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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Winter plumaged adult Ring-billed Gull

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


Green-winged 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













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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


European skippers – a welcome addition to our butterfly fauna

A to B – Arctic to Burnaby

While our fantastic stretch of sunny weather hasn’t quite been replaced by Arctic conditions yet, the constant, lashing rain is a reminder we really are in October, and frost and snow may not be too far ahead for us.

Big changes in weather often signal changes in our birds too. In late summer and fall, many leave us for more southerly locations, while others arrive here on their migrations, sometimes staying for the winter, and sometimes to stop-over, fuel-up and move on.

On Saturday morning at Deer Lake another harbinger of winter arrived, and this time the message was straight from the Arctic. A beautiful Rough-legged Hawk, a relative of our resident, breeding Red-tailed Hawks, stationed itself on a tree at the east end of the west meadows at Deer Lake, intently scoping the long grass for voles and mice.

In absolutely pouring rain, getting a good picture can be a little tough, and the one above shows the not quite satisfactory result. However, rough-legs are a rare sight in our parks, more often spending their winter around Boundary Bay, Delta.  Interestingly, this bird is using exactly the same small meadow that the last rough-leg that I saw in the park many years ago used.

The habitat here is likely similar in appearance to its Arctic tundra haunts, where it also hunts rodents, including those cute lemmings. As I’ve noted before on this blog: everyone has to eat! The Rough-legged Hawk is a really cosmopolitan species. Breeding on tundra around the whole Arctic – usually on cliffs, promontories, bluffs and other high outcroppings – it moves south in winter in Asia and Europe, as well as here in North America.

And in case you were wondering, the name ‘Rough-legged’ refers to its feathered legs, which are an adaptation to its cold climate home.

The bird was still present Saturday afternoon, and may hang in for a while. So take the time and see our Arctic visitor to Burnaby. It’s as easy as A to B.

Rusty Blackbird Triple Bonus

Wherever a rare bird puts in an appearance it’s likely to quickly draw a crowd, especially if it’s easy to access, and near an urban centre . The Rusty Blackbird that showed up on Friday at Piper Spit on Burnaby Lake fit the pattern perfectly. News of the bird was soon flying around (couldn’t resist that pun) the birder and photographer networks, and people were headed down to the Spit from around the Lower Mainland: Vancouver, Surrey, and the Fraser Valley. Bonus one – the Thanksgiving weekend gave people time to make the trip to the lake.

So what’s the big deal? Well for birders it is a rare bird, meaning it shows up most years in the Lower Mainland, but in single-digit numbers, frequently one or two only, and often for just a day before moving on. In birder parlance, they’re usually one-day-wonders. Hence, the rush by many to see and photograph the bird, before it left. Last year the same species showed up here at Piper Spit, and it was a one-day wonder. Many people missed it, including me. Bonus two – the bird has been here for at least four days.

While a few rustys show up in the Lower Mainland most years, nearly all Rusty Blackbirds winter in the south-eastern US, along the Atlantic Seaboard to Florida, and throughout much of the eastern drainage of the Mississippi. So our Burnaby bird is quite far out of range for the species in fall/winter.

Its breeding range, however, is quite different; it stretches right across Canada, east to west, and extends into Alaska. The birds breed in muskeg, bogs, beaver ponds, and wet, boreal forests as far north as the tree line. A real Canadian, eh? It’s the most northerly breeder of all the blackbirds, which is why it’s something of a mystery bird. It’s little studied because of its mostly remote summer haunts,  and its breeding biology is poorly known.

Compounding the mystery of its life cycle, is the mystery of its rapid decline over the past thirty or more years. Although some sources suggest we simply do not have enough information to draw definitive conclusions about the population changes of this species, there are many experts expressing concerns. For more information about the declining population of the Rusty Blackbird click here.

Locally, however, but having no bearing on its continental population, is some good news. Bonus three: a second bird turned up on Monday. There are now two Rusty Blackbirds at Piper Spit. To get one rare bird is a treat, but to get a second hanging out with it, is a wonderful happenstance. And even better is that these birds are very tolerant of people, and provide really good opportunities to observe them. When they do show up in the Lower Mainland, Rusty Blackbirds are usually skittish, and difficult to observe.

So head on down to Piper Spit and check out the new arrivals. They’re very cooperative, and show off their rusty-coloured winter plumage beautifully in the sun.

