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- “In the end, we will conserve only what we love”
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- Canada’s Shrikes, a tale of two seasons
- Winter Birds Are Returning: A Photo Essay
- The Time In Between
- The American Dipper – a photo essay
- Birds on the Western Front, 1916
- The Birds & Windows Citizen Science Project
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One of the benefits of teaching at a rural school on Vancouver Island is the daily lunch time walks. The country roads are bordered with hedgerows and there is usually good birding. I always keep an eye open for unusual birds birds and every now and then something turns up.
Earlier this month I ran into a flock of close to twenty golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) feeding in the blackberry and alder alongside the road. There were a few song sparrows skulking on the edges of the group and a brash Bewick’s wren scolding from the safety of the dense thicket.
Golden-crowned kinglets are a ubiquitous west coast songbird. They’re active feeders and often hover while gleaning insects from the branches of shrubs and trees.
It was good to spend some time watching the flock working the hedgerow, a welcome splash of colour and activity during an otherwise quiet winter day. Kinglets respond well to “pishing” and often approach quite closely. I was able to get good looks at the bright yellow crown bordered by black and the thin white wingbars on the olive green wings. This close it was also possible to see the yellow “sock feet” which contrast with the black legs.
I’ve also seen Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) in previous years but none so far this year. They’re challenging birds to photograph because they’re constantly moving. They also respond fairly readily to “pishing” so I was able to entice one out into the open.
One of the things that I love about bird watching (and bird photography) is the little details. Check out the feet on this bird – it also has the golden yellow “socks” that contrast quite nicely with the black legs. Other field marks include the dark area behind the wing bars (which can be used to separate it from Hutton’s Vireo), the white eyering, and the olive colouration. The namesake “ruby crown” is usually only visible when the bird is agitated.
Look for both of these species on Vancouver Island – they both add a splash of colour during our grey west-coast winters!
When we moved to Gabriola seven years ago, the first bird I saw in the overgrown, untended garden we inherited with our ‘new’ house was a junco. Although it seems amazing to me now, I’d never noticed this bird in the city. With its black hood and unusual metallic chipping ‘song’, I figured it must be very rare indeed. Then I discovered there are about 630 million Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) in North America. So not very rare after all.
In fact, the junco is one of the most abundant backyard birds on the continent. A ‘rock star study organism’, it’s also one of the most thoroughly studied bird species on the planet. For over forty years Ellen Ketterson, a pioneer in the field of animal behavior from the University of Indiana, has been studying juncos. She explains the fascination: the junco “really lets you study it. … They build their nests on the ground, so you can find them. They thrive in captivity, so you can provide them with seeds, or put them in different social configurations. And they’re content. They actually reveal their biology to you.” Ketterson is one of the scientists whose work is described in “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco”, an 88-minute video series produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University.
This fascinating free program explores how juncos behave, especially in terms of evolution. Until seeing this series, the word ‘evolution’ conjured up images of dinosaurs to me. But apparently “Evolution doesn’t just happen over huge numbers of generations or millions of years. It can happen to you or me, or any animal, within our own lifetimes. Amazingly, epigenetic changes to our DNA mean that the genes we pass on to our children can differ from the ones we inherited.” (Zoobiquity, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers)
One example of such rapid evolutionary change began in the early 1980s when a small flock of junco migrants remained on the campus of the University of California (UCal) instead of returning to the nearby mountains in winter. When scientists began to study the campus birds, they discovered that this urban population was a new isolated breeding population of Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos. The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco tells the fascinating tale. But let me give you a sneak preview.
Essentially, the UCal juncos demonstrated rapid evolution driven by urbanization. In this case, campus life, with its constant barrage of stimuli, changed the very nature of the juncos. They became, for example, more flexible when foraging and nesting, and bolder than their rural counterparts. They explored more food opportunities, allowed humans to get three times closer than rural juncos (in half the time), and sang at a higher frequency in order to be heard in a noisy urban environment. Ultimately, on the bustling campus, with cars and feral cats and construction noise and artificial lighting at all hours, natural selection favored assertive, flexible, bold juncos. Juncos with spunk.
It turned out these more enterprising juncos were also more attentive, involved parents. As the breeding season of the braver urban birds shifted, for example, the males became more interested in parenting (helping to find food for the nestlings) and less aggressive. (Scientists found they had less testosterone at this time.) These ‘brave’ juncos that were also ‘better’ parents were more likely to survive, breed, and pass on their genes. Soon (in evolutionary terms) these new traits became the norm for this newly-evolved isolated population.
I understand behaviour changing in a new environment; that happens all the time – with birds and people. What surprised me is that the birds’ appearance changed so quickly (they had less white in their tails and less black in their heads within thirty years) and that their genetic makeup, their actual DNA, changed. But apparently this kind of rapid evolution is happening with other populations of urban birds around the world now, just as it did with Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands and cichlid fish in Africa.
If I haven’t whet your appetite quite enough to inspire you to drop everything and go watch the 8-video series, check out the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kvJTMvaKUg. Then, for the whole amazing story, just google The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco. And enjoy!
This article was first published in The Flying Shingle on October 7 2013.
Back in early August, I was invited by Gus Yaki to go on a little excursion around south-eastern Alberta. Our ultimate goal was to join a Nature Calgary trip to the area around Manyberries in search of Alberta’s only lizard species, the Greater Short-horned Lizard. Along the way we planned a few stops, including the Milk River area, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, Pakowki Lake, and Red Rock Canyon.
We covered over a thousand kilometers over four days, and was some of the most exhaustive exploration I’ve ever done of this area of my home province, and a good amount of one-on-one time with one of the most experienced birders I know.
Some of the most memorable and remarkable things that I saw, heard, and experienced on this trip weren’t birds at all, but rather reptiles, insects, and landscapes. Don’t worry though, I’ll be sharing some of the better birds we saw as well!
On our first day, after a brief visit to Frank Lake, a second stop in Vulcan, and the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, which I wrote about over on the Birds Calgary blog last year, we stopped somewhere that I’ll never overlook again, especially after how amazing it was. Stirling Lake, located just south of Lethbridge, was host to over 500 Marbled Godwits (and a couple of Hudsonian Godwits for good measure).
After camping out in Milk River that night, we headed towards Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, but made a few stops along the way. On one stretch of road east of Milk River we found a pair of young Great Horned Owls only about half a kilometer away from our first Ferruginous Hawk of the trip.
I’d never been to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park before, so I had no idea what to expect. Not only was the scenery to die for, but the geology of the area, as well as the amazing flora and fauna that call the area home were simply breath-taking. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be making a trip down here every summer!
While walking through the campground area, we found no small number of Brown Thrashers, Spotted Towhees, and even had a handful of Common Nighthawk sightings, but one of the most memorable findings was this little Rock Wren that decided to investigate our activities while we hiked down to the petroglyphs that the park is named for.
At a second stop within the park, we had another very cool experience with this adult female parasitic wasp excavate a nest hole, then fill it in with the small green insect on the left side of the frame, then re-bury it. These wasps lay their eggs in the gut cavity of small insects which they also paralyze. When the eggs hatch a few days or weeks later, they have a captive food source that they then eat their way out of. Isn’t nature fun?!
On our way out of Writing-On-Stone, we nearly ran over a fairly large Bull Snake. In fact, as the first car in the convoy, we literally drove right over it, bracketing the length of the snake with the wheels. Thankfully we didn’t actually crush it under the wheels, as this seemed to be a very healthy, bulky and beautiful snake.
After camping out at Foremost that night, we headed over to visit Pakowki Lake before heading to Manyberries to meet up with another group that was also heading out to look for our main targets for the trip.
At Pakowki Lake, we saw at least 10,000 birds, mostly waterfowl and shorebirds, but the highlight of the morning was this Prairie Falcon that followed our cars for a few kilometers, either disturbed by our passing, or maybe hoping we’d stir up some small mammal or bird from the edges of the road for an easy meal?
