A Visit from a Vulture

Recently a young Turkey Vulture (cathartes aura) has become a frequent visitor in the yard of a Gabriola Island couple. Not knowing the sex, they call it Vic the Vulture – for either Victor or Victoria. Vic usually comes around every other day and spends up to an hour in the couple’s yard, drinking from their pond, sitting on a roof or railing, or enjoying the sun, like this:

Vulture sunning itself in the garden. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture sunning itself in the garden. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture drinking from pond in back yard. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vulture drinking from pond in back yard. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Sitting on the fence. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Sitting on the fence. Photo by Carol Baird-Krul.

Vic’s not-yet-red head and not-yet-fully-formed beak tell us he is a juvenile. In contrast, the Turkey Vulture (TV) below, spied sitting in a tree in the Gabriola Island “tunnel of trees” a few years ago, has the adult’s red head and sharp beak, perfect for tearing apart carcasses. Note also (if you can zoom in and enlarge the photo) the see-through nostrils! How cool is that?

Turkey Vulture in a tree. Photo by Brie McInnes.

Turkey Vulture in a tree. Photo by Brie McInnes.

Here on Gabriola we look forward to the arrival of the vultures, foolproof harbingers of spring. Though not the prettiest of birds (well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder), Turkey Vultures have important redeeming qualities including a highly-developed sense of smell that allows them to locate carcasses on the ground from high in the air. Garbage-eaters extraordinaire, with a natural immunity to the toxins of dead meat, they clean the forest floor of even the most putrid of meat without contracting botulism.  It seems only fitting that the Latin species name for them, cathartes, means ‘purifier’.

Turkey Vultures have also played a valuable role in locating leaks in gas pipelines in the United States, at least in years gone by. Engineers added a small amount of a gas that smells like slightly-rotten meat to natural gas pipelines (pure natural gas in unscented) and then monitored the line for gatherings of vultures. Where there were TVs, there was a leak.

Yet these amazing birds do have some unseemly habits. After a meal, for example, Turkey Vultures defecate on their legs. Apparently this helps them cool off. It also protects their feet and legs from the bacteria of the prey they’ve just devoured: their droppings contain an antiseptic coating. Although they can’t protect their vulnerable heads with this maneuver (!)  the sun takes care of any bacteria on their bald little heads. And if this isn’t uncouth enough, they’ll regurgitate and throw up their food for a variety of reasons, including to startle predators (that should do it!) and to lighten up.

Despite knowing these less-than-tantalizing things about Turkey Vultures, I love sitting on the back deck, feet up, watching them soar on the thermals, rarely flapping their long wings. Do you know how to recognize a TV (versus an eagle) in flight? It’s easy to tell them apart when you know what to look for. Here are the giveaways:

  • TVs hold their wings tilted up just a little, forming a slight V-shape or dihedral angle
  • TVs teeter slightly from side to side when flying at low altitudes
  • TVs have light-coloured outer underwings that can look white, grey, or even silver in the sunlight

If you see a young TV riding the wind currents of Gabriola it just might be Vic. Be sure to wave and wish him/her well. And let’s hope that when autumn comes, Vic joins a flock and heads south for the winter!

 

 

 

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First post from New Brunswick! Carolina Wren

In my current stage of life, I am somewhere between a casual and avid birder. My wife and I have three boys under the age of four so I typically don’t drop everything to chase after a rare bird. Someday that will probably be me, but for now I am content to find as many birds as possible in the county where I live.

Carleton County is relatively “unbirded”. There aren’t a lot of reports from this part of New Brunswick as you can see here;

http://ebird.org/ebird/subnational2/CA-NB-CA?yr=all&m=&rank=mrec

There shouldn’t be just one primary birder in a county and hopefully that will eventually change. It appears I go birding all the time, but that isn’t the case at all. There are a few other birders around and they use some of the other mediums I am about to describe.

www.ebird.org is what I use the most out of the different birding sites for New Brunswick. It keeps track of my life list for every province/state/country etc. where I go birding and I can see each checklist submitted by other users. Hopefully anyone who reads this posts already uses ebird, but if you don’t, go sign up!

Here are the other main birding sites/e-mail lists that I use in NB;

https://listserv.unb.ca/cgi-bin/wa?A0=NATURENB – click on subscribe and you receive e-mails about sightings related to nature from all over the province. This has been running since 1996 and you can search the entire archives.

http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/ – nearly 900 members! Scroll down and see a map where different members live. Lots of different forums here such as ID Requests and NB Birding Hotspots.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/BirdingNewBrunswick/ – over 700 members. Full of recent sightings & photos as well as an excellent spot to get advice from experienced birders.

Each site or e-mail list is quite different. Some birders, like me, use them all while others might only use one. I keep trying to persuade more birders to use ebird. I will frequently mention this excellent tool because of its many features such as keep tracking of your life list for every province/state and country.

Just last night, a CAROLINA WREN made an appearance in my backyard. This was a new species for my yard and for any of my life lists. I checked all the different sites I highlighted above and it appears this is a first for the county.

Thank you for taking the time to read my first post and I look forward to doing so again on the 23rd of next month!

 

Nathan Staples

http://natethebirder.blogspot.com/

 

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It’s still summer, but…

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Taken by the author with a Nikon D5200 / AF-S 70-300mm

It’s still summer, so my post will be short once again, but I thought I could at least share a couple of Osprey pictures with you that illustrate a great success story here in British Columbia. Both of these photos were taken a few days ago in the Okanagan: The top photo of a solo Osprey was taken on the outskirts of Oliver and the one below of a watchful pair, right in the town of Osoyoos. They both show Ospreys on their nests, as they tend to their eggs or newly hatched chicks — some birds seemed far more advanced than others (perhaps some were taking care of a second clutch?).

In both cases, the birds were profiting from a program that provides these impressive birds with safe nesting options. These nests seem to have been installed everywhere in the valley, from the north (Vernon) to the south (Osoyoos), a 300 km stretch! I will try to find out more about this program over the next few weeks and months — if I succeed, perhaps I will write more about it here or on my personal blog.

In the meantime, I hope you are still enjoying the summer!

Ospreys-Okanagan-2014-08-14

Taken by the author with a Nikon D5200 / AF-S 70-300mm

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Raptors | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Summer Holidays – extended!

Apologies for 2 months in a row of very short posts, but I’m camping most weekends which has not left a lot of time to sift through all my images. The good news is I’ve taken quite a lot of new shots, including several of personal ‘life’ birds :).

The shorebird fall migration is well underway here in southern Alberta and I’m doing my best to catch what I can. As a taster, here’s a shot of a Least Sandpiper (enjoying a little stretch) from the past weekend taken at a slough just around the corner from our campground near Bashaw.

Cheers,

Tim.Least Sandpiper

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Welcome to Prince Edward Island Birding!

Welcome new Bird Canada author Ron Arvidson from Prince Edward Island who will be posting the 5th of each month. It’s wonderful to have the Atlantic birds now represented on the blog! 

Ron was born and raised in Manitoba, and growing up had ranged freely through the wood and eastern slope of Riding Mountain National Park. In doing so, he always had an interest of the flora and fauna of the area. Since graduating University of Regina, he has lived and visited across Canada from Horsefly Lake, BC to Cape St. Mary’s, NL. Today, he lives in rural PEI, where as an Artist and Educator, he chases birds on PEI. He is Co-administrator of the Birding on PEI Faceboook page  and also contributes to the Blog http://preservecompany.com/blogs/we-are-for-the-birds.

Ron with Kathleen and Fiep

Ron with fellow birders Kathleen MacAulay and Fiep De Bie. Photo by Sharon Clark

Shorebirds on the Move

At this time in Prince Edward Island, our focus begins to change from our warblers and breeding birds to the birds of the shore. For the past few weeks shorebirds have been appearing in numbers on our beaches. One of the areas I am most familiar with is along the south shore.

Bedeque Bay IBA

One of the areas that I frequently visit is that of the Bedeque Bay Important Bird Area. Recently, I have visited and have been able to find Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstones, Short-billed Dowitchers and both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. A Ruff was sighted in the area earlier this year and Godwits are also frequently seen. One can also see Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin later in the season.

Lesser and greater yellowlegs

Lesser and greater yellowlegs

As well as shorebirds, numerous other species take advantage of the area and one can find assorted gulls, marsh birds, ducks, geese and raptors. This is a great area to visit on Prince Edward Island throughout the seasons.

bald eagle

Bald eagle

shorebirds and gulls

Shorebirds and gulls

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Shorebirds | Tagged | 3 Comments

Those Incredible Cormorants

I was on vacation in Mexico years many ago when I noticed the tall black seabirds standing on the rocks, their wings held out from their sleek bodies like ballerinas. At the time, I wondered if the pose was unique to some crazy Mexican birds. Years later, waiting in Nanaimo for the ferry to Gabriola, I saw a row of the same birds standing along the pier, although not with their wings extended.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Cormorants at Nanaimo Harbour. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

By this time, though, I’d begun paying attention, and knew they were cormorants. I still wasn’t sure, though, why they sometimes held out their wings open.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Now I know that cormorants hold their wings out to dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof. There’s a good reason for this, of course: their wettable feathers, which don’t repel water (they have less preen oil than other birds), allow them to dive down deep for food. This video by the Wildlife Conservation Society shows an Imperial Cormorant in Mexico diving down 150 feet to the ocean floor to hunt for fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.

