Category Archives: Birds and writing

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

Christmas Bird Count – Rose Spit 2017

Rose Spit  – There’s no doubt about it, Rose Spit is a desolate, lonely place. The rising sea levels continue to erode the grassy dunes and the east beach is covered with skeletal remains of exposed, long-dead trees. They have been buried for ages and among the ruins lie many plastic drift-net floaters and other detritus. The beaches of Haida Gwaii were among the cleanest in the world over forty years ago. Now, sadly, plastics are everywhere. Sea level rise has also flattened out the beach for a long way although the steep gravel ridges on the margin can still trap the unwary. It has, as the poet Yeats would say, a terrible beauty. Terrible in its dangerous,  steep waves, beautiful in its wild remoteness. Don’t play there on a rising tide.

Rose spit from the air in summer – (c) P. Hamel

Why were we out there in mid-winter? Because bird like it and the Christmas Bird Count takes no prisoners. Over a thousand Common Murres swept by offshore heading east, 611 Sanderlings fed busily on the low beach, a few hundred gulls, mostly Glaucous-winged, surfed beneath the crest of the towering waves to catch the energy between water and air. Two shearwaters soared skywards far offshore, dark silhouettes against the cobalt blue. Birds deserve due credit for resilience, survivability and general toughness.

Pacific and Common Loons rose and fell between the troughs. Were they real? It was hard to tell. Three Red-throated Loons flew by and those natty little Long-tailed Ducks flashed black and white through the scattered sea together with three Ancient Murrelets.

Squall over the dunes (c) M. Hearne

The winds and tides rose together and it was time to get off the windswept beach on this solstice day and check for forest birds. Pacific Wren 14, Golden-crowned Kinglet 15, Varied Thrush 4. One tiny Red-breasted Nuthatch, a few Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos and, just for Christmas, three lovely White-winged Crossbills, only the second record for the Rose Spit Count.  Thanks to Cecil for the use of his little four-seater, to Peter for his knowledge of birds and to Martin for his wisdom and understanding of island weather. Total species: 32; total individuals: 2,104.



October 9 2015 – Petrels in the Storm

The phone rang. “I have a small bird with a hooked bill here,” said our neighbour. “It was being attacked by crows and looks like it has a head injury. I’ve put it in a box.” When we picked it up we saw that it had been carefully placed in a clean box and was resting on soft cloth. It was a Leach’s Storm-petrel, one of those very small black birds that dance over the offshore waters and feed by picking food from the surface. It is a ‘tubenose’ that is, it has extremely large nostrils which give it a very well-developed sense of smell. It’s how it finds food. The bird weighs only 1.4 ounces, is two inches smaller than a robin and can be swept off-course very quickly. During strong southeasters we have seen them being blown across the highway in Tlell and some have landed in the parking lot in the middle of Queen Charlotte. They occasionally land on B.C. Ferries ships in Hecate Strait.

Leach's Stormpetrels aboard NA ferry 14 Oct 2010

Leach’s Stormpetrels aboard the Northern Adventure ferry 14 Oct 2010

One year the ferry crew made a ‘petrel condo’ as there were so many landing on deck at night during foggy, rainy weather. The ships lights had drawn them in. We found more on deck hiding under safety lockers and tables. Some flew off but the ship’s action confused them and they got caught up in the slipstream. When we left the ship we took the ‘condos’ with us and let the birds go into the night in calmer conditions. Experience has taught us that they don’t like flying in daylight and hide in the corner of their care box so, if they survive the day, we release them at night.

The petrel’s life cycle is different. It’s monogamous and faithful to its nest site. It nests in burrows on some of the small islands on Haida Gwaii, one egg is incubated for up to forty-six days and the chick doesn’t fly for a further sixty-three to seventy days. Both parents feed it every two to three days so it is used to going without food for a day or two. If you find a petrel that has been storm-tossed, pick it up with gloved hands or cover it with a cloth, put it in a box in a quiet, warm (not hot) place, then, if it has survived the day, let it go by the ocean in early evening. It would rather fly than swim.

We kept our neighbour’s bird all day. It was initially very cold but warmed up simply being indoors in a warm house. Its head injury was slight so, in the evening, we took it to the seaplane base and it flew away towards the west.

Out of the storm came one Snow Goose. It was feeding in Delkatla with a flock of White-fronted Geese in the wonderful shelter of Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary where the trees act as a buffer against the winds. It has meadow, mud, intertidal and small streams running through it. The tides rise and fall there and eagles circle overhead.  A number of dabbling ducks have arrived for the fall. They feed along the water’s edge and preen and dabble after their busy summer.

Margo Hearne

September 25 2015 – Geese on the move

October 24, 2016 Its a busy life and it’s hard to keep up. As I walked out this morning I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t posted anything since LAST September (2105) a year ago! Despite our best efforts, time slips away and information doesn’t get posted. My continuing thanks to all of you who read this web-log and apologies for not posting as often as I should.  Meanwhile, this is what was happening in late September last year (2015). Interestingly, this year (2016), the waterfowl migration started only last week, the third week in October, and last year were wondering why they were so late!

Excitement is building for the movement of geese. We are still waiting for the big push south but a number of Aleutian Geese have shown up. They are small and feed in tight flocks out on Delkatla’s flats. They are smaller than the local Dusky Canada’s and have a silvery-grey back. I mentioned earlier how this species was almost wiped out when the Arctic Fox was introduced to the Aleutian Islands by Russian fur traders in the mid-1800’s. The geese were considered extinct, then a colony was discovered in 1962. Foxes were removed from some of the islands and the Aleutians have made a comeback. They have a different call the ‘usual suspects’, a little higher, more like the White-fronted Geese which have started to show up in small numbers.

Waterfowl seem late this year, there are only a few ducks on the flats; Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Mallards, a few American Wigeon and a small flock of Northern Shovelers. Shovelers are handsome ducks. They have a large bill (hence the name) and males have deep red sides and a green head. Females are more subtle with brown mottling and a blue wing patch. They are out on Delkatla, if you take the Stepping Stones Trail you might see them feeding in the shallow water.

Snows with a mixed flock

Snows with a mixed flock

The local Song Sparrow is back in the garden, it disappeared for a while but now that the days are getting shorter and the temperature dipping they have returned to the feeder. Juncos continue to spar with each other and the Steller’s Jays are as bossy as ever.

There was a movement of songbirds last week. Townsend’s and Orange-crowned Warblers, numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers and, in the mix, a few Lincoln’s Sparrows. Shorebirds also, bright Black Turnstones flashed white as they flew over the seaweed, Dunlin in large flocks twisted and darted through the air. Following them were four large Northern Harriers dipping over the meadow, those here now are juvenile birds; rusty brown with a distinctive white patch at the base of the tail similar to the white patch the much smaller Northern Flicker has. The flicker is a different species altogether but it had its work cut out to survive an attack from, not one, but two Merlins, one bright early morning. It managed to elude the Merlin but something didn’t. Along the trail were the feathers of two shorebirds, all that remained after the raptor had eaten. Two Peregrine Falcons swept over town. One pale adult and one darker juvenile. They too are chasing the smaller migrants, everything is moving south to warmer weather.

A flock of Pine Grosbeaks visited recently. Robin-sized finches with stubby bills, they fed on Mountain Ash berries in Port Clements. The birds red colours were a little darker than the berries, although the ones further south were rusty-yellow, possibly young of the year. They too are moving through, although small flocks will sometimes winter over and eat both hawthorne and holly berries.


Steller’s Jay the bird and Steller the Man

September 18 2015  – It’s a blustery day and the birds are restless. Juncos are back at the feeder and fifteen Eurasian Collared Doves hang around. Steller’s Jays are trying to reach the seed through our wire cage. If we didn’t keep them out they’d take it all and bury it somewhere. They are smart birds; members of the clever and mischievous corvidae or crow family.  Crows and ravens will steal your groceries; tear open garbage bags left for collection and eat your picnic lunch when you’re not looking. They do it very quietly.

Author Bernd Heinrich in his book “Ravens in Winter” tells of his research on ravens and how he had captured a ‘silently seething mass’ of black birds which he planned to band and release. They had all gone to one corner of a large cage and as they looked at him and waited he had a palpable sense of deep intelligence and was somewhat unnerved by their silence. We occasionally have an injured bird in the house, no matter how small they are their very presence takes up a lot of room. They are outdoor creatures, their spirit has expanded to fill that space.

Steller’s Jays are named after an amazing German explorer, G.W. Steller. After ten years of planning, in 1741 Steller travelled with Danish explorer Vitus Bering (the Bering Sea) from Avacha Bay on the eastern seaboard of Siberia on a journey along the uncharted Pacific ‘where the sea breaks its back’ on the Aleutian Chain. Steller found many new species, including the now extinct Steller Sea Cow and Sea Otters which, after their discovery, were hunted almost to extinction. Steller had only one day ashore before Bering insisted they return to Russia as the weather was breaking so he rushed to gather as many specimens as he could. One of his huntsmen returned to the ship with “a single specimen, of which I remember to have seen a likeness painted in lively colours and described in the newest account of the birds and plants of the Carolinas…this bird proved to me that we were really in America.” Steller made a drawing of the bird and wrote a detailed description of it. In 1788 it was named Cyanocitta stelleri, the Steller’s Jay.

Small flocks of ducks have returned to the Sanctuary. They scoot low over the water as the tide rises and move along the edge feeding on sea grass. Their numbers should increase over the next month or so as fall deepens and colours begin to change.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Perky little Chestnut-backed Chickadees flit to the water-hole and leave quickly. There are a number of chickadee species in North America, yet, interestingly, only one here. It’s a small bird with a black-and-white face, black cap and chestnut-brown sides and shoulders. Small flocks usually travel with kinglets and creepers. They like a little open meadow with water somewhere, lots of handy bug pickings and a hint of sun. They hang upside-down from tiny twigs and sing chicka-dee-dee-dee, even in winter.


Summer Fledglings

On the Wing – June 12 2015

Migration has slowed right down. Most of the birds here right now are either on the nest or are particularly busy feeding the young. The fledglings call constantly for food and many juncos and sparrows skip through the tall grass following their parents. It’s tough out there, suddenly, after sitting on eggs for between two and three weeks there’s a whole brood of five to six mouths to feed and keep feeding. Both parents get into the act, its essential for survival.

Of course, not every species sticks around to feed the young. Many shorebirds chicks are precocious, that is, they leave the nest in one or two days and start running around finding the softest mud and the best eating. A week or so later mom heads south. The theory is that her departure is one less mouth to feed and there’s more food for the chicks. Dad keeps an eye on the young, then he leaves and the little ones have to not only fend for themselves, but find their own way south when the wind change. It’s quite a system. The young gather in flocks and move right along. Apart from the fact that there is safety in numbers, there is clearly a collective instinct which works better than just one bird trying to find its own way.

Out in the meadow right now tiny youngsters are sticking pretty close to their parents. One false move and they are food for a travelling raven. Their strategy is to freeze completely when danger threatens while mama Killdeer shrieks around the place, dragging its wings and flashing its very bright orange tail. How can an enemy miss that? On the Killdeer goes, looking very near death, then, as soon as it’s faked the threat away from the chicks, it flies off. Beautiful!

Sandhill Cranes on Haida Gwaii. Photo: M. Hearne

Sandhill Cranes on Haida Gwaii. Photo: M. Hearne

Fluffy, golden Sandhill Crane chicks are out and about now too. They are tiny but busy. They too leave the nest after a day or so and are sticking really closes to mom and dad as they feed on roots and shoots and small fish in some of the creeks draining into Delkatla. It’s actually a bit of a surprise to see cranes strolling through the shallow water, but they are possibly chasing sculpin, shrimp and other small amphipods. They need the protein, in a couple of months they have to be up to speed and muscle to fly south to their wintering territory in northern Mexico and the southern U.S. One meaning for Delkatla is ‘place of cranes dancing’ which is both fitting and poetic.

Good news on the injured eagle from last week. Our neighbour, who had picked up the bird after it hit a building, sent it out to a wildlife rehab centre in the southern mainland. The news is that, although it was stunned and shaken, it hadn’t suffered any serious internal injury and was likely to make a full recovery. It was one of the lucky ones.

And the bird fighting its reflection in the window? After putting soap on the window to break the reflection of the (probably) Song Sparrow hitting his window he wrote to say that “the soap worked brilliantly. I didn’t need very much at all, just some streaking to break up the bird’s reflection. On my kitchen windows I found the Venetian blinds (pulled down, but open for light) also work great!”


Song Sparrows, Barn Swallows and Whimbrel

On the Wing May 8 2015

It’s a bright May morning and the birds are in full song. The family Song Sparrow is slipping through the long grass and picking up bugs to take back to the nest. It’s all very furtive, the eggs should hatch soon and any overt display could attract a predator; all the bird’s work will be for nothing. Song Sparrows nest in low bush or on grass tufts and their accessible nesting habits put them at risk from cats on the loose. They lay from three to four eggs which hatch in about fourteen days, then they feed the young in the nest for another twelve days or so. It’s a risky business. I got the math wrong a few weeks back when I wrote that we have had a sparrow family around here for almost forty years which would give us 160 birds. Not so. If all four fledged young survived each year and produced four more young the following year and so on for forty years there would be no room to move. It gives an idea of how few actually survive to make it into the next generation.


A dark Haida Gwaii Song Sparrow; Photo: M. Hearne

Barn Swallows are back, they zip through the air as though they don’t have a care in the world. They snap up insects on the wing then drop down to sip water from the local rain-pond. They are shoring up last year’s nests for this year’s young. As Barn Swallows are now on the endangered species list, it’s illegal to destroy a nest and heavy fines could ensue. These small bright swallows are adept bug-catchers, they travel from Mexico and South America long the coast every year, we have seen them migrating through Hecate Strait. Many arrived on May 4 and with them was a lovely Cliff Swallow. It’s a rare bird in these parts, it doesn’t nest here and was on its way further north when it got caught up in a weather system. After feeding voraciously on insects rising from the seaweed wracks it sat on a nearby fence and preened busily. It was not around later in the day, and neither were the large flocks of Barn and Tree Swallows it was with. The wind had dropped, the sun came out and they were off.


Whimbrel in Masset, Photo: M. Hearne

Two large shorebirds appeared on the green this week and they were bit enough to notice! They are Whimbrel, members of the curlew family; greyish-brown, with long, down-curved bills for probing in the soft ground. They too usually land here in May and leave again after stocking up. The ones that go through here nest on the ground in the open, Alaskan tundra.

At the Love Haida Gwaii Trade Fair  in Masset this week, Delkatla Sanctuary Society had a display of carved birds and some old barn swallow nests. One little boy was keenly interested in the nests and knew that there should be eggs in them. When he went outside with his Dad he found parts of a small blue robins’s egg which had hatched so he ran back in and put the egg into one of the nests. It’s still there. Copy and paste the website below to find out more about our Society: