Towers of Pain

OK, it’s not an exact translation, but “Towers of Pain” is perhaps a more fitting moniker than the actual name: Torres del Paine.  Torres del Paine, Chile’s most visited national park, is accessed from the touristy, yet quaint, town of Puerto Natales.  The “pains” can be physical, emotional, and not least, financial. Apparently the tour companies and national park system know that they can charge a lot for this park, and they do.  Back in 2009 my wife and I attempted to conquer the pain, and after stocking up on food, ditching unnecessary weight at the hostel, and taking the 2.5 hour bus ride to the park entrance where we paid the exorbitant entrance fee, we were given 2 injurious options.  Pay more money to take a bus or boat to the start of the trail, or hike all our stuff for 6 hours before getting to the official trailhead.  Not feeling that particular spring in our step, we chose the former option.


Torres del Paine is a huge park, but most hikers choose to trek the popular ¨W¨route, so named because of the shape of the trail network.  A feigned security is had by the registration process at the entrance, where you must detail your itinerary so that if you wander off the trail and die, some ranger will eventually find you.  In reality, there is no check-out procedure, and everyone who has ever wandered off and died has never been found.  Judging by the number of Andean Condors circling around, this might happen more than admitted……

The park hosts some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world.  Jagged spires of rock (the Torres) juxtapose themselves against a dynamic skyscape of grey, blue and white.  Below the snow and humbled, windswept trees lay peaceful emerald lakes.But there is malevolence in this beauty. It is manifested in the air, whirling about in the very essence of existence. No, this is no ordinary wind. It is a massive, self-perpetuating wall that howls through every crack and crevice of your soul.  There is no humanly way of describing this demonic zephyr. Fueled by cold air slipping off one of the largest chunks of ice this side of Antarctica, this wind pummels everything in its path.  Entire puddles are relocated, and one has to be constantly aware of marble-sized rocks being lifted off the path and hurdled through the air, stopping only when the wind ceases (which it never does), or when they embed themselves in some object (such as your head).  In all seriousness, most of the fatalities in the park occur when some camera-touting tourist stands on a rock to get a shot of the incredible scenery, and is flung off into the wild yonder by an unexpected gust. Despite the seven-plus years since our visit, Torres del Paine remains the only place on Earth I have ever witnessed a waterfall being blown back uphill, like an ancient army in retreat from a losing battle.

Despite the wind, the cold, and the exhaustion, we spent three nights in the park, covering only the western half of the ¨W¨, so I guess we did the ¨V¨.  Animals were few and far between (probably only the most bottom-heavy were saved from being blown to Antarctica), but we saw hundreds of Guanacos (camel-like mammals that are the ancestors of the domesticated llamas and alpacas) on the way into the park, a few Lesser Rheas (a large, flightless, Ostrich-like bird), and an occasional passerine. Full bird species lists for the days we spent in the park can be found at eBird links here, here, here, and here (this was my pre-eBird days so some lists include species seen outside the park). However, in this frigid landscape wildlife seems almost an afterthought. A mere  reminder that life can cling on in adverse conditions, however precarious the toehold.


It is precisely when the elements are stacked so strongly against human occupation that humanity shines so brilliantly through, like rays of light dancing between wisps of clouds and across the stratified torres themselves. Signs of humanity can be grandiose, or they can be subtle. Sometimes as subtle as a new friend, made only days prior, popping out of nowhere with a quizzical “Hey guys, want a cracker?” And not just a plain cracker either, but one laced with a touch of home itself in the form of regionally rare peanut butter. It is perhaps only in this mosaic of inhospitable starkness and stunning beauty,  granitic hostility and welcoming embrace that one can truly transcend the towers of pain to realize the grand tranquility within.

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Darth Vagrant

Is it just me (or the marketing departments of Disney/Lucasfilm) or does the shape of a Redwing head when seen head-on look remarkably like Darth Vader’s mask?


Redwing Head

Here’s the full photo.

darth vagrant

“Look, I am your feather”

If this bird has been lured to the dark side, it could explain why it evaded a fleet of birders today (Dec. 20) who sought to capture it…on their lists. Hopefully it hasn’t punched it into flight-speed and is still hanging around the neighbourhood somewhere.  May the force be with you, and text me if you refind it!

