Thursday, 13 September 2012

Tofino - birding on the west coast of Vancouver Island

Last Monday, Sep. 11, we travelled from Victoria to Tofino with a slight diversion to Deep Bay.  We spent the first couple of hours at Swan Lake.  We enjoyed our walk around the lake but didn’t see anything too interesting (we weren’t expecting any new birds) and then drove up island.  A large number of jaegers had been reported from Deep Bay the previous day so we figured it was worth a couple of hours to check it out.  There were a large number of Bonaparte’s Gulls in the bay along with Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters, Common Loons and Red-necked Grebes.  We did see one jaeger harassing a gull but it was too far away to identify it.
Bonaparte's Gull
Tuesday was a free day to bird the Tofino area as our scheduled pelagic had been moved to Wednesday.  We were focused on shorebirds and gulls and visited most of the accessible shoreline. 
Ray and Phil looking for shorebirds

Our highlight was a Western Gull (#480)which was visible from our motel.  We went down to the harbour for closer looks and the gull was cooperative enough to hang around.  On the BC coast, Western Gulls hybridize with Glaucous-winged Gulls and most “Westerns” are considered by some to be of dubious lineage.  We carefully checked out our gull – yellow-orange orbital ring, smudge-free head, dark mantle, deep black wing tips – and felt this was as good as we were going to get!

Western Gull
On Wednesday, we went on our much anticipated pelagic trip.  Ray had spent a great deal of time organizing it and we were relieved that the weather and surf conditions looked good.  Along with us for the trip were three keen Victoria birders – Rick Shortinghuis, Jeremy Kimm and Jeremy Gatten as well as Charles Smith from Toronto.  The Tofino Whale Centre, with Captain Mike and spotter Artie, dressed us up in red survival suits and we departed about 7:15 am.
Heading out from Tofino
As we headed out to sea, our first sea birds were Sooty Shearwaters.  Soon we had our first new bird – Pink-footed Shearwater (#481) – which was soon followed by Cassin’s Auklet (#482). 
Pink-footed Shearwater
Cassin's Auklet
Birds were rather sparse but we did spot Red-necked Phalaropes (we checked them all out as we were looking for Red Phalaropes) as well as some Rhinoceros Auklets.  Further out, we began seeing Sabine’s Gulls (#483).
Sabine's Gull
After about 50 kilometres, we reached an underwater canyon which was supposed to be good for birds.  There wasn’t much around but we travelled along the canyon for a while and eventually a Black-footed Albatross (#484) found us.  We continued out to almost 70 kilometres from shore where the water was over 300 metres deep.  We dropped some “chum” (fish guts and pieces of fish) hoping the birds would find it.  While waiting for the birds to find the chum, we saw a distant but distinctive Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (#485).  We were just about to leave when an albatross flew in followed by a Parasitic Jaeger (#486).  Eventually, a few other albatrosses joined in along with a four shearwaters.
Black-footed Albatross
Parasitic Jaeger
The ride back was fairly quiet but we did come across 3 Tufted Puffins (#487) swimming with a group of Cassin’s Auklets. 
Tufted Puffin
About ten miles from shore, we spotted our first (and only) whales – a large group of Humpback Whales.  The whales were surface feeding and we spent some time in the midst of a group of eight of them.  The other mammal highlight was seeing Sea Otters resting on their backs in the kelp beds nearer shore.
Sea Otter
After 7 ½ hours on the boat, it was a strange feeling coming back to shore.  We had enjoyed great weather, calm seas, and great views of a few new birds as well as a very memorable Humpback experience; on the other hand, we hadn’t seen as many new birds as we had hoped for.  This trip was kind of a “make it or break it” outing – if we had a great day, we would have no problems meeting our goal of 500 species; if we didn’t do the trip (because of weather which happens often with pelagics), we would have great difficulty making our goal.  We certainly didn’t “make it” but we didn’t “break it” either though we have our work cut out to find 12 more species.
Our route on the pelagic

With that in mind (and after an ice cream to refresh us), we went out in search of a new bird.  I had asked Jeremy Kimm where we were most likely to find a Pacific Golden-Plover and he suggested the airport.  Shortly after arriving at the airport, we found two Pacific Golden-Plovers (#488).  I forgot my camera at the motel so no photos but we did spend quite a while checking out all the field marks.  One was a classic juvenile (as described by Sibley) while the other was a bit different but definitely a Pacific Golden-Plover.
Next week, we will head to the East Coast for the third (and hopefully final time).  We will spend most of our time in Nova Scotia as we have a couple of whales to get and it is also a good time for vagrant species.  With luck, we will be in position to accomplish our goal with a Whooping Crane expedition to Saskatchewan and a ferry trip to Haida Gwaii in mid-October.




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