Mountain West Birding Company Birds, Big Years, & Boredom

Over the years I’ve blogged in various places. I’ve come to the decision that I am creating one place to blog, that will filter out to all these other places. For this, I introduce, Birds, Big Years, and Boredom!

Flammulated Owl “Flammulated Owling”, 2018
Cassia Crossbill “Most Wanted”, 2018

West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust posted by Tim Avery @ Thursday, December 21, 2017

December 2-4, 2017

When the alarm woke me on Saturday something was noticeably different. There was no swell. We were no longer on the open ocean. I wasn't sure how far we had come down the Strait of Juan de Fuca but was shocked when I peered outside and could see civilization. Vancouver was straight ahead--we were all the way into the Strait of Georgia, and would likely be at port within a couple hours--the pelagic was over.

After a quick bite to eat we hit the bow to see if we could track down any new species for the trip--there were lots of birds, and lots of new birds, but nothing exciting. MEW GULL, BRANDT'S CORMORANT, and WHITE-WINGED SCOTER all flew by the boat. As we got closer to the port large flocks of BARROW'S GOLDENEYE could be seen near the shore. BALD EAGLE popped up from time to time, soaring high overhead.

Bald Eagle trailing a Tugboat

We passed under Lions Gate Bridge into Vancouver Harbour, and the ship began maneuvering to port. We headed back to the room and packed our gear before heading down to the lobby to wait to deboard. Once there it was about 90 minutes before we abandoned ship and past through customs. Snagging a taxi to the airport, Dorian had rented a car. By the time we had a vehicle and were on our way it was well afternoon, and one of the first birds we had was NORTHWESTERN CROW--a species that's fate as a species has its days numbered. Most birders expect the lump with American Crow to come any year now.

As we drove I thought I spotted a Eurasian Wigeon in a canal along the road. We circled back to discover a hybrid EURASIAN x AMERICAN WIGEON. Eurasian Wigeon has become commonplace in the Pacific Northwest and it isn't uncommon to see several in a day while birding here.

Hybrid American X Eurasian Wigeon

First Stop was Iona Beach Regional Park just north of the airport. This hotspot boasted a nice bird list on eBird and would kick things off with a few things to see. Waterfowl are abundant in the Vancouver area in winter and there was no exception here. A large flock of SNOW GEESE provided an aerial display, flying over and landing within a few 100' of us. I left my camera in the car because it was raining when we arrived, so had to settle for some digiscoped shots.

Digiscoped Snow Goose

Songbirds were also found in good numbers with lots of GOLDEN-CROWNED, and SONG SPARROWS, as well as a nice "Sooty" FOX SPARROW. SPOTTED TOWHEE and PURPLE FINCH rounded out the passerines, while PEREGRINE FALCON added a bit of excitement flushing 100's of NORTHERN PINTAIL and other ducks off a nearby pond.

Golden-crowned Sparrow feeding

We decided to head straight out of town to Boundary Bay south of the city. There had been reports of Snowy Owl recently to go along with the usual Short-eared and Barn Owls that are found here. It was a drizzle when we arrived and there was a line of cars here. The light was awful, and we were prepping for an early sunset around 4:15 pm. The owls didn't disappoint, with several SHORT-EARED and BARN OWLS putting on a show for us. The Snowy was a no-show.

Short-eared Owl in the last few minutes of daylight

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me here, was the 10's of 1,000's of DUNLIN swirling out over the bay. I estimated a low 27,500 and thought that number could probably be doubled with a proper and more careful estimate.

1,000's upon 1,000's of Dunlin at Boundary Bay

We called it a day after exploring a few nearby backroads--and finding several pure looking EURASIAN WIGEON!

A Eurasian Wigeon with Mallards and American Wigeon

On Sunday we headed to Boundary Bay at first light. There were, even more, cars than the previous day and a line of photographers with their lenses pointed south.

The long lens society meeting in Vancouver...

For a moment I had an excited feeling, thinking we might get the Snowy--but alas the lenses were trained on a perched SHORT-EARED OWL fairly close to the road--a consolation prize.

Super cooperative Short-eared Owl at Boundary Bay

And if you didn't take a moment to look around and away from the owl, you missed one helluva sunrise...

 First rays of sun hitting the mountains

Lighting up the pollution down in America

We spent some time photographing and watching the owl before deciding to move over to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary--I imagined something like a wildlife management area but was in for a real surprise. About 40 cars filled the parking area and I could see swarms of waterfowl surrounding people just inside the entrance. While this is indeed a sanctuary it has become a place where the birds are super accustomed to humans because of the constant hand feeding. I watched as people fed WOOD DUCKS from their hands!

