The small, the mighty, the Red-breasted Nuthatch!

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is one of our smallest birds here in B.C. at just about 4 or 5in in length. That puts them around the same size as kinglets. However small they are in stature, however, they certainly make up for it by their presence.

I think of them as miniature woodpeckers of a kind. And if you’ve ever heard a nuthatch drumming on a tree like I have, you’ll know they can be surprisingly noisy. The first time I noticed a Red-breasted Nuthatch after hearing it pecking a tree, I felt surprised that something so small could make so much noise!

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The Red-breasted Nuthatch climbing along a garry oak tree. Their plumage is distinct with their orange breast, slate-blue back and black-and-white crown.

Its not only their thrumming that draws attention to them; if their pale orange breast isn’t enough to catch your attention, their sound sure will! Their song is quite distinct. To me it sounds like a series of nasal beep beep beep‘s (though the Cornell Lab is trying to tell me it is “yank – well, to each their own) that sound like a miniature trumpet. Have a listen here. They also make a chittery noise that sounds like friendly chatter to me, but I wonder if that’s how they boss around the other birds in their mixed flocks. They often group with chickadees and kinglets; easily getting along as they each feed at different heights or areas.

They thrive in coniferous forests and live year-round in much of western and northern North America, including here on Vancouver Island, though some populations are migratory. At feeders, they often aggressively chase out other bigger birds to have the best choice of seeds for themselves. Perhaps they are trying to eliminate competition for the best food as they prefer to take the heaviest seeds available (Ghalambor et al., 1999). This might explain why I often see Red-breasted Nuthatches lingering at my feeder longer than other birds, who tend to fly back and forth a bit more.

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I watched this bird move deftly up and down this tree for a while, impressed by his climbing skills before he moved onto another nearby trunk to repeat the process.

I love watching their movements whether in flight or up and down branches or drumming on trees. Their movements and short body shape remind me of darts the way they quickly move around with high energy. It amazes me how they are capable of moving vertically up the trunks of trees.

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How do they move vertically up and down trees with such ease? Check out their feet – the backward toe you see gripping the feeder tree is what enables them to climb trees.

Like all nuthatches, they require cavities for nesting and will often excavate their own instead of using an abandoned woodpecker nest (Cornell). Even more fascinating is that they use sticks to apply resin around the outside of their nest holes (Ghalambor 1999). No one knows for sure what purpose it serves (theories include deterring predators or competitors), but it shows remarkable intelligence in a small creature that would surprise some people (Ghalambor, et al. 1999). Especially those who once arrogantly thought that tool-use was unique to humans. If you ask me, animals are a lot more intelligent than we are. Look at mixed flocks of birds co-existing peacefully together; a feat we humans have yet to truly achieve.

Their small-but-mighty attitude, energetic movements on trees, their beautiful colouring and their antics with other birds make the Red-breasted Nuthatch one of my favourite birds. Not only are they a joy to observe and listen to, but nuthatches, like everything in nature, can teach us a lot about our world and ourselves. If you’re feeling small and insignificant, remember the Red-breasted Nuthatch and how he makes himself heard! I always think of the nuthatch as being small, but mighty!

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Small, but mighty! At my feeder, other birds tend to clear out when the Red-breasted Nuthatch arrives.

References

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Ghalambor, C. K. and T. E. Martin (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

The little hummingbird that could

I went out for a walk a couple weeks ago and paused at the top of the hill to enjoy the view when I saw a hummingbird zipping up high into the air and back down again, landing in the top branches of a small tree. Male Anna’s Hummingbirds display a similar sort of behaviour when attracting a mate; they zip up high into the sky and emit a very loud ‘Squeak!’ before zooming down and around in a great swoop and hovering in the air momentarily, their wings flapping so furiously they are a blur. Then they display their fabulously bright gorget at females to entice them (see photo below).

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the bright pink iridescent gorget of the Anna’s Hummingbird – sometimes I like to think they’re showing it off just for me…

My hummer was showing this type of behaviour, and a couple of weeks ago in September, I watched two of them aggressively chasing one another around an apple tree. Its a bit early for mating behaviour (they mate as early as December), but I thought of another reason why they might be feeling extra-aggressive right now. Because, yes, small though they are, hummingbirds are aggressive, territorial birds. My theory? Here in Victoria, we have a good population of resident Anna’s Hummingbirds that stay here through the winter, but there are still some migratory birds among their number. I think our resident birds are defending their territories from the migratory population moving through.

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the fierce Anna’s Hummingbird looking a little ragged, but maybe its just the wind?

And it is not only other hummingbirds that Anna’s Hummingbirds will move to boost from their area. The first thing I noticed about this little hummingbird was that he looked a little bit ragged. The second thing I noticed was how he zipped around madly each time another bird dared to land in his tree. He brazenly chased away a Hermit Thrush out of his tree soon after the unfortunate thrush decided to try landing there. He squeaked and zoomed and soon the thrush flew off to find a tree with a less noisy neighbour.

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The Hermit Thrush who didn’t last long in the hummer’s tree

Not long after my hummer landed back on the top of his tree, presumably feeling quite satisfied and proud of his deeds, a Dark-eyed Junco dared to swoop in and pop a perch on the opposite side of the branches. It wasn’t long at all before the hummer chased him off, too, though he was a tad more stubborn than the thrush had been and eventually moved off to a nearby rock. Once more, my hummer was victorious, and he found a little bit of peace and quiet while no one else decided to invade his perfect tree. This just goes to show that the smallest birds can sometimes be the toughest, too.

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The Dark-eyed Junco who was not afraid of the hummingbird
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The Dark-eyed Junco, 0-1 after his defeat.
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Zipping back to resume his perch after playing defense
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The victorious, the proud, the Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

The Greater Yellowlegs, a splashing sandpiper on stilts

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The Greater Yellowlegs

I watched this beautiful bird at the beach the other day – a Greater Yellowlegs. He flew in from the south and landed right in front of me on the beach, apparently unperturbed by my presence. Usually, when I’ve seen these birds, they are somewhat skittish and wary of noises and people, typically flying away if approached. In fact, the Seattle Audubon states they are “often the first species to sound an alarm when a perceived threat approaches” and are more shy than other shorebirds.

I never want to disturb birds while watching or photographing them, so I was rather glad this was the perfect encounter. I was already sitting silently on a washed up log when he flew in, watching him as he at first stood in the shallow water, his yellow legs poking out of the surface. Then, he circled around, cheeping, and flapped his wings in the deeper water. He made quite the splash, literally! I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to, wondering if he was spooked or snagged on something. I watched to make sure he wasn’t caught on some piece of plastic litter or having other trouble, but he eventually settled down and preened his feathers for a while before flying off to the south.

 

I’ve been seeing quite a few of these birds recently as they stopover at rocky coasts and beaches on their way south for the winter. They are a type of sandpiper and can be difficult to differentiate from the Lesser Yellowlegs. Right now, they are making their way south from their breeding grounds in northern Canada where they breed in marshes. While they are not endangered and have a steady population (as far as we know), they are classified as Climate Threatened by Audubon due to predicted instability of their summer range in boreal Canada. However, their winter range is predicted to vastly expand, although I can’t help but wonder if they will displace other birds in doing so like Barred Owls?

Last week, I watched a few moving through the shallow water catching small crabs to eat. They move so gracefully and effortlessly through the water when I know there are lots of crags and rocks down there that I’d be slipping and sliding on.  I still remember the first time I saw one last year up north on the island; I was very excited to meet an interesting new shorebird!

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check out those yellow legs and feet underwater!
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Caught a crab!

Encounters like this are what I most love about bird-watching. Quiet moments shared between just you and the bird. I often feel a connection deeper and more raw than one I might share with another human being. I feel grateful to get to watch them, even for just a little while. I wonder what they get up to when we’re not around and how much farther he has to go on his southward journey and if he’s going to make it there and back again.

American Dipper singing at Nimpkish Lake

A few months ago I went on a trip to the North Island, Vancouver Island and spent a night camping at Nimpkish Lake. That evening, while walking along the lakeside, I spotted an American Dipper strutting its stuff on a fallen tree out in the water. American Dippers are song birds, and the only aquatic ones in North America. They typically live and hunt near fast-moving rivers with rocky bottoms in the western U.S. and Canada; this is the first one I’ve seen at a lake. Listen to this one’s song and have fun watching him in my video below:

 

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My first new bird of the new year: the prince of songbirds

I’ve had a ‘feather-ful’ new year so far; with time off work, its easier to get out and go for a walk see the birds. It was a gusty and cold but sunny day today and I was rewarded for my efforts with my first new bird of the year! And its only January 2nd! While I am not a big “lister” (in fact, my ebird account often collects dust…), I’m always excited to meet new birdies. Today’s star was the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and is, in fact, my first ever kinglet.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet – my first ever!

The little bird popped out at me among the foliage, his feathers bright olive-green in the direct light of the morning sun. He moved quickly, never made a sound and did not seem to mind my presence much, like many of the birds at the park. They must be accustomed to city life.

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Ruby-Crowned Kinglet: here you can really see the white eye ring.

The kinglet’s olive coloring reminded me of the Orange-Crowned Warbler so common here in the summer. And just like the warbler whose  orange crown is rarely seen, the kinglet’s ruby crown of his namesake is not always visible, either (Cornell).

Ruby-Crowned Kinglets look very similar to the Hutton’s Vireo and I was able to distinguish my kinglet by three things: the distinct white eye ring, bright yellow colouring on the wings and the black bar below the white wingbar. It also helps that the Hutton’s Vireo also has blue-grey legs which this bird clearly does not have.

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Ruby-Crowned Kinglet: notice the yellow on the wings and the orange legs as well as a black bar below the white whingbar.

These kinglets winter along a sliver of the Pacific west coast from southern BC down to Mexico and much of the southern U.S. Their breeding grounds are mostly in the boreal forests of the northern states and Canada where they can nest in the tops of old conifers (Cornell). I hope the new year brings you all kinds of birds, both new and old! Perhaps you will see a prince of songbirds, a kinglet!

The Bewick’s Wren in the bush

There’s a chatty little bird that chirps noisily as he hops around among the brush. He has a distinct, bright white eye stripe and a tail he holds aloft and flicks back and forth. His name is the Bewick’s Wren and he’s been a regular visitor over the last few months. Now I don’t know if he’s the same one or not, but I do think it could be; he is hopping along the same tree and the bushes every time I see him. I like to think its his established territory.

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The first time we met, he was climbing up the mossy limb of a tall tree frequented by chickadees and the occasional hummingbird. It was one of those autumn Victoria days with spots of sunshine peeping out between intermittent clouds. His quick stop and go movements caught my eye, as well as his noisy song. He would move along quickly, stop and tap the tree, hunting for insects for a bit before moving along again.

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He also hops along on the ground among the leaves and brush, hopping from cover to cover. I think he has a preferred little nook in between the low branches of a bush where he must stay warm and dry. I’ve seen him there a few times, and he always seems to hide there when other people walk by. Their footsteps crunching in the leaves and stones send him scurrying for cover. Looking at how tiny he is, fitting in his little alcove as small as a leaf, I wonder what it would be like to be that small. Would a blade of grass be like a tree and would a tree like a mountain?

 

Since I started birding, I remember seeing my first Bewick’s Wren in my backyard. This little wren was once found widespread across North America; today, their refuge is the west coast and parts of the southwest. They can be found in shrubby and bushy areas, such as parks and gardens, as well as open woodlands like the garry oak meadows found on eastern Vancouver Island (Seattle Audubon; Cornell). These little birds are a joy to watch and I am always extra excited to see them in my own backyard.

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I watch as he gracefully flits among the blades of grass, setting each one he lands on into a gentle sway.

Barred Owls in the evening woods

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Barred Owl

On a lovely summer evening last week, I went for a walk in a nearby park and had quite a pleasant surprise. Amid the heavy foliage, I saw a large bird swoop down from the trees across the path before me. I heard them before I saw them: a pair of Barred Owls.

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Barred Owl in the trees. With their striped brown and white plumage, they blended in well with the trees.

I have not seen owls since seriously starting birding, so I was quite excited! I last saw a Barred Owl about two years ago in my backyard. Now I wonder if they could have been the very same owl; they were typically have a small home range, staying within the same 10km radius (Cornell). They may be nesting in the area as I’ve seen them a few times since. I managed to keep quiet to avoid disturbing them, but I think my efforts were wasted as I am sure he knew I was there as he peered down at me.

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“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” is a common call of the Barred Owl

 

He looked around, seeming to be on alert. If he had ears, I imagine they’d have been twitching and moving around like a cat’s. The two of them swooped down from the trees a few times, and once flew right over my head from behind. I didn’t hear a thing and had no idea it was there! For a moment, I felt like a little mouse. They must have no idea what’s coming when an owl swoops down to prey on them. Like other owls, Barred Owls fly silently in the night using their keen eyesight and hearing to hunt small animals from mice and squirrels, to small birds, reptiles and amphibians (Cornell).

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The Barred Owl on alert at dusk, his head rotating in almost every direction.

The Barred Owl’s range spread to the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and ’70s where they now compete with the smaller Spotted Owl for habitat and resources. While Barred Owls are displacing many Spotted Owls in this region, the two species even occasionally inter-breed and hybridize (Seattle Audubon; Audubon).

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a silent hunter, the Barred Owl

Despite these challenges, both the Barred and Spotted Owl face habitat loss due to deforestation and the loss of old-growth trees. I hope the two will be able to co-exist peacefully someday.

Hunt of the Great Blue Heron

I took a walk to a nearby rocky beach on a sunny afternoon and spotted a Great Blue Heron along the rocky shoreline. While they have a loud, squawking call that has startled me in the past when a heron was hidden from view, this heron was silent and still. He was hunting. Or rather, fishing.

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Great Blue Heron, long legs beneath the water’s surface, hunting in the shallows

Standing still, towering over the calm surface of the water, the heron watches and waits. A silent hunter, he moves slowly and deliberately, with every step planned and taken with a ballerina-like grace. With impeccable eyesight, he scans the water below for any brief movement of fish and then strikes quickly. Their eyesight is so keen they can even hunt during the night if need be (Cornell).

I watched him repeat the process above a number of times, catching at least four or five of these what I believe are hagfish or an eel. After capturing a few small fish, he later managed a much larger one, though with it was a bit of a struggle as the fish kept winding itself around his beak. I recorded a video of the struggle and hunt you can watch at the end of this post. I wondered why he didn’t try piercing it with his beak or hitting it on the rocks. Perhaps he is a younger, less experienced heron.

In flight, Great Blue Herons are easily identified by their characteristic S-shape formed by their neck and their long, slow wing flaps as if they are never in a hurry to get anywhere. They are the largest wading bird in North America, standing at 1m tall (Species At Risk) but weigh only 2 to 2.5kg (SFU).

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I admit I see Great Blue Herons all the time around Vancouver Island, but they still fascinate me as much as the first time I saw one. They weren’t always so common, though. Like their top predators, the Bald Eagle, heron populations suffered from the effects of DDT (SFU) and they are still vulnerable to other pollutants in the marine environment. Although they have recovered somewhat, they remain a species of special concern on Canada’s Species At Risk List.

Another factor in their decline is that their young are particularly at risk to Bald Eagle predation (SFU). While they are usually solitary creatures, Great Blue Herons form large nesting colonies high up in trees, hopefully hidden well away from prying eyes and predators. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and sadly, often nest in areas near bustling human activity which leads to nest abandonment (Species At Risk). A good example is the Great Blue Heron colony in downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park which you can quietly watch from home live on webcam.

My video below shows my experience observing the heron hunting described at the beginning of my post.


References
The Great Blue Heron, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Great Blue Heron Species At Risk Profile
Simon Fraser University’s Heron Working Group

The Varied Thrush, elusive denizen of the Pacific Northwest

When I first spotted this bird, I had no idea they were considered under such threat and limited to a fairly small geographic range because they prefer old-growth coniferous forests. It turns out I later learned the Varied Thrush is on the Audubon Society’s List of Priority Birds primarily based on habitat loss and continuing threats. You may recognise some other familiar, more famous faces alongside the Varied Thrush on the list including the Bald Eagle, the Brown Pelican and the Whooping Crane.

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Varied Thrush

I spotted it very near the top of a tree in a forest garden. The orange belly caught my eye. At first glance, I thought it was an American Robin, but the shape was different to me. When I noticed the black breast-band and knew it was something else. At first glance, they look similar, but are actually quite distinct although they are part of the same family. The Varied Thrush has a beautiful slate-gray back with and orange breast, the black breast-band an an orange stripe above the eye.

This was my first Varied Thrush sighting, and I haven’t had one since. No wonder – it turns out they are quite shy birds. He stayed quite still up in the tree and when I slowly inched a bit closer to get a shot, he didn’t seem to mind. I spent some time just watching him sit up in the tree, like a sentinel of the Pacific Northwest forest.

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Varied Thrush

They can be found in the Pacific Northwest all year long, but will breed as far north as Alaska and winter all the way down to California. I didn’t hear it, but the Varied Thrush is famous for his eerie, buzzing song (have a listen here). Consider yourself lucky if you spot this beautiful bird yourself, or even if you hear its song while walking through the towering Douglas Fir!


Resources:
The Varied Thrush from the Audubon Society Guide to North American Birds
The Varied Thrush from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology