Monthly Archives: December 2015

August 28 2015 – Jaegers and Gulls

 

August 28 2015 –  As predicted the rain has come, perhaps not as big a downpour as Vancouver had recently, but rain nevertheless. Shearwaters and gulls feed in the deeps and among the busy group are six Pomarine Jaegers. These big birds nest in the high Arctic and start heading south once nesting season is over. Jaegers are the falcons of the sea, although falcons are top predators and usually capture their own food whereas jaegers chase down gulls and other seabirds and force them to throw up their food so they can have it. It’s an extraordinary evolutionary adaption. Why not save all that energy and get their own food instead of harassing other birds? On the nesting grounds jaegers will take lemmings but they will also eat the eggs and young of other species.

Pomarine Jaeger in Hecate Strait

Pomarine Jaeger in Hecate Strait

Most actions in the natural world are about species survival; some activity proved successful and became the norm. Why? Because it works. Sadly, most species are not so good at adapting to human behaviour and become extinct. It seems that if they want what we want or have any smarts at all, they have to go. During recent discussions with an Australian who had lived in the outback he told us about Crocodile behaviour and how smart they are. The crocs watched campers and learned their routine. They would lie in wait for the next campers to wash their plates in the same stream at the same time and come in for the kill. The crocs were shot of course, they were smarter than us and had to go. They has learned how to capture easy prey for their survival and we hadn’t learned not to wash our plates in croc-infested streams.

Jaeger is German for ‘hunter’ and there are three species, Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed. They are pelagic (sea-going) birds and are rarely visible from shore, although on September 11 1993 two Long-tailed, six Parasitic and eight Pomarine Jaegers flew up the mouth of Masset Inlet and two Pomarine and three Parasitic flew past Rose Spit. It was an exceptional jaeger day.

Gull identification is a challenge. They all seem to look the same, especially the young ones. Some birders spend their lives on gulls, but most learn what each adult looks like and ignore the rest. Gulls hang out on breakwaters and boardwalks, on pilings and beaches and generally stay out of our way. The most common species on Haida Gwaii is the Glaucous-winged Gull. It has a grey back and grey wingtips. It’s a gulls wingtips that help with identification. Herrings are mostly black and Thayer’s are grey with white ‘windows’. Those are the larger gulls. Then there are the smaller ones. Mew Gulls nest on the islets in Mosquito and Yakoun Lakes and have black and white wingtips and Kittiwake wingtips look like they were dipped in black ink. Kittiwakes nest on Holland Rock near Prince Rupert.

Glaucous-winged Gulls

Glaucous-winged Gulls

Gulls were in the news in Britain recently. The Herring Gulls that nest on chimneys in seaside towns can get pretty feisty if you get too close and reports were coming in of gulls attacking kids who were carrying food and adults walking the boardwalks. They were getting a little too close for the gulls’ comfort. Even the Prime Minister got into the discussion. Gulls were accused of Hitchcockian gatherings and people were in fear of their lives. I guess it is a little scary to have a gull almost take your hair off, but really! Just give nesting birds lots of room and keep out of their space.

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Little Brown Birds and Cranes

 

August 21 2015 – It’s quiet in the woods. Most of the songbirds have left and those that are still here – chickadees, kinglets, juncos – are not singing. Our Song Sparrow family has vanished. Where once there was a sparrow singing almost every 100 metres along the track, now there’s maybe one or two. We know we have resident Song Sparrows, we just don’t know how many migrants come here in summer, where they come from and where are they are going. They are the most common little brown birds here. Consultant funds goes to the big birds like goshawks or grouse and the little ones go unnoticed yet they are a critical part of nature’s balancing system. No sparrows, tons of bugs.

Song Sparrow - one of the little brown birds of Haida Gwaii

Song Sparrow – one of the little brown birds of Haida Gwaii – MH

In fact, no-one knows anything about the forest birds of Haida Gwaii in any deep way, the funding net is inclined to skip along the surface and catch the big guys and ignore the small. The Fox Sparrows of Haida Gwaii might even be a separate species. They nest here, winter over and now it seems that those who do these things may separate the Fox into Red, Sooty or something else. Which one is the island fox? Could it even be a separate species? Martin Williams, friend and local birder, took a photograph of a really pale Fox Sparrow a few years back and when we sent it to the person who wrote the book on Fox Sparrows for help as to its subspecies, he hadn’t a clue. The wild world is a wonderful mystery and, as we rampage along, it’s frightening how little we know.

The family Barn Swallows have taken their last flight out of the nest and soar along with other successful fledglings. They’re out there now, chattering noisily on hydro wires and practicing flying. Late summer starters, they are one of the last to leave as they dip and soar over the dunes and above the trees and muscle up for the long flight south. The fledgling wings grow almost by the hour, and, except for a few stragglers, they’ll be gone in the next week or so.

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One adult and two juvies in Delkatla – MH

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is back. So is the Peregrine. One landed in a low spruce along the dunes and the busy swallows, like midges, came in for the attack. One by one they dove at it, never getting quite close enough for the falcon to grab one but close enough to keep it from settling. The little buzzing birds made the falcon flinch and eventually it flew away, a win by the group of small against a single big. It works, sometimes.

Great Blue Herons stalk the wetlands. A family of four fed almost together. Unlike Sandhill Cranes, herons usually feed alone as they poke along in the shallow water and snap up sculpins and fingerlings. They are omnivorous. They’ll eat frogs, nestlings, small mammals and even food scraps. Herons have strong, sharp bills, so if you’re ever unfortunate enough to get within striking distance of one, if, for instance, it’s injured and needs help, keep your distance. It can break a bone.

Sandhill Crane numbers are decreasing, a flock of nine fed in the meadow beside the highway this week and the young birds are flying easily. They’ll be off soon as they make way for the migrant geese and ducks. A flock of small Canada Geese landed in the Sanctuary this week, they seem early as they feed calmly beside one of the creeks.

Geese in the Meadow

 August 14 2015 – The new moon occurs today. Its will be a ‘full sturgeon moon’ on August 29. It must be good for fish. There are lots of Three-spined Stickleback in Delkatla and they hold against the culvert currents under the Stepping Stones Trail.  The fish don’t have scales but are protected by bony plates on the back, flank and belly. Things still eat them, a recent acquaintance explained that, as a child, he fed some to an injured Mallard and although the bird took a while to get it down, it did manage eventually. So bony plates are only a deterrent, not a guarantee of survival.

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Geese in the meadow, no cows in the corn

A large flock of migrating Northern Pintail showed up this week. They don’t nest here and it’s the first sighting of south-bound birds. They were all either female or juvenile birds. Over 200 Canada Geese returned to the Sanctuary, their numbers may increase over the next few months as those from the north start coming south. It was interesting to see them strip the seeds from the tip of the grass, now at full height, as one might strip a corn-cob. They did it quietly. The island geese are dark and smallish, although larger than the Cackling Geese that will arrive soon.

Out at the water-hole a bunch of testy juncos drove off every other species that came in for a drink. We hadn’t actually noticed this before, perhaps because we hadn’t put bird-seed out for a while, but once the feed was out the juncos claimed ownership of the whole garden and drove off a few sparrows and a thirsty Townsend’s Warbler, the yellow and black one. Well, there’s still lots of wild food crop around so the seed has been stored for later.

Just this morning a family of Golden-crowned Kinglets came in for an undisturbed bath and seemed to enjoy every moment. They are one of the smallest forest birds and one of the earliest nesters. Males have a bright yellow crown and this family looked quite grown up.

Upland Sandpiper MH

Upland Sandpiper MH

Shorebird migration continues. Western and Least Sandpipers flit over the mud-flats and just this week a beautiful and rare sandpiper flew overhead and landed in the meadow beside us. It was an Upland Sandpiper. We only ever see one or two of these birds at a time, they fly alone, not in large flocks as do many of the smaller shorebirds. Although they don’t occur here every year, those that do usually show up in mid-August. Looking back on Peter Hamel’s notes, he has records for the bird appearing on exactly the same day, August 25 in 1994, 1995, 2003 and within the last two weeks in August or early September in other years. Little is known about this bird along the west coast other than that they nest in isolation within mountainous areas in Alaska (Houston and Bowen 2001) and in loose colonies elsewhere. They nest mainly in the prairie provinces of Canada and the great plains of the USA. This bird was a little outside its normal range.

Hummingbirds, Loons and Swallows

On the Wing August 7 2015

A Rufous Hummingbird flew around the corner and hovered with wings outstretched like a tiny angel. That was the last we saw of it although we noticed that the hummingbird feeder was getting low. They had ignored it most of the summer but now that the young had grown they needed a fast sugar hit. Hummingbirds are always a delight. They shine in the sunlight like flying flowers, their rufous iridescent throats a warning to others of their kind to stay away. The wild world seems so subtle; it operates on small squeaks and flashes of feather all totally relevant to the creature but a great unknown to us.

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Semi chick on beach (you might need binoculars!)

Almost all birds fly from us in panic. A tiny Barn Swallow recently escaped from its nest before its flight feathers were fully formed and landed in the long grass. It tried to hide and squeaked in panic when we approached. Instinctive survival tactics. But how did it know we were dangerous? It had never seen one of us before. We put the tiny warm thing back in its nest, all a-flutter, but it settled down with the other chicks right away. Barn Swallows are one of the last species to arrive here in spring. They usually don’t show up until mid-May. They are also one of the last to leave and we have seen one or two in November that had been caught up in a weather system that spun them out from space. While Barn Swallows seem abundant right now the blue-and-white Tree Swallows were all a-twitter and a-buzz for the past few weeks. Over 500 swung busily over the beaches feeding on flying insects before they kept moving south. They won’t be back until next year.

A Red-throated Loon flew overhead in the deepening dusk. It has a strange, mallard-like call, unlike the distinctive call of the Common Loon so reminiscent of northern Canada. Red-throated Loons nest on Haida Gwaii, they too have interesting life skills. Rather than feed in a nearby interior lake, they fly out to inlets and nearshore waters to capture small fish. They feed fairly close to shore while Common and Pacific Loons feed in deeper water. This year, being so dry, may have had an impact on Red-throats as some of the smaller bog lakes near where they nested have dried up. They like wild, remote places. If left undisturbed they will return each year to their home site. Estimates from the 1980’s showed that there was a nesting population of between 784 and 892 on Haida Gwaii. It was  it was good to hear the loon’s call; it means that they are still around.

Semi-palmated Plovers have all grown up and gather in groups on the beach, the ones from further north are stopping off to feed and the ones that nested here may fly south with them. It was a successful nesting season, we counted at least twenty-two nests along the beaches and watched young of the year feed with their parents. Goodbye to all that for another year.