Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Ed Kroc sent some nice bird pix taken last month in Vancouver; his captions are indented:

First up is a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a common ground sparrow that lurks in the leaf litter of Stanley Park (and other forested areas). I love their splash of white chevrons up and down the breast. Also, check out those nails: perfect for kicking up leaves!

fox-sparrow

Next is a Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus), just landing on a dry spot in a decorative fountain in front of a nice apartment building. Unfortunately, the block was encased in ice and this crow went sliding right off and into the water immediately after this shot. S/he seemed affronted at first, but then decided to take the opportunity for a bath.

northwestern-crow

We received quite a bit of snowfall this winter – by Vancouver standards – and during the last round I was lucky enough to come across a few Varied Thrushes (Ixoreus naevius), squabbling in a willow near the lagoon. I suspect that they were arguing over the spot due to a very nicely placed hollow in the tree, perfect for a future nest site. These beautiful thrushes are common in the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, but they are rarely cooperative for pictures. Luckily, this time they were much more concerned with standing their ground and intimidating each other than dashing back into the anonymous underbrush to avoid the gangly human.

varied-thrush

Toward the open water of the Strait of Georgia, many diving ducks make their winter home just off the seawall here. This one is a female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi). She was clamming alone at low tide and didn’t seem to mind me nearby on the beach. Our more common Surf Scoters (M. perspicillata) rarely let me get so close.

white-winged-scoter

Finally, here are a few shots of a mated pair of resident Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens). As soon as the Winter Solstice passes, these guys switch into pre-nesting mode. Pair-bonds are very strong among this species (as with most gulls). Migrants will often spend months apart, then reconvene in the early breeding season to renew their pair-bonds. But resident birds, like many of our Vancouver gulls, will often stay together year-round, even defending their nesting territory in the middle of winter. Nevertheless, once the days start getting longer, they all increase their pair-bonding efforts in preparation for the new chicks to come in June and July.

In the first picture, the male (left) and female (right) trumpet to each other loudly, right on a busy walking path in Stanley Park. This calling behaviour serves many functions (probably originally documented by Niko Tinbergen in his seminal work, “The Herring Gull’s World”), but one main function seems to be a mutual declaration of “We are here, and we are together.”

gwgulls-calling

In the next photo, the female mocks the nest-sitting behaviour in the middle of the path, trumpeting loudly to everyone around as she does. Mock nest-building or sitting is very common among pairs renewing their bond, or among new pairs just establishing it. They will often take turns miming the nest-building or sitting, sometimes cycling through the ritual 3 or 4 times in a row.

gwgull-mock-nesting

The last photo shows the female collecting a piece of pine, another element of mock nest-building. It is far too early for the pair to actually start constructing a nest, but it’s the pair-bonding element that again seems to be important. Once the female collected this piece of pine, the pair defended it vigorously from any other gull in the vicinity. Her mate immediately chased a nearby male away after seeing her collect the branch, snapping at him and pursuing him 50 or 60 metres through the air before returning to her and trumpeting loudly. The two then exchanged the branch a few times in their bills before they were scattered by an overzealous d*g running up the path.

gwgull-with-nesting-material

It’s nice to know that even while human life seems so messed up, the rest of the living world continues without a care for our tribulations. It’s also nice to know that it will be that way for a very long time still, regardless of how long our little species putters around the planet.

21 Comments

  1. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Very interesting, and educational. I like both the pictures and commentary!
    It is probably a no-brainer to say so, but it seems the courtship behavior of many birds include elements of nest building or chick feeding behaviors. Its like their brains are actively wiring together the necessary fixed action patterns that are key for successful reproduction.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Or maybe showing each other that they are willing and capable of nest building and chick care?

      • Posted February 3, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I think this is a key element. Gulls tend to mate for life, but a mate will leave the other if they prove to be inattentive and not doting enough. This is especially the case with young adult gulls, as they are just learning how to be good parents and partners.

  2. Posted February 3, 2017 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I always enjoy your commentaries and photos, Ed.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I love it when the contributors give us a story with their lovely photos too. Thanks Ed! 🙂

  3. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Nice collection. The thrush has an amazing color. It’s easy to see the gulls as small dinosaurs.

