Tag: birding (page 1 of 4)

Almost extinct, meeting Canada’s rarest owl!

To see some footage of the northern spotted owl and an interview with Jasmin from the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, have a look at the video above!

Ok so I’ll start this blog by admitting that I am an owl addict, I cannot get enough; from watching barn owls in the fields of the Cowichan Valley (and in the UK at Cossington Meadows), spotting barred owls in the centre of town, ringing/banding tiny migrating saw whet owls, audio surveying for western screech owls, or seeing an all time favourite the snowy owl on logs in Boundary Bay, I seriously cannot get enough! But there is one owl I never thought I would come face to face with, the illusive and critically endangered northern spotted owl. So when I was given the opportunity through work to visit the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program in Vancouver, I jumped on the earliest ferry and headed for the mainland.

The northern spotted owl is an ancient temperate rainforest species, found on the west coast of North America, they are a highly specialised species, only found in forests that are around 150-200 years old or older. The northern spotted owl population has been decimated in recent years in BC, as much of our ancient rainforest has been lost to deforestation. Now only small pockets of ancient forest survives, and much of it is isolated and fragmented. This loss of forest has caused the wild northern spotted owl population to decline to just ten, this makes it the rarest owl in Canada and one of the most endangered species in the country.

Another issue impacting the northern spotted owl is the invasion of the barred owl, traditionally an eastern species, barred owls have made their way across the country and are now BC’s most commonly seen species. The barred owl is slightly bigger than the spotted owl and they are a generalist species, that is able to out compete the spotted owls, this has caused spotted owls to be pushed out of suitable habitat and whilst it may not be the main driver in their population decline, it certainly is not helping.

The day started with one of the strangest wildlife encounters I have ever had, on arrival to the breeding program we opened the boot of my colleague’s car and discovered a bat sitting on the lid of the boot. After getting over the initial surprise we scooped the bat into a paper bag and took it to a wildlife rehabilitation centre, we suspect it was looking for a roost somewhere and crawled into the car looking for somewhere warm. I had seen this firsthand with mice, but never with bats! The bat was fine and they will find it a much better place to roost!

Anyway back at the breeding program we met with the lovely employees who work with the northern spotted owls at their facility. They gave us a fantastic tour, showing us the work they are doing to breed and eventually release northern spotted owls back into the ancient forests of BC. The program currently has 20 owls, the initial work has been to learn how to effectively breed the owls. Northern spotted owls are not simple breeders, they are a long living species that does not start reproduction for many years, their eggs take 88 hours to hatch (most birds take half that) and are very susceptible to infection. The next stage of the program is to start reintroductions, with the overall goal to reach a population of 200 wild northern spotted owls in BC.

The highlight of the tour was of course seeing the owls themselves. We walked through the absolute pouring rain to the aviary to see a 23 year old male. The large aviaries are full of branches with many places for a spotted owl to hide, but this owl was pretty simple, he was sat at the back under some shelter, which was a very sensible decision! It was incredible to come face to face with a spotted owl, what was so striking was their markings, not only were the spots very clear, but their darker browns and patterned feathers fit so perfectly with the darker and often gloomy BC forest. It was fascinating to compare them with the owls we mostly see in the forest, the barred owl, their lighter colouring often sticks out in the forest, and this is because they are an eastern species and are more adapted to lighter deciduous forests found there. It was a unique opportunity to directly compare a native and non-native species, and see how the native species truly fits within the ecosystem.

The Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is doing incredible work to try and save such a stunning species that belongs in the ancient forests of British Columbia. It was such a privilege to get to see such an endangered bird, and to learn about the conservation techniques that are being implemented to ensure that they do not become extinct. I wanted to say a huge thanks to the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program for the work they do and for letting us tour their facility. Without groups of people like them, northern spotted owls would already be extinct in Canada, but hopefully with their hard work we will one day see a sustainable population back in our ancient forests.

To learn more about the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, follow them on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/nsobreedingp…

Migration madness!

It is that time of year again, the end of summer is migration season, and here on Vancouver Island, thousands upon thousands of birds are making their way south along the Pacific flyway. Rocky Point Bird Observatory is located on the tip of southern Vancouver Island, everyday a dedicated group of banders and volunteers band/ring birds on their migration in order to monitor their populations, track migrations and gain a better understanding of the health and life cycle of a number of species.

