Category Archives: Haida Gwaii

Eclipse agitation, ducks dabbling and new culverts

August 25 2017 – The solar eclipse was wonderful. A foggy mist passed before the sun just in time to allow for a few photographs. In Delkatla a flock of Sandhill Cranes that had been feeding quietly in the grass raised their heads in alarm, called loudly, and some flew back to MacIntosh Meadows. Others didn’t and kept on grazing calmly in the gathering gloom. Who decided whether to stay or go? I suspect the younger members of that particular flock were more anxious than the older ones, but they all returned when the sun came out and things returned to normal.

Eclipse over Delkatla. Photo: Margo

A family of  Lincoln’s Sparrows also got quite agitated when the sky darkened. They flew around anxiously heading for an unexpected roost but was a short night for everyone. The sun was back out in full force within a half-hour and they relaxed. The golden eclipse light that coloured Delkatla was lovely; it was a treat to share, in a small way, the Continental excitement over the event. Even though we didn’t get ‘totality’ or see ‘Bailey’s beads’ – those sparks of light which occur where the moon’s jagged surface allows light to show through – we were part of it all and so were the birds.

It rained next day and the first migrants of summer landed in the Sanctuary.  A mixed flock of ducks; Green-winged Teal, Pintail, a few American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler.  Shorebirds ran around at their feet and, true to form, a large accipiter flew over, possibly a Cooper’s Hawk, and scared everything up. Cooper’s are quite rare here but it seemed bigger that it’s close cousin the Sharp-shinned Hawk and was smaller than the Goshawk, the other island accipiter. (Latin accipere, “to grasp.”)

Crane family – Photo: Margo

The crane family of four is still around, the ‘colts’ are getting bigger and are finally able to fly. They will leave by mid-September. Cranes are prehistoric looking, dramatic birds and add immeasurably to the grandeur of the islands. Many of the visitors to the Nature Centre are keenly interested in seeing cranes, and more often than not, the birds oblige. Just yesterday the family fed right outside the Nature Centre’s front window as though it wasn’t there.

Things are happening in the Sanctuary. When the Stepping Stones Trail (Dike Road) was build up using dredgeate from the marina a few years ago, it blocked tidal access to the upper half of the Sanctuary. Ducks Unlimited are taking out some of the ridiculously small culverts that were put in then and replacing them with large ones. The work is being done because, as DU explains “portions of the upper marsh have become hydrologically isolated due to collapsed and undersized/aged culverts in an access road which bisects the slough and the upper portion has become less brackish (and less functional) as a result.” The work is expected to take three days and should be done by the time you read this. It will allow for more fish passage and better drainage.

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.

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.

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 hecatebird@gmail.com

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.

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