Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Vancouver birding

Over the last two days I've been patroling all the possible Sharp-tailed Sandpiper spots and hoping for some other rarities along the way. Nothing mind-blowing to report yet but here is a sumary of some of the things I've been seeing.

On Wednesday (Sept 29) I started off at Cecil Green near UBC where a few sparrows were in evidence including this nice WHITE-THROATED SPARROW--- an uncommon migrant on the coast.

I checked the sewage lagoons at Iona but only found 2 PECTORAL SANDPIPERS and 40ish LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS. The highlights here were more of the waterFOWL variety. First I spotted this cute "minima" CACKLING GOOSE. My first of the Fall.

Then later, a single BLUE-WINGED TEAL was a somewhat late find... but weirdest of all was a PURPLE-WINGED TEAL! What is that you ask? Well while writing up some notes along the side of the road that overlooks the foreshore, I noticed that one of the "Green-winged Teals" hanging out with a swarm of pintails and wigeon had obvious PURPLE speculums. As many will know, mallards sometimes show purple instead of blue but I have never heard of any other duck with purple on the wings!!! (at least in North America). As I snuck around to the back of the car to get my camera out, I accidentally flushed the entire flock. UNfortunately I wasn't able to get a photo but I managed to refind the bird in flight and sure enough-- both wings had small purple speculums--- no green! Otherwise this was a "classic" female-type Green-winged Teal. Very odd!

Next up was Reifel where the 2 highlights were massive LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER numbers and close encounters with both the resident SANDHILL CRANES and a group of wild migrants. All together in the outer ponds, there were over 4500 dowitchers, by far the most I've ever seen anywhere in BC. They were all juveniles except for 1 lone adult, and 1 WESTERN SANDPIPER joined the mix.

Today (Sept 30) I returned and all the dowies were still there plus 1 juv SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER and 1 LESSER YELLOWLEGS. It was interesting to watch a pair of PEREGRINE FALCONS dive-bomb the waders but with little effect. The dowitchers didn't seem too worried even when the peregrines swooped within a foot of their heads.

Other birds of note from today (Sept 30) include 4 WESTERN MEADOWLARKS at Iona, another WHITE-THROATED SPARROW at Terra Nova in Richmond, a RED KNOT at Boundary Bay, and a couple PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS (also at Boundary Bay). It was neat to spend 4 hours out on the BB mud and get close and personal with the waders and ducks.

Hoping for sharpies tomorrow!


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New Update soon

Will be updating soon. No new birds to report but a few nice birds and pics from my recent wonderings in the Vancouver area. Also some sad news about my closest friend--- my car Francesca :(

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rocky Point and other coastal spottings

On Monday I had the great pleasure of joining some of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory staff and volunteers. It is of course a fantastic place to bird, located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island on DND (Navy) Lands. A mixture of scrub, old-growth oak/fir forest, grassland, marsh, intertidal, and open ocean meet for a great variety of spectacles both avian and otherwise. Of course, because I was there, we had "one of the worst days ever" in terms of birds caught (this is a banding station of course)-- at 13. Still, there was lots to look at including hundreds of BAND-TAILED PIGEONS (pictured feeding on arbutus berries), several hundred TURKEY VULTURES kettling around the islets before heading south over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and good numbers of accipiters and the odd Red-tail mixed in. I also got to see my first HUTTON'S VIREO in the hand!

Back on the mainland, today-Tuesday, I suddenly realized that I am once again sick... aw man... thought I could fight it. Turns out 5 hours of sleep each night combined with sleeping in a car and birding in the rain everyday is not good for you. Therefore I decided to head back to the Okanagan to recoop... and of course, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper shows up at Boundary Bay.


Decisions, decisions...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

RUFF............. check

Beautiful bird eh? I was a little worried about this guy as I found out about it when I was in Revelstoke. Luckily this juvenile decided to stick around for a 3rd day in Sooke (southern tip of Vancouver Island). Got great looks from only feet away over a 5 hour period.

All in all a great day of Island birding today, looking forward to visiting the Rocky Point Bird Observatory tomorrow then who knows what next?

Also... because of a counting error (I counted Least Sandpiper twice on the blog list), I'm back at 364. Will have to re-do the list soon.

Keep on birding in the free world!


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Another drive for the ages... yawn.

SEPT 13th

I started off today "pishing in the bushes" at every pull-off in Pacific Rim National Park. Heavy rain had hit the coast over the course of the previous two days and warblers were everywhere. By 2pm I hadn't turned up anything "rare" but was quite pleased with the abundance of warblers... quite the spectacle. To put things in perspective, in one parking lot alone (North end of Long Beach), I bumped into a mixed migrant flock containing:

130+ Yellow Warblers
65+ Orange-crowned Warblers
3 Townsend's Warblers
1 Wilson's Warbler
1 Common Yellowthroat (a bit out of place high in an alder!)
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
2 Pacific-slope Flycatchers
2 Warbling Vireos
1 Hutton's Vireo (is that a good bird in the Tofino area? I wouldn't know)
4 Ruby-crowned Kinglets
10+ Golden-crowned Kinglets
20+ Chestnut-backed Chickadees
1 Caspian Tern (okay, this guy was sitting on the beach... but close enough)
[Townsend's Warbler says 'hello' at eye-level]

Pretty good parking lot list and that's not including the bushes which contained 5 sparrow species, 4 thrush species, and some very young Pacific Wrens.

That's when the bombshell hit: "20 Forster's Terns at Duck Lake"

WHAAAATTT??? They're back? Or did they never leave and I just missed them? Not wanting to waste any time, I hopped in the car, drove to Nanaimo, caught the 7:30pm ferry to Horseshoe Bay, then drove through the night to the Okanagan, slept on the side of the road in Richter Pass from 2am to 6am, then drove to Creston, making it to Duck Lake just after 10am.


Those were the words of local birder Gary Breault who had heard from Linda Van Damme (who tipped me off in the first place) that I would be around, and he had hit Duck Lake in the morning to scout for me... why are people so nice!!! Unfortunately however, there were no terns at the usual spot at the south end of the lake. This is where the advantages of being "local" come in. Gary told me that the terns usually disperse to the north and that I would have a good chance at finding some if I walked the railway bed up the west side of the valley. I thanked him for his help and set out. I hadn't got very far however when I picked up a flock of terns in my scope. Sure enough 15 FORSTER'S TERNS were feeding in a tight group at the north end of the lake. Eventually they came close enough to feel good about the ID and then continued further north and out of site.

YIPPEEEEE!!!! Like the Black-necked Stilt, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Philadelphia Vireo before it, I had considered the tern as a massive bungle on my part... a missed breeder... but here they were! Just as Gary and Linda had predicted! Now I'm only 1 away from tying the record!

Thanks to Linda and Gary and all the other Creston birders who have kept me informed over the last couple weeks! And now I hear that Harris's Sparrow is an annual visitor??? Might hear from me again soon!

After a celebratory sandwich at MUGWUMPS, I hit the road again... finally getting back to Penticton around 5pm.

I just hope no one finds anything rare in the next 48 hours... I need rest people!!!

Why not another pelagic?

In the days leading up to September 12th, birders kept asking me: You've already seen all the regular stuff, why blow money on ferries and another pelagic when you can't anything to your list?

Two answers:

1)Pelagic birding is awesome

Because a) the birds themselves are unique, interesting, and therefore AWESOME. And B)----See reason #2-------

2) Every trip is different. Therefore even though I have seen all the usuals, there is always a chance of seeing something UNusual. And you're not going to see anything UNusual unless you GET OUT THERE.

Oh and maybe there is a third reason too... I'M DOING A BIG YEAR! Everybody who has done a serious big year in an area that boasts a coastline, knows that "victory lies at sea." Anyone can chase down an Indigo Bunting coming to someone's feeder, but if I told you to "go find a flesh-footed shearwater" (after all, there are probably hundreds off the coast of BC as I type), you would be hard-pressed to succeed.

I guess what I'm getting at is a general big year strategy. The late summer and fall is probably the best time to get out on the sea because birds dispersing from the south (e.g. most shearwaters, south polar skua, etc.) are mingling with northern breeders heading south (e.g. jaegers, phalaropes, etc.). Here's a mathematical formula to explain what I'm trying to get at:

BIG OCEAN (Pacific) touching 4 continents + no physical obstacles + ability to fly hundreds of miles in a day + WINDY!!! + workable 10x42s = unlimited possibilities.

So if you're doing a big year and you're not kicking up rarities in the weedy fields behind you're house, I would suggest going on as many pelagics as possible! Just look at what has been reported off BC in the last few years: Slaty-backed Gull, Lesser Nighthawk, Hawaiian Petrel, Murphy's Petrel, Solander's Petrel, Parakeet Auklet... and on and on.

Of course it makes things easier if you're not prone to seasickness... but a little extra "chum" never hurts!

Perhaps this picture from my most recent trip can illustrate my point:

LAYSAN ALBATROSS-- a much anticipated lifer for me, my 13th albatross species for the world, and #363 for the year in BC!
[ALL PHOTOS ON THIS POST COURTESY OF BEN LASCELLES-- who kindly sent me some of his pics since I was too much of a sissy to bring my own camera... it was pouring rain most of the day okay??!!]

Here are couple more photo highlights from Sept 12th out of Tofino (full report below):
[Sabine's Gulls]

[Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel with lunch]

[Buller's Shearwater-- a lifer for many on board]

[Black-footed Albatross mob]

***Once again, BIG THANK YOU to Ben Lascelles for the great photos***

Trip summary taken from my post to the BCVIBirds site (because I'm lazy):

Hi all,

I have just returned from a local Tofino pub where 17 other seabird enthusiasts
and myself celebrated a very wet but successful day out on the waves. I had the
pleasure of joining a bunch of attendees of the World Seabird Conference (held
in Victoria this year)--in today's case: a mixture of French, South African,
British, and American birders--on what turned into a 9 1/2 hour pelagic.