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Seeing Redwing

*This entry has 2 parts. Part 1 has the background story, Part 2 has directions and photos. You can skip Part 1 if you’re in a hurry or just don’t care.*

Part 1

In March 2014 I received devastating news. It was a photo of a Redwing, seen in my neighbourhood. The devastation came when I looked at the date the photo was taken. December 16, 2013, fully three months earlier. Birders went to check out the area, just in case it was still present, but the bird was never seen again. The good news from a provincial standpoint was that since the bird was photographed it still represented the first record for British Columbia. The record sailed through the BC Bird Records Committee fairly easily, with only mild grumbling that nobody knew about it at the time. For me, it was more personal than that. The bird was on my turf, at a hotspot that I discovered when I first moved into the neighbourhood, was only a few hundred metres from my yard as the thrush flies (though there’s a hill between my yard and the location, so it’s not even remotely visible), and it would’ve been a lifer. I’d seen 26 species of Turdus thrush, but all I could think of was the one that got away. That thrush had haunted me every single time I walked around the neighbourhood, and I’ve painstakingly looked through what must be thousands of American Robins in the intervening years.

On Friday my wound was re-opened when I checked out Bruce Mactavish’s excellent blog over at On December 16 (the anniversary of the BC Redwing) Bruce posted about the absence of Redwing in Newfoundland the past few winters, and the hoped for arrival of Euro Turds (the European Turdus thrushes, though Eurasian Turd is probably more correct from a west coast perspective, it doesn’t have the same ring to it) this winter owing to an excellent crop of “Dogberry” (Newfie for Mountain Ash) and favourable winds over the Atlantic. I spent 6 weeks on a rickety boat on the Atlantic with Bruce a couple summers back, but somehow he failed to introduce me to the term “Euro Turd” during those weeks at sea; I’m now glad to add it to my birding slang.

Fast forward to today, December 19, 2015. The day of the Victoria Christmas Bird Count. I spent much of the past week comatose in bed, brooding what has been by all accounts a miserable cold. The weather forecast for count day was, as usual, calling for rain and wind, and the thought of being sick, cold, and wet didn’t sound very appealing. I woke up about 7 am and strongly considered not getting up. I was still undecided when the phone rang and the count area-coordinator asked where and when my team should meet me. I reluctantly dragged myself up, downed some Dayquil, and headed out for what I decided would be just a few hours of counting. Around the north side of Panama Flats we encountered our first small groups of American Robins and I again recounted the sad tale of the Redwing that got away, and why it was always important to check through robin flocks.

Several hours later and the urge to see birds exceeded my desire to crawl back into bed. I explained that just up ahead was our only chance to find California Quail in our designated count area. As if on cue, one called. Bingo. I don’t know exactly what are area boundaries are, but we’ll just go as far as a vacant lot that has a lot of potential I said. We arrived at the vacant lot to find it, well, vacant. Finally a Bewick’s Wren popped up. A couple minutes later and a few Pine Siskins called from the treetops. As I was trying to get a visual on them to search for Common Redpolls (this has been an excellent redpoll year on the coast), one team member, Mike Davis, said he had a Downy Woodpecker, but I couldn’t figure out which branch he was talking about, and since we’d already tallied a couple I gave up and started to look for the siskins again. Just then a bird shot past my view, and my heart rate instantly climbed as I noticed a flash of orange throughout the underwing coverts. My suspicion was confirmed when the bird landed nearby and I yelled out “REDWING!”. Mike chimed in and said something to the effect of “That’s the bird I was looking at”. As many birders know, there’s a huge difference between twitching a rarity and finding your own. This bird literally had my hands shaking, as I tried to soak up as much as I could, snap off some record digiscoped shots with my cell phone, and let others look in the scope too. Far too quickly the bird took off to the west, flying straight and rapid. In the direction it fled I found a bumper crop of Holly berries. Despite hanging around for a while to greet the many freshly arriving birders the bird didn’t seem to be coming back. Reluctantly I decided to finish off as much as I could of my count area. Luckily a few birders did manage to catch sight of the bird again, on both sides of the road, including in the holly bush we had been looking at!

To recap, this is almost the exact location and nearly to the day when a Redwing was discovered in 2013. Please see part 2 for more discussion.

Part 2

To assist birders who want to search for this bird, the following are some directions and my poor record shots of the bird. Opinions on the age of the bird are highly desired.

