The February Blues

Regrettably, the big story on the Island for the month of February is not the birds. The story these days is the snow and ice. In February this year we had a record 222.8 centimeters of snow. Needless to say that has made it a rough month for birds and birders. Those with feeders have had snow around their yards and houses so high that it has limited their access and many have just resorted to simply throwing food out on the ground to feed as best they can. The same has been recorded throughout the Maritimes


Creating a platform feeder on a snowbank.

Fortunately, most of the birds we have been seeing are happy with food most anywhere they can find it.The finches are here in numbers. Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and American Goldfinch joining the local Chickadees and Juncos. Other birds that don’t mind eating off the ground are Snow Bunting, Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur.


Another hanging feeder which has become a walk-up window. American Goldfinch, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Black-capped Chickadees


Common Redpoll


Pine Siskin


Snow Bunting


Horned Lark

Other birds not always seen at our feeders include pheasants and partridge. We have had reports of a number of flocks of Gray Partridge coming to feeders. I have not had them in my yard but have been regularly seeing a small flock down the road. With more recent snow, I have not seen them lately but hopefully they have found themselves a cozy farmyard in which to spend the rest of the winter.


Gray Partridge


Gray Partridge

Another of the northern birds that are common this year and have been seen in large flocks is the Bohemian Waxwings. These birds are visiting our yards looking for any fruit sources they might find. Locally they have been visiting berry bushes, flowering crabapple and even decorative berries in outdoor arrangements.


Bohemian Waxwing


Bohemian Waxwing


Bohemian Waxwing

Another bird that has been reported this month is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. We have had numerous reports and photos of them. It looks like they are hungry also.


Sharp-shinned Hawk

On the other hand, all the snow and ice has been hard on our waterfowl. We have had numerous reports of Megansers and Goldeneye, as well as others, that are struggling to get through the winter. Many have been found and turned in to area veterinarians to try to save. Apparently, they are not finding enough food.

It has been a tough February for us all.




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Backyard Bird Count Sets New Records


Great Backyard Bird Count Sets New Species Record

Nearly half the world’s species identified in four days

New York, NY, Ithaca, NY, and Port Rowan, ON–Participants from more than 100 countries submitted a record 147,265 bird checklists for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count and broke the previous count record for the number of species identified. The 5090 species reported represents nearly half the possible bird species in the world. The four-day count was held February 13-16, the 18th year for the event which is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.

The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale made possible by using the eBird online checklist program. A sampling of species found by intrepid counters include Ibisbill in India, Bornean Bristlehead in Malaysia, and Magellanic Plover in Chile, complete with amazing photos. GBBC participants even reported two species, Millpo Tapaculo and Santa Marta Screech-Owl, that have not yet been described in the official scientific literature.

Bitter Weather

Northern Flicker by Linda Izer, Arkansas 2015

Northern Flicker by Linda Izer, Arkansas 2015

The bitter cold, snowy weather in much of Canada and the northeastern United States was a major factor in this year’s count. In much of the Northeast, Sunday was particularly frigid and windy, and the number of reports showed an obvious dip as some counters were forced indoors. As one participant in Quebec noted, watching birds came with a price as wind chill temperatures rarely topped -20 degrees Celsius.

For those who did brave the cold, the GBBC data will help to better understand the impact of the cold on birds and bird populations. For example, scientists will be able to compare the abundance of some so-called “half-hardy” species, such as Carolina Wren and Yellow-rumped Warbler, to see if this cold winter has affected their populations.

Snowy Owl Echo

Snowy Owls are one of the most charismatic and emblematic birds of winter. They breed in Arctic regions worldwide and drop south in some winters (“irrupt”), depending on food supplies and their breeding success in the previous summer. The winter of 2013-14 was a huge year for these owls, which appeared in amazing numbers across southern Canada, the Great Lakes states, Northeastern U.S., and the Atlantic Coast. GBBC reports for 2015 also show a surge in Snowy Owl sightings across the same range, though the frequency of reports is about half of last winter’s. This is a well-known phenomenon with Snowy Owls, with the year after a very large invasion often being referred to as an “echo flight.”

Winter Finches

Winter finches—such as Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, redpolls, and crossbills—are popular among GBBC participants. These birds also “irrupt” south of their usual haunts depending on food supplies, so their numbers in a given region may change widely from year to year.

