Magpie feasts

 

We do not have many magpies around Kootenay Lake. This bird favours open country, and most of the lake is rimmed with forests. However, if you know where to look, we do have a few.

Black-billed Magpies have a wide-ranging diet: fruit, grain, insects, small mammals, and bird’s eggs. Unexpectedly, carrion is a particular favourite. Before today, I had never before seen magpies feast upon it.

A Black-billed Magpie flies in. What attracted it?

Quickly, it was evident that the appeal was the decaying carcass of a deer.

It set to work swallowing endless bits and pieces of the carcass.

Occasionally the magpie would fly back into the trees with a mouthful.

“This is good stuff; you should try it.”

 

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Bohemian Waxwings

 

About four dozen Bohemian Waxwings have arrived.

The Bohemian Waxwing is an irruptive bird. Usually it winters in the north, but occasionally it irrupts southward in large numbers and then delights watchers as the arriving flock feeds. Then another few years go by when either very few or none will be seen.

This is a view of a handful of the waxwings high in a staging tree. They have gathered adjacent to the one with the berries. They then fly to the berry tree in waves, grab some food and return to the staging tree.

A Bohemian Waxwing flies off with its prize.

 

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Midnight bears

 

You would think that any self-resecting bear would have bedded down for the season. But, no, despite it being mid-November and snowing, for a half hour around midnight last night, I was kept awake by two black bears foraging on rowan berries beside my home and even climbing from a tree onto the roof of my bedroom.

I chose to stay inside, judging that the difficulties and hazards of getting a good shot of a black bear at midnight were not worth the effort. However, I did discover that nighttime bears can be spooked by shining a spotlight through a window and into their faces.

The big fellow adjacent to my window could have been the twin of this earlier visitor.

 

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Feeder thieves

 

My home is equipped with bird feeders: three, sometimes four, of them. Recently, they have been vanishing. We have feeder thieves. 

Now, I am not talking about interlopers, such as squirrels, that merely steal the contents. I am talking about thieves that steal the whole feeder. I first encountered the problem of feeder thieves when a bear dragged the woodpecker feeder off about 40 metres and tore it open to get at the suet. The solution, which worked until recently, was to take bird feeders in at night, because thieves are usually nocturnal. 

That procedure worked until yesterday, when the finch feeder was torn off the the tree and just vanished. The thieves returned again today during daylight hours.

Raccoon: “I can smell the seeds; they have put up yet another feeder, one that looks like it is catering to chickadees, nuthatches and sparrows.

“Come on, let’s grab it before those bipeds spot us.”

“OK, I tore it off the tree and tested the contents. They are good. Now let’s drag it home.”

“Why did you stop us? We are hungry.”

 

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Pre-rut sparring

 

White-tailed bucks experience rising levels of testosterone in the fall and this leads to the rut, a gathering in November where bucks challenge one another for access to does. 

I have not witnessed the head butting and mating of the rut, but this last week, I was fortune to be able to watch some pre-rut sparring. Three bucks were congenially grazing together in the rain. There were no does to be seen. Yet, their rising testosterone was urging them to spar and they did, after which they just returned to grazing.

These were a mismatched three. There was an adult buck with four-points on each antler, along with one-spike and two-spike yearlings. But, fitness is irrelevant when grazing.

The sparring started when the two-spike youngster challenged the one-spike youngster. The contest just fizzled.

Then the youngster challenged the adult. It was a clash with butting and head twisting, but the adult appeared to be gentle with his young challenger.

They went at it a couple of times, with the adult seemingly reluctant to put much effort into the contest.

“Well, what did you expect me to do? He’s a youngster.”

 

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Not frost

 

A rough-hewn hand rail in the Park was covered with what I thought at first was frost. However, there was something odd about it: the ice was in the form of tiny towers. They looked different than all the hoar frost I have seen and more like ice extrusions.

Tiny towers of ice grow upward from the wooden hand rail. How were they formed?

The ice of hoar frost, below, is formed by the condensation of water vapour from the air. The arriving molecules move across an ice crystal to fit into the crystal lattice. These frost crystals look very different than the ice seen, above, on the wooden hand rail.

The ice on the handrail looked more like ice extrusions (geologists call them ice needles, but that is a term that means something different to meteorologists). When seen on the ground, the precursor of ice extrusions is water seeping into cavities in the soil. Then with low overnight temperatures, the water in these cavities freezes. When water freezes, it expands, and the ice now forces its way upward as extrusions rising out of the soil, and even lifts dirt atop it.

Not only do the towers on the wood look like tiny versions of the ice extrusions rising from soil, but they have formed on the cavity-rich sapwood portion of the wood grain rather than on the denser heartwood portion. It seems that our recent rains had filled the cavities in the sapwood with water which froze causing ice extrusions to grow out of the wood.

 

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October’s goulash

 

As these monthly goulashes go, this one is sparse. Only three images: two birds and a mammal.

Here a Bald Eagle dives off of its perch on a tree. This raises the question of why it dives, rather than just flies off. Flight is a unusual means of travel. Unlike ground or water travel, where the faster one moves, the more energy it takes, flight doesn’t work that way. Slow flight takes a great deal of energy to just keep airborne; fast flight takes a great deal of energy to overcome air drag. Between these, there is an optimal minimum-energy flight velocity. For the eagle this is about 12 metre/second (~43 km/hr). So an eagle needs to dive off a perch to use a gravity assist to pick up enough speed for optimal flight. Of course, that is also true of other birds.

Obtaining a shot of a bull elk deep in the forest is not easy. This is one was taken by Doug Thorburn, who shared it with me.

In the dying days of October, people began reporting the appearance of Trumpeter Swans from various places around the Lake. Here is one I saw.

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California Gull

 

Ten days ago, I posted Iceland Gull and showed two pictures. The first shot was, indeed, an Iceland Gull (in its first winter). I misidentified the second picture: It was actually a California Gull.

It is notoriously difficult to distinguish between some species of gulls, and so I identified that gull, in part, by its unusual behaviour: The gull would plunge into the water, emerge with a fish in the bill, and swallow it on the wing.

It now emerges that the California also does this, and migrates through here at this time of year in large numbers. I greatly appreciate the help of Melissa Hafting, who noted that my fish-carrying gull was actually a California as revealed by subtle differences from the Iceland: The number of flight feathers tipped with black; The colour of the legs. 

However, the previous blog’s opening remark remains correct: “Sometimes it takes a decade to solve a mystery.” It is just that the found solution should bear the word, California, rather than, Iceland.

A California Gull dives to the water as it chases a fish.

This decade-old picture is now revealed to be a California Gull.

 

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Disheveled darner

 

The flight season of the Shadow Darner lasts into October making it perhaps the last dragonfly of the year.  The female that landed on a piling and made feeble attempts to lay eggs. It looked thoroughly disheveled, with its end-of-the-season tattered wings. 

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Iceland Gull

 

Sometimes it takes a decade to solve a mystery.

Today, I was walking in Kokanee Park and saw a bird that didn’t quite fit my repertoire. Certainly, it was a gull, but which one? When the image was on the computer, it turned out to be an Iceland Gull, and one in its first winter of life.

Now, the name, Iceland Gull, is a tad deceptive. While some of them do visit Iceland, they only do so in the winter. A Canadian population breeds in the Arctic Archipelago and some of them winter along the West Coast. A vanishingly small number of these birds pass through our region in October and November when going between sites. Here was one at the mouth of Kokanee Creek, in late October.

An Iceland Gull in its first winter stops by Kokanee Creek Park in late October.

But how did this solve a decade-old mystery? The clue comes from reading the literature on the Iceland Gull. I learned that it has an unusual behaviour. Unlike other gulls, it: “Picks food off [the] surface of water, often without landing, and swallows prey while flying.” I have seen a gull do this — but only once, and that was ten years ago. While flying, it grabbed a fish and then swallowed it while still on the wing. 

But, was it an Iceland Gull that performed this singular feat?  The migration time fitted. The picture, below, was taken 2011/10/20, only four days off being ten years to the day from my present observation. Further, the pattern of wing plumage is virtually identical to a picture of a nonbreeding adult Iceland Gull shown on All About Birds. Further, two seconds after this picture was taken, the gull, still on the wing, had swallowed the fish.

California Gull: See my posting that reveals the fish-carrying bird, below, is actually a California Gull.

My suspicion is that the unusual decade-old behaviour of catching and swallowing a fish was because the bird was an Iceland Gull. Now, because this gull’s fishing behaviour is mentioned on a few websites, I suspected that there must be quite a number of pictures online showing an Iceland Gull flying with a fish sticking out of its bill. 

I found none. I cannot imagine that my decade-old shot is unique, but here it is.

An Iceland Gull scarfs a just-grabbed fish during flight. It was seen only about 100 m from where today’s Iceland Gull was seen near the mouth of Kokanee Creek.

 

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