Another birder feeding a Wood Duck

We paid the entry fee and headed in and were immediately surrounded by birds. I didn't buy any food because I didn't know they sold it right at the entrance--make sure to buy a bag if you go. So instead I watched and photographed.


I'm not sure I even need to caption these Wood Duck shots

There were a handful of other repo pelagic birders here as well--it seemed this was the hot spot to visit today.

Chris and I making a Wood Duck "ussie"

We walked a loop through the property and picked up more than 50 species along the way. The number of sparrows was incredible. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many FOX SPARROWS even in a year as I did here in a couple hours. The photo ops were insane, even in the terrible light.

The Fox Sparrow portrait I'm still enamored with

We watched as others fed BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES from their hands. The constant call of the tits brought in other species like BROWN CREEPER and GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET. Along the paths, there was no shortage of WOOD DUCKS, and the waterways were lined with other waterfowl including HOODED MERGANSER and BUFFLEHEAD.

 Brown Creeper creeping away

 Golden-crowned Sparrow foraging on the path

One of the prettiest Red-winged Blackbirds I've ever seen

After enjoying the festivities for a bit we parted ways with Chris at a bus station in Vancouver. Dorian and I made our way over to Prospect Park to see what we could find in a temperate rainforest before dark. Right off the bat, a pair of PACIFIC WREN started calling, letting us know this was a good choice of a stop.

Pacific Wren at like 6400 ISO in the dark wet forest

Along the trail, we started pishing and the birds poured out fo the surrounding forest. It was a handful of FOX and SONG SPARROWS and SPOTTED TOWHEE. They filled every limb of a downed tree and perched up to see what all the racket was. I was still shocked at the sheer numbers of Fox Sparrows.

One of a handful of Fox Sparrows that popped up at this brush pile

We headed to Beaver Lake in the interior of the park and as we descended to the lake the sound of chickadees became apparent--but it wasn't Black-capped, it was CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES! At the lake there was a family with hands out and I was stunned to see the chickadees coming in and eating right out of their hands!

Someone hand feeding a Chestnut-backed Chickadee

I had always thought of this species as being a recluse--sticking to the interior of thick foliage, and high in evergreens out of eyeshot. But here they were below eye level, on people hands, and lots of them! I started snapping away. I had seen this species on 3 occasions in the past, and all but one bird were high in the trees. I got a great shot of the last one I had seen more than 2 years ago in Oregon, and other remarked that if I had lived there my whole life, I might never have caught that shot. But here in Vancouver, it was impossible to not get a shot!

 Me getting in on feeding the chickadees

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee in my hand!

I spent a while taking pictures before continuing around the lake where we caught up with a local birder who was handing out sunflower seed to the birds. We again stopped to watch the show and were inundated with more chickadees, allowing for some great photos.

The lighting was terrible, and I was pushing a 3200 ISO with 1/60-1/100 shutter at f/8.0, but I'm still really happy with how these shots turned out.

During the show, a VARIED THRUSH piped up from the woods just out of view. Slowly but surely it worked its way out into the mix and despite staying back under cover, it provided long looks before disappearing for good back into the understory.

My best shot of a Varied Thrush to date

We did a quick drive around the edge of the park where the rafts of BARROW'S GOLDENEYE were tempting to photograph, but the light was awful--with more time and some sun, you could get killer shots here. With the sun disappearing to the southwest we called it a day and headed back to the hotel.

Barrow's Goldeneye with sunset on the water

On Monday morning, I had about 3 hours to bird before our flight. We went back and forth over what to do, but an eBird entry from Saturday sealed the deal. We headed to the town of White Rock, where a Snowy Owl had been reported. White Rock is a picturesque town overlooking Boundary bay--the highlight of the oceanfront here is the large "white boulder" on the beach and the pier that jutted out into the water.

We spent some time scanning the shore and the pier but there wasn't an owl today. Instead, we picked up a new trip bird in BLACK TURNSTONE. The most remarkable thing here though was the sea ducks. There were gobs and gobs of scoters on the water. Probably over 1,000 SURF SCOTER with a careful count, more than 100 WHITE-WINGED SCOTER, a few BLACK SCOTER, and a pair of LONG-TAILED DUCK all graced us in the first rays of daylight.

Top to Bottom: Surf, White-winged, and Black Scoter

I took pictures like a crazy. While I see all three scoters most winters on the Great Salt Lake, I had never seen so many at once, and the number of adult males was impressive. In fact, the male Black Scoter was a first as I'd only previously seen female-types.

We ate up every last minute before deciding it was time to head out to get me to the airport. AS I left I took a minute to FINALLY take a picture of a NORTHWESTERN CROW. While it may not be a full species for long, I can at least say I photographed one while it is!

Northwestern Crow... for the time being

Dorian ditched me at the international terminal and I made my way through security in minutes--I had overestimated how much time I would need based on my previous Canadian flights. So it was off to the airport to relax and wait for my flight home.

In the 5 days from Long Beach to Vancouver, I tallied 171 species. Not a bad haul for November and December. I added 6 life birds, with a couple of likelies that will have to wait for another trip! I added 87 species to my Canada list--which wasn't hard seeing as how I only had 3 species before arriving this year. I also photographed 10 species I hadn't photographed before which made me quite happy.

All in all, it was a great birding trip. Thanks Dorian for bringing this REPO cruise to my attention, and Chris for joining for the fun. One of the best parts of birding is the social aspect and sharing your joy of nature with other people.

View from the plane of the area we birded most of our time in Vancouver

Photos from These Days

December 2nd - Shrikes, Sparrows, Gulls & Dunlin
December 3rd - Short-eared Owls
December 3rd - Fox Sparrows & Wood Ducks
December 3rd - Chestnut-backed Chickadees
December 4th - Scoters, Scoters, and More Scoters

Checklists from These Days
Horseshoe Bay -- Nanaimo ferry
Vancouver International Airport
Sea Island -- Fraser River Dike
Iona Island 
Delta -- 72nd St. Turf Farm
Boundary Bay (Dec 2nd)
Boundary Bay (Dec 3rd)
Delta -- River Rd W + 34th
Reifel Bird Sanctuary
Stanley Park -- Beaver Lake
Stanley Park -- Seawall
White Rock Pier

Other Posts
 in this Series
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

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West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue posted by Tim Avery @ Monday, December 11, 2017

December 1, 2017

The second night on the boat passed smoothly. Exhaustion the previous day knocked me out quickly, and my alarm was the first recollection of waking in the dark. We went through the same morning routine as the previous day. Got ready, went to breakfast and then returned to our cabin to grab our gear. Only today there was a letter from the captain at our room. Reading the long form letter, the captain informed the passengers that the ship had not been able to travel at typical speed the previous day, and therefore we would be arriving in port 9 hours late!!!

Now for us, this wasn't an issue. Chris was taking a bus back to Seattle on Sunday, and Dorian and I had flights on Monday. But many a passenger likely had daytime flights on Saturday, and the letter said anything before 7:00 pm Saturday would likely be missed. A couple hours later they updated their assessment and let us know they were able to speed up overnight and given current conditions, we would only be 3 hours late. We hear stories of others who had contacted their airlines and changed flights, booked hotels, and paid various fees etc, only to find out that in most cases it would be unnecessary. It seems the letter was premature, and while it must take some work to print several 1,000, this minor inconvenience likely ruined the trip for some passengers. For us, it was a blip on the radar.

Emerging on the starboard side in very low light it became apparent that this morning there was far more action on the water than the previous day. Shearwaters, fulmars, gulls, and alcids could be made out by their shapes as they seemed to be flying all over the place. It was hard to make out details on most but there was certainly lots of activity. Perhaps most exciting thing was that there were already both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS flying near the boat.

Black-footed Albatross making a pass

I don't remember the exact time, but I remember there were only about 10 of us on the side of the boat when it happened. Most of the birders on board had migrated to the bow but a small contingent stuck to the side. As we scoped the water I heard a voice scream out, "SHORT_TAILED ALBATROSS!!!". It was Nick Lethaby and he had spotted our first target bird of the trip. Finding the bird in the distance wasn't too difficult--it's enormous pink bill hung obviously against the blue of the water. It wasn't a super satisfying look, but it was a lifer and got things moving.

After this, for the next hour, things seemed to slow down. I decided to check the port side where for some reason there were a good number of shearwaters and nearly a dozen albatross. I was the only one on the side of the boat which meant if I had a good bird, it would just be me, and vice-versa, I would miss something back on the starboard side if they had a good flyby. I was thinking about heading back to let the others know when a birder named Zach (Zack?) form the bay area appeared to let me know there was a lot happening on the other side of the boat. Super cool of him, and super thoughtful. We headed back to starboard and as we walked out the door screams of, "SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS", erupted from several people. I didn't even need binoculars to see the large tubenose, which had come around the front of the boat and was banking out past us. I dropped my scope and started taking photos.

