Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Reptilian Bigfoot

Here on southern Vancouver Island, it is possible to find the herpetological equivalent of Bigfoot.  Luckily, I have a knowledgeable source that would be on par with having a Bigfoot researcher point out a sasquatch den.  This reptilian Bigfoot, if you're not familiar, is the Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis).

I had no idea such a creature existed for most of my life.  It wasn't until I started working with LGL Limited and found myself doing terrestrial mollusk surveys down in southern Oregon that I learned about this small, primarily subterranean snake.  Even then, despite rooting through litter and flipping over logs and rocks constantly, I did not encounter one of these enigmatic creatures.  I was thoroughly intrigued about this elusive snake and made a mental Post-it note to seize any opportunity to see one.

A few years later, I learned that Camas Hill in Metchosin was a great place to see Sharp-tailed Snakes.  There was, however, a catch: it is on private land.  Luckily Moralea Milne is the landowner and she is an environmental saint.  The land is protected in perpetuity through a covenant and will hopefully remain a safe haven for the hundreds of species that occupy the rocky outcrops, dry Doug-fir forests, Garry Oak meadows, and moss balds of Camas Hill.  I arranged to meet up with Moralea and she toured a small group of us around the property.  Several number-tagged cover objects have been selectively placed on the hillside by researcher and local Sharp-tailed Snake expert Christian Engelstoft, so we visited several of these on our way to the top.  Eventually we struck gold with a beautiful little Sharp-tailed Snake and I was able to see what the hype of this mythical creature was all about.

That was at least a few years ago and I really wanted to spend more time observing this species, so I gave Moralea a call and got permission to ramble around the property.  It is a bit of a crapshoot as to whether you'll see a Sharp-tailed Snake or not up there, but the odds are pretty much as good as it gets in British Columbia.  Regardless of whether luck was on my side or not, I knew it would be a great morning up on the hill.  That point was made abundantly clear very quickly when I had my first Moss' Elfin of the year at the start of the trail.

Moss' Elfin looking remarkably crisp and fresh

I made my way up near the top and checked a few cover objects to no avail.  Highlights from the insect world continued to delight me, including a cool snakefly and a marchfly!

When I see a snakefly I always make me think back to when I first saw one and I described it as a brontosaurus fly.

This is a marchfly belonging to the genus Bibio, and the small head indicates it's a female

In the early spring, Satinflower (Olsynium douglasii) is one of the first flowers to bloom.  Consequently, you can round a corner on a trail and encounter a sensory overload of vibrant purple.  I encountered a nice patch of Satinflowers up near the top of Camas Hill and photographed a perfect specimen.

Satinflower in full display - stunning!

After roaming around for a while, I decided to make my way back down the hill and check the cover objects one last time.  I checked a few of the obvious ones and once again struck out.  I knew I had missed at least one of the cover objects I had found on the way up, but nearly left without checking it.  Even knowing the prospect of finding a Sharp-tailed Snake was a gamble, I really didn't want to miss out on seeing one.  My stubbornness led me to head back up and search for that last cover object.  The first cover object I found was actually one I had missed the first time, but the location looked promising.  I slowly flipped up the asphalt roof shingle and this is what I saw:

Just my luck - I find a Sharp-tailed Snake and it's only partly visible!

And with a flash of the pointed scale that gives the snake its name, it was gone...

Yes, I had found a Sharp-tailed Snake but it was certainly not a very cooperative one.  I was excited that I got to see one, but I was really hoping to get some good photos and it just wasn't possible.  I started to head back to the trail down and found another cover object.  I slowly peeled the shingle back and there was a perfect little Sharp-tailed Snake sitting on the litter.  It was very calm and cooperative, so I was able to snap off quite a few photos.

This was the Sharp-tailed Snake shot I was hoping to get - what a great little snake!

The smooth scales help distinguish this from our three local species of garter snake, which all have keeled scales

After several minutes of observing and photographing this mythical creature, a slight breeze stirred the trees.  I noticed the Sharp-tailed subtly raise its head and start to flick its tongue.  I feel it sensed it was exposed, so it dug its head into the litter and slowly wormed its way down.  I thought I would have a chance to photograph that cool pinprick scale at the tail tip, but the last two-thirds of the snake vanished like a vapour.  This exit reinforced the enigmatic nature of this gentle snake and left me in awe of my good fortune.

