West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

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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