Surprise, Surprise!

Well, I lingered a little too long over tea, toast, and the newspaper this morning (Saturday) to get out at a ‘proper’ time for a bird walk. But never one to miss an opportunity, or needing an excuse for a little birding, off I went into Deer Lake at around 9:00 am with absolutely no inkling it was going to be a banner morning.

The forest was very quiet at first with just a few Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees calling along with Red-breasted Nuthatches and Spotted Towhees. Serves me right, I mused, for getting out late on a day that promised to be hot. The birds are most active early in the morning, and are generally less visible at this time of year anyway. Breeding is over, singing has pretty much stopped, and the birds are generally quiet and skulking as many of them are going through their annual moult.

A few Red Crossbills landed high up in some conifers, announcing their presence with their short, sharp, chup-chup calls. I never did see them, but it’s a nice bird to find in the park. They’re irregular visitors at any time of year, but this summer’s good cone crop on the western hemlocks seems to have attracted a few more than usual to the park.

Heading out into the meadows I noticed another birder looking intently into the bushes and I wandered over to see what he was seeing. Turned out he was birding, but he was also looking for dragonflies. Then the news: “There’s a Barn Owl along the boardwalk trail about 200 meters from the junction.”

“Barn Owl!”

I was thinking that the more common Barred Owl was actually what had been seen. Barred are seen frequently off the boardwalk here. But the observer seemed confident and knowledgeable. I do hope I said “Thanks” before I tore off down the trail, eager to find the bird. We never did exchange names. So Thank You Sir, whoever you are.

Barn Owls are rare birds in the park these days. They used to be common more than twenty years ago when there were still outbuildings on the old Oakalla Prison grounds. But when the barns were destroyed along with the prison, the Barn Owls disappeared with them.

Not surprisingly given their name, Barn Owls mostly roost in barns. When they do choose to sleep away the daylight hours in a tree, they usually tuck themselves in, and mostly out of sight. But as you can see, this bird was virtually right out in the open.

I spent the good part of an hour watching the surprise visitor, and only once did he turn is head completely around when woken up by some noises from the boardwalk. Most of the time he just snoozed away with his back to the oohing and aawing fans who stopped on their walks to enjoy the sight.

I went back Sunday morning, and no owl was present. Perhaps it found a more suitable roost last night.

For a complete list of the birds I saw on August 25, please click here.

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Tapping into our woodpeckers 1

So what about that header picture? In that pose on my garden feeder, the Pileated Woodpecker looks almost prehistoric. Easy to imagine the connections to its ancient, dinosaur predecessors. Found throughout Burnaby, this largest of North American woodpeckers nests in the forested areas of our parks, and frequents our yards, especially if we’ve got trees in them.

And it’s noisy too; often announcing its arrival with a loud wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk. Now , take those ear pods out when you’re walking; you could be missing something.

Compared to the feeder shot above, here’s a more typical view of the bird. This one’s a female. The header picture is a male. 

See the difference between the sexes? The male has a red moustache, the female black. 

Good places to see Pileated Woodpeckers are: Deer Lake Park, Burnaby Lake Regional Nature Park, Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area (aka, Burnaby Mountain Park), Robert Burnaby Park, Stoney Creek School-Park, Montrose Park, and many other city parks where there’s good forest cover and some larger trees.

At this point, I can perhaps guess what some of readers might be thinking. ‘Are these the guys that hammer away at my chimney or metal roof vents in the spring?’ Well maybe, but it’s more often the Pileated’s smaller cousins – Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers. Smaller you say? Just as well. But before you express too much irritation at these early morning rude awakenings, have some sympathy for the poor woodpecker. He just doesn’t have what it takes to sing! Without the specialized structures in his throat that songbirds use to produce those soothing, gentle sounds, he has to turn to drumming to claim his territory. A beautifully resonating metal vent is often preferred over plain old wood. The better the resonator, the louder the drumming, and the more intimidating to would-be interlopers. I’ll write more about this in later posts about woodpeckers.

I’m sure too that some of you may be saying: ‘ I don’t think I’ve ever seen this bird. How could I miss such a large, noisy woodpecker?’ Well, they’re not noisy all the time. In fact they can be remarkably elusive at times, but they often leave clues that they’re around. Take a look below at the 8m high stump of a storm-broken western hemlock photographed in Deer Lake Park along the forested trail up in the south-east corner of the Park .

When Pileated Woodpeckers start working a tree to extract carpenter ants, a very important food for them, they make these unique, large, rectangular holes. You may not see the bird, but the evidence is right there that they’re around. If it’s a freshly worked tree, you’ll see the very large woodchips at the base. Come back later, you may see the bird at work. Approach slowly and quietly. They can be fairly tolerant of being approached; just avoid sudden movements, and use your David Attenborough voice!

Tapping into our woodpeckers will return later with more about our local tree drillers. Wuk, wuk, wuk!

Click here to listen to a series of calls, and drumming sounds from this stunning bird.