Monthly Archives: January 2015

Shorebirds and Pipits

Shorebirds and Pipits – Margo Hearne

Shorebirds – Now you see them, now you don’t. Birds are like that, especially when the tides are changing. One moment the beach will be alive with feeding shorebirds, next moment they’re away into the mist. Where? Well, only they know, although we’ve seen flocks of Dunlin riding the kelp off Wiah Point, not their preferred habitat as they don’t swim and the waters are deep, but any old port in a storm. They usually hoist up on rocky shorelines but it was foggy and they probably got a little lost.

Shorebirds are always on the go. They are small, have a fast metabolism and need to eat frequently. When the tides are down they’re so busy feeding in the seaweed that they might not notice that falcon on the periphery until a gull screams a warning and with a ‘whoosh’ they’re gone. They prefer to travel in tight flocks, veering and turning so they look like one very large bird and impossible to bring down. Even the falcon veers away. But there is always the lone bird left behind when the flock takes off which is either too tired to get away in time or too young to realize the threat.

The shorebirds that run along Haida Gwaii beaches in winter are often a mixed flock of Black Turnstones, Dunlin and Sanderlings. The turnstones flash clear black and white in flight, the Sanderlings are white and not as clearly marked and the Dunlin are dark grey on top, white underneath, and don’t have the drama of the flashing turnstones. When speaking to a kindergarten class at Tahayghen Elementary School some years ago, one lad said that ‘shorebirds on the beach look like running sand.’ You can’t do better than that.

Pipits – Then there are the pipits. They also feed on the beach, often in the same habitat as the shorebirds, and when scanning a flock it’s always a surprise to hit upon one as it trips among the rocks or bobs on top of a seaweed pile.  When it flies overhead it calls ‘pip-it, pip-it’. They are meadow birds, not beach birds, and they often show up in fall in small scattered flocks and, if the weather remains mild, they’ll stick around. In some places they form large winter flocks but they don’t here. This week we came upon five or six feeding among the rocks where a small creek drains into the ocean. They were almost all American (they used to be Water Pipits, another annoying name change) and they usually nest in the Alpine and Arctic Tundra. But one wasn’t. It’s always the strange bird that keeps one’s interest. It was marginally larger, had pink, not dark, legs, was paler down the front and had a lot of heavy black striping down its front. It stood slightly apart. Well, out with the camera and many good and bad photos later, it could prove to be one of the pipits from Eurasia known as a Siberian Pipit, or Anthus japonicus. We have had Red-throated Pipits from there, so why not a Siberian?




Christmas Bird Counts Hecate Strait and Tlell

Counts – the final frontier – Margo Hearne

Hecate Strait – It was rock and roll most of the way across Hecate Strait on this, our final bird count of the season. There were lots of birds out there as we rolled across the briny deep. Half-way out, four Fulmars rose and fell above the waves, they have such a marvelous way of soaring with stiff wings, playing in the storm. There were a few Shearwaters, one looked like it could have been terribly rare, so light in colour and so deft in the way it rose straight up and fell again, but it proved to be a Short-tailed Shearwater, not so rare, but it should have been nesting in New Zealand, or the Azores, or somewhere warm and dry, but no, there they were, challenging Hecate, the Greek goddess of storms. Shearwaters are a lively lot among their more sedentary seagoing companions, Common Murres (1,714) and Pacific Loons (2,544). Long-tailed Ducks (636) sparked off the ship’s bow or swept along in front of it and our little buddies the Marbled Murrelets (16) that hatch in the high canopy of old-growth forests, sat in the more shady part of the sea near Lawn Point. Tidy little Black-legged Kittiwakes dipped along, not many of them, but enough to pique our interest, if they were there, what else could there be. Well, one Ring-billed Gull, far away from it warm home in California. And we saw thirty-nine Cassin’s Auklets, enough to cheer us up. They were not all dead, unlike those washed up on shore near Misty Meadows this winter. Cassin’s are so small you almost can’t see them in the wild waves, and so are Ancient Murrelets (62), bright and breezy and willing to chance the weather. Someone back in the 1970’s wrote that it wasn’t worth looking for birds in Hecate Strait in winter. He must have been having a bad day because there are few better to watch birds in the north Pacific. Weather-wise it’s always risky. If the seas had risen higher the sailing would have been cancelled and so would the count. We can’t see birds from ships at night (unless they land on deck, but that’s another story) but we saw over 10,000; we came home in sunlight and what can be wrong with that? Total species: 34.

