Monthly Archives: December 2014

Geese in the Meadow

A Walk on the Wild Side
Margo Hearne
Winter birds are back. Flocks of Green-winged Teal line up along the shallows and wait for the tide to bring life-giving sea-borne things. Intertidal areas are the richest in the world as creeks and rivers flow down to join the salt-water. The mix of nutrients made us on earth. According to evolution, something climbed out of the sea long ago and here we are.
While teal hang around the edge of things, geese feed in the meadow. Our own Dusky Canada Geese, occidentalis, returned from their nesting grounds in the muskeg in mid-July. Flocks of migrant geese joined them in late August/early September and, while many kept going, some stayed with the Duskys. It is their winter home. It’s interesting that not all the geese are the same, some are smaller with small bills, and some are larger with longer necks. And some arrive with what look like tin cans around their neck. These are neck-banded birds. It’s hard to say whether or not neck-bands are a good thing, but those who do the banding seem to believe that it works insofar as they know where the birds nested and where they winter over.
So, what are the geese of different sizes? Some of the small ones with a browner appearance are Cackling Geese. The small flocks that move together like so many sheep across a meadow, have silvery-grey backs and short necks are Aleutian Geese. Both kinds often have a narrow white neck ring.
Aleutians Geese were almost exterminated from the Aleutian Islands when, in 1750, fox hunters transplanted Arctic and red foxes to unoccupied islands to establish new fox populations so they could hunt them and sell their fur. By the 1930s about 190 islands had foxes where they never were before. Foxes are efficient predators and were deadly to the geese who had no predators prior to their arrival. Eggs and chicks were eaten, but worse, so were the nesting hens. This caused immediate repercussions as the chicks and eggs died that year and it also ended any future nesting within the female’s natural lifespan.
Then in 1967 the US government declared that Aleutian geese were an endangered species and developed a program to trap and remove the foxes. The goose population recovered almost immediately. They were removed from the list of endangered species in 2001. By the winter of 2007-2008, the population was about 114,000 birds. They are back from the brink of extinction and we watched a small flock strip seeds from the tall grasses beside Stewart Tower in the Sanctuary a few weeks ago. They were focused and would not be disturbed as they stocked up for their continued southward migration.
There are still a few Cackling Geese with the Duskys. They were all called Canada Geese at one time, now they’re a separate species. Cackling are dark brown, not silvery-grey like the Aleutians, but are about the same size. There’s a few here right now feeding with the islands geese, and the size difference is evident.

Swans in Delkatla

Hello, I’ve started a new column for the Haida Gwaii Observer called “On the Wing”. I’ll post a few from time to time. 
Suddenly there were eight swans swimming out in the basin. They moved out to the Sanctuary when the ponds froze over in the backwoods. The tide was half-out and they had a chance to feed on the submerged grasses that Jack Frost hadn’t hit. It was a mixed swan flock with five adults and three first-year cygnets. All Trumpeter Swans, elegant and stately. Larger numbers used to winter-over in the Sanctuary but with the tidal changes they’ve gone inland.
Tundra Swans occasionally migrate through here, a flock of about thirty landed a few years ago. Slightly smaller than Trumpeters, they have a small yellow spot on their bill which Trumpeter’s don’t. Both swan species dabble, that is, they tip up to feed on underwater roots and shoots and both species nest in the north; Trumpeters on the edges of large inland waters and Tundras near water on the northern tundra.
Swan numbers overall went into decline in the early 19th century when their feathers and skins were used for decoration and hunters wiped out whole local populations. Numbers are beginning to rebound and plans are in place in some provinces and U.S. states to restore the swans to their historical home patch.
So what are all those ducks out there in the Sanctuary all of a sudden? Mostly Green-winged Teal. A large group sat in the middle of the bay in a tight circle last week and as the sunny day wore on a few hawks showed up. Two Peregrine Falcons swept low over the teal flock, but none moved, then two eagles joined the aerial fray. The plan was to panic the ducks into flight. Falcons go after the weak and they were all strong, but an eagle hit something because next thing we knew one flew off with something in its talons. It might have been a handful of underwater grass for all we could see, or it could have been an unfortunate Bufflehead that came up for air at absolutely the wrong time. It was hardly big enough for an eagle’s meal.
A Red-tailed Hawk showed up and the peregrines screamed off after it and all in all, it was a very dynamic scene as they all circled over the meadow higher and higher into the blue haze.
There’s a fine balance in the wild world between living and dying. Cold sunny days like we’ve had recently will bring the birds out from the frozen back-wood ponds as the swans attested to, but it also concentrates the birds in one place and the area becomes duck soup. Big birds chase little birds and little birds chase shrimp. It’s tough trying to make it to the next generation and ultimately it’s survival of the fittest. It’s all happening out there a hairsbreadth from the dinner-table.

November 23, 2014

Flocks of thrushes

Flocks of Varied Thrushes; Margo Hearne

Flocks of Varied Thrushes, rushes of Robins and a field of flickers in November. Who knew? But there they were, migrating south to escape the big chill further north. It is clear that the more we learn about birds the less we know. Sure, robins are one of the first migrants going north in late February, but we don’t often see flocks of twenty or thirty landing in the meadows in late November. A few winter over and feed on Hawthorne and other berries when the snow hits, but hundreds don’t. So what’s going on?

Winter is what’s going on. The three species mentioned above eat insects and berries, so when the food begins to disappear, they move south. In the shorebird world, female parents often migrate south first to leave enough food for the four chicks. The male parent trains up the youngsters before he leaves a few weeks later. Then two or three weeks after that the chicks, now all grown up and able to fly thousands of miles south, also leave. It might well be the same with larger songbirds.

Sometimes a strange bird will tag along, one that got lost in a west or northwest wind and fetched up on the Aleutian Chain. Thinking it was on its home ground it just kept coming south with its near relatives. The occasional Eurasian species like a Redwing, Fieldfare or even an Eye-browed Thrush could appear with the thrush flocks. Japan and Russia are not that far away as the storms blow and although there are records for these rarities in the east, we also get Eurasian species, including a Kestrel and a Skylark, so why not a Fieldfare?
Varied Thrushes are feeding along the highway again this fall. They fly up from the grass verge and into the roadway. Our neighbour calls them ‘suicide birds’ as they don’t realize that high-speed trucks kill them. The only thing to do is slow down a little to give them a chance.
They should have been, but were not, the bird of BC if only because they nest this side of the Rockies. They were the mascot bird of the five-year BC Breeding Bird Atlas surveys which finished last year.
Are the Varied Thrushes of Haida Gwaii a separate species? There is some speculation that they might be, but it’s a long shot at best. They nest up and down the coast and into northern Alaska and many mainland birds join the residents here on the islands for winter.
A correction to last week’s column. The photo was of a Myrtle Warbler (they don’t nest here but migrate through) not a flycatcher as the caption indicated. The Christmas Bird count will be on Tues Dec 16, 2014 in Skidegate, Queen Charlotte & Sandspit and Greater Masset on Sat Dec 20 2014. Call 626 5015 for further info or email

Dec 7 2014

Winter crows

On the Wing; Margo Hearne

There they are, a flock of black birds flying in a ragged flock through the storm-tossed sky. Northwestern Crows. They have moved into town for the winter. They are bold and cheery and seem to like human company because, where there are humans, there might be a bite of food, a scrap of heat or maybe even some care and attention when things go wrong. We’ve had quite a few injured crows over the years; one was displaced from its nest a few years ago, we don’t know how or why, but it was too young to feed itself and was always hungry. It swallowed salmonberries whole and asked for more immediately. The crow grew up and left home, but would occasionally land a stranger’s shoulder expecting a handout. Always a surprise.
The loud rawr, rawr, rawr heard up in the trees during nesting season is usually a young one hollering for food after hatching. Crows nest in colonies and there are a few colonies around the islands, the one out at Yakan Point has been in use for at least fifty years, and every winter a flock of 70 or more move into town. The collective term this species is a ‘murder of crows’ but they’re really quite harmless and their numbers are not increasing on island. They flock together, chase down ravens, hawks and owls and don’t seem to have a care in the world.
The recent South-easterlies have taken their toll on marine birds. A friend from Tlell called to say that she counted at least ten dead Cassin’s Auklets between Misty Meadows and Wiggins Road last week. They had taken a battering in the weather and were just too small to survive. Relentless winds swirl around the islands every year but this year seems particularly bad. The little auklets, murres and murrelets are hit the hardest, although tens of thousands of seabirds gather in the lee of Rose Spit, Sandspit, Massett Inlet and Delkatla when they get a chance. The storms have not eased from full moon to full moon. The tides are bigger then and the wind rises. The big tides were historically called ‘springs’ whether it was spring or fall, now they are called ‘king’ tides which is unfortunate. The sea is feminine (La Mer). Traditionally water and earth were feminine and air and fire masculine, so the really big tides should be ‘queen’ tides. But the birds still die and there’s very little we can do about it.
Christmas Bird Counts are underway. Warblers call from the bushes, flickers feed in the underbrush and ducks are holding in the Sanctuary. If you are out and about on Saturday December 21 join the Greater Massett Christmas Bird Count and see what you can find. It lasts all day. For more info call 626 5015.