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.

SunriseMouthEagleCrk

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.

SPTOsun

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.

DeerLWestend

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.

PIGRmale1

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.

COMEfishing

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.

TwoCacklers

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.

RBGU

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.

Green-winged

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sad End for First Breeding Record of Sandhill Cranes in Burnaby

As I was about to publish the post below, I heard that the good news story that had been unfolding all last week at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake had come to a sad end. The Sandhill Crane chick (colt) pictured below is no longer with its parents, and has likely died from some unknown cause.

To document the cranes’ story I have decided to let the original post stand, with some slight modifications, because it’s such a good story, and worth telling. While many will consider the outcome a local tragedy, it does illustrate how precarious life can be in the wild, especially for young animals. Survival rates are often low.

Let’s hope the cranes nest again next year. There’s a good chance they will, and we can all hope for a better outcome.

Original post written July 5/6, 2015

The risk with a post like this is that the story gets buried in the overabundance of cute at its centre.

SACRChickAdult27th

Sandhill Crane chick and adult (June 27)

Now I’m not denying (how could I?) the cute factor here , but the story is the historical first that this new arrival represents, and the cute needs no elaboration from me. Just look at the pictures.

And while the chick may be the epitome of cute, let’s not overlook that we’ve got one of the Lower Mainland’s most majestic and uncommon birds breeding right here at Burnaby Lake for the first time since we’ve been keeping records. And they’re putting on a show for everyone.

How do I know these birds have set a breeding record here? A quick search of the literature shows that this new arrival is the first record ever record of breeding Sandhill Cranes at Burnaby Lake, and anywhere else in Burnaby for that matter.

SACRChick&Parents

Sandhill Crane chick and parents (June 26)

The chick pictured above, the first day I saw it, is just a few days old, and was being fed and guarded by both parents. Watching it, I was surprised to see it was picking at and eating some food items independently, which is notable for such a young bird. Usually the parents supply all its food requirements at this early age. After their natal down has dried, and within 24 hours of hatching, Sandhill Crane chicks leave the nest permanently. Such behaviour defines these hatchlings as nidifugous (Sorry, couldn’t resist such an unlikely word), and then they’re off on the risky journey to adulthood.

Sandhill Cranes are rare breeders in only a few locations in the Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley. The wetlands south of Pitt Lake in Maple Ridge were their breeding centre for many years, with just a few pairs actually nesting there. A few more bred in Langley. We do see large flocks of Sandhill Cranes in the Lower Mainland, but only in migration – spring heading north and fall flying south. For the most part these birds continue on their migrations and we are fortunate to see them when they pass over.

However, over the past decade or so, a small breeding population has established itself at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta. Birds, likely from that population, have been turning up in Richmond, where they started to breed about five years ago (first time since 1946), and they’ve also been showing up on our local golf courses, where they haven’t nested, perhaps from dodging flying golf balls!

Sandhill Cranes at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta

Sandhill Cranes at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta

In British Columbia, Sandhill Cranes breed mostly in the Central Interior (Northern Okanagan and the Cariboo/Chilcotin, with some breeding in the north east (Fort Nelson area), and others on the central coast islands and Haida Gwai. Breeding in the Lower Mainland is much less common.

Sandhill Crane chicks grow rapidly, and “our” Burnaby bird seems to be doing just that. Compare the picture taken June 26 with the one here below taken July 5th. Junior is gaining height and bulk, and both parents are supplying it with food.

Chick and parents, July 5

Chick and parents (July 5)

Unlike many birds that spend their first weeks in the nest, nidifugous birds are incredibly mobile for such young animals.

It can wade, even on its junior-sized legs.

 

SACRSwim

It can swim.

SACR BbyLRun

It can run.

SACR BbyLChick

It can preen.

Or, it can simply look disarmingly cute.

IMG_6735

Sandhill Cranes have been showing up irregularly at Burnaby Lake for the past few years. This year they clearly stayed to breed.

Between one and three eggs is the usual clutch size, with two being typical. One or two young are usual. Both parents incubate the eggs, although the female does the overnight shift which means she does about 70% of the incubation duties. Once the chicks leave the nest, both parents protect and feed the young.

SACR BbyLFed#5

Sandhill Cranes are monogamous and tend to maintain pair bonds over many seasons, especially if they successfully breed together. So barring accidents, this pair may be together for the long haul.

