It has been over two years since I last posted a blog. I’m not sure why I lost interest in blogging, and I’m not sure why I’m back again, but perhaps that doesn’t matter anyway. I am here because I have an urge to write and post some photos. It is going to be light this time, nothing deep or philosophical, and I figure what better way to start than to blog about hummingbirds.
We have two regular species of hummingbirds here on Vancouver Island, the Rufous and the Anna’s, and it is warm enough in the winter that the Anna’s overwinters as long as there are hummingbird feeders to help them out. Even though I live in a townhouse with a very small backyard, I regularly get Anna’s Hummingbirds through the winter, and the Rufous visit the yard during both spring and fall migration. This year for the first time since I moved here seven years ago I have had Anna’s coming to the feeder all summer long. So here are some photos of these birds from both last year and this, with some comments about them.
This male has dominated my feeder all summer long, terrorizing any other hummer that tries to get a drink when he is around. I have to wonder if it is the same male from last winter. I just love the variety of colours in his gorget.
I absolutely love hummingbirds. They are amazing jewels with an attitude and ferociousness that belies their diminutive size. But they are descendants of the dinosaurs so maybe that’s where it comes from.
If you want to see more of my photos, including many species of hummingbirds from Costa Rica, please visit my website at :terrythormin.smugmug.com/
The days are getting noticeably longer and even though we are not getting much sun, average daytime highs are gradually creeping up there. We are beginning the long, slow, crawl towards spring. As the earth warms up, roots begin taking up more water, combining it with carbon dioxide, and with the sun’s increased energy, converting them to carbohydrates with oxygen released as a waste product. This is, of course, photosynthesis, a process used by plants and some other organisms to produce their own food, and it has been the source of energy for almost all life on Earth for the last 3.5 billion years.
In northern climates most plants largely shut down during the winter months, some simply slowing down food production, some losing all their leaves, some dying right back to the roots and some dying completely, relying on their seeds for the next generation. But by February this trend is beginning to reverse itself and a walk around the pond with the local botany group early in the month revealed new buds forming on the red huckleberry, and catkins on both the alder and the willows.
Red huckleberry buds
There is a bald eagle nest just off the southwest corner of the park and right beside the road that has been active for a number of years now. On another walk early in the month I met a young couple who mentioned that they had seen the eagle on the nest just the day before. Bald eagles typically start working on the nest by early February, either starting on a new one if they are first time nesters or the old one has been destroyed, or adding to and repairing the old one. Egg-laying usually starts towards the end of February. By the end of this month I still had not seen any activity in this nest, but I often heard the eagles calling from the woods just west of the pond. Perhaps the birds have relocated because the nest was too close to the road for comfort
Bald eagle nest
The same day I talked with the young couple about the eagle I observed three beavers in the east pond, swimming round and round and occasionally slapping their tails. Normally a tail slap indicates the presence of danger, but in this case I really think it was an indication of annoyance or frustration. I was not the only one who was watching this event as about 11 other people were at various places around the pond watching the beaver. Normally beavers are not active during the day, but rather are nocturnal. The only time they become active during the day is when the dam needs to be repaired or they have a need to gather more food. As there is no dam associated with these beavers they must have needed more food. With so many people around the edge of the pond, they could not even find a safe place to exit the pond to do their search. Finally, after more than half an hour, they gave up and disappeared into the lodge.
Beavers live in extended families, comprised of two adults and young up to two years of age. They have 1 to 9 young every year, with pups being born in April to June, so potentially an extended family can be quite large. Obviously at least one of the three I saw that day had to be a young beaver, but all three were quite large so it was difficult to determine which ones were adults and which were pups. There was one that seemed to be a bit smaller, but it was obvious that any young had to be from the litter born almost two years ago.
I explored the small woods at the northeast corner of the pond three times this month. I doubt that this woods is even as much as an acre in extent, so biodiversity is rather poor here. The dominant tree is Douglas-fir, although there are a few grand firs and shore pines as well. After a careful search I found some branch tips with the short, light green needles that indicate new spring growth. Douglas-firs have quite distinctive seed cones with bracts that are three forked and often remind people of the back ends of little mice hiding in the cones.
Douglas-fir seed cone
Ground cover here is mostly salal with scattered sword ferns. I did find the leaves of some rattlesnake plantains in one spot. This is a very common orchid in coniferous forests on the island, and is our only orchid that retains its leaves all winter long. The leaves are quite distinctive with a white stripe down the middle and generally with fairly strong mottling or striping, although this can vary considerably from plant to plant.
