Monthly Archives: August 2015

A Deficit of Nature

On the Wing – July 30 2015

Rain pours down and fills the creeks and rivers. Salmon have a chance. Adults return to their natal streams and tiny alevins leave their gravel home, become fry and head towards the ocean. It’s a big world out there and they need to fatten up. Without water, everything dies. One of the more important aspects of restoring Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary to a tidal estuary twenty years ago was to provide a salmon nursery for salmonids and other fish. It’s working. There are thousands of fry out there right now holding against the current and waiting for the tide to rise. In another part of the forest, near Entry Point, hundreds lie dead where there once was water. They were left, quite literally, high and dry. It’s a big loss.

Fingerlings feed everything. While they eat aquatic insects, birds eat them. Herons stalk the shallows, kingfishers dive headlong into the deeper water and many shorebirds while probing the soft mud also scarf fry. It is the way of nature and it would be a sorry world without it.

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Richard Louw’s book “Last Child in the Woods” is about nature deficit disorder. He notes that children are, quite literally, losing their senses. “Not that long ago,” he writes. “the sound track of a young person’s days and nights was composed largely of the notes of nature…today, the life of the senses is, literally, electrified” Television, computers, air conditioning and the noises of indoor life can be all that children hear. He contends that if we and our children don’t get out more we are more likely to suffer from depression and loneliness, especially if we spent a lot of time on the internet.

“Immersion in the natural world cuts to the chase,” he writes. “(It) exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air and other living kin, large and small…if we forget our place, we forget that larger fabric on which our lives depend.”

We are fortunate to have a wildlife sanctuary in our back yard, beaches where we can run for miles, forests where we can listen and fields to play in. So it’s raining! As a friend once told me when I balked at taking the dogs for a walk in the rain ‘we’re not made of sugar, we won’t melt!’IMG_6899

Juncos are back at the feeder with a clutch of four healthy young. The season is almost over for singing birds, they will be moving along soon and taking the summer with them. However the hummingbirds are still around, one fed in the roses this morning and an Orange-crowned Warbler family hops through the trees. Twenty-three Sandhill Cranes landed in Delkatla last night, they have been in the vicinity all summer and have come in for the evening. Over 150 Canada Geese are relaxing at the water’s edge looking very much at home. They were gone for a few weeks either in the moult or raising goslings.

A new visitor came to the waterhole this week. It didn’t have wings and it goes bump in the night under the house. An otter. Investigations will have to undertaken before burrows are dug and the house collapses.

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Oystercatchers, Pine Grosbeaks and Bumblebees

On the Wing – July 24 2015

It is calm. Western Sandpipers skitter through the seaweed until a Black Oystercatcher calls the alarm from far down the beach. Panic in the skies. The peregrine is back! It rises from behind the dunes and stoops at the shorebirds who all fly up in a tight flock. It doesn’t get one this time around. It will be back to follow the one weaker bird that falls out from the pack. All the birds are now on high alert. But, they are also hungry, so they take a chance and keep on feeding just ahead of the rising tide.

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Juvenile Pine Grosbeak in Masset

A group of Semipalmated Plovers land. It’s the first evidence that these birds have finished nesting further north and are on their way south. Shorebird behaviour is amazing. They travel in flocks for safety then separate and nest in pairs on the breeding grounds. Then, when it’s all over for the season, they gather in flocks again and move south. There’s safety in numbers.

The Black Oystercatcher is a lovely, odd-looking creature. It is completely black except for its long red bill and pink legs. It nests on some of the islets on Haida Gwaii and usually hatches only one or two young. Its camouflage is perfect. On rocky islets it simply sits immobile on the nest. It too migrates along the coast to its nesting grounds. We once watched an adult oystercatcher chase off a juvenile bald eagle that seemed to be after its chick. After flying in the face of the eagle the much smaller oystercatcher flew out over the water to draw the big bird away. The chase was on! The oystercatcher was too agile and adept for the big bird which eventually flew off in search of more sedentary prey.

A family of Pine Grosbeaks arrived in the garden this week. Dry-feathered and thirsty they drank and splashed in the water watched by a pair of young robins and a thrush. The grosbeaks took their time, they had been circling the area all summer, occasionally singing their own particular, sweet song. Grosbeaks in winter are fairly tame and don’t always fly off then approached, but these summer birds stayed out of sight. We had never seen fledged young grosbeaks here before, it was quite a find.

Bumble bee gathering nectar from our honeysuckle

Bumble bee gathering nectar from our honeysuckle

Bumble bees have have wings. They are small, colourful insects that gather nectar from flowers to take back to the nest. There is not a lot of information about them in North America and the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa is working in partnership with other organizations to gather more information. Bees are essential for pollinating the foods we eat and, like most wild species, are losing ground. It’s been a good year for bumble bees here this year, many have commented on their numbers throughout the islands. The project organizers want bee photos. Their web page: bumblebeewatch.org has more information on this interesting project.

Ravens in the cherries; Canada Geese back home

On the Wing – July 17 2015

Birds love soft weather. The hard wind has stopped (for now) there’s a misty drizzle, a bit of rain-fog and the cherries are ripe. We couldn’t figure out what the noise and banging was on the woodshed’s tin roof this week until we checked the cherry tree. Well, the shed gives the birds a lift to the nearest cherries; they don’t even have to balance on a twiggy limb to delicately pick a hole in the fruit. In the past we waited to pick the cherries until they were ripe but the mischievious crows and rascally ravens had beaten us to them. This year we got the ladder out and salvaged a handful, but many had fallen after being pecked so we left them to the wild world. Birds are opportunistic locavores during nesting season.

It’s been a good season for birds and berries and today’s gentle rain has brought worms to the surface. Young robins hop over the wet grass, siskins eat grass seed, chickadees flit from bush to bush and the warblers are back in the water hole dipping and splashing and having a merry time. In good years like this songbirds might have more than one clutch; there have been fledged robins of different ages around for a few weeks now and when the wild food crop is as plentiful as it has been, birds will re-nest. Also word about waterfowl has just come in. Three families of Mallards are swimming in the Chown Slough. Two clutches are almost fully grown and the other chicks have a bit to go yet.

We’ve had lots of inquiries as to the identity of the ‘evening singing bird’ whose song spirals upwards from forest and bush. It’s a rich and ringing sound, none other than the Swainson’s Thrush, last to arrive in spring, last to leave in fall. It usually stops singing in mid-July, any day now.

The geese are back in the Sanctuary. Nine returned on July 16. “They are one week early,” said Peter. “Like the plants, flowers and berries this year, everything is early.” Geese go to the backwoods during the moult and they also nest near quiet lakes and rivers away from humanity. The introduced raccoons are a particular threat to nestlings as, like the cranes, they nest in a hollow on the ground.

We just saw the young Sandhill Crane today. The surviving one is now the size of the adult with fuzzy feathers. Two young fledged in the Sanctuary but only one grew up. Raccoons and feral cats are a menace and the airport was constructed right next to the Sanctuary so all the noise and traffic throughout the summer creates a disturbance. There is not much to be done about that at this stage other than to be aware that the cranes were here first. We share the air; we don’t own it.

A Peregrine Falcon just swept low over the Sanctuary. They usually nest on the high cliffs of Langara Island and down the west coast. Wayne Nelson from Edmonton has been coming to the islands for over 36 years to study the nesting falcons at Langara Island and there is a lot information on his work at the Nature Centre here in Masset.

 

Semipalmated Plovers and Goldeneye chicks

On the Wing – June 26 2015. It’s hard to believe, but the southbound migration is underway! We are only past midsummer and already the first wave of Western Sandpipers are feeding on the beach. Some of the bigger shorebirds have only just gone north. The beach contains a myriad of small bugs to attract the migrant wanderer; when the tide falls and wracks of seaweed lie on the crown they contain a wealth of foodstuffs. Not my cup of tea perhaps, but essential nutrients for the survival of the little critters. The full moon is July 1 with attendant big tides so there should be lots of goodies for birdy dinners.

Incidentally, the ‘full buck moon’ was July 1, and the ‘full thunder moon’ will be on July 31. When a second full moon occurs in the same month it’s called a blue moon which is pretty rare, there was none last year and the next one won’t be until 2017. Birds probably don’t care, they follow their own pathways.

Semipalmated Plover and Chick. Photo: M. Hearne

Semipalmated Plover and Chick. Photo: M. Hearne

It’s been a successful nesting season. Semipalmated Plover chicks are running on the beaches doing their best to escape the vehicles and dogs that seem to grow in number every year. The plovers nest above the high tide line in the dry logs and gravel and below the grass line. It’s a particular ecosystem; nests used to be found approximately every 150 metres  between Skonun Point and the Sangan River and beyond that out to Yakan Point. It’s been a few years since surveys were done. Although the plovers can still be seen, the two nests by Skonun have long gone, as have the nesting Oystercatchers near the rocks. Heavy traffic on the high beach took them out years ago.

Ducklings are swimming behind their mama in some of the bigger lakes on island. A family of Barrow’s Goldeneye has successfully hatched, six tiny morsels trying to dive. They are so lightweight that they hardly break the surface and bob up like corks within seconds. They’re only a week to ten days old. The interesting thing about goldeneyes is that they nest high in the trees so it’s a long way for those tiny ducklings to fall before running to the lake waters. They can only survive the drop because they’re almost as light as air.

Barrows Goldeneye with chicks. Photo: M. Hearne

Barrow’s Goldeneye with chicks. Photo: M. Hearne

Other hatchlings include Barn Swallows, Song Sparrows, robins, thrushes, sapsuckers (now liking the flowering Hawthorne) warblers and Sooty Grouse. Belted Kingfishers dart to and fro, one slammed into the window so hard this week that we thought it must surely die. It was being chased, we heard the ruckus, then the bang. It lay in the flower-bed panting and totally stressed. After placing it gently in a box and leaving it undisturbed for an hour or so it began to peck loudly, so we checked it out and let it go. Off it went in a blaze of blue and black.

Flo Perdue left town recently. She had lived in Masset for over forty years and was a great friend of the Sanctuary. She spent many hours watching birds and she and her late husband Don donated a spotting scope and binoculars to the Nature Centre at Delkatla. She was a faithful attendant at every Society AGM and always provided support, ideas and suggestions for its success. Society members miss her and wish her every success in her new place down south.

Birds, Berries and Baths

On the Wing – July 10 2015

Berry picking is in full swing. The huckleberries are early from the dry, sunny weather and out on the berry patch the only sound is the gentle song of the Hermit Thrush. It’s a shy bird which rarely shows itself in the garden, unlike its close cousin the Swainson’s Thrush, that downward spiraling songster of summer evenings. But the song of the Hermit Thrush holds the record for beauty in my mind. Its high, clear note drops down a few notes in an echoing harmonic. When anchored up after a busy day on the fishing grounds on still evenings in the late 1980’s we’d hear it ringing out from the dark forest and lilting across the water. Our own evening chorus.

Townsend's in the tub. Photo: M. Hearne

Townsend’s in the tub. Photo: M. Hearne

Swainson’s Thrushes will come to splashing water when the rain hasn’t fallen for a few weeks and our bird-bath has been busy recently. While there might be enough wild food around to feed any number of fledged young there’s not much fresh water. There are no rain-ponds and the muskeg tarns are drying out. Whole families of Townsend’s Warblers and Song Sparrows come to the bath and splash around. They are fairly polite overall; if a sparrow is having a bath with wings and tail going like crazy, the warblers will line up on a branch and wait for it to finish, then they’ll hop down and have at it. It’s all very entertaining; each species exhibits a different behaviour. The Pacific-slope Flycatcher flits in nervously with wings and tail a-twitch. It won’t go into the water like the warblers but will merely dip its bill and fly off. It may come back again, but its aspect is so nervous one gets worried for it.

Pine Siskins skip down from the high conifers, swing back up then dive right down and splash into the water like a teenager letting go of a rope over a river. More often than not a small flock will dunk at the same time, I guess there’s safety in numbers, as, unlike the lone flycatcher which doesn’t seem to have anyone to guard its back, siskins keep watch from all sides. Wet birds are not nimble and won’t escape a marauding cat.

Brown Creeper in the Spruce Tree. Photo: M. Hearne

Brown Creeper in the Spruce Tree. Photo: M. Hearne

One of the most interesting birds to come to the water this week was a young Brown Creeper. If the Hermit Thrush seems shy, you should try and catch a glimpse of this little bird. It creeps up huge trees, nests under tree bark and sings a barely audible song. High and thin, created only for other creepers, not for human ears. But then, isn’t all bird song? Anyway, there it was, hoppity-skippity down the trunk of a massive spruce then quickly into the tub. It was quite calm about it all because, once it got there, it hung out for a while and got thoroughly soaked. Its nest is made of spider webs and feathers so a little dampness was probably refreshing.

And, speaking of berries, birds love them. Especially huckleberries. They’re tart and juicy and make a great dessert after a meal of insects. This year we beat the birds to the berries in the garden, but one spot too high to reach will be stripped very shortly. Birds can be loud and noisy and raucous except when they are up to something; crows stealing food or thrushes in a berry bush.  Only the rustle of branches and the sudden rush of wings gives them away. I waited one year for the berries to ripen then got the berry-bucket and opened the door to make a start and it seemed as though every bird in the world took off from the bare bush. Not a berry left! But then, wild berries are for wild birds.

 

Summer Shearwaters, petrels and phalaropes

On the Wing – July 3 2015

The day was clear and calm and we could see for miles. BC Ferries “Northern Adventure” ran through flocks of Sooty Shearwaters on the way to Prince Rupert, and, mixed with the shearwaters was one small Fork-tailed Storm-petrel and a handful of tiny Red-necked Phalaropes which fed on or near floating masses of seaweed or scooted in front of the ferry in small flocks. They seemed like mere misty shadows. Were they real or not? When wavelets dance on the sunlit waters it’s sometimes hard to tell. Phalaropes are about the same size as the Sanderlings that run along the low beach and they nest in the high Arctic near tundra ponds and lakes. Interestingly, it’s the male bird that has the ‘brood patch’ and sits on the nest until the young have hatched. Like many shorebirds the young are up and running, or swimming in this case, almost immediately after hatching. The chicks follow papa into the water and away they go. Phalaropes can’t sink or dive; air trapped in their belly feathers keep them afloat, so, almost as light as air, they bob along like tiny pieces of foam. The birds we saw near Edye Pass this week were female birds that had left the nesting grounds and were heading south.

And, speaking of migration, the first wave of Western Sandpipers showed up on island on June 23. It seems awfully early, but records over the years have shown that the first wave of shorebirds usually shows up around the last week in June.  As a friend once said “we haven’t even gone out fishing yet and the birds are already going south!”

Shearwaters and Humpbacked Whale in Hecate Strait. Photo: M. Hearne

Shearwaters and Humpbacked Whale in Hecate Strait. Photo: M. Hearne

Shearwaters are those dark, gull-like birds that skim over the open ocean. This is their winter. They leave their nesting burrows on the islands off southern South America, New Zealand and Australia and come up here to feed in Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance. Shearwaters are ‘trans-equatorial migrants in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans’; one was tracked and found to have covered 65,000 kms of ocean before returning to its New Zealand home. It had slipped the bonds of its dark burrow and kept on going. Shearwaters often return to the same nesting area every year but may not always use the same burrow. They lay just one large egg which hatches in 53-56 days; the young bird fledges in about 86-106 days and it’s independent after that.

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels are small, grey-blue sea-birds that dip and dance across the water when feeding. They nest from Northern California right through to the Aleutian Chain and possibly as far north as the Kamchatka Peninsula. They also nest in burrows right here on Haida Gwaii in the islets off Langara Island and on Limestone Island. They can leave the eggs for days when feeding offshore. Their cool burrow and the embryo’s low metabolism can allow for a few days of neglect. Incubation can be up to 51 days, a long time to sit in a dark burrow. They probably like to see a bit of sunlight from time to time.

Bird Songs and Cranes

On the wing – June 19 2015

The sun shines bright. Too bright sometimes. Birds don’t sing as much during a high pressure system as they do under low cloud. Their sound doesn’t carry as well. That’s how it seems anyway. There’s an old saying on-island; “when the swamp sparrow sings, it’s going to rain.” The ‘swamp sparrow’ is actually the Varied Thrush, that handsome orange and black robin-sized bird. It’s the one that used to sound like the phone ringing when friends were outside working in the garden. They would hear this long ‘meeeeep’ and rush inside to answer the phone. Fooled again. This thrush likes a cloudy day, its buddies can hear it clearly and sing right back.

When we did forest bird surveys a few years ago it was often hard to pin down exactly where the thrush was singing from. “It almost seems to be a ventriloquist,” said one. “The sounds seem to come from everywhere.”  We also met some musicians who had difficulty following this bird’s song. “It’s just so random. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it and it’s all on one pitch.” Well, if they had risen at 3 am on a cloudy midsummer morning they would have heard a whole Varied Thrush orchestra. One would start on pitch, another would pick it up and sing back on a different pitch, then another on yet a higher pitch. Sometimes they all sang together, a bird choir.

Varied Thrush in the forest Photo: M. Hearne

Varied Thrush in the forest
Photo: M. Hearne

If you have a computer (not everyone does) and go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, type in ‘Varied Thrush’ and you should find a photo, description and sound. If you don’t have a computer (or even if you do) head into the forest on an early overcast summer morning and listen. The thrush’s “simple, ringing song gives a voice to the quiet forests of the Pacific Northwest, with their towering conifers and wet understories of ferns, shrubs, and mosses”. True.

Why do birds sing? That’s been a question for the ages. “In more recent times,” writes Paul Evans in the Guardian Weekly, “bird song has been described in scientific terms of territorial possession and sexual dominance…” however, he goes on, “listening to the song thrush transcend his own body…it seems he is bursting with soul, filling this place with the sound of his entire being. Interpretations of what he’s doing (or why) seem inadequate.”

There’s a flock of wandering Sandhill Cranes in the environs of Masset. They stalk across the Sanctuary and out on the dunes grazing as they go. They don’t seem to be nesting as there is no apparent fealty to nest or young unlike the two parent birds with tiny chicks recently seen. It’s a bit of a mystery. Each year up to thirty-two cranes feed here and one year an incredibly rare Eurasian Crane showed up with them. They seemed smaller than the local cranes and a recent news story from Manitoba told of a Eurasian Crane travelling with a flock of small cranes just this year. It could have been the same group. The prevailing northwest winds all May and June may be blowing birds across the Pacific. One of the nice things to know about birds is that we know very little about them.