Billions of Birds, Thousands of Islands … & Extinction

Islands and birds. An island full of birds. Birds in flight over a tropical island. Lovely images, right? But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I count myself incredibly lucky to live on an island, Gabriola Island, in the Salish Sea just off the coast of British Columbia. Gabriola is about the same geographical size as Manhattan but has a population of about 4,000 people. Manhattan’s 2012 population was 1.6 million.

Gabriola Island in the distance

Gabriola Island in the distance

What we lack in people we more than make up for in non-human populations: fifty-some species of birds, countless Black-tailed deer, otters and seals and raccoons, several large flocks of feral turkeys (who might justifiably be termed “wild” after all this time, although I don’t know how the DNA part works) and innumerable bugs and bees and bats and insects of all kinds. Way more of them than us. I like it that way. (Except for the cats that are allowed to roam.)

Sharing a meal

Sharing a meal

 

I named this Red Squirrel Q. For no good reason.

Our Red Squirrel, named Q

 

Purple Sea Star at Brickyard Beach

Purple Sea Star at Brickyard Beach

 

Raccoon lolling in Cedar tree in daytime.

Raccoon lolling in Cedar tree in daytime.

But living on Gabriola has its pros and cons – for humans and birds alike. Some human residents, for example, consider having to take a ferry off the island a hassle. (A few islanders regularly lobby the government to build a bridge. I wonder: why did they move to the island if they don’t want to live on an island?)

ferry-dock

Gabriola ferry dock

Our non-human (non-pet) residents do not take the ferry. They stay put. This is their habitat, their home. They don’t have the options their human neighbours have. They don’t go shopping across the strait in Nanaimo. If things don’t work out here, they can’t just pack up, sell everything, and move away. They can’t even move to a different part of the island unless it provides the same type of habitat including the right foods and breeding opportunities. They’re basically here to stay, no matter what. This is what makes some islands – take the famous Galapagos – hotspots of biodiversity, home to rare and unique species that occur nowhere else.

Galapagos Island, rocky hill. Public Domain-image.

Galapagos Island, rocky hill. Public Domain-image.

But if you’re a bird or animal living on an island where the ecology has been disturbed, things can get messy. I first became aware of this issue in 2011 when I read the article by UBC scientists Peter Arcese and Tara Martin about research done on eighteen relatively undeveloped islands in the Salish Sea.  http://(http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/the-environmental-costs-of-protecting-bambi/article621791/)

A Gabriola fawn. Photo by Jean Wyenburg.

A Gabriola fawn. Photo by Jean Wyenberg.

This study showed that on the islands studied, more deer = fewer birds. It turns out that Black-tailed deer (Gabriola has a lot of them) eat the forest understory where ground-nesting birds live and breed, birds like Spotted Towhees, Fox and Song sparrows, Rufous hummingbirds, Bewick’s wren, and Orange-crowned warbler. Black-tailed deer proliferate on many BC islands because we humans got rid of their natural predators a long time ago.

Female Rufous Hummingbird

Female Rufous Hummingbird

 

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

 

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Unfortunately, in any conversation about ways to solve the problem, the C word will eventually come up. (Cull!) Kill Bambi?! No, like most islanders, I don’t want to kill any deer. It’s not their fault they’re reducing bird populations, it’s ours. But there are other, albeit more expensive, options. No one here is looking seriously at any of them. And so, the status quo continues.

Islands & Extinction: a groundbreaking study

Now, five years after that small-scale local study, the results of another study involving islands has been published. (http://Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12488 DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS12488 ) This one measures the effects of rats, cats, pigs, mongooses, and weasels on more than 1,200 globally threatened or extinct vertebrate species on more than 1,000 islands around the world. The news is bad: “Eight of every ten species extinctions has occurred on islands … (and) 40 percent of species at risk of global extinction are island inhabitants.” So, it’s not just a deer problem!

Edwards' Dodo, a painting

Edwards’ Dodo, a painting

Edwards’ Dodo is one of the most famous and often-copied paintings of a Dodo specimen, as painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s. The bird swallowing a frog in the lower right may be the likewise extinct Red Rail. It has also been suggested that the two parrots are the extinct Lesser Antillean Macaw (left) and Martinique Macaw (right). (Thank you Wikipedia.)

The animals living on these islands have nowhere else to go. When humans want more space they add density, build higher towers and smaller living spaces. But non-humans don’t have this option. Fortunately, scientists are now using the data from this massive study to determine where “conservation interventions will provide the greatest benefits to threatened island biodiversity.” They are asking questions like: “Are rats more likely to cause bird extinctions on smaller, colder, or wetter islands than on other types of islands? Are native reptiles more vulnerable to the impacts of pigs than to those of rats or cats, and on what kinds of islands are these impacts seen most strongly?Erin McCreless, principal researcher on the project, does have some good news: ” … targeted invasive mammal control and eradication could prevent 41 to 75 percent of these predicted future extirpations … ”

That scientists are putting so much energy into studying this issue makes me hopeful. But it will take political will to solve it. The powers that be will have to listen to the scientists, take the problem seriously, put their money where their mouth is. Like Obama did with Midway.

President Obama’s Midway Promise

The famous Midway Atoll sits roughly in between North America and Asia, in the Hawaiian archipelago. A treasure trove of biological diversity, it’s home to millions of birds, hundreds of species of fish and marine invertebrates, green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. More albatrosses live there than anywhere else in the world.

Laysan albatross, mother and chick. Public domain image.

Juvenile Laysan albatross (l) and Black-footed albatross (r). Public domain image.

To watch a 3 minute video about the plight of the albatross of Midway (due to plastic pollution), click here: www.midwayfilm.com, But be warned, it’s heartwrenching.

Wildlife authorities have been working for years to prevent endangered species from disappearing from the atoll. During President Obama’s recent visit, he noted that 7,000 species live in the waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on Midway – one in four of the species found nowhere else in the world – and made a welcome announcement: he is creating the world’s largest stretch of protected waters here and increasing protection for the area four-fold. That’s how you do it. May politicians around the world (including on my little island) take note and follow his lead.

For more on bird extinction and islands check out:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130325160509.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_recently_extinct_birds

Note: All photographs by Sharon McInnes unless otherwise noted. 

 

Posted in Bird Canada, Conservation | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Fall Songbird Migration in Southern Alberta

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The ever-stunning American Redstart male.

Ah, August…. for me this used to just mean the end of camping season is around the corner and that is NOT a good feeling! These days however, I now know August means the southward (fall) migration of many bird species, including many that in southern Alberta we only ever fleetingly see during migration  – especially songbirds (including warblers) and shorebirds.

Common Yellowthroat - Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, Alberta

Common Yellowthroat – Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, Alberta

For this post, I’m going to focus on the songbirds (shorebirds to follow!).

Yellow Warbler foraging for insects

Yellow Warbler foraging for insects

Two of my favourite places to observe and photograph migrating warblers are Little Bow Provincial Park (about an hour south-west of Calgary) and Confederation Park, right smack-bang in central Calgary.  Both of these parks tend to be warbler magnets, most likely because they are oases of trees & shrubbery in the midst of the prairie…but only the warblers can officially confirm that!

Wilson Warbler - Confederation Park, Calgary

Wilson Warbler – Confederation Park, Calgary

Orange-crowned Warbler with a tasty snack a moment before being gobbled down. Confederation Park, Calgary.

Orange-crowned Warbler with a tasty snack a moment before being gobbled down. Confederation Park, Calgary.

Little Bow offered up quite a variety of migrants including:th1d9704

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

 Northern Waterthrush:th1d9391mask-fb

American Redstart (female):th1d9424db

Tennessee Warbler:th1d9451-fb

Wilson’s Warbler:th1d9777db-crop-fb th1d9689 th1d9603

Yellow Warbler:th1d9714db-fb

Magnolia Warbler:th1d9731db-v2-fb-wm

And, while I was only able to get ID-quality photos, I was very happy to see not only a Mourning Warbler:

Mourning Warbler - Little Bow PP, Alberta

Mourning Warbler – Little Bow PP, Alberta

 

But also the elusive (for me!) Canada Warbler:

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

 

Given that migrants are only visitors passing through, the number and variety of warblers changes daily. However, overnight storms tend to bring in more birds than normal and you never know what may turn up, such as this White-winged Crossbill – a bird I normally associate with winter and/or alpine – which was all alone, but appeared content munching on pine cones:

White-winged Crossbill - Little Bow PP, Alberta

White-winged Crossbill – Little Bow PP, Alberta

And sometimes while you are looking for certain species, you find others unexpectedly, this Common Nighthawk being a prime example:

Common Nighthawk - Little Bow PP, Alberta

Common Nighthawk – Little Bow PP, Alberta

Frequently seen flying over the campground, given their camouflage and roosting behaviour I see them much less when perched. 

I was also able to see another warbler – the Ovenbird – while camping at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park. I was having breakfast outside my trailer when I spied a bird with big eye rings skulking in the bushes…

Ovenbird - Kinbrook Island PP, Alberta

Ovenbird – Kinbrook Island PP, Alberta

After enjoying the camping season, I was able to enjoy the remainder of the warbler migration through frequent visits to Confederation Park, just a 5-minute drive from my house.

American Redstart - Confederation Park, Calgary

American Redstart – Confederation Park, Calgary

I enjoy this locale not only for the warblers, but also because of the friendly birding environment – sometimes up to a dozen or more fellow birders/photographers will be present and on at least two occasions this fall they have helped me correctly identify 2 species I had inadvertently ‘written off’ (i.e. misidentified as something far more common and decided not to photograph!).

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Confederation Park, Calgary

Yellow-rumped Warbler – Confederation Park, Calgary

Here is a sample of what I saw during the last 2 weekends of August:

Wilson's Warbler - Confederation Park, Calgary

Wilson’s Warbler – Confederation Park, Calgary

Blackpoll Warbler - Confederation Park, Calgary

Blackpoll Warbler – Confederation Park, Calgary

Tennessee Warbler - Confederation Park, Calgary

Tennessee Warbler – Confederation Park, Calgary

Northern Waterthrush - Confederation Park, Calgary

Northern Waterthrush – Confederation Park, Calgary

MacGillivray’s Warbler:a45i0112

Nashville Warbler:th1d9873

Orange-crowned Warblers:th1d9853 a45i0939 th121545crop

Yellow Warbler:a45i0118db-v-flickr

A rather tame Palm Warbler that gave me extended good views as it foraged in and amongst various trees and shrubbery:a45i0683crop a45i0564db a45i0542mask-v-fb a45i0309 a45i0272 a45i0176-fb

Two highlights were firstly, a Blackburnian Warbler – not a common occurrence in Calgary: th121093db-full-fb th120995

that drew quite a number of birders, but very much tested the patience, skills and stamina of the photogs as it gave very few clear glimpses:th121080-fb th121003

 

The other highlight was a non-warbler…I happened to come across a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk that I gathered from other birders hatched from a local nest this year. ch1

What caught my attention was that the hawk was busy pulling apart a meal, initially in a low tree branch and then later on the ground. ch3 ch2

So I took a few pictures and when I enlarged the images on my camera the ‘meal’, based on the legs and talons visible, appeared to be a bird of prey…and not that smaller than the hawk eating it. ch4I’m told there were several juvenile Cooper’s that hatched this year so I suspected the prey may have been a sibling. ch5

So, I went back to the scene a few hours later when the hawk had left and found both the leg remains and quite a number of what appeared to be Cooper’s Hawks tail feathers. Some birders in the area seemed to believe this case of siblicide. However subsequent discussions with birders who have observed Cooper’s Hawks catching & eating the smaller, but very similar, Sharp-shinned Hawk; together with more review of my images leads to me to think that the meal may well have been a Sharp-shinned.

