Archive for the 'Iona' Category

Cave Swallow at Iona

On Sunday night when I read about a Cave Swallow being reported at Iona Beach Regional Park I knew I had to try make every effort to see it. This is a new record for B.C. and who knows how long I’d have to wait to see another one here! Monday November 12th was conveniently a holiday in lieu of Remembrance Day and luckily my mom was open to giving me a ride out there to try locate it. I’d only be able to go after lunch so I was a bit tense hoping the bird would stick around till then. It had been reported in the morning but with rain forecasted for the afternoon I wasn’t sure whether it would stick around for much longer.

By the time I left home it was already drizzling and, if the look of the clouds was to be believed, it didn’t seem like it would be letting up any time soon. It was still wet when I arrived at Iona’s parking lot but the sight of a group of birders and a few swallows darting about above the southern outer pond looked promising. As soon as I got my bins out I had a look through the swallows and quickly separated the likely Cave Swallow from the few Barn Swallows keeping it company based on the differences of their respective tails. Although no Cliff Swallows had been reported in the same area, I personally cannot separate the two similar species based off of tiny, fast moving, and dimly lit birds in the rain. Consequently I wouldn’t have felt satisfied claiming the lifer and wanted to make the ID for my self.

I got my scope set up and after several frustrating minutes of trying to get the particular swallow of interest in my field of view I succeeded, for a few very quick seconds. My second attempt was a little faster and I was able to track the bird long enough to see the necessary field marks. What an awesome and completely unexpected lifer!

I noted the creamy coloured cheeks and throat that identified the bird to species in my brief scope view. The photographs posted online, as well as the expert opinion of other birders, indicated this bird to be a juvenile, and I could see the buffy rump and dark greyish brown feathers that distinguish it as such through my binoculars despite the rain. Unfortunately trying to get recognizable shots of swallows with my digiscoping rig and skill level would require a lot of luck, not to mention the fact that it was raining!

Cave Swallows are normally found in south east New Mexico, Texas, and southern Florida in the U.S. (1). They also inhabit northern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula, as well as parts of the Caribbean (1). This species has benefited to some extent from increased human development; the construction of bridges, culverts, and similar structures has created more nesting sites (1). Historically limited to caves, sinkholes, and cliff faces, Cave Swallows have taken advantage of man made structures to expand their distribution north into the U.S. (1).

Many thanks to the birders who spotted and identified this bird! It is always a truly humbling and awe inspiring moment when observing such a rare bird as this in the field.


  1. Strickler, Stephanie and Steve West. 2011. Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Iona: October 28th 2012

The last time I was able to get out birding was when I wrote about my walk through Queen Elizabeth Park weeks ago. Luckily on Sunday I wasn’t entirely swamped with homework and the weather seemed cooperative, enabling me to get briefly for a walk down Iona’s south jetty with my mom.

The first thing I noticed upon exiting the car was a series of bangs set off by the airport workers in charge of keeping the birds out of the paths of the aircraft. This was followed by the over flight of a number panic stricken Snow Geese and other waterfowl in a hurry to get out of there! At the base of the south side of the jetty a number of ducks were sleeping or resting; apparently undeterred by the airport staff’s fireworks. A quick scan of this group produced a Eurasian Wigeon sleeping amongst its American brethren.

As I set up my scope to scan the area to the north of the jetty I noticed another birder waving and pointing at something. It was a Short-eared Owl flying right past my position! I quite likely might have missed the owl if it hadn’t been for the other birder, so thank you!

The walk down the rest of the jetty held only the regular species one might expect to see at this time of year; including Horned Grebe, Surf Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser. As I was with my mom we opted not to walk the full length to the jetty’s end but turned around about halfway out. Although I was only able to bird for a short while, any amount of time outside after spending so long behind my desk was a welcome reprieve!

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at Iona

I got up early on Saturday morning (20 Nov) in order to get a head start on the day’s birding but when I looked out the window I found light rain mixed with snow falling upon the street. I went to Iona anyway as the forecast called for clearing skies; I only had to endure fifteen minutes of light snow as I made my way down the south jetty before the weather began to clear. It was freakishly cold on the jetty as Vancouver is in the midst of an arctic front; the low temperature combined with a light breeze quickly numbed my gloved hands. One would certainly not have wanted to lick their tripod.

Luckily my walk out there was worth it. Just before 1000 I found a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch foraging along the grassy edges of the road that runs next to the sewage outflow pipe. It was nearby the 3.0km mark when I first sighted it. Seeds form a large part of this species’ diet and this particular bird was quite adept at stripping what little grass and weeds there are on the jetty of theirs (1). The bird slowly made its way down the jetty as it fed and I followed it until we reached the 3.5km mark; here the bird turned back and I continued to the jetty’s end.

Around Vancouver Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch normally inhabit alpine environments but they may descend to lower elevations in winter; particularly during inclement weather (1). The snowfall on the North Shore Mountains combined with the frigid temperatures may have been enough to force this bird down from its mountain home.

After enjoying some smashing looks at a very handsome Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch I positioned myself at the end of the jetty for a bit of sea watching. There were quite a few birds out there; though most of them were quite distant. A group of three Common Murre was of note as well as good numbers of Red-throated Loon. My walk down the jetty turned out to be quite enjoyable; despite almost freezing to death.


  1. Macdougall-Shackleton, Scott A., Richard E. Johnson and Thomas P. Hahn. 2000. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

A Gull Feeding Frenzy

On Saturday evening I was once again at Iona Beach and while scanning the area between the south and north jetty got to witness quite a few gulls feeding on flying termites. When I first arrived on scene there were just a couple of Ring-billed Gulls hanging about and no sign of termites but after twenty or so minutes the flying insects started emerging from the ground and the gulls quickly took notice. Within a matter of minutes gulls were flying in from all over the area and they hurriedly took to some pretty spectacular aerial acrobatics in the pursuit of their quarry.

