Colourful crossbills

 

The Red Crossbill is a colourful nomad. Its bill’s strangely crossed mandibles is an adaptation to enable it to pry seeds from cones. However, Red Crossbills seem to assemble in different groups, each apparently associated with, and probably adapted to, a particular conifer species. This specialization leads flocks of Red Crossbills to travel widely in search of their ideal food. They appear for a few days, but soon travel afar.

That crossbills pry seeds from conifer cones is clear, but I have never seen them do it. Rather, I have always seen them alongside and on roads satisfying their passion for salt.

An interesting characteristic of this bird is its range of hues: from red to orange to yellow and beige. 

The species is named for the brick red colour sported by some of the males. Although this bird is looking right at us, the crossed mandibles are evident.

By way of contrast, this female is beige.

While the species is named for the brick red of some of the males, there are many males that are distinctly orange.

And then there are the first-year males that are a striking yellow.

While the previous Red Crossbills were seen in trees alongside roads, they were merely using them as staging posts to enable them to feast on road salt. This is a female crossbill. Salt is ejected from ice as it freezes and so forms a thin saline solution on the ice surface. Consequently, the crossbill merely has to lick the surface to get the salt.

Crossbills were not the only finches seen foraging on road salt. Here are three pine siskins and two goldfinches. 

 

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Beaded skirt

 

Freezing weather, waves, and declining lake levels give rise to an interesting adornment on pilings: a beaded skirt.

Waves splash water on pilings and at sub-zero weather, the water running down the pilings freezes in pendant beads. Then the Lake continues to drop, the wind whips up the next day, and more pendant drops are formed. On the pilings shown here, this has happened four times.

Pendant icicles provide a beaded skirt of ice around local pilings.

 

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Small antlers

 

White-tailed deer are a fairly common sight around the Lake. Usually, what is seen is a doe with fawns, and only occasionally a buck on its own.

So, it was unexpected to see a buck and a doe browsing together yesterday.

The lack of a pedicle (the base from which an antler grows) indicates this is a female.

Although it is now mid February, the buck retains last year’s antlers; they are soon to be shed. The antlers are small and show few branches, suggesting that these are his first antlers. So the buck is less than two years old, and the two deer are likely siblings, together from birth.

 

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Blowing snow

 

Snow blowing off a pine tree reminds me of the springtime sight of pollen doing likewise.

 

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Frazil

 

A cold, windy atmosphere is a prescription for the creation of frazil. 

Frazil is a collection of loose, randomly oriented, tiny ice crystals that forms in supercooled turbulent water. The air temperature is usually well below -6 °C, something easily attained in the last few days. Then the lake water can become slightly supercooled, say by about -0.1 °C, and tiny ice crystals form in the water.

One might think that this would be a formula for border ice, but winds produce waves which prevent the formation of smooth ice on the surface, so the tiny crystals clump to form rafts of crystals floating on the water and these bump into one another to produce ridges that look like rims around pancakes.

Pancakes of frazil form along the lakeshore as waves prevent the formation of border ice.

 

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Dipper underwater

 

If I see a dipper, I stop to watch it.

Yesterday, I was watching a dipper dive from the border ice along the frigid waters of a creek where it hunted along the creek bed for things to eat. Standing beside me was a lad who chatted about the amazing feats of this small bird and opined that it would walk along the creek bed as it searched for things to eat. 

The problem is that knowing just what this bird is doing underwater lay unresolved for a long time. Underwater dives happen rather quickly, and at uncertain locations. Further, surface waves and light reflections typically obscure any view from above.

So, does the dipper walk along the bottom as it forages, or does it use its wings to fly underwater? Curiously, this was a topic of some debate for decades during the twentieth century. Because the dipper can float, it seemed unlikely that it could walk along the bottom, but using its wings to fly underwater, as if in the air, seemed somewhat implausible. 

Careful observation finally settled the issue: It flies under water (although it occasionally will use its feet against the bottom to propel itself forward). 

However, knowing that a dipper uses its wings to fly underwater, and being able to watch it do so, are two different things. Only once before, a half-dozen years ago, did I managed a good shot of a dipper flying underwater. Today I managed rather so-so shot.

A dipper sits on border ice and peers into the waters of the creek before diving in.

When it dives, it has its wings tucked in so as to cut cleanly into the water.

A moment later, it has spread its wings and begins to fly underwater. Its head is tipped down as it scours the bottom for comestibles.

 

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Squirrel

 

When you go for a walk in the woods and see almost nothing except distant ravens, what do you do? You take a picture of a squirrel in a tree.

 

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January goulash

 

This is a collection of a few images, none of which had its own posting in January.

A flock of geese is seen flying in front of the Purcell Mountains.

In case anyone wondered why it is called a Red-tailed Hawk….

This is a rarity: a visit of a Pacific Loon (in non-breeding plumage). This species is not the same as the Common Loon frequently seen around the Lake.

These are a few elk out of a much larger herd.

Coyote in the mist

Six Trumpeter swans visit the West Arm with three days left in the month. 

These are frost flowers. This type of frost does not result from vapour cooling, but from vapour mixing. Rather than blanketing ice crystals over the surface, it prompts isolated patches of crystals floating above the ice alongside the Lake.

 

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Light play

 

The play of light in the atmosphere is an endless source of fascination for me. The blue of the sky and the colours of the sunset are just the beginning of a cornucopia of optical phenomena. This morning’s walk along the lakeshore revealed three others.

The Harrop ferry appears as a two-image inferior mirage. It results from the refractive bending of light by the strong temperature gradient that accompanies cold air over warmer water. The term, inferior, is not an editorial comment, but a statement that the position of the image (what is seen) is lower than that of the object (what would be seen in the absence of refraction). Both the erect and inverted images have been displaced downwards, and parts of each have vanished, as has the lake surface in the distance. Incidentally, a mirage is not an optical illusion any more than is, say, an image in a mirror or binoculars. It is merely an image formed when the atmosphere acts as a lens — although a mirage’s appearance is more akin to those of a carnival house of mirrors.

A sundog (or parhelion) was seen about 22° to the left of the sun. This is an image of the sun that has been displaced and dispersed (colours separated) by hexagonal ice crystals, each of which was acting as a prism. That the sundog appears to the left or right of the sun, but not elsewhere is a result of these crystals being large enough to become aerodynamically oriented so they fall rather like dinner plates on a table. Incidentally, the name sundog was gained because this phenomenon follows the sun around the sky, rather like a dog following its master. The formal term, parhelion, just means beside the sun.

Iridescence. Appearing much closer to the sun than a sundog and caused by water drops rather than ice crystals is iridescence. And unlike a sundog, the light does not pass through the drops, but is merely deviated as it flows around them as obstacles. However, the amount of deviation is dependent upon the wavelength of the light, so colours are separated in the cloud.

 

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Pygmy Owl

 

Pygmy Owls are altitudinal migrants: high country in the warm months; valley bottoms in the cold months. Although seen, the Pygmy Owl has not been as common this winter as some other years. It may be that this year’s sparsity of irruptive birds, upon which this owl feeds, has prompted it to not bother with visiting the valleys.

A Pygmy Owl hunts from a power line.

 

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