Cleanest bird in town is….?

Make sure you provide a source of water in your garden for the birds. It can be high-tech or not, as long as it’s wet. Especially in hot weather (like this week’s extreme heat wave), everyone—feathered or not—needs to stay hydrated. We have both a small water bowl on the deck rail for drinking, and a larger bird bath on a stand in the flower bed. They are used interchangeably: don’t know why, but some birds like to bathe in the soup-bowl sized drinking bowl. Go figure! We haven’t posted rules. Please yourself!

The jury seems to be out on why birds like hopping into the shallow water. In the garden, it’s songbirds, of course, that frequent a small water source. Most likely their feathers need a good clean to rid them of dust, mites, or perhaps to help tidy them for peak performance. After all, without the power of flight, a bird is….well…a penguin, an emu, an ostrich, a kiwi…but never a robin.

Robin cleaning up his act

The clients that line up for our bathing spots include the American Robin, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow and even a Western Tanager shows up once in a while.

Gray Catbird
Song Sparrow checking depth in the bowl
Western Tanager, male

But, wings down, the prize for most frequent visitor and probably the cleanest bird in the garden goes to the gorgeous, red-eyed Spotted Towhee.

Morning, afternoon and evening—anytime is a good time to see either Mr or Ms Towhee splish-splashing, spraying water onto the plants below (thanks for watering them!) until there’s not much left. I know they nest nearby, so this swimming hole is convenient. They’ll stay for a few minutes, in no hurry as they dip and flutter, soaking all those brilliant orange, black and white feathers.

Mr T enjoying his ablutions

Finally, bedraggled, they hop off to a branch to shake, ruffle and preen everything back into place.

Mr T, in particular, likes to vocalize in the tub. If I hear his buzzy trill close by, it’s wise to check the birdbath first because…oh, excuse me, I have to go and refill the bird bath.

An Invasion!

Declining songbird populations—it’s a serious issue in the bird world. So it was refreshing to see one species appear in healthy numbers in my yard this week. The White-crowned Sparrow arrives on migration in late April in this area, sweeping through in large flocks that hang around a couple of weeks, before moving farther north for nesting. They stand out with their distinctive bold black and white head stripes and pinky-orange beak. They are a sturdy looking bird, fast moving on the ground as they pick at seeds, and taking off in a flurry if disturbed.

I have an ambivalent relationship with this bird. Since moving from the prairies, where the White-throated Sparrow was my #1 favorite spring songster, the White-crowned’s lilting, lispy whistle has taken over that spot. It’s lively and uplifting to hear a flock of 20-30 in concert together. However, their habit of scouring the ground like a living carpet for seeds—in particular the grass seed I just planted—makes them less popular. Timing is everything: I thought I’d beaten them to it this spring, planting the seed on a bare patch of lawn a couple of weeks ago. It has been slow to germinate and then… the ‘living carpet’ moved in for a banquet. Anything left to grow? I’m afraid to look. (Sorry, hard to capture the crowd in a photo as they are always on the move).

I have another issue with White-crowneds this spring. Project FeederWatch (see below) kept me busy all winter noting the species that visited my feeder for 2 consecutive days each week. The project wound up this week, and after a small flock of White-crowneds touched down a few days ago, I was gleefully anticipating large numbers to report. My hopes dwindled—down to only 3 birds on count day. Classic Murphy’s Law scenario. So imagine my mood the next day when, about 20 minutes after I’d submitted my final report to the website, suddenly I heard that tell-tale wispy call, in great volume. On the deck, in the yard, all over the shrubs, around the feeder….dozens of White-crowneds! It would have been a spectacular way to end my counting records, if only…..

For that final count record, though, a couple of other feathered regulars provided a satisfying finish: both Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds showed up to be included.

Rufous Hummingbird, female

An Uninvited Guest

Since we’ve been staying close to home this year, taking on Project FeederWatch seemed like a worthwhile idea. We enjoy all the birds that visit our feeders anyway, so why not record them and contribute to this Birds Canada Citizen Science program. Beginning in November, and for 2 consecutive days each week until the end of April, we’ve monitored the activity at a seed feeder and a suet feeder in a small site around our back deck.

