Wednesday 30 December 2009

Montlake Fill, Seattle

An otherwise quiet day was lifted by meeting up with my reader at Montlake Fill, aka Union Bay Natural Area. I had mis-timed my arrival and had to wait for the light. When the dawn broke, I set out down the path along the Montlake Cut. Silhouetted against a lightening sky were Double Crested Cormorants and a tree-ful of crows. You will note that I am avoiding being specific about the crows. See the previous Seattle post for details and information about Montlake Fill and how to get there.
The weak early light reflected on the water of Union Bay, showing a large raft of ducks huddled tightly together, but they were too far out to be discernable yet. The white tail of one of the resident Bald Eagles was just visible in the gloom. Closer in among the small islands near the sailing club, I was able to make out the details of a couple of Wood Duck, Some Gadwall and Mallard. The white markings of a male Hooded Merganser and a small group of Bufflehead were more obvious. Two Beavers were making their way between the islands. Their eyes and nostrils situated at the top of their heads allowed them to maintain a very low profile in the water. One of the adult Eagles appeared suddenly and landed in a tree closeby. Beyond the rowing club, I stopped for a while to watch the Bufflehead and to try to identify a hawk way off. I suspect Coopers, but could not be sure. At last the light became strong enough to make photography worthwhile and I started with a female Green-winged Teal. Beyond her in the narrow channel that lead out to the main water, a Great Blue Heron stood motionless waiting for his breakfast to approach within reach. A footbrdge took me across the channel into the carpark of the Union Bay Nature Reserve. At the first junction of the path a flock of 5 Golden-crowned Sparrows were digging through the gravel.
The light was improving now so I was heading towards the shore of Union Bay to get a better look a that large raft of duck. I was sidetracked by the overgrown pond which has produced otter and other excitements in the past. It was here that I met Amy, my reader. It was a pleasure to meet her again and we took a turn around the reserve together before she had to head off to work. We saw an Anna's Hummingbird, which surprised me at this time of year. I know that some people, in Vancouver for example, leave sugar-feeders out all year. Would the hummingbirds be able to over-winter otherwise I wonder? At the lake I was able to get a better look at the large flock which proved to be mostly made up of coot and Wigeon. Closer inspection revealed a few Lesser Scaup and at least one Canvasback. The red-winged Blackbirds were singing from vantage points in the trees, bushes and reeds. You would think it was spring the way they were carrying on. A Lincoln's Sparrow briefly showed, low down in a tangle. Passing back past the overgrown pond produced a Belted Kingfisher, but not the Wilson's Snipe that Amy had mentioned earlier. Sibley does not mention Wilson's Snipe, nor does Peterson. National Geographic mentions it in passing as the former name for Common Snipe. It is a popular inclusion in posts on however and my colleague G.L. has spoken of it. I would not know how to differentiate it from a Common Snipe, but since I saw neither, it did not present me with a problem.
Since writing the above, I have checked through my assorted information sources and have prepared a Wilson's Snipe ID pack in case I ever face the challenge of the subtle differences between the two.
I have found that the Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata is also known as a Fantail Snipe. It was previously conspecific with the Common Snipe and in many accounts, is still considered thus.
It can be differentiated from G. gallinago by conspicuous white trailing edges to the wings.
It is distributed from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska to the southern USA. It winters to the northern part of South America.
As I trekked my way back past the rowing club, a disturbance in the water caught my attention. A River Otter was hunting around and under the floating docks while a Pied-billed Grebe watched on. While I say "hunting", otters manage to make even the essential chores of life look fun. Perhaps she was just playing. A heron sitting out on a birch snag with the browns of the season in the background made my favourite picture of the day.
I was just preparing to put the camera away after this shot when an immature Bald Eagle flew over with something in it's talons. It settled in a tree above the sailing club and fed on it. Dark feathers fell from the prey showing that the young bird was quickly taking a lead from it's parents who are said to feed exclusively on the waterbirds of the bay. I noticed on the few occasion that I saw eagles today, that they get harassed far more than the eagles of Boundary Bay, Vancouver (see post 20th December). Perhaps the birds at Boundary Bay see so many eagles that they can't afford the time to mob them all. At Union Bay the eagles are fewer and further between, allowing the smaller birds a rest and a chance to feed before having to chase off the next predator. The young eagle was not allowed to settle even though it was pre-occupied with it's lunch and probably not an immediate threat. It was harried from the sailing club to the top of a conifer on the lawns outside the stadium dropping it's lunch as it left. From there it flew back out over the water and was gone.

