Category Archives: Winter on Haida Gwaii

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.



Christmas Bird Counts and Plovers

December 8 2017 – The wind is in the willows and the birds are at the feeder. Green-winged Teal line up along the water’s edge as we prepare for the Christmas Bird Counts (CBC).  How many teal are there? Around a thousand, give or take, although the bird count organizers like us to be a bit more accurate. They like us to be accurate about a lot of things, including descriptions of all the rare birds that we see here. Why? Because they don’t always believe that we see what we see. Sometimes we ourselves don’t believe that we see what we are seeing especially that amazingly rare bird that shouldn’t be here, doesn’t nest here and how did it get here anyway?

Rare birds come in on the winds that blow. The lovely little Mountain Bluebird that appeared this fall and sallied forth from the top of a tallish spruce originally looked like a leaf. Those leaves had fooled us before, the stragglers that refuse to fall until a gust of wind takes it. Spruce trees don’t have leaves however, they have needles, and it was a bluebird, as pretty as a painting. It had probably arrived with the northeasters that had earlier blown across Hecate Strait. We are also on a fairly direct line from the Alaskan Panhandle and birds of the west coast have a proclivity to follow the coastline and here we are.

Black-bellied plovers on the rocks

Black-bellied plovers on the rocks

In a rising tide, on a strip of rock quickly becoming a small island, a flock of Black-bellied Plovers rested.  They were lovely. They clumped together for as long as they could, then one by one they drifted up and landed further up the beach. The tide continued its slow rise until there were no rocks left. The birds gathered in a flock and flew west. We hadn’t seen the plovers on that beach for quite a while but with the big Spring tides this past week they had ready access to an offshore reef where intertidal invertebrates lived.  And, as an aside, if we are going to give a gender to the big tides I think it should be “Queen”; both the sea and moon are feminine in many languages.

Early March

It’s been quiet. Sometimes we get Redpolls at this time of the year, but there are only a few Pine Siskins joining the Juncos at the feeder.  The weather is erratic, yesterday March 12 2012 the ground was covered with snow, today bright sunshine, two White-fronted Geese, a few Cackling and the usual number of Canadas. They are beginning to pair up.

American Robins have returned to the meadows. Bright red, busy and being driven off by the growing hordes of Starlings that have take root here over the past 25 years. They strip the berry bushes and feed on ground bugs usually reserved for migrating robins.

We had a big drop-in of Long-tailed Ducks on Sunday March 11. Up to thirty of them landed on the  road to Tow Hill and were stranded there. They were lively and couldn’t be caught and local people helped move them to the roadside so they wouldn’t be run over. One or two arrived in boxes at our door. After a rest they were returned to the water. We believe the birds were moving through and got disoriented in the sudden snow-storms that swept through.

A stormy day on Haida Gwaii

A Fox Sparrow scrabbled in the bushes this morning, not singing yet, but a Song Sparrow was. Nice to hear it.

Late January Birding

Along Masset Inlet today, Jan 29 2012, we found many Long-tailed Ducks, Surf Scoters, Pacific Loons, one or two Common Loons and the occasional Common Murre, including three Ancient Murrelets and four winter-plumaged Pigeon Guillemots. Over the years these guillemots have shown up in Skidegate Inlet at the end of January in full breeding plumage. Do they arrive here later, or did these ones simply winter over and haven’t grown into their plumage yet? All the birds flew in from Dixon Entrance, landed in the Inlet and let the tide carry them back out. A small flock of 16 Brant fed along the Inlet, we hadn’t seen them there for some time. It’s been really cold for the past two weeks and the winds have been changeable, coming from northeast during the really cold spell, then switching to south-westerlies with sleet and snow. Yesterday, however, the winds have backed to the  south-southeast with a consequent temperature rise. It’s +7c at present with a light drizzle and it looks as though it might stay that way for the next few days.

On Thursday morning, Jan 26, the meadows were still under around 3″ of snow. On that sunny morning two Golden-crowned Sparrows sat in low spruce near the dunes, a Song Sparrow sang, two Sharp-shinned Hawks parried in the air and three Pine Grosbeaks, 2 red and one green, called from the low salmonberry bushes. Up to four Varied Thrushes fed and called on the sunny side of a low ridge and a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos darted through the mixed, low brush. Bald Eagles called from the beach and a Hairy Woodpecker’s sharp note startled the calm air. Up to three Red-shafted Flickers have been in the vicinity all winter, and they continue to call from the ridge. Two Great Blue Herons hauled themselves through the morning air and three Common Snipe fled from us to land further down a boggy slough.

Early January birding

Margo – We’ve been walking out almost every day when the weather cooperates. It’s been wet for a week or so, but now it’s sunny and cold. On January 10 an immature Goshawk swept low over the meadow in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary then rose to the tall conifers bordering the area. A Peregrine Falcon suddenly swept up from a high snag, so far away that it looked like a pale shorebird, and ran the first bird down before returning to a perch further along. The Gos veered off, flew low into the trees and disappeared. A small flock of Red Crossbills flipped and flew from spruce to spruce along Cemetery Road, they’ve been around for a month or so, but remain in the high trees with no chance for a photo, although we took this one on May 27 2009, when a small flock landed in the front yard. Image On January 13, further out of town, three American Robins called and two Pine Grosbeaks nibbled on burgeoning spruce buds. The two Golden-crowned Sparrows, which have been there all winter, were nowhere to be seen, although one showed up at our bird feeder in Masset this week. There are winter birds around.

Peter– How variable the winters are! This winter (2011/12) we have Pine Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills around, last year we didn’t have any. It’s the first winter ever that the Collared Doves have survived and are now being picked off by small hawks.

There is not much variety at feeders. We still have lots of Dark-eyed Juncos, including a Slate-coloured,  and a few Steller’s Jays, but the rare species like White-crowned Sparrow or White-throated Sparrow are scarce. Even rarer species, like Purple Finch, Brambling or Harris Sparrow have not shown up at all, although we  have had them in past winters. There are no warblers around at all, not even a Yellow-rumped.  Because of the lack of snow, Varied Thrushes are staying in the woods, although with the recent drop in temperature (-1c for the past few nights with a sprinkling of snow) one or two have appeared in the garden near the feeder.  Sewage lagoons at Old Massett are making a significant difference to diving duck numbers. They fly in for the evening or night and leave in the morning if the weather is favourable. We don’t often have six White-fronted Geese wintering over, one at most, yet this year they have stayed around, and 5-7 Snow Geese are wintering in Sandspit, again, not usual. A Gyrfalcon has been seen at Rose Spit, flypasts of loons in these waters are impressive, Yellow-billed Loon numbers are off the charts and we’re discovering that Hecate Strait has one of the largest concentrations of these birds that we know of in North America. Thick-billed Murres are seen in deeper waters than Common Murres. We had nine TBMU on our recent Christmas Bird Count, which is the highest number south of Alaska. Skidegate Inlet, Rose Spit, Lawn Point and Hecate Strait have tremendous concentrations of loons and Common Goldeneye along the shoreline of Graham Island.