We had to deal with a steady drizzle for most of the day which kept us soaked
and for the most part, unable to use out optics. Luckily however the birding
didn't drop off and we were very fortunate to run into a fleet of fishing boats
towards the end of the day which boosted some of the numbers and provided for
excellent views of many of the usual species. Ironically, our bird of the day:
a single LAYSAN ALBATROSS was not among the hundreds of Black-foots tailing the
trawlers but floating by us earlier on in the day. This bird had very sooty
underwing parts so could possibly be a sub-adult? Here is the day list in
rough tax. order:

Anas duck sp. 300+
Harlequin Duck 12
Surf Scoter 50
Pacific Loon 1
Common Loon 3
Red-necked Grebe 30+
LAYSAN Albatross 1
Black-footed Albatross *300+
Northern Fulmar *2,500+
Pink-footed Shearwater 250+
Buller's Shearwater 2
Sooty Shearwater 100+
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 40
Leach's Storm-Petrel 2
Peregrine Falcon 1
Pomarine Jaeger 3
Parasitic Jaeger 6
Sabine's Gull *200+
California Gull 750+
Herring Gull 30
Heermann's Gull 100+
(prob.) Common Tern 1
Sanderling 50+
Western Sandpiper 1
Red-necked Phalarope 15
Red Phalarope 1
Ancient Murrelet 2
Marbled Murrelet 3
Pigeon Guillemot 30+
Common Murre 50+
Rhinoceros Auket 30~
Tufted Puffin 4
Cassin's Auklet 600+

All this rain seems to have brought in a lot of migrants. Both this morning
before the trip and this evening walking out of the pub I can hear that the
trees are alive with YELLOW WARBLERS. Will have to check the bushes carefully
tomorrow morning!

All the best,

Russell Cannings
Tofino, BC

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Operation PTARMIGAN: Needle Peak style


Well it was already September and I still didn't have a White-tailed Ptarmigan on the year-list. Ptarmigan are in some ways a good bird to be "missing" for a year list since they stay in the same place all year. The problem is that they are very hard to find in THAT place and once the snow comes... well you get the picture. I needed to bag this chicken before October, and I was happy to have some highly motivated ptarm-hunters along--> Jess Findlay, Connor Stefanison, and Devin Mackenzie. We met up in Burnaby at 6am, then headed off up Hwy 5 north of Hope where Fraser Valley expert Dave Beeke had seen them last September, a place called "Needle Peak" opposite the well-known "Yak Peak" near the old Coq toll-booths. We started up the trail around 8am and immediately I realized how driving in cars and sitting on boats for several months does not equal good cardio conditioning. The trail up the mountain is in good condition, it's just that it's STRAIGHT up... makes for a quicker trip I suppose and you don't need a 4x4 vehicle to get to the parking area.

In the spruce, hemlock, and fir forest we picked up HERMIT THRUSHES, a single SWAINSON'S THRUSH (of the olive-backed interior race), and CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES. We were all a bit surprised when a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING flew over calling; quite an early record for southern BC?

[photo thanks to Connor Stefanison]
Once into the alpine MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES, a couple bonus BOREAL CHICKADEES (we ended up missing Black-capped for the grandslam... how often does that trio happen eh?), flocks of juv CHIPPING SPARROWS, and a NORTHERN HARRIER flushed off the trail in front of us. In fact, it ended up being quite a good day for raptors, with 2 or 3 RED-TAILED HAWKS, the NORTHERN HARRIER, 2 NORTHERN GOSHAWKS, 3 COOPER'S HAWKS, 3 SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS (all accipiters were juvs), a MERLIN, and an adult GOLDEN EAGLE.

At the top of the first ridge the trail splits; you can either head to the left up towards Needle Peak itself or go down a ridge to the right which then pops up to a small lake and another ridge. Dave Beeke told me that he has had ptarmigan at both ends but that they have been more reliable along the last spine before the needle (pictured).

So we headed off to the Needle! No ptarmigans unfortunately but Connor found a few feathers which pushed us on, all the way to the top (a bit of a scramble) where breathtaking views gave us a look at the misty landscape on all sides. A large flock of HORNED LARKS swirled below us while PIKAS and called from the boulder-slopes. While eating lunch we were visited by this inquisitive little guy:

(Short-tailed Weasel by Jess Findlay)

By the time got back down to the trail fork it was already 3pm. We were tired and the clouds were looking menacing but we still didn't have that ptarmie! So, we struck out for the alpine lake, took a break (pictured)then split up and scoured the hillside.
[surveying our handy-work-- Needle Peak in the back]

It didn't take long for Jess to spot one!!! YEEEEAAAHHHH BABY! A whole family.

[Mom above]

[juvie above]

[Jess and Connor get so into the art of photography that large gashes to the leg (from crawling over granite boulders) go completely unnoticed]

There were five young guys with mom in all, we were all quite stoked (if you will).

On the hike back down we ran into a couple of SOOTY GROUSE (more young'ns too).

Didn't get back to Vancouver until around 8 o'clock at night-- but what a day! Sleep well-deserved!

Sept 7-8: Vancouver birding

After snagging the GREAT EGRET near Harrison Mills I met up with Ilya down around Boundary Bay where the birding was fairly good. Shorebirds were fairly light on the ground but a single MARBLED GODWIT and a few RED KNOTS kept things interesting. The two best birds out on the dyke though were a single VESPER SPARROW (hindsight note: was still there 3 days later), and a fly-by PARASITIC JAEGER-- both new Vancouver birds for me.

