Apr
05

Vancouver Day Three: Swartz Bay Ferry – Tsawassen Jetty – Stanley Park

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Swartz Bay

Dark, dim, and drizzly: the perfect day to bird from the comfort of a ferry across the Salish Sea. Soheil and I caught the first sailing from Tsawassen this morning, then rode straight back, giving us two shots at Active Pass.

California sea lion

We didn’t see the particular mammals for which this crossing is famous, but harbor seals and California sea lions are a treat even when the black and white cetaceans stand you up. If birding was not quite as good as I’ve seen it on the route, it’s still always fun to see good numbers of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets, along with a very few marbled murrelets and just two common murres.

pigeon guillemot

Surf, white-winged, and black scoters were in good supply, too, as were Bonaparte and mew gullsPacific loons were scarce, only three or four total, but what they lacked in abundance they made up for in nice close views on our way back to the mainland. Brandt cormorants were present in small numbers on the channel markers; our best views of Brandts were actually at the Tsawassen terminal, where a few perched on the breakwaters among the abundant pelagic cormorants.

black turnstone

The rain was steadier still when we arrived back at Tsawassen, so we decided to bird the lower jetty road from the car. The experience was very different from yesterday: only a handful of black brant were in sight, and even gull numbers were low. Black oystercatchers were still carrying on in the air above us, though, groups of three performing their “piping” displays above the road and the water, wing beats shallow and stiff and wide-open bills pointing to the ground. And with the tide falling, we found a flock of 22 black turnstones on the cobble beach, where they fed utterly unconcerned about us and only slightly wary of the two off-leash dogs running the road.

black turnstone

We’d had an early start to the day, and were wet and cold in spite of the layers we’d piled on, so pulled in to Circle O for a very late breakfast. Time and traffic looked good for a drive across Vancouver and a visit to Stanley Park, where I hoped there might be some birds at the few parking lots with good views.

Stanley Park

Unfortunately, the rain had grown even heavier, and we had to limit ourselves to brief excursions out of the car, where we saw just the usual birds: Barrows and common goldeneye and surf scoters were the best of the ducks, while our passerine encounters were nearly non-existent.

Tomorrow we’re supposed to be back to Vancouver sunshine, so we’ve planned to do a couple of sites where we can walk our legs back into functioning after a day on and in vehicles. Should be fantastic, as each day so far has been.

Birds

Black Brant, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, American Wigeon, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser

Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Loon

Horned Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant, Brandt Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk

Black Oystercatcher

Black Turnstone

Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot

Mew Gull, California Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Bonaparte Gull

Rock Pigeon

Northwestern Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

American Robin

European Starling

Oregon Towhee, Song Sparrow, Oregon Junco

 

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel

California Sea Lion, Harbor Seal

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Apr
04

Vancouver Day Two: Tsawassen – Maplewood Flats – Point Roberts

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Port Roberts from Tsawassen jetty

Another great day, though the weather was less welcoming than yesterday’s. When I set out to pick Soheil up about 7:15, the clouds were high and thin, but we birded the Tsawassen jetty in occasional sprinkles and mist, Maplewood Flats in light rain, and Port Roberts — on the other side of the international boundary — in steady rain. But who cares? Lots of birds!

We timed it to arrive at Tsawassen with a good hour and a half of rising tide, hoping that the water would push some shorebirds into sight on the rocks. It’s worked before, but not this morning: the flock of half a thousand dunlin and a hundred or more black-bellied plover stayed out of sight most of the time, visible only when it was startled into flight by some activity at the ferry terminal.

Black oystercatcher

Black oystercatchers, happily, were more obliging. A pair was roosting on a gravel bar in the little mitigation marsh, and at one point a mad chase took place over our heads, with two trios flying low overhead with shallow, stylized wingbeats and incessant piping calls, bills pointed downward. The loafing pair wasn’t much interested in joining in, but instead flew over to the jetty beneath us, tucking their bills in disdain for their fellows who hadn’t got down to the serious business of napping as quickly as they did.

Lots of pelagic cormorants, common goldeneye, and horned grebes shared the waters with white-winged scotersgreater scaup, and a few common loons. The great spectacle, as usual at the site, was the black brant flock, hundreds of birds on the water, in the air, and on the gravel bars.

black brant, Tsawassen, BC

Other waterfowl may be more colorful, but few are as elegantly attired as these somber beauties.

