Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Help

Allow me to reword the IMDb synopsis for "The Help" which is currently nominated for Best Picture in the 84th Academy Awards:

"An aspiring blogger during the big year movement of the 2010s decides to write an entry detailing his point of view on an obsessed twitcher that he assists, and the birds they encounter over the day."

For the record, I am that aspiring blogger and Jeremy Kimm the obsessed twitcher.  I don't mean to detract from the importance of the movie... I just try to spice up my lead-ins.  Today, I joined Jeremy K. on his big year quest with a tour of Metchosin and Sooke.

We started our day in Metchosin by searching for flocks of gulls on golf courses and open fields.  We encountered a couple decent gull flocks, but they were composed of the expected species.  Taylor Rd. was bustling with activity due to what appears to be a relatively new feeder.  The hedgerows there often host a good sparrow flock but it was much easier to view the birds due to the feeder being positioned in the middle of a lawn.  At one point I thought I saw a hybrid White-crowned x Golden-crowned Sparrow but I lost track of it and couldn't find it again.  The feeder had a flock of Red-winged and Brewer's Blackbirds, two Eurasian Collared-Doves, around 30+ Golden-crowned Sparrows, one White-crowned Sparrow, and 15+ Dark-eyed Juncos.  Near Swanwick Rd., the flock of 30 or so Greater White-fronted Geese that has been around for over a month was still loafing about in the big field.

We made our way to Sooke and made Whiffin Spit our first stop.  We quickly spotted a group of Black Turnstones wheeling over the water, landing, and vanishing among barnacle covered rocks.  Closer on the shore, three Black Oystercatchers were feeding at the water's edge.

One of several Black Oystercatchers seen at Whiffin Spit today

There weren't any showstoppers at the spit, but a Red-throated Loon off the tip was nice to watch.  At the open section, a few Golden-crowned Sparrows were feeding around some logs and one sat still long enough to snap a couple photos.

Golden-crowned Sparrow sitting up on driftwood at Whiffin Spit

After Whiffin Spit, we decided to check a couple golf courses for geese and ducks.  At the John Phillips Memorial Golf Course, we found a very confiding flock of 68 Greater White-fronted Geese.  I made a slow and careful approach and made sure the group didn't flush, which allowed me to get a few decent shots.

A small portion of the Greater White-fronted Geese at John Phillips Memorial Golf Course

This individual is not only sporting the namesake "white front" at the base of  its bill, but also shows black
 mottling on its belly which is why they are colloquially dubbed "Specklebellies" in North America

We decided to check the Demamiel Creek Golf Course but missed the turn off and ended up turning around up near Sunriver Estates.  I hopped out at the entrance to a gated logging road for a pee break and was rewarded (not that I deserved a reward) with four Evening Grosbeaks passing over.  When we got to the golf course, we spied a nice flock of American Wigeons with a couple conspicuous male Eurasian Wigeons in with them near a small pond.

We made another quick waterfront stop that gave a different view of Sooke Harbour but it was relatively uneventful.  I did, however, get a decent shot of a male Anna's Hummingbird that seemed a little perturbed by our presence in his territory.

Unfortunately this male Anna's Hummingbird had its head turned the wrong way to show off its brilliant pink gorget

We finished our day at the Goodrich Peninsula.  We added some new birds for the day, including Green-winged Teal, Barrow's Goldeneye, and Gadwall but it was pretty quiet overall.  I managed a photo of one of the many Fox Sparrows we encountered in the blackberry brambles on the peninsula.

Who knew Fox Sparrows had terrifying talons?

Back at the base of the peninsula, we wandered onto the Sunny Shores RV Resort grounds and this is where I became "The Help".  Jeremy K., bless his heart, has been having some issues catching up with Hutton's Vireo.  Through the wind, I faintly heard what I thought sounded like a Hutton's.  Jeremy K. has apparently lost the "zu-weep" tones because he didn't hear it.  We wandered over to a patch of conifers in the direction of the call and the Hutton's started up again, confirming my suspicion.  Then a second one started calling.  Turns out Jeremy K. can hear them and he also got brief views of them, too.  The vireo put him at 139 for the year.  I'll need to dig him up some rarities if I want to maintain my status as "The Help".

Sunday, 19 February 2012

My Relationship with Gulls is on the Rocks

I headed down to Clover Point on Saturday in hopes of finding some gulls on the rocks to add to my personal gallery.  The scene was pretty typical for the location, with Harlequin Ducks in the surf just off the rocks, a sparse flock of Mew and Thayer's Gulls off the west side of the point, and a group of assorted hybrids on the grass in the middle of the driving ring.

