To go or not to go that had been the question. Melissa Hafting, my good friend and birding resource extraordinaire had been campaigning for me to come up to British Columbia yet again to see some new rarities that were being seen near Victoria on Vancouver Island. As chronicled in my earlier blog “Chasing…Chasing…Chasing” on January 12th this year, Steve Pink and I had ventured to Victoria and were successful (and fortunate) to see the Purple Sandpiper there on Kitty Islet. Also as detailed in that post, we had not been successful in finding any Skylarks nor the Red Throated Pipit that had been there a few days earlier. Just like on that trip, I wanted the possibility of at least two new life birds or life photos to justify the time and expense.
The Skylarks still beckoned but even though I also just wanted to see Melissa and bird with her, I needed a second target to justify the trip to Vancouver Island. That opportunity arose when two Pink Fronted Geese had appeared and were being seen regularly. Although I had seen these very rare geese last year in Boston over Thanksgiving Holiday, I did not have a photo so I was now happy to make the trip. Frank Caruso was also interested – not for the geese, but for the Eurasian Skylarks which would be a new ABA bird for him and was missed by the two of us last year when we made a successful visit to find the visiting Redwing – an extreme rarity – a life bird for both of us and a new photo for me as well. Jon Houghton was also interested in these same birds and was up for the trip. BUT – there were complications. One was that the geese were seen regularly – and then disappeared. A second was that the weather continued to be miserable – decreasing the chance for finding and certainly for photographing the birds and also decreasing our enjoyment. When the geese were refound – this time an hour north of Victoria, and the weather looked good for Friday – we made tentative plans. BUT – another complication – the geese disappeared from their new location in Duncan. With just the single opportunity, I was not willing to make the trip and Jon and Frank agreed.
Step back a moment – as the plans for a trip to B.C. were riding that roller coaster, a good bird showed up much closer to home. At about 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 8, I got a call from Steve Pink who was looking at an adult Glaucous Gull at the Everett Marina. I had seen and photographed Glaucous Gulls in Washington before, and I had even seen one already in 2017 on my return from the Red Flanked Bluetail trip to Lewiston, ID. But I did not have a photo this year and this was an adult which I had not seen before, so I raced up there and arrived in time to get a photo – and then five minutes later, the gull flew off – heading north.
Glaucous Gull at Everett Marine Park March 8, 2017
All of the Glaucous Gulls I had seen before were first cycle birds – appearing much different – almost entirely white and with a dark tip on their pink bills. My first photo of one was at Swallows Park in Asotin County on March 14, 2015 and I had made that long drive primarily to get that first ever photo. That sighting seemed to open the door for more sightings and photos as I discovered one near Monroe two weeks later and then found yet another on April 2nd. In fact when I had seen an earlier photo of the Everett bird, I thought there had been a mistake because the adult looked so different.
Glaucous Gull – Monroe – March 2015
The rest of the story and the reason for the digression is that the next morning, Frank and Jon searched for the Glaucous Gull for several hours and never found it – perhaps a portent of things to come. While they were searching I got a message from Melissa that not only had the Pink Footed Geese been relocated but now there was an Iceland Gull that was being seen regularly and easily in Parksville – another hour north of where the geese had been refound. And to add to the appeal of a trip, the Redwing that Frank and I had seen the previous year was now being seen regularly and more easily than in the previous year. So in addition to the ever possible Skylarks, there were three additional draws. The weather looked good for the next day and it was not hard to recruit Jon and Frank.
Iceland Gull in Parksville
The plan was to leave Edmonds at 4:00 a.m., pick up Melissa near the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen at 6:40 and be in line by 6:45 – an hour ahead of the 7:45 departure for Nanaimo. All worked smoothly – actually too smoothly. We had no traffic, clear weather, and no wait at the border (where yet again the Canadian border guard was friendly and efficient) so we arrived 45 minutes ahead of schedule. And the ferry was not even half full, so we could have arrived even a half hour later and been fine. A 5:15 a.m. departure would have been a lot easier on us, but adrenalin is a good substitute for rest, no problem.
It takes almost two hours to get to Nanaimo. It was mostly a boring, but easy trip across smooth open water with very few birds seen. Guy Monty, a gull expert, who had discovered the Iceland Gull met us at “the spot” but there were NO gulls on the field at all. Uh-oh. But Guy said he had seen it yesterday in the gull flocks in the Bay so we would search there. There were a zillion gulls in the bay – maybe two zillion. They gather for the herring roe which were being deposited by unseen herring on the sea grass in the shallow water. I will not go through all the details, but we really did see thousands of gulls – of many species (Thayer’s, Glaucous Winged, Herring, California, Mew and even a single Bonaparte’s) – in front of us at the first spot and then at 4 more spots nearby. There were gulls everywhere – but no Iceland Gull. Iceland Gulls are quite rare in the Northwest. Frank had seen several in New England and I had seen a single one before, but no picture. Jon had hopes of seeing them in Iceland when he visits later this year, but he might be too late for them there, so this was a major disappointment AND instead of the 30 minutes originally planned, we had spent two hours and were now behind schedule.
Gulls Were Everywhere in Parksville
The good news was that Melissa had gotten word that the Pink Footed Geese had been seen that morning – not in Duncan – but back in the Victoria area. So we set off for the two hour trip. Each traffic light (and there seemed to be an endless supply) was a frustration, but with Melissa’s expert guidance, we arrived at a parking spot at Blenkinsop–Lohbrunner Road East and headed off on the trail to the bridge from which we hoped to see the geese. After a short while we could see other birders down at the bridge with cameras and scopes focused on what surely had to be our quarry. Indeed they were looking at the Pink Footed Geese but the view was through a very thick bramble of shrubs – good enough for identification but hardly for the good photo that I had hoped to get. If necessity is not the mother of invention, then certainly passionate desire is. The geese were grazing on a grassy field that was blocked by the vegetation but there was a gate (locked, high and not passable) that was adjacent to the trees. Some other birders had tried for a view from that spot and could not see the geese. I think this was because the geese were grazing on the other side of a rise and the rise hid them from the perspective of the gate – BUT – the gate was attached to a high wooden fence – maybe 6 feet tall. I climbed the fence and then sat atop of it and had an unobstructed view and got the desired quality photos.
Pink Footed Geese – Blenkinsop–Lohbrunner Road East – March 10, 2017
Before the trip had begun, I had expected the Iceland Gull to be the most likely and easiest of the birds to find and the Pink Footed Geese to be the hardest. What do I know… Now we were off to try for the Redwing. Melissa had said it was much more cooperative this year, and a birder we met at the goose site said he had this morning and that it was singing. But alas birds have minds of their own. Already running late, we ran into heavier than expected traffic to go the short distance to the Redwing stakeout. And when we arrived at its favorite holly tree, another birder was already there. He had failed to see it for the previous 20 minutes. We waited – and waited – and waited – no luck. A very photo friendly Chestnut Backed Chickadee and a Ruby Crowned Kinglet were the only birds that cooperated for us.
Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
I was admittedly getting very concerned about having sufficient time to find the Skylarks even though Melissa thought they were a sure thing. Finally, just as we started to leave, Melissa saw a thrush-like bird fly over head and disappear into nearby trees. So back we went and spent another 20 minutes hoping for an appearance. But it did not appear for us and we headed off to try for a Skylark. This was especially disappointing for Jon since Frank and I had seen it the previous year and it would have been a life bird for him. Unfortunately the time spent without success looking for the Iceland Gull and the long drive and the traffic compromised our efforts.
Redwing (from 2016)
We first tried for the Skylarks at the Airport – where Melissa “always” had them and where some had been seen and heard that morning. Nothing. We tried another area near the airport – again nothing. It was getting darker and colder and we only had time for one more spot – the Saanichton fields. Steve Pink and I had tried those on our visit without success. Our group walked the road along the fields without success. At one point, a Western Meadowlark flushed up from in front of us. We had no clue it had been there as it was hunkered down in the grass. Shortly thereafter many more birds flushed and then more again. The light was now pretty bad and it was hard to get a look. All or maybe all but one had the distinctive broad white tail corners of Meadowlarks. I thought I saw one without that field mark and Melissa thought she had a pretty good look and that one of the birds was probably a — Skylark. But we could not get the birds to be still, nor to get a good look – so no Skylarks yet again.
Of course we were disappointed not to see the Iceland Gull or the Redwing or a Eurasian Skylark. We had only seen one of four targets. At first blush that sounds like a poor trip, but such was not the case. Originally we were ready to go if there was only a chance to see the Pink Footed Goose and a Skylark. My calculation was that with two possibilities, there was at least a reasonable chance at getting one – and if I could only get one, then I would have chosen the Pink Footed Goose. The Iceland Gull became a major plus but our trip planning to try for that probably not only added a lot of wear and tear but also cost us precious time that if spent differently might have resulted in seeing both the Redwing and the Eurasian Skylarks. BUT it was definitely worth a shot. That is the nature of birding for targets – no guarantees and things change. We visited a lot of good places and had great conversations about birding trips of the past and in the future. I got far better looks and photos of the Pink Footed Geese than I ever expected. Some day I will photograph a Skylark and someday Frank will see one. I may never photograph an Iceland Gull, but I bet Guy Monty will find one next year, so who knows. It was great to meet him and it was as always great to spend time with Melissa. I hope that she is by my side when that Skylark is finally captured by my camera. And I know that there will be many times in the future when we will see rarities – in B.C. or in Washington again. I look forward to those days.