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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

PIGRmale1

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.

PIGRfem2

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.

PIGRimm?

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.

PIGRback

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

PIGRmaleClose

 

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.

GullFlock#2

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.

GullFlock

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.

GLGUgroup2

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.

GLGU#1

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.

GLGUhead

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.

RBGU

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.

GWxHE#1

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.

GLGUyawn

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.

Blue Jay #1

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.

STJA

Steller’s Jay, BC’s Provincial Bird

Blue Jay #3

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.

STJA#1

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.

Birds of a Feather….

…indeed do flock together. While many of our smaller birds in winter gather in mixed-species flocks to forage, and collectively keep their eyes out for predators, there are other species which, for the most part, stick with their own kind during the winter months. Perhaps the most obvious of these are our Northwestern Crows, which not only spend their days in extended family groups in their neighbourhood hang-outs, but return each evening to the huge communal roost along Still Creek. But there are others too, mostly smaller birds, that are notable for hanging out exclusively with their close feather-mates.

You’ve probably noticed the huge swirling flocks of Pine Siskins, small members of the finch family that are here in huge numbers this winter. Feeding on our native red alders, these flocks are almost entirely made up of the single species. Although occasionally, a few Common Redpolls or American Goldfinches may mix in.

Pine Siskin flock feeding in red alder.

Pine Siskin flock feeding in red alder

By far the largest flock I’ve seen this season, more than 800 birds, was swirling around the trees at the entrance to Deer Lake Park at Baffin Place earlier this week. I looked and listened, but as far as I could tell the entire flock was Pine Siskins – truly all birds of a feather. While mostly staying in the tree tops, sometimes these flocks move lower down to feed, and will even come right to ground level looking for food, or to pick up grit or small stones, which they swallow and store in their gizzards. If you don’t have teeth, a gizzard is evolution’s perfect solution for “chewing” food. The grit and stones are used in the muscular organ to grind up the bird’s food as part of the digestive process.

Pine Siskin on the ground looking for food or small stones or grit.

Pine Siskin on the ground foraging for food, or small stones or grit for its gizzard

Grit and small stones are not, however, the only reason for these birds to come to ground. Spending most to their time in tree tops, there comes a time for siskins to drink and bathe, and many in this huge flock were intent on both.

Here at Baffin Place, Third Beach Creek emerges from under Oakland St. and plunges deep into the forest as it makes its way into the lake below. A narrow, shallow stream, concealed in the forest is the perfect location for birds to drink and bathe.

Pine Siskins drinking along Third Beach Creek.

Pine Siskins crowding and drinking along Third Beach Creek.

And just like humans after a few drinks, the urge to jump in the hot tub is irresistible for some. In this case, the icy stream standing in for the warmer waters that we softies prefer.

Pine Siskins bathing along Third Beach Creek

Pine Siskins communally bathing along Third Beach Creek

Bathing itself is quite the explosive activity. In the centre of the “water bomb” below is a bathing, but invisible Pine Siskin. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Bathtime

Rapidly beating wings and shaking body produce an explosion of spray from this bathing siskin

After getting the feathers clean, it’s time to perch a little higher to carefully preen and get ready for flight, and to keep feathers waterproof.

After bathing the Pine Siskin preens the feathers into prime condition

A Pine Siskin preens its feathers into prime condition

Another of our familiar birds, the Bushtit, also flocks pretty much exclusively with its own kind during the winter months. This diminutive bird is related to chickadees, but not very closely, and is usually seen in flocks of from ten to thirty or so birds. Much easier to observe closely than Pine Siskins, Bushtits rarely feed in the tree tops, and are frequent visitors to suburban gardens where they will eagerly swarm the fat feeders put out for woodpeckers.

Is there room for me? Bushtits swarming a fat feeder

Is there room for me? Bushtits swarming a fat feeder

And not just one side.

Crowding both sides of the feeder, Bushtits eagerly eat the fat supplied for woodpeckers

Crowding both sides of the feeder, Bushtits eagerly eat the fat supplied for woodpeckers

Bushtit flocks are in almost constant motion, and will usually stay just a minute or two at the feeder before moving on. Sometimes one will stay still long enough to catch a solo picture.

Female Bushtits have yellow eyes, the males have dark eyes

Female Bushtits have yellow eyes; the males’ eyes are dark

Given their habit of flocking, it’s not surprising that Bushtits are very social birds, and this sociability extends beyond spending their winter days in together in feeding flocks. Come night-time and dropping temperatures, Bushtits will huddle in tight groups to maintain body heat overnight. In the breeding season, some populations of Bushtits have helpers at their nests in addition to the breeding pair – true birds of a feather.

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/

 

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.