February 5, 2013 by Rokman61
The winter of 2012/13 has turned out to be an exceptional one for birding enthusiasts, with memorable showings on several fronts, namely finches, owls, hawks and eagles, and some super-rarities.
I’ll start with a group of birds often referred to as the “Winter Finches”, which includes a number of related species of boreal-nesting, seed-eating birds, namely siskins, redpolls, grosbeaks, and cross-bills. A few are resident in our area and occur regularly, but some only appear occasionally, and a few are quite rare. Some feed almost exclusively on seeds from various cones, and when the cone-crops are sparse in the northern forests, the birds move south to forage. This winter brought a real invasion.
First off, the perky little Pine Siskin. They also nest locally, but in the fall numerous flocks began showing up, noisily buzzing around our neighbourhoods – obviously newcomers.
When birders encounter a flock of siskins, they sort through them looking for Common Redpolls, and in most years only the odd one or two will turn up. In some years they invade in numbers, and recently pure flocks of them have been reported from several localities. The trick in photographing them is to be around when they are feeding down low – something that I have yet to manage; this bird insisted on staying up in the top of a tall alder.
Evening Grosbeak, a fruit-eater, is another species that can turn up at any season, but this winter they seem to be more common than they have been in years. This one is male (a photo of the greyer female was in my Oct-Nov post last year).
By contrast, Pine Grosbeaks only show up occasionally, and usually in small numbers. A group of five held court for several days at a local park, much to the delight of the photo crowd. Too bad the weather stayed dark, murky, damp, and overcast for nearly the entire period. All five were in ‘female-type’ plumage (females and first-year males). Adult males are a striking brick-red colour. Maybe I’ll catch up to one eventually.
And here, at least for me, is the prize of the bunch, a White-winged Crossbill. This is a species that I have only seen once before in the metro Vancouver area. They occur very sporadically, and usually move around widely, so finding them is a real challenge. The bird is on one of the top branches of a sitka spruce – one of our very tallest trees, so the photo is a real stretch – a ‘record’ shot.
Another winter visitor, this one came all the way from Siberia. It’s a Brambling, a Eurasian finch, considered a vagrant to North America, and enough to cause a stir among the birding fraternity. It seems we get one about every five years in our area, so although it is very special it is not a mega-rarity for long-time birders.
Moving on . . . owls, owls, and more owls . . . the best show in decades. Last year it was the Snowies who put on a world-class act. Although there are almost as many again this year, they tend to be more scattered around and don’t provide quite as many photo ops. I’m wondering if this one was just tired of the endless array of lenses pointed at it, and was trying to register a complaint.
BTW, this bird is also known as the ‘Superb-owl’, but few are aware that THE biggest sporting event in America, which took place this year on Feb 3rd, is named for it. Birders were quick to note that the Ravens were triumphant over the would-be gold-diggers.
In addition to the owls, the setting at Boundary Bay is simply magnificent. In the background is Twin Sisters Mountain, as seen looking across the border into Washington. These peaks are carved in a slab of dunite rock, which is a piece of the Earth’s mantle that got shoved up onto the crust by tectonic processes. For a birder/geologist, the juxtaposition of such far-travelled elements, an owl born in the arctic, a rock from deep below the surface – that’s visual poetry.
A better view of the Twin Sisters.
To the left (east) of the Sisters is Mount Baker, our nearest volcano, sleeping but not yet extinct.
Meanwhile, still at Boundary Bay, the Short-eared Owls have wrestled the flapperazi’s attention away from the Snowies. They have shown up in unprecedented numbers (both the owls and the photographers) and are very active through much of the day. I have yet to score any really excellent photos, but I’ll include one anyway – nice setting.
The closely-related but much less abundant and strictly nocturnal Long-eared Owl is not observed anywhere nearly as often as the Short-eared. However they too have been showing up more than usual. This one was roosting in a dense hedge beside the road. I stood in wait for more than half an hour, hoping to catch the big yellow eyes – eventually gave up.
Meanwhile, whilst I was waiting for ‘my’ owl to make some motion, I noticed a vehicle pull up about 50 metres down the road from me. A fellow got out with a camera and aimed it at the side of the road – his target being another Long-eared. Most unusual to see this species out in the open in broad daylight!
The two Long-eareds above appear to be quite comfortable and relatively relaxed. In contrast, here is one (photo taken 2010) that was in a very agitated state, no doubt caused by my presence, added to the insult of being harassed by a flock of vicious kinglets. Remarkable how they appear to change shape.
Continuing with the winter visitors, the handsome Rough-legged Hawk nests in the arctic tundra and comes south to forage on the coastal flatlands. There are more of these hawks this year than we’ve seen for at least a decade.
Hawks and eagles have always been fairly common on the delta lands in winter. Although the hawks seem to be slowly declining in numbers, Bald Eagles are becoming ever more numerous, and there are literally hundreds of them in the area. This grainy photo (taken with my cell phone) shows 14 of them, and this is not at all an unusual sight.
When photo ops are few, one can always turn to ducks, which are photogenic and always easy to find. This one is a Northern Shoveller – you just HAVE to admire that bill! The slight greenish infringement on the head indicates that it is a young male, and when it comes into full breeding plumage the head will be solid green.
At first glance, one might assume this is another Mallard, but look more closely. The bill is the wrong colour, the head is not solid green, and there is far too much white on the neck. Now compare it with the next photo.
This is a PIntail I photographed last year. Obviously, the duck above is a hybrid, the parents being Mallard and Pintail, hence it shows features of both species almost equally. Note the Mallard-like front end, with Pintail bill, long tail, some white extending up the back of the neck, and even the hint of vinaceous wash on the side of the head. Hybrid ducks are not uncommon, but often the parentage is not quite so obvious as it is in this one.
I just had to include a Great Blue Heron to start the year off. A stately and striking bird, and probably the easiest of all the big fancy ones to photograph.
I mentioned at the outset that among other things, this is the winter of great rarities. Not one but TWO Siberian vagrants were discovered in BC – birds that had never before been seen in Canada, and only one or two records for each on this side of westernmost Alaska. Once-in-a-lifetime happenings! The first bird discovered was a Citrine Wagtail in Comox, and birders came from all over North America to see it . Next was a little flycatcher (featured below) that was found wintering in a city park in New Westminster, about 30 minutes drive from my place of residence. (A third super-rarity from Siberia was discovered in Oregon, a Little Bunting, but this one did not stick around).
One evening I got a call about a potential Red-flanked Bluetail (whatever the heck that is!), so of course I was present when the bird was refound and confirmed. Eventually it got featured on TV, newspapers, radio interviews, and uncountable blogs (this being yet one more). For more than two weeks, this little gem has led eager hordes of camera-toting birders on a merry chase around the park – probably as many as a hundred visitors on some days. Getting decent photos was another matter. The weather was dark, gloomy, overcast, and foggy most of the time, the bird stayed low under the canopy of tall conifers, and would not allow close approach. I tried four times, but the lighting was so low, and I was so slow, that all my images were utterly hopeless. Finally, on Feb 1st, I had somewhat better luck, but still marginal. After I took this photo, the skies brightened up significantly, but the bird chose to go into hiding.
This view provides a wee hint as to how the species got its name.
Bring on the next one!