Monday, March 31, 2014

Arizona: Sweet Sewage

Up this morning at 5:30am and out of the hotel by 5:50am. It was overcast and quite warm, with the cloud trapping the heat in. First stop…Starbucks! Mmmm, coffee.

Today I decided to spend another morning at Sabino Canyon. The birding was quite good there yesterday, so best to give it another go and work some different trails. The park was not as busy as yesterday, but nonetheless joggers and hikers were omnipresent. As I began down the main trail heading east, I soon realized that the smaller Esperado trail that I did yesterday was likely the better option. However, before I even got there I found my first Greater Roadrunner nest in a fuzzy bear cactus. Cool!

The usual arid desert scrub birds were singing and calling everywhere: Verdin, Lucy’s Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, Cactus Wren, and Phainopepla. I made it to the end of the Esperado Trail slowly, where eventually it joined the road that headed into the canyon. From here I followed the road for about a quarter mile, where I then diverted downhill to the riparian area where birds were certain to be more abundant. Along the creek I found Cedar Waxwing, Black-throated Sparrow (including my first nest of this species), Costa’s Hummingbird, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Brewer’s Sparrow. At one location along the creek, dozens of birds fed on seeds, bathed in the small pools, gathered nest materials, or sang for mates. These included Yellow Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, Gray Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, and Hermit Thrush. As I worked my way back to the parking area I picked up Northern Cardinal (stunning male), Pyrhuloxia, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

After 3.5 hours at Sabino, it was now time to try something else; the morning temperature had already increased to 23 degrees Celsius. I decided to head to Sweetwater Wetlands, a sewage treatment facility that for the most part, actually didn’t smell of sewage. I’d been to this wetland before in winter and it was fairly productive for ducks, but on this trip it was so much better as spring migrants were everywhere. For the duck round-up I quickly added Mallard, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and American Wigeon. As for shorebirds…what? Shorebirds in the desert? There was a good mix of species in the recharge ponds including Killdeer, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Baird’s Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, and American Avocet. Songbirds new for the trip included Wilson’s Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, and Common Yellowthroat. Two Neotropic Cormorants were a surprise, but not as much as the myriad small rodents living amongst the reeds…I could hear them rustling everywhere, and with patience I could see as many as five at once in the binoculars. I also learned that red-eared sliders make good perches for American Coot.

It was now midday, and the heat was suppressing much of the bird activity. I decided to spend the afternoon checking out other local, but not popularized, birding sites. First I went to Avra Valley, which much to my disappointment only had two species: Turkey Vulture and American Kestrel. Next I drove along Reservation Road toward Pecan Grove. Along the way I picked up a Loggerhead Shrike and a Greater Roadrunner. Once at Pecan Grove, or sadly, what was left of it, I added only one new species: Horned Lark. Slowly I made my way back to Tucson, and paid one last visit to Sweetwater Wetlands. I didn’t add anything new, and so at 4:45pm I decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.

Total Species for the Day: 74
Total Species for the Trip: 101
Total Lifers for the Day: 0
Total Lifers for the Trip: 2

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arizona: Two Shades of Gray

I began today at 5:45am, and was out of the hotel by 6:05am; I didn’t even need an alarm My first stop for this trip was Sabino Canyon, a municipal park located within the city limits of Tucson in the northeast corner. Sabino Canyon has long been one of my favourite destinations in Tucson, as many of the semi-arid desert scrub birds can be found here, and the network of trails makes getting around easy. Along the eastern border of the park is a nice riparian area with willows and sycamore...acting like a magnet for migrants and shade-seekers.

