The lady, the bear, and the elephant

The what? An elephant in Burnaby’s parks – a wild one? Has the circus come to town and there’s been escapees? And how come it’s not in the news? Well, read on to find out. I have an interesting miscellany of sightings made during August and September to report. And they’re all true!

The Lady

Let’s take a look at the lady first. In this case it’s a beautiful one: the painted lady butterfly.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in my yard

Painted ladies are summer migrants to British Columbia from the arid regions of the southwestern US. The first migrants arrive here in spring, lay their eggs and produce a second generation of adults, of which this beautiful specimen is certainly one.

These second generation adults, unlike monarch butterflies, do not return south to the country of their ancestors. Most just hang on here, to finally die when the colder weather arrives. However, some do occasionally hibernate and make it through our winter as adult butterflies, to reappear the following spring. So this one does have some chance at a very long life for a butterfly.

Click on the image for a closer look

Look at the opalescent eye, and at the proboscis coming from the head to suck nectar from the black-eyed Susan.

Even the underwing view of the butterfly presents a treat for the eyes. The mix of pink/orange, the various shades of brown and tans, and the blue-centred eyespots on the hindwing all add to the powerful effect of this little beauty.

The Bear

And now for the bear. There have been sightings in the cul-de-sac where I live, which backs on to Deer Lake Park, but I missed bruin’s visit. A number of the walkers I meet in the park have asked: “Have you seen the bear?” “No”, I reply. It seems I’ve missed bruin in the park too.

Finally, I got talking to regular park walker John Gerbrandt this week. “Seen the bear?” he asked. Quick on the uptake, I replied, “Have you?” “Yup,” he said, “just down around the corner on this trail we’re on now.” Bruin missed again, and right on my regular route around the park too!

“Get a photo?” “Yes,” says John “with my cell phone.” Deer Lake’s bruin finally sighted, albeit second hand via John’s photo. As I said earlier, it’s all true, and here’s the photo to prove it.

Black bear on Deer Lake trail. Photo: John Gerbrandt

I don’t know if the bear is still in the park, but by all accounts it’s not aggressive. Likely in the park to feed on blackberries, which are now coming to the end of their season, it may have moved on looking for food elsewhere. However, if you do have an encounter, the animal shouldn’t be approached; just back off slowly, and take another route, or wait for the animal to move on. Bears may look cuddly, but they are powerful animals and somewhat unpredictable. Utmost caution is called for.

In one of those surprising coincidences that happen sometimes, I hadn’t quite finished writing this post when I had a live bear encounter of my very own today (Sept 16) at Burnaby Lake.

On the sports fields at the west end of the park, with all the excitement of the weekend’s sports activities going on busily and loudly, this bear was spotted sauntering along the east side of the field along the trail that parallels Still Creek before it empties into the lake. It too did not appear aggressive, nor afraid of the athletes at play nearby.

Black bear, Burnaby Lake Regional Park

The Elephant

And now for what I expect many readers have been waiting for – the elephant. Well, actually this elephant is a lot smaller than the pachyderm variety; it’s the enormous caterpillar of the elephant hawk-moth. At about 7.5 centimetres (3 inches) in length and about 1 cm in diameter, this guy is truly elephantine for a caterpillar. The moth’s name, however, is not due to its size, but due another feature of the caterpillar.

The front or head end of the caterpillar has a trunk-like snout that to some looks like an elephant trunk. You can see it partially protruding in the photograph below. It’s the extendable part that includes the head, beyond the four false eye spots.

Besides the partially protruding “trunk”, note the horn on the tail.

 

Here, the “trunk” is withdrawn into the head-end segment of the caterpillar’s body to make it look snake-like.

And what about those striking false eyes? With the trunk withdrawn, as shown above, the animal resembles a snake with a large head and four large eyes. A caterpillar this size would be a prized food item for a bird or other predator. However, these potential predators are frightened away by the caterpillar looking like a snake displaying those dramatic eyes.

As I write, the caterpillar has now almost certainly burrowed into the soil to pupate below the fuchsia on which it was feeding. It will spend the winter as a pupa, and with luck next July the spectacular adult hawk-moth will emerge to be appreciated for its beauty.

Elephant hawk-moth adult. Photo: jean pierre Hamon. Licensed under creative commons

This beautiful animal is, however, not native to North America but to Europe and parts of Asia. Not considered a pest, it was apparently introduced into British Columbia in the 1990’s, and seems to be well established in and around Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Lucky us.

