Photojournal - 5 February 2006

Raptor rapture

Sunday the 5th was the first time in three weeks that the sun had come out on a day that I didn't have to work. Unfortunately, I've been quite the night owl recently, so I didn't really realize this until around 11:00 when I woke up, finding the sun streaming into my bedroom. I quickly got up, checked my email, and then fell right back asleep.

Eventually, I woke up again, took a shower, and headed out the door with my camera and a vague plan to go in search of pancakes. It was 1pm.

The pancakes would have to wait, as once I was in the car with my camera, it was hard to avoid driving down to Boundary Bay. At this time of year, the bay is the best place for birding. And maybe I'd go for pancakes in Ladner. I had a plan to look through a flock of blackbirds for a Rusty Blackbird that had been reported earlier in the week, but I got the street number wrong (the flock was on 88th, not 72nd...) and didn't find the flock. I headed on down 72nd, and turned off at the last cross-street rather than continuing to the dyke at the end. There were sure to be Snowy Owls and Short-eared Owls down there, but I had already seen both of them this year and gotten some decent photos of them, too.

As I proceeded down the side road, I passed a spot where two cars were parked on the other side of the road, and two cars had headed out into the field on my right. As I passed, I noticed that some of the folks had optics: a spotting scope and some big camera lenses. I turned around and parked behind the cars on the road, and found that the last car belonged to my friend George. As I went up to say hi, the bird they were all gathered to watch took flight, and I got a good look through my binoculars: it was a Merlin, which is a small falcon. A pretty good bird down by the bay. It was long gone by the time I got my camera out.

George was headed over to scout out the blackbirds, and I passed on that, more intent on heading towards civilization and the promise of hot pancakes. Before we parted company, though, George told me that there was an American Kestrel hanging out on the power lines over on 64th, which was the way I was headed. So it was no surprise to come upon this colorful little fellow a few minutes later.


Although the kestrel's breast and back were somewhere near the color of a good pancake, I found myself feeling less and less hungry as I watched fascination with birds, egged on by a pretty skookum specimen here in front of me, was erasing my flapjack fetish. I was in raptor rapture.

I took some more photos, sitting in my car the whole while, as there was no way a kestrel would stay around if I got out. The conditions were fairly good but not great, and I only ended up with a strong catchlight (reflection in his eye) in the one shot shown above. I did get some other good shots, though, including this one that shows his facial markings.

He flushed twice, but didn't fly far. I was able to drive to where he went both times. At the third stop, I noticed some movement over the field beneath the kestrel, and after I watched for a while, a Northern Harrier popped up from behind some bushes, flying across an opening.  
I then thanked my kestrel buddy and headed on down 34B Street towards Ladner. On the way, I found a flock of American Wigeons and Mallards in a field, and I pulled over to look through them to see if there were any more unusual ducks. I did find one Eurasian Wigeon, but that was about it.  
Once I made it to Ladner Trunk Road (or maybe it's River Road at that point), I decided that pancakes could wait, and I headed left towards Reifel. On the way, I noticed a Bald Eagle in a tree, and then I saw another eagle circling above the river. I pulled over at Wellington Point Park, and got out of my car in time to get a few photos of the flying eagle as it landed across the river. I normally wouldn't have stopped just for a baldie, but there had been a Golden Eagle reported in the area, and with my naked eye I didn't see white on this bird, so I thought it might be the Golden. It turned out that it was just a young Bald. Anyhow, here are five shots of him drifting down.  

I didn't adjust the brightness levels on the photos in that last montage, and you can see the difference in brightness that I normally get when I shoot. I almost always bracket my shots, meaning I shoot groups of three: one at normal exposure, one a little overexposed (bright), and one a little underexposed (dark). This helps ensure that I get a correctly-exposed shot if the camera is a little off or if I don't have time to make fine adjustments to it.

While I was out of the car, I turned my camera back landward and shot the other eagle that I had seen in a roadside tree earlier. I probably saw around eight or nine baldies during the day, but I didn't really put any effort into getting good shots of them.


After that, I headed on towards Reifel. As I drove across Westham Island, my mind must have been playing tricks with me, because I swear I caught a whiff of the unmistakable scent of sugar-free artificial maple syrup flowing over a lump of melting low-calorie margarine on a stack of real, live pancakes. Seeing no pancake house on Westham Island, I shook off the feeling and drove on.

When I arrived at the gate to Reifel, I found my friends Marcia and Grant parked in their truck there, eating lunch. They waved at me, and I stopped and chatted with them. They told me that the Golden Eagle had been seen that morning, from right about where we were standing, as had some early Tree Swallows. Neither eagle nor swallows were there at the moment, though.

I discussed my pancake/birding dilemma with them, and Marcia kindly said that she would have offered me food had they not just finished eating it all. But just because they didn't have food, it didn't mean that they didn't help me with my problem: it turns out that they had just been in to Reifel, and they told me of two owls that were there. One was on the road in, almost at the parking lot, and the other was on the east dyke, around tree 110.

Now, I'll leave you to ponder just what the world has come to when there are three people who know a park so well as to be able to communicate locations within it by tree number.

The owl near the road was a Barn Owl, and the owl on the east dyke was a Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I've seen both kinds before, and I've gotten decent photos of Saw-Whets. However, I'd never photographed Barn Owls, so even a chance at getting one in decent light meant the pancakes were flying out the window and I was headed in to find a bird. Thanking them for the intel, I bid Grant and Marcia adieu and went looking for that Barn.

It took five to ten minutes of searching the tree, but I eventually found that owl. She was a behind some branches, and I wasn't able to get a completely clean shot at her. I was being quiet while searching, but it turns out that she was awake when I spotted her.

Well, since she was awake, I went ahead and introduced myself. She reached forward to shake my hand when I did.  

She must have sensed that we were kindred I said earlier, I'm a bit of a night owl, myself. I was impressed with her kind gesture at a very grumpy time of day for her species.

I went on in the refuge, but not far. I didn't feel like pursuing the lead on the Saw-whet Owl, so I just went as far as Fuller's Slough to check on the Black-crowned Night Herons. Three of them were out: two juveniles and an adult. One juvenile was on the side near the entrance to the park, and the other two birds were on the far side. In fact, those two birds were close enough to one another to get into a single shot. As always seems to be the case, the herons are obscured by the branches of the trees they're perching in. The adult is the lower (white) bird, and the juvenile is the upper (brown) one.

Also out on the slough was this Double-crested Cormorant, in a nice, relaxed, sitting pose.  

I had checked the log book on the way in, and no-one had reported anything else interesting from there that day, so I decided to head back. In our conversation, Grant and Marcia had told me that someone had seen a Bewick's Swan in the big flock of Trumpeters, which was still hanging out in the field where I had seen them three weeks ago. I decided to go check this out.

Now, a Bewick's Swan is a type of Tundra Swan. It's mainly found in Europe and Asia, but occasionally reported from the west coast of North America. The other type of Tundra Swan is called the Whistling Swan, and that's the usual North American type. Bewick's and Whistling used to be considered separate species, but the folks who study these things decided that they weren't, so they grouped them together and dubbed them Tundra. Bewick's is now the Eurasian subspecies of Tundra, and Whistling is the North American one.

This meant that if I found that swan, I would not only have my lifer Tundra Swan, but I'd have seen one of the relatively uncommon ones for these parts. It was incentive to go scout through the Trumpeter Swan flock, so I headed straight there after leaving Reifel.

When I arrived, a found a familiar silver station wagon and parked behind it. My friends Jeff and Ilya were there, looking for that Bewick's. A quick binocular scan hadn't found the bird, so they were now conducting a more methodical search with a spotting scope.

Ilya called me over to his scope to see an unusual sight: there was a Snow Goose out there in the field amongst the much larger swans. Unfortunately, the swans were so big and obtrusive that one could only get occasional glimpses of the goose, and once I had my camera out I wasn't able to relocate him. That was the second good bird that I saw but didn't photograph...with all this recent rain, I'm way too out-of-practice.

Anyhow, I counted around 400 swans, so we still had a few percent of the species there. One very nice thing is that they were much closer to the road than they had been when I saw them last, and I was able to get good-sized shots of them.

Swans, of course, are like big geese with long necks. If you're like me and think goose necks are cool, well, then, swan necks are even cooler.


I guess these swans have white plumage so that they're camouflaged when they're up in the snowy and icy north, where they spend most of the year. It's certainly not a good camouflage color for here, where they spend a lot of their time poking around in the mud. Even when they're pretty muddy, their whiteness is very obvious.

We didn't ever find the Bewick's Swan, or any Tundra for that matter. After fifteen minutes or so we gave up. I had taken a few more photos during that time. Whenever I see Trumpeters, I think that they have a slightly bemused look on their face, like they know some joke that they're not letting me in on. Dirty rascals.


As Ilya and Jeff packed up to go, I decided that was a good idea and called it a day. It had been good to see so many folks I knew out in the field after three weeks of inactivity.

Of course, I headed straight to IHOP.



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