Today Guy Monty kindly offered to drive me to Kelowna to pick up Conor and Emily. It was a long day (18 hours) and as we wanted to get the last ferry back to Vancouver Island we had no time to bird. However, we made one little detour to Old Vernon Road to see if there were any cool raptors around and there was: Rough-legged Hawk! The drive back was good fun and we subjected the kids to 4 hours of 'The Big Year' on audio!
Friday, December 26, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
On the same day that I relocated the Bohemian Waxwings in Port Alberni, I lucked out on another winter specialty for this area; White-throated Sparrow. Two Vancouver Island birds in one day; can't be bad:)
On the 22nd of December 2008 I was working in Port Alberni. While getting some tools from my truck I heard a flock of waxwings fly over. I immediately knew these were not Cedar Waxwing, so I jumped in my truck and drove around the local area looking for berries. It was only a matter of minutes before I located the waxwings gorging themselves on Pyracantha berries. I informed the moderator for the VI Bird Alert straight away. The following day I returned, this time with a camera.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
On the 18th of November Jukka Jantunen found and reported an adult Black-tailed Gull in winter plumage on the mudflats at the south end of the Courtenay Airpark. This rare gull was photographed and Derrek Marvyn, a moderator for the Vancouver Island Bird Alert, was informed, and subsequently posted the sighting. Black-tailed Gull breed and winter around Korea, Japan and China and have only been reported twice in British Columbia. This new record is the first documented and ‘confirmed’ record for BC.
The following day many birders including Guy Monty, owner and moderator of Vancouver Island Bird Alert, headed up Island in search of the rare asian gull. I was working and was unable to chase this bird. I was irritated all day, wishing I could have gone, and waiting for news. The bad news was that it failed to show up again at the mudflats, despite many good birders searching all day long. The good news, though a little frustrating for the birders who were up in Courtenay, was that local birder Christopher Stevens had found the bird at Parksville Community Park in Parksville. Christopher, 15 years old then, recorded the bird, noting all the field marks and managed to get a record shot on his camera. Guy Monty returned home to a barrage of frantic phone messages.
The following day, Thursday November 20th, birders from all over the island, including people from the mainland moved into the community park en-masse to relocate the bird. This is possibly and probably the only opportunity to ever see this amazing, and very rare gull in BC and everyone was well aware that if they missed this bird it could be their last chance!
I stopped at the park briefly en-route to a job in Nanaimo, but the bird had not been seen. That evening I learned that there were two reports from birders saying that they had seen the bird, briefly, across the ocean. The saga continued the following day with no sightings reported. On Saturday 22nd I joined Guy Monty for another search in the Parksville area.
After a few hours searching, we decided to head along the coast to Union Bay. If nothing else it is a nice place to hang out. We didn’t find the gull, but enjoyed scanning through the many Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover and Black Turnstone until we finally found a Ruddy Turnstone! Nice bonus bird and only the second I had seen on Vancouver Island.
Saturday evening I received a phone call from Guy. He had just heard from Jukka who had relocated the bird again at Kye Bay in Comox late Saturday afternoon. We agreed that we should go the following morning. The word went out on the bird alert, again.
Sunday morning we met with some local and not so local birders at Kye bay, and no one had seen the bird. We all decided that we should divide up into teams to cover as much ground as possible. We swapped cell phone numbers so that if anyone found the gull we would call each other with the scoop. Guy and I headed out and, luckily, Guy new the area very well so we checked all possible areas that would be good for gulls.
It was about 10:00 a.m. when we stopped near Courtenay Air Park. We parked next to Portuguese Joe’s, a fish market, and set up our scopes to scan the bay. There were lots of gulls including California and Ring-billed gulls preening, and bathing out in front of us. We had only been there a few minutes when I focused on a gull that immediately stood out. This individual had a darker back than the other gulls, seemed to have a different shape and appeared to sit higher in the water. The bill was straight with a dark red tip. “Guy, I think I have the bird, look!” Guy looked into my scope and I watched carefully to see his reaction.
He turned and looked at me, he nodded; “That’s the bird”! It was said in a very calm but deliberate way. More like a tremor really. I knew he wanted this bird bad. We both really wanted this bird! I missed it in 2004 when one showed up at Midway Beach, Washington. I was living in The Okanagan Valley at the time, and four of us headed south to see this rare gull. We missed it of course but it was my first trip to Washington so Heermann’s Gulls, Wandering Tattlers, Surfbirds and godwits kept a big smile on my face.
Guy took two steps over to his scope and focused on the bird. I leaned in and looked through mine again. There was a pause and the relief was silent for a few seconds! With both of us staring at the bird it lifted its wings then, fanned its tail. It had a deep black band with a pearl like fringe. It was incredible! I looked over at Guy; the look on his face was priceless. Pure joy. Then came the shouting and jumping up and down!
After a few short, and very ‘graphically descriptive’ words about this asian beauty, we got a grip of ourselves. We had to start calling people. Guy got on the phone and I got back on the bird. I couldn’t see it. I started to sweat. This bird had shown itself and disappeared. This can’t happen again? Where is it? While scanning I could hear that Guy had already called three people, who had in turn called another three people, and then the first car pulled in next to us. Doors’ flying open, excited and desperate looks on each of their faces. Guy looked over at me and my look said it all; the bird was nowhere to be seen.
