May 7, 2014 by Rokman61
April brings full-on spring: the woods turn green as leaves open, more flowers appear, and migrant songbirds are passing through. One of my favourite spring flowers is the elegant Trillium, not rare but scarce enough to make it a bit special.
The trillium is the floral emblem for Ontario, which is presented with much pride. Out West we cannot match the sheer abundance of the plant as seen on the other end, but we do have enough to remind the Easterners that they don’t have a monopoly. Our floral emblem, the Dogwood, has SIX white ‘petals’ (actually bracts) – more of everything in BC it seems.
Among the early-flowering shrubs are those that will produce the fruits that so many birds depend on later in the year. Among them the Oregon-grape, with its showy clusters of flowers and glossy holly-like leaves.
The Red Elderberry is another common native plant that produces a huge crop of berries of significant value to wildlife. It grows best as scattered tall shrubs in damp fields, and when it bursts into bloom it affords quite a show.
The fruits, which ripen in early summer, are equally showy.
The arrival of migrating songbirds such as the warblers are what gets the juices flowing for most birders. I get so focused on looking for the new arrivals that I don’t take the time to focus my camera on them, hence I have very few bird images this month.
It is so inspiring to think that these tiny sprites are in the midst of a journey that may span thousands of kilometres from their principal place of residence in the tropics. Most are here for only a few months of the year, to nest and rear young, then clear out before the snows return.
As the migrant birds pass through in anticipation of breeding, so too the locals become more active and conspicuous as they get involved with nesting activities. Even the commonest residents put on their best show.
Listen to him sing here:
While the wave of arriving migrants draw the most attention of nature watchers at this season, many of the winter residents have left or are about to leave for parts north. Most of the gull species we see here are included in this group. One example is this natty little Mew Gull, super abundant in winter and absent in summer. Distinguishing marks for this bird are the relatively small unmarked bill, and yellow legs.
Mew Gulls need three years to acquire full adult plumage like the one above. Here is an immature bird, ready to moult into a fresh set of feathers. The very pale appearance is due to wear and bleaching, giving it a ghostly look.
Gulls are so common that they usually don’t attract much interest, except from birders. They have a special place for me, because they provided one of my first experiences that ultimatley lead me down the path to bird-nerd-dom. Here is my story.
In 1968 I had the opportunity to spend the summer on Great Slave Lake, in the employ of the Geological Survey of Canada. The eastern part of GSL comprises a network of islands and channels. We were camped on one smallish island – literally a big rock surrounded by water. Since there was no soil to bury garbage, kitchen wastes were tossed into the water. It didn’t take long for the local gulls to figure that meals were being served. Each afternoon they would appear from who-knows-where and assemble on some smaller islets across from the camp. They paid no attention to us when we returned from the field but when cookie stepped out they immediately took flight and headed our way. (The following three images are digitized from Kodachrome transparencies shot in 1968). This all took place before I was a ‘birder’ or was even remotely aware that there was such a sport. Like most people, I just assumed a ‘seagull’ was a ‘seagull’ – all the same thing. But while watching the feeding frenzy it became apparent that there were indeed different kinds of seagulls – big ones and smaller ones. It so happened my party chief had a copy of the old Golden Nature Guide to North American Birds, and the government had seen fit to provide our party with a set of binoculars. I took possession of the bins and began to gawk and stare at the birds. Eventually I was able to determine three species: mostly Mew Gulls and California Gulls, and a few Herring Gulls. These were among the first birds I ever identified using a field guide, and so were sowed some seeds that eventually lead to a life-time (so far) obsession.
In the course of work we visited some really small rocky islands well out in the big lake, where gulls, terns, and jaegers nested. Encountering nestlings and getting harassed by the parents helped add fuel to the fire that was soon to consume me.
Change of pace: Just inside the entrance to the Reifel Migratory Bird Refuge there is a most unusual tree growing beside the path. It is a ‘cork oak’ (Quercus suber), the bark of which species provides all the natural cork used for wine bottles, flooring, and lots of other things. The exact origin of the Reifel tree is unknown; I was told that it can be identified on Refuge photos dated back to 1972, so must be over 50 years old. As far as is known, there are no other specimens of cork oak in the Lower Mainland, so it might be the only one growing in Canada. During the past winter a heavy load of snow caused the collapse of a large limb on the tree. In this photo the failed limb goes off to the left. Note the thick furrowed bark – the cork. Also note the leaves, which are not like any oak we normally see. This is a type of ‘live oak’, which are generally more southern in distribution, and they do not drop their leaves in winter. I was intrigued by the wood, so managed to scrounge a few small pieces to see what I could do with them. In my first attempt I drilled out the centre of a few short sections and came up with something that could be used as a pencil holder, or . . . ? The one at bottom right holds a tea-light candle. Next I tried a few wine-bottle stoppers. The wine-stoppers are clearly the most interesting – and argueably the most useful. The wood of the cork oak is like the wood of any other oak, characterized by having numerous prominent radial wood rays, as evident in the photos. The stoppers at each side in the image below are cut across the axis of the branch: the one at left has a cap of bark, while the one on the right is cut entirely in wood. By orienting the plugs parallel to the axis of the branch, both the bark and internal structure of the wood show up very nicely. To make these, the sections have to be treated with a stabilizing chemical to prevent large radial cracks from forming.
To see more wine-stoppers and how they are made, check out my other blog: