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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Red-flanked Bluetail still in NW

For anyone headed for the mainland in the next while, the Red-flanked Bluetail is still at Queen's Park. I took a drive out (from Steveston, where I am visiting) and was thrilled to see him. Or is it her? This is my original photo.
Here is a cropped version - a little fuzzy but ...

Red-flanked Bluetail in Queen's Park Feb 27 2013.
Photo by Sharon McInnes

If you haven't heard about this bird yet, and are wondering why I'm excited about this, it's because this is a RARE BIRD from Asia. Since it was sighted on January 13, people from all over the continent have been making the trek up to New Westminster to see it. You can read more here: 
and here:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dumb animals and other myths

Raven on Salt Spring Island
Seals at Entrance Island. Photo by Brie McInnes

Black-tailed deer eating our plum tree

Are these animals dumb? Nope. Anyone who has paid close attention to animals in the wild will attest to their intelligence, and so will scientists who study animal IQ. This short article highlights the intelligence of just eight animal species ( but I'm confident that eventually the intelligence of every single species on the planet will be documented.

One scientist, though, has just released a study that suggests that we humans are getting dumber and dumber. "Dr. Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford, has published a study that he conducted to try and identify the progression of modern man’s intelligence. As it turns out, however, Dr. Crabtree’s research led him to believe that the collective mind of mankind has been on more or a less a downhill trajectory for quite some time." ( Oh oh.

Crabtree posits that humans were at their most intelligent when “every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis". Today, when those of us living in 'First World' countries buy our food in the supermarket and rely on mechanical devices to complete our daily tasks and electronic ones to be our memories and to do our problem-solving, there's little opportunity for exposure to 'nature's raw selective mechanisms'. Read the article about the study here:

So ...  humans are getting dumber. Are animals, I wonder, getting smarter? Will the two trajectories cross paths at some point? Then what?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Those Incredible Cormorants

by Sharon McInnes

I was on vacation in Mexico years ago when I noticed a tall black seabird standing on a rock, its wings held out from its body like a dancer. I wondered if the pose was unique to Mexican birds.

Double-crested cormorant. Photo © David C. Stephens*

Years later, waiting in Nanaimo for the ferry to Gabriola, I saw a row of the same birds standing along the pier. By this time though, I’d begun paying attention, and knew they were cormorants. I still wasn’t sure why they held out their wings like that.

Now I know that cormorants hold their wings out to dry because they aren’t waterproof. This may seem like bad planning on the part of the creator of birds, but there is, of course, a good reason: cormorants’ wettable feathers don’t repel water (they have less preen oil than other birds) so they can dive down deep for food. This recent video shows an Imperial Cormorant in Mexico diving down 150 feet to the ocean floor to hunt for fish, amphibians, and crustaceans:

The cormorant’s unusual wing-drying pose has been a source of fascination for millennia. In medieval times, it decorated vases and shields. Later, it came to symbolise the Christian cross. In Paradise Lost, Milton created a Satan that, in an attempt to deceive and tempt Eve, disguised himself as a cormorant sitting atop The Tree of Life. Even Charlotte Bronté called on the symbolic power of this prehistoric-looking bird when she did a painting depicting the socialite fortune-hunter, Blanche Ingram, of Jane Eyre fame, as a cormorant. But I think Bronté was unfair to the cormorant.

The Double-crested Cormorant (phalacrocorax auritus), relative of frigate birds and boobies, is the most widespread cormorant in North America. BC has two subspecies: the phalacrocorax auritus albociliatus, which breeds in the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait and is resident year round, and the phalacrocorax auritus cincinatus, which breeds in Alaska and winters along the coast as far south as BC. Here on the Pacific coast the Double-crested Cormorant breeds in colonies of three to a few hundred nests made of sticks, seaweed, twigs, and other marine debris. This cormorant’s double crest of stringy black or white feathers, which appears only during breeding season, gives the bird its name.

The cormorant is easy to identify. Although adults of both sexes appear black from a distance, if you get up close enough you’ll see an orange-yellow face and throat, a hooked bill, and bright blue eyes. If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the bright blue mouth interior. In flight, the crooked looking neck gives away the bird’s identity. Along the Pacific Coast, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants overlap with the Double-crested. Brandt’s are a little larger and have a shorter tail. The adults have bluish (rather than orange or yellow) facial skin. Pelagic Cormorants are smaller, and have very thin necks and a tiny head.

Once prolific throughout the continent, cormorant populations in North America fell dramatically leading up to the 1960s, probably due to the use of DDT and other pesticides. When pesticides were banned, populations began to recover. By 1987, numbers were way up. Today, in most of North America, Double-crested Cormorant population levels have increased so much that these remarkable seabirds are now considered by some to be nuisance birds that compete with the fishing industry and kill vegetation. In many places, including Ontario, Double-crested Comorant populations have been “managed” by oiling eggs, destroying nests, and killing adult birds.

The situation is different in BC, where cormorant numbers have fallen precipitously since the early 1980s. In 1983, for example, Mandarte Island was home to 1,100 active nests. By 2000, that number had fallen to 215. In 2001 the Double-crested Cormorant was ‘red-listed’ (considered threatened) by the provincial government and deemed ‘a species of concern’ by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. Scientists suspect the decline is largely due to ongoing disturbance by ever-growing populations of Bald Eagles and egg depredation by gulls and crows. Cormorants also face, of course, the pervasive problems of all seabirds: oil spills, gill-net entanglement and toxic contamination. Sigh.

 *See more of David C. Stephens photos at:
This article was published in the Flying Shingle on Feb. 11, 2013.
Link to it here: 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Birds in the news ...

SHE'S ONE OLD MAMA! A Laysan albatross named Wisdom, who lives on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and is at least 62 years old (like someone else I know, who will defintely NOT be giving birth again) had another baby Sunday morning! Read about it here:

Although this isn't Wisdom, here are some photos of Laysan Albatrosses courtesy the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, all Public Domain photos that I often rely on. (Much more practical than flying to Midway to snap a few shots up close.)

Photo by David Patte

By Michael Lusk
Mother albatross with chick. Photo by Chris Swenson.
You can also read about the albatross of Midway Island and plastic contamination on this blog's February 2012 post:

Want to watch more birds up close? Maybe some you don't usually see? The Cornell Lab has just created a great new BirdCam site that allows you to do that. Click here:

As of three days ago, at least, the rare Red-flanked Bluetail, an Old World flycatcher from the Bering Sea region, was still being seen in Queen's Park in New Westminster.

The American Birding Association website says, "Things are getting crazy in British Columbia" in reference to the sightings of this bird in addition to the Citrine Wagtail seen a while ago in Comox and Bramblings in several parts of the province. Their site has several photos of the Bluetail: One person I spoke to in New West worried about what will happen to the bird in the spring if there is no other bird to mate with. Will it mate with another species? Will it just live out its life in solitude? Good questions? Any ideas out there?