Harlequin Ducks get their name from the male's clownlike feature reminiscent
of pantomime jesters dressed in diamond-patterned costumes

The unique pattern and contrasting colours puts Harlequin Ducks
among the sharpest waterfowl in the world in my opinion

A first-winter Glaucous-winged Gull sized up this clam for a while and I never did see how it dealt with it

This first-winter Mew Gull giving a lazy yawn

The dark-tipped bill and molt pattern of the wing coverts allow this bird to be aged as a second winter Mew Gull

The pure yellow bill and uniform mantle shade are good indicators this Mew Gull is an adult

A nice example of an adult Thayer's Gull that is starting to lose the winter head streaking

This adult Thayer's Gull shows the dusky mottling on its head typical of a winter adult

Not a bad session out with the gulls.  They allow close approach if you're patient but be prepared to get chilled along the waterfront!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gull Bladder

I have a weak gull bladder so I decided to drain my urge today with a scan through any flocks I could come across.  Over the last week, a Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) has been sighted among the usual Mew (L. canus), Thayer's (L. thayeri), American Herring (L. smithsonianus), and Glaucous-winged Gulls (L. glaucescens) on the Saanich Peninsula.  Glaucous Gulls are an expected but scarce winter bird on southern Vancouver Island, with only a few records occurring in a typical winter.  As the etymology of 'hyperboreus' implies, they  come "from the north" after breeding in the high arctic.

Locally, the method for finding unusual gulls in a flock usually involves looking for pale or dark-backed individuals.  Glaucous Gulls fall into the former category.  Today I could only find one decent-sized flock of gulls on the polo field adjacent to Maber Flats in Brentwood Bay.  Scanning through the group, nothing really jumped out.  The Glaucous Gull was originally located near Maber Flats by Mary Robichaud on Friday, February 10th and it later was seen by several others when it was relocated at the Vantreight bulb fields a few days later by Kirsten Mills.  When I passed by the Vantreight bulb fields off Central Saanich Rd., I saw a whopping six gulls on one field and once again nothing jumped out of the mix.  After wandering around Sidney for a couple hours and having a bite to eat, my day ended with a check at Patricia Bay.  Last year in March, I found a first-winter Glaucous Gull at the mouth of Wsikem Creek where it drains into the bay.  I hoped to relive the magic but was a little deflated when I got to bay and saw all the gulls were heavily backlit by the low sun to the west.  I still gave my best effort and could see one gull that was intriguing.  I made my way down to the beach and walked out towards the sparse flock of gulls until the viewing conditions improved and the bird in question could be identified.  The overall paleness of the bird was not a trick of the light - the wingtips were nearly pure white, the body appeared to be uniformly dingy white, and its bill was pink with a black tip.  A perfect specimen of a Glaucous Gull.  I think it was a second-winter bird but I'd like to see it in better light to slap a proper age label on it.  I wasn't able to get a photo due to the low light, but I will share a couple shots of the first-winter bird from March last year at the same location:

This classic first-winter Glaucous Gull is distinguished by its white wingtips, white mantle with grey-brown vermiculations, sharply bicoloured bill, and overall bulk (approximately the same size as the hybrid Glaucous-winged x Western Gull to right)

The bird is aged as a first-winter Glaucous Gull by its dark eye; typical second-winter birds have a pale iris

The sighting gave my gull bladder the sweet relief I needed.  I'm sure I'll have to go again by midweek, so I may sneak back down to Patricia Bay and try to relocate the bird or perhaps something rarer from the dark-backed end of the spectrum.  Fingers crossed!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Herps are contagious!

You may read the title and think my spelling is rubbish and my love of natural history goes right down to the virus level.  Well, you'd be wrong in both cases.  I'm sure viruses are interesting in their own right, but I typically enjoy nature at the macro scale.  Instead, I am referring to reptiles and amphibians which are collectively referred to as herptiles or herpetofauna, and the vernacular term is "herps".

In British Columbia, 42 species have been recorded in the province and another two species are considered possible but have yet to be recorded.  Two of the species, Pygmy Short-horned Lizard and Western Pond Turtle, have been extirpated from British Columbia, six are introduced, and Green Sea Turtle is an accidental stray to B.C. waters.  Several of my co-workers over the years have been excited at the prospects of finding herps while out working and this enthusiasm is rather infectious.  I got hooked on herps while working in western Washington when I saw my first Coastal Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus).  Over the course of the same work trip, I also encountered Coastal Tailed Frogs (Ascaphus truei), Columbia Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri), and Red-legged Frogs (Rana aurora).  Since then, I have attempted to find reptiles and amphibians on my work and personal travels.