Cache Grab for Winter

If Stellar’s Jays think like we do (they probably don’t), then I can imagine the one above is pretty pleased with itself. Holding a peanut in its bill from my backyard feeder, this bird is about to fly off with its prize to hide it away in a Deer Lake forest. In ornithological lingo, it’s caching food, for use in winter. When temperatures are low, when food is a lot harder to come by and maintaining body heat requires extra calories, these birds will return to their caches to fuel up. It’s an avian lay-away plan for winter.

Black-capped Chickadees, like the one above, cache smaller items such as the sunflower seeds they collect from our feeders. Peanuts, good for Steller’s Jays, are much too large for this little bird to cache. If you have a feeder at your house, I expect you’ve noticed a lot more activity lately, and that your seed supply is diminishing more rapidly than usual.

At this time of year chickadees are visiting our feeders so often they couldn’t possibly be eating all the seed they’re carrying away. Of course, they’re not. Like the Steller’s Jays, they are on a major caching binge. It’s that time of year, and there’s a flurry of activity to store a back-up food supply for winter.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees (below), our other common local chickadee, are also madly gathering seeds to cache.

Sometimes birds put a lot of food in a single location, but more frequently they cache small numbers in each place, and very often they cache single food items separately. So you can anticipate the problem here. Most of us have one or two sets of house or car keys, but if you’re like me, knowing where they are at any one time is often a major challenge. Where are my keys?! So how can these bird-brains remember the location of hundreds of different caches? How can they remember their cache locations even when they’re under the snow?

The answer is – birds are just better at some mental activities than mammals, including humans. A little humbling isn’t it? But they do have a nice built-in biological advantage over us. They regrow part of their brain each year to accomplish these astounding feats of memory. The hippocampus, the part of their brain involved in spatial memory, regrows brain cells at this time of year. Old cells are replaced by new ones, and old memories are replaced by new, as this year’s cache locations are laid-down for later retrieval. Couldn’t we all do with a little bit of that ability? I’m really sure a new brain, or at least part of it, would really help in so many ways!

Of course it’s not all hard work. Sometimes it’s break time, as this Chestnut-backed Chickadee above is showing. Not every seed is cached; sometimes it’s just eaten. The bird here has peeled off the outer husk of a sunflower seed, and is just finishing up the energy-rich kernel inside.

But all is not plain-sailing in the caching business. Not every bird is focussed on their own caching. The smart ones out there are looking about to take advantage of the unwary. Most jays and chickadees are careful not to let other birds see where they’re hiding their cache. On the other hand, some birds don’t seem to pay attention at all to others watching them. All that hard work, and their carefully cached food is quickly stolen and hidden elsewhere by the wily cache thief. A cache grab indeed.

Fall Fog Fest

You might call it Indian summer and love it, or you might lament that this marvellous stretch of weather we’re having comes when most of us are heading back to school and to work. Too bad we can revel in it only on weekends, whereas Monday to Friday doesn’t leave much time. And worse still, the special foggy piece that comes along with the weather is very easy to miss. This fleeting phenomenon, like so many of the great things happening in our parks, is best seen in the early morning.

Our weather forecasters certainly love this weather. It’s their time of the year to get the forecasts bang-on correct. They deserve it. Let’s face it, being a meteorologist here on the West Coast can’t be much fun for most of the year. No fronts sweeping in off the Pacific, just day after day of ‘sunny tomorrow, and the day after, and…’ . An end-of-summer high pressure system has settled over the Coast, and is bringing us cool nights, warm days, and day-long blue skies and sunshine. However, just as the sun breaks over the horizon in the morning, our parks are magically transformed by fog.

With clear skies overnight, the ground radiates its daytime heat right back into space – no clouds to provide a warming ‘blanket.’ The result: the air closest to the ground is cooler than the air immediately above it, and the moisture in that cooler air condenses forming minute droplets – fog, technically speaking, radiation fog.

You can see it at Deer Lake,

and Burnaby Lake,

but only briefly. The sun rapidly burns off nature’s transformer, and we’re back to clear landscapes, and no hint of what was there minutes before.

Not only does this fog fest depend on where you stand (low areas are best), but interestingly it depends too on where you look in relation to the sun. If you look toward the sun, much of the light is dispersed through the airborne water droplets making the fog visible,

but when you look at a more oblique angle, the fog just about disappears.

The two pictures above of the foggy doggy walker were taken less than 30 seconds apart. The fog really didn’t change in that time, but my angle in relation to the sun did.

So check it out. Take a few minutes if you can on your way to work or school to take a look. Right now the best time is right around sunrise, and the event is pretty well over in an hour. If you’re late for work, say I said it’s OK. Sorry, but I can’t give permission to be late for school. You’re on your own for that one!

