February 16, 2014 by Rokman61
Another year begins. What will be the first bird I see? What will be the first bird I photograph?
We have several Anna’s Hummingbirds that reside in our yard and likely depend on our sugar-water feeder to survive through the winter. At least one always appears just before dawn for its first drink, so I get to see it before there is enough light to identify other birds in the yard. An Anna’s Hummer has been my first tick on each of the last five years, ever since they first showed up in about 2009.
The hummer was my first bird seen, but the first bird I photographed was this Spotted Sandpiper.
What is interesting about this bird is that it normally isn’t here during our winter. It is a common spring/summer nester, but wise enough to head for Mexico when the weather cools off. Even more interesting, of the very few that hang around, they are most often seen in exactly the same small patch in North Vancouver. One might suspect that it is the same bird returning year after year, but the small dark bars on the folded wing indicate that it is a ‘first-year’ bird, hatched last summer.
When in breeding plumage, this species sports heavy black spots on its chest, hence the name. In winter, it is almost an non-spotted Spotted Sandpiper. For comparison, here is one in its summer finery.
One more interesting tidbit about the bird currently wintering. It works a small area along the shore, and has become quite familiar with the terrain. It likes to scurry along a chain of logs, and several times I watched it adeptly scoot along the heavy rope linking the logs.
On the same day I shot the sandpiper, Bambi made a cameo appearance. A photo op too good to pass up.
This little sparrow is one that can really provide a test of patience and determination. A very few winter in our coastal marshes every year, but actually finding one is a challenge, and trying to get a photograph is even more frustrating. This is my best image of Swamp Sparrow to date, good enough for documentation but rather murky due to distance and poor light.
Alcids are true seabirds that are more-or-less the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of penguins. One species, the Pigeon Guillemot, is more often seen close to the shore than others, and even nests on the Vancouver waterfront.
This is a species that looks very different depending on the season. The one above is in its winter or non-breeding or ‘basic’ plumage. Below is one I photographed last August, in its breeding or ‘alternate’ plumage.
In mid-January we experienced two weeks of ‘drought’, the second-longest ever recorded for the month. This provided for lots of bright sunny skies above, but most of the lower areas where we live were often cloaked in dense fog.
Walking through wooded areas in the morning mist, I noticed something that had never caught my attention before – numerous little horizontal cobwebs. I assume that because of the extreme moisture content in the air, the webs acted as loci of precipitation, making them strikingly conspicuous.
Interestingly, their distribution was patchy and sporadic – numerous in some places and none elsewhere. This set was on the edge of our driveway.
Continuing Rarity Department: The Western Scrub-Jay is a southern species, abundant in California and Oregon. In the last few decades it has slowly been spreading north, and a few now nest around Seattle. There is often a single bird or two in our area, but it is still quite rare. One was discovered just about a year ago in New Westminster, was seen by many, and then more-or-less forgotten. But many birders are obligate collectors, who ‘collect’ lists, such as a Life List, a Vancouver List, etc.. For some the game is Year List, so of course there was a renewed attempt to re-locate the New West jay. It was there, fairly close to the area it frequented last winter. As you might deduce from the first photo, someone is keeping it around with offerings of hazel nuts.
This bird spends a lot of time behind hedges and fences, but often flies out to expose itself – usually high up in a tree where photo ops are minimal.
At other times it stays hidden in the brush – I was fortunate to get this partly exposed shot.
After taking 60+ ‘documentary’ shots at this uncooperative subject, it suddenly alighted right in front of me. Now perhaps you can see that this is one classy looking bird.
My last subject is a little bird with a lot of pizzaz, a favourite of most everyone who is familiar with it. The American Dipper lives exclusively along mountain streams of the west, from Alaska to Panama.
As you can see, it is relatively lacking in bright colours, but it more than compensates with its unusual antics. It gets its name from the habit of repeatedly bobbing its entire body, and its feeding strategy is unique. This bird forages underwater, seeking out invertebrates, salmon eggs, and tiny fish. Sometimes with its head in the water as below, but often completely submerged, walking along the bottom, using the current to hold its body under.
Another interesting trait – this species has eyelids covered with fine white feathers, so when it blinks it looks quite weird.
It is often said that this is a ‘nictating membrane’, an adaptation for feeding underwater. Apparently not so, as explained here:
Dippers are forced down from the mountains when their streams freeze up, but they rarely go far from their breeding locality and are not expected in our neighbourhood. So it was surprising to hear that one was recorded on the White Rock CBC (Christmas Bird Count), and the locality given seemed even more unlikely – a roundabout on a busy main thoroughfare. Yeah, sure! But it turned out that the bird was really there, wintering on a small stream in a gully tucked right beside the road on which I had driven by oodles of times without having the slightest inkling of what was next to it.
This modest little urban creek also hosts spawning Coho Salmon each fall! The Dipper was discovered by a volunteer who regularly monitors the salmon and keeps careful watch over the condition of the stream.
One last photo of the watchman’s ‘little buddy’ who is sharing the winter vigil.
I will close this blog with something a little different: something inspired by a view I got on a trip to the North Shore that got me thinking about our physical location.
The city of Vancouver is justly famous for its spectacular setting. Its geology and tectonics are every bit as impressive as the scenery, albeit not the kind of thing that most can appreciate. I’ll try to explain a little bit of it using this photo, taken from a lookout on Cypress Bowl Road, looking southeast across the Lower Mainland (click to enlarge).
The bedrock underfoot is part of the Wrangelia Terrane, mostly granitic rocks that were formed about 100 million years ago, at depths of more than 10 kms. Uplift and erosion has brought them to the surface here, and to the south they are overlain by younger sedimentary rocks. Those younger rocks are mostly sandstones, deposited as a wide apron by rivers flowing off the rising mountains, about 50-70 million years ago. In the photo, the sedimentary rocks lie in a band across the middle of the image, including the mass of Burnaby Mountain and all the bedrock underlying the City itself. The very flat area beyond is the Fraser floodplain and delta, deposited in the last 10,000 years.
Far in the background are the Cascade Mountains, formed during subduction events related to collisions of several crustal blocks with the western edge of the continent, more than a 100 million years ago. As a result of such collisions, great slabs of rock sometimes get squeezed out and slide horizontally over the adjacent terrain. Mount Shuksan (middle of the skyline) provides a classic example of a giant slice of crustal rocks that have been ‘thrust’ westward. The Sisters (right end of skyline) are a remnant of another displaced slab, but in this case the rocks came up from the Earth’s mantle, a relatively rare geologic phenomenon.
But we aren’t done yet. The imposing edifice of Mount Baker, a sleeping volcano visible between the two sheets of thrusted rock, is not directly related to the mountains it sits on. At about a 100,000 years (or less) old, it is geologically a very young feature, and is related to subduction that is still active off the coast.
Of course the whole story is orders of magnitude more detailed than I present here, where I have taken great liberties of simplification. My intent/attempt is mainly to point out how fascinating the local geology is, and just maybe spark a wee bit of curiosity.
A good read:
Vancouver, City on the Edge: by John Clague and Bob Turner