Common Mergansers – A Closer Look

A25K5352d&b-mask-flickrSpring – finally it has arrived! And with it, the first of the spring migrants are turning up, including large numbers of Common Mergansers heading into Alberta. While this species can be found year-round in the province, their numbers are noticeably higher in spring/summer.A25K5162d&bOf course, spring also means breeding season and many birds are either mated up or in the process of doing so. Fierce competition to pass on genes makes for quite a spectacle for birders, and with the advent of faster & better photographic technology each year we are able to better observe and appreciate all this frenetic action. My post this month focuses on a few days I spent shooting Common Mergansers along the Bow River in Calgary, during which I was able to get a close-up glimpse into the daily lives of this species:A25K6689d&bMost impressive was the fishing skills of these mergansers as I saw them bring in fish time & time again. Photography tip:  when you see a bird dive down to fish, take your eye off the viewfinder and watch with both eyes (so you have a much wider field of view) for the bird to re-surface maybe 10 seconds later. Mergansers surface to eat their catch and gobble down the fish almost immediately after emerging, so you need to be ready!A25K5173d&b

I couldn’t believe this bird could swallow this fish whole…but it did!

A25K5720d&b-blogAlso impressive were the lengths that paired-up mergansers went to to protect their union. I witnessed a male land near a couple & it wasn’t long before the fireworks flew, with the female clearly being the most aggressive to unwitting male visitor: A25K5377d&bA25K6865A25K5368d&b-flickrA25K6011

And as always, I try to get some in-flight action shots and when it comes to ducks you will get good opportunities both during take-offs and landings. I find take-offs somewhat ‘easier’ to capture, only because you usually get a little longer (maybe a second or more) forewarning via the audible flurry of rapid flapping/splashing that signals a duck looking to get airborne. Unlike ducks coming in to land where you pretty much have to see them coming in because by the time you hear them they have already touched down. That said, some ducks will do a loop of the landing zone before they alight, so sometimes that will give you time to set up, pre-focus then hope they choose to land in front of you :)


I got lucky here when this bird did a loop around before landing & allowing me just enough time to focus & starting shooting


The classic take-off shot

I hope you enjoyed this month’s post, and you can always see more of my photography at my website:

Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

Tofield, Alberta, Snow Goose Chase 2014

One sign of Spring in the Edmonton, Alberta, area every year is the annual Snow Goose Chase, organized by the Edmonton Nature Club.

This year, on the morning of April 26th, eight buses filled with inner-city and new immigrant families, along with three buses for the general public, will depart from Edmonton heading for the 15th annual Tofield Snow Goose Chase; there is also a Chase on Sunday the 27th as well.

The morning session of the Chase is held at the Tofield Community Hall on Main Street from 9:30 am until 12 noon. The hall will have a variety of exhibits and displays, including five live raptors from the Edmonton Valley Zoo; a live exhibit of scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes from the Royal Alberta Museum with Bug Room curator Pete Heule; Mike Jenkins’ “swimming pool” with a hands-on bugs and beetle wetland display; a live Burrowing Owl from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory; and a selection of mounted birds of Alberta, displayed by Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum.

The Burrowing Owl from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, which I was able to hold in 2012

Here I am at the 2012 Snow Goose Chase, with the Burrowing Owl from the Beaverhill Bird Observatory

I will be at the Snow Goose Chase again this year, manning the Young Naturalists’ Corner for the second year, to encourage kids to learn more about the natural world around them, so if you’re attending the Chase, please stop by and say hello! I’ll have nature-related books on display, White-tailed Deer antlers to look at and touch, and much more! I will be giving away a few prizes at the table too! If you can’t make it to Tofield but are interested interested in nature, want to explore the great outdoors, and learn more about the environment, I have a list of resources for kids and families here.

The Young Naturalists’ Corner’s banner

The Young Naturalists’ Corner’s banner at the 2013 Chase

After lunch, the buses will head out to the Ministik Bird Sanctuary, watch owl banding at Francis Viewpoint with Ray Cromie, and put up some Mountain Bluebird nest boxes.

