Birds of (our garden in) North Vancouver

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BIRDS IN OUR GARDEN

Large ground feeders

Varied Thrush

These sturdy, robin-sized birds have remarkable, almost military, colors; maybe it's the gun-barrel blue of their back and cap. They started appearing one winter after a heavy snowfall, when I threw out lots of seed. Now two or three appear regularly during the winter. If you throw out seed when the ground is covered in snow, plenty may appear. Have seen a flock of a dozen or so near the local woods. I suspect they aren't swift of mind as they seem to have regular collisions with our windows no matter what steps we take to discourage that.

Spotted (Rufous-sided) Towhee

Another bird with striking colors—especially the red eyes. We only see one or two but they have been coming for years and are often daily visitors. They started one winter but then, perhaps because I left the fallen leaves on the ground one winter, giving them plenty to scratch around in for food, they began to stay all summer. Now the kids appear in the Fall and we have a couple at least who are here for the winter. They will start with the scatter below the seed feeders but will eventually perch on the feeder and feed if the feeder is out in the garden.

American Robin

The Brit Robin is tiny compared with this larger local bird, which is commonplace in Vancouver all summer, pulling up worms from lawns all over. Less happily for us it sometimes lets rip with its prodigious and seemingly endless song right outside our window at first light (4am). I did once hear a House Finch butt in on this early morning chorus with a robust and obviously competitive song...and win! The Robin quit after about 5 mins of Bird Idol.

Most birds that feed on the ground are quick to take off at the first sign of movement nearby but Robins often give ground reluctantly, keeping just ahead of us when we come across them in the woods, and they're very attentive when we're out gardening. I suspect they're letting us do their dirty work of unearthing goodies from the soil.

Wood- peckers

Northern (red-shafted) Flicker

Now here's a bird you can't miss and don't want to. Whether it's the loud calls, or in spring, the startling loud drumming on your gutters (a mating/territorial signal), or it might be the brilliant flash of orange tailfeathers streaking across the garden. This is a large, gaudy fellow: orange tailfeathers, bright red cheek flashes, a smart black bib on mottled tan bodywork provide for a real garden dandy. They sometimes peck wood but mostly hunt for ants and other insects in the ground, using their long tongue. However, they are pigs at the suet feeder, which can get to be a problem when their are two parents and a kid, and the Downys have to wait in line.

Downy Woodpecker

Some years ago, after many years of having seed feeders in the garden I decided to try a suet feeder. I hung the feeder up and as I took my hand away a Downy Woodpecker appeared on the feeder in a blink and began to chow down. I hadn't seen a woodpecker in the vicinity up until then so that was two surprises! Our regulars are quite cautious so this one must have been hungry. They've been sporadic until this year, when a pair suddenly decided to set up a nest somewhere near and have a kid; the three of them were back and forth to the feeder and ever since we have at least two pairs appearing at the feeder on a regular basis through the year. Don't expect them every day. I think that insect feeders like this have to wait for a source of food to replenish after they've cleaned it out, so they seem to leave for a week or so and then come back. They're not much bigger than a large sparrow—small compared with...

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Pileated Woodpecker

...this is the 747 of the woodpecker family. That's "pile-ee-ated" or "pill-ee-ated":your choice. I stopped to watch one at work a few weeks ago on the trail to the creek near here. None of that effete "rat-a-tat-tat" stuff for these guys: more like "hack, stab, rip". I've only had glimpses of these eagle-sized birds but there are plenty of signs of them around, as they carve a characteristic rectangular, deep hole in dead trees.

Did get one at the suet feeder once: he flew in one day, ate half the suet in a few lunges; then retreated to the porch railing where he casually too a hunk out the railing to clean his beak and took off. Never came back.

