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BCFO members are dedicated to "Birding with a Purpose." Keen birders and dedicated ornithologists formed BCFO in 1991 to advance the study enjoyment of wild birds in British Columbia.

Upcoming Guided Walks – May 6, 12, and 26

Spring is sprung the grass is ris
I wonder where the birdies is.

So goes the two-line opening of that well-known short poem by Anon.

So, where are the birds? Well, they’re arriving in numbers in our parks right now.

I’ll be leading three walks in May at this very birdy time of year. Please sign-up and join me as we explore Deer Lake Park, and Burnaby Mountain’s birdlife.

The first walk is on Sunday, May 6 offered as part of the City’s Rhododendron Festival.

The Bird Walk tour will run from 8:30am-10:30am

Meeting place will be west side of the SHADBOLT Centre.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Deer Lake Park

The other two walks are part of a series of walks I offer for the City of Burnaby’s Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas program:

Dawn Chorus at Deer Lake – Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day, Saturday, 12 May 2018 Webreg Bar Code 461987

This tour is for the early risers. It’s true the early birds catch the worms, and in this case it will be the early birders who catch the chorus. In spring, birds sing most vigorously and loudly early in the day to confirm their territorial claims and attract mates. This tour will focus on listening to our feathered dawn choristers and learn who’s who from their songs.

Note: Early Start 6:00 am, (3 km walk). Meet at the parking lot on Sperling Avenue next to the children’s playground at the east end of the lake. Access is via Sperling Avenue off Canada Way.

American Robin, Burnaby Mountain Park

Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, Spring Songbirds – Saturday, 26 May 2018 Webreg Bar Code 461988

On this tour we’re going to take a bit of a hike. A moderate to good level of fitness is required. We usually explore Burnaby Mountain’s south slope, but this spring we’re going to take a look at the steeper north side’s forests. A loop that takes in Pandora Trail, Nature Trail, and Ridgeview Trail is our goal. We won’t miss out on the spectacular scenic views that the mountain offers, but our focus will be on spring bird migration in the forests.

Note: Early Start 8:00 am. (6 km walk approx with uphill and downhill sections). Meet at the parking area at the top of Centennial Way, below Horizons Restaurant.

Brown-headed Cowbird – Burnaby Lake Regional Park

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas General Information

Leader: George Clulow (BC Field Ornithologists) aka the Burnaby Bird Guy

Max participants per trip: 15 people

Participants should dress for the weather, and bring a drink and a snack. Trips go rain or shine.

Trips are approximately three hours, from 9:00 to 12:00, except where noted above.

Trips will focus on the wildlife and natural history of the City’s parks and wild areas, with a particular emphasis on Burnaby’s bird life.

Bring binoculars, and bird guides if you have them. The leader will have a spotting scope for the group’s use.

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Sage Thrasher at Burnaby Lake

Sage Thrasher? No, it’s not some kind of intemperate gardener, nor an indignant dweller of the Okanagan Valley, but is actually a thrush-like bird that showed up at Piper Spit this past Monday and Tuesday. Way off-course on its migration, it was a surprise, very rare visitor.

So rare in fact that the Sage Thrasher is classed as an endangered species in Canada, breeding in only very small numbers in the South Okanagan, south-eastern Alberta and south-western Saskatchewan. Canada is the northern limit of its range and numbers are very low here: five to 12 pairs in the Okanagan, and from one to 12 birds in the area of Alberta and Saskatchewn, where it also breeds.

An endemic bird of the western deserts of North America, our visitor was quite a way off its usual migration route through these arid sagebrush regions. Arriving in Burnaby, where sagebrush is rarer than hen’s teeth, it didn’t look entirely comfortable among the moss draped branches and wet, dripping trees. Probably carried here by unfavourable weather in the continental interior, it likely had been blown off-course.

I was lucky enough to see the bird on Tuesday morning following a tip from a birder friend of mine who had seen the bird in poor light and through rain on Monday evening. Unsure of the bird’s identity, he thought it might have been a Sage Thrasher. He was correct, and a number of birders, including me, were very grateful for the sighting.

The skittish bird was active early in the morning, but proved difficult to find for many on Tuesday. Despite searches by many more birders on Wednesday morning, it could not be found again.

It seems to have figuratively turned its back on us, and headed for locales where the sagebrush it needs is available.

The Sage Thrasher is the smallest of the several North American thrasher species in the Mimidae family. Its rather drab appearance is made up for by its beautiful song. Unfortunately, our recent visitor was silent, and who can blame it? Rainy Burnaby must have proved to be an unsuitable landing place when, what you’re really looking for, is a desert.

