Tag Archives: Birds

Showy visitors

Since I am part of the Save Shuswap Songbirds committee, I’m always watching  for birds that fit the description of ‘songbird’ — a small perching bird that sings well. Called passerines, they belong to the order Passeriformes. Various kinds comprise nearly half of all the world’s 10,000 bird species. A suborder, oscines, are the award-winning songsters. Passerines share a physical characteristic of having three toes pointing forward, and one backward which assists with grasping a perch.

One example, this western tanager, is a woodland songbird found in western North America. We often see them in spring and fall in the tall cedars behind the house. British Columbia is within its breeding territory so it may nest nearby. Its song is a bit like that of a robin with a scratchy throat. Its brilliant colors are reminiscent of tropical birds, so it is a treasured sighting here – and even moreso when it this visible.

While we are on the subject of toes, here’s something different: it’s a pileated woodpecker that is called a ‘near-passerine’. Although it also inhabits woodlands, like other woodpeckers it has zygodactyl feet. That means four toes with the first and fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward. Better for gripping and climbing tree trunks, it seems.


It might not come to mind when thinking of a songbird, as its clarion voice could hardly be described as melodious. Seen on and off all year around this area, it arrived one day to clean out the suet from my feeder.


Saving for a snowy day…

Our winter finally arrived last week with below normal temperatures. Some snow, although we escaped the big storms that have hit the coast, and the extreme cold and winds of the prairies. (Note to self: no regrets about moving west of the mountains!). Feel sorry for the birds at this time of year, so I try to keep the feeder filled. Although I’ve wondered why they have ignored the super-abundance of mountain ash berries in the neighborhood…including on our own tree that has fruit for the first time in its 10 years. Today, I think I know the answer.

Could it be they’ve been saving this nutritious food supply for a ‘snowy’ day? Yesterday morning in bright sunshine, huge flocks of Bohemian waxwings and a couple of dozen robins began swirling around the berry-bearing trees in every yard along the street. They descended on a small one growing wild on our front bank and within half an hour, had stripped it bare. I think they’ve dined on other food for months, using the berries as insurance against the hungry days of late winter. Smart plan, and maybe we can recall this strategy to help forecast future, late season, cold spells.

Bohemian waxwings and robins

One special visitor showed up with the robins: a varied thrush. It is similar in appearance to its robin cousins, but has a black breast-band, orange eyebrow and wingbars. Often solitary, it will flock with robins when foraging for berries. And it will be one of the earlier spring birds I’ll hear calling—a strong single note—from a high perch.

The snow continues to drift down. My walk around the block was a brisk one. And the mountain ash outside my window is bare. But hopefully all those birds are fluffed up, digesting a fine meal.


Ending the year on a rare note…

Big excitement around here after the annual Christmas Bird Count on December 16! One of the groups doing the Count around Salmon Arm (not mine, too bad) had the good fortune to make an extremely rare sighting: a fieldfare. This thrush is found in Europe, Asia and North Africa, although it may winter in Iceland. But to find it in the BC Interior is almost unheard of—in fact this is only the second ever sighting in the entire province. Speculation is that it arrived from Russia via Alaska, perhaps travelling with the robins that it has chosen to hang out with.


Here’s my best shot, only good enough for evidence that I really saw the bird. Now I can rightfully add it to my personal Life List as #501.


To see an amazing photo, go here: http://bcbirdalert.blogspot.com/ 

To date, the fieldfare has been in the same location for 2 weeks. Once the word got out in a local newspaper report and a posting on the BC Rare Bird Alert along with stunning photos by a Shuswap Naturalist Club member, keen observers have arrived outside the rural home. The garden is bordered by mountain ash trees which, like they are everywhere around here this winter, were weighed down with berries. The hefty crop that has attracted robins and waxwings is making for an easy-to-access banquet for the birds.

American Robin

Happy New Year and many birds for your list!

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.



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!