January 8, 2014 by Rokman61
Real winter. Early in the month we had a cold snap that was deep and prolonged enough to freeze our freshwater environments solid. It was most interesting to observe how such a freeze can drastically affect the distribution of the birds in the area.
Puddle ducks are mainly vegetarian, and feed in freshwater marshy areas, wet fields, and weedy saltwater tidelines. At the height of the freeze-up, thousands of them congregated in huge rafts along the boulder/cobble/gravel ocean shore near Crescent Beach, where very few of them are present at other times. The rafts were comprised almost 100% of just three species: Pintail, Mallard, and Green-winged Teal, in order of relative abundance.
Hundreds of thousands of Western Sandpipers pass through our area on migration each spring and fall, but they are very scarce here in winter. The few that do hang around are rarely seen, until the freeze forces them to the shorelines where they are more likely to be observed. (Remember you can click on images for an enlarged view).
Another day, much better light.
A few Least Sandpipers, close cousins of the Westerns, also made a cameo appearance during the freeze.
The Fraser Delta foreshore, along with its huge expanse of adjacent flat agricultural lands, is one of the most important areas in Western Canada for wintering birds of prey.
The Northern Harrier is the most common raptor observed along the Fraser Delta foreshore, often seen endlessly cruising over the salt marsh and near-by fields. One particular young male bird has taken up a patch of ground where he poses regularly for photographers.
In my last blog I featured a photo of the same individual doing some stretching exercises – the photo taken on Nov 25th.
Ten days later I took this photo – same bird, same routine.
Bald Eagles migrate from inland nesting areas to the coast to spend the fall and winter. Most go first to rivers with spawning salmon, and when that feast is used up they move onto the Delta lands by the hundreds. By the end of the year they have become very numerous, roosting in trees, on poles, on the ground, and on buildings. They always strike me as looking very stern and disapproving.
Whilst on the subject of predatory birds, here is one that is tragically abnormal. Note that the upper mandible on this Red-tailed Hawk is greatly elongated, such that it apparently cannot close its bill. (It did not approve of my presence, so this was the best photo I could manage).
One would suspect that a bird in this condition cannot survive for long in the wild and some don’t. But this particular individual is an active, apparently healthy adult, so must be able to get by despite its handicap. Hawks with similarly deformed bills have been reported all along the west coast from California to Alaska, and the condition is known as ‘Long-billed Hawk Syndrome’. The cause of this abnormality remains unknown.
In my last blog I presented a Great Horned Owl and commented that it was roosting in a location and habitat that we expect to find Long-eared Owls. Almost prophetically, I was able this month to photograph not one but two Long-eared Owls in a nearly identical situation. Again, an unexpected bonus, as both birds were in plain sight, rather than tucked in behind many branches as they usually are. The first bird was snoozing complacently, paying only token attention to the numerous cameras aimed at it.
The other one was more alert, but still remained in place, posing nicely.
When agitated, Long-eared Owls tend to drastically change their posture, becoming markedly tall and thin. To me they look like they were perched beside a door which was thrown open, flattening them against the wall. Here is a photo I took a few years ago of a bird I came upon in an uncharacteristically open situation. The owl obviously did not approve of my presence, but I was able to take a few shots and then tip-toe away.
Rarity-of-the-month department: The Black-and-white Warbler is a songbird of the boreal forest and it breeds all across Canada east of the western mountains. They show up in our area less than once in 10 years on average. This one was holding court in Stanley Park, putting on quite the show for the photographers.
The bird was easy to approach but quite a challenge to photograph, as it was constantly in motion. I took many many frames, and in nearly every one at least part of the subject was out of focus due to the movement. I did manage to catch it in this image, but failed to get it fully included in the frame.
The species forages by crawling around on trunks and branches – up, down, and sideways – seeking prey items in and under the bark.
Not so rare, but still fairly uncommon and a treat to see, the American Tree Sparrow. This species is super-abundant in the north, near tree-line, and most spend the winter in the interior of the continent.
The Snow Buntings featured in my November blog were still around at least until early January. They are very tame and approachable birds, tempting one to take yet ever more photos. I like this shot for the substrate of pretty rocks.
Nearby, there was a Black Oystercatcher, also on an interesting rock. I find this bird difficult to photograph because of the contrast between the plumage and legs/bill. I keep trying under different lighting conditions, and this is one of my better results to date.
Late in the month we had a snowfall, neither rare nor commonplace for us. Here is a view in our yard, shot right through the window.
The birds were quick to come to the feeders – did they have much choice?
This set of tracks looked rather intriguing and distinctive, so I snapped a few images with my iPhone. I learned from another person’s blog that these were made by a racoon: the distinctive pairs of prints comprising one long rear footstep alongside a shorter front footstep being diagnostic.
With the arrival of cold weather, small brownish moths are often seen roosting on our windows at night – a rather unexpected and curious occurrence. A bit of google research leads me to believe that these are ‘winter moths’, probably Operophtera brumata, an invasive alien from Europe.
On a less happy note, one day I encountered the corpse of a beautiful bird that had come to an unfortunate demise. Here is a portion of a wing.
That wing belongs to an American Bittern, a type of heron which is notoriously secretive, and hence not well known to non-birders. Here is one in life, photographed back in 2010.
This slightly unusual Fox Sparrow has taken up residence in our yard and is a regular visitor at the feeder.
Compare it to a ‘normal’ Foxy as in the next image. Interestingly, this photo was taken over five years ago, with one of my first digital cameras (12x zoom point-and-shoot). Doesn’t look too shabby by comparison, but it was THE best photo I ever got with that camera.
The white chin patch on the current bird is due to what is referred to as ‘leucism’, or a lack of pigment in the feathers. This trait is not particularly rare, and can result in some rather striking individuals. Our ‘White Chin’ is a fairly subtle example, but still a handsome bird.
Whilst waiting to get photographs of the Fox Sparrow, I took up a position beside my greenhouse shed. Suddenly this canine figure came trotting out from behind the shed, not more than about 3 metres away. It was every bit as startled as I was, so didn’t hang around for photos. I had my camera in hand so managed three blurry shots – this one being the best. A real, wild Coyote!
The last bird photo of 2013? No surprise that it fittingly happened to be a Great Blue Heron, a quasi-mandatory feature of my postings. This one-legged individual stands guard over the park-and-ride lot in Ladner.
Looking forward to another good year,
Best wishes to all, and may your adventures be more in 2-0-1-4.