Saturday 13 November 2021

Size Matters

Sat Nov 13, 2021 
Sumas Prairie

Today while out looking for the elusive Cattle Egret I happened upon a flock of swans. As usual I scanned the birds until one caught my attention. It was quite a bit smaller than the swan next to it. Through my bins I noticed the yellow lore, the field mark for a Tundra Swan. Here was an opportunity to photograph both species in the same frame, all I had to do was wait until a Trumpeter walked close enough. Like many, I have difficulty in separating one scaup from another or for that matter one gull from another. The list goes on. Bird identification it seems is a life-long study. Often the swan's bills are covered in mud making precise identification difficult. The comparison photo included shows difference in size between the two species.

Trumpeter on the left.

Thursday 7 October 2021


 Friday Sept 24 2021

Flat-out on Flatiron.

Granite slabs are scattered everywhere on Flatiron. The nooks and crannies in the rock harbour insects and plants, the flowers and seeds providing a rich food source for the many inhabitants.

Flatiron gleams in the sunlight

The forest trail to Flatiron was steep, rocky, slippery and wet. There was hardly a sound in the forest, just the odd Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Douglas Squirrels. Mushrooms were abundant. A few pickers were out collecting. After a two kilometre hike the forest opened up providing 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. 

Yak Peak and mountain pond.

During the summer there had been numerous reports of Northern Pygmy Owls, Mountain Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and White-tailed Ptarmigan, all birds I needed for my Fraser Valley Big Year* 
 Craig, my hiking companion for the day soon picked up the call of a Northern Pygmy Owl. Fortunately we were able to climb a little higher until we stood on the same level as the bird which was perched right above the trail.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Then to our surprise a second owl perched alongside. The birds had their eyes on something, they seemed agitated. One of the birds plunged into the undergrowth and out of sight, looking back the other owl had left too. What a start to the day.

 Moments later they were gone.

 We continued upward, my legs turning to putty and heart racing, my lack of fitness leaving something to be desired. Five minute breaks were the order of the day. Climbing higher a flock of White-winged Crossbills were feeding on Sitka Spruce cones. They stayed long enough for a few photographs.

White-winged Crossbill.

Crossbills pry open the cones with their powerful bill and extract the seeds. 

 Eventually we reached the monument and a fork in the trail. Needle Peak to the left and to the right Flatiron and hopefully the Ptarmigan. We were still 1.5 km away. When we arrived there were already a few hikers and swimmers cooling off in the lake but alas no Ptarmigan. A flock of birds flew overhead, they sounded like Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch but I couldn't make them out or get an ID picture.

Craig takes in the view with Flatiron in the middle distance. 

 Craig decided to make his own way up the granite strewn escarpment. I waited below. Eventually through my binoculars I could see by his stance he was photographing something, probably the Ptarmigan. It was time for me to move.

 A climb from the lake to the summit took another twenty minutes. 

Suddenly my legs came to life, the energy that had been drained away on the hike had miraculously returned. Soon I was within metres of the summit and the radio tower. That last scramble was a 167 m gain but well worth it. As I reached the summit my heart was beating so hard I couldn't hold the camera still, especially a 500 mm.  I waited a few moments before firing off a few frames in case the Ptarmigan decided to take off on me. They didn't. 
The master of disguise.

Among the tangle of rocks a slight movement gives away an elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan. 

The Ptarmigans's plumage is a perfect defence against aerial predators.

The perfect camouflage.  

Eventually we counted twenty-five or more Ptarmigan, most were hidden in cracks or in the shade of the rocks, yet others nibbling on a type of sedge. Their presence became apparent only when they moved. 

Once the birds realized we posed no threat the covey came out to feed.

There was plenty of vegetation between the outcrops.

At this point I wish I had brought my Nikon 200mm-500mm F 5.6 zoom rather than my fixed 500 mm F5.6 prime. While Craig was able to stand in one spot and compose his photographs I had to back up. A zoom would have been a better option, albeit heavier. 
I used a CCS G3 Cotton Carrier camera and binocular harness with the 500 mm on my chest and my binoculars on the side. During the hike I hardly noticed their presence except when I needed to shoot. I've photographing for forty years and it has proven to be the very best carrying system I have ever used.

Part of the  covey.

We reached an elevation of 1898 m with a combined elevation gain of 867 m from the car park. Eventually it was time to leave and make our way back down the mountain. The Ptarmigan were my third year bird** for the day. 