After birding the Bay, we joined Cathie Barron, Mark Wynja, and a group from Ontario, at Brunswick Point where we hoped the high tide might bring in the Bar-tailed Godwit to the pilings. No such luck with that bird, but as you can see we enjoyed a fabulous sunset and a flyover BARN OWL.

Sept 8: Today while birding Reifel, Ilya and I got a call from Peter Candido who was looking at a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER at Bounday Bay. We raced over there but unfortunately could not immediately find it amongst the 300+ PECTORAL SANDPIPERS. Eventually however, on our walk back to the car, I spotted the little devil hiding behind an old shoe! (pictured-- #361!)

There was also a BLACK TURNSTONE present, my first for "The Bay" proper.

Thanks Peter!

Ptarmigan hunt tomorrow...

Sept 7: Great Egret at Harrison Mills (Eagle Point Regional Park)

Thank you to Rick Toochin and Murray Brown for helping out with directions, and to everyone who called me about it... I was trying to relax in the Okanagan of course but couldn't miss out on this beauty!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A few more new ones!

In the past few days, things have been rolling along nicely--- Great Egret, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and White-tailed Ptarmigan have all been snagged. Will post photos and stories ASAP.

Good birding!


Monday, September 6, 2010

Thursday-Friday-Saturday: Epic S@#% hits the fan

After scoring RED KNOT at Boundary Bay, I was looking forward to my first ever Tofino pelagic trip. YES I had done quite well on a recent coast-guard trip but I was still missing Buller's Shearwater and well-- you just never know what you might see.

When I got to Tofino, George Bradd of "Justbirding Tours" informed me that the pelagic would go ahead not the next day (Wednesday) but the day after (Thursday). That worked out well because when I got to my friend Natalie's place at the Middle Beach Lodge, a "Jungle Party" was in full-swing and I felt obliged to take part... who knows maybe even past midnight?

Spent the next day strolling the beaches and "pishing in the bushes." Nothing out of the ordinary other than a very bold PECTORAL SANDPIPER poking around on Long Beach.

On Thursday morning I awoke bright and early, and met the rest of the gang (a mixture of Canadians, a Brit, a German, and guides- Adrian Dorst and George Bradd... oh yes and Skipper Michael). On the way out of the harbour we glassed some big numbers of resting HEERMANN'S GULLS as well as an adult WESTERN GULL that was a very good candidate for the southern "wymani" subspecies (very dark-mantled). After about 25miles of very little, everyone was starting to get worried that the trip was a bust but then someone spotted a SOUTH POLAR SKUA. We put on a chase and as we neared the bird, I noticed its target: a floppy shearwater with gleaming white underparts and a distinctly patterned back-- BULLER'S SHEARWATER! The skua dove, hit the buller in the back than pulled up straight into the sky, fanning his tail and flashing his white wing patches like a showy WW1 dog-fighter at an airshow.

Albatrosses (Black-foot pictured) soon showed up with 20 or more passing us over the course of the day. We also ended up seeing 5 skuas for the day, a great number. TUFTED PUFFINS too showed well, and both species of phalarope joined a few groups of FORK-TAILED STORM-PETRELS dining on the micro-organisms on the surface.

Back in protected waters we had great looks at all 3 cormorant species including these BRANDT'S CORMORANTS (brownish one in the middle was being actively fed by his parents).

Happy with my Buller's Shearwater, I started a casual drive home but when I reached Port Alberni, a text from Ilya changed everything: BAR-TAILED GODWIT at Roberts Bank.

AAAHhhahahahhaha!!! I made a mad dash for Duke Point and somehow (thank you bird gods and ferry gods!) was allowed on the boat even though I arrived 1 minute after the scheduled departure time. The lady at the toll booth said it well, "you're on the ferry don't worry. I've radio-ed down there so they know you're coming so you don't have to drive like a mad-man(I guess she must have watched me on street cams as I approached the terminal!). They had to re-open the gate and put-down the ramp, but I was on! Who knew that BC FERRIES catered to Big Years?

Only problem is that getting the 5:45pm ferry from Duke Point to Tsawwassen doesn't guarantee me seeing a rare bird, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn't guarantee light. A delay getting the ramp working in Tsawwassen didn't help either... so I didn't arrive at Brunswick Point (near Ladner, BC) until 8:15ish-- long after sundown. Not one to waste my miracle ferry incident, I huffed and puffed, running as fast as I could down the dyke carrying my scope until I couldn't run any longer. Not knowing exactly where the bird was supposed to be and assuming that Ilya and Co. were long-gone I went off trail and sploshed through the muddy sedges to the foreshore. The bright lights from the coal port helped a bit, but other than Glaucous-winged Gull and Mallard, I knew there was no hope of my IDing a rare shorebird since I couldn't even hear a Black-bellied Plover (the godwit was supposedly hanging out with several hundreds of them). A few AMERICAN BITTERNS barked from the marsh, and I managed to ID a few more ducks and a CASPIAN TERN.. but alas no barwit. Dejected, and getting destroyed by mosquitoes (I thought I swore that Leech Lake in the Kootenays would be the last time!?), I retreated to the dyke, which is when I spotted the silhouette of a man toting a scope.