 

 

Wild Cat in the City – Another Sighting

Pedalling along Deer Lake Parkway bike path this morning on one of my frequent bike rides around Deer Lake Park, I heard a raucous “murder” of crows causing a real commotion ahead in the trees just off the roadside. Mobbing an owl? I wondered. Maybe another raptor the birds were taking exception to? Maybe an eagle?

Greeted with a loud chorus of caws, I stopped underneath the tree and looked up at the “lump” that was the centre of all that attention. Looking down at me was a bobcat.

People in cars driving by, people walking along the sidewalk all seemed oblivious to the cat and crow action above them.

And there was Bobby (or Bobbi) the object of all that fury.

Even a couple of Common Ravens chimed-in, adding their gruff cronks to the cacophony.

Raven, Crow and Bobcat

And a few minutes later a Red-tailed Hawk also took a fly-by look at all the action. Despite all the fuss, the bobcat was remarkably relaxed.

So relaxed, in fact, that he/she even took a couple of power naps.

What a beautiful animal!

For more information on our local bobcats check out my earlier post on this Wild Cat in the City.

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks & Natural Areas program continues Saturday, January 13 with a walk to Barnet Marine Park

Winter Wildlife on Burrard Inlet at Barnet Marine Park

Burnaby has limited accessible salt water shoreline, but Barnet Marine Park offers the best we have in the City. Views over Burrard Inlet and its junction with Indian Arm can turn up many surprises in winter from wintering waterfowl, through loons and grebes to eagles, and maybe if we’re lucky, a Marbled Murrelet. The spectacular stands of black cottonwood trees here also harbour many of our wintering songbirds and other forest species. An important historical site in Burnaby, we’ll see what winter has to offer when all the summer crowds have departed.

Meet at the upper west parking lot. Turn immediately left off Takeda Drive after entering the park from Barnet Highway. Do not drive down to the lower part of the park where parking is restricted.

To register for this walk go to: www.burnaby.ca/webreg. Use barcode 461531. There is a nominal fee charged by the City for participation. Registration is required.

The walk will start at 9:00 am and finish at noon, and will cover approx 5 kms on level ground.

Barrow’s Goldeneyes

_________________________

A full schedule of the walks I will be leading is given below. I will post notices and registration information for these walks on this website nearer the dates they take place.

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas
2017/2018 Fall/Winter program

Leader: George Clulow (BC Field Ornithologists) aka the Burnaby Bird Guy

Max participants per trip: 15 people

Participants should dress for the weather, and bring a drink and a snack. Trips go rain or shine.

Trips are approximately three hours, from 9:00 to 12:00, except where noted below.

Trips will focus on the wildlife and natural history of the City’s parks and wild areas, with a particular emphasis on Burnaby’s bird life.

Bring binoculars, and bird guides if you have them. The leader will have a spotting scope for the group’s use.

 

Winter Wildlife on Burrard Inlet at Barnet Marine Park – Saturday, 13 January 2018

Burnaby has limited accessible salt water shoreline, but Barnet Marine Park offers the best we have in the City. Views over Burrard Inlet and its junction with Indian Arm can turn up many surprises in winter from wintering waterfowl, through loons and grebes to eagles, and maybe if we’re lucky, a Marbled Murrelet. The spectacular stands of black cottonwood trees here also harbour many of our wintering songbirds and other forest species. An important historical site in Burnaby, we’ll see what winter has to offer when all the summer crowds have departed.
Expect to walk around 5km total. Meet at the upper west parking lot. Turn immediately left off Takeda Drive after entering the park from Barnet Highway. Do not drive down to the lower part of the park where parking is restricted.

Early Spring at Deer Lake Park – Saturday, 24 March 2018

One of the jewels in the crown of Burnaby’s Parks, Deer Lake has a wide variety of habitats that harbour an impressive array of birds and animals. This tour will circle the lake and the west meadows to see the signs of spring. Our Great Blue Herons should be actively nest-building in the heronry, and we’ll observe their antics. In the fields and forests we will look and listen for songbirds. Some early migrants may have arrived, and most of our wintering and resident songbirds will be getting active for spring’s arrival. Waterfowl will still be numerous on the lake.

(5 km walk approx). Meet in the parking lot at the west side of Burnaby Art Gallery (Ceperley House), 6344 Deer Lake Avenue, opposite the RCMP station. This is the old mansion west of the Shadbolt Centre.

Dawn Chorus at Deer Lake – Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day, Saturday, 12 May 2018 Webreg Bar Code 461987

This tour is for the early risers. While it’s true the early birds catch the worms, and in this case it will be the early birders who catch the chorus. In spring, birds sing most vigorously and loudly early in the day to confirm their territorial claims and attract mates. This tour will focus on listening to our feathered dawn choristers and learn who’s who from their songs.

Note: Early Start 6:00 am, (3 km walk). Meet at the parking lot on Sperling Avenue next to the children’s playground at the east end of the lake. Access is via Sperling Avenue off Canada Way.

Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, Spring Songbirds – Saturday, 26 May 2018
Webreg Bar Code 461988

On this tour we’re going to take a bit of a hike. A moderate to good level of fitness is required. We usually explore Burnaby Mountain’s south slope, but this spring were going to take a look at the steeper north side’s forests. A loop that takes in Pandora Trail, Nature Trail, and Ridgeview Trail is our goal. We won’t miss out on the spectacular scenic views that the mountain offers, but our focus will be on spring bird migration in the forests.

Note: Early Start 8:00 am. (6 km walk approx with uphill and downhill sections). Meet at the parking area at the top of Centennial Way, below Horizons Restaurant.

Guided Bird and Nature Walk Fraser Foreshore Park. Sunday, 19 November 2017

You are invited to join me for a morning’s exploration of this very interesting part of Burnaby. We’ll walk the Fraser River shoreline, the surrounding forests, and also the nearby active farmland in Burnaby’s Big Bend – a rare landscape in Burnaby today.

Song Sparrow – Burnaby Fraser Foreshore. A common resident, breeding bird of forests and farmland.

We’ll compare the birdlife of farmland and parkland to see the values that each offer for our wintering birds and migrating birds. Which ones have arrived for the winter season and which ones have likely bred here this past spring and summer, and which ones may be just here on their way south.

Hermit Thrush, Burnaby Fraser Foreshore. A winter visitor to our local lowland forests.

The walk is one of a series I offer for the City of Burnaby’s Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas program.

To register for this walk go to: www.burnaby.ca/webreg. Use barcode 461527. There is a nominal fee charged by the City for participation. Registration is required.

The walk will start at 9:00 am and finish at noon, and will cover approx 4 kms on level ground.

Meet at the parking area for Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Pak at the south foot of Byrne Road. 7751 Fraser Park Drive – @ Byrne Road.

Participants should dress for the weather, and bring a drink and a snack. Trips go rain or shine.

 

A full schedule of the walks I will be leading is given below. I will post notices and registration information for these walks on this website nearer the dates they take place.

 

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas
2017/2018 Fall/Winter program

Leader: George Clulow (BC Field Ornithologists) aka the Burnaby Bird Guy

Max participants per trip: 15 people

Participants should dress for the weather, and bring a drink and a snack. Trips go rain or shine.

Trips are approximately three hours, from 9:00 to 12:00, except where noted below.

Trips will focus on the wildlife and natural history of the City’s parks and wild areas, with a particular emphasis on Burnaby’s bird life.

Bring binoculars, and bird guides if you have them. The leader will have a spotting scope for the group’s use.

Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Park – Sunday, 19 November 2017

This walk will take a somewhat different focus from the previous ones George has led here. Of course, we’ll still explore the Fraser River and its surrounding forests, but we’ll extend our walk just a couple of blocks away from the river into the nearby farmland. The change of habitats will allow us to observe which species of birds and animals use Burnaby’s small amount of remaining, active farmland in the Big Bend area. What value does this rare landscape in Burnaby have for our wildlife, and how does it complement what’s available in the nearby designated park. Which birds have arrived for the winter season, which ones are staying put after breeding here, and which ones are lingering before the colder weather moves them on?
(4km walk approx) Meet at the parking area at the south foot of Byrne Road. 7751 Fraser Park Drive (@ Byrne Road).

Winter Wildlife on Burrard Inlet at Barnet Marine Park – Saturday, 13 January 2018

Burnaby has limited accessible salt water shoreline, but Barnet Marine Park offers the best we have in the City. Views over Burrard Inlet and its junction with Indian Arm can turn up many surprises in winter from wintering waterfowl, through loons and grebes to eagles, and maybe if we’re lucky, a Marbled Murrelet. The spectacular stands of black cottonwood trees here also harbour many of our wintering songbirds and other forest species. An important historical site in Burnaby, we’ll see what winter has to offer when all the summer crowds have departed.
Expect to walk around 5km total. Meet at the upper west parking lot. Turn immediately left off Takeda Drive after entering the park from Barnet Highway. Do not drive down to the lower part of the park where parking is restricted.

Early Spring at Deer Lake Park – Saturday, 24 March 2018

One of the jewels in the crown of Burnaby’s Parks, Deer Lake has a wide variety of habitats that harbour an impressive array of birds and animals. This tour will circle the lake and the west meadows to see the signs of spring. Our Great Blue Herons should be actively nest-building in the heronry, and we’ll observe their antics. In the fields and forests we will look and listen for songbirds. Some early migrants may have arrived, and most of our wintering and resident songbirds will be getting active for spring’s arrival. Waterfowl will still be numerous on the lake.

