Thursday, 19 April 2018

Kamikaze Mamma FLICKER and a hapless KESTREL

Sunshine has finally graced the valley. It is April and the entire bird world is on the move. Migrations nearly completed, hormones rising everywhere, nesting sites being selected, territories defended ... you name it. 

An American Kestrel has returned to the valley. 
It is searching for a suitable nesting site to show to his mate upon her arrival. And it looks like it has found one - in an old snag of what used to be a mighty poplar tree.

The kestrel perches victoriously on the top of of the dead wood; the several cavities in the trunk are more than perfect for a startup of a new family.

And what a better way to celebrate than having a glorious meal!

The snag is on an abandoned rural property, a couple of old barns and a pile of junk in its vicinity. 
It seems that meadow voles and mice have found it attractive too. 
Their mistake!

One elegant swoop and the world is one unfortunate vole poorer.

The kestrel takes its prey back to the top of the snag. It is just about to start its celebratory dinner when something happens one floor below. 
A couple of resident Northern Flickers has already chosen the well rotted stump for their nesting site! And they do not like disturbances!
Kestrel is not taking notice, its entire focus is on the vole! 
Another mistake of the day!
For  Mamma Flicker charges out of the cavity (leaving the male to admire her feathers and to cheer on). 
She flies up like a rocket - and still - the kestrel does not seem to notice.

But that will change soon! 
Very soon!

Peace disturbed, feathers flying!

Are you paying attention NOW? 
Yes! That is YOUR feather! 
So take it AND your dinner somewhere else and thank-you-you-are-not-welcome

Just in case that the kestrel missed the point she charges again - kamikaze style.
This time, her aggression is not needed. 

Point well taken, poor kestrel carries its dinner elsewhere.

Kamikaze mamma settles down, her man nowhere to be seen. 
Probably inside, all impressed, building a spacious nursery room.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) versus Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)

I was going to write about the Canada's (and North America's at that) largest bird, the Trumpeter Swan.
And I was going to say that, by the beginning of the 20th century it had been hunted and displaced to a very near extinction. 
I was also going to say that by the 1930's people finally realized that less than a hundred swans would not recover unless they got their act together and started to protect these graceful birds.
And I was going to talk about Mr. Edwards and his daughter Trudy, whose book I read in the 80's. How I wished to see those swans!

And I was going to tell the world about the trumpeter swans showing up in British Columbia in larger and larger numbers and about all the people being happy when they hear their deep voices (long before their white bodies appear in the sky).

And, I was going to be very poetic about it all.

But then, the little muskrat changed my story.

The month was February. 
The weather up until then was merciful and the ice was nearly gone.

Five trumpeter swans decided to explore a quiet bay on Kootenay River where there were enough aquatic plants to keep them busy for a day or two. 
There were two adults, all white and elegant with black beaks and matching black feet. A bit of red on the beak was barely visible from the distance. Only their heads were kind of rusty brown - that's because they kept on doing their aquatic headstands - bums up and heads down, the long necks stretched out to reach the muddy bottom of the river. Their veggie diet needed some protein and the invertebrates hidden in the rusty mud would provide that.

The rest of them were sub-adult swans, their darker feathers have not changed to white yet. Also their beaks showed quite a bit of red instead of black and their feet were more into shades of green. 
It always takes time to grow up!

Two small Buffleheads showed up as well. They could not pass the opportunity of an easy meal. As the swans disturbed the muddy bottom it was much easier for the tiny ducks to find a morsel or two. It actually looked like a judging session on the part of the duck.
So, everyone was happy, the swans, the ducks, my camera and I.
Nobody noticed the little muskrat!
Not until he charged out of his river bank burrow, heading straight for the largest swan!
And, he was mad! Very mad.

This was HIS quiet bay and HIS aquatic plantation and HE was going to defend it. Who cares that the trumpeter swan is the largest aquatic bird in all of North America! Who cares that its wings can cover a two meter span! Who cares that they are the species recovering from near extinction! Too bad, as far as he was concerned they should have been gone 100 years ago!

He would defend his property!

And he did!
He swam here and there and corralled the swans until they left his little underwater garden He chased them away, just like his cousin in a pond five kilometers up stream chased away the Canada Geese last year

The little muskrat stole the show.
And that's why, I did not write all those amazing things about the beautiful Trumpeter Swans.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Bird Feeder News (not fake)

Oh yes. This was yesterday's morning, marked by yet another snow-storm; courtesy of the late January Pacific storm system that sent the humid air over the Coast Mountains all the way to the foothills of the Rockies.