My first bird of the day was White-winged Dove, which was quickly followed by Cactus Wren, Lucy’s Warbler, and Gila Woodpecker. As the morning progressed, Lucy’s Warbler was conspicuously abundant, and could be heard from just about anywhere along the trails. The other thing that could be heard just about anywhere were was a weekend and the park, for 6:30am, was packed with hikers and joggers alike. To avoid the hoards of people, which seemed generally to be sticking to the primary road that entered the canyon and to the wider trails that run around the periphery, I worked the narrower trails off the beaten path. Gambel’s Quail could be heard calling, and occasionally seen scurrying under brush, around the main entrance to the park, and House Finch was also common in the area. Further along the trails were great birds such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin (abundant), Phainopepla, Pyruhloxia, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Another conspicuous bird in the park today was Cooper’s Hawk, with six being seen in total, and one of which was eating a small rodent. Hummingbirds were also all-abuzz, with Anna’s Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Costa’s Hummingbird being seen in the park. Lazuli Bunting was also a good find, as were several Lesser Goldfinches and Abert’s Towhees.
Before commencing this trip to southeast Arizona, I thought I’d be lucky to get a half-dozen new species, and I was really only planning on one...Mexican Chickadee in the Chiricauha Mountains. But today was a pleasant surprise in Sabino...with two new species added to the life list: Gray Vireo and Gray Flycatcher. Gray Vireo was the best of the two for me, although I did find myself wondering how I had perhaps missed this bird in the past given how common it seemed to be. Perhaps it was the time of year...catch them when they’re singing or before they move on. Gray Flycatcher was a good one to tick, although it occur in my native British Columbia and I’ve just been to lazy to go get it.
As I wrapped up birding at Sabino Canyon, I tacked on a few others to the list: Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Green-tailed Towhee, and Curve-billed Thrasher. After returning to the entrance I paid a quick visit to the nature centre where I picked up a couple books for myself, and a book for Amelia. It was now 10:00am and quite warm.
From Sabino Canyon I made my toward Mt. Lemmon on the Catalina Highway. I picked up some lunch from Safeway and soon began the 26-mile climb to the summit, making several stops along the way to check for birds. The Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area was my first stop. Here I added new birds for the day to the likes of Bridled Titmouse and Hutton’s Vireo. Further along, at Bear Canyon Picnic Area, I picked up Acorn Woodpecker and Steller’s Jay. At windy Point Vista, true to the bird-finding guide’s description, were several Whiote-throated Swift’s skirting about the cliff faces; two Bushtits foraged in the shrubs below the viewing platform. At Incinerator Road I added White-breasted Nuthatch and Yellow-eyed Junco, and a bit further along at Mount Bigelow I added Mountain Chickadee, Olive Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Spotted Towhee.
At the visitor centre the only thing worth doing there was getting a bottle of water. There were no birds to be heard or seen, but the cooler temperature at 8,000 feet was a pleasant reprieve from the oven below. A little further ahead I stopped at Control Road, my turn-around point for heading back to town. Along Control Road I added Hairy Woodpecker, another Olive Warbler, Western Bluebird, Violet-green Swallow, and a gorgeous Painted Redstart. It was now 3:30pm, and time to head back.
Once back in the basin, I decided to have another quick walk in Sabino Canyon, just to see if things were a bit different in the evening. It was 4:35pm, and so I took a short one hour walk along the Esperado Trail. The first bird I found was a Greater Roadrunner, and I can confirm with photos Amelia that roadrunners DO eat lizards for lunch! The only other bird I added to the list for the day was a Cedar Waxwing, as a flock of 12 flew by in the setting sunlight. I returned to the hotel by 6:00pm, had Mexican food for dinner, and was in bed by 9:00pm. I was wiped out after birding for 12 hours and walking nearly 6 miles.

Total Species for the Day: 61
Total Species for the Trip: 64
Total Lifers for the Day: 2
Total Lifers for the Trip: 2

Arizona Bound

Day 1 of a nine-day trip to southeast Arizona. Today was spent entirely on travel, departing Victoria at 1:00pm and arriving in Phoenix at 5:25pm. From Phoenix I rented a car and made my way south to Tucson. The light faded quickly after departed Phoenix, and so I only had time to add five species to the trip list: Great-tailed Grackle, Mourning Dove, European Starling, Red-tailed Hawk, and Rock Pigeon. I arrived in Tucson, and eventually my hotel (after missing the turnoff) at 8:45pm. Early night tonight...

