Tag Archives: Birds

Once in a lifetime…

We all look for those moments, don’t we? We may not even realize at the time that what we are seeing, or doing, could be a once-in-lifetime experience. How many such special moments will we be lucky enough to have? I have friends who used that sentiment as their email address while globetrotting; they certainly recognized the significance of their adventure.

Green sea turtle on Big Island

 

Some of my own unique times have involved nature observations: the glimpse of a rare Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica (sadly no photo); standing in the water while a green sea turtle checked out my feet in Hawaii.

 

I thought my 1993 sightings that added up to 26 whooping cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas would be once-in-a-lifetime too. They’d been elusive in all of our searches in Saskatchewan for years.

 

So here’s the best photo of that experience, taken with an old print camera. Only good enough to prove it was there.

 

But this fall, I had the amazing opportunity to see 120-140 whooping cranes in one flock, an hour or so north of Saskatoon. Other birders who saw them reported a high count of 156, some saw fewer but mostly over 100. The elegant birds stepped along the edges of a slough and stood among hay bales around it. A few stretched their wings and gave their distinctive bugle-like call that I won’t soon forget.

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D.Young

 

I was traveling to a writing workshop—we’d taken a detour, with knowledge of the cranes’ whereabouts— so I had no binoculars or camera. My friend took the photos (thanks for sharing these, Dianne), and we had only her telephoto lens to help us count.

What an incredible sight! I hadn’t expected to have one of those ‘moments’ that day.

 

 

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Now you see it……….?

If it hadn’t flown to this tree trunk right in front of me, I would have walked by this little songbird without knowing it was there. Its mottled plumage blends in so well with the bark, it seemed to disappear once it landed, hugging the trunk so its white underbelly didn’t show. It’s a brown creeper (find it in the bird guide with chickadees and nuthatches) that likes shady coniferous forests and wet areas across North America and into northern Central America. I found it in Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills Provincial Park in May, on a slope alongside a marshy spot.

The creeper hooks its long claws into the bark and ‘creeps’ in a spiral up and around the trunk poking its down-curved bill into crevices to find spiders, insects or their eggs. Stiff tail feathers brace against the tree to help the bird climb up, but never down. When it reaches as high as it wants to go, it flies to the base of another tree and starts the climb again.

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.

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!

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.

 

Help the Birds this Winter

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A recent showing of the award-winning Eco-Documentary, The Messenger in Salmon Arm drew attention to the plight of songbirds. Their numbers are declining sharply from habitat loss, climate change, light pollution, pesticides and cat predation. If you usually have small birds around your property, have you noticed the absence of the melodious ‘dawn chorus’ that used to wake you in spring at 4 AM? Maybe a song sparrow or a robin might show up to herald the new day….but a couple of chirps and whistles can no longer be called a chorus. Spring is far more quiet now because the birds aren’t there. A world without bird music is vastly diminished, in my opinion.

Don’t wait until spring to think of ways you can help these birds survive. While numerous smaller birds migrate to warmer climes during the winter, many stay put. Where I live in the Salmon Arm area, at least 25 species of songbirds have been recorded on the annual Christmas Bird Count. The seed, suet and water we provide winter birds active in daylight hours is their fuel to endure the colder overnight temperatures.

But my part of BC is bear country, and our communities are also home to nocturnal critters like raccoons—I saw their tracks in the fresh snow this morning, in fact. Bird feeders can attract these wild animals and bring them into close contact with people, causing problems. How to balance the need to feed birds with the safety issues—for both humans and animals? I’ve hung my feeder where it is easy to remove at dusk, and store inside overnight. Domestic cats are a serious threat (in all seasons) to songbirds as well, so I keep watch for any that may hang around my feeder. A small dish of water when temperatures are above freezing will help them too.

Chickadees like the one in the photo above will find your feeder quickly. A couple of them have trained my husband by calling for him every morning at breakfast… “Hey, get that feeder out here now!”

Since it appears that human activities are largely responsible for the songbird population decline, it’s the least we can do!

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Merry Christmas!