Monday, 28 March 2011

West Coast Sailing 5: The List

There were many great bird sightings on this trip with even the more “ordinary” birds showing amazing beauty
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
… and some remarkable behaviours, like a Belted Kingfisher, which was following a Harbour Seal around the bay at Musgrave Landing on Saltspring Island.  The seal was chasing a small shoal of fish around the shallow water along the shore and the kingfisher was dashing in to grab fish as they leapt out of the water ahead of the seal.  This is the best shot I managed to get of a kingfisher on the trip but it does capture a certain essence of what it’s like to see one of these birds hunting.
Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon
Anyway, that about wraps it up for the West Coast Sailing trip.  Here's a list of species seen, in chronological order with life birds in bold:
  1. American Wigeon
  2. Common Merganser
  3. Glaucous-winged Gull
  4. Bufflehead
  5. Belted Kingfisher
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Common Goldeneye
  8. Pelagic Cormorant
  9. Double-crested Cormorant
  10. Pigeon Guillemot
  11. Canada Goose
  12. Brandt's Cormorant
  13. Hooded Merganser
  14. American Robin
  15. Dark-eyed Junco
  16. Winter Wren
  17. Herring Gull
  18. Trumpeter Swan
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Barrow's Goldeneye
  21. Anna's Hummingbird
  22. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  23. Harlequin Duck
  24. Northwestern Crow
  25. Bald Eagle
  26. Brant
  27. Red-breasted Merganser
  28. Rhinoceros Auklet
  29. Common Murre
  30. Song Sparrow?
  31. Rock Pigeon
  32. Mew Gull

Passing Cloud, Fine Madness, and Duen in Poet's Cove, South Pender Island

Saturday, 26 March 2011

West Coast Sailing 4: Larophilia

Gulls (Larids) are not everyone’s favorite bird – they’re loud, the steal food from people and other birds.  They are also one family of birds that has, on balance, benefited from human impacts on the environment, which probably means they are displacing other species in certain habitats.  And of course they poop.  A lot.  In one case on this trip, on one of my students.

With all that being said I think they are extremely cool birds.  They are intelligent and adaptable.  They are accomplished and graceful fliers.  They also, as I discovered in my bird rehab volunteer days, have an amazing gape to which this great photo barely does justice.
Gull and Sea Star
Source and License: Flickr Creative Commons, Photo by Ingrid Taylar
With that in mind, one of the things I wanted to do on this trip was try to sort out gull identification a little bit - Calgary is not really a gull hotspot!  Although I freely admit that a Thayer's or Iceland Gull could fly right in front of me and I would miss it, I think I've figured out a system that works for the more common species.  For example, dark iris + medium gray back + matching wingtips = Glaucous-winged Gull, here on the dock at South Pender Island.
Glaucous-winged Gull, Larus glaucescens
Of course the whole three-year gull thing, with partial molts and different plumages makes my head spin.  As far as I can make out the bird below, based on the heavy black bill and primaries matching the body colour is also a Glaucous-winged Gull, in this case a first winter bird.
Glaucous-winged Gull, Larus glaucescens
Lastly, while on the subject of gulls, we saw a neat phenomenon on the last night of the trip as we were anchored in Fulford Harbour.  There was a large flock of gulls and some alcids (auklets?) some way out in the channel, apparently feeding on a school of fish.  Over the course of an hour or so, as the fish moved closer to shore (presumably spawning and/or following the sunlight as it set) the alcids departed.  The gulls - predominantly and appropriately Herring Gulls - followed all the way to the shoreline, where there were two Belted Kingfishers that joined in the feeding, as well as several Buffleheads, perhaps cleaning up fish eggs?  In any case it was great to see several species working together in their respective niches and a great learning opportunity for the students on the boat who could really see the ecosystem working as a whole.
Gull spp. (mostly Herring) feeding on fish in shoal

One more West Coast post to wrap things up in another two days...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

West Coast Sailing 3: LBJ Confusion

I know I’m not the only beginning field birder who is challenged by the “little brown jobs”.  I had a few hours birding around Victoria in February and was able to locate a lifer Spotted Towhee.  White breast, red flanks, black back and hood – straightforward enough.  Unfortunately this particular Towhee was feeding in a flock of several dozen sparrows which included such species as "the one with brown stripes", "the one with tan stripes", and "the one with brown and tan streaks".

Clearly an area that I need to improve if I want to get more serious about understanding sparrows and their behaviours, not to mention building my life list.  This issue was brought to a head when we took a hike on Russell Island, just off the south-east of Saltspring Island.  At the old homestead on the tip of island we found several American Robins along with some Dark-eyed Junco's (Oregon) and two of these guys.

This individual was very obliging in hopping out onto a branch in clear view in response to a quick "pishing" noise.  I grabbed my field guide back on the boat and quickly came to the excited conclusion, base on the white throat and yellow supraloral spot that this was an uncommon White-throated Sparrow.  Hmmm.... but the breast was just a little bit too streaky and those malar stripes are pretty dark.  I went home feeling less than comfortable with the ID.  

On the weekend, with my full library on hand, I had a look through the excellent "Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide" by Beadle and Rising.  The photos available in that publication, combined with Sibley's description of the Song Sparrow as being "common and widespread in brushy areas near water", leads me to believe that Song Sparrow is the correct ID.  