Total Species for the Day: 5
Total Species for the Trip: 5
Total Lifers for the Day: 0
Total Lifers for the Trip: 0

Friday, March 28, 2014

Herring Run 2014

I haven’t had a chance to check out the bird activity during the herring spawn since 2001. But finally, after 13 years, Joanna, Amelia and I made time to take a day trip up the east coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria to Comox to check out the action. We departed at about 9:00am and returned home by 7:30pm. The weather was generally unfavourable for birding, with strong windows blowing off the water and rain varying from mild to heavy throughout the day.

Our first stop to check for birds was Englishman River estuary near Parksville. The rain was heavy here, and the birds were light. Good numbers of gulls, but ducks and shorebirds were in the low double-digits. A little further north and in Parksville we stopped at the recreation and RV park. Bird activity was much better here…with the first sighting being a Yellow-rumped Warbler hanging on for dear life in a lone scrawny tree in the middle of the park. Along the coast were decent numbers of Brant (50-100), and a huge mixed flock of Black, Surf, and White-winged scoters. In the parks fields were good numbers of Dunlin (about 200) and Black-bellied Plover (about 60). At the park we met a woman who advised us of a Northern Mockingbird at Little Qualicum River estuary, near a bird feeder. We headed there next, but after 30 minutes we were unable to locate it. At the feeders were Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, California Quail, Purple Finch and several other common feeder birds.

From Parksville we continued north to Fanny Bay. As expected, good numbers of Northern Sea-Lions were hauled out onto the log booms, and a smattering of birds including Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, American Wigeon and Great Blue Heron were present. From Fanny Bay we ended up next in Courtenay, which had impressive numbers of Trumpeter Swan (300-400) in the agricultural fields, as well as good numbers of Mallard and American Wigeon. We continued through Courtenay and into downtown Comox where we had a tasty lunch at a café.

After finishing lunch we went to Kin Beach Park…thee rain continued to pelt down in combination with a strong wind…but after searching most of the day, we finally located a large flock of sea ducks, gulls and shorebirds benefiting from the herring feast. Among the ducks were at least 1,400 Long-tailed Ducks, 3,600 Surf Scoters, 800 White-winged Scoters, and 200 Black Scoters. We also saw about 10,000 gulls, of which we could successfully pick out Glacous-winged (the dominant), California, Herring, Mew, and Thayer’s gull. Dunlin, Black Oystercatcher, Harlequin Duck, and Black-bellied Plover hugged the shoreline and took shelter behind anything that seemed to lessen the wind and rain. A few lone species, including Common Loon, Pacific Loon, Red-necked Grebe, and Common Murre, drifted amidst the waves.

From Kin Beach we made the direct drive home, and it rained the entire way. Our species count for the day was XX. A decent count considering the weather.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 Valentine Couples Bird Count

On February 16, 2014 Joanna and I once again competed in the Victoria Natural History Society's Valentine's Couples Bird Count. We've only done this count once before, in 2012, when we won the competition with a good count of 82 species. The rules of this count are simple: 1) Count between 6am and 12pm; 2) Both people must see or hear 95% of the species counted for the day; 3) the count must be completed in the Greater Victoria Bird Checklist Area.

As in 2012, Joanna and I were at our first site (Royal Roads University) at 6am. Our first bird was Canada Goose calling, followed shortly thereafter by Great Horned Owl hooting. The weather was not particularly favourable, as a strong wind blew in off the Juan de Fuca Strait and rain and sleet pelted us for the first hour. As we stood at our second location, Albert Head, we had nearly every ounce of heat whisked from our bodies as we squinted in the twilight trying to pick up some marine species. It was generally futile...we picked up a few gulls and some ducks, but nothing we couldn't find elsewhere.

