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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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Protecting the Birds of the Salish Sea

On June 4 last year I submitted my concerns about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP) to the Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board (NEB). Here’s the part of my submission that focuses on birds:

Do you know how much oil it takes to kill a sea bird? One teaspoon. 

Oiled ducks after the Exxon-Valdez spill.
(Photo: CC license.)

And how many actually survive, even after cleaning? Estimates run from one to ten per cent. Yes, between 90 and 99 per cent die anyway. Some scientists have said it’s a waste of effort. This quote is from Spiegel Online International (May 2010): 

“ ‘Kill, don’t clean,’ is the recommendation of a German animal biologist, who this week said that massive efforts to clean oil-soaked birds in Gulf of Mexico won’t do much to stop a near certain and painful death for the creatures. Despite the short-term success in cleaning the birds and releasing them back into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving, says Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. ‘According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under one percent,’ Gaus says. …. Catching and cleaning oil-soaked birds often times leads to fatal amounts of stress for the animals, Gaus says. Furthermore, forcing the birds to ingest coal solutions – or Pepto Bismol, as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast— in an attempt to prevent the poisonous effects of the oil is ineffective, Gaus says. The birds will eventually perish anyway from kidney and liver damage.” … 

“It’s a small world, and what happens on the BC coast will affect all those birds that use the Pacific Flyway as their migration route between South or Central America and Alaska and the Boreal Forest. To devastate the coast is to affect not just BC birds but all those that rely on a hospitable BC coast for their migratory journeys.

The Boreal Forest, which over half of North America's
300+ breeding bird species call home.

I was one of 1,161 people who submitted comments to the public hearing. Two commenters were in favour of the project; 1,159 were opposed. So it was distressing, to say the least, when the NEB approved the project, albeit with conditions. Then, today, Prime Minister Harper "announced" (via a press release!) that the project was a GO. This after the people of Kitimat said NO by referendum in April and after First Nations peoples said "absolutely not" and after thousands upon thousands of BC citizens consistently voiced their opposition to the pipeline through petitions and polls and letters and rallies.

Now I’ve been accepted as a commenter on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline (KMP) Expansion project. But what's the point? 

Still, I can’t shake the images of our beaches covered in oil, of herons, gulls, cormorants, and geese suffocating as oil clogs their pores. At least, if I submit by thoughts, they will become part of the public record. I will have spoken out on behalf of the birds whose habitat is at grave risk, but who cannot speak for themselves. 

The Kinder Morgan Pipeline runs from Edmonton to the Westridge Marine terminal in Burnaby BC, where tankers are loaded before they make their way through the First and Second Narrows, Vancouver Harbour, English Bay, Georgia Strait, the active channels of the Southern Gulf Islands, Haro Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If the KMP is expanded, approximately 400 giant oil tankers will travel these waters every year.

The Salish Sea carbon corridor.
(Thanks to the Wilderness Committee.)

To make matters worse (much worse), two internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas (IBAs), Burrard Inlet and Active Pass, lie along this route. These IBAs provide key habitat for nesting, wintering, and migrating birds.

Active Pass is a biologically-rich feeding area for fish-eating birds during the spring, fall, and winter and also supports significant populations of Pacific Loon and Brandt’s Cormorant in winter and Bonaparte’s Gull on migration. 

Brandt's Cormorant.
Photo by Teddy Llovet - CC license. 

Burrard Inlet supports the Western GrebeBarrow’s GoldeneyeSurf Scoter, and Great Blue Heron as well as the Purple Martin, Pelagic and Double-crested CormorantOsprey, and Bald Eagle

Barrow's Goldeneye.
Photo by Donna Dewhurst - CC license

Purple Martins.
Photo by Don Wigle.

Great Blue Heron.
Photo by Sharon McInnes. 

So I'll probably participate in the Public Hearing. But one thing I know for sure: commenting publicly won’t be enough. 