The area between this wood and the pond, and extending along most of the north side of the pond is a brushy area of mostly alder with some willow. Many of these bushes have lichens in the genus Ramalina growing on them, and in some places this lichen is thick. Lichens are a composite organism formed by a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and either a green algae or a cyanobacterium. Because the fungus is generally the dominant organism and is always present, lichens are classified in with fungi. This means that they are no longer considered plants as the fungi are now in their own kingdom.
On my walks around the pond I was regularly hearing the Red Crossbills jip-jipping as they flew from tree top to tree top looking for cone seeds. There were a few other birds as well, including Pacific wren, Bewick’s wren, ruby-crowned kinglet and song sparrow. The song sparrow was often heard singing, even from the other side of the pond.
On one of my trips I saw a male hooded merganser on the west pond. I had seen and photographed the female here earlier this month, but this was the first time this year that the male was present. I grabbed my camera and folding stool and went down to the shore hoping to get a photo. The bird simply swam across to the other side of the pond to get away from me, Patience is a virtue in cases like this and an hour of waiting finally resulted in the bird coming quite close and my getting some great shots. This is a strikingly handsome duck and one that I have been trying to get good photographs of for a long time. The male hooded merganser can depress its crest so that the white is a fairly thin line or erect it fully so that it looks like it is wearing a huge, black and white helmet. The fully raised crest is part of the courtship display. In this case, in the absence of a female, the bird kept its crest in a partly raised position the whole time.
Hooded merganser male
Hooded merganser female
Four days later I returned to the pond and found both the male and female hooded mergansers swimming together and a single male common merganser with three females. By now most mergansers have formed a pair bond, so I am not sure why this particular male had three females in tow. I did observe some interaction between two of the females on more than one occasion, so perhaps it was a mated pair and two additional females hoping to steal the male from the mated female. Although the hooded mergansers never came close enough for more photos, the male and two of the female commons eventually came close enough for some good shots.
Common mergansers, male and two females
So spring has started, slowly, but the signs are showing. Overnight lows are now consistently above freezing. The last couple of trips out to the pond I was seeing good numbers of midges and the song sparrows were singing more often. Hopefully we will start to get a few more sunny days.
Now as the soil begins to warm
and roots begin to stir,
first signs of spring are showing now
on willow, alder, fir.
And in the air the midges fly,
their numbers growing strong.
While ‘cross the pond the song sparrow bursts
into loud, joyous song.
The ducks are found in mated pairs,
The eagles build their nest.
And beavers swim around the pond
as for fresh food they quest.
Its early days, there’s so much more
that spring has yet to give.
But still the promise is now there,
to stir, to wake, to live
Little River Pond is a short, eight minute drive up island from where I live. I moved to Comox on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2009, and that winter I discovered the pond while exploring the coast looking for good birding areas. The only birds that I found of interest that winter were Ring-necked Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, but the following summer I again checked out the pond and found that it was a superb place for dragonflies. I have a particular passion for dragonflies and I love the challenge of photographing them, especially getting in-flight shots, so Little River Pond quickly became a favorite haunt.
The pond is really two ponds connected by a very short channel. In the winter the water level rises and the ponds overflow their banks becoming one large pond. There is also an outflow stream that connects the ponds to Little River, a short distance away. These are not natural ponds though, but rather gravel pits that were used in post WWII times as a source of gravel for the nearby runways at CFB Comox. Fortunately the ponds were allowed to revert to a natural state and now support a wide variety of aquatic life.
In 2011 the area was designated as a nature park by the Comox Valley Regional District. There is now a parking lot and sign at the entrance to the park, making it easy to find. The park is right alongside Wilkinson Road just down island from the ferry to Powell River at Little River. As well as the ponds, the park includes the connector stream to Little River, plus a stretch of the river itself and the surrounding meadows and woodlands.
The main focus of this blog is to follow the ebb and flow of life in and around the pond for a whole year. Wetlands are the life blood of the planet. Whether it is lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs or ponds, life cannot survive without the water they provide. It seems that most of our wetlands are under attack by industry, agriculture and general development. Far too often we pollute and drain without any concern for the consequences. It is encouraging to find a man-made wetland in the middle of an urban setting that is being protected. The diversity of life in this one small pocket of wilderness is quite impressive if you take the time to look. Unfortunately most people do not take that time. My hope is that this blog will open up the eyes of those people who live near Little River Pond, and perhaps, for those people who do not, it will make them more aware of the wildlife in and around their own local pond.
So follow me through the seasons at the pond as I search out the secret lives of insects and their relatives, scouring the vegetation, turning over logs and stones, using a dip net to look at aquatic life and using an ultraviolet light to attract nocturnal insects. Join me as I document the spring migration of birds and record their breeding success. I won’t forget the resident beaver and the other mammal visitors to the pond, and of course there’s the fish, frogs and snakes. And for those botanists amongst my readers, I will try to document the flowering time of the various plants.
Winter is just around the corner here and the winter seabirds are starting to build up along the coast. Most are too far out right now to afford good photographic opportunities, but recently I managed to find a juvenile Pigeon Guillemot close to shore and got some good photos. This has prompted me to write a short blog about this bird using some of the other photos I managed to get this year. Of course the Pigeon Guillemot is not a pigeon but rather an alcid, a member of the family Alcidae which includes the puffins, murres, murrelets and auklets. At one time these birds were called sea pigeons, probably because they are somewhat pigeon-like in shape.
Pigeon Guillemots are one of the most attractive alcids on the west coast of North America. Until this year I had never been able to get a good shot of one, but finally this year several opportunities came along. My first real chance was on a boat trip to Mitlenatch Island, an island a short distance of shore from Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia near Campbell River. This is a small, rocky island that provides ideal habitat for nesting Guillemots. These birds nest on rocky cliffs, utilizing any protected areas they can find including small caves and cavities close to water.
Mitlenatch has a good sized nesting population of Pigeon Guillemots and it is often fairly easy, as long as the seas are calm, to get good photos of them. Two trips around the island (you can’t photograph the birds while on the island because of restricted access) resulted in a few good photos. Many of the birds were feeding close to shore, diving for fish and marine invertebrates.
As the boat approached the birds, they would often take off in front of the boat, running across the water to get airborne.
As I said earlier I recently photographed a juvenile Pigeon Guillemot swimming close to shore at Deep Bay. Juveniles and winter plumaged adults are not nearly as strikingly coloured as the breeding adults, being rather mottled looking. About the only difference between the juveniles and the winter adults is that the winter adults have a much whiter head. Because these birds are day-time feeders unlike many other alcids which are nocturnal, and because they regularly feed close to shore, looking for small fish, mollusks, marine worms, crabs and other invertebrates on the sea floor, they are easier to photograph than most alcids from shore.
The one photograph that I do not have that I would like to get is of a bird on a cliff, preferably silhouetted against the sea or sky, with the bill wide open. This makes for a beautiful photo because the mouth lining is a brilliant scarlet colour, the same colour as the feet. The colour of the feet and mouth lining plays an important role in the courtship of these birds. When you are a nature photographer there is always something else to strive for.
I went to Little River Pond about two weeks ago and noticed that the Sand Wasps, Bembix americana, were still flying. With the warm weather we are getting it is possible that they are still around and might continue for a while yet.
I have always liked these beautiful wasps. They are found almost anywhere there is bare soil, although they particularly like sandy areas. Unlike yellow jackets they are not aggressive and you would probably have to step on one with bare feet to get stung. They are members of the family called Digger Wasps (Crabronidae) and like most members of this family they dig nests in sand or soil. They are also solitary nesters, that is, each female digs its own nests. In ideal habitat though the nest sites can be so numerous it almost appears to be a colony. Two years ago the sand dunes at Point Holmes in Comox were thick with these wasps and I estimated several thousand in a narrow strip about 3 to 4 meters wide and about 100 meters long. Since then numbers have not been as great, but they are still fairly common.
Sand Wasp on a log
The female Sand Wasp will dig a nest hole in the ground and lay a single egg in the hole. She then catches and stings a fly which she drags, still alive but paralyzed from the sting, into the hole, and then she closes the hole with sand, pebbles or dirt. When the egg hatches the larva feeds on the paralyzed fly. At regular intervals the female will provision the nest site with another fly, each time closing the hole again, until the larva is finally large enough to pupate and turn into an adult wasp. This is referred to as progressive provisioning and is considered to be a more advanced evolutionary stage in nesting behavior. With multiple nest sites each female must be very busy attending to her young during the summer, and a large group of Sand Wasps in one area must put a considerable dent in the local fly population.
A female Sand Wasp digging a nest hole
Adult Sand Wasps, unlike the larvae, feed on the nectar of flowers and will go to a large variety of flowers. In this photo you can see the large mandibles that distinguish the females from the males. From what I have read another difference is that the females are white and the males are yellow, although the yellow will turn a pale blue with age. Bugguide however has photos of individuals labeled females that are clearly yellow. Something else to sort out.
A female Sand Wasp nectaring
A yellow male? Sand Wasp