Beavers, Birds, Byrne Creek, and Fraser Foreshore

Fraser Foreshore Park at the foot of Byrne Road, is a park I usually visit only a few times a year, most often in spring when migrant birds are moving through, and the trees and bushes are full of birdsong. But given my recent, interesting journey along the Still Creek corridor (See: Still Creek – Urban Wild, Birds and Poetry!) I thought I’d give another of Burnaby’s more “industrial” settings a look to see what I could see.

With no high expectations for what I might encounter, I headed down on Friday morning ready for a long walk along the river, both west and then east from the parking area. Much to my surprise, expectations were exceeded, and the long walk turned into a much shorter one, as I found much to see and enjoy just a short distance west of the parking area, and later walking north along Byrne Creek to the edge of the Riverway golf course, and back.

Cottonwoods

The magnificent black cottonwoods along the river, pictured above, are one of the outstanding features of this park. Their leafless forms make intricate patterns of light and shade in the soft, winter sun.

LogBoom

However, this is the North Arm of the Fraser, which is industrialized for much of its length as seen here by the huge log booms tight against the shore.

And while we humans are busy being industrious along the river, that epitome of Canadian busyness is being extremely industrious too in the large pond, south of Glenlyon, that is just a short walk up the west side of Byrne Creek off the main trail along the Fraser River.

Castor canadensis, the Canadian beaver (Canadian even in its scientific name!), is causing a certain level of mayhem in the area. Perhaps it’s good to see that there’s more than a little bit of wild going on here amid the factories and traffic. But what’s good for me, is perhaps a bit of a nightmare for the good folks who are planting trees and trying to naturalize our industrial landscapes.

Huge are trees felled. Here a willow.

Castor#6

Paper birches are cut down in their prime – stakes, wire fencing, and strapping seemingly offering no barrier to a hungry beaver.

Castor#3

And then the trunk is seriously gnawed, probably being cut into shorter lengths for dragging back toward the lodge.

Castor#2

The drag lines the beavers use to tug their twiggy bounty back to the pond go right over the top of their lodge where, to the right, freshly-cut red alder branches lie in the water ready to eat.

Castor#8

Beavers chew a lot of wood, but they don’t eat it, which explains the piles of wood chips they leave behind. They do cut through the wood to fall the trees, but they actually eat the bark and the nutritious cambium layer beneath it – their main foods for the winter months when other vegetable matter is in short supply.

Large areas of bark and cambium are stripped off the large willow branches shown below.  The beavers have been feasting on these large limbs. If the pieces are too big to drag back to the lodge, then it’s eaten it where it falls. The smaller stuff they neatly prune off to drag over to the lodge, and into the pond to eat.

Castor#7

Of course the beavers are not the only wildlife using this pond. A pair of Hooded Mergansers were actively fishing while I was there.

HOME#1Here’s the male, hauled up out of the water on…? Right – a red alder log, newly felled by the local beavers, and trimmed of its branches. Possibly those same branches lined up outside the lodge in the earlier picture.

For me, the “Hoodie” is one of the most beautiful ducks in North America – its spectacular crest gives it its name. In the picture above, it’s about half extended. When displaying to a female, or strutting its stuff in front of a competing male, the white crest extends in a beautiful arc right over the head. Remember to click on the picture to enlarge it.

Take a look at the bill of the merganser above, and compare it to the female mallard below, and you’ll notice the huge contrast in the shape and size of the bills of the two birds. Both are ducks, but the Mallard has a typical duck-shaped bill, whereas the merganser’s is long and thin. And if you could see it close up, you’d notice it has serrated edges.

MALLfem

Unlike the Mallard, a dabbling duck that eats mostly aquatic vegetation, the mergansers are divers that eat aquatic insects, fish, and crustaceans. The slender, serrated bill is used for grasping and manipulating their slippery, mobile prey.

Not all the action was in the pond. The surrounding shrubby areas were busy with birds too, some of which were obviously regularly fed by visitors. The Black-capped Chickadees were almost landing on me as I stood to watch them, but this offered the opportunity for some very close photographs.

BCCHFrsrFore

The Spotted Towhees were interested too, but stayed concealed for the most part.

SPTO

Another member of the mixed flock of birds here is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a hyper-active, wing-flicking midget of a bird (one of Canada’s smallest birds) that utters a buzzy ji-dit, ji-dit call as it scolds you from shrubbery. Listen to the call here.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are difficult to photograph because they are rarely still, and outside of the breeding season their ruby crown is usually hidden. On Friday, I was lucky enough to not only get a reasonably good picture of the bird, but also a glimpse of its ruby crown too. Click to enlarge.

RCKI

And the last photograph I managed on my walk was of this Fox Sparrow in a Himalayan blackberry bush. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, here’s one of my favourites in one of our most important shrubs for wintering birds.

FOSPByrneWhile I did get a number of pictures of birds on Friday, I hoped to get a beaver picture to round off this post. Mostly nocturnal, beavers often get active before nightfall, so I returned to the pond in the very late afternoon. Despite some patient waiting, I found no beavers out and about before nightfall, and had to be satisfied with a picture of the cottonwoods in the fading light reflected in the pond. Not a bad consolation at all.

CottonwoodsSunset

Owl Alert Flash Mob

Well, maybe not exactly a true flash mob, but certainly the avian equivalent was in full swing as I left the house yesterday morning. Stepping into the garden before setting off on a birding walk around Deer Lake, I was immediately aware that something was up. In the trees behind the house, a very agitated flock of small birds was calling and scolding and acting very excitedly. Such a mob scene usually indicates a predator is present, and often it’s an owl.

The centre of all the action was a western redcedar tree where I soon located the target of all the excitement and distress – a Barred Owl perched about 15m off the ground, staring down with its large, dark eyes as I made my way toward it. I could almost imagine its irritation at me now joining the mob. It was having enough trouble with the chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and robins that were kicking up a racket all around it.

Mobbing, as this behaviour is called, is practised by many birds. In forested areas, it’s mostly small birds in mixed species flocks like yesterday, and sometimes in single species flocks that gather around a predator in an attempt to drive it off, identify its location for other birds, and perhaps teach younger birds to recognize predators.

Chickadees are frequently the noisy instigators, and other birds join in. Some keep their distance, while others will actually fly at the bird to peck at it in an attempt to get it to move on – a risky strategy. Sometimes it works, and at other times the predator hangs in until the excitement subsides. Yesterday’s mob was successful. When I returned a couple of hours later, the owl had left.

In open areas, and frequently in nesting season, crows, blackbirds and swallows are often the lead mobsters, and their targets are our resident Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks.

Yesterday’s flash mob didn’t require texting, or social media to organize, just a group of noisy, frenzied birds to send the message out through the woods for others to join in, and get that owl out of there. As you’re walking our parks, listen out for these noisy gatherings. It’s not always an owl that’s the target, but sometimes cats, raccoons and squirrels will prompt the same behaviour.

For a full list of birds I saw around the lake yesterday click here.

The observant among you may notice that the owl picture above was not taken in a redcedar tree. I couldn’t get a good photograph yesterday; it was just too dark for my camera. I photographed the owl pictured above this spring, less than 50 m from the site of yesterday’s action. It could well have been the same bird. There is a pair in residence in the area.

Surprise, Surprise!

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

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

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

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

“Barn Owl!”

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

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

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

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

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

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