September 3, 2013 by Rokman61
The month started off well when this handsome little Merlin (a small falcon) decided to land right beside me – one of those lucky circumstances that don’t happen often enough. Merlins occur right across the northern hemisphere, and this particularly dark individual is of the subspecies that nests along our coast, sometimes called the ‘Black’ Merlin.
This bird was most accommodating, as it allowed close approach and sat patiently while several more photographers came by and fired off volleys of shots.
I have a very good friend from my days at grad school in California who resides in Washington, on the west side of Puget Sound. He recently moved to a new residence, so of course I had to go and check out his new digs.
The route to my friend’s place involves a ferry ride across the entrance to Puget Sound (from Keystone on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula). The crossing is most scenic, and often provides something a little different on each trip. In clear weather Mount Baker presents an awesome sight. This massive volcano is a constant reminder that we live in a region that is both blessed and threatened by geologic activity.
A bit of a fog bank added to the charm on this crossing.
In my friend’s front yard there is a tiny pool that had running water, but which during the transfer of the property had become stagnant and apparently was just the thing for some local amphibians, as the pool was chock full of tadpoles.
The well-developed ones in the above photo are Pacific Chorus Frogs, a little tree frog that is abundant and very common in our region.
Quite a few of the chorus frogs had emerged as full adults, still not much more than a half-inch (1.5 cm) in length. This species shows quite a range of colours and patterns.
On the ferry ride over I noticed literally thousands of Rhinoceros Auklets, a small alcid (type of seabird that represent the northern hemisphere’s stand-in for penguins which only occur in southern waters). Also noticed were hundreds of Heermann’s Gulls – more on that one below.
On the return sailing I took my camera on deck, hoping to catch a few close shots of the auklets. A challenge indeed, as most views were fairly distant, with lines of them flying across the path of the ship . . .
. . . or birds diving in front of the approaching vessel. Note the little vertical ‘horn’ on the bills that give the bird its name. (Click for larger view).
Surprisingly, I saw only a very few gulls on the return trip. When the boat docked on the Keystone side the reason for this was revealed – many gulls were there, roosting in a large flock right near the ferry slip.
Most of the birds in the photo are Heermann’s Gulls. The flock allowed me to approach closely, but I could not get on the sunny side of them, so all the birds are back-lit. Bad luck, as I might have gotten some really prize shots.
The Heermann’s is probably our prettiest gull, with its dark plumage, white eye-arcs, and red bill.
The Heermann’s also have an interesting life cycle. They nest only around Baja Peninsula in Mexico, and after breeding they disperse northward along the coast. By August hundreds of them have reached Washington, tens of them turn up around Victoria, and only a very few stragglers get to our area. On the outer coast they get about as far as mid Vancouver Island, and all have returned south by the end of October.
Meanwhile, whilst waiting to board at Port Townsend, I noticed quite a few Pigeon Guillemots right alongside the ferry slip. Another quite attractive alcid, so I welcomed the chance for a few shots.
The eyes give such a compelling look.
The black-and-white plumage on the guillemots reflects their summer breeding appearance, and in the winter they look radically different. This one has just about completed its transition. Since individual birds moult at somewhat different times, it is not unusual to see both plumages at the same time.
Every once in a while there is a photographic ‘happening’ that is just too good to pass up, In this instance, word got out that at least two batches of recently-hatched Green Herons were putting on a show at a public golf course.
This small heron is a common bird all the way south into South America, but in BC it is at the extreme end of its range and occurs very locally in our area. It tends to be rather secretive, so the opportunity to see them on display was a special treat.
The adult birds were kept busy foraging for their brood, and posed only briefly for portraits.
The youngsters hung out waiting to be fed. Sound familiar?
I just loved their hairdos. Maybe because it’s sort of similar to mine on top, except they have a bit more.
‘Down the hatch’.
This little guy landed on the pond vegetation and was optimistically eyeing the dragonflies as they cruised by on patrol.
I figured there was absolutely no chance that such a pathetically clumsy young creature could ever snatch a speedy, agile missile out of mid-air, but . . . . Bingo! – I was quickly proven wrong. There has to be some sort of message here.
The golf course that hosted the herons has a fine reputation for being ‘green’, as they no longer use pesticides or herbicides. However, the adjacent riverbank where the birds feed has had a long history of industrial use. Apparently there may be some residual chemicals in the environment that might possibly account for odd birth deformities such as you see in this individual. 😉
For about 10 days in mid-August, we were hearing the delightful chortling of Purple Martins in the sky above our yard – a rather unusual occurrence. This is a large species of swallow with an interesting history in the Pacific Northwest. They used to nest in the region but were extirpated back in the ’60s. It was eventually learned that they would use nest boxes placed on pilings over salt water. After a virtual absence of several decades they have now rebounded to the point where there are at least four thriving colonies in the Vancouver area. An exceptional success story, especially considering the fact other species of swallows are experiencing precipitous declines.
One day I encountered a loose flock of about 40 of them in a park near our home. They tend to assemble like this before they migrate south. This photo show about twenty of the birds – only one of which is an all-dark adult male (perched on the small branch on left side of the main trunk near the top).
For a bit of change-of-pace, Norma and I attended an outing with our local naturalists’ group to look for butterflies. I did not get many good photos, but I sure learned a lot! Here is little butterfly that was quite common there and elsewhere at this time of year.
We didn’t know what this imposing bug was, and it didn’t hang around for close inspection.
On one fine afternoon we went to look for seabirds on the ‘Salish Sea’ (inland marine waters, lying east of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island). We arrived to find a small flotilla of fishing boats, working a run of pink salmon. The boats attract the seabirds but were a bit too distant to give us good close views of the birds. My best photos were of the vessels – maybe I should switch my focus from birds to boats?
I tried shooting a few birds as they flew past our vantage point – with limited success. More practice needed. These are Pelagic Cormorants. (When I first published this blog, I had them labelled as Brand’s Cormorants, but a local birder friend caught me up on it – I overlooked the touch of reddish skin at the base of the bill, which is distinctive for Pelagic).
Birds sitting on the water are so much easier, but lighting can be a problem. This is a female Harlequin Duck. This handsome little waterfowl also has an interesting life history: they nest along turbulent mountain streams, and all move to the coast to spend the winter. A few young birds forgo the migration to the interior and spend the summer here, which probably accounts for the presence of this one.
The biggest attraction for birders in late summer and fall is the passing of many thousands of shorebirds (plovers and sandpipers) passing through on migration, many coming from arctic regions. Boundary Bay, which comprises a large part of the shoreline of the massive Fraser Delta, is one of their most important resting and refuelling stops on the west coast.
At low tide, there is a wide swatch of mud/silt along the entire width of the bay. This is what it looks like: the photo was taken nearly a kilometre out from the high-water mark, and there is still another kilometre outboard of there. BTW, I live just off to the left of the red X at top left of the photo. The more distant landmass to the right is in the United States of America. A long walk on the flats (in a few places it’s more of a waddle) is a great way to spend some time on a sunny day. However, the birding is best when the weather is not.
Yellowlegs are large sandpipers, of which there are two species, Greater and Lesser. As you might guess, the Greater is bigger, but also has a proportionately heavier bill with a slight upturn. The Lesser is a smaller and daintier version.
The two species often occur together in migration and when they do, and where there are more than two birders watching them, one is sure to say “Now there’s a nice comparison!”. You can bet the bank on that one.
Here’s a nice comparison. (Four Lessers and a cluster of three Greaters).
This would be an even better comparison if both birds were in focus.
I’ll close this blog with my ‘regular’ Great Blue Heron feature. This bird alighted right beside me whilst I was fishing, so I grabbed my smartphone and fired off this rather muddy shot. What was unusual is that rapid motion usually sends a heron on its way in panic. This one just stood there watching as I swung my arm to cast the line.
Soon I hooked a small fish and the bird got very agitated as I reeled it in. The catch, a small pumpkinseed sunfish, was about 2/3 the size of my hand – a good meal I thought for the heron. I flipped the fish toward the bird, expecting to be able to photograph the heron in the process of swallowing my offering. Not to be: in about a second there was a quick lunge and a gulp and no further trace of the fish. Now that’s efficiency.