Friday, July 29, 2011


Friday, July 22, 2011

Alaksen National Wildlife Area

Thankfully, my poor quads got a break from the mud slogging this week - instead, we split our time between invasive plant removal (broom, loosestrife, and thistle) and bird surveying. Sorry, I just have to say that again - they are paying me to walk around and look at birds. I'm not gloating or anything... I just have to remind myself from time to time because it seems so unreal. :) Of course it's not all fun - the plant removal is pretty hard work, especially in the hot afternoon sun. So I enjoy the birds all the more when I get a chance to see them.

Here are some of the birds I saw last Monday:

Black-headed grosbeak. This was a first for me! We saw two males chasing each other around the trees.

American goldfinch. These guys were everywhere - mostly flying overhead calling "potato chip! potato chip! potato chip!"and chowing down on thistle seeds. I sometimes get these mixed up with yellow warblers (next) because they're about the only bright yellow birds that tiny. Apart from the black marking on the goldfinch that set it apart, I also find the posture to be different - the goldfinches stand more upright, whereas the warblers are more tilted forward.

Yellow warbler!

Spotted towhee. These striking birds are everywhere in this area, and aren't shy about hopping out onto branches and getting their picture taken. They have really strange and varied calls (what I thought for years to be squirrel chatter actually turned out to be a towhee), and you often hear them scratching around in the brush.

We weren't able to identify this guy for sure - I think it might be a Western wood pewee, but I'm not very familiar with flycatchers. If anyone has any ideas, I would be grateful for the insight!

Downy woodpecker. Downies look a lot like their slightly larger cousins, the hairy woodpeckers. Apparently the best way to tell them apart is the length of the beak relative to their head - if the beak is about the same length as the head, it's the bigger Hairy, but if the beak is shorter than the head, it's the diminutive Downy. The bright red patch on this guy also indicates he is a male. :)

Cedar waxwing. These birds are also super common in the area, especially around berry bushes! I often hear them before I see them - they make a high pitched, almost digital insect sound. I think these birds are so pretty - they look so much better put-together than other birds, like they're made of painted ceramic.

Juvenile bald eagle. Young eagles take up to 5 years to attain sexual maturity and get the famous white head and tail.

More pictures (including a groovy orange slug) to come!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Salt marsh

This week, we've been working out on the salt marshes off Westham Island. A salt marsh, in case it isn't obvious, is the upper part of the intertidal zone where salt-tolerant plants such as worts, sedges, and rushes can be periodically covered at high tide. In the delta of the Fraser River, the marshes and mudflats extend out for probably a couple of kilometers at least. We've been working with a government biologist, counting different types of native vegetation out there in order to assess how much the marsh has eroded over the past thirty years - and the answer seems to be a lot, in some places. From what I understand, the erosion of the marsh is mainly due to rising sea levels and over-grubbing by snow geese.

It's muddy, dirty, exhausting work - it's a 45 minute slog through the mud and a short canoe ride across a channel just to get to the site, and then we're on our knees in the muck all day getting poked in the eye (or nostril) by bulrush stems. But the sun is (usually) shining, we can see all sorts of birds (harriers, yellowlegs, sandpipers, bald eagles, swallows, wrens, herons, etc), and there's something about working outdoors, especially by the ocean, that really connects you to the planet. Measuring the workday by high tides and low tides and sun and rain makes me feel like I'm remembering something more elemental that I'd forgotten along the way. And the landscape is beautiful - I find it really interesting to see the different vegetation zones change as you move away from land, as different species adapt to different water and salinity levels.

This is prime real estate as far as eagles are concerned... this pair built their nest on an old navigation tower, and are raising two young that are about to fledge. This particular site comes complete with adjacent tower (excellent for stretching your wings and letting the wind take you off), multiple perch sites, breathtaking views, and even a small live tree growing out of the corner for shade.


Mallard nest.

A hanging marsh wren nest, woven around and suspended by cattail stalks.

Our accompanying government biologist suspected this was a harbour seal placenta/birth sac... and NOT the plastic bag we all initially thought it was!

Tomorrow is our last day working on this project, and I'm looking forward to (hopefully) a more relaxed week of bird counts next week!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The British invasion

I started a new job this week - it's going to be a hodgepodge of things, I think, but all conservation-oriented, and with hopefully not a few bird surveys. For the past two days, however, we've been mapping Spartina grass on the Roberts Bank mudflats near Tsawwassen, BC. Spartina is an invasive grass from England that's been found up and down the western coast. Like all invasive species, it seems, Spartina spreads rapidly and is a pain in the butt to get rid of, outcompeting local plants and decreasing habitat for marine invertebrates, fish, and birds.

Roberts Bank is a very alien, very magical landscape. Walking toward the water from the dikes, you wade through a few metres of vegetation before coming out onto a muddy soup, which lasts another few metres. Then finally the ground hardens, and what looks like a prehistoric or lunar terrain emerges with cracked mud and channels and pools everywhere that the tide has formed. The oozy mud under the pools and rivers is also strange... there's a thin brown surface layer, but the sludge below is a soft black colour and actually feels really lovely on the skin.

Sadly, I couldn't bring my beloved SLR and 200 mm lens out in the muck with me, which was disappointing because I saw so many amazing birds that I just couldn't capture with my point & shoot. Of course there were gulls and swallows everywhere, and little sandpipers that were too far away for me to identify. There was also a small family of killdeer that would shriek and suddenly lift off if we got too close to them, and tons of herons and eagles doing flyovers. The first morning, we also saw a Northern Harrier swooping over the shore grasses looking for a snack. I also identified my first Caspian terns, and solved a bit of a puzzle - Davis and I had been hearing their strange raspy scream all over Richmond but we were never able to get a good look at them to figure out what was making that noise. Mystery solved!

If you roll over the images there should be some text popping up - the pictures were just so cruddy in the first place that I didn't want to clog them up with too much writing. Okay so the rollover thing doesn't seem to work. In the first picture, there are some Caspian terns mixed with gulls in the foreground - the terns have a black crown and a bright red beak. In the distance, what I initially mistook to be a fleet of small sailboats is actually a bunch of great blue herons, fishing out in the shallows. In the second photo, the flagged plant is that dastardly Spartina, and a killdeer.