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A sizable difference…

Birds come in all sizes… and these two perch at opposite ends of that spectrum.

The bald eagle regularly nests around Shuswap Lake, often returning to the same tree to repair and reuse last year’s nest. Few would challenge its place as ‘head of state’ in this area where it feeds on the plentiful waterfowl in the bay. The morning sun caught this majestic figure, calm and cool, posing for a photo.

Scale way down to the diminutive hummingbird, the tiniest bird species. Small in size…but achieving superlatives such as a migration journey that might cover almost 4000 km. And on wings that blur with speed, showing a mighty fierce temperament as it defends its favourite feeding station.

But that speed can lead to problems with windows, as this little rufous male discovered. Bouncing off the glass, luckily he landed in a flower pot newly filled with soft soil rather than on the brick patio. Still, things didn’t look good: he lay on his back with his beak driven into the soil. I scooped him up, blew away the dirt, rolled him onto his side and kept him warm.

It took about 20 minutes before he’d shuffled onto his feet. His eyes brightened, his tongue flickered out and in….and then he whirred away.

I hope it was him, next day, zooming by in pursuit of another male, probably back to defending the feeder.

Meet Bad-hair-day

A favourite winter activity is counting the birds that visit our feeders for a Birds Canada project called FeederWatch. It’s fun to add up how many of each bird species we see—and easy enough if the individuals are present at the same time. But what about when they come one by one….how many are there altogether? Is that the same bird we saw a minute ago?

Take Song Sparrows, for instance. They all wear the same pattern of feathers in shades of brown with streaked markings, and have a central breast spot. Male and females look alike, leaving no reliable way to tell individuals apart. That is…until we spotted Bad-hair-day.

This little bird is a resident around our deck and patio, and has been hanging out here for the past couple of years. He (or she) stands out due to an anomaly with the feathers on his head: instead of lying flat like shingles on a roof, one (or more) feather sticks up at an odd angle, and leaves his head with a slightly off-centre, concave shape. It looks like he gave the hairbrush a pass when he got up, hence his nickname.

At first we thought it was simply a damaged feather, a temporary problem that would correct itself next time he replaced them in a molt. But it hasn’t: he looks exactly the same as last year. Somehow, the feathers in that spot must grow imperfectly. Could he have sustained an injury there, causing malformed feathers to keep appearing in that spot? Gives him a rather rakish look, really, and so he has remained Bad-hair-day, to us.

And at least we know, if we see a Song Sparrow with a smooth head of contour feathers, we can add one more to the species total…thanks to B-h-d.

Nature’s Artist

You’ve probably seen the artistic works of elephants or chimpanzees using a paintbrush. How about a little bird creating abstract designs with its feet?

It’s fun to find patterns in nature, and this canvas showed up one morning after a few light flurries had dusted the ground. On the patio blocks beneath a suet feeder, ‘someone’ had tap-danced around picking up bits of food. The intricate design is the work of Dark-eyed Juncos that have been hanging around this winter in groups of 1 or 2, or a dozen or so.

This sparrow-sized songbird is found across North America, but some of the 6 subspecies have limited ranges. Our visitor—the Slate-colored Junco—is mostly gray (male) or gray/brown (female) with white underparts and a pink beak. White tail edges flash as a conspicuous identifier when they fly up at the least disturbance. It is a ground feeder, so it comes to clean up what other feeder birds drop.

I’ve always enjoyed its soft trill and its fluttery flight.

Now I can admire its artistic ability, least until the snow melts.

Robin….or not? Spot the Difference!

I love to see a robin in the winter…good for you, hardy bird! No worms to eat, but you must find enough seeds and maybe some insects tucked under leaves or shrubs. And you remind me that spring is on its way, even if I have to count months yet.

So what is this other bird that resembles a robin? Similar size, orange/red breast, black on the head and back. But wait….

Robin in summer

…it has a distinct black breast-band, and orange eye-stripe. Wing-marks and an orange throat. Not a robin. It’s a Varied Thrush, more closely related to bluebirds than to robins. It prefers forest habitat, especially in the Rockies. Its drawn-out whistles have an eerie quality in the spring woods. We might see a few in the neighborhood in winter. But this year, hundreds of Varied thrush have turned up in the Shuswap, luckily for the birders out on the Christmas Bird Count on December 18.

Varied Thrush in winter

Read this account (with great photo) by local ornithologist John Woods:

Column: Winter unfolding as banner year in Shuswap for elusive species of bird – Salmon Arm Observer (

The Varied Thrush is a delight to see perched in the burning bush among the berries and leftover leaves—all with that glowing orangey shade—making them look like Christmas tree ornaments.

Why they’re here in such numbers this year is a mystery. There could be many factors, most likely to do with food and shelter needs, the main reasons birds move around in winter. Just this morning, we saw a flock of about 50 of these social birds along the lake shore, as they took flight from their roosts in a pine tree….and one lonely robin standing on the frozen mudflats. Any worms there?

Celebrating Sockeye…but how many?

Every year, sockeye salmon that have matured in the Pacific Ocean, make their way up west coast rivers to spawn. Many enter the Fraser River enroute to Shuswap Lake, and into the Adams River to lay their eggs. This is a dominant 4th year for the annual run, a pattern established after rock slides in the Fraser hampered the runs decades ago. The largest recent run, in 2010, saw 3.86 million fish arrive in the Shuswap. Those numbers have dropped significantly since then for a variety of reasons, including fishing, changes to habitat and warming water temperatures. In 2022, fewer than 600,000 may complete the journey. It’s another indicator of the decline in salmon species that has been observed throughout the Salish Sea.

We were fortunate to see the 2010 banner year’s run, so we were prepared for much less this time. The river didn’t run red with fish as it did then. Instead, an irregular stream of mostly sockeye and a few black chinook could be seen at the viewing points.

In years past, you could walk a forest trail beside the river and stop at many spots to watch the fish surging through the current, or flipping their tails to create a redd (a depression in the sand and rocks) for their eggs. Several high water events have redirected the river, eroding much of the old shoreline. In contrast, this year of drought has dried up many channels. The warm temperatures of late summer have left the water at a balmy 15 degrees, we were told on the day we visited the park. Hopefully, many more salmon were in a holding pattern farther downstream until cooler conditions triggered their final spawning rush.

Salmon have been a vital food source for 1000s of years for the Secwepemc people of Shuswap Lake and Adams Lake, so they have a deep interest in promoting conservation of this wild resource. Volunteers run the Salute to the Sockeye each dominant year, an event with interpretive facilities where visitors can appreciate and understand the ecology of the salmon and the environment. It was obvious by the crowds of school kids we saw during our own visit last week that the educational focus on this aspect of science is strong.

Will nature find a way to boost salmon numbers again in 4 years?

A Curiosity for Lichens

I recently reviewed a book about lichens. It’s a small book, so only an introduction to an extensive topic. Finding a greenish-grey lichen similar to a photo in the book, on a hawthorn tree in my yard, drove my curiosity to learn a bit more about these organisms that are neither plant nor animal.

Lichens are made up of fungus (the protective outer layer), with algae and/or cyanobacteria (living on the inside and providing energy through photosynthesis) that work together in an association called symbiosis. They need each other to exist since they don’t have leaves, stems or roots. They absorb rainwater, and go dormant in dry periods.

My Scarlet Hawthorn tree has long puzzled me. It’s about 20 years old, produces a healthy crop of leaves each spring, and then bursts out in a profusion of glorious watermelon red blossoms.

But most years, it begins to drop leaves in July, and often by the end of August it is half bare. It doesn’t appear to be diseased, but I think it does suffer stress that depends on rainfall….and I haven’t figured out its favorite environmental condition. And it does have lichens….could they be harming it?

