TITLE PHOTO - Sandhill Cranes leaving the Steld Farm in Cedar
January was memorable for the invasion of Bohemian Waxwings in Nanaimo. February was memorable for two blasts from the past and the Cedar Sandhills.
First the blasts. I'm not very good of keeping in touch with many of the wonderful people I have had the pleasure of meeting and enjoying in my past life. Maybe that makes the occasional reunion extra special? Whatever the case, February brought about two of those extra special moments.
On February 16 I was the guest of the Campbell River Retired Teachers Association to do a presentation on Vancouver Island Birds. As I entered the cosy and crowded meeting room at Banner's restaurant I was approached by a very pleasant lady who asked, "Mike, do you remember me." The wheels of my memory spun, but came up blank. I had to admit that I didn't. She looked at me understandably and reminded me, "Faye Foster, Inuvik 1974/75 - I was on your staff." Then it clicked. Faye and I were both teachers at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School. We spent the next five minutes reminiscing and catching each other up on our various career paths.
Fast forward to February 18. I was a Seedy Saturday guest presenter at the Victoria Conference Centre. After my presentation on Vancouver Island Butterflies I wandered down to the cafeteria. I was trying to decide if I should have some lunch when I heard my name called by a lady in a white jacket. There was something familiar about her, but I drew another blank. She smiled and reminded me, "Patty Whiting, Inuvik 1970!" That brought back an instant flood of fond memories. Patty was a nurse in Inuvik, and one of the most wonderful people I have ever met. She had a smile and warmth that could thaw out the coldest Arctic day. We spent a lot of time together cross-country skiing and socializing. One of my fondest memories was when we decided to invite an Eskimo family for Thanksgiving dinner. Neither of us had cooked a turkey before but Patty was game and took the lead. One of my tasks was to do the stuffing, but I missed the directions about adding water to the packaged stuffing. Needless to say it was like dry sawdust and completely inedible. However, thanks to Patty the rest of the meal was excellent. Our guests, David and Olga Roland and son Floyd, were very grateful and pleased with our efforts, and we all had a fun-filled evening. Seeing Patty again was a special treat, and it will be difficult to surpass our "seedy" reunion as the highlight of 2017.
Okay, enough for sentimentality. What about February birds? I'll let the photos do most of the talking from here on, but I'll mention that February was one of the coldest and snowiest in recent memory. That meant there weren't too many opportunities for me, but there was one satisfying avian treat. For the first time I'm aware of we had Sandhill Cranes wintering in the Nanaimo Regional District. By wintering I mean spending at least two or three winter months in the area. In fact, I am only aware of two wintering individuals in the past 12 years on Vancouver Island, and both were in the Cowichan district. I checked with Guy Monty and he mentioned a few others on the island but none in our district.
I was first alerted to the Sandhills by Mark Winja's post on BCVIBIRDS on Jan. 31. He spotted the pair near Michael Road in Cedar. I was familiar with the area because we have picked blueberries at Trudelle's Farm (now Steld Farm) for over 30 years. My first chance to visit was a week later, but I came up empty. Undeterred, I offered to take my wife out to lunch at the CROW and GATE a week later on Family Day which just happened to be in the vicinity of the Sandhills. As it turned out for some reason we skipped lunch and went straight to the Steld Farm. Just before we got there I spotted the pair of Sandhills in the snowy field. I parked and tried to get some shots from the fence, but they slipped behind a second fence and were backlit by the sun which frustrated me from getting decent shots. Another photographer was parked further up the road. She was also trying to get some shots but suffered the same problems. She heard from others that the Sandhills had been in the area for about three months and tried to find them several times closer to Quennell Lake, but this was the first time she had seen them.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but from Yellowpoint Road the Sandhills were backlit and behind a second fence. With the poor lighting and significant crop the photos were less than acceptable. Some of the shots even showed the grid of the wire fence fronting the birds.
I knew the best photos would be from the other side of the field, but it was private property. I wasn't about to give up too easily and decided to see if I could get permission to access the other side of the field. Lady luck was on my side. As I drove along Michael Road I encountered a young lady who I guessed was the daughter of Jan and Ben who lived down the end of the road. It turned out that I was right, and she pointed me to Erica, one of the farm owners, who was feeding the livestock by the barn. I introduced myself as one of her regular blueberry customers, and she was very friendly. She mentioned that she had been enjoying the Sandhills in her field for the past month and gave us permission to go down the side of the field.
Although the Sandhills were much further away, the lighting was perfect. With the sun at my back the distant shots were much clearer than the backlit shots. Normally on such a sunny day heat shimmer would be a problem, but with snow on the ground it wasn't a problem. I was hoping the Sandhills would move closer, but they seemed to be quite content foraging through the snow at their location. I waited for about a half hour, but it was a stalemate so we admitted defeat and left.
Exactly a week later I had to go to Nanaimo to pick up some supplies and decided to pay the Sandhills another visit. As I drove east on Yellowpoint Road I watched for the cranes and finally spotted the birds at the southwest corner of the field - too far for anything but record shots. The only thing in my favor was the lighting. Unlike my previous visit it was a overcast day so the lighting was decent.
I watched for about 15 minutes and was just about to go looking for Erica to get closer when the Sandhills took wing and headed right for me. They turned at mid-field, landed about 50 meters in front of me, and proceeded to forage in excellent camera range.p
The Sandhills seemed content foraging at mid-field where water seeping from the ground had melted some snow. Notice the Sandhill in the background. It was flipping a morsel that it foraged from the damp soil.
After foraging for about 10 minutes the Sandhills looked up as if responding to some magical signal. Suddenly they decided to take flight. I was blocked out by a grove of trees so I wasn't sure if they were heading for Quennell Lake or some other destination.
When I was heading for Cedar I was hoping to just get a few close-up shots at a decent proximity. I never imagined that I would be so lucky to get some action shots. It was rewarding to see them at decent proximity and a bonus to get some flight shots.
With snow covering the ground for the first half of February it was an opportunity to try for some snow and bird photos. My studio was my kitchen window which opened up to some rhodo bushes, a feeder pole, and a grove of holly trees.
The holly trees were a magnet for American Robins and Varied Thrush. Both were attracted by the shiny red berries which aren't visible in this photo. Most of the branches were laden with snow.
This Dark-eyed Junco was actually sitting on top a rhodo bush. The rhodo bush is a popular roosting spot for the local juncos, towhees, and sparrows with or without snow.
The Varied Thrush was also attracted to the holly bush. I almost got a photo of it feeding on the berries but was too slow. I later saw it foraging on the ground under the tree. This is a shot from my upstairs bedroom window.
The neighborhood female Anna's uses the holly tree for her roosting spot in between visits to the feeder. I only see her occasionally so I think she spends more time across the road at my neighbor's house.
During a spell of sub-zero temperatures all the neighborhood Northern Flickers were visiting my suet feeder. There were a couple of days when they consumed two blocks a day. After a suet meal a snowy desert was on the menu.
My usual birding outing takes me to San Malo mudflats, French Creek, and Qualicum Beach. My main reason for checking San Malo on this trip was to look for Eurasian Teals aka Common Teals which are conspecific with the Green-winged Teals. San Malo is a popular spot for Green-winged Tealsd and the occasional Eurasian Teal. I have been looking for one for over a decade but haven't been successful. Mark Winja, a recent birding refugee from the mainland, really rubbed salt into the wound when it only took him several months to spot not just one but two. I knew it was only a matter of time before I found one, but I felt I was long overdue. When I arrived at San malo there was a small group of ducks dabbling near the shoreline by Mariner Way. I slowly drove along the roadside until I had a reasonable view of the birds. Please don't accuse me of being lazy by driving. If you ever get into bird photography you'll soon discover that the car is an excellent blind. You can often get closer to a bird in your car than you can on foot. Anyway, I scanned the ducks with the binoculars and finally found one with a horizontal white stripe on its side. That was what I've been looking for the past decade. I was hoping it would come closer, but with the tide receding I knew the opposite would be happening. However, I got my record shots, and I was happy for that.
