Tag Archives: Birding

Watching Coot-Looting Wigeons at Buttertubs Marsh

I sometimes wonder why I don’t get bored going to the same birding locations month after month, year after year.  A big part of it is that, on any given day, there is a chance that they will see something different or rare or perhaps even totally new.

This past Sunday, while on an organized outing with a bunch of local birders to Buttertubs Marsh Bird Sanctuary in Nanaimo, I got my “something-new” fix.  In this case is wasn’t a new species of bird — instead it was an inter-species interaction that I had never noticed before – that of an American Wigeon stealing food from an American Coot.

Scene 1: Following the Coot

Coot (Fulica americana) & American Wigeon (Anas americana)

The first of the two species, the American Wigeon (Anas americana), is a duck that is part of the genus Anas sometimes referred to as dabbling ducks.  These duck may feed on land or on the water where they can tip themselves upside down and gather underwater plants up to several inches below the surface.

The second of the two species, the American Coot (Fulica americana), is in the family Rallidae of rails and looks a little like a small black chicken.  These birds may feed on land, by dabbling in shallow water or by diving for plants.

I captured a short video of the food stealing behaviour (kleptoparasitism) with my Panasonic DMC FZ-200 camera.  I may have had too much fun and gotten a little carried away with the presentation.  You be the judge:

At one point there were at least 3 or 4 Wigeon-Coot pairs doing similar food-stealing dances.

On another occasion I watched as a Wigeon tried to manage two Coots at the same time and seemed to spend a lot of time in the middle trying to decide which way to go.  Not a good strategy for a low-intelligence bird it would seem.

Some further comments and other notes resulting from forays into online ‘research’:

  • A 1979 article suggested that the Wigeon is the only duck known to be a regular kleptoparasite (ref [3]).
  • A 1984 article documents Gadwalls stealing food from American Coots (ref [4]).
  • Other ‘dabbling ducks’ in the genus Anas include the Mallard, Wigeons, Teals, Shovelers, Pintails, the Black Duck, the Gadwall and a few others.
  • Wigeons apparently will try to steal food from other diving water birds, not just from coots.
  • Coots, in turn, have been known to steal food from other water birds.
  • Coots will also dive to escape predators (the Coot is one of the easiest birds for the Bald Eagle to catch).

References

A good source of information that I like to use is the Birds of North America online service from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The service is not free but for anyone curious about bird behaviour it’s worth the price in my opinion.  They have a one month subscription that costs $5 if you want to give it a try.

[1] BNA online article on the American Wigeon.

[2] BNA online article on the American Coot.

[3] H. Jane Brockmann & C. J. Barnard,  Kleptoparasitism in birds, Animal Behaviour Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK
Animal Behaviour (Impact Factor: 3.14). 05/1979; 27:487-514. DOI: 10.1016/0003-3472(79)90185-4

[4] Juan A. Amat & Ramón C. Soriguer, Kleptoparasitism of Coots by Gadwalls, Ornis Scandinavica 15: 188-194.  Copenhagen 1984.

Post Election Birding in Nanaimo

I made my first post-election birding trip yesterday.  A friend, who I’ll refer to by his initials LR, and I set our Nanaimo itinerary to take us on a loop including Neck Point, Pipers Lagoon, the Nanaimo River Estuary and Buttertub Marsh.

We should have known better as we only made it to Neck Point and Pipers Lagoon spending more than two hours at those two sites.  We did add the Linley Valley Drive Wetlands which is walking distance from our house.

As usual, I had both camera and binoculars at hand.  Birding was enjoyable and I did get a couple of nice pictures that I’ll share.

Neck Point

We arrived at Neck Point and had barely got out of the car when the buzzing (for an example play this recording of a Bewick’s Wren on Xeno-Canto) of a Bewick’s Wren was heard.  There was actually a pair flitting around near the parking lot and they were surprisingly unafraid bopping around in plain site.  Here is one checking me out:

Bewick's Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Bewick’s Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Note that I rely heavily on the auto-focus feature of my camera (Panasonic FZ-200).  When taking of pictures of fast moving birds, especially when they are in bushes the auto-focus does not always behave.  Here is an example:

Camera misfocus on Bewick's Wren.