2015 was a banner year for Pine Siskins which are reported on 10.5% of GBBC checklists so far. Compare that to 1.2% of checklists in 2014 when most siskins stayed far north in Canada. Siskins will likely be hanging around through April and May, especially if the feeders are stocked with their favorite nyjer (thistle) seed.

GBBC Top 10 Lists

Surprisingly, a Eurasian species, the Brambling, appears on the Top 10 list of most reported species for the first time ever. Since November, some of these birds have been spotted on the West Coast and others strayed even farther by turning up in Montana, Wyoming, and Ontario, with one 2015 GBBC record in North America from Washington state. But the Brambling’s appearance among the Top 10 can be traced to one checklist from Germany reporting a flock estimated at one million birds. Up to three million Bramblings have been known to gather at that site.

In North America, California sits atop the leader board with the most checklists submitted and the greatest number of species, followed by Pennsylvania and New York. Ontario, Canada, is in the Top 10 for the second year in a row, nudging past Ohio and Georgia. In Canada, participation is up in Québec this year largely because of a new eBird portal hosted in partnership between Regroupement QuébecOiseaux and Bird Studies Canada. Quebec residents have submitted 1520 checklists, while last year’s total was 1014. British Columbia participants have the highest species total so far, with 197.

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Birding in San Miguel de Allende

By Sharon McInnes

Earlier this month I went to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), in the mountains of central Mexico, to attend the 10th anniversary SMA Writers Conference, where keynote speakers included Gloria Steinem, Jane Urquhart, and Alice Walker.  It was, in a word, fabulous.

San Miguel de Allende. CC license photo. Thanks Wikipedia.

San Miguel de Allende. CC license photo. Thanks Wikipedia.

On my first day in SMA, however, I discovered there was a lecture on
The Birds of San Miguel, hosted by the local Audobon chapter, at the library
in town. Obviously, I skipped out of the writing workshop I’d signed up for and
headed to the library. The speaker, Signe Hammer, is an extremely knowledgeable
expat birder who leads birding walks around SMA and at El Charco del Ingenio
(the Puddle of the Genius?), a wonderful botanical garden and
natural reserve on the outskirts of SMA.

I’d been in SMA over twenty-four hours by this time so had already seen or
heard a few birds, although not nearly as many I’d expected. When I mentioned
this to someone at the lecture, he reminded me that we were at six thousand feet
and the weather at the time was unseasonably cold – down to seven or eight
degrees Celsius at night. Many of the local birds, he said, were keeping warm
at lower elevations for a while. I could empathize, having left my jeans
and wool sweaters at home!

It did warm up in the afternoons, though (when it wasn’t raining) as you can see
from this pic of me in the Plaza being egged (they’re filled with confetti)
by some local boys!

Egged in SMA. Photo by Rohana Laing, a wonderful SMA artist.

Egged in SMA. Photo by Rohana Laing, a wonderful SMA artist.

The day after the lecture, armed with the local Audobon field guide booklet of local birds,
I started identifying the unfamiliar birds I did see – when I wasn’t at the writing conference that I had paid good money for. There were plenty of House Sparrows (passer domesticus) and Rock Pigeons (columba livia), of course, everywhere,
at all times. I liked the colouring on this guy.

Pigeon in the Plaza

Pigeon in the Plaza

Since I didn’t bring my camera to SMA – a hazard of my carry-on only policy –
most of the photos below are Creative Commons licensed and in the public domain.
The ones without this designation were taken be me – not necessarily in SMA,
but you’ll get the idea. THANK YOU to all the photographers who’ve
so generously shared their work with the world!

In the mornings I woke to the cooing of Mourning Doves (zenaida macroura) …

Mourning Doves. Photo taken not in SMA but at Sapsucker Woods, several years ago.

Mourning Doves. Photo taken not in SMA but at Sapsucker Woods, several years ago.

… and to the song of the ubiquitous White-winged Dove (zenaida asiatica).

White-winged doves. CC license.

White-winged doves. CC license.

Initially, I thought I was hearing some particularly meek and submissive
Barred Owl because the four notes of the song of the
White-winged Dove – who cooks for you? – are reminiscent of  –
although much softer than – the call of that owl
that Gabriolans know so well!