 

 

 

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Purple Martins – First Confirmed Nesting in Burnaby

Back in September 2012 I wrote a blog post here on the pre-migration gathering of Purple Martins at Deer Lake Park.

In Martins Departin’? the birds involved in the “… noisy, energetic, and exuberant convocation in the tree tops along the boardwalk”  were almost certainly from the colonies at Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver, and at Rock Point, Port Moody. There were no breeding locations in Burnaby at that time.

Adult female and immature Purple Martins, August, 2012.

But now, almost five years later, I’m delighted to report that Purple Martins are actually breeding here in Burnaby, down at Burnaby Lake on the pilings at the west end of the rowing course. Not only is this a first modern-day record for the City (they likely did breed here historically), but there’s a special bonus involved here too.

The spectacular, province-wide recovery of Purple Martins, described in the earlier post, has been almost entirely due to the use of nestboxes erected by many dedicated volunteers here on the Mainland, and on Vancouver Island. Nearly all these locations have been over salt water, usually on wooden docks and pilings.

For some years now there has been great anticipation that, with the expanding population, martins will nest again over freshwater locations, which they historically did. Bingo! Burnaby Lake is freshwater, and the nesting here is one of only four very recent locations where nesting around freshwater has been confirmed – the others being in the mid-Fraser Valley.

How do we know they are nesting at Burnaby Lake? Well, head down to the Rowing Pavilion and take a look for yourself. With a little patience, every 10 to 15 minutes you’ll see the martins entering the upper-right nestbox on the fourth piling from the left. If all the numbers on the box were were readable, it would be 06 – 24. See the picture below.

Adult male Purple Martin exiting the occupied nestbox

A brief aside: this post is notable for its poor pictures. Unfortunately, the birds are distant, fast moving, and adding an additional murky quality today, was the smoke-filled air. Earlier pictures like the above are a little brighter. Today’s are, well, foggier.

Take your binoculars, and you’ll notice the returning adults are carrying food (mainly dragonflies and other large flying insects) into the nest. Try clicking once on the picture below for a larger view. Look carefully at the bird’s bill to see it’s stuffed with insects.

Male Purple Martin about to enter nestbox with food

Carrying food into the nest is one thing, but are there actually young birds inside? We can’t see them after all. However, a higher level of certainty is provided by the picture below. Here you can see the female departing the nest which a large white blob in her bill which she will very quickly drop into the lake. Like many birds, young Purple Martins’ poop is contained in a white mucous membrane “bag” which enables parents to keep the nest clean.

Female Purple Martin carrying fecal sac from nestbox confirming “someone” pooped inside.

Parents carrying out the fecal sacs suggests the youngsters are older than 8 days. After about 13 to 14 days, the young will defecate at the entrance to the nestbox from where parents carry off the fecal sac. I saw no evidence of fecal sacs at the nestbox entrance during my two visits. I estimate from these observations that the young are between about 10 and 14 days old.

Natural Hazards

After about 28 days the young should be ready to fledge i.e. take their first flight – always a risky time for all young birds as they learn the skills of flying and maneuvering, catching prey and avoiding predators.

An added hazard for these young martins is that there is at least one, and probably a pair of Merlins in the area, probably nesting too. I have seen one on both my visits. The parent martins are very vigilant however. Along with the Barn Swallows, which are quite numerous here, they instantly go into attack mode, calling loudly, and vigorously diving and swooping at the Merlin to drive it out of the area. The male seems to be more aggressive than the female in these interactions.

Distant shot of Merlin. The bird was aggressively chased from this perch by the adult male Purple Martin soon after this photo was taken.

However, Merlins, small falcons, are for their size, powerful bird predators. Often making their captures in mid-air after a high speed chase, they could be a significant threat to an inexperienced young martin taking one of its first flights.

A Long History Finally Rewarded

Joe Sadowski, a founding member of the Burnaby Lake Park Association, trail builder, and nestbox constructor extraordinaire, has been waiting 20 years, he tells me, for the Purple Martins to nest in the nestboxes he was instrumental in putting up at the lake. Along with the Park Association, Roy Teo, and Kiyoshi Takahashi have been monitoring these nest boxes and other Purple Martin nesting colonies for many years.

It’s a credit to all their hard work that we finally have these largest North American Swallows nesting in our midst. Rewarded indeed.

 

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

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.

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Here Be Dragonflies

Written on ancient maps as warnings to mariners, Here be Dragons conjured up images of fire-breathing monsters lurking in unknown regions of the world ready to incinerate the unwary.

Here be Dragonflies is not a warning, but instead an invitation to head down to our local lakes and ponds to see these intricate and beautiful creatures that are just now taking to the air as the full heat of summer has arrived. Not scary, and not fire-breathing, dragonflies compete with butterflies as one of the top insect attractions in our parks and gardens.

8SpotSkim#2Male

The eight-spotted skimmer is common, easy to see, and easy to identify. Photographed at Burnaby Lake, this one’s a male.

Living Fossils

Whenever I watch dragonflies, I’m always awed by the thought that these insects are the modern descendants of a fantastically ancient lineage. Fossil dragonflies, very similar to those we see today, were flying around almost 300 million years ago. That’s a staggeringly long time ago. As a comparison, the last Ice Age ended about 10, 000 years ago. Dragonflies have been around about 30, 000 times longer. Few animals living today have remained essentially unchanged for such a long stretch of geological time. When dragonflies were darting around the giant forests of the Carboniferous Period, mammals had not yet even appeared on earth. A very successful evolutionary “design” indeed.

8SpotSkimFem#2

Eight-spotted skimmer female. Notice the different body colour, and lack of blue in the wings found in the male. Compare her black spots to the male’s, and you’ll notice they are the same size, shape and position on the wings.

Below is a second common Burnaby dragonfly – the blue dasher. What a great name! No doubt why it’s called blue, and it is pretty zippy in flight too. However, this dragonfly’s wings are not boldly marked like the eight-spotted. However, look at the rakish angle they are held in contrast to the more conventional stance of the eight-spottted.

BlueDashMaleCrop

Blue dasher – male. Photographed at Deer Lake

Climate Change Connection

The blue dasher is found only in the most southerly areas of Canada; however it is a species that is likely responding to global warming. It has extended its range northward in recent years, and continues to do so. Not one of the dramatic signals that things are changing rapidly on the planet, but nonetheless, a signal from nature that they are.

Acute Vision

Dragonflies mostly feed on flying insects, sometimes even other, smaller dragonflies. To see, pursue, and capture their fast-moving prey they need fantastically sharp vision. The two large compound eyes which take up a large proportion of their head have evolved to capture even the slightest movement. Made up of up to 30, 000 individual simple eyes, the compound eyes of dragonflies not only give very fine detection of movement, but because in some species they form an almost spherical array around the head, they give a field of view approaching 360 degrees. Click the image of the blue dasher above to get a close look at its stunning turquoise eyes.

BlueDFemCrop

Blue dasher – immature female.

Powerful Wings

No doubt part of the evolutionary success of dragonflies can be attributed to their wings. The intricate pattern of veins (venation) which carries blood to the wings also provides structural strength for powerful wing beats. Coupling this with the ability to flap and rotate all four wings independently, makes dragonflies incredibly manoeuvrable fliers. They can hover, rotate on a dime, make rapid vertical climbs and descents, and maintain forward flight at high speeds, and even fly backwards, all the time keeping the body horizontal.

4SpotSkim

Four-spotted skimmer – female. The striking venation on the leading edge of the wing on this beauty is worth a closer look. Click to enlarge.

Dragonfly Cousins

Much smaller than their larger and more aggressive cousins, damselflies are also emerging in numbers and flying around the water’s edge at our local lakes and ponds. Slower moving than dragonflies, they hunt mostly by gleaning insects (aphids) hiding in the waterside vegetation. Damselflies are distinguished from dragonflies by the way they generally hold their wings closed over their bodies. The males, and some females, are mostly eye-catchingly blue, like tiny electric-blue pencils floating in the air on almost invisible wings. To many people damselflies are known as bluets, which is an entirely appropriate name. Bluet is also frequently seen as part of the common name for a number of species of damselflies.

Much more difficult to identify than some dragonflies, many species of damselflies look superficially similar. The one I photographed below is, I think, a tule bluet – a common species hereabouts. However, birds are where I’m confident in my identifications; I’m far less certain when it comes to damselflies. Please correct me if I’ve made a misidentification.

BluetSp

A damselfly (tule bluet?) perched on lakeside vegetation at Deer Lake.

So whether it’s dragonflies or damselflies that catch your fancy, it’s time to take a look because Here (they) be….

And take your binoculars and camera. Close-ups are definitely in order when viewing these beauties.

If you’re interested to learn more about our local dragonflies, I suggest Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West. It’s also available in Burnaby libraries. I consulted the book extensively for this post.

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.

2012 Christmas Bird Count Ties Record

Some people insist that prayers to the weather gods are an essential part of pre-count rituals for the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Let’s face it, West Coast weather in December is often seriously discouraging for spending a day outdoors counting birds. Eight hours in cold rain, and/or snow can get even the keenest birder asking: ” Now why exactly did I volunteer to do this?”

GroupCBC

Members of the Deer Lake CBC team at Deer Lake

Fortunately, however, for the eleven hardy birders who headed out to census our wintering birds on this Sunday’s (Dec 16) CBC, the weather gods, if not exactly benevolent, did at least leave us with a dry, but sunless day. Good birders in the field, a dry day, and a little bit of luck can mean a good count. And we had all three on Sunday.

STJA

Even before it was fully light at 8:00 a.m., noisy Steller’s Jays (above) were one of the day’s first additions to field notebook. Birds that announce their presence make for quick and easy birding – many of the birds on the census are identified and counted “by ear” through their calls and other vocalizations .

Although a number of vocal landbirds were identified early at the shores of Burnaby and Deer Lakes, where the two teams each began their days’ birding, the first order of business was to count the waterbirds.

With two unfrozen lakes on which to count ducks and other aquatic birds, we usually do quite well in this aspect of our CBC bird list. Our most numerous duck species (223) were, not surprisingly, Mallards.

MALLPair

Mallard pair

A far less common duck (19 counted), and until 2005 one that we didn’t see on the count at all, is the very nattily plumaged Ring-necked Duck. The local increase in winter numbers of this duck is a reflection of a general continent-wide increase in this species.

RNDU

RNDUsingle

Other waterbirds we recorded on Sunday included the somewhat ancient-looking, fish-eating Double-crested Cormorant (15). Many consider this one of our less attractive birds, and although superficially drab, their turquoise eyes are a surprise feature that is only seen when the light is just right. These two are brownish immatures; the adults are glossy black. Remember to click on the images for a closer look.

DCCO's

And we don’t necessarily have to look on the water for all waterbirds. Many spend as much time on land as in the water. Great Blue Herons (4) not only wade the lakeshores, but also hunt in the long grass meadows at Deer Lake. The one below is demonstrating its hunting techniques – likely looking for the voles that inhabit the meadows at the western end of Deer Lake Park. We counted this one near the outflow of Beaver Creek into the west end of the lake.

GBHECBC

Talking of waterbirds on land, our biggest numbers of gulls on the count are usually found at the east end of Deer Lake, where they hang around in the playground area waiting for handouts. This year was no exception, but while numbers were reasonable, the species count was modest; just two, plus a few hybrids.

Ring-billed Gulls (30) are the daintier of the two species, and this one is showing its diagnostic yellow legs, yellow iris, black wing tips, and the banded bill that gives it its name.

RBGU

The dirty-looking head feathers on this bird are found on most adult gulls in winter. Over the course of the season, the brownish feather tips wear off leaving the heads bright, clean, and white ready for the spring and for the breeding season.

The other gull we counted on Sunday is the Glaucous-winged (46), our commonest species locally. It too has the “dirty” head effect, but is a much bulkier, heavier-billed bird than the Ring-billed. Compare the picture of the two birds to see the differences between the two.

GWGU

For the Glaucous-winged, note the large yellow bill with the red spot on the lower mandible, pink legs, dark iris, and grey wingtips the same colour as the back (mantle) feathers. Also, in the picture above note the size difference compared to the smaller Ring-billed behind.

Gulls can be very challenging to correctly identify, but separating the Cackling Goose from the very familiar Canada Goose can at times be even more of a challenge. In fact, up until 2004 the Cackler was considered just a small type of Canada Goose. However, it is smaller, darker coloured, breeds further north and west in the Arctic and sub-Arctic than the Canada Goose, and has a high yelping voice that is clearly different from the Canada Goose’s honking.

These characteristics, along with genetic studies, confirmed it as a different species. Look for the short neck and small bill as field marks. If you scratch your head over whether you’re looking at a Canada or a Cackling, don’t despair. It’s a subtle identification.  Below is part of the flock of 130 cacklers we counted on the rugby fields at Burnaby Lake.

Cacklers

A real surprise for us, and a first for the count this year, was that Cackling Goose numbers were higher than Canada Goose numbers. The Canada’s must have been feeding elsewhere on Sunday.

