Monday, 30 January 2012

Birding Narita, Japan: When life gives you layovers, make liferades...

Well... maybe that saying won't become popular with the masses, but I mentally committed to the saying "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  That sentiment came about while planning my trip to Thailand last year.  I was looking for cheap flights and found one return trip that was priced quite reasonably.  I then looked at the flight itinerary and understood why it was such a bargain.  There was a day layover in Tokyo on the way to Bangkok and an 8 hour layover in Hong Kong on the way back.  I immediately disregarded the option and continued searching for better flights.  Finally, a little lightbulb went off in my head.  A day layover in Tokyo is... well, it's a day in Tokyo!  Japan is made up of islands and islands often have endemic species.  On top of the potential for endemics, there was an additional suite of birds that were possible in the winter around Tokyo, due to its higher latitude, that I wouldn't have a shot at in Thailand.  The latter went for Hong Kong, as well, but to a lesser degree as it is considerably closer Thailand.  I threw the pitch to Jamie, a friend and fellow birder that was joining me on the trip, and he was sold on the idea.  That settled it: flights were booked and the "Birds of East Asia" field guide was purchased.

I began to scour the internet for trip reports covering the Tokyo area in late January and I learned the airport was not in Tokyo proper, but rather in a satellite town called Narita.  We also learned that it is ill-advised to rent a car and attempt to navigate the roads because there is no English on street signs.  The quickest public options to get to Tokyo from the Narita International Airport take around an hour and are relatively expensive for a couple of budget travelers.  With all these factors swirling in our minds, we turned our attention to Narita and learned there was a great deal of appeal in staying close to the airport.  As Narita is less populous, navigating the area would be significantly easier and there was a good mosaic of natural habitat, developed areas, and agricultural fields.  Two features in particular made Narita even more appealing: the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, surrounded by forest, and an irrigation channel that looked like it could host some ducks.  I searched online for reasonable hotels in Narita and found the International Garden Hotel had the right price and was quite close to the temple.  Additionally, the hotel offered free transfers to and from the airport.  The scales were tipped and, needless to say, we booked it.

Jamie lived on Google Earth for many hours over many days to map out a plan for our only day in Japan.  In addition to working out a great walking route through some decent-looking habitat, he also found out we were staying just across the road from a hilarious love hotel:

You can expect to get coal in your stocking at Hotel Chapel Christmas because you're probably being naughty...

Our foot-based birding route took us from the hotel to the irrigation channel, over to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, back to the irrigation channel, north along the waterway up to some agricultural fields, and then back to the hotel.  The layover was a full day, but it was in February and we were set to arrive just after dark.  That gave us around six or seven hours of quality birding time.  In the end, we managed to complete the planned route and still had over two hours to kill.  We ended up improvising by heading south of the hotel into more forested habitat and then around more agricultural fields.  As this is hard to envision, I have attempted to roughly trace out our route on Google Earth:

1) International Garden Hotel  2) Irrigation channel  3) Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and forests to northeast
4) First set of agricultural fields  5) Forested area behind hotel  6) Second set of agricultural fields

We arrived at Narita International Airport after dark on January 30th and had no problems catching our transfer to the hotel.  We were tired after the long flight and were not feeling adventurous so we ate at the hotel restaurant and went to bed.  We were up the next morning as light was just starting to break and Jamie was looking out the window to see if he could identify the first birds of the trip.  He had a few crows flying by in the dim light but couldn't put a name to them as both Large-billed and Carrion Crows are common there.  We grabbed a quick breakfast and hit the streets.

Our first bird of the trip was also our first lifer of the trip - to recap for those non-birders out there, a "lifer" is common birding lingo for a species you've never seen before.  Maybe the title of this entry makes more sense now... or not.  So, the first bird was Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  That's a pretty mundane first lifer as it basically looks like a House Sparrow with a black patch set at the edge of its white cheek and a completely chestnut cap.  We followed it up quickly with a Brown-eared Bulbul perched on a telephone wire.  We had heard the bulbuls were loud and quite common and the rumours were true.  Continuing on down the road, we heard a sharp call note overhead and spied a long-tailed bird with an undulating flight dropping down.  The bird landed on a concrete wall and it turned out to be a White Wagtail.  Shortly after, we made it to the irrigation channel and Jamie scanned for ducks:

Could that be a group of Chinese Spot-billed Ducks?


The lifers were happening fast and furious.  Chinese Spot-billed Ducks were in tight formation swimming away from us and closer along the shore we had a Grey Wagtail, then an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and we topped it off with a stunning Japanese Wagtail!  An hour earlier, Jamie had never seen a wagtail in his life and I had only seen a group of three Eastern Yellows that landed on a boat in the Chukchi Sea.  We were rolling in them now.

Grey Wagtail at the water's edge of the irrigation channel

On the other side of the channel, we picked up our first Dusky Thrush and also gawked at a pair of Great Tits.  Maybe it wasn't a pair, but I think Freud would appreciate my story more that way.  We found a trail that cut through our first patches of shrubs and forest.  We could hear a chip note that we figured was something new and eventually managed to track down the source: a Black-faced Bunting.  There was more movement in the shrubs and a bird shot out that only Jamie got adequate looks at, which turned out to be the only Brown Thrush of the day.  The trail led us out to the road that winds up to the temple grounds.  A short distance up the road, a bird was calling from the top of a tree in the distance.  I set up my scope for the first time and determined the culprit was a Hawfinch.  The forest started to look a little more mature as we neared the temple and as a result we started to encounter some interesting birds.  First, we managed to find a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and shortly after we had our first Varied Tits.  At the top of the road, we found another trail that appeared to drop down to picaresque ponds surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens.

The start of the trail, which we assumed led to the temple, yielded two more new birds in the forms of Eurasian Jay and Japanese Bush Warbler.  We followed the trail around another pond with more exquisite landscaping and eventually came to a little frenzy of activity.  On the ground just off the trail, a Pale Thrush was feeding in similar vein to our robins.  A group of Varied Tits were amazingly confiding and I unfortunately could only muster an out-of-focus record shot of these extremely charismatic little birds.

Varied Tit down at eye level

Hawfinches were also in the trees in the same vicinity to add to the bustle.  Also, a mixed flock of Oriental Greenfinches and Eurasian Siskins swirled around before landing in the top of some tall conifers, requiring scope views to realize both species were present.  Just when we thought we had picked everything out of the mix, a Japanese White-eye popped into view.  We had another small group of these a little further on that were lit up perfectly by the morning sun.

The aptly-named Japanese White-eye

We broke out of the forest into the courtyard of the temple and we took some time to soak in the intricate architecture and ornamental features of the buildings.  It was still early in the morning and the local people were just starting to get moving.  The minimal activity around the temples made the setting very serene and, when paired with nicely manicured trees, it made me truly understand why people love Japanese gardens and temples.  See for yourself:

While wandering around the temple grounds, the bird highlight was a flock of Long-tailed Tits that flew over and gave us brief views.  The only other birds around were a few Carrion Crows and it was good to see they act much like the crows back home.

This Carrion Crow was hanging out near some steps leading up to a temple door

We left the temple grounds and wandered through a maze of streets and made our way back to the irrigation channel.  On the way, we came across a couple very cooperative White Wagtails.  It's interesting to see a bird like this wandering around on a small gravel parking spot between buildings when we dream about finding them in agricultural fields or sandy dune-like habitats, such as spits, back in British Columbia.  Maybe  we're doing it all wrong!

This White Wagtail was looking sharp as it strutted around close to the sidewalk

Back at the irrigation channel, we picked up a couple nice lifers.  First, a flash of turquoise darted by and we recognized the bird immediately as a Common Kingfisher.  While trying to find where the kingfisher landed, we pushed up a Common Sandpiper and tried to work out differences from the Spotted Sandpipers we see back home.  Very subtle.  As we passed back by the spot where we first crossed the channel, we accidentally flushed the same Japanese Wagtail up to a roof.  Despite the  awkward lighting, I snapped off a shot of it as it is a regional endemic and I thought it was the smartest wagtail of the four we encountered.

Japanese Wagtails have a narrow distribution but are not actually endemic to Japan

We followed the channel further northeast in hopes of spotting some different waterfowl.  We were not let down in the slightest.  In a narrow stretch with cattails on both sides, we found a perfect specimen of a male Falcated Duck.  We were only able to view it for a few minutes before it floated out of view into the reeds.  Other than that, the only other species we found in the water were Great Cormorants, a lone Common Moorhen, and some Common Teals.

