I was up at around 5:30 this morning and, after a quick breakfast, was on the road and heading south to Nanaimo for the city’s 2011 Christmas Bird Count. I have to admit that I wasn’t too optimistic about the weather but I was pleasantly surprised to see clear skies and stars when I loaded my gear into the car. I had checked the weather forecast before I went to bed last night and all indications were that it was going to be a wet day of birding.
I met Rick S., my teammate in Nanaimo around 8:00 am and we headed out to the Nanaimo River estuary. We had both birded this area before in last year’s count and were familiar with what to expect in terms of target species. The difference this year was the lack of rain and unseasonably warm temperatures (around 9o Celsius) – a pleasant change from 2010! Although I had packed a fleece jacket and full rain gear, it was so warm that a jacket was all that was needed.
High tide was at 8:52 am and as a result the salt marsh was completely flooded. Duck hunters were out in force enjoying the weather as well and ducks were scarce. We picked up some good birds at this stop including a very nice Rough-legged Hawk and a Northern Shrike. No signs of the estuary’s signature bird, the Short-eared Owl or the possible Snowy Owl. Rifle blasts were frequent and one hunter shot (hopefully, not intentionally) in our general direction on the viewing platform. The shot pellets fell short, landing in the middle of the Nanaimo River.
From here we continued to the other side of the estuary at Holden Creek. Ducks were also fairly scarce in this location but we picked up a few more species of birds including Gadwall, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Eurasian-collared Dove.
Our next destination was the Jack Point Trail near the BC Ferries terminal at Duke Point. Last year the wind made walking this trail pointless and we hoped that with the better weather we would be able to see some water birds. Large rafts of Northern Pintail and American Wigeon formed offshore, probably driven out of the estuary by the constant rifle blasts. There were a few other species along the way but not much in the way of numbers – a few Horned Grebe, a half dozen Red-breasted Mergansers, and a couple of other different ducks. The long walk out to the point wasn’t super productive for birds, but Rick’s dog enjoyed the walk. The sun and sandstone formations made it worthwhile.
At this point in the day the weather was starting to deteriorate and the rain was on its way. We decided to return to the estuary and after a quick lunch we backtracked, following Gordon Road past a farm next to Holden Creek. A holly tree beside the road provided the spectacle of close to 75 American Robins feeding on the berries and perched in nearby oaks. Sorting through the robins, I spotted an Evening Grosbeak, a new bird for our list.
Our last stop of the day was the estuary. We had no luck finding an owl of any sort but did get one more expected species that we missed during the our first visit – Northern Harrier. Watching it hunting over the salt marsh was the perfect way to end the day!
In total we tallied 59 species of birds – just shy of our revised goal of 60 species for the day. We missed several birds that we expected but didn’t see: Downy Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rock Pigeon were no where to be found. Saltwater waterfowl were also underrepresented. The preliminary overall total for the 2011 count was 118 species.