Friday, September 19, 2014

Sep 13/14 Tofino Pelagic Adventures

Dawn rises over Tofino Inlet. Saturday, Sep 13. (Photo: RC)

As usual it has taken me a while to get around to making this post. Life has kept me busy! The following is a brief account of two pelagic trips I organized off Tofino, BC on September 13th and 14th, 2014. In recent years, WildResearch has done a fabulous job running annual boat trips out of Ucluelet (the community south of Tofino) which has made the fabulous seabirds of the west coast much more accessible to British Columbian birders and outsiders alike. Unlike the coastal states south of here, to get to the outer coast, Canadians much take a ferry to Nanaimo, then drive over two mountain passes before reaching the small port towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. This makes any pelagic an expensive undertaking, which can be made extremely frustrating when you travel all that way only to have your boat trip cancelled due to foul weather. The big MV Francis Barkley that WR eliminates some of this risk as it is much more capable of handling swell that the little whale-watching boats that most people had to use previous to 2011. This year WR only ran a spring trip so several people called me up earlier this year asking if I could put together a small venture in the fall. A rough date was settled and in the end we decided to try for two days in a row to get as much out of the weekend as possible. Gilbert Bouchard was one of the main catalysts for the trip as he came all the way here from Quebec!

As always, when running small pelagic trips I go with the Tofino Whale Center. They're rates are reasonable but most of all they're skippers know what they're doing and have many years of experience watching and working with local marine wildlife. Prices can fluctuate but chartering one of their Boston Whalers is usually around $1200 for 6 hours, so with 12 people you can bring it down close to a reasonable $100 each.

We were a little nervous showing up bright and early on Saturday. The rumour was that there were no fish out there, and thus--no birds. Locals were remarking on the lack of whales... the lack of everything close to shore. From chatting with Paul Lehman and others it seems the NE Pacific has been inundated with unusually warm waters which has resulted in some conspicuous shifts of bird life (an indicator of other things as well). Species like Ashy Storm-Petrel and Guadalupe Murrelets--normally associated with Mexican waters--have been showing up off the coast of Oregon and Washington recently, while huge Sunfish and Yellow-fin Tuna have been seen off Alaska in areas they have never been recorded. So what would this mean for us? Hardly any birds? Maybe a rarity from the south? At the very least we realized we would probably have to head out to the continental shelf or further to find anything.

Sure enough there was very little inshore. In fact I don't think we saw a single Sooty Shearwater within the first 10 km offshore. Even Glaucous-winged Gull numbers were dramatically and noticeably low on the rocky islets near Cleland Island. Still, we did note a few nice birds as we made our way out, including a group of 65 BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS on one small islet and a WANDERING TATTLER not far from Tofino. A few WESTERN GULLS were also around. Below are a few photo-highlights from the two boat trips, with COMPLETE LIST TOTALS AT THE BOTTOM.
With a sigh of relief, we spotted our first Black-footed Albatross as we neared the continental shelf. A single fishing boat has attracted around 18 of these gentle giants from Hawaii and as always I savoured the call, "Albatrosssss!" (Photo credit: Dave Fraser)
Mid-September is a great time to see Buller's Shearwaters off BC. These NZ endemics are possible the most beautiful shearwater when seen in flight, but it's also pretty cool to observe them resting casually on the water. As the wind and swell was fairly light on both days, many of the shearwaters we encountered were "chilling" in mixed flocks, allowing for careful approach. (Photo: Dave Fraser)
Of the regular tubenose species encountered in BC waters, the Flesh-footed Shearwater is often one of the most coveted. I think in around 10 Tofino pelagic trips that I have participated in, this is only the second time I have had one. This bird was picked out among 10 other Pink-footed Shearwaters resting on the water. (Photo: Yousif Attia)
These guys might just be my favourite species encountered regularly in BC pelagic waters. Small and pudgy balls of feathers with a stomach packed with fish, these Cassin's Auklets are absolutely comical to watch as they attempt to "fly" away from the boat, skipping off each tiny wave; their bellies dragging as their tiny wings try desperately to lift their body weight. I assume many are molting which may explain their poor flying abilities at this time of year. We encountered many of them on both days out beyond the shelf in Clayoquot Canyon. (Photo: Dave Fraser)
For many on board, mammals stole the show on both days. I'm used to seeing plenty of Humpback spouts on boat-trips off the west coast but we really were spoiled by close encounters with these amazing beauties, including a group of around 8 that surrounded our boat and casually fed around us as other seabirds like the Pink-footed Shearwater pictured to the right, went after schools of fish pushed to the surface. This year has been a struggle for the whale-watching industry in Tofino apparently so we felt a bit spoiled with our show 60 km offshore. I guess it pays to be a crazy birdwatcher!
The highlight for our skipper John Fordde was undoubtedly this FIN WHALE, which we encountered on the Sunday. This was a lifer mammal for him, and one that obviously is not regular off this part of the island (at least not this close to shore). At one point the whale lay completely upside-down under our boat, explosing its long white belly for nearly a minute of eerie silence as we sat wondering what its next move would be! I've seen Fins off the east coast but that was 15 years ago so this was fantastic--and it's the second largest animal in the world! (Photo: Dave Fraser)
This photo captures just how calm the seas were on the weekend. Here, part of the group photograph a Tufted Puffin as it paddles casually away. (Photo: Russell Cannings)
A huge highlight for me, was seeing this massive ELEPHANT SEAL! I've wanted to see one in BC for a long time and seeing this big boy was a real treat. This appears to be a young male but from what I could see I would estimate he was well over 1500 lbs! (Photo: Dave Fraser)
Elephant Seal from the forehead angle. Just bouncing up and down like a cork. If a cork was made of blubber and thick skin.
DAY TOTALS: Only counting species seen more than ~2km offshore out to a maximum of 67km offshore.

Saturday, September 13th

Surf Scoter--8

Loon sp.--4

Black-footed Albatross--26

Northern Fulmar--31

Pink-footed Shearwater--230

Buller's Shearwater--20

Sooty- Shearwater--84


South Polar Skua--3

Pomarine Jaeger--2

Parasitic Jaeger--3

Long-tailed Jaeger--1

Jaeger sp.--5

Common Murre--51

*Probable Scripps's/Guadalupe Murrelet--1+ (Only seen by 2 people. Read comments here)

Cassin's Auklet--80

Rhinoceros Auklet--33

Tufted Puffin--7

Black-legged Kittiwake--2

Sabine's Gull--2

California Gull--217

Herring Gull--5

Glaucous-winged Gull--1

Gull sp.--20

Sunday, September 14th

Common Loon--2

Loon sp.--4

Black-footed Albatross--33

Northern Fulmar--54

Pink-footed Shearwater--160

Flesh-footed Shearwater--1

Buller's Shearwater--33

Sooty Shearwater--78 (Very low count--last year on the same date I had 6000+)

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel--2

Phalarope sp.--3

South Polar Skua--3

Parasitic Jaeger--3

Common Murre--60

Pigeon Guillemot--2

Marbled Murrelet--2

Cassin's Auklet--51

Rhinoceros Aucklet--42

Tufted Puffin--11

Sabine's Gull--3

California Gull--190

Herring Gull--9

Glaucous-winged Gull--22

Mammal List (Combined):

Fin Whale
Humpback Whale
Harbour Porpoise
Northern Elephant Seal
Harbour Seal
Steller's Sea Lion
California Sea Lion
Northern Fur Seal
Sea Otter

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Western Teenagers" Big Weekend Report!

First off--If anyone is still periodically checking this blog to see if something new has been posted--my sincere apologies! I haven't updated since October after being fairly active previously. Things have been busy but I know I really should get on top of this. You can expect a final Borneo post and a "Winter 13/14" summary, as well as an upcoming Arizona summary.

