Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Feb 13: Vancouver Big Day (131 species)

[Black-crowned Night-Heron having a soak----Reifel Refuge]

Last Monday, Jeremiah Kennedy, Jess Findlay and I set out to set a new Canadian 24-hour record for birding in Canada. From 430am to 1030pm, we scoured the birding hotspots around Vancouver in search of new species for the day. The all-time Canadian February record was 109--we beat that fairly easily-- but we really wanted to beat the all-time winter record (127) which was set in around Vancouver several years ago (in January).

Making this attempt in February has a few advantages (like slightly longer days) over Jan and Dec but it also has many drawbacks. Some early migrants are starting to show up (e.g. Canvasback+Barn Swallow), but many lingering birds from fall or rarities turned up during the CBCs are long-gone or a lot harder to find than earlier in the winter (e.g. alcids, shorebirds, warblers, Lincoln's Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird etc).

It is fairly easy to run up a day-list of ~90 species if you're willing to bird dawn to dusk around Vancouver, while hitting all of the top places. To get 120+ however is much tougher. Knowing bird distribution in the area in question is critical. You must construct an itinerary that maximizesthe bird species possibilities while saving the most amount of time. With limited light in the winter, time-management is critical-- and you must keep several important factors in mind such as weather, tide-times, and traffic delays. We did this on a Monday so were slowed up on several occasions waiting to pass over bridges/tunnels etc. A weekend would probably be better but then again... we figured the weather would be better on Monday than on the weekend.

In a rushed, all-out attempt like this, you see some great birds but you also miss some common things! This day was no different. Despite picking up local winter rarities like CINNAMON TEAL, REDHEAD, GYRFALCON, SORA, TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, and SNOW BUNTING, we also managed to somehow miss Pied-billed Grebe, Ring-necked Pheasant, Peregrine Falcon, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Red Crossbill!

There were many great birding moments-- too many to recount today I'm afraid. Some highlights include nabbing both Townsend's Solitaire and Hermit Thrush before 730am, watching Snowy Owls at night on Boundary Bay, hearing/watching 3 Barn Owls interacting with each-other along 96th Street(Boundary Bay), and 2 great spurts of new birds at key locations--#1 Serpentine Fen, where we stopped in on a whim and picked up all 3 hoped-for tough-species (Cinnamon Teal, American Kestrel, Northern Shrike)--#2: Near the end of the day when we weren't sure if we'd have enough to break the record, Iona came through, where we picked up 7 new species in less than 10 minutes, including SORA and BARN SWALLOW.

FUN FACT: Only 6 American states have achieved a higher Feb day-total (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, California, and Texas)

Below is a break-down of the itinerary and the new birds we saw (in chronological order)-->

0515-0540 Richmond: Mallard

0550-0620 Sea Island/Iona Island: American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Virginia Rail, Dunlin, Canada Goose, Northern Saw-Whet Owl

0650-0725 Queen Elizabeth Park (East Vancouver): Glaucous-winged Gull, Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, Song Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Spotted Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Brown Creeper, HERMIT THRUSH, American Robin, Anna’s Hummingbird, Northwestern Crow, Bewick’s Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE, Black-capped Chickadee, Fox Sparrow, Gadwall

0730-0735 East Van bird feeders: European Starling, Pine Siskin, House Finch, (Slate-coloured Junco), EVENING GROSBEAK, Steller’s Jay, Rock Pigeon

0745-0750 Richmond (Hwy 99): Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Flicker

0805 Deas Slough: Great Blue Heron

0810-0815 Delta (Hwy 99): Ring-billed Gull, Brewer’s Blackbird, Trumpeter Swans, Mew Gull, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Red-winged Blackbird

0820-0835: 40th Ave (South Surrey): House Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Northern Harrier, LINCOLN’S SPARROW, Double-crested Cormorant, Red-breasted Merganser, Belted Kingfisher, Common Merganser, Red-throated Loon

0845-0900: Elgin Heritage Park: American Goldfinch, Killdeer, Merlin, Hooded Merganser, Northern Shoveler, Downy Woodpecker, American Coot

0903-0920 Blackie Spit: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, Brant, Common Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Goldeneye, Greater Yellowlegs, Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup, MARBLED GODWIT, LONG-BILLED CURLEW

0922-932 Crescent Beach: Ruddy Duck, COMMON MURRE, Pelagic Cormorant, SANDERLING

0940-1007 White Rock Beach: Barrow’s Goldeneye, WESTERN GULL, EARED GREBE, Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter, Western Grebe, SNOW BUNTING

1015-1020 Sunnyside Woods (South Surrey): No new species

1030-1045 Serpentine Fen: BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, Northern Shrike (not very numerous right now!), Purple Finch, Ring-necked Duck, CINNAMON TEAL (single female), AMERICAN KESTREL

1105-1130 96th Street, Boundary Bay: Herring Gull, Thayer’s Gull, Black-bellied Plover

1135-1145 88th Street, BB: GYRFALCON

1200-1230 72nd St: Snowy Owl, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Western Meadowlark, Rough-legged Hawk, Marsh Wren

1240-1315 Tsawwassen Ferry Jetty: Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Turnstone, MARBLED MURRELET (2 pairs), Black Oystercatcher, WILLET

1315-1320 41B Road, Ladner: Snow Goose

1330-1445 Westham Island: HUTTON’S VIREO (singing at Alaksen), Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Sandhill Crane, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Lesser Scaup, Wood Duck, Common Raven, LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, Canvasback, Mute Swan

1510-1511 Ferry Road (Lander): REDHEAD, Hairy Woodpecker

1540-1550 Garry Point (Richmond): HORNED LARK

1610-1645 Iona Island: CALIFORNIA GULL, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (phew!), SORA, Wilson’s Snipe, BARN SWALLOW, Cooper’s Hawk (But no Pied-billed Grebes! Ouch…)

1710-1730 Dunbar/Pacific Spirit Park: COSTA’S HUMMINGBIRD (*but could not find any additional forest birds…)

1750-1830 Sea Island: Short-eared Owl (phew again!)

1840-1920 Richmond: Nothing new (trying mainly for Barn Owls)

2015-2100 Boundary Bay area: Barn Owl (3 seen along 96th Street)

2100-2230 Owling around Surrey/Langley area: No new species (trying for Long-eared & Western Screech-Owl) but we did pick up another Barn Owl near Fort Langley.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sunshine Coast Big Weekend (Feb 4/5)

Feb 4—This morning I woke up at 4:50am to catch a series of buses from my friend’s house in East Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay, in time to catch the first ferry to Langdale. As the sun rose over Howe Sound, the snow-capped mountains lit up the sky, reflected perfectly by the glass-calm waters around Gambier Island. Once on land, Sechelt birder Alexis Harrington and fellow Vancouverite David Hodkison were waiting for me. I hopped in the car and we were off—bent on breaking the February “Big Day” record for the Sunshine Coast (70 species), set in 1987 by Tony Greenfield. Yep, the “February Sunshine Coast Big Day” record… this is a big deal! What better way to spend a sunny Saturday in the “doldrums” of winter.

Our first stop was the Gibsons Marina, where we picked up a few easy waterbirds like COMMON GOLDENEYE, PACIFIC LOON, and MALLARD. We were pleased to pick out a few CACKLING GEESE in a flock of CANADA GEESE, then we realised there was also a single SNOW GOOSE present. If that wasn’t enough, just as we were about to pull away, a group of 4 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE came in for a landing! Not a bad start!
Next we drove westward along Gower Point Road, stopping at Gospel Rock—a nice look-out over Georgia Strait and Keats Island. Here we picked up all 3 MERGANSER species, our only COMMON MURRES of the day, and a few more ducks like SURF SCOTER, BUFFLEHEAD, and BARROW’S GOLDENEYE. On some far-off islets, we scoped some BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS and BLACK TURNSTONES.

[4 species of geese are in this photo, although the Cackler is somewhat hidden]

Although there was bright sun along much of the southern coast today, the closer we got to Roberts Creek, the thicker a band of marine fog got. At Chaster’s Beach (still in Gibson’s), we could only see about 30m offshore. This would definitely hurt our seabird tally for the day, but still we were able to pick up the first BLACK SCOTERS of the day, along with HORNED GREBE, COMMON LOON, and HARLEQUIN DUCK.
Next stop was the Roberts Creek Jetty (of 21,000 Ancient Murrelets fame), where we had hoped to pick up a few alcids etc., but with thick fog, we had to settle for a single AMERICAN DIPPER in the middle of the creek.

[Taking advantage of Roberts Creek's vibrant biking scene, this dipper has found a nice perch from which to scope out unwary invertebrates]

In the forested area nearby we picked ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD, VARIED THRUSH, PACIFIC WREN, and a few other inland birds.

The Sechelt Airport was fairly quiet, but we did see out only COOPER’S HAWK of the day—a nice adult keeping an eye on a flock of DARK-EYED JUNCOS and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES nearby… probably too small for a meal.