The weather seemed to be getting no worse, so we decided to make hay while the … well, that isn’t really suitable for Vancouver; in any event, we drove north to Maplewood Flats, hoping for a pleasant walk and some birding. We had both, though the rain was noticeably heavier by the time we’d walked as far as the little salt marsh.

Maplewood Flats

Shorebirds were disappointing here, too (read: absent), but there was a good selection of ducks on the water, including both common and Barrow’s goldeneye and at least one dapper male Eurasian wigeon.

Eurasian wigeon, Maplewood Flats

The feeders were busy with dozens of Oregon juncos and American goldfinches; a fine male rufous hummingbird fed from the flowers, and the couple of pine siskins we found were our first for the trip, as was a ruby-crowned kinglet high in the cottonwood twigs. A very pleasant surprise was two male mountain bluebirds in the marsh, hunting the spartina as if it were buffalo grass.

mountain bluebird, Maplewood Flats

This was only the second time I’d seen that species in Vancouver, after an early morning encounter on Jericho Beach when we lived in Kitsilano.

Fish and chips called, and we watched the rain settle in for real as we ate. The postprandial stroll we’d planned lost its allure with each raindrop; we decided instead to drive down to Point Roberts, that little disjunct dab of Washington State. I’d been there before only to mail packages, and was excited to get to bird this famous spot in spite of the drizzle.

Point Roberts, Washington

It was wet enough by the time we arrived at Lighthouse Park in the late afternoon that we simply sat in the car and watched the birds go by. And the mammals, too: we had at least five California sea lions, that many of more harbor seals, and a good dozen or more harbor (apparently) porpoises. Long-tailed ducks and surf scoters flew by continually, as did plenty of pelagic cormorants and black brant. I’m eager to go back sometime when it’s a little warmer and a little dryer — it would pay off well, I think.

Tomorrow morning, with more rain in the forecast, we’re going to start by taking the ferry to Victoria and back, then see if we can find something indoor to do. My vote: the anthropology museum at UBC, where we’re certain to see birds, too.

Birds

Black Brant, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser

Red-throated Loon, Common Loon

Horned Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Turkey Vulture

Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk

Black Oystercatcher

Black-bellied Plover

Dunlin, Greater Yellowlegs

Rhinoceros Auklet

Mew Gull, California Gull, Thayer’s Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove

Rufous Hummingbird

Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker

Northwestern Crow

Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Bewick’s Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Mountain Bluebird, American Robin

European Starling

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Oregon Towhee, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Oregon Junco

Red-winged Blackbird

House Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Douglas Squirrel

California Sea Lion, Harbor Seal

Harbor Porpoise

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Apr
03

Vancouver Day One: Steveston – Iona – Reifel Refuge

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What a blast! I picked Soheil up at his lodgings in Richmond a bit after 7:00 this morning, taking the time to enjoy northwestern crows on the way down; I’d expected rain, but there was just the barest hint of a sprinkle on my early morning drive, and though the chill never lifted, all day long we stayed dry — and even saw some sunshine by the time we enjoyed an early supper this evening under the watchful eyes of Ladner’s bald eagles.

I’d heard that white-winged crossbills were to be found in Steveston, so we zipped down there to start our morning’s birding. We stepped out of the car to the songs of Puget Sound white-crowned sparrows (yea) and Eurasian collared-doves (less yea), but after a few minutes of hearing and seeing nothing loxiac, walked the few feet down to the river. Glaucous-winged and mew gulls loafed on logs in the water, while several bald eagles kept the ducks busy; one of the eagles missed all the fun, assigned instead to incubating or brooding the contents of one of the huge riverside nests. A big, big-nosed pinniped moving through the water was probably a California sea lion.

rufous hummingbird

The lawn of the condo complex behind us was hopping, too. A suet feeder proved irresistible to a couple of pairs of bushtits, and the first of the day’s half dozen rufous hummingbirds was here, too — all but one of them were males, a couple of them in vigorous “shuttling” display.

varied thrush

The manicured bluegrass itself provided the feeding ground for a fine varied thrush, which eventually gave up being admired and flew up into the bare tree above our heads, where he sang several times that eeriest of Pacific northwest bird songs.

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The sparrow flock was shyer, but we had great looks at Lincoln, song, sooty foxgolden-crowned, and Puget Sound white-crowned sparrows, all popping out onto the grass to feed for a moment or two before taking refuge again in the hedge.

song sparrow morphna

Wonderful to be back in a place where golden-crowned is the most abundant passerellid, the song sparrows are red, and the fox sparrows are plain-headed.

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The biggest surprise was a flock of 34 swans that flew overhead, not trumpeting but whistling as they passed. I was too startled to make entirely certain that all of the birds were tundra swans or if perhaps there were just a few vocal birds of that species joining up with the much more expected trumpeters; tundras are rarish birds here, and we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. We would not see any trumpeter swans until the last stop of our day, when we found sixty or seventy loafing off Westham Island.

I could have spent the rest of the week there, and we will certainly drop back by at some point to have another listen for the crossbills, but there are even birdier, even more scenic sites around Vancouver than condominium parking lots.

Iona

With an eye on the tide tables, we dashed north to Iona, where spotted towhees, another rufous hummingbird, and a few hundred noisy snow geese greeted us. The ponds were full of water and full of ducks: pinwheeling northern shovelers, elegant northern pintail and ring-necked ducks, and busily feeding lesser scaup by the hundreds.

northern pintail

Sparrows of what were now the expected species fed on the roads, and flyovers included my first violet-green swallows of the year and a surprise western meadowlark.

If the meadowlark was a surprise, the American minks were a shock.

American mink

Soheil saw the first one while I was busy with song sparrows; a few minutes later we saw it or another, and a few minutes later three more or less together on the path. As we watched, one of them dropped into the water and re-emerged with a dead, probably long-dead, duck, holding it tight in its teeth as it dragged it backwards across the trail, only to lose its prize when an adult bald eagle dropped out of nowhere to steal the corpse and send the mink, lucky not to have been the eagle’s second course, scampering into the next pond.

We walked out and around the “outer” pond, where marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds were busy staking out their territories and a nice flock of tree and violet-green swallows skimmed and drank in front of us.

Iona outer pond

We’d planned to head out the jetty, too, but the rapidly ebbing tide and the cold breeze off the Salish Sea convinced us that there probably weren’t many birds out there anyway. So how about Reifel?

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The place was insane, as always, with the pushy half-tame mallards joined by ducks of several other species, sparrows, and blackbirds in the rush for birdseed.

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We braved our way through the madding crowd, pausing to admire a rare black-crowned night-heron at its sullen roost, and headed out to the foreshore. Another flock of snow geese did its best to deafen us, watched closely by as many as fifty-five bald eagles perched out on the tidal flat.

Oregon junco

The real show at Reifel this afternoon, though, was the northern harriers. We’d seen scattered birds all day here and there, but as afternoon ceded to early evening, the big cattail marshes gave up their store of long-winged hawks; eventually we were watching at least five, including two beautiful silver males. It made us wonder how many owls were waiting on the ground out there for the sun to set.

We wouldn’t find out: Reifel has an early curfew, and I was cold and hungry. We stopped in Ladner for supper, fish and chips while we watched eagles fly up and down the water out our window. In the sunshine. Tomorrow is going to be a great day!

Birds

Snow Goose, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron

Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk

Virginia Rail, American Coot

Killdeer

Wilson’s Snipe

Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove

Rufous Hummingbird

Northern Flicker

Northwestern Crow

Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Bushtit

Marsh Wren

American Robin

Varied Thrush

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

Oregon Towhee, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Puget Sound Sparrow, Gambel’s Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Oregon Junco

Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird

House Finch, American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Mammals

American Mink

Eastern Gray Squirrel

California Sea Lion

 

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Mar
30

Parsing the Parson Bird

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Maybe it’s just the caffeine talking (dark chocolate petits écoliers, lots of ’em), but I’ve had a great idea.

 

It is well known and greatly regretted that the last two volumes of Louis-Pierre Vieillot’s Natural History of the Birds of North America were never published, surviving only in manuscript fair copy now in a private collection.

To judge by the contents of the first volumes, it can be expected that these other, unpublished two also contain information that would help us answer a couple of very important questions about early American ornithology: namely, what Vieillot was up to in the nearly five years he spent in New York and New Jersey; and what the lines of influence and what their direction between him and his colleagues in America, chief among them William Bartram and Alexander Wilson.

We sometimes forget, though, that at least some of the material meant for publication in those concluding volumes of the Natural History was almost certainly “recycled” by Vieillot in his work for the Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle, many of the articles in which relate his own experiences in the 1790s with the birds of North America.

Someone (“someone,” not I) should assemble all of the ornithological entries from the Dictionnaire in a single place, then collate the articles that have them with their counterparts in the published volumes of the Natural History. Any principles and patterns deduced from that comparison can be used to reconstruct the species accounts in the unpublished volumes, which will move us closer to understanding the matters I mentioned above. I’ve done this already in the case of one species, in an essay set to appear in print sometime later this year, but I think the systematic working through of all the material might well bear significant fruit.

And it would certainly raise some other, perhaps less weighty questions.

I happened the other day to be wondering about indigo buntings — pushing the season, I know, though it should be only three weeks or so before the first arrive in our yard. My question was a trivial one and easily answered, but as usual, one citation led to another to another and another, until I landed on Vieillot and noticed something I had overlooked before. In the header to his Dictionnaire entry, he calls Passerina cyanea “La Passerine Bleue, ou le Ministre,” that second a name that does not occur in the earliest English description of the bird, Mark Catesby’s “Blew Linnet.”

Vieillot’s account is a composite of several sources, supplemented by his own observations made in New York and New Jersey and a critical review of the older literature on the species; his direct reliance on Wilson (whom he does not cite) is proved by a slight but telling mistranslation.

Neither Wilson nor Vieillot offers any comment on the name “ministre.” They have it from Buffon, who notes that

this is the name that the bird dealers give to a bird from Carolina, which others call “l’evêque” [the bishop]…. We have seen this bird several times at the establishment of Château, to whom we owe what little is known of its history.

Ange-Auguste Château was bird dealer to the king, supplying “an extraordinary variety of species” from around the world. Presumably Château, or one of his collectors in the field, was Buffon’s source for the name “ministre.” If he told the great natural historian what that name meant, Buffon didn’t think to pass it on to his reader.

A faint hint was provided by John Latham, who in 1783 translated the Buffonian names into English. In Carolina, he wrote, the indigo bunting

is called by some The Parson, by others The Bishop.

He provides a footnote to Buffon for each of the two names.

Whether Latham’s rendering of “ministre” as “parson” is correct or not is impossible to say at this remove, but it is plausible given that the alternative, “bishop,” is also drawn from the ecclesiastical realm. “Bishop,” like “cardinal” and “pope” for other colorful creatures of Catholic lands, is clearly a reference to the splendor of the indigo bunting’s plumage, and in other cases, “parson” has a similar visual function, identifying birds — the tui, the great cormorant, certain Spophila seedeaters — with somber black feathers and a bit of white at the throat or neck.

Not here, though. Iridescent blue-green with flashing black highlights is not the modest garb I associate with a parson, and indigo buntings have no hint of a clerical collar. The inspiration for the name “parson” cannot be visual, so what is it?

This is only a guess, but I suspect that “parson” was a joke name, like “lawyer” for the black-necked stilt (wears formal attire and presents a long bill), “prothonotary” for the golden swamp warbler (goes on and on in a monotone), or “preacher” for the red-eyed vireo (vocalizes into the heat of mid-day).

And the indigo bunting? Says Wilson,

It mounts to the highest tops of a large tree and chants for half an hour at a time…. a repetition of short notes, commencing loud and rapid, and falling by almost imperceptible gradations for six or eight seconds… and after a pause of half a minute or less, commences again as before.

Modern birders recognize the song by the singer’s tendency to say everything twice.

 

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Mar
26

VENT Nebraska: Day Seven

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Dawn found us back at the Alda bridge, in a light breeze and light sleet, listening to the cranes wake up and the endless flocks of snow geese overhead. As the skies grew brighter, against all odds, Danny picked a white dot out of the vast crane islands — an adult whooping crane, almost certainly the one we had enjoyed a few days earlier just a mile or so down the road.

The weather wasn’t improving, so we pushed on to Gretna and Schramm State Park, where all was quiet but for a noisy belted kingfisher nervously hunting the old fish ponds. A walk along the densely wooded blufftops was hardly any birdier, with a heard-only myrtle warbler our only feathered reward.

Schramm Park

Schram on a sunnier winter’s day than we had this year

The drive back to Omaha should have been shorter than it was, and traffic was still jammed when it came time to head out for dinner. But we got there, and slept the happy sleep of the bird-sated as we looked forward to the return home.

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