Confederation Park is also good for non-warbler migrants, such as vireos and flycatchers:

Western Wood Peewee - Confederation Park, Calgary

Western Wood Peewee – Confederation Park, Calgary

Warbling Vireo - Confederation Park, Calgary

Warbling Vireo – Confederation Park, Calgary

Philadelphia Vireo - Confederation Park, Calgary

Philadelphia Vireo – Confederation Park, Calgary

I’ll close this post with some warbler photography tips, as I often get asked ‘how did I get this or that image?’. Most folks assume a ‘long lens’ (i.e. 500mm or 600mm that I use) automatically = ‘good pictures’. For sure, a bigger lens allows you to get closer up images, but it is expensive and also weighs twice as much and is lot harder to lug around (and I hand-hold), especially during prolonged periods when ‘unhelpful’ warblers (like the Blackburnian) refuse to come out from behind branch/es and/or leaves for 10+ minutes. However, I personally believe that understanding bird (warbler) behaviour is much more critical to getting good images than possessing a lens longer than 400mm. Knowing (or more specifically, predicting) where a warbler will likely move allows me time to get into position and focus on the spot where for 1-2 seconds a warbler pops out in the open. For example, while every warbler is unique, they mostly tend to ‘sweep’ through areas moving through one clump of bushes/trees before moving to the next. So, for me, when I see a warbler heading in a certain direction, I ‘predict’(guess!) where I think it will go next then try & get in a position that offers the best light and might get the warbler out in the open. This requires patience, belief (i.e. sitting 15 metres away from other photographers rapidly clicking away while you wait hopefully for the warbler to come your way) & certainly doesn’t work all the time, but I genuinely feel this is the main reason I get the type of shots you see here.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed these images and you can see more here: https://www.facebook.com/timjhopwood/

Feel free to message or email me with any questions!

Posted in Bird Canada | 7 Comments

T.O. Backyard – Hot In The City

“Hot” is the only way to describe August, much like the whole summer of 2016 here in Toronto, Ontario.  Just trying to keep cool and deal with it is what most of us are doing.  While it has been rather quiet a few things of interest have happened around our “neck of the woods”.

For starts, we’ve had a couple unique birds pop in.  An Oriental Frill Pigeon on a neighbour’s roof a couple houses over.  A beautiful fancy Pigeon lost, escaped, abandoned…  only he knows his story.  Unfortunately he left the area before we were able to try and help him.

snowball

Then weeks later this African-collared Dove landed in our tree. He rested for about 15 minutes on this branch before moving on to who knows where?

afcoldove

It’s upsetting to say the least when we discover these domestic birds flying free. To date, I have seen here is 3 Budgies, 1 Orange Canary, 1 gray Cockatiel, the Oriental Frill and 2 African-collared Doves. Two of the Budgies now live with us. The Cockatiel was a neighbour’s bird who escaped and I helped catch. Funny thing is my neighbour caught that bird flying around a nearby park years ago. I sometimes wonder if it’s the same person losing these birds, like a careless breeder or ???

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continued to visit us throughout August. With the high heat and humidity we’ve been changing the 2 feeders pretty much daily.

2hummers

rthumm

But despite the heat and the Hummingbirds, a sign of the seasons changing soon was the arrival of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, who was joined by a second bird days later. In past years, we normally do not see this species hitting our feeders until mid to late October.

rbnh

Another bird that signifies the seasons are going to change soon is the Snowbirds flying over our backyard on Labour Day weekend. We are usually treated to a couple good sightings of these every year.  This was our last view of them for 2016.

snowbirds1

Is Summer really coming to an end? I was just enjoying some juvi bird sightings only a couple weeks ago! These young birds I photographed at a park around the corner from our house.

Cedar Waxwing
juvi

Gray Catbird
juvi2

Purple Martin
pm

Red-bellied Woodpecker
juviredb

We had our share of young birds coming to visit our backyard too. Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers a plenty, Baltimore Orioles, the Hummingbirds and the appearance of a young Cooper’s Hawk. The arrival of a Hawk to our backyard is yet another sign that Autumn is just around the corner.

hungryhawk

hidinghawk

He’s giving all our visiting birds quite a hard time especially one of his favorite catches being the Rock Pigeons.

A very wet young Pigeon on one of the few days we had rain in August.
wetbird1

No shortage of Rock Pigeons in our backyard.
rainyflock

But I happen to like some of them, calling them “my friends”. This is Pierre. He made a unique first encounter to our backyard on July 21st in 2012.CnvXUURWEAAGYb9

Pierre still comes to visit almost daily over 4 years later. He’s got a bit of a fan club thanks to social media, changing some opinions on his species, and I will be the first to admit he changed mine as well. Pierre even made it on a Global News segment a couple winters ago.

In other sightings of late around here…

We were beyond excited to have two Red-spotted Purple Butterflies hang around our backyard for approximately 1 week.

