Stories of mid-winter survival

On the Wing by Margo Hearne: The barometer rises and falls and birds tough it out on the edge of things.

  • Tue Feb 16th, 2016 5:00am

The barometer rises and falls and birds tough it out on the edge of things. Three injured sea birds showed up this week.  Two Long-tailed Ducks, dappled black and white with long tails, and a Black Scoter, all black with a bright yellow bill. The latter sat by the heat all day and survived. The Long-tails were let go in the river. Leila, who had rescued one, said that “it was a calm day, it had cover and shelter and it went off and stayed close to the Mallards. We saw it next day, so it’s a good news story.

“What’s not such a good news story was the dead Red-shafted Flicker we found in someone’s wood-stove,” Leila continued. “The stove hadn’t been used in some time and the flicker had fallen down the chimney and couldn’t get out. The home-owner had asked me to come and get a live flicker out of the stove and it survived, but it was sad to see what had happened to the first one. Who knows how long it had been there? I’d just like to say that if there are any other empty homes with open chimneys they should be blocked to prevent further deaths and I’d be happy to work with others to get the open chimneys covered.”

In many ways these are the down days of winter. The Bird Counts are designed to catch the last throes of fall migration and now it’s a story of survival for the wild winter residents. Fortunately we have a reasonably mild climate and are surrounded by water. Out on Masset Inlet, where the tide runs in and out at the same time, hundreds of Pacific Loons feed just offshore. The nutrients washed out from the rivers circulate there and food is plentiful.

Even in mid-winter there is always a run of something. Our fishing neighbour Robert explained about the early herring run now occurring. The adult herring feed on the bottom but the juveniles are smaller and feed near the surface, which is probably what the eagles, gulls, loons and murres have been feeding on these past few weeks. If not herring, then sandlance or euphausiids, those tiny shrimp that baleen whales feed on.

Whales have been seen in Skidegate Inlet, a few Ocra, two Humpbacks and what could have been a Fin Whale which grows to a length of 22 metres. “It was huge and almost as long as the Kwuna,” the Al, the Skipper explained. “We couldn’t believe the size!” Fin Whales usually travel offshore but they have been seen in Hecate Strait and they follow the food. From tiny shrimp to huge whales, the ocean feeds them all.

Meanwhile back in Masset Inlet, close to shore, more Long-tailed Ducks float by and further out flocks of healthy Black Scoters fly inland. They land, then let the tide take them back out again. Among the flocks were winter-plumaged Pigeon Guillemots returning to their nesting grounds. We had only seen a few during the Bird Counts but upwards of forty in various colours sped by. Some were clean white with just a little black, some were light grey and some were almost black. In summer plumage they are all black with a white oval wing-patch, so they are beginning to show their summer colours.

Pine Siskins come skipping down out of the sky to land at the feeder and juncos continue to spar and argue. A lone, quiet Varied Thrush, the orange and black ‘swamp robin’ comes in quietly, feeds, and just as quietly flits away again. Mid-winter survival.

Email Margo Hearne at

hecatebird@gmail.com