Category Archives: Birding Trips

California pt. 3 – The Final Journey

We set out early from our hotel the day after the pelagic tour, hoping to reach Big Sur by noon. This well-known Condor hotspot would serve as the turn around point for our almost month long vacation. Fools that we were, we thought it would be a simple task – reach the area,  find a walking trail with some life birds reported on it recently, and watch the skies. In fact, we never even made it to Big Sur.

The plan was derailed before we even hit the freeway, as a silhouette atop a lamppost piqued our curiosity. Trailing the bird as it dropped from the pole and alighted in the parking lot of the hotel, the white wing flashes of a Northern Mockingbird became apparent. Lifer! Hopping out of the car to fire off a few shots of the bird, I noticed a yellow form swoop up into a nearby palm tree. It soon shifted to a leafless alder, and we confirmed it as our second lifer of the day – Hooded Oriole! With two life birds to our name before we had even departed for the day, things were looking good.

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Hooded Oriole

Our next stop was a speciality stop. For many years, a solitary Northern Gannet has been stuck on the west coast – theories run that it came over the continent, through the arctic sea, and no longer knows how to return whence it came. Word was that the bird was currently located at a spot known as the Devil’s Slide Trail, on Egg Rock. After a short, easy walk into the area, we happened across a man who informed us that the Gannet was currently perched atop a rocky island with thousands of Common Murres.

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Northern Gannet

Yep, it’s there! Can you see it among the murres (Gannet circled in red)? Fortunately, I had my scope and we were thus afforded some excellent views of this extreme rarity.

By now, we were running hours behind schedule, so we stopped for lunch in a small Santa Clara town. Birding the ponds nearby, we found Purple Finch, Bushtit and two species of Towhee. The highlight slipped into a small tree unobserved, but when we found it, it was observed with gusto! A lone Lesser Goldfinch made our fourth lifer of the day.

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Spotted Towhee

California Condors being our main target that day, we rushed down to maybe twenty miles north of Big Sur, before slowing down and gluing our eyes to the sky. As every Turkey Vulture came into sight, it was rapidly assessed before being dismissed as too small. Eventually, one bird seemed larger, soaring close to the ground to the right of the road. Pulling over to check, we confirmed the sad news yet again; not a Condor.

Yet even as I swung my legs into the car, I saw something appear over the hill on the opposite side of the road. Surely this could not be a bird, it was too large. It had to be! But there was no doubt about it, as we watched a fully fledged California Condor materialise from the heavens, swiftly followed up by three more – a family group!

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California Condors!

The majestic raptors soared high overhead, barely moving a wing as they floated over the car towards the sea. Mission accomplished!

From there, we swung the car around and began the long trek north, resting that night roughly thirty miles south of our starting point that morning.

Our first stop of the second day was at a hotspot known as “Arroyo Del Valle” – a place suggested by a friendly young couple on the pelagic for potential Yellow-billed Magpies. Though we found none of the endemic counterparts to our own magpies, we enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful time there, with Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker and Broad-tailed Hummingbird welcoming us to a lush habitat where we found four life birds in under two hours.

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Acorn Woodpecker

Exploring the area, we added California Thrasher and more Lesser Goldfinches to the list, before finding a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers right at the end. Turkey Vultures were also very much in evidence, with over 20 observed.

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Turkey Vulture

Only three major stops that day – Arroyo Del Valle, Hayward Regional Shoreline and the Yolo Bypass. We visited the shoreline second, searching for Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. Having missed out on the plovers at Leadbitter Point, we were eager to find this threatened species before we drove ourselves out of range once more.

Before long, we had located a plover – more than one, in fact. Six adults shepherded three young ones, being careful to never approach the path; they stayed so distant that it was difficult to get a shot of these diminutive shorebirds.

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Snowy Plover

Yolo Bypass (our final spot of the day) was steaming hot, and while we only found one life bird in the form of the Great-tailed Grackle, we came away with many species of sandpiper and waders. Snowy and Great Egrets mixed with Dowitchers, Western and Least Sandpipers to form a patch buzzing with life in the sweltering heat.

