Jan. 1/2016 - HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!- Sadly, the world is now more dangerous than ever with the duo threat of terrorism and global warming more real than ever. As individuals we can't do much about terrorism, but we can do our share to fight global warming. To help the world to meet its emission control targets we can all look in the mirror find ways to reduce our own carbon footprints.
NAUGHTY OR NICE? - I'm not sure if Victoria birders were naughty or nice in 2015, but the Christmas gifts of the Yellow-breasted Chat and Redwing Thrush suggest that they were very nice. Both birds were available for the annual Christmas Bird Count (141 species), and as of Jan. 5/16 they were still enjoying Victoria hospitality.
NORTH AMERICAN RARITY - The Redwing Thrush is probably a rare vagrant from Russia. (However, if it is the same bird that was reported 2 years ago, it may have Canadian citizenship!) I don't have the data for number of records in North America for the Redwing but I think are are at least two from the east coast (vagrants from Iceland?) and four for the west coast. I also don't know if there is an accepted scale of "rareness" so I'll just call it a "major" rarity for now. The first west coast record was 2005 in Tacoma, the second 2011 in Seward, AK, third 2013 in Victoria, and the current bird is fourth. Fortuitously, the recent find is in the same area as the 2013 bird. It was discovered by Nathan Hentz and his group during the recent Victoria CBC. Could the current bird be the same as the 2013 bird? My money goes on the same bird based simply on the fact that chances of finding one Asian vagrant is extremely rare, and to find another rarity in the same location would be "super-extremely" rare. However, since there's no way to prove if it's the same bird, I'll have to agree on number 4.
The previous major rarity on Vancouver Island was the Citrine Wagtail which was discovered in November 2012 in Courtenay. The Citrine attracted many birders from all over North America. Similarly, the Redwing has also attracted its share of admirers. Among the many visitors on Jan. 2 was Neil Hayward from Massachusetts who accidentally broke the North American ABA Big Year record with 749 species. Neil calls it accidental because he never really considered going for it until April of that year. Regardless of whether it was accidental or not, it was a remarkable accomplishment.
GUEST PHOTO - Many thanks to Geoffrey Newell for contributing his photo of the Redwing. Geoffrey is a prolific and talented young birder, and together with his brother he has been a refreshing injection of young blood and vitality into the Vancouver Island birding community. The Redwing is a skulker, rarely seen close-up in the open and difficult to photograph satisfactorily. Fortunately, Geoffrey's persistence has produced an excellent record photo. His photo clearly shows that the Redwing is robin-like thrush with no similarity to a Redwing Blackbird.
I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Geoffrey, but I know he is a multi-talented teenager with many interests and achievements. With his birding knowledge, he has selflessly given back to his community by conducting regular bird education walks with his Friends of Uplands Park program. Geoffrey's other passion is karate. He is a national champion who competes for Team Canada and is also involved in officiating and teaching the sport.
MORE BIG YEARS - Speaking of big years, kudos to ANNE NIGHTINGALE for scoping out 268 species in her Vancouver Island Big Year in support of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory. On a grander scale, congratulations to NOAH STRYCKER who spent every day of 2015 birding around the world to establish the new world record of 6042 species (old record was 4341). Noah's achievement can be traced right from the beginning on the Audubon BIRDING WITHOUT BORDERS blog. Although Big Years may seem frivolous to some, they serve a purpose in elevating birds, nature, and conservation activities into the public consciousness.
The Belted Kingfisher is an amazing bird and one of the most difficult to photograph because of its wariness of people, especially photographers. There are places where the kingfisher has been habituated to people and close-up shots are sometimes possible, but they are few and far between, and in most cases only perched shots are available. Flight shots are a different challenge. Where do you find a location where the kingfisher frequently hunts despite the presence of people? As far as I know, such a place doesn't exist. However, occasionally the KING has been known to hang out on the pilings at Qualicum Beach. Despite the overcast and cool conditions I was there and lucky to enjoy the King for an hour on Dec. 11.
It was just after noon and there was definitely a buzz in the air. A steady stream of pedestrians and dogs traversed the popular sidewalk above the beach in both directions. Many stopped to ask what 3 other photographers and myself was hoping to photograph. Most thought we were looking for whales and were disappointed when we pointed to the diminutive male Belted Kingfisher perched on a piling. Meanwhile, the water was alive with mergansers, scoters, buffleheads, goldeneyes, gulls, and loons. Despite all the activity, the KING was doing his thing - perching and looking for fish from one post then flying to the next post and doing the same. Occasionally, all the other posts were commandeered by gulls so the KING would fly off but return a few minutes later. With this regular pattern of behavior it was possible to try for flight shots.
With all the human activity on the sidewalk it was surprising to see the KING totally focussed on his task at hand. Normally he wouldn't stay around with all the people around, but there he was patiently waiting and looking for small fish or any other edible creature.
If the KING spotted a likely prey it would dive. Sometimes he would be successful and sometimes he wouldn't be. I think the score was 50/50 on most occasions. After the dive he would fly off to another post with or without prey.
You'll need a slow motion film to analyze the mechanics of bird flight, but on several occasions I've caught birds in the process of turning with their head leading the body.
Occasionally all 4 posts were occupied by gulls. That prompted the KING to fly off to a tree down the beach, but he would return when a piling was available.
Missed again! It's not a slam dunk when you're trying to catch a fish. It's also not a slam dunk when you're trying to photograph a diving and emerging kingfisher. I learned something new - the point of immersion is not the same as the point of emergence. Did you notice anything strange about this bird? It's not the KING. It's the QUEEN. I just included her to show you an ALMOST good action shot of a kingfisher emerging from the drink.
Finally, lunch time. The KING caught the fish near the closest piling but flew to the furthest pole for lunch. (Excuse for the well-cropped photos.) If the fish were larger the KING would have body-slammed it on the piling to kill and tenderize it. In this case the fish was small enough to tenderize by just flipping and crunching it in its bill. The preliminaries took about ten minutes before it was sashimi time.
photo note - given the dull conditions, I cranked the ISO up to 1600 (f5.6) and managed a couple of decent flight shots. My buddy, Pete, didn't have any photos worth showing which probably meant the action was too fast for his settings.
Meanwhile, over at the OK Corral, the posse of about 150 mergansers were closing in on a school of fish.
Which way did they go? The fish weren't ready to give up. They were using the "every-fish-for-itself' strategy to confuse the mergansers.
Here's one that didn't get away.
Photography is always better when the sun is shining. I was in Qualicum 2 days later when the sun was shining. Of course, the KING decided to take his show somewhere else. However, he wasn't the only game in town. Over at Beach Creek I spotted a pair of Black Turnstones basking in the morning sun. They're usually busy turning over stones on the beach so I was lucky to catch them in the portrait mode.
Back at the pilings the KING was a no-show, but the mergansers were back. Last time I counted 150. This time there were only about 50, and they were still after the fish.
They were closing in and smacking their chops when they reached the pilings.
Ever see a photo of the mergansers in their dive mode? Pay attention. These are my best diving merganser diving shots. Here's the beginning ...
And here's the entry. Not bad captures if I must say so myself.
After the merganser show I wandered down to another beach access and found a few ducks diving. The round white spot on the cheek says this is a juvenile Common Goldeneye.
I never seen a Bufflehead surface with prey in its bill until now. There's a first for everything. I think lunch is a sea worm.
The only other species was a pair of surf scoters. The one in front is a female and the one behind is a juvenile male.
There seemed to be Bald Eagles perched on every tree top. Occasionally one would fly out hoping for a surfacing fish.
There was nothing doing on the flight. There were ducks and gulls nearby, but the eagle was thinking fish.
Failure probably happens more than success, but that was part of the game. The disappointed eagle flew back to its tree top perch and waited for the next opportunity.
My year wouldn't be complete without a session with the Black Scoters at Qualicum. In a sense they symbolize the success of another cycle of nature of which we are all a part - perhaps a triumph of nature over the destructiveness of human development. The joy of watching them in action never grows old. The high tides of December and January are perfect for Black Scoter viewing. That's when they come right up to the seawall to dive for the varnish clams which are found at the highest substrate. Since the clams are only available at high tide, they are only accessible twice a day, and hence more plentiful than clam populations that are accessible 24/7. In some years they are extremely shy and definitely keep their distance until no humans are around. This year they are the boldest I have ever seen them. They have been coming close to the seawall even when it has been fairly busy. My assumption is that food resources farther out are depleted or less abundant. On the other hand varnish clams in the upper substrate can reach densities up to 1,780 clams per square meter.
The scoter flock retreats to offshore when it isn't feeding or when it is flushed by a beach walker or some unusual activity. They all mill around until they can get up the courage to come back in. It's like the 3 Stooges trying to decide who is going to be the leader.
Half way in and they still weren't sure if it was safe. Look at their eyes. Many were ready to turn back, but the bold leader continued in.
Finally the lead group was in and the rest followed.
The lead group started diving. Unlike mergansers, goldeneyes, and other ducks, the scoters created a big splash on their dive.
The rest of the ducks followed. It was time to feed.
Unlike the other ducks I suspect the scoters give a big kick to propel them downwards. I'm not sure why. I think they have to propel themselves into the sand to scoop the clams.
Clamless. When the scoters bob up like corks many will not have clams. That indicates that it's not easy pickings. The scoters have to work for their prey.
Success! You can see where the name varnish came from. The glossy, brown exterior of the clam resembles varnished hardwood.
Many people are surprised when I tell them that the ducks swallow the clams shell and all.
Bonus! Here's a clam that is too big to swallow. Fortunately, the scoter was able to grab the cockle by the foot.
Here's a scene that I've never seen before. Just as usual, the scoters all dove under for another clam search ...
Suddenly there was an eruption with water and scoters spewing all over the place.
I looked down to see what caused the commotion just in time to see a loon surface with a devilish grin on its bill.
When I first saw the Black Scoter flock in November it numbered about 30 ducks. When I saw it last week it numbered about 80. Most were Blacks but there were a few Surf, and White-wingeds mixed in. The next few days should be ideal for black Scoter photos. There is sunshine in the forecast and mid-day high tides.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)