Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas

Saturday November 22, 2014 saw the inaugural walk in the series I’ll be leading over the next few months called Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas.

A keen group of eleven participants, we found ourselves outdoors on a beautiful fall morning – blue sky, fluffy cumulus clouds, and sun. Yes, sun. Luckily, it seemed the weather gods were looking upon our enterprise favourably. We managed to find the one fine day between soaking Pacific fronts that had been storming across the region on the belly of the jet stream for a week; and then continued the downpours afterwards.

CentVGrnwGrp

Searching for a Fox Sparrow skulking in a blackberry thicket

Starting at the rugby fields at the foot of Sprott St., we wanted to see as much as we could during a relaxed 3 hour walk by following the Still Creek corridor upstream from its outlet at Burnaby Lake.

However, before we got to creekside, the large flock of Canada Geese on the rugby fields (not playing of course) got our attention. Taking a closer look at the more than 150 birds happily grazing the grass fields we noticed that in fact there wasn’t a single Canada Goose among them. They were the Canada’s smaller cousin, the Cackling Goose. Originally thought to be just small Canada Geese, scientific studies, including genetics, have recently shown these birds to be a separate but similar species,

CACG

Cackling Goose. Note the darker colour, small, rounded head, short neck, and small bill which separate the Cackling from the Canada.

Looking around from the parking area, we had excellent views of a flock of American Goldfinches actively feeding in the treetops. After walking across the fields to the banks of Still Creek, we were soon appreciating the many waterbirds at the mouth of Still Creek including Double-crested Cormorants, Buffleheads, and Common Mergansers. Shortly after, we walked north-west along the creek where we saw our Bird of the Day, a beautiful adult Northern Shrike, an uncommon bird in Burnaby. Perched at the top of a large black cottonwood, it was out of camera range unfortunately, but the spotting scope provided great views for everyone.

As we continued, a shrubby area off the main trail featured our most active group of birds for the morning feasting on the berry-sized fruit of Pacific crab apple trees, and red-berried hawthorns. Cedar Waxwings, Purple Finches, American Robins, Spotted Towhees, and Fox Sparrows made up the mixed feeding flock.

In all during the walk, we saw about 30 species of birds, but I won’t retell the details of each sighting, but encourage you to join us next time to see them for yourself. The schedule of walks and details will be published by the City of Burnaby. The dates are:

Saturday Jan 10 – Burnaby Lake Winter Water Birds
Friday Apr 17 – Welcoming Spring at Deer Lake Park
Tuesday Apr 28 – BBY Mnt Conservation Area Spring Songbirds
Saturday May 9 – Dawn Chorus at Deer Lake

A full list of our sightings on November 22 is shown below.

Cackling Goose  150
Canada Goose  6
Wood Duck  2
Mallard  10
Bufflehead  8
Hooded Merganser  1
Common Merganser  3
Double-crested Cormorant  25
Cooper’s Hawk  1
American Coot  7
Glaucous-winged Gull  5
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  25
Downy Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  3
Northern Shrike  1
Steller’s Jay  1
Northwestern Crow  60
Black-capped Chickadee  8
Brown Creeper  1
Pacific Wren  2
Golden-crowned Kinglet  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2
American Robin  40
European Starling  20
Cedar Waxwing  12
Spotted Towhee  10
Fox Sparrow  5
Song Sparrow  8
Purple Finch  5
American Goldfinch  25

 

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Northern Harriers – Update

Perhaps quite predictable, but good news nonetheless for the prospects for raising another generation of Northern Harriers at Deer Lake was the arrival on the breeding territory of a female harrier just a couple of days after the male was scouting out the lay of of the land.

NOHAfem2HungHR

Female Northern Harrier newly arrived on her breeding territory.
Photo: Jason Hung

And of course we can anticipate the outcome of a male and a female on the breeding territory. The male was soon in courtship mode, and pursued the female whenever she landed on the meadow.

NOHAmale2HungHR

Male harrier takes off in pursuit of female
Photo: Jason Hung

Copulation was not captured photographically, but here the male is approaching the female very closely.

HarrierPairHR

Harrier pair. Photo: Jason Hung

In the meantime I’ll keep you posted as events unfold. Even better, get down to the meadows and check out the action for yourself. However, please keep out of the meadows and observe from the trails. The birds’ breeding success depends on us, and our dogs not disturbing them.

I’ve also updated the photographs with higher resolution images on the previous post about the harriers at Deer Lake. Click here to view that post and the upgraded images.

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.

Phabulous Pheasants

In my previous post, about Burnaby Mountain, (click here) I showcased one of our spectacular resident birds, the Sooty Grouse. And not to be outdone by that strutting beauty, we have another resident chicken-relative in our parks, that many would consider even more spectacular, the Ring-necked Pheasant. He’s a very showy guy, as you can see.

Pheasant#1

Ring-necked Pheasants are named for the white collar circling their necks.
Click to enlarge.

And I say “guy”, because like all members of this family of birds, it’s the males that are the showy ones. The females incubate the eggs, and being ground nesters, they need to stay hidden and well camouflaged. In fact, they are so well hidden at this time of year that I haven’t been able to even see one, let alone get a photograph.

Just take a close-up look at this guy. He’s probably got a greater variety of colours than any other bird in our area. What’s your count? And look at the length of that tail, not only to appreciate its striking length, but because on this tail hangs a tale – keep reading.

Pheasant#3

Multicoloured describes it, but really doesn’t capture the detail and intricacy of the
Ring-necked Pheasant’s spectacular plumage. Click to enlarge.

If you take a walk along the upper trail, immediately below the Oaklands development at the west end of Deer Lake Park, you’re almost certain to hear the loud, hoarse, crowing of a cock pheasant. Variously described as koork-kok, or kok kok, just like a farmyard rooster, he’s proclaiming his territory.  On Thursday I counted three males here claiming their turf, often replying to each other in turn. If you’re close enough to one crowing, you’ll also hear a wing-drum, or wing-whirr immediately following the the loud vocal call. This second sound is produced by rapidly flapped wings as the bird rears up to its full height.

The one photographed here can be approached with some care. But if you do see him, don’t walk straight at him. You may be able to get a little closer by taking a very slow, angular path to bring you closer to the bird. Watch his behaviour closely and if he crouches down and starts to retreat, you’ve come too close. Whatever you do, admire him from a respectful distance. Better yet, take your binoculars to bring him into close view.

Of course, all this show, the crowing and the wing flapping is all about reproduction – you know, the Birds and the Bees stuff. Also at this time of year, the facial wattles are crimson and enlarged, as can be seen above. A sign of a vigorous, in-condition male.

In each cock’s territory will be a harem of females that he guards from the intrusion of other males. In technical lingo this is called female- or harem-defense polygyny. No judgements here please; it’s just the way things are in pheasant land. Females under the protection of the male get to focus on egg-laying and incubation and don’t have to expend energy and suffer disturbance from unwanted attempts at copulation by non-territorial, usually young males. Display and crowing will decline as the females finish laying their clutches of typically around ten eggs, but sometimes up to fifteen or more. Pheasant harems tend to be modest in size, frequently around two females per male, but have been recorded with up to fifteen females per male. Whew!

Pheasant#4

Erect feather “horns”, and bright wattles are all marks of the territorial cock pheasant.
Click to enlarge.

A native of Asia, Ring-necked Pheasants have been introduced around the world, mainly for hunting. The birds at Deer Lake probably descend from birds originally introduced for hunting when Burnaby was much more rural. However, I suspect there may have also been “supplemental” releases over the years by nostalgic hunters who still like to see the birds around.

The ones in our parks are of course protected from being shot . However, you’d think that such a brightly coloured bird, that spends nearly all its time on the ground, would be easy prey for a number of predators. Indeed the pheasant’s life can be a risky one. With all the coyotes, racoons, skunks, and hawks in the park, both adults and in particular the chicks, are very susceptible to predation, as are the eggs that the females are now incubating. The fact that these birds persist in the park is always quite remarkable to me, given the number of things that could make a meal of them. Of course, they provide another very good reason for keeping dogs leashed at all times.

So here’s the tale of the tail. When I photographed this male a couple of weeks back, he was beautifully long-tailed, a plumage characteristic common to all pheasants.

Pheasant#2

Pheasant with a phull tail

But when I photographed him yesterday something was missing. The same bird is now tailless.

PheasantSans

Now tailless, the long plumes gone, the cock pheasant continues to crow and display.

Territorial males rarely fight among themselves, and such a battle would be unlikely to cause this kind of damage. So it seems our friend here had a near fatal encounter and a successful escape. Perhaps a long tail is helpful for more than show. A predator may grab it as the bird tries to escape, and end up with a mouthful of feathers instead of meat. Coyote, or off-leash dog? We’ll never know, but I suspect an encounter with one of the two.

Even though he’s not at quite his former glory, and is just a bit tattered, he hasn’t been displaced from his territory; he persists in guarding his females, and lives to crow another day. Phabulous!

Burnaby Mountain Morning

Rain overnight and clearing conditions this morning promised some excellent spring birding on the Mountain today. With a good chance that large numbers and many species of birds had “fallen-out” on their overnight migrations, it was time to head up the hill and do some birding around Centennial Park and the surrounding forests.

The Western Tanager is a spectacular, and quite commone neo-tropical migrant. Despite its bright colours it can be virtually invisible in a leafy, green tree. Many people are surprised that it's quite common here and breeds widely in Burnaby parks.

The Western Tanager is a spectacular neo-tropical migrant. Despite its bright colours, it can be virtually invisible in a leafy, green tree. Many people are surprised to learn that it’s fairly common here, and breeds widely in Burnaby parks.

Locations like Burnaby Mountain are magnets for these weather-affected migrating birds. Known appropriately as migrant traps, these special places are at their most exciting during spring and fall migrations. Other well-known migrant traps in Metro Vancouver are Queen Elizabeth Park and the tip of Point Grey, Vancouver.

