Saturday, November 13, 2010

Haida Gwaii: The Southern Aleutians

Some have called Haida Gwaii (aka The Queen Charlotte Islands)—“The Northern Galapagos” because of its isolation as an archipelago away from the continent and its rich ecological tradition. I would argue that “Aleutians—South” is more appropriate from a birding standpoint at least. Breeding bird diversity is low on the islands, made up principally of a few hardy land-dwellers like Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, and Oregon Junco, and of course: the seabirds. Thousands of alcids (puffins, auklets, guillemots, murrelets, murres) and other seabirds (gulls, cormorants, storm-petrels) call Haida Gwaii home year-round and even more come through in migration and during the winter months. Waterfowl numbers can be very impressive also, especially at this time of year. Shorebirds stop over regularly along beaches and wetlands, and perhaps most interesting for us birders, the islands act as magnets for lost migrants. Birds blown off course by storms in spring and fall, taking cover in the first bit of land they see. The Aleutian Island chain is of course known as not only a breeding mecca for seabirds, but also THE place to find both Asiatic and southern rarities during migration.

That is why we decided to hit “The Gwaii” in early November... to find mega-birds. Most experienced birders chat casually about the rarity potential of the Charlottes but few manage to get out there at the right time. The weather can be dicey outside of summer and the ferry crossing can get very rough. This year, Jukka Jantunen, Cameron Eckert, Jess Findlay, and I made it happen.

Jukka, Jess, and I left Vancouver around 10am on Wednesday, November 3rd, and drove none-stop (more or less) to Prince Rupert. When we got there it was pouring rain and blowing around 100km/hour. “Just as I expected,” I said. “Too bad it’s coming from the south.” We were a little worried the new flat-bottom ferry wouldn’t run in conditions like this but luckily by the early afternoon, things cleared up and I guess the swell died down out on the Hecate Strait. Sometime after breakfast we ran into Cam (in the liquor store of all places) who had just driven down from Whitehorse to meet us. We packed all our gear in his van, boarded the ferry and off we went!

FERRY CROSSING (Nov 4th, 2:30pm until dark): We stationed ourselves at various points around the boat; unfortunately this vessel is not ideal for birders as there is no way to have a forward view unless you wanna camp out in the children’s play area and look through an awkward circular window... at least you’ve got non-stop cartoons in case the seabirds don’t put out. Anyways... the highlight of the trip was definitely getting good looks at several SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS [pictured above] that usually stood out well from the more abundant SOOTY SHEARWATERS (we ended up with around 20 shorties). BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES were fairly common and we were pleased to count at least 6 YELLOW-BILLED LOONS amongst the numbers of PACIFIC and COMMON LOONS. 5 NORTHERN FULMARS were the only other tubenose, both murrelets were noted, and Jukka had a probable POMARINE JAEGER (a fairly late record any jaeger).

Once in Skidegate, we transferred over to the Alliford Bay ferry (inter-island ferry to Moresby). Once on Moresby, we drove to Sandspit where good ol’ Captain Ron had a good set-up for us in his chalet and basement.

NOV 5: First Full Day on the Charlottes

We had assumed in Prince Rupert that our trip to Haida Gwaii/Charlottes would be a very wet ordeal. Therefore it was quite a pleasant surprise to wake up to clear skies this morning. After checking through the local flock of juncos for oddballs (thanks Ron for letting us seed your driveway!), we headed to Shingle Bay and eventually the famous Sandspit Airport. Along the beach Jess and I found a female HOUSE FINCH (a very rare bird here—only 5 or 6 records for the Charlottes), and a SNOW BUNTING was also a nice find. Shingle Bay was filled with good numbers of ducks and grebes (as usual) with around 200 HARLEQUIN DUCKS stealing the show.

[Rock Sandpiper]
At the Sandspit Wharf near the base of the main peninsula where the airport is located, we rain into a large flock of 300+ BLACK TURNSTONES that also contained 30+ ROCK SANDPIPERS (pictured), 3 RUDDY TURNSTONES, 60+ DUNLIN, and 50+ SANDERLING. Amongst the gull flocks, it was once again a treat to see BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES so close and especially over land. At the start of our airport circumnavigation hike we found a winter male RUSTY BLACKBIRD (less than 5 records for the Charlottes) feeding along the shoreline, and on the airport itself, all 5 species of geese (Brant, Canada, Cackling, Snow, Greater White-fronted) were found (not too often one can claim that!). We had more close encounters with ROCK SANDPIPERS out on the spits and more looks at SNOW BUNTINGS and LAPLAND LONGSPURS were nice. Several RED PHALAROPES were spotted feeding close to shore and around 300 PACIFIC LOONS were noted offshore (among many other things!).

We eventually made our way over to the Sandspit Golf Course where a large flock of CACKLING GEESE caught our attention. It appeared that several subspecies of Cacklers were present including at least two “ALEUTIAN GEESE.” Note (above--bird on left, and bird third from right) the overall structural differences—especially head shape, black throat (separating the pale cheek-patches), and thick white ring at the base of the neck. There were also several “DUSKY” CANADA GEESE present. Our first and only RING-NECKED DUCK of the trip flushed out of a nearby creek, as well as many WILSON’S SNIPES. Eventually it got too dark to bird and we retreated to “Dick’s Wok-in” the only restaurant in town where Cam’s fortune cookie read: “Head to the nearest coastline.” No encouragement needed!

NOV 6: Day 2 on Haida Gwaii

Last night a big storm hit and heavy rain continued into mid-morning. Luckily it cleared off and out we went for more hardcore birding. More “southern rarities” popped up like RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (under 10 records), BREWER’S BLACKBIRD (under 5 records), and PURPLE FINCH (under 10 records). Dang this is getting frustrating!!!

Luckily the crappy weather had blown in a bunch of seabirds into Skidegate Inlet, and so the seawatching from the end of the airport was fantastic. Within seconds of setting up their scopes Jukka had seen a LEACH’S STORM-PETREL and a THICK-BILLED MURRE, and Cam had spotted a HORNED PUFFIN. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get onto the murre which would have been a year-bird but that’s just how it goes! Both SOOTY and SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS came within 50 meters of shore and several NORTHERN FULMARS were spotted wheeling over the surf further out. After not seeing any LONG-TAILED DUCKS on the ferry, all of a sudden it seemed like hundreds were coming in, as well as loads of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, COMMON MURRES, and PACIFIC LOONS among others like this presumed female BLACK SCOTER. Single WESTERN and BONAPARTE’S GULLS were certainly nice finds, and the number of CALIFORNIA GULLS (100+) was certainly a high count for this late in the year (thanks to the strong southerlies!). All 3 species of scoters streamed by close to land, and a late CASSIN’S AUKLET buzzed by around lunchtime. The golf-course produced a single SLATE-COLOURED JUNCO (apparently quite rare for the islands), and our only 2 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS of the trip whizzed on by. As the day winded down and the sky grew dark, that’s when the magic happened! We were all spread out birding a line of alders along a road—looking for rarities in with mixed flocks like they do in Newfoundland and Tofino. After a while, Cameron, Jess, and myself piled into the van and were about to go pick up Jukka when I got a sudden phone call from him... “CHESTNUT!!!! CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER!!!!!” Before Cameron could ask what the call was about I just yelled and gestured, “GO!! GO!! GOOO!!!!” I don’t think the Honda Odyssey had ever covered 200 meters in that short a time before but luckily the squeeling tires didn’t scare the bird. We arrived to see Jukka staring intently into the alders. He pointed it out and we all got onto it--- the first record for the Charlottes and my first ever for BC (let alone the year). In fact it was a BC first for everyone, so high-fives all around!

[Cameron marked the spot on the coastguard-base's wall-map... I hope that's erasable! It was still there a few days later when we stopped by again.]

Nov 7: Day 3 on Haida Gwaii

Today we took the ferry back to Graham Island and headed north toward Masset at the north end. Along the way we stopped at a few flooded fields near Tlell that produced some good November birds like HOODED MERGANSER, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and NORTHERN PINTAIL. Both HAIRY WOODPECKER, and PINE GROSBEAK could be heard calling in the distance (both are endemic subspecies to the Charlottes), but the best was yet to come....

Just south of the Naikoon Provincial Park headquarters, we were stopped on the side of the road, investigating a few flocks of juncos and checking for waterbirds on the Tlell River. For some reason Cameron decided to scope the spruce trees on the other side of the road--- which turned out to be a very good idea. “BRAMBLING!!! %$&#ing BRAMBLING!!!” After a panicked sprint down the road we all lined up behind Cam’s scope and took turns peering into it. When I first looked in I was shaking so much I could barely make out anything... “oh shit all I can see are robins.... no wait... got it!” Wow, a male BRAMBLING hanging out in a spruce tree with robins! My first lifer in a while and a BC bird for all present! Unfortunately it flew before we could snap a photo; Jess got a video of it flying away but that was it. Luckily we all had great looks through the scope and suddenly things were goin’ REAL well.

