Category Archives: Pictures

A Visit to Central Zürich

A business trip to Zürich in early June was extended by a few days before and after to accommodate a little sight-seeing. The before-business visit consisted of 2 days in Zürich. During the first of these we walked from our hotel (Hotel Krone) downtown wandering around looking at both architecture and birds.

Here is a visual summary of some of the more interesting things that we saw:

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich
Tramway in the middle, cars and bicycles on the outside and no place for automobiles to park on the road.

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich

Old Building near Zürich Hauptbahnhof
Interesting old building with a tower near the train station.

Alpine Swifts over Zürich
The Alpine Swifts were quite active at this building while we were there.

Rock Pigeon

Mandarin Duck
We saw and photographed this Mandarin Duck at a distance.

Common Blackbird
The common blackbird was snacking here. Just three-and-twenty more and we could make a pie.

Pretty bird with quite a strong song.

Zürich Downtown Street
The narrow streets were interesting and each seemed a little different.

Red-crested Pochard
Male Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Female Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Returning from a dip this one’s back still had a sheet of water on it.

Red-crested Pochard
A fraction of a second later and the sheet of water had broken up.

Red-crested Pochard
Another instant and the duck’s back appeared dry again.

Narrow stair-walkway between buildings
One of my favourite stair pictures for the day.

Cobblestones, Stairway and Wooden Home
Yet another ramp/stairway climbing a hill.

Cobblestone Path Between Buildings

Singing Chaffinch
This bird was singing merrily away when…

Singing Chaffinch Noticing the Audience
it spotted a small audience forming behind its back.

Common Blackbird Singing

Hiking in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park

The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California stretching from the Mexican border north some 60 miles or so more north towards Palm Springs.  We went on a day trip and saw only one piece of the entire park hiking a single trail.  Nevertheless, we did get a sense of the park despite our short stay.

We left Palm Springs fairly early. The drive to the park is straight down the 10 interstate until you reach Indio at which point you branch onto the 86 and head south.  When you arrive at the town of Salton City, you take the S22 (also known as the Borrego Salton Sea Way) west.  The road is not in fantastic shape but it gets you to the park:

Along the way you will see a large area of the land being used by off-road vehicles. There was a fairly visible presence of both off-road ATV type vehicles and camping vehicles from cars with small trailers to monster RVs.

Eventually the road runs into Borrego Springs which is a small town based around a large oasis in the desert.

This following was taken from the car as we drove into town:

Like other desert environments in the US southwest, the Colorado Desert can be characterized by its vegetation.  The Sonoran Desert is known for its giant Saguaro cactuses; the Mohave Desert for its Joshua Trees.  The Colorado Desert, sometimes considered part of the Sonoran Desert, has creosote bushes, the ocotillo – not a cactus but a deciduous desert plant – and many other plant varieties.  The Western Fan Palm, the tree found at oases throughout the region and the only native palm tree in North America, is typically found in a Colorado Desert environment.

The visitor center for the park was be partially buried – presumably to help manage the extreme heat of the summer months:

A short interpretive walk showcased some of the key aspects of the park and the Colorado Desert. Here is a large ocotillo which is not a true cactus:

Between the various plants growing in the desert was some pretty cool looking, colourful ground cover.

We came planning to take one good hike and the one that was recommended was the Palm Canyon Trail with trailhead a short drive away:

The trail starts in a dry river bed. There was a surprising amount of vegetation and a fair number of plants were flowering.

As we climbed out of the river bed the trail wound its way through a field of rocks and boulders.

There is lots of vegetation from many different plants to be seen along the way including this colourful ground cover.

After a fair hike through the rocks we came around a ridge and got our first view of the oasis.

The 2004 Flood

In September of 2004 a rainstorm dropped a large amount of rain on the area around the Palm Canyon. The resulting flash flood ripped apart the oasis leaving only a quarter of the trees standing. The remainder were scattered around, several being washed downstream by the fast flowing water. A good account of this event and the effects on the canyon is listed in the references at the bottom of this post.