I fully expected to see Rufous Hummingbirds (selasphorus rufus) in SMA,
since I always see them in abundance in Puerto Vallarta, and wonder
if the ones I’m watching are the very ones that visit our feeders on Gabriola
in the spring and summer. But in SMA I saw no Rufous Hummingbirds.
Perhaps SMA, designated a World Heritage Site, is too high for them?
Or had they already left on their journey north? (If you know, please comment.)
I did see, however, the resident Violet-crowned Hummingbird
(amazilia violiceps) with its red bill and white breast,
feeding in the garden of the B&B I stayed at.
This stunning species, which breeds in arid scrub,
is typically a mountain species.

Violet-crowned-hummingbird. CC license.

Violet-crowned-hummingbird. CC license.


Another morning I woke to the call of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker (melanerpes aurifrons) in the trees outside the B&B. Such a nice way to greet the day.

Golden-Fronted Woodpecker. CC license.

Golden-Fronted Woodpecker. CC license.

El Charco del Ingenio.

El Charco del Ingenio.

On the day before I left SMA, I went to El Charco.  You can read about this important site here:

The highlight of my morning there was seeing a flock of 8-10 Groove-billed Anis (crotophaga sulcirostris). They look positively prehistoric – perhaps they are?

Groove-billed ani. CC license.

Groove-billed ani. CC license.


I stood with my binoculars glued to my head for an inordinate length of time,
gazing at these odd-looking members of the cuckoo family. My bird walk companion, David, a retired ornithologist, said he’d never seen an Ani there before;
it was an exciting moment for both of us.

Another exciting moment for me was seeing, for the first time, the spectacular
Vermilion Flycatcher (pyrocephalus rubinus),
which lives in Central America year round.

Vermilion Flycatcher. CC license.

Vermilion Flycatcher. CC license.


Later, over La Presa, the El Charco reservoir, we saw an immature Red-tailed Hawk circling and on the water a variety of ducks – Pintails, Mexican Mallards
(not of the same family as “our” mallards, although they sound the same),
Blue-winged teals, Ring-necked Ducks, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, a Snowy Egret, an American Coot.

Black-necked Stilt. Photo by Frank Schulenburg. CC-license.

Gorgeous photo of a Black-necked Stilt. Photo by Frank Schulenburg. CC-license.


Snowy Egret in full plume. Photo by Jason Engman. CC license.

Snowy Egret in full plume. Photo by Jason Engman. CC license. The Snowy I saw in SMA was NOT in full plume but this is such an amazing photo, I wanted to include it.


American Avocet, Bullgate Dike, Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. Photo by Alan D. Wilson at

American Avocet, Bullgate Dike, Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. Photo by Alan D. Wilson at


American Coot. Photo (taken at the Reifel Bird sanctuary in Delta BC)

American Coot. Photo (taken at the Reifel Bird sanctuary in Delta BC)

On the rocks near the dam a Great Kiskadee (pitangus sulphuratus) rested in the sun.

Great Kiskadee. CC license.

Great Kiskadee. CC license.


On the mudflats a Cattle Egret (bubulcus ibis) searched for food.

Cattle Egret. CC license.

Cattle Egret. CC license.

Finally, along the pathway back to the El Charco Visitor Centre, a variety of sparrows, including Chipping, Clay-coloureds, Brewer’s, White-crowned, and
a Canyon Towhee, popped in and out of the scrub to grab food.

It was a lovely birding day! BUT I did not see a Curve-billed Thrasher or a Phainopepla or a Ruddy Duck with its blue bill, all known to inhabit El Charco.

Curve-billed Thrasher. Photo by Peter Wallack. CC-license.

Curve-billed Thrasher. Photo by Peter Wallack. CC-license.

Phainopepla. Photo by Lip Kee Yap. CC license.

Phainopepla. Photo by Lip Kee Yap. CC license.

Ruddy Duck. Photo by Alan D. Wilson,

Ruddy Duck. Photo by Alan D. Wilson,

 I guess I’ll just have to go back next year and try again!
When I do, I’ll bring my camera – and some warm clothes!

Posted in Bird Canada, Nature Photography | Tagged | 11 Comments

Spring, where are you?

Here in New Brunswick, I can’t properly describe how much snow we have. Prince Edward Island has it worse however, and many of the pictures & videos my father in-law keeps sending us don’t even seem like they could be real.

Although it has been great to have such a nice variety of winter finches around, I would certainly welcome even just one sign of Spring!

