Pine Grosbeaks – Burnaby Mountain Park

It’s not every winter that Pine Grosbeaks show up at lower elevations of the Lower Mainland. But what a treat it is when they do.

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Pine Grosbeak, male

The beautiful male shown above is one of a flock of at least fourteen birds that are providing a show for visitors to Burnaby Mountain where they can be found feasting on the buds of the flowering cherry trees that line the path south of Horizon’s Restaurant.

In the West, this large member of the finch family is usually found in the coniferous forests of the mountains where it breeds. More commonly seen in lower elevations in the Interior, it only rarely puts in an appearance in coastal areas of southern BC. These irregular movements to lower elevations are called irruptions, and are perhaps related to changes in food supply, but like many aspects of this species’ life, the phenomenon is poorly understood.

Found across the continent, mostly in Boreal Forest regions, the Pine Grosbeak’s range also extends to Eurasia where it is found from Eastern Asia to Scandinavia. Despite the wide geographical range of this species, it’s likely that the different populations do not wander very widely from their home territories. Our visitors to Burnaby Mountain have likely not travelled great distances to get here.

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Pine Grosbeak, female

Males and females are very different in appearance. The females’ colouring is more subdued, a subtle mixture of grays and greenish gold. This cryptic colouration is no doubt important during nesting, when the female is the only one of the pair to brood the eggs and chicks. Both parents, however, share in feeding the young.

While the males and females in the flock are easy to pick out, there are also a couple of differently plumaged individuals in the flock. The one below shows a lot of red on the head and neck in an otherwise female plumage. This individual may be a first year male, not yet fully red, or a female that is more colourful than is typical.

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Female or first year male Pine Grosbeak

Given these birds live mostly in inaccessible mountain forests, it’s perhaps not surprising that they tolerate close approach by people. It appears they do not see humans as potential danger. If you pay a visit to the cherry trees on the mountain, make sure you take a camera or binoculars. Move slowly, without sudden movements, and you’ll be rewarded with close views of the birds unconcerned with your presence. You will get the opportunity to see some of their more subtle features in close-up, for example the striking back pattern on this bird.

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So enjoy them while they’re here; it may be many years before we see them again.

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Glaucous Gull – A Rare Deer Lake Visitor

There is always a small flock of gulls that spend the winter on the beach around the children’s playground at the east end of Deer Lake, but this year more than the usual number has shown up, and they’ve been joined by a rare visitor from the Arctic.

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Gulls winging into the beach at Deer Lake

The birds come and go over the course of the day, but at times this month I’ve counted up to 300 on the beach and out on the lake – a good number.

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Adults and immature (the brownish ones) gulls on Deer Lake beach.

They come to the beach for a couple of reasons: one, they like to bathe and clean up their plumage at the mouth of Buckingham Creek where it flows into the lake over a gravelly bar. And two, because people come down to the lake to feed the ducks, often with the kids in tow, the gulls hang around to grab their share of the handouts. Of course it’s against park rules to feed the wildlife, but the happy result for us is that the gulls get quite used to people, and it gives us the chance to see them up-close and personal. And to identify gulls, good close looks are preferred.

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Spot the visitor?

If you take a close look at the flock, you’re likely able to pick out the one that is a little larger than the others, and looks a little different too. There are other brownish gulls on the beach, but the washed-out looking bird in the centre of the picture above is the Glaucous Gull, our rare visitor from the Arctic.

Here’s a close up.

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Glaucous Gull – Deer Lake beach

So what makes this one different? Isn’t it just another gull? Firstly, it’s large, and it’s by far the palest looking immature bird on the beach. There are other brownish birds, but this bird is basically a dirty-white overall with light brown markings on the back and wings. Its wingtips are virtually white. It has a large, heavy bill which is quite strikingly bi-coloured, pink at the base, and black-tipped.

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Bi-coloured pink and black bill, dark eye, and dirty white plumage are key features that identify this immature Glaucous Gull.

When Glaucous Gulls do show up in British Columbia it’s mostly as single birds. They are usually in their first or second winter of life, and our visitor fits this general pattern. The Deer Lake gull is a first winter bird. Glaucous gulls are among a number of large white-headed gulls that take four years to reach adulthood, and acquire their full adult plumage. This one has three more years to go.

The bird below is also a white-headed gull, but it’s quite a bit smaller than the Glaucous Gull, and takes three years to reach adulthood.