The male Eurasian Teal on the left was dabbling in the mud next to a female teal. Apparently, it's almost impossible to distinguish the female Eurasian from the green-winged so i'll let you make the call. There is some thought that the Green-winged and Eurasian might be split into two species, but the decision hasn't been made at this time.
The bird on the right of the photo is the Eurasian. Besides the horizontal white stripe and the absence of the vertical white stripe on the shoulders it also has a much more prominent white border around the green eye stripe.
My next stop was the Craig Bay pond. I spotted a Ring-necked Duck which was one of the ducks I haven't photographed for quite awhile. I almost got a good shot to show the ring on the neck, but it turned just as I was ready to shoot.
Besides ducks, Craig Bay also has a sizeable population of Red-winged Blackbirds. I spotted one up a tree calling and showing off to attract females for its harem.
After a few minutes of fruitless displaying the blackbird flew to another tree.
At French Creek the continuing female Gadwall was heading up the creek to the duck roosting and preening spot on the far bank. The Gadwall is known for it's beautifully patterned feathers. I'm sure my buddy Dan would like like some feathers for his fly-tying.
RETURN OF THE KING - All fall and winter the only Kingfisher at French Creek has been the female. Today there was no sign of the female, but the male was front and centre.
The return of the King could only mean one thing - mating time. I could be wrong so I'll keep my eyes open for the next few weeks to see if the female is still around, or if the male was just passing through.
The male seemed to be right at home and focussed on catching its meal. It was low tide and a good time to look for prey around the edge of the marina. After a successful dive it surfaced with a small fish.
The French Creek Bald Eagle was also watching for some prey from its perch behind the restaurant.
Common Mergansers are regulars at French Creek. I took this picture to show Wayne that the male has a dark green head. However, my effort was in vain because Wayne is colour blind.
After French Creek I headed for Qualicum Beach and got there just in time to see a Bald Eagle dining on one of the pilings offshore from the change rooms. The pilings are a regular dining table for the local Bald Eagles, gulls, and Kingfishers.
Cute but destructive - spotted in Qualicum Beach - The Eastern Gray Squirrel is considered one of ten most destructive invasive species in North America and among the top 100 in the world. Despite their cuteness they are to be treated as destructive pests. They are a threat to many native small mammals and birds. I know one person on Little Mountain who has already trapped and disposed of nine this year.
On my way home I passed by the railway tracks close to home and spotted a Red-tailed hawk on a tree beside the road. I tried some distant photos, but didn't have much luck in the early evening light. The hawk eventually flew east to a tree beside the tracks where I was surprised to see it land beside another hawk.
The second hawk was very dark, and I had never seen it before. However, according to Guy Monty the two hawks have been common in the area for several years. He also mentioned that dark morph red-tailed are very uncommon in our region. I watched for the hawks for the next few days and saw the dark morph three days later on the same tree. I tried walking along the tracks for a closer photo, but I'm sure you know the result.
My next stop at San Malo was on Feb. 28. I timed my visit just after high tide when I figured the teals would be foraging close to the road. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. The teals stayed down the far end of the mudflat and many had flown off towards Rathtrevor. I decided to walk down to where there were still a few teals dabbling.
Many more teal, wigeons, and Northern Pintails flew as I slowly walked down the trail, but a few teal stayed. I stopped and watched and was delighted to see some of the males displaying.
I thought the purpose of the display was to impress the female, but she showed no sign of interest.
I just happened to be in Parksville for business the next day and San Malo was on the way. It was cool and damp but that worked in my favor because it meant no dog walkers. As I edged up the side of the flats I spotted several teal close by. One looked a little different. It had a vertical shoulder stripe as well as a horizontal side stripe. That only meant one thing - a hybrid Eurasian x green-winged.
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.)