Category Archives: Birds and Bird Books

Small Yellow Flying Things September 6 2019

Distance doesn’t seem to deter migratory birds; they travel from one part of the world to another as though there was no tomorrow. And for many, there is none. They do what they have to ensure their lineage survives to the next generation – so it’s all about tomorrow.

When they leave their wintering grounds to go north, its likely that they’ll have more food and less competition for territory than if they stayed in southern California. Birds are going everywhere all the time. Trying to find the birds that are going everywhere is another matter. Since the imperative to reproduce is not so strong, migrant fall warblers don’t pronounce themselves visibly as they do in spring. Then they are singing from high trees, showing their bright colours from low bushes and skipping from tuft to tuft in tall grass meadows. During fall migration, however, they stay as hidden as possible and are almost impossible to see.

Just this past week we could hear light chirps from the deep brush and knew there were warblers somewhere, but where? To left or right; high or low; anywhere at all? Perhaps the calls were someone’s radio miles away. On quiet mornings, sounds do carry so it’s a waiting game. Songbirds don’t always respond to coaxing calls after the nesting season; they know the chicks have hatched and gone so pretending to be a hungry chick doesn’t impress them. They either go deeper into the brush or go completely quiet.

A branch twitches – there’s a flash of yellow. Bright yellow, light yellow, yellowy-grey, greeny-yellow? Well, yellow for sure. Definitely an Orange-crowned Warbler. They nest here so are to be expected. Then a Townsend’s Warbler hops up; its bright black-and-yellow face is clearly visible. But what’s that other one? Has it a white eye-ring? Yes. It’s not very colourful and quite small and moves quickly.  A rare Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Tiny ruby-crowns usually travel on their own, are one of the smallest songbirds and have a distinctive way of darting quickly through the underbrush. They are about the same size as the more common Golden-crowned Kinglets that have just shown up. They nest here and this is possibly a family group that calls from one to another.

The lovely morning passes. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher appears for a second and is gone. Then a definitely yellow bird. A Wilson’s Warbler! Bright, cute and colourful. Chestnut-backed Chickadees fly low over the open, a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos feed in the low spruce and an eagle calls from the distance. Its time to leave the birds to their own errands.

It was an interesting, educational morning and its good to know that we are not alone in trying to identify small yellow flying things; even the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology admits that it’s the season of confusing warblers “after spending summer wearing brilliant colors, several warbler species molt into confusingly similar patterns.” They are so right.

On Forests, Fungus and Birds

The election is in full swing; how tiring it is to hear all the politicians try to outdo one another when it comes to garnering votes. Some have taken action and will take more action; some don’t believe in climate change yet pretend they do; some sit on the fence hoping the electorate won’t notice that they don’t care either way. The two world leaders who need decent haircuts deny everything. Voting is a privilege and, for the sake of our beliefs and hopes for the future, we must do it. It’s really is too late to ignore the climate crisis and the wild world must have a voice. Trees and birds need to hear from us.

Clearcutting yet another forest, damning another stream, paving over another piece of paradise puts us all at risk. Forests keep us cool in summer and warm in winter. There is a line beyond which forests will not go. According to botanist Professor Hope Jahren in her delightful and insightful book “Lab Girl” “the edge of a forest is a hostile no-man’s-land and trees do not grow outside this boundary for a reason. Centimeters outside a forest’s border we find too little water, too little sun, too much wind or cold for just one more tree. And yet, though rarely, forests do expand and grow in area.” Why? Because of a tiny fungus, unseen and mostly ignored, which entwines with the tree’s roots. They anchor each other. Its one of the millions of miracles that occur in every forest all the time. “Perhaps,” writes the Prof. “the fungus can somehow sense that when it is part of a symbiosis, it is also not alone.”

Forests, fungus, roots, leaves, branches are such a fantastic, complex ecosystem, that, after reading the book, I hesitated to even walk through the woods. The whole unknown, living, breathing life-force is so strong yet so fragile that one hesitates to interrupt whatever it’s doing. Yet we know that it’s doing whatever it’s doing, very, very slowly. Eons and lifetimes if they survive long enough. They play a waiting game and with help from a little fungus can break through concrete in their drive to survive.

The more visible and active parts of any forest are, of course, birds. They upturn dead leaves on the forest floor to let the light in, distribute bugs from place to place and poop out undigested seeds from some plant somewhere else. They are the moving parts of a forest and, for all we know, spread gossip about where the best seeds are, which plants are toxic, where the best bugs are. They clearly have a job to do and do it very busily. Songbirds live on Haida Gwaii because the forest is here. I vote for the birds.

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.

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.

DSCF0449

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.