A fond farewell to Alberta’s Winter Birds

With only 28 days until the first day of Spring, and given the record snowfall and deep, bitter cold that has gripped us here in Alberta this year, I don’t think it’s really that premature of me to wish our winter visitors a fond farewell.

Don’t get me wrong. I love winter, and I love the winter birds that grace southern Alberta on a (usually) annual basis. Unfortunately, this winter’s been a slow one, partly because of the notable absence of the “Winter Finches”, and partly because of the seemingly much more terrible weather, though that may be just a byproduct of me getting older.

immature male White-winted Crossbill April 2013


immature male White-winted Crossbill
April 2013

As predicted by Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, the Pine Grosbeaks, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Pine Siskins were notably absent this year, with little more than a few occasional reports of them within Calgary, and a few more in the foothills and Rocky Mountains to the west.

male Pine Grosbeak November 2012


male Pine Grosbeak
November 2012

Pine Siskin February 2012

Pine Siskin
February 2012

Another species that relies heavily upon pine and spruce cone production is the Red-breasted Nuthatch. While they’re far from absent this year, they’re certainly not in quite the numbers as they’ve been in the Calgary area the past two years.

male Red-breasted Nuthatch February 2013


male Red-breasted Nuthatch
February 2013

While those species rely primarily on the spruce and pine cone crops, the Redpolls, both Common and Hoary, rely on birch, alder, and conifer seeds, which also had an abundant crop in the north, keeping the number of both of these species to a minimum around here as well.

Hoary Redpoll February 2013


Hoary Redpoll
February 2013

Common Redpoll February 2013


Common Redpoll
February 2013

Apart from the winter finches, there are the good old standbys. The occasional but reliable Harris’s Sparrows, the Boreal Chickadees, the Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and the Snow Buntings. Each and every one of these species is almost certainly in the Calgary area each winter, though their numbers are also known to fluctuate quite a bit.

Boreal Chickadee January 2013


Boreal Chickadee
January 2013

Barrow's Goldeneye January 2012


Barrow’s Goldeneye
January 2012

Snow Buntings February 2014


Snow Buntings
February 2014

Harris's Sparrow March 2012


Harris’s Sparrow
March 2012

And last but not least, how could anyone forget the various winter birds of prey that make their way into my area of Alberta on a regular basis. Even in non-irruption years, Snowy Owls are found in Southern Alberta in small numbers, though, as I wrote in my post for Birds Calgary, we seem to be benefiting from the irruption that has been well documented in the Eastern United States and Canada, if only slightly.

Snowy Owl January 2014


Snowy Owl
January 2014

Another winter owl that seems to vary in number each year, depending on food supply, is the Northern Hawk Owl. There are at least four individuals that I know of in the Calgary area, and likely a dozen more that are simply hunting in places that either birders don’t get out to very often, or aren’t being reported.

Northern Hawk Owl November 2012


Northern Hawk Owl
November 2012

Gyrfalcons are a favourite winter bird of mine, for the completely arbitrary reason of my having stumbed across one in a very unexpected area when I first really started my obsession with listing. I believe it was also one of my very first eBird submissions.

Gyrfalcon December 2011


Gyrfalcon
December 2011

And of course no discussion of winter raptors would be complete without mentioning the Rough-legged Hawks, who come in color morphs as varied as the Swainson’s Hawks, with some incredibly pale, and some so dark as to potentially be mistaken for a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, much like this one I photographed earlier this year.

dark morph Rough-legged Hawk January 2013


dark morph Rough-legged Hawk
January 2013

So long, winter birds. Not only because Spring is on the way, but because spring birds are on the horizon, and while you’ve kept us in good company over the coldest, and darkest months of the past year, we’re ready for the warblers, the gulls, the shorebirds and the swallows!

