Phabulous Pheasants

In my previous post, about Burnaby Mountain, (click here) I showcased one of our spectacular resident birds, the Sooty Grouse. And not to be outdone by that strutting beauty, we have another resident chicken-relative in our parks, that many would consider even more spectacular, the Ring-necked Pheasant. He’s a very showy guy, as you can see.

Pheasant#1

Ring-necked Pheasants are named for the white collar circling their necks.
Click to enlarge.

And I say “guy”, because like all members of this family of birds, it’s the males that are the showy ones. The females incubate the eggs, and being ground nesters, they need to stay hidden and well camouflaged. In fact, they are so well hidden at this time of year that I haven’t been able to even see one, let alone get a photograph.

Just take a close-up look at this guy. He’s probably got a greater variety of colours than any other bird in our area. What’s your count? And look at the length of that tail, not only to appreciate its striking length, but because on this tail hangs a tale – keep reading.

Pheasant#3

Multicoloured describes it, but really doesn’t capture the detail and intricacy of the
Ring-necked Pheasant’s spectacular plumage. Click to enlarge.

If you take a walk along the upper trail, immediately below the Oaklands development at the west end of Deer Lake Park, you’re almost certain to hear the loud, hoarse, crowing of a cock pheasant. Variously described as koork-kok, or kok kok, just like a farmyard rooster, he’s proclaiming his territory.  On Thursday I counted three males here claiming their turf, often replying to each other in turn. If you’re close enough to one crowing, you’ll also hear a wing-drum, or wing-whirr immediately following the the loud vocal call. This second sound is produced by rapidly flapped wings as the bird rears up to its full height.

The one photographed here can be approached with some care. But if you do see him, don’t walk straight at him. You may be able to get a little closer by taking a very slow, angular path to bring you closer to the bird. Watch his behaviour closely and if he crouches down and starts to retreat, you’ve come too close. Whatever you do, admire him from a respectful distance. Better yet, take your binoculars to bring him into close view.

Of course, all this show, the crowing and the wing flapping is all about reproduction – you know, the Birds and the Bees stuff. Also at this time of year, the facial wattles are crimson and enlarged, as can be seen above. A sign of a vigorous, in-condition male.

In each cock’s territory will be a harem of females that he guards from the intrusion of other males. In technical lingo this is called female- or harem-defense polygyny. No judgements here please; it’s just the way things are in pheasant land. Females under the protection of the male get to focus on egg-laying and incubation and don’t have to expend energy and suffer disturbance from unwanted attempts at copulation by non-territorial, usually young males. Display and crowing will decline as the females finish laying their clutches of typically around ten eggs, but sometimes up to fifteen or more. Pheasant harems tend to be modest in size, frequently around two females per male, but have been recorded with up to fifteen females per male. Whew!

Pheasant#4

Erect feather “horns”, and bright wattles are all marks of the territorial cock pheasant.
Click to enlarge.

A native of Asia, Ring-necked Pheasants have been introduced around the world, mainly for hunting. The birds at Deer Lake probably descend from birds originally introduced for hunting when Burnaby was much more rural. However, I suspect there may have also been “supplemental” releases over the years by nostalgic hunters who still like to see the birds around.

The ones in our parks are of course protected from being shot . However, you’d think that such a brightly coloured bird, that spends nearly all its time on the ground, would be easy prey for a number of predators. Indeed the pheasant’s life can be a risky one. With all the coyotes, racoons, skunks, and hawks in the park, both adults and in particular the chicks, are very susceptible to predation, as are the eggs that the females are now incubating. The fact that these birds persist in the park is always quite remarkable to me, given the number of things that could make a meal of them. Of course, they provide another very good reason for keeping dogs leashed at all times.

So here’s the tale of the tail. When I photographed this male a couple of weeks back, he was beautifully long-tailed, a plumage characteristic common to all pheasants.

Pheasant#2

Pheasant with a phull tail

But when I photographed him yesterday something was missing. The same bird is now tailless.

PheasantSans

Now tailless, the long plumes gone, the cock pheasant continues to crow and display.

Territorial males rarely fight among themselves, and such a battle would be unlikely to cause this kind of damage. So it seems our friend here had a near fatal encounter and a successful escape. Perhaps a long tail is helpful for more than show. A predator may grab it as the bird tries to escape, and end up with a mouthful of feathers instead of meat. Coyote, or off-leash dog? We’ll never know, but I suspect an encounter with one of the two.

Even though he’s not at quite his former glory, and is just a bit tattered, he hasn’t been displaced from his territory; he persists in guarding his females, and lives to crow another day. Phabulous!

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Burnaby Mountain Morning

Rain overnight and clearing conditions this morning promised some excellent spring birding on the Mountain today. With a good chance that large numbers and many species of birds had “fallen-out” on their overnight migrations, it was time to head up the hill and do some birding around Centennial Park and the surrounding forests.

The Western Tanager is a spectacular, and quite commone neo-tropical migrant. Despite its bright colours it can be virtually invisible in a leafy, green tree. Many people are surprised that it's quite common here and breeds widely in Burnaby parks.

The Western Tanager is a spectacular neo-tropical migrant. Despite its bright colours, it can be virtually invisible in a leafy, green tree. Many people are surprised to learn that it’s fairly common here, and breeds widely in Burnaby parks.

Locations like Burnaby Mountain are magnets for these weather-affected migrating birds. Known appropriately as migrant traps, these special places are at their most exciting during spring and fall migrations. Other well-known migrant traps in Metro Vancouver are Queen Elizabeth Park and the tip of Point Grey, Vancouver.

Where there’s a geographical barrier, such as a body of water, or where a height of land pokes up through a city landscape, birds find refuge, and the chance to feed up and rest, before continuing their long distance flights. Burnaby Mountain is on the edge of Burrard Inlet, lies just before the North Shore Mountains, and rises above the city. All good features for attracting migrating birds.

YRWAAud

Yellow-rumped Warblers are our most common migrant warbler. Like this one, they frequent tree tops, foraging for insects and insect larvae, which makes them a little tough to photograph.

With a many colourful birds like the two above to grab my attention, I was soon enjoying spring migration in full swing. Not only were there warblers and tanagers, but flycatchers  were also announcing their arrival with a variety of songs. A loud, Quick Three Beer whistled from the top of a conifer confirmed the presence of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, surely one of the easiest songs to remember, even if you’re a wine drinker. Click here for a sample song.

Our more familiar birds, like the American Robin, are very common on the Mountain, and at this time of year are in full voice. When you are standing in one place, songs can be heard coming from all directions. Some birds are migrants, while others already have their first nests in the forests, and forest edges. Even our common birds are worth a second look.

AMROBbyMtn

American Robin – a very common bird on Burnaby Mountain

And while on the topic of resident birds, we have a very special one on Burnaby Mountain. In Metro Vancouver, on this side of Burrard Inlet and away from the North Shore Mountains, Burnaby Mountain is the only place I know where the Sooty Grouse can be found. They breed here, and if you’re lucky enough, and make a careful search, you may be fortunate enough to see of one of the most sought-after bird sightings of the Western Mountains.

Today I was lucky enough to see three, and even luckier to get extremely close to a couple of females. All I did was squat down, stay still, and with my camera ready, let them walk right past me.

SOGRFem#4

Female Sooty Grouse. Speckled grey-brown, the female is very cryptically coloured and blends in very well in the forest where she nests. Not so well camouflaged, however, when she comes out of the forest into a grassy area to feed.
Click image to enlarge.

One approached so near, I was able to get this close-up.

SOGRFemHead

Female Sooty Grouse.
Click image to enlarge

Birders affectionately call all members of the grouse family “chickens”. The picture above shows the family resemblance, and they are indeed in the same bird family, Phasianidae.

Like many species of grouse, the females, which incubate the eggs, are cryptically coloured. The males, on the other hand, have spectacular displays and showy plumage that they use to great effect in the breeding season to attract the females.

This morning, a single male was hooting and displaying in a Douglas Fir along the trail. Silhouetted against the sky, it was difficult to photograph. However, last spring I was lucky enough to have a close encounter with displaying male, which came down to ground level because he was so absorbed in his attempts to attract a mate.

SOGRMaleDisp

Displaying male Sooty Grouse. Note the inflated air sacs on the neck, which are involved in sound production, and the raised “eyebrows”.
Click image to enlarge

Here’s a close-up of the head of a male – quite impressive! As he makes his sonorous hooting, he flexes his erect tail in synchrony. Click here to listen.

SOGRMaleHead

Displaying male Sooty Grouse.
Click image to enlarge

So whether it’s migrant or resident birds, Burnaby Mountain has lots to offer the interested observer at this time of year.

And the views are spectacular too.

IndArm

Looking up Indian Arm from Burnaby Mountain.

Rhodo Fest Birdwalk

An enthusiastic group of Burnaby birders joined the early morning, kick-off event of this year’s 25th Annual Burnaby Rhododendron Festival, held today at Deer Lake Park. It’s the early birders who see the birds, so we do our tour before the crowds appear and the park gets too busy. The strategy certainly paid off today, and we had a good, birdy couple of hours.

RhodoFest

Rhodo Fest birders ready to head out from the Shadbolt Centre, Deer Lake
Click on images to enlarge

Under a blue sky and sunshine we first headed via the Century Garden to take a look at our booming Great Blue Heron colony visible from Deer Lake Avenue (see previous post). Nest building was continuing, but some birds were sitting tight, likely incubating eggs.

One of the most common birds we heard singing on our walk this morning was the Spotted Towhee. However, we didn’t manage to get great looks, so here’s a picture I took previously of this dapper park resident.

SPTO DeerL

Spotted Towhee singing

Walking down to the lake we found only a few ducks, but this was more than made up for by the group spotting a bird we rarely see on the lake – a Common Loon. Not fishing , but  seemingly just loafing, our loon visitor was likely using the lake for a brief stopover on its migration to points further north.

Other lakeshore/wetland residents we heard included the Common Yellowthroat (witchety, witchety), and the noisy, but skulking Marsh Wren.

MAWR2

Marsh Wren – one of three species of wren in the park

Continuing our journey along the boardwalk at the west end of the lake, we were treated to great looks at one of our nesting Northern Harriers flying over the meadow, and allowing the group great looks at this distinctive, wetland-loving raptor – no pictures, unfortunately.

Great Blue Herons, Common Loon, and Northern Harrier were for me the highlights of the morning. A good walk that began and ended with the songs of robins.

AMRO

American Robin – Burnaby Mountain

In all we recorded thirty-three species, but many were only heard, or briefly seen. For a full list of birds recorded, click here.