Here are some of the palm trees that were ripped out of the ground during the flash flood.

At times, the path to the oasis was somewhat creatively constructed around the large boulders.

Some of the biggest boulders were found as we approached the oasis. The stream of running water became more obvious as well.

How much power was their in the flood waters? Check this out:

Finally – the Oasis:

The oasis comes with a small waterfall too.

A pond with water just down from the waterfall is covered with what looks like duckweed. I wonder how that got here?

We started back down the trail, eventually taking a different fork to follow a different trail back to the parking lot.

In case you didn’t get the scale of the earlier picture with boulder on trunk here is a version with boulder, trunk and me.

The running water supports lots of different types of vegetation that look like they belong in a wetter climate.

Event away from the stream, there were many flowering desert plants.

As mentioned some of the logs were moved a long way down stream. This large palm trunk was found more than half way back to the parking lot.

And that, as they say, is a wrap – to the hike at least. We didn’t see many birds and I wasn’t able to get much on camera. There was a Shrike and a high-up hawk and a few sparrows.

We stopped in Borrego Springs for lunch and then headed back on highway 78 which runs south of the S22 towards the south end of the Salton Sea. We were off to check out the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge though I’ll leave the details of that for another post.

References, and Further Reading

The article: Anza-Borrego: Plant Guide To Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail has extensive information on the Palm Canyon Trail, its vegetation and the September 2004 flood.

Hiking Indian Canyons

Whenever we are in the Palm Springs area we are always looking out for new places to hike and explore. Our regular favourite destinations include as the Coachella Valley Preserve in 29 Palms, the Palms to Pines Highway, Morongo Valley, Joshua Tree National Park and the Living Desert.

On our last Palm Springs visit we discovered a new hiking location, the Indian Canyons. On our most recent trip, we landed at the Palm Springs airport around noon and had a few hours before we could check in so we decided to revisit the Indian Canyons as they were not too far from the airport.

In fact, the Indian Canyons are easily reached from downtown Palm Springs by travelling south on Palm Canyon Drive South, also known as Highway 111B. When Highway 111B eventually turns east, becoming Palm Canyon Drive East, you need to turn off of 111B to continue south on Palm Canyon Drive South (now a more residential road).

Confusing?  Just stay to the right and keep going South.

Eventually you will reach the entrance to the Indian Canyons which lies on tribal lands of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. An entrance fee is required to continue. It is not much further that the road comes to an end as a bunch of parking lots and a visitor centre called The Trading Post which has toilets, souvenirs, knowledgeable staff ready to answer questions and useful hiking stuff like sun-hats for those who (like me) left theirs at home.

For those who enjoy watching hummingbirds, there are several hummingbird feeders that always seem to have lots of activity. See my previous post: Hummingbirds at the Indian Canyons Trading Post.

For those coming to hike, some good trail maps can be found online at this Indian Canyons web site.

Fire and Flood

Flash flood warning P1080053

2013 saw some extremely heavy September rains in and around the Coachella Valley. The Indian Canyons was one of the areas that suffered damage from flash floods resulting from these storms. In this case the problem was worsened by a July fire that damaged some 6000 acres of the Agua Caliente tribal lands. After the flooding, access to the Indian Canyons was closed indefinitely. Lucky for us, access was restored in mid-November.

Palm Canyon Trail

The Trading Post sits protected from flash floods on a small ridge overlooking part of the oasis running along the Palm Canyon Creek. A switchback path providing access to the trail. After watching the hummingbirds for a while and buying a sun-hat we hiked down to the canyon floor and into the world’s largest native oasis of Desert Fan Palms (Washingtonia filifera), also know as California Palms. We continued up the trail into the 15 mile long canyon. Here are a few pictures taken along the way.
Palm Canyon Trail P1080054

Part of Palm Canyon Trail P1080062

Palm trees and water in Palm Canyon Creek P1080063

In places we could see evidence of the July fire. You can see burn marks on some of the palms going all the way up to the base of the palm fronds.
California Fan Palms - some burnt by July 2013 fire P1080066