A version of this article was published 
in The Flying Shingle ( on June 16 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My (new) Favourite Hummer Feeders

To feed or not to feed? It's a question we need to take to heart. Today I'm going to talk just about hummingbirds but the question applies all species of birds. 

I started feeding Rufous hummingbirds six or seven years ago. Since then, they've provided me with untold hours of amusement and fascination every spring and summer in return for my keeping the feeders stocked and clean.

Rufous hummingbirds trying their darnedest to share

Then, two years ago, an Anna's showed up. That changed things. No more just 'fair weather feeding'. Believing that Anna's (we have a pair now) rely on human-supplied nectar to get them through the coldest days of winter, my responsibilities increased. Now, when the temperatures plummet, I monitor the feeders to make sure the nectar doesn't freeze before I get outside (sometimes donned in boots and snow gear) to replace it with fresh nectar. For weeks this winter my days revolved around the status of the hummingbird feeders. (Good thing I'm officially retired!) 

Female Anna's

I'm more than willing to continue this routine, and even to call on my wonderfully obliging friends and neighbours to take over for me during the winter when I have to be off-island for a while. BUT ... and this is a big BUT ... I don't want my penchant for feeding the hummers to put them at risk. One of the risks is disease, especially a fungal infection known as 'hummingbird tongue'. An Oregon blogger wrote about this infection here: Sick hummer

What to do? It seems to me there are two options:

1. Stop feeding the hummers entirely. Let nature take its course. Maybe plant more hummingbird-attractive native plants in the garden.

2. Keep feeding them (or just feed the Anna's in the winter) but be VIGILANT about keeping feeders CLEAN and EDUCATE neighbours to do the same.

For now, I'm choosing the second option. To make it easier, I've bought two new feeders that are much easier to keep clean. The base of these comes apart. No more fiddling with Q-tips!! Here are my two new feeders:

I bought this feeder, by Perky Pet, at Cultivate Garden & Gift in Parksville.
They had LOTS of styles, many of which were easy-to-clean.

I like the size of the feeder above for the spring and summer when there are so many Rufous around. The top holds 32 ounces and the top is a Mason Jar that can be replaced by any same-size Mason jar if it should break. It did take the hummers a few hours to get used to their new feeder (the other one had a red base) but they're fast learners, obviously!

Although slightly smaller, the base comes apart easily for easy cleaning.
Note: the glass is red. The nectar inside is clear - just water and sugar. No dye!!
Also by Perky Pet. 

The hummers went for this one right away! Red is clearly their favourite colour.

There are lots of other issues to explore in the "to feed or not to feed" debate: the increased risk of predation, window strikes, feeding hummers Rogers sugar that may be GMO ... and the list goes on. More another day. Thanks for visiting.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Sex Life of Crows

By Sharon McInnes

If the title of today’s column made you sit right up and take notice (that was, I admit, my goal), I should warn you that for crows, getting to sex isn’t simple. It involves a lot of planning, preparation, and patience. As Kevin McGowan explained in the webinar “The Secret Life of Crows”, before a crow can land a mate, he has to find a suitable breeding territory. (Scientists call this ‘acquiring breeding status’.) That can be a big job.

American Crow
Photo by Kevin McGowan

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are, for example, a male crow and you live in the city. Unlike most other species of birds, you could stay home for up to six years, helping to raise your brothers and sisters. Your tasks would include helping with nest-building, feeding, and chasing predators away. (A lot of male crows do this; females tend to leave home much earlier.) Called ‘cooperative breeding’, this strategy is almost as advantageous to your extended family – and to crows in general – as having your own offspring. McGowan says of crows that practice cooperative breeding: “Some of these families are amazing. One marvellously successful crow family lives at St. Catherine’s Church in Ithaca – a breeding pair and up to seven generations of siblings live on or next to the home territory there.

A Family of Crows
Making dinner plans? Discussing a territorial dispute? Gossiping about a neighbour?
Photo by Junior Libby - CC license. 