WHATBFLY

A family of Skunks are making evening appearances. We’ve had up to 4 at once!

pair (revised)

skunktrio

For those who don’t mind the Raccoon species, ours are doing well. The young are growing up so fast.

conga

This one loves this water bowl we set out, which is 1 of 5 water sources we have for all the wildlife 24/7. All the birds and mammals are really appreciative of the constant supply of fresh water during the extreme heat wave.

wash

Our blog a couple months back was about cats and birds. We bought a “kittywalk” to keep the birds (and our cats) safe. Our one cat, Merry, isn’t as keen about the enclosure as our other cat Molly. So we’ve been working with her on getting used to a leash and harness, which is going very well. She will never be left unsupervised even on this set-up. We are very happy she is taking to this though, enjoying the days out back with us all.

diva

It will be interesting to see what happens in our parts as fall migration really ramps up in the next number of weeks.

Thanks for stopping in!

Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

Wild West Coast Birding!

In mid-August we boarded a sailboat, the Ocean Light II, for a one-week trip off the northern tip of Vancouver Island.  This was a plunge into a remote and wild area of the Pacific Ocean, primarily to photograph marine mammals, but the birding was exceptional too.

2T9A3578-1

The Ocean Light II

 

Our sailboat departed from Port McNeil which is about a 3-4 hour (350km) drive north from Nanaimo.  This was brand new territory for us – neither of us had ever been north of Nanaimo before.   We were pretty excited because new territory means new birds and a chance to ID and learn about new species!

16C_5476-1

Can you spot the bald eagle in the tree?

 

On the first day sailing into Johnstone Strait (that narrow channel of water separating Vancouver Island from the mainland), our guides shouted out “Rhinoceros Auklet!”  Rhinoceros what???  We were familiar with the African white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros, but what was a rhinoceros auklet and what’s it doing in Canada…in the ocean?

It turns out the name comes from the “horn” sticking up from the beak resembling a rhinoceros.  We saw hundreds of these very interesting birds over the course of the week.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

 

The next day our guides shouted out something about “Storm Petrel!”  We picked out the first part of what they said, “storm”, and thought perhaps an ocean storm squall was headed our way which would have been a real bummer as it would have driven us to a safe harbour taking precious time away from our trip.

Well, turns out there was no nasty storm headed our way but rather we had encountered a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel – another new species to add to our list.  These birds flew so fast, skimming over the water, it was nearly impossible to capture them in flight, but we got lucky a few times!

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

 

The week continued along like this – new species everywhere we looked.  It was difficult to keep track of everything that was going on because the area was teaming with life.  Flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes would fly by our sailboat and when they would turn with their bellies toward us it was a beautiful flash of white!

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalaropes

 

Another west coast inhabitant is the Pigeon Guillemot.  We only saw them on a few occasions while they were sitting on rocks, drying their wings and posing for the camera!

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot

 

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot striking a pose for us

 

Who doesn’t like The Eagles?  Hotel California, Desperado, Tequila Sunrise…  Well, we didn’t see those eagles on the west coast, but we certainly saw a lot of our feathered friends – the bald eagles.

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Bald Eagle – mature

 

Bald Eagle Immature Artistic

Bald Eagle – immature

 

Bald Eagle Flying Immature

Bald Eagle – immature (flying towards a bait ball)

 

Bald Eagle Immature

Bald Eagle – immature

 

And then there were Black Turnstones…. part of the sandpiper family, they are native to the west coast of North America and they only breed in Alaska.

Black Turnstones

Black Turnstones

 

Black Turnstone

Black Turnstone

 

Remember the Rhinoceros Auklet?  Well, it turns out the Rhino has a cousin – the Cassin!  A small, dark, gregarious seabird, the Cassin’s Auklet can be found from Alaska to Mexico.  The main population stronghold being Triangle Island off Vancouver Island’s Cape Scott, where the population is estimated to be around 550,000 pairs!

Cassin's Auklet

Cassin’s Auklet

 

Gulls?  You want gulls?  Welcome to the west coast – where all your gull dreams may come true!  We find gulls fairly difficult to ID so if anyone sees an incorrect ID, please mention it in the comments!

Ring-billed Gull - juvenile

Ring-billed Gull – juvenile

 

Heermann's Gull

Heermann’s Gull

 

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

 

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Herring Gull – juvenile

 

Another cool bird on the west coast is the Surfbird.   An interesting fact about the Surfbird is that it nests on barren gravel ridge tops in mountainous areas and they migrate all the way to Tierra del Fuego – the southern most tip of South America!

Surfbird

Surfbird

 

Black Oystercatchers were fairly abundant as well.  The black oystercatcher is a keystone indicator species along the north Pacific shoreline and therefore it is of high conservation concern throughout its range.

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

 

We saw Common Murres a few times during our one week trip and they are interesting birds.  It has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in low-Arctic and boreal waters in the North-Atlantic and North Pacific. It spends most of its time at sea, only coming to land to breed on rocky cliff shores or islands.  Common murres have fast direct flight but are not very agile. They are more maneuverable underwater, typically diving to depths of 30–60 m (98–197 ft), and depths of up to 180 m (590 ft) have been recorded. (source: Wikipedia).

Common Murre - Breeding Plumage

Common Murre – Breeding Plumage

 

A very interesting sight to witness was the herring bait balls.  Poor herrings – everything ate them – from above and from below.   The fish would get pushed up to the surface by the Rhinoceros Auklets and you could literally see the fish coming out of the water, making it a pretty easy meal for the sea birds.

Bait Ball Feeding Frenzy

Bait Ball Feeding Frenzy

The birds would continue the feeding frenzy until this happened….

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Humpback whales taking over the bait ball

 

Last, but not least, is our mystery bird.  We haven’t been able to confirm the ID of this particular bird but we are sure some of the Bird Canada readers will know exactly what this is.  Please leave a comment if you know what this is!