If you find yourself stuck inside, take some time to check out the following links. The first two are for photo contests and the last is a great hawk quiz. I entered both contests and spent some time figuring out the birds of prey in each of the five videos. The photo contests are going to be for photos taken each month and need to be in New Brunswick. There will be a grand prize for the photo of the year and so far, it has been a great way for birders to beat the winter blues!


Here is what I have been seeing around over these past few weeks;



Horned Lark – if you’re driving out in the country, be sure to check the sides of the roads for small flocks of this species. There was a flock of 11 just outside of town (Woodstock) a few weeks ago.





Pine Grosbeaks – I could easily find this species every day in January & February if I really wanted to. There are small flocks in different parts of town (Woodstock) and often six or seven stay in my neighbor’s tree. I finally had a bright adult male after many weeks of females and juveniles.



Bohemian Waxwings – another species that I could see everyday but in much larger numbers. One day this month there were well over one hundred flying over my house.



Pine Siskin – the past few winters I can pick only one or two with the flocks of American Goldfinches or Common Redpolls. This winter I have often had just as many or more Pine Siskins compared to the other two abundant winter finches.



White-throated Sparrow – after every snowstorm I dig out some snow from under my hedge and throw out some millet and nyger seed. For about two straight weeks this month, I had this visitor in my yard.


Not too many species to report for rarities this month. I have found 51 species in Carleton County so far this year. If it would stop snowing and if I had some extra spare time, I probably could find another four or five species but not too many more than that really. Next week I hope to get down to the Bay of Fundy and check another ten or more species of my year list. Some I might never see in this part of the province, but others will come up this way eventually. Hopefully I can find a nice variety and if I do, that will be what my post will be about for next month.


Until next time,

Nathan Staples



Posted in Bird Canada, Winter Birding in Canada | 2 Comments

Pygmy Owls in the Park, Winter 2015

(My blog is a little late this month as I was off enjoying the warmth of the Mexican sun…and chasing all sorts of wondrous tropical birds too!)TH1D2870mask-fb-crop

This winter Calgarian birders, and local wildlife appreciators in general, have been treated to the presence of a pair of Northern Pygmy Owls who appear to have taken up residence (at least for the moment) in Fish Creek Provincial Park, located within the city limits.TH7D7311d&b-fb


Adopting a defensive posture as a raven cruised by.


Emerging from a tree hole after caching a vole


All the voles in these shots are different…a really prolific hunter!

TH1D2810d&b-crop-fb TH1D2477-fb These owls caused quite a stir in the local birding community and Fish Creek was quite the hotspot for birder for several weekends. I went down for two weekends in January and had a great time watching the owls hunt (very successfully, on the local vole population), rest and generally go about their business while at the same time enjoying the company of fellow birders (and park-goers in general) as thrilled as I was to watch the Pygmies in action. The vast majority of the time the owls were high up at the top of tall trees, but occasionally coming down to lower limbs when they wanted to hunt.TH1D3259merge-fb TH1D3136d&b-fb TH1D3210d&b-mask-fb2-final TH1D2347d&bv2-fb

The behaviour of all was very respectful in my humble opinion, and only once did I see someone unknowingly encroach ‘too close’ and that was a passer-by trying to get a close-up with their cell-phone!

The typical size birder & photog crowd I saw over the two weekends.

The typical size birder & photog crowd I saw over the two weekends.

TH1D3795-final-fb TH1D3695-fb TH1D3653crop2-fb TH1D3598-fb TH1D3500-fb TH1D3345d&b-finalv2mask-fb

All in all, it was a wonderful experience for me personally and I hope you enjoy the shots I’m sharing here.TH7D7181d&b-fb



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It’s That Time of Year


Downy Woodpecker

It is the time of year when birding on the Island slows down. It seems that most of the birds that we are all looking for have left the province – warblers, song birds and shorebirds. But there are other birds that are here these days garnering our attention. We have had reports of Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Bohemian Waxwings. Finches that normally would be found much further north are in the province now. As well, we are getting reports of birds that are not typically found in the province. Recently we have heard of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a couple of Northern Cardinals, a Field Sparrow and a Pine Warbler. Who knows what we might add to our Winter Bird list.


Dark-eyed Junco


Red Squirrel – Always a feeder attendant.


American Crow


Snow Angel – Created by visiting birds.

Keeping most of us active are those birds that are coming to our feeders. We are seeing some of the regulars, like Blue Jays, American Crows, Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. Finches are adding to the interest and providing some colour. Those include American Goldfinch, Common Redpolls and the feisty little Pine Siskins.