Lifer and rarity--Short-tailed Albatross

Zoomed and cropped version of the same image.

The bird passed close enough to get decent shots and make out a shiny band on its rear left foot. The bird headed straight away towards a fishing boat that had a steady stream of albatross following it. As the shortie veered to the right I scoped the line of Albatross behind it and counted more than 40 birds!!!

43 Albatross in one field of view!
White = Laysan, Yellow = Black-footed, and Red = Short-tailed.

I snapped a few pictures before the birds lifted off, and doing a quick review, Dorian spotted another SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS in my photo sitting on the water!

The 2nd Short-tailed Albatross seen with the large group!

Had Zach not come and got me, or had we stayed 30 seconds longer, I/we could have missed the whole show. I am truly thankful for his visit. As a side note, both Dorian and Chris apparently took off to try and tell me, but both found the port side of the boat empty. Luckily, they didn't miss anything else--but this brings up the point I mentioned in my previous post about NOT LEAVING THE GROUP. If you leave you risk missing big things. I opted to move my gear up to the group and stick out the rest of the day on the bow with everyone else. I learned my lesson.

As a side note, once I looked at my pictures I found that I had got both Short-tailed in this group in the same shot when all the albatross were in the air a few moments later.

Both Short-tailed Albatross in the same field of view.

The morning held a few more interesting birds and animals. For me, a pair of lifer FORK-TAILED STORM-PETRELS was a welcome find. The second interesting bird was what appeared to be a pair of all dark auklets that streamed by the boat. Several people said Crested would be the most likely species, but even that would be rare.

Much better shot of Laysan Albatross than the previous day

By the time I went to lunch it had been an eventful couple of hours. I tallied 14 LAYSAN ALBATROSS and 76 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, more than 100 NORTHERN FULMAR, and 17 BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.

Dark morph Northern Fulmar

Aside from the birds the morning had proved quite productive for marine mammals. I snagged 3 lifers in a small pod of beautiful DALL'S PORPOISE which came right alongside the ship.

Dall's Porpoise barely breaking the surface

A single FUR SEAL swam by at one point, and I mostly just got to see its flippers out of the water. The coolest thing, and perhaps most disappointing unfortunately was a pod of KILLER WHALES that made a pass. By the time I saw them, it was just their tails disappearing into the water. The downside of a cruise ship is that it DOES NOT STOP, so if you miss something--it is gone. I was stoked to see something that is one of my top 5 animals to see before I die but want a much more satisfying experience.

Humpback Whales Breaching

On the flip side, we had a pair of very entertaining and confiding HUMPBACK WHALES that kept breaching alongside the ship for close to 20 minutes. I was able to take several photos, and get a few video through my spotting scope. I have had much better looks at this species in Mexico and southern California, but anytime I get to see a whale it's an exciting experience.

A quick break to the Lido deck and I scarfed down a couple hamburgers. Back to the bow, all focus was on petrels--we had to get Mottled Petrel before it got dark! For a couple of hours, things moved along slowly--then came the first yell, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". Now imagine 50-60 birders crowded on the bow of a boat, with the person who saw the bird shouting out clock positioning and direction moving, as well as perceived distance from the boat. Seems like something fairly easy to pick up on. Now put your self 60' above the water and moving at about 20 MPH. Oh yeah, and now think about the bird you're looking for being just 13" long with a 2 1/2' wingspan. I got lucky. I spotted the bird with my binos as it zigged and zagged up and down from the water, several hundred yards ahead of the boat.

Guy McCaskie scoping for Petrels

I attempted to get a picture, but it was a ways off. And in a matter of seconds, the bird was gone. There were cheers, high fives, and relief on several peoples faces. But it became apparent that the majority of people on the bow had missed the bird. There were plenty of frustrated, angry, and beat down birders who thought there only shot at this gadfly had flown... But leave it to Dorian Anderson, who missed the lead bird to stick his nose to the grind and start scoping. A few minutes later I heard his boisterous voice yelling, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". He had found his own. I rushed his direction to see if I could get a photo. Everyone else also moved this way and I couldn't get my eyes on the bird this time.

Imagine standing on the bow of the boat, staring through a spotting scope and not adjusting for the up and down--this is what the view was like on the bow.  Not only did you have to steady your body, you had to move the scope to keep a steady view as you scanned horizontally.

I turned to the bow to scan and immediately caught the up and down-swoop of another petrel, it was my turn to yell, "MOTTLED PETREL at 12 o'clock!!!". People turned their focus to the bow--and almost immediately I heard someone else blurt out, "It's a COOK'S PETREL!!!". Sure enough, the gadfly I spotted wasn't of the mottled form, but instead the much less common this time of year COOK'S PETREL. I followed the bird, noting the clean undersides. I grabbed my camera and snapped away, getting a few shots before it disappeared.

Lifer Cook's Petrel

I was ecstatic. This was another lifer and if I could just get a photo of a Mottled the trip would be a complete success. The next 90 minutes would be something that I don't think anyone on the boat ever expected. There was a constant stream of MOTTLED PETRELS. Some were by themselves, others in pairs, and a couple times there were small flocks or gatherings. On one occasion Chris spotted one that was being trailed by a Cook's Petrel. In all, I counted 44 MOTTLED PETRELS that I definitely saw. On the bow, several observers who stayed glued to their scopes the rest of the day scanning far out on the horizon tallied more than 200! Here is a sampling of some of the images I was able to capture.

And it wasn't just the petrels, both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS both showed in good number the rest of the day, adding another 17 LAYSAN and 32 BLACK-FOOTED. Some even made close passes for photos, improving on the previous day's horrendous photo ops.

Black-legged Kittiwake trailing a Laysan Albatross

I managed photos of a couple other birds including a few shots of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and an identifiable shot of a RHINOCEROS AUKLET.

Rhinoceros Auklet that didn't seem too worried about the ship approaching

Besides the typical seabirds, we had a couple of interesting moments during the afternoon. At one point, California birder Tom Benson points to the sky and almost bewilderingly shouts, "RED-BREASTED MERGANSER". Here we are 50 miles off the coast and this duck was heading southwest away from the coast.

The lost at sea Red-breasted Merganser

But it got much stranger a few moments later when Chris spotted a PEREGRINE FALCON. Shouts of Peregrine popped up left and right as the falcon came swooping out in front of the boat. What in the hell was this bird doing out here? This was a long way from home and seemed like a bad place for the falcon to be. But then the bird did something incredible. We watched in disbelief as it dove towards the water, and knocked a FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL out of the air. The falcon then proceeded to stoop on the storm-petrel, while being dived on by a MOTTLED PETREL. The whole thing maybe last 15 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity before the falcon grabbed the storm-petrel and disappeared up and around the boat.  Seeing these species together is almost surely something I'll never see again.

The "Petrel and the Peregrine"

I think everyone was shocked but then someone relayed a story that somebody else on the boat had told them they saw a hawk on board. I think the birder that hear this likely scoffed at the story, but it now made sense. Either this falcon had gotten lost and ended up on the boat--OR--and the story I like to imagine, the Falcon made the trip out of LA with us. We did see falcons in the Port of LA, and the falcon seemed quite skilled at open ocean hunting. The ease with which it took out the tiniest of the seabird

Me, Chris and Dorian stoked about the petrels

The rest of the afternoon sped by and around 4:30 pm, I decided to call it a day. I was exhausted, cold, and very satisfied with my haul of 4 life birds, and both target species for the trip. I retired to the cabin to relax and watch the sunset to the west. Others stayed on the bow, aware we were fast approaching Washington waters, and their ability to add a few state birds to their lists. As it turns out, those that did indeed added Mottled Petrel to their Washington life lists. Instead, I laid back, smiled and thought about that falcon. What a smart, and delightful bird.

The last sunset at sea...

Photos from Today
December 1st - Short-tailed Albatross
December 1st - Mottled Petrel
December 1st - Cook's Petrel
December 1st - Laysan Albatross
December 1st - Black-footed Albatross
December 1st - Rhinoceros Auklet

Checklists from Today
REPO Cruise -- Southern Oregon Waters (44.2128,-124.9576)
REPO Cruise -- Northern Oregon Waters (45.401846,-125.220306)

Other Posts
 in this Series
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

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What an amazing experience! We brought two of our kids out on a Flammulated Owl tour with Tim and it was amazing.
Niki J. “Flammulated Owling”, 2017
Himalayan Snowcock and Cassia Crossbill! Another trip with Tim, another success! These were the "big two" for this trip and Tim delivered in spades.
Paul K. “Most Wanted”, 2018
It is great to see a guide who gets excited about seeing the birds and at the same time cares about their welfare!
David D. “Multi-day Tour”, 2018
Tim is a fantastic guide so friendly and kind. He's funny too. I felt very comfortable on his tour which was sold out.
Melissa H. “Flammulated Owling”, 2018
This was my first experience with a guided bird trip and it could not have been better.
Robin C. “1/2 Day Tour”, 2017

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