While social gatherings of the human sort are still not an option, we’ve been lucky to host a succession of very charming avian guests in the garden lately.
This week seems to be goldfinch week out there, with beautiful singing and frequent flashes of saffron in the foliage … and at the fountain.
The recklessness of some of the flying manoeuvres I’ve witnessed today lead me to believe that a new generation of goldfinches have come to play. You know when you have to duck to avoid finch/human contact that you have some L-plated flyers in the ‘hood.
Junior goldfinch taking a breather.
A few years ago we only had house finches coming to the garden. About five years ago the goldfinches finally arrived, but the house finches disappeared. I thought they might be fundamentally incompatible, but last year and this year, both kinds of finches seem to be happy in the garden, along with a gang of feisty siskins.
Male House Finch feeds a nesting Female.
Fierce little siskin bossing Norman the Nuthatch about at the feeder.
This week’s warmer weather inspired me to set up the mister at the bird bath. First customer was a rather excited female Anna’s hummingbird.
Hummingbirds don’t normally frequent the bird bath as they get all the liquid they need to drink from nectar, and the water in it is too deep for them to bathe in. For bathing they prefer either a mist or a shallow water receptacle, like the leaf I noticed a hummingbird bathing in last year.
Birds like the white crowned sparrow below, however, are very, very happy with a regular bird bath — as long as it’s kept nice and clean, with fresh water added daily.
Our hummingbirds also seem to enjoy the fountain, where they can dart under the falling water for a quick feather refresh.
The goldfinches are also big fountain fans for some reason.
Freshly bathed and ready to impress some lady goldfinches.
I hope that you’re also managing to spend some time with feathered friends.
Last week’s local newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, featured a story Backyard Birding Takes Flight about the delight that people stuck at home are finding in getting to know their avian neighbours, and the joy of discovery to be found within their own neighbourhoods. I do hope this is something we’ll take forward with us long after the COVID-19 situation has passed. You will notice that Norman the Nuthatch and one of my Steller’s Jay photos are featured in the article, and I am quoted in it.
Treat yourself this weekend to just a few minutes of bird watching. You don’t have to go far at all and you can maintain your social distance. Tomorrow, May 9, offers the chance to do that and be part of a world wide community of bird enthusiasts contributing to science for the Global Big Day of bird observing and counting. You can spend all day doing it, or ten minutes. If you want to add your findings to the overall count, you’ll need an eBirds account. It’s totally free to sign up and participate.
I can honestly say that thing that calms me down the fastest in these days of specific and generalized anxiety is to just stop what I’m doing, step outside and look around to see what the birds are doing. Sometimes a minute does it, sometimes a whole hour is required. Often there seems to be nothing of interest going on, but there always is if you just take a few deep breaths and wait. Common birds doing their normal amazing things, and occasionally a rarer bird. Either way it’s time well spent.
Swainson’s Thrush in the garden last week — only the second one I’ve ever seen.
Today’s post is rather short. I’m not sure where the days go — I feel as though I’m dreaming through great chunks of them.
I think I need to let my thoughts wander (even more than usual) for a bit while my brain makes a feeble effort to catch up with reality.
So, here I present some dreaming birds.
I’m sure they’re not really dreaming, but I know I dream about them.
When I close my eyes I see intricate bird details. The feathers around their eyes, the reflections in their eyes, myself sometimes reflected there. I wonder what they’re thinking.
Honestly, I really haven’t been in the cooking sherry. Yet.
I need to think of how I want to carry on with my art and work. I have had various thoughts around this, beginning with when I broke my foot in December. Universe sending signals etc . . .
I have my online shop closed at the moment to make more time for the blog (which somehow seems most important to me at the moment) and to give myself a little dreaming space.
I know that a lot of people have asked for prints, especially of the crow carrying the blossom branch, so I hope to spend a bit of time in the next week working on new images. I hope I’ll be ready to open the shop again in a week or so.
In the mean time, I may resort to re-posting some older blog posts to carve out the time to do that. It’s really amazing how little I seem to be able to accomplish in a day at the moment (although we did manage to sort out a lifetime’s collection of old tea bags the other day.)
Fear not, I’ll still post Edgar’s advice here every few days, and daily on his Facebook page.
Wishing you safety, health and a perhaps some bird dreams to pass the strange days.
The Anna’s Hummingbird is Vancouver’s Official Bird, elected to the post in 2017.
I imagine they won by simply staring at the competition like this . . .
. . . until they withdrew their applications.
All of that avian attitude is certainly in play this week as temperatures plunge far below seasonal norms and snow blankets the Vancouver landscape.
Every morning when I open the back door, I hear a loud and indignant tutting.
I would not be surprised to hear an accompanying request to speak to the manager.
You can see why the Anna’s Hummingbirds might be a bit exasperated. Over the past 70 years, milder winters, flowery gardens and well-tended hummingbird feeders have convinced them to expand their range from southern California to southern BC.
