A to B – Arctic to Burnaby

While our fantastic stretch of sunny weather hasn’t quite been replaced by Arctic conditions yet, the constant, lashing rain is a reminder we really are in October, and frost and snow may not be too far ahead for us.

Big changes in weather often signal changes in our birds too. In late summer and fall, many leave us for more southerly locations, while others arrive here on their migrations, sometimes staying for the winter, and sometimes to stop-over, fuel-up and move on.

On Saturday morning at Deer Lake another harbinger of winter arrived, and this time the message was straight from the Arctic. A beautiful Rough-legged Hawk, a relative of our resident, breeding Red-tailed Hawks, stationed itself on a tree at the east end of the west meadows at Deer Lake, intently scoping the long grass for voles and mice.

In absolutely pouring rain, getting a good picture can be a little tough, and the one above shows the not quite satisfactory result. However, rough-legs are a rare sight in our parks, more often spending their winter around Boundary Bay, Delta.  Interestingly, this bird is using exactly the same small meadow that the last rough-leg that I saw in the park many years ago used.

The habitat here is likely similar in appearance to its Arctic tundra haunts, where it also hunts rodents, including those cute lemmings. As I’ve noted before on this blog: everyone has to eat! The Rough-legged Hawk is a really cosmopolitan species. Breeding on tundra around the whole Arctic – usually on cliffs, promontories, bluffs and other high outcroppings – it moves south in winter in Asia and Europe, as well as here in North America.

And in case you were wondering, the name ‘Rough-legged’ refers to its feathered legs, which are an adaptation to its cold climate home.

The bird was still present Saturday afternoon, and may hang in for a while. So take the time and see our Arctic visitor to Burnaby. It’s as easy as A to B.

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.

Dowitcher delights

While Burnaby is a great place to see many different types of birds, our number and diversity of shorebirds, or waders as the English call them, is only modest. We just don’t have the river estuaries and mudflats that many species of these long-legged probers depend on for food. But we do have some places to observe them, and they are often up close and easy to observe. Remember to click on the images to enlarge.

Burnaby Lake, and Piper Spit in particular, is probably our best and most reliable spot to see these birds. Where Eagle Creek enters the lake, a small mudflat often hosts a small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers. Here they are above, snoozing and preening. The spit boardwalk gives good close views.

Appropriately named Long-billed Dowitchers? I think so. Look at those bills! But having said that, their close relatives, the Short-billed Dowitchers, confusingly have bills much the same length! In fact, you can’t tell the difference in the field by bill length. The easiest way to tell them apart is by voice. When they are vocal, you’ll hear the ones at Piper Spit make a loud, single Keek! Short-billed have a three-part Tu Tu Tu! call.

There are plumage differences between the two species, but they are subtle and difficult to discern without binoculars. Even experienced birders find separating the two species a challenge at times. Fortunately for us, the two dowitchers separate themselves much of the time by habitat. Long-billed prefer freshwater wetlands, like Burnaby Lake, whereas Short-billed prefer saltwater or brackish wetlands and mudflats.

Stretching its wing, the bird above is showing us what it uses to get to Burnaby from its breeding grounds in Western and Northern Alaska, and North East Siberia. It may seem a long way from the Arctic coastal plains to Burnaby, but many other shorebird species travel vast distances from the Arctic to as far south as southern South America. So by contrast, Long-billed Dowitchers are considered medium distance migrants. Seems a good stretch to me nonetheless.

They will spend the winter with us in Burnaby, and except for places like Delta on the Fraser Estuary, and the head of Port Moody Arm, we have the largest wintering population of these birds in the Burnaby/Vancouver area. We have recorded close to 100 here on the annual Christmas  Bird Count. And as for that unusual, delightful name, dowitcher seems to derive from the Iroquoian word ‘tawistawis’ meaning ‘snipe’, and may have been appropriated by white European hunters in the 19th century on the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

Enjoy our Burnaby Lake tawistawis; they should be with us from fall through to spring.

Martins departin’?

As August rolls into September, there’s lots of birdy action in the park, and a real feeling things are about to change. It’s a Janus time of year – looking back at summer, looking forward to fall.

Looking back: today I watched a Willow Flycatcher still feeding a newly-fledged youngster– a real summer sighting.

Looking forward, and a real pointer to fall, the Purple Martins are gathering in a noisy, energetic, and exuberant convocation in the tree tops along the boardwalk at the west end of Deer Lake signalling their intentions to soon head south. And pretty far south they go too. How about south-eastern Brazil? Incredible!

Here’s a group of three juveniles (upper), and what is likely an adult female (lowest bird), which were part of a gathering of more than thirty Purple Martins seen today (August 30th).

Purple Martins are North America’s largest member of the swallow family, and one of the largest swallows in the world. Compared to the more familiar Barn Swallow, you know, the ones that nest in the barns where many of us buy our veggies from the farms down on Marine Drive, they weigh-in at almost three times the size (56 g vs 19g). With a wingspan of almost 47 cm, that’s almost half a meter, this is a heck of a swallow.

And just like their smaller cousins, who classically line up along telephone wires and power lines prior to migration, Purple Martins gather in large groups too, made up of both adults and young, before they migrate. Here out west, they often gather in tree tops, particularly if  dead or bare branches are available for easy perching.

But, they’re not purple you’re saying! Well, the males are purplish – blue-black really. Unfortunately, they’re fairly tough to photograph, especially with the fairly basic gear I have, and the best I can do is some not-so-great pictures. Here’s an adult male, and if you squint hard, you may be able to convince yourself he’s… sort of purplish. (Don’t forget you can enlarge the pictures here by clicking on them)

Our western Purple Martins are a marvellous conservation success story. They are the comeback kids of coastal BC. By the early 1980’s the estimated BC population was in the order of ten breeding pairs only. That minuscule number was a clear signal we were about to lose them from the Province. In technical lingo, they were facing extirpation. We’d logged the old growth forests, removed snags, cleared burned areas, removed the old pilings from harbours and docks, and introduced House Sparrows and European Starlings. All of these factors led to the disappearance, or the occupation, in the case of the sparrows and starlings, of the woodpecker holes and crevices in pilings that the martins needed to nest.

Purple Martins are cavity nesters, and the solution to their decline was to provide them with artificial nest boxes over water. In 1986 a program of installing nest boxes on pilings in coastal areas was started by dedicated groups of volunteers, both here on the Mainland and on Vancouver Island. The first successes were on the east coast of the Island on the Cowichan Estuary.  In 1994, Maplewood Flats, just across Burrard Inlet from here, was the first successful re-nesting location on the Mainland. They hadn’t bred on the Mainland for probably more than thirty years. Kudos to the volunteers, and what a wonderful pay-off for everyone. We’re now enjoying the fruits of these efforts in Burnaby.

Our western martins are a little different from their eastern counterparts. They don’t use the classic condominium-style martin nest boxes that you would see in Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern U.S. Our birds nest in colonies too, but they are more loosely structured. They prefer individual nest boxes. Maplewood Flats in North Vancouver, and Rocky Point Park in Port Coquitlam are good places to see the nest boxes on pilings. We may have a few nesting here on the pilings at Barnet Marine Park. We’ll have to check it out next spring to see. I didn’t get down there this year to see what’s happening.

Since the conservation effort started 26 years ago the BC Purple Martin population has increased dramatically reaching 735 pairs in 2011. Isn’t it fantastic what a little TLC can achieve? In previous years, we’ve had over 100 birds in the park at this time of year. They should be here until mid-September, but their departure date and time varies from year to year. They’re Canadian birds, after all, and a bit unpredictable; kind of like our national airline.

So take a Deer Lake walk. You’ll hear the martins before you see them. Their beautiful, melodious warbles will cascade down from the air above. Along the boardwalk you’ll have a good chance to see them perched in the taller trees. They also like the big, old snag in the middle of the tall grass meadow near the bio-filtration pond.

Here’s a link to listen to Purple Martin vocalizations. Click here.

A full list of birds from my August 30th walk is here.

Postscript: the gathering of the martins was brief this year. They were all gone, left for points south, by September 5th. Weather conditions were just right I presume, and Brazil via Mexico was beckoning. The urge to migrate is is irresistable.