Grouse musings


My yard lies within the range of a few Ruffed Grouse. I don’t see them every day, but often enough that I get to track some of the species’ idiosyncrasies. 

It is winter, and the Ruffed Grouse often now feeds in trees rather than on snowy ground. As the grouse is prey, its eyes are on the side of its head to give it panoramic vision to spot predators.

In this view of the back of the grouse, its protruding left eye can be seen. The grouse can actually see behind itself. Also, the unbroken dark terminal band on its collapsed tail is evidence that this bird is a male.

That this grouse is likely a female is evidenced by the dark terminal band on its spread tail. The band is broken in the middle by a greyish section. Alas, while this is suggestive of the bird’s sex, it is not definitive.


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Siskins & catkins


The -kins are getting together. Siskins are little finches that are partial to eating seeds. Catkins are pods of seeds hanging from some broad-leafed trees. The two are clearly kins

Pine Siskins are with us year round. They travel in large flocks that settle on plants to eat seeds, and on winter highways to sip salt and get mashed (see bird brains).

A lone Pine Siskin uses its feet to hold a catkin still as it extracts seeds from it.

Where there is one siskin, there are dozens. These are raiding the catkins of alder birch. 

OK, this Pine Siskin is not raiding catkins, but I couldn’t resist the scene. 


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I took an indifferent picture of a Brown Creeper this morning. Indeed, it is barely worth posting — except for the backstory: with this creeper it is four for four.

I have seen a Brown Creeper four times, and on each of those occasions someone else found it for me. I have never found one on my own. OK, in my defence, this little bird is the master of disguise. 

Yet…, how long will this creeper-finding disability persist?

A Brown Creeper (briefly) clings to the trunk of a Douglas-fir in the forest.

This better shot of a Brown Creeper was taken in 2017, but it also was found by someone else.


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Spike elk


Visit any elk herd at this time of year and you will find it largely composed of females. Yet, now and then, among them there is a spike elk — a yearling male which has already grown single-prong antlers. Strangely, these, so called, spike elk, are prized by hunters. Go figure.

A spike elk is a familiar member of a female herd. 


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The third chickadee


The chickadee is cute, abundant, and a pleasant visitor at home feeders. Of course, what is being discussed is the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee. However, we also have three other species of chickadee. In the order of most to least commonly seen, the four chickadees are: black-capped, chestnut-backed, mountain, and boreal. 

While this posting records my first observations of the Mountain Chickadee, I will start by showing what I have seen earlier: the two more common chickadees. I have yet to spot the Boreal Chickadee.

This is the rather common Black-capped Chickadee, seen here excavating a nest. It has a black cap that extends to the bottom of its eye, and a black bib. It is widespread across the continent.

The somewhat less common Chestnut-backed Chickadee has both of those features, but also has chestnut-coloured feathers on its back and belly. It favours conifer forests and so is confined to the far west.

This is the best shot I managed during a rather brief encounter with some Mountain Chickadees. The white line above the eye is visible here, but not its black cap. This chickadee favours not only conifer forests, but those at a high altitude. So, when it sometimes descends to the valley bottoms in the winter, it still visits conifers for seeds.

My daughter, Cynthia, managed a far better shot of one of the Mountain Chickadees. Not only is the white separation between the eye line and the cap clearly visible, but the bird is also extracting a winged seed from a (female) cone of a Douglas-fir tree.

Cynthia also managed this grand shot of the Mountain Chickadee leaving with a seed in its bill. 

Cynthia Fraser’s images are used with permission.


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Bird brains


They are variously known as suicide birds and grill birds (owing to their propensity to be smashed by vehicular grills). These are the finches of winter, and primarily they are Pine Siskins.

Pine Siskins seem to crave salt, and highway maintenance provides salt in abundance (to melt snow on the roads). So, flocks of finches settle on the highways and feed, temporarily ignoring the danger. Along comes the traffic; the finches panic and lift off. Inevitably, some of them don’t leave quickly enough and become road kill. 

That any little birds are mashed by traffic is sad. However there is an interesting pattern to be seen here. The deaths do not appear to be random, but are skewed towards inept birds. In 2017, a study was made of data assembled over many years by a taxidermist. He had listed organ weight and the cause of death of 3521 birds across 251 species. An analysis showed that birds killed in traffic had relatively smaller brains. While this may seem to be natural selection at work, these deaths are hardly desirable.

In this instance, Pine Siskins have alighted beside the highway to feed on salt.

At the first sign of a threat, the birds take to the air, but some do not react quickly enough to escape being smashed by oncoming traffic.

Around where the siskins had been feeding on the highway there were many dead birds. Some were on the pavement; others had been tossed by the traffic onto adjacent snowbanks. Sigh.

A side note: I have sometimes read comments by birders who wonder why birds in a flock never collide. (Strangely, they don’t ask if birds collide, they assume an answer and ask for an explanation.) Actually, birds in a flock often seem to collide, however they recover quickly and carry on. Here, three panicky siskins are in a aerial pileup.


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Red-capped visitor


A visitor wearing a red cap arrived through the air this morning and then hung around eating snacks. It all seemed to fit the legends of the day.

The red-capped visitor was a female Pileated Woodpecker and the snacks were rowan berries.


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Barred Owl


The last time I saw a Barred Owl in Kokanee Creek Park was a dozen years ago. Subsequently, I have seen a few Pygmy Owls and even Great Horned Owls there, but not a Barred. So, it was unexpected today when I spotted a protruding telephoto lens — a sure sign that there was something interesting to be seen. The camera belonged to a friend who had a Barred Owl in his sights. 

The Barred Owl lives year-round in mixed forests where large trees are found in the vicinity of water. While that is a good description of the local terrain, finding an owl in the trees is a real challenge.

Daytime is a drowsy time for a Barred Owl.

With its eyes sort of open, the Barred Owl stares dreamily from its perch in a Douglas-fir tree.

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This topic is probably of little interest to non-boaters. Indeed, it isn’t even of much interest to boaters on most of the lakes of the world. However, for our boaters — bingo.

The topic is the rip. 

not the topic at hand: A rip current is a strong, narrow current of water which moves directly away from the shore, cutting through the lines of breaking waves like a river running out to sea.

If one does a web search on the word, rip, what comes up are discussions of rip currents (see side box). This is NOT what is being discussed here. Curiously, the meaning I want is closer to the dictionary’s: “a stretch of … rough water … caused by the meeting of currents.” But, even this falls short of the physics (as a dictionary’s proffered explanations often do). The rough water of the rip results when waves must adjust to an increasing counter current.

Boaters on the ocean refer to this problem as “wind against tide” and discuss ways to minimize the difficulties. But, while significant, theirs is merely a particular example of the problem of waves adapting to an increasing counter current.

OK, what has any of this have to do with Kootenay Lake? Well, we have rips. Further, I have been in a small boat that has been tossed around in a rip. Here is how it is usually manifested on Kootenay Lake, and in particular on the West Arm (although I have seen it on the Main Lake).

Producing a Rip: Longer water waves travel at a greater speed. If the waves move into a region with a strong counter current, they are abruptly travelling too fast for the flow. So, wavelength decreases to match the new situation. To conserve energy, amplitude increases. The locally rough water is called a rip. So, a rip results when waves must adjust to a region with a lower wave speed. 

The West Arm of Kootenay Lake is divided into lakelets by narrows (which are, in turn, caused by peninsulas resulting from creek deltas). Now, consider a west wind causing gentle waves to travel eastward across a lakelet, but against the weak flow of water. The waves soon move into the adjacent narrows where now the stronger flow is opposite to the wave propagation. The result is that wavelength shortens, amplitude increases, and many waves break as whitecaps. Produced is a region of rough water: the rip.

This is a stretch of water on the west side of the Harrop narrows. In the lakelet to the west, the waves are gentle, but as the waves enter the fast flowing water of the narrows, a rip is produced. 

It is rather difficult to get a contextual picture of a rip: one that shows both the calmer inflow to the west and the turbulent entrance region. This is a view looking west through the nine-mile narrows. Beyond the dolphin is the rip. Beyond that is the gentler surface of the lakelet. 

I mentioned earlier that I had seen a rip on the Main Lake. How can that be when there are no narrows to locally increase a flow against the wind? Well, the rip was seen at the north end of the Lake where the Duncan River entered. Southerly wind-driven waves were flowing towards the estuary. When the waves encountered the rapid outflow of the river, they had to adapt to the counter current and a rip was produced. 

It was noted earlier that: “a rip results when waves must adjust to a region with a lower wave speed.” The situations described are not the only ones that produce this. When I said earlier that “Longer water waves travel at a greater speed“, I was describing waves in deep water. In shallow water, wave speed is proportional to the square root of the water depth. So, as waves flow up a sloping shore, they are constantly adjusting to a region with a lower wave speed. And, of course, we regularly see waves breaking along a sloping beach. However, at the shore, such waves do not get called a rip — yet, it is the same phenomenon, but one so familiar that it is no longer noticed. 

Finally, I have seen a rip in the shallow water over a submerged sand point. In those shallows the lower wave speed prompted incoming waves to adjust and become chaotic.


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Otter romp


Three of the four otters that visited in late November.

That we have river otters in Kootenay Lake is irrefutable. However, they are few in number and, alas, they rarely visit. It had been many months without seeing them when they stopped by in late November. That was that. I expected to not see them again for many months.

However, in the remarkably low light of a predawn snowstorm this morning, one otter appeared on the dock. Why it was there soon became evident: play. It raced along the dock, dropped its head and body and pushed off so as to slide across the snow-covered surface. It dawned on me that an otter has remarkably few opportunities to play this sliding game. Most of the time, surfaces are just too rough to enable even a thin layer of snow to allow playful sliding. However, even a thin surface of snow on the nearly smooth surface of a dock is ideal. In this way, otters seemed to have welcomed the presence of humans into their domain.

Soon, the one otter was joined by three others. They slid, they frolicked and just played.

Then, a fifth otter turned up, but it brought along a fish (a sucker). Now, this breakfast treat really did distract the other four from their games.

At this point, the thought of having breakfast dominated and all the otters abandoned their play to go and search for fish. Yet, my favourite part of this romp was the otters running along the dock and sliding in the snow.


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