We started looking and more people arrived, setting up scopes, asking the same question. “Where’s the bird?” There were twelve birders lined up and more arriving. There animated looks were turning to frustrated looks and even cynical. I had taken one photo, which I quickly looked at and at least you could tell it was the gull. I scanned again. Minutes passed when Guy shouted that he had spotted the bird; it was on the other side of the bay. Everyone got on the bird, and as it seemed content and undisturbed, we all jumped in our cars and drove around to get a better look. The gull flew around a few times putting on a dazzling display much to the delight of a very captivated audience. This bird, this Black-tailed Gull, is the first confirmed and documented record of this species in British Columbia. It is also Guy Monty’s 400th British Columbian species. Congratulations to Guy and a big thanks to Jukka Januten who found, identified and reported this bird.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
"There is a ghost, so the legend goes, that lives high in the misty mountains, a phantom that lurks in the shadows and hollows of the alpine rocks. It resides there to haunt our dreams and devour our souls." -Rich Mooney
Following two failed attempts at finding White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mount Arrowsmith, it was time to change the approach. After researching local day trips that might produce a ptarmigan, it was decided that Mount Cain was the best bet. My brother in-law Justin Lynch, who is a seasoned alpine hiker, agreed to join me in my futile quest once again. Our day started at 04:00 a.m. when we pulled out of my driveway and headed north. Justin had stayed the night, which afforded us another half hour of sleep that morning. The reason for our early departure was that Mount Cain is located near Woss, which is a 3-½ hour drive from my home in Parksville.
We took the main logging road westbound off the Highway 19 and arrived at the ski lodge at 7:30 a.m. Mount Cain is situated inside of Schoen Lake Regional Park. At its base the mountain’s elevation is 1,311 m / 4,301 ft. and at the summit 1,768 m / 5,800 ft. We prepared our bags and gear and began the ascent along the main trail. Within a short period of time I began to feel the climb and wondered, “What have I got myself into again?”
The hardest part was, actually, hiking up the first ski run and seeing how far we still had to go! Shortly we reached a switchback road that was not only more interesting, it was also remarkably easier on our legs. Once we reached the alpine proper, the scenery and habitat was a welcomed distraction, and I forgot all about my aches and pains. After a short break we began making our way across a huge boulder field that was covered with a light dusting of snow. Once we were across, we had a better vantage point and could then think about coming up with some kind of plan to maximize our time and effort. We were basically at the bottom of a huge bowl with Mount Cain in front of us, and to the right, Mount Able.
We skirted the bottom of Mount Able and followed an imaginary line midway up toward Mount Cain. At different times we split up to take higher and lower paths to cover more ground. The terrain was fascinating but difficult to negotiate, as we were either scrambling over boulders or walking along the screed, always leaning to one side to compensate for the angle of the ground. We made regular stops and though I felt absolutely fine, my feet were beginning to get really cold in my inadequate footwear. Luckily the weather was mild and it was more of a discomfort than a problem.
It took about an hour before we were at the approximate centre of Mount Cain, where the alpine rocks connected with some trees. We continued ascending again and within ten minutes Justin said, “Hey, this is interesting!” He pointed downward to a fallen tree, which lay in front of us. This snow-covered tree was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen! There were footprints. Ptarmigan footprints! We scanned the immediate vicinity with trepidation and in a small opening through the trees was a plateau, absolutely covered in tracks and they were fresh!
Though I rarely use tape callback, in this instance I did. And then, like music to my ears; keeek…keeeek…keeeeeeeeerk, boomed from our left and below our position! Justin and I froze; a few seconds passed and my jaw finally began to close.
We both agreed that the sound came from below us but we needed to maneuver ourselves through some small trees to be able to look down a huge steep slope. Once in position we heard the bird call again and we were, definitely, looking in the right area. I scanned with my binoculars slowly and precisely, looking for any kind of lump, when I noticed a plump rounded shape. I steadied myself and stared so hard that my eyes began to water. I had subconsciously stopped breathing and began to notice the pumping in my chest. My elbows were locked in tight and I adjusted my feet to compensate for the loose and crumbly rock beneath my feet, and like magic, a White-tailed Ptarmigan materialized. I could see the beak, the eye and then in moved! “Got it!”
I quickly passed the binoculars over to Justin who focused on the mumbled directions I gave;I knew he was on the bird when his expression changed from puzzlement to exhilaration. “Wait”, he said, “there’s three!” I looked again and tucked in by some vegetation were two more Ptarmigan. We hurriedly but cautiously moved down the slope to attain a better position to observe them. As we did a fourth bird flew by us, which had been hidden about forty feet above where we had been standing. Using some of the small trees as cover we descended to within thirty feet of the birds.
The Ptarmigan were obviously aware of us but seemed content at the distance we were keeping. For the next forty minutes we kept still, watching these alpine specialties go about their business. Their comfort level seemed to increase as they started feeding on small shoots and buds in front of us. With all the excitement and photo opportunities taken care of we relaxed.
As someone once said; “When you do see a Ptarmigan, you know you’ve earned it”, and we had. The birds eventually moved over to the large boulders to sun themselves and preen. It was then we decided to make a move back down the mountain, victorious, invigorated and humbled by this wild place. The final count was 12 individuals, some close to full winter plumage the remainder a mixed, blotchy assortment of grey and white. With the click of a magician’s fingers, it seems, we were lined up at McDonalds, ordering junk food, breathing in fumes and adjusting to the sounds of suburbia. “Did we really see them?” I looked down at my camera. Yes we did!