  4. darrelle
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    That Fox Sparrow portrait is especially nice. Much appreciate the informative commentary Ed.

    Is there a readily noticeable visual cue that allows identifying male vs female Glaucous-winged Gulls? Looking at these pictures I can’t identify any significant differences.

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      There are many visual cues to discriminate between the sexes, but they are quite subtle to the casual observer, as plumage is homogeneous across the sexes. I’ve spent many, many hours studying gulls, so I can pick out the differences pretty easily now (at least among the large, white-headed gulls). Some of the most important visual diagnostics are:

      – Body size and shape: males are a bit larger than females on average, and have a stockier build in their torsos and bellies, much like humans.

      – Head shape and relative head size: the eyes of a female tend to be set on the sides of the head a bit more than the male, whose eyes are set a bit closer to the front. The head sizes are similar overall, but the chunkier body of the males makes their heads look somewhat puny. This is especially noticeable when you look at the gull’s face straight-on.

      – Bill size and shape: the female’s bill tends to be a bit narrower, with a less pronounced bulbous tip near the end. Males also tend to have a longer “overbite”, meaning the maxilla usually extends forward over the tip of the mandible a bit more.

      – Voice: females have a slightly softer and higher-pitched voice, again much like humans. This diagnostic is very subtle though and difficult to apply in the field using your ears alone.

      The best way to get used to applying the diagnostics is to watch mated pairs. It is usually quite easy to tell which sex is which with these tools. However, a word of warning: same-sex pairs are not at all uncommon (female-female), so you can’t just assume sex differences in a pair. Estimates of some resident populations are as high as 20-30% same-sex pairs (of the Western Gull in southern California and the Ring-billed Gull in the Great Lakes). Same-sex Glaucous-winged Gull pairs don’t seem to be nearly as common.

  5. Debbie Coplan
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a very informative post and nice photos–

  6. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    “The Herring Gull’s World” caught my interest, but for a copy that’s in good shape or better I see that it’s selling at sky-high used prices on Amazon. Someone needs to reissue it!

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      This was very enjoyable to read, especially the gull behaviour. Thanks!

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      It’s a classic. Tinbergen’s passion for his subjects is on every page. Some of the methodology and conclusions are a bit outdated, but it remains an invaluable work nonetheless. I have an old, beat-up copy myself. It’s worth picking one up if you can find a reasonable price.

  7. David Coxill
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Nice photos ,Stanley Park is an amazing place .
    I was in Vancouver in August 2005 ,there was a Hippie type guy on the shore line making Art by balancing stones on top of one another .
    Does anyone know if he is still at it.

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I believe he is still around. There are a few people now who have adopted his art, but I think I know of the particular person you are referring to, and he is still by far the best.

      • David Coxill
        Posted February 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Hi ,thanks for the reply ,nice to know he is at it .
        Vancouver is a nice place ,even the guy who towed my hire car ,said he was sorry ,(just joking)

  8. Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    A friend of mine from years ago worked/works as a poultry farmer of sorts. She spent a bit of time listening to her geese to see if she could figure out what they were saying. She concluded they had several calls:

    (1) me! me! me!
    (2) mmm food
    for males:
    (3) horny!!!
    and females:
    (4) no! go away!
    (5) yes please

    The one you hear from Canada geese when they are flying is the first, and she (I am not sure on what evidence) was convinced they are also unique, sort of involving a name.

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting! Lots of evidence that some calls are unique to the individual in gulls and other bird species, so the same could hold for geese. With gulls though, it’s the female who almost always initiates copulation, so flip the sexes on those last calls for gulls!

  9. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Very, very interesting & entertaining notes! Adds a lot of value

  10. keith Cook ¿
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice walk in your neck of the woods… thanks for that. May I add which I read just the other day, cockroaches are feeling very optimistic about the future of the planet… cheeky blighters.

  11. Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Lovely photos!

  12. Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you everyone for the very kind comments!


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