Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Moorecroft Christmas Bird Count

Nine long years ago, I decided that we needed another Christmas Bird Count circle in this area. Although it was impossible to sandwich a full sized circle in between the Nanaimo and Parksville circles, a circle about 15% smaller could fit, and would cover the very interesting habitats of the Nanoose Peninsula, the Winchelsea Islands, north Nanaimo, Lantzville, and the fascinating Lantzville Uplands. After getting Dick Cannings blessing to squeeze this circle in, and doing a little stick handling with the compilers of the adjacent counts, the Nanoose Bay-Lantzville Christmas Bird Counts was born. Us locals continue to proudly refer to this count as the "Best Little CBC on Vancouver Island". And although we don't get the number of species as Parksville or Nanaimo, we always get a few interesting species, and it is such a lovely place to bird in.

Some years later, I moved to northern Vancouver Island for awhile, so I had to step aside from the compiling duties. This worked out great, as a new naturalist club, The Nanoose Naturalists, had formed in the area, and included some very keen birders, eager to make this count a highlight of each year. The count is now organized and compiled very capably by Rhys Harrison, with support from the Nanoose Naturalists. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this count.
This year, Donna and I have moved back into the count circle, after being absent for about three years, and with our work as caretakers for Moorecroft Regional Park, we were eager to do a thorough count of the park, as part of the Nanoose-Lantzville Christmas Bird Count circle. We were excited for the day, and all looked good, until the evening before, when the local weather forecast mysteriously changed from fair to ugly, at about 21:00 on the 15th of December, three hours before the count was to begin. Our plan had been to begin owling in the park at midnight, and then head back to bed until dawn, which isn't coming until about 8:00 these days. Poking my head out the door at midnight showed that the weather forecast was bang on. It was snowing, and blowing a gale. As owls are nearly impossible to locate in weather like this, we headed for bed, and I set the alarm for 2:00. Another quick look out the front door, and the snow had turned to rain, but the wind was blowing just as hard. I woke up every 20 minutes the rest of the night and did a quick check. Each time it was more difficult to get back to sleep, and at 4:00 I said the heck with it, and out the door we went. And, like magic, the wind died down and the rain stopped. One wonders if that would have worked at midnight? A quick walk up to the beaver pond netted us our first owl, a Northern Saw-whet. It also gave us an opportunity to visit with the beavers, who were attempting to repair the breach I had made in their dam the afternoon before, and were none to happy to encounter us at 4:30 in the pitch dark. With a mighty slap of a beaver tail, they were gone and we went back to searching for owls. We eventually found another saw-whet and heard a distant Barred Owl calling at dawn. Three owls is a good count for any island CBC, so we started the day with some hope.
At dawn we were crouched at Vesper Point, huddled together for warmth, with wind blasting us from a very strong SE storm that had blown in overnight. The plan was to catch the crow flocks coming from their night roosts on Gerald Island. The only problem was, we had seen very few crows going offshore to roost in the past month. In years past, as many as 4000 Northwestern Crows would fly offshore each night to roost at Gerald Island, and if you caught them coming ashore first thing in the4 morning, you were done counting crows for the day. You could even go back at the end of the day to do a second count to check your accuracy. Although we hadn't been seeing that many crows locally, we decided it was a good way to start the day. And it was. Gulls blasted past us in the near dark, some just a few feet above us. Marbled Murrelets gave their distinctive "keer" calls from somewhere offshore in the dark, just barely audible above the roar of the wind. And there came the crows! In the course of about 10 minutes, we counted 1487 Northwestern Crows flying past us. I don't know where they are roosting these days, but it is somewhere west of us, possibly on Mistaken Island? Anyway, we got our crows as the sun came up. Well, that isn't right. The sun may have come up, but we never saw it. All was grey and cold. The wind blasted, and we shivered in the dull gray of the day. And from the looks of the waves and the swaying of the trees, it would be a difficult day for counting birds.

After getting the crows, we headed back to the house for a quick cup of warm liquid, and then headed off to count the 85 acres of forest in the park. It didn't take us long to get into a big chick-let flock, which also included a Hutton's Vireo and a few Red-breasted Nuthatches. Brown Creepers were calling. A male Anna's Hummingbird sang from a perch high in a red cedar. Varied Thrush "chucked" from the high in the few arbutus that still held berries. The Bald Eagle pair called from their nest tree. All was good. And then we found the garbage. Some moron had dumped what appeared to be a dump truck load of garbage in front of the upper gate! Bird counting came to an end, as we went back to our caretaking duties.
Several hours later, with garbage taken care of, and law enforcement on the trail of the evil-doers, we were able to resume counting birds. By now the wind had settled into a steady 50 miles an our straight out of the south-southeast. This piled the waves smack onto Vesper Point in great white-capped swells, making sea-watching seem futile. But it didn't take long to figure out that the wind was on our side. It was blowing so hard, that those seabirds that generally feed in deeper water far offshore, were getting blown towards shore, and then had to take to the air to fly back out to where they preferred to be. This meant that birds which were normally too far offshore to see, were flying right past us, and in great numbers. This year, our counts of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and especially, Ancient Murrelets, were counted in numbers several magnitudes higher than ever before. We also got a new species for a park list, as a pair of Black Scoters flew past. We ended up spending most of the rest of the day huddled in the rocks near Vesper Point, staring offshore as the wind pounded the shoreline. It was a great day, and we very much enjoyed it. The wind did make getting a decent count in the forest fairly difficult tough, and we did miss at least 10 species that we knew were there. Except for a couple of Northern Flickers, we totally dipped on woodpeckers, and had a similar experience with sparrows and finches. Not getting a single Dark-eyed Junco on a count like this is downright poor. But, such is counting birds at Christmas on Vancouver Island. Rain, wind, and more rain are about as much as one can expect. Still, it's a blast, and I can't wait for next year.
Birds seen in the Moorecroft Regional Park sub-area of the Nanoose - Lantzville Christmas Bird Count: Friday, 16 December 2011:
45 Species
3315 individual birds
Harlequin Duck: 8
Surf Scoter: 27
White-winged Scoter: 1
Black Scoter: 2
Long-tailed Duck: 4
Bufflehead: 8
Barrow's Goldeneye: 2
Common Merganser: 7
Red-breasted Merganser: 17
Pacific Loon: 386
Common Loon: 7
Horned Grebe: 3
Red-necked Grebe: 1
Brandt's Cormorant: 6
Double-crested Cormorant: 17
Pelagic Cormorant: 14
Great Blue Heron: 1
Bald Eagle: 24 (17 adults and 7 immature birds)
Black Oystercatcher: 3
Mew Gull: 140
Herring Gull: 2
Thayer's Gull: 6
Glaucous-winged Gull: 33
Common Murre: 496
Pigeon Guillemot: 5
Marbled Murrelet: 25
Ancient Murrelet: 207
Rhinoceros Auklet: 1
Barred Owl: 1
Northern Saw-whet Owl: 2
Anna's Hummingbird: 4
Northern Flicker: 2
Hutton's Vireo: 2
Northwestern Crow: 1487
Common Raven: 6
Chestnut-backed Chickadee: 42
Red-breasted Nuthatch: 2
Brown Creeper: 18
Bewick's Wren: 3
Pacific Wren: 22
Golden-crowned Kinglet: 219
Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 12
American Robin: 3
Varied Thrush: 36
Spotted Towhee: 2

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