Finally, at around the 2 mile mark we reached the start of the Victor Trail that would take us back to the Trading Post through the open desert.
Crossroads and start of VIctor Trail P1080064

Victor Trail

View looking back towards the creek a short way up the Victor Trail.At start of Victor Trail looking back at California Fan Palms P1080067

Looking up the Victor Trail. The rocky landscape is scattered with creosote bushes, barrel cactuses and other vegetation.Victor Trail view of desert P1080071

A Teddy Bear Cholla cactus on the edge overlooking Palm Canyon.  Cute? Perhaps.  Cuddly?  Nope.  Some of the spines are pretty fine and definitely not for touching.Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus P1080074

A barrel cactus along the Victor Trail. The spines from some small ‘baby’ cactuses at the base of the larger cactus are catching the sunlight and appear to glow.Barrel Cactus P1080076

At several points along the trail you can see all the way back to the Trading Post. Here is one such view showing the extent of the oasis along the creek. The San Jacinto mountains are rising on the left.
Victor Trail view of Palm Canyon P1080077

At one of the high points we got a good view looking northward towards Palm Springs. You can clearly see some of the wind farms north of the city. In the distance is, I believe, the southern end of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Victor Trail view SE showing Palm Springs and windmill farm P1080078

Another view of the Trading Post as we get closer to the end of the trail.
Victor Trail view looking towards Trading Post P1080083

Here is a view of the rocks and vegetation along the trail. Some of the rocks suggest a lot of geological upheaval over time which is expected given the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.
Victor Trail P1080085

We saw several types of cactus along the trail. I’m not sure what kind is in the foreground.
Unknown cactus backlit by late afternoon sun P1080087

The Palm-Canyon/Victor trail was a short loop of only about 4 miles yet, because of the elevation gains on the Victor Trail portions is rated as moderately strenuous. We hiked it in January and took no special precautions other than carrying water (and I had my new sun-hat). Because of the time of year we were also not too concerned with potential animal threats such as rattlesnakes, scorpions or tarantulas. Anyone hiking these trails during warmer times of the year should take the appropriate precautions.

Hummingbirds at the Indian Canyons Trading Post

The city of Palm Springs lies nestled up against the northeast corner of the San Jacinto Mountains, the northernmost of the Peninsular Ranges, a group of mountain ranges that extend along the coast as far as the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

Driving due South from Palm Springs along Palm Canyon Drive takes you into a pocket in the mountains that includes part of the tribal land for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This area is referred to as the Indian Canyons that is accessible for a number of activities. Numerous trails of varying length and difficulty are available for hiking and for equestrian use. Some good trail maps can be found at this Indian Canyons web site.

At the end of Palm Canyon Drive are several parking lots and The Trading Post that is the starting point for several of the trails. If you want trail advice or just a souvenir, you find it at the Trading Post.  And if, like me, you forget to bring a sun hat, they’ve got that covered as well.

The Hummingbirds

For those who like to watch hummingbirds, they have several feeders which have been quite active the two times that we have been there. During this visit, most of the hummers that we saw were Costa’s though the odd Anna’s was seen as well. This was actually not a problem since, being from the Vancouver area, we see Anna’s Hummingbirds all the time so I was more interested in the Costa’s hummingbirds anyways.  Because of the feeder locations, you can sit at one of the covered picnic tables to watch the hummers come and go.

The following two images show a male Costa’s with its lovely deep purple colouration on throat and head.  Depending on the direction of the light, I have seen the colour go from black to a deep blue.Costa's Hummingbird-1080137

Costa's Hummingbird-1080147

The hummers appear to be fairly used to the humans so you can approach to within a few feet of the feeders and get a good view without having them fly away. If you have a camera with a reasonable zoom capable of fast shutter speeds, you can get some pretty good pictures too.