The past few weeks I have been helping out with their banding and have been lucky enough to see some incredible birds. The bird observatory bands in two locations, one is located in a marina and is a mixture of forest and shrubs, and the other is on a secluded military base, this area is more wild, with forest, open grassland areas and beaches. The view from the banding station is incredible, and species such as orcas, wolves and bears can be spotted. Last week whilst checking one of the nets near the water, we heard the loud unmistakable sound of a whale breathing, a humpback whale was fishing close to shore, and we watched as the whale swam away surfacing just once more in the distance!

The day was a busy one for birds, as we caught and banded a steady number, at that time it was mostly warblers and sparrows that were starting to come into the nets. We mostly banded the beautiful savannah sparrow, these sparrows have neat brown bars down their back, with a black and white speckled front, and a striking yellow smudge on the top of their eye, which looks like they have some eye shadow on! Other highlights included yellow warblers and the brightly coloured Wilson’s warbler. Along with the songbirds, raptors migrate in large numbers, and Rocky Point is a particularly good place to see them. Hundreds of turkey vultures soar overhead, Cooper’s, sharp shinned, red tailed and Swainson’s hawks can be seen within the flock of vultures. Having seen a lot of raptors that day, we managed to get two in the net, both sharp shinned hawks (pictured), one male and one female. The female is noticeably larger, but the species is still small. Up close you can really see how perfectly they are adapted to predate on birds, built for soaring and speed, with large yellow eyes and long sharp talons. They are very light and agile, you have to hold them by their feet in order to avoid getting sliced open by their talons. As I was packing up to leave I heard a shout from across the field, ‘CRANES’ , having never seen cranes, but always wanting to, I grabbed my binoculars and ran, watching two elegant sandhill cranes fly right over my head, you could hear them calling to each other. Humpbacks, hawks and cranes, I could not believe my luck!

This week out at the marina site, Pedder Bay, we saw the scale of migration that is currently taking place. On average, I have found that banding around 50-60 birds is a good and busy day. However on Wednesday, we banded 198 new birds, a record for the site. The day was hectic to say the least, as more and more birds kept entering the nets. Sparrows were the most common by a mile. Often when banding through migration you see birds come in waves, one week one species or type of bird dominates, then the following week another, and that day was definitely a sparrow day. We had a few of the tiny ruby crowned kinglets in the nets, the kinglets (similar to goldcrests, for UK readers), will soon we travelling through in large numbers. Despite banding 198 new birds, we hardly scratched the surface, walking through the area it was clear that there were hundreds of birds, sparrows were flying out of the grass from all directions, we are still relatively early into the migration season, so it is pretty remarkable to have banded such a high number of birds! The migration of birds is happening right across the northern hemisphere, above our heads millions of birds are making long and treacherous journeys south, if you get the chance to get out and see them I would definitely recommend it. A lot of the birds we are seeing on Vancouver Island, have travelled from northern Canada, and are on their way as far south as Costa Rica!

Looking for a VERY STRANGE seabird

Last week I went to the coast of Vancouver Island, looking for a secretive and strange seabird, the Marbled Murrelet! They held a secret for many years, but what is it?

Marbled Murrelets are moving from their summer grounds out to sea for the winters. These plucky birds are able to survive a harsh winter out in the Pacific Ocean.

Searching for the largest woodpecker in North America

This week I went out with my camera looking for the largest woodpecker in North America, the pileated woodpecker. This beautiful woodpecker can be seen right across Canada, and is common on Vancouver Island, they are however, a little tricky to see when in thick forest. If you want to know what I found in the forest, then have a look at the video, and learn a little more about these amazing birds!

Beautiful bee-eaters found in East Midlands quarry

European Bee-eater merops apiaster near Tiskanias River estuary Lesvos 11/05/10

European Bee-eater (picture not taken in Nottinghamshire).

This past week I have had some major bird envy, as just 10 minutes from my hometown in the UK, a small flock of European bee-eaters have been spotted. European bee-eaters are possibly one of the most beautiful birds you could hope to see. Found across mainland Europe and parts of Africa, they are not birds you often think of spotting in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, most excitingly the bee-eaters are showing signs that they could breed on the site. Bee-eaters live up to their name by feeding on bees and other invertebrates such as butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

There have been lots of people visiting the site to see the bee-eaters and I am so happy to see the coverage of them and of wildlife in the area. I may be a little biased, but I think the East Midlands has some of the best wildlife in the UK and can often be a little overlooked, I hope our newest arrivals stick around for the foreseeable future (at least until I am home next so I can see them!).

Swallows by the sea

By JJ Cadiz, Cajay – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4256704

In my opinion there are few birds more magical than swallows. For myself (and many others), swallows are the sign of a changing season, a light at the end of the tunnel from the grey and dark winters. They stay in BC throughout the Spring and Summer and do not just blend into the background, they are a noisy, sometimes chaotic species and truly are a joy to watch.

The four main swallow species I see are barn, tree, northern rough-winged and violet-green swallow. The latter are less common, and I hardly see them in the city. Northern rough-winged are brown with a light front, and I have seen them nesting in small holes in a quarry. The violet-green, as the name suggests, are the most striking and can mostly be seen around wetlands and marshes.

In the city tree swallows are a lovely species, with deep-blue iridescent backs, it is not uncommon to suddenly find yourself surrounded by a large flock, picking off insects around trees.

However the swallow that dominates my coastal neighbourhood is the barn swallow.  I am lucky enough to see the swallows every day on my walks along the coast and beach. For a bird that spends half the year in the tropics, they are very much at home on the Canadian coast. Like little acrobats in the sky I watch them twist and turn in the meadows, manouvering between trees and skimming the grass in search of insects. I watch in awe as they are skim from one end of the meadows to the other, before dropping over the cliffs and down onto the beach. They keep low to the ground, dodging waves, in order to feed on the small insects found on the seaweed and sand. It is really easy to feel a connection to the swallows, they follow people as they walk along, gobbling up each insect that is disturbed by their steps. At the moment it is the adults who expertly dodge your legs and feet, but soon the young will be out of the nest, and learning to fly,  this leads to a few hairy moments where a collision between swallow and shoe seems inevitable. Swallow numbers are continuing to decline in our area, the cause is poorly understood. Despite it just been June, I am really making the most of seeing them before they head off again in a few months on their amazing journey south.

Beautiful barred owls

What a glorious weekend it has been, finally the sun is shining on Vancouver Island, and more excitingly I had an unexpected encounter with some beautiful barred owls. When it comes to owls my record of seeing them compared to other birdwatchers is poor at best. Quite a few times I have been tipped off on the best places to see owls, only to find empty branches and owl shaped shadows in the forest. This weekend however, was different, I was walking through a small patch of woodland, that is well known for barred owl sightings. The barred owl is a widespread, fairly common species of owl found right across the island. They are adaptable and seem very comfortable with life in our towns and cities.

I sensed my luck was in almost from the minute I entered the woods, I could hear some commotion further up the path, it sounded as though 3 or 4 hummingbirds were very upset about something in one of the trees. A good tip for finding owls and other raptors is to see how smaller birds are behaving in an area, when a raptor is present, it is very common to see a number of small birds mobbing it. As I walked down the path I could hear the hummingbirds very clearly, and after reaching the tree I was met with the unmistakable stare of an owl. A beautiful male barred owl sat on the branch, clear as day, undeterred by the hummingbirds, who were taking it in turns to dive towards it. This owl lives in an urban park, and was not fazed as people walked and cycled past.

Another tip for watching wildlife is to not only watch the wildlife but also the people around you. I saw a woman looking up the tree behind me and it turned out that she was looking at a baby barred owl. We swapped what we were looking at (she had not yet spotted the male). High in the tree sat a little fluffy blob, with their head down, trying to get a little bit of rest. I have never seen a young owl before and I enjoyed watching it scratching, yawning and generally just sitting around. Now I know where the owls can be found, I will definitely be going back to visit this family of owls that are very much at home in the middle of town!

Waxwing winter and a good year for robins, here are the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch

Waxwing

Waxwing

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has released the results of the UK’s Big Garden Birdwatch a long running citizen science project, where those taking part record and log what birds visit their garden for an hour on a particular date, it has become increasingly popular, and this year saw nearly 500,000 people take part, logging 8 million birds.

