Redpoll, irruptive


For nearly a month, I have been keeping my eyes open for Bohemian Waxwings. They are beautiful irruptive birds that sometimes come here to feast on rowen berries. An irruptive bird is one that occasionally bursts from the north in large numbers to feed in more southern latitudes. They come, feed, and vanish again for a few years. 

As I had set my sights on waxwings, I hadn’t expected redpolls. The redpoll is a finch that I last saw a couple of years ago. When here, it feeds on seeds such as the common tansy. This morning, I saw a half-dozen redpolls. They must have just arrived as they didn’t seem to have found a good food source yet. So, how long will they stay, and how many will come?

This Common Redpoll sits with others in a flock in a black hawthorn bush.


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Hare splitting


Perhaps my favourite set of tracks to find in snow are those of the snowshoe hare. This might be because the tracks are distinctive and not nearly as common as, say, are a deer’s. Indeed, as the snowshoe-hare population is cyclic, their numbers are locally down at the moment. I have not found hare tracks in my yard for some time, but today, deep in the upland woods, some were found. 

Now begins a game: what can I read from the tracks? The most obvious question is: Which way was the animal travelling? Look at the image.

The question is: was the hare accelerating as it traveled to the right, or was it decelerating as it traveled to the left. Owing to the hare having large hindpaws, but small forepaws it should be simple to determine the hare’s direction of travel. 

In today’s tracks, the hindpaws are on the left and the forepaws are on the right. This makes it easy to conjecture that the hare was traveling to the right.

Yet, a cursory view of an actual snowshoe hare hopping gives one pause. In this picture from July 14, 2015, it seems that at the end of its hop, it swings its hindpaws out in front of its forepaws.

This behaviour is confirmed in a picture from Jan. 17, 2018. When travelling, the hindpaws land in front of the forepaws. (This hare is in its white winter pelage.)

We return to this morning’s tracks. This snowshoe hare was decelerating as it travelled to the left.


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Lake stars in ice


This is the month for star patterns to be seen in the ice of lakes and ponds. This is an early season phenomenon. When the ice becomes thicker, they can’t form.

I offered my first posting about these star patterns a year ago, at which time I discussed some misconceptions about their formation. Now, at the beginning of this season of lake-star formation, I discuss the sequence of events that causes them to form. 

When the freezing season begins, a thin layer of clear ice can form on ponds and along lakeshores. What is needed now is for the ice to be covered by some snow. However, the snow must be of uneven thickness, probably as a result of wind drift. Where the snow is thickest, it weighs down more on the ice and causes it to sink lower in the water than where the snow cover is thin. 

What happens now is a bit subtle. The water immediately under a flat surface of ice has a temperature of 0 °C. However, just below that, the temperature is +4 °C (which is actually denser water). Wherever the weight of snow has depressed the ice and pushed it down into that lower and warmer water, the ice immediately above it melts, and a hole forms in the ice. 

The overlying snow has yet another role to play in the formation of the star. Snow now wicks that warmer water up through the hole and onto the ice and this causes that warm water to flow up through the hole and to then radially percolate outwards to form stellar arms.

The lake stars in ice have formed. Later in the season, the greater thickness of ice doesn’t permit it, but for now, we see the patterns.

Stars appear in a pond, but the snow has largely melted.

And again.


Posted in weather | 3 Comments

Coyote poop


Recently, a friend sent me some pictures from the Comedy Wildlife Photographic Awards from 2017


OK, when I take shots of wildlife, my objective is to understand their world — not to poke fun at it.

Yet, have I ever taken a picture worthy of showing on comedy wildlife? Likely not. However, among the 2017 winners there is a picture of a (female) fox piddling in a golf hole. Devoid of the caption, (“Must have a three putter” — Huh?) is it funny? Hard to say. Incongruous is probably a better description. 

Now, I have taken a number (to my mind of non-funny) of shots of animals pooping (context may matter here): a moose piddling and birds defecating. Could it be that someone would find one of them funny? 

The closest I could come is this picture of a coyote.

A coyote expresses contempt for humanity by pooping in the middle of a highway (8 May 2015).


