A magpie (Margo Hearne/Haida Gwaii Observer)

A magpie (Margo Hearne/Haida Gwaii Observer)

On the Wing: Magpies, diversions, and crows

“It’s always exciting to find a new bird…”

The call came through last week.

“I’ve seen a big bird,” said Leila. “With lots of black and white and lovely blue markings and a really long tail. I’ve never seen anything like this here before. Could it be a magpie?”

We rushed off to find it and although we searched for quite a while (in the rain) there was no sign. We kept an eye out all week but it wasn’t until Monday afternoon that we had the next clue. Martin knocked on the door to say he had been sent a photo of a large bird at the Chief Matthews school playgrounds and the sender wanted to know what it was.

“It’s been here all afternoon, fighting with a crow on the grass,” they said. The photo was of a large black and white bird sitting on a yellow-painted link fence. We went first to where we thought the photo was taken and heard a gang of crows loudly harassing something in the trees. Could this be the mystery bird? No. Following discussions with folks in the neighbourhood Peter learned there was a raccoon in the tree; it was stealing eggs and young crows.

While it wasn’t what we were looking for it proved what we’ve long suspected. Raccoons are, in fact, destroying bird populations on island. The crows here are Haida Gwaii residents and don’t migrate. Raccoons are one reason why their numbers are dropping. Crows are fun members of the corvid family: bright, lively, and annoying.

Magpies are also corvids but we hadn’t found it yet. We searched and searched, walked the Chief Matthews playground, went down to the beach, through the streets, into the woods. We spoke to many who had seen and heard something different, listened to interesting and varied stories of birds and took shelter where we could from the rain.

But there was no sign of the bird. After an hour or so, the drizzle eased up so we went back to where we had started and where it had had first been seen. We leaned against the fence, chatted in a desultory way about all manner of things and the bird appeared. Just like that. It landed visibly in a nearby alder and we just had time to take a few photos before it was gone.

The Black-billed Magpie is probably still around. It’s a large, conspicuous bird with a long tail and clever ways. According to the Sibley guide, magpies are “common in prairies and parklands with scattered trees. They are usually in small groups and are often seen on fence posts or along roadsides. They feed on a variety of seeds and animal prey, foraging mostly on the ground.”

Another possible record for this bird was at SGaang Gwaii, then called Anthony Island, way back in 1985. There is not much more information on the sighting but the magpie might be expanding its range. Information from Alaska shows that it’s showing up in the Fairbanks area and records are coming in from as far north as Fort Yukon and from way down the Yukon River, where Nulato residents have seen them feeding on a carcass pile (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/). It’s always exciting to find a new bird, to talk to others who have seen it, to compare stories and share interests. Thanks to Cynthia who contacted us, to Peter and Martin who persisted, and to Leila who first put us on to the Black-billed Magpie, the first ever record for Graham Island.

On the Wing