(5 km walk approx). Meet in the parking lot at the west side of Burnaby Art Gallery (Ceperley House), 6344 Deer Lake Avenue, opposite the RCMP station. This is the old mansion west of the Shadbolt Centre.

Dawn Chorus at Deer Lake – Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day, Saturday, 12 May 2018

This tour is for the early risers. While it’s true the early birds catch the worms, and in this case it will be the early birders who catch the chorus. In spring, birds sing most vigorously and loudly early in the day to confirm their territorial claims and attract mates. This tour will focus on listening to our feathered dawn choristers and learn who’s who from their songs.

Note: Early Start 6:00 am, (3 km walk). Meet at the parking lot on Sperling Avenue next to the children’s playground at the east end of the lake. Access is via Sperling Avenue off Canada Way.

Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, Spring Songbirds – Saturday, 26 May 2018

On this tour we’re going to take a bit of a hike. A moderate to good level of fitness is required. We usually explore Burnaby Mountain’s south slope, but this spring were going to take a look at the steeper north side’s forests. A loop that takes in Pandora Trail, Nature Trail, and Ridgeview Trail is our goal. We won’t miss out on the spectacular scenic views that the mountain offers, but our focus will be on spring bird migration in the forests.

Note: Early Start 8:00 am. (6 km walk approx with uphill and downhill sections). Meet at the parking area at the top of Centennial Way, below Horizons Restaurant.

The lady, the bear, and the elephant

The what? An elephant in Burnaby’s parks – a wild one? Has the circus come to town and there’s been escapees? And how come it’s not in the news? Well, read on to find out. I have an interesting miscellany of sightings made during August and September to report. And they’re all true!

The Lady

Let’s take a look at the lady first. In this case it’s a beautiful one: the painted lady butterfly.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in my yard

Painted ladies are summer migrants to British Columbia from the arid regions of the southwestern US. The first migrants arrive here in spring, lay their eggs and produce a second generation of adults, of which this beautiful specimen is certainly one.

These second generation adults, unlike monarch butterflies, do not return south to the country of their ancestors. Most just hang on here, to finally die when the colder weather arrives. However, some do occasionally hibernate and make it through our winter as adult butterflies, to reappear the following spring. So this one does have some chance at a very long life for a butterfly.

Click on the image for a closer look

Look at the opalescent eye, and at the proboscis coming from the head to suck nectar from the black-eyed Susan.

Even the underwing view of the butterfly presents a treat for the eyes. The mix of pink/orange, the various shades of brown and tans, and the blue-centred eyespots on the hindwing all add to the powerful effect of this little beauty.

The Bear

And now for the bear. There have been sightings in the cul-de-sac where I live, which backs on to Deer Lake Park, but I missed bruin’s visit. A number of the walkers I meet in the park have asked: “Have you seen the bear?” “No”, I reply. It seems I’ve missed bruin in the park too.

Finally, I got talking to regular park walker John Gerbrandt this week. “Seen the bear?” he asked. Quick on the uptake, I replied, “Have you?” “Yup,” he said, “just down around the corner on this trail we’re on now.” Bruin missed again, and right on my regular route around the park too!

“Get a photo?” “Yes,” says John “with my cell phone.” Deer Lake’s bruin finally sighted, albeit second hand via John’s photo. As I said earlier, it’s all true, and here’s the photo to prove it.

Black bear on Deer Lake trail. Photo: John Gerbrandt

I don’t know if the bear is still in the park, but by all accounts it’s not aggressive. Likely in the park to feed on blackberries, which are now coming to the end of their season, it may have moved on looking for food elsewhere. However, if you do have an encounter, the animal shouldn’t be approached; just back off slowly, and take another route, or wait for the animal to move on. Bears may look cuddly, but they are powerful animals and somewhat unpredictable. Utmost caution is called for.

In one of those surprising coincidences that happen sometimes, I hadn’t quite finished writing this post when I had a live bear encounter of my very own today (Sept 16) at Burnaby Lake.

On the sports fields at the west end of the park, with all the excitement of the weekend’s sports activities going on busily and loudly, this bear was spotted sauntering along the east side of the field along the trail that parallels Still Creek before it empties into the lake. It too did not appear aggressive, nor afraid of the athletes at play nearby.

Black bear, Burnaby Lake Regional Park

The Elephant

And now for what I expect many readers have been waiting for – the elephant. Well, actually this elephant is a lot smaller than the pachyderm variety; it’s the enormous caterpillar of the elephant hawk-moth. At about 7.5 centimetres (3 inches) in length and about 1 cm in diameter, this guy is truly elephantine for a caterpillar. The moth’s name, however, is not due to its size, but due another feature of the caterpillar.

The front or head end of the caterpillar has a trunk-like snout that to some looks like an elephant trunk. You can see it partially protruding in the photograph below. It’s the extendable part that includes the head, beyond the four false eye spots.

Besides the partially protruding “trunk”, note the horn on the tail.

 

Here, the “trunk” is withdrawn into the head-end segment of the caterpillar’s body to make it look snake-like.

And what about those striking false eyes? With the trunk withdrawn, as shown above, the animal resembles a snake with a large head and four large eyes. A caterpillar this size would be a prized food item for a bird or other predator. However, these potential predators are frightened away by the caterpillar looking like a snake displaying those dramatic eyes.

As I write, the caterpillar has now almost certainly burrowed into the soil to pupate below the fuchsia on which it was feeding. It will spend the winter as a pupa, and with luck next July the spectacular adult hawk-moth will emerge to be appreciated for its beauty.

Elephant hawk-moth adult. Photo: jean pierre Hamon. Licensed under creative commons

This beautiful animal is, however, not native to North America but to Europe and parts of Asia. Not considered a pest, it was apparently introduced into British Columbia in the 1990’s, and seems to be well established in and around Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Lucky us.

 

 

 

Purple Martins – First Confirmed Nesting in Burnaby

Back in September 2012 I wrote a blog post here on the pre-migration gathering of Purple Martins at Deer Lake Park.

In Martins Departin’? the birds involved in the “… noisy, energetic, and exuberant convocation in the tree tops along the boardwalk”  were almost certainly from the colonies at Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver, and at Rock Point, Port Moody. There were no breeding locations in Burnaby at that time.

Adult female and immature Purple Martins, August, 2012.

But now, almost five years later, I’m delighted to report that Purple Martins are actually breeding here in Burnaby, down at Burnaby Lake on the pilings at the west end of the rowing course. Not only is this a first modern-day record for the City (they likely did breed here historically), but there’s a special bonus involved here too.

The spectacular, province-wide recovery of Purple Martins, described in the earlier post, has been almost entirely due to the use of nestboxes erected by many dedicated volunteers here on the Mainland, and on Vancouver Island. Nearly all these locations have been over salt water, usually on wooden docks and pilings.

For some years now there has been great anticipation that, with the expanding population, martins will nest again over freshwater locations, which they historically did. Bingo! Burnaby Lake is freshwater, and the nesting here is one of only four very recent locations where nesting around freshwater has been confirmed – the others being in the mid-Fraser Valley.

How do we know they are nesting at Burnaby Lake? Well, head down to the Rowing Pavilion and take a look for yourself. With a little patience, every 10 to 15 minutes you’ll see the martins entering the upper-right nestbox on the fourth piling from the left. If all the numbers on the box were were readable, it would be 06 – 24. See the picture below.

Adult male Purple Martin exiting the occupied nestbox

A brief aside: this post is notable for its poor pictures. Unfortunately, the birds are distant, fast moving, and adding an additional murky quality today, was the smoke-filled air. Earlier pictures like the above are a little brighter. Today’s are, well, foggier.

Take your binoculars, and you’ll notice the returning adults are carrying food (mainly dragonflies and other large flying insects) into the nest. Try clicking once on the picture below for a larger view. Look carefully at the bird’s bill to see it’s stuffed with insects.

Male Purple Martin about to enter nestbox with food

Carrying food into the nest is one thing, but are there actually young birds inside? We can’t see them after all. However, a higher level of certainty is provided by the picture below. Here you can see the female departing the nest which a large white blob in her bill which she will very quickly drop into the lake. Like many birds, young Purple Martins’ poop is contained in a white mucous membrane “bag” which enables parents to keep the nest clean.

Female Purple Martin carrying fecal sac from nestbox confirming “someone” pooped inside.

Parents carrying out the fecal sacs suggests the youngsters are older than 8 days. After about 13 to 14 days, the young will defecate at the entrance to the nestbox from where parents carry off the fecal sac. I saw no evidence of fecal sacs at the nestbox entrance during my two visits. I estimate from these observations that the young are between about 10 and 14 days old.

Natural Hazards

After about 28 days the young should be ready to fledge i.e. take their first flight – always a risky time for all young birds as they learn the skills of flying and maneuvering, catching prey and avoiding predators.

An added hazard for these young martins is that there is at least one, and probably a pair of Merlins in the area, probably nesting too. I have seen one on both my visits. The parent martins are very vigilant however. Along with the Barn Swallows, which are quite numerous here, they instantly go into attack mode, calling loudly, and vigorously diving and swooping at the Merlin to drive it out of the area. The male seems to be more aggressive than the female in these interactions.

Distant shot of Merlin. The bird was aggressively chased from this perch by the adult male Purple Martin soon after this photo was taken.

However, Merlins, small falcons, are for their size, powerful bird predators. Often making their captures in mid-air after a high speed chase, they could be a significant threat to an inexperienced young martin taking one of its first flights.

A Long History Finally Rewarded

Joe Sadowski, a founding member of the Burnaby Lake Park Association, trail builder, and nestbox constructor extraordinaire, has been waiting 20 years, he tells me, for the Purple Martins to nest in the nestboxes he was instrumental in putting up at the lake. Along with the Park Association, Roy Teo, and Kiyoshi Takahashi have been monitoring these nest boxes and other Purple Martin nesting colonies for many years.

It’s a credit to all their hard work that we finally have these largest North American Swallows nesting in our midst. Rewarded indeed.

 

Kestrels Breeding in Burnaby

This past Sunday (July 16), following my own advice to “… get out there and take a look”, I was cycling east along North Fraser Way in Burnaby’s Big Bend area when an interesting bird silhouette caught my eye.

Kestrel silhouetted on a dead snag in the Big Bend area

Grabbing my bins from the bike pannier to get a better look, I was soon able to resolve the dark shape into that of a Kestrel. A “good” bird anywhere in the Lower Mainland, and a real and unexpected treat to see in Burnaby.

Grabbing my camera, I started a slow walk along Abbotsford Street toward the perched bird hoping for some good pictures, or at least a record shot of this Burnaby rarity, when I noticed a second Kestrel, this one sitting low down but half hidden in a thicket next to the tree in which the the first bird was perched. Two Kestrels! Wow!

Juvenile American Kestrel

Juvenile Kestrels are difficult to visually tell apart from their adult parents; however, this guy (yes, it’s a male), was making the occasional begging call, and when the adult male swooped down into the grassy road edge to catch some prey, and then flew up with it, junior was in hot pursuit for a meal.

So this was a recently fledged bird, which virtually guarantees it was hatched right here in the Big Bend area. In the 1 to 2 weeks immediately post-fledging, the young birds solicit food from their parents. After this period they cease begging as they become adept at capturing prey independently. So this young guy left the nest and took his first flights within the previous 2 weeks, and as a young, relatively weak flyer would not have travelled into the area from outside. It was Burnaby born and raised. Yay!

The Kestrel diet is primarily insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles, and dragonflies, and small rodents, especially voles and mice. All of the these prey items would be available in the area. The farming here is predominantly mixed vegetables, with some large areas of cranberry bogs to the north. The field edges are nicely unkempt, scruffy, and weedy providing lots of just the kinds of foods Kestrels need. Farming and wildlife can happily co-exist if the farming isn’t too industrialized and intensive.

Fields of vegetables with good Kestrel foraging habitat along its weedy edges in Burnaby’s Big Bend.

 

Fallow field of rough grass meadow full of insects, and small rodents – Kestrel food

I don’t know how much pesticide use there is on these farms, but the insect life was abundant when I visited. Perhaps this is a sign it is minimal, which is not only good for our health, but also that of the insect-eating Kestrels and other birds. Along the Byrne Road side of the area, the organic farm that was Urban Digs is now getting going again under new stewardship and name – Seed of Life Farm. No pesticide use there for sure. Another positive for the Kestrels.

So where would the nest itself likely have been? Kestrels are cavity nesters, using woodpecker-excavated and natural cavities in larger trees which are surrounded by large open areas for hunting food. We’ve got the open patches in Big Bend, but not so much the larger trees in the immediate area where I saw the birds.  However, there are many large black cottonwoods surrounding the fields, and Kestrels are known to use buildings too for nesting. A number of the old farm buildings in the area looked quite suitable to me.

Vegetable fields surrounded by the old farm buildings which may have provided a suitable Kestrel nest site

Both male and female Kestrels feed the young except for a short period after first hatching when the male provisions the female and the chicks on the nest. After 7-10 days both parents feed the young and this continues through the post-hatching period.

Breaking News (July18)

Went down to Big Bend again this morning to check up on the progress of the Kestrels. Despite the fact that somehow I had put a mostly un-charged battery in my camera and as a result missed all sorts of photo opportunities, it was a wonderful morning. The news is getting better.

There were at least 4 kestrels there this morning. Two adults, a male and female, and two juveniles, a male and female. Likely this represents the whole family, but given the birds were very active hunting and begging, I could have missed more family members. The young are still being fed by the parents, but are taking up perches and stances showing they are making the transition to feeding on their own. No more perching low down and tucked in like the juvenile I first observed Sunday.

The accepted common name for this species is American Kestrel. These ones, of course, are “Canadian” born and raised. In fact, I think we can safely claim this family group as “Burnaby” Kestrels.

Adult male “Burnaby” American Kestrel

If you head down to N Fraser Way and Abbotsford St. to see the happenings for yourself, please respect the farmland and private property, and stay on the roads. This area is not a public park.