As to which is the male and which the female, the birds know of course, but the sexes are similar and not separable by appearance. During their courtship displays though, the males and females can be identified by their specific bugling calls and head motions.

Postscript

I headed down to the lake this afternoon (July 6) to confirm the reports of the chick’s disappearance. Sure enough the two parents were there, occasionally bugling quietly, but no chick was in sight. Given the birds’ extreme attentiveness to their young, the conclusion has to be that the youngster is dead.

It was apparently showing some respiratory distress yesterday which got progressively worse during the day. The chick was nowhere to be seen this morning. A sad ending, but there is hope for next year.

Pair

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas

Announcement

I’ll  be leading a walk for the City of Burnaby on Saturday, November 22 – rain or shine. The walk is billed as: Exploring the Still Creek Corridor & Central Valley Greenway.

We’ll spend about three hours walking the trails bordering Still Creek from where it flows into Burnaby Lake. Registration is required, and is limited to 15 participants. I’ll focus on the birds, of course, but we’ll keep our eyes out for all aspects of the natural world.

NOFL–display

The Northern Flicker is the most likely woodpecker species to be encountered on the walk. Here are two displaying adults from earlier this fall.

To register, go to the City’s website WebReg page and enter event number 350173 into the search box. The walk is not in the Parks and Leisure Guide as it was organized after press time for that publication.

There will be lots to see, and with the wet weather lately we may be lucky enough to find some interesting fungus like this bird’s nest fungus (how appropriate!) I photographed a couple of days back in Deer Lake Park.

Bird's Nest Fungus 2

Bird’s Nest Fungus growing on decaying wood.

The close-up below shows the still developing cups covered in a white membrane that will split away to reveal the egg-like peridioles held within.

Bird's Nest Fungus

Bird’s Nest Fungus growing through moss on a decaying log

Because I’m a birder and not a mycologist, I’m not able to tell you the actual species of bird’s nest fungus pictured here; there are many. Perhaps a reader can help.

Our Dandiest Duck?

So let’s see: iridescent greens, blues, cobalt, purple, violet, bronze, ultramarine, crimson, burgundy spotted with white, black, and vermiculated gold; we could just as well be reading a list of exotic colours on an artist’s palette as descriptions of Wood Duck plumage – a dandy’s colours for sure. See for yourself; click on the image below.

WODU3pairWood Ducks frequently perch on logs, and tree limbs near the water

The females above are noticeably subdued in their plumage compared to the drakes, but being the sole incubator of the eggs, and the guardian of the young when they first emerge from the nest, it makes sense to be less eye-catching to predators. It’s all about remaining inconspicuous, and not drawing unwanted attention. This is a common evolutionary adaptation among many bird species, and among North American ducks nearly all species show this strong sexual dimorphism. Wood Ducks happen to be one of the species that push these male/female differences to the extreme. While it is the drakes that catch the eye on a first look, both females and males are worthy of close scrutiny that reveals the real complexity and subtlety of the colours of both sexes. Let’s start with a closer look at the females.

WODUfemhead

Female Wood Duck – showing the diagnostic white eye-patch that tapers to the rear.

Most species of female ducks are relatively drab in colour, often a mixture of browns, buffs, and tans, but our Wood Duck above shows some iridescence both on the top of the head, and in the shoulder feathers (scapulars) spreading out below the neck. Taking an even closer look at the scapulars we see the subtle, but beautiful colours that we might otherwise miss when seeing a female perched alongside her fancier mate.

WODUfemwing

Subtle but striking – the shoulder and some wing feathers of the female Wood Duck

Wood Ducks are unique among North American duck species. They are the sole representative on the continent of their genus, Aix (Greek for waterbird). In fact, the Aix genus contains only two species worldwide. The other is the Australasian Mandarin Duck – another contestant in the “dandy duck” stakes. Both are part of a larger group called the perching ducks. Wood Ducks certainly live up to that classification. They are often seen perching along the water’s edge on logs and in sometimes in trees.

Confirming their scientific classification as perching ducks, Wood Ducks line a tree limb over Eagle Creek

Confirming their scientific classification as perching ducks, Wood Ducks line a tree limb over Eagle Creek, loafing, preening and snoozing.

