I’ve only seen Cedar Waxwings in Vancouver once before. In the snowy winter of 2017 they appeared very fleetingly on a crabapple tree-lined street near us.
One morning in February there was a whole flock — and all gone the very next day.
Cedar Waxwing, East Vancouver, February 2017
Ever since, I keep an eye open for them when I walk the dog down that street.
No luck … until this week! I first spotted those little crests, bright yellow tail tips and Zorro masks on Tuesday.
Ironically, we’d wanted to go out to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary that day, but had left it too late to make a reservation. I was, therefore, feeling a bit glum when I set out on the usual walk around the ‘hood — same old, same old …
Just goes to show something or other, because if we’d gone to the bird sanctuary I might never have noticed these rare visitors in our very own backyard.
I went back every day this week, expecting them to have moved on, but they’re still there!
There seems to be at least a dozen of them, with quite a few juveniles in the party.
The young ones have a less defined bandit mask around the eyes and a more speckled appearance than the adults.
The mature birds have a smoother feathers, pinky brown merging into lemon yellow on the lower body. The mask is sharper — and it’s always exciting to spot the waxy red tips on the secondary wing feathers that give them their name.
Cedar waxwings eat mostly fruit — although they won’t say no to some delicious bugs. They eat the berries whole and, apparently, are prone to getting drunk on berries that have started to ferment. Fun as that sounds, it isn’t really, as they then tend to fly into windows and perish.
In fact, a neighbour who lives on this berry-lined street, was just setting up his own system of Acopian Bird Savers for their windows to try and stop this from happening. I have a similar set up on my glass studio doors and it really seems to work!
We’ve had a bit of every sort of weather this week, from pouring rain to strong winds, and back to bright sunshine, and still they remain. I have started to wonder if they might stay for the winter.
This berry cornucopia is popular with all kinds of small birds, so it’s not surprising that it eventually popped up on the local hawk’s radar too.
This morning the crows were making a big fuss and scared up a small hawk — a Sharp Shinned, I think — which finally gave up a flew away, for now.
The trees were very empty this morning, but I noticed a few brave robins and a couple of waxwings were back this afternoon.
So, Cedar Waxwings, are you staying or going?
I guess I’ll just keep checking and be prepared to see them gone — until the next time.
I’m sure I’m not alone in spending hours online seeking a simple answer to the questions, “how did we get to this place?” and “is there a way to get out of this place.”
The fine art of doomscrolling takes up far too much of my days. You too?
And, of course, in world full of confusion, contention and endless, endless complexity, there simply are no simple answers.
One recent distraction has been reading Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, in tandem with my son who’s reading it for a course. As you may imagine, it’s not exactly light reading, but it very immersive and a trip to mid-nineteenth century Russia is a getaway of sorts.
Berries and birds have been my other escape this week.
In case you need a distraction, and at least the illusion of simplicity, come along . . .
There is a street near us lined with berry laden trees.
At various times, it’s populated with hundreds of birds. Many species are enjoying the buffet, but robins are the main customers.
Joined by a strong starling contingent ..,
… and a good showing from house finches and juncos.
The rarest visitors (be still my beating heart) are the cedar waxwings, filling up for their journey further south. More on them in a coming post!
And the crows. Of course, the crows. Some of my dog walk followers end up on this street with me and discover the berry delights.
As always, they are excellent models, pleased I’m sure, at how fine the ebony of their winter feathers looks against the scarlet berries.
The world does seem quite simple while I’m peering up into those branches and I actually have to force myself to head home.
Besides, while I’m photographing, Geordie is grazing on the fallen berries, with some unfortunate gastrointestinal results — giving me another reason to tear myself away and get back to the doomscrolling.
As a sequel to yesterday’s post, here are some photos from this morning’s walk — just a few crows in an autumn landscape.
Most of today’s crows are not close acquaintances, but part of the mysterious entourage that follows me along the dog walking route.
As I mentioned yesterday, the autumnal rowdiness is kept in check by an absence of peanuts and a few kind words of thanks after I take their photos.
I’m not sure why they follow me, but I always get an especially warm welcome at the corner where (almost two years ago now) crows played a pivotal role in the finding of a lost dog. I always thank them when I walk by and they seem to remember me still.
This character, photographed close to home, is one of Mabel’s offspring. I can’t tell it’s one of the 2020 batch, or one of two 2019 youngsters who still hang around.
It’s a very grounding feeling to walk your own neighbourhood and see familiar faces, human and corvid, and exchange daily pleasantries.
It makes me feel that the world is still spinning on some sort of stable axis.
For humans, the 2020 autumn season is bringing with it — along with pumpkin spice — a sprinkling of existential dread.
For crows, however, it’s the normal rowdy, rollicking, freedom-from-fledglings social season.
No social or physical distancing for them.
In fact, the normal territorial boundaries are being blithely crossed in search of seasonal bounty. Any block with a nut or berry tree is a “go-zone” this month.
Contributing to the mayhem is the fact that the excitable new fledglings have yet to learn the finer points of corvid etiquette.
A certain amount of chaos inevitably ensues.
I find it’s best to employ my special autumnal version of Peanut Diplomacy at this unruly time of year.
Instead of stopping on my fall morning walks to exchange pleasantries and a few peanuts with each set of crow acquaintances on their territorial corners, a far more parsimonious peanut distribution system is in order.
Normally token offerings are made, accepted with grace, and I move on to visit new crows on new corners.
At this time of year, however, the dog and I seem to be claimed as territory-to-go and crows will follow us from their own domain and into their neighbour’s. This can result an accumulation of dozens of boisterous crows following us for blocks and/or unseemly crow brawling.
Fall Peanut Protocol is best deployed at this point.
Upon leaving the house, I offer a few peanuts to Marvin and Mavis, if they happen to be waiting, then a few more for Mabel and her gang at the other end of the block. From that point on I exchange only kind words with my crow (and human) walking acquaintances. I’m still followed, but it’s a much less fractious group.
Harmony restored …
I generally find that, by December, things will have settled down again and normal Peanut Diplomatic Relations may resume.
Besides, at this time of year, my paltry peanut offerings pale beside the bounty that nature has to offer.
With careful notes made on things that we’d forgotten on our first little “shakedown cruise” in the teardrop trailer, we prepared to set out on our big trip up to the Cariboo district in central BC.
Now, the following is a lesson I have learned before in my life, but tend to forget from time to time. You could call it the “your entire life is a shakedown cruise” philosophy, but it’s probably best summed up by Robbie Burns — “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley”
You can make all the lists and plans you want, but there’s really no preparing for an overnight switch from a clear, blue sky to an off-the-scale level soup of particulate matter from wildfire smoke blowing in from hundreds of miles away.
Ah well, the morning we left the raven shown above dropped by at our local construction site to wish us well on our journey.
Naively, we thought we’d soon be driving out of the worst of the smoke, but it was still very dense at our first night’s camp site just north of Whistler.
After one smokey night we had a quick toast and tea breakfast and headed off along the lovely Duffey Lake Road, hoping to outrun the smoke.
That dream proved elusive as we passed through Lillooet, Pavillion Lake and Clinton with only minor improvements in visibility.
When it was still smokey, hours later, at 100 Mile House, we decided to just push on to our destination — Likely — instead of spending the night, as we’d originally planned, at Green Lake.
By the time we reached the familiar Likely road the smoke was at least high up and not in our lungs. I drove that road so many times when I had my cabin out there, it always feels like going home, marking off the familiar landmarks along the way.
While we love the Cariboo landscape, what we really, really looked forward to was seeing some much-missed faces. Spending time with old friends was the focus of our visit, although managed to combine catching up with soaking up the scenery — Cariboo cocktail hour, for example.
We camped our little trailer outside the homes of two sets of old friends during our stay in the Cariboo — near Likely for a few days, and then closer to Horsefly, part way down the gorgeous Beaver Valley.
Making some early morning coffee, with a bit of fall chill already in the air.
All very cosy inside the camper.
Looking out onto lovely Lake George, one of Beaver Valley’s chain of small lakes.
It wasn’t just the humans that had a great time socializing. Geordie was thrilled to spend time with his boxer buddy, Samson — just as handsome two years in since our last visit.
