Family life with a pre-teen. I think I remember those days myself.
One minute they’re all grown up and don’t need their parents AT ALL, next — they just need a snuggle and some comfort food.
At least, when I was raising my kids, I didn’t have moulting to deal with as well.
A moulting crow is a cranky crow, and the whole family is starting that process now.
At least the fledgling can entertain himself with his own escaping feathers
At the same time, Marvin and Mavis are dealing with a pre-teen (Lucky) who is going through the two steps forward, three steps back process of learning to feed himself.
Lucky can definitely come and get his own peanuts from our deck. He has demonstrated prowess (well, competence, at least) in this field.
At first he’d just get one peanut and then wonder what exactly to do with it, but now he’s on to the advanced level of stuffing his gullet to capacity before flying away and hiding some for later, just like mom and dad do.
Other advanced skills include perching on the water bowl and dipping snacks to moisten them.
For most of the day, the family is off on adventures around the neighbourhood, while Marvin and Mavis are presumably teaching Lucky the skills needed to grab more “in the wild” food.
Yet several times a day I still hear Lucky making his begging calls, and every once in a while see one of the parents wavering in their determination to get him self sufficient by stuffing a snack into his waiting beak.
I started to write this post about my song sparrow friends last week, but then world events, already dark, turned even more grim and made writing about small birds seem ridiculous.
Now I’m back to thinking that small things are sometimes the best subjects to hang onto at certain times. Also, their tiny determination seems somehow even more appropriate at this moment.
While Ben (the crow with broken foot I wrote about last time) is always the first crow to greet me in the morning, the very first birds there, every single day, are the song sparrows. Half a dozen or so seem to be in our garden at all times — more reliable companions than any other birds this winter.
Song sparrow on his favourite perch, as close as possible to the back deck..
The trees begin to rustle as soon as I open the door and small, drab, brown shapes emerge. At first it looks as if sad winter leaves are being blown loose, but it’s always the song sparrow gang.
They see the crows gathering but they always dive in fearlessly first, grabbing at least one peanut each before melting swiftly and seamlessly back into the foliage.
I always cheer them on.
And when I said they were drab — that is ONLY upon the most cursory of glances. Give these birds a single moment of inspection and it’s obvious that they’re one of nature’s more complicated works of art — and all created with a palette of infinitely varied browns, creams and a touch of pearl grey.
I’ve been spending time making simple bird figures by needle felting wool. Mostly it’s just an excuse to relieve stress and spend more time thinking about birds, but it’s also practice in noticing things about them that I might not properly see when photographing them. When I look at the intricacy of a song sparrow from the point of view of trying to reproduce it I am both defeated and filled with joy at their modest and complex beauty.
A pair of needle felted Mountain Bluebirds.
I have reference binder of my own photos to work from, and so far I’ve tackled rudimentary versions of bushtits, chickadees, a spotted towhee, a ruby crowned kinglet, mountain bluebirds and a whiskey jack — but, honestly, I don’t think I know where to start with the quiet but infinitely elaborate patterns in a song sparrow!
Song Sparrow with an acorn cup
While the feather markings seems truly daunting, I’d love to have a go at the facial expression of a song sparrow. They have, I would submit, the very best “judgemental” faces of all the small birds.
Midweek brought terrible news from Europe, and also a skiff of snow here.
That morning the sparrows left some cryptic messages. They looked like a combination of frost patterns and a more intentional series of documents in a forgotten script.
So many big and very small things to think about these last few days and, as usual, no real wisdom to be found aside from trying to find wonder where and when we can.
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.
Thankfully, he is no longer the bedraggled bird he was at peak moulting season last year. He got back to being a handsome, if unremarkable looking, crow by late fall.
Last spring I was away in the UK for the month of June, so I missed a lot of nesting season. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. Pants produced no offspring in 2019, so I’ve been keeping a special eye on their progress this spring.
They had a rather trying fall and winter last year, with territorial trouble on their southern border from the Walker family. While Mr. and Mrs. P had no surviving babies last year, the Walkers did, and their need for more food and their numerical advantage led to bold and frequent incursions into Pantsland.
