Seven Steller’s Jays and a Hungry Hawk

By Sharon McInnes
Gabriola Island, BC

Since you’re reading this on BirdCanada, you’re probably already interested in birds. You might, like me, not only watch them but also go to some lengths to create a bird-friendly habitat in your back yard, complete with native flowers and fresh water and protection from prey.

Steller's Jays at favourite bird bath.

Steller’s Jays at favourite bird bath

You might also feed them. I do, in the fall and winter anyway. It’s the middle of September as I write this, and I recently started tossing a few handfuls of peanuts-in-the-shell to “our” seven Steller’s Jays every morning.

Waiting for breakfast

Waiting for breakfast

The morning banquet

The morning banquet

It’s fun to watch them fly in, squawk at each other, then carefully choose their peanuts, stuff one or two in their mouths, take them away to the garden or a faraway tree or the eaves of one of the sheds to squirrel them away for the winter.

One jay, one mouth, two peanuts.

One jay, one mouth, two peanuts.

First, I'll crack open one to eat right now.

First, I’ll crack open one to eat right now.

Then I'll poke one into the garden with this twig.

Then I’ll poke one into the garden with this twig.

There - that's got it!

There – that’s got it!

Then a little dessert: leftover suet that falls onto ground when Flicker eats.

Then a little dessert: leftover suet that falls onto ground when Flicker eats.

It’s fun, that is, until a hawk shows up. That’s what happened today. I put the peanuts out, then stood at the patio door in my bathrobe, eating my bowl of granola and watching the jays swoop down for their morning peanut-hiding routine. One jay (the one with the brightest eyebrows) was on the table, busy weighing peanuts (gotta get the heaviest one!) when, in my peripheral vision, I noticed another bird in mid-swoop toward the table top.

Mr. Big Blue Brows

Mr. Big Blue Brows

My brain must have recognized something a little different about this particular motion because I immediately looked up – to see a hawk, probably a Cooper’s. Another jay and I reacted at the same time. I dropped my bowl of granola, waved my arms, and yelled like a madwoman; he flew down, his wings spread all the way out, crest high, squawking like crazy. The hawk veered off.

Unfortunately, it only went as far as the maple tree in the front yard, maybe twenty feet away, where it sat, watching.

Cooper's Hawk. (Public Domain image.)

Cooper’s Hawk. (Public Domain image.)

The jays soon flew back down to the table with the peanuts. NOOOO! I flung all the peanuts onto the rattan patio chair, tossed a big pillow over them, then ordered the jays “Back in the trees!” They looked at me, quizzically, their little heads bent. NOW!! I flailed my arms, yelling so loudly that the yappy dog up the hill must have thought it was his signal to start his morning barking routine. They complied, though, headed for the backyard cedar tree, and sat among its branches.

Jay in a tree - waiting for further instructions?

Jay in a tree – waiting for further instructions?

Were they thinking I’d lost my mind? Wondering what happened to all that cootchy-cooing they usually get in the mornings?

This went on for half an hour, the jays staying in the trees (mostly) , the hawk staying in the maple tree (mostly), me ON GUARD (full-time) on the deck. When a jay would venture out, I’d yell and flail my arms. He’d scoot back. A few times the hawk changed trees, causing a whole new level of commotion. A few times, when a jay left the safety of the trees, the hawk glided down after him – always to the background music of my screeches and screams. These must have put his timing off because the jays always managed to escape – at least when I was watching. But eventually, I lost sight of the hawk and could no longer hear it (which means absolutely nothing, I realize) and it was time to get dressed and catch the ferry for a dentist appointment in Nanaimo. All the way there, I thought about what I was doing: putting the jays’ already precarious lives at risk by feeding them peanuts.

Bushy beard Jay

Bushy beard Jay

Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly fine with letting nature takes its course. Hawks need to eat too, obviously. But I don’t want to set a breakfast table that makes the jays easy pickin’s for a hungry predator. It’s a big picture dilemma, of course – the risks and benefits of feeding the birds.

I’d love to hear how you handle it. (Please share your ideas in the Comments section below.)

 

Posted in Bird Canada | Tagged , | 2 Comments

First day of Autumn

At the beginning of the month I ended up completing what was basically a Big Day. This wasn’t my original intention because all I really wanted to do was go to all my usual spots as much as possible before school started up again. Someday I’d like to go birding for 12+ hours like I know some birders do. On this particular day, I went out for a few hours in the morning, kept an eye on my backyard and went out again for another hour in the evening. I ended with 75 species which I was quite pleased with considering where I happen to live.

Highlights for me included; Bay-breasted Warbler (lifer), Long-tailed Duck (first time I had found one in the county), Common Tern (another first for the county, most likely first ever for anyone), Philadelphia Vireo (only second time I’ve ever found one) and a few late Common Nighthawks as well as one late Chimney Swift. A few of these species might not seem that special to the average birder, but if you ever happen to come to this part of New Brunswick, you’d understand that these are all nice sightings for this area.

I was quite pleased to find a couple of Norther Shovelers in Woodstock just a few days ago. It was the first time I have found this species in the county.

Northern Shoveler

Last week I found a Gadwall for just the second time in this area. I could have easily overlooked it, but I happened to see it fly away so the black and white really stood out.

Gadwall

There aren’t a lot of shorebirds to be found in western New Brunswick. I often see Solitary Sandpipers however and have even found up to eight in the same area before.

Solitary Sandpiper

I can’t say I paid much attention to birds when I was young. I do remember having Killdeer around our home a couple of different times though. Their alarm call fascinated me so I still like to see or hear them around.

Killdeer

I have enjoyed hearing Cedar Waxwings fly over my yard the past few months. In the next few weeks they will be moving on, but by November there will be Bohemian Waxwings to take there place.

Cedar  Waxwing

I wanted to mention a few rarities that have been spotted in the province over the past couple of weeks. This might become part of my regular post for each month.

Snowy Owl – Just yesterday it was reported that one has stayed in northern NB for the entire summer! http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/photo/snowy-owl-harfang-des-neiges-6?context=featured

Yellow-crowned Night Heron – It isn’t often that this species makes an appearance here; http://birdingnewbrunswick.ca/photo/strange-bird-0698

South Polar Skua – A few were found during a Pelgaic trip off of Grand Manan island. This is one of the best spots to go birding in the province!  https://www.facebook.com/photo.phpfbid=764775033564814&set=gm.760681220644628&type=1 

My goal for this Fall is try to find 6 more species to beat my record for most species found in a year. There are a few I could see this Winter that would be different, but with Fall migration, now is the time to beat a record with lots of different species stopping on their way through. The competitive side of me would really like for this to happen so I’m hoping to get down to the Bay of Fundy to help increase my chances. If I can accomplish this, this will be the topic of my post next month.

To close I wanted to mention that the Carolina Wren I posted about last month is still in my yard! I didn’t see it for almost two weeks, but I just went outside after supper and there it was helping itself to the suet. It has been a very pleasant surprise that it came to my yard in the first place and a nice bonus that it has stayed so long!

Nathan Staples

http://natethebirder.blogspot.com/

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Migration, Shorebirds | 2 Comments

Birding the Alberta Grasslands – a photo essay

The Burrowing Owl - one of the most endangered birds in the grassland region.

The Burrowing Owl – one of the most endangered birds in the grassland region.

Living in Calgary in the south of Alberta, I have the great fortune to be able to spend the summer camping season in a number of very enjoyable, and very different, regions only a few short hours way: from the mountains to the west, the parkland to the north and the grasslands to the south and east. Unfortunately, the grasslands have rapidly become one of the most threatened regions in North America. As the Alberta Wilderness Association informs on their website:

‘The North American grasslands, or Great Plains, extend from Mexico, across the U.S., and into the three Canadian prairie provinces. The northern portion of this vast ecoregion is referred to as the Northern Great Plains and covers more than 720,000 km2, sweeping across five states and two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Because temperate grasslands are particularly suitable for agriculture, an estimated 99 percent of the non-urban grassland landscape is either under cultivation or livestock grazing. Only about 1.5 percent of the Northern Great Plains is located in protected areas such as parks and reserves.

Although it is facing enormous threats, Alberta’s prairie region contains some of the world’s best and most important remaining grassland, but today less than 1 percent of Alberta’s Grassland Natural Region is protected.

The grasslands region is now considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America. Most of the non-urban landscape of this region is either farmed or grazed by domestic cattle, with the additional threat of oil and gas development and its concomitant infrastructure of roads, well sites, and pipelines. Extensive fragmentation, invasion of non-native species, and loss of habitat is reflected in the number of endangered and at-risk grassland species in the southeastern corner of Alberta.’