Posted in Bird Canada, Owls, Raptors, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Birds seen on my way to work: A photo essay

Presumably, many of Bird Canada’s readers take public transportation to get to work. One of the advantages of this mode of transportation is that you get to look around at your environment as you are travelling (you can do this when you drive or cycle, of course, but it can and often does lead to unfortunate accidents). As I travel to work, then, I often see birds that intrigue me or parks that I would like to visit. This month, I would like to show you a few pictures of the birds that I have been able to photograph along my route to work (or at work), as I travel from North Vancouver to UBC’s Vancouver campus, which is found on the western edge of the city.

In the morning, after a brisk walk down the hill from my home, I take the Seabus from North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay and to Vancouver’s Waterfront Station. Once on the other side, I often hop on the 44 bus that takes me from downtown all the way to the bus loop at UBC (a 12km ride).

Along the way, the many great parks and spots to see and photograph some pretty interesting land and water birds include various spots on Burrard Inlet’s northern and southern shores, Jericho Park, the UBC Campus and Pacific Spirit Regional Park. I should point out that I captured all of these images in the past month, as this unusually mild, dry and sunny winter has been a rather amazing to observe and photograph birds. And all of these photos were taken on a work day, either in the morning before work or during my lunch break.

I would love to hear if you have interesting places to observe birds along your commute to work!

Starting in North Vancouver, on the north shore of Burrard Inlet (not far from the starting point of the Seabus at Lonsdale Quay), many interesting birds can be found if you are paying attention, including this Pigeon Guillemot, taken on February 11:

PIGU-Lonsdale-2014_02_11

If you look closely enough, you may also find a beautiful male Hooded Merganser doing some crab fishing a few steps away…

HOME_male-Lonsdale-2014_02_05

…or a Glaucous-winged Gull shamelessly trying to grab his breakfast (this bird almost landed on the HOME in its desire to steal its food):

GWGU-Lonsdale-2014_02_05

The next three photos (of a Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Spotted Towhee) were taken in Vancouver’s beautiful Jericho Park on February 5, 2014, which I always see from my bus as I am proceeding to UBC:

FOSP-Jericho-2014_02_05

SOSP-Jericho-2014_02_05

SPTO-Jericho-2014_02_05

This Anna’s Hummingbird was taken on February 11, 2014, along a path that I take almost every day to get to my office at UBC in the Student Union Building:

ANHU_male-UBC-2014_02_11

The next few photos were not taken along my commute as such, but may be found only a few steps from my office (from top to bottom, you may recognize a pair of Bald Eagles, a Brown Creeper, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a Pacific Wren and a lovely Varied Thrush):

BAEA_pair-PSRP-2014_01_23

BRCR-UBC-2014_02_06

GCKI-UBC-2014_02_12

PAWR-UBC-2014_01_27

VATH-UBC-2014_02_06I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the birding spots along my commute or close to work and would love to hear if you have interesting bird or birding stories to tell from your commute to work!

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Songbirds, Waterfowl, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Unexpected visitor – A Great Grey Owl in the ‘burbs

GGO2This past January, Calgarians were treated to a rather rare occurrence: a week-long visit from a Great Grey Owl in a suburban park. From what I understand from local birders, a GGO has not been recorded in Calgary for over 14 years so it was a sight not to be missed. I must admit I was little skeptical when I read the first reported sighting, but then over the next few days the reports continued to come in, as well as many photos. So by the end of the working week I was just itching to go & take a look myself, and went down early on a Saturday morning. To my delight, the GGO made an appearance not long after I arrived and what’s more, it was content to perch out in the open in light that was just about perfect for photography so I did my best to make the most of it. GGO1

Dive-bombed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Dive-bombed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

I have a number of shots of GGOs perched, so I was keen to get some ‘in-flight’ shots and the owl duly obliged when at one point the owl went for a quick, albeit unsuccessful, hunt.A25K6525g-crop-fbGGO3

GGO4The only downside was it was about -10C and my exposed (to work the camera) thumb and finger meant I could only tolerate about an hour of watching the owl. Lesson #1: bring hand-warmers!

When I got home & examined my shots I was quite pleased with the results, although my major learning was that the GGO’s wingspan was a lot wider than I anticipated and as a result I was standing too close (about 20 meters away) and had ‘clipped’ the wings a few times. Lesson #2: don’t be greedy! When doing flight shots, stand further back than you think so get the whole bird in the frame.

On the Sunday, I thought I’d push my luck & see if the owl had stuck around. But alas, it was nowhere to be found so I went & photographed Bohemian Waxwings diving down from a spruce to drink from a nearby stream.Bohemian_Waxwing drinking

On my way back to the car my heart skipped a beat when I saw the owl again out in plain view – my luck was in! Learning from Lesson #2, I’d taken off my 1.4x  teleconverter off the lens (thus reducing my focal length from 840mm to 600mm) and stood further back than the day before. After patiently watching the GGO for 30 minutes it went on a hunting run before plunging into the snow feet-first almost immediately in front of us. Only the head & upper body were showing and after about 10 seconds it reached down to its talons and pulled out a vole with its beak – success! Quite a magical moment for me to witness this firsthand & something I will long remember.A25K6862g-crop-fbGGO7GGO9-with vole

GGO10-with voleApart from the owl, the other highlight of the weekend was meeting fellow birders and photographers, as well as seeing the great interest from passers by in this special bird. I am also pleased to note that in the time I was there all the birders and photographers were completely respectful of both the bird and each other – a heartening & reassuring sign for both of these hobbies.

And in other news…if you’d like to see more of my shots, please check out the ‘Gallery’ section on my website at www.timjhopwood.com. I’ve spent the winter compiling and categorising all my shots from the past year and am up to 182 Alberta species! Looking forward to building on that in 2014.

Posted in Bird Canada | 10 Comments

Interview with Young Albertan Birder Ethan

Posted by Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder:

For my post this month, I’m interviewing another young birder, Ethan from Alberta. I briefly met Ethan and his dad last year at the Edmonton Nature Club’s Tofield Snow Goose Chase, but unfortunately we didn’t have much time to talk, so we’ve been getting to know each other online instead.

PB: Tell us a little bit about yourself, please.

Ethan: I am a 10-year-old boy with three main interests – birds, books, and soccer. I am a committed birder – for life! I have a blog about birds (BirdBoy) and a younger brother and sister. We live in a mountain town in Alberta.

Photo provided by Ethan

Photo provided by Ethan

PB: When and how did you first become interested in birding?

Ethan: I was in Kindergarten, aged five. My school was running a “Bird Bonanza” – we all got a sheet with 12 bird species (pictures and names) and we had to try and find them. All could be found locally, but some weren’t easy. I found 17 species (not all 12 on the sheet, though).

Soon after that, we visited my grandparents in Ontario, in summer. We’re not allowed feeders in summer where we live, but they are and I started watching the birds there and trying to identify them. I also kept a list of what I saw. Some of the highlights were Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, and more. From then on I was hooked.

PB:  You have birded in the UK. How is birding in Alberta different?

Ethan: Difficult question! To start, the climate is very different – a moist, temperate climate in the UK, and a colder, drier climate here. As it’s an island, there’s a lot of seaside birding there.

Alberta is a bigger, less populated landscape – and more varied than I’ve experienced in the UK – with lots of space for wildlife. There are more lakes and sloughs here. Because of these differences, there are lots of different birds.

However, it’s very fun to look up Latin names and find birds that are the same in England and Alberta, but with different common names. For instance: Willow Tit (UK) is Black-capped Chickadee (CAN), Carolina Duck (UK) is Wood Duck (CAN), and Black-throated Diver (UK) is Pacific Loon (CAN).

PB: Are you hoping to see a specific species(s) this spring or summer?

Ethan: Definitely! My Dad just saw a Northern Pygmy Owl and I really want to see it too. I never have.

I’d also love to see and identify a Clark’s Grebe. I’ve seen lots of Western Grebes, but never a Clark’s for sure.

A Black-capped Chickadee, photograph by Ethan from his blog, Bird Boy

A Black-capped Chickadee, photograph by Ethan from his blog, Bird Boy

PB: Have you birded anywhere else in Canada?

Ethan: Yes. I mentioned Ontario already – both Eastern Ontario and Muskoka, where I saw Blackburnian Warblers and River Otters; also a Green Heron.

Also in BC – we took a two-week family camping trip out to Vancouver Island. Lots of different birds including different gulls (Western and Glaucous-winged) and guillemots.

PB: What is your most memorable birding experience?

Ethan: I was tracking an American Three-toed Woodpecker over multiple outings. We saw signs often and other people saw the birds, but I kept missing it. It became my Nemesis bird. Then one Sunday morning we made a quick stop to look again – and 20 minutes into our 10-minute stop, I finally saw it! I was really happy.

PB: What is your favorite bird or bird species?

Ethan: I’m going to stretch the question a little, because I love Falcons – several species. My favourites include Peregrine, Aplomado, and Red-footed, though of those I’ve only seen the Peregrine in the wild.

PB: Where is your favorite place to go birding?

Ethan: I don’t have one favourite, but I’m always excited to go to Weed Lake and Frank Lake in Southern Alberta, especially in spring and early summer.

PB: Do you have a favorite field guide(s)?

Ethan: The favourite that I own is the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America (5th Edition). I find it’s a good source of information, and the drawings of birds are well-done and good for identification. I also like the thumb-tabs taking you quickly to different groups of birds, e.g. Hawks and Sandpipers.

PB: Your blog and the photos are wonderful. What made you start Bird Boy?

Ethan: I got it as a Christmas present from my honorary Uncle Paul! I’d thought about it a bit before that, but didn’t really know how to start. He set up the blog site and has helped me add new interesting things like BirdTrax.

I also had been reading Prairie Birder and the Alberta Birds Facebook page, and so you encouraged my interest in blogging!

A Pileated Woodpecker, photograph by Ethan from his blog, Bird Boy

A Pileated Woodpecker, photograph by Ethan from his blog, Bird Boy

Posted in Bird Canada | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Feeding Birds during the Winter

 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Feeding and watching birds have become favorite pastimes in North America. It is estimated that 1/3 of the population feeds wild birds. This ranges from putting out scraps of food to serving seed, suet and nuts. During the winter time, especially in periods where the natural food source falls, feeders may be crucial.

Even though each year a huge amount of birdseed (in excess of 1 billion pounds) is consumed very little is known about the impact that this has. Recent studies suggest that birds only consume a fraction of their daily needs at feeders. At best what is consumed at feeders provides a supplement to the daily nutritional needs. http://www.birdingpenticton.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif

To attract a wide variety of bird you will have to consider different offerings. A primary staple is the Black Oil Sunflower seed. Most birds are not seed eaters and rely on insects. During the winter their diet changes and they look to seed, berries and fruit. Sunflower seeds will attract cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, goldfinches, house finches, juncos, chickadees and house sparrows. My suggestion is to stick to Black Oil versus the grey and white striped sunflower seeds which people like to eat. A second consideration might be Suet; which is solid fat rendered from beef and venison. This can be purchased in the form of a cake and then hung in a wire cage. Woodpeckers, starlings, chickadees, nuthatches and other species love suet.If you want to attract goldfinches then Nyjer is the seed of choice. Nyjer is a black seed which is tiny and light and should be dispensed from a Tube seed feeder.Peanuts are a good attractant for jays, nuthatches and starlings and should be placed in a special peanut feeder.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Many stores sell bags of mixed birdseed, I would stay away from these as most birds won’t eat it. Instead they will seek out, the black oil sunflower seed and kick out all of the other “filler” onto the ground.

There are several considerations that one needs to think about once you embark on this.

Predatory cats can be a problem; you may consider the placement of your feeder(s) so that cats cannot easily pounce on the birds.  Attracting birds to feeders can also attract birds of prey such as Sharp Shined and Cooper’s Hawks which rely on smaller birds as their source of food. Make sure that your feeders are cleaned regularly as parasites may build up and make birds ill (cleaning involves scrubbing your feeder with a weak solution of bleach and water).

Finally, if you are interested in collecting data for scientific purposes you may want to consider Project Feederwatch . Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the highest numbers of each species they see at their feeders from November through early April. FeederWatch helps scientists track broad scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

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Help needed with migratory wetland birds survey

i-Swr3vR2-MGood morning, my name is Daniel Revollo. I’ve been doing academic research on economic valuation of the activity of bird watching North America to Central and South America.

I’ve been working on a project regarding economic valuation of wetlands in Mexico as a resting place for migratory birds.

Why is this relevant research? Our study aims to estimate the economic value of environmental services provided by a wetland, such as the resting place of birds during migration. Also, this economic assessment attempts to provide conservation tools to public policy makers and estimate the real cost to society for the damage or loss of these ecosystems.

This is a non-profit project and you can get involved if interested. For this, you have to be a birdwatcher and answer the questions that come in the following link. This will not take you more than 5 minutes and is completely anonymous.

- Link with questions only to residents of the United States, Canada and others.

https://es.surveymonkey.com/s/bird_watching

- Link with questions only for residents of Mexico.

https://es.surveymonkey.com/s/Observacion_Aves

Thanks for your time and cooperation.

Daniel Revollo Fernandez
Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias (CRIM-UNAM), Mexico
Restauracion Ecologica y Desarrollo A.C. (REDES A.C.), Mexico
drevollofer@gmail.com

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What Kind of Hummer Is That?

The Pacific coast of British Columbia is home to two species of hummingbird, the Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) and the Anna’s (Calypte anna). Like many winter-weary Gabriolans, Rufous hummers spend the winter in Mexico. Then, in the spring, they begin their migratory journey northward, usually arriving back in BC during the third week of March. This has been going on since time immemorial.

Rufous hummers migrate from Central America to Gabriola and back every year

Rufous hummers migrate from Central America to Gabriola and back every year

Anna’s, on the other hand have been over-wintering in BC only for the past twenty years or so. Pierre Cenerelli wrote all about Anna’s hummingbirds in January on this blog. If you missed his column, you can read it here.

Will I stop the hummers from migrating if I feed them?

Here’s what the Rocky Point Bird Observatory scientists say on this subject, one some people worry about: “Do not worry! Feeders will not stop a bird migrating, a process that is triggered by the bird’s internal clock and levels of sunshine. Anna’s are with us year round and their presence at feeders has just become more obvious because their numbers are increasing locally.” (http://rpbo.org/hummingbirds.php)

Anna’s or Rufous?

If you live in southwestern BC, and it’s winter, and you have a hummer in your yard, it’s an Anna’s. But in the spring, when both species are around, it could be either a Rufous or an Anna’s. You can tell them apart using these visual clues:

1. The male Anna’s has a brilliant red gorget, or throat patch, that extends right over his head, making him a sparkling redhead when the sun shines on his iridescent hood. Striking emerald green plumage covers his back and bleeds onto his sides and white belly.

Male Anna's Hummingbird. Note the iridescent red 'hood'  and the small white dots beside the eye.  (Photo by Alan Vernon. CC license.)

Male Anna’s Hummingbird. Note the iridescent red ‘hood’ and the small white dots beside the eye. (Photo by Alan Vernon. CC license.)

2. The male Rufous has an iridescent gorget but it does not extend beyond his throat. The rest of his body is largely rufous, dark brown, and white, with some green in the wings in certain light.

Male Rufous hummers

Male Rufous hummers

3. The female Anna’s is mostly emerald green and grey with just a small iridescent red gorget that doesn’t extend over her head. (Apologies for the poor photo.) She has NO RUFOUS COLOURING ANYWHERE.

Female Anna's - note: no rufous colouring on sides

Female Anna’s – note: no rufous colouring on sides

4. The female Rufous has a mostly green back, rufous sides, and a white belly. She has some greenish spotting on her throat, usually with a red center spot.

Female Rufous - note the rufous colouring on sides

Female Rufous – note the rufous colouring on sides

Whether Rufous or Anna’s, the House Finch always wins!

When you're a hummer facing a House Finch, size does matter

When you’re a hummer facing a House Finch, size matters!

Keeping Anna’s Alive Through the Winter

On Gabriola Island, bird counters tallied 28 Anna’s during the recent Christmas Bird Count. Now, in winter, all that matters to these overwintering beauties in BC is staying alive. But even a lone Rufous had to cope with winter weather on Gabriola during a surprise spring snow storm a few years ago.

Rufous hummer in surprise snowfall one spring

Rufous hummer in surprise snowfall one spring

Not all Anna’s do survive the winter, of course. But if you have a feeder up, there are things you can do to help.

1. Keep your hummer feeder clean. Dirty feeders can be the cause of “hummingbird tongue”, a fungal infection that causes the tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to eat. An affected bird will sit at a feeder, its swollen tongue just hanging out of its mouth. Eventually it dies of starvation. Since sugar-water is conducive to the growth of pathogens, the only remedy is a preventative one: CLEAN feeders. To clean your feeder, empty and thoroughly wash the whole thing in hot water using a bottle brush to scrub the interior glass. Clean all removable parts with a toothbrush and/or Q-tip. Make sure every speck of foreign material is removed and it’s clean enough for YOU to drink from. As a maintenance routine, I recommend the 1-2-3- rule. In the hot summer, clean once a day. In spring-like weather clean every two days. In the winter clean every three days. If your life is too busy and this cleaning regimen is too onerous, you can still enjoy hummingbirds by planting fuschia and flowering currant and many other kinds of brightly-coloured native plants in your garden.

2. Keep the nectar from freezing. (What’s more heartbreaking than seeing an Anna’s sitting on the perch of a feeder with frozen nectar inside?) Some people (me included) have two or three feeders they rotate as needed, one in the house, staying warm, one outside, getting cold. When the outside feeder gets very cold (or freezes overnight) bring it in and replace it with the other one. Some people keep their feeders from freezing by placing homemade warmers, often concocted from light bulbs, just under the feeder. Others wrap feeders in pipe insulation or beer mug insulators or even woolen socks.

3. Consider using a sweeter than usual solution (3 sugar to 1 water) in winter because it doesn’t freeze as quickly as the four-to-one solution and provides increased calories.

4. Place your feeders a good distance apart so that the hummer has to fly to get to them, thereby creating body heat.

Then, just enjoy the hummers!

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

A Western Bird Comes East

Winter birding offers some of the most unexpected surprises. It also requires a bit of madness on the part of those birding, but that’s a different story. Yesterday my alarm rang in near blizzard conditions. I looked out the window, monitored the snowfall in a half-dazed stupor, and when I checked the weather reports, which suggested limited, but not horrendous visibility, I concluded that it would be ok to drive to meet my birding group.

But really, the little voice I heard in my head uttered only two words: Spotted Towhee! Spotted Towhee!

For some reason, this Western bird, which normally resides in the general Colorado/Utah/California/Arizona area, with forays into BC, Alberta, parts of Saskatchewan and the US Great Plains, somehow got blown off its course and ended up about an hour north of Toronto, in a small hamlet called Glen Williams. I had little choice in the matter; this lifer was a must.

Here is the Spotted Towhee. Photo from here.

The magnificent Spotted Towhee. Photo from here.

And so we drove north at 50 km/hour in search of the Pipilo maculatus, which was allegedly hanging out at someone’s feeder. With visibility low, the wind howling, the snow blowing fiercely from every directly, I briefly wondered  whether we had completely lost our minds. We drove for over an hour and all we managed to see was one Ring-billed Gull. But we were on a mission. Who knows when I’d get to see a Spotted Towhee in Ontario again? When would another bird like this one stray from its usual route and grace our fierce winter climes with its presence.

We reached the quaint town of Glen Williams and headed straight for the appointed address where the Towhee was last seen. When I saw that house with multiple bird feeders was also the Piano Studio of Glen Williams, I knew luck and karma would be on our side. I come from a family of pianists — surely such a coincidence was fate?

And so we parked the car, lowered our windows and waited, binoculars glued to our eyes. The feeders attracted ravenous Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, a lone Song Sparrow, a few insatiable Dark-eyed Juncos, a coquettish White-breasted Nuthatch, and a majestic Northern Cardinal. Seeing the birds so close, watching the Nuthatch creep down the tree right next to me, its neck slightly craning upwards, hesitantly grasping at the world around him, I no longer thought we were crazy. It seems there is no other place for me on a Saturday morning. I need to be watching birds.

There, next to the corpulent Mourning Dove, I saw a bird with a glistening black head and bright white spots on its wings. Spotted Towhee! There he was, with his bright, sci-fi-looking reddish eye, picking at the seed on the ground, hopping around, perfectly content with his new surroundings. I wanted him to sing for us — to see if he sounded anything like his “Drink your tea” Eastern neighbor, but the bird seemed to be saving his voice for another day.

Winter birding certainly doesn’t offer the ferocious diversity of Spring of Fall birding, but what it does offer, without fail, are the intensely beautiful, utterly unexpected sightings. And isn’t that why we bird in the first place?

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Weird & Wonky, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged | 1 Comment

Christmas Birding in the Comox Valley

For the second time in four years, I spent Christmas of 2013 on Vancouver Island, and had some good opportunities to do some bird photography while I was there.

The Comox valley is situated on Vancouver Island’s east side, on the Strait of Georgia, about 100 kilometers northwest of Nanaimo, British Columbia. You might remember the Comox from the winter of 2012/2013, where a vagrant Citrine Wagtail decided it would attempt to overwinter there in a farmer’s field. I always enjoy my trips to the Comox area, especially in winter, as it’s a bit of a break from the cold, snow, and dull colors of home back in Calgary.

The Comox valley is unique in both its proximity to the ocean, but also in its fairly typical coastal old-growth forest habitat, with plenty of very large pine and spruce trees around. These quickly rise up to the magnificence of Mt. Washington, at 1585 meters, which serves to provide a bit of an early sunset, especially in the depths of late December.

There are a huge number of good places to bird in the area, as evidenced by this eBird Hotspot map of the area. I’ve visited a good number of these spots over the past couple of years, but I do have my favourites.

Comox Valley eBird Hotspots

Comox Valley eBird Hotspots

The Courtenay River Estuary has always been a very productive spot for me to bird. It’s where I have found quite a few life birds, and the best way I’ve found to explore the estuary between mid-morning and afternoon is by walking the Courtenay Riverway Heritage Walk, especially on a sunny day, where you’ll have the sun at your back, and good light on the birds.

Courtenay River Estuary December 2013

Courtenay River Estuary
December 2013

Along this stretch of pathway, you’ll be hard pressed to miss the many Fox Sparrows, Pacific and Bewick’s Wrens, Song Sparrows, and you might even get a lucky sighting of an overwintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which came as quite the surprise to me!

Fox Sparrow Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Fox Sparrow (Sooty ssp.)
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Pacific Wren Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Pacific Wren
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Song Sparrow Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Song Sparrow (Pacific NW ssp.)
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Bewick's Wren Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Bewick’s Wren
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

It’s almost impossible to miss the abundance of Bald Eagles about, and I happened upon this pair eyeing up some Glaucous-winged and Herring Gulls during a fairly intense mid-afternoon rain shower on my last day in the valley.

immature Bald Eagle Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

immature Bald Eagle
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Adult Bald Eagle Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Adult Bald Eagle
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Being a town right on the ocean, there are always a few surprises to be found. While running some errands one day, I took a bit of a walk around the Comox Marina, and a pathway that runs behind some of the houses turned up a couple of hardy Anna’s Hummingbirds, and yet another lifer, this Golden-crowned Sparrow, which unfortunately appears to be suffering from a deformity of its lower mandible.

Golden-crowned Sparrow Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Anna's Hummingbird Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Anna’s Hummingbird
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Another particular favourite spot of mine to visit is Goose Spit Regional Park at the end of which is a facility owned by the Department of National Defense. This particular landform is an estuarine sand spit that is fed by erosion of the nearby cliffs and partly encloses the Courtenay River Estuary on the north side. The beach below the bluffs has some good songbird habitat, but the real beauty to be found here are the water birds. Waterfowl, shorebirds, Great Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles can easily be found here, and it can be particularly magical late in the afternoon, with the golden hour light and amazing backdrops providing an incredibly memorable experience.

Eurasian Wigeon Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Eurasian Wigeon
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Harlequin drakes at sunset Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Harlequin drakes at sunset
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Great Blue Heron Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Great Blue Heron
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Bald Eagles fighting over a meal Comox, British Columbia April 2011

Bald Eagles fighting over a meal
Comox, British Columbia
April 2012

Surf Scoter Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Surf Scoter
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

If you find that the numerous locales within a short distance of Comox aren’t quite enough for you, a trip down towards Parksville and Nanaimo provide a bit of a different environment along the shore. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park in Parksville turned up a good variety of shorebirds, and my absolute favourite coastal waterfowl species, the Brant.

Brant coming in for a landing Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Brant coming in for a landing
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Black Oystercatchers Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Black Oystercatchers
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Black Scoters Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Black Scoters
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and Black Turnstone Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and Black Turnstone
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

But of course, how could anyone write about the Comox Valley and forget to mention the hundreds of Trumpeter Swans that overwinter here every year. That alone would be enough to brighten any inland birder’s Christmas, let alone all the other great things to see in the Comox Valley!

Trumpeter Swans Comox, British Columbia April 2012

Trumpeter Swans
Comox, British Columbia
April 2012

 

 

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Shorebirds, Waterfowl, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Anna’s Hummingbird

My blog post this month is more or less the result of pure chance: At the beginning of the week, I decided to take a stroll around some of the outlying areas of UBC’s Vancouver campus to see if I could find Golden-crowned Kinglets that I had spotted in previous weeks, especially since they seemed inclined to stay close to the ground, so that I could take a few pictures of them. Although I have yet to get a usable photo of these little acrobats at UBC, my walk did allow me to capture many great photos of an even tinier bird: Anna’s Hummingbird (en français: Colibri d’Anna | Scientific name: Calypte anna).

Now as some of you may know, aside from a few days of rain, the winter in southwestern British Columbia, especially along the coast (not to mention Vancouver Island) has been unusually mild and even rather dry. This may explain why, a few days ago, I found this male Anna’s Hummingbird seemingly already marking the boundaries of its territory and maybe even already in full courtship mode (if you look closely at this photo, you may notice he is singing):

01-ANHU_male-UBC-2014_01_14-light

This bird did many interesting things, including “fluffing up” its gorget, as the throat feathers are called – although in this species, they cover the head as well. When the bird did so, the gorget turned from black to bright red, as the two photos below clearly demonstrate. As I’ve said before, this species in particular looks like a flying jewel, especially the male.

04-ANHU_male-UBC-2014_01_13

02-ANHU_male-UBC-2014_01_14

Anna’s Hummingbird is probably the most common hummingbird species along most of British Columbia’s Pacific Coast. This was not always so: Until some point in the early twentieth century, they were essentially confined to southern California and Baja California. Until a few decades ago in fact, the Rufous Hummingbird was the most common representative of its family, which happens to be the American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year 2014.

Anna Hummingbird’s sudden expansion in the twentieth century has been blamed by many observers on the increased presence of hummingbird feeders. In fact, as many authors point out, they were greatly helped out by the proliferation of gardens with exotic plants that flower well into the fall and, in some cases, as early as January on mild years. But I cannot help thinking that, since their diet essentially shifts to insects in the late fall and winter, climate change also has to be considered a major culprit.

I would also like to point out that All About Birds has an excellent article on Anna’s Hummingbird: You may want to read it to find out more about this fascinating species. Wikipedia’s article is also good. And to thank you for reading this article until the end, here is a photo I took last August of a juvenile bird in Vancouver’s Stanley Park (you may also want to take a look at another photo I posted on my personal blog, here).

ANHU_immature-2013-08-11

Posted in Bird Behaviour, Bird Canada, Hummingbirds, Nature Photography | Tagged , | 4 Comments