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Date: 26-29th September 2008
A three-day trip down to Westport for another pelagic produced lifers for both Lori and I, and a mega rarity that must be considered a once-in-a-lifetime bird! We left Vancouver Island at 12:30 p.m. from Swatz Bay after missing our spot on the 6:30 a.m. Port Angeles ferry. It was our fault, as we didn't think we needed to make a reservation on the early boat. We were wrong, and it was only the start of a very long day. After nearly two hours at the US customs, we finally got on the I-5 and hit every traffic jam from Bellingham to Olympia! We arrived in Westport at about 8:00 p.m., ate and crashed out. We were up at 5:00 a.m. the following morning and down at the boat by 6:20 a.m. With our motion sickness ear patches working their magic, we got ourselves comfortable, breathed in the sweet morning sea air and awaited the first tubenose.
It was only about twenty minutes until the first of four lifers popped up in front of us: Cassin’s Auklet! Though this is a regular bird on most of the trips, we had previously missed it, only one had been seen but, alas, we did not get on it quick enough. No matter, on this trip Cassin’s Auklet were popping up all over; with great looks at them in flight and on the water. Pink-footed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater and Parasitic Jaeger kept us on our toes until the first Black-footed Albatross arrived. There were lots of oooohhhs and aaahhhhs, and righly so. Everyone on board enjoyed seeing these charismatic nomads of the ocean glide by effortlessly, watching us with almost quizzical smiles.
Someone screaming Buller’s Shearwater snapped me out of my transfixed state at watching these graceful giant seabirds. Buller's Shearwater was lifer number two for this trip and a much sought after one at that.
Time ticked by; everyone settled in to the rhythm of the boat until we reached the edge of the continental shelf, about 40 miles west of the main land, where we stopped and chummed for a while. Fork-tailed Storm Petrel arrived and daintily pirouetted across in front of us. Shortly after, a slightly more ominous character graced us with its presence. I, for one, was a very happy camper: Long-tailed Jaeger! Before going on this trip, I tried to dismiss this sleek pirate of the sea from my psychological wish list, knowing it was well past peak time for them. I failed miserably and new I would secretly pout when I dipped out. However, only tears of joy would be spilled on this trip, and the fact that this bird was an adult in breeding plumage made it all the more exceptional.
If only I could relive the moments that followed the jaeger sighting. It went a little like this: We watched as this Long-tailed Jaeger cruised by the boat and disappeared into the distance. At that time, I was standing with Bill Tweit. Bill is a seasoned guide with the Wesport Pelagic crew and has been participating on board since 1977. Anyhow, seconds later another bird came from the same direction. It wasn't the jaeger. Bill began to fidget and was mumbling until finally he screamed:
“Pterodroma Petrel, Pterodroma Petrel-this is Hawaiian group, photos!"
"Everyone get on this bird!!!"
With only two Pelagic trips under my belt, I already new there was no way I was going to take my bins off this bird. I raised my camera in my left hand and blindly shot off about thirty photos. The bird coasted around once, giving us killer looks from above and below it, banked away and was gone. Though there are records from California and Oregon (about 20), this was a first for Washington! After some anxious minutes of scanning, we all settled down. Luckily, one of the group, Matthew Pike, was quick enough to get several photos showing all of the field marks. My photos turned out to be all of the sky. The atmosphere on the boat was electric; we had just seen a Hawaiian Petrel! We all celebrated with lots of shouting and laughing. We couldn't of asked for more, but we got more; Lori picked up another lifer ten minutes later: Sabine’s Gull!
|Hawaiian Petrel by Mathew Pike|
Back on dry land, Lori and I headed out to Tokeland Marina. We enjoyed the comings and goings of about 800 Marbled Godwit, until finally heading back to the hotel. That evening we celebrated with a nice meal at our favourite Grayland pub, where I proposed marriage to Lori-she said YES!
The next morning we poked around the rocks behind our hotel where we found a Wandering Tattler. After packing up we birded around Ocean Shores, Bottle Beach and John's River before heading to Bellingham, where we stayed the night. Up early again, we checked a few places such as the Lummi Flats, Lake Terrel and Sandy Point, before heading back to the border. We finished our trip with 107 species.
|Birding with the locals|
Thursday, September 18, 2008
A worth while twitch at The Englishman River Estuary today produced my first Lark Sparrow for Vancouver Island. Local birder Christopher Stevens located the bird yesterday while birding the Shelly Road side. He immediately posted this to the local VI Bird Group. He gave great directions and the bird was in the exact spot he had described. Thanks Chris!
Sunday, September 14, 2008
This shot was taken at full zoom and though a poor photo, I am glad that this camera can at least get a record shot when needed. I found nine individuals feeding close to the shrubby verge along the main channel at Holden Creek, Nanaimo.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
A trip to The Englishman River Estuary today produced another new Vancouver Island bird for me: American Golden-Plover. To be exact there were two, but it took some time to scrutinize one of them as it was, to me, looking more like a Pacific Golden-plover. After getting some other opinions from local birders it was confirmed as a American. The 2nd bird (bottom) did look much more golden but the primary projection was too long for Pacific and there was, after much agonizing, four visible primaries past the tertials. No complaints from me, I stand corrected, it was great to observe and learn a little more about these birds.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
After a mornings' birding at Deep Bay I stopped at Nile Creek to see what was around. To my delight a juvenile Franklin's Gull was present. These gulls are annual but always a treat to find.
Monday, September 1, 2008
I returned to Columbia Beach today, hoping to get another look at the Red Knot. Three other birders were already there but had not seen the bird. I decided to just stay in one spot and hope for the best. I continually looked through the Black-bellied Plovers but came up with the same result every time. They were Black-bellied Plovers. News that a Ruddy Turnstone had been seen kept me busy scanning through all the Black Turnstone. I was only there about 20 minutes before this attractive shorebird flew in. The other great bird that put on a show was a Parasitic Jaeger. It made several sorties on the local gulls before finally settling down further up the beach to preen. No knot but a wonderful morning.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
This was the last bird I expected to see today! I headed into Nanaimo to check out shorebirds at Holden Creek. There were birds there but nothing to get my heart rate going like this bird. It was when I was approaching Parksville on my way home I received a phone call from Lori giving me the news. "Red Knot at Columbia Beach!" I was home three minutes later and Lori and Nolan jumped in the car and we were off! En-route Lori explained that a 'possible Ruff' had been seen earlier. Guy Monty, a local biologist and wildlife consultant went and checked out the report. His reply was there was no Ruff but the Red Knot was pretty sweet! It only took about 10 minutes to get to Columbia Beach and about 30 seconds to see the bird. The Red Knot was obligingly feeding in one of the pools directly in front of the parking area. It was defiantly as skittish bird and would not allow any close approach. No matter. It was a 'lifer' for us all and a very much wanted one at that!
Saturday, July 12, 2008
While carrying out breeding evidence surveys for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas on Mount Arrowsmith, my brother-in-law, Justin Lynch and I discovered a family group of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. We ascended Mount Arrowsmith, beggining at the trail located on the main Cameron logging road at 7:00 .am. After reaching the saddle, we descended to Emerald Lake, which was still frozen and then continued up the north side. We then followed a route around the bowl, which surrounded the lake to a snow bridge, then back to the saddle. It took approximately seven hours, including the time to return to our vehicle.
Our main goal was to locate and confirm breeding evidence of White-tailed Ptarmigan in the area. Unfortunately we were unable to locate any. We did, however, find a group of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Our first indication was from a vocalization I wasn’t familiar with. We were about half way around the lake when I heard a ‘finch like’ call! I looked up and followed a bird down to where it landed on a rock. Though the bird was backlit and about 60ft away I did pick up on some field marks and called, “Rosy-Finch!” The bird then flew, which was frustrating but luck was on our side and we followed the bird to the edge of some snow, to find an adult male and two juveniles! Within about 2 minutes we confirmed two juveniles, two males and one female. They were all feeding on some small seeds, probably blown off the hills that were scattered on the snow. It was a very exciting encounter and new North American species for me, as well as the first documented confirmation of the species breeding in the area.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Another early morning for me brings moans and groans and lots of coffee. 3:00 a.m. seems like a good idea the night before, however, if I was going to hear a Marbled Murrelet on Mount Arrowsmith I needed to be on site at dawn. My second serious attempt to hear this small alcid failed again, though I didn’t go completely un-rewarded. Hermit Thrush chorused from the hills along with American Robin and Dark-eyed Junco. At 5:00 a.m. I decided to try tooting for Northern Pygmy-Owl, as this species had evaded me in my survey area. Gray Jays made an appearance first, investigating this strange noise, followed by something I didn’t expect: American Three-toed Woodpecker! (adult male).
Though I had dreamed of adding this species to my Vancouver Island checklist, I didn’t really count on seeing one. But there it was. It landed about thirty metres away on a snag and began to make its way to the top. Raising my binoculars I gasped! I have seen many of these woodpeckers in the interior, in the Okanagan Valley, but none on the island. The bird then flew across the road to another snag. I watched for a minute then quickly opened the trunk of my car to set up my scope. As I fumbled with my scope and camera the bird took flight up the hill and was gone. I marked the location with my GPS then wrote down some notes. Two minutes later another bird vocalized, this one was a Northern Pygmy-Owl! My sighting was posted on the BC Vancouver Island Bird Forum and the following day, Sandy McRuer, a birder from Port Alberni, went to check it out. Luckily, Sandy relocated the bird and also spotted the female. Another good record for the atlas.
Friday, May 30, 2008
One of the most unforgettable times birding with Guy Monty was a trip to northern Vancouver Island. Guy was surveying a large bog for the presence of breeding Sandhill Cranes and invited me along to help. We drove up to Port Hardy, enjoying the Black Bears, as they casually grazed the roadside fringes along the way. After a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, we set off for the helipad.
|A clear-cut top up|
The last time I had been up in a helicopter was 1989, during my time in the British Army;, this trip was definitely going to be less stressful! We met with our pilot and boarded a 206 Jet-Ranger. Guy sat up front with the pilot, using his GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) to coordinate the search, while I sat in the back with a very simple job description: spot Sandhill Cranes! Sandhill Cranes are a big bird, similar, but larger than a Great Blue Heron, and have a gray plumage with dull red skin on their crown. Vocally, they are unmistakable, making a gar-oo-oo call when in flight; a sound I was very familiar with from living in Alberta.
|Sandhill Crane nest|
|Sandhill Crane eggs|
Our day was spent running transects over a large area of bog and on our second sweep I spotted a flying crane and pointed it out to Guy and the pilot, receiving a big thumbs-up! We circled the area but were unable to see a nest. The remainder of the day produced more sightings and Guy spotted a nest with two eggs. We landed the helicopter, took some record photos and recorded GPS coordinates at the nest site. The only small technicality we faced that day was that we did not have the correct wrench at a fuel station that was located in one of the clear-cut areas. Luckily, our pilot contacted another helicopter that was working near us and within thirty minutes we were on our way.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
This morning I decided to walk the Top Bridge trail. It was the first time this spring I had done that and I wasn't disappointed. There is a good selection of both deciduous and coniferous forest to walk through, plus access points to the river and and open scrub. There was a great selection of birds with two new species added for the year; Willow Flycatcher and a pair of Spotted Sandpiper ,who displayed right in front of me as I was taking notes.