"Is that you Dale?" Ilya had mentioned that Dale Jensen stayed after him and Carlo left.

"Russell?" Yes it was Dale. Apparently he had stayed until 8:30pm with the bird in the scope... waiting for me to come! THAT DESERVES A BIG THANK YOU--- THANKS DALE! Unfortunately it was too dark for me to see where he was or for him to see me. And of course eventually it was too dark to see the bird in the scope so he gave up. Amazing dedication, I only hope I can return the favour somehow... maybe by finding a massive rarity this fall?

Here's a picture of Roberts Bank, can you see the godwit?

So of course the next day (Friday), I met up with Ilya and Avery Bartels and we birded the SW portion of the Fraser delta, finding a few nice migrants but hoping mostly for the godwit once the tide came up. At Reifel Refuge we ran into this interesting character:

It's obviously got some wigeon in it.. maybe crossed with a mallard or a gadwall? Then a bit of leucism mixed in?

Anyways, we spent the next few hours sitting at Roberts Banks praying for something good to happen, because as far as we could see... there were NO shorebirds let alone a rare asiatic godwit. But then eventually, birds started to trickle in bit by bit until Ilya announced "I've got it!" and everyone rejoiced (including me... you better believe it... pheeew!). Pictured below, the godwit is the one spreading its wings... I know, not a great pic!

I stayed at Ilya's place that night and was getting ready to head back to the Okanagan in the morning when the phones started ringing about a possible Orchard Oriole in Parksville. After talking with the discoverers who said that it had been in French Creek (north of Parksville) for two days, I knew I wouldn't be going to the Okanagan today! After phoning around, Tom Plath and Kevin Neill joined Ilya and I for the twitch and we got the next ferry from Tsaw-Duke Point. On the drive the terminal, Ilya and I decided to stop briefly at "the scrape" (a small wetland only visible for southbound traffic on Hwy 15)-- boom HUDSONIAN GODWIT!
[Below I have attempted to outdo the poor quality of the barwit photo with this hudwit. Note the smooth grayish colour and long bill]

So the 4 of us finally get to French Creek around 3pm or so, and after 3 hours of hard work we still have not seen it. "Not looking good" someone says. Okay no one said that but we were all thinking that. The young Chris Stephens showed up, and BAM finds the bird in a place we had checked 100 times. I almost broke my ankle running over there but managed to obtain good views of the bird perched in the open in the sun for about 5 seconds before it flew down behind another bush. Unfortunately, Kevin didn't get onto it until the last second so we search... with no luck unfortunately until the sun went down.

Chalk it up though! That's a great one for the BC life-list (less than a handful of historical records) let alone the year list. Here's me showing some positive attitude with Chris Stephens the MVP for the evening.
(and NO that is not Sleeman's Cream Ale between my legs... it's Honey Brown)

(why are we kneeling?)

And in an effort of team unity, Ilya and Tom sport the same jackets (you woudn't know that it's past midnight!):

Got back to Vancouver around 1 in the morning, then drove to the Okanagan a few hours later (stopped at Blackie Spit of course for the LONG-BILLED CURLEW and 2 MARBLED GODWITS-- 3 godwits in 3 days baby!).

Now I need to decide whether to drive to Cranbrook for Indigo Bunting, or Harrison Mills for Great Egret...

Until next time,

Russell Cannings
Penticton, BC

CONUT UPDATE: 359 (perhaps tomorrow I will be only the second person to reach 360 in BC). It should also be noted that I have now seen more birds this year in BC than the rest of my life combined (I think I was at 358 in BC?). WOW, what a trip.


The ferry crossing was quite smooth and sunny (a rare occurrence in the Hecate apparently). In amongst a flock of HERRING and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, I picked out a WESTERN GULL—a nice bird this far north. The first half of the crossing was fairly quiet but once we got closer to the Charlottes, SOOTY and PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER numbers started to pick up, and a few nice birds came into view including 2 adult YELLOW-BILLED LOONS (pictured--click to enlarge), a lone BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS (apparently extremely rare in the Hecate), and another nice adult LONG-TAILED JAEGER.

So, after arriving in Skidegate and buying a ticket for Alliford Bay and almost forgetting to pick up my big pack... I was on my way. The only other walk-on passenger was an attractive young girl (apparently orginally from Calgary but now a Sandspit local-- a bit of a change?) who apparently had a truck parked on the other side. Just as I was about to pop "the question" though, a Harley-driving "old friend from back in the day" butted in and offered to drive her up the hill to her car. Damn, too late... we were already at the terminal and a sign read: "foot passengers must wait until all vehicle traffic has cleared before exiting." That meant NO RIDE for me. I eyed up the car closest to me, trying to gauge whether or not they might offer a ride... but their backseat was filled with bags and 5 or 6 noisy chihuahuas so that was a no-go. "Ah well," I thought. "At least it will be a scenic walk."

After all the cars and trucks rolled away I was suddenly all alone on an empty road. Just me and the hemlocks. I noticed a flock of TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS and was about to check them more carefully when the rumble of a V8 Cummins Turbo Deisel engine suddenly broke the silence, and rounding the corner was 'pretty local girl' (I can't remember her actual name) in her black Dodge Ram (clearly the vehicle of choice on Moresby Island).

