Category Archives: Passerines

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. 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Canmore Spring Bird Walks – May 27th Trip Report

The third edition of Canmore Spring Bird Walks began quietly, oddly lacking the usual morning chorus. This would be the theme of the first half of the walk, in which we saw and heard little apart from American Robins, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds. Once we got to the backside of the creek, however, that changed.

A slow paced musical trill reverberated across the marsh, as participants got serenaded by a relative rarity, the charismatic Swamp Sparrow. The Harlequin Ducks have departed for faster mountain streams in which to breed, but a female Northern Pintail made a fly-by appearance.

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The Harlequins had stayed over a week, but vanished just when we needed them!

Strolling back via the boardwalk, we were treated to excellent views of Yellow Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrows and this male Common Yellowthroat.

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Common Yellowthroat

Towards the conclusion of the walk, we relocated the Swamp Sparrow, along with Song Sparrow and juvenile Mallards. The really special birds didn’t come until the final fleeting moments of the walk, though. As the group began to dissipate, a Calliope Hummingbird hovered mere feet from the Big Head statue, and a female Yellow-headed Blackbird perched on the Main Street bridge.

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Female Yellow-headed Blackbird

This is the first time a Yellow-headed Blackbird has been reported to eBird here, but I know that I saw one many years back, on Policeman’s Creek. If anyone wants to see the full list for the day, click here for my checklist. I hope to see everybody out next time, on June 10th. By then, most of our birds should have arrived, and we’ll be looking for birds like last year’s vagrant Bullock’s Oriole. On Policeman’s Creek, there’s always a good chance for unusual individuals!