Species list today:
Northern Flicker (top)
Willow Flycatcher (bottom)
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Northern Flicker (top)
Willow Flycatcher (bottom)
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Sunday, May 11, 2008
I took the opportunity for a mornings birding to Mount Arrowsmith. The weather was overcast at first but the sun broke through late morning. I was unable to reach the summit as the road was still heavy with snow. I reached km20 and birded my way back down. Species of note were 4 Sooty Grouse calling, 2 Hairy Woodpecker, American Dipper (nest) and 2 Gray Jays.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
A few hours spent at the gravel pit in Parksville today were really worth it. There were lots of warblers around and I discovered a Hairy Woodpecker nest. The nest cavity was situated about 27ft up an old Red Alder snag. Both male and female were visiting the site about every 3-5minutes with food. The young inside were very vocal all the time I was there (45minutes). Occasionally the male would fly to another snag and drum, while the female drummed on the nest tree, right next to the cavity!
En-route home I stopped in at the Englishman River Estuary and watched a shorebird flock feed on the mudlats: Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Today I checked a few areas to see what migrants had shown up. I checked Parker Road in Qualicum first where I was greeted by a very co-operative Ruffed Grouse which posed for me as I clicked away with my camera. Next I went to The Little Qualicum Fish Hatchery where I was tripping over Chipping Sparrows! Pasific-slope Flycatcher, Hammond's Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Cassin's Vireo, Hutton's Vireo and Warbling Vireo were all present.
The birding was going good so I made a few more stops: Rivers Edge Road in Parkville produced some of the above plus MacGillivray's Warbler and Great Horned Owl. The Englishman River Estuary was fairly quiet though there were 40 Brant at the beach access and 16 Least Sandpiper feeding on the mud flats. Finally I checked Blower Road where California Quail and Ring-necked Pheasant finished the day off nicely.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
The Brant Festival Big Day Challenge: ( Rick Hilton,Erika Holland and Rich Mooney)
Area: Nanoose-Deep Bay
Team name: 'The Rowletts Owletts Tooters' 90 species
SPECIES LIST:California Quail
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
American Herring Gull
Great Horned Owl
Saturday, March 15, 2008
My first experience in California was a stopover in San Francisco en-route to London in January 2003. I managed to sneak out of the airport for two hours via the courtesy bus, which dropped me off right next to the City of Burlingname-Bird Sanctuary. Walking along the Bay trail, I was eager to see some new species. The first of my walk was a Willet flying fast over the water. Then a Brown Pelican, diving for fish. There were, literally, thousands of shorebirds huddled on the beach, and on the rocks were Black Turnstones, another new species for me. With time ticking away and paranoia about missing my flight setting in, I made one fast lap around the marsh boardwalks. Within minutes I excitedly added Snowy Egret, California Towhee and Black Phoebe. Time had run out and I made my way back to the Marriott Hotel for the return trip to the airport. The journey back to foggy old London was long but I submerged myself in National Geographic and looked at all the possible birds I could see in California. There was one thing I was certain of, I would return, but when?
It wasn’t until 2008, five years later, that I received an email from Trevor Forder inviting me to California; how fantastic! Trevor, a great friend and birding buddy, had a business meeting down in San Francisco and was, cleverly, turning it into a birding trip. After I got the green light from my partner Lori, it was all systems go! We had a few months to organize the logistics and read up on some of the California birding guides.
Our route took us down the I-5 Highway, through Washington and Oregon, then west to Crescent City and south along the California Coast. From there we headed east to Redding. Back on the I-5, south to Bakersville then southeast to Tehachapi, which is west of the Mojave Desert. From here, we headed south down Highway14 and attempted to cross the San Gabriel Mountains into Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the road was closed because of snow. So, we backtracked and braved the L.A. traffic down to Newport Bay. We then followed the coast highway up to Ventura, then out to the Carrizo Plain, Mount Pinos and Santa Cruz Island. North along the I-5 to Merced and Livermore. We proceeded around and through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Rafael. From San Rafael we headed back onto the I-5 and home.
27th February 2008
Trip day had arrived. I was set to take the Duke Point ferry to Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. Trevor picked me up at 8:50 p.m. and we headed south! We arrived in Olympia, Washington at 12:40 a.m. and stayed in a Super 8, very tired.
28th February 2008 (day 1)
We departed Olympia at 6:10 a.m. and entered Oregon 7:50 a. m. At Grants Pass (12:50 p.m.), we drove west along the I-99 Highway and entered into California. After a quick stop, we headed down to Crescent City (3:00 p.m.) then south along Route 101. Our reason for this detour from the I-5 was with motive; Arctic Loon! This bird had been reported at Stone Lagoon, just north of Arcata.
Though we spent most of our time driving, we did make a few stops, soaking in such delights as Red-shouldered Hawk and Acorn Woodpecker. Another pit stop at Redwood Creek Picnic Area produced my first lifer, Wrentit. Shortly after this we got to Stone Lagoon and instantly found the Arctic Loon. It was very close to shore and preening. In hindsight, we were extremely lucky, as the bird immediately moved away and was gone within ten minutes of us seeing it. With our target bird safely in the bag, we headed east to Redding for the night.
