Saturday, September 23, 2023

Week 9: Cool Temps, Cooler Birds!

Although we haven't quite hit the fall equinox, things are feeling very autumnal around the stations! Week 9 brought colder mornings, red and yellow foliage, and the later-season migrants in full force with Sparrows, Kinglets and Hermit Thrushes filling our nets. This week we banded 439 birds at Rocky Point, bringing the season's total to 2595, 20% above the year-to-date average!. Pedder Bay processed 361 new birds this week for 1924 so far this season, just 10% below the year-to-date average. 

Fall colours at Rocky Point. (Photo: David Bell)

Fox sparrows were the most numerous species caught this week, with 91 banded across both stations. However, if you ask me the Ruby-crowned Kinglets really stole the show. We banded 58 individuals this week, representing 90% of the total individuals caught so far this season. Spotted Towhees were another frequently seen species, with 79 banded this week.

Not quite a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but Golden-crowned instead! (Photo: Emma Radziul)

One of the many Fox Sparrows banded this week. (Photo: David Bell)

With the arrival of fall, our Nocturnal Owl Monitoring project has begun for the season! So far the our owl team is off to an incredible start, with 281 Northern Saw-whet Owls banded in just 7 days. With so many owls around, it's no surprise that a few have leaked through into the first few net runs for our passerine teams in the morning. 4 Northern Saw-whet Owls were banded during migration monitoring this week.

Two of the four Northern Saw-whet Owls banded this week. (Photo: David Bell)

While these tiny owls are always a treat, David Bell and James Kennerley had quite a surprise when a slightly larger (perhaps even "greater") one hit net 1 at Rocky Point. This Great Horned Owl is the first banding record for RPBO. These owls are huge, taking the largest band size we have on hand at the stations!

James Kennerley expertly spreading the wing of the Great Horned Owl. Analyzing the wing like this allows us to age the bird, and the nice uniform feathers on this individual make it a hatch year. (Photo: David Bell)

Sometimes our highlight birds are rare vagrants, other times they're particularly old recaptures, and occasionally they're just plain weird birds. Sonja Futehally banded a sparrow this week that would certainly be considered a little odd. 

The mystery sparrow. (Photo: Evan Lewis)

This sparrow was a bit of a conundrum as it was removed from the bag. At first glance it doesn't look too bad for a Song Sparrow, just a touch more colourful than usual— a vagrant subspecies perhaps? But a closer look shows a few features that don't quite fit for Song Sparrow. The yellowish colour in front of the eye, grey and buffy facial pattern, and the extensive red in the tertials point towards a closely related species, the Swamp Sparrow. In fact, the bird as a whole looks like it fits fairly well perfectly in between Swamp and Song Sparrow, and after some deliberation the banding team called this a hybrid between the two species. Unfortunately, without genetic analysis it's not possible to know for sure, so this one may remain a mystery! 

Another sparrow or two caught our attention this week, this time fitting nicely into the "vagrant" category of highlight birds! Sticking with the Interior invasion seen in weeks previous, Emma Radziul banded two (!) Clay-coloured Sparrows in back-to-back net runs this week, representing the 8th and 9th record for RPBO. 

One of the two Clay-coloured Sparrows. (Photo: Emma Radziul)

As always, we are also keeping a close watch over the happenings outside of the net lanes, and this week treated us to some great sightings. The Turkey Vultures have been kettling before heading off over the strait, making for some great late morning hawkwatches. A number of Broad-winged Hawks have been seen along with the usual Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. David Bell observed an American Goshawk (previously Northern Goshawk) during Monday's census, giving us the Accipiter Grand Slam for the week!

A Broad-winged Hawk. (Photo: David Bell)

Other wildlife seen this week included frequent sighting of orcas in the channel just off of Rocky Point, plenty of bears feasting on the acorn crop, and a jellyfish! 

Any jellyfish experts out there that can tell us what this is? (Photo: David Bell)

An adult male MacGillivray's Warbler. (Photo: Emma Radziul)

An orca just offshore. (Photo: David Bell)

The weekly stats. 


