May miscellaneous

 

I went looking for something else, but instead found, well, many other things.

On a pond by the river, there was a loafing log with 14 painted turtles in three sizes. The mature females are the largest and there were 2 of them. Next in size were the males (5 of them), and then there were the hatchlings (7 of them). The painted turtles owe their name to the patterns on their ventral (under) side. Although painted turtles are known across the continent, only the western ones actually have patterned ventral surfaces. So, our turtles do, but to see it, you have to turn them over.

This is a male mule deer. You can see its recently started antlers, which will grow to combat size by the end of the summer. The most frequently seen deer at the valley bottom is the female white tail. The mule deer is found at higher altitudes. This one was about 1200 meters above sea level.

It is the time to see recently hatched chicks. These 11 are Mallards with their mommy.

The western trillium is found here, but is not nearly as common as many other flowers. As the name suggests, it is patterned on three: both petals and leaves. I noticed that it was reasonably abundant on the shady side of the road, with none on the other side. Well, it does prefer the shade. It is also spread by ants which love to collect and eat the shell casings but then scatter the seeds. Older flowers fade to a pinky purple. 

The Columbian ground squirrel is common in many fields in the West. However, normally, most parts of it are hidden in the grass. This view of it standing erect on a gravel road was appreciated.

This female Ruffed Grouse was in the back country forest and was difficult to photograph as it kept running back and forth in the bushes. It finally dawned on me that it was reacting to my presence and was trying to persuade me to follow it away from its nest. With this realization, I left and gave it the satisfaction of chasing me off.

 

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Two shorebirds

 

Killdeers, I am used to seeing, as they migrate to this region earlier that other shorebirds. But now I was expecting to see the Spotted Sandpiper. But, no, there was a Solitary Sandpiper, probably on its way north. It spent a long time feeding near the shore.

A Solitary Sandpiper feeds in the shallows. (It has a leaf temporarily caught on its foot.)

But, we did see a Killdeer — indeed there were two of them mating. She has lifted her tail and he has lowered his to allow their cloaca to make contact. Photo by Cynthia Fraser.

 

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Sage Thrasher

 

Wander around enough, and you will sooner or later encounter something offbeat. That is what happened yesterday morning when I found a Sage Thrasher.

The Sage Thrasher is a western bird that is one of the rarest birds in Canada and is Red Listed in BC (candidate for extirpation). It is known in very small numbers in the southern Okanagan, but is largely unknown in this forested region. Apparently in the Okanagan, it is closely associated with remnant sagebrush grasslands, but the loss of this habitat due to development seems to have produced increasing losses in these birds.

The Sage Thasher is about the size of a robin.

It uses undulating flight, where part of the time, its wings are beside its body.

The Sage Thrasher does find some insects for food.

 

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Spring arrives

 

The temperature now rises above freezing day and night at the bottom of the valleys. The trees begin to bloom, and skunk cabbage sprouts in moist areas. Birds mate and build nests. Migrants arrive and some pass northward. This is but a sampling.

A permanent resident, the Song Sparrow, gathers materials for a nest.

At this time of the year, most of these tiny frenetic birds, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, pass right through on their way north to breed. This one is a female and it lacks the ruby crown. Indeed, even the male only shows the crown occasionally.

Turkeys are now a staple of this area, but their annual mating is now largely past. However, some males are still in display. Here is a spread tail from behind.

And here is the male turkey’s head and neck.

The Townsend’s Solitaire will soon be heading north to breed.

You know it is spring when the Mountain Bluebirds come through. This is a male.

And this is a female Mountain Bluebird.

The Osprey have arrived and are beginning to build nests. They will now be a staple of the Lake through September.

This is the season of flowers and one of the first is the glacier lily.

Usually, the first orchid to bloom is the fairy slipper in May. However, these small beginnings were found late April. This one with fake yellow anthers is an eastern variety. 

And the one with fake white anthers is a western variety. We get both.

The mourning cloak is one of the first large butterflies to appear in the spring as it is one of the few that overwinters as an adult.

Robins have arrived in large numbers and will be with us through October.

A chipmunk hides in the brush and eats.

Turkey Vultures typically arrive from the south in March and are with us until October.

The Snow Goose is seen in large numbers at the Coast, but not here. We are far off the bird’s usual migratory track. Only occasionally,  one or two pass through on migration.

You know that spring is here when the Red-winged Blackbird arrives. This one is flying through some cattails.

I have seen a good many waterfowl pairing up, but these Canada Geese are the first chicks I have seen.

 

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Wild Turkey mating

 

This posting either has two pictures or nine pictures depending upon your sensitivity.

The survival of a species depends upon two things: food and reproduction. This is about reproduction.

This posting is also about Wild Turkeys, a bird that was unknown in the interior of BC only about 50 years ago. At the urging of hunters south of the border, they were planted in Washington and Oregon 50 to 60 years ago. They soon crept across the border. First here in only small numbers, they are now rather common and are described by eBird as exotic, but naturalized for the Central Kootenay region.

A vast majority of birds form pair bonds, either for a season or for life. Some adopt seasonal or breeding plumage; some do delightful male-female courting behaviours before they mate. However, very few in this region alter their appearance the way Wild Turkeys do. Think of swans. They may have beautiful courtship behaviours, but neither the male nor female bird drastically alters its appearance before they mate.

Birds that do not form a pair bond often have a noticeable courtship display and sometimes it is truly outlandish, and bizarre. It is to this latter group (not forming pair bonds) that the Wild Turkey belongs. Indeed, the sexual display of the male Wild Turkey is perhaps the most striking one in North America. 

This is about the mating of the Wild Turkey. You can view the first two pictures and then stop.

This male Wild Turkey is in its full courtship display. It fans its tails, and puffs body feathers. Its featherless head is red, white, and blue with a snood (long red flesh that extends from between the eyes), caruncles (lumpy fleshy folds that wrap around the base of their neck like a white or red scarf weighed down by three bulbous masses), wattles (a thin fold of skin beneath their chins), and a beard (hairs extending from breast). They also strut, gobble, and drum their wings against their bodies.

When they mate, the female lifts its tail and the male lowers its tail until the cloacae come in contact so semen can be exchanged. In this picture most of the feathers belong to the male. Only the female’s head and a few wing feathers are visible. Photo by Cynthia Fraser.
 

OK, that is end of the first two pictures. What follows are more detailed photos of a separate mating act taken earlier the same morning.

When a female’s pheromones have arisen sufficiently, she will accept the advances of the male and will crouch down in front of him. Some of these shots were taken through tree branches which clutter the pictures. Note, the male’s caruncles are white at this point. They will become red by the end.

He then climbs on top of her.

The male stands atop the female. There then ensues a lifting and lowering of the tails, the object being for the male to bring his cloaca in contact with her cloaca. 

Here, the female has lifted her tail and has revealed her cloaca.

Mating: the male lowers his tail and the two cloaca touch. He ejects semen from his cloaca into her cloaca.

The male climbs off, but briefly you can see the semen on her cloaca (along with some running down from it).

They separate and probably have nothing further to do with each other. Notice that the male’s caruncles which were white at the beginning, have now turned red. 

 

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Nesting on wooden pilings

 

Wooden pilings are used by a few species for breeding. Now that these pilings are on their way out, how will this change? Metal pilings are the new standard.

This is the second of a two part series on wooden pilings. The first was on perchers. This one is on breeders. There are only a few birds that have adopted this fairly recent (and short-lived) innovation for their their breeding, but some have adopted it to the near exclusion of other places. No longer content with trees near the water, they now use wooden pilings that sit in Kootenay Lake. In perhaps a half century, some will need to return to the forest. It is noted that these nesters are also perchers.

The dominant birds using the wooden pilings for breeding are the Osprey, the Northern Flicker, and, to a lesser extent, the Tree Swallow. A few others use them occasionally (e.g.,  Starling). Of all of these, the Osprey seems most assured of some continuity.

The Northern Flicker is a permanent resident, although their numbers do go up during the migration of other flickers north and south. This flicker is a woodpecker which digs cavities in the wooden pilings in which it, and others, nest. It was noted earlier that nearly all the cavities face the land, presumably as a mechanism to enable it to watch for land predators. This is a tactic that does not seem to have an analogue among flickers that breed on land, so how it was quickly adopted when our flickers chose wooden pilings is unclear. Almost every wooden piling on the lake has at least one flicker cavity.

