Monthly Archives: April 2015

Geese in the Meadow, Warblers on the Ferry

Weather delays the ferry, interrupts migration, sends birds to places they have never been before and yet somehow, life goes on. Migrants arrive, Sandhill Cranes call from the Sanctuary and robins sing from the bushes. Tree Swallows, the ones with white underneath and dark blue on top are chasing insects through the air. They returned, unerringly, to the nest box they used last year. And there are lots of insects; they hover over beds of storm wrack on the beach where the shorebirds feed.

A few years ago as we crossed Hecate Strait on the ferry in April a friend shouted “look, There’s a tiny bird. Not a seabird!” just as a Townsend’s Warbler landed on deck. It was just the beginning. For the rest of the crossing thrushes, sparrows and more warblers flew alongside the ferry in the storm and wind. A Dark-eyed Junco, the common bird at winter feeders, landed on a garbage container and a Savannah Sparrow (a pale sparrow with a little yellow over its eye) sheltered behind the lockers on deck for most of the journey. It was the first time we’d seen proof positive that forest birds migrate north through Hecate Strait in spring. Presumably they do the same in fall. They also migrate at night. Crew members have told us about the birds that land on deck, particularly on stormy nights when visibility is poor. The ship’s lights attract the exhausted birds, many of whom winter in California, Mexico and further south.

Why do birds migrate? Because they have a better chance of finding food and raising young. “For all birds, one of the principle driving forces behind migration is food scarcity” reads “If all birds were to stay in the same tropical regions year-round, food would become scarce and breeding would be less successful. But as food sources are regenerating in the north each spring, millions of birds migrate to those areas to take advantage of the abundance.”

Over 2,500 Lesser Canada Geese landed on island this week. They were persistent. When disturbed they landed out in Skidegate Inlet then returned about ten minutes later. Why? Mainly because the birds were tired and hungry, but also because it was a nice, wide, open field and they could see around them as they fed. Geese like short grass so they can keep an eye out for predators. Once settled, they often stay settled.

When planning airports or airfields on the Pacific Flyway it must be recognized that the birds were here first. Their patterns are ‘locked in’; it is, where they fed before they will return to feed again. They generally won’t leave until either the ice if off the north or they are healthy enough to continue their journey. If disturbed too often, their energies become depleted and they die on arrival on their nesting grounds. The old saying for pilots “take care, we share the air” still holds. Nice, open meadows and grasslands beside airport runways is not good planning.

Goldeneyes and Harlequins

March 27 2015. Stormy waves blasted the beach and riding them out were thousands of Common Goldeneye, those small diving ducks that live in the offshore waters along the coast. They had come in from the storm and were waiting until the wind died down.

Goldeneyes are tidy little ducks, there are two species, Common and Barrow’s; male Commons have a white patch like a full moon on their face, male Barrows a crescent moon. Although female birds are no less attractive they have more subtle colouring as they are the ones that need concealment on the nest and to protect the downy young. The males don’t stick around to do the hard work although pair bonds last for years.

Barrow’s Goldeneyes, surprisingly, nest in tree cavities. Downy young were seen sticking close to mom in Mosquito Lake one spring. They are not really offshore feeders and spend the winter in the calmer waters of Masset and Juskatla Inlets and other inland waters.

Harlequin Ducks are gathering by the creeks draining into Hecate Strait. They sit on the rocks in the sun before they leave for their nesting grounds in the Rocky Mountains. They were once very common back east but they have almost disappeared and are on the endangered species list back there; they are of ‘special concern’ throughout the rest of Canada.

Harlequin Ducks have a keen sense of when a big southeaster is due. Thousands flew up from the Cumshewa-Skedans area one calm December evening; next morning they sat in the lee of Shingle Bay while the storm raged around them.

Hummingbirds are back! Although one wintered over in Port Clements, some migrants have returned to the Skidegate Inlet area and are coming to feeders and salmonberry flowers. Flowering plants are early this year, it’s been a mild spring and even the daffodils have bloomed almost a month early. Our flowering currant has lots of hummingbird attraction, but we haven’t seen or heard one yet.

There’s noise in the trees. Robins are practicing for the big chorus, Fox and Song Sparrows are already settling in and the Varied Thrushes long, drawn-out ‘tweee’ echoes from the forest. The warblers will be back any day, and swallows should show up soon.

Winter Hummingbirds

February 21 2015.  A hummingbird wintered over in Port Clements this year. They don’t usually, their preferred plan is to head south in August and spend the winter in Mexico. Somewhere hot. It survived November’s deep chill and was well fed throughout. The hummingbird’s benefactor was Dennis who lives on Jasper Avenue beside Stewart Bay.

“It’s a Rufous,” Dennis told us. “My sister gets Anna’s in Victoria, so I know it’s not that. It’s been here all winter, and I keep two feeders going, one in the front of the house and one at the back, and keep them full. I don’t want the bird to go hungry as I know that it’ll not make it until the flowers start to show if I don’t.”

During big tides the water can rise uncomfortably high, especially with the wind pushing it and during the time we spent with Dennis he was busy building up the sand at the bottom of the garden to afford it some protection.  We spent an hour or so waiting to see the bird, but true to form with birds, when you really want to see one, it doesn’t show up. We went off on another errand and when we returned Dennis told us that we’d just missed it!

Anna’s Hummingbirds have wintered over here in the past; a few in Queen Charlotte actually stayed on and nested. They are bigger than Rufous Hummingbirds, the usual island bird. One appeared on a snowy March day a few winter’s back and flew to what looked like a red flower, but wasn’t, so we rushed to hang out a feeder but never saw it again. It was presumably going north, a tiny winged creature with hardly an ounce of fat on its tiny body. Hummingbirds need to eat a lot to keep going. Their hearts beat faster than a whirligig in high wind, with beats of up to 70 beats a second. After eating their fill, they sit and rest for a while, then get on with their business of getting the next generation up and running.

In cooler weather they become torpid, their heartbeat slows right down, and if it’s really cold they may not come out the other side of their torpor. They are funny little things, often the only way you know they are around is when you hear a ziiit as it whizzes by close to your ear. They are really secretive during the nesting season and only one or two people we’ve met have ever seen a nest here.


Brant in the Meadow

February 18 2015. Brant are small black geese with narrow white necklaces.  Large flocks come through in spring and feed on eelgrass and sea lettuce in the intertidal zone before heading north to stage at Izembeck Lagoon in Alaska. From there they spread out to their nesting grounds.   Flocks of up to 10,000 fly past the islands in wavy black lines just above the horizon. When I studied Brant at Masset and Sandspit in the early 1990’s many of the birds had coloured leg bands. The different colours showed that most of the birds nested in the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta although some kept going to Wrangel Island, Siberia and the Canadian Arctic.  It was exciting to see the birds move through and watch them feed on the flats. It was also frustrating as the birds took to wing at the slightest disturbance; usually just as I was about to write down a band colour and number. Reading band numbers can actually become quite addictive. How many bands will I see today? Will they be the same as yesterday? Is the family I saw earlier in the week still here? Which are the wintering flock and which are the migrants? I used to keep seeing KV3 throughout the spring; it knew its way around and would drive off any migrant bold enough to move into its feeding place.  By late April the main flocks had gone north with only a few stragglers left behind.

A small flock used to over-winter at Maast Island at one time but they don’t anymore. Brant, like many waterfowl, travel in distinct sub-groups and usually return to their favourite places. If that sub-group is shot out or dies from, perhaps, starvation, another family won’t necessarily fill the gap. The original group will have been extirpated, meaning that the sub-group has gone but the species as a whole is not extinct.

A large flock of Brant winter over at Sandspit. They feed on the flats at Kilkun or Shingle Bay at low tide.  They are there now, but interestingly, they are not on the flats but feeding on the grass. It is perhaps the only place on the coast where they eat grass; they are known as the sea-goose of the Pacific for a reason. Seaweed is their usual fare. It’s possible that fresh spring seaweed hasn’t appeared yet so the birds are hungry, and, because they are eating grass, are also thirsty.  So the other evening a flock of around 600 all ran across the meadow to quench their thirst in a rain-puddle. It was fun to see them move like that until larger Canada Geese flew in and pushed them out. But they quickly moved back to drink while the water remained.


March 6 2015 Birds don’t like novelty. Unlike us, they like everything to stay the same, same tree, same wetland, and same feeding ground. Make any changes and the birds simply die off. It’s one of the many reasons there are fewer and fewer birds in the world. Forest destruction, wetland encroachment and other human activities are taking their toll on wildlife. Sadly, we want it all. We’ve been waiting to hear the Red-breasted Sapsucker hammering on the telephone poles and hemlocks near the house but they haven’t shown up yet. Last year was a big year for them, and they seemed to have been very prolific. There were many comments, even complaints, about their numbers. They seemed to have moved into town, were taking pieces out of someone’s new shed, were drumming loudly everywhere and keeping people awake.

Sapsuckers are modest birds. They live their lives quietly in the forest, far from the busy rush where they can flit across open patches to alight on their nesting tree. Bad things happen however, when the tree they nested in for years isn’t there anymore. So they move nearby, to something that maybe looks like a tree, it’s hollow and resonates nicely, so the bird can announce its presence to the other sapsuckers around and make sure they keep out of its space. Oh well. It so happens that the shed belongs to some kind of mega-bird without feathers that walks upright and carries a .22.

Not everyone is so heartless as to take the life of an innocent bird just because it chooses to prefer your shed to someone else’s. They don’t stay around long anyway and as soon as the bird has found a nesting cavity it stops drumming. Their initial noise is all about territory, the bigger noise attracts the healthier female. Territory is a space large enough to feed the family and small enough to be defended. A sapsucker doesn’t need the same size of territory as, for instance, an eagle, it can’t defend that vast space and doesn’t need it to gather its food.

Sapsuckers are members of the woodpecker family. They climb up the side of a tree, brace themselves with their tail and begin to drill into the bark to get at the sap. They prefer hemlock, and their favourite trees are riddled with pock-marks. They like fruit trees too, that nice soft bark hides all kinds of tasty edibles, so better wrap the stem with blue tree-planting mesh to deter it. So where are the Red-breasted Sapsuckers this year? They usually show up around the end of February, all handsome red head and perky body. Peter’s records over the years show that last year they were back on Feb 21, the year before on Feb 24. They are late this year, perhaps when they do return we can give them some space.

St. Patrick, Finches and Woodpeckers

March 20 2015

Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day. What little we know of him tells us that he was captured, enslaved, and finally freed. When he got back home he realized that there was more to Ireland than herding sheep, so he went off, got educated and returned to set up monasteries and churches throughout the island. In those days churches were places of scholarship and learning; as a result of his work and that of his followers, Ireland became known as “the island of saints and scholars”. One of his strengths came from his acknowledgement of the power of the natural world and he used ‘the virtues of the starlit heaven…the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks’ as a protective shield. He incorporated the religions of the time into his own theology.

Haida Gwaii this week was alive with wind and rain and migratory birds. On St. Patrick’s Day a mixed flock of finches swept through the meadows in a vital, lively flock. Hundreds of Pine Siskins and Red Crossbills fed in the upper canopy then flew down to the low bushes where they were joined by three Pine Grosbeaks, a Downy Woodpecker, a field of robins and many flickers. It was amazing!

Downy Woodpeckers are a rare find here, it’s a smaller relative of the resident Hairy Woodpecker, is black and white and feeds the same way, creeping along a branch and feeding on insects behind the bark. Hairys (and Downys) are not as visible as some of the other woodpeckers, they are fewer in number, start nesting early in the season and don’t drum loudly on telephone poles. Haida Gwaii has three resident species of woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern (red-shafted) Flicker and the Hairy mentioned above. The sapsuckers are returning, finally, and can be seen and heard around the island, though there doesn’t seem to be as many as in previous years.

Siskins, crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks are all members of the finch family. They have larger bills and the crossbills actually have crossed bills so they can winkle seeds from spruce cones, quite the evolutionary feat. They sometimes nest and spend the winter here, but it all depends on whether or not there is a good cone crop as that is their particular diet. Poor cone crop means no crossbills and few siskins, good crop means that they might winter over and stay to nest.

Pine Grosbeaks are about as big as a robin and the ones we saw were eating crabapples left over from last fall. The berries were dry and few in number, but the birds were hungry and there seemed to be little else to eat. Male grosbeaks are a lovely deep red and females and young birds are a subtle greenish-yellow. They are fairly tame as wild birds go and don’t always fly off in a panic at the sight of someone approaching with a camera. So spring migration is underway and anything can show up.