Sunday, September 17, 2023

Week 8: The call of an eastern vagrant

In 2003, Finnish sound recording legend, Hannu Jännes, released the year’s hottest album for any Western Palearctic birder worth their salt, Calls of Eastern Vagrants. While this CD—yes, those were still a thing in the noughties—was aimed at a European market, as ever the optimists in the Pacific Northwest this chart topper (among birding circles) remains supremely relevant! This week one lucky birder, David Bell, enjoyed a LIVE performance of one of the 68 showstoppers featured by Jännes for the first time in nigh on a decade on our famed peninsula. So, who graced us with their presence? Well, reader, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: it was none other than a Red-throated Pipit! A bird that would be more at home on the Siberian tundra or the paddyfields of Indochina than our Garry Oak meadows; and perhaps that’s why it didn’t land, instead choosing to continue south emanating an “emphatic psEEE!” in its wake, to quote an awe-struck Dave. For those of us who missed this spine-tingling performance, we can only hope it’s the first of more this fine autumn. Personally, I await track 24 making an appearance in net 3.

Not to be too outshone, Pedder Bay treated all to a cracking juvenile Lewis’s Woodpecker which put on a fantastic show as it teased a Sharp-shinned Hawk, outmanoeuvring the helpless hawk with both ease and finesse. It was once again our very own David M. Bell who pulled out all the stops to find this beauty. To quote Captain Meriwether Lewis during the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, and to which this bird is named for:

"I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today about the size of the lark woodpecker [now known as the Northern Flicker] as black as a is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deel like the jay bird."

While the jury is still out on whether the captain’s comments would have cut the mustard with local eBird reviewers, as we watched our woodpecker flying alongside several Steller’s Jays two centuries later, we did indeed observe it fly a great deal like those jay birds. As one familiar with many species of the Old World, however, I implore readers to have a look at the two chough species which I would argue are the corvids this unusual woodpecker shares a greatest likeness.

The Lewis's Woodpecker having a rest between bouts of making a mockery of the Sharp-shinned Hawks. (Photo: James Kennerley)
With some fantastic observations at each of our hallowed sites, it surely comes as no surprise to you, wise reader, that our nets were bursting with goodies as well! At Rocky Point we banded 310 birds bringing us to 2,156 birds for the season, well above the average of 1,778. This haul included a fine Varied Thrush which is hopefully the first of many of this exquisite species. At Pedder Bay we banded 232 birds including the first Sharp-shinned Hawk and Ruby-crowned Kinglet for the site this autumn. This brought us to to 1,563 for the season and trailing the average of 1,740.
The first of hopefully many Varied Thrushes. (Photo: David Bell)

One of the smallest passerines we encounter, a Golden-crowned Kinglet. (Photo: David Bell)

It's shaping up to be a good year for White-throated Sparrows with seven banded across our stations so far. (Photo: David Bell)

A fine adult male Purple Finch. (Photo: David Bell)
"Really nice AHY M BEWR" -- Evan Lewis, September 2023. (Photo: Evan Lewis)

Steller's Jays continue to leave us all with a smile. (Photo: David Bell)

Here, at RPBO, we appreciate the beauty in subtlety and lucky for us, we are at a melting pot for subtle differences in locally common species such as Savannah Sparrow and Spotted Towhee. While we try our best to squeeze birds into metaphorical boxes, we live in hope that the pipette-wielding folks in league with Illumina(ti) will one day enlighten us as to how many subspecies of these widespread sparrows there really are. Until that day comes, however, we continue to take a Linnean approach and appreciate those understated differences in plumage and morphometrics between our local taxa and the respective foreign taxa, a selection of which we share with you below.
A spotty Spotted Towhee, ssp. curtatus of interior BC. (Photo: Emma Radziul)

A less spotty Spotted Towhee, our local ssp. oregonus. (Photo: Emma Radziul)

Savannah Sparrow probably of the northern ssp. sandwichensis. (Photo: David Bell)

Savannah Sparrow probably of the local ssp. brooksi. (Photo: David Bell)
As always, we welcome visitors to our public site at Pedder Bay where we can be found every morning until mid-October. We would be delighted to show you the process of capturing and banding birds and impart a few bird fact tidbits which we recommend as great office icebreakers the next time you run into that new co-worker at the coffee machine, what more could you want! If you made it this far, thanks again for checking in and an even bigger thank you to all our volunteers who help keep our observatory running.
Steller's Jays are enjoying a bumper acorn crop at our stations. (Photo: David Bell)

A thoughtful Black-tailed Deer helping to keep our net lanes open. (Photo: Mara Hanneson)

The outhouse with the finest views southern Vancouver Island has to offer. (Photo: Evan Lewis)

Friday, September 8, 2023

Week 7: Evening prayers bring morning rares

 ves·per /ˈvespər/ noun: evening prayer.

The beginning of September here usually brings with it a change in the weather, and subsequently the birds. This year was no different, as the vanguards of winter arrived and were caught in our nets, and the steady flow of early migrants has begun to dry up. September also brings with it the hope for rarities, and to the delight of us human observers, the birds are delivering!