"Sorry for cutting you off back there, you want a ride?"

"Ummm... well... yeah I guess" "How far is it anyway?" (lier, I knew it was 12km)

"Pretty far," she said.

"Yeah okay I might as well. Thanks!"

She dropped me off at the marina, still 2km walk around the bay to where I had booked a couple nights at "Captain Ron's Guesthouse and Hostel." As I neared the spot where GoogleMaps had directed me, I noticed a handmade sign in front of a normal-looking house. It read: "GAP RON" except the wooden "G" looked like someone had tried to file it down to look like a "C" and the "A" was an upside-down V. Was this "Captain Ron's Guesthouse?" It looked like a house, for sure, but a guesthouse? I asked an old lady working in the "Bun Wagon" (a burger trailer) if she knew where Captain Ron's was. At first she stared at me like I was speaking Flemish or something, then said (in her stereotypical "old lady that has lived in the boonies for a long time" voice), "Captain Ron's?? There's no such thing. I've lived here for over 30 years and ain't never met a guy named Ron... hang on a minute, I think there's a sign down the road that says, 'GAP RON.' Maybe that's what you're looking for."

I thanked her and walked back down the road to the little pink house, knocked on the door and was immediately accosted by 8 chihuahuas, YES the same chihuahuas from the ferry. This was indeed Ron's place. His mother answered the door and hollered at her son to come down. Ron came over and showed me to my quarters-- basically his basement where another German backpacker named Sebastian was also staying (side note: apparently Sebastian's dad is a big-time birder back in Germany). Despite the fantastic-looking website -- complete with pictured of the man himself--(, the guesthouse is a bit of a "project in the works." Lots of cleaning and renovation to be done, but I will say that it is comfortable, cheap, and Ron is Ron: quite the character. He seems to know eveyone in Haida Gwaii including the dude who cut down the Golden Spruce... in fact Ron claims to have been initially accused and arrested for the crime before Thomas Grant Hadwin faxed in his confession. Apparently the chainsaw had been purchased under Ron's name (living on the Haida reserve in Old Masset at the time). You get the idea... as colourful as his language is and all groaning about his various health issues, he has a heart of gold. He treated Sebastian and I to dinner every night, took us out fishing for Pink and Coho Salmon on the Copper River (photo), and gave us bikes to ride around on.

But I wasn't in Sandspit for the fish or for socializing (that stuff is to keep me sane). I was hear for birds, rare birds more particularly which Sandspit has a great reputation for. As a flat grassy peninsula jutting out into the stormy Hecate, and surrounded by rain-forest, many lost birds are attracted to the sandy spits, mudflats, washed up kelp, grassy airport, and berry-producing shrubs in the area.
(Below: grasslands surrounding Sandspit airport)

Among the rarities list for this area are mouthwatering names like: Steller's Eider, Red-legged Kittiwake, Wood Sandpiper, Rustic Bunting, Yellow Wagtail, and most recently: Least Tern.

I'd be happy with any one of those! But first I had to check my fortune at the only business in town: "Dick's Wok-in."

Wow I'm on a roll!

I got out to the tip of end of the runway; I was hoping for golden-plovers and buff-breasted sandpipers but apparently dry weather has kept birds out of the fields. Instead I keyed into a strange bird that flushed off the trail in front of me. It took a few more flushes to figure it out, a new year bird and one I didn't expect until September: LAPLAND LONGSPUR.

The next day I met up with local birder and pastor, Peter Hamel. [Incidentally, Captain Ron also laid all the flooring and carpeting in Peter's church up in Masset-- renaissance man!] He toured me around the spit showing me just where to be relative the what the tide was doing.

Unfortunately there were very few shorebirds around today, but we did have great looks at a couple juvenile PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS (pictured), and just my luck-- a mega rarity from the south-- a MOURNING DOVE flew past off the ocean getting Peter extremely excited. Aw man! Why not a turtle-dove or something?

On the Sunday, my last full day in the Charlottes, rain was threatening but I made another trip out to the spit and was rewarded with 5 AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS (3 adults and 2 juvies all banded together). Otherwise, the only other difference from the day before was that there was only 1 Pacific Golden-Plover and a BAIRD'S SANDPIPER flew in for a close look (pictured).

It rained for most of the day but when the clouds lifted a bit, I went for a walk around the golf-course, checking through large groups of TOWNSEND'S and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS for things like Bay-breasted... yea right. But how neat is that? I could never say that in the Okanagan: "trying to pick through a flock of Townsend's for something cool." That IS COOL... what a smart-looking bird! Anyways, headed back to Ron's after more rain came in and watched the original 2 episodes of "X-Files" on VHS and learned all about breeding Deer-faced Chihuahuas from Ron. Apparently incest is okay in the dog-breeding world as long as it only happens 3 times. Or something... anyways, I must admit I was impressed with how "deer-like" some of his chihuahuas were.

Flew out of Sandspit the next morning, bound for Vancouver (don't worry the government is paying for it!). Managed to see some RED KNOT that evening with the help of Ilya Pov and Carlo G.

The smell of Fall is in the air... must find more birds.

