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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christmas Bird Count highlights

Thank you to the Gabriola photographers who contributed to my BirdCanada photo essay highlighting some of the bird species seen during the 2014 Christmas Bird Count on Gabriola.

Here are just a few of the featured birds - to whet your appetite ...

Fox Sparrow in winter. No, there was no snow on December 28 on Gabriola.
In fact, it's January 31 and the bulbs are up!
Photo by Sharon McInnes

Great Blue Heron.
Photo by Sharon McInnes

Male Barrow's Goldeneye.
Photo by Douglas Green.

Male Mallard.
Photo by Iain Alexander

To see the whole post, please go to:

For details on the actual numbers of species and individuals that made the count, check out the Nanaimo/Gabriola Birding FaceBook page - or email me at

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area vs KM

My Bird Canada post today is about the birds of the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area. You probably already know that a serious struggle is currently underway: it's the City of Burnaby, the City of Vancouver, most First nations, and thousands (maybe tens or hundreds of thousands!) of citizens of BC against Kinder Morgan, the Texas-based multinational pipeline company. 

Burnaby Mountain, home to birds and bears and all kinds of wildlife.
It's a Conservation Park!
 Curious, I delved into the bird life on the mountain.  To read the piece, click here

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cold weather and little hummingbirds

It's supposed to go down to -3 C tonight on Gabriola, the exact temperature at which nectar begins to freeze. So if you're feeding a resident hummer or two, it's time to do 'whatever you do' to make sure there's drinkable nectar available first thing in the morning and just before dark, which are prime feeding times - and hopefully in between too. 

Okay, we're not there yet but one never knows!
This photo was taken in the spring of 2008 during that freak snowstorm.
Note the Rufous Hummer!
People more creative than me have dreamed up all kinds of ways to keep nectar from freezing, some involving the use of trouble lights, hand warmers, plumbers' heat tape, or wrapping the feeders with Christmas lights, bubble wrap, or even warm woolen socks - anything to boost the temp just a little. 

For a few ideas with illustrations, check out these sites:

I haven't managed to rig up anything useful yet so I'm going with tried and true: bringing in Feeder #1 (which has been out all night) as soon as its light and replacing it with Feeder #2 (filled with fresh nectar). This does require getting up early and keeping an eye on the situation during the day - so it won't work for folks who sleep late or work all day.   

In a pinch - when I've been surprised by a sudden dip in temp and don't have any extra fresh nectar prepared - I've warmed up the frozen nectar "in situ" in a double boiler/steamer on top of the stove. Only takes a couple of minutes. 

December 3 update:

About a week ago, I set up a trouble light right next to the feeder. So far, it's kept the nectar from freezing overnight. The Annas are happy. And so am I.

Whatever you do, thank you

Monday, September 29, 2014

Seven Gabriola jays, one hungry hawk

Read all about it (and see lots of photos) at BirdCanada

Here are a few of the stars, just to whet your appetite ...

Mr. Fuzzy Chin

Mr. Big Blue Brows



Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vic the Vulture Comes to Visit

This delightful juvenile Turkey Vulture has been visiting a Gabriola Island yard regularly for the past few weeks. Read the whole story here: BirdCanada

Vic the Vulture sunning in yard. 
Photo by Carol Baird-Krul. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Is Your Yard Bird-Friendly?

I was looking out the front window, watching the bird activity in the front yard and eating my morning granola. Between the slats of the wooden blinds, I could just make out a female Purple Finch pulling seeds, one by one, from a dandelion puffball. She’d stretch her neck way up, grab a seed, then chomp, chomp, chomp, all the while scanning the area for predators. I had two thoughts: too bad she can’t just relax and eat without worrying about being grabbed up by a hungry hawk; and maybe I should give up on my war with the dandelions. Normally I try to pull the yellow heads off their stems before they go to seed, but seeing that finch feasting, with such gusto, on that “weed” made me think,  did I want to create an inviting habitat for birds and bees - or not?

Male Purple Finch.
(Photo by Cephas - CC license)

For years I’ve been letting thistles grow tall and bushy behind the garage for the American goldfinch to harvest for the lining of their nests, and leaving buttercups for the bees and wild strawberries for the robins, and a massive brush pile at the back of the property for the birds to use as shelter.  Why not leave dandelions too? 

Thistles for American goldfinches to use in their nests

Wild strawberries for the robins

It was while I was in this contemplative mood that the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (the Lab) posted another YardMap item on FaceBook. Although I always read their posts, I’d never checked out the program in detail until recently. And I’m impressed! Gardeners who like birds will love YardMap. ( new citizen science project from the Lab, YardMap is designed to help you create great bird habitat, whether in our own yard or in the community. You can start by mapping your yard (using a YardMap tool and Google Maps), then sharing your habitat data with Lab scientists and YardMappers across North America. Or you can just sign up and use the free site as a wealth of information. It has sections on everything from bird-friendly vegetable gardens to creating “rain gardens” to incorporating weed patches for the birds to maximizing pollination and food sources by planting a combination of perennials and annuals in your flower beds. One app, called Don’t Be An Ecological Trap, explains how to create a “source habitat”, as opposed to a “sink habitat”.  A “source habitat” is one that provides enough resources (food, water, structure, space, safety) to support successful nests, one where more birds are born than die every season. In a “sink habitat”, on the other hand, deaths exceeds births every year because of, for example, excessive predators (including outdoor cats), destruction by human activity, or insufficient food or water. (Find this app under the YardMap LEARN tab.)

Although still in production, another app, Which Bird, Which Plant (also under the LEARN tab) has the potential to be invaluable. You click on a photo of a bird that lives in your area, narrow down the food types you’re interested in, and find ideas for native shrubs, grasses, and trees that you can plant to attract a diversity of birds. I learned, for example, that in addition to ants, Northern flickers like wild strawberries and the seeds of clover and grasses, and that Chestnut-backed Chickadees like pine seeds and the fruit of Western Thimbleberry.

Western thimbleberry - just try and stop it once it gets started!

One of my favourites, Downy woodpeckers eat wild strawberries, serviceberry, dogwood, and mountain ash. And you know that chickweed that’s impossible to eradicate? A favourite food of Spotted Towhees.

"I love chickweed!"

Creating habitat that supports both resident and migrating birds is critical as climate change accelerates. Many species are gradually moving northward, ‘following the climate’, but a recent study shows it can take up to 35 years for habitat to catch up with other changes caused by climate, probably because the specific vegetation birds rely on shifts so slowly. But we can help, especially since we live on the Pacific Flyway, by planting native plants whose flowering coincides with migration and by making fresh water and shelter available for even a few of the billion birds that travel from South America and Mexico to the Boreal Forest and back, every year, via the flyway. Oh, and we could (if we were so inclined) leave the dandelions alone.  

A version of this article was first published in
The Flying Shingle newspaper on July 14,2014

Friday, July 4, 2014

Sick birds

In the last few months I've heard from several islanders who have sick birds in their yards. A few of them appeared to have conjunctivitis, also known as 'House Finch Eye Disease'. Birds with this bacterial disease have crusty, red, swollen eyes. Sometimes the eye appears completely shut. Here's the FAQ page from Cornell about this condition: HOFI Eye Disease

House Finch with early (?) conjunctivitis. Notice swollen eye, half-shut.  

And this week an islander contacted GROWLS about a sick Spotted Towhee that probably had Avian Pox, although this was not confirmed before the bird died. This viral disease, which occurs in the wild, has various forms but all are characterized by growths on the body. GROWLS conferred with Dr. Helen Schwantje, the B.C. Provincial Vet. She asks that any Gabriolans who see sick towhees try to get a photo then call the GROWLS pager at 250-714-7101

Avian Pox is not a known zoonose but anytime you handle wildlife, do wear gloves and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Here is a WILDLIFE FACT SHEET by Dr. Schwantje on Avian Pox: Avian Pox

For those with strong stomachs, here are two photos of a young eagle with Avian Pox that GROWLS saw in 2008. 

Young eagle with Avian Pox.
Photo by Bill Kalbfleisch

Close-up of young eagle with Avian Pox.
Photo by Bill Kalbfleisch

If you think you see a sick bird in your yard please be sure to call GROWLS. And if the sickness is confirmed, take down your feeders for several weeks and clean them thoroughly with a solution of water and bleach (9 to 1) before putting them up again. This will help stop the spread of the disease. Also, be sure to thoroughly clean the area UNDER the feeders where bird droppings carry bacteria.

Want to share your observations? If you're a member of Cornell's Project Feederwatch, you can report your findings there. See Track Sick Birds for information.