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The usual suspects

Black-capped Chickadee

Common, always and constant. These small birds are everywhere: almost universal in local neighbourhoods, and equally at home in the woods at 3,000 ft. They're intelligent, curious and can be quite tame. They also have what has been described as the most elaborate vocalization in the animal kingdom: if you didn't know better you'd think their many calls were by different birds. When the new brood of fluffy kids arrive, they fill the garden with a distinct kid-like version of the adult chorus all day long. On hot summer's days, I soak the leaves of the maples in the back garden with a hose so that the chickadees can enjoy a back scrub on the wet leaves. They'll eat suet or seed.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

These little chaps are outnumbered about 100 to 1 by the Black-capped, and may not always show up but they are worth the separate billing. The back really is a rich chestnut color and quite distinct. Their call and behaviour is also very slightly different from the BcC, but like their cousins, they are cheerful, active and constant at the feeder. There may be some sleeping around; hybrids are known and they seem quite evident.

Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco Winter visitors only, these guys come down from the mountains when the first snow arrives up there and are gone at the first sign of summer. The males are easily identified by the head looking as though it has been dipped in black-ink, and the flash of white in the tail feathers as they chase each other around. There's usually a crowd of a dozen or so on the porch. House Finch 'House' anything sounds boring doesn't it? But having House Finches sing their rich operatic verses in spring is reason by itself to keep feeders. They don't make 'music' all the time: finches are as scrappy as Juncos but while Juncos make only the occasional chipping sound, while they're fighting finches are cacaphonous brawlers. Once sex is done with and the kids arrive, song gives way to raucous squawking as they squabble for places at the feeders. Most leave in the fall, but don't be too alarmed to see some finches in the fall with the most grotesque growths on their faces. It's a disease that is an unfortunate plague for finches.

Small

White Crowned Sparrow

Suddenly showed up one year and then their whirring call was everywhere in the neighbourhood...and then gone again, except for a few: the population seems to be quite cyclic. A little more attractive than yer average sparrow, with the jaunty white cap. Quite swift on their feet as they zip about looking for cast-offs from the feeders above. Also relatively tame.

American Goldfinch

They're known to hang out with House Finches but they are not as common. It is still a highlight to see a sudden streak of bright yellow in with the red plumage of the finches. For a couple of years we'd get a glimpse and then they'd move on, but one couple seems to have stayed in the last year or so.

Fox_Sparrow

A winter-only visitor—there's usually at least two or three here all winter. We noticed these fellas because they won't take any guff from the Juncos when it came to hustling seed in winter. Thought that they were mountain heights dwellers too, since they appeared and disappeared with the Juncos but last Summer there were a couple of pairs nesting on the trail that crosses at the end of our cul-de-sac. Nice song.

Smaller

Anna's Hummingbird†

It's not until you've been on the lookout for humming birds that you may know they're around since they can be easily mistaken for a large insect!

At first, we saw glimpses and once or twice one would alight briefly on the phone line for a rest. But when we put a feeder up we had regular visits and it a treat to watch them. Our little guy (this breed is quite feisty and will chase others off, so you typically only get one per feeder) shows up regularly every 15 to 30 minutes for a guzzle. He may just hover and drink or may take a perch and rest for a bit. It is quite remarkable how much they may drink, although he seems cautious about every change in the feeder solution and just sips at first.

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Rufous Hummingbird

About the same size as an Anna's and almost impossible to tell the females apart. The males are easier, especially if you get a clear look at the rufous chest. But they behave differently: both male and female are more feisty and territorial. They'll fly in on their way north or south, chase off the Anna's who have been here all year, stay for a week and then move on. I've seen a Rufous chase off a much larger Goldfinch, presumably because the bright yellow looked like competition! They're not here often and in a way I'm glad.

Bushtit

Tiny, squeaky birds, they appear in ones and two in the summer but in groups of up to 20 birds in winter, and since they all eat together, they cover the suet feeder like a blanket. The progress of the flock can be traced around the neighbourhood as they make their way in a regular circuit that seems to take about 20 minutes. Great to have them and the Chickadees cleaning your trees of bugs! Their kids are indistinguishable from the adults.

Wilson's warbler

This is a shy bird that doesn't come to the feeders but is apparently drawn to our garden occasionally—as many birds seem to be—by the reassurance of other birds around. Our sole sightings are of a small yellow flash in and out of the rhodos at the back that is clearly not a goldfinch. Eventually we'll see, in sunlight, the greenish backfeathers and black cap that are giveaways.

Others

Steller's Jay

Big, loud, gaudy: these are the jackdaws of our part of the world. You can hear them coming across the neighbourhood, the whole family sqawking and yelling at each other, probably talking about food. They arrive with a thump on the porch railing or the roof gutter, and for a couple of minutes will criss-cross the garden in flashes of royal blue. They love the suet and somehow manage a quite woodpecker-like grip on the feeder, remove large chunks and then they're gone again. When we throw out peanuts in the shell, the squirrels try for them but are no match for these guys.

Purple Finch

These also hang around with House Finches, yet our one or two seem to show up only in late summer or fall, perhaps with their second or third brood, passing through on their way south. Hard to distinguish from a house finch unless you're lucky enough—like us—to be able to see both birds sitting side by side on the phone line or the feeder. We would call these a wine-red finch but apparently, at the time they were named, the word purple described a different color from the one that we use purple for today--and you guessed it: it was a wine-red.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Another small bird, that shows up at our suet feeder with about the same sporadic frequency as the Downy Woodpecker. These are interesting sleek birds that search for insects in the bark of trees. The Nuthatch skitters headfirst down the trunk looking for food; the similar Brown Creeper (which I haven't seen in our garden) travels up the trunk of the tree doing its business

This winter we've had a pair coming to the feeder every day so it looks as thought they'll be nesting here in the summer.

Rare visitors

Blackheaded Grosbeak

A couple of summers ago, I kept seeing glimpses of a bird around the feeders that looked familiar-but-not-quite. I finally got a longer look...and a chance to see that it wasn't a towhee or a starling but a Grosbeak. Then a year or so back one chap ("she" is quite different from "him") put in quite a few brave showings on the suet outside my office window but they never stay around for more than a day or so. [Jun 2008: A couple of BhGs have been around for the last few days and as I write, one of them has perched on the sill outside my window...only two feet from me, and is eying me curiously as he chows down on a peanut. Bold!]

Blue Jay

Steller's Jays (above) are mistakenly referred to as Blue Jays. The Steller's is indeed blue and a Jay but the Blue Jay is an east coast bird with only the occasional stray making it out this way. However, one day a real Blue Jay showed up in the garden. S/he was good enough to spend ten minutes or so sitting in the crook of our pine tree, long enough for me to make sure that this was indeed a stray. Apparently not well liked back east because they chase out (and eat the young of) other garden birds, so perhaps it's as well that s/he never returned!

Raven!

The mythical bird of First Nations folklore. We see them infrequently here in the burbs, where Mr. Crow presides. Raven is more than a super-sized crow but telling Crow from Raven can be tricky if you have a small Raven or a big Crow. There are clues. In the mountains, the Raven's slow circling glide is unlike that of the flapping of a Crow, more like that of a raptor; there's also the occasional honking call; and here in the burbs the clue is often the sight of several Crows chasing a large lookalike through the trees. When a huge black bird came and perched briefly on our phone wires it was easier to see that great honking beak and the wedged tail. For some reason, this one arrived in our garden one spring and seemed to be looking for nesting sites. An incongruous sight: a bird the size of a small helicopter hopping about in the bushes with the chickadees!


BIRDS IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (more to come)
Red-breasted Sapsucker

Only a few sightings of this local woodpecker—one flew to within a few feet of me to check out a small stump and I saw another (surprisingly indifferent to me watching for 10 minutes) just up the road in a small group of trees. Quite distinct red head, dark back with silvery bars.

However, the characteristic, orderly rows of holes in the barks of local hemlocks are a common sighting on hikes around here.

Heard what I thought was a Downy Woodpecker at work on the big cedar at the back of our house and then saw that it was one of these birds. Whoa, had a bad case of NIMBY! These birds can kill a tree and I don't want to lose our cedar. Fortunately, after creating a row of holes he didn't come back.

