Category Archives: Birds and Bird Books

Geese in the Meadow, Swallows in the Sky

 August 18 2017 The overcast weather has brought them down. Small shorebirds land and feed in the soft mud and the Canada Geese create a ruckus in the long grass. Some sit along the edge of the water like so many tame waterfowl, but tame they are not. These are wild geese that nest near the ponds and lakes on island. They have returned to the Sanctuary both from the moult and from the nesting season. Their numbers don’t seems to increase, one would think that, as downy young are often seen with their parents in late July – early August, there would be more of them by now, yet each year numbers remain somewhere between 120 and 160.  Predators take their toll of course. Raccoons, which were introduced during the depression, are a major threat to their survival. Geese nest on the ground, in a grass hollow, so the birds are easy prey. To my knowledge there have been no attempts to lower the population of raccoons on the main islands so they continue to thrive. They also take Sooty Grouse eggs and chicks which has put them on the ‘threatened’ species list, a sad situation for what was once a thriving grouse population, especially on Graham Island.

Which brings me to the ‘naming of names’ which I mentioned in an earlier column. Who was Graham and why is the island named after him? According to Dalzell (1973) Sir James Robert Graham was the first Lord of the British Admiralty from 1852 to 1855.  He did not have a naval career and never went to sea. When Commander James Prevost of the Virago was doing the first hydrographic survey of the island waters in 1853 he named the island after him. It was the first oceanographic survey ever undertaken in these waters.

The Canada Geese, of course, are oblivious to all that and don’t give a toss. They know where they come from as they graze on grass-seeds and wait for the tide. They nested in the high muskeg off White Creek, Kliki Damen, and other muskeg bogs. This year’s summer rain was good for the bog-lands; during last year’s especially dry summer many of the smaller water-holes dried out completely and even some of the larger lakes were considerably diminished. They have now been replenished; into every sunshine a little rain must fall.

There’s a commotion in the sky. A Sharp-shinned Hawk is after the Barn Swallows. And now the swallows are after the hawk. There are enough of the little birds to mount a strong offensive so the hawk flies on to friendlier skies. The nestlings at Jenny’s house are doing fine, all three of them. They should be fledged in about another week and they will join the group that has been flitting through the grey sky this week. Parents are feeding young on the wing as they dance through the sky.

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Rain Squalls and Robins

August 2 2019 – Geese fly overhead. The local Canada’s had been gone for over a month, either nesting or moulting, and now they’re back in the Sanctuary. Somehow, every year, they manage to return on either the July 23 or 24. The birds have their habits and stick to them. These are the island fulva, a little smaller and a little darker than many of the migrants that will show up later.

How lucky we are to live on this lovely blue planet where the seas and rivers run freely and the rain falls when it wants to – as it did this week. We were out and about looking for migrant birds and watched a shower approach from the southwest. Heavy drops bounced off the tarmac, but, as the wind was blowing from the southeast, we thought (hoped) that it would hold right there and not reach us. Nope. It reached us and didn’t let up. After getting thoroughly soaked we returned to the vehicle and ran into a major flock of robins that the weather had brought down. The birds had bumped up against the southeasterly and landed. It was a phenomenon. Over 250 birds skipped along the fence line or landed in the wet grass. They were both excited and agitated as the unexpected squall had delayed their passage to the warm south.

book cover scanned

We have no idea how many landed all the way down the west coast, thousands perhaps, but unexpected weather can certainly change everyone’s plans. The birds were all this year’s young; they hadn’t turned completely red yet, many were spotted and looked a bit like European Song Thrushes although their reddish plumage was showing through. Getting caught in the centre of a mini-cyclone was an educational experience.

So, the early migrant birds are showing up. Flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, dowitchers, Black and Ruddy Turnstones. Out in Delkatla recently the smaller Lesser Yellowlegs were the bird of the day. They have long yellow legs but a shorter bill and seem quicker on the run than Greater Yellowlegs, their near relative. Greater’s nest on island, the young of the year are out and about, almost as big as their parents. They feed along the water’s edge in the upper sloughs.

The adult Bald Eagles down the road wait noisily for their young to leave the nest. They have been on guard all summer and occasionally crash through the trees to take a fish from the river. In these, the dog days of summer, its a good time to hang out and enjoy what summer days on Haida Gwaii have to offer. Sometimes even the birds sit still once the rain stops.

Living in Chartless Nothing

November 2 2018 – Juncos are back at the feeder, teal are in Delkatla and a Song Sparrow chips from the underbrush. It’s definitely fall as we head into darker days. The clocks have fallen back as well. I’m not the only one who wishes they’d stop doing that, the light comes and goes at its own pace without our interference. Perhaps we are trying to steal a march on time? It doesn’t work; birds are living proof that the seasons will unfold as they should. The earth moves around mighty Sol and there’s no point in trying to control that. Come what may, time unfolds at its own pace and birds come and go. A little later this year to be sure, the long, dry summer took a while to cool into fall and the birds stayed north a little longer.

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Cackling Geese in Delkatla  M. Hearne (c)

Overhead this week streams of migrating Snow Geese moved over the island. We hadn’t seen so many in quite a while. Two or three have landed with the local geese to feed in the dunes. There are always a few drop-offs; those lingerers that are either too old or too tired to keep going. If a nice green field beckons, down they come to join the flocks of Cackling and Canadas in Delkatla and elsewhere.

We seem to have missed the Greater White-fronted Geese this fall. They have a high, laughing call and sometimes fly so high that they look like mosquitoes. On calm days their call drifts down and serves as a reminder to get the crops in and the garden put to bed before winter.

“The Sword in the Stone” written by T.H. White in 1938,  has some lovely descriptions of how it felt to be a White-fronted Goose. Merlin the magician turned young King Arthur into one and the place where he found himself “was absolutely flat where only one element lived: The wind. It was a dimension, a power of darkness and he felt himself uncreated…living in nothing – a solid nothing, like chaos.”

White described the geese as ‘sailors of the air, angled wedges tearing clouds to tatters, singers of the sky with the gale behind them…these mysterious geographers – three miles up, they say, with cumulus (cloud) for their floor instead of water.” When they ran into cloud the bird’s wings “next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation…where they’d hang in chartless nothing.”

So, the geese are here for the moment. The small Aleutians stick together and seem to move as one across the green while the larger Canadas are more independent. The flocks of ducks, harassed recently by two Peregrine Falcons, rose and fell en masse before splashing vigorously into the rising tide.

Night Migration and Crane Colours

Night Migration and crane colours

A small flock of White-fronted geese flew over this week. It’s the first group we’ve seen this fall; the usual skeins that laugh and call overhead have not yet materialised. When we used to walk our dog at midnight we’d often hear the birds coming in from the storm to land in Delkatla. It was both eerie and heartening – good to know they were still around and strange to think that they’d be in the air in the middle of the night.

It’s been a debate among some naturalists as to whether or not some birds actually migrate at night. Of course, we know the small ones do, sadly, they die by the thousand from hitting the city lights at night. But the big ones? Some years ago, when we were doing the Breeding Bird Atlas, we reported on the Sandhill Cranes that flew through the mountain passes in Smithers during spring migration. When we visited there in spring their calls would wake us up as they flew low over the town. When we reported this the editors questioned whether or not cranes migrated at night and wondered if, in fact, we were hearing things. We were. Just last week some visitors from Smithers told us how they would hear Sandhill Cranes throughout the night during migration almost every year. They were hearing things too.