There’s a certain irony, however, to the dramatic sexual dimorphism we see in Wood Ducks. It’s the drabber females’ choice of mates that drives the evolution of the spectacular male plumage. Pairs are seasonally monogamous, i.e. they pair-up anew each year,  but because the males play no part in rearing the young (more “dandy” behaviour?) their breeding success is more strongly determined by their ability to attract a mate. Therefore, the bolder the plumage, which indicates to the female readiness and suitability of the male for breeding, the more chance the male has of being selected and passing on his genes to the next generation. Other species of birds in which the males do assist with rearing the young are frequently less sexually dimorphic. Here’s the drake Wood Duck.

Wood Duck male – Dandy indeed!

Wood Duck male – Dandy indeed!

The colours above need no more description, but it is worth noticing the rakish crest that flows down the back of the head. The female has one too, and among the dabbling ducks in North America (Mallards, wigeons, and teals etc), the crest sported by the Wood Duck is unique.

WODUmalehead

This drake is perched next to a female, and is lifting his head to display to her the “full effect”.

The gradations of colours here on the head are quite striking in close-up. No doubt they’re just what an interested female is looking for.

Paired Wood Ducks

Paired Wood Ducks

And while all this fantastic plumage is in pursuit of one thing – passing on the male’s genes to the next generation, Wood Ducks also need suitable habitat to breed successfully – marshy lakes and ponds with lots of surrounding vegetation. Oh yes, and one more thing; they need nest cavities. Before the forests of North America were extensively cleared, and the old trees that contained natural cavities from broken branches and abandoned woodpecker holes were cut down, Wood Ducks were numerous. However, by the late nineteenth century there were real fears that the Wood Duck would go extinct from the combination of habitat loss and over-hunting. After the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 ended the legal hunting of Wood Ducks, the species recovered rapidly. Concerned conservationists also helped them along by providing nest boxes to replace the natural cavities that had been lost in forest clearing.

WODUnestbox

Wood Duck nestbox – Piper Spit, Burnaby Lake

The best place locally to see lots of Wood Ducks is Burnaby Lake at Piper Spit, and it’s no coincidence that at this location you’ll also see many nest boxes put up specifically for Wood Ducks. Although there are many nestboxes at Burnaby Lake, there may not be enough for all the ducks needing one. There are frequent incidents of egg-dumping here when more than one female lays her eggs in a single nest box – up to thirty eggs in a one box. Now not all the eggs will hatch in these conditions, but for a female that can’t find a nest cavity of her own, it seems a good strategy to ensure that at least some eggs produced by the female will hatch.

Continue reading

Here Be Dragonflies

Written on ancient maps as warnings to mariners, Here be Dragons conjured up images of fire-breathing monsters lurking in unknown regions of the world ready to incinerate the unwary.

Here be Dragonflies is not a warning, but instead an invitation to head down to our local lakes and ponds to see these intricate and beautiful creatures that are just now taking to the air as the full heat of summer has arrived. Not scary, and not fire-breathing, dragonflies compete with butterflies as one of the top insect attractions in our parks and gardens.

8SpotSkim#2Male

The eight-spotted skimmer is common, easy to see, and easy to identify. Photographed at Burnaby Lake, this one’s a male.

Living Fossils

Whenever I watch dragonflies, I’m always awed by the thought that these insects are the modern descendants of a fantastically ancient lineage. Fossil dragonflies, very similar to those we see today, were flying around almost 300 million years ago. That’s a staggeringly long time ago. As a comparison, the last Ice Age ended about 10, 000 years ago. Dragonflies have been around about 30, 000 times longer. Few animals living today have remained essentially unchanged for such a long stretch of geological time. When dragonflies were darting around the giant forests of the Carboniferous Period, mammals had not yet even appeared on earth. A very successful evolutionary “design” indeed.

8SpotSkimFem#2

Eight-spotted skimmer female. Notice the different body colour, and lack of blue in the wings found in the male. Compare her black spots to the male’s, and you’ll notice they are the same size, shape and position on the wings.

Below is a second common Burnaby dragonfly – the blue dasher. What a great name! No doubt why it’s called blue, and it is pretty zippy in flight too. However, this dragonfly’s wings are not boldly marked like the eight-spotted. However, look at the rakish angle they are held in contrast to the more conventional stance of the eight-spottted.

BlueDashMaleCrop

Blue dasher – male. Photographed at Deer Lake

Climate Change Connection

The blue dasher is found only in the most southerly areas of Canada; however it is a species that is likely responding to global warming. It has extended its range northward in recent years, and continues to do so. Not one of the dramatic signals that things are changing rapidly on the planet, but nonetheless, a signal from nature that they are.

