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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Mallard mating


Birds mate quickly — in a matter of seconds. And while I had seen a mallard rape, I had not seen mallard consensual sex, at least until this afternoon. 

From the time of rushing to the camera and picking it up, the mallards went through their head bobbing preliminaries. With the first picture mating was happening, and only the male was visible, for the female was now underwater. A fifth of a second later, she was surfacing and he was posturing with his eyes closed.

The female is being penetrated underwater.

The tw0 of them appear only a fifth of a second later.


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Hairy not Downy


I was watching a resident family of Northern Flickers flit between their favourite feeding areas, when to my absolute delight, another woodpecker flew over to join them. 

In the West Kootenay, we have a half-dozen or more woodpeckers that either migrate through or live here permanently. Of those, the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are the most difficult to tell apart.   (Their similarities probably arise by evolution since these two birds are not even in the same genus.)  It is also relatively uncommon to see either bird around here, but the Hairy is more rare.

Six clues indicated my visitor was a Hairy Woodpecker.

Downy: mass 20 to 33 g; body length 14 to 18 cm.
Hairy: mass 40 to 95 g; body length 18 to 26 cm.

First was size. The Hairy is 2 to 3 times as heavy as the Downy, and about 30% to 40% longer.

The Hairy Woodpecker on the stump seemed closer in size to the nearby Northern Flickers and was significantly larger than the Song Sparrow foraging nearby in the grass. 

After the woodpecker flew off, I measured the stump it pecked at for food. The bird was likely about 24 cm from beak tip to tail end; clearly a somewhat large Hairy. 

To make further comparison easier, here is a photo (right) of a Downy Woodpecker taken previously by Alistair Fraser. The places to look for differences between a Downy and Hairy are marked with four numbers. 

1. The Downy’s bill is much shorter. The Hairy’s bill is noticeably longer and similar to the length of its head.

2. Downy usually have fluffier tufts of feathers above their beaks.

3. The Hairy’s neck has a black downwards spur; the Downy has none.

4. The white-ish lower tail feathers are dotted black only on the Downy. 

This Downy also has a brighter red  head patch than my visiting woodpecker, but that colour difference may be due to my father’s Downy being an older more mature male. 

When my visiting woodpecker flew to a nearby low-lit tree, it had the namesake hair-like or thread-like white back feathers. It also showed white unmarked tail feathers and a reddish-ginger head patch that was split in two.  Apparently a male Hairy’s red patch often splits in two, while the Downy’s does not.

Finally, despite this somewhat ginger-coloured head patch, I am confident my visitor was a Hairy (and not a disguised royal Harry off the grid in Canada!) What do you think?

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Two interesting visitors


The last week has been bitterly cold with bouts of steam fog and snow. Critters seemed few in number, but it has warmed, and recently there were interesting visitors.

Two Trumpeter Swans came along the shore feeding midday. They were followed by two more that also came, fed and left. This was a deviation of the usual practise of spending a long time sticking around one spot to feed. 

But the prize was a bobcat. It was probably the same one that came in January last year, for it headed for the bird feeder undoubtedly hoping to capture a winged creature. Lacking success, it left and promptly captured something that was then carried it off in its jaw (probably a squirrel). That it is a bobcat is evident by its short tail, the white patches on the ears, and the tufts on their tops. Photo by Cynthia Fraser.


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Otters frolic


I don’t often see river otters; indeed the last one was well over a year ago. However a family of otters visited yesterday morning and spent a half hour on a nearby dock. There were two parents and two pups. Come spring, the pups will go off on their own as adults.

The first three pictures I show were taken near the end of the visit. This order enables me to make a point that explains some of the rest of the pictures.

A few times, the otters looked in the general direction of the photographers who were spread along the beach. But, the otters seemed uncertain about what they were, where they were, and indeed if they posed a threat. I think the otters are left to right: mother, pup, father, pup. Photo Dorothy Fraser.

After playing and preening for a half hour, they began to leave. Photo Cynthia Fraser.

One otter (the father?) came along the ramp towards the shore to have a closer look at the people. It turns out that otters are near-sighted, which is a consequence of their vision being adapted for underwater seeing. So, otters often need to come close for a good look.

The otter family spent most of its time preening themselves and others, but often the father watched the surroundings.

On one occasion one of the otters wandered away from the others and defecated. The otter then came back to the group. The dung of an otter is called a spraint.

Here three of them are interacting, but one is looking out, but unable to see things sharply in the distance.

Yet, they knew that there was something on the adjacent beach.

The family poses.


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Devil’s cormorant


The cormorant is an interesting bird. It has a long history of interaction with humans, and most of this time the cormorant was presented as surprisingly bad. I encountered one this last weekend, but observations of it are not all that common around here.