Sandhill Crane family

Sandhill Cranes in Masset

And, speaking of cranes, they seem to have gone south. The last sighting was on Thanksgiving weekend when, what was possibly a family of three, were seen along the banks of the Chown River and the flock that fed with the cattle in the farm north of Port Clements were gone by the first week in October. They had been a source of keen interest and excitement for many island visitors who had never seen cranes before. There they were, just beside the highway, visible for all to see. The cranes natural grey feathering had returned before they left after we had become accustomed to seeing them brownish-red all summer. Apparently, they preen by rubbing mud on their feathers.  The mud is usually reddish here from the iron-rich soil and the brown drainage from the muskeg bogs. The feathers soak up the mud’s color like a sponge and it lasts all summer. Cranes might do this as camouflage during the nesting season to help them hide as they sit on the nest. After nesting season the rusty red wears off and the bird’s grey colouring returns.

Some years ago, the West Coast Crane Working Group (WCC) from Washington were interested in the cranes of Haida Gwaii; they thought the ones that nested here were black, but they are not. We still don’t know where ‘our’ cranes come from or where they go in winter; none of the cranes the WCC banded showed up here although they nested along the mainland coast.

A chill wind is blowing again. The dreaded northeaster. Birds hunker together as the sanctuary waits to give them shelter from the storm.alg Delkatla Landscape

Everyone is their way to somewhere else

April 27 2018 – Migration is in full swing. The phenomenon observed this week from the ferry showed once again that in spite of wind and weather the show goes on. Thousands of Canada Geese flew north, sometimes joined by smaller teal, wigeon, shovellers and mallard. They all came along for the ride knowing there’s safety in numbers. Hundreds of White-winged Scoters swept away from the water as the ferry moved along. They lifted from the blue water, clean and stark in their black-and-white boldness. They were beautiful, as were the tiny phalaropes that dipped and circled and landed in the water ahead of us. Phalaropes are probably the only shorebird in the world that land in deep water. They spin and drift along the tide lines and show that they too can migrate in flocks and have to get somewhere important.img_1874.jpg

Out in the deeps the Sooty Shearwater, back from their nesting grounds in the southern seas, swept up from the calm waters in their concentrated ability to stay just barely above the surface, riding that ephemeral space between sea and air.

Both ferry crossings, Tuesday and Thursday, were busy and exciting and we had perfect weather. In fact, said the crew, Tuesday was the first calm crossing they had in quite some time. We were lucky. So were the tiny Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. They have a particular way of appearing to fall sideways then right themselves as they keep pace with the wave beneath them. They are tiny and grey and often hard to see in the hazy blue light we had Thursday, so maybe they weren’t there at all, we had just dreamed them.

We hadn’t dreamed the whales, they were just inside the bar and their activities attracted the cormorants that hang on to the can-buoys with the skin of their feet.  The cone-shaped buoy doesn’t seem to have anything to cling to; maybe a limpet or two had stuck to the surface and given them a toe-hold. There were shearwaters with the whales; they are all after the food that the ocean provides._MG_7148

Back on land twenty-five Marbled Godwits fed in Delkatla. They moved along a sandbar in the main channel and, as the tide rose, stayed as long as they could until the water began to wash over their knees. Unlike their tiny phalarope kin, godwits don’t generally swim.  Two Greater Yellowlegs fed nearby a little later than usual. The yellowlegs nest here in small numbers, but the majority travel further north and east before settling down for the season.  And, hot off the press, a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese just landed in the Sanctuary, the first of the season.

Christmas Bird Count Masset 2017

First there were five unexpected Brant geese feeding on the far shore before they moved across to the Old Massett flats, then there was a flock of Common Redpolls that landed close by, then a Hoary Redpoll appeared, so named because of its whiteness. After thirty-six years compiling the Greater Masset CBC you’d think we’d seen it all, but we haven’t. The Hoary was the first ever for the count. We might not have seen it had we not stopped to exchange sightings with friends along the Stepping Stones trail after we had trekked across the vast expanse of Delkatla in a nippy northeaster with a hint of snow. Although it was cold, the weather didn’t deter the encouraging number of participants that turned out for the day.

Cackling Geese remained in the frosty grass

The 805 Canada Geese that took to the air over us was quite overwhelming. Two Merlins had scooted into the flock and put them all to wing. A Merlin is unlikely to take a goose but it could have some fun at the flock’s expense. While everything exploded around us twenty-three Cackling Geese didn’t bother to fly at all; they just sat in the frosted grass and looked around.

Out on the blustery inlet thirty-two Pigeon Guillemots seemed to forget what time of the year it was and hadn’t gone south. They were in white-and-black winter plumage instead of  black-and-white breeding plumage. A few Marbled Murrelets joined them and one Cassin’s Auklet dashed by, a tiny bullet bird on its way somewhere else. It had obviously lost the flock it should have been with. So tiny, yet so tough.

Pigeon Guillemot in winter

In the ‘warbler copse’ two Yellow-rumped Warblers chirped in the grass before flying into the trees, the only warblers on this count. Although we hadn’t found a wren all morning, fourteen appeared in the afternoon from their grassy shelter in the meadow. The Song Sparrow count of forty was really good given the weather conditions. While the wind blew harshly across town, it was as calm as glass along the Inlet and so quiet we could hear a Black Oystercatcher call across the water.

On our second trip to the point the wind had risen to thirty knots but that was where the Pine Grosbeaks were heard for the second time that day. South along the beach a Peregrine Falcon chased (and almost caught) a Eurasian Collared Dove. Nearby, in the trees sat a fabulous, exotic Brambling, just in time to be counted. It is a much sought-after species in the birding community. It nests in Eurasia and the occasional one turns up at feeders across the country. Haida Gwaii could be called the Brambling capital of Canada as we see more here than anywhere else. The first Canadian record was at John and Jennifer Davies place in Tlell on February 1972, forty-five years ago. And, of added interest, the Hoary Redpoll from the Canadian Arctic Islands is more rare here on island than the Brambling from Asia.

Climate, Birds and Yakguudang*

November 24 2017 – It’s wet and windy; the nature of winter on Haida Gwaii. The Christmas Bird Count dates are being finalised and craft fairs are underway. It can be a cheery time as human activities help to lighten the dark. Friends share stories, share food, share time. Wild creatures also hang out together. After waterfowl pairs spend the nesting season in relative isolation they flock together and fly to sheltered places where water doesn’t freeze.

At one time, humans were more nomadic and followed the birds. They told us when to plant, when to harvest and when to move on. They still tell us today. Climate change is affecting everything and the permafrost is melting faster than predicted. There have been small, subtle changes over time, but floods are more intense and summer fires in the interior affected bird migration. For instance, we get the occasional Red Knot migrating through here; it’s a lovely, medium-sized red shorebird with a short bill. But this year when the fires were burning, hundreds of knots landed in the wetlands, driven by changes in air pressure and the danger the fires posed.

Red Knots

Red Knots on the Wing (P. Hamel)

 

According to a recent study by the University of Edinburgh “birds are reaching their summer breeding grounds on average about one day earlier per degree of increasing global temperature. The main reason birds take flight is because of changing seasonal temperatures and food availability.

“The time they reach their summer breeding grounds is significant,” the report continues. “Because arriving at the wrong time, even by a few days, may cause them to miss out on vital resources such as food and nesting places. This in turn affects the timing of offspring hatching and their chances of survival…long-distance migrants, which are shown to be less responsive to rising temperatures, may suffer most as other birds gain advantage by arriving at breeding grounds ahead of them.”

The University of Edinburgh researchers examined records of migrating bird species dating back almost 300 years and drew upon records from amateur enthusiasts and scientists, including notes from 19th-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. So the birds are telling us that things are definitely changing and what are we going to do? As Ghandhi said “whatever you do will be insignificant. It is very important that you do it.” We can do small things like not letting our vehicles idle while waiting and recycling plastic packaging. The Haida* word “Yakguudang” says it all. It means “Respect for Living Things.”