Northern Pygmy Owl

One of the most interesting birds I have had the opportunity to photograph this year has been the northern pygmy owl. It is a bird of western North America, found in mountainous and foothill areas from Central America to northern British Columbia. As owl locations are protected, it proved a challenge to find one, but I finally lucked out on a forest access road in the Fraser Valley about an hour drive from our home. Due to its intense eyes and small size, many find the pygmy owl “cute”, but it is a fierce predator and will take on rodents and other birds up to three times larger than itself. (It is actually not much larger than a song sparrow in length (15-17 cm.) and when a friend described to look for, he said look for a baseball at the end of a tree branch). Sure enough, that is what I found! The pygmy owl, unlike most North American owls, is mostly a day time hunter, and sticks pretty well to one specific area and thus once located, can generally be found on subsequent visits. I believe the following pictures taken over several weeks are all of the same bird, or at most, are of two different birds. On one occasion when photographing one, I believe I her the characteristic “toot” of a second nearby, although I could not locate the second one.

“Baseball at the end of a branch”.
Owl with supper- a small vole or a shrew
Owl, having swallowed the rodent, tail protruding from its mouth.

Great Grey Owls

One of the birds I have been trying to see in the wild for years, is the magnificent great grey owl. It is the “largest” of the North American owls (although not the heaviest) due to its mass of feathers. It is a bird of the north, sometimes wintering as far south as Southern Ontario, but it is rare and due to its rarity, the reporting of sightings is discouraged as people flock to see such a magnificent rarity, stressing the bird. Last October, Mary and I traveled to Alberta to try to spot this bird, but had no luck. The birding guide we had met (Ken Anderson) recommended a return in March, as this is the time of year they mate, and they are less secretive. Ken was correct with this advice, and we managed to see four or five great grey owls in total. Unlike other owls, they seemed to be curious, and on a number of occasions, after we had been still for several minutes to observe them, they flew over, seemingly to observe us. It was a wonderful experience.

Winter Birds

While winter is generally the slowest season for birding, the presence of wintering raptors and ducks makes southern BC a good location for winter birding. Here are some of my favourite photos taken in the area this winter.

Short-eared owl
Northern harrier (male). Referred to as the “grey ghost” it is often seen at dusk in the fields and marshes.
Anna’s hummingbird (female). We have had them at our feeders all winter.
Northern shoveler (male)
Surf scoter (male): one of the strangest ducks to see in flight!
Wood duck drake; My favourite of the ducks!
Juvenile bald eagle
Juvenile northern goshawk. This bird is a terror to ducks!
Juvenile peregrine falcon
Juvenile Cooper’s hawk
Bald eagle
Trumpeter swans. Several thousand reside in the Fraser Valley in the winter and numbers increase in the late winter/ early spring.
Common loon
Pintail drake
Lesser scaup drake taking flight
Sandhill cranes
Great blue heron.
Brown creeper
Song sparrow. Quiet during the winter, they are starting to sing more now.
Black turnstones
Red-tail hawk
Long-billed dowitchers
American wigeons

Endangered Species

While attention has been focused on other affairs in Washington this past week, the Government of the United States has been quietly rolling out changes to environmental protection policy. At the end of January, the Government was expected to make official a policy dramatically limiting the federal government’s authority to hold industry accountable for killing birds under one of the nation’s oldest conservation laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A proposed rule will eliminate this Act’s prohibition on the killing or taking of migratory birds by industrial activities.  Each year hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by pesticides or in tailing ponds at mines or around oil wells, when they collide with buildings, wind turbines or communication towers, or when critical habitat such as wetlands or grasslands are destroyed. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been the most important tool to address these important but otherwise unregulated sources of mortality. This protection has now been reduced to only apply to cases where the killing of birds is the specific intent of the deeds that resulted in mortality. Negligence, collateral damage, incompetence and cost savings are now acceptable reasons for minor and mass killings of migratory birds. This is the Act that was used to fine BP for killing an estimated one million birds with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Migratory Bird Treaty has been in place for over 100 years. This follows on the heels of rollbacks to the protections offered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which occurred in 2019. This act, introduced by the Nixon administration, is credited with saving such species as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, whooping crane and the grizzly bear in its range in the United States. The approach of the present American Government would suggest that there is little to worry about with respect to species at risk, as legislative protections have been removed, protected areas eliminated, pollution standards relaxed and concerns regarding newly identified toxins are being tossed aside. Facts do not support this conclusion however. The total population of birds in North America has been reduced by about 29% since 1970. To state this another way, North America has about 3 billion fewer birds today than it did in 1970. This decline is not evenly spread out amongst all species, and many species are in severe decline and are threatened. The beneficiaries of these actions are a relatively small number of businesses and “developers”, who have no concern or understanding of the concepts of stewardship or sustainability. It is a very good thing that the present approach has not been the approach since 1970, or the reduction in bird population would be far greater than 29% and many of the species that were threatened (such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, whooping crane, Kirtland’s warbler etc.) would now be extinct. When will responsibility return? With all the discussion of sustainability in the public domain today, it is depressing to see such regressive governmental actions.

Whooping crane. At one point there were only 21 whooping cranes remaining in the wild. There are now about 800 in the wild in Western North America migrating between Texas and Northern Alberta. There are about 100 in the wild in Eastern North America, and their survival is very much in doubt. Sadly shooting of cranes is a significant cause of mortality. (Picture taken in Indiana)
Peregrine falcon. At one point the number of breeding pairs in the United States numbered in the hundreds. Their decline was attributed to DDT in the environment. They are now making a healthy rebound in numbers. (Picture taken in Ontario.)
Kirtland’s warbler. This species is dependent on developing jack pine forests. Its numbers have been reduced by loss of habitat. The fact that it is still with us is due to impressive efforts of the State of Michigan. (Picture taken in Michigan).
Bald eagle. At one point there were less than 500 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states of the United States. The Species at Risk Act of 1973 was critical in supporting the return of this species. (Picture taken in BC).

December Birding in BC

It has been a busy month, so we did not get out too many times. However, we managed an outing to Harrison Mills yesterday and to Iona Beach and the Reifel Sanctuary today. The highlight at Harrison Mills was watching and listening to a juvenile bald eagle, perched on a tree devouring a salmon. This bird was calling loudly and frequently! The highlight at Iona Beach was watching two eagles and a peregrine falcon pursuing green winged teals. The maneuverability of the eagles was surprising, while the speed of the peregrine was phenomenal. We cheered when a teal finally escaped repeated attempts by the raptors. However, about five minutes later, the two eagles were able to finally catch the teal which repeatedly dove into the water to escape. One of the eagles finally managed to pounce on the teal as it came up from a dive, and the eagle proceeded to drown it. The highlight at the Reifel Sanctuary was a northern goshawk which passed overhead four times, before finally landing in a tree. This is the first time we have seen a goshawk in the wild, and it certainly is very large compared to other acceptor hawks!

Juvenile bald eagle, calling out
Bald eagle, in snowy conditions at Harrison Mills
Great blue heron in flight at Harrison Mills
Juvenile peregrine falcon, at Iona Beach. This was the falcon that we watched pursuing ducks. Note: This peregrine is tagged.
Ring-necked duck at Reifel
Pintail duck (female) at Reifel
Northern shovelers at Reifel
Great-blue heron, at Reifel
Northern goshawk

Late November Birds

All of these photos were taken yesterday either at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary or at Blackie Spit. With ice on the ponds at the Reifel Sanctuary, there were not as many ducks as there have been. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful, sunny day with a good variety of birds.

Spotted towhee
Great blue heron
Ring-necked duck (female)
Duck on ice! Fun to watch landing! (Female mallard)
Black oystercatchers
Eurasian wigeon
Black oystercatcher

A few BC Ducks

The Lower Mainland of BC is an excellent place to observe ducks in the winter months, as the Fraser Estuary, the shallow bays on the coast and the many wetlands provide exceptional winter habitat. The following photographs were taken in the last couple of weeks.

Wood duck (male)
Hooded merganser (male)
Harlequin ducks (female on left, male on right)
Ring-necked duck (male)
Northern shovelers (male)
Hooded merganser (female)
American wigeon (male)
Wood duck (female)

The Eagles of Harrison Mills

Yesterday we literally saw several hundred eagles at Harrison Mills. The eagles follow the spawning salmon. With lower water levels, there are literally thousands of salmon on the Chehalis / Harrison Flats. The peak of this eagle concentration is expected in about two weeks.

Eagles: Observing Behaviour

As the eagles move into the Fraser valley, abandoned eagle nests are being claimed by eagle pairs. Concurrently, significant interaction between eagles can be observed. Yesterday I was able to observe two eagles inter-locking talons while in flight. It is speculated that this kind of interaction can be a form of play, pair-bonding or aggression. As the one eagle had nesting material and subsequently both eagles were seen at a nest, it seems likely that this was a pair-bonding activity. The following is the series of photos I was able to take.

Looking for Eagles

As November approaches, eagles return to the Fraser Valley. The peak of the “eagle season” is generally in mid to late November, and the richest concentration is around Harrison Mills, about 30 miles from where we live. As it was a perfect autumn day today, we decided to explore the area. It was a great day, and we managed to see about 100 eagles as well as some spectacular scenery.

Hicks Lake
Deer Lake
Harrison Lake
Harrison Mills