In the hopes of raising awareness of this issue I would therefore like to highlight some of the 30 or so grassland bird species that inhabit the region, a disproportionate number of which are endangered:

Western Meadowlark - a nice splash of colour in the grasslands

Western Meadowlark – a nice splash of colour in the grasslands

Western Meadowlarks are ubiquitous in summer and their song is literally music to my ears on early mornings.

Horned Larks - very common in SE Alberta grasslands

Horned Larks – very common in SE Alberta grasslands

Equally common is the Horned Lark, which must be a pretty hardy bird as it chooses to over-winter in Alberta.

Along with Ferruginous and Red-tailed Hawks, the Northern Harrier is also one of the key raptors of the region. The shots below were one of those moments where opportunity meets preparation…I’d gotten into a good shoting position with the sun at my back and was waiting for shorebirds at a marsh when I spied this Harrier starting it’s low altitude hunting circuit of the marsh, so knowing how wary the Harrier is, I crouched down behind some reeds and waited. As the Harrier came within range I popped up and grabbed this close-up:

Northern Harrier - getting this nice close-up was another highlight of the summer.

Northern Harrier – getting this nice close-up was another highlight of the summer.

A more common, yet equally-impressive raptor is the Swainson’s Hawk:

Swainson's Hawk - portrait of a raptor

Swainson’s Hawk – portrait of a raptor

That said, I have seen a Swainson’s take the bird below, a Long-billed Curlew, as prey. Indeed, it was quite a sad sight to see the dead Curlew’s mate trying in vain to rescue it’s partner and not something I’ll soon forget…

Long-billed Curlews that I've come across are quite territorial and not shy of coming into the middle of the road and challenging me & my vehicle!

Long-billed Curlews that I’ve come across are quite territorial and not shy of coming into the middle of the road and challenging me & my vehicle!

A Long-billed Curlew patrols a field

A Long-billed Curlew patrols a field

Other species of shorebirds also take up residence in the sloughs and ponds that dot the grasslands, from the Marbled Godwit:

Marbled Godwit fly-by

Marbled Godwit fly-by

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

through to the Willet:

Willet - sounding a warning call

Willet – sounding a warning call

Willet on a morning flight

Willet on a morning flight

and even the Spotted Sandpiper:

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

And of course, the hardy and adaptable Killdeer, has also found a home in the grassland:

Killdeers usually see me before I see them and they let me know it with alarm calls, and sometimes a fly-by like this.

Killdeers usually see me before I see them and they let me know it with alarm calls, and sometimes a fly-by like this.

However, a ‘shorebird’ that is truly a grassland specialty is the Upland Sandpiper – quite a sizeable ‘peep’ that has a penchant for fence posts:

Upland Sandpiper - I have yet see one NOT on a fencepost!

Upland Sandpiper – I have yet see one NOT on a fencepost!

It would be remiss of me to not mention the multiple species of sparrow that also inhabit the region, from the numerous Savannah Sparrows:

Savannah Sparrows - a very welcome sight in spring, but seemingly everywhere by summer!

Savannah Sparrows – a very welcome sight in spring, but seemingly everywhere by summer!

Savannah Sparrow - singing away in early spring

Savannah Sparrow – singing away in early spring

to the equally-abundant Vesper Sparrow:

Vesper Sparrows battle with Savannah Sparrows to be the dominant sparrow of the grasslands.

Vesper Sparrows battle with Savannah Sparrows to be the dominant sparrow of the grasslands.

and also the handsome Lark Sparrow:

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

However one of my ‘target’ sparrow species this year were the longspurs of the grasslands. So it was personal highlight to see & photograph BOTH Albertan grassland longspurs this summer, and I must express my great thanks to fellow Albertan bird photographers George and Alan for very kindly helping me find these elusive birds:Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

I have to say that the Longspur is a skittish bird indeed, and it took me a LOT of waiting and patience to capture all of these images!:

McCown's Longspur with a nagging Brown Cowbird fledgling in tow

McCown’s Longspur with a nagging Brown Cowbird fledgling in tow

McCown's Longspur - a highlight of this summer for me!

McCown’s Longspur – a highlight of this summer for me!