Both of the Pants couple spent most of their time with eyes scouring the sky for invading forces and they were very jumpy and seemed … if it is possible to discern this in crows … stressed out.
Mrs. Pants on guard
Mr. Pants keeping a wary eye on things from above
Mr Pants employing full tail regalia to defend his territory.
Now that nesting season is well underway, all the crows are keeping a lower profile and things have at last quietened on the contested border.
Mr. Pants takes a relaxed moment to pose with wisteria.
As I mentioned in the last post, Small News, many crows are choosing small street trees as nesting sites of late. While they’re closer to the ground and the risk of predation by racoons, cats, squirrels etc. they’re less likely to be raided by large birds like ravens, hawks and eagles — which seems to be an increasing risk as these birds gain a firmer foothold in the city.
The Pants have long favoured the small tree option and this year is no exception.
I spotted Mrs Pants last week sitting in their nest in quite small street tree — a crabapple of some sort, I think, and the same type of tree they chose two years ago. Fortunately they seem to have selected a healthier specimen this time, as the spring 2018 tree shed a lot of leaves in spring, leaving poor Mrs. P baking in the sun or thoroughly soaked, depending on the day, and not particularly well hidden. Even then, they did successfully fledge two little ones that year, although, sadly neither made it past the first few months. One just disappeared early on and the other succumbed to avian pox.
Being an urban nature enthusiast involves, as I learn anew every year, witnessing a lot of tragedy and well as joy.
Mrs. Pants on the nest this morning
Still, like the crows, we consider each day a new start, and each nesting season a potential bonanza of good news, so fingers crossed for the Pantses and all the other birds putting their all into the nesting business this spring.
I walk around the neighbourhood several times a day during nesting season, checking in on the crow news — taking photos and making mental notes of how things are with the various crow families I’ve become acquainted with over the years.
At this point I’ve got so many crow-notes stuffed into my head, I’m not sure where to start unpacking them.
Rather than trying to cram all the news into one post, I think I’ll go one crow family at a time, starting with the Pants family in the next post.
First though, I have to tell you about this morning’s drama.
We’ve had nesting bald eagles in the neighbourhood for years, so all through each nesting season the eagle parents scour the area for baby eagle food, always followed by a loud and angry crow posse. This morning I happened to catch some of the action from relatively close quarters when the eagle landed in the school grounds at the end of the block.
The crows, backed up by screeching gulls, seemed even more loud and frantic than usual.
So impassioned, in fact, you can see one crow in the video below whacking the sitting eagle hard enough to cause it to fly off.
The reason they were so mad? It looked as if the eagle had scooped an entire crow’s nest right out of a tree. You can see a glimpse of the nest in the video below.
In the end, the eagle dropped most of the nest, although there was something still gripped in its claws as it flew off.
The eagle population is part of the reason the crows are changing their nesting habits.
Local ornithology expert, Rob Butler, who spoke about crows last weekend on local CBC Radio show, North by Northwest, mentioned this change: crows who had previously chosen high nest sites for protection against ground based predators (raccoons, cats, coyotes) are now picking spots in lower, less eagle-accessible trees — even selecting quite small street trees they calculate will be awkward for raccoons to scale.
I’ve certainly noticed that our local crows have rejected the once-coveted penthouse suites in the Notre Dame poplars this year in favour of much lower and more camouflaged trees. Marvin and Mavis have picked such a low, mid-street location for the nest this year, it would be quite the drama if the eagle swooped that low.
If you think being dive-bombed by a crow is exciting …!
The Pants crow family, who I’ll be looking at next time, have long been fans of the low-rise nest building solution and we’ll have a look at what they’re up to this spring.
“Explore your own neighbourhood,” advises our provincial premier, John Horgan for this long weekend in British Columbia. We’re all being asked to stay relatively close to home to limit the spread of COVID-19. So, much as I long for the forest and mountains after weeks and months confined to the city, I decided have some fun and set myself a real Urban Nature Enthusiast challenge.