The cormorant is perhaps the most vilified of birds, a status that seems to go back many centuries and is offered with various justifications. This vilification can be illustrated by the government of Ontario, where in 2020, licenced hunters were allowed to shoot up to fifteen cormorants a day. This was justified by the claim that cormorants were harming fish stocks and damaging natural habitats with their guano. Yet, many other predator species who do likewise were ignored. Why cormorants? The answer seems to date back centuries, even millennia.

Two somewhat early references to the evilness of cormorants were from the seventeenth century, each of which was redolent of much earlier attitudes. In the 1667 poem, Paradise Lost (Book 4), Milton casts the devil in the guise of a cormorant (4. 196-8), spying on Adam and Eve, and a year later one of La Fontaine’s Fables presents the cormorant as the epitome of greed. Now, it turns out that this later was just a retelling of an Aesop’s fable <>. So, we have at least 2600 years of writing about the cormorant’s villainy. Hmm…, unlike other early fables (such as the flat earth), it appears that this is one which lives on into the present.

The Audubon society treats the American history of cormorant persecution  <>. It concludes by saying, “We’re seeing the birds scapegoated because that’s the easy and convenient thing to do.” 

In 2014, Richard King wrote The Devil’s Cormorant: a Natural History (University of New Hampshire Press. 352 pp.) in which he traces the long history of man’s relationship with the cormorant. Although some oriental societies value it, western societies systematically denounce it as a symbol of gluttony, greed, bad luck, and evil. The cormorant has truly led a troubled existence in human history, myth, and literature. As King romps over centuries, he describes the slaughter of 20,000 Double-crested Cormorants in 1998 by a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Cormorant Control. This group of local fishermen merely saw the cormorants as competitors for the fish of Lake Ontario. Well, the list goes on.

Humans have had a two to three thousand year history of vilifying the cormorant although the reasons given have varied over time and the cormorant is hardly alone as a predator. (Indeed, mankind is also a predator.) In the face of natural variation, we have chosen to cast blame on the cormorant and then have taken the easy route and killed many thousands of them.

A Double-crested Cormorant rests on a piling. Of three species of cormorants in BC, this is the only one that is occasionally found in the interior. It is a pleasant observation.


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I don’t see a Northern Harrier very often; the last time was five years ago. So when one visited today, I wondered what it was. This one appears to be a female, or perhaps a juvenile.

The harrier was sitting on a piling near me watching some ducks below it, but it did not make a move towards them.


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Wing-flap preening


Swans are now heading south to escape the ice, but last February they were heading north to breed. Consequently, twice a year they are feeding in our area as they pass through. 

Last February, I posted about spread-winged trumpeters: I had watched the Trumpeter Swans for an hour or so: first feeding, then preening, and finally spreading their wings. There were 18 swans, each of which underwent the same routine. It became clear that the visually appealing spreading and flapping of the wings was just the final stage of the preening.

First, a swan would spend time using its bill to interlock feather barbules that had become separated, and as a final step, it would spread its wings to align wing feathers that pointed askew. At this point, it was ready to fly.

In last February’s posting I mentioned that “[J]uveniles also spread wings”, but I did not show any. During the present southward migration, I watched this year’s juvenile preening by both using its bill to interlock barbules and then spreading its wings to align the feathers. Two pictures follow.

The juvenile is interlocking wing barbules while its parent looks on.

Subsequently, it spread and flapped its wings to align the feathers.


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In the bill


When not migrating or sleeping, a bird spends most of its time looking for food. Yet, of all the pictures taken of birds, it is relatively uncommon to see a bird with something eatable in its bill. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the major one is that once food is in the bill, it is so quickly consumed that it is barely noticeable for having being there.

I like to catch pictures of birds with food in their bills. It isn’t easy. Here are four pictures taken over the last little while.

Almost unnoticed is a small beetle in the bill of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. The bird had found it hibernating in the bark of a Douglas fir.

A Dipper has found perhaps three fertilized Kokanee eggs in a stream.

Seeing a swan with something dangling from is bill (other than water) is unusual, because the aquatic weed is usually consumed underwater where it is found.

A Herring Gull eats a fish. In this case, the gull takes some time trying to position the fish as it moves about the water. However, a shot showing the fish’s eye is harder to get. Photo by Cynthia Fraser.


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Barred Owl


Only rarely do I see a Barred Owl, and often someone else spots one for me. And yet, this owl does not migrate with the seasons, but confines itself to a space of about 10 km on a side. These pictures were taken today. 

 It usually hunts from a perch and catches most of its prey at night. During the daytime, it is often sleeping.

But, it will occasionally awaken to view the world with its soulful eyes.


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