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.


  1. wow, enviable!
    I think the duck is actually a 'call duck'; that breed's round head and short bill makes them look very like a miniature wigeon.
    If it ever stops raining and I can get the tide to fit my schedule (!), I'm hoping to get down to look for the barwit, a species I've never seen in NA.

  2. Hi Rick,

    Although I wouldn't be surprised if domestication has been involved, I'm fairly convinced this bird has wigeon in it. Will have to post more photos later. I also have an interesting dark-backed gull from the Charlottes... something to mull over. But now I need to drive to Hope!

    Good luck with the barwit!

  3. Proud of you buddy, happy I could help out with one....albeit a hard one!