Sad End for First Breeding Record of Sandhill Cranes in Burnaby

As I was about to publish the post below, I heard that the good news story that had been unfolding all last week at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake had come to a sad end. The Sandhill Crane chick (colt) pictured below is no longer with its parents, and has likely died from some unknown cause.

To document the cranes’ story I have decided to let the original post stand, with some slight modifications, because it’s such a good story, and worth telling. While many will consider the outcome a local tragedy, it does illustrate how precarious life can be in the wild, especially for young animals. Survival rates are often low.

Let’s hope the cranes nest again next year. There’s a good chance they will, and we can all hope for a better outcome.

Original post written July 5/6, 2015

The risk with a post like this is that the story gets buried in the overabundance of cute at its centre.

SACRChickAdult27th

Sandhill Crane chick and adult (June 27)

Now I’m not denying (how could I?) the cute factor here , but the story is the historical first that this new arrival represents, and the cute needs no elaboration from me. Just look at the pictures.

And while the chick may be the epitome of cute, let’s not overlook that we’ve got one of the Lower Mainland’s most majestic and uncommon birds breeding right here at Burnaby Lake for the first time since we’ve been keeping records. And they’re putting on a show for everyone.

How do I know these birds have set a breeding record here? A quick search of the literature shows that this new arrival is the first record ever record of breeding Sandhill Cranes at Burnaby Lake, and anywhere else in Burnaby for that matter.

SACRChick&Parents

Sandhill Crane chick and parents (June 26)

The chick pictured above, the first day I saw it, is just a few days old, and was being fed and guarded by both parents. Watching it, I was surprised to see it was picking at and eating some food items independently, which is notable for such a young bird. Usually the parents supply all its food requirements at this early age. After their natal down has dried, and within 24 hours of hatching, Sandhill Crane chicks leave the nest permanently. Such behaviour defines these hatchlings as nidifugous (Sorry, couldn’t resist such an unlikely word), and then they’re off on the risky journey to adulthood.

Sandhill Cranes are rare breeders in only a few locations in the Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley. The wetlands south of Pitt Lake in Maple Ridge were their breeding centre for many years, with just a few pairs actually nesting there. A few more bred in Langley. We do see large flocks of Sandhill Cranes in the Lower Mainland, but only in migration – spring heading north and fall flying south. For the most part these birds continue on their migrations and we are fortunate to see them when they pass over.

However, over the past decade or so, a small breeding population has established itself at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta. Birds, likely from that population, have been turning up in Richmond, where they started to breed about five years ago (first time since 1946), and they’ve also been showing up on our local golf courses, where they haven’t nested, perhaps from dodging flying golf balls!

Sandhill Cranes at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta

Sandhill Cranes at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta

In British Columbia, Sandhill Cranes breed mostly in the Central Interior (Northern Okanagan and the Cariboo/Chilcotin, with some breeding in the north east (Fort Nelson area), and others on the central coast islands and Haida Gwai. Breeding in the Lower Mainland is much less common.

Sandhill Crane chicks grow rapidly, and “our” Burnaby bird seems to be doing just that. Compare the picture taken June 26 with the one here below taken July 5th. Junior is gaining height and bulk, and both parents are supplying it with food.

Chick and parents, July 5

Chick and parents (July 5)

Unlike many birds that spend their first weeks in the nest, nidifugous birds are incredibly mobile for such young animals.

It can wade, even on its junior-sized legs.

 

SACRSwim

It can swim.

SACR BbyLRun

It can run.

SACR BbyLChick

It can preen.

Or, it can simply look disarmingly cute.

IMG_6735

Sandhill Cranes have been showing up irregularly at Burnaby Lake for the past few years. This year they clearly stayed to breed.

Between one and three eggs is the usual clutch size, with two being typical. One or two young are usual. Both parents incubate the eggs, although the female does the overnight shift which means she does about 70% of the incubation duties. Once the chicks leave the nest, both parents protect and feed the young.

SACR BbyLFed#5

Sandhill Cranes are monogamous and tend to maintain pair bonds over many seasons, especially if they successfully breed together. So barring accidents, this pair may be together for the long haul.

As to which is the male and which the female, the birds know of course, but the sexes are similar and not separable by appearance. During their courtship displays though, the males and females can be identified by their specific bugling calls and head motions.

Postscript

I headed down to the lake this afternoon (July 6) to confirm the reports of the chick’s disappearance. Sure enough the two parents were there, occasionally bugling quietly, but no chick was in sight. Given the birds’ extreme attentiveness to their young, the conclusion has to be that the youngster is dead.

It was apparently showing some respiratory distress yesterday which got progressively worse during the day. The chick was nowhere to be seen this morning. A sad ending, but there is hope for next year.

Pair

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

 

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.

Northern Harriers – A Sign of Spring

Not only is the calendar telling us that today (March 20th) is Spring Equinox, but nature too is showing us the seasons are changing. The first Tree Swallows of the year showed up at Burnaby Lake just over three weeks ago, and there are all sorts of signs of spring in our parks. From the blooming of the indian plum in the forests, to the peeping of tree frogs down at Burnaby Lake, all confirm what the birds are telling us – spring is here.

For me, one of the most exciting signs of spring is the return of the Northern Harriers to their nesting area in the meadows at the west end of Deer Lake. And just this past Friday (March 14) I saw the male harrier checking out his regular nesting area.

NOHAgeomale2

Male Northern Harrier checking out its nesting territory prior to breeding

Not a great picture, but the bird was far out in the meadow. Below is a much better picture of the male harrier in flight. Jason Hung, who kindly let me use some of his photographs for this post (thank you, Jason), has much superior pictures of the birds than I can capture with my more basic camera gear. A lot of patience waiting for the birds to fly close-by is needed, and Jason’s patience and skill with a camera has certainly paid off. He’s managed to get some great shots over the past couple of years.

NOHAmaleflightHR

Male Northern Harrier photographed at Deer Lake by Jason Hung

The fact that we’ve got harriers nesting at Deer Lake, is a real feather in the cap for Burnaby Parks – pun intended! We’re tremendously fortunate to have them nesting pretty much in the centre of the City because harriers need undisturbed wetlands or grasslands in which to nest and raise their young. Unlike many raptors, harriers nest on the ground, and as a result are very susceptible to disturbance from people and dogs. The Deer Lake birds arrived here about 10 years ago, and set up nesting territory in the park. As the park has got busier over the years with the increasing population around Metrotown, the pressure on the birds’ habitat has increased. At least once in the past few years, a dog killed a young harrier on the ground, but in most years the pair has successfully raised one or two young.

Meadow sign

This city sign is important protection for our ground-nesting Northern Harriers. Let’s watch and enjoy them from the nearby trails.

Now known as Northern Harriers, these birds were previously named Marsh Hawks and many readers may know them by the previous moniker. “Hawk” is a generic name applied to many raptors, but in the case of harriers it’s not a particularly apt descriptor.Compared to other North American raptors, harriers have a number of unique characteristics. Firstly, the males and females have strikingly different plumage; they are sexually dimorphic. As can be seen from the photos above, the males are grey backed, and mostly white underneath with black wingtips. The females, in contrast to the males, are mostly shades of brown above with buffy, streaked undersides.

NOHAfemaleHR

Female Northern Harrier. Photo: Jason Hung
Click to enlarge

Looking at the picture above, it’s possible to see that harriers have another interesting feature not found in other day-hunting raptors. They have facial disks like owls, which perform the same function for harriers as they do for the raptorial nightshift. They focus the sounds of prey to enable the capture of mice and voles, even when they may be out of sight in thick grasses over which the harrier is gliding.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the males are polygynous i.e. they mate with more than one female, sometimes up to five. However, mostly they are monogamous or bigamous, and in all cases the males provide most of the food for both females and the young. Our male at Deer Lake has typically had two females to provide food for. The second nest is in a virtually inaccessible part of the park, and while the patch of habitat is smaller, it may be more protected from intrusion because of its isolation.