Tlell – There were flurries, rain and it was -2c. Not auspicious but the count continued until after lunch, then the wind rose and the temperature dropped. Land birds were few, but the Varied Thrushes (214) proved again that they are the bird of winter. It’s interesting that the Christmas Bird Count organisers don’t include ‘sea state’ as part of their weather report, because in calm seas you can see forever, and you can see birds as well, but in rough weather you can’t. So one year hundreds of Red-throated Loons might be recorded on the Tlell count, and the next year, none. Not because they’re not there, but because you can’t see them. Not including ‘sea state’ skews the data. There were a few ducks around, Mallard (54) pintail (3) and teal (2) and 102 Canada geese.  Steller’s Jays (13), Winter Wren (5) and Chestnut-backed Chickadees (25) added some spice to the count and Red Crossbills (66) and Pine Siskins (30) were a nice surprise. The only Black-bellied Plovers for the islands were on the Tlell count, so although we had to finish at 1.30 pm because the biting easterly wind gave no quarter and we couldn’t see a thing, it was worth it. Thanks to all those who added to the count despite the weather. Total species: 37.

Christmas Bird Count Greater Masset 2014

The Greater Massett Count
Margo Hearne

The day started with a flash of red – no not sunrise – but three Purple Finches feeding in red berries along the waterfront. Red birds like red berries. When Adrian Dorst did a Christmas Bird Count here in 1971 he found one, and forty-three years later, here they are again, on the thirty-third consecutive Christmas Bird Count in the Greater Massett area.

When Peter Hamel restarted the counts in 1982, a Townsend’s Solitaire landed in a spruce beside the ocean and hasn’t been seen since. Each year is a surprise. It could be why people enjoy bird-watching; there’s always something new to discover.

The morning of the count was calm and misty, every sound was clear and the Red-breasted Sapsucker was in exactly the same tree as last December. It wasn’t there next day. Out over Masset Inlet, Marbled Murrelets sported and played as the tide raced in. A few Common Murres dove and fed and a single Ancient Murrelet shot off somewhere in a great hurry. Common Loons dove lazily; they have a way of sinking into the water and disappearing, unlike the busy Long-tailed Ducks which hurtled into the water all splish-splash and devil-may-care and the Red-necked Grebes that jumped upwards before diving. Over by the Seaplane Spit a Greater Yellowlegs and two Long-billed Dowitchers fed as though they had never left, even though they hadn’t been there for weeks. It’s interesting that two dowitchers, no more, have shown up almost every year. They don’t live long, they don’t nest here and yet here they are, long bills probing the soft mud like sewing-machine needles. The yellowlegs didn’t stop moving for a minute, the tide had just fallen and it wanted to eat the tiny amphipods left behind.
In Delkatla the duck numbers were down a bit and although we found fifty-two Gadwall, which was good, there were no Eurasian Wigeon; they usually hang out with their American Wigeon cousins. The Red-tailed Hawk was on its usual spruce perch at Skonun Point but was gone next day. Three White-fronted Geese fed in the playing field with a gimpy Cackling Goose. It has an injured leg so it’s staying around. Eight American Robins fed on holly berries and Varied Thrushes are the bird of winter. Seventy-three fed beside the busy highway, barely surviving the passing traffic.
In the woods a tiny Red-breasted Nuthatch crept up the side of a conifer and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet sped like a bee through the alder catkins. And so to the beach. Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, Great Blue Herons, three Least Sandpipers, seventy-nine Sanderling, twenty Black Turnstones and a Dunlin. Two Saw-whet Owls rounded off the day, and this column has only touched on some of the eighty-two species seen on the Greater Massett count on New Year’s Eve 2014.

Christmas Bird Counts – Port Clements & Rose Spit 2014

The Penultimate Bird Counts 2014

Port Clements – A chill wind swept down the Kumdis Estuary but it didn’t rain. A bright pink dawn showed us fifty Black Turnstones feeding along the water’s edge and small rafts of ducks riding the water. The Port Clements count was bright and breezy and although we saw nothing new, it was great to see twenty-five Trumpeter Swans in the Yakoun Estuary. Their numbers have been declining over the past few years, so it was a good sign. Duck numbers were down, the estuary is usually packed with wintering waterfowl, but 277 Green-winged Teal, 509 Mallard, 348 American Wigeon and 145 Pintail together with 9 Gadwall was a decent representative count, although down from the thousands that once inhabited the area only a few years ago. The waterfowl that winter here return to the same place year after year. This is their home. If they die off, or are hunted out, their numbers will not recover. There is a sense that wintering waterfowl are a bottomless well of birds but, in fact, a particular population can disappear from the earth and never return. Winter weather is increasingly erratic, climate change is definitely underway (even though it’s illegal to talk about it in some of the southern U.S. states) and change is evident.