Mammal species;

Beaver 2, River Otter 1.

Bird species; 34

Pied-billed Grebe 5, Double-crested Cormorant 200, Great Blue Heron 4, Wood Duck 4, Mallard 60, Gadwall 50, American Wigeon 500, Northern Shoveler 4, Green-winged Teal 40, Canvasback 1, Lesser Scaup 60, Bufflehead 80, Hooded Merganser 12, Common Merganser 5, Ruddy Duck 1, Red-tailed Hawk 1, Bald Eagle 3, American Coot 800, Kildeer 2, Anna’s Hummingbird 3, Belted Kingfisher 2, American Crow 300, Black-capped Chickadee 4, Bewick’s Wren 2, Marsh Wren 1, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1, American Robin 10, Starling 15, Spotted Towhee 3, Golden-crowned Sparrow 4, Lincoln’s Sparrow 2, Song Sparrow 15, Red-winged Blackbird 20, American Goldfinch 15.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Twitching in Vancouver

Today was to be a “twitch”. G.L. had put me on to a Gyrfalcon at Boundary bay south of Vancouver (incidentally, G.L. has been responsible for nearly 20 lifers for me this year and still, I haven’t bought him a beer. Soon pal, honest). I kept an eye on the falcon through posts on and was pleased to note that it was staying in the area. Thank you to the members of bcvanbirds who replied to my request for information and directions. The excellent, new Canada Line whisked me from downtown Vancouver to Bridgeport Station in 17 minutes. From there it was a simple skip on the 351 from bus stop 8 to Matthew’s Exchange. 96th St. starts just east of here and heads 2kms south to the Boundary Bay Dyke Trail. As I alighted from the bus, I thought I saw the first rays of the sun breaking through the clouds. But once I got my bearings, I realised that the lights were in the west and were in fact the lights from huge arrays of greenhouses, reflecting off the low cloud.
There was no sunrise today, just a gradual, insipid change from dark to murky as I walked south on 96th St. But, I was in perfect position, arriving as dawn coincided with a tide approaching it’s highest point.
As soon as I breasted the rise on to the dyke, there were birds, thousands of them. Immediately obvious were the Pintail and Teal on the water right in front of me and the Dunlin wheeling in flocks right across the bay. Further out was a tightly packed raft of scaup. Flying over were small groups of Glaucous-winged Gulls.
The dyke, with the trail on top, runs along the north shore of Boundary Bay and protects farms and a couple of airports from the sea. The tide today was reaching nearly to the trail itself. This left the Dunlin with nowhere to rest and the sky across the bay was thick with clouds of birds. When some of the flocks amalgamated, they formed a thick band of birds that filled the entire width of my vision.
I do not recall seeing so many raptors at one go before. Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier and Peregrine Falcons ensured that all the birds on the bay were on their guard. At one point 2 peregrines were harassing a flock of Dunlin. A Merlin caught a sparrow from the grasses on the shoreline.
But my goal today was a mast to the west of 96th St. that the Gyrfalcon was said to frequent. I scoped the tower from a couple of different positions, but could not see anything. I was prepared for this and had a plan in mind. I began to walk towards the east with the intention of doing so until the sun appeared. Then I would return to the west with the good light following me and facilitating some magnificent photography. The cloud stayed obstinately thick and low and I would probably still be heading east, if I hadn’t run in to Monica at 104th St.