Geordie and I heading out on our urban nature safari.
We headed out to one of the least promising-looking locations, nature-wise, in our East Vancouver neighbourhood.
Our destination was the old Grandview Hydro Substation located at the noisy intersection of First Avenue and Nanaimo Street. This cavernous space is a perennially popular filming location for the local movie industry. From what I can discover, it was built in 1937 as a substation for the BC Electric Railroad Company to help power the old interurban rail lines that once criss-crossed the city.
As the traffic roared past, Geordie and I scouted around for some interesting moss, lichen or rust. I wasn’t really expecting to find much in the way bird life, but the trilling, whistling sound of many starlings lured me around the corner of the building.
The east side of the substation is covered in a cascade of ivy and, at first, that’s all I could see. It took a few moments before I realized that it was alive with starlings; specifically, fledgling starlings, merrily feasting on the ivy’s dark berries. Very few adult starlings were around, making it seem like a massive starling nursery — a relatively safe place to leave the kids while running errands.
Roll call at the starling nursery school.
Apart from the starling crowd, there were some robins and sparrows also enjoying the dining facilities. Nearby, a pair of crows seemed more focussed on another project.
These two were industriously flying back and forth to a nearby tree with a succession of twigs, mud and grass.
First, some structural stuff …
… and then some soft furnishings …
… finally, some scraps of cedar bark fibres, which crows often use to line the nest for its antimicrobial properties.
I thought that was a pretty good dose of urban nature for a trip to an old substation in a busy traffic area next to a gas station and was about to call it a day when I noticed the swallows.
At first I thought they were just more starlings darting around in the sky, but I could see they were much smaller and more erratic. When one swooped only feet from my head I realized they were Violet Green Swallows!
I tried for quite a while to get a photo of them flying, which is hard enough because of their speed and random direction changes, but just about impossible in an urban area with all the power lines and poles getting in the way of the camera’s focus.
I found the best strategy was to focus on one bird when it stopped on a wire and hope that some others would fly close by. I just had my light “walking” lens with me, so success was limited, but here are few shots of the magical substation swallows.
I grew up in a very industrial part of a northern English town and I spent my childhood playing along the Newcastle quayside, discovering places like this all the time. Forgotten by the grown-ups, slightly dirty, dodgy and dangerous, but full of adventure and new understanding for free range kids. My substation outing reminded me of those days, and the sense of having made small but amazing discoveries.
If you’re looking for something to do, I really suggest setting yourself an urban nature challenge, checking out some new part of your local neighbourhood. It’s important to give it a a few minutes of waiting and watching to see what’s going on in the slightly hidden world of nature in the city. Bring the kids — they love a good expedition and, if it helps, imagine it being narrated by David Attenborough!
A small chickadee making himself heard over the river of traffic.
The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of all the North American woodpeckers, a compact and handsome little bird, often found in urban backyards.
The male wears a jaunty red cap, while the female restricts her fashion palette to a crisp and dapper black and white.
They are firm believers in the saying “good things come in small packages.”
I was out walking the dog a few mornings ago and heard what sounded like a small jackhammer. A bit rude to be working on a construction project so early, I thought.
But, getting closer to the hammering, I realized the source was the top of a Hydro pole. I then assumed that it was the usual suspect — the amorous male Northern Flicker looking to impress the ladies.
I stared at the pole for quite a while without being able to spot the percussionist. It took my camera lens finally pick him out — a tiny, but talented, male downy woodpecker.
He was exploring the whole T-bar of the pole, testing here and there to find the best reverb. And he’d found the sweet spot for sure, making a noise that echoed richly around the neighbourhood.
So impressive did he sound — he finally attracted a female Northern Flicker to his perch.
They both looked at each other as if they’d arrived on a blind date . . . and both parties had stretched the truth in their dating profiles.
You can see Mr. Downy trying to look inconspicuous on the far right.
After an awkward moment or two, the downy made a quiet exit stage right — off in search of his true love.