Acute Vision

Dragonflies mostly feed on flying insects, sometimes even other, smaller dragonflies. To see, pursue, and capture their fast-moving prey they need fantastically sharp vision. The two large compound eyes which take up a large proportion of their head have evolved to capture even the slightest movement. Made up of up to 30, 000 individual simple eyes, the compound eyes of dragonflies not only give very fine detection of movement, but because in some species they form an almost spherical array around the head, they give a field of view approaching 360 degrees. Click the image of the blue dasher above to get a close look at its stunning turquoise eyes.

BlueDFemCrop

Blue dasher – immature female.

Powerful Wings

No doubt part of the evolutionary success of dragonflies can be attributed to their wings. The intricate pattern of veins (venation) which carries blood to the wings also provides structural strength for powerful wing beats. Coupling this with the ability to flap and rotate all four wings independently, makes dragonflies incredibly manoeuvrable fliers. They can hover, rotate on a dime, make rapid vertical climbs and descents, and maintain forward flight at high speeds, and even fly backwards, all the time keeping the body horizontal.

4SpotSkim

Four-spotted skimmer – female. The striking venation on the leading edge of the wing on this beauty is worth a closer look. Click to enlarge.

Dragonfly Cousins

Much smaller than their larger and more aggressive cousins, damselflies are also emerging in numbers and flying around the water’s edge at our local lakes and ponds. Slower moving than dragonflies, they hunt mostly by gleaning insects (aphids) hiding in the waterside vegetation. Damselflies are distinguished from dragonflies by the way they generally hold their wings closed over their bodies. The males, and some females, are mostly eye-catchingly blue, like tiny electric-blue pencils floating in the air on almost invisible wings. To many people damselflies are known as bluets, which is an entirely appropriate name. Bluet is also frequently seen as part of the common name for a number of species of damselflies.

Much more difficult to identify than some dragonflies, many species of damselflies look superficially similar. The one I photographed below is, I think, a tule bluet – a common species hereabouts. However, birds are where I’m confident in my identifications; I’m far less certain when it comes to damselflies. Please correct me if I’ve made a misidentification.

BluetSp

A damselfly (tule bluet?) perched on lakeside vegetation at Deer Lake.

So whether it’s dragonflies or damselflies that catch your fancy, it’s time to take a look because Here (they) be….

And take your binoculars and camera. Close-ups are definitely in order when viewing these beauties.

If you’re interested to learn more about our local dragonflies, I suggest Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West. It’s also available in Burnaby libraries. I consulted the book extensively for this post.

White-winged Crossbills Kick-start the New Year’s Birding

January 1st is the traditional day for birders to get outdoors and make a good, birdy start to the New Year. Have to get that “Year List” started! There’s a buzz of anticipation. And with many unusual and rare birds identified during the region’s Christmas Bird Counts, there are lots around to find. Whether starting a list of the birds in your local patch, or in Greater Vancouver, or even in the whole Province, New Year’s Day promises to get the lists off to a strong start. Can’t miss those winter rarities; you just don’t know how long they’ll stick around. Plus the benefits of a day in the fresh air after the season’s celebrations are a pretty good incentive too.

A foggy Deer Lake – New Year's Day, 2013

A foggy Deer Lake – New Year’s Day, 2013

If you’ve seen the movie The Big Year, you’ll know the extremes that some birders go to in pursuit of the ultimate Year List. But for me this year, I intended to take a more relaxed approach, and set some much more modest targets for my first day’s birding of 2013. Not for me getting caught up in the race to see everything, just to tick it off on the list. A nice leisurely breakfast, a resolve to take some pictures for the blog, and with the foggy morning, no great rush to get outdoors. I could start with the birds in the yard, and make my way by bike to Burnaby’s two main lakes to start a more constrained Year List.

Winter is the best time of year for a variety of ducks on our local lakes. The Bald Eagles know this too. Here’s an adult bird scanning the lake for easy prey; watching intently for any sign of weakness that may make for an easy capture, and a New Year’s Day meal.

Bald Eagle surveys Deer Lake looking for prey

Bald Eagle surveys Deer Lake looking for prey

Ring-necked Ducks are one of the species found on Deer Lake. Here, the dead-calm conditions of the foggy morning, and the clear reflections on the lake, allowed for a bit of photographic whimsy.

