Category Archives: Haida Gwaii Birds

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.

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.



In praise of goshawks and forests

December 1 2017 – Things are gearing up for the Christmas Bird Counts; the days go by so fast. It’s amazing how quickly the long days and short nights of summer are forgotten. We are now deep into December and birds are back at the feeder. The shoreline of Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary is lined with ducks and the eagles are hovering. So are other raptors, although the speedy little Sharp-shinned Hawk doesn’t hover long.  It’s more inclined to take short, sharp dives into a flock of feeding birds and dash off with a junco in its talons.

‘Sharpies’ are one of the more common birds of prey here in winter. They presumably nest here and could well be an island endemic, however it’s the big, dramatic Northern Goshawks that gets all the attention and every effort is underway to protect their nesting territories. Goshawks are lovely, sharp, dramatic birds and when one landed in the trees overhead recently it took a few minutes to identify it in the dense twiggy spruce. Its appearance was sudden and quite alarming to the ducks out in the water as waterfowl are one of the bird’s main prey.

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Northern Goshawk overhead (M. Hearne)


A friend recently sent a photo of an active goshawk’s nest containing an adult and two young birds. The photo was so good that it made Delkatla Sanctuary Society’s Annual Tide Calendar for 2018. Other selections included the magpie that has been around most of the summer, a photo of both a Horned and Tufted Puffin together on a ledge and two of the special Sandhill Cranes that live here in summer. It also featured the first island records of an Eastern Phoebe and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the latter taken at Rose Harbour. Society President Peter Hamel most sincerely thanks all the photographers who were willing to share their photos this time around.

Sharp-shinned Hawk at Sandspit

Sharp-shinned Hawk (M. Hearne)

Meanwhile, back to birds. Goshawks need large forest tracts to survive and there is a real fear that the islands’ forests are disappearing with the help of BC Timber Sales. Many find this devastation completely unacceptable. The Cloudberry Action Network has been trying to bring public attention to BC Timber Sales continuing to engineer more cut-blocks south of Masset and around Nadu Road. A Forest Stewardship Plan slated for approval in January shows that the amount of logging proposed in this area is totally disproportionate to the area it represents in the “timber harvesting land base.” The government continues to give away our forests.

As the forest goes, so goes the nesting birds, including Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Saw-whet Owls. Also all the songbirds associated with old-growth forests. Actually the tree species as well. Are we seeing the end of Yellow Cedar? Red Cedar?  Pacific Yew? Perhaps the goshawk can help. The Council of the Haida Nation at their recent House of Assembly unanimously endorsed a resolution to develop an Islands-based recovery strategy to ensure this unique forest species survives. And in even bigger news, the House voted to make stads k’un, the Goshawk the national bird of 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.

April 21 2017 Action Central in the Wild

The sea is the great provider. Now the Shearwaters from Australia and New Zealand are out in Hecate Strait again in spite of the big seas this past week. Hundreds of them soar over the waves, black silhouettes against the grey sea.  They have come a long way and many will stay for the summer.

It’s a busy time of year. Migrant shorebirds landed in Delkatla this weekend including twenty-one Marbled Godwits, those tall shorebirds with long upturned bills. They fed voraciously along Masset Inlet beach, their long bills probing deeper than the Short-billed Dowitchers nearby. Black-bellied Plovers ran beside them and busy flocks of Dunlin swept in and landed in the soft sand. Across the Inlet flocks of Brant flowed over the beach as the tide fell; they arrived in early April and will be gone by early May. Spring is here; even the little female Song Sparrow in the garden is fluttering its wings alluringly. Her mate hops down from a nearby bush, they do their mating thing and before you know it, eggs will hatch as the cycle begins again.

Marbled Godwits feeding in Masset Photo: P. Hamel

A Red-breasted Sapsucker jumped into the birdbath and washed furiously. Water splashed everywhere as the bird kept a wary eye out for predators on the prowl. Wet birds are vulnerable and this one didn’t linger long in the tub. Off it went, then a tiny Brown Creeper moved in, flitted to the water and then back to the huge spruce.

Brown Creeper in Sitka Spruce. Photo: M. Hearne

The bird is almost the same colour as the bark and nearly invisible. Last year a fledged creeper came to the bird-bath, perhaps it will again this year. What’s so interesting
about all this visible bird activity so close to the house is that, during the years when we had Alice the cat, the birds stayed away.  Although Alice lived indoors she probably exuded an odour invisible to us that repelled the birds. Perhaps, also, there was more than one cat in the vicinity, cats attract other cats, even those that sit inside glass patio doors.

Back at sea Black-legged Kittiwakes soar beside the shearwaters. They are dainty black-and-white gulls. Most of the ones beside the ship are juveniles similar to those that wintered near the ferry landing in Skidegate last winter. There were hardly any kittiwakes this year.

BL Kittiwake in Hecate Strait. M. HearneWhere did all the herring go? The wings of juvenile kittiwakes have black leading edges; they also have a small black half-circle behind the eye so they stand out from the other gulls nearby. They ride the air currents above the busy sea and keep pace with the ferry as it moves smartly along. The bridge crew wants to get in from the weather and give the passengers a comfortable ride. It all ends well.

April 14 2017 Spring Birds Return

Tree Swallows are back, twittering over the dunes. It’s been a week of new arrivals. Townsends Warblers sing faintly in the trees, an Orange-crowned Warbler flits and dives into the underbrush and Rufous Hummingbirds appear island-wide. The big birds, Sandhill Cranes, have landed in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary. They are home again after their long voyage. It’s been that kind of week. Out over the intertidal flats flocks of Brant geese rise and fall. They are a phenomenon; over two thousand birds wait for the tide to fall so that they can feed on eelgrass. They are at both Skidegate and Masset Inlets, what a treasure it is to have such places for these wild and lovely birds.

Haida Gwaii comes into its own in spring. There are very few places like it on the BC coast and to see all that action, all those new arrivals quite makes the heart sing. It’s a reminder that, even with the long, cold winter we’ve had, spring always arrives without fanfare and completely out of our control. You’ve got to love it. When all seems lost, knowing that the natural world does its thing without us is wonderfully liberating.

And it’s been a sad year of loss. Our good friend Bryan Lowry who probably had the best bird feeder on island, even set the standard for feeders in a poor year, passed away last Thursday. He was up and at it every morning, sorting seed, building a fine, protected place for birds to feed and watching from his front window almost hourly for anything that came by. He had six species of sparrow in his garden this winter; two Savannahs, two Lincoln’s, four White-crowned, five White-throated, four Golden-crowned and four Song. In St. Mark’s Church Park nearby him a really rare Rustic Bunting fed and Townsend’s and Myrtle Warblers dipped through the trees. Not far away robins and Varied Thrushes sang in the early morning and Trumpeter Swans called out across the Yakoun Estuary. Bryan was in the centre of it all, quietly going about his business. His son, also Bryan, helped out. He loved the life he lived although he really missed his wife Adelia after she was moved to a long-term care facility a few years ago. He always phoned my husband Peter to tell him when something different came along and since a Brambling from Asia was one of his visitors on more than one occasion, Peter was always happy to drop in and say hello. We wish his family the very best at this sad time.

Sue Couch was always a cheerful presence in Port Clements. She participated in the Christmas Bird Counts, watched birds from her window and enjoyed the short time she had with us on island. Sue also left us last November and a lovely memorial was held for her this week. We remembered her help at the Delkatla Nature Centre and her love for the birds around her. Goodbye to Sue, we miss her gentle smile.

So Spring is here, the birds are arriving back, the wind is from the south and Brant geese continue to move through in large, laughing flocks. Long may they continue.