Surfbird

January 28th, 2020: A day trip to Bowen Island

I headed to West Vancouver today with my good friend, Mel. We’d planned to scope Howe Sound for Ancient Murrelets, Marbled Murrelets, and Surfbirds.

A Harbour Seal looks up at us while we scope for Surfbirds
A Harbour Seal looks up at us while we scope for Surfbirds

We started at Whytecliff Park, where we scoped into the rain and fog. And found a Mew Gull. Yeah. One gull. Not a promising start. Still, it was supposed to clear up. So we hopped onto the ferry to Bowen Island, crossed our fingers…and it started to clear up! Yes!

Looking north across Howe Sound and into the Coastal Mountains
Looking north across Howe Sound and into the Coastal Mountains

Even better, as we rounded the corner coming out of Horseshoe Bay, there were two Black Oystercatcher and a Surfbird on a small islet just off the tip of the mainland! Black Oystercatchers are fun, but very common around any rocky bank in Vancouver (where there are lots of small molluscs). Surfbirds, on the other hand, are more difficult to find.

If you catch the tides right at Whytecliff or Klootchman Park, you can find them there, sometimes in flocks approaching 100 birds. But it’s also easy to miss them entirely if the flock happens to be on some distant islet, or all the way over on Bowen Island. And half of the time birders are scouring flocks of Surfbirds in the Vancouver area, they’re really looking for that one Rock Sandpiper (very uncommon east of the Sunshine Coast).

But I love the Surfbirds and I was thrilled to see one today, even if it was just one. Since they’ve always been at great distance (including today), I’ve never managed a photo of a Surfbird, so you’re out of luck until I can manage one and update this post. (There are several good ones here though.) They breed way up in Alaska, but have a crazy-long winter range: from Alaska to Chile!! But only along the very outer edge of the Pacific coast. They’re never far from the water: rarely more than a few feet it seems. And they always seem to be just about to dip their toes in, without ever doing so. All the while, chasing aquatic invertebrates in and around rocks exposed by the tide.

The trip across Howe Sound was stunning, as always. But still very quiet for birds after we left Horseshoe Bay. Things livened up when we checked out or first Bowen Island spot: The Lagoon.

Map of good birding spots on Bowen Island
Map of good birding spots on Bowen Island

The lagoon is two things. On one side, it’s a lagoon (I would have said pond), surrounded by woodland. On the other, it’s a shallow bay (variously called Mannion or Deep Bay) with a couple of small rocky spits and some smaller pleasure craft anchored. The highlight here was a single Black Turnstone on one of the rocky spits, but there was a decent mix of birds on our stationary eBird list.

The Lagoon (read: pond) on the west side of the trail
“Mannion Bay” or “Deep Bay” at pretty high tide on the east side of the trail

Next, we popped over to Tunstall Bay. Here we found more of the pelagic birds we had hoped for. 15 Horned Grebe were in relatively close, with a solitary Western Grebe, and several Brandt’s Cormorant farther out. Even better were two pairs of Marbled Murrelet, and an extremely distant flock of 9 Common Murre (eBird list). The latter were so far out, I had my scope cranked up to 60x and still could barely make out their silhouettes. Standing on an island looking straight into the ocean with your scope is about the most pelagic birding you can do without being on a boat. (I love it.)

A distant digiscoped view of a row of Horned Grebe with a Marbled Murrelet in the background
A distant digiscoped view of a row of Horned Grebe with a Marbled Murrelet in the background

Now it was time for some inland island birding. We soaked up the beautiful, dense forested PNW habitat as we walked around Killarney Lake. There weren’t a ton of birds there today, except for plenty of Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Characteristic PNW temperate rainforest: Western Red Cedar (and some Hemlock) above and Western Sword Fern below
Characteristic PNW temperate rainforest: Western Red Cedar (and some Hemlock) above and Western Sword Fern below

But it was so nice that we walked the full hiking loop around the lake. We were rewarded with some new birds for the day: Ring-necked Duck, Varied Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Fox Sparrow, among others (eBird list).