The flock was mostly made up of Ring-billed Gulls and a couple of Glaucous-winged Gulls; two California Gulls also made an appearance. Besides the feeding frenzy the effect of the setting sun combined with the approaching rain clouds made for quite a picturesque scene.

The Good Kind of Off-Leash Dog

While scoping the mudflats between the north and south jetty at Iona this past Saturday I was somewhat surprised to see this coyote trotting along the shoreline towards my position…

As the wild dog got closer he (or she) picked up speed a little and veered further out onto the flats to give me a wide berth.  The coyote dashed off into the grass and brush as it approached the north jetty and within a few seconds it was gone.

Unsurprisingly there were quite a few off leash pets at Iona as well; including one dog whose owners let it rampage through several groups of gulls. I briefly entertained the thought of rounding a bend and coming across the coyote tearing someone’s unleashed lap dog to pieces as the ignorant owner stood by crying helplessly but quickly banished such negative notions to the back of my head as I sighted a group of Sanderling feeding on a sandbar.

The birding was pretty decent at Iona with the highlight being a Lapland Longspur just past the 1km mark on the south jetty. At the sewage lagoons good numbers of shorebirds were feeding on the north east pond and several species of raptors made brief flyovers as well. Luckily the weather cooperated whilst birding and the forecasted rain held off until the sun had almost set.

Wandering Tattler at Iona

On Saturday evening I drifted into Iona Beach Regional Park after spending most of the day birding Boundary Bay and Reifel Bird Sanctuary. A pair of juvenile Wandering Tattler had been reported throughout the week on the south jetty and despite my dislike for “target birding”, with its potential for creating an air of disappointment at the end of an outing when certain birds have not been seen, I couldn’t help but want to track this species down.

Not long after starting the lengthy, and quite frankly somewhat boring, walk down the south jetty I ran into a birder/photographer who kindly informed me that both the Tattlers were just past the second storm shelter on the south and leeward side of the jetty. This information saved me from stopping every few hundred meters to scan the rocky shoreline for two indistinct grey shorebirds. Near the second storm shelter I met another birder/photographer who directed me towards the precise position of the birds; finding them couldn’t have been much easier than if someone had pointed my binoculars straight at the pair.

Both juvenile Wandering Tattlers were sleeping, or at least trying to, when I found them. I had to balance my spotting scope in a pretty precarious position on the rocks to get some photos and a good look…

These birds could have been born in dwarf shrub upland or montane tundra in Alaska, the Yukon, northwest BC, a small section of western Northwest Territories, or possibly north eastern Russia (1). Their non breeding habitat is much like that of Iona’s south jetty; rocky shorelines, both natural and man made (1).

Iona’s checklist states that Wandering Tattler is rare in fall (which includes fall migration). Both juveniles were well worth the walk down the jetty and to top an already spectacular day off I also spotted a Wilson’s Phalarope along with three Red-necked Phalarope foraging on the southeast sewage lagoon.


  1. Gill, Robert E., Brian J. Mccaffery and Pavel S. Tomkovich. 2002. Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Iona: May 7th 2010

On Friday evening I was able to get some birding done at Iona Beach. It was a pleasant time of day and although there were a fair number of people there most of them where out on the south jetty taking a walk leaving the more “birdier” areas to the birds and the birders.

Upon arriving I immediately noticed a pair of Ospreys hunting at the pond by the parking lot. I spent a good fifteen minutes observing them take a couple of dives into the water but each time they were unsuccessful. Finally, one of them made a spectacular plunge right in front of my position and came up with a small fish; the bird promptly flew off and landed in the brush just to the west of the parking lot. Not five minutes later I saw the same Osprey flying over the pond again… this time with a group of crows in tow; all after the fish still in the Osprey’s talons. The chase continued over the sewage ponds and then out of my sight; I hope the Osprey was successful in keeping its catch.

Seeing the Ospreys up and close and watching them hunt is always great but the pond to the north of the pond by the parking lot was where most of the action was. After staking out a position at its southwest corner a drake Blue-winged Teal landed and promptly disappeared into the reeds. It was shortly followed by a male and female Cinnamon Teal; the hen also vanished into the reeds but the male stuck around out in the open allowing me to take a few pictures.

While watching the ducks the unmistakable song of the Yellow-headed Blackbird was emanating from several locations amongst the cattails. You can listen to this song at xeno-canto. Eventually one of the birds popped into view. It was followed shortly by another and the two proceeded to chase each other around before settling back into their respective reedy corners.

There used to be a much larger Yellow-headed Blackbird population here. Before Vancouver International Airport was constructed on Sea Island the area was all marshland and presumably home to much larger numbers of the birds (1). As the wetlands were filled in to make way for the ever expanding airport the birds were eventually relegated to their current location on Iona Island (1). I counted just three birds whereas in 1970 there was a colony containing 36 nests; meaning, there must have been at least 72 mature individuals (1).

The north arm of the Fraser River also had a fair bit going on. A small flock of Western Sandpiper was flying up and down the northern bank and to the west a group of Caspian Terns sat on an exposed sand bar.

My trip to Iona didn’t disappoint; but then I think it’d be hard to have an unsatisfactory time out birding during spring migration in Vancouver.


  1. Campbell, R. W., N. K. Dawe, I. McTaggart-Cowan, J. M. Cooper, G. W. Kaiser, A. Stewart, and M. C. E. McNall. 2001. The Birds of British Columbia. Vol. 4. R. Br. Columbia Mus. Victoria. (You can view a limited preview of this book, including the part about Yellow-headed Blackbirds on Google books here)