16A_3745-1

Mystery bird. Can you ID this bird?

 

We hope you enjoyed the photographs of the west coast birds.  We will be writing a blog post with tons of great photos of the marine mammals we saw on this trip including Humpback whales, Killer whales, Stellar Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Harbour Seals, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Dall’s Porpoises, and more!  Visit us at www.staderart.com where we’ll publish a blog post soon – sign up to receive the blog post by email so you don’t miss it when it comes out.  We’ll even have some amazing video of a Humpback whale breaching and doing a 360 turn – all filmed in 120fps flow motion!

Here’s one teaser image!

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Humpback whale beginning to breach!

Thanks for reading!

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArt Bird Blog

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Who’s Making Babies Where?

It’s a little embarrassing to admit this but when I discovered the BC Breeding Bird Atlas tears came to my eyes. I know. I should get a life. My tears weren’t about sadness, though, they were about so many people, largely volunteers, working together to create this extraordinary resource. Over fifty volunteer regional coordinators and over 1300 local birders worked for five years (2008-2012) to create the atlas. This kind of commitment and passion is such a lovely counter-balance to all the discord and craziness going on in the world. (Trump? Really?) Maybe I needed a reminder that there is also “good” going on, good that doesn’t usually make the news, unfortunately.

The "good": feeding time for baby Downy. The not-so-good: a large decrease in Downy populations in the last decade in BC

The “good”: feeding time for baby Downy. The not-so-good: a large decrease in Downy populations in the last decade in BC

The atlas is not a big hardcover book, as atlases were in my day, but an on-line interactive survey of the 321 species of birds known to breed in British Columbia. According to the website (http://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/), the purpose of the atlas is “to collect and make freely available to a wide range of users, the most comprehensive, current source of information on the province’s breeding birds, through citizen science.”

It’s such a great idea, citizen science. Who better than amateur birders in every corner of the province who pay attention just because they love birds? Their observations, compiled over the years, provide the kind of information that reveals trends that allow for good conservation decisions.

Pelagic Cormorants nest on cliffs, often in small colonies on remote islands. Photo by Catherine Jardine.

Pelagic Cormorants nest on cliffs, often in small colonies on remote islands. Photo by Catherine Jardine.

 

There is a LOT of information in the atlas. It includes an online book with Species Accounts for all 321 species that breed in BC. I recommend that you start by viewing the orientation video: http://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/site-tour/.

There are 31 confirmed breeding sites for the Tufted Puffin in BC. Photo by Catherine Jardine.

There are 31 confirmed breeding sites for the Tufted Puffin in BC. Photo by Catherine Jardine.


I first turned to the atlas when I got involved in supporting a group of islanders fighting the Port Authority who want to park five massive coal and/or oil tankers along the east coast of Gabriola, our little section of the Pacific Flyway. People living along that coastline sent me photos of the birds that call this little part of paradise home.

Buffleheads off the east coast of Gabriola, right where those megatankers would park. Photo by Bill McGann.

Buffleheads off the east coast of Gabriola, right where those megatankers would park. Photo by Bill McGann.

Among the photos was one of  a Marbled Murrelet, that chubby seabird once known as the Australian Bumblebee.

 

Marbled Murrelet. USFWS public domain photo.

Marbled Murrelet. USFWS public domain photo.

 

I knew Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) were a threatened species in BC but not much else. The atlas provided a wealth of detailed information about these fascinating tree-nesters. I started on the Species Account page. There’s one column of information on: characteristics and range; distribution, abundance, and habitat; conservation and recommendations. One column doesn’t look like a lot at first. But don’t stop there! See those three little maps on the left side of the page, called Breeding Evidence, Probability of Observation, and Elevation Plot? Each one is an interactive map with six possible overlays!

When I clicked on Breeding Evidence a lot of little squares in red, orange, yellow, white, and grey were lined up along the coast of BC. Red = Confirmed breeding sites; orange = Probable sites; yellow = Possible; grey = Not Observed; white = Not Surveyed. There’s one red box (confirmed nest) along the southeast coast of Vancouver Island in the Georgia Depression. I couldn’t tell how close that nest was to Gabriola Island so I clicked on one of the six possible overlays, Cities and Roads and discovered that confirmed breeding site is south of Comox and north of Gabriola. Other overlay options include: Bird Conservation Regions, Coordinates, and Eco-provinces. Then, on the top of the column to the right there is a drop-down Fact Box and clickable graphs for: Bird Conservation Regions, Ecoprovince, and Biogeoclimactic Zone. It’s amazing how much information got packed into what at first appears to be one page. It’s like a three-dimensional universe that expands and collapses with the click of a mouse! (If this is a dumb analogy it is because I don’t read sci-fi.)

The atlas shows where Marbled Murrelets (MAMUs) breed and in what kind of habitat. It indicates that breeding evidence is possible or probable in over 100 10 km squares surveyed and estimates the BC population at 72,600-125,600 birds, about one quarter of the global population of MAMUs. (COSEWIC 2012).

Under Conservation & Recommendations the atlas says of the MAMU:  Old-growth forest loss and fragmentation are considered the greatest threats to the species and higher breeding numbers are consistently correlated with accessible areas of suitable forest habitat (Burger and Waterhouse 2009). Other potential threats include oil spills, fisheries bycatch, boat disturbance and changes to marine habitat and prey stocks (COSEWIC 2012). I wonder if the Port Authority is aware of these risks?

I should mention for readers not keen on sitting in front of a screen all day: all the Species Accounts can turned into pdf files and printed!

My heartfelt thanks to all the people, volunteers and staff alike, who created this invaluable free resource. Well done!

For more citizen science opportunities, check out: http://birdscanada.org/volunteer/programmap/

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Endangered Burrowing Owls Given a Head Start

Endangered species come in all shapes and sizes, and the Calgary Zoo is launching an innovative conservation project to save one of the most unique owls in the country — the burrowing owl.

burrowing owl

Working in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)’s Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Alberta Environment and Parks, this head-starting project will be the first of its kind in Canada. The process involves raising young burrowing owls from the wild into captivity for nine months to increase their overall survival.

“Our team worked side-by-side with federal and provincial field staff to gather 15 of the youngest owlets that may not otherwise survive,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Director Conservation & Science. “Following an extremely successful first field season, we are very pleased with our progress to date and will continue to prepare for the next phase of the project. I am delighted that our team at the Calgary Zoo is able to lend our expertise to collaborate on such an exciting and ground-breaking project to help provincial wildlife resource managers keep burrowing owls in Alberta.”

After being collected in the wild, the owlets — who will grow to be no taller than a pigeon — are being cared for at the zoo’s Animal Health Centre before moving to their winter home at the zoo’s offsite Conservation Centre. In the spring of 2017, the young owls will be released back into the wild to breed, with their movements tracked using satellite transmitters.

“There is no doubt that Canada’s burrowing owls are in trouble. Their main challenge appears to be when they migrate south of our border each year. We believe this innovative idea is the best current option for protecting the owl,” stated Dr. Troy Wellicome, Species at Risk Biologist with the CWS.

The youngest owls from each nest seldom survive, especially in years with poor weather and little food. Few of those that survive return to Canada after migrating through the United States to and from their winter habitat in Mexico. This low return rate – whether because the owls die or simply decide not to return to their breeding grounds – appears to be the main problem for the species in Canada. This new head-starting project aims to address this key issue of low return rates for first-year owls.

“The Alberta Government is very excited to be a part of this unique conservation project to potentially save such a vital species in our province. The expertise that all partners share as a team is remarkable and paves the way for success with this important species,” says Brandy Downey, Senior Species At Risk Biologist, Alberta Environment And Parks.
Wild populations declined by a staggering 90 per cent in the 1990’s and continues to deteriorate. Burrowing owls are listed as Endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) due to significant declines across their range in Canada’s southern prairies.

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Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – August 2016

Hello again!

It has most definitely been ‘juvenile bird’ season around here.  My yard has been full of an assortment of juveniles:  Hummingbirds, Purple Finches, Chickadees, Red Breasted Nuthatches, Grackles, Starlings, Crows, a few Sparrow types, Eastern Bluebirds, Downy Woodpeckers ……

The Downies surprised me, actually.  I had only been seeing the adult female …… alone … no partner that I knew of.  Suddenly in late July, she shows up with a daughter!  The juvenile female was with her for quite a few weeks.  Still, I never saw the adult male.  One day, a juvenile male shows up but still, to this day, no adult male Downy to be seen.  She certainly had a boyfriend somewhere nearby but I still haven’t seen him.

Juvenile Purple Finch2

Juvenile Purple Finch … could be male or female; at this stage, they look the same.

Juvenile Male Downy

Juvenile male Downy Woodpecker in a sweet pose on my platform feeder

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Juvenile Purple Finch in an adorable pose … curious about me.

I have to wonder if the juvenile male Downy had different parents ….. I never saw this adult female feeding him at all.

Downy Feeding

Adult female Downy Woodpecker (right) feeding her juvenile daughter in my crabapple tree.

One evening when I was outside, a juvenile Purple Finch was begging ….. and begging ….. and begging some more at an adult female, following her from tree to tree and only getting louder when the adult would give her/him a seed.  That juvie was the cutest thing to watch tho’.  🙂

Adult & Juvie Purple Finch

Adult female Purple Finch (left) not so patiently listening to the juvenile’s constant begging calls.

Possilve Juvie Savannah

Juvenile Savannah Sparrow? I stand to be corrected!

It has been a spectacular summer for Ruby Throated Hummingbirds in my area!  I’ve never had more than 2, maybe 3 Hummers in my yard at once before but this season, it’s common to have 4 and a few times, even 6!  They are in constant motion with juveniles and adults battling over the abundance of flowers in the yard and the 2 feeders.  It’s been an exceptional season for gardening for me so my yard is loaded with things in bloom:  lilies, daylilies, monarda, hosta, heliopsis, maltese cross, rudbeckia, mountain bluet, colmbine, gladiola, purple liatris, dahlias and others …. plus potted plants.  The number #1 favourite flower for the hummers, once again, is the monarda (bee balm).  They go NUTS for this flower!

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Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird at the lily patch

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Juvenile male Hummingbird at Impatiens

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Juvenile male Hummingbird in Monarda patch

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A portion of the blooms in the yard: heliopsis (front), monarda (red), rudbeckia and more heliopsis in background

I was lucky enough to have an entire family of Eastern Bluebirds in my neighbourhood for most of the summer.  They didn’t nest in my yard but they were coming here daily to catch insects.  They are still around but not coming to my yard so much now.  They successfully raised at least 3 young that I’m sure of.  🙂

Male Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird on light post at the end of my driveway.

Grackles are returning in fair numbers once again.  They are looking pretty rough tho’!  Some, like this fellow, are molting their head feathers so they a.) look partially bald … b.) have a mix of blue & brown on the head … or c.) they are partially leucistic on the head with some white thrown in.  Also, some have dropped their tail feathers during the molt so they have the new short stubs coming in but still have 1 or 2 old tail feathers left.  Messed up!

Molting Grackle

Nearly bald Grackle during its molt.

I haven’t seen too many Common Nighthawks yet this summer.  Last night was the most so far for this summer, with a flock of 35 or so flying about the neighbourhood.

