Monthly Archives: October 2016

December 11 2015 – Salting the Highway; a death trap for birds

December 11 2015 – Large flocks of small birds swing over the fields then land and nibble on alder catkins. It might be one of those years when members of the finch family come down from the north and spend the winter. Pine Siskins make up most of the flocks, small, cheery energetic birds that fly in a weaving wave as they dip down to feed upside-down on seeds. They swing away again, bright balls of energy in the dead of winter. They are small and striped, whitish underneath and darker above, with yellow wing-bars and yellow tail-streaks. They often nest within a few metres of each other and forage in small flocks.

Pine Siskins are nomadic; that is they move around in response to the availability of seeds. Its why one year there are none on island and the next year the sky is full of them. According to the experts it’s hard to assess their population numbers because they are so nomadic but Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data suggest that there is a long-term decline in their numbers.

Stormy day on Haida Gwaii

Stormy day on Haida Gwaii

Siskins and other finches unfortunate fondness for salt and sand on the highway in winter (to supplement mineral intake and aid digestion) leads to many deaths from automobile collisions and potentially sodium poisoning (Brown 2013, Erlich et al. 1988). We estimated that, in January 2014, tens of thousands of siskins died on Highway 16 between Smithers and Prince Rupert. They flew up from the side of the road when we passed and, although we slowed down and tried to avoid them, we did hit one or two. When we got to Prince Rupert we plucked ten dead birds from the grill of one parked car that had passed us earlier on the highway. It was only one of many that had overtaken us both coming and going on our journey.

Siskins are not only killed from hitting vehicles but are also poisoned by ingesting the salt. It’s an issue for other finches as well including Red Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks that sometimes winter over on Haida Gwaii. Some parts of the world have stopped using salt on the highway completely and have found other methods to melt ice. A paper “Road Salts and Wildlife – An Assessment of the Risk” written by Brownlee, Mineau and Baril for Environment Canada in 2000” is recommended reading for those who salt the highways.

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December 4 2015 – Of Doves and Hawks

December 4 2015 – There were no doves. Now there are lots of them. They come to feeders, get taken by hawks and one recently lost its tail completely, possibly from a hawk attack. The dove escaped and flew into the trees after a night’s rest. It will probably survive. Most birds will survive the loss of tail feathers or even a leg but they won’t survive the loss of a wing. If they can’t fly they can’t forage.

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Doves are hardy birds and seem to occur in most parts of the world that have a moderate climate. In Hawaii, tiny Zebra Doves pitter around outdoor cafes waiting for handouts and in Florida Mourning Doves call a mournful woo-woo, hence the name. Here, Eurasian Collared Dove numbers are increasing and every day a flock of twelve or more swoop down to our feeder and take off with the scattered seeds. They are generally harmless, they just flap down in a flurry and scatter away again. Originally released in Florida from Eurasia in the 1980s, they have now spread throughout the continent. They arrived here within the past seven years. People seem to think they’re cute so they bring them from the mainland and let them go where they shouldn’t be. Who knows what impact increasing numbers of these doves will have on the local species? Where once the resident birds had the place to themselves, now they have to contend with increasing numbers of aggressive Starlings and now, Eurasian Collared Doves as well as the almost daily loss of nesting habitat.

What’s the difference between doves and pigeons? Hard to say, the names are almost interchangeable. I thought it had something to do with size, but no, the Band-tailed Pigeon that appeared on island recently is almost the same size as the two or three Rock Doves in ‘Charlotte. ‘Pigeon’ is from the Latin ‘pipere’ meaning ‘to cheep’ and ‘dove’ is from the Old German ‘dubo’ the bird’s early name.

Rock Doves can be multi-coloured, they were ‘selectively bred for exotic variations’ but the originals are grey with a greenish head, not all that different from the Band-tailed Pigeon which was never messed around with and has kept its initial colours. So now we have doves.

Goshawk Photo by Mary Helmer, Haida Gwaii resident g

Goshawk Photo by Mary Helmer, Haida Gwaii resident

There was some speculation that the Cooper’s Hawk, of which there have been only one or two sightings over the years, might follow the collared doves here. Sure enough, a few have shown up recently. Cooper’s are members of the accipiter family, those swift and wary forest-dwellers that slice through the understory in a brief blur. In size they slot between the large Goshawk and the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk. A Goshawk probably took the tail off the recently released dove so the wild world continues as it should.

There are now two Northern Shrikes along the dunes at Skonun. One circled overhead as neat as anything and plucked a fly from the air. The other landed on the very tip-top of a spruce and waited for an unsuspecting sparrow to dash from the underbrush. Nothing moved so off went the shrike with that lovely soar and dip flight they are so good at.

November 28 2015 – Birds in the City

November 28 2015 – It was good flying weather. Vancouver was cool and sunny and a small flock of Bushtits flitted through the trees near the Vancouver Art Gallery. As we watched them a CBC reporter asked us what we thought of the changes planned for the forecourt of the VAG.  We said we were disappointed by the plans to pave the whole thing and how necessary green space is. We chatted amiably and eventually discovered that our interviewer was Margaret Gallagher, host of “Hot Air” the Saturday afternoon jazz program. A very pleasant person, just like her pleasant on-air voice, and she also gets bushtits in her garden. A friend told us later that Peter had featured strongly on her afternoon show that day!

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Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary

Birds are nature’s bridges. They open up all sorts of interesting conversations and lead to new discoveries. While waiting at the airport to fly south, Bruce, the shuttle driver, came over to say that he had seen a Grey Catbird in ‘Charlotte. He recognized it from his time on the prairies. Well, this is a very rare bird indeed and there are only four records for Haida Gwaii. He had taken photographs of the bird! The first ever photographic island record.

Near the airport terminal two Northern Flickers shot from a spruce and a Varied Thrush called its low trill. The thrushes are coming down from the cold north and might stay around for a while. Then there was a feathered burst of sound and movement and a Band-tailed Pigeon landed on a low bush. It preened and cleaned and the brisk wind kept its feathers moving. We don’t have many sightings of this bird but it gave Bruce an opportunity to show us photos he had taken of a Rock Dove in ‘Charlotte, apparently two or three sit on the wires there regularly. Someone said they had come over on the ferry from the mainland which is quite possible.

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Along the Vancouver waterfront small things flitted and called. More bushtits, those tiny scraps that move in flocks and glean insects from the upper canopy. A flock of Red Crossbills landed on the walkway ahead of us. They were bright red-gold in the morning sunlight. A large flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes floated offshore in English Bay and Surf Scoters fed a little further out. We were almost mown down by a speedy cyclist when we stepped onto the bike lane.

Home again and a flock of teal nibbles along the edge of the channel in Delkatla. Juncos flit to the feeder, the Steller’s Jay is continuing to eat as much at it can and over the Sanctuary an eagle soars. Birds of drama and beauty, they are not so evident in downtown Vancouver.

November 20 2015; Minimum Viable Populations

 November 20, 2015 – The big chill is here. There’s usually a few frosty days at the end of November which drives many birds further south and they don’t return until spring. The Christmas Bird Count is coming up, an annual festival of being out and about. It is usually a pleasant time except when bad weather really hits, although there is something new every year. One year a Western Meadowlark and six Mountain Bluebirds showed up, another year ten Snowy Owls. We haven’t seen a Snowy this year although an Osprey soared over the islands a few weeks ago.

The regular birds feed in their usual places. The Climate Change summit is now on, there’s finally recognition of rising tides, overheated continents and increases in temperature world-wide. Bird numbers are falling, mostly from habitat destruction; when the forest where the Saw-whet Owl’s nest the birds begin to die off, not all at once, but they have to find another territory; much energy is wasted and over time the species overall gets weaker. It’s only when there are only a few pairs left, as in the saga of the Spotted Owl, that restoration and protection work begins, although sometimes it’s too late. In the natural world if species numbers gets too low, that species might not recover.

Injured Saw-whet Owl which recovered after a few weeks rest at the Wildlife Rehab in Prince Rupert

Injured Saw-whet Owl which recovered after a few weeks rest at the Wildlife Rehab in Prince Rupert

Minimum Viable Population (MVP) is a term used in biology to determine what population number is required to sustain that species into the future. For instance, if there are only seven Song Sparrows left in the world it is unlikely that the species will survive beyond a few years. Each species has a different MVP, geese might have a MVP of 500, swans 300 and so on. It’s all mathematics, but someone is trying to do something about the loss of wildlife and sometimes it’s as simple as getting the kids out of the classroom and into the wild; it’s a good start.