Regular guests have showed up: Pine Siskins (it’s been a good year for this species, unlike some winters when they seem scarce)…

Pine Siskin

…Black-Capped and Mountain Chickadees (the former are always here, the latter occasionally), Red-breasted Nuthatches, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches.

Mountain Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

American Goldfinch

For most of the winter, a Ruffed Grouse ate berries from our bushes. One week we were excited to see Pine Grosbeaks feeding on Mountain Ash berries in the lot next door; a couple came to perch within our site boundaries so we included them in our count. Now that Spring is here, we also have Spotted Towhees and Robins frequenting the site. I’m hoping for the return of hummingbirds before the project ends.

The most unexpected visitor, though, came with a price. On a morning when all was quiet out there—too quiet, I finally realized—it wasn’t hard to spot the cause. Although we’d seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk flashing through the site before (they like to hunt small birds around backyard feeders), we’d never been able to get a clear look at it. We’ve never seen it take any prey, but it seemed to know a likely hunting spot should produce a meal sooner or later. We didn’t expect such a closeup view (but through the screen door): it had tucked itself in right beside the deck rails beneath the feeder.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Perhaps it thought to fool the small birds by remaining immobile but, even though so well camouflaged, its presence had been detected and none of the little guys would venture close enough to risk becoming its lunch. That was not the case this morning. The hawk boldly posed on the deck rail, allowing me a much clearer photo.

Soon after it dropped lower into a bush to perch, a small bird (song sparrow?) carelessly ventured out from under the deck and the hawk pounced. I saw a flurry of wings and dead leaves stirred by the commotion before the sparrow fled across the patio with the hawk in hot pursuit. Not sure how that chase ended, out of sight, but I was cheering for the little guy. On the other hand, everyone has to eat.

One More E-book…

Take a look on my E-books page for more about my new collection of short stories for readers 9-12 and older.

A second e-book!

Find out more about Take You With Me on my E-books page….

Check it out!

I’ve just published this E-book for kids

Take a look on my new blog page — E-books — to find out more!

B n B Update

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting news of my summer songbird saga, as predicted, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher finished incubating her eggs around the end of July. We saw her delivering take-out meals by August 2. The youngsters grew rapidly, gobbling up bugs that I was pleased to see being removed from the garden. At first it appeared there were only 2 chicks, but soon a third head appeared tucked behind its siblings. The nest quickly became crowded.

It was amazing to compare the size of their yellow bills to the adults’ slim and darker version, and to note how fast they changed. Did they experience growing pains, I wonder? When they began preening and flapping their short wings, I knew it wouldn’t be long before they left the nest.

Curly, Larry and Moe

It seems one of the last things to develop is clear eyesight. Most of the time, they didn’t react when I moved the window blind to take pictures. But a couple of days before fledging, they froze in place at the slightest movement. Is that nature’s way of keeping them calm until they are ready to fly?

Ready to fledge

On Monday, August 17, the nest was empty. The whole process took just over a month. I suspect they took off in the early morning. I had hoped to see them hanging around the yard, perhaps still being fed. But they’ve vanished, off to make their way in the world. I’m elated to think there are now 3 more Pacific-slope Flycatchers out there.

Downspout BnB

My front door is ‘off-limits’. No more poking my head out to see what’s blooming in the flowerbed. No more sipping tea on the shady bench. But, as we’ve heard recently from our provincial health authorities with respect to behaviour choices during the current emergency, “it’s not forever, it’s just for now”. It’s necessary because I have a new resident seeking quiet, calmly practising self-isolation.

On July 11, I noticed the small bird—flycatcher habits gave away her species—sitting on the downspout under the eaves, holding a beak-full of nesting material. Bit late for that, I thought. With help from her mate, though, she proceeded to assemble a nest snug against the house wall and on top of a block of wood that anchors the downspout to it.

I consulted an expert/friend who confirmed she’s a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I can see the teardrop shaped eye ring, and have heard her high thin calls as she communicates with her mate hanging out nearby. This species likes a shady site (check), builds with moss and lichen (check) and nests rather late (check again).

So now she sits, presumably on 3-4 eggs, occasionally flying off for an insect meal in the nearby shrubby border. Eggs should hatch by the end of July, and chicks will need another couple of weeks to fledge.

I’m more than happy to offer this perky songbird suitable accommodation that no one else was using. Meantime, the flowerbed and bench will wait. It’s a stay-at-home summer, after all.

Getting away….close to home

We’re usually just getting home from a late spring holiday about now, and having to tackle the weeds that rejoiced in our absence. But holidays have become myths this year, the weeds never got their freedom to frolic, and a change of routine is needed. The solution? A ‘staycation’. I always thought the term a bit silly, but now I’ve had one—a four-hour experience that included a picnic by the lake, and always fascinating birding.

Bald Eagle

An immature Bald Eagle was the first prize, occupying a post along the road to Herald Provincial Park. Osprey flew over the lake; it’s approaching high-water, so we didn’t find beach to sit on at the day-use area. That’s likely what kept most people away too; they were only allowed into the adjacent camping area this week. We set up a couple of chairs in a sunny spot overlooking the lake that would normally be busy with boats at this time of year.

It was largely empty of waterfowl, but a Chipping Sparrow kept us company while we ate our sandwiches. We heard Song Sparrows, Robins, Dark-eyed Juncos and saw one Solitary Sandpiper.

Chipping Sparrow

Next stop, Peter Jannink Park in town, where several hundred Western Grebes gather along the shore in the only breeding ground left in the BC Interior. High water is unsettling them too, with nesting among the reed canary grass barely underway.

I’ve missed witnessing their spectacular ritual mating dances for years, so staying home has had this unexpected benefit.

This park is a popular home for other birds too. A Catbird welcomed us, along with a possible Alder Flycatcher. Tree Swallows have claimed nest boxes newly refurbished last year by the local naturalist club.

Tree Swallow on nest box

Nearby, the Marine Park invites visitors to walk a special trail maintained by the club. We strolled along the wharf accompanied by the kreek-kreek calls of more Western Grebes.

We’ll have to go back in a week or so to check out their nesting success. Plenty to do while staying close to home this summer.

Did Erebus ‘rock the world’?

My book, 10 Ships That Rocked the World, is now available in Korean since rights have been sold to a publisher in that country. I hope that means many more young readers will learn about the ships that focused the world’s attention on momentous and influential events throughout history.

While compiling a list of ships to be included in this book, Erebus came to mind, but only in the context of the Franklin Expedition, and it was felt that topic had been well covered already in the school curriculum. However, I was unaware of the earlier and extensive history of Erebus….until I recently read Michael Palin’s 2018 book, Erebus, The Story of a Ship. His writing chronicles the successful scientific expeditions of the British ship to the Antarctic, beginning in 1839, under command of James Clark Ross. Along with her companion ship, Terror, Erebus sailed further south than any ship had ever done while her crew mapped the coastline and determined that Antarctica was actually a continent, not merely a group of ice-covered islands.

Those earlier years of Erebus are fascinating to read about in view of the extreme conditions in which those explorers had to operate, and how well the sturdy ship performed. We miss all that detail and intrigue if we only see Erebus in the context of her Arctic fate. In fact, her reputation as a vessel worthy of polar exploration recommended her for the 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Palin writes about that too, but the bulk of his book deals with the Antarctic adventures. Read Franklin’s Lost Ship (John Geiger and Alanna Mitchell, 2015) for its engrossing tale of the Arctic misadventure and discovery of the wreck.

In 10 Ships That Rocked the World (2015), you’ll find a brief mention of Erebus in Chapter 5. As I worked through the final drafts, amazing news of the discovery of the resting place of Erebus hit the media in the fall of 2014. I was able to include the link to the story of the Civil War submarine, H.L.Hunley, with a reference to how submersible technology inspired the sonar imaging equipment that eventually located the sunken Erebus in the Arctic Ocean’s Queen Maud Gulf.