The day after?
Plus 4 Celsius and water dripping everywhere.

Well, it is winter in the Kootenays; 
sometimes dark and depressing (take that vitamin D time, fight the SAD syndrome, make a mug of tea and hibernate).
At other times - drive up to the mountains and ski or soak the bones in the hot springs.

Or watch the birds at the feeder.

The birds are not too fond of the slushy snow either. The heavy avalanches that fall off the branches scare them; they are not sure what's going on. Even the Northern Flickers take a cautious approach before visiting the bird feeder.
And a little Red-breasted Nuthatch just flies in, spends a few seconds 
grabbing a bit of suet and then frantically flies away.

So do the Redpolls
Absent last year, they made an appearance in December. There are hundreds of them but surprisingly there are no Pine Siskins with them. Not this year. Not a single one. And the very same applies to American Goldfinches.


The ever cheerful Black-capped Chickadees
are here but not too many and not every day.

The same applies to the Steller's Jays. They show up nearly every day thanks to their supply of peanuts but again, once in a while they disappear into the woods without a trace.

So do the Juncos and the lonely Song Sparrow.

What's happening?
Could it be that all the wildfires changed the established rules and travel routes?

Could it be that this hunter, who snuck about until the end of November scared them away? Possibly. The Sharp-shinned Hawk can do that. But November is already 2 months away. We have not seen him since.

So how about this one? The Northern Pygmy Owl was here only once (as far as I know) but the birds simply disappeared for an entire week. No wonder - this is a fierce hunter and it works during the day.
This time the birds were off the hook - the owl heard a mouse squeaking and it was so intent on on locating it that it could not care less about my presence. That is a really neat story - for another time.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Hibernaculum (The Snake Den)

A what?


Two Garter Snakes and a skin of the third one on their departure from a winter's den. Snakes have no hearing but they sense vibrations.
A hibernaculum (plural hibernacula)  
The word originates in Latin, meaning "a tent for winter quarters"; a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.Check it out at Wikipedia

It is somewhat like my house in the winter - I crawl in, fire the woodstove and refuse to go out. 
I know, shame on me! 
But, when the snow piles high and the house is warm and the bed is cozy ... well, that is my hibernaculum from January until the late, late March. 

Could I go skiing. Or snowshoeing. Or snowmobiling .... ???

Well, I am sorry, I pride myself on being well synchronized with Nature! 
And ... how many animals bears or bats or reptiles have you seen skiing, I ask!
They, like I, are wisely tucked in their hibernacula - the underground burrows, crevices in rocky outcrops, caves and other cavities placed well below the frost line where the temperatures hover in an acceptable range. It is all about survival until the Spring returns! 
You see? 

For years I only read about such arrangements well known in the animal world. 
But about 3 years ago, I finally discovered "my own" snake hibernacula, and yes, it is the plural!
There were 2 sites and both belonged to the Garter Snakes of Southern British Columbia.(Spp. Thamnopsis)

Please do not kill garter snakes in your garden.
They are not poisonous and they are extremely useful to all

For those who want to read more about these, often misunderstood reptiles of British Columbia, there is a wonderful website:

If you check it out, you will discover that there are several species of Garter Snakes and that there identification is somewhat confusing. But they all belong to the same family.

The very first snake den I found was in the low-lands of  Creston Valley, BC
It was the end of April, the time of awakening in the swamps by Creston Wildlife Centre.

The holes in the bank are entrances into the den.

I was photographing cliff swallows nesting under an old bridge that spans the river. The bank was very steep and dry and extremely hard to negotiate.
As I was sliding down on my butt, backpack with the camera on my back and tripod in my hand (There MUST be a better way to do this!), something moved in the clay that was crumbling underneath my clumsy feet. It was hard to spot at first because it was so well camouflaged against the dirt and the dry grasses of the bank. A garter snake!
It swiftly slithered towards one of the holes that dotted the bank and disappeared into the darkness of a tunnel leading somewhere deep and underneath the highway above.

It did not occur to me at once (duh) that the place could actually harbor more than one snake....many, many more than one!

Down I continued, finding the swallows and dreading the thought of clawing my way back up. 