Some authorities treat Common Teal, the Eurasian counterpart to our Green-winged Teals, as a distinct species

In the adjacent agricultural fields, Jamie scanned out and spied a Bull-headed Shrike but it flew off before I could get a look at it.  We followed paths between the fields and were rewarded with a couple new birds.  As we cut through a weedy patch, the whir of wings erupted as a female Green Pheasant flushed a couple metres away from us.  I am fairly certain that flushing pheasants has to be one of the most frightening experiences you can have as a birder.  They have a tendency to wait until you are right on top of them before exploding into flight.  We walked a little further and pushed up another female Green Pheasant likely causing my heart rate to elevate significantly from the back-to-back flushes.  Sometimes called Japanese Pheasant, this species was the only truly Japanese endemic we managed in Narita.  As we made our way out into the more open fields, a flock of Rustic Buntings flew up and landed in the trees lining a small slope a couple hundred metres away.  We watched them in the scope for a bit before deciding to head back towards the hotel.  As we left the fields, the Bull-headed Shrike re-emerged and gave us both great views and we were even able to watch it hunt at close range.

The winter weather was pleasant but still chilly.  As we approached the hotel, we found a vending machine along the sidewalk and decided to get a hot beverage in a can to warm up a little.

For a relaxing time, make it Suntory time

Once at the hotel, we realized we still had a couple hours to kill.  We opted to trek into the forested area behind the hotel as a start and just see where the journey led us.  In the forested area, we were delighted to see stands of bamboo.  This, however, did not equate to new birds.

The towering bamboo creaked and groaned while swaying in the wind

Due to the minimal bird activity through the forested area, we moved along quickly and came out to a road on the other side of the forest stand.  A flash of movement alerted us to the presence of another much-sought after gem: a male Red-flanked Bluetail!  This diminutive flycatcher actually has orange flanks and the head, back, and tail are all a dazzling shade of blue.  They have also been called Orange-flanked Bush-Robins which reflects their former placement under the thrush family Turdidae.  They have now been placed in with Old World flycatchers under the family Muscicapidae.  The latter is more fitting as we saw it swiftly sally out and dart back into the roadside vegetation.  We quickly lost track of the bluetail but we savoured the moment and followed it up with a high five.  Another high five-worthy bird was right around the corner in a beautifully-manicured front yard.  Sitting right out in broad daylight, we had a male Daurian Redstart.  Old World redstarts look nothing like the redstarts back home, which is why some have suggested we call our birds "whitestarts".  Just like the Red-flanked Bluetail, the placement of Daurian Redstart has shifted from Turdidae to Muscicapidae.  They are equally as tantalizing with their neat lines defining a silver-grey cap, rusty-orange chest and belly, black throat and back, and topping it off with white patches in the wings.

Is this just an average person's home?  I have no idea, but it is visually appealing to me and Daurian Redstarts!

The street came to a T-junction and opened up into another stretch of agricultural fields.  Out on the fields, a flock of pipits took flight and eventually dropped back into same field.  We eventually managed to get them in the scope and found they were the japonicus subspecies of American Pipit.  I watch for japonicus American Pipits in Victoria as they are one of the more likely Asian vagrants to show up in my opinion, but I have never managed to find one.  It was nice to get some experience with them and see how boldly marked they are with dark streaks contrasting their whitish undersides and broad, dark, flaring malars, reassuring it would stand out in a group of nominate rubescens American Pipits.  After studying the pipits for a while and ensuring there wasn't a juicier pipit in the mix, we proceeded to circumnavigate the fields.  We didn't find anything new in the process, but we got more great looks at Bull-headed Shrike, Japanese Bush-Warbler, and found a female Daurian Redstart.

Couldn't this Bull-headed Shrike choose a more attractive perch?

We decided it was time to get back to the hotel and catch a shuttle to the airport, so we booked it back.  Being stubborn, we decided to give a small field next to the hotel once last look over and we were duly rewarded with our only Meadow Bunting.  We shook our heads at our incredible luck and were impressed with the total we amassed from walking around on foot in a non-tropical foreign country in the middle of winter.

My hope is that this trip report will be instructive to birders in the same boat as I was on my trip to Thailand.  If you have a lengthy layover in a destination you've never visited, make the best of it.  If your layover happens to be at the Narita International Airport and you don't want to cut it too fine by heading into Tokyo, the Narita area has a nice range of habitats that can be explored on foot.  I found internet resources to be rather slim for birding in Narita and just wanted to try and fill the gap a little.  If you find this useful and end up doing something in similar vein, please take the time to write up your own report to help out future travelers.