Out over the flats a large flock of 1,300 Dunlin breezed over, turning and flashing white in the winter sun. All three woodpecker species were in the adjacent woods; 7 flickers, 4 Hairy Woodpeckers and 2 Red-breasted Sapsuckers fed in their tree of choice. They like forests, as do the two Brown Creepers, diminutive and secretive, that crept up a large spruce. Down by the river 3 Red-breasted Nuthatches called from the trees in the quiet afternoon and at Juskatla 12 Surfbirds fed at the water’s edge. We rarely see them at this time of year and on this count. 18 Black Oystercatchers sat in the sun on the far point, and eight more swans floated in the quiet water. The bird of the day was the Lincoln’s Sparrow that fed at Brian’s feeder with his Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows that have been there most of the winter. Despite the cool breeze, it was quite a day. Total species number: 48.

Rose Spit
In 1946, when R.M. Stewart lived in Masset, he described January 4 as a ‘nasty day’. It’s not an expression often used nowadays, but it can definitely be applied to the day of the Rose Spit count. Snow, wind, driving rain, sleet and high tide all made the count a challenge. Combine that with a 2-metre sea and it’s a wonder any birds were out there at all. But they were, and so were Martin, Peter and Margo, sheltered in the lee of Yakan Point and hoping for a sight of anything. Well, birds also know when to come in out of the storm, and the lee was just the place. Not in high numbers, but there nevertheless. Three members of the auklet family (not anklets (!), as one headline read recently) including 19 Ancient Murrelets, 3 Marbled Murrelets and 7 Common Murres. We didn’t see any Cassin’s Auklets, those small dead birds that made the news recently. They prefer to be far offshore unless the surf’s giant hand catches them and pounds them into the shallows.
All three species of scoter dove in the lee’s relative calm, Black (6), Surf (25) and White-winged (5). Common Goldeneye (8) and Bufflehead (7) rode the sea near the rocks and a Red-breasted Merganser tore off somewhere before getting tangled up in the maelstrom. Martin walked the Tow Hill Trail but could only find 2 Song Sparrows and 12 juncos while Peter and I couldn’t find anything near the rocks. The tide roared in, the beach was completely covered and would be for hours, we never made it to the spit, but counted 254 Varied Thrushes, a winter record by any standard. The snappy Northeasterly wind rose and the snow got thicker. Enough already. It was time to head home for a hot cup of coffee in front of the fire. Total species: 32.


Christmas Bird Count – Skidegate Inlet

Skidegate, Sandspit, Queen Charlotte,  CBC 2014 – M. Hearne

The day started out wet and got wetter. Then the sun came out. Tiny grey Cassin’s Auklets (10) floated on the water, exhausted from the previous storms. Two Yellow-billed Loons flew over the calm sea. The tide was falling at Sandspit, there’s that brief moment between when the flats are completely exposed and completely covered when birds fly in and feed voraciously close to shore then the tide drops away completely and the birds disappear into the far distance and can’t be distinguished from beach pebbles and intertidal seaweeds. You have to be quick, just like the birds, because they all fly at the slightest movement. Hawks, like shorebirds, know a good thing when they see it. Everything is so charged!
The open meadow attracted lots of birds. They moved from grass to bush to high tree and thirty-two Northern Flickers showed their true colours. A bright flash of red in the sun when they flew and then Varied Thrushes joined them in the trees. Robins also, there’s something about this fall and winter that has kept the birds here, it could be the rose-hips, or the snowberries, or the fast disappearing crab-apples which the birds love.
Back into the parkland opposite the airport terminal. What a place! For the past few months, up to twenty Myrtle Warblers have made it their home and so have two Audubon’s Warblers, a Palm Warbler and an Orange-crowned Warbler. All is not peaceful in the park however because a Sharp-shinned Hawk has taken to swooping down and picking off an occasional warbler leaving behind only a small white feather that floats down to the grass.
Birds love the sun, and so do we. A calm day, a bit of sun, and for the eagles, a chance to hang out with their wings open to let a little sunshine in. Birds are impeccable groomers. They spend hours at it, preening every inch of feather, under-feather, tail feather and toe. If they don’t preen they don’t glean, like the tiny Red-breasted Nuthatch creeping up the side of a big spruce and finding what it can. Two Brown Creepers called out like little bells, Golden-crowned Kinglets were abuzz with the chickadees and a Red-tailed Hawk was finally able to dry out those red tail-feathers.
There’s usually a flock of hardy, sea-going Mallards hanging around the spit. Unlike their fat city cousins these birds ride the wildest seas. They seem anchored in place while the sea roars around them. They have got to be a subspecies, and why not give them a name? Mallardus Kilkunus; 426 of them live in Kilkun Bay throughout the winter and deserve our respect.
Surfbirds (43), Black Turnstones (742), Rock Sandpipers (53), Sanderlings (53) and Killdeer (20) all flushed like hurricane-blown leaves when a Mew Gull flew over. Gulls don’t eat small birds but they do chase each other as they flash in sunlight against the black cloud curtain. South-westerly light gives the wild world clarity, depth and ineffable beauty.
Total species for the count: 80