The snakes, meanwhile, decided that all was clear and slithered back out to bask and warm up on the bank. 
Did I mention the it was the South-facing side and that it was a warm and sunny afternoon? 

Contemplating the best approach to my ascent I stood motionless eyeing the steep slope in front of my very face.
And then I finally saw it. I was staring straight at a pretty large motionless snake. And not far from it,  one, two ... smaller snakes could be seen. And another! They seemed to be drawn toward the large one. The female. 

Snakes are not slimy. Their skin is smooth and dry

As I tried to set up my equipment they took off into the safety of their den. But after I scrambled up the bank and all was quiet they cautiously re-appeared.

A year later, in early May, I went back to the place. 
And yes! The snakes were there. Which means that they used their denning site, their hibernaculum, again (and again as they have done many times before).

This time, some were already shedding their skins.

Like most reptiles snakes molt several times per season. They shed their skins all at once rather than scraping off just  small pieces. 

When a snake is about to molt it looses interest in food. Its eyes cloud over, indicating that new tissue is forming underneath the old. Until its eyes clear, several days before molt, the snake stays in hiding. Then it begins to move about, rubbing its jaws and snout against rough surfaces. Normally the skin on the head pulls away first. 
Then the snake winds its way through rock crevices or brush, causing the skin to be pulled away inside-out.

Den Site # 2:

One month later, in early June, I happen to kayak a small mountain lake in Selkirk mountains some hundred km from the Creston Lowlands.
Penstemon and wild Bog Orchids just started bloom and the rocky outcrops by the far side of the lake were covered in bright colours. 
Of course I got out of the kayak to photograph the beauty of it all.
But the wind was blowing hard and it took some patience  to snap a photo. 

Oh, how I cursed that wind!

I shouldn't have!

The wind made me stand still, very still.

And in a while, there was another sort of movement.

Slow, cautious, inquiring.

A beautiful garter snake came out of the depths of the rocky outcrop.
It was trying to figure me out for a long while. But then I shifted my weight and the snake took off.

So sorry to see it go I was going to pack up. But then - a few meters away I noticed another one.
How could that be? It is already June and the snakes are out of their dens.

But this is not a lowland - we are over 1000 meters up!

Soon after they started to come out in numbers!

Another hibernaculum discovered!

Some have already shed their old skins, some, somewhat slow and docile showed the clouded eyes as the new tissues formed under the old skin. And so we spent some time together, the snakes and I, not disturbing each other, 
I, taking the photos, they, changing their skins and preparing for their mating season. 
The large females will give birth to their live offspring and everyone will disperse. They will travel wide and far to make a living catching fish and amphibians and small creatures like bugs and mice. Or chipmunks. Find some bird eggs or their young. 
That's what the snakes do.
They will hide from owls and hawks, the foxes and coyotes, from humans and their pets and cars. 

And when the weather turns cold, the surviving ones will swim and slither back to their rocky outcrop on the lake, by the bridge or under the greenhouse in someone's garden, to hibernate. 

These two will shed their skins soon. Have a look at their eyes, they are cloudy.
 I assume that the smaller one is a male, the large one a female.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Life Behind Bars & A Case of Severe Winter Blues

It seems that everyone had something to say about the last winter. 
Too cold. 
Too much snow.. 
Too long ...

Great skiing ...Expensive though....
Hard to drive .....


For me it was a cloudy, cheerless winter behind bars. 
All kinds of them. 
It must have been the same for the birds and other animals.
Nobody but a couple of brave flickers showed up. The yard, usually dotted by animal tracks slept soundly under a thick blanket of snow. So did the bird feeder; perched there, on the top of the patio like a white ghost, the seeds going to waste.

It seemed that the only fun could be doing some macro of the snow and frost.
This is the window of our camper - from the inside! If only I washed it in the Fall.

Frost on the patio railing - basically the top of the fluffy snow after a very cold night. I discovered that I am not brave enough for winter photography! Stacking old lenses in reverse to get an extreme macro is fun - in the warmth of a study, not on a frozen patio. Oh, crybaby!

But, finally, the sun cleared the low winter horizon. 

And icicles begun to melt, turning to a more acceptable state. To me at the least. 
No more bars, life is back the grass will spring and the birds too, will soon return.

And it won't take long for us to complain about the weather being ...
... well ... too hot ... too mucky....too know.