Out on the beach a Peregrine Falcon sweeps low over the hundreds of gulls feeding in a wash-up which followed the recent storms. We hadn’t seen one for a few days, this was a dark bird, possibly this year’s young; they don’t become blue-grey for another year or so. Wayne Nelson, who studied the falcons at Langara for over 35 years, calls them ‘brown birds’ and they are brown and always show their black facial sideburns, even in flight. This one could have come from Alaska, it’s not that far as the falcon flies.

Shorebirds & Gulls in strange evening light

Shorebirds & Gulls in strange evening light

For a few days the winds were westerly and northerly and the churning waters disturbed clams, cockles and the occasional scallop. It’s a winter feast on the beach. Herring, Thayer’s, Western and Mew Gulls joined in and running among the flock were those tiny, hardy little white dots, Sanderlings. They darted over the seaweed and took wing over the waves in a flash of light. A few larger Black-bellied Plovers and a flock of Dunlin swept in to join the festivities. It was quite a sight.

November 13 2015 – Changing Evolution; survival of the smallest

November 13 2015 – A raft of Green-winged Teal slips along the edge of the Sanctuary nipping on aquatic vegetation. These ducks don’t dive, they just feed quietly until an eagle puts them up or the tide rises and they have to move. They are gentle birds, they don’t raid your food larder or attack small birds, they just get on with their lives calling a soft ‘dreep-dreep’ as they move along. Large flocks have just returned to the Sanctuary, there’s about 800 out there right now, fairly safe, although the hungry are always waiting. We’ve seen a Goshawk swoop in and fly off with one and of course the bold Peregrine will keep the flock healthy by weeding out the weak. Harsh but necessary; although I’m not sure where the idea came from that if you shoot a bird you are a hero. They are so tiny and feathered and have so little meat that ‘hunters’ should be ashamed of themselves.

Green-winged Teal in Delkatla

Green-winged Teal in Delkatla

A recent study undertaken by a UVIC team, led by Chris Darimont, indicates that the methods humans use in hunting and fishing are diminishing the size of species overall. A recent story in the Ketchikan Daily News (August 22 2015) quotes Darimont: “thanks to our tools and intelligence, humans now boast rather unnatural, unusual predator behaviour…while other animals tend to kill the young, small and weak, humans kill the more mature animals that are in the reproductive primes… (humans) killed up to fourteen times more adults that other animal predators, with the biggest differences in prey seen in how humans fish…we change the rules of the game of evolution from survival of the fittest to survival of the smallest.”

A large flock of Greater Scaup have moved into the bay. They, like the teal, just returned from the northern interior. When the weather began to chill down they wisely moved to the more moderate coast. They feed on mollusks and other aquatic invertebrates. They are called ‘bluebills’ in some parts because of their bluish bill. Black Scoters have also returned. A flock of over 600 rode the nearshore waters recently; handsome, compact ducks with a bright yellow knob on their bill.

Black Scoters under the wave

Black Scoters under the wave

The tide has risen over the Sanctuary and the birds have moved with it. Further up the meadow a few geese feed and a heron stalks the shallows. Big birds, herons. They roost in trees. Sandhill Cranes don’t so you can be sure that if you ever see a large blue-grey bird hunched up like an old person in cold weather sitting in a tall tree, it’s not a crane. The cranes have left for the season, we heard the last ones in mid-October; they won’t reappear until next April. It’s something to look forward to as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter. A surprising Barn Swallow zipped over the grass this week, a very late record, and a buddy mentioned seeing one in Skidegate. They are usually far, far away at this time of year, sunning themselves in South America.

October 29 2015 – Migratory miracles

October 29 2105 Red Crossbills are not usually seen from the ‘Northern Expedition’ when crossing Hecate Strait. But there they were, four of them, out in the middle of the strait. They kept up with, then overtook, the ship – which was doing twelve knots. The birds had a destination and it wasn’t Hecate Strait. Songbirds don’t want to land in the sea; its game over if they do. We didn’t see the birds again on our voyage and we hope they made it.

As mentioned in a previous column, Pacific Golden Plovers fly over 4,000 km across open water on their way to Hawaii, they too will die if they land in the sea, yet they fly on; their powerful instincts lead them to warmer weather and good food. I saw plovers in Hawaii over twenty years ago but I had no idea then that they might have flown over Haida Gwaii on their way there. They had probably taken the same route as our aircraft, catching the jet stream or other thermals which have eased the bird’s passage since time immemorial. p1040167

Migration is always a miracle; tiny birds fly back and forth across the world and have absolutely no concept of the changes we make to their habitat. We are tragically stupid when it comes to considering any other creature’s needs, yet they carry right along on their appointed rounds while we cut down the trees they nest in and fill in the estuaries they rely on.

So there we were out on the Strait. It was so stormy and rain-thick that we couldn’t see a bird, yet two days ago the sea was full of Pacific Loons, shearwaters and other water-associated, or pelagic, species. Pelagic birds need a clean and healthy ocean. It is where they live once the nesting season is over. They feed on small fish, crabs, and other invertebrates and, even in the roughest seas, most seem to survive, although last winter the death of thousands of Cassin’s Auklets took a serious toll on the species. We may not like travelling over these roiling, hostile seas, but wave action helps to move nutrients around and keeps the sea clean.

Common Murres at sea

Common Murres at sea

Haida Gwaii has had its share of interesting birds this fall. A few weeks ago, a Steller’s Eider appeared in Skidegate Inlet and recently up to four Bramblings have shown up in various places. In Masset our neighbour emailed to ask what kind of bird ‘this lovely little guy was’. He had attached a photo and there it was, a handsome, exotic, colourful bird, feeding with the black and white juncos at the feeder. Its orange breast, shoulders and wing-patches stood out from the crowd and when it landed in a Hawthorne bush it was as pretty as a flower. People travel a long way to see a Brambling. It seems to be regular on Haida Gwaii, usually showing up in fall, although there have been a few spring records. It is a Eurasian species, and the book says that it ‘is a fairly common but irregular migrant on Aleutians; rare on Pribilofs and St. Lawrence Island; casual in fall and winter in Canada and northern U.S.’ One or two have stayed over in past winters, if the weather remains mild they might stick around.

October 16 2015 – A Rare Bird Offshore

2015 – As we were driving north we decided to turn into the parking lot beside the Gwaii Trust office in Skidegate. There were all kinds of diving ducks in the bay and Peter was concentrating on the flocks of Pacific Loons, Common Loons and Harlequin Ducks close to shore as he drove along. “Stop for a minute,” I said. “We need to get a closer look at that black duck out there.” I had the door open ready to jump out but he kept moving. “The black duck! Stop!” We grow used to one another’s impatience when something unusual shows up and, as he has been identifying birds since childhood, we needed his keen eye. He stopped.

We studied the bird for a long time through the spotting scope. We took distant photos. Black and brown diving ducks look similar, sort of, and this one was no exception. It was definitely not one of our local scoters, it was a bit smaller with a flatter crown and had a different bill shape. It was not a dabbling duck either, there were three juvenile Green-winged Teal close by so we could compare shape and size. Not a loon or a grebe. And it was by itself. Scoters usually hang out together. It was too far away for a good photo but close enough for a good view through the spotting scope. It was as tricky as anything. It didn’t look like a female. It had too much white on the wing but the more common White-winged Scoters have white on its wing as well.

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Steller`s Eider preening

“It’s a Steller’s Eider,” said Peter. “That’s the only thing it can be.” When we got home Peter studied bird books all evening. We have a collection that would sink a small fishing boat. I downloaded the photos, we contacted a birding buddy in the south, compared photos on the internet and, after eliminating all other possibilities determined that it could only be a male Steller’s Eider in eclipse plumage (the dull plumage developed in some brightly colored birds after the breeding season). A very rare bird in these parts. It winters on the edge of the ice-flows in the Bering Sea and frequents rocky shores. It hardly ever shows up here. The heavy weather of the past week may have brought it in.

Fall is deepening and dabbling ducks return. They fly in waves along the edge of the water and wait for the tide to rise. Teal, pintail, wigeon and Mallard all fly low over the sanctuary as the Peregrine takes aim. It’s the season. Out on the beach Black Turnstones, Sanderlings and Dunlin feed in the seaweed and over the meadow a flock of Pacific Golden Plovers take off and land again. We rarely get many of these lovely birds here, but over thirty have stayed for almost a month. They are a powerful migrant. According to the books they often migrate directly from Alaska to Hawaii across 4,500 km of open ocean. Plovers have to know where they are going when flying that far because if they land in the water, they’re doomed. The ones still here are definitely late. They are usually in New Zealand by October and they can go as far as NE Africa, the Indian Ocean and SE Asia. A few of the wiser ones overwinter in southern California.