Count update: 355

Make or Break Time: My Seabird Cruise

AUG 17: I am sitting alone in “Ken’s Chinese Restaurant” in Port Hardy. Tomorrow afternoon I will board the coast-guard ship VECTOR and set out on a 9-day cruise over to the Scott Islands then up into the Hecate Strait and finishing in Prince Rupert. I open up my fortune cookie and can’t help but smile.

It reads:


AUG 18: This morning I birded the harbor-front in Hardy Bay. Lots of BLACK TURNSTONES milling about with half-a-dozen RUDDY TURNSTONES and a single SURFBIRD mixed in. LEAST SANDPIPERS, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and a lone LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER are also in the area but inevitably my binoculars swing out to the waves; RHINOCEROS AUKLETS, MARBLED MURRELETS, PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, and a noisy family of RED-THROATED LOONS are all offering a quick teaser for what is soon to come.

After lunch I met up with Dave Smith from CWS who is one of the main reasons I was able to come along. I will be conducting volunteer seabird surveys while he looks into mapping out marine wildlife reserves in the Scott Islands. But that’s only a small part of the cruise; the CCGS VECTOR, one of two Pacific vessels designated for scientific research along the BC coast will also be housing 5 other marine biologists studying the seafloor. The have brought with them a small remote-control sub (R.O.V.) that will document the various biological aspects down on the bottom. They are mostly interested in the sponge reefs of the Hecate Strait… can’t wait to see what they find!

We eat dinner and go through the safety procedures and general tour of the vessel, then finally around 7pm we head out—bound for Triangle Island!!! Before it gets too dark to see, I manage to get 1 yearbird: a single RED PHALAROPE. Then a pod of ORCAS cruise past us… off to a good start!

AUG 19: I woke up at 5am, hoping to get an early start to birding… turns out in late August it doesn’t get light until 6:30! So instead I head down to the “mess” for some breakfast, served up by a grumpy but also extremely hilarious Croatian man known as “Mikie.” Throughout this trip we would all be spoiled with unlimited amounts of great food… good thing there was also a small gym on the ship!

After breakfast, I headed up to the Bridge (aka “The Wheel-House”) which offers the most panoramic view on the ship. The skies brightened, and I could clearly see it!

The fabled TRIANGLE ISLAND! The most important seabird colony in British Columbia, housing literally millions of alcids and other seabirds including Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, Cassin’s Auklets, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Pelagic Cormorants, and Common Murres. As we approach I can see that there is a steady stream of birds heading from the island out to sea. Mostly puffins and murres, but there are also several thousands SOOTY SHEARWATERS rafting up in various areas with a few PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS mixed in. Out of nowhere a PEREGRINE FALCON glides over to our ship for a closer look, then the best bird of the day…

In amongst a groups of birds sitting on the water, closer, closer, yesssss…. Umm,… YESSSSS!!! A gorgeous adult HORNED PUFFIN!!! Certainly a prized bird in BC, there are only 1 or 2 pairs on Triangle so to pick one out of the 10,000+ puffins passing by the boat was quite a thrill. Soon other year-birds too came into view: a single BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS (light-morph adult pictured), then a few FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL (a long awaited lifer), and a very pale juvenile LONG-TAILED JAEGER! Perhaps most interesting for me was a lone SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER mixed in with all the sooties. These guys are more regular up in the Aleutians and generally don’t build up in numbers in BC waters until the Fall. They are very similar to sooties, differentiated only by a darker under-wing pattern and some very subtle physical differences—smaller bill, more bull-necked and rounder head… and yes, apparently a shorter tail. This bird also showed a relatively pale throat, and to my eye, it flew a lot higher than the sooties and flew with more hurried wing-beats. I have heard claims that flight-style can be used as a diagnostic feature in some cases but I’ll certainly have to study a lot more to see for myself if this is true.

Anyways… back to the BIG YEAR already!

AUG 20: Got some great birds today! (Mainly because we headed out to the shelf-edge about 10 km SW of Triangle) Out there a couple fishing boats where trawling for lingcod and had attracted a righteous swarm of seabirds. As we approached I picked out a FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER (another lifer) closely shadowing a PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER… I can see why some consider them conspecific. They really had the same proportions and overall flight “jizz,” only one was browny-gray and white and the other was chocolate-black. Okay sorry… another tangent…

Oooo! What’s that on the horizon? A jaeger? No, short-tailed and BIG. SOUTH POLAR SKUA!!! Watched him chase around a Pink-foot and actually tackled the poor shearwater into a wave before moving on empty-handed. Perhaps the best bird of the trip flew in next: a MURPHY’S PETREL! Any pterodroma petrel is awesome in BC, but this was really nice. I have seen lots of similar petrels in the South Pacific, but this guy was thinner-looking and very gray overall. Some of you may recall the mega-bird—Solander’s Petrel—seen last year by Sharon Toochin & Co. The Murphy’s is a very similar bird but has a small head and smaller/thinner black bill, thin-pointed wings, a wedged tail that is more narrow than in Solanders, and the underwing is more uniform. Solander’s on the other hand often has a more brownish cast, white flashes in the underwing, and is more bulky-looking overall. This bird also had a noticeably pale chin which also points towards Murphy’s. Unfortunately, as with most birds on the trip, I was not able to obtain photographs, choosing instead to concentrate on studying birds in the field as much as possible before they disappeared. For instance, if I started spending hours trying to get a good puffin photo, I might miss an awesome bird flying past on the other side of the ship. So for about 14 hours of the day, I ran back and forth up on the Bridge and out on deck, trying to ID every speck within 500m…

More RED PHALAROPES today mixed in with RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, and later in the evening we cruised even further out to sea, where Dave and I were treated to an adult LONG-TAILED JAEGER, many groups of HUMPBACK WHALES, a BLUE SHARK, and a big OCEAN SUNFISH.