Some time in the 90’s they started to forgo the southern migration and stay here all winter. This week, however, I think they’re wondering if it’s too late to book that package holiday to the sun. They are not alone in that.
Luckily, they’re remarkably tough little birds. Delicate as they look, they have a few winter survival tricks up their iridescently-feathered sleeves.
Unlike other hummingbirds, the Anna’s isn’t solely reliant on nectar for sustenance. Insects, spiders and tree sap broaden their dietary options.
During the cold nights they enter an “energy save” mode, called torpor. During this mini-hibernation, their heart rate slows from a daytime rate of 21 beats per second to a mediative one beat per two seconds. At the same time their body temperature lowers from a toasty 107 degrees to 48.
In spite of their toughness, they could use our help this week.
While temperatures are below freezing for days on end, the insect and tree sap supply is out of commission. Waking up from their night-time torpor, they need breakfast ASAP to top up the energy banks and, right now, hummingbird feeders are their only option. Equipped with formidable memories, these little birds can remember the location of each food source in their territory, and if they get to the feeder in your garden and it’s empty or frozen, they will be very, very disappointed in you . . .
. . . and you certainly don’t want that!
Some tips for keeping your hummingbird feeder thawed and snow-free:
Keep at least two feeders so you can keep one in the house thawed and ready to replace the frozen one outside
Hang the feeder under cover if possible, or with a bird feeder dome over it to stop the nectar ports from getting snow-covered
External heat sources will help to keep the nectar thawed. Ideas include: a trouble light hung nearby, incandescent (the old-style heat-producing) Christmas lights hung around the feeder, hand warmers, mug warmer or aquarium mat (for lizards) taped to bottom of feeder
Insulating the feeder with old socks or bubble wrap can help
If the worst happens and you find a hummingbird in distress and too cold or tired to fly, contact your local wildlife rescue. More information here from Wildlife Rescue BC.
Some of us always read the manual. Others do not (except in the direst emergency.)
It would seem that our little Anna’s Hummingbird falls into the latter category.
From everything I’ve ready about these tiny little birds, they meet most of their liquid needs from sipping nectar — from feeders or flowers. I have a water mister attached to my birdbath which hummingbirds are supposed to enjoy for bathing in and drinking. While robins, chickadees, bushtits, flickers and even crows, seem to adore the mister, I’ve yet to see a hummingbird use it.
We just moved a stone lion fountain we’ve had for a while to the front of my studio and, since it’s been there, a very young Anna’s Hummingbird has been to “take the waters” there several times a day.
As far as I can gather, hummingbirds are not meant to drink like this. But, as I said, this one has not yet consulted the hummingbird instruction booklet …
Might as well just go for it …
She actually seems to have a bit of a technique there — spreading her wings on the outside of the fountain to stop herself from diving right in.
She does do some more “normal” things, like sipping nectar from flowers …
… and from the good old plastic feeder …
Educational Sidebar . . .
Those hummingbird tongues are a miracle of ingenuity in themselves. Until very recently, it was believed that they acquired nectar using capillary action. Some scientists thought that the lightening speed at which they feed made capillary action seem too slow a method, so they set up feeding stations with elaborate slow motion recording equipment. In 2015 they discovered that Nature’s design is even more amazing, involving an intricate pumping action created by the elasticity of the hummingbird tongue. You can see one of the videos they made, and read more in this New York Times article, The Hummingbird Tongue: How It Works.
When our little hummingbird is getting a bit tired from all that fountain exploration and cleverly engineered sipping, she settles into a quiet spot for a birdnap.
I find the following thirty second video of her taking a quiet moment oh-so delicately balanced on the end of a bit of old honeysuckle vine remarkably relaxing. I keep it on my phone so I can watch it when I feel the world is going mad.
And, speaking of relaxation . . . in a week from now I’m heading to the UK for a month. As I’m a one woman operation, I’ll be closing the online shop from May 28 until July 1, so if you have something you’d like to order before I go, now is the moment …
While I’m gone, apart from spending much anticipated time with family and friends, I hope to see some Tower ravens, meet some of my favourite UK artists, go on some hikes and see lots of British birds. I’ll just have a little point and shoot camera with me, but I’ll try to keep you updated on the highlights as I go. I’ll certainly be posting on Instagram and Facebook and may even manage a blog post or two.
Till then, I leave you with the thought that, although manuals are often handy, sometimes it’s fun to figure things out as you go along.
Already it seems as if we might just have dreamed it.
Once upon a time, one Saturday morning in February, we woke up in a crystal palace.
A thick and flawless blanket of snow had fallen silently through the Vancouver night. The sun had come out. Everything looked like a fairy tale.
Photo of me, like a kid on Christmas morning, out in the garden in my dashing plaid housecoat.
The landscape itself was breathtaking so we just stood around, being robbed of breath.
Movement in my the trees made me think “… and there are birds.”
Not only is there landscape, but there are BIRDS in it. It felt like a surprise gift.
Of course I know this — given that I think about, follow, write about, and photograph the darn things every day of my life. But somehow it just struck me then that birds are like an extra dimension. Like a new hue in the colour spectrum. A huge bonus.
Northern Flicker in a white landscape
It made me remember that I didn’t really notice birds much until my 50’s.
In my twenties, I lived in a cabin miles from anywhere, and there must have been many birds in my solitary world. Somehow I remember the trees, the moss, lichen and wild flowers in great detail, but no birds. There must have been ravens, for heaven’s sake, but I just didn’t register them.
Intrepid song sparrow
People often ask me how I came to start taking pictures of crows and other birds.
When both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other (almost twenty years ago now) I started photographing as a form of home-made therapy. I obsessively made very closely observed portraits of plants for several years, eventually turning it into my profession.
I can’t remember what year it was, but I was out in the garden, hunched over a hosta (as per usual) when I heard some crows making a terrific racket above me. I’m sure this was not the first time, but for some reason that day my head, tilted for so many years towards the earth, turned to look at the sky. In my mind, there was a creaking sound as I made the adjustment.
There are birds.
I finally noticed.
Better late than never, I guess.
Marvin and Mavis in the coral bark maple
And, as many of you know, once you start noticing crows, there’s no going back.
And they’re just the thin end of the wedge. Once you start watching crows, the next thing you know, there are house sparrows and starlings and robins and chickadees and flickers. And, good grief, was that a hummingbird …?
So, the snow day, beautiful as the scenery was, also served to make me appreciate the bird dimension of landscape all over again.
It was as if I’d forgotten about them all for a minute and then remembered.
Marvin “snow swimming” on the neighbour’s roof.
A robin and a flicker share the heated birdbath facilities.
A junco enjoys the pool to himself.
Marvin and Mavis enjoying some welcome sun.
Chickadee on one leg, trying to warm up one foot at a time.
Snow covered crow’s nest.
Marvin, having looked at snow from both sides now …
This fluffed up little female Anna’s hummingbird seems to have opted to over-winter in Vancouver. She may be wishing that she’d booked her winter getaway in the fall …but too late now. She’s here for the winter, and I feel committed to help her make it to spring.
I was horrified last week, the day we were rushing to get set up for a winter market, to see that the nectar I’d put out for her had frozen solid overnight. I pictured her tiny little frozen iridescent body somewhere in the snow. But no, she flitted by — so still alive! I had a second chance.
I put a fresh batch of nectar out for her and went off to the market. When I came home the feeder was covered in snow so the hummingbird couldn’t get at the fkk. New crisis management techniques were needed. A quick internet search brought up a number of solutions. The equipment most easily to hand was a trouble light, so I plugged that in close to the feeder to keep things warm enough to prevent freezing. That worked wonderfully for the next 24 hours.
Enter a caption
The next, very snowy, day I came home from the market (luckily Make-It at the PNE is walking distance from home) to take the dog out. I heard a persistent clicking noise by my studio and noticed that (a) the bulb in the trouble light had gone out and (b) the hummingbird was sheltering under the eaves of the studio and looking at me with a touch of exasperated indignation.
The bulb in the trouble light had burned out and the feeder was covered in snow. I replaced it. The next day it burned out again, so I built a “quick and dirty “shelter to keep the snow and rain off it. It’s been working fine since then. As a back-up, I have another feeder that adheres to the studio window. The heat from the building keeps it from freezing, although it’s been so unseasonably cold in Vancouver this week that it’s still been frozen in the morning.
I posted my trouble light solution on Facebook and Instagram and got some great additional tips from other people. Here are some of them:
Bring the nectar in at night and put it out first thing in the morning. Normally this would be the easiest solution in Vancouver, but this week it’s been so cold that the nectar can freeze during the day. Plus, you might sleep in …
Find some old style incandescent Christmas lights and wrap them around the feeder. The heat of the bulbs will keep the nectar from freezing. This sounds great, and a lot prettier than the trouble light, so I’m on the hunt for some old-style fairy lights!
Wrap an old sock around the feeder to keep it warm.
Tuck some foot or hand warmers (the kind you get in a pack, open and shake and they give off heat for about 8 hours – available in bulk at Costco) in the sock.
Here’s a photo of the hummingbird taken this morning. It’s getting colder all this week, so I’ll have to keep an eye on the trouble light. Maybe I’ll add the sock and foot warmer as a back-up in case the bulb goes out again.
When I take these extra measures to keep the hummingbird alive, I feel a bit like a kid leaving cookies out for Santa.
That’s partly because hummingbirds in general —and hummingbirds in a Canadian winter in particular — are rather magical.
And partly because the hummingbird brings me presents.
In return for just a little fiddling with trouble lights and extension cords, I get the gift of transcendent beauty. It’s a really good deal for me!