The rarely photographed 3-eyed Ring-necked Duck

The rarely photographed 3-eyed Ring-necked Duck

On the way to Burnaby Lake, along the east side of the rugby fields, Still Creek offered a couple of beauties. First, this spectacular Northern Pintail. More often out of camera range in the middle of the lake, this one allowed very close views.

NOPIMale

Northern Pintail – drake

Could we also call this slender, blue-billed beauty with the elaborate plumage the Irony Duck? I often think so. For many duck hunters this bird is a favourite target. It’s beauty makes for its appeal. How ironic then, that what’s beautiful makes it desirable to kill? And there’s a double irony at work here too. It’s those very same hunters who, in order to preserve their beautiful prey, contribute millions of dollars to the preservation of the wetlands vital to the breeding and wintering of this species. Irony indeed.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Not a duck at all, but another diving waterbird, the diminutive Pied-billed Grebe is another favourite of mine. In winter plumage here, but you can see a hint of what’s to come, and the source of the bird’s name, with the faint dots on the bill that will become black, and form a complete ring around the bill come spring time.

Burnaby Lake is probably our best location for closeup views of ducks. The Piper Spit boardwalk is a great place to hone your identification skills. Here’s a few I photographed on New Year’s Day.

Duck Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye – duck

Above is a Common Goldeneye female, which is a diving-duck relative of the much smaller Bufflehead shown below.

BUFFMale

Bufflehead – drake

Being a diving duck, the Bufflehead can forage in deeper waters than the dabbling ducks shown below.

WODUPair

Wood Ducks – duck and drake

The elaborately plumaged Wood Ducks are dabblers. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers rarely dive, but prefer to feed by upending in shallower water, as handily demonstrated below by a couple of Green-winged Teal.

Bottoms up!

Bottoms up!

On this year’s December 16th Christmas Bird Count (see previous post), our “best” bird was undoubtedly the White-winged Crossbills found at Burnaby Lake. And even better for starting all those New Year lists, they’re still around, and many local birders were out trying to add them to their lists. This is not a bird seen every year in the Vancouver area.  Red Crossbills are relatively common here, but the White-winged is a special visitor.

As I headed east from Piper Spit along the main Burnaby Lake trail to Conifer and Spruce Loop trails where the birds were being intermittently seen, I anticipated getting the usual view of crossbills – at treetop and distant. Walking toward the huge Sitka spruce tree (almost certainly the largest in the Park) just before the start of Spruce Loop, I spotted a photographer pointing her camera into the tree. And there, stunningly, some no more than 8 meters above the trail, was a flock of about 30 White-winged Crossbills hanging from the cones actively feeding.

WWCRFem#2

White-winged Crossbill – female

Avian nomads of the northern half of the Continent, crossbills wander the immense coniferous forests in large flocks looking for the cone crops they depend on for food. Using their crossed bills to wedge open the cone scales, they extract the highly nutritious seeds with their tongues. Individual birds can consume up to 3,000 conifer seeds in a day. Click on the images above and below to get a closer look at the highly specialized bills of these birds.

White-winged Crossbill – male

White-winged Crossbill – male

Crossbills are also notable for breeding whenever there is a quantity of food sufficient to support the development of eggs and the raising of young. The consequence being that they can breed at any time of year, and frequently do, even in the depths of winter! These birds, however, are unlikely to be breeding. What we’re seeing here is part of a broader search for food this winter among many different species of finches, and a likely indication that more northerly cone crops are low.

What a great kick-off to the New Year’s list. And if I can see White-winged Crossbills on January 1st, who knows what I might see if I chased a little harder. Hmmm!

Happy New Year.

If you want to check out the crossbills yourself, walk the main trail east from Piper Spit at Burnaby Lake, and explore the area around the Spruce and Conifer Loop trails. There are lots of Red Crossbills around too, and the two species are sometimes in mixed flocks here. Take your binoculars, and look up and listen for their distinctive flight calls:

Click here for White-winged Crossbills, and here for Red Crossbills.

2012 Christmas Bird Count Ties Record

Some people insist that prayers to the weather gods are an essential part of pre-count rituals for the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Let’s face it, West Coast weather in December is often seriously discouraging for spending a day outdoors counting birds. Eight hours in cold rain, and/or snow can get even the keenest birder asking: ” Now why exactly did I volunteer to do this?”

GroupCBC

Members of the Deer Lake CBC team at Deer Lake

Fortunately, however, for the eleven hardy birders who headed out to census our wintering birds on this Sunday’s (Dec 16) CBC, the weather gods, if not exactly benevolent, did at least leave us with a dry, but sunless day. Good birders in the field, a dry day, and a little bit of luck can mean a good count. And we had all three on Sunday.

STJA

Even before it was fully light at 8:00 a.m., noisy Steller’s Jays (above) were one of the day’s first additions to field notebook. Birds that announce their presence make for quick and easy birding – many of the birds on the census are identified and counted “by ear” through their calls and other vocalizations .

Although a number of vocal landbirds were identified early at the shores of Burnaby and Deer Lakes, where the two teams each began their days’ birding, the first order of business was to count the waterbirds.

With two unfrozen lakes on which to count ducks and other aquatic birds, we usually do quite well in this aspect of our CBC bird list. Our most numerous duck species (223) were, not surprisingly, Mallards.

MALLPair

Mallard pair

A far less common duck (19 counted), and until 2005 one that we didn’t see on the count at all, is the very nattily plumaged Ring-necked Duck. The local increase in winter numbers of this duck is a reflection of a general continent-wide increase in this species.

RNDU

RNDUsingle

Other waterbirds we recorded on Sunday included the somewhat ancient-looking, fish-eating Double-crested Cormorant (15). Many consider this one of our less attractive birds, and although superficially drab, their turquoise eyes are a surprise feature that is only seen when the light is just right. These two are brownish immatures; the adults are glossy black. Remember to click on the images for a closer look.

DCCO's

And we don’t necessarily have to look on the water for all waterbirds. Many spend as much time on land as in the water. Great Blue Herons (4) not only wade the lakeshores, but also hunt in the long grass meadows at Deer Lake. The one below is demonstrating its hunting techniques – likely looking for the voles that inhabit the meadows at the western end of Deer Lake Park. We counted this one near the outflow of Beaver Creek into the west end of the lake.

GBHECBC

Talking of waterbirds on land, our biggest numbers of gulls on the count are usually found at the east end of Deer Lake, where they hang around in the playground area waiting for handouts. This year was no exception, but while numbers were reasonable, the species count was modest; just two, plus a few hybrids.

Ring-billed Gulls (30) are the daintier of the two species, and this one is showing its diagnostic yellow legs, yellow iris, black wing tips, and the banded bill that gives it its name.

RBGU

The dirty-looking head feathers on this bird are found on most adult gulls in winter. Over the course of the season, the brownish feather tips wear off leaving the heads bright, clean, and white ready for the spring and for the breeding season.

The other gull we counted on Sunday is the Glaucous-winged (46), our commonest species locally. It too has the “dirty” head effect, but is a much bulkier, heavier-billed bird than the Ring-billed. Compare the picture of the two birds to see the differences between the two.

GWGU

For the Glaucous-winged, note the large yellow bill with the red spot on the lower mandible, pink legs, dark iris, and grey wingtips the same colour as the back (mantle) feathers. Also, in the picture above note the size difference compared to the smaller Ring-billed behind.

Gulls can be very challenging to correctly identify, but separating the Cackling Goose from the very familiar Canada Goose can at times be even more of a challenge. In fact, up until 2004 the Cackler was considered just a small type of Canada Goose. However, it is smaller, darker coloured, breeds further north and west in the Arctic and sub-Arctic than the Canada Goose, and has a high yelping voice that is clearly different from the Canada Goose’s honking.

These characteristics, along with genetic studies, confirmed it as a different species. Look for the short neck and small bill as field marks. If you scratch your head over whether you’re looking at a Canada or a Cackling, don’t despair. It’s a subtle identification.  Below is part of the flock of 130 cacklers we counted on the rugby fields at Burnaby Lake.

Cacklers

A real surprise for us, and a first for the count this year, was that Cackling Goose numbers were higher than Canada Goose numbers. The Canada’s must have been feeding elsewhere on Sunday.

OK, so how did we tie last year’s record of 64 species? We saw lots of birds at Deer Lake, but the Burnaby Lake team really made some standout finds, and pushed our respectable totals into higher territory. In both parks we did well with the Dickie birds (birder talk for small, bush-dwelling birds) such as Song Sparrows, and other species of smaller birds such as Varied Thrushes.