Both Geordie and Samson are always eager to jump into the truck for a woodsy adventure!
One especially fun expedition was to Quesnel Forks — home, in it’s 1860’s hey day, to around 2,000 fortune-seeking gold miners, before the chase for riches moved north to Barkerville. Quesnel Forks has been a ghost town since the 50’s when the last resident died, but it’s now far less overgrown now than I remember it in the 70’s. Recently the trails have been cleared and some of the tumble-down cabins carefully rebuilt to give some sense of what it once looked like.
Lichen on some fallen and rotting wooden walls
A rather elegant old outhouse returning to the forest
There’s a rich and well-recorded history of gold mining in this part of British Columbia — with many colourful and gripping tales of exploit, adventure, intrigue and suffering. The excellent little museum in Likely is well worth a visit to learn more about this period, although you can also glean some intriguing snippets from the gravestones in the Quesnel Forks cemetery — full of inscriptions recording deaths by drowning, robbery, smallpox and mine collapse.
Much less is written about the indigenous people who lived in this part of the world for thousands of years before the miners arrived — fishing, hunting, travelling, living and dying in this vast landscape. I imagine that this spot would have been very special to them too, at the meeting of these two powerful rivers, now known as the Quesnel and the Cariboo.
I was thinking of confluences … the turbulence created when people, cultures, rivers collide … when yet another visitor from a distant shore made a surprise appearance, flying, literally, right through my thoughts.
I took a photo of the newcomer when it landed on the rocky river shore.
I also filmed the bird’s incredible aquatic competence, confidently navigating the dangerous currents right where the rivers merge.
As soon as we got back to our friends’ house, out came the full collection of bird books and apps as we attempted to identify our mystery “video bomber.” We really couldn’t figure it out. Some sort of gull … but none of the one’s you’d expect to see … perhaps a curlew of some sort …? Eventually, I posted the photo online with a plea for an ID from my more bird knowledgeable social media community. The answer came back that it was, in fact, a rather rare sighting of a Sabine’s Gull, way, way out of its normal range. They spend summers in the Arctic and normally migrate south via the waters off the West coast. I wonder if this one was driven so off course by the dense smoke that was still clinging to the more coastal areas. Fingers crossed that our little traveller eventually finds its way to the its winter destination.
It seemed sort of ironic for me, who likes to celebrate the everyday birds you find in your backyard, to see such a rarity. Just goes to show, things just show up when the time is right, I guess.
Bears and Salmon
Two things you do expect in the Cariboo in the early fall: many salmon returning to the rivers of their birth to spawn, and bears feasting on them.
Spawning Salmon near Horsefly, 2013
The Salmon Horsefly Festival was actually underway the day we left the Cariboo, but it was going ahead in the virtual absence of salmon. Due a variety of factors, including the 2019 Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River that blocked the spawning route, there were virtually no salmon in the local rivers. We walked along the same river bed where the photo above was taken a few years ago, at the same time of year, and saw not one single salmon.
Bears, however, are very much in evidence and this is not a good thing. The reason they’re so visible is that, with no salmon to fatten up on before hibernation, they’re desperate enough to come into town to dig up garden carrots. Four grizzlies are currently hanging around the small hamlet of Likely — something that was unheard of in years gone by — and a situation that’s likely to end very badly for the bears.
You can see that the bear droppings we saw (all over the place) were heavy on seeds and berries. It takes a heck of a lot of berries to make up for the missing salmon course in a meal. So, next time you’re sad that you can’t get a sockeye salmon for the BBQ, spare a thought for the bears, for whom the shortage is more a matter of life and death.
In spite of the smoke and the worrying lack of salmon it was a real joy to switch for a week from “urban nature enthusiast” to wander the forests and learn to read the landscape from our Cariboo friends, who are all “wilderness nature enthusiasts.” They know their forests, lakes and rivers as well as I know my local streets and crows.
Moffat Creek Falls near Horsefly
I received a message from this Cariboo raven (with chickadee accompaniment) to bring back with me for my feathered friends in the city — a call of the wild that echoes all the way from the remotest forest to heart of Vancouver — as I hope it always will.