(BELOW: Dave's scans the waters off Triangle)

Although Dave and I were seeing some very cool birds, I still felt like we weren’t getting the numbers that should be possible at this time of year. Over the course of the trip there were a lot of very dull stretches where almost nothing was around. I know “Big Blue” is never predictable, but I felt like if we could only get a little further offshore we would start running into more things. For instance, on the entire trip I did not see a single Sabine’s Gull and only had a handful of COMMON TERNS and one ARCTIC TERN.

I can’t complain though, and I must admit that although the ocean was barren most of the time… that evening was the exception. After dinner we continued out to sea for a stretch and on the horizon I could make out hundreds of tiny dots skipping across the waves… LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS!!! As we got into “the zone” things got… well they got, surreal. Around Triangle Island there are thousands of alcids, a little further out you run into albatross and fulmar, and shearwaters. Out here, at least on this night… all you could see—for miles—were storm-petrels. I was only able to make observations for around an hour and a half, but in that time I estimated that I saw over 13,000 Leach’s (150/minute) and 1,000+ Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels! The waves were absolutely alive with these tiny relatives of the albatross. And like I said, the weird thing about it was that there were no other birds of any kind…

AUG 21: The only year-bird today was an immature PARASITIC JAEGER. I also noted 3 adult LONG-TAILED JAEGERS, and over 90 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATOSS (61 of which sat around our boat for most of the day… presumably hoping to score some grub. There were also several hundred NORTHERN FULMARS loafing about)

Here, a groups of albatross and fulmars check out the ROV, hoping that it’s some sort of fishing device.

AUG 22: Another quiet day but had a few highlights—finally my yearbird POMARINE JAEGER (completing the BC skua grand-slam) and another LONG-TAILED JAEGER bombed past us on an otherwise quiet day. As Dave and I sat around checking through the mass of albatross and fulmar that had once again settled at our stern, Dave said musingly, “you would think that all these birds would attract something good.” At that instant (no joking), I spotted a small black-and-white shearwater coming right at us—MANX SHEARWATER I exclaimed… even the first mate and chief engineer got to see it in the bins as it made a couple loops around us then headed out. Formerly a mega-rarity in the entire Pacific (most breed in the north Atlantic), this species is being seen with increasing frequency off California and as far north as Alaska, suggesting the possibility of a small Pacific breeding colony. In fact, a few years ago, one was recorded calling over Triangle Island at night—probably prospecting for a roost site if not a breeding burrow… who knows???

AUG 23:

This morning we awoke to rainy Queen’s Sound near Bella Bella and the Inside Passage. Not a lot of birds to see here but lots of sponges and corals beneath the waves. In the evening a big storm came in from the south, creating 5 meter swells in the Hecate Strait. Instead of hiding out in Laredo Sound the captain decided to have some fun and we spent the night pitching back and forth in the middle of the Strait. Luckily I don’t seem to get seasick but boy, did some other people on the boat! That night before dark I saw another FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER.

AUG 24: The waves are still pretty big today; a SNIPE of some sort came out of the fog and made a few circles of the boat hoping to land… an Asian vagrant perhaps? Looked like a Wilson’s to me. We did have both BLACK TURNSTONES and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS land on deck for a bit, and a pair of LESSER YELLOWLEGS visited briefly… no lost passerines though.

AUG 25: Today is totally different, flat calm in the Hecate Strait and gorgeous sun! All 3 jaeger species seen today, and another Flesh-footed Shearwater. After dinner, the crew got out for some jig-fishing.

They caught halibut, lingcod, and several kinds of rockfish which we ate on the last few evenings.

During our jigging session, an adult PEREGRINE FALCON caught a juvenile RHINOCEROS AUKLET and proceeded to pluck it and eat it.

At first everyone was really excited, but then things got a little “gross” when the falcon ripped off the auklet head and dropped it down onto the deck.

AUG 26: A relatively quiet but pleasant day out in the Hecate with a few brief periods of excitement when another MANX SHEARWATER flew past (off Bank’s Island), and several flocks of 1000+ Red-necked Phalaropes mixed with 150+ Red Phalaropes passed us offering up nice side-by-side views of the 2 ocean-going shorebirds.

A group of 500+ PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHINS capped off the day nicely.

AUG 27: Today we arrived in Prince Rupert, where after saying my goodbyes and thanking everyone for the great opportunity, I hopped on the ferry to Skidegate--- on Haida Gwaii (QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS). When in Rome right? If I’m doing a big year, I figured I may as well head over there as I don’t visit Prince Rupert too often. I boarded as a foot passenger and planned to take another ferry to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island once I got to Skidegate, and hitch-hike the 12km to Sandspit.