Saturday, 22 December 2012


With the end of the world rapidly approaching, Janean and I decided it would only be fitting to head down to the Lake Ontario waterfront to increase the Ontario winter bird diversity.  A couple weeks ago, there was a sighting of Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) at Darlington Provincial Park near Oshawa.  That is the only species I am remotely likely to encounter out here at this time of year that would be a lifer, so I thought we'd give it a shot.

As directed on the listserve message about the sighting, we accessed Darlington from the end of Colonel Sam Dr. past the General Motors of Canada head office.  Unfortunately we were a little short-sighted with our choice of footwear and had to tread carefully on the Waterfront Trail, dodging saturated sections of the path.  Eventually we found ourselves at the edge of a lakeside marsh where the shore was lined with a small group of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), a lone male Redhead (Aythya americana) bobbed on the water, and several American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus) struggled against strong winds.  We continued on to the shoreline of Lake Ontario and were nearly blown over and sand-blasted, so we retreated to the sheltered side of a small hut.  From there, I scanned out for approximately 20 minutes trying to spot waterfowl among the white caps.  I was pleased to find a couple small groups of Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) and Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola), along with larger groups of Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula).  A lone Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) was in the mix and several large groups of Greater Scaups (Aythya marila) flew by against the wind.  Just as we were packing up, a group of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) flew from the direction of the marsh, perhaps tucked away in a small channel that I couldn't see before.

The walk back to the car was relatively uneventful with a couple exceptions.  First, we had a small flock of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) flash by and refuse to come out for better looks.  Then, when we were just a couple minutes away from the car, Janean stopped abruptly and gasped.  I thought something was wrong but soon saw it was a gasp of surprise and delight.  A Barred Owl (Strix varia) was perched low at the side of the trail.  I am certain a lady that passed us had walked right by it without noticing and I might have done the same as well.  The light was a little dull, but I managed some nice shots of this confiding owl.

Getting stared down by the classic pure black eyes of a Barred Owl!

Like I said... confiding!

I finished off the day with a quick scan over Second Marsh that is part of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.  The day's diversity was enhanced by groups of Gadwalls (Anas strepera) and a mixed group of gulls that included around 100 Ring-billed (Larus delawarensis) and three Great Black-blacked Gulls (L. marinus).

Now that I know the world is not going to end, I hope to get back down to Lake Ontario a couple more times over the course of our time here.  The lack of Purple Sandpiper reports, however, means it is not as imperative.  I'll keep my eyes open for more reports in the mean time.  I probably won't have anything to report on before Christmas, so happy holidays and good birding to all!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Taking the bore out of arborea...

Coming from the West Coast, American Tree Sparrows maintain a high degree of novelty to me.  Their scientific name is Spizella arborea, but there is no need to have 'bore' nestled in the middle of the specific epithet.

I am in Ontario for the winter and let's just say it's not the same as being on the coast.  Unless I can find a lake with some open water, the bird activity is pretty limited.  I have walked around two days in a row and my species total barely cracks double digits.  That's not to say I'm not enjoying the birds I have encountered.  I've seen three of the quintessential birds of the east: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).  What's not to love about them?  The American Tree Sparrows, however, continue to be my daily highlight.  They have a certain charm as they twitter to each other while busily stripping flower heads of seeds.

They are one sharp little sparrow!

Not a bore - am I right or am I right?

The conditions have been pretty dull the last two days, but hopefully I'll be able to get out and take some better shots if the weather cooperates.  I wouldn't mind firing off some shots of Northern Cardinals if they are willing to cooperate on a brighter day.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Graveyard Shift

On this lazy Sunday afternoon, I decided to check out the cemetery at St. Stephen's Anglican Church off Mt. Newton X Rd.  A couple years ago I discovered it was a great place on the Saanich Peninsula to look for Red-breasted Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber).  Just inside the white picket fence, there is a large, exotic conifer that must have been planted in the late 1800s, and it is riddled with sapsucker holes.  I usually start by standing at the base of that tree and looking up for some movement or a flash of red.

Last week I brought Oskar Nilsson - a Swedish birder that is out for a semester at UBC - out to the cemetery and the scan up the heavily-tapped conifer was fruitless.  We walked all around the grounds and saw a lot of bird activity, but came up empty with the sapsucker.  Just as I called off the search, a stunning Red-breasted Sapsucker flew right in front of us and tacked itself to the trunk of a small hawthorn!  Today, I did the standard check of the large conifer and when that failed I went straight to the same hawthorn.  Sure enough, the sapsucker was in the exact same tree near an area that it had actively been tapping.

Red-breasted Sapsucker posing nicely by its handy work.

I watched the sapsucker for approximately 15 minutes and they are such a treat to see in action.  I was able to crouch a few metres from the hawthorn and observed it as it moved from one area densely packed with sap wells to another.

It was not only hard to get good lighting, but also getting a clear view through branches and Usnea lichens wafting in the slight breeze.

Here is a close-up view of the sapsucker's intricate network of holes and sap wells.

The sapsucker wasn't the only site worth noting.  If you have never been to the cemetery at St. Stephen's, you should make the effort to see this historic site.  St. Stephen's Anglican Church has been holding services since 1862, which makes it the oldest church in British Columbia running continuously from its original site.  Garry Oaks delicately draped in Usnea lichens looming over weathered gravestones gives the cemetery an ethereal ambiance.  This feels like its straying away from natural history, but it really is a beautiful place.  You'll understand if you visit, but maybe you can get a sense from the photo I took today.

Not your average birding location!

Red-booted Sightseer looking for Red-breasted Sapsucker - that's Janean if you don't recognize her field marks.

Aside from the target Red-breasted Sapsucker, the birding around the cemetery grounds was pretty good.  When I pulled up to the parking lot, there was a big flock of sparrows consisting primarily of Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis).  Several raptors were sighted over Mount Newton to the north, including a late Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).  If you are interested in the remainder of the birds sighted during my visit, see my eBird checklist.

If you find yourself in Central Saanich with some spare time and don't mind feeling a little disrespectful and possibly getting stared at by churchgoers, consider stopping in at the cemetery to have a look around.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Citrine Wagtail Update (last sighted February 16th)

Due to the fact the last Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) in North America only put in a very brief appearance, I am sure the first-winter bird in the Comox Valley of British Columbia is looking pretty tempting to some ABA listers!

I am fortunate enough to live on southern Vancouver Island, so it was no skin off my back to hightail it north up the Island Highway and be at the wagtail site around three hours later last Sunday.  A slim fraction of birders that want to see this bird have that option, so I thought I would highlight some options for those contemplating a wagtail chase.

The wagtail has been putting in regular appearances for several weeks straight now and only recently has there been an exciting change occurring to the bird itself.  In the last few weeks, the wagtail has been molting some feathers on its face.  Recent photos by Tony Markle (seen here) are some of the finest I've seen yet and they show the hints of lemon around the eye coming in.  If you are making an attempt to see the Citrine Wagtail and strike out at the traditional location, visit Nathan Hentze's blog entry for an alternate location the bird was seen during a bout of stubbornness in the last days of 2012.  The sighting continues to amaze me and the fact that so many observers have been able to come out and see it is great!  Hopefully this bird continues to delight birders from all over the ABA area that make the trip out!  If it's still there when I get back from Ontario in the second week of January, I hope to make another trip up to see it in all its yellow splendour!

I have created some Google maps with the directions from all of the likely routes out-of-town birders might take to get to the wagtail's location. Click on your mode of transportation to Vancouver Island:

Horseshoe Bay (North Vancouver) to Departure Bay (Nanaimo) Ferry
Tsawwassen to Duke Point (Nanaimo) Ferry
Comox Valley Airport (YQQ)
Nanaimo Airport (YCD)
Victoria International Airport (YYJ)
Coho Ferry (Port Angeles, WA to Victoria)

Check to see what the most convenient, comfortable, and cost-effective means of travel is for you.  The quickest route would obviously be catching a flight right into Comox, as the airport is just over 10 minutes from the wagtail's location.  For reference, the two airlines that have service to the Comox Valley Airport are WestJet and Central Mountain Air.  This can still be tricky to arrange as WestJet only has flights in from Calgary and Edmonton, while Central Mountain Air flies in from those two cities plus Vancouver.  Check their websites for scheduling and availability.  The Nanaimo Airport offers the next most reasonable option as it puts you around an 1.5 hours away and has slightly more options than the Comox Valley Airport.  The biggest airport on Vancouver Island is the Victoria International Airport, which has many flight options so check your favourite airline to see if they have available flights.  The downside to the latter airport is the 3 hour drive you'd need to make after flying in.  The two ferries to Nanaimo are operated by BC Ferries and you should know the schedule before arriving at the terminal, and also show up a bit early to ensure you make it on.  For best results, you will want the first ferry - so that's 6:30 a.m. for the Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay Ferry and 5:15 a.m. for the Tsawwassen to Duke Point Ferry.  The Coho Ferry is run by the Black Ball Ferry Lines and is does not run as often.  The first ferry leaves at 8:20 a.m. and puts you in Victoria just before 10:00 a.m., so you wouldn't make it up to the wagtail site until around 1:30 p.m. if all goes well.

For each of the directions provided in the Google maps above, you can see that the end point is approximately 500 metres (or 1/3 of a mile to Imperial-based readers) down Comox Rd. after taking a right turn off 17th St. after crossing the Courtenay River.  Once on Comox Rd., just drive a short ways and look for a roadside pullout along a chainlink fence on the right side and there should be room to park there.  John Puschock was kind enough to post a photo of the gravel road you head down to look for the wagtail.  Note the "For Sale" sign - it's a good marker to know you're in the right spot if there isn't a line-up of cars.  Please be careful crossing the road as it can be busy with traffic at times.

As you walk down the gravel road, you will come to a cable gate and there will be some trees on your left.  Step over this gate and continue past the small patch of trees until you reach the opening on your left.  You are now looking at the field the Citrine Wagtail has been favouring.  Scan for the bird around the edge of the field.  When I saw the bird on November 18th, it spent almost all of its time in the southwest corner of the field, but it has also been reported by the burn piles further along the farm lane.  The wagtail seems to like working the perimeter of pools formed by depressions around the edge of the field.  See the embedded Google map (you'll probably need to zoom out) for some extra notes and a better visual on where the wagtail has been viewed since November 14th.  To maximize your chance of success, get to the site as early as possible.  The bird has been seen every morning for the last week, but afternoon crowds have dipped on more than one occasion.

View Citrine Wagtail field in a larger map

This is an example of the Citrine Wagtail foraging along the edge of a pool on November 18, 2012.

In this shot, you can see everyone is just past the patch of trees and they are scoping into the southwest corner where the wagtail was located.

This is a view of the southwest corner.  Note the pools forming at the interface between soil and grass and also look at the thin strip of soil wrapping around the back of the field (in front of the willows).  Scan near the edge of all standing water in the field and also use a scope to follow that strip of soil around the back of the field.

One final important note relates to ownership of the land where the Citrine Wagtail is located.  Art Martell managed to contact the farmer that owns the land and he graciously granted birders access to the gravel road.  Without Art's effort we probably wouldn't have access to view the wagtail and the chances of seeing it from Comox Rd. are next to nil.  I would sincerely like to thank Art for smooth-talking the landowner to allow birders to venture down the gravel road and seek out this mega rarity.  Please respect the landowner's wishes and stick to the gravel road.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Citrine Wagtail Twitch!

Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) had only knowingly graced North American soil once before November 14th, 2012.  The first record was a mind-boggling two-day affair from Starkville, Mississippi just over 20 years ago.  On the 14th, Dave and Adele Routledge decided to check the birds down a seemingly random farm road in the Comox Valley.  The whole Comox Valley looks great for birding, with the Courtenay River Estuary being one of the most obvious features.  Why Dave and Adele chose to head to the other side of Comox Rd. that day and head down that dirt lane is a mystery, but they were amply rewarded for thinking outside the box!  Having experienced Yellow Wagtail some 50 years ago back in England, Dave knew he was looking at a wagtail when he found an unusual grey-and-white bird bobbing its tail.  He made several keen observations and presumed it was a Yellow Wagtail.  The description left no doubt that he had observed a wagtail, but no diagnostic features that separated it from other wagtails were mentioned.  I felt obliged to inquire why he thought it was a Yellow - an Eastern Yellow Wagtail (M. tschutschensis) to be precise with modern taxonomy - and not one of other potential options.  I mentioned Grey Wagtail (M. cinerea) and White Wagtail (M. alba) as other likely candidates to show up, but didn't even think of adding Citrine to the mix as it had never been recorded in Alaska.