Whether or not that ID is correct, I take three things away about LBJ identification from this experience:

1) Learn birdsongs
2) Get out with more experience birders more often
3) Accept that not every bird seen can be identified

Any confirmation, feedback, or tips for dealing with "little brown jobs" are welcome in the comments. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

West Coast Sailing 2: Seabirds Feeding

As we cruised around the Gulf Islands there was lots of chance to practice some seabird identification.  Brant are moving through the area at the moment and six birds sat on the water in a open channel between two islands.  They allowed us to approach quite close before taking off to the north, flashing the white “V” on their rumps. 

While I didn’t manage to get a picture of the Brant, I did have lots of opportunity to watch this Surf Scoter feeding on the edge of the dock where we moored on the third night.  The bird was plucking mussels off the concrete below the waterline and crunching down with that wonderful multicoloured beak.

Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

Another treat was Rhinoceros Auklets.  There were several rafts of these little alcids particularly around Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbour.  I wasn’t able to see any with fully developed horns but their “whiskers” stood out against their black plumage.  Pigeon Guillemots and Common Murres were also distinctive and were actively fishing – bobbing along on the surface then spreading their wings and quickly diving below the surface.
Pigeon Guillemot, Cepphus columba
As could be seen from my previous post, South Pender Island was a great spot for bold birds that seemed accustomed to people up close.  This female Red-breasted Merganser was peeking under the water then popping her head up to check that I wasn’t getting too close for comfort.  The ID of Red-breasted comes from the punk mohawk this bird is sporting.  The female Common Merganser is basically the same, minus mohawk.  If you feel I’m off on this identification, please let me know in the comments – it’s all part of the learning process!
Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator 
More in two days – this time on to the infamous “LBJ’s”

Monday, 21 March 2011

West Coast Sailing Part 1: Harlequin Performance

Harlequin (noun): a colourful stock character in an improvisational comedy.  Also a sea duck breeding in fast flowing waters and wintering on rocky shorelines.  I think this video shows that there is some overlap between these definitions:

The lack of posts over the last couple of weeks is due to report card preparation time, leading up to taking my Grade 9 class sailing in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia last week.  It was a great trip with generally decent weather – a few wet days but that’s to be expected on the coast in March.  We spent our time around the south end of Saltspring Island and near Pender Islands.  We were probably never more than 10-15km from the Victoria airport as the (Northwestern) Crow flies but as far as the kids were concerned we were in the middle of nowhere!

The "Passing Cloud" in Todd Inlet, Brentwood Bay, BC
Obviously this was not a birding trip, and tramping through the woods with 22 rambunctious teenagers does tend to flush all but the most laid back species (that would be you, Chestnut-backed Chickadee!).   Nevertheless it’s kind of hard NOT to see lots of species when you’re on a boat in the Pacific Northwest in March with the birds migrating and the herring spawning.  I ended up recording 31 species in my journal and I thought I would write a few posts spotlighting some of the more interesting sights and a few of my novice identification challenges. Mr. Harlequin seemed as good a place as any to start.  More to follow tomorrow...

Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Third Time Lucky Snowy

Last winter I made two trips northeast of the city, which is supposedly the place to look for Snowy Owls around Calgary.  I saw lots of neat birds but, despite covering a lot of distance on backroads, no luck.  This time I headed straight for Strathmore, with a plan to work my way back from there on the range roads - no need for that!  This beautiful white male was on a hydro pole on the service road south of the Trans-Canada, just east of the town.

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus
Despite being privileged to have handled half a dozen of these birds in rehab settings this guy is my first in the wild - life bird #158, Alberta bird #89.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Remembering A Warmer Day

Winter is a wonderful and beautiful time of year but -30°C seems slightly ridiculous for March 1st!  Walking to school this morning, even the magpies were quiet, sitting like black and white puffballs on the branches.  While I’m still waiting for warmer weather and the early migrants it will bring, I thought I would “flashback” to a great trip to see departing migrants back in early November.
Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens
With my son and his grandparents in tow, I drove down to Lethbridge to meet up with Lloyd and the Lethbridge Naturalists at Stirling Lake for their annual Snow Geese trip.  The expected flocks were not present at the lake, although there was a large number of ducks (mostly Mallards) and some Tundra Swans.  Nevertheless, we could certainly see the geese high above. 

The adaptations of geese for high altitude flying are remarkable: the system of air sacs in all birds that ensures continuous flow of oxygen rich air across the lung surface1, the incredible aerodynamic efficiency granted by a large wing to body size ratio and V-formation flying, and in some species modified haemoglobin that increases oxygen uptake2,3.  Snow Geese have been observed flying at 20,000 feet and the Bar-headed Goose, which some sources place in the same genus as the Snow Goose, has been observed at well over 30,000 feet, migrating over the top of the Himalayas.

View Snow Geese Trip in a larger map

We moved on to Tyrrell Lake, a little further south, where we found several thousand birds in a field, foraging among the stubble.  At this point we were able to pick out a couple of Ross’s Geese among the multitude.  After watching from a distance the geese eventually took flight in several large groups and headed down to the lake, where they formed a giant raft.

Driving down beside the lake we found more migrants at the shallow south end of the lake.  These included several species of gull (Herring, California - not seen by me :( - Bonaparte’s and Ring-Billed), and many more ducks, including this lifer Northern Shoveler – what a beak!

All in all it was a great day and a wonderful reminder of the great community of birders in this province.  It’s a big boost for aspiring novices such as myself to have knowledgeable people helping me to see great bird events.

1 (great illustration of avian lungs about 2/3 of the way through the slides)