Trip List (* denotes lifer):
Chinese Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) *
Common Teal (Anas crecca)
Falcated Duck (Anas falcata) *
Green Pheasant (Phasianus versicolor) *
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) *
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) *
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) *
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) *
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) *
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) *
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) *
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Dendrocopos kizuki) *
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) *
Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis) *
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) *
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens japonicus)
Brown-eared Bulbul (Microscelis amaurotis) *
Bull-headed Shrike (Lanius bucephalus) *
Brown-headed Thrush (Turdus chrysolaus) - Jamie only
Pale Thrush (Turdus pallidus) *
Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus) *
Japanese Bush Warbler (Cettia diphone) *
Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus) *
Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus) *
Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) *
Great Tit (Parus major) *
Varied Tit (Cyanistes varius) *
Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus) *
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) *
Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) *
Meadow Bunting (Emberiza cioides) *
Oriental Greenfinch (Carduelis sinica) *
Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus) *
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) *
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) *
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) *
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) *
Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) *
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) *
Total: 41 species/36 lifers

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Cloudy with a chance of Snow Bunting

As Jeremy Kimm is working on another Victoria Big Year, I dropped him a line on Saturday evening to see if he had plans for Sunday birding.  It was on his agenda, but he hadn't made up his mind whether to head out west to Sooke or north to the Saanich Peninsula.  We decided to meet at my place and then I'd drive us around for some field birding on the peninsula.

When I woke up at 8 a.m., the rain was coming down in sheets and I thought it would put a bit of a damper on our birding.  When Jeremy K. showed up just before 9 a.m., the rain was still coming down but the pace had slowed considerably.  Coffee was supposed to be the first order of business, but we found decent flocks of gulls, geese, and wigeons on the polo field next to Maber Flats on the way.  We hopped out and found a couple Greater White-fronted Geese in with the Canada Geese.  We noted another flock of geese that seemed to be over the fields off Stelly's X Rd., so we drove over there to check it out.  There was an impressively large flock of geese and we could see a section of the flock was made up of Greater White-fronted Geese.  We made sure to count them up and the total came to 56 in all.  We still weren't in the clear for getting coffee as we spotted a stunning male American Kestrel on the wire just before Centennial Park.  While watching the kestrel, it dashed off and we looked up to see a Peregrine Falcon racing by overhead.  Despite seeing a Mourning Dove on the wire almost a kilometre further down the road, we decided not to stop so we could finally get some java in our systems.

We zigzagged up and down the peninsula seeing the usual suspects until we made a stop at Saanichton Spit.  Jeremy K. hadn't visited the spit this year so there was one specific target he was hoping we would find.  A lone Snow Bunting has been present out near the tip of the spit for nearly a month and a half and, since they are a rare overwintering species in Victoria, it was still missing from his year list.  Right on cue, the Snow Bunting flushed from the dune-like habitat near the tip and landed on the beach.

Record shot of the Snow Bunting that has been overwintering at Saanichton Spit this year

After Saanichton Spit, we drove through Martindale Flats and found a staggering number of gulls in the field just south of the pig farm at the end of Lochside Dr.  We couldn't find anything too interesting, but the adult Ring-billed Gull was easy to pick out due to its pale, silvery mantle set among darker-mantled Mew Gulls.  Next, we were able to find the flock of blackbirds that almost certainly has the Rusty Blackbird near the corner of Welch Rd. and Martindale Rd.  The flock refused to stay settled and it wasn't long before they left the field and landed in a roadside tree.  We didn't have the patience to continue picking through for the Rusty because we had two more birds we were hoping to find before the day was done.

Jeremy K. had not made much of an effort for murrelets to date, so we headed out to Kwatsech Park which provides a great view over Glencoe Cove and the Strait of Georgia.  The rock bluff is a great site to seawatch and both Marbled and Ancient Murrelets can usually be found reasonably close.  Today, I could barely make out a group of Ancient Murrelets way offshore and Jeremy K. couldn't even make them out in my scope.  I said we should save ourselves all the squinting and just head out to Ten Mile Point.  We did just that and the results were much better.  After a few minutes, we had a nice pair of Marbled Murrelets and a couple groups of Ancient Murrelets.  While discussing local wildlife and climate change with an older fellow that was interested in what we were doing, both murrelet species gradually moved in closer to shore and a Rhinoceros Auklet offered crippling views.

Despite the mediocre weather, we had a great day and finished the day off with 77 species, by my count.  It's always amazing to see a total like that without attempting to maximize diversity!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Royal Consolation

Just before Christmas last year, I received a phone call from fellow Victoria birder Jeremy Kimm saying another January Westport pelagic birding trip was scheduled.  The January pelagic trips are notorious for pulling in rare albatrosses and also for being cancelled.  The last two trips to go out in January were in 2000 and 2001, which not only resulted in several Laysan Albatross sightings, but one had a Shy Albatross and the other had a Short-tailed Albatross, respectively.  Jeremy K. said there was a reserved spot with my name on it if I wanted, so I jumped at the opportunity.  We also recruited our good friend Nathan Hentze, currently residing in Burnaby, to get in on the action and he promptly signed himself up with the prospect of finally catching up with Laysan Albatross.  In fact, that was all the incentive needed for all of us.  The allure of a mega rarity was just an added bonus.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Thursday, January 26th.  Jeremy K. and I had caught the 5 p.m. ferry over to Tsawwassen and were heading to a skytrain station to pick up Nathan.  While grabbing something quick and dirty to keep us fueled on our drive down to Tacoma, we received an e-mail from Westport Seabirds saying the weather was looking decent and it appeared the trip was going to sail.  Elated with the news, we picked up Nathan, headed south of the border through the Peace Arch border crossing, and rolled into Tacoma around 11:30 p.m.

After beers and stories to around 2 a.m., we took in a meager five hours of sleep and were up and eating breakfast at IHOP at 7:30 a.m.  I dared to be different and got chicken and waffles.  We hit the I-5 and continued south towards Aberdeen and, after passing through Olympia, we got a call from Westport Seabirds saying the weather forecast had changed and winds were expected to pick up to 35 knots.  Another January trip axed.  Feeling a little dejected, we set a modified version of our back-up plan in motion.  We decided if we were already south of the border and we received notice that the trip was canned, we would head north up to Dungeness Spit and search for the two Emperor Geese that had been reported on and off for the past four weeks.  That plan only worked if we received the notice late Thursday night or very early Thursday.  As we were already south of Olympia, we opted to continue on to Ocean Shores which has also hosted an Emperor Goose for around two months.  Additionally, Damon Point, a few kilometers south of Ocean Shores, has had a female King Eider that was first sighted back in July of 2009.

Once in Ocean Shores, we managed to locate the golf course where the Emperor Goose had been regularly sighted.  It wasn't long before we found a group of Canada Geese so we hopped out and checked through them.  That would have been the easiest twitch ever, but alas it was not in the group.  For non-birders, a "twitch" is birding lingo for chasing a rare bird.  If you attempt to "twitch" and miss the bird, it is called "dipping".  Luckily we did not dip on the Emperor Goose.  We hopped back in the car and drove down the next road which offered a view down another fairway.  There were two small groups of geese and a quick scan through the closer group revealed a grey-backed goose with a black neck and throat and a white head.  We got out the scopes and enjoyed great views of the Emperor Goose as it helped maintain a nicely manicured fairway.  The rest of the flock containing the Emperor was made up of two Greater White-fronted Geese, two Dusky Canada Geese, and a Cackling Goose.

Normally found wintering on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, this Emperor Goose is a local celebrity
in Ocean Shores, WA where birders have enjoyed its presence for nearly two months

From left to right: Greater White-fronted, Dusky Canada, Cackling, and Emperor Geese

I took a bit of time to get a photo showing all four geese taxa together and managed the above shot.  The Greater White-fronted can be distinguished by its pinky-orange bill with white feathers at the base, hence "white-fronted", while the two different white-cheeked geese can be separated by size as the Dusky Canada slightly dwarfs the Cackling.  The Emperor Goose has many diagnostic features, such as the strip of black running up its neck and throat contrasted by a white head, the heavily scalloped chest and back, the overall grey tone to its body, and a white tail.  The cooperative Emperor, significantly south of its typical winter range, was a lifer - that's birding lingo for a bird you've never seen before - for both Jeremy K. and I, while Nathan had seen a dozen or so up near their breeding range in western Alaska.

At Damon Point, we quickly located a mixed flock of scoters and were optimistic the female King Eider would be floating among them.  Sure enough, Nathan spotted her in short order.  The eider stood out due to its rich brown colour, distinct head shape, and sail-like tertial feathers.  There were several other birders wandering around Damon Point, mostly to experience the Snowy Owls further out along the point, and we took the time to chat to a few and point out the eider.  We scoped out along the sandy point from the base in hopes of spying a distant Snowy but could only see where one was likely huddled out of our view.  One birder told us the same disgraceful behaviour that has been going on at Boundary Bay near Vancouver is happening at Damon Point.  Bird photographers have flocked to locations hosting multiple Snowy Owls and the stories are less than flattering to the bird photography community.  The issue is exacerbated as interested onlookers see the owls and want photos of them, too, so they trudge out there with camera phones or short-range point-and-shoot cameras with no understanding of bird behaviour.  The end result is a daily omnipresence of humans disturbing the owls and it sickens me.  Needless to say, we did not walk out to see the owls at Damon Point.  As we walked back to the car, we saw park rangers heading out there and we can only hope they were going to educate offenders that are harassing wildlife and perhaps even send a message with a fine or two.

From a fellow birder, we learned that the Point Brown jetty, just to the north, had Rock Sandpipers in with a group of fellow rock-loving shorebirds so we decided to make that our last stop before heading back north to the border.  What we saw next was foreshadowed as we stepped out of the vehicle and had a couple of birders tell us they had just done the beached bird survey.  I must have misheard the numbers, but I caught that they had found a dead Rhinoceros Auklet and a dead puffin.  The scene there was easily more disturbing than the harassment of the owls, but the human side of the picture was thankfully more compassionate.  As we approached the beach, we could see a couple standing above a Western Grebe that was stranded on the shore.  We approached them and learned they were talking to the local Audubon Society to find out how they could help the bird.  A family was sitting on logs and watched on with concern.  We then noticed there was another Western Grebe closer to the rock jetty.  I walked up to it and could see it was less lively.  I turned around and saw Nathan was closer to the water's edge looking at a struggling Ruddy Duck.  The three of us had never witnessed a stranding event and it was quite heart-wrenching to have a helpless Western Grebe looking up at you and calling, seemingly in distress.

Long-necked and elegant Western Grebes, with their intense red eyes, have a history of stranding after windstorms

At the time, we could only speculate why the grebes were stranded and couldn't tell if they were oiled or not.  Both grebes had disheveled feathers on their flanks and towards the back end of their body, but there was no obvious signs of oil.  What we did know, however, was they were stuck once on land and were unable to walk or take flight.

The legs are positioned so far back on Western Grebes that they cannot walk once on land

I found an article from 2001 when a similar event happened at Ocean Shores.  Strong winds, similar to those experienced a week ago, was the culprit then and could well have been underlying cause of what we were witnessing.

Wave after relentless wave was the scene at Point Brown south of Ocean Shores, which
made it impossible for grebes and other stranded birds to return to sea

The article goes on to say that the grebes are not only susceptible to starvation, but sand and debris can get into their feathers stripping them of their natural waterproofing and, consequently, their insulative capacity.  Luckily we noticed a park ranger vehicle had pulled up to the beach and we went over to inform the rangers that two grebes and a Ruddy Duck were stranded.  They phoned to get another vehicle over to collect up the birds and take them to a rehabilitation centre.

We walked along the beach to see what other birds were affected by the event and quickly found four Rhinoceros Auklets and two more Western Grebes, all dead.  Additionally, we relocated the Ruddy Duck and were disheartened to see it panting with a dab of blood on its bill.  Nathan attempted to scoop it up to safety but a big wave came in and pulled it back out to sea and the next wave sent it right back into the rocks again.  Another attempt was made to get it, but the bird had a lot more life in it than we had imagined. We knew the outcome looked grim but we left it to nature to determine its fate.  As we made our way back to the car, a couple of younger park rangers pulled up and headed to the beach with gloves and a box.  We pointed out the two grebes and mentioned the Ruddy Duck down the beach was not looking good.  They put the grebes in a box and transported them to the wildlife rehabilitation centre.  We were happy to give the two grebes a fighting chance but the event left us feeling sombre.

One of four dead Rhinoceros Auklets washed up following heavy winds off the Pacific coast.