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Snowy Egret

Late that night, we snagged the long-awaited Yellow-billed Magpie.

The last two days were about driving more than birding, though we still saw some exciting species. Breaking through the Oregon border, we picked up our only Black-throated Grey Warbler of the trip along with two Nashville Warblers before reaching Eagle Ridge in Klamath. Though we spent little time here, we managed to pick up five Williamson’s Sapsuckers, an Olive-sided Flycatcher and even a Sooty Grouse. Farther north, we found a lake brimming with Western and Clark’s Grebes.

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Western Grebe

At last, the penultimate day of the trip arrived. We had but one regret, one which we intended to fix before leaving for good. Time after time, we had missed out on one of my top priority target birds, the White-headed Woodpecker. With only one more chance to get it, things were looking grim. Our last hope lay in the mountain town of Sisters. Here, we hoped to find the AWOL woodpecker, with maybe even a Pinyon Jay thrown in.

After over an hour, we had heard Pinyon Jays, but found no woodpeckers. Giving up, we returned to the car, when I spotted a flash of white at a birdbath. At last, the White-headed Woodpecker had decided to make an appearance. Like the Snowy Plovers, the White-heads proved incredibly difficult to photograph, rarely venturing out into the open, and mostly staying in the dark, out of sight.

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White-headed Woodpecker

On that note, we left Oregon and blazed through Washington back to BC, and from there home to Alberta. We left the trip with an amazing 37 lifers, and 188 total species across 75+ checklists and almost 5000 photos.

Thanks for reading!

WBNU

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sisters.

Read the other posts here:

Pt. One

Pt. Two

California pt. 2: The Pelagic

The Albatross has long been considered an ill omen among sailors. Ironically, it is in the pursuit of these very same creatures that I come up against my own metaphorical “Albatross.” Despite multiple attempts, a pelagic trip (an oceanic birding tour) has eluded me throughout the years. Blocked by fog in Tofino, closure in Victoria, and lack of transportation on the east coast, I have somehow managed to reach my ninth year of birding without experiencing one of these trips. This, however, would all change on July 14, when we would sail out of Half-Moon Bay, California.

Up at five-thirty to drive out to the pier, where we met Alvaro Jarmarillo and the rest of the group at 6:30 AM. Filing aboard the New Captain Pete, we were met by the pleasant news that the boat was stocked with fresh coffee, biscuits and some excellent fresh strawberries. Departing the harbour in a cloud of fog, we identified the usual mix of Brown Pelicans, Heerman’s and Western Gulls. Two Marbled Murrelets – only the second time we had seen these unusual birds – floated half a mile offshore.  Murrelets oddly nest in deep forest groves, miles from the ocean, where they return to spend the majority of their lives.

HEER

Heerman’s Gull

The first life bird of the day came surprisingly early, and would be a common sight over the course  of the trip – Northern Fulmar! These funny little tubenoses  were never boring, coming close to the boat for photos in their array of colours, from mottled grey to chocolate brown to a pure, glistening white.

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A stark white Northern Fulmar rides the ocean current

As we neared our primary destination, a pod of whales surrounded the boat – Hump-backs, Fin Whales and a small unidentified whale swam further out, but close to ten Great Blue Whales breached nearest our vessel, granting many close views of their broad backs and explosion of mist that was their breath. Having the two largest mammals in the world (Fin Whale being the other) surrounding us was an amazing experience, if a little nerve-wracking.

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Great Blue Whale

Approaching the islands, we were treated to our first ever views of Cassin’s Auklet. Impossible to photograph, the tiny alcids would bounce from wave to wave in increasing speed as the boat came near, before finally gaining the momentum to lift off. Eventually, however, one accepted our presence long enough for us to catch a few shots before vanishing beneath the waves.

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Cassin’s Auklet

Sooty Shearwaters skimmed the sea, and, though relatively common, rarely approached the ship.

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A Sooty Shearwater springs from the water

Our day was spotted with Puffin observations, each of which was punctuated by a scream of “Puffin!” which resounded from end to end of the boat, alerting all the passengers of the nearby alcid. Once, we were lucky enough to have one fly only a few feet above the boat, and another time a pair rested contentedly as we floated within 100 metres of them. All in all, we were very fortunate with the Puffins.

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Horned Puffins!

My highlight came as we coasted along the continental shelf, in a heavy patch of fog.
I gazed into the distance, not expecting much, when a massive shape loomed out of the fog. It drifted towards us on silent wings, bigger than any bird I had seen before, and there was no doubting what it was. An Albatross.

The bird passed, shrouded in mist, but we would see another. Nine more, in fact. Black-footed Albatrosses were the undeniable high point of the day, and while we saw no Laysans, I was more than content with the obliging birds.

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Albatross!

And I’d include another photo of the goliaths had it not been for another lifer, the Pink-footed Shearwater. A duo of the avians paused next to a young Albatross, presumably for a patch of food, though we observed none. As we neared their location, a Shearwater flew up, and banked past us offering excellent views of its white underwings and wide wingspan.

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Pink-footed Shearwater

Returning to shore, we saw few birds other than the murres, which had shown up in their tens of thousands that day. Eventually, a pair of dark birds were spotted on the horizon, which we could only assume were gulls signifying the proximity of land. Fortunately, we were wrong. Two immature Long-tailed Jaegers zoomed away over the sea, leaving us with an adult Sabine’s Gull as the only gull we saw at any distance from shore.

On reentry unto the harbour, we identified Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, in addition to an extremely distant pair of Elegant Terns as our fourteenth, and last lifers of the pelagic trip.

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Brown Pelican

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the final post of the trip!

California pt. 1: The Family Trip

Once the annual slog of final exams was past at last, I was looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet birding before really getting into any ‘summer activities.’ I could not have been more wrong. My first two sightings of summer should have warned me that I was in for a exiting time; a rare Cape May Warbler and a lifer Connecticut Warbler on Policeman’s Creek marked two of my best Banff sightings since the Dunlin in March, and it was shortly after these observations that I was to be whisked off to California on a three week birding adventure.

Naturally, the entire trip could not be about birds; my siblings have yet to fall under the spell of ornithology (there’s always hope!), and there are many wonderful things down the West Coast which do not involve avian highlights. For two weeks, we drove down the coast to San Fransisco, frantically trying to combine birding and vacation with watching the World Cup games.

Rest stop birding sufficed for a few days, as our primary goal was to cover as many miles as possible before slowing down. This, however, turned up such highlights as a Rock Wren and Bullock’s Oriole young.

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Rock Wren

Our first life bird came in the shape of a California Scrub-Jay, a bird we would become gradually familiar with over the course of our expedition. These birds’ brilliant blue plumage spotted the Oregon and California sea line in much the same way as that of the Blue Jay fills our more eastern world.

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California Scrub-Jay, the first lifer of the journey.

From that point on,  a steady trickle of life and year birds streamed past our eager eyes. Commencing in Astoria, Oregon (I highly recommend the visitor centre there; their efforts to find a place showing the World Cup semi-final was commendable) with Brown Pelicans, we continued to Leadbitter Point in search of Snowy Plovers. While we bombed on the Snowies, we had a great time there, as the entire beach was covered with thousands of Western Sandpipers, with healthy numbers of Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher mixed in.

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Small groups of 30 – 50 Western Sandpipers whistled along the beach, mere inches above the sand.

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Western Sandpiper

On the Oregon coast, there is a place called Haystack Rock which is known, in particular, for its breeding Tufted Puffins. When we reached this notable stone outcrop, we were greeted by dozens of Common Murres, Pelagic Cormorants, and Western Gulls circling the air. It did not take long to find the object of our desire. Half a dozen of the angular black forms hurtled through the sky with all the grace of a fish hurled from an airplane window. These chunky birds carried their massive bills with a Roman dignity, and seldom approached shore save from high above the beach as they circled the rock.