American Goldfinch – Male showing the beginning of the spring molt, brighter yellow and the start of the black cap.


Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin

Of course, it is always worthwhile to check our areas of open water for waterfowl. These days it is likely we will see Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser and Greater Scaup but with luck, who knows, you might find Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Ducks or Purple Sandpiper.





Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser

To keep people interested, we are trying to keep our Winter Bird List up to date. As well we are creating events such Winter Feeder tour of Charlottetown and Area and participating in the Winter Woodlot Tour 2015.








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Birding Resolutions

For me, New Year’s only means one thing, I can reset my totals and try to find more birds than I found the year before. I hope you will take a moment to comment what your goals for 2015 will be in regards to birding. Here are a few of mine.

Last year in New Brunswick, I finished with 164 different species. This was three higher than 2013 so I was pleased. Just in my county, I found 150 species so I didn’t do a lot of traveling around the province in 2014. I was challenged to go for 155 in Carleton County (already at 38) so that will be my main focus this year. Getting 155 here should easily help me get over 164 for the year.

I also hope to find 12 more lifers for New Brunswick as this will bring me up to 200 total. Here are a few I should be able to find; Rough-legged Hawk, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Glaucous Gull, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Purple Sandpiper, Spruce Grouse.

Quite the variety isn’t it? Some I know I can find in my county, but others I’ll need to travel a bit. Over March Break I’m going to do some birding and hope to check a few of my list. I like to travel at least once to the Bay of Fundy as there are species there that I’ll probably never see around Woodstock.

My goals motivate me and my boys like to cheer me on which certainly increases my motivation. As you’ll see in the photo’s, there was a Snowy Owl around Hartland a few weeks ago. I took my two and four year old along and they were excited to be able to see it with me. Every time my two year old talks on the phone, he shares the story of finding a Snowy Owl. A great one to already have if they both choose to start a life list someday!

Here is what I’ve been seeing in January;

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – I enjoyed watching it fend of the starlings a few weeks ago


Carolina WrenCarolina Wren – showed up once a few weeks ago. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore but I still was!


Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl – I cropped this photo to the max. As you can see, it was sleeping and we didn’t want to disturb it just to get a better picture. My boys could make out the white mound in the field and I zoomed in with my camera so they could get a closer look. It came in right at the end of the Hartland Christmas Bird Count count period and helped us end with 44 species!


Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle – I saw this pair keeping each other warm on a chilly day along the St.John River


Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak – lots of females on my street lately, haven’t been able to get a photo of a male yet though!



Evening Grosbeak – I’ve had flocks fly over a few times this month, but haven’t had one at my feeders yet


Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail – this was a nice surprise and a great addition for the Woodstock Christmas Bird Count. I actually checked this past Sunday and was surprised to see that one was still in the lagoon with the Mallards/Black Ducks.


Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse – aka “Partridge”. I found two up a tree while trying to find a pair of Great Horned Owls. They are quite easy to find around here unlike Spruce Grouse.



Rarities for January – for this month, these species are more rare for the season instead of for the area

Hoary Redpoll – this would be an exception as it can just be plain hard to find and give a positive ID to although a few have been found this winter. It is one I’d love to see but I’m not getting as many redpolls compared to 2013 so time will tell if I can find one this winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – found by me actually and the only one around this winter.

Northern Shoveler – also found by me. It was the first time one had ever been around for the Woodstock CBC and it was still there on January 1st (gone now) so I don’t have to worry about trying to find one later in the year.

Vesper Sparrow – one has been in Moncton for quite a few weeks now

Lark Sparrow – one has also been in the Moncton area


Until next time,

Nathan Staples

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Celebrating the Birds of Gabriola

Last month 28 Gabriolans participated in the 115th Audobon Christmas Bird Count. Here’s a sampling of the bird species that were counted on the island. Many thanks to the Gabriola Island photographers – Doug Green, Garry Davey, Eileen Kaarsmaker, and Iain Lawrence – who so generously shared their photos with me.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Again this year, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee was our most numerous bird at 439. This chickadee that inhabits Vancouver Island and the gulf islands off the coast of BC is a cousin of the Black-capped Chickadee, the Bird of the Year for 2015 in Vancouver BC, my hometown. If you’d like to hand-feed a wild bird, a chickadee is usually willing. Just be sure to take down your feeders first.

Red-breasted Sapsucker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-breasted Sapsucker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-breasted sapsuckers are an important keystone species. Rufous Hummingbirds drink sap from the shallow holes they dig in the outer bark of trees like this old cedar in our front yard, Red-breasted Nuthatches smear sap from the wells around their own nest cavities, and chickadees, nuthatches, and wrens use their nest cavities when the Sapsucker is finished with them.

Barred Owl. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Barred Owl. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

In spite of the fact that only 3 Barred Owls were counted on Dec 28, anyone who lives here knows there are lots of these guys around. Their raucous mating calls can be heard far and wide in the spring. And they’re not shy about hanging around garage roofs or fence posts during the day.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Doug Green.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Doug Green.

The Spotted Towhee, with its signature red eye, is lovely to look at. Too bad about that incessant squawk! The three pairs that live in our yard right now have taken to grabbing peanuts from right under the jays’ noses. On Dec 28, 126 were counted.

Trumpet Swans. Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker.

Trumpeter Swans. Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker.

Although no Trumpeter Swans were seen off the shores of Gabriola during the count, 106 were counted across the strait in Nanaimo. The swans above were visiting Coats Marsh on Gabriola in the spring.

Male Mallard. Photo by Iain Lawrence.

Male Mallard. Photo by Iain Lawrence.

The Mallard is a ‘dabbling’ duck: it either eats from the surface of the water or tips its tail up to dabble just under the surface for aquatic leaves, stems, seeds, and invertebrates. (Happily, it also eats lots of mosquito larvae.) The Mallard also differs from most other ducks in its vociferousness. While many ducks are relatively quiet – except when mating or protecting the nest – the female Mallard (less colourful than the male in the photo) is vocal year-round. When you think of quacking ducks, you’re probably thinking of female Mallards. The male’s vocalizations are deeper and quieter. 93 made the count.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Doug Green.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Doug Green.

It’s rumoured that a Pileated Woodpecker was the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker. But this guy’s no cartoon character. He makes almost perfectly rectangular holes in trees with his long chisel-like bill to get at carpenter ants and other insects.

Fox Sparrow. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Fox Sparrow. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The Fox Sparrow that frequents Gabriola is the “Sooty’ variety and has an almost-chocolate brown back and dark crown. Its breast is streaked with chevron-shaped spots that coalesce into one large brown spot in the centre of the chest. New birders often have trouble distinguishing between the Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow. One reliable way to differentiate the two is to look for the Fox’s yellow mandible, or lower bill. For this, of course, you may need a good pair of binoculars.

Male Belted Kingfisher. Creative Commons photo. Thank you!

Male Belted Kingfisher. Creative Commons photo. Thank you!

The Belted Kingfisher is one of the few species where the female is more colourful than the male. This female may have just received this fish from a wooing male. Gifts of fish are the male kingfisher’s version of taking a girlfriend out to dinner. If you ever visit Gabriola in spring, check out their nests along the sandstone cliff as the ferry pulls into dock!

California Quail. Photo by Doug Green.

California Quail. Photo by Doug Green.

There are several flocks of California Quail on the island but only 3 individuals showed up for the count. That topknot looks like one feather but is really a cluster of six.

Black Oystercatcher. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Black Oystercatcher. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

It’s true the Black Oystercatcher wears mostly black, but that bright orange eye and long orange bill and those rosey-pink legs are striking accessories! 

Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

In addition to suet, Northern Flickers eat a lot of ants; one scientist apparently found 2000 in a flicker’s stomach. They also use ants in preening. During this process, called ‘anting’, flickers rub the insects on their feathers, and the ants secrete liquids containing formic acid and other chemicals that help protect them from parasites. Two pairs regularly dine in our yard. Counted – 28.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The elegant Great Blue Heron lives around fresh water and salt water. They may also visit backyard fish ponds, as our neighbour recently found out. But the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site has a solution: lay a piece of pipe in the pond for the fish to hide in.

