Tag Archives: Birds

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, too..at 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 (saobserver.net)

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?

If you Think Winter Days are Still …

Our first snowfall arrived this week…almost 6 weeks to the day that the white stuff appeared on the lake’s north shore mountains. That’s in line with the predictions I’ve heard from long-time residents, so it seems they know whereof they speak! It wasn’t enough snow to shovel, and it’s melting away quickly. But it put an end to many of the last fall sounds of our community: no more lawnmowers, leaf raking or blowing, no kids on skateboards rumbling down the road.

It didn’t silence the birds, though. Flights of Canada Geese still honk from V-formations. Mallard ducks that will likely stick around as long as there is open water in the bay still mutter and quack while feeding in the shallows. The Song Sparrow is always ready for a whistle, and Northern Flickers send out their strident calls from atop the cedars. So do Black-billed Magpies and Steller’s Jays.

Northern Flicker
Steller’s Jay

The most welcome sounds now are the chirps and twitters of the feeder birds. Every day, Chickadees and nuthatches stop by for snacks. Juncos breeze in and out, picking up what’s scattered on the deck. Lunchtime seems to be a favourite interlude, with lots of activity. So it seems a fitting time to post this poem I wrote years ago, and which was published in KNOW Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006.

If you think winter days are still,

If you think winter days are still,

That nothing moves in deepest chill,

If you think all is frozen hard

And it seems quiet in your yard,

Listen well,

Look and see,

Something’s moving in that tree.

Perky, small,

Black and white,

Turns into a blur in flight.

Buzzing call,


Hold some seed out, wait and see…

Feathers puffed,

Snug and warm,

Dressed to weather winter’s storm.

If you think winter days are still,

That nothing moves in deepest chill,

Perhaps you’ll be surprised to see

The lively, cheery chickadee.

Mountain Chickadee

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.

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.