 Needle Peak from the lake.

The walk back was filled with the most majestic views imaginable, it's been a long time since I had been hiking. I had forgotten how beautiful the mountains can be. I used my iPhone 8 to take the accompanying scenics.

 The descent I was warned could be as difficult as the accent. True to form the steep trail was a combination of wet moss and slippery granite, for me at least it was treacherous. I'm glad I carried a pole for balance.

On the decent I thought I heard chickadees. Eventually, after a bit of searching we found four Mountain Chickadee, right on the trail,  the fourth year bird of the day. I screwed up the exposure but thankfully I had shot in Raw and was able to save the picture albeit the highlights were lost. A shame really as the background was perfect.

Mountain Chickadee

A hour later were we almost back at the car. My brain and feet were completely out of sync. I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. However both the birds and scenery were well worth the effort. Who knows, I might even try another hike one day.

Established in 1986, Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area lies in the territories of the Nlaka’pamux, Sto:lo, and Yale First Nations. (Outdoor Vancouver

*A big year is a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound in any one year.

** A year bird is a new species found during a big year.

"It's never too late to take a hike"

John Gordon


BC Canada

Monday 14 June 2021

Aldergrove Lake Park

 Aldergrove Lake Park

May/June 2021

The warm spring weather has been a welcome change. Even June has been kind, not too hot nor too cold. The winter boots, toque and hand warmers long put away, the coffee flask exchanged for a bottle of water. The smell of new growth in the air is intoxicating. Eastern Cottontails scurry along the trails. There's a plentiful banquet for all the creatures of the forest. At the Aldergrove Park Bowl a colony of Savannah Sparrow hatchlings can be heard, soon fledglings will be appear, climbing the long grass in search of insects and seeds. 

Adult Savannah Sparrow

The same cannot be said for an adjoining portions of the park that have already been hayed and where dozens of Savannahs can be seen 're-nesting' or perhaps salvaging nests that weren't destroyed by the bailer. A park representatives I spoke to told me a new contract is being put in place so that haying is held-off in future seasons, good news the birds. Wardens in the park are also aware of ground nesters along the trails, especially Song Sparrows. Now if only the dog walkers would keep their animals on lease and pick up their poop, life would be perfect.

The Aldergrove Bowl
iPhone 8 HDR

The winter chattering of Pacific Wren and the delicate whispering of Golden-crowned Kinglets has been replaced by the Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak, meanwhile the orchestral leader and beautiful songster, the Swainson's Thrush can be heard on every trail. Sometimes referred to as the 'Salmonberry bird' their arrival coincides with the first ripening ruby coloured berries.

Swainson's Thrush

I could listen the trumpeting sound of the little brown thrush all day long. Hours go by and I realize half a day has passed and I have left my lunch in the car. Thank goodness for the bottle of water and sunscreen, meanwhile a melted snack bar will have to make do.  

On a photographic note I have dispensed with a big lens and tripod and now carry a DSLR and small 500mm F 5.6 lens held on my chest with a Cotton Carrier. I can walk all day, my hands free to use my bins to quickly observe birds and make sound recordings. Everything fits in a small bag. This set-up has radically changed the way I photograph and bird. I am now recording some of my favourite images. The only downside of the long fixed lens are the landscape shots which I need to illustrate my photo stories, for those I use my iPhone as seen in this blog and other posts. 

Salmonberry in various stages of ripening.

A pair of Townsend's Warblers dance around the forest canopy gleaning insects. It's understandable why they venture north each summer, the forest is it crawling with emerging insects and for the next few months, an inexhaustible supply of nutritious food.

Most Townsend Warblers are migratory to British Columbia, with different populations of the species wintering in two separate areas. Some Townsend's Warblers winter along the West Coast from Oregon south to Mexico's Baja Peninsula, while others move further south to the highlands of central Mexico and Central America (American Bird Conservancy)

Townsend's Warbler

While looking at the Aldergrove Park Big Rock a Townsend Warbler lands beside me. Amazing what can happen when a person is quiet and still. 

Immature American Bullfrog in Pepin Brook. I had originally
posted it as a Red-legged Frog.

Orange-crowned Warbler

I heard a rustle in the bushes and slowly turned around to catch a Douglas Squirrel munching on some fresh plant material. I watched for several minutes until the little critter caught sight of me. 
Within seconds it was gone. Taking time to pause and listen to the birds has plenty of benefits. 

Douglas Squirrel

Smile for the camera.

Around Aldergrove Lake pond nineteen Western-painted Turtles soaked up the warmth, maybe a twentieth was hiding out of sight. A poster asks park visitors to report turtle sightings. A Common Garter snake sunned on the pathway. Finally the forest has gone quiet, it's time to head home for an afternoon nap, life can be so good at times.


"It's never too late for a walk in the park"
John Gordon
BC Canada

Monday 3 May 2021

Fraser Valley Birding

 Fraser Valley Birding

April 27 2021

Stunning scenery, great birds, wide open spaces and friendly birders, that's Fraser Valley birding.  
Some of the most popular locations to bird include Fishtrap Creek, Mill Lake, Willband Creek Park, Cheam Wetlands and of course the Great Heron Reserve. Hope Airport is a mecca for rarities at any time of the year, where in the past I have had some really good birds including Loggerhead Shrike, Nashville and Palm Warblers. 
This year I am steering clear of the Metro Vancouver area, way too much traffic and with Covid-19 far too many people.

Fishtrap Creek 

Besides the well know locations there are any number of back roads, hidden away sloughs and dense woodland to explore. There is open prairie and cultivated farmland that attracts wintering raptors and their prey. Flooded scrapes in the old lake bed attract migrating shorebirds. As the Fraser Valley narrows mountains tower above and offer the opportunity for some excellent hiking and birding especially during migration when birds funnel through the valleys and into the Interior. During the spring anything can be expected. A flock of Greater Yellowlegs at Ruskin Dam last week or a pair of Townsend's Solitaires along the Harrison River has made for some interesting birding. 

Townsend's Solitaire
Kilby Regional Park.

Last week five Black-bellied Plovers and ten Whimbrel on migration were a real treat, common on the coast but harder to find in the valley. Every week throws up a surprise.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk
Glen Valley.

Stunning Scenery at Tuttyens Rd Wetlands

Greater Yellowlegs 
Tuttyens Wetlands. 

After Tuttyens I visited the Bert Brink Wildlife Management Area which skirts along the Sumas Lake Canal. I was there for less than twenty minutes and had all the usual duck species, a Northern Shrike and two Turkey Vultures.  A recent  brush fire ravaged the Nature Trust lands, it took hours to put out and caused substantial damage. The land will eventually heal and the burn area will provide new habitat before returning to its former state.

Bert-Brink Management Area

Bert Brink Management Area

Tulips/Sumas Prairie

Chilliwack Lake

On my first ever visit to Chilliwack Lake I found five Canada Jays and a pair of courting Red-breasted Sapsuckers, both good year birds. There was still some snow hanging around in shaded areas. Ruffed Grouse were booming in the cut block while Common Ravens soared overhead. Apart from the flock of Red Crossbills flying overhead there was a blissful silence, no trains, planes or automobiles and best of all no thoughts.

Chilliwack Lake.

Canada Jay/Whisky Jack/Camp Robber/Grey Jay
Chilliwack Lake.

Red breasted Sapsucker
Chilliwack Lake.

Willband Creek Park

Dawn at Willband Creek Park

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

A lucky Violet-green Swallow shot.
Technically imperfect but I like it and that's all that counts.

Delving deeper in the Fraser Valley to bird means doing some homework, planning trips to specific areas, figuring out where particular species might turn-up and of course making contacts with local birders who know the lay of the land. Local knowledge is and has been invaluable. Many thanks to Gord G, Ed K, Dave B and John V for sharing their knowledge.

A Muskrat, one of a pair carries food or nesting material.
Matsqui Trail.

Hairy Woodpecker
Great Blue Heron Reserve feeder.

Matsqui Trail Park/Page Rd.

"It's never too late to explore the Fraser Valley"
John Gordon
BC Canada

Thursday 18 February 2021

Snow Goose/Blue Goose

Sumas Prairie

Tuesday Feb 16 2021

A large flock of Snow Geese have spent the winter on Abbotsford's Sumas Prairie. A rare occurrence local birders tell me. The winter rye planted by farmers and other left over crops are a good food source for swans, geese and ducks. There are also plenty of fallow fields for the birds to turn over, if the pickings are that good why haven't the Geese been regular visitors in the past? A mystery indeed, if they return next year there may be factors at work that are not yet fully understood. Normally Snow Geese spend their winters in the Skagit Valley and places further south to California. Lesser but increasing numbers winter on the coast around Boundary Bay. 

*Since I published this blog 30 minutes ago it has been brought to my attention by someone who knows more about the subject that there have been a few Snow Geese on the prairie since around 2000 but not in the large numbers seen this year. I stand corrected.

On Tuesday I came across a large flock of perhaps 800-1000 birds. At first they were out of reach for photographs so I just stayed in my car and used my bins to see if there was anything interesting in the flock. The first series of images all turned out as if they had been shot through a mirage. Later I read that it was due due to the heat emanating from the car itself, something I didn't realize until I began editing. Fortunately pictures taken twenty minutes later were sharper as the car had had time to cool down. 
 Eventually as the flock munched their way toward me (a car is the perfect blind) the flock suddenly lifted off the ground and came even closer, close enough to take a few pictures. Had I got out of the car I'm sure I would have flushed the whole flock.

They soon landed back on the same field. 

They were now close enough to study and soon two darker birds stood out, One very dark overall and one an intermediate morph. What a treat to see those birds, it made my day.

 "Blue Goose" 

I believe this an intermediate dark morph. I might be proven wrong..let me know.

Dark morph "Blue Goose" #2

It's hard to believe that a century ago only three thousand Snow Geese were left in North American. They almost followed the Passenger Pigeon on the path to extinction. Like the Trumpeter Swan Snow Geese have made a remarkable comeback. The Passenger Pigeon weren't so fortunate. see the link for the whole sordid story.

More on the Passenger Pigeon

These days, so great are Snow Goose numbers that their breeding grounds in the arctic have become threatened, not only from climate change but from the birds themselves. At least they are tolerated on Sumas Prairie, unlike parts of the US and Canada where hunting up to forty-thousand birds a year is permitted. Meanwhile, enjoy the spectacle, soon they embark on their migratory journey up north.

"It's never too late to morph into something better"
John Gordon
BC Canada

Saturday 13 February 2021

Valley Birds

 Jan 2021

Valley Birding

Where to bird in 2021? Just one of the many question I posed myself as I polished off the last of the turkey, mince pies and Christmas pudding. I suppose freezing ones bits off during the Christmas bird count a few days later was a kind of penance for eating the gravy bird. 
After birding the Metro Vancouver region for 364 days in 2020 I decided to try something a little different for 2021. After much deliberation I hatched a cunning plan to bird the Fraser Valley region. I am fortunate to live on or quite close to the border of two ebird regions. For those not familiar with ebird, the app splits regions, provinces, countries and world into portions and birds recorded in each region are assigned to an online database for all to use. The app makes it easier to find good birding spots or at least get a start.

Red-tailed Hawk/Sumas Prairie

 The Fraser Valley region for the purposes of ebird includes Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and into the Coast Mountains. There's the Skagit Valley, Sunshine Valley, Manning Park and many areas to be explored. As travel is restricted this will act as a perfect substitute. Distances are the only downside and some heed will have to be taken so as not to pile on too many kilometres. Even so, Aldergrove Regional Park and Glen Valley are just fifteen minutes away. I've already seen some good birds there..

Glen Valley

Glen Valley from the Bradner Rd looking west over to the Fraser River,

 All that said I still plan to bird the Metro Vancouver area as I can do so from my kitchen window and I'm only minutes from Brydon Lagoon and a number of close-by locations. Even Boundary Bay, White Rock and the farmlands around Delta are within easy reach. Although I won't bump into my birding friends as much I won't miss the traffic and crowds. Birding in the Fraser Valley however offers certain challenges. There are not as many birders to pass on tips, the region is larger and of course it takes time to learn about those special spots where one might find a particular target species. That's where ebird comes in handy up but only to a certain point. Local knowledge is paramount. Yesterday for example I met up with two well seasoned Fraser Valley birders John Vooys and Ed Klassen who kindly offered to show me around the Columbia Valley, a rural area south of Cultus Lake. A small valley that looks like a a great migrant trap come the springtime. It was bitter cold minus 4 and a wind chill made it feel even colder. The two showed me around some of their favourite spots including two feeders. I think we ended up with 17 or 18 species which was very good considering the dipping temperatures brought on by a rare arctic front. I didn't take any pictures as there weren't really any opportunities and besides it was too bloody cold.

Sardis Park

Sardis Park

Not to be outdone I stopped off at Sardis Park on the way home to search for and hopefully photograph the well documented resident leucistic Northwestern Crow. The bird which is a bit of a local celebrity lacks the pigment to give it the black colour normally associated with crows. According to a local resident I spoke with the bird has been resident at the park for at least five years. Luckily, it was the first bird I saw as I entered the park.

Leucistic Northwestern Crow

Unlike the burgeoning Metro Vancouver birding community  I spent January birding in the valley and  met just one birder and one photographer. I did however meet up with an old acquaintance and excellent birder Gord Gadsden who passed on some great tips. Eventually he re-located a super nice Glaucous Gull that I had found a few days earlier but couldn't get a photograph of. I had run my camera battery down and slipped in the replacement only to find that was dead too. I had forgotten to charge it. 

Glaucous Gull

Lapland Longspur

Another tip resulted in an American Pipit and a Lapland Longspur. I was lucky, on my first attempt. I have returned three times to the same location looking for Horned Larks but have never seen the flock again.

Sumas Prairie

Rough-legged Hawk/Sumas Prairie

One thing the valley does have are large tracts of agricultural land that once supported the mighty Sumas Lake. Each time I bird Sumas Prairie I imagine the old lake bed I'm driving on and a great expanse of water stretching for the US border to Sumas Mountain and up toward Chilliwack. It must have been a stunning sight, that is apart from the legendary swarms of vicious mosquitos. A hundred year ago plans to drain the lake began. It took millions of dollars and years of political machinations to make it a reality. Indigenous peoples had lived there for millennia. They were eventually shafted by white settlers, greedy businessmen, federal, provincial and municipal governments. One of the most prolific lakes in the region was completely gone. Lost were the sturgeon, millions of migrating waterfowl, salmon rearing beds and the livelihood of the Semath, Nooksack and Sto:lo people. A compelling account of how the lake was lost can be found in Chad Reimer's book, Before we Lost the Lake 

see link

A couple of iPhone shots of Sumas Prairie looking east toward Chilliwack.

(Below) some of the undulating farmland and former lake bed is low enough to trap water during the winter. Originally the spring freshet would inundate the lake raising levels which reduced flooding downstream. Today dykes divert local rivers and streams into the Fraser River while  keeping freshet water at bay. Pumps move any water around. There still remains a few thousand ducks, some wintering raptors but nothing to compare with what was lost. 

A flooded field on Sumas Prairie conjures up what Sumas Lake may have looked like.

Mountain Bluebird.
Lickman Rd, Chilliwack

White-throated Sparrow.
Great Blue Heron Reserve

My first visit to Brown Creek Wetlands was quite eventful. The wetlands are just past Yarrow and before the turn-off to Cultus Lake.

Brown Creek Wetlands

 From the parking lot to the river is only a few hundred metres. Half-way along the trail I stumbled upon mixed flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers and a Hairy Woodpecker. Soon a flock of junco's joined in and they brought along an Anna's Hummingbird. Needless to say I never made it to the river to look for a dipper. As I was leaving a Belted Kingfisher plunged into the creek and came up with a nice juicy salmonoid, a testament to how important the wetlands are as a nursery for fish and other creatures. Across the river is the Rotary Trail that I am told has excellent year round birding, somewhere I'll be exploring during migration time. At a recent Christmas bird count the trail turned up an American Dipper and a Glaucous Gull. 

Belted Kingfisher

Brown Creeper

At Harrison I was able to photograph a couple of male Redheads that had spent the winter in the lagoon. Out on Harrison Lake whitecaps rules the waves, several Horned Grebes and flock of Common Mergansers were  busy feeding. At the mouth of the oddly named Miami River was a single American Dipper doing what dippers do. Three year birds just like that. I had a pleasant lunch and birded my way home. Later in the year i'll be going back and maybe camp up at Sasquatch Provincial Park, a good spot for forest and marsh birds.

So the first thirty or so days in the Fraser Valley have been a refreshing change, almost like a holiday and as the migration begins and spring slowly takes hold i'll be eager to see what shows up. Meanwhile I'm hunkered down, reading books and waiting out the cold snap. Apparently for only the third time in a hundred years every province in Canada is below freezing at the same time. 

"It's never too late to bird the valley"

John Gordon
BC Canada