The bird was in a vacant lot on both sides of South Valley Drive in Victoria, BC. The house closest to these lots is 3940 S. Valley Dr. There is parking along the street here, though it is a densely-housed residential area (and fairly upscale), and birders are reminded, as always, to act responsibly, not to trespass in any yards, and just not be jerks in general. Vehicle traffic is generally light, and children playing, dog-walkers, etc. should be looked out for on the roads. Despite what Google Maps shows, South Valley Drive is now paved and connected right through the middle of this vacant lot. South Valley Drive can be accessed by car from 3 entry points off of Wilkinson Rd., or by foot from the end of Tulip Ave., Daffodil Ave., Chesterfield Rd., or Hatfield Rd.

Redwing Location

The vacant lot on both sides of South Valley Drive where the Redwing was seen. It was first located on the east side, then flew over to the area where a fruiting holly was located on the west side. *Note that S. Valley is now paved right through this vacant lot, and the road is a through-way. Google maps has not yet been updated to reflect this.

General overview of area where Redwing is located

General overview of area where Redwing is located

The Bird!

Due to the fact that the Redwing is in virtually the same location it was found in 2013, and nearly to the day (Dec. 16 vs. 19) of the previous record, I have been assuming it is the same individual. In the field I attempted to look for pale tips to the greater coverts, and didn’t notice any. I failed to register the tertials in my memory. In reviewing my terrible phonescoped record shots, there appears to be pale tips to several of the outer greater coverts and, more distinctly, white tips on the tertials. These are features of hatch-year/first-winter Redwings. If this is a first-winter bird, I do not have the mathematical prowess to even estimate what the chances would be of having two Redwings show up in the same location just two years apart. It must be astronomical though. For this reason, opinions are highly sought on the age of this bird based on my terrible photos. Hopefully the bird will stick around for lengthier viewing and better quality photos.

Redwing4 Redwing3 Redwing2 Redwing1

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Oh, Canada

The word Canada is evocative.  It calls forth impressions of grandeur; tall, jagged mountain peaks, swaying grasslands, fathomless oceans, expansive snowscapes, and frigid glacial lakes. These impressive landscapes are home to some of the most charismatic and tenacious creatures ever to be described. These animals have helped shape this nation into what it is today; as sustenance for First Nations and later the settlers, as commodities in the form of pelts and hides, and as symbols of power and freedom.  From the Rocky Mountains’ mighty grizzly to the haunting cries of the Common Loon on the Great Lakes, and the great migrations of Caribou in the territories, there is scarcely a section of this country that does not conjure up some association with beast or bird. In recognition of this we feature animals on crests, logos, stamps, and on currency. In turn, many of these same animals have been officially branded Canadian in name.

Branta canadensis, ironically from Audubon's "Birds of America". Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Branta canadensis, ironically from Audubon’s “Birds of America”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There are a few obvious examples. Canada Goose instantly springs to mind. Not the most regal of Canadian animals, it is known for its indiscriminate “fowling” of manicured lawns and city parks. We also have the Canada Lynx; that mysterious denizen of northern forests whose life-cycle is intertwined with that of the hare. Finally, there is the Canada Warbler; a songbird species whose breeding range is largely within the boreal forest of this country, and that also features prominently on the Bird Studies Canada logo.

While these few animals have “Canada” as part of their common name, many more include it in their scientific name with the specific epithet of canadensis. This comes from the words Canada, and the latin suffix “–ensis”, meaning of, or from, a place. Thus the scientific name for the Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, translates literally as “ A goose from Canada”. A search for organisms with the name canadensis turns up a lot of results from fish to plants, and invertebrates to mammals. We have claimed the Beaver, Elk, River Otter, Lynx, and Bighorn Sheep. All good, strong, emblematic animals of the Canadian wilderness. But, this blog is about birds. In that department we have a grouse (Spruce), nuthatch (Red-breasted), Jay (Gray), crane (Sandhill), a subspecies of Golden Eagle, and the aforementioned goose and warbler. And while I can think of other examples of birds that would be deserving of the name Canada, two that most definitely do not are the Black-crested Antshrike (Sakesphorus canadensis) and the Yellow-green Grosbeak (Caryothraustes canadensis).

canadian grosbeak

Caryothraustes canadensis from “The Birds of British Guiana” by Charles Chubb, 1921. Image provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

These two species have ranges in northern South America, getting as close to Canada as Trinidad and Panama respectively. So, how on earth did we end up with the “Canada” Antshrike and the “Canada” Grosbeak? A typo, plain and simple. Both species should have been labelled “cayenensis”, referring to Cayenne (French Guiana); back in the day, the term “Cayenne” was often tossed at anything presumed to be from the Amazon basin (Jobling 2010).

Though we are thousands of miles from Amazonia, thanks to the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the first published name has priority, even in error. In this case, both species’ formal names are attributed to Linnaeus’s Systema naturae from 1766 (a volume that served as the starting point for all biological nomenclature before an earlier edition was chosen). I believe both species actually show up first in a similar work by Brisson in 1760. Either way, Linnaeus, whose volume gave rise to the nomenclatural system still in use today, or Brisson, whose volumes contained over 4000 pages, could both be forgiven for the odd typo or incorrect locality, especially given the scale of exploration and discovery during that time period (not to mention lack of automatic spell-check).  

Forgivable as the errors may be, nearly 250 years after these species were first described to science, Canada is still ingrained in the names of these decidedly tropical species. While Canada, by claim or virtue, is home to many grand and deserving denizens of the North, I can’t help but be a little disappointed to not be able to look out at my window and see a Black-crested Antshrike battling the nuthatches at my suet feeder, or a Yellow-green Grosbeak cavorting with jays through the treetops.

Black-crested Antshrike male and female.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Black-crested Antshrike. A species I will never encounter on my local outings. Photo: Wikimedia Commons



Jobling, J.A. 2010. Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Christopher Helm, London.

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The Charm of Birds

Recently there has been a video making its way around the birding listserves. In it, a clip from the movie Downfall (German: Der Untergang) is shown wherein Hitler blasts into a tirade over news he’s lost the war. However, in this particular video, the subtitles have been changed to make it seem as though Der Fuhrer is furious about not finding Colorado’s first-record of Hoary Redpoll. This is just one of thousands of parody videos showing this same clip (see the Wikipedia page on it here), but the first to my knowledge to add a birding slant. The video already has a whopping 2500 views, about as viral as a birding video clip ever gets.

I’m not writing to comment on that video; rather, it has spurred me into starting a series of blog posts I’ve been planning. I’ll be chronicling the people that have been influenced by birds, or ways that birds have shaped our everyday culture, even if indirectly. Some of these are extraordinary people, others are ordinary people that happened to lead extraordinary lives, but either way, birds were an important aspect of their lives. While I wasn’t planning on starting with this particular fellow, I think you’ll soon understand my mental connection with the aforementioned video clip.

On any English major’s bookshelf you’ll find works by Shakespeare, Defoe, Steinbeck, Austen, Bronte, etc., but the common theme behind these books is that they were all written by writers. In contrast, my bookshelves have titles by folks you’ve never heard of, and while they all have some connection to birds, the authors were scientists, politicians, travellers, spies, and other professions. Take, for example, The Charm of Birds. First published in 1927, my yellowing copy is from ten years later. It is a small, unassuming little book. The first seven chapters are dedicated to birds through the seasons (January through December), while the following seven chapters cover bird family life, nests, “joy sounds”, waterfowl, the cuckoo, and other topics. There are few pictures, the mildewed pages are asthma-inducing, and there are no details on identification. Yet, there are a couple things that are noteworthy. The first is the humbled preface. It states:

“This book will have no scientific value. Those who have studied birds will not find in it anything that they do not already know; those who do not care for birds will not be interested in the subject…Personal observation will always make a book valuable. In this book there will be some things here and there that may deserve to be placed in this last category, but they will be slight and not thorough. My opportunity for watching birds have been intermittent. My observations have been made for recreation; in search of pleasure, not of knowledge; and they have been pursued only in so far as they ministered to the pleasure of holidays and home life…[but] even those of us who have nothing new to tell, may have something that is fresh to say.”

The second noteworthy thing is the author himself. It is clear that he found peace in birds, but why has he not had more time for birds in his life? Quite probably because the author of the book is the Viscount Grey of Fallodon. Edward Grey (1862-1933), was a British politician. Elected into the British House of Commons at age 23, he was the youngest MP of his day.  He was also the longest-serving Foreign Secretary (1905-1916), at a time when Europe was under much unrest. Grey was a key player in the crisis of 1914, and events leading to World War I. He was involved in multiple treaties (some of them secret) with allied countries, in an attempt to shore support against the Germans in continental Europe. Perhaps his most famous quote, made from the Foreign Office window as the first great war was beginning, went  “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.

Sir Edward Grey, 1914, during his time as Foreign Secretary. Photo by Bassano, Beagles Postcard #542W; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Edward Grey, 1914, during his time as Foreign Secretary. Photo by Bassano, Beagles Postcard #542W; Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is becoming clear why Grey may not have had much time for casual birding. In 1919 Grey became the Ambassador to the United States, followed by his position as the Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. Obviously not one to spend retirement sitting back twiddling his thumbs, the Viscount then became the Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

This is where we come back to birds. Oxford has one of the most prestigious ornithological institutes in the world, with an equally impressive library. That institute is the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. Perhaps, somewhere in the library of the institution that bears his name, lies a yellowing copy of the Charm of Birds.

The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon

The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon

Chapter X of the Charm of Birds: "Joy Flights and Joy Sounds"

Chapter X of the Charm of Birds: “Joy Flights and Joy Sounds”

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Citrine Wagtail Alternate Location

Hello birders,

Since mid-November a Citrine Wagtail has been reliably located in Courtenay, BC. For the most part it has been predictably located along the same stretch of road that it was originally located. Directions to that location, and a bit of history on the sighting, can be read at Jeremy Gatten’s blog here.

I returned to that location on Sunday December 30th, but was informed the bird had not been seen for 2 days (it has disappeared for several days on occasion in the past). I grew up in the Comox Valley, and so have a bit more insider knowledge about vantage points than others. So, after leaving the traditional location around 3:45 pm on Dec. 30th, I decided to check out an alternate spot. To my surprise, I immediately found the Citrine Wagtail in the fading light. This is a somewhat sensitive location in terms of site access, so I decided to check again first thing the next morning. I was delighted to again find the bird on Dec. 31st, and be able to show it to some very relieved American birders.  For those wishing to twitch the bird, I am summarizing the directions to this “new” location here.

The bird is on private property, but still visible without entering any fields. Please obey all access rules, and do NOT enter any fields. It can be reached by following these directions:

Follow the same directions to the bird as previously described. Instead of parking near the pumphouse and walking down the laneway where it has been most often seen, continue east along the Comox/Dyke Rd. approximately 500 m. Park at the Rotary Viewing Stand parking lot on the south (estuary) side of the road. From the parking lot look across the road and find the first (westernmost) house. That house has a cedar hedge along the front and continuing along the side of the property. Beside this cedar hedge is a small laneway that leads to a field and a few more houses. The hydro powerlines also cross the road here, leading down this same laneway. At the botton of this laneway is a metal gate with a No Trespassing Sign, and another sign indicating that it is both conservation land and actively farmed.

The field beyond the gate is grassy, and a bit flooded in a few places. It is around these flooded pools that I first found the wagtail late Dec. 30th (~4pm). It was still present in this same location at least until 11 am on Dec. 31st. This field is known as “Simpson’s Farm”, and there is a metal Duck’s Unlimited plaque at the southeast corner of this field labelling it as such.

Birders may view the bird from the laneway, but the fields and driveways here are all private. Observers should only park at the rotary viewing stand, and not in the laneway. Use caution crossing the road, as it is busy! Nobody should enter the fields beyond the gate (you don’t need to in order to see the bird, and it is sometimes 10 m from the gate anyway). Even if you see dog-walkers in the fields, that does not imply permission to enter (they are residents of the laneway).

This could be where the bird sometimes disappears to, and should be checked if the bird is not found at its original location. Please be courteous and respectful of all landowners, do not trespass, and ensure that birders continue to be able to access this phenomenal rarity.

wagtail location

Google Earth view of traditional and new wagtail locations.laneway



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F.O.Y.  As far as acronyms go, this one doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of people. But to birders, it can represent a treasured landmark. First Of the Year. Many birders keep many different lists, but a perennial favourite is the year list. Starting on January 1st and ending on Dec 31st each year, this list lets you bury those painful twitching failures of the year past and start afresh. Come midnight, January 1st, it is a new beginning. My personal year list in 2009 was so great, that I don’t know if I’ll ever top it (just shy of 1500 species, or roughly 15% of all the world’s birds). In contrast, I didn’t even bother adding up my 2011 year list, but it likely hovered around 300.

Year listing also gives one the opportunity to get excited about common species all over again. You might see thousands of Mallards in a year, but you only get one first-of-the-year Mallard. It is in such spirit that some birders go to great lengths to try to make their absolute first bird of the year a really special one to kick off the remaining 365 days. Some will drive blind-folded and with ear plugs to avoid getting some  scoundrel like House Sparrow as their very first bird. Those birders rarely report back, so I’m not sure if they ever succeed, but the point stands. For those birders that live in cities, it can be awfully difficult to nab some alluring species before one of the commoners swoops past or “caws” into your window.

