It has rained four out of the last five days which is not really surprising as it is November. The occasional sunny day will be rare and surely treasured as an opportunity to get out to enjoy nature and maybe take a picture or two. Today was such a day - a narrow window of sunshine and respite between systems pumping in from the Pacific. You won't be surprised that my efforts have been focussed on the waterfront as it probably will be for the duration of the winter. A lot of our ducks and seabirds still haven't arrived, but it won't be long. In the meantime, it's a good time to catch up with our regular winter shorebirds like Dunlin, Black Turnstones, and Black Oystercatchers.
Island Sightings - In my last newspaper column for the North Islander I mentioned that two fall birds to watch for were the Tropical Kingbird and Cattle Egret. I'm not going to make any claims for being prophet, but I was almost 100% correct. A few days after my article, Derrick reported that a pair of Cattle Egrets were sighted in the Cowichan Valley. As for the Tropical Kingbird, I was within a fery ride of being correct. One showed up at Boundary Bay, and it was been present for most of the past week. Other interesting Island birds include Snow Buntings and Rock Sandpipers reported by the Victorian Naturalists at Cattle Point in Victoria. There was also a Rock Sandpiper reported at Columbia Beach. The most exciting report last week was the Grasshopper Sparrow in a backyard in Victoria. It was first reported on Nov. 6 and was seen for about 3 days. The resident kindly invited all interested birders to view the bird, and it was beautifully photo-documented by Ted Ardley. His photos have been posted on the birdingbc website. The last Grasshopper on the Island was four years ago at Whiffin Spit, and it was also in early November.
Dunlin Daze - Dunlin are the most abundant winter shorebirds on the Island and large flocks seem to be common everywhere. Although they are occasionally seen alone, they are mainly seen in dynamic flocks of 100 to 200 birds. I say dynamic because the whole group in flight is more exciting than the individual birds. Like the peeps and other small shorebirds, the Dunlin flock moves in unpredictable unison sweeping in one direction showing their backs then suddenly veering to another direction only showing their white undersides. To the human observer, it is a remarkable choreographed aerial ballet, but for the Dunlin, it is a life-or-death predator avoidance strategy. Unfortunately, for some it only offers temporary reprieve as the persistant predator must eat. Fortunately, it is a numbers game and the flock and species continue to thrive because their successful procreation and abundance.
Dunlin are medium-sized shorebirds that are found in many regions around the world. In Canada they nest along the Arctic coast of Alaska and Western Canada and winter along the Pacific coast from B.C. to Mexico. There is also an eastern population that breeds around the northwestern shores of Hudson's Bay and adjacent Arctic coast. Their winter range is down the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Mexico.
Like most shorebirds, the Dunlin's diet consists of insects, worms, invertebrates, mollusks, and crustaceans.
The standard or winter plumage of the Dunlin consists of a dull brown back and head and white undersides.
You'll have to wait for spring for a photo of the Dunlin in breeding or alternate plumage. I can tell you that it is quite striking with rufous plumage on its back and a large black patch on its belly.
I've got the last word, but nobody is listening.
While the Dunlin are abundant for the winter, the Greater Yellowlegs is an uncommon winter resident on the Island. A handful of hardy Greater Yellowlegs stayed around last year for most of the winter, but most of them headed for warmer climates anywhere from the southern U.S. to the southern tip of South America. So far this year there only seems to be one hanging around the French Creek area.
The Greater Yellowlegs is usually found wading in the shallow waters foraging for small aquatic animals, insects, amphibians, or fish.
Black-bellied Buddy - While I'm featuring our local winter shorebirds, here's another shot of a Black-bellied Plover. I think it's those big shiny eyes that make them so enjoyable to photograph.
The Black Oystercatcher is another local species that always brightens my winter avian landscape. When there are no other birds around I can often find a Black Oystercatcher to accomodate my photographic desires.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Black Oystercatchers, I don't think they eat oysters. I doubt if they can open a mature oyster, but I bet they'll eat one if you opened one for them. Maybe they can handle baby oysters. I've only seen them eating small shellfish like limpets and clams.
The psychedelic orange bill is an amazing clamming tool. The Oystercatchers probably locate the clams by looking for the siphons. The long pointed bill is a proficient tool for probing in the sand and grabbing the clams.
Success! It's not just the scoters that are enjoying the new species of clams in our waters. Varnish clams are an alien species that have only been here for about 3 decades.
Once the prize has been procured, it's time to sneak away from the other oystercatchers.
Over the rocks ...
Across the beach ...
to a nice quiet place where the clam can be placed between some rocks and the pointed bill can be inserted in the clam ...
Wow! There's nothing better than fresh clam.
The Black Turnstone is another winter regular on the Island.
They are often found in loud chattering groups on gravelly and rocky beaches.
Just as the name implies, the Turnstone often forages by turning over stones.
Nov. 4 - The Fowl Season - 'Tis the season to enjoy our resident waterfowl, and the Black Scoters are one of my favorites. They are the shyest of the three scoters, but if you are persistent and patient, you will eventually be rewarded. I've mentioned many times that the best opportunity for photos is during the high tide when they are excavating the varnish clams. I should also mention that it's best when they are in mixed flocks with the other scoters, especially the White-winged Scoters. The White-wingeds seem to be much less wary of the presence of humans, and they are the first to come in. The others eventually follow. Right now it is primarily a Black Scoter flock that is working close to the sea wall at Qualicum Beach. I managed to get close to them today, but they didn't stay long enough for any good clamming shots.
Where are the Long-taileds? In keeping with the theme of the "fowl season" I decided to try again for my first Long-tailed fix of the season. Despite a bitter north wind that chilled me to the bone at French Creek, I decided to carry on to Deep Bay. Past experience told me that Baynes Sound was often protected from the elements by Denman Island. I was right. At Nile Creek there were only light ripples in the water and at Deep Bay, it was like a piece of glass. The only problem was that there were no birds of any description close to the spit. There was only the occasional Western and Red-necked Grebe and a few gulls in the distance. The closest form of life was a giant sealion snorting and prowling for salmon and a couple of salmon probing the gravel at the shoreline.
I was about to leave the spit without a picture until a couple of cormorants zipped by. The first was a Double-crested Cormorant heading for the oyster floats at the western end of the bay. The next was a Pelagic but I only managed the correct exposure for the Double-crested.
I was disappointed not to find any Long-taileds as they are normally close in by the end of October. As I was leaving the spit I spotted a head peaking out of a blackberry patch. It was a male California Quail acting as a sentry for its covey of four juveniles. I guess this was my consolation bird for the Long-taileds. Oh well, there will be another time.
The Long-taileds aren't the only ducks I haven't seen this fall. A few others include Red-breasted Mergansers, Lesser and Greater Scaups, Common Goldeneye, and the south Island regulars like Canvasback and Ruddy.