This was exactly the hike I needed.  The combination of the setting, the sightings, and the serenity were magical and I look forward to my next opportunity to explore Camas Hill.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Conquering a Nemesis: Say's Phoebe and Tiny Picnic Tables

Spring has firmly been established for over a week now, with Yellow-rumped Warblers singing, Violet-green and Tree Swallows darting over lakes, and the whir of Rufous Hummingbird wings.  If I'm in Victoria and these sights and sounds are all around, I know it's time to hit open areas to look for Mountain Bluebirds and my nemesis grail Say's Phoebe.  Say's Phoebe has a predictable spring passage window, much more so than the fall, but where it shows up is the hard part.  There is an abundance of open areas, so you're left with checking ones that traditionally turn up Mountain Bluebirds and have had Say's Phoebe records in the past or else just crossing your fingers and hoping the stars align.

On Saturday, March 29, the stars aligned in all sorts of ways.  I probably earned some karma points by dropping off "A Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico" to Jeremy K. bright and early in the morning.  I forgot he was taking off that day to Vancouver to stay the night before flying off to Cancun, so it was probably a nice surprise for him when I showed up at his door with the guide in the morning.  I was just going to stay on the Saanich Peninsula, but I opted to do my Metchosin run since I was already out in Colwood.  I took the Veterans Memorial Parkway and then turned on to Latoria Rd., which cuts through the old gravel pits.  This area had a Mountain Bluebird a few weeks ago, so I figured I would check all fences, posts, wires, and other assorted perches as I made my way to Metchosin Rd.  The first bird that stood out was a singing White-crowned Sparrow, which I decided to stop and photograph.

White-crowned Sparrow announcing its presence: "Oooh-eee cheddar cheddar cheese!"

As I walked back to hop in the car, I was serenaded by the song of a Western Meadowlark sitting on top of one of the hydro poles.  I got in the car and continued rolling along down Latoria Rd. and then promptly pulled back off to the side of the road.  A bird was sitting on a powerline on the north side of the road and my initial thought was that it was perhaps the same Mountain Bluebird from a few weeks ago and it had just eluded detection.  A look through the binoculars pushed that thought aside and after some mental contortion, I was nervously excited at the prospect of it being a Say's Phoebe.  The bird then did some aerial acrobatics before landed on a large rock, revealing a perfect profile view of a Say's Phoebe!  The pale ashy upper parts and ochre-washed belly were radiant in the morning sun.  I sprang into action with my camera and the bird was quite obliging.  A mound of dead broom was one of the favoured spots of the phoebe in the morning and it also provided a visually attractive perch for photos.

A shot of my freshly conquered nemesis bird: the Say's Phoebe!

The stars had aligned and I had knocked down a major Victoria nemesis bird!  Now I had a new dilemma.  How do I spread the word about the Say's Phoebe?  I currently don't own a cell phone and I was a long ways from home.  My mind raced with all sorts of options.  Should I head back to Jeremy K.'s place and get Thea to contact him at work?  That didn't seem like a great option, so I thought I would try heading to Eastern Phoebe spot and hopefully I would find a birder with a cell phone there.  Well, connecting with the Say's apparently didn't drain all my karma and I miraculously found Rob Gowan just around the corner.  He was looking for a Mountain Bluebird that had, unbeknownst to me, been reported a couple days earlier.  Rob was turning around and heading towards Latoria Rd., but I didn't want to chance anything.  I hurriedly pulled off to the side, jumped out, and ran down the road like a crazy person, waving my arms trying to get his attention.  It worked!

We drove back on to Latoria and I pulled off a short distance from where I had last seen the phoebe.  We quickly found it and then we decided we should get our cameras.  More photos were taken, and here is one.

Say's Phoebes have subdued colours but the warmth of that ochre belly make them a subtly attractive bird.

While trying to follow the Say's Phoebe as it moved around, Rob spotted a couple of Mountain Bluebirds on the south side of the road.  I looked over and realized there was actually three, then four, then five... and finally, six Mountain Bluebirds!  Two of the bluebirds were impossibly bright males.  For some reason, I decided to stop taking photos at this point, so I have no shots of the bluebirds.  At any rate, it wasn't long before the message that Rob had spread to BCVIBIRDS had birders dropping everything to come out for a slice of the interior.  First it was Heather Trondsen, then Cathy O'Connor, and finally Gordon Hart.  I sincerely enjoy meeting new birders and reconnecting with others I haven't seen in a while, so I enjoyed getting to share the phoebe with four birders in short order.

Just before noon, I decided I better head back home because I was going to get out for more birding in the early afternoon with Ian Cruickshank and Avery Bartels.  I had never met Avery but had heard nothing but good things, so it was great to finally meet and go birding with him and Ian.  We started with a quick check over Maber Flats before Ian started getting a little antsy about the Say's Phoebe and Mountain Bluebirds.  We made our way back out to gravel pits and as we pulled up to the area, we saw Mike and Barb McGrenere.  We figured if the phoebe was still around, they would know roughly where to look.  We got the encouraging word that it was there a couple minutes earlier and it wasn't long before Barb spotted it on a wire.  As we were switching our focus between the phoebe and the bluebirds, I noticed a bird in a patch of broom that had white corners to its tail.  That was really all I got on it, but it was tantalizing enough that we stayed trained on the area.  Soon, Avery proclaimed that it was a Palm Warbler!  The bird proved to be quite tricky to get good looks at, but eventually we all had decent views.

A second wave of birders poured in at this point.  First, Cathy Carlson pulled up and we quickly got her on the Say's Phoebe.  She let me know that she was very excited and thankful that I got the word out because the phoebe was a lifer for her!  Those are the kind of words that make my day!  Next, the Newell clan emerged from a car and we were able to show them the two stars, but the Palm Warbler was not showing any more.  No bother... an immature Golden Eagle rose up and put on an incredible show!  We watched the Golden Eagle casually soar back and forth against a backdrop of trees on the south side of Latoria, showing off its white tail base and pale flashes on the wings every time it banked.  As if getting to watch the eagle soaring around wasn't enough, it landed on a rock ledge and all scopes were focused on it.  The golden nape is a feature I rarely get to see because I usually see Golden Eagles soaring, so this was incredible!

We were then joined by Cathy Reader and Rebecca Reader-Lee and efforts were then focused on getting them on all of the birds.  It was starting to seem customary to find a new bird with each new addition to the birding fleet, so I decided to check an intriguing grey bird sitting up on some very distant broom.  The bird had a tall profile and I really thought it had to be a Townsend's Solitaire.  I got Ian to check the bird and he agreed - the micro Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was strong on this day!  I also got Cathy Carlson on the bird and Avery seemed to just get a glimpse of it with binoculars before we lost its exact location.  The solitaire was spotted when it next flew, but it ended up behind a patch of broom.  I was focusing on where it was going to go next and then an American Robin hopped out of the broom.  Did both Ian and I greatly misinterpret the bird based on the distance and angle?  "There's the solitarie!" someone excitedly called out.  The Townsend's Solitaire sat up on dead mullein stems long enough for everyone to get decent views.  Unfortunately, Heather Trondsen came back just a little too late for the solitaire - it was all a blur, so perhaps that's not true - but she was able to get more great looks at the bluebirds and see the Golden Eagle in action, too.  What a great gathering of birds and birders in one place!

The afternoon session at the Latoria gravel pits was one of the greatest birding moments for me in recent memory.  The combination of five uncommon to rare species, the number of birders in attendance, and just the amount of fun everyone was having made this event the perfect kickoff to spring.  Thanks to everyone who came out to enjoy the spectacle!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Phoetos: Shots of Victoria's First Eastern Phoebe

After a great morning of birding, I stopped in at the abandoned Aquattro development lot to see if the Eastern Phoebe was still around.  The phoebe, to my knowledge, had not been reported since March 12 but I figured the effort dropped off the chart after most people saw the bird.  After spending 15 minutes looking at the usual suspects, I heard the phoebe's distinctive "chip" call coming from the edge of the main pond.  My eyes traced the edge of the pond, looking in the low vegetation for the source of the call.  It took just a few seconds to spy a plain-chested bird sitting low in an alder over the water.

Unlike my last encounter with the Eastern Phoebe, I was able to watch this bird at leisure for around half an hour as it moved around the pond, then traveled along the stream to the west before moving on to the western ponds.  Getting photos was a challenge, but I managed some shots that are pretty good.  I am glad Victoria's first documented Eastern Phoebe appears to be in good health and is actively hawking insects more than three weeks after news first broke about this bird.

Eastern Phoebe on March 22, 2014 at the abandoned Aquattro lot near Esquimalt Lagoon

Eastern Phoebe on March 22, 2014 at the abandoned Aquattro lot near Esquimalt Lagoon

Eastern Phoebe on March 22, 2014 at the abandoned Aquattro lot near Esquimalt Lagoon

Eastern Phoebe on March 22, 2014 at the abandoned Aquattro lot near Esquimalt Lagoon

Eastern Phoebe on March 22, 2014 at the abandoned Aquattro lot near Esquimalt Lagoon

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Spring Birding

As spring rapidly approached, I was seeking any opportunities I could get to be out photographing birds as they ramp up their breeding activities.  Many of our local species are already paired up and starting to get all domestic.  I have noticed many of the woodpeckers seem to be travelling in pairs, Red-winged Blackbirds are vying for territory and harems of streaky females, Bewick's Wrens are tilting their heads way back to belt out loud songs, and male American Robins are absolutely radiant in their alternate plumage.  I will just provide a little collection of some of the shots I have taken in the week or so.  I hope you enjoy and now that our calendar's confirm spring is here, I hope everyone gets out to enjoy their local parks as we experience a fresh pulse of biodiversity.