Here’s the actual object of his affections, taking a little spa time at our bird bath. I’m hoping they’ve sorted the confusion out now and that we can look forward to some even littler downies later in the season.
Incidentally, my very first blog post, written in spring 2014 was about a Downy Woodpecker. You can read it here: Downy Woodpecker Drama
Two big things to take away from the 2014 story:
Keep your cat indoors
Donate to your local wildlife rescue centre. Nesting season is always an extra busy time for these volunteer run organizations, especially as they try to work through the Covid-19 complications, so help them out if you can. The organization that saved the downy in 2014 (and countless other birds and other wildlife before and since) is Wildlife Rescue BC.
Here’s a re-post from this time last year, and the chickadees are equally busy this year.
Also, a reminder, if you haven’t read it already, don’t miss the gripping sequel to yesterday’s post: Flicker Saga Part Two
The Chickadee Edition
On your marks, get set, go.
As soon as the plum blossoms flower on our street it’s the signal for serious nesting building to start. From the biggest to the tiniest birds, the clock is ticking.
With great good luck, we have a pair of chickadees, including my special buddy, Braveheart (with the teardrop marking) building a nest in the ornamental plum tree by our house.
When I feel too busy, I just go out and watch these two working ceaselessly for a few minutes. Their level of dedication to the job at hand is pretty inspiring.
Phase One: expanding the existing small tree cavity. The original hole was clearly not spacious enough for their interior design ambitions, so remodelling was undertaken with zeal.
With those tiny beaks, you can imagine how many trips it took do the job. For about a week, the pair of them took turns flying in and out, hundreds of times a day, with their micro-loads of wood chips.
Even when they stopped for a break, you could see the sawdust stuck to their hardworking little faces.
I imagine it was a pretty dry and uncomfortable job, chewing and spitting out wood for days on end. The photo below catches one of our intrepid builders coughing up a bit of sawdust. I felt as if I should offer them each a very tiny beer, but I guess they made do with the water in the bird bath.
It’s hard to say if they finally decided the space was big enough, or they just couldn’t stand any more digging …
… but one day efforts suddenly switched from digging to interior design.
Nothing like some fresh cut flowers to bring a new living space alive!
I’m not sure what’s going on in there now. I try not to spend too much time hanging around in case I attract unwanted predatory attention, but I’ll keep you posted on developments.
This gripping tale is a repost from nesting season 2017 … enjoy!
I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a saga, but now I’ve accumulated about a hundred photos of our local Northern Flicker family, chronicling their ups and downs over the last few weeks.
I kept meaning to post some as things unfolded, but it turned into such a roller coaster, I didn’t want to start telling the story until I had an idea of how tragic (one a scale of one to three) the ending would be.
Now the number of images is just out of control. I feel as if I have the makings of a small novel! And, besides, who knows what the conclusion will be in any family’s story?
So here is part one of the Flicker Family album.
It began earlier this summer when I noticed a lot of flicker calling going on all around the house and garden. This handsome fellow was to be seen, with his mate, working away with their beaks at a hole in the plum tree right in front of our house.
Northern Flickers are a type of woodpecker, and quite common in Vancouver. In fact, they were the runners-up in the recent vote to elect an official bird to represent the city. You can tell the males from the females by the dashing red “moustache” at the base of their beaks.
After a few more weeks, strange noises began to come from the tree.
The flicker pair were on ferocious guard at all times. Here’s the dad, holding the fort against a marauding squirrel. The squirrel eventually gave up and snuck away down the far side of the tree trunk.
Below, you can see the female flicker on the lower part of the tree. If you look closely, you can see also the male’s head peeking out from the nest hole further up.
Here’s Mom visiting the feeder in the garden. She was usually in the nest and you can see that her feathers were getting a bit dishevelled in the confined space.
Dad on guard, nest bottom right.
*** PART TWO OF THE FLICKER FAMILY SAGA COMING TOMORROW ***
Meanwhile – in an unrelated Flicker incident, we had the …
FLICKER IN THE STUDIO FIASCO
In late June a neighbour brought me a flicker that she saw hit by a car as she was waiting for a bus on a main street near here. The bird was stunned and in danger of getting hit again, so she and her son braved the pointy beak and picked him up to bring to me. The plan was I’d keep an eye on him and see if he needed to go to the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue for treatment.
I put him in a covered box and I moved it into the studio to keep warm. But then I noticed that the scrap of towel I’d put in the box to pad it had become a bit unraveled, and a thread was wrapped around the flicker. I tried to carefully untangle it and … of course … the bird got out of the box and suddenly regained his powers of flight.
Part bird, part Swiffer, he scooped up some cobwebs from the skylight.
Understandably scared, he took cover behind just about every counter and work table in the place, then flying up the skylight (and doing a bit of dusting for me as he went.)
Luckily he finally made its way to a window that I could open for him.
Apart from never wanting to be in a studio again, he seemed fine as he soared off in the direction he’d been rescued from.
Yes, let us drag our minds away from the headlines for a few moments to consider the many amazing things about this rather drab, and somewhat unfortunately named little bird.
And it really is minuscule, weighing in at about 5.3 grams — approximately the weight of one nickel. It’s one of the tiniest songbirds, coloured a modest beige-grey and, with it’s squeaky call, very like a flying mouse.
You can see how really tiny they are when they decide to take a bath. I remember how shocked I was as kid when I saw my aunty’s Yorkshire Terriers soaking wet.
Similar effect with bushtits.
It’s hard to decide what I like most about bushtits, but high on the list has to be their nest making technique. Essentially, they weave an elastic sock out of moss, grass, lichen, leaves, small twigs.
A bushtit nest I found lying on the ground after nesting season a few years ago. It measures about 25 cm (10-inches) from top to bottom.
The ingenious addition of spider web to the construction is what makes them stretchy — a handy feature as both parents, possible extra helpers and, eventually, 5-7 baby bushtits, will all be snuggled in there at one time. The interior is made extra cosy with a lining of downy plant material and feathers, while the outside is camouflaged with the addition of material from nearby foliage.
You can see a bushtit popping his head out of the nest, top left.
Another bushtit bonus: they generally come in bulk. It’s rare to see one by itself as they arrive in the garden like an excited tour group on a very tight schedule. One minute there are zero bushtits, then there are thirty. They’ll crowd the local attractions, tweeting their reviews, before abruptly weaving off en masse to the next stop on the itinerary.
They love suet, but they also like the finch feeder — and I’ve even seen them drink from the hummingbird feeder on occasion.
Another thing for gardeners to love about bushtits — they will eat aphids from your plants! They also enjoy small spiders and other bugs that live on the underside of leaves. Their small size gives them the advantage of being able to hang underneath leaves and access a bug harvest there that’s inaccessible to bigger birds.
One of the very most amazing things that I’ve just recently noticed about bushtits is that they can hold food in their little claws and eat it like a sandwich. I thought my eyes were deceiving me at first, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to get a decent photo. Not so easy, as those feet are so tiny and so fast, but here are a few of my efforts to capture the Bushtit Sandwich Effect.
I’ve not noticed any other of our local birds using such a prehensile-like feeding technique, and I honestly don’t remember seeing bushtits doing this until the last few months, so I sort of wonder if it’s one of those miracles of city bird adaptation.
Still need more amazing facts about bushtits? OK, how about the fact that, despite their tiny size and uniform colour, you can easily tell the males from the females by their eyes? The males have dark, button-like eyes, while the females have light coloured ones — pale gold in our part of the world — giving them that intense “Angry Bird” look I do so love.
Do you sometimes hear a small shrub alive with tweets, and then the bush seems to deconstruct before your eyes into a living Escher-like bird design — and it’s bushtits heading off somewhere else? That’s another thing I love about them. They’re magic.
So, while there are definitely a lot of massively worrying things going on in the world right now, this is a small (tiny, really) reminder that there are still many good and amazing things going on all around us — under leaves, inside mossy sock-nests, or flying around in judgemental little groups.
Sometimes, for your own mental health, you just need to Consider the *#@*!! Bushtit …