Monica was conducting a shorebird survey for Bird Study Canada. To do this she was counting Dunlin. Not a job I would relish. She was heading west, so I imposed myself upon her and together, we returned the way I had come. More peregrines were attacking the flocks, but the falcon I wanted to see was much bigger than these. At up to 3lbs, the Gyrfalcon is bigger than a Red-tailed Hawk and only marginally smaller than an Osprey.
From a distance, Monica was able to pick out a shape on top of the mast. Could this be the Gyrfalcon?
A Short-eared Owl showed briefly and a nice flock of American Goldfinches flitted through the bushes inland from the dyke. A formation of Trumpeter Swans flew over.
As we got closer, the shape was certainly that of a falcon. At our closest approach to the mast, identification was still inconclusive. The wings did not appear to reach the end of the tail and the facial markings of a peregrine were not apparent. So evidence was favouring the Gyrfalcon, but this was outweighed by the size. It seemed far too small. We were still 250meters from the mast so scale was difficult to judge, but I was not happy. I took some photos and hoped that they would prove decisive when I blew them up on the computer.The bird seemed settled and did not look inclined to fly, so we left him and turned our attention bay-wards again. The tide was receding now and the Dunlin at last had somewhere to land and feed. But they were still easily spooked and the never-ending stream of harriers and eagles would not allow them to settle. Two of the eagles put on an aerobatic display of close-proximity flying.
Monica managed to entice me into her car with the promise of a Snowy Owl. This would be a great consolation if the Gyrfalcon was not confirmed.
We made our way round to 72nd St. and parked at the corner of the golf course there. Bald Eagles were very much in evidence on the way there with probably another dozen birds spotted en-route.
The area at 72nd St. has a salt marsh that does not get inundated except at much higher tides than today. Sadly there were no Snowy Owls (possibly due to hunters with dogs), but we did see a couple of Red-tailed Hawks which reinforced my feeling that the falcon on the mast was too small. Monica was surprised to see a small flock of Western Meadowlark.
I send a big thank you to Monica for her company and local expertise and for dropping me back to the train station on an afternoon that was turning chilly. On the way, just before we passed under the Frazer River. Monica topped out the day with some Common Mergansers.
Once I arrived home, I eagerly up-loaded my photos to the computer, but cannot make any more detail than I had before. If anyone from bcvanbirds is prepared to venture an opinion on the Gyrfalcon, I would be very pleased to be put out of my misery. Or if the mast builder could tell me for example that the vanes at the top of the tower are 12 feet long, that would give an idea of scale.
Stop Press, 2 independent observers have confirmed the Gyrfalcon. Thanks guys!
If Monica reads this, I wonder what she will make of my counting?

Birds species; 31

Great Blue Heron 8, Trumpeter Swan 9, Brent Goose 16, Mallard 30. Wigeon 800, Pintail 4000, Teal 700, Common Merganser 9, Bald Eagle 30, Northern Harrier 9, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Merlin 1, Peregrine 4, Gyrfalcon 1, Short-eared Owl 1, Grey Plover 80, Greater Yellowlegs 5. Glaucous-winged Gull 400, Dunlin 15000, Sanderling 1, Northern Flicker 1, American Robin 8, Northwestern Crow 18, Black-capped Chickadee 2, Song Sparrow 6, White-throated Sparrow 4, Spotted Towhee 1, Western Meadowlark 5, American Goldfinch 50,House Finch 8, Brewer’s Blackbird 100, Common Starling 150,