The two most common birds in my neighbourhood are Glaucous-winged Gull and Northwestern Crow. Both considered “dirt” birds by many, owing to their sheer abundance and proclivity to human settlements. There is often a Song Sparrow around the hedges below our window though, and if I plug my ears and stare at the hedges long enough, surely I can manage that as a year first. At least the Song Sparrow doesn’t pick through garbage, happily float in sewage, or, as in the case of the gull, partake in extra-species relations.

But the best laid plans don’t amount to much when you have a toddler to chase after. I could neither plug my ears nor stare devotedly into greenery while a book-destroying bundle of danger and energy was running around. Shortly after sunrise I heard my first bird of the year: Glaucous-winged Gull. A few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice the Northwestern Crow landing on the chimney pipe next door.

At first I was a bit chagrined. But after a while I realized that these were both extraordinary and iconic species to get. After all, the Song Sparrow is found continent-wide, but the Northwestern Crow is emblematic of coastal shores only from S. Alaska to N. Washington. The Glaucous-winged Gull is slightly more prolific, but not much more so. Birders from around the world come to the Pacific Northwest in part to see these two species. Both are masters of adaptability, being amongst a very small group of birds that not only tolerate human presence, but thrive in it. Unlike European Starling, House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon (other common city-dwellers), the gull and the crow predate human settlement on this coast by many eons. It is very likely that on New Years Day, many thousands of years ago, somebody from one of the coastal First Nations stepped out into the brisk, cold, wet air and was greeted by none other than a Glaucous-winged Gull. And if you listen carefully, you just might be able to hear his reaction in the whisper of the wind “Dang, I was hoping to start the year off with a Thunderbird!”

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A Whooping Success

I suppose 3 months is long enough to leave everybody in suspense, so here is the rest of the crane story… Two days after arriving in Saskatchewan I was beginning to vibrate with nail-biting anxiety. I had come all this way, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get the Whooping Crane. Sure, the ID was simple enough, and I had a “sure” spot lined up, but I was a 3-hour drive from that location, and without a car. The forecast for Friday, 7th of October, was looking rather dreary. Pounding rain and wind. Perfect weather to prevent Whooping Cranes from leaving the country! So with that I “borrowed” our friends’ vehicle, and sped down the prairie.

My first stop was Radisson Lake, part-way between N. Battleford and Saskatoon. My copy of “Birds of the Saskatoon Area” that I had just picked up second-hand described this lake as being a good spot to see Whoopers. Great I thought, I might be able to get the cranes and save some gas. While the birding here was good, there were no cranes to be had. I set off down the road again through pounding rain and patches of fog. The driving was simple enough (it’s not the easiest place to get lost), but after 2 hours I was beginning to get concerned. I hadn’t really expected to just bump into a Whooping Crane on the side of the highway, but surely there should’ve been a Sandhill Crane by now? Maybe they got the weather forecast and high-tailed it before the storm hit?

At long last I found the Muskiki Lake grid road I had been directed to. A short ways along I was relieved to spot a small group of Sandhills in a little reservoir. And then I was there, the south end of Muskiki Lake, the Whooping Crane promised-land. Just one problem; there were no Whoopers. And despite reports of hundreds of Sandhills, a thorough count turned up only 80. My heart sank. But, having come this far I wasn’t about to give up so easily. I drove around some more, finding another grid road further to the east. The road was dirt, and hilly, and perilously close to becoming a slippery, soupy car-catcher. I scanned the countryside with my binoculars until I came across several white dots in the distance. I put my scope on the dots and could see that yes, these were cranes, and not in fact pelicans, egrets, or other large white birds. However, they were still several kilometres distant, and I could not have ruled out Siberian Crane with these views (an impossibly unlikely species to show up, but I’m a bit of a listing purist). I drove back to the first location to see if I could spot the birds from a slightly higher viewpoint, but they were obscured from that angle. Suddenly, a small family group picked up and flew closer, into the field near where I had first spotted those distant blobs. I raced back to the second road, took out my scope, and stealthily crept behind some trees until the cranes were in view. Still not crippling views, but I could at least see all the features I wanted to. Plus, I discovered that the cranes had black on the crown behind the red, something I did not notice before when looking in guide books. Eventually some other groups flew closer, though none quite as close, and I managed to count at least 16 birds, including 2 family groups each with 2 juveniles. Must’ve been a good breeding season up north! These are truly one of North America’s most iconic species, and I was thrilled to pick them up on “home” turf as they are one of very few Canadian breeding-endemic species; at least as far as the current wild population goes.

