Archive for the 'Natural History' Category

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May Birds

Brown-headed CowbirdI added four species to my bird list in May: Brown-headed Cowbird, Lesser Goldfinch, Pileated Woodpecker, and Purple Finch. I may have also seen a Pacific-slope Flycatcher or two, but I’m not absolutely sure. They were moving too fast.

I spotted the Brown-headed Cowbird, who let me get close enough to take the above photo, and the Pileated Woodpecker while walking in Burns Bog, but the Lesser Goldfinches and Purple Finches seem to be nesting among the Chokecherry trees in the back corner of our yard. It’s nice to have them as daily visitors now that our old regulars, the Dark-eyed Juncos and Varied Thrushes, have disappeared.

I’ve had a few really good looks at the Lesser Goldfinch, including once when one sat still in a rose bush that was only three or four feet away. Generally, however, they like to stay hidden among the leaves and all I usually get to see are busy flashes of bright yellow, that rarely reveal themselves fully, or the occasional dart across the yard on a bouncy flight path.

Oddly, we’ve had very few robins and hummingbirds in the backyard this spring but both are in good numbers only a few minutes away at the bog. Like the finches, the hummingbirds would nest in the Chokecherry trees but they seemed to have made their homes elsewhere this year. Perhaps the major pruning our neighbours did to their side of the trees last year have upset them.

American Robin
Anna’s Hummingbird
Bald Eagle
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Brown-headed Cowbird*
Bushtit
European Starling
Glaucous-winged Gull
Great Blue Heron
Hermit Thrush
House Finch
House Sparrow
Lesser Goldfinch*
Mallard
Northwestern Crow
Pileated Woodpecker*
Purple Finch*

Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Steller’s Jay

The Birds of April

Birding in April was a bit of a bust. Putting almost no effort into the endeavour, I was rewarded accordingly and identified only two new birds, the Golden-crowned Sparrow and the White-crowned Sparrow.

I actually spotted three others while walking in the mountains but was unable to identify them. I think the first two may have been Pacific-slope Flycatchers and Pine Siskins, but both were experts at remaining half-hidden in the trees and evading careful study. The ‘third’ looked like an insomniac bat out in the sunlight and I’m really not sure that it wasn’t. The silhouette and erratic flight pattern looked very much like the bats that hunt mosquitoes above my backyard on most summer evenings, but it was just too far away to be certain and it disappeared quickly into a group of Douglas-firs.

I also came across the fresh remains of a bird in the middle of a trail where it had served as someone’s breakfast. Nothing remained but the legs and a pile of feathers. As you can see in the photos, the feathers were light brown with small patches of white and orange-yellow and the soft down had bright yellow tips. I’ve been through my bird books and software and can’t even muster a guess as to what it was other than, apparently, delicious. Any guesses?

American Robin
Anna’s Hummingbird
Bald Eagle
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Loon
Dark-eyed Junco
Glaucous-winged Gull
Golden-crowned Sparrow*
Great Blue Heron
House Finch
Northwestern Crow
Osprey
Rock Pigeon
Song Sparrow
Steller’s Jay
Varied Thrush
White-crowned Sparrow*

Taking sides

I can always tell when these egg hunters are on the prowl in our backyard; the crows kick up a big fuss.
Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk when the silence was suddenly broken by the angry cawing of crows. The cawing was loud and persistent, so I looked out the window, fully expecting to see a raccoon somewhere in the yard, and spotted three of them climbing the Douglas-fir.
I watched the trio methodically search the tree for eggs, long after the upset crows had given up and flown away. Trying not to take sides, I resisted the urge to scare away these nest raiders. It’s all too easy to side against the predator. But having experienced an empty belly myself a time or two, I try not to hold any creature’s hunger against it.

The Birds (and Bees) of March

Smiling BeeHappy Spring! Below is my bird list for March. It contains fewer additions than I’d hoped for, but there are a couple of new birds and I was finally able to get a decent look at the hawks too. Early in the month, my wife spotted a House Sparrow at our feeder but that was, unfortunately, the only time we saw it. Likewise, I only managed one good look at a Brown Creeper while walking the dog through the trails at Dogwood Park a few days later.

Two weeks ago, we went for a walk along Centennial Beach at Boundary Bay Regional Park and a Bald Eagle buzzed our heads and landed close by. It was a huge, chocolate coloured juvenile, but when it flew away we could see that it was bright white under its wings. This creature’s enormous size made me question the sanity of the couple who came walking along behind us with their snack-size Shih Tzu off-leash.1

Spring is coming on quick in our neck of the woods. The garden is surging back to life and we’ve even had a few bees about. The neighbourhood crows are busy building nests, as were the pair of Bewick’s Wrens that spent last Saturday morning scouring our garden for building supplies. I could make no sense of their selection/rejection process but it seemed like pretty serious business. One day, I even heard a hummingbird zip by, a sound that always reminds me of the rapid whir of my fly reel when an angry trout suddenly takes off with my line. An obvious sign that it’s time to go fishing!

American Robin

American Wigeon

Bald Eagle
Bewick’s Wren*

Black-capped Chickadee
Brown Creeper*

Bushtit

Canada Goose
Cooper’s Hawk*

Dark-eyed Junco

European Starling

Glaucous-winged Gull

Great Blue Heron

House Finch
House Sparrow*

Mallard

Northwestern Crow
Red-tailed Hawk*

Song Sparrow

Spotted Towhee

Steller’s Jay

Varied Thrush

Winter Wren

  1. Update: Apparently a 5 to 7.5 kg. Bald Eagle can lift only about half its weight. So a 4 to 7.5 kg. Shih Tzu may be in less danger than I thought. Still after watching this video of a Golden Eagle hunting goats, I think I’d still proceed with caution.

