Shrikes return

 

The Northern Shrike is a songbird that eats other songbirds.

Indeed, with its hooked bill, it is almost a wannabe raptor. Alas, it lacks a raptor’s talons and so must impale its prey on thorns as a way of holding them in place as it uses its hooked bill to tear them into bite-sized pieces. 

Having bred in the boreal forest well to our north, the Northern Shrike visits here only in the winter months, beginning in October. Mind you, as with predators everywhere, it isn’t a common find, but just an occasional one. So, I was delighted to encounter one in the grasslands of Kokanee Creek Park this morning. Curiously, this is where I have also seen Northern Shrikes other years. There it hunts small birds and ground-dwelling vertebrates from prominent perches. I also include a picture of a shrike taken a year and a half ago as it took a shrew from those grasslands.

It will also hang out adjacent to household bird feeders hoping to pick off tasty little birds. 

A newly arrived Northern Shrike watches for prey from a convenient thorn bush.

From a year and a half ago on the grasslands, a Northern Shrike captures a shrew.

 

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Young Bald Eagles

 

A newly fledged Bald Eagle takes four or five years to become an adult with a dark body and white head and tail. During those first few years, it has a strikingly different look. 

Over the last weekend, I visited a river flowing into the Lake that is still replete with spawning Kokanee. It was attracting many hungry Bald Eagles that were perched on the trees along the shore while they watched for fish. Below are shots of two of the young eagles seen.

The fledgling Bald Eagle departs its nest looking dark —  plumage, eyes, bill — all dark. However, there may be flecks of white in the plumage. Further, the cere (fleshy area at the base of the bill), mouth gape, and feet are yellowish.

The transition to the look of an adult takes the better part of five years. This bird is probably in its third year. Eyes and bill are now mainly yellow, feet are a brighter yellow, and head and tail are nearly all white, but there is still white on the body and wings.

 

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Disparate defences

 

I think that I am on safe ground to suggest that prey prefer not to be eaten.

Yesterday I watched two prey animals which had adopted rather different methods of defending against predators. They were a mountain goat and a ruffed grouse.

The mountain goat is a large animal, but not so large that it cannot be overcome by a cougar. Despite being conspicuous, the goat makes no attempt to prevent being seen; rather it attempts to prevent access. The goat’s defence against being eaten is to go where the cougar is loath to tread: cliff faces. Consequently, mountain goats have developed a great agility to navigate nearly vertical surfaces.

The ruffed grouse faces a different problem in avoiding predators. It is small enough that it can be eaten by both land predators, such as coyotes, and aerial predators, such as eagles and hawks. So, it tries to be inconspicuous by hiding in the undergrowth and has developed camouflage and stealth. Its plumage resembles the dappled pattern of light on the forest floor and by moving slowly, it looks like a shifting pattern of sun flecks through leaves. The problem is that the grouse maintains the same defence strategy even when the background isn’t dappled, such as when crossing snow or gravel.

A mountain goat is safely perched on a narrow ledge half way up a 300 metre cliff.

Perhaps the funniest (non) defence by the normally camouflaged grouse is when it slowly crosses a plain surface. Now conspicuous, it would be better for it to flush.

 

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Fishing grizzlies

 

Three smallish grizzly bears were fishing in a stream. I suspect that these bears were cubs freshly on their own as they had yet to develop the prominent shoulder hump of adult grizzlies.

This grizzly appears to be looking straight at me. While undoubtedly aware of a human presence, it seemed unconcerned. Indeed, the look towards me was just a glance as the bear turned its head. Actually, grizzlies are influenced more by smell, and this one was fishing on the edge of a stream filled with freshly rotting Kokanee spawners. There was really only one thing on its mind: fish.

Sometimes a bear would stand in the stream and just eat a fish floating by. 

Other times, the grizzly would wait on the shore and grab one from the shallows. 

Yum, yum.  

The final picture was taken by Cynthia Fraser and is used with permission.

 

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Chipmunk

 

Today I photographed two different mammals, which was somewhat unusual as most days I don’t see any wild mammals. Below is the first seen, and the smaller of the two. The next posting will be of the more dramatic mammal. 

A chipmunk was scurrying around on a rock face, and so presented me with different views.

Here is a portrait view.

 

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Cormorant liftoff

 

The Double-crested Cormorant is a big bird — it requires a long runway to take to the air.

The cormorant is demonized in Ontario where hunters are allowed to shoot the birds on sight. However here, the cormorant is rather an interesting curiosity. Indeed, there is a bay on the outflow of Kootenay Lake where it is consistently, but rarely to be seen. And it was there that I watched two cormorants this morning. 

The cormorants didn’t seem to like being watched, even from a great distance. Upon spotting a watcher, they would systematically fly off, but that behavioural quirk gave me a chance to watch their liftoff from the water. Cormorants cannot merely jump into the air and fly off as does a mallard. Rather, they must run across the water surface so as to slowly pick up the speed necessary for flying. This is similar to the behaviour of a swan when lifting off from water. 

Two cormorants take to the air. Notice the spacing of the splashes left by their foot prints on the water. The closer one (left) has just started its liftoff and so is moving slower than the distant one (right). Its splash prints are closer together. Further, the spacing of the splash prints of the distant bird progressively get farther apart as the bird picks up speed. Ultimately, each became airborne.

 

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Waggle-foot loon

 

People are at pains to interpret the sounds and gestures of one another. They want to do the same for animals and feel that they do a good job making sense of the signals sent by their pets.

But, what about signals from wildlife? What is the purpose of the howl of a wolf? The penguin dance of the grebe? The spread-wing stance of the dipper? The huff of the black bear? 

The communications of the loon are a particular source of fascination, in part because its calls are so evocative and beautiful. We have named four of them — wail, hoot, tremolo and yodel — and for each, a supposed message has been deduced. The loon also adopts various understood stances in its close interactions with others. So, it is not unreasonable to ask: When a loon raises its foot out of the water and waggles it, what is it signaling?

Consequently, the purpose of the waggling foot of the loon has received modest study.

It seems that the loon is communicating nothing: the bird is merely having a stretch. Chuckle.

A juvenile Common Loon waggles a foot as it drifts languidly by. Ho-hum. 

 

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Otters reappear

 

I was delighted to see a half-dozen featureless grey ghosts visit a dilapidated dock in the faint light well before dawn. They constituted a family of otters. 

In recent times, I had been wondering about local otters for I had not seen any for 28 months. Had our local otter numbers actually diminished? Had I merely been inattentive? Could it have been both? 

Who knows? Yet, otters have now reappeared.

A family of six otters paused briefly on a dock in the dusky light well before dawn.

 

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Dowitcher

 

When I casually started to watch local birds a dozen years or so ago, I posited that there was no point in paying attention to shorebirds — there were just too many similar ones.

I adapt. 

With time, I realized that we have both the (rather few) standard summer residents, and the migrants (passing through, the shoulder-season visitors). So, from late July through September, I now watch for migrants.

This year, I have seen fewer migrating shore birds, and certainly the wildfire smoke of the last week or so has kept the birds and me apart. I did see a Greater Yellowlegs a month ago, but that was it — until this morning. I have just spotted a Long-billed Dowitcher foraging in a pond adjacent to the lakeshore.

A Long-billed Dowitcher looks up briefly as it forages in a pond adjacent to the lakeshore.

 

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Smoke and fish

 

Late summer is the season of smoke and fish. The smoke is episodic — some years none, some years considerable. This year it is particularly bad. The fish, spawning kokanee, are an annual staple that is far more agreeable.

Wildfires between 500 and 1000 km to the southwest have sent a pall of smoke our way. Normally the pellucid local atmosphere permits clear views of even distant mountains. Now we cannot even see across the narrowest portions of the Lake. I illustrate the problem with two ferries on the Main Lake. On the left the MV Osprey 2000 is emerging from the mirk, while on the right the MV Balfour is vanishing into it. Sigh….

This is the spawning season for kokanee salmon around the Lake. Spawning in West Arm creeks is coming to an end, while spawning at the north end of the Main Lake is in full bloom.

 

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