Later in the afternoon, the buses will head out out to view the large flocks geese, swans, and other species, including Sandhill Cranes, hawks, and owls. Scopes, binoculars, field guides, and seasoned birders from the Edmonton Nature Club and Nature Alberta will be provided.

Here is part of our table last year with all the prizes and pamphlets from Bird Studies Canada and Nature Alberta

Part of the Young Naturalists’ Corner last year with books, prizes, and pamphlets from Bird Studies Canada and Nature Alberta

The raptors carrying cases from the Edmonton Valley Zoo

The raptors’ carrying cases from the Edmonton Valley Zoo

You can read my blog posts about the Snow Goose Chase from the past two years here and here, and at the official website and Nature Alberta page. The Snow Goose Chase is a wonderful way to begin Spring in Alberta, and a great introduction to our province’s natural wonders for those who haven’t discovered them yet. Do you have an event like this in your province? If so, please mention it in the comments!

Mounted waterbirds from the ornithology collection at Royal Alberta Museum,

Mounted waterbirds from the ornithology collection at Royal Alberta Museum

Posted in Animals, Bird Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Canadian Mammals, Insects, Migration, Owls, Raptors, Waterfowl | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On How to Woo a Female Finch

Frogs are croaking, insects are hatching, and the mini-daffs are in bloom. It’s spring! These days I wake to the glorious song of the House Finches, whose song first piqued my curiosity about birdsong.

The male House Finch teaches his particular dialect of the "House Finch song" to his male offspring.

In spring, the male House Finch teaches his particular dialect of the “House Finch song” to his male offspring.

Did you ever wonder (as I did) how such tiny creatures belted out such beautiful melodies? The answer lies partly in the fact that they have two voice boxes (syringes) that they coordinate, using air expelled through two bronchi, as they sing. This mechanism allows finches to sing two intertwined tunes at once, creating one gorgeously complex song.

Female finches consider plumage and song when they choose a mate.

Female finches consider plumage and song when they choose a mate.

The more complex the song, and the redder the plumage, the more likely she is to say ‘yes’.

A female House Finch keeps one eye open as she cleans up the syrup around the hummer feeder.

A female House Finch keeps one eye open as she cleans up the syrup around the hummer feeder.

This assertive yet poetic female, frustrated by the lack of mating finesse of the House Finches in the yard, decides to share a few tips …

On How to Woo Me

Let’s get this straight: it’s not your size or sparkling eyes that interest me.
What rattles my feathers, what makes me bill
Is just the right colour and just the right song.
I’m looking for RED, a head as red as red as can be
And a song – a song that’s big and loud and long
Longer than those other guys.

And maybe try that butterfly dive some of your fellow finches do
Fly way up high above the trees
Then glide my way your throat on fire
With gorgeous tones that tease and please: now that might do the trick.

Maybe then I’ll let you gently poke my bill
Maybe then I’ll bow and droop my wings
And flutter like a sweet young thing, all timid and submissive
And let you feed me seeds and knotwood, thistle, fruit.
Maybe then we’ll plan to make some baby birds
In April, when the daffodils are out.

Yes! It worked!!

The happy couple. (Moral: never be too shy to ask for what you want!)

The happy couple. (Moral: never be too shy to ask for what you want!)

And perhaps, a few months down the road …

A young House Finch posing for the camera

A young House Finch posing for the camera

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Songbirds | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

An Owly day on the Prairies

Late last year I was contacted by some folks who would be visiting the Calgary area in early March in search, primarily, of Snowy Owls. As my third ever outing as a professional guide, I went all out on researching what else we could see, and what other birds, mammals, and habitats that they might enjoy while they were here.

Our day started off with a sighting of a small flock of Gray Partridge near Frank Lake. This one oddity just happened to have two heads.

 Gray Partridge Frank Lake area, south of Calgary March 5, 2014

Gray Partridge
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary
March 5, 2014

Down the road and around the corner from our first encounter was our first Snowy Owl of the day, sitting and catching the sunrise from atop one of their favored perches out here on the prairies, a single line telephone pole.

 female/immature type Snowy Owl Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

female/immature type Snowy Owl
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

Around the lake were quite a few Horned Larks singing their hearts out on every single rock, dirt mound, and fence post they could. A sure sign of impending spring here on the prairies!

 Horned Lark Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

Horned Lark
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

As we were well into their nesting season, a couple of Great Horned Owls that I’ve been checking on a few times this winter were along our route, and I thought I’d have a little fun with our visitors and see if they could spot the male half of this pair. Can you?

 male Great Horned Owl Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

male Great Horned Owl
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

The rest of our loop around the lake didn’t turn up much of interest. The Prairie Falcons, Gyrfalcon, and Rough-legged Hawks in the area didn’t want to cooperate, but as we returned to the start of our loop, the light had improved significantly and our first Snowy Owl of the day was still resting on the same power pole as before.

First Snowy again

female/immature type Snowy Owl*
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

And then the sightings came fast and furious after that. Snowy Owl after Snowy Owl posed close enough for everyone to get good looks. While the area around Calgary often has relatively good numbers of Snowy Owls, as I wrote over on Birds Calgary last month, I believe we’re catching a bit of the westernmost extent of the irruption taking place this year given the fairly large numbers that some observers have counted on a single day.

first male

male type Snowy Owl*
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

male snowy

male type Snowy Owl*
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

female snowy 2

female/immature type Snowy Owl*
Frank Lake area, south of Calgary

Another fairly unusual occurrence that I was able to show our visitors from Down Under, was a good crust of hoarfrost all over the power lines, trees, and fences south of the city. A short break was required to get really good looks at it, just as a breeze blew up from the west and scattered it down on us from the power lines above.

hoarfrost 2

Hoarfrost on thorny buffaloberry

From Frank Lake we headed west into the foothills, to look for our third owl species of the day, the Northern Hawk Owl.

This particular pair has gained a fair level of infamy for local birders for being a bit tricky to find, even though their regular haunt is right at the junction of two secondary highways. I myself had gone down to that area four times before getting my first looks at it, and another birder reported that they’d gone down earlier in the day on March 5, and wasn’t able to find either one of them. Thankfully one half of the pair was visible silhouetted against the sky from one of the side roads, and as we approached its perch, it actually flew towards us to get a better look at us! This one’s a bit cheeky.

 Northern Hawk Owl Turner Valley area, southwest of Calgary

Northern Hawk Owl
Turner Valley area, southwest of Calgary

From there we headed deeper into the foothills, on one of my very familiar stretches of road northwest of Calgary, notorious for its Spruce Grouse, Northern Shrikes, and most importantly for our group, the Great Gray Owl. As we arrived at the southernmost extent of this stretch, we happened upon one of the target mammal species of the day, a magnificent herd of over 300 elk.

 Elk herd Grand Valley Road, northwest of Calgary

Elk herd
Grand Valley Road, northwest of Calgary

Unfortunately, the next two hours were quiet. Disturbingly so. Though the wind was low, the temperatures rising, and the sky clear, the birds were incredibly sparse. A pair of moose grazed on some willows south of Water Valley. A pair (and the first of year for me) of White-winged Crossbills flew across the road in front of my jeep before quickly disappearing into the thick boughs of a nearby spruce. A Gray Jay called in the distance, and was replied to by its mate. But no owls were to be found. We tried the roads west of Water Valley, and then further north, but still no owls were in sight. The sun was sitting low on the western horizon as we drove through Water Valley one last time, debating on making our dinner stop at the Water Valley Saloon, but I decided “Just one more pass.” Boy am I glad we did. We found this handsome fellow not three kilometers south of the Water Valley Saloon on one of the grid roads that we bypassed on our way up. It was a magnificent end to a great four-owl day.


Great Gray Owl
south of Water Valley, Alberta

Thanks again for reading, and good birding!


* You might wonder why my Snowy Owl photos are labelled “Female/Immature type” and “male type”. 

While the traditional interpretation of Snowy Owl sex is that heavily barred, dark birds are females, and paler, less heavily barred birds are male, there are some researchers who have shown that this interpretation isn’t particularly reliable, hence my hesitation. In the field though, and in casual conversation, I do typically use the traditional interpretations as a shortcut for simplicity’s sake.

Posted in Bird Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Canadian Mammals, Owls, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Flight: A Photo Essay

Today’s post will focus on one thing most birds can do rather well: Fly! And as anyone who is a bird photographer can tell you, it can be rather difficult to capture flying birds, even with a good autofocus DSLR. But since flying is an essential part of what makes birds so fascinating to us earthbound humans, wildlife photographers simply cannot resist trying to capture this aspect of bird behaviour. And even when capturing still photos, bird flight is impressive — in fact, a good picture can reveal things that go buy too quickly if you are looking at it at normal speed (even after the fact on a video).

Before I forget, Happy St. Patrick’s Day if you’re Irish, would love to be Irish or are just in the mood to celebrate something!

[QUICK UPDATE: If you like flying bird photos, you should also take a look at the previous blog by my colleague Tim Hopwood, who got some great shots of flying ducks!]

The first photo is not one of my best, but I still like to way it shows how this Anna’s Hummingbird flies from one treetop branch to another (taken in January 2014 at the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey Campus, next to Vancouver, BC):


From the incredibly small, let us move on to two impressively massive Bald Eagles. These two seemed to be a pair who, along with two other eagle pairs, seemed to be having some fun flying around and proving their dominance of this air space (taken in February 2014 at the edge of Pacific Spirit Regional Park, next to Vancouver, BC):


The following picture is also not one of my best, but it illustrates my previous comment on the fact that photos can show you things that are not easily perceived by the naked eye, since this is the aftermath of a flying pursuit and tussle between two Brown Creepers (I published the most astonishing shot of this sequence a few days ago on my person blog):


I chose this picture of a flying Glaucous-winged Gull just because this photo shows one the major problems when photographing moving birds, namely clipping their wings. But it also helps that this photo is so clear and was taken recently on a beautiful sunny day close to North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay:


This Killdeer is not quite airborne yet, but was about to take off on Wreck Beach in Pacific Spirit Regional Park (next to Vancouver, BC):


This Mew Gull was unusually close to shore and so I quickly got some shots of it flying around me close to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver:


Pigeon Guillemots are not the world’s most gracious flyers (taking off is laborious and they always seem to perform crash landings on water), their relatively slow speeds mean that it is possible to capture them on film. I should point out, however, that like the penguins they resemble so much, their “flight” underwater is quite impressive. Maybe I can capture this someday soon (both of these photos were taken last month, close to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, BC):

PIGU-NVBC-2014_02_28-01 PIGU-NVBC-2014_02_28-02

And finally, the following photo is one of the very few that I will ever publish of a Rock Pigeon. But although I do not usually find these birds to be beautiful when still, their superb flying technique is impressive and quite photogenic:



Posted in Canadian Birds, Hummingbirds, Nature Photography, Raptors, Shorebirds, Waterfowl, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Last Hurrah for Winter (hopefully!)

Barrow's GoldeneyeI’ve been fortunate enough to have spent 2 of the last 4 weeks outside of frigid Canada in the warmer climes of Mexico and Hawaii, so the amount of local birds I’ve seen and photographed has been relatively limited. However, I was able to make two trips to two quite different Calgary locales, the first being a 2-hour shooting session on the banks of the Bow River just south of Calgary. Taking advantage of some late afternoon sun that was low in the sky & directly behind me, I set myself up on a pile of snow-covered rocks on the river bank and proceeded to photograph the endless procession of ducks as they floated past downstream feeding, then flew back again to repeat the process. The constant flow of ducks alighting and taking off was a great opportunity to practice my flight photography and I took full advantage.CommonGoldeneye touch down

A Goldeneye shaking off the cold

A Goldeneye shaking off the cold

A Common Merganser heading upstream

A Common Merganser heading upstream

Common Goldeneye...a graceful landing this is not

Common Goldeneye…a graceful landing this is not

A female Redhead fly-by

A female Redhead fly-by

Redhead on final approach

Redhead on final approach

CommonGoldeneye CommonGoldeneye An added bonus was bagging a lifer bird – a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes – which I have been hoping to see for sometime!

A couple of weekends later, I returned well-rested and relaxed from Mexico to find that Calgary had experienced something of an owl eruption with Saw-Whets, Barred and Great Grey Owls being seen in my absence. So, I headed down to Fish Creek Park the next morning to see if I could catch some of these owls before they moved on & was fortunate enough to be quickly directed by friendly fellow birders to the Great Grey. The presence of this bird is particularly remarkable for as I posted last month it has been 14 years since a GGO was reported in Calgary, and now we have two!zGrtGreyOwl1

More dramatic than it looks...this was mid-preen and I think maybe it had a feather stuck or something!

More dramatic than it looks…this was mid-preen and I think maybe it had a feather stuck or something!


For the 90 minutes I was there, this owl was content to preen the entire time but still was interesting to observe, especially when it made some rather interesting faces.

A final bonus was seeing a Pileated Woodpecker up nice & close on my back to my car. Seeing these birds is always a pleasure, and this particular bird showed no noticeable reaction to the stream of dog-walkers and joggers than passed by within a few meters…not to mention the guy pointing the big lens!PileatedWPecker2 PileatedWPecker4 PileatedWPecker5

Overall, I must say that this winter was definitely not what I expected – the most snow recorded in Calgary in the last 100 years, getting stuck in the ditch (twice!), pretty much no winter finches, but more owls than I could have hoped for. All up, no complaints at my end :)

Nonetheless, I am quite excited about the next month – not only do we have the Canadian spring arrivals coming, but I’ll also be down in coastal Texas (twice!) to get a sneak peak of what’s coming Canada’s way!




Posted in Bird Canada | 3 Comments

Young Birders Alert!

Posted by Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder:

Spring is on the way, with summer not too far behind, so if you’re a young birder, it’s time to get out your calendar and start thinking about the great programs that are available.

The Young Ornithologists Workshop is a fantastic 10-day program for young Canadian birders ages 13-17 at the Long Point Bird Observatory (LPBO) in Ontario, on Lake Erie.

Here is some more information about the workshop from the website: “Participants learn how to identify, age and sex birds, and to study their populations and behaviour. Careful and skilled instructors teach the secrets of bird handling and banding techniques, how to prepare specimens for scientific study, and an array of bird censusing techniques. Regular afternoon field trips are taken to places of biological interest within the internationally designated Long Point Biosphere Reserve. Evenings too are busy with slide presentations and nocturnal field work.” Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

The full name of the program is the Doug Tarry Bird Young Ornithologists’ Workshop, named for Mr. Tarry who was a humanitarian and naturalist. The workshop/natural history camp at the Long Point Bird Observatory was started in the 1970s and its goal is, as the BSC website writes, to “foster the development of ornithological interests in Canadian teenagers”.

I attended YOW in 2012 and had a terrific time. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal, and also to meet other like-minded kids. I highly recommend the program and encourage young birders to apply. The application deadline is Wednesday, April 30th.

You can read all of my posts about the Young Ornithologist Workshop here on my blog

A Black-throated Green Warbler at Long Point in 2013

A Black-throated Green Warbler at Long Point in 2013

A Black-throated Green Warbler at Long Point in 2012

A Black-throated Green Warbler at Long Point in 2012

A Baltimore Oriole at Long Point in 2012

A Baltimore Oriole at Long Point in 2012

A Carolina Wren at Long Point in 2012

A Carolina Wren at Long Point in 2012

Banding at Long point 2012

Banding at Long point 2012

The Young Birder of the Year contest is a program run by the American Birding Association, and despite the ABA’s name, the contest is in fact open to Canadian as well as American young birders.

I participated last year and enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again this year as I have a full-time summer job from June to August. I very much enjoyed the field notebook module, and my sketches improved a lot with all the entries I made.

The contest runs from April 15 through October 1, 2014 and there are a number of modules you can enter in — the two major modules are the field notebook and conservation/community leadership, and the supporting modules are photography, writing, and illustration.

The ABA recently announced the winners of the contest — you can see the results here

A few of my sketches from my notebook I entered into the contest,




Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Migration | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Discoveries made on the Lewis and Clark Expedition


Bitterroot-Lewisia rediviva

Bitterroot-Lewisia rediviva

As I begin to accumulate knowledge about the South Okanagan, it is astounding to find out how many plants and animals were identified and named for the explorer’s Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The expedition was ordered by the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and took place between 1804 and 1806. There were several goals both scientific and commercial – to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to discover how the region could be exploited economically.

They were not the first explorers to cross the continent, Alexander MacKenzie, an employee of the Northwest Fur Trading Company (based in Montreal, Quebec) went overland to the Pacific in 1793. MacKenzie’s mandate was to expand the commercial interests of the fur trading industry and make strategic alliances with the First Nations peoples.

It would not be accurate to say that Lewis and Clark discovered these plants and animals as the indigenous peoples had known of them. However, they were the first Euro-Americans to document their findings and publish their results.

Lewis's Woodpecker-Melanerpes lewis

Lewis’s Woodpecker-Melanerpes lewis

One of my favorite members of the Family Picidae is the Lewis’s Woodpecker (melanerpes lewis). In Canada, this bird is found only in Southern British Columbia and is considered to be of special concern or vulnerable. Habitat where you are most likely to find The Lewis’s Woodpecker is open Ponderosa pine forests and old cottonwood stands. They usually choose a dead or burnt out stag to make their nest cavity. For the past several summers I have been conducting a survey for the Wildlife Tree Stewardship program where I spend time in the field finding and mapping nest sites. One of my duties is to determine if the Lewis Woodpecker returns to the same nest site each year. In most cases during the 2012 season I was unable to reach that conclusion; in my area of study only 1 previously marked tree had a returning woodpecker and 7 new nest sites were found. Unlike most other woodpeckers the Lewis catches insects in flight and can often be seen “Hawking”.

Wild Blue Flax-Linum perenne lewisii

Wild Blue Flax-Linum perenne lewisii

The South Okanagan is home to 700 species of wildflowers, one that stands out for me is the lovely Wild Blue Flax (linum perenne lewisii) named for the explorer Meriwether Lewis. Like many species of flowers the blooming period is very short, the best time to see the Wild Blue Flax is mid-June. It is found at low to mid elevation throughout dry climates in dry grasslands, sagebrush steppes and open ponderosa pine forests. There are many uses for this plant that have been known about for centuries, both medicinally and as a food source. Some First Nation’s peoples used the plant for the production of linen thread and in a poultice to treat ulcers. The nutritional value of flaxseed oil is outstanding as it is the highest single source of omega-3 fatty acid. Seeds are ground up and made into linseed oil a drying agent used in paints and varnishes. Indeed this plant is very versatile and ranks high in importance throughout the world.

Clark's Nutcracker Jay-Nucifraga columbiana

Clark’s Nutcracker Jay-Nucifraga columbiana

An odd thing was happening in February 2013, I have been seeing a large flock of up to 11 Clark’s Nutcracker Jays (nucifraga columbiana) almost daily. Normally at this time of year I see a pair of these Jays who maybe in the early stages of mating. Perhaps we will experience anirruption or a dramatic, irregular migration of large numbers of birds to area.As a member of the Family Corvidae, the Clark’s Nutcracker Jay is very intelligent, and has incredible spatial memory, enabling it to find in winter most of the tens of thousands of seeds cached in the summer.  Unlike the Lewis’s Woodpecker, this Jay residents here year round and is common in high coniferous forests.

At Great Horned Owl Eco Tours, a key element in delivering effective and experiential tours, is the ability to demonstrate how animals, flowers and fauna are integral pieces to a sustainable, healthy and productive environment.



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The Trans Mountain Pipeline & a Billion Birds

Here on the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, more Trouble (with a capital T) is brewing for the birds – in the form of the Trans Mountain (TM) Pipeline expansion, owned by Kinder Morgan. (You might be familiar with this oil giant owned by former Enron executives.) The expansion, often referred to (inaccurately) as a “twinning”, would lead to a three-fold increase in the number of oil tankers, many of them much bigger than the ones currently in use. Eventually, over 400 tankers a year would travel right through the Salish Sea, past the shores of the Gulf Islands (including my home, Gabriola Island) to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then, in most cases, on to Asia. This route along our coast is habitat to more than one billion birds, including more than a million seabirds and twenty-four ‘priority bird species’ that migrate along the Pacific Flyway from Central America to Alaska, including these:

Black Oystercatcher at Brickyard Beach, Gabriola Island

Black Oystercatcher at Brickyard Beach, Gabriola Island


Laysan Albatross and chick.  (Public domain image.

Laysan Albatross and chick. (Public domain image.

Marbled Murrelet  (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Marbled Murrelet (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Sandhill Crane in flight  (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Sandhill Crane in flight (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Spruce Grouse (Public Domain image)

Spruce Grouse (Public Domain image)

Swainson's Hawk. Photo courtesy Elaine R. Wilson at

Swainson’s Hawk. Photo courtesy Elaine R. Wilson at

Varied Thrush in my backyard on Gabriola Island

Varied Thrush in my backyard on Gabriola Island

Western sandpiper. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Western sandpiper. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

The tanker route goes through or by three internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas (IBAs) including Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River Estuary, and Active Pass. These IBAs are critical for the maintenance of the world’s bird populations; they support millions of nesting, wintering, and migrating birds.

Even if there were some unimaginable miracle (truly, that’s what it would take) and no tankers ever spilled any oil or dumped any dilbit (if you believe this is likely, please let me know so I can sell you a bridge or at least inundate you with scientific papers and research,) the chronic oiling of marine birds will be disastrous. The National Response Center, the sole federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills in the U.S. and its territorial waters, has found Kinder Morgan responsible for more than 1,800 violations since it was incorporated in 1997, nearly 500 of which are pipeline “incidents” and, since reporting began in 1961, 78 spills along the pipeline route. (Conversations for Responsible Economic Development, “Assessing the Risks”.) According to lawyers for Nature Canada addressing the National Energy Board during the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, “Chronic, ship-source discharges of oily effluent pose a larger problem than large-scale catastrophic oil spills.” (Globe & Mail, December 11, 2012). Yikes. Not good news.

Forget catastropic – even a medium-sized spill would cover and contaminate our shores, marine mammals, invertebrates, and BIRDS with highly toxic tar sands “oil”. And since any spill response recovers a maximum of only 25% of the oil, that leaves 75% of it in the environment – forever. If it is bitumen, it will, within 26 hours, sink, remaining on the ocean floor, out of sight, but doing its toxic damage. (,

The news gets worse: Although the company whose oil tanker spills is required to pay for at least part of the clean up of the shores, in BC “there is no duty of care for the wildlife that inhabits that same environment.” (Wildlife Rescue Association (WRA) Newsletter Fall 2012, p 1). WRA President Jackie McQuillan says, “We are woefully unprepared. Here in BC we don’t have the equipment, facilities, or professionally trained personnel to deal with even minor oiled wildlife incidents.” (ibid) How many birds will die of poisoning and/or suffocation? The sad truth is that even one drop of oil can be lethal to a bird. “When oil sticks to a bird’s feathers, it causes them to mat and separate, impairing waterproofing and exposing the animal’s sensitive skin to extremes in temperature. This can result in hypothermia, meaning the bird becomes cold, or hyperthermia, which results in overheating. Instinctively, the bird tries to get the oil off its feathers by preening, which results in the animal ingesting the oil and causing severe damage to its internal organs.” ( )

And even with de-oiling and rehabilitation, some experts say that most birds die anyway. Referring to the massive numbers of oiled birds following the BP Oil spill in April 2010, Silvia Gaus, biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in Germany wrote: “According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent. We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.” (

Sadly, the birds have no voice when it comes to the exploitation of their habitat by Big Oil. So if you want to protect the Pacific Flyway birds from this disaster-in-the-works, please let the government know. Write letters to BC politicians. Talk to your friends and neighbours about your concerns. Attend a rally. Support organizations opposing the project. The Dogwood Initiative ( and The Georgia Strait Alliance ( and Conversations for Responsible Economic Development ( are good places to get information and direction on how to help.

Thank you.

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Owl Extravaganza

This winter has been one of the most brutal winters southern Ontario has seen in years. And in spite of that, it’s been my best birding winter by far. I’ve already managed to rack up five owl species, including the legendary Great Grey.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

We encountered the monumental Great Grey Owl one freezing day in January in the small hamlet of Brooklin (sp!), a mere hour east of Toronto. There he was in a field, posing for us atop a branch. About thirty or so birders greeted the bird with an emotional welcome — I even saw one lady burst into tears. She cried because she knew that her subsequent sightings would never be as momentous as the first time she held the owl’s gaze. It’s an emotional business, this here birding. I’ll admit that I let out a small yelp when I finally got my binoculars on the Strix nebulosa, resident of Boreal forests — the tallest North American owl with the largest wingspan. But it was the owl’s coiffure that I couldn’t quite get over: a cacophonous blend of competing plumage hues and patterns. Grey majestic circular patterns around the somber eyes set off against a furry greyish and white head and neck, and a brownish fluffy body. Even the poshest, most avant garde salon wouldn’t have dared produce a hairdo so textured and layered. A miracle of an owl.

The Great Grey was followed by a magnificent rufous Eastern Screech Owl in a cemetery on the border of Hamilton and Burlington. We saw it hanging out in its usual spot, poking its head out of a hole in a dead tree. The adult red morph is rare, since they’re usually grey, so this was a particular treat.

Last weekend was my true Owl Extravaganza day. In one afternoon, I saw a fabulous Snowy Owl, followed by a Great Horned, and an elusive Long-Eared. The regal Snowy (Bubo scandiacus) was hanging out in Oakville, near a marina. (Birders had found a number of dead, half-eaten ducks not far from the Snowy; clearly, Bubo scandiacus won’t leave Ontario hungry.) The Snowy happens to be the largest North American owl by weight. The one we saw was a heavily streaked, greyish female, and she was also gargantuan. The day we saw her, she was lazing about, contemplating the weather, perhaps entertaining deep philosophical questions. In any event, she did some neck twists, and went about her business of surveying her terrain. I did detect a nervous Red-breasted Merganser not far from the Snowy. Swim, little duck, I wanted to shout! Away, while you can!

I was thrilled to see the Great Horned, since the Bubo virginianus was my introduction to owls. I haven’t seen one in two years, so this felt monumental. I never tire of the Great Horned Owl’s austere look and his dark eyebrows and furry ears. I would have loved to hear his deep hoot, but he was saving his voice for a more exciting opportunity, I suppose.

The last owl of the day was the elusive Long-eared, which I’ve only seen as a fly-by. This time, alas, was no exception, but the owl really did fly towards me and over my head, and the whole thing happened in slow motion, so I got a great look at his slightly elongated, striped face. He seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere (a rodent caught his eye?) so we didn’t interrupt him by tagging along.

All in all, it’s been a glorious winter!

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