SOSP#2

Song Sparrow – a classic Dickie bird, in a red-osier dogwood

VATH

And here a beautiful, robin-like, female Varied Thrush. Not really a Dickie bird, but my favourite winter thrush. (Picture taken in November)

However, at Burnaby Lake the team found 12 White-winged Crossbills, and a Townsend’s Warbler. Both birds are firsts for the Burnaby count, and the crossbills are the third record only for the whole Vancouver CBC, of which this count is a part – Area ‘G’. Considering that the Vancouver count has been running since the 1960’s, you can appreciate how rare an occurrence White-winged Crossbills are on a CBC. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures to show, but see the links at the end of this post.

The crossbills are part of an invasion of winter finches that is taking place across the continent this year. We counted record numbers of Common Redpolls (40), Red Crossbills (78), and an amazing 724 Pine Siskins, which is more than three times our previous high since the year 2000. You may have noticed the swirling flocks of small, twittering finches, mostly staying high in the treetops when you’re out walking this year. You’re almost certainly seeing Pine Siskins. Here’s a very unsatisfactory picture of part of a flock of more than fifty birds.

PISIFlock

Very rarely wintering this far north, most Townsend’s Warblers head further south, many into Central America. As an insect-eating species, this individual, a spectacularly yellow male,  has landed itself a tough winter trying to survive in Burnaby. However, they are amazingly tough birds, and it will likely survive if the winter is not too severe, gleaning hibernating insects from the conifers it likes to hang-out in.

Northern finches heading south, southern warblers staying north, lakes unfrozen for the waterbirds, no rain or snow, and fields and bushes full of our resident and wintering birds, all these factors combined to give us a great result in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in Burnaby and Deer Lakes – a great seasonal gift.

Oh yes, and the crow roost this year along the Still Creek corridor – about 8000 birds.

Season’s Greetings everyone.

Click here for pictures of Townsend’s Warbler

Here for White-winged Crossbills

And here for the Area ‘G’ Results 2012 species and numbers.

Pictures in the above post were taken during the count, or in November and December this year, mostly in the Deer Lake area.

Rusty Blackbird Triple Bonus

Wherever a rare bird puts in an appearance it’s likely to quickly draw a crowd, especially if it’s easy to access, and near an urban centre . The Rusty Blackbird that showed up on Friday at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake fit the pattern perfectly. News of the bird was soon flying around (couldn’t resist that pun) the birder and photographer networks, and people were headed down to the Spit from around the Lower Mainland: Vancouver, Surrey, and the Fraser Valley. Bonus one – the Thanksgiving weekend gave people time to make the trip to the lake.

So what’s the big deal? Well for birders it is a rare bird, meaning it shows up most years in the Lower Mainland, but in single-digit numbers, frequently one or two only, and often for just a day before moving on. In birder parlance, they’re usually one-day-wonders. Hence, the rush by many to see and photograph the bird, before it left. Last year the same species showed up here at Piper Spit, and it was a one-day wonder. Many people missed it, including me. Bonus two – the bird has been here for at least four days.

While a few rustys show up in the Lower Mainland most years, nearly all Rusty Blackbirds winter in the south-eastern US, along the Atlantic Seaboard to Florida, and throughout much of the eastern drainage of the Mississippi. So our Burnaby bird is quite far out of range for the species in fall/winter.

Its breeding range, however, is quite different; it stretches right across Canada, east to west, and extends into Alaska. The birds breed in muskeg, bogs, beaver ponds, and wet, boreal forests as far north as the tree line. A real Canadian, eh? It’s the most northerly breeder of all the blackbirds, which is why it’s something of a mystery bird. It’s little studied because of its mostly remote summer haunts,  and its breeding biology is poorly known.

Compounding the mystery of its life cycle, is the mystery of its rapid decline over the past thirty or more years. Although some sources suggest we simply do not have enough information to draw definitive conclusions about the population changes of this species, there are many experts expressing concerns. For more information about the declining population of the Rusty Blackbird click here.

Locally, however, but having no bearing on its continental population, is some good news. Bonus three: a second bird turned up on Monday. There are now two Rusty Blackbirds at Piper Spit. To get one rare bird is a treat, but to get a second hanging out with it, is a wonderful happenstance. And even better is that these birds are very tolerant of people, and provide really good opportunities to observe them. When they do show up in the Lower Mainland, Rusty Blackbirds are usually skittish, and difficult to observe.

So head on down to Piper Spit and check out the new arrivals. They’re very cooperative, and show off their rusty-coloured winter plumage beautifully in the sun.

Was Kermit wrong?

The two juvenile Green Herons that turned up at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake yesterday morning are calling into question the truth of Kermit the Frog’s well known lament, It’s not easy being green. Watching these two young birds catch ‘minnows’ at the mouth of Eagle Creek, swallow one after another, and then follow-up their feasting with an extended period of preening in the surrounding trees, suggests the more appropriate song would be Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy – even if you are green.

Green Herons, the second smallest of the herons in North America, are at the Northern limit of their range in Southern BC, but can be found throughout the Americas, as far south as Venezuela where suitable wet, marshy habitats provide them with what they need to find cover, eat and reproduce. They are very uncommon in these parts, and only rarely will one spend the winter here.

Compared to the much more common and more familiar Great Blue Heron, Green Herons weigh in at around 210 g (7 oz) with a wingspan of 66 cm (26 inches), while Great Blues weigh in at a comparatively whopping 2.4 kg (5.3 lbs) and a have a wingspan of 1.83 meters (72 inches).

Green and small they may be, but they’re super efficient hunters. That sharp, pointed bill is used to deadly effect when hunting fish, their main prey, but it is no less effective when taking various insects and other invertebrates which also make up their diet. In common with all herons, their forward-angled eyes give them 3-D vision for pin-point accuracy.

Being dwellers of marshy lakes and other wetlands, other prey is also available. Below is one that escaped…

only to be recaptured… Yikes!

and finally to meet its end.

Oh dear! It seems Kermit was correct after all.

Well, everyone has to eat.

The three action photographs above were taken by John and Sheila Linn who are ardent photographers of nature in Burnaby. They capture many wonderful images of the wildlife and drama in our city’s parks. Thank you, John and Sheila for this wonderful sequence.

And a final note about the birds: both Green Herons still have some residual natal down on their heads which suggests they are local birds, born and bred on Burnaby Lake, or more likely along one of its tributary creeks.

And a final note about Kermit’s brethren above: the frog that became lunch for one of the herons is a non-native species, a Green Frog. Along with Bullfrogs, which are also common in the Lake, they are wreaking havoc with our much smaller native frogs, by outcompeting them and frequently eating them. So let’s hear a cheer for the herons, doing their bit to control introduced species.

Fall Fog Fest

You might call it Indian summer and love it, or you might lament that this marvellous stretch of weather we’re having comes when most of us are heading back to school and to work. Too bad we can revel in it only on weekends, whereas Monday to Friday doesn’t leave much time. And worse still, the special foggy piece that comes along with the weather is very easy to miss. This fleeting phenomenon, like so many of the great things happening in our parks, is best seen in the early morning.

Our weather forecasters certainly love this weather. It’s their time of the year to get the forecasts bang-on correct. They deserve it. Let’s face it, being a meteorologist here on the West Coast can’t be much fun for most of the year. No fronts sweeping in off the Pacific, just day after day of ‘sunny tomorrow, and the day after, and…’ . An end-of-summer high pressure system has settled over the Coast, and is bringing us cool nights, warm days, and day-long blue skies and sunshine. However, just as the sun breaks over the horizon in the morning, our parks are magically transformed by fog.

With clear skies overnight, the ground radiates its daytime heat right back into space – no clouds to provide a warming ‘blanket.’ The result: the air closest to the ground is cooler than the air immediately above it, and the moisture in that cooler air condenses forming minute droplets – fog, technically speaking, radiation fog.

You can see it at Deer Lake,

and Burnaby Lake,

but only briefly. The sun rapidly burns off nature’s transformer, and we’re back to clear landscapes, and no hint of what was there minutes before.

Not only does this fog fest depend on where you stand (low areas are best), but interestingly it depends too on where you look in relation to the sun. If you look toward the sun, much of the light is dispersed through the airborne water droplets making the fog visible,

but when you look at a more oblique angle, the fog just about disappears.

The two pictures above of the foggy doggy walker were taken less than 30 seconds apart. The fog really didn’t change in that time, but my angle in relation to the sun did.

So check it out. Take a few minutes if you can on your way to work or school to take a look. Right now the best time is right around sunrise, and the event is pretty well over in an hour. If you’re late for work, say I said it’s OK. Sorry, but I can’t give permission to be late for school. You’re on your own for that one!