And there are substantial rewards for staying home to help. One is that you’re more likely to inherit your parents’ territory when they die. In the meantime, they might allow you to use part of their breeding territory to raise your own family. But don’t get excited too quickly. You won’t be getting started in that venture for a while: the average age of initial breeding in McGowan’s study was 4.9 years.

If the ‘one big happy family’ scenario doesn’t turn you on, you have options! One is to find your own territory. Since you live in the city you’ll need about 10 acres. (Country crows tend to have much larger estates.) Of course it needs certain attributes. For one thing, it has to be available. You don’t want to have to battle another crow that’s already set up house there. And it must have plenty of food nearby. (I know – you’re a ‘city crow’ and you’ll eat anything. But your babies need nutritious food – the same kind they’d be getting if you lived in the country.) 

No? Well, if trying to establish your own territory sounds risky, you could join an already established group. This has potential, especially down the road. For example, when the male adult of the mated pair you join dies, you could simply replace him. No need for the widow to go hunting for a new guy when you’re there, ready, willing, and able, right? Or, in another scenario, they might both die, and you could inherit their territory.

Or maybe one of your older siblings has already struck out on his own and would welcome your help?  Or maybe a friendly neighbourhood crow? However be aware that neighbours – especially helpful ones – are known to be philanderers. So if you decide to share the territory of a neighbour, there’s a chance (up to 20 per cent) that at least one of your babies might look more like him than you. Then again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the same hanky-panky is known to happen between relatives. So you can’t necessarily trust your woman with your brother or cousin or uncle either.  And I hate to even bring this up, but if you and your lady stay together for a few years, and have a few babies, there is a chance that she and one of your sons will get together one night. BUT of all the philandering that goes on amongst crows (scientists refer to this behaviour as ‘extra-pair copulation’) only 3.5 per cent of it is between mother and son. That’s heartening, right?

Still, there’s a good reason for sticking close to home to raise your family: crows that do are more ‘successful breeders’. Compared to robins, for example, which have a 25 per cent nest success rate, the American Crows that McGowan studied had a 60 per cent success rate. Those are pretty good odds, for a bird.

This article was first published in The Flying Shingle ( on April 7 2014

Big Clean Windows, Little Dead Birds

Most of us know about the "Bird Strike" problem. A bird sees reflected scenery (in a window) and flies into it. Hits the glass. Thunk. Broken neck, dead bird.

Sometimes the bird is "just stunned" and eventually "recovers" but often dies later of internal injuries or other injuries that render it less able to survive in the wild.

There ARE solutions! One is BirdTape from the American Bird Conservancy. I just ordered some to install on the windows of our new Garden Room. It's inexpensive and research-based.

To read about ABC Bird Tape (and order it) click here

For more on the seriousness of the problem, check out this article in the Birds on the Brain blog. Even though this piece is about Duke University in the States, the problem exists EVERYWHERE, even here on little old Gabriola Island!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Galveston Bay Oil Spill

On the ABA blog today, Laura Erickson writes about the recent Galveston Bay oil spill: 

"The March 22 spill of 168,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into Galveston Bay can be expected to take a huge toll on migrating, nesting, and still-wintering birds." 

Click below to read the article: 
The Galveston Bay Oil Spill - what we birders can do

Note: the same thing could happen here. In fact, with every additional tanker sailing the Salish Sea, the stakes go up ... way way UP. 

What would Kinder Morgan's proposed pipeline expansion mean for the billion birds of the Pacific Flyway?

It would mean very bad news, not just when there's a spill but from chronic oiling that happens as a matter of course when oil tankers habitually traverse a waterway like the Salish Sea.

CRED BC ( has done some excellent work on the history of spills and leaks along the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline and on the economic risks and benefits of Kinder Morgan's proposal to expand the pipeline. The following two graphics are theirs.

And I wrote about the issue in a Bird Canada article last month. You can read it here.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Bouquet of Crows

by Sharon McInnes

During a Cornell Lab webinair called The Secret Lives of Crows, our instructor, Dr. Kevin McGowan, urged us to avoid the term “a murder of crows” on the basis that it’s unscientific and perjorative.  He’d prefer, he said, “a bouquet of crows. ” So, in honour of McGowan’s more than 25 years studying the social and reproductive behaviour of the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), a bouquet it is.

American Crow
Wikipedia image

McGowan does his research in Ithaca New York, home of Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Here on Gabriola, we have the Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) which is slightly smaller than the American Crow and has a more nasal call but “is so similar that the two may in fact be the same species.” ( Given the similarities, I think it’s fair to assume that his findings apply to our local crows too.

Three Northwestern Crows conferring.
Photo by Junior Libby - CC license. 

For decades now, crows have been making headlines when they roost, in the tens of thousands, in cities. A 2010 article in The Vancouver Sun refers to that city, my home town, as “The City of Crows”. Certainly when I stay at my daughter’s in the West End, I’m regularly awakened by the raucous calling of crows, and cannot take a walk along the seawall without crossing paths with dozens of them. But it hasn’t always been like this. Crows only started moving into cities, in large numbers, in the 1980s. During the webinair McGowan explained that this press into urban environments had multiple causes but was due in part to the fact that hunting is banned in cities. Crows have been hunted – by farmers and “sport” hunters – since the dawn of time, and still are, as this 2009 post by a Pennsylvania hunter, Bob Aronsohn, attests:

Then my friend … and I shot an additional 6,932 crows from November to February.  Our largest shoot last season was 543 crows in one day. We had several over 400 and quite a few in the two and three hundred range. The main reason I love to hunt crows so much is because you just don't setup just anywhere and expect to have a good shoot. It takes plenty of scouting in order to line up a good shoot. I don't get good shooting all the time, sometimes I just don't get in the right spot.  (

So, who can blame the crows, intelligent, social, family-oriented beings that they are, for choosing to leave the country?  Besides safety from hunters, city living offers the advantages of readily-available food (since crows have adapted to scavenging our leftovers) and fewer predators such as raccoons, jays, squirrels, owls, and hawks, an asset that is especially important during nesting season. McGowan’s research shows that city and suburban nests are subject to less predation than rural nests. In total, 57% of city nests compared to 48% of rural nests are successful.  

There are also disadvantages, though, to leaving one’s home in the country. For one thing, that city ‘fast food’ is less easily digestible than the crow’s natural diet: invertebrates, fish, snakes, frogs, small birds and mammals, bird eggs, nestlings, fruit and seeds.  Besides being less nutritious, the garbage that crows ingest in cities also carries the risk of contamination. This may not be a big deal for an adult crow but it can be deadly for a nestling.

In the end, though, the advantages and disadvantages of the two habitats appear to cancel each other out, in terms of nesting success, and they end up with the same number of fledglings.  Even though fewer rural babies survive, the ones that do are bigger than their city counterparts.  They’re heavier by 40-50 grams, have longer legs and bills, and possibly (although this not yet proven) larger brains.  McGowan and his team wondered: what makes the difference?  Turns out it’s all that good old country food. Researchers discovered this by feeding their city crows the kind of food mama crows would feed their babies in the wild. The result? Bigger nestlings.  It seems that crows, like humans, will eat junk food, to their detriment, just because it’s there.

This article was first published (with fewer images)
in the Flying Shingle on March 10 2014. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2013 Christmas Bird Count - Gabriola Island Results

by Sharon McInnes

In 1,199 communities all over the Americas, for one day between Dec 14 and January 5, hordes of birders got up at dawn to count birds. This year’s count, which took place on Dec 29 on Gabriola Island, was the 114th, making the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) the longest-running Citizen Science project and wildlife census in the world.  In total, 28,644,830 individual birds were counted. On Gabriola, where the count includes only the north half of the island, birders counted 74 species and 3326 individual birds. These numbers don’t reflect the actual number of species or birds on the island (even on the north end), just those spotted by a counter.   

Dark-eyed juncos sittin' in a tree
Count them, count them, how many do you see?

This year’s numbers were significantly lower than last years (3326 compared to 4786), in part because of last year’s Pine Siskin irruption of 1239 birds. (This year only 6 siskins showed up.)  

Pine Siskin numbers plummetted this year

Differences in totals also result from transient flocks of waterbirds. For example, this year there were half the number of Mallards (114 compared to 239). But last year, counters tallied up 175 American Widgeons compared to a whopping 459 this year, and many more cormorants, both Double-crested and Pelagic. (2012: 35 DC cormorants; 2013: 81. 2012: 9 Pelagic; 2013: 16.) 

Many mallards - these ones at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta BC

Also, this year 10 fewer adult bald eagles were counted (down from 22 to 12) and 14 fewer feral turkeys, which are not official count birds but which we can’t seem to resist counting anyway.  

Yes, we know they don't "count". But we count them anyway!

One of the frustrations of any one-day count is that birds don’t always cooperate.  For example, no Red Crossbills showed up in the right locations at the right times to be counted this year. And last year 23 Trumpeter Swans were seen, but this year none. (On the other hand, I counted 14 at Coats March on January 13.) And one islander saw a Northern Goshawk a few days before the count, but on Count Day, no such luck.

In the passerine world, this year there were at least 50% more Northwestern Crows (from 19 to 32), American Robins (from 34 to 99), Golden-crowned Sparrows (from 29 to 47), and Varied Thrushes (25 to 88). 

One cold Varied Thrush, doing his best to keep warm

And the number of Anna’s hummingbirds went up slightly, from 26 to 28.

Anna's hummingbird. From 26 to 28 this year.
Photo by Alan Vernon, CC license. 

On the other hand, there were 50% fewer Hairy Woodpeckers (from 6 to 2), Pileated Woodpeckers (from 14 to 9), Common Ravens (from 101 to 56), Chestnut-backed Chickadees (from 297 to 111), Fox Sparrows (from 17 to 10), Red-breasted Nuthatches (from 78 to 38), Bewick’s Wrens (from 16 to 1), Dark-eyed Juncos (from 303 to 120), Bushtits (from 21 to 0), Red-Winged Blackbirds (from 25 to 1), House Finches (from 109 to 11), Purple Finches (from 7 to 1), Red Crossbills (from 17 to 0), and House Sparrows (from 4 to 0).  

Fox sparrow on a snowy limb

Male House Finch stopping for a drink at one of our bird baths

One of the more exciting finds this year were 3 Marsh Wrens, 2 of which were spotted (after a lot of cloak and daggery and wet feet) at Coats Marsh.  

Marsh Wren.
Many thanks to Don Wigle for gorgeous photo. 

Other unusual birds (possibly considered rare) spotted this year included Mourning Doves on El Verano and a White-throated Sparrow.  

Mourning Doves at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca New York

So, what’s the point of all this? Why drag oneself out of bed at dawn to venture out in the cold of winter to count birds? According to the folks at Audobon, organizers of the  Christmas Bird Count, the information gleaned from the annual counts is used, in combination from data from other Citizen Science projects, to help scientists assess the health of bird populations and to guide conservation action. Over the years, they’ve learned, for example, that “Birds are not Climate Skeptics, having spoken with their wings.” (Audobon website). They’ve learned which bird populations are in decline (e.g. Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Pintail, Horned Lark, Boreal Chickadee, Common Tern, Evening Grosbeak, Sage-grouse) and which have come back from the brink, thanks to Endangered Species legislation (e.g. Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon) and how far and how quickly West Nile virus spread. So, really, maybe it is worth the early morning traipse through the woods in the middle of winter. Thankfully, it is for the tens of thousands of people who participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count.     

This article was first published (without all the photos) in
The Flying Shingle on February 10 2014. 
All photos not otherwise credited are by Sharon McInnes.
Please contact using comment function below for permission to use.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Can You Tell an Anna's from a Rufous?

by Sharon McInnes

We have a pair of Anna’s hummingbirds in the yard this winter. If you, too, have hummers right now, here on Gabriola Island, they’re also Anna’s, the beauties that Cornell’s All About Birds site describes as “more like flying jewelry than birds”. 

Male Anna's. Photo by Alan Vernon.
CC license. 

Anna’s have been over-wintering in BC only for the past twenty years or so. Before that they lived exclusively in California and the Baja. But starting in the 1930’s, they began expanding their range northward, probably as a result of more and more backyard feeders as well as the growing popularity of exotic trees, such as eucalyptus, that provided both nectar and nest sites. Some birders worry that feeding Anna’s will interfere with migration. Here’s what the Rocky Point Bird Observatory scientists say on the subject: 

Do not worry! Feeders will not stop a bird migrating, a process that is triggered by the bird's internal clock and levels of sunshine. Anna's are with us year round and their presence at feeders has just become more obvious because their numbers are increasing locally.” (

In the spring and summer, we have both Anna’s (Calypte anna) and Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) on Gabriola. You can tell them apart by their colouring. The sure-fire give-away is that the Anna’s has no rufous (orangey-brown) plumage anywhere, and has little white spots around the eyes. Once you know you’re looking at an Anna’s, you can readily distinguish male from female: the male’s red gorget, or throat patch, extends right over his head, making him a sparkling redhead when the sun shines on his iridescent hood. Striking emerald green plumage covers his back and bleeds onto his sides and white belly. The female, not as showy, is mostly emerald green and grey in colour with a small iridescent red gorget on the throat.

Male Rufous hummers - note the bright red iridescent gorget
and the rufous (brownish) plumage

The female Rufous hummer has a little rufous colouring
on its sides but no shining red throat patch

The female Anna's has no rufous colouring anywhere.  

Does size matter?
It does if you're a hummingbird facing down a House Finch! 

In the spring, the male Anna’s performs a wild and wonderful courtship display.  From as high as forty metres, he does a nearly vertical dive downward, all the while eyeing the female. (On sunny days, he orients his body to take advantage of the sun reflecting on his iridescent throat and crown.) As he comes to a stop, he emits a short high-pitched explosive squeak (more on this later) then “chases” her (she has, by now, indicated her interest, somehow) while she leads him to her nest site. (Wiley little thing.) The female then perches and settles in to watch the show while the male does his “shuttle display”, swinging back and forth about half a metre above her, singing like crazy. All this lasts only about twelve seconds, does the trick, apparently. 

More now about that high-pitched squeak: until 2008 the source of this sound was a mystery. Then student researchers at the University of California used ultra-high-speed video cameras to film Anna’s in action, and discovered the squeak was made not by the hummer’s throat but by his tail feathers. (More here). In cold weather, though, all that matters to a hummer is staying alive. 

This Rufous hummer got caught
in a surprise snowfall one spring

Not all do, of course.  But if you have a feeder up, there are things you can do to help. Most importantly, keep the nectar from freezing. (What’s more heartbreaking than seeing an Anna’s sitting on the perch of a feeder with frozen nectar inside?) Some people (me included) have two or three feeders they rotate as needed, one in the house, staying warm, one outside, getting cold. When the outside feeder gets very cold (or freezes overnight) bring it in and replace it with the other one. Some people keep their feeders from freezing by placing homemade warmers, often concocted from light bulbs, just under the feeder. (I’d like to use my birdbath heater to keep the nectar from freezing but haven’t figured out how to do that yet.) Others wrap feeders in pipe insulation or beer mug insulators or even woolen socks. Many people use a sweeter than usual solution (3 sugar to 1 water) in winter because it doesn’t freeze as quickly as the 4-1 solution. Whatever you do to keep the nectar from freezing, be sure to place your feeders a good distance apart so that the hummer has to fly (thereby creating body heat) to get to them. 

A version of this article was first published in The Flying Shingle on January 13 2014.