Dave decided he had better go back out and go over the identification in greater detail.  Amazingly, he returned to the wagtail's original location two days later and managed to relocate it.  After longer looks in better light, the identification shifted towards the White Wagtail camp based on the more plain-faced appearance, grey back, two broad white wing bars, and white forehead.  The feature that didn't add up for White, though, was the lack of any kind of black markings on the chest.  At this point, no photos had been taken but the shifted identification and up-to-date sighting put a handful of birders into action the next day.  Mike Bentley was one of the few that made the journey and he came prepared with his camera and finally the bird was documented!  Once the photos were posted to BCVIBIRDS, the real excitement began.  Word soon spread that this looked like a classic 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail.  I grabbed my Birds of East Asia field guide, thumbed through to the wagtails, and could immediately tell why I couldn't come to grips with the bird being one of three more expected wagtail species.  CITRINE... expletive deleted... WAGTAIL!

Luckily I had already made travel arrangements to go up and see the wagtail.  Jeremy Kimm and I had just attempted a big day on Saturday and decided rest was for the weak.  He was a real trooper and picked me up at 5 a.m. even though I was the wrong direction.  We picked up his brother, Jason, in Duncan on the way up to the Comox Valley and the three of us were on location just after 8:30 a.m.  I rarely make my way up to the Comox Valley, so I was able to put some unfamiliar faces to familiar names as Dave Robinson, Art Martell, and Terry Thormin were there scouring the area for the wagtail.  Additionally, one familiar-yet-enigmatic face was in attendance as Keith Taylor had made the drive up the night before to be there for first light, and Mike Yip was sporting the long lens in hopes of getting some primo documentation.  They informed us they had not yet located the wagtail.  That all changed five minutes later when Art scanned around edge of the southwest corner of the field.  I was right alongside Art when he exclaimed "There it is!"  He notified the others and soon we were all taking in full frame views of the bird in our scopes!

The field marks were all there for a 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail: white completely framing its grizzled auriculars, a clean grey back with no hints of olive or brown, white supercilia connected by white over the bill, immaculate white undertail coverts, and two bold, white wing bars.

The next task was to get some photos to document the bird.  After all, we were dealing with a first Canadian and second confirmed North American record.  The bird was quite cooperative and everyone was very respectful of the bird's space, knowing that birders from the Lower Mainland were on their way.  Eventually I managed to get some decent shots when the Citrine Wagtail was at its closest.  I even took some poor footage of the bird to document its call.  Later we were joined by a half-dozen or more Lower Mainland birders that made the ferry trip over and, needless to say, they were happy twitchers!  I don't think I need any more commentary on this amazing bird, but I will close this out with a big congratulations to Dave and Adele Routledge for their amazing find!

Giant crowd... from a British Columbia perspective!

My recording was sent to Brent Beach and Ian Cruickshank to try to enhance its quality.  Ian kindly put the recording up on xeno-canto and I managed to figure out how to embed it here:

The above recording has a bland X-ray style sonogram, but you can enjoy Ian's Amazing Technicolor Dream Sonogram below:

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Swan Song

On Saturday I decided to get out check some of the local flats to check of the waterfowl numbers and diversity.  In the last few weeks there has been multiple reports of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and there were other sightings involving Redheads (Aythya americana), Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria), and Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis).  This was motivation enough for me to see what I could turn up close to home.

I started off at Tod Creek Flats behind the Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd.  As I came down the hill towards the Red Barn Market, I could see the number of large white dots on the water had gone up significantly in the last week.

The bustle of waterfowl on Tod Creek Flats is accentuated by a picture perfect fall scene with loaded hawthorn shrubs, dead grasses, and turning leaves contrasting the evergreen wall of conifers.

I was excited to get out and sort through those large white dots to see how many were Tundra Swans.  The last Victoria checklist was produced in 2001 and it asserts that Tundra Swans as rare for this area, which means they are annual but typically limited to a few records.  I think the timing of rainfall this fall has resulted in higher-than-average numbers in our area.  The first report this fall came from Ian Cruickshank on October 23rd when he noted nine Tundras (4 adults, 5 juveniles) flying over the appropriately named Swan Lake.  These birds landed on Viaduct Ducts where they were enjoyed by many Victoria birders.  On October 31st, Mike McGrenere noted a flock of 17 adult Tundras passing west over Martindale Flats and the next day he found a group of nine resting on the fields at Martindale that likely constituted a different flock.  Considering Mike is one of the most active birders in Victoria, this quote from BCVIBIRDS says it all: "I think this must be close to the number that I have seen in Victoria since I moved here in 1985."  I don't get to study Tundra Swans very often, so that puts my excitement in perspective.  I was not hoping to find a Tundra, I was expecting it!

Spoiler alert!  Yes I did see some Tundras!  The front and centre cygnet and adult are Tundra Swans.  Compare them to the back right cygnet and adult Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator).  When adult Tundras have a yellow spot in front of their eye, they are much easier to identify as you can see here.  The juvenile Tundra has a bill that is largely pink, including the base and sometimes extending into the lores.

Almost immediately I spied my first Tundra.  In fact, it turned out to be a group of five.  There were three adults and two juveniles travelling together.  I looked through the whole flock twice and found four more adults, making a total of nine Tundra Swans mixed in with 50 Trumpeters.  There are many subtle features involving the bill that can be used to the separate the two species.  If you're interested in learning more about distinguishing these two species, please check out this swan identification article by David Sibley from his blog.  I spent a fair amount of time scanning through the ducks after sifting through the swans and was tickled to hear the Tundras making their higher-pitched honks for several minutes.  It was a perfect encounter!

I estimated there were more than 2500 waterfowl out on Tod Creek Flats, and you can see the breakdown of that from my eBird checklist here.  I thought I heard Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) when I first arrived and eventually tracked one down.  As you may have seen from the checklist, it turned out there was actually a flock of 14 that I was able to observe after they flushed, circled the flats a couple times, then settled back on the water.  I was also pleased to pick out three male Eurasian Wigeons (Anas penelope) amongst the American Wigeons (Anas americana).

Flock of Greater White-fronted Geese about to land on Tod Creek Flats

I went to Viaduct Flats next as there had already been one report of Redheads this fall from Duncan and Viaduct was the location I last saw them in Victoria.  These hunches occasionally work out and this was one of those times.  In with the mix of diving and dabbling ducks were three Redheads and ten Canvasbacks!

