Tuesday, 27 November 2012

From rare to rarer

In the first nine months of the year, we saw lots of birds but very few of them would be considered rare.  That all changed in October when we saw a Rustic Bunting in Haida Gwai (about 10 records for Canada) followed in November by a Hepatic Tanager in Saskatchewan (2nd record for Canada).  What could we do for an encore?  How about a Citrine Wagtail?

A couple of weeks ago, David and Adele Routledge found a wagtail in Courtenay, BC.  This bird was subsequently identified as a Citrine Wagtail – a first record for Canada and only the second for North America.  “Wouldn’t that be a nice one for our list?” we thought but all of us had commitments.  However, we were working on a trip to Vancouver Island for the end of November and optimistically thought this bird might hang around.
Finally, Phil and I found a time slot where we could slip over to the island – Nov. 27 to Nov. 30.  Now, we started watching the wagtail reports in earnest.  It was being seen daily at the same location but there were also reports of numerous predators in the same area.  One person reported seeing a Northern Shrike go after the wagtail.  Hopefully, Asian food wasn’t one of its favourites!

Today, we finally made it to Courtenay and we arrived at the site at sunrise. Nothing! Oh well, we shrugged, the best time is supposedly 9:00 am so we can wait. The only activity is a few Trumpeter Swans flying overhead and some Dark-eyed Juncos in the bushes.

Trumpeter Swans
Nine o’clock comes and goes and still no wagtail.  In the meantime, a Northern Shrike, Northern Harrier and a Cooper’s Hawk cruised through the area.  Were they looking for the same bird as us or perhaps they knew something we didn’t?
Immature Northern Shrike
There were a few other birders there and we were all looking in the area where the bird had been seen the day before.  Shortly before 11:00 am Phil decides to make a Tim Horton’s run.  While he was away, I went for a walk down the track.  After a couple hundred metres, I turned around and saw a bird dive down into the field to the east.  It had a distinctive flight and the call sounded like the wagtail recording I had listened to earlier – now to find the bird. 

It was in a wet area behind some tall grass but was showing well.  I called Phil on the phone and then went to try for a photo.  There were some gaps in the grass and I managed a couple of okay shots (but nothing like the gorgeous shots some people had taken a couple of days earlier).  Phil eventually showed up and saw the bird.  After about 45 minutes, we left the bird and went to eat our now cold sandwiches.
Citrine Wagtail
Special thanks go out to the landowner who gave permission for birders to walk the track on his land and to the birder who initiated and made these arrangements.
Wagtail field - it had usually been seen in the field to the left but today was to the right of the path opposite the brush piles
If we were just chasing this bird, we would have hopped on a plane and be back in Calgary now.  Instead, we drove down to Victoria looking unsuccessfully for a Yellow-billed Loon.  There are a few other species that we would like to add to our big year list and we will spend the next couple of days looking for them.  For tonight though, we will just enjoy the memories of the rarest bird we have seen this year.




Saturday, 17 November 2012

Water Valley Area

This morning Brian, Phil and I set off for a little birding and mammaling northwest of Calgary. The circuit along Horse Creek Rd., Grand Valley Rd., Jack Eby Trail and Winchell Lake is one we make several times each year. This year however, with our rather hectic cross-Canada travels, we have not been in the area quite so often.  It was a lovely morning to get back out there!

While we were not quite as target-driven as usual today, we nevertheless had a number of possible species in mind . On the mammal side, we are ever-hopeful that an American Marten might show up. This is a mammal we fully expected to see this year, but to date - no luck! On the birding side, we had no expectation of a new year-bird but we hoped to come across a Short-eared Owl, or possibly a Spruce Grouse, or maybe an adult Northern Goshawk. Additionally, while new year-birds are unlikely in the area at this point, we're always on the look out for upgrades to our photo collection.

For the most part, it was pretty quiet today but there are always a few active moments and today was no exception. The cone crop is looking good right now and we soon came across good numbers of  Common Redpolls and White-winged Crossbills.  At one stop we were surrounded by Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Chickadees, Gray Jays and Blue Jays. There were so many and they were so vocal we expected to see a raptor fly in at any moment but none appeared.

Gray Jays were fairly common.
Around mid-morning we stopped off to visit long-time birder friend Doug Collister and his wife, Barb, who have a wonderful acreage in the area. While enjoying a nice cup of coffee and some baking we added Pine Grosbeaks, White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker to the day list. We also had a single Snow Bunting and a single Rough-legged Hawk this morning.

Pine Grosbeak in full colour!
The highlight of the morning however was that ever-hoped for American Marten! One ran across the road 100 yards or so ahead of us. Taking full advantage of his "spanking-brand-new" snow tires, Phil brought the car to a screeching halt and we managed to get fleeting binocular views of the Marten as it scurried away into the forest. Ironically, Phil and his wife Rae had seen an American Marten during a recent trip to Banff but since he had no Fur & Feathers team-mate at his side, it didn't add to our team tally. But this one did, bringing our mammal total to 76 and our combined species total to 505! We had no chance to get a photograph of this Marten but happily, Phil had managed to get a picture of the one he saw in Banff so for fun we have included it below. I don't think Phil is quite as proud of this picture as of the Polar Bear shot he captured in Nunavut this summer but what the heck.......it's better than nothing!

American Marten

We saw a few other mammals this morning too: White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, White-tailed Jackrabbit and Red Squirrel. The Red Squirrel posed nicely for us in stunning morning sunlight.

Red Squirrel

Mike couldn't join us today but next week we're all four going to be in town and undoubtedly we'll be out looking for species 506!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Chase

On November 2, a Hepatic Tanager was found in Wadena, SK.  This is a semi-tropical bird whose northernmost breeding range is the southwestern U.S.  The tanager been recorded once previously in Canada – in 1993 in Montreal.  When I saw the report, my reaction was … “hmm, interesting, could be a new team bird; where is Wadena? Oh, a 10 hour drive” and then put it out of my mind.

At the beginning of our big year, we stated that, in pursuit of our 500 species goal, we would schedule a number of trips to interesting places and would not be going out of our way to chase rare birds.  As you may know, we accomplished our goal in October and didn’t do any chasing in the process.
Had the Haida Gwaii trip not been successful, we likely would have made one more team trip.  Perhaps we would have met in Vancouver for the Tropical Kingbird.  Both Ray and I were lucky enough to see this bird while on separate non-birding trips.
Tropical Kingbird
Perhaps we would have headed to Vancouver Island for the Elegant Tern and regular wintering Ancient Murrelets.  Ray was on the island when the tern was found and saw it for himself the next day.
Elegant Tern (Mew Gull on left)
If we hadn’t done one of those trips, then we would have undoubtedly headed to Wadena for the Hepatic Tanager.  But we didn’t need to so none of us gave it much thought … except for Mike.  Mike is the keenest lister of the four of us and wanted to go see the bird.  He sent out an email on Friday asking, “Anyone interested in a trip to Wadena?”  No takers - Ray and Phil were both out of town with their wives and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home with my wife.

Saskatchewan was hit by a snowstorm on Saturday but word soon got out that the tanager was still in Wadena.  Mike wasn’t giving up and recruited fellow big lister, Hank Vanderpol.  Both Mike and Hank have seen over 750 ABA  area birds (ABA stands for American Birding Association and ABA area is Canada, St. Pierre et Miquelon, and USA except for Hawaii ) and you don`t get that big of a list without doing a lot of chasing.
On Sunday afternoon, Mike called to say that he and Hank were going and did I want to come?  Hmm, if I went along the tanager would be a new team bird and it would be a new Canada bird for me.  I had nothing planned for Monday so, in a weak moment, I said yes thinking it would be a pleasant two day trip.  Mike’s next statement was, “We’re leaving tonight!”  The prospect of an overnight drive wasn’t too appealing but I figured if Hank and Mike could handle it and they were 15 to 20 years older than me, I should be able survive the drive.

While waiting for the departure hour, I overheard my wife talking to her parents.  Based on her responses, I could imagine their questions, “He’s doing what?” and “He’s going where?”  I hope they didn’t hurt their necks as they shook their heads in disbelief!
As usual, Mike had done his homework and had spoken to the homeowners whose feeder the tanager was visiting.  They told him that the most reliable time to see the bird was in the morning.  Mike also knew that the overnight temperatures were going down to -22o C and, regarding a semi-tropical bird, it would be best to see the bird as soon as possible.     The logical plan would be to leave Sunday afternoon, find a motel in SK and then see the bird on Monday morning.  However, Mike had a family birthday dinner to attend (in his honour!) and   couldn’t leave until 9:30 p.m.

We departed Calgary at 10 p.m. and headed east to Regina.  The fastest route was through Saskatoon but that route was only a 2 lane highway, we weren’t sure of the road conditions and we didn’t know if there would be any gas stations open en route.  We took turns driving and our plan was that the front seat passenger would converse with the driver while the person in the rear slept. 
When Mike and Hank were in the front, they regaled each other with stories of previous chases while I tried unsuccessfully to nap.  During a break in their tales, I assumed Phil’s role and did some quick internet research.  “What does hepatic mean?” I asked and Mike responded that it had something to do with colour.  He was right – one of the dictionary meanings was “liver-coloured; dark reddish-brown”.

We rolled into Regina at 6 a.m. Calgary time (for the short trip, we didn’t bother changing our watches) and had a quick breakfast.  From there, it was a 215 km drive on good secondary highways to reach Wadena.   As we drove north, we tried not to speculate as to the fate of the bird in the wintry conditions.  However, with every raven flying by, I had visions of seeing a liver-coloured bird dangling from its beak. 
We found the location easily enough and introduced ourselves to John and Faye Sundholm.  This friendly and hospitable couple invited us inside to view the bird from their front window.  We were told that the bird had been there early in the morning, arriving as soon as Faye put out a tray with meal worms.  Faye then restocked the tray and, sure enough, the bird arrived on cue.
Hepatic Tanager
Whew - our overnight drive had a successful outcome!  The bird flew off after a few minutes but we were all in a good mood as the Sundholms served some coffee.  Three other birders arrived, including some friends from Calgary who had flown to Regina and rented a car.  Adding to the mix, were some non-birding friends of the Sundholms making for a houseful of people.  John and Fay were great hosts and couldn’t have been more welcoming. 

While Mike and Hank chatted with the others, I did a bit of neighbourhood birding and found some Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks and White-winged Crossbills.  We stayed about an hour but had to leave as we wanted to do most of the drive home in daylight.  As we were leaving, I saw the bird fly towards the house but it didn’t go to the feeder.  Our friends indicated that the bird did come back and great views were enjoyed by all.
We drove back via Saskatoon and had an uneventful drive.  The only birds of note on the way back were a Snowy Owl in SK and a Short-eared Owl in AB.  At the end of our 20 hour adventure, we all felt pretty good – I suspect that we would have felt quite differently had the chase been unsuccessful.

I was teasing Mike and Hank about a Cave Swallow that was reported at Iona near the Vancouver airport.  Mike wasn’t sure that the bird would be seen again and so wasn’t interested in going after it.  The swallow has been seen again so perhaps Mike and Hank are already on their way.  If not, some other bird will tempt them down the road.   So, will I do another big chase?  Never say never but I think I will politely decline participation in their next crazy adventure!