After a quick coffee-break, we hit the Wilson Creek Estuary which is a great spot for waterbirds and sparrows. Although the fog was still thick, we picked up our only GREEN-WINGED TEALS of the day, floating out in the middle of the estuary, along with our first BELTED KINGFISHER of the day. The best bird here though was a single LINCOLN’s SPARROW that came in to my pishing. This is apparently the 2nd February record for the Sunshine Coast. This certainly has been a great “Linky” winter.

[The foggy Wilson Creek Estuary]

Upon arriving at Mission Point in Davis Bay, we were disappointed to see the massive flock of gulls fly off over the city, scared by a pair of BALD EAGLES. This would cost us a few species, as we only ever had Glaucous-winged and Mew Gull on the day. Luckily, our number-one target: ROCK SANDPIPER did not disappoint. 2 of these local specialties were picked out amongst a feeding flock of 85 BLACK TURSTONES and 1 SURFBIRD.
[David and I scoping his lifer Rock... Sandpiper!]

Willow Pt on Porpoise Bay was our next stop. Although this inlet is on the north side of Sechelt, the fog was thick here also, so we had trouble scoping through the wigeon for the staked out Eurasian—we never did see it. We did however pick up both GREATER and LESSER SCAUP, along with a pair of RED-THROATED LOONS, and our first STELLER’S JAYS of the day.

A quick walk through Sechelt Marsh was fairly quiet, but I was excited to finally get my first BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES for the Sunshine Coast (a rare bird here!).

[The rare endemic known as the "Lesser-tailed Sparrow"]

From Sechelt, we headed inland and uphill to the area known as “The Shores.” Here we counted 8 WILSON’S SNIPE (the record-breaker!) in a wet field, along with a few KILLDEER. Other than a few bits n’ bobs, it was fairly quiet up there. On the way back to the coast, we passed the new Sunshine Coast Botanical Gardens. Once again it was quiet, but finally the sun was poking through the fog, and so it was fitting that we finally spotted a HUTTON’S VIREO squeaking away in a Western Hemlock.

The mouth of Wakefield Creek produced our first RED-NECKED GREBE then further NW a stop at Sargeant’s Bay delivered VIRGINIA RAIL. We were now running low on light, so we burned it up to Ruby Lake where we picked of 3 out of our 4 targets, nabbing RING-NECKED DUCK, PIED-BILLED GREBE, and AMERICAN COOT but missing Wood Duck (which are probably all gone for the winter anyway).

Our final stop of the day was Secret Cove, Lexi’s old stompin’ grounds. Just when it appeared we were going to leave empty-handed, Lexi picked up a distant flock of WESTER GREBES to put our daily total at 79 species--not bad considering the poor visibility out on the water. After a long drive back to Sechelt, we were all pretty exhausted so opted to enjoy some dinner and a few drinks instead of owling. Nothing wrong with celebrating the biggest February birding day in SC history!

Feb 5—Today I had the great pleasure of leading a morning outing for the local naturalist club. Everyone met at Roberts Creek, and there was a good turnout. This time, the fog burned off pretty quickly so our views out into the Strait were great. The water was calm and sure enough, there were birds out there! COMMON MURRES were picked out right away, then I spotted a single RHINOCEROS AUKLET come in for a landing. Although many were too far for identification, there were plenty of MURRELETS out on the water—mostly MARBLED by the looks of it. The AMERICAN DIPPER was still playing around in the creek, and a decent flock of 50+ SURFBIRDS and ~40 BLACK TURNSTONES came in to feed although unfortunately there were no Rockpipers mixed in.

From here we followed a similar route to yesterday, heading to Wilson Creek, Mission Point, then Sechelt Marsh. Inland things were very quiet, but we did well on the water, getting good views of LONG-TAILED DUCKS, RED-THROATED LOONS, WESTERN GREBES, and RED-NECKED GREBES. This time the gull flock stuck around at Mission Point, so after some careful scoping we were able to pick out 4 HERRING GULLS and at least 1 THAYER’S GULLS (which are surprisingly scarce on this side of the Strait).

After lunch, two of the Coast’s young phenoms—Kaidon Bosch and Rick Wagner—took me and a few other keeners to see a ROCK WREN that has been frequenting the beach in front of Kai’s aunt and uncles place. This is a very rare bird on the coast, especially in winter, but this is in fact the second one Kai has found in the last year! We spread out, and it didn’t take long until I caught a quick movement in the corner of my eye, and out he popped!

I can’t think of a better way to spend a sunny (albeit sometimes foggy!) weekend. The seabirds are great, the shorebirds are great, and the people are the greatest!