After arriving in Manyberries, the other group were all lined up along the fence-lines near our meeting point, and for good reason. A pair of Common Nighthawks were perched on the fence, and seemed to be completely fearless of our group of nearly twenty people, all staring with at them with their binoculars or cameras.
And so the trip to visit our target species was on! Heading down a few side roads, and eventually ending up on a wellsite access road, we searched the bluffs for the Short-horned Lizards, and managed to find in two hours what some field researchers can’t find in a whole season: two adults and three baby Short-horned Lizards!
While we were expecting to at least find a few of these lizards, we also found a pair of species we weren’t expecting at all! The first was a small group of Boreal Chorus Frogs, which were hopping about on the surface of the mud-cracked hillside. This area of Alberta is within an area known as Palliser’s Triangle, and receives around 300mm of rainfall annually, and some of the highest temperatures in Canada. There was no standing water anywhere nearby, and certainly no creeks, ponds, or even an above-ground spring in sight.
The other species we found that was totally unexpected was this Mormon Cricket. These little guys are actually a species of shieldbacked katydid, and are named due to their association with the Mormon exploration of the west during the 19th Century in the USA, specifically with the “Miracle of the Gulls.” This was my first time seeing this particular insect, and I had no idea that we had insects this large in Canada!
We made another stop that afternoon at Red Rock Coulee, where we hoped to see some more prairie birds, but unfortunately there wasn’t too much around. That said, the geologic scenery there is pretty amazing. These large concretions are part of the Bearspaw Shale, and are considered some of the largest concretions of their type in the world!
As we headed home the following day, we had a couple of small stops along the way, with these two highlights topping off the trip and leaving it on a high note.
Thanks again for reading folks, and good birding! See you next month!
Some of you may wonder what I am talking about, others will no doubt understand perfectly if you know a birder who is also a photographer and especially if you are a birder who brings a camera to work, so to speak. Now I have often heard people tell me that I should make sure that my camera battery is fully charged before I go on a field trip. What they could not imagine they needed to tell me was that it would also be a good idea to make sure that if your battery is fully charged, it should be in the camera before you leave the house.
Imagine my disappointment last Sunday when I arrived at Stanley Park, only to discover that my viewfinder was unusually dark… which could only mean that… that… I had forgotten to place the fully charged battery in question into my camera, which suddenly became an expensive but rather useless paperweight in my bag! In the end, though, this thoughtless oversight did not matter so much for me because the bird population at Lost Lagoon (especially ducks) was unusually quiet. In fact, we did not see a single Wood Duck or Lesser Scaup, only Mallards, Canada Geese and a few American Widgeons. Well, we did also see a female Ruddy Duck, who almost managed to make us believe she was a Mallard, and several moulting Northern Shovelers. But we did see and hear several locally rare passerines in the bushes around the pond, including a White-throated Sparrow, which I had never seen on this side of the continent.
Had I actually brought my camera battery, here are some of the photos that I might have taken on that day (all of these pictures were taken in Stanley Park, but some were not taken at Lost Lagoon):
Living on the edge of the Ottawa River has its ups and downs, both literally and figuratively. As the seasons change, the river levels change from tossing and turbulent to tranquil, and finally frozen. In autumn especially, I recognize what a privilege it is to live where I do.
Everyday is a new canvas painted by Nature. And as an avid observer, it is a spectacular opportunity for me to view any number of birds throughout the year.
To encourage the birds, I have made a very conscious decision NOT to alter our shoreline, but to leave it as Nature intended- a bountiful buffet for birds, bugs, turtles, muskrats, otters, beavers, fish, clams AND children. Albeit, it looks a little odd, as both neighbours on either side of me find the grasses and reeds unsightly, and, being “neighbourly”, have each “trimmed” the reed bed 15 feet on either side for us using their ATV’s and hauling bed spring-rake contraptions behind them. The 15 feet is what the Ministry of the Environment allows property owners to cut, for clear access to the water. So we actually have 30 feet of clear access. Our neighbours have pure sand beach, no reeds, weeds, bugs, birds, butterflies, or children. In the interest of compromise and maintaining friendly relations, I have chosen for now to ignore this free reed cutting service. For now.
