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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Thing About Birds

For my final Bird Canada post of 2015 I got a little philosophical. 
Check it out here: Just what is it about birds?

The Gabriola Turkeys Christmas shopping at the new "mall" 

Happy 2106 everyone! What are your bird-related resolutions?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Steller's Jays vs the Humans

The Jays like the driftwood feeder where I "hide" their peanuts

One of the humans involved in the battle. Note the thinking cap. 

Here's the link to today's Bird Canada post. 


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

House Finches & Conjunctivitis

Most of us know that there are serious downsides to feeding the birds. 

Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and a Downy Woodpecker

I've written about some of the potential problems before:

And on Monday, Carol Off from CBC's As It Happens interviewed researcher Dana Hawley from Virginia Polytechnic about how bird feeders can spread conjunctivitis to House Finches. 

Bird baths attract House Finches 

Listen to the interview and/or read the article here. The highlights:

  • House Finches (an introduced species) use bird feeders a lot
  • When an infected finch rubs its itchy eye on the port of a feeder, it leaves bacteria there, just waiting for the next finch to pick it up 
  • In this study the finch population dropped by 50% over the winter due to conjunctivitis

If you're going to feed the birds, SANITIZE your feeders regularly. A solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach will do the trick.  Be sure to rinse well. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

It's World Shorebirds Day on Sunday!

If the weather people are right Sunday will be warm and dry - perfect for counting shorebirds. Not just for fun but to be helpful too.

Barrow's Goldeneyes 

Great Blue Heron

To learn all about World Shorebirds Day and find out how you can participate click here: worldshorebirdsday

You'll need an eBird account so if you don't have one yet, click here to join: eBird

Maybe I'll see you at Brickyard Beach. Or Drumbeg. Or Orelebar Point. Or Secret Beach.

Happy counting!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Holy crow there's a hawk in the garden room

An immature Cooper's Hawk happened into our garden room last week. That's when the fun started.


Read all about it here: Trapped!

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Pox on Avian Pox!

A Dark-eyed Junco with suspected Avian Pox was recently found in the Horseshoe Road area of Gabriola and reported to GROWLS. Although unconfirmed, there have also been reports of Spotted Towhees with evidence of the disease in the area around The Legends, and last year there was a reported sighting on Protection Island. According to Dr. Helen Schwantje, the BC Provincial Wildlife Vet, Avian Pox has also been seen this year in the occasional crow, a hummingbird, and a number of eagles, but no other songbirds. This little junco (photo below) has now been delivered to her at the Ministry of the Environment for confirmation of the diagnosis. 

Dark eyed Junco with Avian Pox.
Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Birds with Avian Pox develop wart-like nodules, usually on the featherless parts of their bodies. Some are able to survive and even outlive the disease, depending on the location of the pox and other variables. But if the lesions interfere with eating or breathing, survival is compromised. The pox that developed under this junco's beak probably interfered with its ability to eat.

What is Avian Pox?

Avian Pox is a virus that can be transmitted from bird to bird by infected mosquitoes or air-borne particles contaminated with the pox virus. It is not a zoonose so cannot be transferred to humans. It also not the the Avian Flu!! 

For more information about the disease click here 

If you see a bird with wart-like lesions on its body please let GROWLS know. The number is 250-741-7101.

If you find a dead bird with evidence of Avian Pox please tell GROWLS - they keep a record of the spread of the disease on the island - and report it to the Wild Bird Mortality folks at 1-866-431-BIRD (2473). They may ask you to send them the bird for testing. Read this document for instructions on how to do that. 

Note: Dead birds must be handled using common sense sanitary precautions to reduce risks to human health. Carcasses should be handled using a shovel or, if one is not available, disposable gloves or inverted plastic bags, followed by thorough hand-washing with soap and water (20 seconds to remove debris). Avoid contact with feces, blood, body fluids, & sharp parts of the bird. (from the above document) 

Help prevent the spread of Avian Pox on Gabriola

If you feed wild birds or put water out for them, be sure to follow these common-sense practices that will help stop the spread of disease:
  • Keep your feeders and birdbaths CLEAN.

  • Design your back yard bird habitat to avoid overcrowding by spreading out feeders. 

... just not all in the same place
  • Use smaller feeders (preferably made of plastic or metal, not wood) that allow only one or two birds at a time.
  • Scrub and clean feeders and birdbaths and the area around them regularly. (Every week or ten days in this heat.) 

Steller's Jays at a back yard birdbath
  • Keep the area under the feeders clean. Locating them above cement can make this easier.
  • Replace birdbath water every day at this time of year.

Juvenile Song Sparrow having a drink before his bath
  • If you see one or two diseased birds, take your feeders down immediately and clean them thoroughly. A solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water is typically recommended. 
  • If you have more than three diseased birds in your area, take your feeders down. Clean them well and re-hang them after a week or two. 
  • Let your neighbours know so they can take action too.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pipelines, Politics, and Powerless Birds

In June 2012 I submitted my concerns about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP) to the Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board (NEB). As I told the panel then, “Honestly, I’d rather be bird-watching, but sometimes there's just no choice.”

Canada Geese on an Enbridge storage tank.
 Let's pray they don't land in a tailings pond. 

Of the 1161 citizens who made submissions to the NEB, two were in favour of the project. Nonetheless, in December 2013 the NEB approved the pipeline and sent it to the federal government for a final decision. Six months later, when Prime Minister Harper approved the pipeline, I thought of all those migrating geese that had already suffocated in tar sands tailing ponds. If you have the stomach for it, the article that follows includes a video of ducks struggling to get out of a tailings pond owned by Syncrude Canada Ltd in 2010.

Then I thought about the Boreal Forest, breeding grounds for at least 325 bird species, nearly half the species found in North America. Billions of birds.

The Boreal Forest.
Photo by Olga Oslina. CC image.

It's also home to the tar sands.

The Tar Sands 

I thought about the slow and painful death of democracy in Canada.

Then I thought about my beloved coastline, about what an oil spill will do to coastal communities, to the sea birds and mammals and ocean, to the 127,000 people who work in the BC tourism industry.

Brickyard Beach on Gabriola Island - part of Bird Studies Canada's
Beached Bird Survey Program

I ranted. I raved. I cried.

It’s three years later; I’d still rather be spending my spare time watching birds.

Great Blue Heron at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner BC

Instead, I’m here - writing, grieving, getting angry all over again as I try to decide whether or not to participate in the Public Hearing for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMPE). The National Energy Board accepted my application to comment on this project over a year ago. The rules had changed by this time. Applicants now have to demonstrate (via a 10 page application form) that they’re either “directly affected” by the project (what coastal resident isn’t?) and/or have “relevant information or expertise”. In my application to comment I ticked both boxes then wrote about the impact of Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion on the more than one billion birds, including twenty-four priority bird species that migrate along the Pacific Flyway and the more than seventy species that make their home on or migrate through Gabriola Island, my home. 

I wrote about my concern over oil spills and the fact that even one drop of oil can be lethal and that a significant percentage of birds die even after being cleaned.

Oiled Birds after the Exxon-Valdez spill.
CC image. 

I wrote about the chronic oiling of seabirds and mammals, oiling that will increase dramatically as the number of tankers leaving Burrard Inlet and heading down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing through several internationally-recognized Important Bird Areas, rises to over four hundred a year. I mentioned that these IBAs are critical for the maintenance of the world’s bird populations because they support millions of nesting, wintering, and migrating birds.
Since the NGP hearings, things have gotten worse. The Harper government (perhaps fearing that the NEB might be infiltrated by a bunch of radical birders?) included an amendment in its infamous omnibus bill C-38 stating that even if the NEB should recommend against a project, the federal government has the final say. To make matters even more depressing, the NEB took the “Public” out of “Public Hearing”. You can read about that here – if you’re up to more bad news:

I’m not alone in my outrage. Expert intervenors and commenters are dropping like flies as the deadline to submit approaches.

Recently energy executive Marc Eliesen, an intervenor who withdrew, called the hearing process “jury-rigged with a pre-determined outcome“, “a public deception” by an “industry captured regulator.”

The deadline to make my submission to the NEB is July 23 and a big part of me doesn't want to play the game. What, I ask myself, is the point? ... Then I think of the birds. Somebody has to speak for them, right?

Black-headed Grosbeak in our back yard

The problem I face now is that much of what I’d want to say is verboten. NEB rules no longer allow commenters to mention, for example, climate change. (!!) Yet, according to the 2014 Climate Report by the Audubon Society, it’s climate change – fueled to a considerable extent by tar sands oil production in Canada – that “seriously threatens bird species across Canada and the United States”. The report, “314 Species on the Brink”, warns that “half of all birds studied could see their populations drop dramatically on account of climate change.” (

Among the species identified as “severely threatened” due to habitat destruction brought on by climate change are some of my favourite backyard birds:

Varied Thrush, Gabriola Island. This species has lost 82% of
its summer range and 44% of its winter range due to climate change.

