SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1998

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Watching Birds inVancouver

by Margo Hearne

When we are surrounded by beauty, we are inclined to take it for granted. When a Common Yellowthroat recently arrived in Vancouver on its spring migration it didn't attract much attention as, being common, is once seen, then ignored. Its beauty however remained, and it's yellow throat and black mask boldly bordered with white were focused and defined.

Vancouver is also beautiful, fringed by snowy mountains and fronting a sky-blue sea. I rarely watch birds there, using it merely as a venue for meetings or a fly-through to warmer climes. As a birding area, however, it has its own special urban charm. It is on the Pacific Flyway, has many different habitats, and attracts a variety of spring migrants. It was time to find out what was around.

Our birding group was initially a company of three, Peter, Gretchen, and myself. We met up and drove off to join our Vancouver guide John, as planned, who was scanning the trees in his neighbourhood as we arrived. We grabbed our binoculars excitedly, trusting he had found something wonderful, but he told us that it was only an early Orange-crowned Warbler. It meant, however, that other species were starting to show up. He hopped into the car and suggested we go to Queen Elizabeth Park, explaining on the way that the Park is the highest point in Vancouver and migrant songbirds often make a landfall there after crossing the Juan de Fuca Strait, and before heading north to the nesting grounds. He added that he has not heard of a big push on anywhere, but "nine Townsends Solitaires were seen there yesterday," and it was a good place to start. We drove off with keen anticipation. Solitaires are always a rare and lovely find.

At the Park we threaded our way uphill through the early morning tai-chi groups who bent and stretched in the mild morning, while Orange-crowned Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Black-capped Chickadees flitted cheerily through the upper canopy of the decidiuous trees. A small Hermit Thrush was discovered ground-feeding among the Magnolia blossoms, and Red-breasted Nuthatches "enk-enked" nasally overhead, creeping and feeding upside-down in the Park's grand trees. When two Townsends Solitaires flew overhead and sat upright and narrow on a high cedar we realized we had run into "a movement." It was time for a celebratory coffee on the hill, where we drank in the beauty of the Park's dappled greenery, freshly minted after a long, wet winter.

After coffee and delicious fresh muffins, John suggested we go to the University of British Columbia grounds where they jut out into the Strait and where "anything might show up." We headed down 12th Avenue, parked near the Museum of Anthropology and strolled towards the totem poles. At the trailhead to Wreck Beach we stopped to read the sign that told us that "clothes were optional" just as a sartorially splendid Pileated Woodpecker, dressed in red, white and black, shattered the morning stillness by drilling a staccato burst into a hollow log down the trail. With a yell, it darted up towards us, then veered off and landed on one of the totem poles. It began to scatter pieces of priceless work hither and yon, seeking living bugs under the spreading moss on the old carved poles, then with another yell and a flash of white it disappeared into the trees. Perky little Townsends and Yellow-rumped Warblers, who were quietly flitting through the adjacent trees, seemed oblivious to the woodpeckers dramatic ways as they calmly fed on tasty tiny things.

A rare Long-eared Owl's nest was discovered in a wooded area a short drive from the inner city and John wanted to make sure it was still there. He knew the owls are very easily spooked and word of the find had spread. We parked in a quiet lane away from the woods and approached the nest tree warily, noting obvious signs of human disturbance - an access trail had been cleared and the grass around the site was heavily trampled. The nest, a loose twiggy affair was abandoned and there was no sign of the owl. We left, disheartened, and John speculated that it might have been an intrusive, flash-happy photographer angling for the perfect shot, who frightened the bird away.

At Maplewood Flats, in North Vancouver, the Ospreys and Purple Martins had returned. There was a Return of the Osprey Festival this year and the Martins, who disappeared from the Vancouver area around 1961, have started to build nests on pilings in Burrard Inlet close to Lion's Gate Bridge. We caught a glimpse of them setting up shop a safe distance from dangerous humanity. Maplewood flats are managed by the Wild Bird Trust, a non-profit society that works hard to restore the birds and their habitat. They have done marvelous restoration work in what was once an industrial quarry building, gravel trails, wooden bridges and a small Interpretive Centre. We walked alongside a party of school children who chattered excitedly about the tide pool discoveries while Kingfishers flew busily about, bills filled with nesting material, intent on their own important errands.

No birding trip would be complete without a visit to the local sewage lagoon, as unappetizing as it sounds there are few better places to find migrant shorebirds. The Iona Sewage Lagoons are no exception, being, according to the local birding fraternity, one of the best spots for migrant shorebirds on the West Coast. Sure enough, there were hundreds of shorebirds out there, pittering over the muck, pattering through the grass, twinkling and landing in the aromatic ooze. Golden Plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers, Killdeer chicks and Semi-palmated Plovers ran, stopped, fed and ran while we stood around sharing birding stories with other watchers while we wait for the big rarity to land at our feet. We had high hopes as a Marbled Godwit had been seen earlier in the day and could return. We also watched a massive red-orange sun, which set hazily and lazily through an evening mist. It allowed us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view sunspots through the spotting scope without burning our eyes.

The rumoured Godit never appeared. It might show up next time, or the time after that, for the one we just missed will always draw us back to birdy places. And we will always come back to Vancouver, our destination on the road to anywhere. What better time and place to watch the world than in spring, with friends, in search of the beauty of visible sunspots and invisible birds.

With thanks to John Toochin and Peter Hamel, who have forgotten more about birds than most of us will ever learn, and to Gretchen Harlow and her lovely, bird-busy home in Finn Slough.

SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1998