Foul Weather Phalarope

Jocie and I lived for a year on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia and spent some time birding with Peter Hamel. It was amazing to watch Peter in action and often areas where we had birded earlier in the week would produce something unusual when we were out with Peter. While there is a significant amount of skill involved in being a good birder, a certain amount of luck is required as well. Good birders seem to “call” the birds to them.

I don’t claim to be one of these gifted birders but every now and then something interesting turns up. Such was the case today at the Wickaninnish Centre in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. I was talking with Ewan, who was working the information desk at the Centre while we watched visitors venturing onto the beach at high tide during a pre-winter storm. A word to the wise – be very aware of your surroundings and what the water is doing¬† in the middle of a gale. We saw a family caught by a mid-thigh height wave amongst the drift logs who would definitely need a change of clothing on returning to their car.

Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)
A Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) taking a break on Wickaninnish Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

I was debating on whether or not to take a walk out to the Wickaninnish Beach dunes (it was windy but not raining too hard) when we spotted a “shorebird” land on a patch of bare sand just below the drift logs. Fortunately Ewan had some binoculars and we were able to identify it as a Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Unfortunately, my camera gear was at the office so I headed for my vehicle and made a quick run to get it.

On my return 10 minutes later the bird was gone. The beach in front of the Wickaninnish Centre was being flooded regularly by incoming waves and driftwood was starting to move around. Not a great place for a bird to rest and feed. I decided to try the beach on the south side of the Centre, reasoning that it was usually a little calmer since it got some shelter from off shore islets.

Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)
The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) trying to shake the water out of its feathers.

It turned out that the phalarope had moved over to this beach and I was able to get some photographs of it as it moved up and down with the incoming waves, being mindful myself of what the water was doing. I’ve just started to use a “new” used Sigma 170-500 mm zooom lens and am reasonably pleased with these first results. Most of the images were fairly soft but I think that that’s a combination of poor light (the photos were taken at ISO 800), wide aperture (f5.6 – f6.3), slowish shutter speed (1/320), bird movement and camera shake (images were hand held though braced on a large piece of driftwood). With a little work in Photoshop I was able to sharpen the images up enough to be acceptable for the web. I’m looking forward to taking more bird photographs under better conditions!

I had a short window of opportunity before the rain returned with a vengeance and I made my way back to the warmth of the Wickaninnish Centre. I remember Peter saying that birding in foul weather was always interesting because that was when you’d often find unusual species turning up. Phalaropes are more at home on the open ocean and perhaps it was the storm that had driven it to land. I was glad that I had ventured out into the wind and rain in order to get a better look at this beautiful bird and felt lucky to have seen it!

If you’re interested in more posts about birds and birding check out I and the Bird, this week held over at The Birder’s Report.