Dowitcher delights

While Burnaby is a great place to see many different types of birds, our number and diversity of shorebirds, or waders as the English call them, is only modest. We just don’t have the river estuaries and mudflats that many species of these long-legged probers depend on for food. But we do have some places to observe them, and they are often up close and easy to observe. Remember to click on the images to enlarge.

Burnaby Lake, and Piper Spit in particular, is probably our best and most reliable spot to see these birds. Where Eagle Creek enters the lake, a small mudflat often hosts a small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers. Here they are above, snoozing and preening. The spit boardwalk gives good close views.

Appropriately named Long-billed Dowitchers? I think so. Look at those bills! But having said that, their close relatives, the Short-billed Dowitchers, confusingly have bills much the same length! In fact, you can’t tell the difference in the field by bill length. The easiest way to tell them apart is by voice. When they are vocal, you’ll hear the ones at Piper Spit make a loud, single Keek! Short-billed have a three-part Tu Tu Tu! call.

There are plumage differences between the two species, but they are subtle and difficult to discern without binoculars. Even experienced birders find separating the two species a challenge at times. Fortunately for us, the two dowitchers separate themselves much of the time by habitat. Long-billed prefer freshwater wetlands, like Burnaby Lake, whereas Short-billed prefer saltwater or brackish wetlands and mudflats.

Stretching its wing, the bird above is showing us what it uses to get to Burnaby from its breeding grounds in Western and Northern Alaska, and North East Siberia. It may seem a long way from the Arctic coastal plains to Burnaby, but many other shorebird species travel vast distances from the Arctic to as far south as southern South America. So by contrast, Long-billed Dowitchers are considered medium distance migrants. Seems a good stretch to me nonetheless.

They will spend the winter with us in Burnaby, and except for places like Delta on the Fraser Estuary, and the head of Port Moody Arm, we have the largest wintering population of these birds in the Burnaby/Vancouver area. We have recorded close to 100 here on the annual Christmas  Bird Count. And as for that unusual, delightful name, dowitcher seems to derive from the Iroquoian word ‘tawistawis’ meaning ‘snipe’, and may have been appropriated by white European hunters in the 19th century on the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

Enjoy our Burnaby Lake tawistawis; they should be with us from fall through to spring.

Martins departin’?

As August rolls into September, there’s lots of birdy action in the park, and a real feeling things are about to change. It’s a Janus time of year – looking back at summer, looking forward to fall.

Looking back: today I watched a Willow Flycatcher still feeding a newly-fledged youngster– a real summer sighting.

Looking forward, and a real pointer to fall, the Purple Martins are gathering in a noisy, energetic, and exuberant convocation in the tree tops along the boardwalk at the west end of Deer Lake signalling their intentions to soon head south. And pretty far south they go too. How about south-eastern Brazil? Incredible!

Here’s a group of three juveniles (upper), and what is likely an adult female (lowest bird), which were part of a gathering of more than thirty Purple Martins seen today (August 30th).

Purple Martins are North America’s largest member of the swallow family, and one of the largest swallows in the world. Compared to the more familiar Barn Swallow, you know, the ones that nest in the barns where many of us buy our veggies from the farms down on Marine Drive, they weigh-in at almost three times the size (56 g vs 19g). With a wingspan of almost 47 cm, that’s almost half a meter, this is a heck of a swallow.

And just like their smaller cousins, who classically line up along telephone wires and power lines prior to migration, Purple Martins gather in large groups too, made up of both adults and young, before they migrate. Here out west, they often gather in tree tops, particularly if  dead or bare branches are available for easy perching.

But, they’re not purple you’re saying! Well, the males are purplish – blue-black really. Unfortunately, they’re fairly tough to photograph, especially with the fairly basic gear I have, and the best I can do is some not-so-great pictures. Here’s an adult male, and if you squint hard, you may be able to convince yourself he’s… sort of purplish. (Don’t forget you can enlarge the pictures here by clicking on them)

Our western Purple Martins are a marvellous conservation success story. They are the comeback kids of coastal BC. By the early 1980’s the estimated BC population was in the order of ten breeding pairs only. That minuscule number was a clear signal we were about to lose them from the Province. In technical lingo, they were facing extirpation. We’d logged the old growth forests, removed snags, cleared burned areas, removed the old pilings from harbours and docks, and introduced House Sparrows and European Starlings. All of these factors led to the disappearance, or the occupation, in the case of the sparrows and starlings, of the woodpecker holes and crevices in pilings that the martins needed to nest.

