2015 Christmas Bird Count – a record count again.

There’s always some excited anticipation ahead of a day’s birding, and for the Vancouver Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Area G in Burnaby, it comes in two types: what birds will we find, and what will the weather be like? The latter, I guess, is more trepidation than anticipation. We’ve had some brutal days of rain and snow over the years on this count. It can make counting birds an endurance test rather than a pleasant day birding.

The weather forecast in the week preceding the count was consistently bad: Sunday, December 20, would see a front sweep in from the Pacific and give us a good soaking all day long. Yuck! A regular day’s birding can be postponed, but not a CBC. It’s the designated day and out we go, storm or sun.

And out we went, and wouldn’t you know it, the sun shone! The Jet Stream had slipped direction overnight, the storm roared though while we slept, and the morning dawned to scattered clouds, blue sky, and sun. Augury for a good day, perhaps.

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Sunrise mouth of Eagle Creek, Burnaby Lake

Note: you may view larger images of all pictures with single click on each.

Not only do the forests and fields look better and brighter in the sun, the birds are much more active, show themselves more readily, and are more vocal. Identifying birds by their calls is particularly important on a Christmas Bird Count. Because there’s not time to get a visual on each one, calls count: One towhee, another Song Sparrow, a Pacific Wren… and on we go, listening and tallying as we walk.

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Spotted Towhee in the sunshine

With teams at Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake, we were set for a good count. Good weather and skilled counters make a difference. Not only was the weather change a surprise, but the Burnaby Lake group was in for another just as we started counting. Stepping up to the bank of Eagle Creek to begin tallying the ducks, a bobcat burst out from under the creekside salmonberry canes, almost right under our feet, and bound across the base of the spit giving everyone a close, but fairly fleeting look in the daybreak gloom – too fast for any of us to capture a picture. Was it sleeping there, or waiting for duck breakfast? Possibly both.

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

I know; it’s a Christmas Bird Count. So what’s with the mammals? Well, a day’s birding is always enlivened by other wildlife seen, and the bobcat wasn’t our only bonus wildlife sighting. As we birded Phillips Point on the north side of the lake, we watched a family of river otters fishing just a short distance off-shore.

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake parks are in area ‘G’ of the Vancouver CBC. Although area ‘G’ covers a lot of territory, we focus most of our counting efforts on the two parks, but also spend time along other sections of the Still Creek corridor. At the end of the day, we count the crow roost along Still Creek. This year we tallied 7000 Northwestern Crows, but it was a difficult count this year because the crows entered from multiple directions. Our count involved a lot of estimation, and therefore was conservative.

So how did we do? As the headline suggests, we set a new species record for the count. Seventy-two species, beating last year’s total of 69. We also had high counts of a large number of species for the count. We recorded three new species since I started keeping detailed records for the count in 2001: Redhead, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Pine Grosbeak.

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West end of Deer Lake where the Redhead was first found

Redhead, a species of diving duck, is a rare bird for Deer Lake at any time of year. Seeing one on the CBC makes it an added bonus. If you’d like to see it for yourself, the bird seems to have taken up residence on the lake. I went down today to get a few photos and it was easily observed from the boardwalk along the north shore of the lake toward the west end.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Redhead with Ring-necked Duck behind, Gadwall female in front

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a dapper little sparrow that overwinters in the Lower Mainland in small numbers. This bird is not new to the count. We’ve recorded them in the 1990’s, but it makes the highlight list because it’s not been recorded since 2001.

Based on my detailed records and memory, Pine Grosbeaks have not been recorded previously in area ‘G’ , but have been seen for the past two years on Burnaby Mountain. In fact, there are around 20 birds up there now near Horizon’s Restaurant, and easily observed. We saw five of them near Sperling and Glencarin feeding on Pacific crabapples, a favourite food for many wintering birds such as finches.

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Pine Grosbeak photographed on Burnaby Mountain last year

Among the many high counts we recorded, I would highlight American Coots (207), which may have finally re-established their large wintering flock on Burnaby Lake following the completion of the lake dredging in 2011 that seemed to disturb their traditional wintering location.

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake

Part of the large American Coot flock at Burnaby Lake

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake #2

Closer view of American Coots with two Gadwall at Burnaby Lake.

Perhaps benefiting from the deeper water produced by the dredging, there now seems to be a good sized winter flock of Common Mergansers (66) on the lake.

COMEfishing

Common Mergansers actively fishing on Burnaby Lake

A bird that continues a long-term upward trend is the Cackling Goose (261), a smaller relative of the Canada Goose that at one time was considered just smaller type of Canada Goose, but is now recognised as a species in its own right.

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Cackling Geese photographed at Deer Lake in November

The high counts of gulls, Glaucous-winged (181) and Ring-billed (76), I think are related to the transfer station on Still Creek Avenue where our curbside collected food waste is handled. Most of these birds were counted on the beach at the east end of Deer Lake. Watch the gulls over the course of the day, and you will see a continual stream heading to and from the lake where they fly in to rest up, bathe and preen. They then head out again to the north west, in the direction of the transfer station where there is always a substantial gull flock. The gulls don’t feed on the lake; they feed at the transfer station.

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Winter plumaged adult Ring-billed Gull

Another high count was Green-winged Teal (340), which find the muddy mouths of Still and Eagle creeks where they flow into Burnaby Lake, particularly good habitat.

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Green-winged Teal preening

Here’s a link to see the full count from the day. Green indicates new to the count this year, high counts are in red.

So why did we break the record two years in succession? A combination of factors led to this fantastic result. We had good weather both years; we had a group of skilled counters in the field, and there were birds somewhat out of their usual ranges – further south or north, or up in the mountains. Good food supplies locally and poorer ones further north and in the mountains (heavy snowfalls), contributed to birds moving here, and staying.

Examples of somewhat out of range birds are Cedar Waxwings, usually found further south but finding a good Pacific crab apple crop locally. Common Redpolls from the north may not have the normal cone crops on which they depend, and Pine Grosbeaks may have been driven down from higher elevations for the easier pickings at lower elevations.

Birds like the Redhead are just serendipitous outliers from the Interior where they are quite common in winter. Such is the fun of Christmas Bird Counts.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Adult male Redhead, Deer Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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It can swim.

SACR BbyLRun

It can run.

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It can preen.

Or, it can simply look disarmingly cute.

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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.

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Pine Grosbeak, male

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

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

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

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

 

Bobcat!

We’ve got salmon returning to our creeks once again, the coyotes are still howling at the passing emergency vehicles, and for the past few months, we’ve had a bobcat active in Deer Lake Park. This is life in the city that’s really hard to equal.

BobcatRevI’ve been waiting eagerly for a couple of months now to make this post. Bobbie (gender unknown), has been putting in regular appearances throughout Deer Lake Park, and during the summer was a regular in my neighbourhood on the park’s southern edge. But I couldn’t get a picture! In fact, for more than a week, I hadn’t even seen the feline when everyone in my household and many of my neighbours had – frustrating, even for a bird guy.

Without a picture, how could I make a decent blog post? Then finally, a visitor from Taiwan, Paul Chen, took the wonderful image above. Thank you Paul, for allowing me to use it here.

It’s probably a surprise to many readers that bobcats and humans can live so peacefully together. It’s remarkable what happens when we don’t persecute our wildlife, and we provide some habitat in which to make a living. This is a tribute to “untidy,” wilder parks that have habitats as close to “natural” as we can manage in the city. The payoff is huge. Keep Burnaby green (and a bit scruffy around the edges, please).

CatSignClse

 

Not that we haven’t had Bobcats in the City previously; I know of reports going back to at least 2009 at both Deer Lake and Burnaby Lake. But we urban dwellers are not used to seeing the larger species of North American wild cats, and we’re certainly not expecting to see them in the city. So, if surprised by one, we often jump to the wrong conclusion – cougar!

As you can see from the above signs posted this fall in the park, park walkers were confused as to the identity of the large cat many had seen. City staff attempted to put people at ease, and so posted a number of the above signs. However, it’s hard to win when you’re trying to put people at ease. Some people interpreted the signs to indicate there could be a cougar in the area. Oh well!

A close look at the real bobcat picture above shows that the one living here does not quite fit the silhouette shown on the sign. Our Bobbie is proportionally longer legged, and generally more slender. However, the short, black-tipped tail is diagnostic for the species. A bobbed tail gives it its name – bobcat.

Bobcats are carnivores, and the literature suggests rabbits and hares are favourite prey, neither of which is common in Burnaby. When the cat was active in my neighbourhood it was feeding on gray squirrels and its hunting technique was interesting.