The provisioning of food for female and young by the male gives us the opportunity to see a very exciting and dramatic event. When the male returns to the incubating female sitting on the nest, he gives a whistling call, which is the signal for the female to get airborne. Once she’s up and flying she also calls insistently. The male, flying higher, drops the prey for the female below to pursue and to catch in mid-air. It’s a wonderful aerobatic display.

NOHApairflightHR

Male above, female below with prey just released by the male.
Photo Jason Hung

When the young are flying, the adults will drop in prey for the young to catch in mid-air. Below, Jason once again captured the action. This time it’s the female making the aerial exchange with one of her young.

NOHApreyexchangeHR

Female to young prey exchange. The in-transit food is probably a Townsend’s vole.
Photo: Jason Hung

The next couple of months will provide many opportunities to observe the comings and goings of the Northern Harriers at Deer Lake. Keep your distance, and enjoy the show. Nesting starts in earnest in the next couple of weeks. Spring is definitely here.

Our Dandiest Duck?

So let’s see: iridescent greens, blues, cobalt, purple, violet, bronze, ultramarine, crimson, burgundy spotted with white, black, and vermiculated gold; we could just as well be reading a list of exotic colours on an artist’s palette as descriptions of Wood Duck plumage – a dandy’s colours for sure. See for yourself; click on the image below.

WODU3pairWood Ducks frequently perch on logs, and tree limbs near the water

The females above are noticeably subdued in their plumage compared to the drakes, but being the sole incubator of the eggs, and the guardian of the young when they first emerge from the nest, it makes sense to be less eye-catching to predators. It’s all about remaining inconspicuous, and not drawing unwanted attention. This is a common evolutionary adaptation among many bird species, and among North American ducks nearly all species show this strong sexual dimorphism. Wood Ducks happen to be one of the species that push these male/female differences to the extreme. While it is the drakes that catch the eye on a first look, both females and males are worthy of close scrutiny that reveals the real complexity and subtlety of the colours of both sexes. Let’s start with a closer look at the females.

WODUfemhead

Female Wood Duck – showing the diagnostic white eye-patch that tapers to the rear.

Most species of female ducks are relatively drab in colour, often a mixture of browns, buffs, and tans, but our Wood Duck above shows some iridescence both on the top of the head, and in the shoulder feathers (scapulars) spreading out below the neck. Taking an even closer look at the scapulars we see the subtle, but beautiful colours that we might otherwise miss when seeing a female perched alongside her fancier mate.

WODUfemwing

Subtle but striking – the shoulder and some wing feathers of the female Wood Duck

Wood Ducks are unique among North American duck species. They are the sole representative on the continent of their genus, Aix (Greek for waterbird). In fact, the Aix genus contains only two species worldwide. The other is the Australasian Mandarin Duck – another contestant in the “dandy duck” stakes. Both are part of a larger group called the perching ducks. Wood Ducks certainly live up to that classification. They are often seen perching along the water’s edge on logs and in sometimes in trees.

Confirming their scientific classification as perching ducks, Wood Ducks line a tree limb over Eagle Creek

Confirming their scientific classification as perching ducks, Wood Ducks line a tree limb over Eagle Creek, loafing, preening and snoozing.

There’s a certain irony, however, to the dramatic sexual dimorphism we see in Wood Ducks. It’s the drabber females’ choice of mates that drives the evolution of the spectacular male plumage. Pairs are seasonally monogamous, i.e. they pair-up anew each year,  but because the males play no part in rearing the young (more “dandy” behaviour?) their breeding success is more strongly determined by their ability to attract a mate. Therefore, the bolder the plumage, which indicates to the female readiness and suitability of the male for breeding, the more chance the male has of being selected and passing on his genes to the next generation. Other species of birds in which the males do assist with rearing the young are frequently less sexually dimorphic. Here’s the drake Wood Duck.

Wood Duck male – Dandy indeed!

Wood Duck male – Dandy indeed!

The colours above need no more description, but it is worth noticing the rakish crest that flows down the back of the head. The female has one too, and among the dabbling ducks in North America (Mallards, wigeons, and teals etc), the crest sported by the Wood Duck is unique.

WODUmalehead

This drake is perched next to a female, and is lifting his head to display to her the “full effect”.

The gradations of colours here on the head are quite striking in close-up. No doubt they’re just what an interested female is looking for.

Paired Wood Ducks

Paired Wood Ducks

And while all this fantastic plumage is in pursuit of one thing – passing on the male’s genes to the next generation, Wood Ducks also need suitable habitat to breed successfully – marshy lakes and ponds with lots of surrounding vegetation. Oh yes, and one more thing; they need nest cavities. Before the forests of North America were extensively cleared, and the old trees that contained natural cavities from broken branches and abandoned woodpecker holes were cut down, Wood Ducks were numerous. However, by the late nineteenth century there were real fears that the Wood Duck would go extinct from the combination of habitat loss and over-hunting. After the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 ended the legal hunting of Wood Ducks, the species recovered rapidly. Concerned conservationists also helped them along by providing nest boxes to replace the natural cavities that had been lost in forest clearing.

WODUnestbox

Wood Duck nestbox – Piper Spit, Burnaby Lake

The best place locally to see lots of Wood Ducks is Burnaby Lake at Piper Spit, and it’s no coincidence that at this location you’ll also see many nest boxes put up specifically for Wood Ducks. Although there are many nestboxes at Burnaby Lake, there may not be enough for all the ducks needing one. There are frequent incidents of egg-dumping here when more than one female lays her eggs in a single nest box – up to thirty eggs in a one box. Now not all the eggs will hatch in these conditions, but for a female that can’t find a nest cavity of her own, it seems a good strategy to ensure that at least some eggs produced by the female will hatch.

Continue reading

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.

Alien Invader Arrives in Burnaby – finally!

The Eurasian Collared-Dove’s invasion of North America is a remarkable story. This dainty member of the pigeon and dove family has found human-altered landscapes to be just what it needs to breed rapidly, and spread like an avian tsunami across the continent from east to west. The bird’s arrival here in Burnaby may be one of the final chapters in its conquest of the whole continent, and in particular here on the West Coast. The surprise for me is that it has taken so long to arrive in our fair city.

Eurasian Collared-dove

Eurasian Collared-dove. Since the bird’s introduction to the Bahamas in the 1970’s, its population has exploded and it has spread right across the continent.

For more than six years now, Eurasian Collared-Doves have firmly established themselves in Surrey, Delta, Ladner, Richmond, and up the Fraser Valley. Even though I have been watching out for them, to my knowledge they’ve only just arrived in Burnaby this summer.

Despite my expectation to find the bird here in Burnaby, it was readers of this blog who were the first to notice the alien species in our midst. Back in late July Brian Johnson sent me a couple of pictures of a “mystery” bird he was seeing and hearing in his yard. Bingo! Brian’s distant pictures provided the first evidence I had seen of Collared-Doves in Burnaby. Next up was a phone call a week or so later from Tony Fabian. “Hey George, I’ve got this odd-looking pigeon in my yard. I can’t find it in any of my bird books.”

It took me a couple of weeks more to actually see the birds for myself, and take some pictures that I could publish here. The birds have proved to be skittish, and difficult to get close-up photographs. Finally, my friend Ross McIlroy invited me around to his backyard where the doves were a new arrival at his bird feeder. Although I didn’t manage to get the hoped-for closeup, one of the birds was conveniently perched nearby.

Eurasian Collared-dove

Favouring backyards and back lanes, Eurasian Collared-Doves frequently perch on power lines.

A frequent concern with introduced species, especially highly invasive ones like the Collared-Dove, is their negative impacts on our native species with which they compete for food, territory, and nest sites. So far, Collared-Doves seem to be living harmoniously in North America without significant impacts on our native North American doves and pigeons.