Again, thanks to some fellow birders (George again!, and Ron) I was also able to get some terrific views of resting Common Nighthawks. While they may be ‘hawks of the night’, I have seen them regularly hunting (presumably insects) over Little Bow Provincial Park in the middle of the day:

The Common Nighthawk at its daytime roost - blending in quite well with this fence post.

The Common Nighthawk at its daytime roost – blending in quite well with this fence post.

A Common Nighthawk up close & personal

A Common Nighthawk up close & personal

 

But amidst what was genuinely a summer of birding highlights, perhaps the pinnacle was the rare and privileged opportunity to observe and enjoy one of the jewels of the grassland: the Burrowing Owl…

Burrowing Owls - with one just visible from the burrow entrance.

Burrowing Owls – with one just visible from the burrow entrance.

Burrowing Owl

A big thank you to fellow photog Ron for graciously allowing me to also enjoy this fantastic experience. As I’m sure most readers know, this owl is endangered and its numbers are dwindling in Alberta and elsewhere.

So, I hope you enjoyed this post, but I hope it also raised your awareness of the precarious position the Alberta grassland region is currently in.

 

 

Posted in Bird Canada | 1 Comment

Early Autumn on the Prairies

While it’s still summer in Alberta, many areas in the province experienced snow yesterday (Monday). In our area, it snowed for just a short while, but then the melted away as the temperature reached a high of 5 degrees C.

Here are some photos from the past few weeks, of early autumn on the prairies. In this part of the country, we don’t go by the calendar, so just because the autumn equinox is several weeks away doesn’t mean it’s still summer. Day length is dramatically shorter already, nights are cooler, leaves are turning, and the sky is filled with the sounds and sight of migrating birds. As I write this, I can hear the Snow Buntings, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and American Pipits flying overhead.

Here’s a photo of a Swainson’s Hawk sitting on some of the small square alfalfa hay bales we made earlier this month,

IMG_5839

Watching for mice,

IMG_5834

Sandhill Cranes,

IMG_6047

A bit closer,

IMG_6050

A Yellow-rumped Warbler,

IMG_6027

A Black-capped Chickadee,

IMG_6024

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Grasslands Birds, Migration, Raptors | Tagged , | 4 Comments

What Hawk Is This? Or Is It a Hawk?

How are your raptor identification skills? These photos were taken in Calgary, AB in late August and those are all the clues you get. Can you identify this beautiful bird? Leave your best guess and reasons for it in the comments. Bonus points if you can identify what this bird is eating, because I can’t. Thank you Krista Beavis for sharing these stunning photos!

raptor1 raptor2 raptor3 raptor4 raptor5 raptor6 raptor7 raptor8 raptor9

Posted in Bird Canada, Raptors | Tagged | 7 Comments

September Birds on PEI

September is generally a fine month for birding on PEI. Shorebirds are on the move and fortunately some of us were able to take advantage of a Shorebird ID Workshop and Field Trip hosted by Island Nature Trust and led by well-known Island birder Dwaine Oakley. The afternoon at the beach in Borden, the Bedeque Bay Important Bird Area, offered the opportunity to see a number of birds now in our area.

SeptBirds1

Island birders participating in Island Nature Trust Shorebird ID Field Trip near Confederation Bridge

This has been great in preparation to participate in World Shorebirds’ Day. Our event on the Island is planned to take place, in that same area, on Sunday, September 7. Even though we are planning to count in this area, if one cannot join us, they can count shorebirds on the 6 or 7 anywhere.

Sanderling

Sanderling

Peeps

Peeps

Least Sandpipers

Least Sandpiper

Meanwhile, across the Island, all the other birds are on the move. Recently fledged birds are in the midst of migration, or preparing to go. Even those who do not move on are exploring the woods and finding food sources.

Juvenile Blue-headed Vireo

Juvenile Blue-headed Vireo

American Goldfinch and Scotch Thistle

American Goldfinch and Scotch Thistle

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

And as we get closer to months’ end, we will be getting our teams together for the Bennett Fall Birding Classic. The count is a fundraiser for the Island Nature Trust. Participants gather pledges and plan to cover the Island. Teams will get together in the early hours of September 27 and find as many species as possible over a twenty-four hour period. Funds raised go to Island Nature Trust’s land acquisition program.

All in all, it looks like it’s going to be a busy month for birders in September!

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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!

 

 

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Identification | Tagged | 2 Comments

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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Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

It’s still summer, but…

Osprey-Okanagan-2014-08-13

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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