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Tufted Puffin

The final campsite of the first part of the trip was the best by far – we stayed there for three days, and found over thirty species including 3 lifers. The first lifer observed was the daring Black Phoebe, a bird which perched, fearless, on campfire grates, picnic tables and unoccupied tents around the campsite.

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Black Phoebe

The next day brought with it a family of Nuttal’s Woodpeckers, California Towhees, and a Green Heron!

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A young Nuttal’s Woodpecker

The Green Heron was flighty, but allowed some photos if you crept up behind some bushes.

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Green Heron

The next day, we moved into a hotel in Half-Moon Bay to rest up for the biggest day of the trip – a pelagic tour! The adventures of the long awaited pelagic deserve their own post, however, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out what happened.

The Strangest Birdathon Yet

The Great Canadian Birdathon is complete, and what a birdathon it was! With a final species count of over 115 birds, we beat last year’s total in a shorter time. Somewhat encumbered by my persistent illness, we set off in Water Valley at 5:30am and completed the count at Lac Des Arcs by 9:30pm.

One of our first birds of the day was the Least Flycatcher, a species which, along with the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Sparrow, turned up at almost every location we visited.

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Least Flycatcher

We headed out to a bridge whch we knew was quite good, and picked up over 30 species there, including a singing Blackburnian Warbler and my FOY Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

A few kilometers NW, at a marsh where we hoped to pick up Swamp Sparrow, Ovenbird and an early Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, we were greeted by a very obliging pair of Sandhill Cranes, which flew overhead, echoing their guttural calls for all to hear.

SACR

Sandhill Crane

Unfortunately, we dipped on the Ovenbird and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but we did find Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltrimore Oriole and a few Northern Waterthrushes to bring the day’s count up to 45.

Two days previous, Miles Tindal and I had located a breeding Cape May Warbler on the Horse Creek Road, so we pulled over there on the way to Horse Creek Road Marshes and not only found the male warbler, but heard a Cassin’s Vireo to boot!

At the marshes, we found very little, but did manage to identify a single Le Conte’s Sparrow amid the Savannahs.

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Le Conte’s Sparrow

Since we were still lacking the Swamp Sparrow, we made a little detour to Winchell Lake where we successfully relocated one of these pretty little birds. Now came the strange part of the day. Having little hope of a great birdathon in terms of numbers (we were planning to end early, remember), we headed out on a wild goose chase to find a Green Heron which had been seen at an undisclosed location, and we were guessing where it could have been, thanks to the wealth of knowledge belonging to Dan Arndt of Calgary, who knew an area which resembled the photos of the bird.

Needless to say, we missed the heron, but the journey out to the spot was quite fruitful, turning up Baird’s, Pectoral and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and other shorebirds including many Wilson’s Phalaropes.

WIPH

Wilson’s Phalarope

Proceeding now towards Frank Lake, we chanced upon a Least Sandpiper, some Black Terns and best of all, a Long-billed Curlew!

Frank Lake was excellent as usual, though not at its brilliant best (there was a Little Blue Heron seen there today!). Barn Swallows offered good photography options, while White-faced Ibises and Forster’s Terns patrolled the skies. Eared Grebe and Ruddy Ducks ruled the water, and mixed in we found Red-necked Phalaropes, Western Grebes and a Marsh Wren in – surprisingly enough – the marsh.

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Barn Swallow

A stop in High River yielded European Collared-Dove and Pine Siskin, and we were almost at Bragg Creek when the text came in. A bird has been seen at Langdon, a bird which almost never makes it as far North as Calgary. A Snowy Egret.

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Snowy Egret

After originally hesitating due to the distance it was, we had no r-egrets  about making the move to find it.

SNEG

Snowy Egret, Langdon

As we observed this special bird, an anxious Willet circled above, screaming out a distinctive”Will-et! Will-et!”

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Willet

We concluded the day with a desperate stop at Lac Des Arcs to find, oddly enough, our first Common Goldeneye of the day. That rounded off our 2018 Great Canadian Birdathon – with no owls, eagles or falcons, and only three of a possible 7 thrushes, a strange one indeed. For any who want to see the full list of 117 species, click here.

Please consider donating to this important cause! The birdathon is not only a great birding experience for participants, but it is also a crucial part of the fundraising efforts to protect our avian life, both in their breeding grounds in North America, and in their wintering territories farther south. To support our valiant volunteers in their vital work, make a donation to my fundraising page here.

Great Canadian Birdathon 2018

Sorry for not posting in a while – I’ve been busy with school and sports, but that should be cooling down for a few weeks before my final exams, so I should be posting more soon.

As more and more birds stream into the province, the annual assortment of birding events, festivals and counts begins. Already, the Global Big Day has been and gone, with 6,098 species reported by over 28 thousand observers on May 5th. One of the biggest events yet to come (at least for me) is the Great Canadian Birdathon. This will be my 6th birdathon, and my 2nd as part of the Saw-it Owls team. I’ll be joining up with Gavin McKinnon of Calgary once more, searching for roughly 125 species in Southern Alberta. While we failed to reach that target last year (112 species), we have high hopes and a completely different route this May, hitting some of the best habitat in Alberta.

The highlight of last year, Harlequin ducks are looking pretty unlikely with the altered route.

For those who don’t know what the birdathon is, it’s a fundraiser run by Bird Studies Canada with intent to protect our birds and preserve their habitat. Participants accept donations either as flat amounts (e.g. $25) or by a per-species gift (e.g. $1 for every species found). Then, we choose one 24 hour period in the month of May to go out and find the most bird species possible. It’s always been a great time, and all for a worthy cause.

GCB Shirt

The 2018 GCB t-shirt design

Anybody interested in helping out with the fundraiser can go here to donate, or sign up through the Bird Studies Canada Birdathon Page. Thank you everyone who has donated already, and if you haven’t, consider joining the cool crowd by doing so, to keep our backyard beauties in fine feather!

Photos from previous years:

2013
Raven eating pigeon

Common Raven eating a Rock Pigeon

2014

Eared Grebes

  2015

Indigo Bunting

2016

Eastern Phoebe

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

2017
American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

See the posts for these years here:

2013                            2014 pt. 1

2014 pt. 2                   2015

2016 pt. 1                   2016 pt. 2

2017 pt. 1                   2017 pt. 2

Don’t forget to donate here!

Canmore Spring Bird Walks 2018 – April 29th Trip Report

It was a cold, wet kickoff for the Canmore Spring Bird Walks this year, but well worth being out! In the early morning chill, a Great Blue Heron flapped across the boardwalk, where Song Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and some newly arrived Lincoln’s Sparrows burbled out their cheerful melodies.

Great Blue Heron

Four American Pipits feeding amongst the rocks in the big pond were nice, and almost made it as the highlights of the day. Sadly, we missed the Sora which came in on Friday, but towards the end of the walk we ran into a large mixed flock of White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Song Sparrows. Scanning the flock for Orange-crowned Warblers, a loud, harsh “Veeeeer” rent the air behind us. Warbling Vireo! This bird is the first reported in Alberta this year. I unfortunatly failed to procure any photos, but there is no doubt about the identification.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

The usual mix of starlings, chickadees and robins rounded off the trip, but the Vireo took the cake. May this be a lesson to you who chickened out because of the rain – twice the first walk has been in poor weather, and twice it has turned up great birds (See May 7th 2017).  I hope to see you out for the next walk on May 13, rain or shine!

Feathers on Friday

CAGU

California Gull

One of hundreds of California Gulls in Calgary on Tuesday. We saw these, a Glaucous Gull, a male Eurasian Wigeon and a supremely early Black-crowned Night-Heron at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary along with Herring Gulls, Wood Ducks and others.

Other Feathers on Fridays:

Wolf Song Blog                                         Birds In Your Back Yard

Back Yard Bird Blog