I had hour-long birding sessions at Hastings Flats and Tower Point afterwards and just saw a nice variety of the usual suspects.  The only bird I don't encounter all too often that I came across was a male Red-breasted Sapsucker near the parking lot at Tower Point.  I ended the day with 78 species, which was a little surprising considering I wasn't specifically trying to amass a high species total for the day.  I think a big day could easily churn out over 100 species right now.  I do believe a certain Victoria birder with a blog about unsuccessful big years was prodding me to do a November big day.  Maybe that's on the horizon?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect

Why not start our own local version of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect?  For those not familiar with the phenomenon, it apparently spans back to a rest area in Patagonia back in 1971.  Some birders stopped in for lunch and ended up finding the first record of Black-capped Gnatcatcher north of Mexico.  A swarm of birders descended on this little rest area and consequently turned up the first North American record of Yellow Grosbeak, as well.  The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect now refers to any instance where an unusual bird is reported and those looking for the rarity turn up another stray.

This phenomenon occurred locally on November 1st when Ian Cruickshank put out the word that he had briefly observed a Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) in the oaks at the entrance to Cattle Point.  Several birders quickly launched into action to try to relocate the kingbird.  Steven Roias tried in vain to find this once-every-couple-years rarity from the south, but he did find a tern feeding just offshore.  He jotted down some detailed notes on the bird and left thinking it was just a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), which is actually a decent bird here these days.  When he got home and broke out a field guide, he realized all the features he had seen did not add up for Common and were bang on for an Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans)!

Elegant Tern on the rocks off Bowker Ave. in Oak Bay, taken on November 2, 2012 (Photo: Daniel Donnecke)

The next morning, Daniel Donnecke and Val George were on scene and managed to relocate the Elegant Tern on the rocks at the end of Bowker Ave.  This news made me very anxious because I was working and the feeling was so overwhelming that I buckled and went out to search for the bird.  I decided to head right to Bowker Ave.  When I arrived just over an hour after the morning report, not a soul was in sight.  I raised by binoculars and scanned over to Cattle Point and could see a scope set up and a group milling around it.  I hopped back in the car and raced over to the point.  I was greeted by Aziza Cooper who said the bird had flown south and seemingly landed behind one of the islands.  I looked over at the rest of the group and they were intently looking at something.  Barb McGrenere waved over to me and I thought it was just a "hello" wave, but then Mike McGrenere announced "The tern's over here!"  I darted over and set up the scope just in time to not see the tern.  So I played the waiting game.  I waited for over an hour and kept checking my watch.  I had intended to be back at work at 1 p.m. and that time was approaching rapidly.  I decided to cut my losses at Cattle Point and put in quick check at Spoon Bay and Cadboro Bay, the latter being the assumed destination of the tern as it went out of view to the north.

I scanned the rocks in Spoon Bay and checked every passing Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), but no sign of the tern.  I was going to head to Gyro Beach, but as I passed Loon Bay I noticed several Bonies and figured it was worth a check.  A scan out beyond Loon Bay into Cadboro Bay revealed a lone adult Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens), but again no tern.  I was starting to pack up when I noticed multiple birders that I had been chatting with at Cattle Point had decided to check here as well.  I went over to let them know about the goose and realized I could see a whole new sliver of water from where they were standing.  I set up the scope again as a last ditch effort.  As I scanned out over Cadboro Bay, a bird with a black crown flew through my field of view and I excitedly proclaimed "I've got the tern!"  Everyone there managed to observe the tern circling for half a minute before we lost sight of it as it headed back south towards Cattle Point.  After celebratory high fives or verbal equivalents, I had to get back to work.  I left very happy as Elegant Tern was my 289th Victoria checklist area bird.  Still knocking them down ever so slowly!

So how rare were the two birds involved in the Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect?  Tropical Kingbirds are annual in British Columbia and one is seemingly turned up approximately every second year in Victoria.  They are almost certainly annual, but there might be a lack of focused searching in appropriate habitats for this species from mid-October through November.  Elegant Terns, on the other hand, are typically reported during El Niño years.  There is no regular pattern to El Niños, so it can't be predicted when Elegant Terns might put in an appearance in our waters.  Previous records in the Victoria checklist area are surprisingly numerous, but they are the result of several reports in certain El Niño years.  Using the E-Fauna "British Columbia Rare Bird Records" document, Elegant Terns were reported in 1983 (5 records), 1992 (7 records), 1993 (1 record), and 2008 (2 records), with some records potentially referring to the same bird or birds.

The 2012 record of Elegant Tern is anomalously late and may be in part due to a weak El Niño that really started showing effects in September.  Elegant Terns breed in southern California and Mexico and then have a brief northbound dispersal.  The late summer arrival of Heermann's Gulls (Larus heermanni) in our waters is due to a similar pattern.  Elegant Terns typically only head as far north as northern California before they turn back south and head to South American shores from Peru to Chile.  The warmer ocean temperatures during El Niño years draw southern marine life northward, and Elegants Terns follow suit with this trend.

I was more interested in catching up with the Elegant Tern because the really pronounced El Niño years occurred before I was in the habit of consistently chasing rarities.  As a result, I haven't had much of a chance to see one locally.  I was, however, fortunate enough to see my lifer Tropical Kingbird way back in 1998 at Esquimalt Lagoon.  I certainly wouldn't have passed up a view of the Tropical Kingbird that Ian found, but I can wait for the next one or just be content with the hundreds I've seen in the Neotropics.

I'll just wrap this up with a congratulatory note to Ian Cruickshank for finding the Tropical Kingbird and initiating the Cattle Point Entrance Oaks Effect, and Steven Roias for completing the phenomenon with his sharp eyes and detailed notes leading to the identification of the Elegant Tern.  What's next?  The Swan Lake Lollipop Boardwalk Bonanza?  The Esquimalt Lagoon Hump Hoedown?  The Whiffin Spit Breakwater Blitz?  The Island View Beach Boat Launchapalooza?  Whatever goes down, I look forward to catching up with familiar faces and sharing some laughs.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Personal Milestone

I know some birders think lists are silly.  I maintain certain lists as a way to challenge myself.  A couple years ago, Chris Saunders called me up and asked me about my self-found Victoria list.  I had never even thought of keeping such a list, but I decided I would look over the checklist and determine where I stood.  I can't remember what the total was at that point, but it was probably around 225 species.  I thought more and more about the list and decided it was the best way to push myself to get out and find birds.

I had to set some ground rules for this list, so I searched the internet to determine if anyone had developed some guidelines for self-found listing.  A popular UK birding blog by the name of punkbirder had just the set of rules I was seeking.  That side of the pond has a much more ravenous birding scene, so I don't necessarily agreed wholeheartedly about all of the rules.  For instance, news does not always break that fast here and I don't feel the need to keep my finger on the pulse as tightly as birders do in the UK.  It would be anticlimactic to be waiting for news to happen here.  I only have one bird that fits into that loophole, anyways.  A couple years ago I was away working into the beginning of September and I thought I had been keeping up with the Victoria rare bird news.  Apparently not!  I went out to Saanichton Spit and was thrilled at finding my first Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) for Victoria!  I came home and posted it and then realized shortly thereafter that it had been found a few days earlier.  I don't abuse the system, so I feel I can take that one.  Another loophole area that doesn't work well here that I had another bird fall under is re-finding a bird.  In Victoria, when most of the birders have seen a bird they stop checking up on it.  I thought I had missed my shot at Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) off Esquimalt Lagoon while I was in Costa Rica in December, 2005.  That bird was only the fourth record for Victoria, so it drew a fair bit of attention in the eight days it was known to be hanging out in a raft of 300+ Western Grebes (A. occidentalis).  I hadn't heard a single report of that bird until I spotted a Clark's Grebe off the same beachfront nearly four months later.  A bird like that would never be passed over for four months in the UK, but it's not excessively surprising here.  I'll take that one under the re-find clause, though.

Enough background on the whole self-found listing premise.  Fast forward to the return from my last work trip up to Fort McMurray a week and a half ago.  I was anxious to get back to some local birding, so I drove around the airport and then passed through the Vantreight bulb fields.  The airport was fruitless, but a sizable blackbird flock at the bulb fields drew my attention.  I immediately found my self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) for Victoria.  It was my 250th self-found bird.  I actually thought it was my 249th until just a few minutes ago when I looked over my spreadsheet.  Somehow I had failed to mark off Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) even though I found one on my own years ago at Rocky Point.  I also had one flying over the ocean towards James Island last year.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird was a milestone I had been working towards for the last year with no idea how long it would take to reach.

What next?  I still have some moderately easy holes to fill in on my self-found list, but it's very hard to pick up new species.  For instance, I have never found an American Bittern (Botaurus letiginosus) in the Victoria checklist area.  It doesn't help that Chris Saunders and Ian Cruickshank seemingly live in sleeping bags on the lollipop boardwalk at Swan Lake.  I will have to put in some time up at Somenos Marsh or just luck into one randomly at an unconventional location if I want a self-found bittern.  Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) has evaded my attempts to find them around small reservoirs and ponds, in hedgerows lining agricultural fields, or in fall mixed feeding flocks.  Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) should be easy enough to pick up if I actually take the time to do some pelagic birding at this time of year.  So, should my next goal be to hit 275 for my self-found Victoria list?

Despite those three relatively easy pick-up species, I actually inched my way up to 251 on October 24th after an enjoyable but fruitless outing with Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson from San Diego.  They were hoping to see their first Harris' Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) for British Columbia, but the Harris' had other plans.  They only had time for a morning's worth of Victoria birding before I had to drop them back off for their Holland America repositioning cruise to San Diego.  I had taken the day off work, so I figured I'd get in more birding before picking up Janean back in Sidney at 5 p.m.  I was struggling to figure out what to do and through a rather convoluted thought process I eventually ended up at Uplands Park.  I was only out of the car for a couple minutes before a bird knocked my socks off!  I stood next to a patch of blackberry brambles and started pishing.  An unusual call started up and I wasn't able to process it.  I eagerly watched a patch of Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) for the source of the call to pop into the open.  And there it was.  But I still couldn't come to grips with what I seeing - a yellowish patch on the wing?  The bird's tail flicked and revealed salmon-yellow flashes.  American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)!  I then saw all the glorious features you'd want to see even though the encounter was brief.  It was a female-type bird sporting a grey hood, brownish back, and those characteristic salmon-yellow flashes in the wings and tail.  The Victoria checklist published in 2001 lists only two records of American Redstart, but four or five more records have come in over the last decade.  Of those records, none of the birds have really been chaseable.

The American Redstart was not only my 251st self-found Victoria bird, it was my 288th Victoria checklist area bird.  The relevance of this is my next milestone.  I am trying to push towards 300 species in the Victoria checklist area.  I am much more likely to see 12 new species for my Victoria list versus 24 new self-found Victoria birds.  I have only one "easy" tick left to pick up for Victoria, which is Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).  I have been picking up several species each year for the last two years because I have been helping Jeremy K. on his big year quests.  Every time I add a new species, the difficulty of achieving the next seems to get incrementally harder.  I love the challenge and I hope I can keep inching my way along, slow and steady.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Crosses and Crossbills

I'm back on familiar birding grounds and making up for lost time.  On Friday, I stopped in at the Vantreight bulb fields and had my first self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) in a sizable blackbird flock and yesterday (Saturday) I met up with Jeremy K. and did the Sooke-Metchosin-Esquimalt circuit to see if we could turn up any interesting fall birds.

Our day started with a frigid stroll to the tip of Whiffin Spit and back.  This walk always seems to be the football equivalent of a Hail Mary pass - nine times out of ten it doesn't pan out, but the rewards are huge for the one time you make the pass.  Today was not the big payoff we had hoped.  Bird activity was plentiful with flocks of Zonotrichia sparrows, but we just couldn't seem to dig out anything unusual.  We did manage to start a running theme for the day here when we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) cruise over, followed by a few Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and a Merlin (Falco columbarius) zipped through in pursuit of a morning meal.  Every stop hereafter we managed to see a raptor of some sort.

A stop in at the Goodrich Peninsula wasn't quite as brisk as Whiffin, but the level of success was similar.  My personal highlights for this stop were a lone Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flying over the marina and a flock of Black Turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala) and Surfbirds (Aphriza virgata) on the floating logs by the docks.

We continued on to Metchosin via Lindholm Rd. and stopped to check out the small farm pond near the Galloping Goose crossing.  The pond was quiet but we located a huge, uncooperative blackbird flock.  We only managed short, partial views of the flock and consequently came up empty.

The best stop of the day was Swanwick Rd.  We started with a nice flock of geese on the main field, which contained 26 Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) and 30 Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii) in with the usual Canada Geese (B. canadensis).

Three species of goose in one flock is always a nice sight!

My personal highlight for the day came next as three Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) descended from the top of a conifer to a couple of puddles right in front of us.  I believe it was a family group as there was a single juvenile bird with an adult male and female.

The male Red Crossbill is the reddish bird with dark wings, while the streaky, olive-infused is a juvenile.

Here's a better look at the streaky appearance of the juvenile Red Crossbill.

This is the female Red Crossbill and she is really showing off her namesake crossed bill!

Swanwick Rd. was also our best raptor location of the day with two Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperi), a Peregrine Falcon (F. peregrinus), and seven Turky Vultures (Cathartes aura).

After a rather fruitless stop in at Albert Head Lagoon, we finished our day off at Esquimalt Lagoon.  The high  tide limited the amount of birds along the shore and the close flocks of ducks and gulls all seemed to be at the north end of the lagoon.  We were starting to study a male Eurasian x American Wigeon (Anas penelope x A. americana) when a Bald Eagle put all the birds.  I managed one distant shot that shows some of the key characteristics, including mottled grey and pinky-brown flanks and oddly-coloured head pattern.

Note the male's (right) largely grey flanks which is a feature of a Eurasian Wigeon, whereas the head pattern is closer to that of an American Wigeon.  This bird looks much less Eurasian-like than most reported hybrids.

After the dust settled from the eagle stir-up, I noticed an adult Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri) had landed on the shore.  Shortly after, I found a nice American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid (L. smithsonianus x L. glaucescens).  After commenting on its identification to Jeremy K., a classic adult Western x Glaucous-winged Gull (L. occidentalis x L. glaucescens) joined the other bird.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity to photograph the two side by side!

The dove-headed look is a good way to distinguish Thayer's Gulls from the more block-headed American Herring Gulls.  With experience, this species is not too hard to identify (with exceptions of course) but it is hard to tell you exactly why it is a Thayer's and not one of superficially similar species.

The left bird is a typical Western x Glaucous-winged Gull based on the mottled head and not overly dark mantle, while the right bird appears to be an American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull due to the slight fading to the primaries and dark eyes.

Here is a closer view of the American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid, which shows the slight fading in the primaries mentioned above.  The structure of this bird is more representative of its American Herring side as it is more slender than you'd expect for a Glaucous-winged.

That's all I have from this weekend's outings.  I hope to get out during the week, but whether I'll have anything worthy of posting is another story altogether!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Take the last tern when you get to Calgary...

Sometimes you don't even need to try to find something unusual.  This was one of those occasions and it always seems this sort of event happens when I'm not on familiar ground.

After my three week work trip up to Fort McMurray, I dropped in for a visit at my uncle's place at the south end of Calgary in a community called McKenzie Towne.  Today, I offered to take my uncle and grandma out to lunch so we headed out just after noon.  While my uncle drove, I looked over at a small pond just around the corner from his place and I noticed a tern fluttering over the water.  I was quite surprised as I thought all the terns would have passed through already.  Then again, I don't really know the typical windows of all the birds in this unfamiliar territory.  I decided I would wander over when I got back from lunch.

After lunch, I looked in the corner of the pond where I saw the tern darting about, but it was nowhere to be seen.  I decided I would walk to the far end and see if it was by chance just out of view.  Once again, the tern wasn't immediately obvious.  I scanned a little patch of muddy shoreline at the far side and was happy to see not one but two terns.  Being from British Columbia, I am not very familiar with Forster's Terns (Sterna forsteri), but I know they have a black smudge over their eye as juveniles and non-breeding adults.  These two fit that description and I felt confident that's what they were.  I took some very distant record shots and then worked my way around to get better shots.  I only had a work camera that doesn't function properly, but still managed some decent shots between two visits this afternoon.

This Forster's Tern shows the classic black smudge over the eye, while the brown-tinged scalloping on the back points to this being a juvenile.

Without a DSLR handy, I only made a couple attempts at catching them in flight.  On this occasion, I happened to catch it scratching!

I rarely see terns land on water, but I watched the two juvenile Forster's Terns land on the water twice this afternoon.

Finally, here's a shot of the two juvenile Forster's Terns together in the same frame - what a nice and unexpected find!

Looking back over eBird, I can only see one report entered for Forster's Tern between October and November in the past decade.  This does not necessarily reflect reality as many people probably did not go back and enter in their older notes into eBird.  It does, however, give an indication as to how rare it is to find this species in Alberta at this time of year.  This year, you can see that all records of Forster's Terns in October are well south of the two I encountered today (although I don't know if the link will get updated or not to reflect my record).

I don't have much to add, but I figure I may as well add a shot of one of Calgary's dirt birds that we only get on Vancouver Island on very rare occasions.  This is one of those birds that everyone takes for granted if you live around them, but you see them in good light and they are just the most spectacular birds!

Unfortunately the light wasn't hitting this Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) quite right, but they're striking birds regardless of how the light hits them!

I have enjoyed some of the sights I've taken in over my stay in Alberta, but I'm excited to get home and start taking photos of some of the fall birds in Victoria.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Rock out with your hawks out!

Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) alert!  In that last few decades, the mystery of Broad-winged Hawk migration has been slowly unraveling on southern Vancouver Island.  Every fall, the species is now recorded in small numbers (usually <10 individuals) primarily from hawk watch efforts at Rocky Point Bird Observatory and Beechey Head.

I had an unfortunately brief but exciting encounter with a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk at Mount Tolmie on Friday (September 21, 2012) afternoon.  I had never seen a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk on southern Vancouver Island and I'm not sure if that's because I primarily hone in on the more obvious pattern of adults or if they're genuinely less frequent here.  I always enjoy actually identifying something rather than complacently accepting it as the obvious choice by range.  As a result, I decided to go through the identification of this bird as a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk and not a Red-shouldered Hawk (B. lineatus).  Before a well-documented record of an adult Red-shouldered Hawk over Rocky Point in 2009, the species was considered hypothetical based on a handful of sightings with insufficient details.  Obviously I had a vested interest in trying to make it a Red-shouldered, but seeing a juvenile Broad-winged would be quite exciting as well.

I managed a couple photos which I mildly adjusted due to compensate for the extremely backlit conditions.  When I first saw the bird, it had its wings swept back and was moving rapidly past me.  It was much smaller (approximately two-thirds the size) than the Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis) just ahead of it, so my immediate reaction was Broad-winged Hawk.  I thought I was never going to be able to say for sure because I lost sight of it in seconds, but I jogged up to upper viewpoint of Mount Tolmie on the off chance that it would find a thermal to rise up on and start circling again.  And that's what happened.  With a better look at the bird, I still suspected it was a Broad-winged Hawk but felt like I was in slightly over my head because it was a juvenile.  I noted the pointed wings which seemed reminiscent of my previous encounters with adults, and that proved to be a helpful feature.  Here are a couple cropped shots of the bird in question.  I know the lighting is still bad, but I didn't want to make it too unnatural and possibly distort the actual appearance.

This bird lacks dark patagial marks (the "shoulder" area) on the leading edge of the wings and a band of streaks on the belly that form a distinct band.  Instead, you see the chest and belly is uniformly streaked, the underwing coverts are  flecked with dark spots with no strong patagial mark, and the throat has a central dark stripe, which matches a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk.

This shot shows the pointed wings off nicely, which is apparently good for Broad-winged Hawks and should distinguish it from the more squared look of a Red-shouldered Hawk's wings.  Additionally, a pale crescent near the  wing tips would likely be visible in this backlit shot if it was a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Aside from the wing shape and pale wing crescents, I was having trouble finding obvious differences between Broad-wingeds and Red-shouldered Hawks.  I then realized most of the references I was looking over referred to the lineatus subspecies from the east and I should have been comparing to the western subspecies elegans.  The bird documented in 2009 belonged to the latter and it is expected more will show up with their slow-but-continual northward expansion.  Western juveniles have stronger barring on their flight feathers and are heavily marked with rufous-brown on the underwing coverts not unlike an adult, as indicated by a helpful information sheet from Princeton Press found here.  As a result, if my bird was a Red-shouldered Hawk it would show some rusty tones on the underside of the wings.  The individual I saw definitely did not possess any rusty tones under the wings.  There has been one record of an eastern Red-shouldered in California, however, so it was good that I noted the pointed wings and lack of crescent-shaped panels near the wing tips just to eliminate this unlikely scenario, as well.

This exercise has been very enlightening for me and I think I will be that much more ready if a Red-shouldered Hawk decides to cross my path.  Hopefully you gained something from this breakdown analysis as well.  If you want to see more photos to compare some juvenile hawks, check this juvenile hawks in flight entry on the Stokes Birding Blog.  Now get out and enjoy the hawk migration while you can!


Fall is upon us now if you haven't noticed.  Head out to the maples and see for yourself - the leaves getting mottled and starting to drop.  Some telltale birds are also moving in to our area and I found one such example on the last day of summer at Saanichton Spit.

I got to the spit late in the afternoon and it felt much darker than usual because it was the first day with full cloud cover in a couple weeks.  I made my way out to the north-facing shoreline and could see a group of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) resting at the water's edge.  They got nervous at my presence and pushed off into the water and I was able to see the entire group with ease.  One bird stood out due to its more delicate structure, dull orange-brown head that smoothly grades into the grey of the chest and flanks, lack of a white chin, darker back, and spikier crest.  It was a lone Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) in with the Commons.

The bird at the back in the center is noticeably different in this group.  It is a Red-breasted Merganser and its head is a dull gingery colour compared to the rich orange-brown of the dozen Common Mergansers around it, and the crest is more upswept and spikier.  The first Red-breasted Mergansers return in mid-September but they are not considered common until more return in October.
Looking at that photo a little closer, you can see the straight-lined separation of the rich orange-brown head and paler chest and grey back and flanks of the Common Mergansers compared to the smooth transition of the lone Red-breasted Merganser (far back on left).

The merging of mergansers was great to see and I always enjoy seeing two related species side by side for comparison.  If you struggle with these two, I hope you can see a couple differences in this photo.  If not, feel free to pipe up and I'll do my best to break down the identification even further.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Pelagic Magic

Jeremy K. gave me the heads up that there was an opportunity to do a pelagic trip in the second week of September and asked whether I'd be game.  Three of the Fur & Feathers 500 were chartering a boat to head out of Tofino in hopes of pushing towards their goal.  Knowing full well my schedule was open, I wanted in on the action.  I have never been able to get out on a proper pelagic birding trip in British Columbia.  I signed up for one years ago with the British Columbia Field Ornithologists (BCFO), but the weather was marginally too rough to head out.  My hopes for this trip were to see pelagic species I had never seen in Canada, such as Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus), Buller's Shearwater (Puffinus bulleri), Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes), and Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus), and also catch up with a couple I had never seen before like Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Scripps' Murrelet (Synthliboramphus scrippsi).  On top of all the birds, I always get excited by marine mammal encounters and was hoping to see something new like Risso's Dolphin (Grampus griseus), Pacific White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), or Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus).

The pelagic trip was set to take place on Wednesday, September 12 so Jeremy K. and I set out at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to get some birding in on the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park and the Tofino waterfront.  After the long haul up, we started at Wickaninnish Beach where we hoped to get out and find a bevy of shorebirds.  Instead we found a bevy of biped mammals walking up and down the beach, ensuring any shorebird flocks were long gone.  We moved on to Combers Beach which was nearly shorebirdless as well, but we eventually spied a couple of Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) flying in.  We also had a nice flock of gulls on the beach that contained around 30 American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus) among California Gulls (L. californicus) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (L. glaucescens).

I managed to catch the American Herring Gull stretching out its wings.  Compared to the California Gull (right), it has pink legs, a paler mantle, no black spot on its bill, a pale yellowish iris, and is slightly larger overall.

We zipped in to the airport due to the numerous reports we had read over the years from this location.  Unfortunately the terminal is not the place to go, so it was rather disappointing.  That didn't stop me from photographing a nice Western Tiger Beetle (Cicindela oregona) and Pine White (Neophasia menapia).

Tiger beetles are predatory as evidenced by their impressive large, serrated mandibles

This Pine White is posing on Heather (Calluna vulgaris) which is introduced and very common in the Tofino area

Long Beach was our next stop and we finally found a decent shorebird.  It was nothing earth-shattering, but we were pleased with fantastic looks at a Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus).

This individual effectively using its long, decurved bill to probe the sand for invertebrates

This angle shows the Whimbrel's diagnostic dark cap split by a thin pale stripe

And one last shot of this amazingly cooperative Whimbrel that really shows off its blue-grey legs

We made a quick and disappointing stop at Grice Bay before visiting Chesterman Beach.  We eventually came across a small but rewarding flock of peeps.  The group of eight birds had seven Western Sandpipers and a single Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii).  I managed to settle in close to the flock and they eventually worked their way towards me for some absolutely crippling views!

One of these peeps is not like the others

One of these peeps just doesn't belong

Can you tell which peep is not like the others by the time I finish my blog?

The scalloped mantle, long primary projection, and slightly down-curved bill are good indicators you've got a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper.

Baird's Sandpipers are not unusual to encounter during fall migration on the West Coast and only occasionally do we encounter adult birds

It looks like a good catch for the Baird's, but I was pretty darn happy myself with catching this shot!

This feeding juvenile Western Sandpiper shows the distinctive rufous-and-black upper scapulars contrasting drab grey lower scapulars

The bill of a typical Western Sandpiper is slightly drooping and has a fine tip, unlike that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper which is usually much straighter and has an ever-so-slightly bulbous tip

Just another shot of a juvenile Western Sandpiper because the peeps were so obliging

This will be the last Western shot - the lighting truly was great for photographing these sharp little shorebirds!

While watching the peeps, Jeremy K. spotted a flock of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) flying by and I went in for a couple shots as we headed back to the car.

Sanderlings running at the edge of the water - how cliché!

The Sanderlings were not overly cooperative, but I think you get the picture - nice birds on a nice shoreline

We poked in to a couple other local lookouts along the shoreline and even retraced our steps to end the day, but the only other decent sighting we could muster was a continuous flow of heat-shimmered Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) undulating along the horizon.  We hoped it was a good omen for the pelagic.

The view towards Incinerator Rock from Long Beach after the sun dropped below the trees

Looking the other direction over Long Beach, you get a very different view that is equally spectacular!

We managed to get to bed early enough to take in a solid sleep and were up at 6 a.m. the next day to meet with the rest of our seabound crew.  From the Fur & Feathers 500 we had Phil Cram, Brian Elder, and Ray Woods, then we had a nice fellow with a big lens named Charles Smith from Ontario, and longtime birding pal Rick Schortinghuis out for his first pelagic adventure.  The trip was chartered through the Whale Centre and we had a very Captain Highliner-like skipper named Mike and a spotter named Artie.  We donned floater suits and made our way down to our seaworthy vessel.

As we motored out, the water was only slightly rippled but we had a little swell - overall the conditions were great for viewing but far from optimal for pelagic birding.  Our first pelagic species was Sooty Shearwater, which could well have been the same continual stream that we spied the evening before in the distance.  From there on out, we had small waves of shearwaters pass by and among them was our first Pink-footed Shearwater.  More expected offshore species like Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini) and Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) were found in short order, as well.

The real action began as we approached Clayoquot Canyon when Artie announced "Black-footed Albatross!"  We all looked back to see a long-winged, large bird lumbering low over the water.  This was immediately followed by obligatory oohs and aahs.  We pushed on and spotted a few more Black-footeds and decided it was time to set out the first batch of chum.  We decided to move along and set out another batch and check on it later.  At the second batch of chum, we had rapid success when a lone Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata) darted in and fluttered over the slick with floating fish skins.  We watched for several more minutes and it seemed like the action had fizzled as quick as it had started.  We started to move back to the first batch when I noticed a jaeger checking out the action.  We moved in for closer inspection and were treated to great views of a classic adult Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus).

Parasitic Jaegers are mid-sized jaegers with short, pointed central tail feathers 

Adult Parasitic Jaegers have a dusky collar which is quite faded in this individual

This angle of the Parasitic Jaeger shows off the short, pointed central tail feathers

Multiple Black-footed Albatrosses soon moved in to check things out, followed by a couple Sooty Shearwaters and a few Pink-footed Shearwaters.

I had only seen Black-footed Albatross once prior to this trip and the views in Clayoquot Canyon far trumped my first experience!

The Black-footed Albatrosses were definitely the stars of the show out there

These photos don't do these hefty-yet-graceful birds justice

Here's a 2-for-1 shot: Black-footed Albatross taking off in the foreground and a Pink-footed Shearwater cruising by in the background

I caught this Pink-footed Shearwater banking, which shows of their white belly and underwing coverts and namesake pink feet

I see some great pelagic bird photos and I have a new appreciation for them - it is hard to get a good shot on a rocking boat!

One last mediocre shot of a Pink-footed Shearwater that made several passes over the chum before finally landing

We made our way back slowly, searching along the way for any new pelagic species and only managed one more: Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).

I had never seen a Tufted Puffin transitioning between breeding and non-breeding plumage and I must say it's an interesting look!

We also encountered several more small groups of Cassin's Auklets and I managed to get a couple record photos of them.

Cassin's Auklets are small and ashy-grey with a short, thick grey bill

You can just make out the small white dab above the eye of the Cassin's Auklet in the back.  Unfortunately you can't see that they have pale irises, which can be seen at close range.

Even though some of the pelagic birds were pretty spectacular, I won't deny that encountering a group 14 Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) was the highlight.  As the whales surfaced, we were able to hear deep groans and rushes of air.  I certainly hope this wasn't a once in a lifetime experience, but I can say it was unforgettable.  Let's see if these shots give a sense of how amazing it was to be right alongside these impressive creatures.

Here's an example of the characteristic stubby, irregularly-shaped dorsal fin of a Humpback Whale

This dorsal fin has a couple barnacles growing on it

Individual Humpback Whales can be identified by the pattern on the underside of their tail or "flukes".  Compare this individual's pattern with a limited amount of white and a scar on the left fluke to the one below.

The extensive gleaming white underside of the flukes easily separates this individual from the above whale

The right tail is the same at the one above and the left is a different individual from the one with a scar on its left fluke

Pretty spectacular sight set against a nice mountainscape

Three surfacing at once - awesome!  On the back individual you can see small bumps on the head which are called tubercles, and they are actually large hair follicles.

This photo ups the ante to four individuals surfaced at the same time!

I really wanted to get some shots of them blowing, so here is a moment with three Humpbacks just surfacing

This is right in the middle of the blow, so you don't get a good sense of the shape of the characteristic low, bushy blow Humpbacks make

I think I captured this one right to get a sense of the shape of the blow

Apparently a giant, dark solid object surfacing right beside these Red-necked Phalaropes is not that startling!

I momentarily broke away from the whales when we approached a couple groups of alcids.  First I got a shot of a Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) and not long after got a group of Common Murres (Uria aalge).

This Rhinoceros Auklet doesn't really represent its name very well.  In the breeding season, adults boast a "horn" on their bill.

The two Common Murres on the right are transitioning out of breeding plumage into the non-breeding plumage shown by the two left birds

We cruised around a few islands on the way back and were treated to a couple sightings of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) floating in the kelp beds.  Knowing the history of this species along the coast of British Columbia, it's always encouraging to see them doing well since their reintroduction from 1969 to 1972.

Sea Otters can often be spotted floating on their backs wrapped up in the kelp like this one

Another Sea Otter lounging in the kelp

Some of the treed islands we passed on the transit back in to Tofino were rather picturesque

This island was my personal favourite with a lone tree permanently angled away from the wind it has endured over the years

In the end, I picked up a couple birds I had never seen in Canada but couldn't connect with my grail birds.  I guess I'll just have to see what opportunities arise and do it all again!