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 Рreach 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.

US-Trip - HOOR
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.

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.

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!

US-CA - Trip - CACO
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.

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.

Turkey Vulture

Only three major stops that day РArroyo 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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sisters.

Read the other posts here:

Pt. One

Pt. Two

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Black Phoebe

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

A young Nuttal’s Woodpecker

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

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.

2017 – Looking Back on my Favourite Photos From the Past Year

It’s New Years Day, and with a bright new year dawning, I felt it was time to look back at 2017 – events, experiences, but mainly my favourite birds and photos from the year. I hope you enjoy this collection – a bit long, but I couldn’t leave any out!

Policeman’s Creek Trail:

Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Pileated Woodpecker
Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher
WETA (1 of 5)
Western Tanager male
Preening Merlin
Preening Merlin
Western Tanager

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird

Banff Area:

Harlequin Ducks
Harlequin Ducks
Harlequin Ducks
Harlequin Ducks
Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Common Loons
Common Loons

Ontario Trip:

Ring-billed Gull
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo

Trip of a Lifetime (Southern Alberta)

Short-eared Owlet
Short-eared Owlet
Baird's Sparrow
Baird’s Sparrow
Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern!
Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow
Purple Martin
Purple Martin

Miscellaneous Locations:

American White Pelicans
Preening session!
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off
Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
“Pick me!”
Clark’s Nutcracker
Black-capped Chickadee

Trumpeter Swan

As for my favourite birding experiences? Well, the first of the year was a trip to Waterton area, followed by an amazing time with some Sharp-tailed Grouse in April. The Great Canadian Birdathon (part one and part two)¬†was great as usual, and the “Trip of a Lifetime” (parts one and two) lived up to its name. Ontario was fun if not particularly productive, and this year’s Canmore Christmas Bird Count was miles above that of 2016. All in all, 2017 was a stunning year, but with hopeful thoughts of Long Point, Southern Alberta (again!), and maybe even California, 2018 promises to excite. Here’s to the New Year!

The West Coast Trip (Week Two)

First of all, a correction – I had, in the last post, made an error in my identification of photo number six – it is a Savannah Sparrow, not a Golden-crowned.

I’m sorry this comes out late; despite being one of the best things ever to happen to me, homeschooling rhythms have yet to fully settle in.

We started the second week with high hopes – it all revolved around the pelagic tour that we hoped to do in Tofino. Long Beach and Englishman River Estuary also looked promising.

Monday we visited Long Beach, where both of my siblings had a lot of fun jumping over waves.
I, on the other hand, scoped the ocean hoping for murrlets and Pacific Loons.
After about ten minutes of searching, something other than a Pigeon Guillemot or Surf Scoter brought excitement.

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter

Through the fog, I could see something that could possibly be a Pacific Loon!
Nope, false alarm. It was a Red-necked Grebe. Though still interesting, it was not what I had hoped for. A few minutes more, and this time I had found a loon. In fact, there were about 6 of them, but unfortunately too far away for photos.

Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper

The only bird other than a gull to turn up actually on the beach, a Least Sandpiper.

That afternoon, we headed into Tofino, and found three Bald Eagles circling behind a sea-side restaurant, which was throwing out it’s fish guts.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Tuesday was the day planned for the pelagic trip. Sooty Shearwaters, Cassin’s Auklets and many others awaited. We walked in to the tour office, and the co-owner radioed a captain who was out near where we would go. Apparently,¬† there was still fog out near the island, and the waters were getting “tricky.” In short, we could not go. That hit us hard. The entire trip had hinged on this outing!

We drove back across the island (meaning Vancouver Island) and once on the other side, met up with some friends who had recently moved there. At least, the others did. My Dad and I went to Englishman River Estuary for a couple hours.

Killdeer were the first  things we saw, and we went on to count 35 of them along with the Western and Least Sandpipers, and a few Sanderlings. A bunch of Common Mergansers and a late Western Gull added to a total of 21 species.


The next day, we had a long stop at Rathtrevor Beach, where there were oystercatchers, sandpipers and gulls galore. There was also a quickly approaching tide, so some wet feet were involved.

Black Oystercatcher
Black Oystercatcher


In Victoria, we did a short whaling trip during which I did as much birding as possible, drawing out Surfbirds from a photo of an island. At the time, I was unsure of their ID, but now there is no doubt, though the photos are bad. An aqua-phobic just can’t take photos from a boat.

Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher
Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher – 2 of each, but the turnstone

Can you find all the birds?

Rhinocerous Auklet
My Dad’s shot – Rhinocerous Auklet

That evening, we headed out to Clover Point, where we (eventually) found the much-hoped-for Heerman’s Gull.

Heerman's Gull
Heerman’s Gull


Back on the mainland, a quick stop-over at the fabled Reifle Bird Sanctuary turned up 35 Herons, 10 Sandhill Cranes and a Virginia Rail among others. This Leucistic Mallard is banded, but unfortunately I was unable to get the band information.

Leucistic Mallard
Leucistic Mallard

And that’s it from my West Cost Trip #2! Thank you everyone for reading, and stick around to hear about the Canmore Christmas Bird Count.

The West Coast (Week One)

I recently returned from a two-week camping trip to Vancouver Island, as many of you know. We left on Saturday the 6th of August, and stopped over night at our friends’ place in Summerland.

My Dad and I woke early on the Sunday and explored the neighbourhood. A Killdeer calling from the top of a tree attracted attention, but it was merely an imitating Starling. There were some Stellar’s Jays around, but we were more interested in the California Quail, a bird that we do not have at home.

California Quail
California Quail

As the 6:00 ferry was full that evening, we had to wait for the 7:00, which left plenty of time for us to bird the hotspot. Common Loons, Great Blue Herons, and Glaucous-winged Gulls were plentiful, but the Highlight was a Peregrine Falcon that swooped in at about 6:30, and stayed until we left.

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon

That night, we set up camp at Goldstream Provincial Park, where we would stay for the following week.

On Monday the 8th we birded Whiffin Spit. Halfway down the path we were watching some White-crowned Sparrows when a twittering Anna’s Hummingbird zoomed over our heads. Lifer!

Western Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper, another lifer from Whiffin Spit

Tuesday we went out to Cowichan Bay, where we identified Purple Martins,  but the real Highlight was Esquimalt Lagoon, 2 swan species, and many ducks, gulls and guillemots.

Glaucous-winged Gull
Immature Glaucous-winged Gull

We spent much of our third day at the Victoria Museum. but when we left we found a few Anna’s Hummingbirds and 3 Purple Finches.

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird

On Thursday we headed to Botanical Beach, where the first thing that we encountered was a Black Bear. After it had left, I found some Western Sandpipers and Harlequin Ducks, but the treat was an immature Golden-crowned Sparrow. In the woods nearby, a lone Yellow-bellied Flycatcher called.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck, engulfed by the surf







On our final full day based in Goldstream, we took a ferry across to Saltspring Island and Maxwell Mountain, where we saw 2 Baldies, 2 Peregrines and 6 Turkey Vultures in the space of five minutes.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture

We packed up camp fairly early the next morning, and went to Cattle Point to look for Black Turnstones. just as we were turning back, we saw them, a long distance away, but it counted.

That evening, we hit Swan Lake¬† were we found Bushtits, Anna’s Hummingbirds and the Best view of a Bewick’s Wren so far.

Bewick's Wren
Bewick’s Wren

That concluded the first week, but we had high hopes for the second. A pelagic tour from Tofino, more lifers, and the famous Reifel Bird Sanctuary all awaited. So far, I had a lifer count of 7 for seven days. Could I keep it up?

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow
North-western Crows
North-western Crows

Coastal Birding

Flammulated Owl
Flammulated Owl

Four years ago, we set out on the trip that I have the clearest memories of. A visit to the Vancouver Island. This doesen’t sound amazing, but for a young birder only a few years into his birding career, it was paradise. I added 40 species to my life list on that trip, including the spectacular Flammulated Owl and Black-headed Grosbeak.

And now, we are set to repeat that trip, heading out on Saturday and arriving on the island on Sunday. Now, this is where it gets interesting. My Dad has been out there twice without me, and consiquently has a good many more birds than I do. I will have to catch up on about 15 species including Anna’s Hummingbird and Common Murre.

Common Murre
Common Murre (obviously my Dad’s photo)

There are, in adition to the ones he has seen, some that are on my target list.
Red-throated Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Tufted Puffin being of high priority.

I will post soon about what I have seen and experienced on my second trip to the West Coast.

Glaucous-winged Gull