From Albert Head we dashed to Esquimalt Lagoon where we picked up a good mix of ducks, gulls, shorebirds and several passerines, including our only White-crowned Sparrows for the day. We then started to head toward the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre, but suddenly realized we had not counted Mute Swan, one of the easiest birds to get at Esquimalt Lagoon. We did a quick u-turn, and as soon as we could see the lagoon, we located the swans on the far side...a close call and a potentially embarrassing miss. At the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre we walked through a small patch of mature coastal forest in search of typical temperate rainforest birds. We picked up Pacific Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper and Pileated Woodpecker, but failed to locate Varied Thrush and Red-breasted Sapsucker which were know to be in the area.

Our next stop was Panama Flats, a reasonably large agricultural area that is mostly flooded in the winter and attracts a good variety of waterbirds and species that use the drier grassy and shrubby margins. There were no real highlights here, although we did pick up five Western Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrow, and Northern Shrike...the only records of those species for the day. Next stop was Vedder Flats where we picked up Gadwall and lots of Ring-necked Ducks...the big miss here, as we later learned at the post-count gathering, was Canvasback.

From Vedder Flats we headed to Blenkinsop Lake where we made a mad dash down the trail to the old rail trestle. The lake was largely unproductive, yielding only a couple species for the list. On the hike back to the car we picked up Downy Woodpecker, our only observation of this species for the day. From Blenkinsop Lake we visited King's Pond, our guaranteed location for Wood Duck, and to our surprise our only observation of California Quail as it fed on bird seed in the parking area. From King's Pond we headed to Gonzales Bay and completed a coastal circuit that included Oak Bay, Cattle Point, and Mount Douglas Park. Among these locales we picked up Black Oystercatcher, Killdeer, Pigeon Guillemot, and Pelagic Cormorant.

At this point the count was nearly over. We quickly headed to Rithet's Bog and added nothing new in the strong winds. We ended the day at Swan Lake, where the post-count summary was to held. Here we added only Yellow-rumped Warbler and Pied-billed Grebe. Our final count for the day was 73 species, which put us in 5th place out of 13 couple. The winning tally was 82, the same as our winning tally in 2012. Big missed for the day, which we actually saw the previous day as we scouted our sites, included Barrow's Goldeneye, Herring Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Purple Finch, Snow Goose, Common Raven, Bushtit, and Greater White-fronted Goose. The full list of species follows:

American Coot 3
American Robin 6
American Wigeon 6
Anna's Hummingbird 7
Bald Eagle 3
Belted Kingfisher 1
Bewick's Wren 6
Black Oystercatcher 1
Black Turnstone 2
Black-bellied Plover 1
Brewer's Blackbird 2
Brown Creeper 1
Bufflehead 6
California Quail 1
Canada Goose 7
Chestnut-backed Chickadee 5
Common Goldeneye 3
Common Loon 1
Common Merganser 5
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Double-crested Cormorant 4
Downy Woodpecker 2
European Starling 1
Fox Sparrow 2
Gadwall 1
Glaucous-winged Gull 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 3
Golden-crowned Sparrow 4
Great Blue Heron 2
Great Horned Owl 1
Greater Scaup 1
Green-winged Teal 1
Harlequin Duck 2
Hooded Merganser 4
Horned Grebe 1
House Finch 2
House Sparrow 3
Killdeer 1
Lesser Scaup 1
Lincoln's Sparrow 2
Mallard 7
Marsh Wren 1
Mew Gull 2
Mute Swan 1
Northern Flicker 5
Northern Pintail 3
Northern Shoveler 1
Northern Shrike 1
Northwestern Crow 3
Pacific Wren 2
Pelagic Cormorant 1
Pied-billed Grebe 1
Pigeon Guillemot 1
Pileated Woodpecker 2
Red-breasted Merganser 4
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Red-necked Grebe 1
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Red-winged Blackbird 6
Ring-necked Duck 4
Rock Pigeon 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3
Ruddy Duck 2
Savannah Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 8
Spotted Towhee 5
Surf Scoter 3
Surfbird 1
Trumpeter Swan 2
Western Meadowlark 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Wood Duck 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Grand Total 188