Camera misfocus on Bewick’s Wren.

Apparently the camera liked the road-side pebbles better.

We saw a total of 14 species at Neck Point (eBird checklist)

Pipers Lagoon

Pipers lagoon was more productive producing a total of 23 species (eBird checklist).  The picture bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker,  was again located first by sound (here’s a recording of a Hairy Woodpecker on Xeno-Canto).  Here’s a picture that shows the long bill (compare with the shorter bill of its smaller look-alike cousin the Downy Woodpecker):

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

The final picture, while not of the highest quality because it was taken at full zoom, proved to be useful for the identification of a pair of gulls sitting on a small rock offshore.  The yellowish legs and plumage suggested a California or a Mew gull.  Studying the picture later suggested that it was a Mew Gull.  Check it out for yourself:

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Linley Valley Dr Wetlands

A two minute walk from my house is a small wetlands  surrounded by housing developments in various stages of completion.  We spent about a half hour walking the path that runs along one side of the pond and saw some interesting birds (5 new species for the day) including a Hooded Merganser pair, Ring-necked Ducks, a Fox Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Chickadees (surprisingly not seen at the other two locations) and a Pied-billed Grebe.  The site total was 12 species (eBird checklist)

 

Watching a Family of Palila on the Big Island

[Updated December 10 2014 based on feedback.  Additional links on the Palila have been added.]

A recent week-long vacation took us to the Hawaiian Islands (October 26 to November 1). Having previously been to the island of Kauai at the old end of the island chain, we decided to try the island of Hawaii at the other, newer end.  To prevent confusion with the state of Hawaii this is frequently referred to simply as the Big Island.  I had my Panasonic FZ-200 camera along to document the trip.

On the last full day, I signed up for a Rainforest and Dryforest Birding Adventure tour — a day-long outing put on by a tour group called Hawaii Forest and Trail.  They do many other tours too that are not just for birding.  The rest of our group, for instance, went on the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure trip which takes you up to the volcano’s summit to watch a sunset.

Our trip set out in search of 2 specific target birds.  In the dry forests on the side of Mauna Kea we would be looking for the Palila, a critically endangered species which lives in a single forested area on the volcano’s slopes.  This forested area is the source of the māmane plant which the Palila has adapted to be able to eat and which is toxic to other birds.

In the second part of our excursion, we would travel to some wetter forests where we hoped to find different endemic, the ʻAkiapōlāʻau.

While we were, unfortunately, unable to track down the ʻAkiapōlāʻau, we were extremely successful with the Palila and the rest of this article describes that encounter.

Mauna Kea and the Palila

First, a quick note and the Palila habitat on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is still considered to be an active, though dormant, volcano and even though it has not erupted in 4600 years there is still the slim possibility that a lava flow from a future eruption could wipe out this habitat leading to their extinction.  While this might make for a good story in Hollywood, the reality is that there are much more dangerous risks that could well see the Palila gone from these slopes long before they are touched by lava.  Forest fires, for instance could, in the right conditions, very quickly destroy the Palila habitat.  Other threats include introduced species of plants, animals, insects and disease.  The Hawaiian government’s Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project has lots of good information here.  Finally, according to BirdLife International, the endangered status of the Palila in recent years is also related to rapid population declines as a result of drought that has affected its primary source of food, the māmane plant.

The Palila Plan

The plan was simple.  We parked in an area accessed by a hunter access road on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea.  The trip organizers allowed for up to 4 hours climbing the slopes to find and view the Palila after which time, win or lose, we would head for the second location.

Here is a picture taken near our parking spot and at the lower edge of the area expected to contain the Palila.  Note the sparse trees on fairly open grassland.Mauna Kea slope forest home of the Palila

Here is a second shot taken as we climbed a little further up the Mauna Kea slope.Mauna Kea slope Forest Home to the Palila

Found:  A Family of Palila

According to the guide, on one recent trip they spent most of the allocated time hunting for the Palila and only found them as they were about to quit and move on.  We got lucky and found one after about 15 minutes with another pair showing up shortly thereafter.  In fact it appears that we had found a family unit with male, female and juvenile foraging together.  The juvenile showed typical begging behaviour with fluttering wings and an adult was doing the foraging and feeding of the juvenile though regurgitation as described, for instance, in a Palila wikipedia article.  This article says that both adults will regurgitate to feed the young in our case the male was feeding while the female stood guard, presumably looking for predators.  If the wikipedia article is correct then perhaps they take turns feeding and guarding or perhaps the guarding behaviour only happens occasionally, for instance when a large number of two-legged, orange-vested homo sapiens are also foraging in the area.

If we only consider predators seen historically before the arrival of man on the islands the most likely candidates would probably have been the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (ʻIo).  It is not clear what threat we birders posed to the Palila though it was clearly not enough to drive them away.  Whether or not the female would have stood guard where and when she did if we had not be there is unclear.

As mentioned earlier, introduced predators are currently one of the Palila’s biggest threats.  These include feral cats and black rats (see for instance this article on the Palila from BirdLife International (birdlife.org).  Mosquitos transmitting avian malaria have also proved very dangerous to the endemic populations of birds.  They are also threatened by habitat degradation especially if it affects the growth and spreading of their primary food sources, the peas from the seed pods of the māmane plant and certain types of caterpillar.  Introduced mammals such as sheep and pigs are particularly bad for disturbing the forest plants.  Through hunting and fencing the threat of these has been reduced.

First Sighting: An adult male processing a māmane pod.

Our first sighting of a Palila was that of an adult male who was processing a māmane pod in the middle of a bush that provided the bird with some protection.  The following 7 pictures, shown in the order that they were taken, cover a period of about 9 seconds.  All of these pictures were cropped from the original size of 4000 x 3000 down to about 1200 x 800.  The displayed images below are shown at a resolution of 640 x 400 though the full-sized cropped images can be viewed clicking on the image and following the link back to Flickr.

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Video of the Male Foraging

The following is a short video that was taken starting 10 seconds after the last picture (above) was taken.  You can hear the group leader describing the bird to some of the birders that were just then discovering it for the first time.  Initially you can see the Palila alternating between working on the māmane pod and raising it’s head up to check its surroundings.

You can also hear the Palila in between the periods where it is working on the māmane pod and also after it appears to be done having released the māmane pod.  Perhaps these calls were communications to the other family members that would be showing up in the seconds that followed the video.  There may even have been a specific message to the juvenile that he (the adult male) was full and that it was time to eat.  This might also explain why he dropped the pod.  It’s not clear why they moved to a different location for the feeding.  Perhaps it was because of our presence or perhaps because it is generally safer to keep moving.

Unfortunately there is a half minute gap between this series of pictures and the next series with adult feeding juvenile.  The only thing that I recall from this period is that the juvenile and adult female arrived to join the adult male and then the female left again.

Second Sighting:  A juvenile begging and being fed by the adult male.

The second set of 7 images were taken over a period of 13 seconds starting 63 seconds after the last picture in the first set or about 38 seconds after the end of the short video.  As mentioned, in these 38 missing seconds the male moved to a different perch and a juvenile and an adult female flew in to join the adult male.  Only the juvenile stayed to be fed by the adult male while the female flew off to, it appears, stand guard (see the third sighting section below).

The sequence between the adult male and the juvenile clearly shows the begging behaviour as well as the regurgitation and transfer of food from adult to juvenile.

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The final image was taken 5 seconds after the previous one and shows the juvenile left alone and somewhat hidden in the foliage while the adult male had moved on, perhaps to start a new cycle of processing māmane pods prior to the next feeding cycle at which point he would call the juvenile to join him there.

Third Sighting: An adult female on guard duty.

The third set of 5 pictures were taken over a period of 24 seconds starting 18 seconds after the last image in the second set.

The adult female Palila, which made a brief appearance off camera took up a position 100 feet or so from where the other two birds were positioned.  Her perch at the top of a bare branch gave her good visibility. She chose a bush that kept all of the birders, which had broken into several groups by this time, on one side of her, perhaps in order to be able to see all of them at once without continually having to look in opposite directions.  As the photos show, she still does look away from time to time, perhaps scanning for other possible threats.  As mentioned previously, the two historic threats where probably the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (‘Io).  At this point in our trip we had already seen 5 of these owls hunting (one near where we found the Palila) and we had one unconfirmed hawk sighting.

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I was impressed by the fact that both adult Palilas were caring for what was clearly a juvenile bird.  The splitting of the task of feeing the young was split into roles of foraging and standing guard.  It would have been nice to know if they switched roles from time to time.  Many species, particularly migratory ones, leave their young to fend for themselves at a much younger age or only one of the adults take responsibility for the young.

 Final Thoughts

I acquired my Panasonic FZ-200 camera to help with bird identification but on several occasions it has proven useful in seeing behaviours that I would never have noticed using just binoculars.  The ability to capture large numbers of pictures and even videos with sound provides the opportunity to analyze different aspects of bird sightings that happen too quickly in the field.

It would seem that my camera is rapidly replacing my binoculars as my primary birding equipment.  Here are some things that I might change in the future that might lead to better results:

  • Take more pictures and make more use of burst mode.  You can always delete them later.
  • Take more video clips.  Images can be extracted from these videos though not with the same resolution.  Video also records sound which can be useful in understanding bird behaviour.
  • Bring a tripod.  A remote control cable might be useful as well for the still shots.
  • Make sure that the memory card is fast and has lots of space.  Bringing extra fast cards will encourage taking lots of pictures and videos.
  • Add a directional microphone that plugs into the audio in jack on the camera.
  • Get more people involved.  It would be interesting to see if better behaviour could be captured with a coordinated group of birders taking pictures and videos together.  The camera clocks would obviously need to be either calibrated or synchronized to help determine the order of various events.

It was a fun way to get introduced to a new bird and, while it took a lot of time post-processing, it was definitely more satisfying than a brief sighting and a simple pencil mark on a checklist.

For More on the Palila Check Out the Following Links

The Palila article on Wikipedia.

The Palila Status at BirdLife International (birdlife.org).

The Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project website from the Hawaiian state government has much more detailed and accurate information on current status and threats to the Palila.

The Facebook page for “A Paradise Lost”, an animated movie about the Palila directed by Laurie Sumiye.

Roger Tory Peterson

Yesterday, August 28, was the 105-th anniversary of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson one of the most influential naturalists of the 20-th century.  Born in 1908 in Jamestown New York, his first book, Field Guide to the Birds was published in 1934 when he was only 26, and helped make bird identification accessible to the general public.

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) was founded in Jamestown to continue his work.  Their website has a excellent short biography of RTP which highlights his accomplishments and shows just how important his work was to the environmental movement of the 20-th century.

Links

Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI): Biography of Roger Tory Peterson.

BirdNote: Happy Birthday, Roger Tory Peterson.

Birding Song Parodies by Young Birders

A couple of mornings ago, I came across the following ABA blog post by ABA president Jeff Gordon: Ladies and Gentlemen, LIVE from Camp Avocet…Pish & Twitch!!!. For anyone who likes birding and musical parodies it’s worth a listen (I missed breakfast and was almost late for a dentist appointment trying to make it through the YouTube links).

In a nutshell: Camp Avocet is an ABA run summer camp for young birders and Pish & Twitch is a musical duo newly formed by two of the campers Caleb and Brendan. Following a long tradition in song parody, they took well-known tunes and replaced the lyrics to poke fun at, in this case, birding and birders. Five songs were recorded and can be found on YouTube, through the links in Jeff’s article.

The first three songs (in posted order) used contemporary tunes the only one of which I recognized was their second song “Moves Like Jaeger” which was obviously a parody of the Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera hit “Moves Like Jagger”. The other two tunes were lifers for me once I made identifications with the help of my phone’s SoundHound app.  The first song “Chase Me Maybe” about going after rare bird sightings, covered “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Japsen and the third tune, about night-time bird call identification, “Flight Calls”, used the melody (if you can call it that) from “Thrift Shop” by “Party DJ Rockerz”.

The final two songs were based on well known hits from my own youth. The first of these was “Migrants Go By” sung to the Don Mclean hit “American Pie”. Impressively, they covered the 8-plus-minute long version and not one of the shorter radio-friendly variants. And finally, the song, “Bill Stewart”, clearly aimed at all of the camp leaders, was sung to the Billy Joel hit “Piano Man”.

It wasn’t what you might call a ‘tight’ performance as they had obviously bitten off more than they had time to practice for but that did not seem to detract from the energy in the room.  Besides, the hard part of a parody is crafting the lyrics and there they did some excellent work.

If you are a part or or even just familiar with birding culture then you will probably enjoy listening to Pish and Twitch.

Going Out “Loaded for Bird”

A couple of days ago, I had a morning errand to run that was a short walk from our house. I put on my walking shoes and chose a path that would lead me through a section of nearby parkland that is one of my favourite local places to see a bit of nature.  This time of year that can include bears and coyotes as well as various types of birds.

I had barely gone a few steps into the wooded area when I heard a strange call. It sounded like a Robin but with a twist that I had not heard before. I spent a couple of minutes listening and moving around to triangulate the sound before I finally found its source.

A juvenile Robin, still with fully spotted breast, was hidden in plain sight in the leaf litter a scant 8 or 10 feet away.  The young bird seemed confident in its invisibility and was chirping away despite my presence.  With my camera and recording equipment, I would have been able to take some good close-up pictures and one or two good clear bird-call recordings.

On my way home, I returned past the same location with the hope that the bird might still be around. I thought that I heard the same call further into the thick undergrowth however there was no chance of seeing the bird this time.  To make matters worse, the previous quiet was now broken by the sounds of garbage truck, skill-saw, a small plane overhead and someone practicing the flute.

If you were looking for a moral to this story you might come up with:  When nature offers up an opportunity for a good nature sighting, you had better be loaded for bear with all your technology by your side and ready to go.  Mother Nature does not, after all, pass out many mulligans.

In my case, this would entail me packing my Canon binoculars, a Panasonic FZ200 camera and a digital voice recorder with a small shot-gun microphone.  Unfortunately, my frustration at having left my gear at home led me to forget that I had my iPhone in my pocket which, in the current circumstances, would have taken an acceptable sound recording and, despite its lack of zoom, an acceptable picture of the young Robin.  Abusing the previous metaphor:  I may not have been loaded for bear, but I was certainly loaded for squirrel.

In many situations, however, the iPhone won’t cut it.  The question then is what to have in the emergency birding kit?  What do you throw in the glove-box or a knapsack or even a large pocket for those non-birding excursions, just in case?

Once upon a time the answer was easy:  Binoculars.  Cameras required film which cost real money and seeing the results could take several days unless you developed your own film.  As digital technology improves and more people are collecting pictures and sound-recordings, there are other possibilities.  My current kit consists of my FZ200 camera, one of the current generation of super-zoom or bridge cameras, and that’s pretty much it.  They are lighter than my binoculars, about the same size and, with their 24x optical zoom, a reasonable substitute as well.  The image stabilization is reasonably good so that a tripod is usually not required.  Mind you,  I frequently bring my sound recorder and microphone as well because of their small size.

I’ll get over the missed opportunity with the Robin.  However, the next time I’m running out the door, I will consider more carefully whether or not to bring my emergency gear – just in case.  If anyone asks why I’m carrying it, I’ll just tell them that I’m loaded for bird.

UBC Botanical Garden

Sunday, July 28, 2013

JC had a Groupon for the Canopy Walk at the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research that was about to expire.  So, without the dogs in tow, we hopped in the Jetta and headed west.  If we arrived early (they open at 10:00) we figured that we could get in and do the canopy walk before any crowds arrived and lineups formed.

We followed the route provided by our iPad and iPhone devices which got us to the UBC campus without any problems.  There was a triathlon being run that day resulting in road closures including the one indicated on the map.  After a little angst and a quick check of the Garden’s website we found the parking lot and geared up.

The first thing that we noticed was a group of Bald Eagles, 1 or 2  adults and at least 4 immature birds, flying around, chasing each other and doing acrobatics.  I assume that it was part of the learning process for the younger birds.
Eagles at PlayEagles at PlayWe watched them for a while, while I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get some pictures of the fast flying birds.

After perhaps 10 minutes, we paid our entry fee and headed into the Garden.
Garden Path to the Forest CanopyBench and PondOur first destination would be the Canopy Walk which was towards the southeast end of the Gardens.
Along the way there was lots of interesting plants to look at.

The Eagle Tree

Eagle TreeEagle Tree Information
We also passed the Eagle Tree, a 600 year old tree that the bald eagles liked to perch in.  It was occupied most of the time that we were there but only by adult birds.  Perhaps it should have been call the ‘boss eagle’ tree.

The Canopy Walk

The full name is the Greenheart Canopy Walkway and it provides the opportunity to see close up a west coast forest canopy ecosystem.
Canopy WalkCanopy WalkCanopy WalkCanopy Walk
While it claims to be the only one of its kind in Canada, there is a another canopy walk that we have tried at Whistler.  The Whistler canopy walk is more extensive and higher off the ground but it is more expensive and only available as a tour, since it requires a short bus ride to the start.

The Garden’s tree walk can be self-guided or part of an hourly tour.  We chose to go with the self-guided tour.

A Glacial Erratic

Glacial ErraticGlacial Erratic

At the exit from the canopy walk is a large rock that was picked up and dropped off by the glaciers 18,000 years earlier.

Flowers and Bees and Butterflies

Yellow Flower with BeeWhite Butterfly

We headed back to explore parts of the Garden that we had whizzed by on our way to the tree-walk. Seeing some bright flowers, bees and butterflies I decided to try out ‘macro’ mode on my camera with some nice results.

Through the Tunnel to the Other Side

Tunnel to the Other SideGarden MarshSparrowFurtive Spotted Towhee in Flowering BushBird BathSucculent Flower Beds

We discovered a whole lot more garden on the other side of the road accessible through a tunnel. There were in fact several different garden themes. The first area we went through was a marshy area full of cattails that was part of the Carolinian Forest area.

Across the Great Lawn was the Alpine Garden where I got some good pictures of a sparrow and a Spotted Towhee hiding in a flowering bush (one of my favourite birds to photograph). It may have been the large stainless steel bird-bath that was attracting them to this part of the Garden.

B.C. Native Garden

Garden WetlandDuck and DucklingThe B.C. Native Garden had several sub-areas including a small wetland with a dabbling duck and duckling pair.

Food Garden

The Food Garden is a living demonstration of varieties and techniques for home gardening.  More than 100 varieties of carefully trained fruit trees line the outer paths. Fruits and vegetables harvested by the Friends of the Garden are donated to local charities.

Part of Vegetable Garden
Gourd or PumpkinMiniature ApplesKiwi Plants with Fruit

Wildflowers and the Physics Garden

Enclosed by a traditional yew hedge, the design of this small garden is based on a 16th century Dutch engraving. The 12 concentric beds encircling a sundial showcase traditional medicinal plants from medieval Europe.

Physics GardenSundial in Physics GardenWildflowersWildflowersThistle FlowersThistle FlowersAround the Garden Pavilion and the Physics Garden were lots of colourful flowers including giant thistles and lots of wildflowers.

The physics garden was our last stop after which we headed back to the parking lot, hopped in the Jetta and headed home.
A day that started as an effort to get some value out of a coupon before it expired had turned into a very enjoyable visit the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research.

We saw a few interesting birds as well resulting in a few good pictures.

We will definitely consider the Garden as a place to bring visitors when they come to visit us.