Female Hairy Woodpecker - she loves our suet. These woodpeckers
have lost 78% of their summer range and 30% of their winter range.

The Hermit Thrush has lost 74% of its summer range and 31% of its winter range..
Photo by Garry Davey. Thank you.

Western Tanager, breeding male, on Gabriola Island.
70% of summer range and 37% of winter range lost. 

Family of Violet-green Swallows at FolkLife Village, Gabriola Island.
65% of summer range and 38% of winter range lost.

Common Ravens at Scarlett Point, BC.
Ravens have lost 62% of their summer range and 35% of their winter range.
Photo by Ivan Dubinsky. Thank you. 

The Northern Saw-whet Owl has lost 100% of its winter range.
Photo by Gary Stolz. USF&W photo. 

Trumpeter Swans on Gabriola Island.
These lovely swans have lost 100% of their summer range.
Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker. thank you.

Even though birds are pretty good at adapting to their environment, the climate is changing faster than their capacity to adapt. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Yard Map folks explain: “Birds have a relationship with habitat that is often delicately intertwined with climate. As the climate slowly shifts so does the make-up of their habitats, sometimes removing expected food sources, favorite nesting locations, or sources of water. As warmer winter temperatures become more common, one way for some animals to adjust is to shift their ranges northward. But a new study of 59 North American bird species indicates that doing so is not easy or quick—it took about 35 years for many birds to move far enough north for winter temperatures to match where they historically lived. … Most likely, birds are not shifting their range faster because the vegetation they rely on as a part of their habitat shifts very slowly.” 

Gary Langham, lead investigator of the Audobon Climate Project, summarizes the issue: "Birds have wings. Trees don't."

The sad conclusion of the report is that unabated climate change is “likely to lead to the decline of bird populations across North America and, in some cases, outright extinction.”

Submitting my concerns about the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion without talking about climate change would be like discussing the obesity epidemic without mentioning the fast food industry. Or grappling with the plight of the First Nations in Canada without mentioning the residential school system.

But that’s not all. Not only is the NEB not interested in hearing about climate change, in its own words, it “does not intend to consider the environmental and socio-economic effects associated with upstream activities, the development of oil sands, or the downstream use of the oil transported by the pipeline.”

Yikes. I am not permitted to voice my outrage about all those toxic tailings ponds where so many birds suffocate and die every year? (Luckily, I did have an opportunity to that, to some extent, here, thanks to BirdCanada:

And I can't mention my worry over the increase in the number of huge Aframax tankers that would ply their way down the west coast, home of the Pacific Flyway, just inviting an oil spill destined to devastate the human and animal communities along my beloved coast - for decades?

Just what – of any import – would I say? What would YOU say?

I wonder: what would one of those Mallards suffocating in a tailings pond say? Or one of the Trumpeter Swans that have lost all their summer range? Or one of the 325 species that breed in the boreal forest? Maybe I’ll speak for them, say whatever I darn well please. After all, they don’t know the rules have changed.

All photos are property of the author unless otherwise noted. This article was first published at with the title "Tar Sands, a Forest, a Billion Birds." 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Feeding Birds

My BirdCanada post this month is about the pros and cons of feeding the birds. 

Love to hear your thoughts. Have you struggled with this dilemma too?
Any words of wisdom to share?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Messenger

If plummeting numbers of songbirds are any indication, the planet is in trouble. The makers of The Messenger are hoping to help - and they need ours.       
The Messenger is a new feature documentary that follows birds on a visually breathtaking yet perilous journey through our changing world, offering perspectives from international researchers and conservationists on the key threats to migratory songbirds. 

SongbirdSOSProductions, an independent Canadian film-making company that's been working on this important project for close to two years, needs funding to finish the film. They have the support of Bird Studies Canada as a National Outreach Partner; now they're looking to the public for financial help through a crowdfunding campaign. 
Check out the video and ways you can help here:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Birds of San Migeul de Allende

In February I went to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), high in the mountains of central Mexico, to attend the 10th anniversary of the SMA Writers Conference. It was fabulous. 

On my first day in SMA, however, I discovered there was a lecture on The Birds of San Miguel, hosted by the local Audobon chapter, at the library in town. Obviously, I skipped out of the writing workshop I’d signed up for and headed to the library.

San Miguel de Allende.
CC license photo. 

Want to know more? Get the whole story here.

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