears. I don’t mean to brag, but we were up to 13 species and we hadn’t even stopped at Tim Horton’s yet!

Surprisingly, Timmy’s yielded our only EUROPEAN STARLINGS of the day, as well as our first BALD EAGLE. In hindsight we probably should have stuck around for House Sparrow as we eventually missed that one… ooooooo… but who really wants to “try” for that one?

Just as we had carefully planned minutes beforehand, the list really picked up when we reached Piper Spit, Burnaby Lake. Out on the water, we scoped close to 40 HOODED MERGANSERS, along with scads of AMERICAN COOT, MALLARD, WOOD DUCK, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, NORTHERN SHOVELER, RING-NECKED DUCK, LESSER SCAUP, BUFFLEHEAD (phewf, we were worried about that one), 7 PIED-BILLED GREBES, a few DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS (listed as "casual in fall" on the checklist---someone should update that!), and at least 5 HORNED GREBES (this species was until recently a rare commodity in the city but has benefited from the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the dredging of Burnaby Lake for the rowing club).

The trails around Piper Spit gave us a few more woodland species including HUTTON’S VIREO, BEWICK’S WREN, and HAIRY WOODPECKER.
Next we made a quick stop at the Rowing Club at the east end of the lake. Here we nabbed another couple HORNED GREBES along with the much anticipated LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER flock along with a lone GREATER YELLOWLEGS. We didn’t immediately see the large goose flock that has been hanging around near “Joe Sakic Way” but were relieved to find a single CACKLING GOOSE mixed in with a small Canada flock on the side of some road somewhere nearby.

Jess had a dentist appointment so I dropped him back at his house and proceeded to the nearby Squint Lake/Eagle Creek Golf Club. I put in a solid effort here since this is only a few blocks from my house—a birder must know his/her patch! The first GADWALL of the day (as pre-scouted by Jess) was on Squint Lake, along with a lone CACKLING GOOSE… already seen it—damn! In the woods along Eagle Creek I bumped into a female ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD and managed to call in a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER with my barred owl hoots.

Next I headed up Burnaby Mountain—a location that is probably hopping in spring and fall migration but was decidedly quiet today. A single HERMIT THRUSH was a nice addition, although unfortunately I could not hear or see any of the hoped for grosbeaks or crossbills. Jess called with news that he was “frozen-up but ready to bird” so I headed downhill and picked him up.
[Below: Hermit Thrush wondering why I'm hooting like a Sooty Grouse]

Now it was time to visit Burnaby’s only stretch of saltwater (sliver of of Burrard Inlet)—at Barnet Marine Park. MEW GULL was added instantly, then after some careful scanning we picked up PELAGIC CORMORANT, COMMON LOON, and RED-NECKED GREBE. We parked illegally further east at some industrial marina complex, where our first CALIFORNIA GULL could not escape my scraping pencil… in my notebook that is. We could see a large work-up of gulls in the distance but were devastated to realize that they were actually in Port Moody…. NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

No worries, on to the gull hotspot of Burnaby—the Deer Lake playground! Here we picked up a few more CALIFORNIA GULLS, along with numerous RING-BILLED GULLS and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. A single THAYER’S GULL was a pleasant find, although the pre-scouted 3rd cycle Herring Gull did not perform today… bahhhh. Our first COMMON MERGANSERS were tallied out on Deer Lake itself, along with a good variety of other previously-check-off species. Just as we were about to leave, a flock of geese flew by and I noticed one was white… I love that feeling… “SNOW GOOSE!” And as luck would have it, the bird just to the left of the snow was a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE. Splendid.
[Below: Strange immature Glaucous-winged Gull with pale yellow bill]


On to the meadows of Deer Lake-west. It started raining at this point but we trudged on; Jess got soaked checking for owls in conifers and flushing up RING-NECKED PHEASANTS, while I stayed close to the path and tested out the first umbrella I’ve ever owned… we make a good team. We tried for Virginia Rail at a few cattail marshes nearby but no dice.

We decided to try again at the Rowing Club at Burnaby Lake and this paid off with our only KILLDEER of the day… boooya! At dusk we finished off at Piper Spit… nothing new. Time for a quick dinner break—then onto “Birder’s Night” put on by Nature Vancouver.

After this social evening, we realized we were missing something big… not House Sparrow, or American Goldfinch, or the handful of other “easy” species we should have already seen… we didn’t have a single owl on our list. And ANYONE who has ever done a big day knows that “it’s not a big day unless you see at least one owl.” So off we went, into the foggy night of Deer Lake. We tried whistling and hooting for a variety of species, but it seemed that we might have to give up… at least at this location. Just as we started walking back though--- “WHO COOKS FOR YOU! WHO COOKS FOR YOU—AWWW!!” A female BARRED OWL! Ya Baby! Then the male answered, and we were able to make out his silhouette against the moonlit fog… I really need to invest in a flashlight, but still this was an awesome experience as always. Coming from the hot dry Okanagan, I don’t see or hear too many of these dark-eyed beauties.

So that was the day… 8am-midnight. 74 species in early November in the city of Burnaby! I suppose I could get used to this!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June BCFO Conference and Extension Trip (Peace River Region and Fort Nelson Lowlands)

The annual general meeting of the BC Field Ornithologists was held in Fort St John this year (June 10-12). Below are a couple photo-highlights (of typical RussC quality) followed by my full report on the extension trip to Fort Nelson...

[Canada Warbler---Johnson Rd (Taylor, BC]

[One of the fieldtrip groups, birding along the Kiskatinaw River Valley north of Dawson Creek. I think they're looking at an Olive-sided Flycatcher in this one?]

[Good "Quiz Bird" material. This Philadelphia Vireo was one of 3 or 4 that delighted our group along the 201 Rd near Swan Lake--I missed this species entirely on my "big year" in 2010... bloody hell!]

[Male Mourning Warbler in typical skulk-mode--also near Swan Lake]


BCFO EXTENSION TRIP TO FORT NELSON
I had the honour of leading a fieldtrip up to Fort Nelson and back with 12 other birders. Here's the story---

Day 1: Evening birding around Taylor and Watson Slough
The conference wrapped up with a final lunch-mixer this afternoon, signalling the beginning of the “BCFO Extension Trip Version: 2011.” Procuring vans and accommodation in Fort St. John ended up being a bit of a headache but by 3:30pm, the designated drivers (Apparently I can’t rent a minivan because I’m under 25…)and I had rounded up 2 Dodge Grand Caravans—a bit of a tight squeeze for 13 people but we made it work!

The tour officially got started at 7pm as we left the Quality Inn and headed for the small town of Taylor (site of the CBC reality show: “Village on a Diet”) which overlooks the narrow Peace River Valley. Both weekend fieldtrips had spent some time birding this road already so we spent most of our time watching the hummer feeders at one house where Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been known to occur. The landowners Dave and Mary are very welcoming to birders and had set up a fire-pit and put out chairs upon our arrival—luxury birding!


We sat and chatted, marvelling at the impressive garden and of course looking at the birds: PURPLE FINCHES (**********) dashed to and from the seed feeders, while HOUSE WREN, SWAINSON’S THRUSH, ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK, and CLAY-COLOURED SPARROWS sang from the surrounding bushes. Dave showed us an EASTERN PHOEBE nest inside a nearby barn, and several COMMON NIGHTHAWKS called overhead as dusk set it. At the hummer feeder, there wasn’t too much action with only 1 or 2 CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRDS in attendance. Then all of a sudden a larger bird buzzed—female RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD! Unfortunately it only stayed for an instant then disappeared behind the house before everyone could get satisfactory looks.
[Pair of Purple Finches visit a feeder near Taylor]


After waiting a while longer we thanked Dave and Mary for their hospitality, then headed back up the highway to Fort St. John—marsh bird time! Since 2009, Watson Slough (located along Hwy 29 along Bear Flats) has become known as a reliable site for Yellow Rail. It also happens to be a reliable site for millions of mosquitoes but birds like this require a blood sacrifice! Upon arrival we bumped into George Clulow and Kevin Bell who had just heard two up at the NE end of the marsh. We were in the central unit where the sedge is most extensive (Yellow Rails are short and dumpy compared to their relatives and therefore prefer damp sedge to water-filled cattail marshes), and we didn’t have to wait long! Within minutes of walking down into the grass we could hear 3 YELLOW RAILS ticking at once! So that means there are probably at least 5 in the area—and this is supposed to be a mythical bird in BC?!
[The gang patiently awaits the appearance of a Yellow Rail--Watson Slough]


Soon after the rails tuned up, I picked out a singing NELSON’S (Sharp-tailed) SPARROW singing nearby. Unfortunately it was too dark to find him but everyone present was pleased to hear this strange “hushy” song. By 11am it was simply too buggy to stay-put any longer so we called it a day, adding a nesting AMERICAN KESTREL, and a singing SWAMP SPARROW to our “Extension Trip List” as we left the marsh. This wetland (Watson Slough) by the way—would all be under 6 meters of water if “Site C” goes ahead.