Now... who are the "Western Teenagers" and where did they come from???

First some background:

Traditionally I form a team of 3-5 for the Okanagan Big Day Challenge--where we usually bike and walk around the South Okanagan in an attempt to see as many species as possible in one day and raise funds for bird conservation via the Baillie Birdathon. 

One of the fondest memories I have of birding was back when I was 11, and my Dad and others colluded to bring together a few young people to form a "big day" team. In those days most big days were driven and of course young teens can't drive so generous birders like Don Wilson and Dave Fraser would drive myself and a few other young birders (usually Ryan Tomlinson of Kelowna and Gabe David of Victoria) around the South Okanagan. This was the first time I had birded with similarly keen or even keener birders my age, and it greatly aided to stimulate my growth as a birder and naturalist, even though this was a once-a-year event. Our drivers also served as birding-gurus in those early years as I can still remember Don teaching us what a Townsend's Solitaire call-note sounded like, or how to separate Hammond's from Dusky Flycatcher by primary-projection. Really, it was just a lot of fun.

I'm 27 now and continue to try and network and get out birding with others my age or younger but I notice that it's still fairly rare for teen birders to have similarly aged and keen companions, even in Vancouver where there are several of them--the connections just haven't been made in many cases. Young Naturalist Clubs are fantastic in offering a variety of outings for young people interested in nature, but for the kids that are REALLY keen and are already becoming as skilled as some of their adult mentors, I think there is room for more enrichment, and more specifically--opportunities to network with other birders/naturalists their age. The adolescent period is a time when many young birders decide to continue birding or become busy with other things. I think making connections with similarly-minded peers can help a lot in keeping that interest in nature strong, which usually leads to broader interests in biology and conservation issues as a whole---which is obviously something that is very important in this day and age--particularly for the next generation.

As a small step in this direction, and also to fulfill my own selfish desires to have a fun weekend with young birders, I started sending out emails to the young people I knew of around BC, to see if they would be interested in heading to the south Okanagan for the May long weekend for several days of birding with other young people. Of course their parents' would have to OKAY it as well. Things started off small with the 4 or 5 keen birders I was already well acquainted with. As I looked into this however, I discovered more and more young teens in various communities who were immensely keen about this idea and in the end I had 11 birders between the ages of 9 and 17 take part in the weekend's events including 3 girls (a rare demographic as many of you know)! Most hail from the Vancouver area but there are also kids from Victoria, the Sunshine Coast, Kamloops, and Kelowna. There were a few others that wanted to come but couldn't get there for various logistical reasons.

So here they are! Day 1 (Saturday), birding the famous Rd 22 area north of Osoyoos. From left to right: Liron from Vancouver, Logan from Kelowna, Khalid from Burnaby, Josh from Vancouver, Isaac from Kamloops, Timmy from Vancouver, Tim's dad Jeff, Jordyn from Penticton, Isaac's dad Darryl, Rebecca from Victoria, Rebecca's dad Warren, Kai from Egmont, Jordyn's mom Colleen, and Rick from Pender Harbour (Sunshine Coast). Hopefully I got/spelled those right? Anyway, it was awesome to see everyone hitting it off and having a great time birding the Okanagan. Lifers were being oggled left right and centre and it was a heck of a lot of fun.
The group is beaming after a close encounter with a male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Inkaneep Provincial Park in Oliver.
Sunday was BIG DAY day! Unfortunately I had to fly to Arizona for a tour in the mid-morning but I was at least able to join the "Western Teenagers" for some night owling where we heard Western Screech, Northern Saw-Whet, Great Horned, and Flammulated Owls. The team started the morning waaay up in the hills above Okanagan Falls then worked their way down to Vaseux Lake. The afternoon was spent around White Lake. This photo was taken at the start of the Dutton Creek Rd in the "Venner Larches" area up in the hills. This is where I had to depart but it sounds like the boys did really well! 133 species and enough to win the coveted Flammulated Owl award for most species on the Okanagan Big Day Challenge. By all accounts it was a fun day for the kids and their noble drivers!
Here George Clulow presents Logan, Khalid, and Liron with the BCFO 2014 Young Birders Awards!
Part of the "Western Teenagers" and their award for top species total!
In addition to being a fun weekend of birding and getting to meet like-minded young people, this birdathon also sought to raise money for bird conservation efforts as well as the local Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory. With several donations still being process, the Western Teenagers have thus far combined to raise over $1,800!