A nice sun-soaked Northwestern Crow on Cattle Point

Song Sparrow picking through the high tide wrack at Cattle Point

American Robins are conspicuous in Garry Oak meadows where rain has saturated the thin layer of soil

Males in alternate plumage can be identified by their dark hood contrasting the greyish back and rich burnt sienna chest

Varied Thrushes have been more vocal, making an array of ringing and organ-like tones

Male Hairy Woodpecker on a Garry Oak in Gore Park

Northern Flicker striking a great pose on a dead Garry Oak branch

Female Bushtit - notice the pale eye - hanging from a hawthorn branch

Male Downy Woodpecker near the tip of a Garry Oak branch

This Chestnut-backed Chickadee knows that every rose has its thorn

Hutton's Vireos are starting to repetitively "zu-weep" after their lengthy winter of virtual silence

This male Spotted Towhee was scratch-hopping to dig through an ant mound, which you can see it perched atop here

Male Red-winged Blackbird singing from the top of a cattail: a classic wetland scene

Female Red-winged Blackbird with a bit of cattail fluff on her bill

As you can see, there is no shortage of interesting sightings out there right now.  Hopefully I'll have more photos after this weekend and if I get anything really good, it will be up sooner than later.  Now get out and enjoy the first weekend of the spring!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Harling Point Rocks

Well... Harling Point does rock, but I focused a little effort on the rocks today.  I've been nursing a nasty cold the last couple days, but I had to make a run in to Victoria late this afternoon.  I was going to head to Clover Point, but as I rolled by I could see there were lots of cars and no gulls on the rocks.  I opted for Harling Point instead.

When I pulled up to the outskirts of the Chinese Cemetary, I was getting my gear together and then I heard the rolling chatter of Black Turnstones.  I was excited to check out the rock-loving shorebirds in hopes that a Rock Sandpiper would be in the mix.  I headed to the shore in the direction of the calls and found the rocks were alive with movement.  Black Turnstones made up the majority of the birds, but there were several of each Surfbirds and Dunlin.  Something put them up before I even made my way down to the rocks and I thought they might have left.  Three Black Turnstones stayed behind for an extra minute and when they flew around the corner, I could tell they were heading to rocks on the east side of the point.

As I made my way around, I kicked up a Savannah Sparrow which is a pretty uncommon winter bird along the coast.  I also saw some Bear's-foot Sanicle (Sanicula arctopoides) starting to come out.  That is always a sure sign of spring.  In fact, another common name for it is Footsteps of Spring.

The lime green leaves of Bear's-foot Sanicle are a dead give away for this early-blooming and rare plant on southern Vancouver Island

When I came up over the rock outcrop and looked down on the eastern rocky shoreline, I found the group of shorebirds busily picking through seaweed for invertebrates.  I slowly worked my way down and eventually got myself to a great spot to watch and attempt to photograph the three species.  Here are the results.

The seaweed creates some nice colours to brighten up this Black Turnstone profile shot

A group of Dunlin was actively probing through a patch of green seaweed just five metres away

This classic Surfbird shot was my favourite of the lot - a nice pose, a little water, and some fucus

This was another Surfbird shot I was quite pleased with - they are sharp birds!

Not a bad way to spend 45 minutes while Janean was getting her hair cut.  If you're in Victoria in the next while, it's worth checking if the tide is low and heading to spots where there are rocky islets.  They should be sporting groups of rock-loving birds and could even have a Rock Sandpiper in the mix.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Gulling Season!

I suppose I have better things to write about in the local birding world, but I like gulls.  Sure we just had a mega rarity turned rare hybrid but my photos were lousy and I'd rather procrastinate on it and eventually forget to even write about it.

On Sunday, I relaxed for a good portion of the day and then finally made a break for it just after noon.  I started by thinking I would be scanning through flooded field waterfowl, but the number of gulls on the fields drew me in to their web of seduction.  When the herring spawn is starting up in the inside passage, we get a lot of gulls moving through.  What you really notice first is the increased presence of California Gulls.  We get California Gulls right through the winter, but you really notice the fresh batch moving through because some are in breeding plumage with school bus yellow legs.  The ones that stay through the winter look pretty pallid in comparison.  The fields just east of the village of Brentwood Bay were bustling with activity and one gull in particular caught my attention.  In Victoria, American Herring Gulls - I like the splitter's taxonomy - are not exactly unusual but they're certainly not easy to find either.  One a muddy field at the end of Columbia Ave., I found a second-winter American Herring Gull and it happened to be one of the closest birds.  I fired off many shots and I picked out one for you to see this cold-eyed and striking individual.