Day 2: Fort St John to Fort Nelson via Pink Mountain

After breakfast we checked out of our hotel in Fort St John and headed to a nearby community known as Baldonnel. Like many other small “towns” in the Peace, Baldonnel consists of a community hall and maybe 4 or 5 houses—essentially a suburb of Fort St John just past the airport. More importantly, we had just received a hot tip that a Connecticut Warbler could be found along one of the side-roads in the area. As luck would have it, the male was singing loudly as we pulled up and after a bit of coaxing, everyone managed some fantastic looks at both male and female CONNECTICUT WARBLERS as they darted between black spruces. This was a life-bird for many present and a big treat for everyone as this species is notoriously difficult to see whether it be on the breeding/wintering grounds or on migration. Also it was interesting to find this pair in a black spruce bog as the preferred COWA habitat is usually old-growth aspen stands with little to no understory. Here’s the video link-

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcDyRcsmSkk

[Rare glimpse of a Connecticut Warbler as it darts through a thick spruce stand]


From Baldonnel we headed north up the Alaska Highway for a few hours until we reached the settlement of Pink Mountain. After loading up on homemade sandwiches and cookies at the hotel, the gang embarked on what would be the greatest challenge of the trip—trying to take 2 fully loaded minivans up to the top of Pink Mountain. As you can see we had a few large puddles to deal with but I was most worried about bottoming out in some of the rough patches of the road, or getting stuck in some of the snow-drifts still clinging to the west side of the mountain.

Slowly but surely we nosed our way up through the forest, picking up our only DUSKY FLYCATCHER of the trip, before reaching the alpine. Up top we had looks at a lovely TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE from the van windows; then it was time to hike! After polishing off the remaining morsels of lunch, the group formed a wide line to sweep for ptarmigan. Pink Mountain, a unique outlier of the Northern Rockies, is home to a small population of Rock Ptarmigan—the main reason for our visit. AMERICAN PIPITS and HORNED LARKS popped up for brief flurries of song along the high ridge-lines while down in the subalpine willow and fir scrub, GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS chased each other around while a male NORTHERN HARRIER patrolled the meadows for rodents. Kevin Neill spotted a moose swimming across a lake way down in the valley, while up on the mountain itself HOARY MARMOTS inspected us with mild curiosity.


Not too long after we formed the ptarmigan-line someone yelled out, “There’s one!” I got it in the bins and immediately realised it wasn’t a Rock but in fact a male WILLOW PTARMIGAN! An unexpected but very welcome bonus! All 3 ptarmigan species have been recorded on this mountain but Rocks are by far the most regular residents. After a few minutes of “oos” and “aahhs” from the group, the ptarmigan obviously decided enough was enough and launched into a frenzied display flight than disappeared behind another hillside.

After 4 hours up on the mountain we returned to the highway where we chanced upon the previously unknown “Pink Mountain Sewage Ponds” (as we have dubbed them) behind the gas station. The two postage stamp-sized ponds produced our only GREATER YELLOWLEGS of the trip as well as several new broods of MALLARDS. From here it was a two-and-a-half hour drive north to Fort Nelson, passing through seas of black spruce along the way. We tucked into dinner at a local sports-bar just in time to see the Canucks get obliterated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. At least we had the birds to celebrate!
[Mud-stained Sandhill Crane beside the highway somewhere south of Fort Nelson]


Day 3: Fort Nelson area
5am saw as at the Fort Nelson Demo Forest for some pre-breakfast birding. The forest was disappointingly quiet but gradually we starting building a decent list including OVENBIRD, MAGNOLIA WARBLER, CANADA WARBLER, BLUE JAY (scarce and very local this far north), ALDER FLYCATCHER, and WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL. Unfortunately, the hoped for (Eastern) Winter Wren and Cape May Warbler—both had been here last year—did not show for us.

After breakfast we headed west out of town, stopping briefly to admire a flock of 42 SANDHILL CRANES feeding in some ploughed fields. We turned up the Liard Highway (Hwy 77 to the NWT) and stopped in at the Beaver Lake Rec Site—another good site for Cape May Warbler and Winter Wren. No luck with the warbler but we could immediately hear the fluty song of a distant WINTER WREN. Unfortunately it had to be counted as “heard only, along with a distant calling BOREAL CHICKADEE. On the lake itself (more of a large pond) we noted 2 male RING-NECKED DUCKS and a lone BARROW’S GOLDENEYE. Several groups of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS chattered overhead, and a single COMMON NIGHTHAWK called in the distance. Satisfied that we had covered the site well, we moved on up the highway, crossing the mighty Fort Nelson River then turning onto a west-leading forestry road. The side-road I had intended to concentrate on was gated so—time for a walk! The forest was surprisingly quiet here to but soon we were able to get good looks at MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, 1 CANADA WARBLER, a singing OVENBIRD, several AMERICAN REDSTARTS, roving bands of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, a pair of YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS, and a couple RED-EYED VIREOS (just to name a few). The main target along this road was Bay-breasted Warbler but there was no sign of any (just like last year!). But, as often happens in these targeting situations, one was singing by the cars when we got back! I got out the tape and tried to coax it in but at first nothing happened. As the bird continued to sing in behind a stand of spruces I began to wonder if this was just a redstart mimicking a bay-breast, so I switched to a redstart recording. Within seconds of playing the tape a bird came buzzing in and Kevin shouted, “BAY-BREASTED WARBLER!!!” Odd that it responded only to a redstart but we weren’t complaining! I had told everyone that he would probably keep to the mid-level branches but then all of a sudden he dropped right down onto the ground in front of us and started running up and down a log right at my feet! I scrambled to take some photographs but only managed to get a video of him singing in a spruce after he crossed the road. Here’s the video link (enjoy!)----

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhuIvEhYaoQ

Satisfied with our find we returned to the Fort Nelson area where we stopped in at Parker Lake. Several YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHERS gave us brief glimpses as they chased eachother through the spruce/tamarack woods lining the lake, while MARSH WRENS (near the north end of their range) and COMMON YELLOWTHROATS chattered from the cattails. Out on the lake itself we scoped a lone SURF SCOTER, among other more common species including a pair of TRUMPETER SWANS.
[The gang at Parker Lake]

In the hot afternoon we paid a visit to the Fort Nelson Sewage Lagoons. Very little on the ponds but we did tally our one and only NORTHERN PINTAIL of the trip. After dinner we visited the FN Demo Forest once again and somehow managed to get lost on one of the many side-trails that cut through the park. Lots of bugs and 13 pairs of wet shoes later, we made it back to the parking lot, stopping to gawk at a male CANADA WARBLER singing near the trail.

Day 4: Fort Nelson back to Fort St John
Since we were still missing Palm Warbler, and some still had not locked onto a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher yet, we returned to Parker Lake this morning. It had rained for most of the previous night so we decided to walk in along the muddy road to avoid the possibility of getting a van stuck on the final day of the tour. A singing BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER teased us with its rusty-wheel whistles but did not allow for a clear view, then right on cue, a male PALM WARBLER popped up! The light wasn’t great for photography (as you can see) but through the scope everyone had great views of this muskeg-loving warbler. Our luck continued once we got to the lake when a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER came into view and sat patiently for everyone to get a good look. To cap it off, we had nice looks at two different pairs of SWAMP SPARROWS moving through some low alders.
[Palm Warbler]

[Yellow-bellied Flycatcher]

To break up the trip south we stopped in at Andy Bailey Regional Park (recently downgraded from Provincial Park status for whatever reason…). The forest and wetlands habitat here is fabulous but for the most part, birdsong was pretty meagre. Most conspicuous were the OVENBIRDS, but a male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK is always a crowd-pleaser! This is also where we had our only BELTED KINGFISHER of the Extension Trip.

We got back to FSJ in the early afternoon and returned the vans and said our goodbyes. All in all it was a great birding tour for bird but particularly for weather. The Peace and Fort Nelson regions are notorious for prolonged thundershowers and high winds in June and it seems that we escaped this for the most part! As you can see from the Extension Trip list (below), the variety of habitats visited allowed for an attractive and well-rounded list! Add this to a very successful weekend at the conference in Fort St John and I think we all had a fantastic time.

EXTENSION TRIP LIST (116 species):
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Ruddy Duck
Ruffed Grouse
Willow Ptarmigan
Common Loon
Osprey
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Merlin
Yellow Rail
Sora
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Snipe
Bonaparte’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Western Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Gray Jay
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Winter Wren
Marsh Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Townsend’s Solitaire
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Connecticut Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-coloured Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed (Slate-coloured) Junco
Western Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Purple Finch
White-winged Crossbill
Pine Siskin
House Sparrow