Saturday, October 18, 2008

White-tailed Ptarmigan - Mount Cain

  "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

Westport Pelagic

Westport Pelagic
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.
Black-footed Albatross

Cassin's Auklet
            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
Wandering Tattler
            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