The combination of the slightly heavy bill, near-black primaries, pale iris, and silvery mantle are indicative of American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus).

After enjoying the gulls in Brentwood, I zipped out to Patricia Bay to see if any Glaucous Gulls happened to be mixed in with the gulls at the mouth of Wsikem Creek.  Not this time, but I took the time to photograph adult Mew and California Gulls in winter plumage.  I also photographed a first-winter Glaucous-winged Gull that is starting to get pretty washed out.  As these second calendar-year  birds get more worn and bleached out, they begin to superficially resemble a Glaucous Gull.  These fool quite a few birders every year!

The most striking feature of this adult California Gull for me is the brilliant red orbital ring

Mew Gull is not even arguably the cutest gull... it just is, hands down!

The wingtips are not quite fully bleached out yet, but this first-winter Glaucous-winged Gull is getting pretty hyperboreal!

Hopefully the wave of gulls passing through for the spawn deposits an outlandishly dark-backed gull in my path.  I'll be out this weekend looking and will try to get more good photos... especially if there is a Slaty-backed involved!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Phoebe Ain't No Freebie!

Last weekend, while I was in Whistler, news broke about a possible Eastern Phoebe discovered by the Saturday birding group in the abandoned Aquattro development lot near Esquimalt Lagoon.  I think we were just being humoured with the "possible" label because the fuzzy photos first posted had just enough detail to leave little doubt as to its identity.

The next day the phoebe was again found working its way around a small pond and several birders were able to see it.  The bird was elusive at times, though, and many birders also missed the bird after spending a couple hours searching for it.  I was first able to get out to look for this major local rarity - the first photo-documented record to be exact - on Tuesday and I spent the first few hours of the morning trudging around bearing boots and binoculars.  The weather was lousy.  It rained for almost the entire time I was there and I unfortunately had to leave just as the sun broke.  I was suffered with good birding company around me as Aziza Cooper, Barbara Begg, Jeff Gaskin, and, just as I was on my way out, Alan MacLeod and Ron Satterfield were all in attendance to look for the bird.  I believe only Aziza and David Stirling saw the bird by the end of the day and their sighting came about an hour after I had left.

Today, I had only two hours to work with and about an hour of that was dedicated to driving out to the site.  When I got there, I was quickly greeted by Cathy Carlson and her hour's worth of effort was fruitless.  Geoffrey and David Newell were also there and they also had not connected with the phoebe.  Good eyes had already covered the obvious spots, so I decided to search a spot I noticed on Google Maps.  The main pond the phoebe has been found around is actually part of a series of small ponds connected by a little stream.  I decided to walk west around a fence and try to find the uppermost pond that appeared to be of equal size to the main pond.  When I found the pond, I had a good feeling about it.  The unfamiliar chip note I was hearing from the far end of the pond was also promising.  The whitish spot in the alders in the direction of the call was very, very promising.  I raised my binoculars and my eyes soaked in the details of a perfect Eastern Phoebe specimen.  Dark cap, pale throat, and a very slight yellow wash to the belly were noted.  The bird then fluttered down to snap up an insect just over the water and sallied back up to the alders.

I didn't even take the time to enjoy the bird and decided I would try to Geoffrey and David Newell over to see it.  I wasn't sure if it was a lifer for them, but I have seen them many times when I worked in the Peace Region.  I ran back to the main pond as fast as I could, but by the time I got there they had seemingly departed.  I headed back to get better looks, but the phoebe had worked its way into the close corner and when I made it out near the pond it flew into the flooded marshy section of the forest patch to the south.  I could hear it calling for another minute and then lost track of it.

I was happy to see an Eastern Phoebe in the Victoria area, which puts me up to 291 in the Victoria checklist area.  The additions were very sparse last year and it's not too often I am actually around when something exciting turns up.  What's next you ask?  Well... hopefully the amazing-yet-heartbreaking news about a Redwing can be rectified with a miraculous relocation of the bird.  If you haven't heard the news, a photograph of a bird seen on Wilkinson Rd. in mid-December was recently circulated and identified as a Redwing.  What a dream bird!  It is not only the first record for British Columbia, but also just the third record for western North America!  So... fingers crossed!