March 5, 2015 by Rokman61
Perhaps some of my multitude of followers may have noticed that a full half-year has passed since my last blog entry. As a brief explanation, I was in the process of moving household. It took 7 months for us to locate a suitable new home, 2 months of planning/packing, one week for the actual move, and we are now facing more months of settling in.
Time to move on. I have been occasionally getting back to my camera, so have a few bird stories to report.
Our new home is on a city lot near Cloverdale, a pleasant neighbourhood but not nearly so woodsy as the acre property we left. Three of the commonest birds here that we did not see at our former site are House Sparrow, Starling, and Eurasian Collared-Dove – all non-native species.
The Eurasian Collared-Doves make for an interesting story. From introductions to the Bahamas in the1970s they spread naturally across the face of North America from Florida in the ’80’s, first arriving in our area in about 2005. In the past ten years they have become widespread, common, and locally numerous here. Interestingly, despite being a fully urbanized bird, they remain very shy and skittish. One morning I noticed two of them in our yard, but managed just two mediocre shots through the window before they detected my presence and flew off.
After the long lay-off I am gradually getting back into some bird photography, mostly shooting a few birds that we don’t often get a chance to see.
Pine Grosbeaks only show up occasionally, and most often we see females and young birds, which are yellowish to orange in colour, whereas mature males take on a rich red colour. In January a small flock of about 6 took to feeding on a grove of ornamental cherry trees, where they held court for several days whilst many photographers came and went. On the day I went to see them it was dark and drizzly, so my photos are not as cheery and colourful as they might have been. Still, the colour of this male is striking.The birds were browsing on buds of the cherry trees, which are full of sticky gums, making for messy bills.
There are two species of waxwings: this Cedar Waxwing is a common nester right across Canada, and a few hang around in winter if there are good fruit crops to sustain them.
Bohemian Waxwings nest far to the north of us, and in some years a few visit our area during winter. Both Waxwings are elegantly attractive birds; the Bohemians being a bit more colourful, showing rusty on the face and under the tail.
Eagles always attract the most attention – some photographers seem to shoot nothing but. This winter there are a lot fewer than last – on a drive to Boundary Bay, one might encounter ‘only’ 30 or 40 of them, whereas last February it didn’t take much effort to find a hundred of them. I liked this particular Bald Eagle shot for the gnarly perch it was parked on.
The real attraction this winter at Boundary Bay was the appearance of a Golden Eagle, an uncommon species that is not seen here every year. My documentary photo is just good enough to show the identifying marks – the pale ‘golden’ neck and patches of white on the wings and base of tail, which indicates it is an immature bird.
But the real excitement this winter, and the main inspiration for my resurrecting my blog, happened on Mount Seymour, one of the line of mountain summits that form the northern backdrop for the city of Vancouver. Here we got to meet with two very special birds, both of which live in some of the harshest habitats on Earth.
Rosy-Finches are sparrow-size songbirds that nest in the highest, treeless, alpine areas where banks of snow are often present for most of the summer. Of three species, only the Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch is found in BC. In winter they descend to lower habitats, but only occasionally will a few show up in places where they can easily be viewed. This January two were discovered around the ski resort buildings, where they remained for several weeks while legions of photographers obtained untold numbers of photos. These birds are not accustomed to seeing humans, so they paid little attention to anything less than major commotion. Sometimes they approached so close that it was difficult to focus on them. This photo is virtually uncropped.
In more detail, there are actually two varieties or subspecies or flavours of Grey-crowned Rosy-Finches. The photos above and below show a ‘standard’ Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch, which nests on mountain tops throughout the northern ranges of the western mountains.
On the bird below, note that the grey extends much farther down the face. This is the Grey-cheeked Rosy-Finch version of the bird, considered to be the same species. This variant nests not on mountains but along barren coasts of the Aleutians and Bering Sea.
What is particularly interesting is that this ‘pair’ of birds were virtually inseparable, yet presumably they came from very distantly separated populations.
And then the real prize . . .
Whilst I was viewing the finches, I got to chatting with a ski resort employee, and asked what the trail conditions were like beyond the ski hills. He told me they were easily navigable, with very little snow pack. In fact he had been up a few days before with a ranger and they had encountered a ptarmigan! This got me thinking – ptarmigan was a bird I had tried to find here on numerous occasions, and maybe this would be the time to mount an expedition. Before I could do so, I got an email from a friend organizing exactly such an expedition – he too had heard of ptarmigan being photographed up on the mountain (only after the fact did that I learn that the photos were taken the previous winter by people on snowshoes). So it happened eventually that 16 hopeful birders headed up the mountain in mid-February on the Great Ptarmigan Ptrek, in search of wild white chickens.
Allow me to digress so I can explain just how unlikely it would be for us to succeed in our quest. Three conditions would have to be met: #1 the trail up the mountain had to be readily passable, #2 the weather had to be suitable for travel and viewing, and #3 the bird(s) had to be present. I’ll elaborate on each in turn.
#1 In normal years, the mountain trails are buried in several metres of snow by end of November. This year there was virtually no snowpack in mid-winter – this has been described as a 33-year event.
#2 To organize a mass assault, a date had to be scheduled, as a spur-of-the-moment decision would not work for most. So the date of Feb 15 was decreed to be P-Day, decided on about two weeks ahead. Anyone who is familiar with our winter weather would immediately understand that counting on getting a fine day so far in the future is a very long shot at best. As it turned out, the weather was not suitable for any of the days preceding the attempt, then turned perfect for us on the 15th. What’s the chance! Let’s say it’s one-in-ten.
#3 Ptarmigan are not rare, but they nest in extreme alpine areas that near Vancouver are virtually inaccessible for normal people. There are three species (White-tailed, Rock, and Willow), two of them known to occur locally. There are scarcely more than about a dozen records of sightings of White-tailed and Rock Ptarmigan on the North Shore Mountains, most of them from Mt Seymour. Nearly all of those were from October/November, in the brief window between when the first heavy snows force the birds from their high summer range to lower elevations, and when more snow makes access very difficult. In the early 90’s I made repeated attempts to find them with no luck. My last try was on snowshoes in Dec 2000, and then I gave up. For sake of analysis one could estimate that chances of seeing a ptarmigan up there are less than about one-in-ten.
So, what are the odds of seeing a ptarmigan in Vancouver? By multiplying the approximate numbers given above, you get 1:3300 (33x10x10). A crude estimation, but good enough to show that chances are slim to nearly none.
Back to the ptrek: it took about an hour-and-a-half of plodding to reach prime habitat where the crew spread out and began the search. I doubt that more than a few of the participants had any real idea of how unlikely it would be to actually find a chicken up there. But within a half-hour I was amazed to hear someone excitedly shout out the P-word! Within a few minutes we had all assembled and were looking at our quarry – a White-tailed Ptarmigan (photo taken with my cell phone).
Here is part of the gallery of happy hikers. You can see from the photos that the terrain was interesting, the scenery fantastic, and the weather utterly superb.
Such an occasion called for a team victory shot, as if we had just won a major championship. The photo was taken by a bemused camper and kindly supplied by one of the participants. Perhaps of interest, the ages represented here span just over 60 years!
Because I was not sure that I could even make it up the mountain any more, and truly did not expect to see our target, I left my camera at home. However, with age sometimes comes wisdom, and I did think to bring along a memory card, knowing that there would be younger, stronger folk with cameras similar to mine. So I sidled up to good friend and after he had taken numerous shots I asked to borrow his instrument just long enough to take several images. The result was better than I had hoped for. Unfortunately the elegantly feathered feet are not visible in this pose.
I had never before seen a ptarmigan in all-white winter finery. Such a ghost of a bird! (Click on image for a larger and even more impressive view).
Here is what it looked like from the top just as we headed down, with the car park shown by a yellow ‘x’. While we ptrekers spent the day in brilliant sunshine, the city and Fraser Delta below had been blanketed in fog for most of the day.
Without hesitation I can say that this was one of the most rewarding birding experiences of all time. That ptarmigan represents the hardest I have ever worked for a bird – I had even given up hope of ever seeing one in the Vancouver area 15 years ago.
As further testimony to how lucky we were: in the week following our triumph, I believe there were people looking for our little white mountain chicken every day, including an individual who ‘owns’ more than half of all the previous Seymour records. Another hopeful searcher posted a note to say that he had failed, despite having tried “ptime & ptarmigan”. Only one person reported success! This was a very experienced hiker of the local mountains, and here is a direct quote of what he posted to a local list-serve:
“After countless hours in the North Shore backcountry over the years, and two attempts this week, I finally caught up with the reported White-tailed Ptarmigan this morning near Pump Peak on Mt Seymour”.
It would appear that my guesstimate of one-in-ten chance of finding a ptarmigan on Seymour (even given that one was known to be present) was overly optimistic.
Or maybe I should have bought a lottery ticket that day.