Barred Owl

[1] Rambling along nearby Lyn Creek one day, less than a kilometer from the house, I glanced into the woods to my right and was surprised to find a large pair of eyes staring casually back. A huge owl was sitting on a branch, not 50m away and wasn't at all fussed when several of us gathered to continue watching.[2] Jan 2009-A neighbour reports that a large owl made a dive at their kitten—thankfully missed and gave up —in broad daylight.

By markings size and behaviour, this is the infamous (large and aggressive enough to take rabbits and foxes) Barred Owl, making its way into the region from the East, and squeezing out the smaller Northern Spotted Owl, which is a similar but smaller owl.

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Belted Kingfisher

It's quite common to hear the sharp loud chatter of the kingfisher along coastal bays around here and then eventually to see one either chasing a rival or diving for fish. But now I've seen a pair along the local creek— about ten minutes walk from here—on several occasions. For some reason this bird looks small in photos yet in real life it is crow-sized or bigger.

Birds overhead

Bald Eagle

A common sight over North Vancouver—often given away by the telltale company of crows or seagulls trying to buzz same. One year, we sat through a performance of Hamlet that a local company puts on in a marquee by the beach, and could barely hear the performance. Two very large eagle chicks were circling the nest in a tree outside and squawking for food. A pair sporadically nests near our house and a neighbour occasionally has one in their garden.

Red-tailed Hawk

More common on the tops of highway lights than seagulls, a pair of these nest locally. Interestingly, the local Steller's Jays have taken to mimicking their "piew" call—the one that Hollywood always uses to let you know that the scene is in nature somewhere.

Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk

Even experts find it difficult to tell these apart but the "crow-sized" Coopers is larger than the Sharp-shinned so I'm fairly sure that my brilliant photo below is Mr. C. We've had two visits from this (these) bird(s). One chased a varied thrush into our front window a few years back and took off with the corpse. Then one day, this beauty showed up in the maples behind the house and sat there in the sunshine while I snapped pictures!

OK, here's the incredibly sophisticated set-up that I have for attracting the variety of birds that you see above, to entertain me through the day. You can get some supplies at your local pet shop but I prefer Birds Unlimited on Marine. They have more variety and provide good advice if you want it.

  • Food: Two kinds of feeder, both mounted where the squirrels can't get to them and with hoods to protect the seed from (a) the rain and (b) ...squirrels. The green contraption beneath the hood on the right prevents squirrels getting to the seed even if they do get to the feeder which means we can leave it out in the garden during the Summer. But in winter squirrels get so hungry that they're at it all the time, which keeps the birds away so we bring it in.
    • Seed feeder: suggest the no-mess mix for seed. That way you don't have to clean a sack-full of shells off your porch in the Spring. The perching birds will throw half of this out and the other (or lazier) birds will gather it up underneath.
    • Suet: almost anything with "nuts" in the mix seems to work. I get suet for most of the year and the dough only for July-Aug (it doesn't melt).
  • Power and/or phone lines: your local Hydro or phone company will install these for you and their main purpose is to provide a perch from which even those birds that don't come to the feeder can survey the territory...and you can survey them. (These wires also provide other benefits).
  • Not shown: Hummingbird feeder (further along, by the kitchen door).
    • Easy hummingbird feeder mix: Measure out 1/2 cup of sugar and add warm tap water to fill a measuring beaker to the 2 cup mark; stir—no need to microwave— until the sugar is dissolved. Bingo, you have enough hummingbird food for the average feeder. Change it every week at least, and more often if your feeder is exposed to sun. This is a bacteria-breeding mix too and you want your hummingbirds alive!
    • Winter feeding: during cold spells, you'll need to keep your feeder from freezing or the poor little guys will have no food at the very time they need it most. Best solution I've found is to suspend a trouble-lamp under the feeder. Make sure you use a 40-60W incandescent bulb. I wrap aluminum foil around the lamp and fold it over at the top. This serves the dual purposes of funnelling warm air up to the feeder (or a wind can disperse it) and keeping rain off the lamp. Just to be sure, in the case of an electrical shorts, I hang it from the feeder using a rubber cord rather than a wire one.

      I suggest only keeping this up there during freezing spells. I once used a 100W bulb and left it up there too long. It evaporated half the water off leaving a sticky goo.