Two Common Merganser set off across Killarney Lake
Two Common Merganser set off across Killarney Lake

After our nice walk, we headed to Cape Roger Curtis Lighthouse to try to catch the last of the low tide. (Sir Roger Curtis was an officer of the British Royal Navy, who is/was more than a little controversial.) Sadly, though the tide was still pretty low, we didn’t see any of the shorebirds we hoped to find there. This particular spot is known to have up to a couple hundred Surfbirds at one time. Needless to say: much more than one would typically see east on the mainland. It would have been nice to see them there, but I was still pleased we’d spotted the lonely single Surfbird on our ferry crossing earlier.

Looking west from the impossibly picturesque Cape Roger Curtis
Looking west from the impossibly picturesque Cape Roger Curtis

We were a little slow leaving the incredibly picturesque lighthouse cape and just missed the (hourly) ferry back. That meant we would run out of daylight before any more birding on the mainland, but it gave us a chance to return to The Lagoon.

Deep Bay (opposite The Lagoon) at lower tide in the late afternoon
Deep Bay (opposite The Lagoon) at lower tide in the late afternoon

We found pretty much the same birds when we arrived. But shortly after setting up our scopes, I spotted a Bald Eagle swooping down behind one of the many anchored pleasure craft. I repositioned and saw that it had isolated a male Common Goldeneye and decided to try to make it dinner. The Goldeneye kept diving to avoid capture, but it was clearly tiring. The Bald Eagle by contrast seemed intent on catching what would be quite a meal.

A digiscoped video of one, then two Bald Eagles attempting to catch a lone male Common Goldeneye (I don’t have video of the actual catch) near an indifferent Mute Swan

For a while, we weren’t sure how it would end. Then a second Bald Eagle showed up and they took turns trying to grab the poor duck. That didn’t last more than about 20 seconds before eagle #1 had him. Too heavy for the eagle to take flight, it floated on the surface with the duck underwater below. Over the next 5 minutes or so, the eagle swam awkwardly, but persistently, wings slightly bent, toward the nearest shore.

A Bald Eagle swimming with a Common Goldeneye in its talons below the surface before pulling its prey onto a rock

When it arrived, it hauled the deceased duck out of the water and began the long process of plucking it. At this point, the rather morbid children’s song “Alouette” popped unbidden into my head. I remembered singing it when I was little, not realizing (until many years later) I was internalizing some basic anatomy in French, while poorly eulogizing a lark. After another 5–10 minutes, as the tide pulled a long trail of Common Goldeneye feathers out to sea, it was time for us to catch our ferry.

A Bald Eagle begins plucking its catch before eating it

As we drifted back across Howe Sound and the sun set on another great day of birding, I reflected more than usual on the wonder and brutality of the natural world.

Looking northeast across Howe Sound on our ferry crossing just before sunset
Looking northeast across Howe Sound on our ferry crossing just before sunset

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. This was a beautiful post. We really had a wonderful day together my friend. thanks for joining me

    Beautiful pics loved the video too.

    1. I’m so glad you liked it! It was an awesome day! =)

  2. Cool videos! Fun to see the eagles working rather than just stealing from osprey 😉 Do you know if the one eagle shared (or would be likely to share) with the other eagle?

    1. I don’t think they do share food, Andy. I looked it up and was unable to find examples outside of the obvious sharing with their young. Some research discusses how they definitely do not share food during nesting time for energy reasons, but nothing about them sharing prey items at other times. On all the occasions I’ve seen Bald Eagles catching/eating prey, I’ve never seen them share (but that’s anecdotal obviously). The exception is when there is a large amount of carrion and a group of birds will eat at the same corpse. Overall, they are often quite territorial and even steal food from other eagles. They mate for life though, so maybe there’s some special treatment for their partners.

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