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: 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 clichés 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]


  1. Great report Russ. It brings back memories of my 5 years up there, and makes me wish I was a bit more active birding while I was there. Thor

    Thor Manson
    Gallagher Lake, B.C.

  2. Great post Russell and great birds - brings back memories of the year Jocie I spent teaching (and birding) in Sandspit. We went birding with Peter and Margo a couple of times and it was amazing what they could find.

    I'm particularly interested in that shopping cart though - looks like it might be a rare QCI endemic.