Throughout every season, I can look out my window, and my world view is just this. Full.
They are missing so much. And my little reed bed is a focal point that I get to enjoy every time I look at it.
There’s always one in every crowd. It’s what sets us apart, and makes life interesting for everyone. In this case it’s me, and my birdy, buggy buffet. I’m the lucky one.
While fall may signal that many birds have migrated south (or soon will be) and general bird activity will locally decline for the next several months, I find it’s not all bad…why?
Apart from the excitement of the pending arrival of winter visitors, the vivid and saturated colours of autumn offer an excellent, albeit brief, opportunity to add some real ‘pop’ to your bird photography.
Generally speaking, any bird photographed against a colourful backdrop will stand out from the crowd of the more common green leaf and blue sky backgrounds. This works particularly well for your more common local species (chickadees, gulls, ducks here in Calgary) where fall colours can really improve any shot of a common species.
Birds that spend most of their time on or near water offer even better opportunities to heighten the visual appeal of a shot – via fall leaf reflections on water.
The deep yellows of fall can transform ponds into pools of liquid gold that will spruce up any shot:
I really like this type of shot, and my personal favourites are ones where you get both the fall colour reflection, plus a reflection of the bird itself in the water:
To achieve the latter, you will need calm conditions with little to no wind (and therefore no ripples) and this more likely to happen early in the morning or later in the evening.
Hopefully you read this article before all the fall colours are gone in your area as it really is a short but wonderful time to bag some very appealing shots. Good luck & good shooting!
In case it slipped under your radar this week, an estimate of the number of birds killed annually by cats in Canada was released, and it is no Far Side cartoon.
In a special issue of Avian Conservation and Ecology (an open-access journal sponsored by the Society of Canadian Ornithologists and Bird Studies Canada), scientists tackled quantifying “Human-related Mortality of Birds in Canada“. When all research teams had weighed in, and all the scientific votes were cast, “death by cat” came in at the top – and we’re talking penthouse vs. lobby here (see Figure 1: “Bird Deaths in Canada”; presented in a recent Ottawa Citizen article by Tom Spears).
In fact, this graphic is likely quite kind: splitting domestic and feral cats into two categories makes the figure appear as if other sources of human-related mortality are somewhat close in impact to cats, but see Figure 2 below. What the research suggests is that of approximately 268 million birds killed annually via anthropogenic activity, approximately 196 million are killed by either domestic or feral cats - that’s 73%.
Furthermore, estimates of direct mortality by cats do not account for sublethal and indirect effects of cats on bird populations such as reduced parental care and attraction of other nest predators when cats are lurking, and mortality of rodents and other organisms that are prey for some bird species.
A figure like 73% is relatively easy to grasp – nearly 3 out of every 4 birds killed by human-related causes is via cats – but what about 196 million, is that a significant number of birds? How do we place that in context? The author, Peter Blancher, suggests that cats annually kill 2-7% of the roughly 5.2 billion birds breeding in southern Canada (where most Canadians live). Viewed in the light of estimated population sizes of Canadian birds (derived from the Partners in Flight Population Estimates Database), 196 million annual bird mortalities is equivalent to nation-wide populations of:
- White-throated Sparrows (130 million) + Song Sparrows (60 million), or
- American Robins (140 million) + Black-capped Chickadees (20 million) + Cedar Waxwings (30 million), or
- Barn Swallows (5 million) + Chestnut-sided Warblers (13 million) + Gray Catbirds (3.6 million) + MacGillivray’s Warblers (7 million) + Dark-eyed Juncos (130 million) + Northern Cardinals (0.5 million) + …
Posted by Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder,
This August and September, for four weeks, I was an intern at the Long Point Bird Observatory (LPBO) in Ontario, on Lake Erie, to help with fall migration monitoring. The Long Point Bird Observatory was founded in 1960 and is the oldest bird observatory in the North America. Long Point Bird has three banding stations – Old Cut, the main station, which is open to the public; Breakwater, about 10 km down the peninsula; and one at the very Tip of Long Point, accessible only by motor boat. I was at the Tip for the first three weeks, and then spent the last week at Old Cut.
A Black-throated Green Warbler at the Tip (September 2013),
Bird banding is important to bird conservation because it helps gather information about wild birds including their migration, life span, mortality, population numbers, geography, feeding behaviour, and more. Last year volunteers and staff at the LPBO banded over 35,000 birds of nearly 200 species. Long Point is a training and education bird observatory, and volunteers from all over the world take part in migration monitoring in the spring and fall; while I was at Long Point, we had volunteers from England, Germany, New Zealand, Colombia, the United States, and Scotland. While volunteers and interns are very important to all the work LPBO does, they gain a lot as well from the work. Many of us, including me, are working to get more banding and field work experience, and also toward enough banding hours for a banding permit. And it is an amazing opportunity to live, breathe, and sleep birds.
A female Sharp-shinned Hawk (September 2013),
Some of the ways LPBO catches birds for banding are in mist nets, Heligoland traps, jay traps, and ground traps. Long Point uses mostly mist nets, which are so fine that they are invisible to birds in the right light. The birds fly into panels and get tangled. The nets are checked every 20 minutes, and each bird caught is carefully removed and placed in a cloth bag to keep it calm and secure until it can be processed at the banding lab.
A Cedar Waxwing caught in a mist net at Old Cut last year (August 2012),
The actual banding is done by attaching a lightweight, metal band with a unique nine-digit code on the bird’s leg. The bander also takes measurements after each capture, such as the bird’s sex, age, skull ossification, and fat content. The bird is weighed and then released to continue on with its migration.
I’ve gained so much experience and knowledge from my time at Long Point, and have so many great memories. If you’re ever in the area, just for birding or looking for banding experience, Long Point is perfect!
The different sizes of bands,
An after-hatch year male and female Canada Warbler (September 2013),
A male Black-throated Blue Warbler (September 2013),
Looking at the molt in a Blackpoll Warbler (August 2013),
A male Wilson’s Warbler (September 2013),
A Mourning Warbler after being weighed (August 2013),
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the net at Old Cut last year (August 2012),
Birds waiting to be banded at the Tip (August 2013),
A female Black-billed Cuckoo (August 2013),
Here are some videos of bird banding at the Long Point Bird Observatory:
In late March of 2013 we set off to find the Williamson’s Sapsucker, in an area where it is known to return to year after year. These cavity nesters use dead or dying large stags (usually Ponderosa Pine) and are most often found in a Western Larch forest. The Williamson’s is considered endangered in Canada and Blue listed in British Columbia.
It didn’t take us long to find it as we heard it distinctive call and identifiable drum cadence. Upon heading deeper into the forest sure enough we spotted our target bird on a Wildlife tree (identified by a yellow ribbon and a tag indicating that the tree should not be taken down).
Not far away roosting in another tree was a Great Grey Owl, while not on a watch list the Great Grey is normally found much further north in the Boreal forest. It stayed for a long time, all had a good look. Finally it made its departure, as he was doing so we could see a squirrel in its talons. Surprising, although we couldn’t see its mate it soon followed. The second Great Grey was obviously the female as it was considerably larger.
All in all this was a pretty good morning in addition there were Stellar Jays, Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Clark’s Nutcracker Jay, Robins and a lone Tree Swallow. Considering that there was several feet of snow on the ground it was perhaps a sign of better birding ahead.
For a chance to see many different species of birds join me on a Bird Watching and Nature Adventure tour