Category Archives: Birds

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.

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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.

Hotspot Review – Flowing Waters Trail

I’m starting a new series, rating hotspots in Southern Alberta for anyone looking to find a new birding location. This will not be a regular series, but I’ll come out with at least a few every couple of months. First up, one of my nearby favourites; Flowing Waters!

Location:

Flowing Waters is located between Highway 1 and the TransCanada Highway in Bow Valley Provincial Park. It’s accessible through the nearby campsite, or by a game trail from Seebe Dam.

Flowing Waters Map

Flowing Waters Map

Difficulty:

Easy. The trail is a gentle loop, with mild inclines at one or two points. Occasionally, part of the path is flooded, but that is unusual. In winter, snow blows off the highway and onto the trail, sometimes blocking it in piles up to eight feet tall, but these are generally solid enough to walk across. A good walk is often around 2 hours.

Bird Life:

One of the top hotspots in the area, over 140 species have been found here, and a good morning can result in a checklist of between 40 and 50 taxa. Specialities include Western Tanagers, 5 species of swallows and many warblers,  such as American Redstarts and Northern Waterthrush. Many unusual birds turn up here, and I have found Ovenbird, Blue-headed Vireo and Northern-Pygmy Owl at this location. Check out the eBird hotspot here.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Conclusion:

A very good hotspot, but not quite as good as places like Carburn Park, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Confederation Park. If you are in the Bow Valley in the spring, summer or fall, it’s one of the best places to bird without having to travel much. More birders trying it out could turn up many more species, but I think it will remain a relatively mid-level location. Definitely worth giving some time on a spare morning, but not a place which should be chosen over some more prosperous areas when you are looking for lots of species in a short time.