Vesper Sparrow! One of those drab gray-brown birds at a distance that has a lot of subtle colours and patterns when seen up close (David Bell)

Last week we said goodbye (or so we thought) to our early-season intern Mara, and welcomed back Sonja as our late-season intern. Imagine our delighted surprise when it was announced Mara could continue her internship! So, welcome back to both of you, and enjoy the busy part of the season!

Sonja receiving some instruction from James (Emma Radziul)

Both stations were relatively busy this week, with Rocky Point averaging 56 new captures per day, and Pedder Bay averaging around 46, for a total of 717 birds banded this week. Top capture was Swainson's Thrush, with 123 of them banded. Not too surprising when the early morning twilight was filled with their flight calls every day! Other top captures this week were Lincoln's Sparrow (100) and White-crowned Sparrow (93). As mentioned earlier, this week also brought with it a lot of season firsts in the nets, with Barred and Northern Saw-whet owls, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, and White-throated Sparrows making their first appearances; the latter two at both stations. White-throated Sparrow is especially interesting; usually we don't catch our first one until a bit later in the month and we've already captured four this year! The standout highlight this week was a Vesper Sparrow caught in net two at Rocky Point, part of a large flock of sparrows that hit the nets. Not only was it a first banding record for the station (second for RPBO overall after a bird at Pedder Bay in 2017), but it was a first record for the site overall! It isn't easy to add a new species to the Rocky Point list these days. Our oldest recapture this week was a White-crowned Sparrow originally banded in August 2019 at Rocky Point, now four years old.

A busy net round at Pedder Bay (Emma Radziul)

This hatch-year Barred Owl provided some excitement one morning! (Emma Radziul)
A young White-throated Sparrow (Emma Radziul)

With a few days seeing over 100 species at Rocky Point this week, and Pedder Bay even cracking the 80-species mark on one or two occasions, it's no surprise that observations outside of the nets resulted in some goodies. Rocky Point had Long-tailed Jaegers on the 1st and 4th (a dark juvenile and a light adult, respectively), a Lewis's Woodpecker on the 2nd, Sabine's Gull and Pink-footed Shearwater on the 4th, and a Bobolink and a Lazuli Bunting on the 7th. The Northern Parula also continued as of the 6th, and the Gray Catbird continued as of the 7th. One other notable bird was a dark-morph Broad-winged Hawk on the 6th; our first of this species for the season and a rare dark-morph to boot! Other season firsts at Rocky included Horned Lark (including 50+ birds on one day), Black Swift, and Lapland Longspur. Pedder Bay was a little quieter for highlight birds, but did have a flyover Bobolink on the 7th (the same bird that was picked up about 15 minutes later at Rocky!). Other season firsts at Pedder Bay included both Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Horned Lark, and Sandhill Crane. 

A more subtle sign of an influx of interior birds - an interior subspecies of Spotted Towhee, an infrequent capture here on the island (David Bell)
A nice after-hatch-year male Yellow Warbler (Sonja Futehally)

A perplexing White-crowned Sparrow; this adult bird was still sporting a mostly hatch-year crown pattern (David Bell)

Wildlife sightings this week included Black Bear, Orcas, Humpback Whales, a few curious deer that wandered through the stations, and the usual squirrel antics, voles, minks, frogs, snakes, insects, etc. that make up the non-avian fauna of the sites. We are still waiting for an unusual butterfly to make an appearance this season; so far it is mostly Pine and Cabbage Whites and Woodland Skippers with the odd Red Admiral. 

This mink has been frequently catching fish at Rocky Point - here with what might be a Ribbon Prickleback? (David Bell)
As always, a big thank-you to all the volunteers who came out this week! We've been having good success filling those slots this year and those who came out got to enjoy a multitude of species and learning opportunities! Hope to see you out there. 

If you've ever wondered what we banders do in our spare time, the answer is usually 'go birding' (Evan Lewis)
Barred Owl talons up close (Melissa Anderson)

Weekly totals for week 7 - click to enlarge


Friday, September 1, 2023

Week 6: The Best of the West(ern Tanager)

RPBO - Week 6 - August 24th to August 31st

Migration is heating up folks! This week we were treated to high numbers of birds in the nets and high numbers of species detected, including some rarities spotted. 

Sunrise over a field full of promises. (David Bell)

The temperatures remained seasonal this week. Smoke from nearby wildfires hung in the air for the majority of the week, but the Air Quality Index returned to normal by week's end. A few days saw light showers throughout the night clearing by early to mid-morning allowing migration monitoring to proceed as usual.

This week Rocky Point banded 443 new birds and Pedder Bay banded 262 new birds. Both stations were behind average year-to-dates by week 2, however both stations have improved by week 6. Rocky Point has banded 1454 new birds so far this season (17% above year-to-date average), and Pedder Bay has banded 1006 new individuals so far this season (14% below year-to-date average). 

A west-coast classic, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. (Mara Hanneson)

Each day of our migration season, we compile Estimated Totals (ETs) of birds seen/heard/banded/recaptured throughout the shift. Rocky Point recorded this year's highest ET (so far) of 106 species on Aug 25th. That's 106 different species of birds detected on site in one day -- wow! Pedder Bay also tied their season high of 73 species ET'ed in one shift on Aug 30th. 

The rare and unusual:

At Rocky Point, the Northern Parula and Gray Catbird, both of which have been seen since early August and have undergone their prebasic molt at our site, continue to be seen this week (NOPA last seen Aug 29th, GRCA last seen Aug 31st). The Red-necked Phalaropes present and feeding off shore were seen in the thousands early week before petering out; by weeks end numbers were down to the 10s. 

Eastern Kingbird looking majestic. (David Bell)

A cute Clay-colored Sparrow (James Kennerley)

A Parasitic Jaeger was seen on Aug 24th. A Sooty Shearwater and a Caspian Tern were seen offshore on Aug 25th, along with Upland  and Solitary sandpipers flying over and Wandering Tattler on the distant rocks. A Mourning Dove was seen on census Aug 27th, and then later narrowly escaped the nets. A Sabine's Gull was seen offshore, a flyover Bobolink was heard, and an Eastern Kingbird was observed hawking at the upper ponds on Aug 28th. A Solitary Sandpiper flew by on Aug 30th, and a Clay-colored Sparrow was seen in a mixed sparrow flock in the upper meadows on Aug 31st. Visible migration of Northern Pintails and a large congregation of Purple Martins were noted from Pedder Bay on August 31st. 

The meat and potatoes:

Passerine migration continued with good observed movement of Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler and Western Tanager. We saw trickles of Savannah's Sparrow and Lincoln's Sparrows early week, then mid-week the flood gates opened for both species. Birds of these species came looking fresh, having undergone their prebasic molts on their breeding grounds, and often times having a body condition laden with fat for their migratory journey. Fox Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos have started to appear at our sites and in out nets. We continue to catch good numbers of Wilson's Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows. Western Flycatcher was the most numerous bird caught this week at Rocky Point, and Swainson's Thrush was the most banded bird at Pedder Bay. On the shores, we have tallied 15 species of shorebird this week between the two sites. 

We first detected a Hermit Thrush at Pedder Bay on August 31st, and have detected a few single Golden-Crowned Sparrows throughout the week -- this is the beginning of these two species migration to and through our area. 

The Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Wood-Pewee families we saw breeding at our sites have moved to more southerly locations, and now other individuals of these species are migrating through in smaller numbers. Early season migrants such as Rufous Hummingbirds and Chipping Sparrows are going through in their last dribs and drabs. 


I bet you hear the sound of the Steller's Jay when you look at this photo. (David Bell)

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow (David Bell)

A comparison of subspecies of Fox Sparrow. (Mara Hanneson)

Northern subspecies Fox Sparrow (David Bell)

Both sites have banded their first Steller's Jay this week. Other banding highlights include the season's first Pacific Wren at Pedder Bay. Our first Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow was banded, along with some orestera subspecies Orange-crowned Warbler, and some probable annectens subspecies Fox Sparrows. Each station also got a few brilliant Black-throated Gray and Townsend's warblers.


Beautiful Townsend's Warbler (Mara Hanneson)

Record breaking:

American Goldfinch and Cedar Waxwings continue to be present flocking in high numbers at both sites. We have banded 169 American Goldfinches thus far this season at Rocky Point, breaking a season record for number banded in a season. 

Western Tanagers have also broken their record for number banded in a season at both sites combined. We have banded 27 so far at Rocky Point and 38 at Pedder Bay. A one day total of Western Tanager detected on site was 63 individuals. In the nets, we've had few recaptures of Western Tanager, supporting good migratory movement of the species through our sites. 

All in all, an exciting week with lots of action. As this week comes to a close, Mara Hanneson finishes her time this year as Banding Intern, but worry not, she will be back as she continues her studies locally at UVIC and just can't stay away from the nets. Next week we welcome back Sonja Futehally, who was a banding intern in fall of last year.


A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches giving their congratulatory Honk Honk! to Mara (Mara Hanneson)