Category Archives: Winter birding

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.



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!


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.

Geese in the Meadow

A Walk on the Wild Side
Margo Hearne
Winter birds are back. Flocks of Green-winged Teal line up along the shallows and wait for the tide to bring life-giving sea-borne things. Intertidal areas are the richest in the world as creeks and rivers flow down to join the salt-water. The mix of nutrients made us on earth. According to evolution, something climbed out of the sea long ago and here we are.
While teal hang around the edge of things, geese feed in the meadow. Our own Dusky Canada Geese, occidentalis, returned from their nesting grounds in the muskeg in mid-July. Flocks of migrant geese joined them in late August/early September and, while many kept going, some stayed with the Duskys. It is their winter home. It’s interesting that not all the geese are the same, some are smaller with small bills, and some are larger with longer necks. And some arrive with what look like tin cans around their neck. These are neck-banded birds. It’s hard to say whether or not neck-bands are a good thing, but those who do the banding seem to believe that it works insofar as they know where the birds nested and where they winter over.
So, what are the geese of different sizes? Some of the small ones with a browner appearance are Cackling Geese. The small flocks that move together like so many sheep across a meadow, have silvery-grey backs and short necks are Aleutian Geese. Both kinds often have a narrow white neck ring.
Aleutians Geese were almost exterminated from the Aleutian Islands when, in 1750, fox hunters transplanted Arctic and red foxes to unoccupied islands to establish new fox populations so they could hunt them and sell their fur. By the 1930s about 190 islands had foxes where they never were before. Foxes are efficient predators and were deadly to the geese who had no predators prior to their arrival. Eggs and chicks were eaten, but worse, so were the nesting hens. This caused immediate repercussions as the chicks and eggs died that year and it also ended any future nesting within the female’s natural lifespan.
Then in 1967 the US government declared that Aleutian geese were an endangered species and developed a program to trap and remove the foxes. The goose population recovered almost immediately. They were removed from the list of endangered species in 2001. By the winter of 2007-2008, the population was about 114,000 birds. They are back from the brink of extinction and we watched a small flock strip seeds from the tall grasses beside Stewart Tower in the Sanctuary a few weeks ago. They were focused and would not be disturbed as they stocked up for their continued southward migration.
There are still a few Cackling Geese with the Duskys. They were all called Canada Geese at one time, now they’re a separate species. Cackling are dark brown, not silvery-grey like the Aleutians, but are about the same size. There’s a few here right now feeding with the islands geese, and the size difference is evident.

CBC Massett 2013

Greater Massett

A dawn fleet of small birds flashed over the water to land on the mudflat before it was inundated at high tide. In the mix were teal, wigeon, mallard, pintail, gadwall, and a flock of Canada Geese in the meadow. They were joined by one Snow Goose and one White-fronted Goose. Four Eurasian Wigeon fed with the flock, and tucked among the Green-winged Teal were two male Eurasian Teal. 

Eurasian Teal with gwte

Eurasian Teal with gwte

It was a fine day all around,  White-throated, Golden-crowned and Savannah sparrows showed up and a Red-breasted Sapsucker was so close to the bark of a nearby tree it was almost invisible. Brown Creepers, chickadees, kinglets and twelve robins were counted and four Yellow-rumped Warblers whisked along the treetops near the beach. A Downy Woodpecker, the first ever for this count was almost the first bird seen and a Hermit Thrush was a surprise so late in the year. The Collared Dove numbers are exploding, there were 73 in town where once there were none. We had many pairs of eyes looking for birds this year and together we found all four species of loon, all three species of scoter, three grebe species and three merganser species, Hooded, Common and Red-breasted. Three species of cormorant showed up as well, including four Brandt’s and even two Trumpeter Swans flew over in the late afternoon.  In Delkatla, an incredibly rare Slaty-backed Gull from the coast of Russia fed on an inner pond and a Yellow-shafted Flicker, new to the islands joined three red-shafted in the tall trees skirting the dunes. The view from the beach was magnificent and a nippy northwester brought in four Short-tailed Shearwaters and incredibly, and keeping the best until last, two Black-footed Albatross soared way out over Dixon Entrance, brought in by the winds from the west and the first ones ever seen on any count here. Many eyes make birds appear. It was an incredible day and by the end of it we had broken the Century mark for the first time with 102 species and 10,690 individuals.

CBC Skidegate Inlet December 2012

Skidegate Inlet Count

The moons of Jupiter were visible through the binoculars and we followed a star in the east all the way south. It might well have been the ‘star of wonder, star of light’ seen all those Christmases ago! Equally wonderful were the birds we saw during the Skidegate Inlet Christmas Bird Count on Dec 16. The weather co-operated all day, except for a quick blizzard that hit the boat crew. Other than that squall, they had a great day on the water; clear, sunny and calm. Over two hundred Western Grebes sat on the water near Sandilands Island. Three Hooded Mergansers which we don’t always get on this count also showed up. There were a few Black Turnstones along the bay and many oystercatchers, the 157 last year topped the count for all of Canada so we’ll see how it will go this year.

The shorebirds at Sandspit were a highlight with a huge flock of Dunlin swinging over the beach at high tide. Black-bellied Plovers and Rock Sandpipers were in the mix, and a Snow Bunting flew across the beach like a small white snowball with wings. Four Snowy Owls sat rather forlornly along the margins of the airstrip, their companions have moved on and these ones are getting very weak. Some of the interesting warblers we saw earlier in the fall are still here, especially an Orange-crowned and a Wilson’s. The Wilson’s is the first for any island count ever. A large flock of eagles circled over Skidegate Inlet, a long way away, there must have been something edible out there, and small flocks of Red Crossbills sat sunning themselves in the high spruce around the golf course. All in all, a great day for bird-watching with a total of 76 species for the count.

Next counts are Greater Massett on Dec 27 and Tlell on 29.