29th February 2008 (day 2)
Our first port of call was the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, which is located conveniently just off the I5. The refuge is made up from six sub refuges covering an area of 35,000 acres, including grassland, marshes, ponds and seasonal wetlands.
It was thrilling to see so many Greater White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese and White-faced Ibis. While cruising the autoroute, Western Scrub Jays called from the willows and White-tailed Kites circled above the fields. Our target species was Ross’s Goose but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any.
Next we travelled to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge where we tried for the Ross’s Goose again. No luck here, but worth a look with great wetlands to enjoy. We, then, headed into the Yolo Farmlands, a good place for Mountain Plover we heard! En-route, we picked up two very nice raptors: Ferruginous Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk. As we drove on, both of us were scanning in earnest, not only the ploughed fields for plovers but the trees too, as we were now well inside the range for ….”STOP..Yellow-billed Magpie!” I am sure our road maneuver was illegal, but worth it for this very cool endemic!
We spent a lot of time scanning for the plovers; little did we know they were just around the corner, but I will save that for later. Anyhow, with no luck on the ploughed fields we made a quick stop at The Yolo County Grasslands Regional Park. Our quarry, was a small brown bird that likes to nest in ground squirrel burrows; the Burrowing Owl. Alas, we were out of luck and out of daylight. Time to move on, move south, back on the I-5. We pulled into a Motel 8 in Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield, at midnight and collapsed.
01st March 2008 (day 3)
The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and though we were both tired, we had to get up and out as we were chasing another tough bird: the Le Conte’s Thrasher. The long drive the night before was worth it, as our destination would only be about a forty-minute drive that morning. Jawbone Canyon is known as one of the best places in the area to find Le Conte’s Thrasher. The only problem was the wind; it was brutal. On top of the gusting, there was a dirt bike rally, with 125 Yamahas whizzing this way and that. Though we got a few nice birds; Sage Sparrow, a Say’s Phoebe and Prairie Falcon, we had no luck locating the thrasher. We had one other place to try for these shy elusive birds, so we decide to push on.
|It had to be done:)|
We headed south on Highway 14, then along Route 138 to Route 2 where we attempted to cross the San Gabriel Mountains. After we bought our mandatory park pass, we started to make our way across, only to find the road was closed due to heavy snow. A quick pit stop produced Mountain Chickadee and Clark’s Nutcracker but that was about it. We turned around and investigated a few different side roads before braving the Los Angeles traffic, to get to our next stop; Upper Newport Bay.
|San Gabrial Mountains|
Upper Newport Bay, also known as Back Bay, is the biggest estuary in southern California. When we arrived, there were Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit feeding in the mudflats. Also, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and Black Skimmer were resting in the sun. Our first surprise was a very small one: Allen’s Hummingbird. At first it stayed just far enough away to torment us, but it quickly moved perches and landed about 10 feet away. We then began to search the scrub chaparral for an extremely localized bird. Trevor and I separated for about ten minutes when I decided to turn back and see if Trevor had any luck. I looked down to where our car was parked, to see Trevor walking back towards me with a spring in his step. We cut along another small path and looked across some very thick scrub. About ten feet away, a small bird began moving up to the top of a bush, scalding as it did. California Gnatcatcher! After a few missed birds we were ready for a good one, and we got it.
Back at the hotel we caught up with our notes, showered, went out for some dinner and then planned the next day’s itinerary; then turned in for an early night.
02nd March 2008 (day 4)
After a good night sleep and breakfast, we made our way back to Newport Back Bay. The tide was high, but still lots of shorebirds around. As we approached the car park, we could see a woman scanning with her binoculars towards our car. Immediately, a stocky brown bird with a curve bill shot across in front of us. We parked the car and spoke to the woman and she confirmed our hunch: California Thrasher. We waited to see if it would show again, but the bird remained hidden. It turns out, that the woman was leading a local Audubon’s birding group and gave us a good tip and map on where to find another California Thrasher. We birded for another half hour adding Clapper Rail and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow.
Thirty minutes later we were at The Santiago Oaks Regional Park. Not only did she tell us where to go, but she also gave us precise directions to where the bird was holding territory. After scrutinizing our scribbled map, we decided we were in the right place and, we most certainly were; there in front of us was a singing California Thrasher! Five minutes after that a Rufous-crowned Sparrow popped up.
Things were starting to go our way, and as we made our way out of the park we added yet another lifer for both of us: Oak Titmouse.
Back on the coast we checked Huntington Beach for Snowy Plover. No plovers for us, though a similar looking Sanderling made us look twice! The beach was quiet for birds, but it was nice to see Western Gulls, Caspian Terns and more Brown Pelicans.
Further up the coast, we checked the Bolsa Chica State Park. The shorebirds there were an amazing sight. We scanned for Snowy Plover but came up, again empty handed. A dancing Reddish Egret was a great bonus bird. It was cool watching this large member of the heron family dash around in the shallows; spreading its wings while it hunted for fish. Other trip birds were added here such as Pectoral Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover.
Next we decided to try for a rare Thick-billed Kingbird that had been reported at Banning Park. It took a while to find this inner city park and all the time we continued our scans for Spotted Dove. We never did find the dove, and we looked everywhere! The park itself was busy with lots of people; some of which looked a little intimidating, to say the least. It was the first time we had felt a little uncomfortable being in L.A. We did two quick laps of the park; scanning the wires and trees for the bird but failed to locate it. “Ok, let’s get out of here!”
Not locating the dove was giving us some frustration so we decided to follow the coastal route through Palos Verdes as we had read that the birds were seen there occasionally. No luck. Lots of Mourning Dove and Eurasian Collared-Dove but no Spotted. We stayed on Highway 1 and travelled through Malibu and onto Ventura, which would be our home for the next two nights.
03rd March 2008 (day 5)
This morning we headed north on Highway 33 to Maricopa, Carrizo Plain. Our goal was to see the Le Conte’s Thrasher. This lush and scenic road took us through some really amazing oak ravines. We were stopped at an automated traffic light, that was set to control vehicles through a tunnel, when I heard a call! I jumped out of the car and looked up. There, raising its crest and calling, was another new species for me: Nuttall’s Woodpecker.
Following the instructions from the Lane Birdfinding Guide of Southern California, we made our way to a pullout near Petroleum Club Road, Carrizo Plain. This wash was perfect with no dirt bikes, no wind and best of all no No Trespassing signs. We were only out of the car a few minutes before we heard a thrasher singing. We moved slowly through the low brush, stopped and listened? Silence. We did spot a Northern Mockingbird on a wire, which is not a good sign, as they are fantastic mimics. But we weren’t convinced the mockingbird was there to trick us. Slowly we walked back to the car and heard it sing again-then stop. Puzzled, we walked out again with no success. We returned to the road and watched a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flit around in a bush for a while.
Time for plan B. We both agreed that we had heard the thrasher but were confused about direction. We decided to walk the other side of the road and see if we had any more luck. Cautiously, we walked, stopped and listened. As we approached the road, over a small rise we found the bird. It only stayed in sight for a few seconds then jumped to the ground with its tail held high in the air, then disappeared into the brush. Luckily, only for a minute, then returned to its perch and began to sing again. Le Conte’s Thrasher, YES!
Our euphoria was enjoyed with lots of high fives and a great feeling of relief. What is next? Well, we decided to go and check out Soda Lake. Soda Lake is a shallow, mineral-encrusted pan several thousand acres in extent in the middle of the Carrizo Plain. This area is excellent habitat for wintering Sandhill Cranes which can be seen in large numbers from October through to March. We only made it about five miles along the Soda Lake Road when we decided to turn round. The scenery and the birds were great but the road was terrible. We did, however, get to see Mountain Bluebirds, Loggerhead Shrikes and Horned Larks.
Birding trips like this require a lot of energy, focus and obsessive drive; if you want to see your target birds; which happen to be spread out over a huge area and in very different terrain. So, today we were both feeling pretty good about life, and decided to take our time and enjoy the birds. We took a leisurely drive through the Los Padres National Forest, stopping at the Castle Crags Condor site, one of the most reliable places to spot California Condors back in the day.
|Los Padres National Forest|
We continued on past the Apache Saddle Ranger Station then turned and began our ascent of Mount Pinos. As we made our way up we stopped periodically to listen for the sweet sound of -“QUEark!” Regrettably, we heard no such sound, nor would we for the remainder of the trip. We were just a little early for Mountain Quail. However, about half way up, while listening intently we did notice something tapping. We both followed the sound that was near by and began to look for movement. And there, at the bottom of a Pine tree were two extremely awesome White-headed Woodpeckers! Male and female. We watched for a while, but they didn’t seem concerned at all about our presence, though when I finally decided to get out my camera they moved on. This was a huge treat, as I know many people have missed seeing this unpredictable specialty. Back in Ventua, we checked out the harbour, and enjoyed the huge spectacle of watching Brown Pelicans going to roost on the rocks. Whimbrel and Willets made there way along the shore and we made our way back to the hotel.
04th March 2008 (day 6)
Santa Cruz Island is situated west of Ventura and is part of the Channel Islands National Park. It is home to many species but most famous is the Island Scrub-Jay, endemic to Santa Cruz Island. We arrived at Ventura harbour in plenty of time and set off just after 9:00 a.m. As we left the harbour we picked up a new species for our trip: Wandering Tattler. The pelagic birds were almost absent as we crossed the ocean. There were, however, small groups of Surf Scoters, huge rafts of Western Grebe and a few cormorants along the way. We also saw some interesting mammals including one Humpback Whale, seven Gray Whale and many California Sea Lion.
When we arrived on Santa Cruz Island it only took ten minutes to locate our first Island Scrub-Jay. This was fortunate, as our guide had informed us that they might not be that straightforward to locate during breeding season. We were immensely happy not to have to work hard for that bird and spent our time discovering the many trails. Orange-crowned Warbler and Wrentit were our companions while we explored this beautiful island. After returning from Santa Cruz we headed north to Merced.
05th March 2008 (day 7)
This morning’s excursion was not included in our original itinerary, but was added because we got a good tip from a local birder. As we were leaving Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, earlier in the week, we got talking to a local birder; and after a little Q & A, he told us of a Long-eared Owl roost at Mercy Hot Springs. I phoned Lori back on Vancouver Island and she, kindly, Googled the place and checked the Rare Bird Alert. It all looked good, the owls had been reported and Lori looked at a satellite view of the springs and said, “There’s nothing. I mean, nothing there except a small stand of trees!” Perfect. We were going! And little did we know, but we were in for an amazing days' birding.
As we headed down the main road to Mercy Hot Springs, we got our first look at a Cassin’s Kingbird! It was, admittedly, a stringy look; as it flew from a wire and out of sight. We did get better looks at it further down the road, where it boldly perched on a barbwire fence. When we arrived at Mercy Hot Springs, there was nobody around. There were a few rental trailers set within some trees. We knocked on a few doors with no luck, until finally a man showed up to inform us that the owners require $10 each to look around on their property. A little fishy, I think, but we agreed. After collecting the cash, he then told us that he'd heard the owls were gone. We smiled and nodded and began to search. I went through the centre of the trees, while Trevor stayed on the outside path. After a few minutes I poked my head through the shrubs to see how Trevor was making out? He, of course, had a big grin on his face. “So, how many have you seen?”
I clambered through the bushes, walked briskly along the path and looked up. There were at least 9 Long-eared Owls looking back at us! They seemed extremely alert, as it was still early morning. A few more were moving around in the middle of the trees, so we decided to back off cautiously, so as not to flush them. After taking a few photographs at distance we left them in peace.
We followed the same road back out and decided to make some stops and scan for Burrowing Owl. On our way to the Long-eared Owl roost, we drove through some prime farmland habitat. In particular, an area that had a colony of Ground Squirrels near some old discarded farm machinery; which would act as great perches for these diurnal owls. Our instincts paid off and sitting tight and almost invisible next to a burrow were two, Burrowing Owl. We were having a great morning and there was more to come. Just up the road, we noticed a huge blackbird flock, which included Tri-Colored Blackbird (Trevor’s lifer), Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird and Brewer’s Blackbird.
With luck on our side, we headed out to The San Luis Wildlife Refuge where we got to see at least 150 Sandhill Crane and a Great Horned Owl on a nest. Next we made a quick stop at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, where we found another Great Horned Owl, more Tri-colored Blackbird and a huge flock of Ross’s Goose. We then headed to Livermore; east of San Francisco, where we were staying the night and then headed south down Mines Road. The scenery was fantastic with green rolling hills and lots of Oak Woodland. There were Wild Turkey, Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, Lesser Goldfinch and Phainopepla.
We stayed in Livermore and got some great news from Lori, back on Vancouver Island. Lori checked a California Rare Bird Alert and informed us that 200 Mountain Plover had been reported north of us on Route 113, just south of Dixon. This is one of the areas we had checked on our way down. We had almost given up on looking for these birds and now we had a decision to make. Do we go back to Mines Road as planned tomorrow or go for the plovers? No brainer!
06th March 2008 (day 8)
As we travelled along Route 113 we were looking for a sign. The plovers were reported near a sign on a busy road, which read Enjoy California Lamb. We spotted the sign but had nowhere to pull over. We continued on until we could u-turn and then headed back to the sign where we found a small pull off. We both got out of the car and looked in the fields. Nothing. At the same moment we both turned around and checked the fields across the road. There they were, covering the ground like moving clods of dirt: Mountain Plovers! We both counted 161 birds. The intensity and frustration brought on from searching for them over the last week immediately turned to relief and elation. We had worked hard to find them and it was worth it. What a fantastic bird. Back on Mines Road we checked all the Lesser Goldfinch for a rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch, but didn’t find any. Many of the birds from previous days birding were seen again, though we added Golden Eagle and White-throated Swift. Next we travelled to Palo Alto and had an enjoyable time looking at all the shorebirds and waterfowl. It was interesting seeing Canvasback dabbling in the shallows, their heads covered in mud. With light fading, we headed through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Rafael. As we, or should I say Trevor, was there on business; we booked into the Embassy Hotel. It was our only luxurious treat on the trip and it was welcomed and well timed. Instead of having to walk to a gas station for coffee, we were able to watch as a chef custom made our breakfast.
07th March 2008 (day 9)
As Trevor’s first conference wasn’t until the evening we headed out to Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Point Reyes National Seashore offers some of the finest birdwatching in the United States. More than 70,000 acres of habitat harbor an incredible variety of bird life. Nearly 490 avian species have been observed in the park and on adjacent waters.
The day was spent exploring a few, of the many, scenic trails. The first was a walk out to Chimney Rock, where we added some new species to the trip list: Rock Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Black Oystercatcher and Brant. The scenery was breathtaking, with huge beaches and a rugged coastline. We, then, made our way to the lighthouse where we got to see Gray Whale, rocks covered in Common Murre and our first Peregrine Falcon.
Finally, we went down to Abbott’s Lagoon, where we had an enjoyable hike along trails, around the lagoon and over some sand dunes where we, eventually, located a small group of Snowy Plover.
|Chimney Rock Point|
|Point Reyes lighthouse|
08th March 2008 (day 10)
We made one more trip out to Point Reyes that morning, checking some of the marsh habitat where we added Virginia Rail. Back at the hotel we prepared the vehicle for the trip home and then Trevor went to his final meeting, while I walked a local trail. There was a Clark’s Grebe, Cooper’s Hawk, White-tailed kites and a group of four Acorn Woodpeckers to keep me busy. We departed San Rafael at 5:00 p.m. and followed the I-5 north, adding a Barn Owl en-route. We ended up staying in some sleazy motel somewhere in Oregon, and after a few restless hours of sleep, we headed back out on the road. I don’t remember much of the journey, as I fell asleep, but we ended up back at Tsawwassen ferry terminal by about 2:00 p.m. and caught the next sailing home. We travelled over 7000 kilometres and got a species count of 206 birds; 10 new species for Trevor and 21 for me.