Birding on the Bay

The Shuswap Naturalist Club http://www.shuswapnaturalists.org/index.htm always begins its new season of outings with a walk on the Salmon Arm foreshore. “Nature Bay” is given a top recommendation in Best Places to Bird in British Columbia, by authors Russell and Richard Cannings. Spring has been slow to get underway around here, so April 19 was a good day to see what birds had arrived in their summer habitat.

Since this area has abundant rivers and lakes, one regular resident is the osprey. Some call it the sea hawk, or fish hawk.

Many of them nest around the Shuswap watershed. They often take a liking to hydro poles, but the power companies prefer to discourage that problematic practice, offering alternatives. This pole by the wharf is intended for the osprey—probably the one that has returned to that nesting site repeatedly—but someone else got there first. Take a close look……it’s a Canada goose sitting up there.

The osprey was not amused, circling and calling in frustration. Likely the goose will stay put until its eggs have hatched, and the osprey will have to find alternative housing. Good thing it is adaptable and not a threatened species due to its worldwide distribution and long life expectancy.

The bay was also busy with American coots. A member of the rail family, they are seen everywhere in spring around the lake, feeding on vegetation. But I’ve noticed as the summer progresses, their numbers drop on the bay close to my home. It appears they are a tasty meal, easy to snatch, for the bald eagles that cruise by and perch on treetops overlooking the lake.

We counted 35 species on this first April outing. Among them, at a small waterfront park, this song sparrow posed and sang to welcome spring.

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Two “Explosive” Events….

April is the anniversary of two “explosive” events—one deadly, one designed to save lives – described in my recent books.

In 10 Routes That Crossed the World….

120 years ago….dreams of Klondike gold sent 40,000 stampeders to Dyea, Alaska. Their attempts to climb the snow-covered Chilkoot Trail to reach gold fields proved deadly on April 3, 1898 when “the roar of three avalanches thundering down the slope….caught, tumbled and buried dozens”, some of their bodies not recovered until summer.

In Kaboom, Explosions of All Kinds.….

60 years ago….the Canadian government decided to remove a shipping hazard in a narrow passage between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island that had snagged and sunk about 120 ships, and claimed at least 110 lives. Known as Ripple Rock, the pair of sharp, rock peaks lurked beneath only 3 metres of water. But it took several attempts between 1942 and 1958 before explosives planted inside the rocks finally blew off their tops. It was not until April 5, 1958 that “one of the largest planned non-nuclear explosions ever” left the peaks with 14 metres of water hiding them at low tide. Ships are now safe as they navigate this National Historic Site…but unpredictable currents still pose a challenge.

 

Owling….a Citizen Science project

Since 2000, I’ve been doing an annual spring owl count, in March, along a rural road near my home in the BC Interior. One of Bird Studies Canada’s Citizen Science programs, the BC-Yukon Nocturnal Owl Survey collects data to monitor the status of various owl species in the province. The information becomes part of a Canada-wide database, and helps with conservation initiatives. On my route through a valley just west of Shuswap Lake, we’re most likely to hear Northern Saw-whet Owls, Northern Pygmy Owls or Great Horned Owls, but others are possible, such as Barred Owls, and Short-eared Owls.

Great Horned Owl, courtesy of J. Aitken

People have asked me if we go out there with flashlights. Uh-uh. This is not a visual search—it starts at dusk so we bird ‘by ear’. It involves (at least) 10 stops along the road spaced 1.6 km (1 mile) apart. That’s to minimize overlapping of calls, although when the road curves, we sometimes hear the same owl at 2 stops, in different directions. The protocol requires listening for only 2 minutes, then recording any owl calls heard along with direction, distance, noise and weather details. We’ve been lucky to find Saw-Whets on at least half of our surveys and once a Great Horned Owl, but more often we get no owls at all. That’s disappointing, but it’s also valuable to know as part of population trend data.

Last year, we heard a Saw-whet at our last stop. Its ‘beep, beep, beep’ call is similar to the back-up signal on a truck. Of all the stops we make, it seemed the least likely to produce an owl: it’s not far off the main highway (so some noise is always present) and on the edge of a housing area. But the trees and nearby pond make it suitable habitat. So, hopeful again, we drove the route on a calm evening, about 3 degrees, but with no success through nine stops. Would #10 save us from being skunked? Sadly, no luck this time.

All that’s left is to enter the data online so it can be compiled with that submitted by other volunteers throughout the province doing the same thing on about 70 routes. Then we look forward to doing it all again next year!

SIgns of the Season

It has been a tough winter around here. Oh sure, I suppose compared to those living under the threat of a polar vortex, that may sound wimpy. But the snow came earlier, heavier and has lasted longer than I remember during our 20 years living here in BC. Finally, this week, melting has begun. At last, the 2-foot high covering on my roof is shrinking.

View from the back deck

I’m hearing more bird songs—chickadees calling in their spring voices, juncos trilling, robins chuckling… and a couple of woodpecker species are becoming more active.

Northern Flickers are around all year, but lately they’ve begun drumming on metal chimneys to loudly announce their presence to other flickers (it’s a territorial thing, as well as the way to attract a mate).

 

Flickers might enjoy the noise, but residents of the houses they choose…not so much. However, these birds eagerly dine on ants, so they’re welcome in my yard.

Another woodpecker, the Pileated, is a large black bird with black and white facial markings and a red crest. This one’s loud voice echoes around the neighborhood, and I often see it hammering on utility poles. While they may not find much of their favorite food—carpenter ants—on those treated wooden poles,  the noise resonates nicely as a communication tool. What a terrific low-tech ‘social media’ device!

 

On this date in history….

These events in my recent books have anniversary dates to note in 2018.

In 10 Ships That Rocked the World …..

230 years ago in Australia….the First Fleet convict ship “Lady Penrhyn dropped anchor on January 20, 1788, in Botany Bay. There would be no return from this final destination” for the 122 women and children from Britain sentenced to transport, a form of exile often for petty crimes. The transports continued until 1868, bringing settlers who are the ancestors of 20% of today’s population, which celebrates Australia Day on January 26.

154 years ago, off the South Carolina coast.…H.L.Hunley, the first submarine developed as a weapon during the US Civil War, set out to torpedo a Union warship on February 17, 1864. “After delivering its fatal blow, the Hunley disappeared….It was lost, along with the entire crew (of 8 men)…” Rediscovered in 1995 and raised from the sea, this ship showed that undersea warfare was possible, and inspired the modern submarines used for deep-sea investigation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 10 Plants that Shook the World…..

150 years ago…. brothers George and Richard Cadbury first came up with the idea to make boxed chocolates in England in 1868. Our favorite Valentine’s treat would not have been possible without cacao beans, known to Indigenous people in Central America for centuries, but later grown on plantations powered by slaves.

190 years ago.… “in 1828, a Dutchman, Coenraad Van Houten, invented a press to squeeze out most of cacao’s fat content” to create the powder we know as cocoa. Enjoy your hot chocolate drink, but remember the dark path of cacao’s history, as even today, child workers are treated unfairly in some tropical regions where it is grown.

Robins…..in my life

This is the collection of robins…….stained glass, stuffed, carved, framed….that is arranged around my work station at home. They are special for several reasons. Of course, because I’m a birder, watching for that first spring robin is a tradition, and they are always welcome in the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My indoor robins offer inspiration and support when the muse is off taking a vacation. But they represent more than feathered friends. They remind me of human friends …..particularly, my writing group. The collection came together mainly as gifts from some of these special women. We call ourselves the Round Robins, after a letter package that we circulated among the group when we first met in 1984. We live in different towns, and there was no email back then. We have a great website—pay us a visit, meet the group, check out the wealth of writing we’ve all published: https://books4kids.ca/

After 34 years together, my writing sisters have become invaluable beyond the writing. They’re always ready to offer cheery (like the robin’s song) notes, thoughtful advice, empathy, encouragement, hugs…. By chance, we picked a highly visible symbol we all encounter frequently (robins even turn up on Christmas bird counts). When I see a robin, real or representation, my thoughts fly to my best friends and soul mates. Cheers, ladies!