Happy, but cold and wet, I returned to the car and set off on the long drive back to N. Battleford. And I only got lost once!


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Can I get a Whoop Whoop?

The Whooping Crane was, and is, one of the most endangered birds in North America. Though probably never abundant, the population reached a staggering low of about 15 birds in 1941 due to hunting and habitat loss/degradation. From these beleaguered survivors, strong protection and good management practices have increased the main wild population up to almost 300 today. A couple hundred more birds occur in re-introduced flocks in eastern North America and in captivity. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that this large, long-lived, slow reproducing species is still exceedingly rare (a sad trend for many crane species).

Whooping Crane (Grus americana). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The one remaining wild flock breeds almost exclusively in Wood Buffalo National Park on the northeastern Alberta-southern Northwest Territories border. The breeding grounds are luckily remote and inaccessible, offering a safe breeding area. Pairs return in April and begin nesting soon after. Typically birds don’t begin nesting until they are around 4 years of age (they may live over 30 years in the wild), and only lay up to 2 eggs. Though 2 eggs are laid, typically only one survives to fledging. The incubation period lasts about a month, and chicks are able to fly well about 3 months later. With a 4-month nesting period, there typically isn’t time to lay another clutch if the first one fails. Atypical for most bird species, young migrate and remain with their parents for 10 to 11 months. And so, family by family, the whole population migrates south, staging for several weeks in Saskatchewan, before continuing on to the wintering area in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.

It is there, in Texas, that most birders catch up with the great white Grus. Indeed a Whooping Crane anywhere is a sight to behold, but there is something extra special about catching a glimpse of this species in Canada. It certainly adds a dimension of challenge to the hunt. If one does the math, there is roughly 1 Whooping Crane per 300 square kilometres within the Saskatchewan fall staging area. Considering that family groups migrate together, and birds are often clustered, the amount of land you need to cover in order to actually see one can be considerably greater. On the flipside, Whooping Cranes often remain in the same area for several weeks. Within the past few years, the area of Muskiki Lake east of Saskatoon has been just such an area. Flocks numbering in the twenties have started to accumulate at Muskiki, sizes not seen since historical times.

I’ll be making my own migration to Muskiki Lake soon, in hopes of finding these cranes; the tallest birds in North America with one of the smallest populations.  Stay tuned!

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Are we there yet?

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers have always held an allure for me. For starters, they are rare here in British Columbia (and absent from the rest of Canada). Although present along the coast every autumn, usually from mid-September into October, they are always exciting to find. Part of this rests on the fact that they are an Asian bird. This alone, in my eyes, sets them apart from other equally-rare species occurring locally that are otherwise found in North America, such as Hudsonian Godwit.  In coastal BC they can be expected in places such as Reifel Bird Sanctuary and Iona, but they have the ability to show up anywhere, and even inland. Another intriguing fact is that virtually all the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers that turn up in North America are juveniles. In addition to their relative scarcity, another alluring factor is their appearance. They stand out from other shorebirds with their bright chestnut cap, buffy wash across the breast, and bright rufous edging to scaps, coverts and tertials.

Adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (photo: Wikimedia Commons). The juveniles are even more colourful and strikiing in my opinion.

In the February issue of The Condor, a paper by Lindstrom et al.1 helped explain why juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers are as common as they are in North America, while adults so scarce. But before delving into specifics, let’s take a look at the broad view of shorebird migration. The general, well-known idea is for a bird to get from its breeding grounds to its wintering grounds, and vice versa. However, there are a number of different strategies a species/individual can employ. A bird can migrate using a time-minimizing strategy, or it could use an energy-minimizing strategy. The two are not necessarily exclusive. We can use the analogy of driving a car cross-country. In a time-minimizing strategy you would get in your car, fill the tank, and drive as fast, as long and as far as possible before filling up the tank again. In an energy minimizing strategy you would get in the car, fuel it up, drive at the most fuel-efficient speed, and probably put it in neutral downhill. For example, falcons may be good at time-minimizing while the soaring raptors are much better at energy-minimizing. Of course there is a third, equally important consideration, and that is predation. You can think of avoiding predators as a risk-minimizing strategy, but as the result of predation is death, it’s really a survival-maximizing strategy, and in that sense may actually be the greatest driver in the evolution of migration strategies.  At any rate, now when you fill up the car there is a hungry monster potentially hiding behind the pumps, and the longer you spend fuelling the greater your chance of getting eaten!  To add a greater complexity to the situation is that not all birds leave at the same time. In the world of arctic-breeding shorebirds, typically adult females migrate south first, followed by the adult males, and lastly the juveniles (though for Sharp-tailed Sandpiper adult males head south first).