We proceeded to make the hellishly long haul back from Ocean Shores north to Delta with a couple stops along the way to keep our hunger at bay and our eyes open.  Jeremy K. was a real trooper and drove the whole stretch.  In Delta, we dropped off Nathan, grabbed one last coffee, and headed to the ferries.  We were already too late to get the last ferry to Swartz Bay (Victoria) so we had to catch the ferry to Nanaimo.  Even though it was an extremely long and tiring day, we made a brief side trip as we entered Duncan at 1:45 a.m.  I had to take a quick pee break and Jeremy K. needed to stretch out his legs, so I suggested we take a slight detour that might give us a shot at owls in the process.  As luck would have it, we spotted a Barn Owl cruising over a field right beside the road.  That was the final bird of our epic adventure.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Thailand Odonata

When life gives you winter doldrums, take a mental vacation.  That's what I'm doing this evening.  The sideways rain and westerly winds have forced me to retreat deep into the recesses of my brain where the dragonflies and damselflies of Thailand are dashing about.  This little reality break also serves to show you that I'm no one-trick pony, luring you in with the term "naturalist" and then inundating solely with birding adventures.  If you think this is a blog of some naked guy (ie. Janean typing in "naturalest naturist" in Google), you'll be disappointed, but read on anyways and you might enjoy it all the same.

Around five years ago, I decided to seriously attempt to learn the Odonata - the order that contains suborder Zygoptera (damselflies) and infraorder Anisoptera (dragonflies) - of British Columbia.  I had attempted to learn them several times over in years before that, but those efforts were fairly lackluster.  I would see a bluet or a darner and think it was impossible to identify.  On my serious attempt, however, I realized the process was just as calculated as birds but the diagnostic features were just significantly less "macro".  After that, all the pieces fell together and I was hooked!  It is now standard practice for me to attempt to photograph any odonates that cross my path on my travels.

I had never been out of the Americas before landing in Thailand in February last year, so I was completely unprepared for how different the odonates were going to be and I was absolutely floored by the different colours, patterns, and morphologies.  The first two days were definitely geared towards birds, but that all changed when I got to Kaeng Krachan National Park and wandered down a stream near the campground where I was staying.  Sitting on a rock surrounded by slow-moving water was a damselfly with its wings held together above its body, similar to dancers (genus Argia) in the New World, except it was bulkier and had a short abdomen.  To top it off, the thorax had brilliant violet and blue markings, the latter extending onto the abdomen.  Fractured sunlight trickling through the canopy reflected off cells in the dark-tipped wings of hovering males, creating a shimmering display for the females.  I think my knees wobbled at the sight.  The photo below doesn't do these little gems justice.

Rhinocypha biforata

I realized then that I needed to make time for the country's Odonata and I made a point of keeping my head down around water bodies and my camera at the ready.  I am quite pleased with the collection covering more than 30 species that I managed over the course of my trip.  Once again, all of these were more exciting in nature but I hope the photos give you an appreciation of Thailand's dragonflies and damselflies.

Coeliccia chromothroax

Coeliccia didyma

Ischnura senegalensis

Neurobasis chinensis

Prodasineura autumnalis

Prodasineura laidlawii

Pseudagrion rubriceps

Rhinagrion mima

Rhinocypha fenestrella

Copera vittata

Copera marginipes

Vestalis gracilis

Acisoma panorpoides

Neurothemis fulvia

Orthetrum glaucum

Orthetrum sabina

Pantala flavescens

Paragomphus capricornis

Rhyothemis phyllis

Rhyothemis variegata

Tholymis tillarga

Trithemis aurora

Trithemis festiva

Agrionoptera insignis

Brachythemis contaminata

Trithemis pallidinervis

Neurothemis tullia

That was way more amazing than I was anticipating!  When I first started this little flashback, I thought it would be refreshing to review the exotic odonates from my three weeks in Thailand.  I now realize, however, it will be nearly three months before I see the first dragonfly here in Victoria, which will likely be a California Darner (Rhionaeschna californica).  That's almost depressing!  Luckily that trip to Panama is lurking in the not-too-distant future.  Since I've seen a decent cross-section of the country's birds, I'll be able to shift some of the focus over to odonates and the herpetofauna.

I am by no means an expert on Thailand's dragonflies and damselflies so if any Asian odonatologists randomly come across this and see some glaring errors, please let me know.  To everyone else, I hope you enjoyed the eye candy!