Up north we visited the Delkatla Inlet bird sanctuary, picking up trip birds like EURASIAN WIGEON and GADWALL. Next we headed out east, stopping at the Dixon Entrance Golf Course where I spotted a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW (less than 10 island records). We made it as far as Tow Hill, unfortunately the tide was too high to walk out towards Rose Point. We made due by marveling at the pristine rainforest and rivers that remain here in Naikoon Provincial Park. We also bumped into one of the most handsome SOOTY GROUSES around.
[photos below by Cameron Eckert]

We returned to Masset and met up with local birder Margo Hearn who kindly treated us to some coffee and of course bird-talk. We saw our only WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW of the trip at her feeder... not a zono sparrow paradise this Haida Gwaii place... 1 WT, 1 WC, and only 2 GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS on the whole trip! After birding the Old Masset area for a bit we finished off the day at the Dixon Entrance Golf Course east of town. Here we picked up a couple NORTHERN SHOVELERS, loads of WILSON’S SNIPE, a few large flocks of OREGON JUNCOS, a NORTHERN GOSHAWK, and probably best of all: a late LEAST SANDPIPER hanging out with a large flock of KILLDEER at the local navy base.

On the drive back to Skidegate we stopped at a few places near Tlell to look for the brooksi Northern Saw-whet Owl (an endemic subspecies). At one of these stops a vehicle pulled up to ask us if we were okay. When we replied, “we’re fine, just lookin’ for birds,” they said, “OH! Are you the guys doing the big year!!?!?!” I guess birding is getting pretty big(?), we also met a couple on the ferry who had heard about all this... oh my. Anyways, we did indeed call in a nice “HAIDA SAW-WHET OWL,” in fact in nearly took off Jess’s head. Both its contact call and full song were distinctly higher pitched than mainland saw-whets... very neat. Perhaps a future split?

Nov 8: Day 4 on Haida Gwaii

Because of the reported Northern Parula that was apparently hanging around in Oliver, we decided (for my sake) that this would be our last day on the islands; plus the following day (Tuesday) was the last day for almost a week that the ferry would be departing during the daytime, a major plus for seabird enthusiasts. We started off in beautiful Copper Bay, just south of Sandspit along the east coast. Down there we saw our 3rd NORTHERN GOSHAWK of the trip, our first RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, HERMIT THRUSH, and AMERICAN DIPPER of the trip. By this point we were getting pretty competitive about the trip-list so when Jess called out “dipper!” Cam, Jukka, and I sprinted all out to get there first. We didn’t want to dip on the dipper!

On our way back we birded the alders south of the golf course and I managed to relocate the CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER only 200m from the original spot. Moving north along the road our luck continued as Jess found a roosting (looks like a mainland bird!) NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL roosting in a spruce, and Jukka flushed up the Charlottes’ first ever GRASSHOPPER SPARROW!!! (no records for Alaska either)

[Presumed to be the nominate (mainland) subspecies of saw-whet--blown in with the sparrow!]

[Grasshopper Sparrow... not warbler]

We birded the airport one last time, finding most of the birds that had been there for several days. The only new bird to the trip after that was when I spotted a RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET in a mixed flock near the coast-guard base. Because of the already-mentioned competitiveness, when I called it out Cam came running as fast as he could from across the road. Poor Jukka, who was around 300 or 400m away just happened to look up in time to see Cameron sprinting towards me. Thinking he was about to miss some mega Asiatic vagrant, he put his body to the test—sprinting the entire stretch of field and pavement in heavy-duty rubber boots (while a little out of shape I might add). When he got within shouting distance he gasped, “what am I running for?!”

“Ruby-crowned Kinglet!” I winked.

Nothing like a good bird to keep you in shape! Believe it or not, Ruby-crowns are quite rare on the islands so despite Jukka’s wasted panic, it was a great bird for the list! Perhaps I was just getting him back for when he shouted “Grasshopper Warbler!!!” by accident when he initially spotted the sparrow... good thing I didn’t hear him clearly the first time!

Nov 9: The ferry back, and another drive for the ages

We woke up around 5:30am to make sure we had enough time to pack up our gear, catch the inter-islander ferry to Skidegate, then board the ferry to Prince Rupert. Turns out it wouldn’t have mattered since the ferry was delayed for a few hours thanks to a new storm that had come in. After a good nap it finally departed around 11:30am and we resumed our seabirding positions on deck. It’s quite amazing how much a new weather system can change things; instead of 25 Sooty Shearwaters and 20 Short-tails, we had over 1,500 SOOTY and only 2 or 3 SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS. Also our LONG-TAILED DUCK count went from 0 to over 7,000!!! 4,000 of those were in one flock, and 1 female decided to take a rest on the boat (pictured). Luckily after a bit of petting from her adoring fans, Cameron threw her overboard and she took flight with ease and was on her way!

[Jess with his youngsquaw]

We got-off the ferry around 6:30pm, said our goodbyes and thank-yous to Cameron for the great time, stopped at Timmy’s, and headed out.

13-15 hours later we were in Oliver...


  1. Very interesting trip report. Thank you Russell and thanks to Jukka for sending the link. I hope you will get many more year ticks before December 31st!