Nighthawk 1

1 of about 35 Common Nighthawks soaring over my neighbourhood.

Common Nighthawk 2

Common Nighthawk

The Hummingbirds aren’t the only ones enjoying then nectar-rich flowers.  My yard has been loaded with bees all summer too.  This one is looking a little beat up with tattered wing tips.

Bee on Monarda

One of hundreds of bees enjoying a Monarda blossom in my backyard

That’s about it from my yard for this month.  Hope you’re all enjoying your summer!  Thanks for reading ….. ‘see’ you next month!

Posted in Bird Canada | 12 Comments

Okanagan Birding – a quick postcard from BC

My summer has been both busy and relaxing, which normally don’t go together in my world! I had a week’s vacation out in South Okanagan in July where I picked up a couple of ‘life birds’, one of which included the striking California Quail which are quite abundant in the area:

A male California Quail in early morning light on another warm Okanagan day.

A male California Quail in early morning light on another warm Okanagan day.

I plan to have a more comprehensive post in September once I have time to go through my images, including those from my trip to Vancouver Island way back in April!

Cheers,

Tim.

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T.O. Backyard – Splish Splash

BluejayBath

A Blue Jay enjoys a cool bath on a hot summer day.

Rob and I do not consider ourselves birding experts, but are always willing to share any knowledge we’ve gained over the last ten plus years of feeding the birds in our backyard. And when people ask my advice about attracting more birds to their backyard, I’m more than likely to respond with “Get a bird bath!” than anything else.

We were feeding the birds for a couple years before we added a bird bath. We didn’t see much change with the first one we bought, and after doing a little more research we found out why, it was too deep. After we invested in a better quality and shallow one from our local Wild Birds Unlimited, the bath action in the backyard was immediate and noticeable.

Finding water can be harder than food sometimes for birds, so providing fresh water is good for the birds, and it can add loads of entertainment to your backyard bird watching. We’ve gone from 1 bird bath to 3 or 4 in the summer. It can get very hot and humid in Toronto during the summer months, and the birds appreciate a cool drink and a place to bath. The baths are changed often throughout the day to keep the water fresh and clean. We provide fresh water in the winter as well, and have purchased a heated bird bath. We offer a variety of sizes and one of our larger baths sits on the ground. We often joke about the backyard being a “bird spa” as the popularity of the baths tends to grow as the temperature climbs.

RBNH

Red-breasted Nuthatch

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A young Grackle takes a peanut to the bath to soften before eating.

bathoriole

A female Baltimore Oriole

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A White-crowned Sparrow enjoys the smaller bath I set up.

bathsiskin

Pine Siskin

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Water cooler talk between a Grackle and a Red-winged Blackbird. Maybe discussing their migratory route?

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The bird bath is a popular spot on a hot day!

pigeonbath

The ground bath is popular with the Pigeons but other birds enjoy it too.

And from the pictures below, you can see it’s not only the birds that make use of the bird baths.

Skunk2013
Raccoon2016

admiralbath

Even the butterflies need  a place to get a drink. Red Admiral pictured here.

I found this article online from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology regarding bird baths and thought it may be of interest.

As with bird feeders, clean your bird baths regularly and change water at least once a day.

Til next time, and enjoy the rest of your summer!
Angie

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Ellis Bird Farm: Make your next birding trip A SURE THING!

Hey, we’ve all been there.  You’ve got an amazing birding trip planned:  you’ve picked the perfect location, the time of year is ideal and the weather couldn’t be better.  You eagerly arrive at your location with checklist in hand, ready to tick off one bird after another, but as you start looking for birds, something isn’t right.  It’s dead quiet…not a bird to be heard, not a bird to be seen.  You walk around for a couple of hours like a zombie in disbelief and eventually convince yourself a bird of prey must have swept through the area only minutes before you arrived ruining everything, and so you shuffle back to your vehicle with your feathers ruffled.  It happens…

Welcome to the Ellis Bird Farm where you can make your next birding trip a SURE THING!

Ellis Bird Farm

Old calving barn

 

 

Showcasing a variety of nest box designs, some of which are occupied!

 

When we first arrived at the Ellis Bird farm the morning of June 14th there was a little nervous anticipation…would this be another one of those trips where you go out in search of a particular species and are faced with utter disappointment?  It was a two hour drive from Calgary to Lacombe in Central Alberta and we wanted to see a purple martin BADLY!  As we made our way around the picturesque walking path we felt a surge of joy as we found what we were seeking–The Colour Purple–in abundance!!!

Purple Martins

They were EVERYWHERE! On metal artwork…

 

On the ground…

 

In the trees…

 

Purple Martin (male)

And in their houses…

 

Purple Martins

Purple Martins (female on the left and male on the right)

 

Purple martins are the largest North American swallow.  Every spring they begin a staggering 7000+ km journey from their wintering grounds in Brazil to Central Alberta (as well as other areas in Canada and the USA), sometimes covering up to 600 km in a single day, to breed in colonies — usually man-made apartment houses specifically designed for these birds. The original colony residing at Ellis was completely wiped out in 1982 after a severe storm (tree encroachment also played role), but fortunately in 1999, under the mentorship of Del and Debra McKinnon with Purple Martin Conservancy, efforts were made to re-establish their foothold.  Ellis now boasts a population of approximately 104 nesting pairs that is slowly increasing every year despite the fact that these birds are in in over-all decline. Fingers crossed they can max-out their 113 available compartments next year!

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Adult males have beautiful deep iridescent, purple feathers covering their entire body.

 

The species suffered a severe population crash in the 20th century widely linked to the spread of European starlings in North America. Starlings and house sparrows compete with martins for nest sites and often push them out of an area, destroy eggs and kill nestlings.

Since 2012 Ellis Bird Farm has been participating in ground-breaking research using RFID (radio frequency identification) and geo-locator technology lead by scientist Dr. Kevin Fraser from the University of Manitoba. Their findings have profoundly helped our understanding of migration patterns and the challenges birds face–more information about this fascinating research and the story of Amelia, the first northern nesting martin to be tracked on her annual journey encompassing  21,000 km, from Ellis to Brazil and back, are available here.

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Sub-adult males are often the hardest to identify, but will have at least one solid-purple feather either on their chins, throats, bellies, or undertails. They do not get their full plumage until the 3rd calendar year.

 

The average life span of a purple martin is 1 – 5 years, with the oldest martin on record being a whopping 13 years and 9 months old!  The first adult martins (male and female) usually begin arriving at Ellis the third week of April.  Male and female pairs build the nest together using straw, twigs, pine needles, leaves, mud and feathers.  They typically lay one clutch consisting of two to seven dull white eggs on which the female will spend seventy five percent of her daylight hours incubating for 15 – 18 days.  Only females can incubate eggs because only they have a brood patch– a featherless area rich in blood vessels that transfers heat to the eggs.

Young martins remain in the nest for 26 to 35 days and can be fed up to 60 times per day by both parents.  After fledging they continue to return to the nest for the night until they begin their migration back to Brazil in August.  According to RFID and geo data, most purple martins leave Ellis Bird Farm by Aug 20th–so you still have time to plan a trip and catch the action!

Purple Martin (female)

Adult females have purple on their head and back and do not have any purple feathers on their chest, belly, or undertail.

 

Other Birds

The Ellis Bird Farm is not only about purple martins.  There are plenty of other bird species that are so tame you can get a full-frame picture with your camera!

Tree Swallow

 

There are a large number of nesting swallows on the grounds and we couldn’t believe how calm they were. We began slowly creeping up on this tree swallow (trying to be stealthy) until we saw another guest walk right up and snap a pic 3 feet away…  Needless to stay we are not used to this approach, but it was rather liberating from the usual “tip toe through the tulips” strategy we usually employ.  Heck, it is one of the only places we know of where you could almost do “bird macro” photography:)

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Tree Swallow Close-up

 

We were so focused on the purple martins and tree swallows it took a couple of minutes for us to realize a house wren was literally sitting on a bush a couple feet from our heads.  No wonder it sounded so loud!

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House Wren

 

The farm has a large population of cedar waxwings and this one literally landed in front of us.  Sure it wanted berries, but hey, we are opportunistic birders!

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

The Ellis Bird Farm has a long history with mountain bluebirds.  The founders of the farm, Charlie and Winnie Ellis, established bluebird trails along their property back in the 1950s.  By the 1990s, their farm supported the highest density of mountain bluebirds ever recorded at 105 paris! Unfortunately a horrendous snowstorm in 2008 devastated the population, reducing it to a mere 26 pairs, but Myrna Pearman (renowned author and operations manager at Ellis) said they are slowly making a come-back.  This year they had approximately 50 pairs and 2016 seems to be a banner year in most of Alberta.

There are some nature trails that you can walk that go beyond the central hub of activity near the visitor centre.  Some of the 350 nest boxes for mountain bluebirds are setup along these trails and we were fortunate to see a nesting pair.

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Female Bluebird


Activities the Entire Family Can Enjoy

It is not only the abundance of purple martins and other birds that makes the Ellis Bird Farm a “sure thing,” it is a unique venue that combines local history, nature and a wide variety of activates the entire family can enjoy from toddlers to grandma and grumps (yes, even the grumpy ones seem to like it)!

There is a petting zoo that appeals to kids of all ages, baby goats, chicks as well as a very popular dipping pier for hot summer days!  Ellis is special in that it tries to concentrate on “educational experiences for visitors as opposed to mere entertainment.”

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Dipping Pier

 

For those seeking more solitude there there are walking paths, ponds, benches, flowers, butterflies and beautiful gardens developed by Cynthia Pohl.  The gardens are an amazing example of “NatureScape” gardens mentioned in Myrna’s NatureScape Alberta book and are probably one of the only public organic gardens in western Canada.

NatureScape Garden

 

One of our favourite attractions that is sure to be a home-run hit with visitors is the Ellis Café.  This little gem features an open-air patio nestled in a garden amongst birds feeders, flowers and trees. It not only offers a cozy and intimate setting, but delicious food and drink under the master hand of chef Matt Burton–like the iced-chocolate mint green tea latte!  Move over Starbucks because this was so decadent we had two each–in fact, we have considered driving the 2 hours for lunch on more than one occasion (as if we need another excuse–but the food IS that good)!  It’s also fun to watch squirrels scamper about and hummers buzz nearby (they are not shy either and provide plenty of table-side entertainment)!

The Ellis Café uses locally sourced produce and makes everything from scratch!

 

Flower near the cafe

Flower near the cafe

 

The Ellis Bird Farm is a hidden oasis in the prairies and the perfect place to enjoy 2-8 hours of fun in the outdoors! It is a non-profit organization that runs solely on donations with a mandate based on conservation, education and scientific study. For bird lovers, if you have not picked up a copy of Myrna Pearman’s book on Backyard Bird Feeding, check it out–it is an outstanding resource and all the profits go to the Ellis Bird Farm–it’s a sure a thing!

For more information about the Ellis Bird Farm you can visit their website: www.ellisbirdfarm.ca.

A special thanks to Myrna Pearman for all the information she provided for this article.

Thanks for reading!

Marcy & Ray Stader
StaderArt Bird Blog

Posted in Bird Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Migration, Nature Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments