Summer sun, sand & shorebirds at Sidney Spit

I took my annual summer trip to Sidney Spit a few weeks ago and it was just as good as it always is. It was nearing lunch time so I set off for the beach on the far side of the island and had a picnic, watching the gentle waves lap the shore and listening to their gentle rush upon the sand.

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Looking east from Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, BC with a BC Ferry en route in the centre. The feathery wispy clouds were incredible the day I was there.

The water is so clear and cool it was refreshing to dip my toes into the shallows. Nearby, in the trees behind me, I heard the loud call of a bird. It was a Bald Eagle. We would meet again later on my trip…

The tide was quite low when I arrived, though it was making its way back up with each passing moment, so after lunch I immediately set off for the spit itself. I was hoping to see some shorebirds, and I eventually did, but I also saw a few surprises.

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Looking north up the spit; the west side is sandier than the east side.

Passing a little tidal pool of leftover water, I heard a Killdeer‘s piercing cry. He was scurrying among the dead trees and rocks by the water’s edge. As I continued along the spit, the sandy bar narrowed and gave way to cobbles and rocks one the outer, eastern side of the island. Far ahead of me, I could see a huge mass of gulls gathered together, but closer was a group of Black Oystercatchers.

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Black Oystercatchers foraging in the tidal zone.

Usually I see them in pairs, never in such a large groups as this. I presumed they were together for either breeding or in preparation for migration. Either way, I gave them a very wide berth and tried my best not to disturb them.

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A Pelagic Cormorant offshore the island.

I made my way back down the spit, enjoying the many different cormorants flying overhead and a Pigeon Guillemot diving offshore. Meandering through the forest on my way to the lagoon, I listened to the wind in the trees, gently rustling leaves and the chit-chat of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the firs. Bushtits also chattered among their flock in the lower branches of small trees and bushes.

I also passed across an open field along the way where Barn and Tree Swallows dove and swooped and a White-crowned Sparrow sung out from a tree. There is such a wide variety of habitats packed into such a small, walkable space here; one of the reasons I love visiting.

Coming down to the lagoon back into the bright, hot sunshine, I was rewarded with a flock of shorebirds at last. I sat and watched them for a while, scurrying along the sand and dipping their beaks beneath the sand to pull out prey. As one gave a shrill cry, they all up and flew away, perhaps spooked by a nearby Osprey who was out fishing. Soon after the peeps flew off, a great splash sounded and I looked over in time to see an Osprey hit the water to catch a fish.

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Flock of sandpipers down at the lagoon.
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Mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
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Least Sandpiper (middle) and a Western Sandpiper (left). My best, educated guesses – I don’t feel strong with my sandpiper ID yet.

Eventually, when I had my fill of watching these little shorebirds I don’t often see, I made my way back uphill through the trees to the dock. Along the way, I heard a familiar call. The juvenile Bald Eagle I’d heard while I ate lunch was perched in a tall tree overlooking the beach. I imagine he may have been begging his parents for food even though he certainly looked big enough to be taking care of himself, he was probably still learning how to hunt.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle

Back at the docks, I enjoyed watching some of my very favourite birds…Purple Martins. There are a number of nest-boxes on the docks, which I hope is helping their populations recover. I got to watch a female martin capture an insect on the wing and return to the nestbox to feed her young. I only saw the tiniest smidge of a baby’s head popping out from the box, where I hope and believe he was safe until he’s ready to fledge.

Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

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Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.

As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…

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taking off for flight

Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.

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my Dark-eyed Junco momma…
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White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.

It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.

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Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song

The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).

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Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!

 

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying

So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.

Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying
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Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
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Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
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Glaucous-winged Gull with pink legs and grey wingtips

With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….

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Purple Martin

North Vancouver Island & San Josef Bay

Having lived on Vancouver Island for a few years now, we’ve had some time to travel the greater part of the southern half of the island as well as a good number of the Gulf Islands. However, with plans to move on in its initial stages, we decided it was time to visit part of the island we’d never been. To the top: Port Hardy and Cape Scott Provincial Park.

Nimpkish Lake made a good stopping point on the way, where we camped for a night beside the lake. Beside the gently lapping water, an American Dipper sang for us in the evening and in the morning, a Pacific Wren chattered to us over breakfast.

Past Nimpkish Lake, there is not much except forest and mountains. Much of the north island is logging land and there isn’t much to see (aside from lots of trees and some lakes) until you reach Port McNeill. I did see my first-ever island elk (Roosevelt Elk), a few deer and a couple of black bears along logging roads, though.

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A typical North Island alpine lake.
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Ruffed Grouse spotted along a logging road (a first)

Along the waterfront in Port McNeill near the ferry dock to Alert Bay and Sointula, I saw Surf Scoters, Common Loons, a Red-necked Grebe, and a Horned Grebe all within stone’s throw from each other and on the ferry crossing to Alert Bay, my first sure sighting of White-winged Scoters (think I’ve seen them before, but I don’t count it until I’m sure/get a good enough look!).

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Common Loons

 

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Red-necked Grebe
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Horned Grebe
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Surf Scoters
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Just barely managed to catch this White-winged Scoter

Alert Bay is a very small village on Cormorant Island where the majority of the population are indigenous First Nations. You can walk around the entire island in a day and one of the main things to see is the ecological park. The swamp area of the park is other-worldly as new growth fills in amid the remains of burned husks of trees. Those hulking trees seemed to make good nesting habitat for some birds, like Violet-green Swallows that swooped through the sky and into little cavities in the trees.

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Whimbrel

After visiting Port McNeill and Alert Bay, we were back onto the road as it meandered through trees and eventually turned into logging roads en route to Cape Scott Provincial Park in the northwest corner of the island. Just north of Port McNeill, we stopped (or attempted to) at Cluxewe Salt Marsh, which had been listed as a good birding spot, but I suspect we did not end up at the right spot. However, I was still met with a surprise in seeing my first ever Whimbrel!

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North Island forests

So far, the weather had held out pretty well, but the rain picked up as we headed northwest. I knew to expect the weather to be dicey. Even in July, it can rain and storm with little warning up here. When we reached San Josef Bay, the wind was howling.

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San Josef Bay
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sea stacks, San Josef Bay

We fought against the wind to put up our tent under what cover we could find, and took a walk to the famous sea stacks before the tide came in. The stacks are formed by the erosive action of seawater crashing against the rock over thousands of years, removing softer rock and leaving behind the stacks made of harder rock.

Scurrying together through the sand, foraging beneath its surface was a group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, both firsts for me. According to Sibley (2016), Semipalmated Plovers commonly flock with other shorebirds, though more commonly with Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlins.

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A group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers
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Western Sandpipers
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Semipalmated Plover

The wind (and the sea) roared loudly all night, but in the morning the weather was more settled and the sun even peaked out for a few minutes. Despite the chilly weather (it was still April), I’m glad we finally made it. Now I can say I’ve seen the whole island, top to bottom, and feel satisfied with my efforts and experience living here.

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Sam Josef Bay in the morning

If you go to the North Island, be prepared for lots of logging roads and poor signage to get around. Even on the paved roads, some of the Provincial Parks were only signposted in one direction. To get to Cape Scott Provincial Park, it is a 60-km drive one-way on logging roads from Port Hardy (the nearest town of any note, i.e., grocery store and gas). The trailhead for San Josef Bay is also the starting point for the Cape Scott/North Coast Trail, which takes you to Cape Scott itself. I’d recommend going in the summer months.


References
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.