Canada Goose. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Canada Goose. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

During the count, 103 Canada Geese were seen on Gabriola. But I took this photo of a Canada Goose at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta a few years ago. He’s probably sleeping but I like to pretend he’s doing yoga.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The lovely-to-look-at Varied Thrush has a most unusual song. It’s been described as  “A slow whistled mysterious-sounding caroling melody followed by fast prolonged warbling, first high, then low, and fading at the end.” (Smithsonian Handbooks’ Birds of North America: Western Region, by Fred Alsop III) and as a “fairly long, ethereal, trilled whistle, repeated at different pitches after long pauses” (Birds of Southwestern British Columbia by Richard Cannings, Tom Aversa, and Hal Opperman). John Neville and Mel Coulson (Beginner’s Guide to BC Bird Song) refer to the bird as a “tone deaf thrush” and to its song as “plaintive and most unmusical” and “sounding something like a referee’s whistle.” I guess it’s all in the ears of the listener.

Male Barrow's Goldeneye. Photo by Doug Green.

Male Barrow’s Goldeneye. Photo by Doug Green.

The stunning Barrow’s Goldeneye (note the golden eye!) is a true ‘diving duck’. It will dive down as far as five metres to grab insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish eggs. 22 showed up on count day.

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker, two of the most common woodpeckers on the island, look remarkably alike. You can tell this one’s a Hairy because its bill is almost as long as the depth of its head. The Downy has a shorter, stubbier bill.

Steller's Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Steller’s Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

“Greybeard” is one of the nine Steller’s Jays that call our backyard home. Although only 35 were counted during the Christmas Bird Count, I’m sure there are lots more on the island! You may have seen the little experiment we did with them in the summer of 2013. If not, you can check it out here:

Feral Turkeys on North Road. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Feral Turkeys on North Road. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The infamous Gabriola feral turkeys, which  didn’t get counted this year, continue to entertain me.  I especially enjoy watching the Bertha Road flock of 10 roosting on the power lines at night. How they manage to balance up there remains a mystery!

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Photo essay from the West Coast

After a two month absence, which I can only blame on my busy family life and poor memory, I thought I would share a few photos taken in Vancouver and Whistler this month (January 2015).

In order to save time and space, I should mention that all of these photos were taken with a handheld Nikon D5200 and AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED. The birds in question were not called in, set-up or baited.

American Dipper, Whistler, BC:


Black Oystercatchers, Stanley Park Seawall, Vancouver, BC:


Glaucous-winged Gull, 1st year, Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:


Hooded Merganser (male), Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC:


Mew Gull (winter plumage), Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:


Pacific Wren, UBC (Point-Grey Campus), Vancouver, BC:


Ring-billed Gull (winter plumage), Wreck Beach (near UBC), Vancouver, BC:



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Winter Birding, Calgary-style – a Photo Essay

Well winter is well and truly upon us, but thankfully in Calgary it has been fairly mild (at least compared to the record snowfalls last year) and the we’ve had some great winter bird visitors within the city limits already.

Firstly, it was fantastic to see the return of some of the winter finches, after being almost entirely absent last season. Among my favourites would have to be the Pine Grosbeaks for their gorgeous colours and their love of fruits which make for luscious backgrounds in the depths of freezing winter:

I believe this is an immature male Pine Grosbeak

I believe this is an immature male Pine Grosbeak


A female Pine Grosbeak


Another female Pine Grosbeak getting stuck into the frozen berries!


A male Pine Grosbeak in its striking scarlet plumage

A male Pine Grosbeak in its striking scarlet plumage

Redpolls have not been around in great numbers yet, but I have at least seen a few:Redpoll

The Cedar Waxwings of summer have departed, while their cousins the Bohemians have taken up residence in their massive flocks:Bohemian_Waxwing (by Tim Hopwood)

But of course, we shouldn’t forget the hardy birds that call Calgary home from the always-cheerful Black-capped Chickadees:Chickadee

to the ever-challenging-to-photograph Brown Creepers:BrCreeper

and the Pileated Woodpeckers which are a treat for the eyes no matter what the season:Pileated_Woodpecker#2 (by Tim Hopwood) Pileated_Woodpecker#3 (by Tim Hopwood)

A couple of personal highlights this winter has been seeing not one, but two of the smallest owls in the province – the Northern Saw-whet Owl:NSW1

and a pair of diminutive Northern Pygmy Owls that have gained celebrity status in the local birding community:NPO1 NPO2 NPO3


Check out those eyes! This Snowy was just on the outskirts of Calgary.

And last, but by absolutely in no way least, it wouldn’t be a proper winter in Alberta without the arrival of the majestic Snowy Owls which birders and non-birders alike seem to be enchanted by:

I look forward to sharing more winter bird photography in my next monthly blog!

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