The Northern Flicker has excavated many nest cavities in the wooden pilings around this lake. Here, a father is seen feeding ant’s eggs to its chick. Although carved by flickers, the cavities are extensively used by other birds such as the Tree Swallow.

While a few other birds use flicker cavities, the dominant one seems to be the Tree Swallow. Here a father is bringing food to his chicks, each of which has its mouth open to accept it. However, since the Tree Swallow also regularly breeds elsewhere, a loss of wooden pilings is not expected to bother it significantly.

Ospreys are now the dominant breeder on wooden pilings. At earlier times, they chose trees beside the lake, although ones that usually were not quite so precarious as the one shown in this 1887 illustration. In modern times I have only seen a few couples nest in a tree, but now they almost exclusively nest on wooden pilings, dolphins, or special lake-side poles erected for them.

My earliest knowledge of ospreys nesting on wooden pilings comes from Troup. I don’t know when these had been put in, but pictures reveal that they were not there in the mid-1890s and were in place in 1929. In the mid-1940s, I summered right across the lake from Troup and I recall my uncle talking (in dismay) about someone setting the pilings on fire so as to kill the birds nesting on them. Apparently the arsonist’s logic was that the ospreys caught and ate fish, and, not liking the competition, he wanted to catch those fish for himself. Apart from the cruelty involved, his logic was flawed in that ospreys do not generally catch the same fish as those preferred by people. These pilings still show the signs of having been burnt (photo from 2005). However, it is clear that, by the 1940s,  ospreys were building nests on the fairly newly established pilings.

I don’t know when Ospreys began to build nests on dolphins (as distinct fr0m on isolated pilings), but it was probably in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, the number of Ospreys around Kootenay Lake began to increase, and many of these magnificent birds chose the dolphins as a nesting site. Now, an Osprey nest is a rather substantial structure, and when built at the top of a dolphin, it engulfed the light rendering it useless. Although at first the government would remove the nest to reveal the light, they soon changed tactics. They accepted a suggestion by Bob Denison that platforms be added above the light. Since his summer cottage was at Atbara (at the Nine-mile narrows), the dolphin there was the first to have this addition (which he put up himself). These platforms now characterize all dolphins and most play host to Osprey nests and Ospreys. This is the platform on the top of the Nine-mile dolphin at Atbara. Indeed, this practice of building a nesting place for the osprey has gone further than dolphins now. The power company and also private individuals have erected nesting platforms on poles placed near the lake which the ospreys have used. 

While I found I do not have a satisfactory shot of a constructed nest platform installed solely for the osprey, I do have a shot of two (full sized) chicks that had just flown from one while their parent watched from above. We can tell these are chicks because of their orangish eyes and their white-flecked wings.

The osprey’s preference for nests on or beside the lake is driven by its food: it catches fish.

This view of a nest on a wooden piling is of the father osprey bringing a fish to his family. There are three chicks (white spotted wings) and his partner (plain brown wings). When the wooden pilings vanish, the osprey will be likely be fine; it will still have trees and erected platforms on pilings and the dolphins, all in or close to the water.

An advantage of the wooden pilings is that they are out in the water and so free from land predators. This, of course, changes when Kootenay Lake water levels are low during the spring, but then that is not the nesting period. I have assumed that the main land predators of concern would be raccoons. But the squirrel is the only land predator I have thus far seen attacking a nest cavity. In fact, wooden pilings have been a particularly safe place for a nest cavity. Metal pilings will certainly bring advantages to people, but the safe perch and nest will be lost.

As a digression, I note that I have not covered all of the nesters to be found on a wooden piling. There are others. Consider this deer fly laying eggs on a piling. Deer flies were seen laying near the same spot on two separate years.

The eventual loss of the wooden pilings will be a disappointment for the ardent nature observer, but the animals will adjust. Probably the greatest loser will be the Northern Flicker who found a largely predator-free place to nest. So here is another shot, this one of the mother feeding its two chicks.

 

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Perching on wooden pilings

 

Wooden pilings have been a welcome sanctuary for a variety of wildlife, but it will end.

This is the first of two postings, the first being on perching, the second being on nesting. In both cases they are restricted to things that happen on wooden pilings.

The first wooden pilings on this lake were installed maybe 130 years ago. The last wooden pilings on this lake were installed only a few years ago and may last another 40 years. In the under two centuries that we will have had them, some of the wildlife has been quick to adapt to the advantages of something placed in the waters of the lake. 

Pilings are used for securing docks and dolphins. Although the pilings, themselves, are not vanishing, they are now metal, not wooden. (Dolphins, are the many moored channel markers in the lake. They are not buoys for they are not buoyant.)

I start this posting about wooden pilings with a picture of the top of a metal piling. This piling is impervious to nest cavities and its has a conical top to prevents birds from perching on it. Well, I once saw a kingfisher land on a metal piling but it quickly left and I haven’t seen it return. Metal pilings have the advantage of longevity for humans, but are inhospitable to animals. From here on, all pictures were taken on wooden pilings, although, as in the next picture, they may have been framed to show only the bird’s head.

This is a Bald Eagle (probably in its 3rd or 4th year) and this eagle or its juvenile is a moderately common visitor to wooden pilings. Its not quite white head is obvious against a dark background of black distant mountains just at sunrise. Then one spots the uneven pupils. Called anisocoria, the pupils react independently to the light from the lefthand side falling on them. Human eyes are normally aways the same. There is another less obvious feature: the eagle is looking right at the lakeside (where I am). It took a while to recognize this as the normal, but birds on pilings almost always face the shore. That is, after all, from where ground-based predators would come.

A nearly constant companion of wooden pilings in the late summer or early fall is a gull or two. Three locally common gull species are: ring-billed, California, and herring. This is a Ring-billed Gull ousting a Herring Gull from it perch on a wooden piling. This is a fairly common game for gulls. Photo by Dorothy Fraser.

Less common, but more striking gull is a Bonaparte’s Gull.

A fairly common visitor is the Great Blue Heron. It eats fish and hunts them from a piling. It also will hunt from a dock, or the adjacent land.

A staple of the summer months is the Osprey bringing a fish for its family. Although the osprey family also nests on wooden pilings, here the male is first stopping by to perch on a piling to eat the tasty brains before bringing the rest of the fish to his chicks.

The Belted Kingfisher hunts from the top of wooden pilings, but its technique is to move on quickly if it spots nothing. On this occasion, two of them are mating.  

One of the rarest wooden piling perchers I have seen is the Northern Harrier. This migrant visits when it heads north in the spring to breed and south in the fall to winter.

An equally rare percher is this Turkey Vulture. It and a colleague were feeding on the carcass of a skunk along the beach but chose to perch on a piling and a dock as they waited out some competition from a raven. 

For a month or so during the breeding season there are rather odd perchers on the top of wooden pilings: female mallard ducks. Also seen are female mergansers and female goldeneyes. What is going on? My suspicion is that they are avoiding mating, but the explanation is unknown. And what did they do before wooden pilings were employed on the lake?

These activities are doomed to end in a few decades when all the wood pilings will have deteriorated. Some of these situations looked like behaviour modification brought on by the presence of the wooden pilings, other were merely convenience. What will happen?

In the second posting in this story, nests in wooden pilings will be treated.

 

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Trumpeter courting

 

One of this winter’s sweet delights has been how many Trumpeter Swan families and larger groupings are frequenting the shallows, shores and creek mouths of Kootenay Lake. A week ago Saturday, I spent two hours quietly watching about 20 such swans feeding, swimming, preening, socializing and resting. For most of this time, their activity was leisurely, only occasionally punctuated by vocalizations or a brief, gorgeous wing stretch. (No dogs or other perceived predators came along the beach so the swans remained relaxed.)

Sometimes, families would swim slowly past one another, parents keeping their cygnets nearby or in tow. While observing two parents swimming with a single grey juvenile, I noticed them begin to do a different behaviour: repetitive synchronized head bobs, where they mirrored each other in an oscillating up down up down motion. 

Here, both adults are mid-bob, but one’s head is curved lower than the other.

A second later, the low one has bobbed up and the other has bobbed down. This continued for several minutes as they swam.

This was the first time I’d seen synchronized head-bobbing courting at Kootenay Lake. Now, swans often pair for life and express clear affection towards one another. These two are obviously already parents.  But, it’s what they did next that really surprised me. And why we’d see swans doing this here is a story unto itself about changing migration habits. 

There are two indigenous species of swans that visit this area: Tundras and Trumpeters.  Around the beginning of the millennium, my father and others observed that Tundra Swans dominated Kootenay Lake and Trumpeter Swans were less common. Over the years, there’s been a shift. Increasingly we now see families of Trumpeter Swans and rarely see Tundras. (Although we saw a Tundra cygnet last November).

Historically, the swans of either species only visited twice a year: on their way north to breed, and on their way south to winter. Yet the visits of Trumpeters to Kootenay Lake have been getting longer and longer. This year there have been Trumpeter Swans alongside Kokanee Creek Park for most of the winter.

Still, we’ve been expecting them to leave soon and head towards breeding grounds where, as pheromones surge, the swans will court, breed, nest and raise new young.

Yet, the head-bobbing couple is a sign that pheromones are already beginning to surge and some swan courtship has begun here. 

As this pair neared the shore, this couple had a significant burst of activity, and I was astonished to observe a series of gorgeous new activities that also appear to be courting behaviours.

During the end of their swim the couple became momentarily separated. Here, one swan is vocalizing with arched wings and neck pulled backwards and breast forward.

It then raised up out of the water and rushed over to meet its partner who also raised up, as they simultaneously spread their wings and trumpeted.

Joyous vocalizations and paired choreographed wing activity followed. They kept their bills pointed down and wings curled like this as they raised and lowered them. I don’t know if this was what some refer to as wing quivering. I did not see them bump breasts.

All of this seemed like courting behaviour. Then their juvenile showed up between them, joining in the vocalizations and all three eventually settled down. 

Yet, about 10 minutes later, one suddenly flew a short distance away.

Then turned back around to face towards its partner and again sat in the water with wings outspread and head tucked back for about 15 seconds. 

It then gathered speed and ran across the water to sort of fly back to its partner where they met in the water and did a second complex activity that involved choreographed synchronized wing motions and joyful calls.

Has anyone else seen Trumpeter Swans begin courting like this on Kootenay Lake?

 

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Injured swan

 

I rarely see wildlife that is either injured or deformed. It may be that they are rare, or it may be that predators quickly dispatch them (or both). For the animal with an injury to persist, the injury would likely be minor so the animal could go on feeding and living. I have seen a deformity, but only once (see below).

The injury I saw distorted the shape of the swan’s neck. It was not seen when looking at the swans on the water, presumably because there the necks are held in many different positions and a deviation would not be easily spotted.

However when flying, the necks are all held in the same position: straight out. This is done to minimize air drag when flying (a heron adopts a different solution). This position is illustrated by two swans which took off from far up the beach. They spooked all the other swans which also took to the air.

When the others flew, the swan on the left swans showed a clear neck injury. This awkward position was kept throughout the flight.

I don’t often seen damaged wildlife. In 2018, I observed a male Northern Flicker with a strange bill. This rare condition is known as an avian keratin disorder. It is likely to make eating very difficult.

 

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Confused teal

 

The Green-winged Teal is a rather small dabbler that is neither rare nor common around here. It spends its winters to our south and its summers to our north. Twice a year it courses through here as it goes one way or the other. 

One male has been hanging out with twenty or thirty mallards for the last couple of days. The mallards will stay, and the teal will head north. But, it typically expects to arrive at the breeding grounds with a mate, and this seems to be much on its mind, for it did not bring a mate when it arrived here. So, it has chosen to keep close company with a female mallard.

Now although the female Mallard is big and female Green-winged Teal is small, their plumage is much the same, so it may be easy to confuse the one with the other. In addition to following the female mallard, he also has regularly attacked male mallards, his presumed rivals, and has done courtship displays by frequently rearing up in the Lake and flapping.

The male Green-winged Teal has a dark beak, and a chestnut-coloured head with a green eye patch.

The teal followed the female mallard wherever she went on water or…

…on land. She seemed to tolerate this, but largely ignored the activity. 

The teal regularly chased any male mallard he thought had eyes for her. They just got out of his way. Photo by Cynthia Fraser.

When in the Lake, the male Green-winged Teal would frequently do a courtship display by rearing up out the water and flapping its wings. This provided a good chance to see the green feathers on its wings.

It is likely that he will migrate and she will stay put. However, hybrid animals have been reported.

 

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