Purple Martins are cavity nesters, and the solution to their decline was to provide them with artificial nest boxes over water. In 1986 a program of installing nest boxes on pilings in coastal areas was started by dedicated groups of volunteers, both here on the Mainland and on Vancouver Island. The first successes were on the east coast of the Island on the Cowichan Estuary.  In 1994, Maplewood Flats, just across Burrard Inlet from here, was the first successful re-nesting location on the Mainland. They hadn’t bred on the Mainland for probably more than thirty years. Kudos to the volunteers, and what a wonderful pay-off for everyone. We’re now enjoying the fruits of these efforts in Burnaby.

Our western martins are a little different from their eastern counterparts. They don’t use the classic condominium-style martin nest boxes that you would see in Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern U.S. Our birds nest in colonies too, but they are more loosely structured. They prefer individual nest boxes. Maplewood Flats in North Vancouver, and Rocky Point Park in Port Coquitlam are good places to see the nest boxes on pilings. We may have a few nesting here on the pilings at Barnet Marine Park. We’ll have to check it out next spring to see. I didn’t get down there this year to see what’s happening.

Since the conservation effort started 26 years ago the BC Purple Martin population has increased dramatically reaching 735 pairs in 2011. Isn’t it fantastic what a little TLC can achieve? In previous years, we’ve had over 100 birds in the park at this time of year. They should be here until mid-September, but their departure date and time varies from year to year. They’re Canadian birds, after all, and a bit unpredictable; kind of like our national airline.

So take a Deer Lake walk. You’ll hear the martins before you see them. Their beautiful, melodious warbles will cascade down from the air above. Along the boardwalk you’ll have a good chance to see them perched in the taller trees. They also like the big, old snag in the middle of the tall grass meadow near the bio-filtration pond.

Here’s a link to listen to Purple Martin vocalizations. Click here.

A full list of birds from my August 30th walk is here.

Postscript: the gathering of the martins was brief this year. They were all gone, left for points south, by September 5th. Weather conditions were just right I presume, and Brazil via Mexico was beckoning. The urge to migrate is is irresistable.

Tapping into our woodpeckers 1

So what about that header picture? In that pose on my garden feeder, the Pileated Woodpecker looks almost prehistoric. Easy to imagine the connections to its ancient, dinosaur predecessors. Found throughout Burnaby, this largest of North American woodpeckers nests in the forested areas of our parks, and frequents our yards, especially if we’ve got trees in them.

And it’s noisy too; often announcing its arrival with a loud wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk. Now , take those ear pods out when you’re walking; you could be missing something.

Compared to the feeder shot above, here’s a more typical view of the bird. This one’s a female. The header picture is a male. 

See the difference between the sexes? The male has a red moustache, the female black. 

Good places to see Pileated Woodpeckers are: Deer Lake Park, Burnaby Lake Regional Nature Park, Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area (aka, Burnaby Mountain Park), Robert Burnaby Park, Stoney Creek School-Park, Montrose Park, and many other city parks where there’s good forest cover and some larger trees.

At this point, I can perhaps guess what some of readers might be thinking. ‘Are these the guys that hammer away at my chimney or metal roof vents in the spring?’ Well maybe, but it’s more often the Pileated’s smaller cousins – Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers. Smaller you say? Just as well. But before you express too much irritation at these early morning rude awakenings, have some sympathy for the poor woodpecker. He just doesn’t have what it takes to sing! Without the specialized structures in his throat that songbirds use to produce those soothing, gentle sounds, he has to turn to drumming to claim his territory. A beautifully resonating metal vent is often preferred over plain old wood. The better the resonator, the louder the drumming, and the more intimidating to would-be interlopers. I’ll write more about this in later posts about woodpeckers.

I’m sure too that some of you may be saying: ‘ I don’t think I’ve ever seen this bird. How could I miss such a large, noisy woodpecker?’ Well, they’re not noisy all the time. In fact they can be remarkably elusive at times, but they often leave clues that they’re around. Take a look below at the 8m high stump of a storm-broken western hemlock photographed in Deer Lake Park along the forested trail up in the south-east corner of the Park .

When Pileated Woodpeckers start working a tree to extract carpenter ants, a very important food for them, they make these unique, large, rectangular holes. You may not see the bird, but the evidence is right there that they’re around. If it’s a freshly worked tree, you’ll see the very large woodchips at the base. Come back later, you may see the bird at work. Approach slowly and quietly. They can be fairly tolerant of being approached; just avoid sudden movements, and use your David Attenborough voice!

Tapping into our woodpeckers will return later with more about our local tree drillers. Wuk, wuk, wuk!

Click here to listen to a series of calls, and drumming sounds from this stunning bird.