OK, so how did we tie last year’s record of 64 species? We saw lots of birds at Deer Lake, but the Burnaby Lake team really made some standout finds, and pushed our respectable totals into higher territory. In both parks we did well with the Dickie birds (birder talk for small, bush-dwelling birds) such as Song Sparrows, and other species of smaller birds such as Varied Thrushes.

SOSP#2

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

VATH

And here a beautiful, robin-like, female Varied Thrush. Not really a Dickie bird, but my favourite winter thrush. (Picture taken in November)

However, at Burnaby Lake the team found 12 White-winged Crossbills, and a Townsend’s Warbler. Both birds are firsts for the Burnaby count, and the crossbills are the third record only for the whole Vancouver CBC, of which this count is a part – Area ‘G’. Considering that the Vancouver count has been running since the 1960’s, you can appreciate how rare an occurrence White-winged Crossbills are on a CBC. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures to show, but see the links at the end of this post.

The crossbills are part of an invasion of winter finches that is taking place across the continent this year. We counted record numbers of Common Redpolls (40), Red Crossbills (78), and an amazing 724 Pine Siskins, which is more than three times our previous high since the year 2000. You may have noticed the swirling flocks of small, twittering finches, mostly staying high in the treetops when you’re out walking this year. You’re almost certainly seeing Pine Siskins. Here’s a very unsatisfactory picture of part of a flock of more than fifty birds.

PISIFlock

Very rarely wintering this far north, most Townsend’s Warblers head further south, many into Central America. As an insect-eating species, this individual, a spectacularly yellow male,  has landed itself a tough winter trying to survive in Burnaby. However, they are amazingly tough birds, and it will likely survive if the winter is not too severe, gleaning hibernating insects from the conifers it likes to hang-out in.

Northern finches heading south, southern warblers staying north, lakes unfrozen for the waterbirds, no rain or snow, and fields and bushes full of our resident and wintering birds, all these factors combined to give us a great result in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in Burnaby and Deer Lakes – a great seasonal gift.

Oh yes, and the crow roost this year along the Still Creek corridor – about 8000 birds.

Season’s Greetings everyone.

Click here for pictures of Townsend’s Warbler

Here for White-winged Crossbills

And here for the Area ‘G’ Results 2012 species and numbers.

Pictures in the above post were taken during the count, or in November and December this year, mostly in the Deer Lake area.

Was Kermit wrong?

The two juvenile Green Herons that turned up at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake yesterday morning are calling into question the truth of Kermit the Frog’s well known lament, It’s not easy being green. Watching these two young birds catch ‘minnows’ at the mouth of Eagle Creek, swallow one after another, and then follow-up their feasting with an extended period of preening in the surrounding trees, suggests the more appropriate song would be Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy – even if you are green.

Green Herons, the second smallest of the herons in North America, are at the Northern limit of their range in Southern BC, but can be found throughout the Americas, as far south as Venezuela where suitable wet, marshy habitats provide them with what they need to find cover, eat and reproduce. They are very uncommon in these parts, and only rarely will one spend the winter here.

Compared to the much more common and more familiar Great Blue Heron, Green Herons weigh in at around 210 g (7 oz) with a wingspan of 66 cm (26 inches), while Great Blues weigh in at a comparatively whopping 2.4 kg (5.3 lbs) and a have a wingspan of 1.83 meters (72 inches).

Green and small they may be, but they’re super efficient hunters. That sharp, pointed bill is used to deadly effect when hunting fish, their main prey, but it is no less effective when taking various insects and other invertebrates which also make up their diet. In common with all herons, their forward-angled eyes give them 3-D vision for pin-point accuracy.

Being dwellers of marshy lakes and other wetlands, other prey is also available. Below is one that escaped…

only to be recaptured… Yikes!

and finally to meet its end.

Oh dear! It seems Kermit was correct after all.

Well, everyone has to eat.

The three action photographs above were taken by John and Sheila Linn who are ardent photographers of nature in Burnaby. They capture many wonderful images of the wildlife and drama in our city’s parks. Thank you, John and Sheila for this wonderful sequence.

And a final note about the birds: both Green Herons still have some residual natal down on their heads which suggests they are local birds, born and bred on Burnaby Lake, or more likely along one of its tributary creeks.

And a final note about Kermit’s brethren above: the frog that became lunch for one of the herons is a non-native species, a Green Frog. Along with Bullfrogs, which are also common in the Lake, they are wreaking havoc with our much smaller native frogs, by outcompeting them and frequently eating them. So let’s hear a cheer for the herons, doing their bit to control introduced species.