There is still time to donate, so consider pledging to one of the members at this LINK.

A big thank you again to all of the parents for allowing and encouraging their kids to take part in this fun event, and special thanks to those parents that offered to drive!

Looking forward to making this an annual event!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wow it's a Blog Update!

Weellllll, it's been a while since I've updated. To the regular readers I apologize! I'll still try and get some more Borneo pics up at some point as there are still some good stories to convey. A little hard to get motivated this far removed. Oh well. Since then I returned to Canada, led a birding tour to Ontario, worked in Revelstoke and the North Rockies all summer, spent time with my lovely lady Lisa, and came out with a new BOOK!

In September I moved to Nanaimo where I have embarked on a different kind of journey--my quest to become a high-school teacher (at Vancouver Island University--formerly Malaspina College). So far Island--life has been great, with some fun new birding areas to patrol, decent weather, and a fantastic cohort of fellow wannabe-teachers. My practicum is in Port Alberni--a place I have only ever "passed through." I see this as a wonderful chance to explore yet another corner of BC and experience a host of challenges that might face a new teacher in a new town.

There is only one other person from my cohort that is assigned to the high-school in Port Alberni--Gerry Budda, an awesome dude originally from the Island but has lived in East Asia for the last ~10 years. Nice to have someone to share the ups and downs of lesson-planning, classroom management, and all that stuff with! Thanks to the kindness of a fellow classmate (Jen Fink), we have been set-up with a billet-type situation at her parents place on the shores of Sproat Lake--about a 15 minutes drive east of Port Alberni. On our second day, Jen's father Hardy offered to take us out on the lake for a cruise in his boat. Below are a few highlights:

The Hawaii Mars (front), and Phillipine Mars (Blue in rear)--Only 7 of these were built for the transport of goods during the WWII era. They were the largest float-planes every built by the allies. In 1959 the Mars planes were scrapped but a Canadian Forestry company bought these two and converted them to waterbombers. The scoops on these babies can take on 30 tons of water in 22 seconds. Today, only the Hawaii Mars sees active duty but probably not for much longer. The Phillipine Mars is set to be sold to an American Aviation museum and as you can see it has been re-painted in it's original "NAVY Blue." For most of their waterbombing career, they have been stationed here at Sproat Lake--right across from Hardy & Cynthia's place--where we're staying! 
Our trusty skipper out on Sproat Lake--Hardy is the former coach of the Canadian National Gymnastics Team. He still coached internationally and the day before this photo was taken he was "on business" in Antwerp.
Gerry Budda (Mr. Budda is a fantastic teacher name!) taking in the top-notch weather on a lazy afternoon.
Here's where we're staying--the Fink residence. Not bad!
More posts to come--hopefully in less than a couple months this time!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Borneo Blog: Sepilok

And here's a brief telling of my time in Sepilok; a remnant tract of primary forest surrounded by thousands of hectares of palm-oil plantations. Indeed, as you drive east from KK, there is little else but palm-oil. Malaysia produces most of the world's palm-oil, and Sabah produces much of Malaysia's stock (and this is growing everyday, as many residents tell me the government's figures are huge underestimates). While economic development in this part of the world, is encouraging, it is extremely sad to see Borneo's famous jungles devastated and fragmented in this manner. It does seem that local and national bodies have realized the potential negative impact this can have on tourism (which is largely of the ECO variety here in Borneo), as well as the dangers of planting a monoculture. The oil-palm is an African species, and grows well in SE Asia because of the lack of natural pests etc. One day however, if an outbreak of disease occurred, it could potentially lay waste to the entire industry, much like the pine beetle in BC.

SO anyway, Sepilok is a small village on the main highway, but it's one of the easiest ways to access some of the remaining native forest in Sabah, plus it's the most famous place in the world to see Orangutans!

And here's one now. The Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary is home to many "rescued" animals, that had to be rehabilitated for life in the wild. Apparently there are truly wild apes in the area as well, and this could be one (according to one of the interpreters).
As you cans see however, these places can be a bit of a zoo (of people), and I must admit that the experience was not very enjoyable. Luckily I was able to marvel at one of the ginger-haired apes earlier in the morning, before the crowds, as it casually swung from tree to tree, like a lazy Tarzan.
I didn't realize that my camera was all fogged up from the humidity. Anyway, here we see one of the park rangers feeding some of the resident Orangs (or "Mias") some bananas.
Pig-tailed Macaques also like to join in. This guy was taking a break on one of the climbing ropes.
On our first visit to Sepilok, we stayed in some hostel rooms in a jungle resort. Since our room lacked A/C, we pretty much hung by the pool all day. In the mornings I went birding. The roads are lined with plenty of mistletoe-infested trees so I added several flowerpeckers to the lifelist, some sunbirds, and my first spiderhunters! If you're wondering why I took a picture of a hole in the ground, that's because this is a HOODED PITTA nest! (4 nestlings).
Not too far from the orangutan reserve is the "Rainforest Discovery Centre." As a relatively newbie to rainforest canopy walkways, I was definitely in birder-heaven. I sneaked in early in the morning and saw loads of lifers including several Malkoha species (colourful cuckoos), a few new bulbuls, and my first piculet (mini-woodpecker)--a Rufous Piculet. The stand-out highlight for me was just one of those AMAZING birding moments: There I was, admiring a pair of BORNEAN BRISTLEHEADS (why didn't I have my camera)... these birds are rare and crazy-looking in their own right. The fact that I was watching them at eye-level (from a canopy tower) was special enough. But then I heard a loud scream and squawk, that echoed through the forest, and from behind my head flew 3 RHINOCEROS HORNBILLS in all their glory. Double-lifer action and epic birds at that!!! Cherry on top was a RACKET-TAILED DRONGO that thought he'd add to the splendor of the situation by dive-bombing the male hornbill. 3 of the world's coolest birds at one time!
Here's Jess with a large tree.
And here's Jess with a giant isopod. Everything's big in Borneo!
The ever-curious Pig-tailed Macaque
That's right; another brilliant bird photo from RC. This is a cool bird though--my first RED-BEARDED BEE-EATERS!
Thanks to the canopy walkway, I get to look DOWN on this male DIARD'S TROGON
This was a nice one to find, as they can be tough to see in Borneo. This is the RUFOUS-COLLARED KINGFISHER. A forest-specialist that mostly feeds on lizards. 
After missing them in Australia, it was also neat to be in a place where LARGE-TAILED NIGHTJARS are extremely abundant to the point where they keep you up at night... TOK-TOK-TOK-TOK-TOK! It never stops!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Borneo Blog: Mount Kinabalu

Okay, major apologies for taking this long to post. In fact it's been so long that I can't muster the energy to do this trip justice. In an earlier post I introduced my journey to Borneo. Well the following couple slabs will give you a slight taste of what I did there (Feb/Mar 2013). The rest you'll have to hear anecdotally over the next few decades!
After meeting up with my friends in Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Malaysian Borneo's northern state of Sabah), our first priority was to head over to the island's most famous peak--Mt Kinabalu! At just over 4,000m, this is the 20th-highest mountain in the world. To climb it you usually have to book well in advance plus shell out some serious $ (for a poor person like me), so we were happy to spend out time hiking around the bottom. At this time of year there is a lot of rain, so I was lucky to catch the mountain on a clear morning before the clouds rolled in. Birding here can be frustrating due to the low-light conditions in the forest and my lack of song/call knowledge of Asian species. Still, I was able to rack up a lot of nice birds including a variety of Asian flycatchers such as Mugimaki, Pygmy Blue, Little Pied, and the possibly locally rare find--Ferruginous. Also bagged a few endemics here like Whitehead's Trogon, Golden-naped Barbet, Bornean Treepie, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Flowerpecker... etc etc. Saw my first wagtail ever--a rather yellow "Grey Wagtail," plus a variety of other Asian things I had always drooled over in the fieldguide and now finally got to see.
Borneo has a lot more that birds to see. At first you might not notice any living things in this photo... but there are actually two! A moth that looks like a leaf... and.
This guy--some sort of awesome gecko, with lichen-styled skin.
Yet another crazy-awesome leaf-mimicking moth (all these were on the side of our hostel)
Big ol' butterfly that looks kinda moth-ish
The Swede soaks in the Bornean rainforest, while a couple leeches soak up something else in his socks (Tip: Don't stand in tropical creeks for too long)

Friday, May 31, 2013


Team: “Penticton Perambulating Pigeon Patrol

Members: Russell Cannings(me), Tanya Luszcz, Ryan Tomlinson, Logan Lolande, Jeff Joy, Timmy Joy, Juliette Rhodes, Emily Hillier, Michelle Hamilton, Grant Halm.

Well as you can see, this year’s Big Day team was a big one! After several years of “Shuttleworth Shuffling” the core group of Michelle, Grant, and I decided to do try a 100% green walk around Penticton. 100% green in that we started and finished in the same place. Long-time rival Tanya joined us this year, plus a whole lot of ringers (listed above) including two 12-year-old future starts in Logan and Timmy.

The future of BC birding is bright, with young guns like Logan (left) and Timmy.
The day started off at 4:30am, at my parents’ house on the West Bench above Penticton. As usual, American Robins were the first songsters to start up pre-dawn, joined soon after by Western Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow, House Wren, and a surprisingly chipper Bullock’s Oriole. Better yet, was the resident pair of Great Horned Owls (usually uncooperative on count days), who decided to hoot away for about 30min, and one even came in for a close look.

As we descended the hill toward the Locatee conservation area along the river channel, we started to nab our first nice riparian species such as Nashville Warbler, Gray Catbird, and Veery (the first of the year for all present). Ring-necked Pheasants are still abundant in this area, as the males “bok! Bok!” rang out throughout the day.

The sun finally arrived after 5am some time, and more birds were added to our list. Migration seemed a little slow, but it was nice to hear the first MacGillivray’s Warbler of the year, along with several Warbling Vireos, a newly-arrived Eastern Kingbird, and a ‘heard-only’ Yellow-breasted Chat.

Embarrassingly, this is the only photo I have capturing most of the group--taking an early morning break at Starbucks!  The pleasures of an urban route! At least they're pretending to look for birds...
Next we turned north, and followed the river to its source near the S.S. Sicamous on Okanagan Lake. Not very many birds here other than a lone American Coot, the final remainder of the ~600 that winter here each year. Here we bumped into my Dad’s cycling team. They said there wasn’t much on the lake but obviously they didn’t go east enough! While it’s true there weren’t mind-boggling waterfowl numbers in the SE corner of the lake, we picked up several key birds that are tough this late in the spring (and a couple of these my Dad missed despite covering 50x the distance). These included a group of 3 Common Loons at the Lakeside Resort, a lone female Northern Pintail at the mouth of Penticton Creek, and a pair of Greater Scaup (Lesser is much more common in May) near the yacht club.

Although the Esplenade trails at the yacht club were relatively quiet, a lone Yellow-headed Blackbird was a pleasant surprise—one that is tough anywhere in the Penticton area. Next we returned to the Okanagan River Channel via Westminster Ave—passersby stared at us quizzically; at 10 people with binoculars, long-lenses, and scopes, walking purposefully through downtown Penticton on a Sunday morning. As our name suggests, we saw lots of pigeons today. This was actually a huge relief, and a great bonus of birding near a city. You see, the “Shuttleworth Shufflers” won distinction last year in missing Rock Pigeon entirely (earning a “Sour Grapes Award” nod), and we nearly missed it the year prior if not for Michael Force’s last-minute triumphant scoping. This year, we made sure to tick them off as soon as possible!

Once back on the river channel, we walked south aaaall the way to Skaha Lake. Not a lot to add along the way other than single Redhead and Northern Shoveler. Once we got to Skaha Beach, we were treated to a lone Least Sandpiper, then in the NW corner of the lake we found a resting ‘mixed flock’ of Western Grebes and Ruddy Ducks.

Birding along the backroad behind the airport. 
From there we took the backroad past Skaha Meadows Golf Course, behind the airport, then on to Green Mountain Rd, where we returned to the river channel, walked north to the old KVR trail, then took that back to West Bench. Phew! Along that walk the big highlight was hear a singing Clay-coloured Sparrow near the airport (a known location for the species but never reliable). Up on the rock bluffs we noted White-throated Swifts, and some heard a distant Rock Wren. When we reached the main Band settlement, Ryan spotted our only Western Bluebird of the day, then, just after we got onto the KVR trail, we had wonderful looks at several male Black-chinned Hummingbirds. The next find was a Willow Flycatcher that popped up into view—the first sighting for the Okanagan this year!

After a short rest at my parents place on the West Bench, we headed up the hill to the west—bound for Max Lake! It was a bit windy in the small valley near Max Lake but a few new birds were added in the falling light such as Sora, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Dusky Flycatcher.

As we waited for darkness to come, we bumped into several coastal birders, who were up here for the same reason we were—Flams and poorwills!

Well it didn’t take long for the first poorwill to call, then we ended up seeing around 10 on the road as we walked back in the dark. The Flammulated Owls were a lot tougher. Only 2 were heard calling, both of which seemed a great distance away. Oh well, a great end to a great day! 102 species seen on foot, and around 32km walked!

Big thank you to all the people who pledged! Proceeds will be going to the Baillie Bird Fund, the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory, and the En’owkin Centre in Penticton.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Last Foray into the Great Western Woodlands

Apologies to those anticipating the next chapter in the Borneo series. You'll just have to wait a liiiittle longer as I amass the appropriate photos etc. Here instead is a more up-to-date account on my recent working field trip into the arid scrublands, sandplains, and woodlands about 500km East/NE of Perth (North of Southern Cross). Some of you may recall my rained-out adventure back in late November. Well I finally got to go back, and it didn't rain! I was the "bird guy" on a team of environmental consultants, aiming to survey the fauna of the area to the best of our abilities, concentrating on threatened/endangered species, and "SREs" (Short Range Endemics-- eg. scorpions, spiders, millipedes, isopods, etc.), that might be impacted by the proposed iron-ore operations in the area.
Most of this area is decidedly flat, but it's these iron-rich hills that the mining companies are interested in.
Outside of birding, the rest of the vertebrate team monitored these traps. A pipe or bucket  (pit-trap) dug in at the center, with directional fences on each side, and funnel-traps at each end. This is mainly for reptiles like skinks, geckos, and snakes. We also had a few Elliot/Sherman traps and live-cage traps set up for mammals.
Below are a few of the critters we saw out there.
Jordan holding a Common Scaly Foot (Pygopus Lepidopodus). This is a legless lizard that I've  posted a few pics of in previous posts. This one was different though in that it dropped it's tail (despite being handled correctly), and click HERE to see what happened next! Usually when a reptile drops it's tail, the lost appendage flops around for 5-10 seconds, but this was something else! Not only did it carry on for close to 5 minutes, but it actually was able to move through the leaf-litter like a live snake, and when I picked it up, (the tail) wrapped around my fingers and started wiggling frantically.
Diplodactylus pulcher
Southern Shovel-nosed Snake (Brachyurophis semifasciatus). These guys are burrowing snakes so it was a bit surprising that all four of our captures came from rocky areas. Probably seeking out reptile eggs in the leaf-litter etc at the base of eucalyptus trees.
I forgot to get a snap of the only Rosen's Snake of the trip (Suta fasciata), so I  nabbed one off Google (note credit in bottom right--thanks Steve!). The tiger-like striping on ours was much blacker, but you can still see that it is a cool-looking snake. Tip: Do not get bitten by one of these.
This was definitely the herp highlight of the trip for me. Having fancied their photos in fieldguides and on the internet, I finally found this guy by chance as I walked back to the truck from a bird-survey. This is a Pebble Dragon (Tympanocryptis cephalus), which I would NOT have found if it didn't move.
Find the Pebble Dragon! Other than the fact that I've placed it right in the centre, the best way of picking them out is by their tail... which kind of looks like a euc twig.
More "Pebbling"--the next generation of planking/owling.
Monk Snake (Parasuta monachus) beside a funnel-trap
Bynoe's Gecko (Heteronotia binoei)
Ctenotus uber (Subspecies unknown--could be new? Don't ask me)
Burton's Snake-Lizard (Lialis burtonis)
My first Black-headed Monitor (Varanus tristis), and by far the smallest Goanna/monitor I've ever seen.
Cute wittle baby.
For the sake of variety, here is a mammal! No pygmy possum this time I'm afraid. This is an Ash-grey Mouse.
And yes I did see a few birds, although overall it was a very quiet survey. One exception were the Gilbert's Whistlers (pictured), who were quite vocal and provided me with some nice looks at this uncommon mallee specialist.
Australian Owlet-Nightjar hiding in a hollow branch. This guy was actually found roosting in one of our pipe pitfalls, and only reluctantly moved to this more natural setting.
Another big highlight of the trip was searching for "SRE" invertebrates--especially the scorpions and trapdoor spiders.  Because of the dirty work involved and extra weight, I usually didn't have a camera with me so I don't actually have any photos of the numerous scorps and spiders, but here's a shot of one of the awesome trapdoors built by a (probably undescribed) spider. Not the size, and the intricate leaf/stick arrangement around the base.
Closer look. Some of these spiders can live to be over twenty years of age!
Another trapdoor, this one using grass fronds. Unfortunately this was likely abandoned  due to  disturbance from  vehicles and heavy machinery.
On our second last evening, Jordan and I headed up the hill to stake out a small waterhole. Bird activity was slow, but there were some very cool aquatic inverts lurking in the pools as well as a few frogs. We also got destroyed by mozzies and flies! As night fell we put in an hour or so of spot-lighting but only managed a few geckos etc.
At least one was a lifer for me--a 4cm-long Clawless Gecko (Crenadactylus ocellatus)
Looking down upon the massive expanse of dry eucalyptus woodland. Whiles this might seem like a large area of native habitat, it is dwarfed by the surrounding "Wheat Belt" of SW Western Aus, and even this patch is threatened by increasing mining pressures.
The sun sets on the Great Western Woodlands, where my adventures in "W.A." began in the first place.  Big thank you to BirdLife Australia, DEC, and Ecologia, for bringing me out into these little visited areas. There ain't a single tourist in history that's seen this tree! ;)
And finally--we also got another THORNY DEVIL! I didn't grab photos of this one, so lets take a nostalgic (VIDEO) look back at the one Liz Fox and I found back in November.

Coming Up Next on the RUSS BLOG: Final thoughts on Australia, and a continuation of my Bornean adventures. Back in Canada in less than a week!