The cormorant’s unusual wing-drying pose has been a source of fascination for millennia. In medieval times, it decorated vases and shields. Later, it came to symbolize the Christian cross. In Paradise Lost, Milton created a Satan that, in an attempt to deceive and tempt Eve, disguised himself as a cormorant sitting atop The Tree of Life. Even Charlotte Bronté called on the symbolic power of this prehistoric-looking bird when she did a painting depicting the socialite fortune-hunter, Blanche Ingram, of Jane Eyre fame, as a cormorant. But I think Bronté was unfair to the cormorant.

The Double-crested Cormorant (phalacrocorax auritus), relative of frigate birds and boobies, is the most widespread cormorant in North America. British Columbia has two subspecies: the phalacrocorax auritus albociliatus, which breeds in the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait and is resident year round, and the phalacrocorax auritus cincinatus, which breeds in the Alaska and winters along the coast as far south as BC. Here on the Pacific coast the Double-crested Cormorant breeds in colonies of three to a few hundred nests made of sticks, seaweed, twigs and other marine debris. It is this cormorant’s double crest of stringy black or white feathers, which appears only during breeding season, that gives the bird its name.

The cormorant is easy to identify. Although adults of both sexes appear black from a distance, if you get up close enough you’ll see an orange-yellow face and throat, a hooked bill, and bright blue eyes.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

Cormorant Comes Up for Air. Photo by Dave Stephens.

If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the bright blue mouth interior. In flight, the crooked looking neck gives away the bird’s identity. Along the Pacific Coast, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants overlap with the Double-crested. Brandt’s are a little larger and have a shorter tail. The adults have bluish (rather than orange or yellow) facial skin. Pelagic Cormorants are smaller, and have very thin necks and a tiny head.

Once prolific throughout the continent, cormorant populations in North America fell dramatically leading up to the 1960’s, probably due to the use DDT and other pesticides. When pesticides were banned, populations began to recover. By 1987, numbers were way up. Today, in most of North America, Double-crested Cormorant population levels have increased so much that these remarkable seabirds are now considered by some to be nuisance birds that compete with the fishing industry and kill vegetation. In many places, including Ontario, Double-crested Comorant populations have been “managed” by oiling eggs, destroying nests, and killing adult birds.

The situation is different in BC, where cormorant numbers have fallen precipitously since the early 1980s.  In 1983, for example, Mandarte Island was home to 1100 active nests. By 2000, that number had fallen to 215. In 2001 the Double-crested Cormorant was ‘red-listed’ (considered threatened) by the provincial government and deemed ‘a species of concern’ by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. Scientists suspect the decline is largely due to ongoing disturbance by ever-growing populations of Bald Eagles and egg depredation by gulls and crows. Cormorants also face, of course, the pervasive problems of all seabirds: oil spills, gill-net entanglement and toxic contamination.

Thanks to David Stephens for the use of his gorgeous photographs. To see more of his photos, go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dcstep/

Posted in Bird Identification, Nature Photography, Shorebirds | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Breeding Birds in the Boreal forest

It’s been a busy couple of months in my house since my last post in April. A new job, a new apartment, and plenty of changes for the better in my life have really kept me hopping. Part of my job is doing surveys for breeding birds, and most of that work is done up in the boreal forest, to determine the general health of populations up there, where certain species are present, and to identify impacts on their breeding success. Now that the bulk of that work is done for the year and I’ve finally gotten into the groove of my new role, and thought I’d share some photos of some of the awesome places in the boreal forest that I’ve been for the last six weeks or so.

The boreal forest covers a majority of northern Canada, and in northern Alberta it consists primarily of white and black spruce, with jack pine, balsam poplar, aspen poplar and white (aka paper) birch interspersed throughout.

 

See that dark spot on the left? Yep, that's a bear.

A good example of upland boreal forest.

Within the boreal forest, there’s a significant differentiation between upland and lowland areas. Upland areas look something like the photo above, or the one below, and are much drier. Typical upland birds here are Magnolia Warblers (heard while taking the photo above), Canada Warblers (heard while taking the photo below), Blackburnian Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Connecticut Warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, just to name a few.

Also, this is one area where we got stuck.

This aspen and birch stand is where I heard my lifer Canada Warbler.

A dense aspen stand, good for Mourning Warblers!

A dense aspen stand, good for Mourning Warblers!

Lowland areas are more typified by what is colloquially known as “muskeg”. Much wetter areas dominated by black spruce, tamarack larch, and mosses. These are further broken down into fens, which are fed by groundwater and springs and are nutrient rich, and bogs, which are primarily fed by rainwater and surface melt, and are nutrient poor.

Also, lots of four-letter words were said while mucking through it.

Lots of Palm Warblers were heard in this particular fen!

Typical marsh habitat

Typical marsh habitat

The typical bird species found in these fens, bogs and marshes are Palm Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Sandhill Crane, and Le Conte’s Sparrow. A few other bird species seem to not particularly have a preference for habitat type, and just breed wherever they can find a good nesting area, such as Yellow-rumped Warbler, Gray Jay, Tennessee Warbler, and Wilson’s Snipe.

While the trees of the boreal forest are often the focus of interest, there are some really interesting understory plants that also tell a tale of their own. Carpets of lichen make for good forage for woodland caribou, and there were some places where the lichen carpets went on for hundreds of meters.

Lots of caribou food here.

Lots of caribou food here.

Small clear cut areas in upland regions would be just full of lichen

Small clear-cut areas in upland regions would be just full of lichen

Okay, maybe I did get a little bit obsessed with lichen.

Okay, maybe I did get a little bit obsessed with lichen.

Other understory plants that I thought were particularly interesting were things like foxtail clubmoss, which gets its name from the seeding body that looks uncannily like a fox’s tail, and Labrador tea, which is a thickly leafed plant associated with black and white spruce in slightly drier areas.

Foxtail Clubmoss is ubiquitous in some upland areas.

Foxtail Clubmoss is ubiquitous in some upland areas.

It can also be hung in clumps to deter moths (and also ghosts, apparently.)

Labrador tea, with which you can actually make an herbal tea, is a type of Rhododendron.

Of course the real reason I was up north was not to look at the plants (though I did learn quite a bit about them, as they’re important indicators of ecological phase of the area), but to conduct breeding bird surveys. While I didn’t get to see a whole lot of birds, there was plenty of evidence of them around, including a couple of nests that I stumbled across completely by accident. By far though, the most fascinating birds of all were the Sandhill Cranes, which were seemingly everywhere. How one could not think that these magnificent creatures are not close descendants of dinosaurs is beyond me.

Yep, that track is about 15 cm across.

Yep, that track is about 15 cm across.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t actually have at least one picture of an actual bird I saw on my trip, so here’s one of a surprising number of Ruffed Grouse I encountered while I was up north.

Occasionally though, I would see some birds, like this Ruffed Grouse.

Occasionally though, I would see some birds, like this Ruffed Grouse.

And even more lucky for me was a chance encounter with a Woodland Caribou, not often seen in the summer months!

And sometimes even a caribou or two.

And sometimes I might see a caribou or two.

It’s good to be back, both blogging, and back home in the city, but I’m always looking forward to my next trip north with my dream job!

Thanks for reading, and good birding!

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Boreal Forest Birds, Canadian Birds | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Summer Solstice Is Here!

NOFL_resh-UBC-2014-07-15

Happy Summer Solstice to all (I’m a few weeks late, I know, but didn’t want to repeat the previous Bird Canada blogger’s caption). I hope everyone has been or will enjoy the summer.

I am happy to report this picture of a male red-shafted Northern Flicker was taken two days ago (July 15) with my newly repaired Nikon camera, which fell on the sidewalk three weeks ago in lovely Victoria, BC.

I may be able to post something a bit longer next month….

Posted in Nature Photography, Woodpeckers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Happy summer holidays!

I always look forward to summer as it means lots of weekend camping in the great outdoors and I get to spend ‘quality time’ with my family, with the added bonus of getting to see some birds that I wouldn’t normally see. However, that means I have very little time to review & process my images, so this month I’m just going to post this one shot  – a Marsh Wren at Aspen Beach Provincial Park. There is a nice boardwalk that goes across a wetland and this guy seemed to have nested only a few metres from the main lookout  – it’s not often bird photography is as convenient as that!

Have a great summer and I look forward to sharing my shots from summer holidays when I get back!Marsh Wren

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Summer Birding around Vermilion, Alberta

This post is a quick look at what birding looks like on the Canadian prairies in July. For more specifics, here is one of my recent eBird lists for July 2, 2014 .

This Song Sparrow was singing at the Provincial Park,

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The Yellow-headed Blackbirds are all over the sloughs (ponds) near our house,

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Two male Brewer’s Blackbirds on a barbed wire fence,

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A female American Robin on her nest,

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A Killdeer that was feeding along the shore of our slough,

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Female Blue-winged Teal,

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Spotted Sandpiper,

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A female Red-winged Blackbird keeping an eye on her nest,

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Posted in Bird Canada, Grasslands Birds, Nature Photography, Shorebirds, Songbirds, Waterfowl | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment