Saturday, 17 October 2015

Two Notches Up on the Victoria Checklist Area Belt

I was away for 11 weeks with work and visiting family in Ontario, but I am back in Victoria and have been trying to make up for lost birding time.  Luckily were are in the midst of what is shaping up to be an interesting fall.

With more than a week of work left in Fort McMurray, I received word that a Black-throated Sparrow was found at Whiffin Spit.  The sighting was quite unprecedented for the fall; all sightings of Black-throated Sparrow in the province have been from early May to early July.  In the Victoria checklist area, we have only two previous records:

1) June 18-19, 1992 at Somenos Marsh, found by Derrick Marven
2) June 16, 1994 at Mount Tolmie, found by Keith Taylor

I didn't chase many birds when I was young, so these records were not ones I capitalized on more than 20 years ago.  For more than a week I nervously watched BCVIBIRDS to see if the Black-throated Sparrow was still being seen.  I also watched the soap opera unfold of a rapidly growing tick on the sparrow's face.  Now I was hoping not only that the bird would stay, but also that the tick would be gone.  I got home on October 8th and could have immediately zipped out to Whiffin Spit, but I just wanted to do some relaxing birding.  The next day I apparently wanted more relaxing birding, so it wasn't until October 10th that I finally made my way out to Whiffin Spit.  I left fairly early and got out to Sooke before 8:30 a.m.  The most recent reports said the bird was right by the parking lot, so I basically hopped out and started looking.  The first bird I heard was a bit surprising: a Yellow Warbler was giving some sharp call notes as it fed in a maple at the edge of the parking lot.  They are pretty scarce once the calendar rolls over to October, but this was surprisingly the second I had seen in two days.

Drab fall Yellow Warbler blending in nicely with the changing Bigleaf Maple leaves

After checking out the Yellow Warbler, I turned my attention to searching for the Black-throated Sparrow.  It was an extremely anticlimactic event as I immediately found it in the short grass at the edge of the parking lot.  The sparrow was very cooperative and looked a little worse for wear.  The tick had fallen off a couple days earlier, but the feathers around the attachment site were all missing and there was an unsightly mark in its place.  I walked the rest of the spit, but couldn't drum up anything interesting.  By the time I finished my walk, I found another birder enjoying the Black-throated Sparrow.  I didn't recognize said birder, but was soon introduced to Neil Hughes who recently moved back to southern Vancouver Island from Powell River.  I'm always happy to meet new birders and learn the community has an extra set of skilled eyes in its midst.  We chatted for a while as the Black-throated Sparrow busily fed along the edge of the beach.  The bird was sometimes too obliging for our cameras, but certainly not for our eyes.  Despite the rather bedraggled condition of this rarity from southern aridlands, it was a treat to see one on southern Vancouver Island.

The scruffy little Black-throated Sparrow scored this tasty morsel while foraging around the rocks at the base of the beach

The next day, news of another exciting bird ended up in my e-mail: Cathy Carlson had a Brown Booby about three miles offshore from Beechey Head in East Sooke.  This species has been ending up in British Columbia waters more frequently in the past five years, and there have been other sightings this year in the Strait of Juan de Fuca/Puget Sound area on the Washington side.  There has been at least one other record for the Victoria checklist area from 2007, but that record has not been formally submitted for review.  As a result, once Cathy's superb photos of the juvenile Brown Booby, seen here, will go down as the first official record for the area.

I recognized the needle-in-a-haystack luck required in relocating the booby, but decided to give it a shot.  The bird was seen from Beechey Head in East Sooke, so I decided to head to a spot that not many birders think to visit.  I drove out to the westernmost point of East Sooke, which puts you at a rather unpleasant development called Silver Spray.  This development has been around for ages, but it seemed to get put on the backburner for more than a decade.  I was surprised to see there was an open house within the gates of the development, so it appears a developer is well underway to finish off this project.  It's a real shame, but hopefully they will retain some public land there because it is a great vantage point for seawatching.  I followed a crude crushed rock trail down to a leveled off area and set up the scope.  I started by checking the rocks below, but only had California, Heermann's, Thayer's, Mew, and Glaucous-winged Gulls.  On the water, Common Murres were plentiful.  The close waters had no oddball birds, so I pushed my scan further offshore.  I quickly spotted the fluke of a Humpback Whale way out in the strait.  While scanning back and forth for a blow from the Humpback, I spotted a log with a few birds sitting on it.  If you're going to spot a booby, it'll either be flying (and hopefully plunge-diving), resting on a log, or sitting on a boat mast.  One of the birds on the log was dark and bulky.  I was immediately intrigued by its relatively squat-legged, pot-bellied, long-tailed appearance, but I wanted to ensure it wasn't a cormorant with its neck coiled or even just a juvenile gull.

The bird was content sitting on the log and after over an hour it had only budged a few times.  I tried to maintain focus on the bird, but had to give my eyes periodic relief due to the monochromatic pale grey sea and sky that provided a backdrop.  On a couple occasions, the bird stretched its wings and these events provided glimmers of hope that it was indeed a booby.  I would have expected a cormorant to uncoil its neck, but when the dark bird on the log flapped, it maintained a thick neck.  The wings looked long and pointed, too, much like one of the photos Cathy managed.  I got really hopefully when a large Glaucous-winged Gull circled over the log and decided to land on it.  The gull flushed off a couple other gulls and began to walk over to the booby-like bird.  The bird again flapped up its wings, but did not budge.  I watched the bird for more than an hour and half under conditions that occasionally saw wisps of fog add to already trying conditions.  The entire time I watched the bird, I knew I had stay on it until it flew.  I had no idea if I would just be sitting there until sundown or not.  Finally, however, the bird raised its wings and pushed off the log and took flight.  This was the moment I had been waiting for and it could have deflated me in an instant if a snake-like neck had shot out and squared-off wings carried the bird off low over the water.  Instead, everything crystalized.  The bird maintained a long, thick neck blending right into the head.  The wings were long, and slightly swept back, the tail was also long.  The bird gave lumbering-but-strong wing beats with the occasional glide thrown in.  I have seen many Northern Gannets off Newfoundland, both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies in waters off Mexico, Central America and South America, and Masked Boobies off O'ahu.  In other words, I know what a sulid looks like in flight.  For a moment, I thought the Brown Booby was going to hitch a ride on a large tug that had passed by 15 minutes earlier, but instead it swirled down and dropped onto another log.  I was riding pretty high and had hoped to stay on the bird for a while longer, but after another 10 minutes a light drizzle started over land and soon the band of water containing the booby was enveloped in a veil of light fog.

I have been told this photo does my observation more harm than good, but I don't really understand why one would disregard the written description and focus on something not really in focus - the photo is grainy, pixellated, and heavily cropped.  The photo borders on useless, but I still see some features there that I view as booby-like.  The bird is dark, pot-bellied, and long-tailed.  I am including the photo just to show that you can't always get effective documentation.  In the birding world, photographic evidence has pretty much become the standard and anything less is suspect.  Gone are the days of careful observation, written notes, and field sketches.  Instead, it seems you'll gain more traction if you just raise your camera and snap a shot.  I frequently have to make difficult decisions about observations just like this on the British Columbia Bird Records Committee.  I have found it quite refreshing to see that careful written descriptions can sometimes inspire more confidence than a photograph.  In fact, some records get shelved due to a lack of a written description when the photographic evidence fails.  You can tell some identifications are an afterthought and actually the result of putting too much emphasis on a photo that may not accurately portray a bird.  Okay... I think that's enough of that little tangent.

With the Black-throated Sparrow and Brown Booby, the two notches added to my Victoria checklist area belt, I have edged very close to the 300 milestone.  I currently sit at 298.  Perhaps I will have to take a run up to Spectacle Lake to see if I can finally pick up a checklist area Grey Jay.  I like to think of it a bird in my back pocket, but it will probably be more difficult than I think to connect with one.  Hopefully this El NiƱo has a few more surprises in store for us!