Sunday 6 December 2009

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Singapore’s weather is easily predictable, to the extent that I do not ever recall seeing a forecast on Singapore television. White-breasted Waterhen
While in the temperate climate of the UK, we have a fascination with the vagaries of our weather, the Singaporeans know that theirs will be hot and humid with rain later. The only variable is at what time the rain will start. Today it was 11.00 Actually, this post is an amalgam of two outings. I was not satisfied with my camera work on the first visit, so returned the next day to see if I could get it right.
In truth, I was planning a dragonfly post, but since there were some birds presenting themselves well, I decided to make a brief description on the bird blog too. The corresponding post is on
I knew that rain was imminent, so chose to go to Singapore Botanical Gardens. It is easily accessible, taking only 15 minutes on a no.7 bus from outside the Capitol Building. I entered the gardens via the Napier Road gate at 06.00, shortly before sunrise. The gardens are open from 05.00 until midnight and entrance is free.
As usual in the early light, the air was filled with the calls of the Asian Koel. A male flew across the road ahead. The inevitable Javan Mynas were very noticeable throughout the gardens, but my attention was caught by a Collared Kingfisher waiting to have his photo taken. Since this started as a dragonfly post, I was focussing my attention around the various bodies of water, but following up interesting bird opportunities when they presented themselves. I heard the resonant, woody call of a Lineated Barbet and tracked it down in a fruiting fig tree nearby. A pair of very noisy Common Goldenbacks arrived into the same tree and threw the barbet into a frenzy of calling and posturing.
Above me, were about 40 swiftlets, feeding 10 meters up. It is said that it is not possible to differentiate between Edible-nest Swiftlets and Black-nest Swiftlets in the field. Certainly, I could not come to a decision between the two. While I was trying, a young Oriental Magpie Robin came and joined me on the bench.
I found myself near to the rainforest section of the gardens. Being aware that November had been a very slow month for blogging, I wanted to give my reader something to keep him clicking. The forested area is only very small but the more extensive forests at Bukit Timah and The Central Catchment Area are close by. So there is no telling what may be in the small forest section on any given day. Today, I witnessed a confrontation between a myna and a Banded Woodpecker.Possession of a hole seems to have sparked the dispute. After a time sizing each other up, the woodpecker lunged at the myna. The two birds fell, locked together for about 40 feet through the foliage, only separating when they hit the ground.
Back on the lawns by Symphony lake, a pair of Lesser Whistling Ducks were very approachable which made me wary of their wild status. There are Mute and Black Swans in the gardens as exotics. I saw two Hill Mynas early in the day, but their ability to wolf whistle and their extensive show tunes repertoire must disallow them on this occasion.
The most productive area of the two visits was Eco Pond. Here I found 4 Yellow Bittern, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Olive-backed Sunbird, Zebra Dove, and White-breasted Waterhen around the edges of the water. On a palm-filled island in the pond were Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Asian Glossy Starling, a Black-crowned Night Heron and another bittern.

The garden is a well utilised city park. From first light there are people jogging meditating or practicing Tai Chi. Dogs are leashed. From my experience it seems a very safe place to walk alone.
It has 3 main bodies of water, plus a few damp patches where I spent most of my time with the odonata on this trip. There are lawns and palms, a ginger garden and the national orchid collection. A small patch of remnant rainforest can be productive on it’s day.

Mammal species; 2

Plantain Squirrel 8, Palm Squirrel 4Bird species; 25

Black-crowned Night Heron 1, Yellow Bittern 5, Lesser Whistling Duck 5, White-breasted Waterhen 8, Pink-necked Green pigeon 16, Spotted Dove 14, Zebra Dove 2, Long-tailed Parakeet 1, Asian Koel 3, Collared Kingfisher 2, Dollarbird 2, Lineated Barbet 3, Common Goldenback 3, Banded Woodpecker 1, swiftlet spp Asian Palm Swift 6, Yellow-vented Bulbul 8, Black Drongo 2, Magpie Robin 8, Asian Glossy Starling 15, Javan Myna 60, Common Myna 5, Plain Throated Sunbird 3, Olive-backed Sunbird 1, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker 6, Tree Sparrow 5.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Glossy Ibis at Oare Marshes