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Ring-billed Gull adult

I think the Ring-billed Gull is quite a nattily handsome bird and is the species most frequently seen down at the lake, and fortunately is also very easy to identify in adult plumage. The combination of grey back, black wingtips with white “mirrors”, yellow legs, yellow eyes, and a bold black ring on a yellow bill is diagnostic. This one is still in winter plumage shown by the dusky flecking over the head and neck. These brown feather tips will wear away over the course of the winter to leave a pure white head ready for the breeding season.

Gulls are difficult group of birds to identify, and I usually recommend for casual or beginning birders to leave them until later. Start with easy stuff. However, some birders get  “into” gulls in a big way; they get captured by the complexity of identification and the excitement of finding the rarities among the commonplace. However, it’s a challenge. The birds have different plumages in each year before they reach adulthood, with the immature birds being the most challenging to sort out.

As adults, most gulls show a combination of white head, neck and body, grey back or mantle, and dark wingtips with white “mirrors”. Many of the differences among species are subtle. And to cap it off, gulls of different species frequently interbreed, producing all sorts of hybrids with features of two different parents making identification even more difficult. There are lots of hybrid gulls in the Deer Lake flock. Here’s just one example below.

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Probable Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull hybrid

I could go on and on about gulls, but I fear my audience will soon be mimicking the yawn of the Glaucous Gull below.

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Glaucous Gull centre and Glaucous-winged Gull to the left front

However, one final suggestion for a common and easy-to-identify gull is the Glaucous-winged Gull shown on the left above. It’s a large gull, yellow billed, pink legged, and with a pale grey back and grey (not dark or black) wingtips with white mirrors. If the grey coloured wingtips match the colour of the back, you’ve got a Glaucous-winged Gull.

Glaucous, by the way, refers to the grey colour of the adult birds’ back, and wings. Adult Glaucous Gulls have white wing tips.

Gull numbers at the lake will drop steadily from now on. The Glaucous Gull will likely head back north, perhaps to Alaska. It won’t breed for another three years, and when it does, it will do so on Arctic breeding grounds. The Ring-billed Gull will head back to its breeding grounds that stretch across central BC, the Prairies and all the way across the country to Newfoundland and Labrador. The Glaucous-winged Gull breeds here on the BC coast, in Washington State, and right up to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. It is our commonest year-round gull in Metro Vancouver and the Georgia Basin.

So you’ve hung in this far, thank you for your persistence. Gulls are not everyone’s idea of a fun topic. I’ve not posted for a while, but life just gets really busy sometimes. I plan to be posting more regularly as we head into spring. There’s lots to see and enjoy in our parks. Next up are Wood Ducks, our dandiest ducks.

A Blue Jay – the real thing!

Around these parts, many people name our local resident jays, blue jays. Birders like me feel a mild, internal cringe at this minor misnaming, but we usually let it pass without comment. After all, our birds are blue, and they’re definitely jays. The fairly common blue jay of our coastal forests is of course BC’s Provincial bird, the Steller’s Jay. Loud, brash, and with lots of attitude, it fits in well out here on the “left” coast.

Its somewhat shyer Eastern cousin is the real Blue Jay, and we’re incredibly lucky right now to have one visiting a backyard feeder regularly on North Gamma Ave, in North Burnaby.

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The real Blue Jay is a very rare visitor to the West Coast.

Common east of the Rocky Mountains and right across southern Canada, Blue Jays are rare visitors to the Lower Mainland, and as far as I’m aware this is the first one we know to visit Burnaby. It’s certainly a new addition to my list of Burnaby birds. Although rare in our region, Blue Jays are expanding their range in BC west of the Rockies. In fact, there is a second Blue Jay in south Vancouver right now. Two Blue Jays in one winter in this region is exceptional.

But let’s enjoy our bird. Compared to its cousin (shown below), the much more familiar Steller’s Jay, the Blue Jay’s blue is a lot paler, and the bird is much more boldly marked. Very similar in shape, size and structure, both birds are attracted to bird feeders and have a particular fondness for nuts of all kinds. Both members of the Cyanocitta genus, they are closely related, and where the two species are found together, they sometimes hybridize.

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Steller’s Jay, BC’s Provincial Bird

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Blue Jays sport many more colours than our resident Steller’s Jays. Various shades of blue make a showy contrast to areas of black, white, gray and taup – a handsome bird!

While both these birds show quite different shades or colours of blue, their blues have a fascinating connection. For the most part, wherever blue bird feathers are found, including our two jays here, it is not the result of pigmentation. In other words, the feathers are not coloured blue in the way blue jeans are, or blue cars are. At the microscopic level, their feathers have specialized structures that scatter the incoming light to produce the very precise blue colours we see. This is called structural colour. If you found a blue feather from one of these birds and held it up for the light to shine through it, it would look brownish. Here’s to structural colour – our two jays would be a lot drabber without it.

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Dark blues and black predominate in the Steller’s Jays’ plumage.

So, if you’re heading up to North Gamma to look for the bird, focus your efforts north of Cambridge Street. A good clue will be other birders and photographers standing around waiting for the bird to put in an appearance. Another clue to the bird’s presence is its distinctive call. Listen out for it, as this bird frequently announces its arrival before putting in an appearance. And please be respectful of people’s homes and privacy.

Red-flanked Bluetail? Really!

Even though I usually restrict this blog to Burnaby outdoors, there’s such an exciting story happening right now in New Westminster that I’m briefly stretching the Burnaby boundaries to encompass our Royal City neighbour. For the purposes of this story, New West becomes honorary Burnaby.

If you rush down to Queen’s Park right now, you can find a one of the rarest birds ever to show up in Canada. In fact, the Red-flanked Bluetail has never been seen before in Canada until yesterday. A single bird like this usually results in a flock of birders coming to see it. And they were arriving from around the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley in flocks this morning.

Watching the Red-flanked Bluetail

Watching the Red-flanked Bluetail

And they were all here to see this:

Red-flanked Bluetail

Red-flanked Bluetail

But there’s a big backstory here. Last night I received an email from a birding friend who had seen a bird on Sunday morning that he just could not identify. Could I help suggest what he may have seen? If Colin couldn’t identify what he’d seen, I knew it had to be something really special. As soon as I read his notes and looked at his field sketch, I thought I knew what he’d seen. And the last ones of this species I had seen were in Japan! A quick flick through one of my Asian bird books confirmed my thinking: looks like a Red-flanked Bluetail. MEGA sighting. I sent the information off to another birding buddy who confirmed my hunch.

But, now we had to confirm the bird’s identity by finding it again this morning, and getting some photos if possible. And you know what the weather was like this morning – black ice and snow. I couldn’t believe it, on this of all mornings. The Birding Gods were seemingly against us.

I arrived at the children’s playground, just north of the petting zoo at daybreak – except day wasn’t really breaking, although my heart nearly was. Just the dimmest of dawns was struggling to emerge under dark skies and through steady snow. However, a movement caught out of the corner of my eye had me searching through the gloom. Nope – Song Sparrow. Then another movement, and HERE WE GO – an unmistakeable profile, but no plumage or other details visible, and just a struggle to track the bird as it flitted from tree base to tree base.

I couldn’t get a photo – too dark, the bird was too active, and where are the rest of people who should be here by now? A few better looks with some colour and detail were followed by guess what? Not only had my birding buddies not appeared, the bluetail had disappeared, and I still hadn’t had a really a good look to absolutely confirm the identity. It’s times like this that a birder’s stress levels really rise.

After half an hour of careful but frantic searching, my birding buddies appeared, but still no bird. And then, as though materializing from the snow itself, there was the bluetail. The light was better, the bird was close, and we could confirm the identity after finally getting a good look at the diagnostic white throat. Better still, Sharon’s a photographer too, and we got our confirming pictures for the record.

A couple of hours later the local birders were truly flocking in. We’d put the word out. An amazing number of people, it seems, had trouble getting to work this morning because of the roads, but the New West roads were magically much easier to drive, and people’s illnesses seemed very short-lived. Hmmm!

Let’s hope our tiny visitor from Asia hangs around a while longer. The word is flooding out across the birding universe, and visitors will no doubt be arriving from across the continent in the days ahead to see this ultra-rarity.

In the conditions this morning, my photos were poor. But here’s a couple more to round out the story.

Red-flanked Bluetail in children's play area

Red-flanked Bluetail in children’s play area

The bird looks extremely healthy, and is finding lots to eat. It consumed a large worm or grub while we watched, and it seems to be able to find insects, even in these conditions.

Red-flanked Bluetail finding food in snow

Red-flanked Bluetail finding food in snow

To find the bird, park or walk into the parking area at 1st Street and 4th Avenue. Head to the left into the forested North West section of the park. Look for the other birders, or look around the forest behind (west) of the children’s playground. The bird flies low to the ground , rarely going as high as 2 meters. Good luck.

For a much better pictures check out the following:

John Gordon’s blog at: http://thecanadianwarbler.blogspot.ca/

Mike Tabak’s Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackcappedlory/8385325240/in/photostream/