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Grouse mismatch


I have gently poked fun at the Ruffed Grouse a few times because it always behaves as if it is well camouflaged in the brush. So, even when it is on snow or gravel, it walks very slowly feigning that its plumage is nothing but a shifting pattern of dappled sunlight in the undergrowth.

However, its unchanging behaviour is not its only ineptitude when it comes to camouflage. It also has its plumage to deal with. 

The Ruffed Grouse comes in a few different colour morphs (that is, colour forms), but the two primary ones are: grey (found primarily in the north), red (found primarily in the south). The grey seems to be best adapted to hiding in snow; the red seems best adapted to hiding in foliage.  We get both forms here. But, what is a red-morph Ruffed Grouse to do when it encounters snow? If a coyote appears, it has just lost the lottery. And what is a grey-morph Ruffed Grouse to do when it is amidst leaves. It is, alas, irreconcilably visible. 

The latter was the case this week when our local grey-morph Ruffed Grouse attempted to hide amidst the fall foliage — alas, it was starkly visible. It is interesting that the grouse has as much trouble adapting its plumage as it does adapting its behaviour.

A grey-morph grouse stands out amidst the fall foliage, but it will blend better come winter.


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Three-woodpecker day


Leaving aside the flicker, which might be seen a few times a week, woodpeckers are spotted only once or twice a year. So, it was unexpected to see three different species of woodpeckers in one day. They are presented in the order seen.

This is a juvenile Pileated Woodpecker (dark eyes) that has been probing a utility pole for hibernating insects. The pileated is our largest woodpecker.

A female Northern Flicker was probing some wooden trim for insects.

There has been a woodpecker feeder on the house for nearly a decade. Its suet attracts jays, chickadees, and nuthatches, but the only woodpecker seen there had been a flicker. That was until yesterday, when our smallest woodpecker turned up: the Downy Woodpecker. The male stayed for some time and was back again this morning.


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Eats, fish & leaves


There is a classic joke that depends upon the sloppy employment of a comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. This is how Wikipedia tells it:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots, & leaves.

The joke turns on the ambiguity of the final sentence fragment. As intended by the author, “eats” is a verb, while “shoots” and “leaves” are the verb’s objects: a panda’s diet comprises shoots and leaves. However, the erroneous introduction of the comma gives the mistaken impression that the sentence fragment comprises three verbs listing in sequence the panda’s characteristic conduct: it eats, then it shoots, and finally it leaves.

I was reminded of the joke this morning as I watched an eagle eat, fish and leave — er, eat fish and leave. The smaller male Bald Eagle is eating (and not sharing) a fish in the company of his larger (presumed) mate.

The eagle…

eats fish

and leaves.


Posted in birds, commentary, fish | 5 Comments

Western larch


Come early November, I am often wont to offer an encomium to the western larch. Sometimes the tree is shown covering the mountainside, this time only a portion of an individual appears.

The western larch grows only on the mountain slopes and a few valleys of southeastern British Columbia, plus portions of the adjacent United States. The tree is a deciduous conifer, so autumn causes yellowish-orange needles to splash the slopes with a stunning preface to the greys, blues, and whites of winter.


Posted in wildflowers | 3 Comments

Dipper scarfs egg


A dipper is an unusual songbird on a number of counts. It flies underwater in search of comestibles in turbulent mountain streams. But, when if finds something, it apparently doesn’t eat it immediately, but brings it to firm ground where it first lays it on the surface, then picks it up again and eats it.

In the warm season, the dipper seems to prefer aquatic arthropods. Now that the Kokanee spawning season is over, the dipper is hunting their eggs. 

A dipper first retrieved an (unfertilized) Kokanee egg from the creek bed. Here it balances the egg on its tongue. A tenth of a second later, the egg has been swallowed.


Posted in birds, fish | 4 Comments

Swans return


In late October and through November, swans begin to arrive during their migration south — first in dribs and drabs, then in larger flocks. This last weekend, I saw two families of swans about fifteen kilometres apart. This is one of them.

A family of Tundra Swans rests and feeds by the shore.


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