The Birds of February

Here is my February bird list. The birds in italics are new to my master list.

Anna’s Hummingbird
American Robin
American Wigeon*
Bald Eagle
Black-capped Chickadee
Bushtit*
Canada Goose
Dark-eyed Junco
European Starling
Glaucous-winged Gull
Great Blue Heron
House Finch
Mallard
Northern Flicker
Northern Pintail*
Northwestern Crow
Rock Pigeon
Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Stellar’s Jay
Varied Thrush
Winter Wren

Beyond those, I think I also spotted a Belted Kingfisher and a number of Cooper’s Hawks and/or Red-tailed Hawks. Unfortunately, my novice eyes didn’t get a long enough look to be sure.

Blackie Spit

My wife and I took the dog for a short walk about Blackie Spit last weekend. Somehow we managed to time it just right and were able to stay dry despite the variable weather. It’s changed quite a bit since we moved away from that area ten years ago and I like the improvements that have been made to protect the birds.

At first, I was disappointed with the restrictions now placed on dog owners, but after narrowly avoiding quite a few piles of dog poop, I remembered that there are a lot of pretty poor pet owners out there and thought it just as well. Since we had our dog with us, some areas were off limits to us, but we still saw a lot of birds (12 species in total that day) and I was able to sort out some of the duck issues I was having with my bird list. We saw Mallards, American Wigeons and the Northern Pintail, which I find to be one of the most striking puddle ducks. My wife was thrilled with the number of Great Blue Herons we saw. We also spotted a number of hawks on the way there, but I haven’t added them to my bird list yet as I’m still not sure I’ve identified them correctly. I think at least one was a Cooper’s Hawk.

Unfortunately, we also saw a lot of people down there and I think I’ll look for more remote locations for future birding. Why anybody would want to live like a sardine in busy Crescent Beach is beyond me.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Robin perched on branchThis weekend will be the first time I’ve participated in The Great Backyard Bird Count. All one has to do is spend at least 15 minutes of one of the days counting birds. However, one can do more if one chooses. The count runs from February 18th through February 21st.

Time to top up my feeder!

For more information on how to participate, click here.

January 2011 Birds

This is a list of the birds I spotted in January. The ones marked with an asterisk are new additions to my master list. I hoped to get out more this month and visit a few spots where I’ve seen other birds in the past, but bad weather, bad health and various other obligations kept getting in the way. Hopefully, I’ll do better in February. I’ve seen more birds in the past than appear on my master list but I don’t want to add them until I’m 100% sure I have them identified correctly.

American Dipper
Bald Eagle
Black-capped Chickadee
Dark-eyed Junco
European Starling*
Glaucous-winged Gull
Great Blue Heron
Hermit Thrush*
House Finch
Northern Flicker
Northwestern Crow
Song Sparrow*
Spotted Towhee*
Steller’s Jay
Varied Thrush
Winter Wren

The names of trees

“The names of birds, animals, plants, trees and stars are doorways into an instructive otherness.” ~ Christopher Camuto

One of my favourite trees is the tall Douglas-fir.1 that grows in our neighbour’s backyard and half hangs over ours. Despite its impressive height, it’s a fairly inconspicuous tree. There is no oddity about it to help one distinguish it from any other Douglas-fir. However, it remains one of my favourites because I enjoy watching the intense activity of the birds and squirrels that frequent it. I also like the peculiar cones this green giant scatters all over our property and that I now live a little more accurately because of them.

Douglas-fir cones have three pointed bracts, protruding from between their scales, that look like tiny mice trying to burrow their way inside the cone with only their little backs, hind feet and tails sticking out. For more years than I care to admit, I raked up thousands of these cones and never noticed the mice or questioned what type of tree it was that caused me so much work.

Despite a general affection for trees, I lived the first four decades of my life largely in ignorance of them. With a few exceptions, that have occurred largely by accident, trees have merely been a pleasant, but undefined, background wash of green that I passed by without question. I took trees for granted.

I’m not sure what finally sparked my curiosity but one day I started to wonder about those cones and the tree that they fell from. Before long, I’d identified the Douglas-fir and had also learned a fair amount about the species in the process. The tree hanging over our yard was no longer a stranger. The Douglas-fir was now defined in the general fog that is my awareness, and I felt my life had become a little more honest because of that. Living among trees one knows the names of strikes me as a more accurate way of going about things.

Last month, I was out watching the night sky and noticed the Douglas-fir swaying to-and-fro in the wind. It seemed to me that this tall tree was sweeping the stars across the sky. The Douglas-fir was beautiful before I knew anything about it but seemed even more so afterwards. I decided then to make it my main new year’s resolution to learn the names of the trees in my life.

My meagre list of birds …

Over the holidays, I purchased the iBird Explorer PRO app for my iPhone and have been having a lot of fun with it. One of its many features allows the user to keep a list of favourite birds, which I’m using to keep track of the birds I’ve positively identified in the wild. Here is my meagre list so far:

American Dipper
American Robin
Anna’s Hummingbird
Bald Eagle
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Canada Goose
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Common Loon
Common Raven
Dark-eyed Junco
Dusky/Sooty Grouse
Glaucous-winged Gull
Gray Jay
Great Blue Heron
House Finch
Mallard
Northern Flicker
Northwestern Crow
Osprey
Red-winged Blackbird
Rock Pigeon
Rufous Hummingbird
Spruce Grouse
Steller’s Jay
Trumpeter Swan
Varied Thrush
Winter Wren
American Dipper
The first bird I identified with the app was this American Dipper my wife and I spotted feeding along the edge of Rolley Lake.

One warning though, listening to the various bird calls and songs included in the app may drive your dog batty. Best not used indoors!