Where there’s a geographical barrier, such as a body of water, or where a height of land pokes up through a city landscape, birds find refuge, and the chance to feed up and rest, before continuing their long distance flights. Burnaby Mountain is on the edge of Burrard Inlet, lies just before the North Shore Mountains, and rises above the city. All good features for attracting migrating birds.

YRWAAud

Yellow-rumped Warblers are our most common migrant warbler. Like this one, they frequent tree tops, foraging for insects and insect larvae, which makes them a little tough to photograph.

With a many colourful birds like the two above to grab my attention, I was soon enjoying spring migration in full swing. Not only were there warblers and tanagers, but flycatchers  were also announcing their arrival with a variety of songs. A loud, Quick Three Beer whistled from the top of a conifer confirmed the presence of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, surely one of the easiest songs to remember, even if you’re a wine drinker. Click here for a sample song.

Our more familiar birds, like the American Robin, are very common on the Mountain, and at this time of year are in full voice. When you are standing in one place, songs can be heard coming from all directions. Some birds are migrants, while others already have their first nests in the forests, and forest edges. Even our common birds are worth a second look.

AMROBbyMtn

American Robin – a very common bird on Burnaby Mountain

And while on the topic of resident birds, we have a very special one on Burnaby Mountain. In Metro Vancouver, on this side of Burrard Inlet and away from the North Shore Mountains, Burnaby Mountain is the only place I know where the Sooty Grouse can be found. They breed here, and if you’re lucky enough, and make a careful search, you may be fortunate enough to see of one of the most sought-after bird sightings of the Western Mountains.

Today I was lucky enough to see three, and even luckier to get extremely close to a couple of females. All I did was squat down, stay still, and with my camera ready, let them walk right past me.

SOGRFem#4

Female Sooty Grouse. Speckled grey-brown, the female is very cryptically coloured and blends in very well in the forest where she nests. Not so well camouflaged, however, when she comes out of the forest into a grassy area to feed.
Click image to enlarge.

One approached so near, I was able to get this close-up.

SOGRFemHead

Female Sooty Grouse.
Click image to enlarge

Birders affectionately call all members of the grouse family “chickens”. The picture above shows the family resemblance, and they are indeed in the same bird family, Phasianidae.

Like many species of grouse, the females, which incubate the eggs, are cryptically coloured. The males, on the other hand, have spectacular displays and showy plumage that they use to great effect in the breeding season to attract the females.

This morning, a single male was hooting and displaying in a Douglas Fir along the trail. Silhouetted against the sky, it was difficult to photograph. However, last spring I was lucky enough to have a close encounter with displaying male, which came down to ground level because he was so absorbed in his attempts to attract a mate.

SOGRMaleDisp

Displaying male Sooty Grouse. Note the inflated air sacs on the neck, which are involved in sound production, and the raised “eyebrows”.
Click image to enlarge

Here’s a close-up of the head of a male – quite impressive! As he makes his sonorous hooting, he flexes his erect tail in synchrony. Click here to listen.

SOGRMaleHead

Displaying male Sooty Grouse.
Click image to enlarge

So whether it’s migrant or resident birds, Burnaby Mountain has lots to offer the interested observer at this time of year.

And the views are spectacular too.

IndArm

Looking up Indian Arm from Burnaby Mountain.

Rhodo Fest Birdwalk

An enthusiastic group of Burnaby birders joined the early morning, kick-off event of this year’s 25th Annual Burnaby Rhododendron Festival, held today at Deer Lake Park. It’s the early birders who see the birds, so we do our tour before the crowds appear and the park gets too busy. The strategy certainly paid off today, and we had a good, birdy couple of hours.

RhodoFest

Rhodo Fest birders ready to head out from the Shadbolt Centre, Deer Lake
Click on images to enlarge

Under a blue sky and sunshine we first headed via the Century Garden to take a look at our booming Great Blue Heron colony visible from Deer Lake Avenue (see previous post). Nest building was continuing, but some birds were sitting tight, likely incubating eggs.

One of the most common birds we heard singing on our walk this morning was the Spotted Towhee. However, we didn’t manage to get great looks, so here’s a picture I took previously of this dapper park resident.

SPTO DeerL

Spotted Towhee singing

Walking down to the lake we found only a few ducks, but this was more than made up for by the group spotting a bird we rarely see on the lake – a Common Loon. Not fishing , but  seemingly just loafing, our loon visitor was likely using the lake for a brief stopover on its migration to points further north.

Other lakeshore/wetland residents we heard included the Common Yellowthroat (witchety, witchety), and the noisy, but skulking Marsh Wren.

MAWR2

Marsh Wren – one of three species of wren in the park

Continuing our journey along the boardwalk at the west end of the lake, we were treated to great looks at one of our nesting Northern Harriers flying over the meadow, and allowing the group great looks at this distinctive, wetland-loving raptor – no pictures, unfortunately.

Great Blue Herons, Common Loon, and Northern Harrier were for me the highlights of the morning. A good walk that began and ended with the songs of robins.

AMRO

American Robin – Burnaby Mountain

In all we recorded thirty-three species, but many were only heard, or briefly seen. For a full list of birds recorded, click here.

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?”

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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.

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

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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.

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