One Feeder – Three Costa’s

The following sequence of pictures show 3 Costa’s hummingbirds, 1 male and 2 female, as they go after the nectar in one of the feeders. The sequence starts with 1 male and 1 female both perched with the second female arriving to join in. Both of the feeding hummers initially stopped feeding, I suppose to check out the new arrival.
Costa's Hummingbirds-1080115

Costa's Hummingbirds-1080116

In the next 3 images you can see the seated hummer apparently ‘chirping’ at the new arrival when it gets too close. This appears to be successful at keeping the new bird away. The male seems content to let the females sort things out.Costa's Hummingbirds-1080118

Costa's Hummingbirds-1080119

Costa's Hummingbirds-1080120

The entire sequence lasted only a few seconds.  The first 5 images (above) were taken over about 1 second using my camera’s burst mode which was set to take 5 pictures per second for a burst of up to 11 images.

Eventually the late arrival moves off and re-appears at an empty spot on the far side of the feeder.  In fact, as this image was taken 6 seconds after the first 5, this could be a fourth hummer coming for a sip.Costa's Hummingbirds-1080122

Costa’s meets Anna’s

The next picture shows both a male Costa’s and a female Anna’s facing each other on opposite sides of the same feeder. You can clearly see the larger size of the Anna’s Hummingbird.  Another difference between the species is visible.  In the Anna’s, when perched, the tail extends noticeably past the wingtips whereas in the Costa’s the wingtips and tail end at roughly the same point.
Male Costa's and Female Anna's Hummingbirds-1080151

An interesting observation that is clear in this image is that when the two hummers are perched face-to-face, it appears that the center of balance of both is outside of the perching ring.  In effect they are leaning backwards using their grip to prevent them from falling off of the perch.  Why wouldn’t they just sit with their centre of balance over the perch?  One reason that I can think of is that this allows for a quick escape by, in effect, ‘falling’ off of the perch.

The staring contest ended with the Anna’s departure.  Note that the Anna’s departure is low, below the feeder consistent with a “quick getaway by falling off the perch“.
Male Costa's and Female Anna's (disappearing) Hummingbirds-1080152

Final Thoughts

The dynamics of hummingbirds competing for spots on a feeder is always entertaining.  These birds move so quickly, however, that capturing the details would be all but impossible without a camera having a high-shutter speed, burst mode and a good optical zoom.  A tripod would be useful though the above pictures were all taken with the camera hand-held.  The built-in image stabilization no double helped create sharp images without a tripod.

The progress of camera technology is impressive.  A few years ago, taking the above images would probably have required thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment.  I took them all using a Panasonic DMC-FZ200 which currently goes for well under $1000.


Leucistic Dark-eyed Junco (and Friends)

We spent the past weekend on Saltspring Island. The front yard feeders where we were staying attracted a good crowd of birds about 90% of which were Dark-eyed Juncos. One particular bird was there most of the time and sported some discolouration on its head which I attribute to Leucism. The first two pictures are views from left and right showing that the discolouration is not symmetric.

Leucistic Junco-1070974

Leucistic Junco-1070980

The following view with the junco looking almost directly at the camera also clearly shows the left-right asymmetry.
Leucistic Junco-1070964

There was also a small group of American Goldfinches that showed up occasionally. Some of them posed nicely for the camera too:
American Goldfinch-1070960

American Goldfinch-1070962

The back yard had some bird activity as well including a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, a Fox Sparrow and an American Robin.
Chestnut-sided Chickadee-1070917

Fox Sparrow-1070926

Robin in Birdbath-1070941-2

Bird Puzzler #1: From Trash to Treasure

[Based on the ‘Puzzler I’, originally posted to the Fraser Valley Birding forums on June 1, 2013] See the Puzzlers Page for more information.

I know that many birders enjoy puzzles associated with bird identification so I thought that I might be able to salvage an otherwise botched photo attempt that I almost deleted, resurrecting it as a challenging bird identification puzzler.

So take a look at the picture below and try to answer the following questions:

Question 1: Can you find the bird in this image?

Question 2: Can you identify the bird?

The only clue that I will provide now is that this picture was taken somewhere in the province of Ontario, Canada on May 24, 2013. I believe that there is enough information for you to make a stab at an identification.

Here’s the image:


Check out a higher resolution image. Click on the picture to get to the source picture on Flickr, look for and click on the three-dot icon and select the “View all sizes” option.


(See Puzzlers Page for Instructions)

Clue #1: Guvf cvpgher jnf gnxra arne Tnanabdhr, Bagnevb.

Clue #2: Vs lbh ghearq nebhaq naq ybbxrq va gur bccbfvgr qverpgvba lbh jbhyq frr gur sbyybjvat:

Clue #3: Gur oveq vf whfg orybj naq gb gur yrsg bs gur zvqcbvag bs gur vzntr. Vf sylvat njnl sebz gur pnzren (vg jnf fbzrjurer va gur frpbaq cvpgher nern jura V syhfurq vg naq vg gbbx bss).
Clue #4: Lbh fubhyq or noyr gb frr whfg n uvag bs gur oveqf yrt/sbbg pbybhe va gur shyy vzntr.).

Clue #5: Gur yrtf/srrg ner oevtug benatr (ng gung gvzr bs lrne).


Vg jnf n Terra Ureba va shyy oerrqvat pbybhef. V vavgvnyyl syhfurq vg juvyr zbivat guebhtu gur haqretebjgu gb trg n orggre ybbx ng gur ornire cbaq (uvag: znefu oveq). Gur ureba syrj ol ng rlr yriry 40 – 50 srrg njnl jvgu vaperqvoyl benatr yrtf naq n evpu qnex znagyr – na hasbetrggnoyr naq tbetrbhf fvtug. Vg frrzrq gb frggyr qbja fb V gevrq gb dhvrgyl svaq vg ntnva ohg bayl znantrq gb syhfu vg bapr zber (gbb zhpu bs n uheel V thrff). Gung jnf jura V znqr gur svany ynfg qvgpu ‘fubg-va-gur-qnex’ rssbeg gung erfhygrq va guvf cvpgher. V jnf fhecevfrq jura V mbbzrq va naq npghnyyl sbhaq vg vapyhqvat (vs lbh fdhvag) n srj benatrl-lryybj cvkryf jurer gur yrtf jrer.


Five Harlequin Ducks Video

My second outing with the Ken ‘s Birding Photography class took place August 31, 2013 and started in the same place as the first, at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  This time it ended at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal along the South side of the spit.  One of our last sightings was a small group of 5 Harlequin Ducks that were slowly working their way down the length of the spit.

Besides lots of pictures, I took a minute long video with my camera that was sufficiently entertaining that I dressed it up using Microsoft Movie Maker, added some music (to replace the sounds of automobile traffic and birder chit-chat) and made it available for general consumption in the video window below and on both Flickr and YouTube (my first ever YouTube video).

So, without further ado, here are ‘5 Harlequin Ducks’:

Here are the other links:

5 Harlequin Ducks (Flickr: small 484 x 272)
5 Harlequin Ducks (Flickr: medium 854 x 480)

5 Harlequin Ducks (Youtube)

The streaming from Flickr and/or Youtube may not be very smooth so downloading a copy from the ‘Share’ menu or from one of the versions on Flickr and watching locally should lead to a noticeably better experience.


The Peculiar Black Skimmer

The first time that we saw a Black Skimmer was in 2001. I was a novice birder and, while we had a copy of the Sibley Guide to Birds, we had never read it from cover to cover and so were unaware that a bird like the Black Skimmer existed. Nonetheless, there they were, 5 odd-looking birds, vaguely tern-like, sitting in the sand on the beach not far from the wharf in downtown Santa Barbara, California.

Since we rarely left home without Sibley, we quickly identified them as Black Skimmers. Over the next few years, we saw them frequently, usually at the same Santa Barbara location, in numbers ranging from a single bird to as many as 80.

Several Black Skimmer pictures recently showed up in my mailbox for identification taken by the spouse of one of JC’s work-colleagues while on a cruise along the coast of California. Seeing the pictures reminded me of our own encounters and of some of the bird’s more interesting and peculiar aspects.

Taking a Look

The following is one of the pictures from my inbox showing a pair of skimmers close up. From a distance they may look somewhat tern-like however up close there are several things that I find stand out.

Black Skimmers - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmers – used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

First, it looks like they have no eyes which are just well hidden by the black cap.  Second, what appears as a forked tail on the right bird is just its extremely long wings crossing.  Finally, the bill, unique to skimmers, has a lower mandible that is longer than the upper and is hinged so that it can open wide. This facilitates the skimmers’ unique method of feeding by flying just above the water surface with the lower bill “skimming” the water (see picture).

When the bill touches a fish or other prey it snaps shut. This tactile hunting method works well with the skimmers preference for nocturnal hunting when their prey are more likely to be near the surface of the water.

The Black Skimmer has some additional surprises. It is the only bird known to have a vertical pupil like that of a cat. This is thought to be useful for protecting their eyes in the bright environment of the sandy beaches where they spend the day resting while giving them good nocturnal vision while hunting at night.

Another unexpected behaviour of the skimmer is its unique way of resting during the day (picture below) that has probably led more than a few observers into thinking that they were looking a dead or dying bird.

Black Skimmer Snoozing - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmer Snoozing – used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

The Black Skimmer, being a social bird, is frequently found in colonies (often with gulls and terns).

Black Skimmers - Used with permission.  Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Black Skimmers – Used with permission. Copyright 2013 Kathy Deyell All rights reserved

Skimmers Around the World

The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is widespread, found throughout a large part of North and South America. In North America they are almost exclusively coastal, ranging North to around San Francisco in the West and Boston in the East. In South America the follow the coast to Chile in the west. In the east, however, they are not just coastal but are found throughout the Amazon Basin fishing the rivers.

Two other skimmer species, one in Africa (R. flavirostris) and one in India (R. albicollis), join the Black Skimmer as the only three skimmer species in the Family Rynchopidae. Their closest relatives are found in the families of birds that include gulls, terns, alcids (puffins, murres, etc.), skuas and a few others without representation in North America.

Having a Listen

One final Black Skimmer surprise. While I don’t recall having ever heard the Black Skimmer call during our many encounters, apparently it resembles the bark of a dog. You be the judge. Here are some recordings that I found on Xeno-Canto from different parts of their range (each link opens a new page/window at the Xeno-Canto site):

Brazil, Mato Grosso do Sul: Black Skimmer

USA, Florida: Black Skimmer colony (300+ birds)

Brazil, Amazonas: Flight calls of two Black Skimmers defending their nest

USA: New Jersey: Black Skimmers

Final Thoughts and Additional Information

The Black Skimmer is definitely one of my favourite birds to watch.  It has more unique aspects than any other North American birds that I can think of.  While not quite the bird equivalent of the platypus in terms of odd construction, it is a slam-dunk for inclusion in the category of Cool Birds!

Here are some other good Black Skimmer resources to check out:

Black Skimmer and Chick by Dan Pancamo

Dan Pancamo’s Black Skimmer picture set on Flickr.  It includes a large number of excellent pictures with chicks and juveniles such as the one on the left.


Gochfeld, Michael and Joanna Burger. 1994. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Hunting the Marsh Wren

100_Marsh_Wren_cropped (wiki commons)

Marsh Wren – John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have had a special interest in taking some good pictures of a Marsh Wren since a trip to the Cheam Lake Wetlands near Agassiz BC in late May. On that visit the Marsh Wrens were in peak singing form and I was barely out of my car when I heard the sounds of multiple wrens sparring in the marshy area a short distance from the parking lot.

Now I have read that Marsh Wrens like to sing from a prominent perch such as the top of a cattail. You can see this behaviour depicted, for example, in the drawing by John Audubon from around 1830. You would think then, with all the chattering, that I would have left with a picture or two. That day, however, I struck out. The wrens dove for cover before I could get close enough for a good shot.

Admittedly, I’m not one to stand around waiting for a bird to appear so my lack of success was partly my own fault. Besides, the male bird’s singing, heard almost constantly at that time of year, is distinctive enough for identification and counting.

Finally, a Cooperative Wren.

On one of my regular trips to Colony Farm Regional Park on August 22 I finally found a cooperative Marsh Wren.

Juvenile WrenNot far from the pump-house I came across a small brown bird in the middle of the gravel path taking a dust bath. My first thought was a juvenile Marsh Wren which I confirmed a few days later with the help of an online bird identification forum.  It clearly spotted me but seemed confident enough (the boldness of youth perhaps) that as long as I kept my distance, it would not run for cover.

It’s movements were incredibly swift and it could go from one resting position watching me to another in a fraction of a second with.  The following 4 sequences of pictures were taken in burst mode with 1/5 of a second between consecutive frames.  The first 3-frame sequence, for instance covered a period of just 0.4 seconds during which the wren went from sitting facing right, to sitting facing left following a roll-manoeuver onto its side.

Juvenile Wren Composite #1 (447-449)

In the next 1.0 second sequence the wren finishes a roll, watches me for almost half a second and then goes into another roll with my final image catching it just when it was on its back.

Wren Composite #2 (451-456)

Here is another 0.6 second clip showing a sequence of watch – roll – watch – roll.

Wren Composite #3 (462-465)

Lastly, one final 0.6 second sequence of watching with a 90 degree twist.

Wren Composite #4 (470-473)

The little wren was definitely cute and put on a good show.  In retrospect, I should have used the camera to create a short video to show its incredibly quick movements.  I still want to get pictures of an adult Marsh Wren though this may have to wait for 2014.

The Marsh Wren is definitely an interesting bird to watch and to listen to.  As a song bird, some western individuals have been known to learn and sing over 200 songs which are learned from other wrens and, in some cases, from other species as well.  Here is a recording that I made on June 5 of a duet between a Marsh Wren and a Gray Catbird.  If you listen carefully, in the last 10 seconds you can hear the catbird mimicking some of the wren’s song phrases.  Note that this recording was made almost the exact location where I photographed this immature wren which could conceivably be the singing wren’s offspring.

Marsh Wren – The Dark Side

If you read up on the Marsh Wren species the are a few behaviours that the species is known for. One is polygyny and it is not uncommon for a single male to breed with multiple females.  During nest building, the male may actually make as many as 10 nests even though a courting female will ultimately only choose one. Of course, if the wren takes more than one mate one is clearly not enough. The remainder go unused though some speculate that they may get for refuge by fledged birds during a storm or if the first nest fails.

A second behaviour that the Marsh Wren is known for is egg destruction.  Both male and female birds will destroy eggs and even hatchlings in nests close to their territory if given the chance.  This includes eggs in other Marsh Wren nests.  This is undoubtedly an evolutionary strategy that helps remove competition  for food and nesting sites.

This behaviour, not unexpectedly, has earned the Marsh Wren several enemies. Two of the principal ones are the Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds that frequently inhabit the same types of environments during breeding season. The larger blackbirds will frequently chase the wrens trying to drive them out of the area. There are reports of Yellow-headed blackbirds hopping on wren nests to destroy them or blocking the entrance to a nest to prevent a female Marsh Wren from returning to their brood.

The Marsh Wren is a bird with lots of personality that is definitely one of my favourites.


[1] Kroodsma, Donald E. and Jared Verner. 1997. Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:; doi:10.2173/bna.308

Sandhill Crane Adventure at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Squawking Sandhill Crane(for J & C – You know who you are!)

Last Sunday I went to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta BC.  I spent about 3 hours wandering around watching birds and taking pictures of anything interesting. In the end, however, about two-thirds of the pictures were of Sandhill Cranes.

It wasn’t that there were hundreds or thousands of them and almost nothing else – in fact, there were only about a dozen or so I never saw more than 4 in a group. No, the real reasons that I took so many Sandhill Crane pictures were that:

  • Several of the cranes were relatively tame and did not fly away when I approached.
  • It is a lot easier to take pictures of a crane than a chickadee.
  • The cranes were in my way, blocking the path in the direction that I was going.

One quick side comment:  During my visit I watched people feeding both cranes and chickadees right out of their hand (the chickadee had to land on the hand first which – obviously – the crane did not do).  Personally, I would feel safer feeding the chickadee. Up close, a crane bill looks like it can deliver a pretty hard poke.

Anyways, when I showed up at the sanctuary, I didn’t really expect to see Sandhill Cranes at all. I had been there a week earlier with a photography group that I recently joined and we had only heard a single crane calling (which we didn’t even get to see). Imagine my surprise when, walking one of the paths through the middle of the sanctuary, I ran into a group of cranes along the path ahead of me. Here are two of them:
Sandhill Cranes

These two were but half of a posse of 4 adult birds blocking the path. Here are 3 of them checking me out. You can just see the fourth hidden behind the foliage on the right.
Sandhill Cranes

I must not have been very threatening as they proceeded to turn their backs and head back along the path in the direction that I was hoping to go (though I would have preferred a less leisurely pace).
Sandhill Cranes

I finally made it around the bend in the path.

Hey, nice ‘digs’!

Apparently they were squatting in one of the prettiest parts of the sanctuary.
Sandhill Cranes

All I needed to do was get past these three who did not appear to be paying me much attention.  How about along the edge of the pond?
Sandhill Cranes

Hey! You’re not cranes! This story is supposed to be about cranes!  Still, pretty cool. It was two mallards, one leucistic (missing some pigment making them look white – not albinism though).
Leucistic Mallard ?

Anyways, back to sneaking past the cranes…

Drat! Spotted!

They may seem tame but there’s no point in getting too close. Time to backtrack and go around.
Auto Tone-1030316

I turned back and went up the North edge of the sanctuary past the viewing tower. I watched some Dowitchers and Yellowlegs on my way by one of the larger ponds and then headed South briefly spotting my nemesis bird, the Marsh Wren, who was no doubt sticking his tongue out at me as he dove into the long grass.

I had walked most of the way down the West edge of the sanctuary when I encountered 2 more cranes, even friendlier than the first 4. The crane on the left was cleaning up a spot on the ground where I suspect someone had dropped a handful of crane-food – some kind of coarse seed mixture. The crane on the right was keeping an eye out – whether for threats or treats was unclear.
Cranes blocking the path

What was obvious was that they were quite tame allowing me to get close – really close.
Crane (with Long Grass)

This must be a good snacking spot. At one point a trio of people showed up and one of them offered the cranes a handful of something – more crane kibble probably – that they seemed to like a lot as they took it straight out of the person’s hand.

I imagined the crane thinking: “A teensy nip, he drops the goods and no-one gets hurt” (or is that “hoit”?).
Cleaning up after messy humans

So maybe it was an ambush spot too! There we were, blocked by a pair of ruthless sandhills forcing all passers-by to empty their pockets.

There was no way that I was giving up my bag of cashews.

Lucky for me, there was a distraction – a group of three sandhills flew overhead heading out into the marsh that separated the sanctuary from the open water of the Strait of Georgia.
Sandhill Cranes in Flight

A short time later, a second group of 4 flying cranes appeared. This group, however, let out a group call as they passed overhead. I must say, these are pretty loud birds with quite a bit of lung-power behind their calls. It was clearly some kind of message because the two birds not 10 feet ahead squawked in return.
Crane Duet 3/5

They got in a couple of rounds of noisy calls before the flying group were out of range.  It was an award winning performance.

Envelope please!

… and the winner of the Squawky goes to …
Crane Calling

The squawking was over and the people with crane-kibble in their pockets had left.  I finally slipped by and headed for the exit and that was the end of my Sandhill Crane Adventure.

More on Sandhill Cranes at the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary has resident Sandhill Cranes that live there year round (and has had for about 30 years).  While other groups of cranes will come and go, when the breeding season comes around only the resident pair will remain to nest and try to raise a family.  Last year (2012) they had one chick that unfortunately died.

The sanctuary has lots more pictures and information on their Sandhill Cranes page.