A case in point is its seemingly benign relations with my favourite local member of this family of birds, the Band-tailed Pigeon. It’s good to know this beautiful bird is apparently unaffected by this alien invader. Band-tailed Pigeons breed sparsely in forested areas scattered across our city, but they often show up in large numbers during Fall migration. Their favoured food at this time of year is acorns, which they swallow (whole!) to fuel their migration to points south.

BTPI#1

Band-tailed Pigeons have bright yellow legs, feet and bill, and beautiful, vinaceous body plumage. Click image to expand the image – this is a spectacular bird.

So what’s the difference between these two species – one native and one alien invader? Interestingly both have prominent neck collars and contrastingly patterned tails.

BTPI#2

The dark and light tail bands give the Band-tailed Pigeon its name – nice feeder bird, Ross!

The prominent white collar on the Band-tailed Pigeon above, contrasts with the prominent black collar of the Collared-Dove below.

EUCD#3

Dark collar, pale pastel overall, and dainty appearance characterize the Eurasian Collared-Dove.

So the aliens are now in our midst, and fortunately they are neither to be feared nor shunned. With some careful observation they are easily identified, especially if you are lucky enough to have them coming to a bird feeder in your garden.

Neither species should be confused with the familiar feral pigeon commonly seen along railroad tracks and in parks. That bird is the introduced Rock Pigeon, and that’s a story for another time.

To hear the cooing song of the Eurasian Collared-Dove click here, and then click on the play button.

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!

Deer Lake Heronry Flourishes

Within sight of Burnaby’s City Hall, the word is out that Great Blue Herons have constructed a huge and rapidly growing colony, and they’ve done it all without a building permit! It’s nesting season, and right now there’s so much going on in the colony at Deer Lake Park, it’s definitely time for us to get out there, take a look, and enjoy all the action.

BranchPluck

Great Blue Heron grabs a tree branch to add to its nest of sticks.
(Click to enlarge)

So head down to Deer Lake Avenue, opposite City Hall, to enjoy the sights and sounds. However, please watch only from the paths and the sidewalks. Entering the colony under the nests is definitely a No No. Peering in from the edges of the colony gives the best views of the birds, their nests, and all the goings on. Standing under the nests is unwise for many reasons, especially when looking up, mouth agape.

Search

Sticks are searched for diligently within the colony. or carried in from further afield.
(Click to enlarge)

Sticks are being gathered, nests built, nest sites squabbled over, and the occasional predator is vanquished. Egg-laying will start soon, if it hasn’t already, and after about 30 days incubation, the young will hatch. Following hatching, it takes another two months before the young fledge. And as the young grow, noise levels will rise, as will the colony’s strong, olfactory presence. Yes, it gets pretty stinky, and furthermore, later in the season the trees will be fully leafed-out, and activities harder to see. Now is a very good time to pay a visit.

Heronry

Almost 30 nests are visible here, most located in just two trees on the west side of the colony. (Click to enlarge)

For the past six years, much to the delight of park users, passers-by, interested scientists, and City and Ministry of Environment staff, the Deer Lake heronry has been growing in size at a fantastic rate. It has made a big jump in numbers this year. Don Jones, who, every season makes a very careful inventory of the nests, counted 104 in March. Last year (2012) the count was 66 nests – a whopping increase! As each nest represents a pair of herons, we now have over 200 birds using the colony. That’s a huge number of these big, spectacular birds.

So just how quickly has this colony grown? In 2008, I made the following notes about the heronry:

”There has been a small colony (2-3 pairs) of GBHE at the west end of the lake for the past 4 years. Last year (2007) the colony was predated by Bald Eagles, and no young were fledged. Up to three young were fledged, or were close to fledging in previous years.

This year the birds, presumably the same ones, relocated north and east of the previous location to a grove of black cottonwoods bounded on the south by Price St., on the north by Deer Lake Drive, and on the west by the trail that heads north-east diagonally from the foot of Price. In early May, three nests were visible with adults standing on and/or next to two of the nests.

On May 30, the leafing-out of the trees made observing the nests very difficult. Only the southern-most nest was fully visible, and an adult was sitting (presumably incubating) on it. The second nest was mostly concealed, and its top was not visible. The third nest was not visible at all.

Jul 02 visit. Two large juvenile birds (fully feathered) standing in and on the edge of the southernmost nest. The second nest seems to be unoccupied by either adults or young.”

So, from three nests in 2008 the colony has now grown to over one hundred nests. It seems that herons take note of which colonies are being successful, and will transfer to these new locations from others where conditions may not be as good.

CondoStyle2

Herons nest quite close together in the tall, 30 meter plus, black cottonwood trees. Separation of nests is governed by stabbing distance from those impressive bills. (Click to enlarge)

In fact, the transfer from another colony seems to be a likely cause of this year’s big jump in numbers. The Colony Farm heronry, visible along the Mary Hill Bypass in Coquitlam, has been abandoned this year, likely due to nearby bridge construction at the start of nesting season. The Deer Lake colony may well be attracting some of the birds from the Colony Farm heronry.

Bald Eagle incursions are also a problem for heron colonies. Bald Eagle attacks frequently cause colonies to be abandoned. Both the Deer Lake and the Colony Farm colonies have suffered from eagle attacks. However, Don Jones reported a very interesting observation at the Deer Lake colony this year. A Bald Eagle entered the colony, but was attacked strongly (pecked from above) by one of the herons. The other herons didn’t abandon, but just retreated a short distance. The eagle was finally driven away pursued by a heron. It makes me hopeful that perhaps the birds are learning strategies to defend their nests, even at this relatively early stage in the breeding season.

NB

Sticks are worked into place to build the nest.
(Click to enlarge)

LgeNest

Some nests are quite substantial structures.
(Click to enlarge)

Activities other than nest building are also taking place in the colony. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a picture, but frequent copulations are happening. Despite that miss, I did, manage to capture some tender moments of mutual preening by a nesting pair.

Preen

Copulation, and mutual preening as shown here, both take place on or adjacent to the nest.
(Click to enlarge)

I was recently asked, if there are so many birds on the colony, how come we only see one or two in the park itself? Great Blue Herons will travel long distances (5 to 10 kms) to good feeding areas to forage. Watching the direction of birds flying to and from this colony suggests they are probably foraging along Burrard Inlet, and as far south as Boundary Bay. Both locations are within easy flying distance.

Some individuals do forage locally, and there are frequently one or two birds in Deer Lake Park itself. Some may not go as far as the Inlet or Boundary Bay. I managed to capture this not-very-good picture just a couple of days ago along Chub Creek, a tributary of Still Creek, of a heron just about to swallow its prey. I suspect it was fishing, but made this opportunistic capture instead.

WithVole

Great Blue Heron about to swallow a Townsend’s vole captured along the banks of Chub Creek.
(Click to enlarge)

It’s wonderful to have a such a success story on our doorstep, and we should celebrate our good fortune. However, we shouldn’t be complacent about the threats to the Great Blue Heron. We have a special, non-migratory subspecies here on the BC coast (Ardea herodias fannini), and it is designated a “Species of Special Concern” due to loss of wetland habitat in the Georgia Basin, and a declining population.

And not to be forgotten, too, is how this success story illustrates the importance of preserving the natural areas in our parks. In the 1980’s, the stand of black cottonwoods in which this colony has now established itself was designated for paving as a parking lot for the park. Thankfully, this City-inspired plan for the Park is long abandoned, and we now live in more enlightened times in Burnaby.

Thirty years ago this stand of trees was seen as dispensable. Today, completely unpredictably, it has become a significant colony for this threatened bird. A great example of why the precautionary principle is best applied consistently, especially to our natural areas.

HuntRCanGr

Great Blue Heron foraging at Deer Lake.
(Click to enlarge)

Let’s hope the success of our local colony will help us continue to enjoy these magnificent birds.

If you’ve been wondering why no posts lately, it’s because I’ve been travelling in South East Asia – birding of course. 

Posts should pick up to a regular pace from now on. Thanks for your patience.

George Clulow

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.