 

 

Sphinx surprise

A lazy, summer Sunday afternoon – the garden is a familiar scene; flowers waving in the breeze, insects buzzing in the air, and birds singing from the forest behind. And then, in an instant, the scene changes. Something different was hovering and flying around the bright pink campion flowers growing in the back border. A small hummingbird, perhaps a rare visitor, it was definitely not one of our regular Rufous or Anna’s types. My birder brain went rapidly into full attention mode. What was this?

Hovering at each flower before rapidly moving on to the next, the new visitor was actually a sphinx moth or hawkmoth taking nectar from the blossoms. Not the rare hummingbird I first imagined, but nonetheless an animal that I haven’t seen for many years in the area. And just maybe as exciting. Also called a hummingbird moth because, as I just demonstrated, the species is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird.

Grabbing the camera, I headed out into the yard to see if I could get a picture. This was one fast-moving insect, and a real challenge to photograph as the picture below attests. The wing beats are so fast, I never did capture an unblurred picture of them.

Bedstraw or Gallium sphinx moth

However, it was captivating to watch the moth flying around the bright pink campions. Perhaps the pictures do indeed capture the action.

With its wings a constant blur, the moth presented the next challenge. Did I see and photograph enough detail of the moth to make a correct indentification? Now, as you know, I’m a birder so I had to do a little research on-line for this one. I knew enough to recognize it as a sphinx moth, but as to exactly which species. Well!

My first impressions led me to decide is was likely a white-lined sphinx moth. This is the common and widespread species in our area; the default sphinx moth so to speak. However, digging a little deeper, I found that there is another, less common, but very similar species, the bedstraw or gallium sphinx moth. Careful study of many on-line pictures and reading various descriptions led me to decide that our visitor was indeed the bedstraw species.

Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths hover at flowers to suck up and drink the nectar that they need for energy – a good example of the convergent evolution of two unrelated species. The hummingbird uses its extendable tongue, the sphinx moth uses its extendable proboscis to draw the nectar into its mouth. Here’s a close up of the sphinx moth’s specialized mouthpiece at work.

Bedstraw sphinx moth, nectaring

To see what’s going on here, click once on the photo above to enlarge it. The proboscis is the dark coloured, thin tube that extends a short distance horizontally from the head of the moth, and then makes a 90 degree downturn before entering the centre of the flower. When not in use, the long proboscis is carried coiled-up at the front of the head.

But why “bedstraw”? Adult sphinx moths feed exclusively on nectar of many flowers, but it’s the food plant of the caterpillar which gives the species its name. Both bedstraw and fireweed, another favourite larval-stage food plant, are common plants in Deer Lake Park, which is right behind my house, and I’m sure this is the place where this adult spent its early life as a caterpillar.

Bedstraw (Galium sp), Deer Lake Park

And here’s the other favourite food plant of the caterpillar.

Fireweed, Deer Lake Park

The visitor didn’t stay long. It flew along the forest edge, seemingly looking for more flowers for nectar, and then disappeared into the park.

July is the peak of the adults’ flight season, so keep your eyes open for this beautiful moth in our parks. Like most moths, the sphinx moth does fly at night, but this species also flies in the afternoons, and we then have the chance to see this hovering beauty.

2015 Christmas Bird Count – a record count again.

There’s always some excited anticipation ahead of a day’s birding, and for the Vancouver Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Area G in Burnaby, it comes in two types: what birds will we find, and what will the weather be like? The latter, I guess, is more trepidation than anticipation. We’ve had some brutal days of rain and snow over the years on this count. It can make counting birds an endurance test rather than a pleasant day birding.

The weather forecast in the week preceding the count was consistently bad: Sunday, December 20, would see a front sweep in from the Pacific and give us a good soaking all day long. Yuck! A regular day’s birding can be postponed, but not a CBC. It’s the designated day and out we go, storm or sun.

And out we went, and wouldn’t you know it, the sun shone! The Jet Stream had slipped direction overnight, the storm roared though while we slept, and the morning dawned to scattered clouds, blue sky, and sun. Augury for a good day, perhaps.

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Sunrise mouth of Eagle Creek, Burnaby Lake

Note: you may view larger images of all pictures with single click on each.

Not only do the forests and fields look better and brighter in the sun, the birds are much more active, show themselves more readily, and are more vocal. Identifying birds by their calls is particularly important on a Christmas Bird Count. Because there’s not time to get a visual on each one, calls count: One towhee, another Song Sparrow, a Pacific Wren… and on we go, listening and tallying as we walk.

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Spotted Towhee in the sunshine

With teams at Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake, we were set for a good count. Good weather and skilled counters make a difference. Not only was the weather change a surprise, but the Burnaby Lake group was in for another just as we started counting. Stepping up to the bank of Eagle Creek to begin tallying the ducks, a bobcat burst out from under the creekside salmonberry canes, almost right under our feet, and bound across the base of the spit giving everyone a close, but fairly fleeting look in the daybreak gloom – too fast for any of us to capture a picture. Was it sleeping there, or waiting for duck breakfast? Possibly both.

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

I know; it’s a Christmas Bird Count. So what’s with the mammals? Well, a day’s birding is always enlivened by other wildlife seen, and the bobcat wasn’t our only bonus wildlife sighting. As we birded Phillips Point on the north side of the lake, we watched a family of river otters fishing just a short distance off-shore.

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake parks are in area ‘G’ of the Vancouver CBC. Although area ‘G’ covers a lot of territory, we focus most of our counting efforts on the two parks, but also spend time along other sections of the Still Creek corridor. At the end of the day, we count the crow roost along Still Creek. This year we tallied 7000 Northwestern Crows, but it was a difficult count this year because the crows entered from multiple directions. Our count involved a lot of estimation, and therefore was conservative.

So how did we do? As the headline suggests, we set a new species record for the count. Seventy-two species, beating last year’s total of 69. We also had high counts of a large number of species for the count. We recorded three new species since I started keeping detailed records for the count in 2001: Redhead, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Pine Grosbeak.

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West end of Deer Lake where the Redhead was first found

Redhead, a species of diving duck, is a rare bird for Deer Lake at any time of year. Seeing one on the CBC makes it an added bonus. If you’d like to see it for yourself, the bird seems to have taken up residence on the lake. I went down today to get a few photos and it was easily observed from the boardwalk along the north shore of the lake toward the west end.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Redhead with Ring-necked Duck behind, Gadwall female in front

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a dapper little sparrow that overwinters in the Lower Mainland in small numbers. This bird is not new to the count. We’ve recorded them in the 1990’s, but it makes the highlight list because it’s not been recorded since 2001.

Based on my detailed records and memory, Pine Grosbeaks have not been recorded previously in area ‘G’ , but have been seen for the past two years on Burnaby Mountain. In fact, there are around 20 birds up there now near Horizon’s Restaurant, and easily observed. We saw five of them near Sperling and Glencarin feeding on Pacific crabapples, a favourite food for many wintering birds such as finches.

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Pine Grosbeak photographed on Burnaby Mountain last year

Among the many high counts we recorded, I would highlight American Coots (207), which may have finally re-established their large wintering flock on Burnaby Lake following the completion of the lake dredging in 2011 that seemed to disturb their traditional wintering location.

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake

Part of the large American Coot flock at Burnaby Lake

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake #2

Closer view of American Coots with two Gadwall at Burnaby Lake.

Perhaps benefiting from the deeper water produced by the dredging, there now seems to be a good sized winter flock of Common Mergansers (66) on the lake.

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Common Mergansers actively fishing on Burnaby Lake

A bird that continues a long-term upward trend is the Cackling Goose (261), a smaller relative of the Canada Goose that at one time was considered just smaller type of Canada Goose, but is now recognised as a species in its own right.

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Cackling Geese photographed at Deer Lake in November

The high counts of gulls, Glaucous-winged (181) and Ring-billed (76), I think are related to the transfer station on Still Creek Avenue where our curbside collected food waste is handled. Most of these birds were counted on the beach at the east end of Deer Lake. Watch the gulls over the course of the day, and you will see a continual stream heading to and from the lake where they fly in to rest up, bathe and preen. They then head out again to the north west, in the direction of the transfer station where there is always a substantial gull flock. The gulls don’t feed on the lake; they feed at the transfer station.

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Winter plumaged adult Ring-billed Gull

Another high count was Green-winged Teal (340), which find the muddy mouths of Still and Eagle creeks where they flow into Burnaby Lake, particularly good habitat.

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Green-winged Teal preening

Here’s a link to see the full count from the day. Green indicates new to the count this year, high counts are in red.

So why did we break the record two years in succession? A combination of factors led to this fantastic result. We had good weather both years; we had a group of skilled counters in the field, and there were birds somewhat out of their usual ranges – further south or north, or up in the mountains. Good food supplies locally and poorer ones further north and in the mountains (heavy snowfalls), contributed to birds moving here, and staying.

Examples of somewhat out of range birds are Cedar Waxwings, usually found further south but finding a good Pacific crab apple crop locally. Common Redpolls from the north may not have the normal cone crops on which they depend, and Pine Grosbeaks may have been driven down from higher elevations for the easier pickings at lower elevations.

Birds like the Redhead are just serendipitous outliers from the Interior where they are quite common in winter. Such is the fun of Christmas Bird Counts.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Adult male Redhead, Deer Lake