The results of the study has shown that 2017 was a waxwing winter, they flocked to the UK from northern Europe in search of food. Waxwings can often be seen in winter in the UK, but every seven to eight years, they come in higher numbers because of a shortage of food in Scandinavia. These sleek and beautiful birds, are a dusky pink colour, with a black stripe over their eye. They really are a joy to see and I am sure many people will have been very pleased to have them visiting the garden in search of berries. A little birdwatching tip, car parks with berries are often the best places to see them!

Other species that have done well, include goldfinches, which are up 44% since 2007, I am sure this is a noticeable difference for those who have watched the birds in their garden for many years. Once a less common sight, goldfinches are seemingly all over the place, again they are beautiful birds, with a yellow (gold) wing stripe and a red face. Robins have also seen a jump, the number of robins seen visiting gardens is now at a 20 year high. Starlings are up 10% on last year, a small rise given their dramatic decline, and red listed status, but an increase is still good news.

Goldfinch

Goldfinches

This year was not so good for some of our tits (stop giggling). Blue tits, great tits and coal tits were seen less frequently than last year. This is believed to be because of the weather, prolonged rain meant that caterpillar numbers were low and this had an impact on them feeding their young. Less food means fewer surviving young and thus a reduction from last year. However hopefully they will bounce back this year.

We are still seeing long term declines of our finch species, chaffinches are down 57% from 1979 and greenfinches are down 59%. It is so important that we all continue to make an effort and ensure our gardens are great places for birds.

Greenfinch

Greenfinch

To make your garden more attractive to birds follow this link to the RSPB, they have some very handy tips on how to get birds into your garden!

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/

Seeing the sky dancer

I was hoping to spot some of the last trumpeter swans, before they make their long journey north. I went to the quiet, flat farmland in Saanich, the perfect spot for wintering swans. After driving a back road through multiple potholes, I arrived at a marsh that reportedly had over 200 swans on it just a few days before. A few pintail and shoveler ducks sat in the waterlogged field, and red winged blackbirds sang on the tops of the reeds, but no swans. I sat and waited for a little while, scanning the far fields with my binoculars, hoping to see the unmistakable white mass of one of North America’s heaviest birds.

By this point the ducks and the red winged blackbirds had fallen silent, I looked across the reed and locked eyes with one of the most beautiful raptors, the northern harrier. The harrier has a distinctive shape, large broad wings, and a long thin tail, this harrier, a brown female, floated elegantly across the reeds looking for prey. I watched in awe at her beautiful, effortless and quiet flight as she went back and forth across the reeds to the field verges and back again, meticulously listening and looking for prey below.

In the UK they are called hen harriers, and are an increasingly rare sight, in this part of Canada however, they are doing ok, they are affected by urban development and intensive farming, but they are not considered as a species of conservation concern. They are often referred to as sky dancers, because of their acrobatic mating display, however, watching them hunt, it is easy to see why they were given that name. They are effortless and graceful in the air, a far cry from the bulky swans I was hoping to see! I was transfixed by this special bird, they really are a joy to watch.

Study finds that yellowhammer songs which have disappeared in the UK still exist in New Zealand

The yellowhammer is a small, bright yellow farmland bird, found throughout the UK (and Europe). A beautiful little bird, and one I have been lucky enough to see quite regularly in the Midlands, they tend to perch on bracken, hedgerows or small shrubs and sing. The famous expression for the yellowhammer song is ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, with a number of additional notes either side; each male has its own distinct notes and many regional dialects have formed throughout the country.

However, due to a population decline, that now sees the yellowhammer red listed, a number of the regional dialects have disappeared. But this week, a new study showed that the lost birdsongs of some yellowhammers are still alive and well, not in the UK, but on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. In the 1860s and 70s, 600 yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand, and a population still exists today. A group of scientists began comparing recorded calls from the UK and New Zealand, and to their surprise they found that the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as the birds in the UK. The lead author described the findings in The Guardian as the “avian equivalent of what happens with human languages. For example, some English words, which are no longer spoken in Great Britain, are still in use in the former British colonies.”

The findings are now believed to show that the birds in New Zealand have retained a number of songs and dialects, that were originally from the UK, but have since been lost in their native land. Listening to the songs of the yellowhammers in New Zealand is almost like travelling back in time and hearing one of the sounds of the UK countryside 150 years ago.

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