 

 

A Birding ‘Moment’

I’ve mentioned before that birding is a favorite activity for me. While I don’t pursue it with the passion of ‘professionals’—traveling globally to chase rare species—I’ve always tried to take advantage of opportunities such as RV vacations that took us near nature sanctuaries to add to my list. Bird Counts, like the Christmas ones that I’ve participated in for over 30 years in my local community, are easily accessible and challenging. Over time on the same route, you get to know what to look for in a particular spot. It’s interesting to see the trends; in Saskatchewan, we knew where we’d likely find a Snowy Owl, and for years, a Townsend’s Solitaire awaited us at the nearby BC provincial park. Sometimes there’s a prize: a new species or at least a rare one.

On my second Bird Count of this winter season, in the Enderby area in early January, a friend and I covered almost 100 km of rural roads. It was a brilliant day, about minus 8. Little wind. On those quiet roads, we cruised along picking up a few Black-capped Chickadees here, small flocks of Eurasian Collared Doves there, and a predicted Red-tailed Hawk posing in the morning sunlight. Magpies floated across a clear sky, Evening Grosbeaks gossiped at a backyard feeder and the hammering of a few woodpeckers caught our attention: Hairy, Downy and Pileated. Nothing unusual or unexpected. Sadly, no owls like the Northern Pygmy Owl we’d hoped to find. But you never know….

By mid-afternoon, we’d despaired of having an exciting story to relate to the group at our rendezvous point after the count. We’d just about run out of designated roads, finding ourselves approaching the small town for our meeting rather early. But we’d misread the map and made one wrong turn, missing a short section as a result, so we decided to backtrack to find it and correct the map for next time. That took another half hour or so, until we once again found ourselves pointed in the direction of our meeting place. We had two options to reach town, but the first looked uncertain on the map (which we no longer trusted!): did the road go all the way to town or not? Rather than take the chance, we returned to the original road, now driving along it for the third time, and still a bit early.

“Let’s stop and add up the numbers,” I suggested. “Find a spot where we can pull over and sit in the sun.” We stopped on a wider section of the road and I began the tally.

“What’s that bird on the snowbank?” my friend said. “I don’t think it’s a species we’ve seen yet today.”

I couldn’t see a bird at first, but when I did, a long look through binoculars left me puzzled. It was a bit larger than a song sparrow. Paler underneath, it had a dark cap, and dark mask below the eye and down the side of a yellowish throat. A distinctive small black breast band was a good field mark. It looked somehow familiar, but my memory couldn’t pin it down.

We started guessing: not a sparrow species, but surely a variety of songbird. A ground feeder. A quick scan of the list we were using of usual species for the area showed it clearly wasn’t among them. I began to flip through the pages near the back of the bird guide. Then some distance memory emerged. Of course! It was a bird I’d often seen on Saskatchewan roadsides searching for bits of grit in the dead of winter. A check in the book confirmed it. A Horned Lark! The tiny ‘horns’ are barely visible. But this bird was not a likely one in this area of the BC Interior in winter. We’d struck gold: our birding moment of the day!

So here’s the evidence, albeit of not quite sharp focus.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure serendipity played a role in our day, as it does in so many aspects of life. We were finished our count, we were making a third pass along the same bit of road, and we’d picked that spot to stop by chance. We could have easily driven right past the driveway where those 2 little birds hopped about. What were the odds of seeing a fairly rare species? It is these prized moments of excitement that make birding so much fun.