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Remains of bobcat prey – a gray squirrel tail and foot

My neighbour’s apple tree is always a favourite source of food for the squirrels in the fall. If you’ve ever watched a squirrel carrying a pilfered apple in its mouth, you’ll recognize that it must be seriously visually impaired. Bobbie would lie in wait and pounce as Nutkin was about to leap the fence with its prize. Twice it was seen in the early morning carrying captured squirrels over the fence. It seems too that they were eaten out in open on the lawn. This is one relaxed bobcat. The apples, of course, were always left behind. No apple sauce with squirrel dinner for this predator. Since the Eastern gray squirrel is an introduced species, I am pleased that the population is feeding this beautiful, native cat.

It’s clear from our experience here that bobcats can live well on urban fringes, and this is being noticed throughout the continent. In Deer Lake Park there are plenty of Townsend’s voles in the meadows that would also provide food. As the picture above shows, perhaps bobcats would avail themselves of some salmon too if available.

They are beautiful, opportunistic predators that we are so fortunate to have living with us. However, they are wild cats feeding on whatever they can find so we have yet one more reason to keep our domestic cats indoors and to make sure other small pets are leashed.

C&CSigns

And as the sign indicates there’a at least one other predator abroad that should encourage us to keep our pets protected. Yes, it’s the coyote, the other large, four legged predator in our parks.

CoyoteGrdn

Wily takes a walk through my garden

 

 

 

Exploring Burnaby’s Parks and Natural Areas

Announcement

I’ll  be leading a walk for the City of Burnaby on Saturday, November 22 – rain or shine. The walk is billed as: Exploring the Still Creek Corridor & Central Valley Greenway.

We’ll spend about three hours walking the trails bordering Still Creek from where it flows into Burnaby Lake. Registration is required, and is limited to 15 participants. I’ll focus on the birds, of course, but we’ll keep our eyes out for all aspects of the natural world.

NOFL–display

The Northern Flicker is the most likely woodpecker species to be encountered on the walk. Here are two displaying adults from earlier this fall.

To register, go to the City’s website WebReg page and enter event number 350173 into the search box. The walk is not in the Parks and Leisure Guide as it was organized after press time for that publication.

There will be lots to see, and with the wet weather lately we may be lucky enough to find some interesting fungus like this bird’s nest fungus (how appropriate!) I photographed a couple of days back in Deer Lake Park.

Bird's Nest Fungus 2

Bird’s Nest Fungus growing on decaying wood.

The close-up below shows the still developing cups covered in a white membrane that will split away to reveal the egg-like peridioles held within.

Bird's Nest Fungus

Bird’s Nest Fungus growing through moss on a decaying log

Because I’m a birder and not a mycologist, I’m not able to tell you the actual species of bird’s nest fungus pictured here; there are many. Perhaps a reader can help.

July – Moult Month for Waterfowl

July is mid-summer for us humans, and the time of year when we head out to our parks and beaches. However, despite the attractions of the season, it’s just not as pleasant and pretty down at the Deer Lake beach as it usually is. In fact, things are looking downright scruffy and untidy.

All that feather shedding and goose pooping are making quite the mess. What’s going on?

For sure it’s the birds making the mess, and over one hundred Canada Geese can make a good one, but before getting ticked off, spare them a sympathetic thought. July is a pretty tough month to be a goose or a duck. They’re going through a big part of their annual moult. It’s biology and they have no choice.

CANGBeach

Not a pretty sight – moulting geese crowd Deer Lake beach

Walking around the beach, feathers are strewn everywhere and most of them are from the park’s ducks and geese.

FeathersBeach

For all species of waterfowl (ducks, swans and geese), moulting is a pretty dramatic and stressful affair. Not only do they shed some of their body feathers, but also their wing feathers. And not just one by one; waterfowl lose their flight feathers all at once. Now if your flight feathers are gone, you’re flightless, and that can be serious – especially if you need to escape from a predator.

So our ducks and geese gather in areas where they have easy access to an escape route – in this case to the lake itself. The beaches at Deer Lake and Piper Spit at Burnaby Lake offer great locations for moulting birds.

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Canada Goose with all its flight feathers missing from moulting

Take a look at the goose above. The long, dark wing feathers that extend to the rear and partly cover the tail are completely missing and expose the black back and white rump that we see like this only at this time of year.

Here’s another bird, and here you can see the newly growing pin feathers, or blood feathers as they are also called. Over a period of a couple of weeks they will become fully developed and fully functioning wing feathers, or primaries. Right now they’re just tiny stubs.

CANG1

Note the emerging wing feathers encased in a blue, waxy coating on each side of the bird

The base of the pin feathers shown above are engorged with blood to aid their rapid growth. You can just see the new feather material emerging from the tip of the waxy coating. Damage to these pin feathers at this stage can be dangerous for the birds – it can lead to significant blood loss.

A little further along in the moulting process, here’s a bird with partially-grown new flight feathers that have not yet reached their full length.

CANG3

The dark-coloured, newly growing flight feathers (primaries) are best seen on the bird’s left wing. Note the still-to-be-moulted, old, paler, worn-looking, unshed flight feather on the extreme lower left.

As the flight feathers continue to grow they will once again cover the white rump and much of the tail. The bird above is also growing replacement tail feathers – note the uneven length at the tips. Growing so many large feathers at one time uses a lot of the birds’ energy, and they tend to loaf around to conserve it.

CANGBathe

Loafing on the beach, and then bathing in the lake. Remind you of anything?

Loafing on the beach enables the moulting birds to bathe frequently and preen those new feathers into good condition. This is important work; they will have to last until this time next year before being replaced.

Ducks also moult their flight feathers after breeding, but their transformation is even more dramatic. As they moult their wing feathers, they enter what is known as eclipse plumage. The males loose all their fancy body feathering, and often look much the same as females of the species. However, given they are flightless, it’s no doubt best to be as inconspicuous as possible. Plus the fancy, female-attracting plumage is no longer required now that breeding has just finished.

MALLHead

This drake Mallard is losing his glossy green head feathers, rufous breast plumage and gray back and sides as he moves further into eclipse plumage

Here’s a picture taken earlier this year showing how much the drake Mallard transforms from eclipse to breeding plumage. Eclipse above, breeding below.

MALLAlt

Breeding plumage Mallard – the plumage we see most of the year

Ducks are very unusual in the bird world as the males have their two annual moults very close together in summer and fall. Most birds that take on different plumages for the breeding season have their second moult in the spring, ready for the breeding season.

Ducks in contrast, form pairs in the winter and males develop their pre-breeding finery during fall to be ready for winter pre-breeding pairing.

Lastly, here’s a very scruffy looking Gadwall at the lake.

GADWEclipse

A very “female looking” drake Gadwall in eclipse plumage

Along with moulting waterfowl, many other birds  also undergo a moult at this time of year. Just like our ducks and geese, even our crows come down to the beach to make use of the fresh water from Buckingham Creek to bathe and condition their new feathers.

NOCRBeach

Moulting crows gather around the mouth of Buckingham Creek

Unlike waterfowl, crows do not moult their flight feathers all at once, but lose and replace them serially over a period of several weeks. Such a moult strategy enables these birds to continue flying while undergoing this annual transformation. Looking up at crows flying overhead at this time of year you will notice the shape of the wings at the trailing edge is somewhat jagged, the result of new feathers growing in and others having been shed.

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Crow showing its moult in progress

The picture above is really illustrates what’s going on. This Northwestern Crow photographed last week at Deer Lake shows both body and wing feathers being replaced. The old, sun-bleached, brownish feathers contrast quite strikingly with the glossy, black new feathers just growing in. This bird has also lost feathers at the base of the bill, likely as a result of continually stuffing food into the mouths of its hungry young. All will be restored to glossy glory in a few weeks.

It’s enough to make you want to take a bath.

NOCRBathe

Bathing Northwestern Crow, Buckingham Creek

While photographing the geese, ducks and crows shown above, I suddenly noticed feeding right along the edge of the Deer Lake beach were these two Long-billed Dowitchers – a rare treat at this location.

LBDO1

Long-billed Dowitchers newly arrived from Northern breeding grounds

These two birds are adults in worn, breeding plumage. You’ll have to take my word on the “worn” part. Now these sandpipers have a different moulting strategy from the birds we’ve looked at so far. After breeding, the dowitchers migrate from the breeding grounds and then moult into their drabber winter plumage on the wintering grounds.

And many Long-billed Dowitchers spend the winter at Burnaby Lake. Here’s a picture from last winter. Look at the transformation. Breeding above, winter below.

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Long-billed Dowitchers in winter plumage

You can just see in the flanks of the bird below the first few hints of the greyer feathers of the winter plumage.

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Long-billed Dowitcher, Deer Lake beach

With all this shedding of feathers and growing of new ones it’s enough to make you want to scratch that itch. It’s that time of year.

LBDOItch

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It’s been a busy spring of birding and travel that has kept me away from the blog. However, it’s back, at least for a while.

 

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.

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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.

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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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Glaucous Gull – A Rare Deer Lake Visitor

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

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Gulls winging into the beach at Deer Lake

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

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

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

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Spot the visitor?

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

Here’s a close up.

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Glaucous Gull – Deer Lake beach

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

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

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

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

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Ring-billed Gull adult

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

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

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

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Probable Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull hybrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Butterfly Bonanza

As we move into July and the weather really starts to warm up, the long grass meadows in our parks are the centre of a remarkable, once-a-year explosion of skipper butterflies.

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Skippers, crowding on to a blackberry flowerhead feeding on nectar from the flowers

What these small butterflies lack in size, they more than make up for in the sheer numbers that hatch, take to the air, and adorn almost every flowering plant in and around the fields at this time of year. It’s a spectacle, and one well worth a closer look. The Deer Lake meadows, at the western end of the lake, are a particularly good place to see the action, and enjoy what is by far our largest flight of butterflies in Burnaby.

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Purple vetch flowers are a favourite for nectaring skippers

Taking a closer look at these small butterflies, it’s noticeable right away that they’re not quite conventional butterfly shape. To some people they suggest moths, rather than butterflies. Their wings are more “swept-back” instead of being held either flat and open, or upright and closed, like “regular” butterflies. The hind wings are held out flat, while the forewings are held above them at a 45-degree angle – very rakish! They do at times, however, close both wings over their backs like regular butterflies. As you can see from the pictures, the open-winged stance is very common. This distinctive shape and stance shows that these butterflies are members of the grass skipper family.

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Skippers feeding (nectaring) on a dandelion – click to enlarge

So let’s take a close-up look. When you click to enlarge the photo above, you’ll see a couple of good clues as to why these insects are butterflies, and not moths. First take a look at the antennae which emerge from the head, angling outwards. They’re thin and thread-like with noticeable, club-shaped ends. In contrast, many moth antennae are feathery, and if they are thin like a butterfly’s, they lack the club end. Most moths are, of course, nocturnal, whereas these “guys” are active in the daytime. Two ticks for butterfly.

Now take a look at the skipper on the far right on the dandelion. You’ll see a third, thread-like organ emerging from the centre of the head, which then makes an angular curve downward into the flower. This is the proboscis, the hollow tube through which the butterfly draws up the nectar on which it is feeding. Now that you’ve looked at one skipper, a quick glance reveals that they’re all at it. This single flower is feeding a whole bunch of skippers.

Skipper Profusion

So what species of skipper are these? Well, thereby hangs a tale. These are European skippers. That’s right, they’re an introduced species from Europe.  First accidentally introduced to Ontario in 1910 they’ve spread across the country, and there have been many subsequent introductions since, including Duncan on Vancouver Island about 15 years ago. Ours could have spread from there, or they could have been introduced here separately. A particular aspect of the European skipper’s reproduction makes spreading to new locations very easy. And as usual, it’s we humans that are big contributors to skipper profusion, and skipper spread.

Unlike all native species of North American skippers, which overwinter as pupae, European skippers overwinter as eggs. This makes it very easy to survive being mowed, and then moved when hay is transported from one place to another. And hay fields is where skippers thrive. They’re called grass skippers because the larvae, the caterpillars, feed on grasses. As we can see, the adults get their food from flowers.

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European skippers feeding on clover

Although an introduced species, the European skipper is yet another example of a benign addition to our fauna. In this case, a very beautiful one too. There is no evidence that this introduced skipper has negatively affected our native skippers. It seems to have found a place here without causing problems for other species.

As John Acorn says in Butterflies of British Columbia  … we now have more butterflies on the wing than we ever could have without this cute little addition to our fauna. Here, here!

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European skippers – a welcome addition to our butterfly fauna