As I spend most of my time in Victoria, I will limit the scale of this little blurb to my local patch.  Amazingly, Vancouver Island hosts or has historically hosted just over half of B.C.'s herps.  The following is a list of those species that have been recorded, along with their status:
  1. Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum)  Native
  2. Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile)  Native
  3. Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa)  Native
  4. Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii)  Native
  5. Western Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon vehiculum)  Native
  6. Wandering Salamander (Aneides vagrans)  Native
  7. Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas)  Native
  8. Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla)  Native
  9. Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora)  Native
  10. Green Frog (Rana clamitans)  Exotic
  11. Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)  Exotic
  12. Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  Native
  13. Chinese Pond Turtle (Chinemys reevesii)  Exotic, possibly extirpated
  14. Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta)  Exotic
  15. Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)  Native, accidental stray to offshore waters
  16. Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)  Native, offshore waters
  17. European Wall Lizard (Podacris muralis)  Exotic
  18. Northern Alligator Lizard (Elegaria coerulea)  Native
  19. Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)  Native
  20. Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)  Native
  21. Northwestern Garter Snake (Thamnophis ordinoides)  Native
  22. Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans)  Native
In the last few years, I have managed to photograph many of these species.  Hopefully you'll see why many naturalists find herps charming and charismatic in their own way.

On Vancouver Island, Long-toed Salamanders can be readily distinguished
by their yellowish dorsal stripe contrasting their dark brown to black body

Many salamanders have five toes on their rear feet and this close-up shows the
 namesake long toe of the Long-toed Salamander, which is the outer fourth toe

Northwestern Salamanders are the largest species of salamander found on Vancouver
 Island and can easily be recognized by their uniform brownish colour

The prominent parotoid glands, seen in this shot, secrete a milky toxin as
a defense mechanism when Northwestern Salamanders are threatened

Rough-skinned Newts are the only newt species in B.C. and can be readily
 identified by their granular-textured skin and bright orange underside

Despite their rather unassuming appearance, Rough-skinned Newts have highly toxic skin; however,
 individuals on Vancouver Island apparently have significantly lower levels of toxins in their skin

This side profile shot of this Ensatina shows the diagnostic constricted
 tail base and the often-present pale bases to the legs

Ensatinas are a ring species (see diagram and explanation below), but the "ring" is contained entirely
within California and the subspecies found in B.C. has range that extends down to northern California

A ring species is made up of a series of interbreeding populations (A) that form a cline around a geographic
barrier (B), such as a mountain or desert, and when the two end populations meet they cannot interbreed (C)

Western Red-backed Salamanders, like Ensatinas and Wandering Salamanders, are lungless salamanders
that breathe through their skin and spend their entire lives in moist environments on land

Western Red-backed Salamanders have many colour morphs and this individual is unusual in possessing orange sides

Wandering Salamanders belong to a group known as the climbing salamanders and
adults have been found nearly 100 metres up Coast Redwoods in California

The dark body colour with coppery or grey marbling helps distinguish Wandering Salamanders from
other species of salamanders on Vancouver Island, but their square-tipped toes are truly diagnostic

Western Toads, considered a species of Special Concern nationally and
 blue-listed provincially, are easily recognized by their warty skin

Pacific Chorus Frogs, with their dark mask and round-tipped toes, can be a range
 of colours and this is the most striking individual I have encountered

In the spring, the night air is filled with the sound of male Pacific Chorus Frogs around ponds, lakes, and marshes

Red-legged Frogs belong to the "true frogs" and have smooth skin, a narrow waist, and long, powerful
legs for jumping, and they also have a reddish underside to their hind limbs as their name implies

Painted Turtles are the only native freshwater turtle still found in B.C. and on Vancouver
Island they are now limited to select few lakes and ponds on southern Vancouver Island

European Wall Lizards were introduced to the Saanich Peninsula in the 1970s when
 a private zoo closed down and since then they have managed a modest spread

Despite their modest spread, their numbers at some sites are quite staggering as
 is evident in this shot of one rock face at Oak Haven Park in Brentwood Bay

Northern Alligator Lizards, which occupy the same dry, rocky sites as the European Wall Lizards, have a diagnostic
 skin fold (see photo) on their sides that separates the keeled scales on their back from the smooth scales on their underside

Sharp-tailed Snakes have, as the name implies, a pointed scale at their tail tip which
 distinguishes them from the three species of garter snakes found locally

Common Garter Snakes have the broadest distribution of any snake in Canada, spanning coast to coast,
and I usually recognize them by their straight, yellow dorsal stripe and orange-red marks set again black

Northwestern Garter Snakes are variable (as are the other two local garter snakes) but apparently
 consistently show a white "lip", and this form is readily recognized by its orange dorsal stripe

Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes typically have a slightly wavy dorsal stripe that is yellow-tan
 in colour and they possess a head that is large in comparison to Northwestern Garters

I hope this visual journey with added factoids sparks a little interest in our local reptiles and amphibians.  Now you're all set for the spring when these scaled or moist-skinned denizens come out to slither, hop, crawl, and swim through our local environs.  If you have any further questions on how to identify any of these species, where to look for them, or perhaps would just like to regale others with a tale, just drop a comment here for all to see.