But lichens produce their own food, and since those that live on trees cling to the surface and don’t penetrate the wood, they are not thought to harm a tree. They seem to like older trees whose bark has cracks and uneven surfaces. When mine loses many leaves during summer, it gives the lichen more sunlight for its photosynthetic process. Since lichens can indicate good air quality, maybe they’re telling me something useful. They are food for some animals, like deer (they visit my yard) and might be a source of nesting material for birds (like the Pacific-slope Flycatchers that nest here every summer lately).

This species has small pits on the underside

So I’ve identified this lichen as Fruiting Honeycomb Lichen (Hypogymnia lophyrea) based on a photo and description. It’s a foliose lichen, the most common type to grow on tree trunks. If anyone knows it is a different species, please let me know!

Nature’s Balancing Act

On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, we stopped on our drive north from Daajing Giids (Queen Charlotte City) to Masset to see Balance Rock. It’s listed as ‘not to be missed’, for the mystery of its precarious position. It isn’t unique—apparently there are lots of similar examples in the world—but we could get up-close and personal with this one.

How is the rock kept in place? Gravity and contact friction are the glue holding it at such a perilous angle. After being carried by glaciers to this spot, the ice melted and—what luck—set the rock down in this amazing position. It’s estimated to be anywhere from 200-100 million years old, but may have only been plunked here several 1000s of years ago. You can’t see the contact point at high tide, but only when the sea has receded to reveal its unusual nature on the rocky shore. Imagine the sight when storm waves batter it, flinging spray from this immovable object!

Looking south from the rock towards Skidegate

How does it feature in Haida Gwaii folklore? Good question with few solid answers. There might have been a story in oral legend, but many of those tales were lost when 90% of the population succumbed to diseases beginning in 1787 with Captain George Dixon, the British explorer who named the collection of islands the Queen Charlottes. It might be a perfect symbol for the Haida, though, of their enduring land as a sanctuary where all is connected in a fine balance, a quiet place apart from the mainstream of the busy world, striving to find stillness, and subsequently, peace.

The view north, overlooking Hecate Strait

Who Couldn’t Love a Banana Slug?

This may not be everyone’s idea of a neat critter, but the Banana Slug has a lot going for it.

Not your common garden slug (you will rarely find it there), this terrestrial gastropod is the world’s second largest slug, and is native to cool, temperate coastal rainforests of the Pacific northwest. Here, the Banana Slug spends its days happily sniffing out and munching on decaying plant and animal material, doing the world a favour with this garbage cleanup routine. In turn, it is itself food for birds, small mammals and reptiles. Sounds like a win-win, to me.

Not all Banana Slugs are yellow, but this one was the prettiest I’ve seen. We found it along the Tow Hill Trail in northern Haida Gwaii in June. We didn’t touch it….the idea of the slime is off-putting. But it’s not poisonous—though it may numb your tongue if you decide to take a taste (eew!). It’s hard to rinse off the skin, so best to let it dry, then it rubs off easily…so I’m told.

Smarter than a squirrel?

I think I’ve outsmarted a squirrel. How? But maybe first …..why?

If you’ve visited here before, you know I’m a birder. On winter days, a sunflower seed feeder hangs by my deck. In summer, there’s a hummingbird feeder within easy view. We live in bear (and raccoon) country, so the seed feeder is taken indoors at night. And then there are the squirrels. After several years of squirrel absence, one red squirrel has turned up in the back garden….lots of trees out there, plenty of habitat and food.

But, of course, a seed feeder is a tempting target for a meal. Easy too: all you have to do is climb up on the deck rail, take a short leap….bingo, food! But my feeder is for the birds. Squirrels are on their own. They don’t hibernate, just nap the colder days away. When the temperature rises and the sun is out, they emerge to forage. Our ‘resident’ squirrel is energetic, plump, healthy looking. It doesn’t need my seed.

So how to keep this one at bay? There are all kinds of ‘squirrel proof’ feeders out there if you have the right place to hang them. The inventors recognized that the squirrel is a highly intelligent, determined. rodent, able to problem-solve. But I found a hopper-style feeder without a tray (where the seed gets mucky and encourages diseases to spread) but with a slim perch rail from which birds can reach the slits to pick out a seed.

American Goldfinches

I hung it above a shrub so birds could also perch on the branches….until the squirrel showed up, climbed up, hung on it and munched away. So we moved the feeder to hang under the house eaves a short distance away. That’s when squirrel figured out it could leap from the deck rail, no problem.

I watched this manoeuvre and decided it wouldn’t do. I needed something to block its path. So I hung up an elastic cord (bungee style) and dangled an inch-wide lanyard ribbon with a bit of weight on it between its take-off spot and the feeder. Theory: a visual distraction might work. Squirrel took the leap, grabbed the ribbon, and rode up and down as the elastic stretched. So funny to watch! It didn’t move on to the feeder….hmmm. But once it had taken a couple of bungee rides, it realized the ‘distraction’ wasn’t harmful. It could leap right past…and it did.

Over to me: obviously, I needed a wider distraction. So I added a foam tray, slits cut in it to thread the lanyard through. It swung in the breeze…would it bother the birds? I added a metal key ring for a weight to calm it down, and removed a bit of the bulk by cutting zigzags along the edges.

Now the chickadees and song sparrow were happy, but the squirrel not so much. It has jumped onto my free, homemade-with-recycled-material distracter, taken some bungee rides up and down but is unable to reach the feeder…so far. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it… Around it? Not so far. The distracter is too wide so it can’t angle its leap around it. Nor can it give a firm enough push off it to jump the rest of the way to the feeder.

So we are at a stalemate…either my solution continues to work, or ‘smarty squirrel’ will outsmart me again! Meantime, I’m happily watching and counting the birds. Spring is coming, so maybe a sweetheart squirrel will turn up and the two of them will be too busy racing through the trees to bother me anymore.

How can you tell it’s cold?

When the temperature hits -20s, it’s cold for this part of BC. Add a little wind (it doesn’t take much) and the wind chill value makes it feel more like the prairies (I remember that well!). So we bundle up with extra layers, scarves, hoods and courage to take a daily walk. Don’t stay out as long as usual, head back for a hot cup of tea. Curl up with a good book and light the gas fireplace. Admire the snow that decorates the cedars, piling up on the patio bench …and what’s that?

It’s a song sparrow that hangs out here all winter, spending most of its time on the deck cleaning up sunflower seed that chickadees and others drop from the feeder. Not sure where it sleeps, but it’s a tough character. Looking more like a small brown puffball with a long handle, it has enough insulating feathers to survive. We gave it extra helpings of seed for Christmas.

The birds can inflate their feathered layers. What can plants do to show us it’s c-c-c-cold? Of course the maples, hawthorn, mountain ash and other deciduous trees lost their leaves long ago, so they simply stand fast within their tough bark. But what of those that hold onto leaves all winter? The rhododendron in the flower bed caught my attention recently. It’s an evergreen shrub, and after the recent cold snap moved in, I noticed its leaves had rolled up tightly, lengthwise. They drooped, looked dead. But next year’s buds appeared firm and healthy. What was going on?

Some suggest that this leaf droop and curl in some species of rhodos is an attempt to reduce the amount of light falling on the leaves. With no summer shade, light intensity is high in winter; could it damage the leaves? Interesting idea. Apparently, the more accepted thought is that once rhodo leaves freeze at about -8 Celsius, they are safer from damage during freeze/thaw cycles if they stay curled up (curling up was one of my winter defence mechanisms, too). Wise rhodos!

So just as the return of robins has always been a good indicator that spring is on the way, watch those rhodo leaves. When they flatten out, they must be dreaming of balmy summer days ahead, and their chance to show off glorious blooms once again.