December 1st.
What with one thing and another, I have not been out with my binoculars for nearly 6 weeks! That is a very long time to be indoors. So I found a window and scrambled out into the December chill. I headed for Oare Marshes at Faversham on the Thames Estuary.
I stopped on the road that bisects the reserve and had a quick scan across the eastern floods. A number of small islands give good roosting at high tide for the many waders that love to feed in the estuary. On the islands today were Golden plovers. They out-numbered everything else combined it seemed. One still maintained the remnants of it’s summer black. Northern Lapwings are always abundant here and made up the next most populous species. The bronze award went to the Redshank. One island appeared to be the sole domain of the Black-tailed Godwit. There are often a few bar-tails amongst them, but I couldn’t winkle one out today. Closer inspection showed a few others such as Dunlin and Ringed Plover.
Other numerous species were; Cormorant, Greylag Goose, Shoveler, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and Coot.
I set out from the car park along the path that runs beside the estuary, heading towards the Sea Wall hide. The estuary to my left was just approaching high slack water.
A couple of Bearded Reedlings bent the reed stalks over as I approached the hide, but they did not come into the open for a good view. Out on the water were Herring, Common and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Great Crested Grebes and a few Cormorants flying over.
Beyond the hide, the path bears south along the eastern side of the reserve.The light is much preferable in this direction although the sun was weak in the early December morning. Looking back across the eastern floods I was watching the island covered in Godwits when suddenly everything took to the air. Is there a term for the sudden take-off of all the birds? We use expressions like “something has put the birds up”, or the like, but is there not an onomatopoeic word like a “whoomph” or an indication of panic like a “flapper”?
So…, the godwits whoomphed in a flapper. Hmmm?
There was not a bird of prey obvious, but flying over was a Glossy Ibis (a newby for my UK list), it’s long, curved bill easily visible. It was flying north towards Sheppey. There are a few ibis around at the moment with a handful staying over at Dungeoness currently.
I noticed another small group of reedlings and settled on the bank hoping that they would come out for a picture. I had to wait quite a while, but eventually one of the males found a clear place to sit. I continued on the path leading along Faversham Creek as far as the outflow where a Rock Pipit watched from the rail.
Another whoomph signalled a big flapper(this isn't working. Any sensible suggestions will be considered). Looking round, there was the ibis flying over again. As it came towards me, head-on, it did have the look of a raptor about it. I feel that the birds were reacting to the ibis. Perhaps they were being cautious and whoomphing in response to the perceived threat of a big, unfamiliar shape. I returned the way I had come to take advantage of the dropping water level and watched the birds flying over on to the freshly exposed mud. Redshanks were first out. Soon there were Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwits too. A Ruddy Turnstone picked amongst the seaweed on the rock by the seawall.
The afternoon darkened very quickly and my internal clock was telling me to head home, but when I got to my car it was only 14.00 so I took a quick walk onto the western scrape.I had hoped that Short-eared Owl might put in an appearance. Apparently it is a poor year for short-ears, but a Barn Owl put in a great performance as understudy.

Bird species; 53

Little Grebe 8, Great Crested Grebe 4, Cormorant 20, Little Egret 3, Grey Heron 1, Glossy Ibis 1, Mute Swan 4, Greylag Goose 25, Brent Goose 40, Shelduck 35, Mallard 6, Pintail 5, Shoveler 60, Wigeon 30, Teal 150, Tufted Duck 12, Marsh Harrier 1, Common Buzzard 1, Kestrel 3, Peregrine Falcon 1, Pheasant 5, Common Moorhen 15, Coot 50, Oystercatcher 4, Ringed Plover 2, Golden Plover 1200, Northern Lapwing 600, Turnstone 3, Dunlin 200, Redshank 500, Black-tailed Godwit 300,Curlew 6, Snipe 6, Ruff 2, Lesser Black-back Gull 2, Black-headed Gull 8, Common Gull 4, Herring Gull 10, Wood Pigeon 6, Barn Owl 1, Kingfisher 1, Green Woodpecker 1, Rock Pipit 1, Pied Wagtail 1, Robin 2, Blackbird 4, Blue Tit 3, Bearded Reedling 6, Magpie 6, Carrion Crow 6, Starling 60, Green Finch 12, Reed Bunting 10.