In the case of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, adults migrate from their breeding range in north-east Russia, through continental East Asia and then onwards to wintering areas in and near Australia. Many juveniles (possibly tens of thousands), on the other hand first make an ~2300 km detour eastwards to major shorebird stopover locations in western Alaska. On the surface, such behaviour seems neither time nor energy-minimizing. Lindstrom et al. found that Sharp-taileds generally arrived in their study site in early September and departed on average at the end of September (to be exact, departing on Sep. 27 and Sep. 29 for males and females respectively). Individual birds had a median minimum length of stay of 12 days, upwards to a maximum of 33 days. That is, most birds spent approximately the month of September in Alaska. An earlier paper covering more areas of Alaska found birds present from late August until early November.

Migration Routes of Adult (solid lines) and juvenile (dashed line) Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Map from the USGS Alaska Science Center webpage accessed here:

When the birds first arrived in early September they were relatively lean, carrying just slightly higher fuel loads than their lean body mass, and their rate of fat deposition was low. By mid-September, however, the rate of fuel deposition increased markedly as birds began to fatten up for migration, often doubling their weight. With tanks full, it is estimated that these Sharp-tailed Sandpipers can then make a single flight in still air of nearly 10,000 km! It is postulated that these birds join the ranks of other trans-oceanic migrants, such as the Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone, in making a single, non-stop flight from these staging grounds in Alaska to wintering grounds in Australia.

There are a couple of things to consider here. First is that the staging area is relatively free of predators. Such a high fueling rate would not be possible if under constant attack, especially as it’s been proven in other species that high fuel loads increase the risk of being captured.  The second is that this predicted long-distance flight would not be possible if not for such a rich stopover location. We can then start to see that if other stopover locations along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are (a) more dangerous and/or (b) less profitable, that a safe (from predators, pathogens, etc.) but long-distance trans-oceanic flight might actually be advantageous, despite that initial detour.

So how does the evolution of migration in Sharp-tailed Sandpipers impact birders in British Columbia? Well, we can see that the chronology of sightings in the province fits with the period of when birds show up in and migrate from Alaska. In addition, it explains why all of our birds are juveniles. And since most appear to leave Alaska directly for wintering grounds, it explains why we see only a fraction of the birds that occur in Alaska.

Of course, many additional unanswered questions are raised.  For example, are our birds the ones that do not attempt a trans-oceanic flight? If not, where do they go? The lack of winter and spring records in North America indicates that they must either perish, make a different trans-oceanic flight to the wintering grounds, or winter at some unknown location in the New World and make an even more remarkable trans-ocean flight up to the Siberian breeding grounds from there. (I think they likely make their way to the wintering grounds eventually). Are our birds the ones that did not sufficiently fatten up, either due to disturbances or other unknown causes, to make the great flight? Are the birds we see simply lost, or is this an established alternative migratory pathway? Or is it that our birds are ones that actually started out over the ocean but got blown off-course or forced to seek land due to unfavourable weather conditions? (Personally I think if this were the case we’d see larger numbers of birds involved, rather than the 1 or 2 birds usually seen at any given location or time). And why don’t adults use this same strategy? For this last question, the answer may very well have to do with molt as we see in other adult sandpipers (the juveniles having just grown a new set of flight feathers don’t have this same constraint); at any rate, adults appear to be a time-minimizing migrant.

As you can see, we’ve just barely skimmed the surface of the evolution of migratory pathways and strategies. The different life-history strategies even within a species can help us birders predict when and where to look for birds. And if you are successful in catching a glimpse of a bird such as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, take a moment away from admiring its beauty or rarity, and consider just how improbable it is that it’s here at all, and just how far it has yet to go.

1Lindström, Å., R.E. Gill Jr., S.E. Jamieson, B. McCaffery, L. Wennerberg, M. Wikelski, and M. Klaasen. 2011. A Puzzling Migratory Detour: Are Fuelling Conditions in Alaska Driving the Movement of Juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers?. Condor 113: 129-139.

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