A Snow Owl stands out along the shore near Sandspit. (Peter Hamel/Haida Gwaii Observer)

On the Wing: White birds and blue birds

By Margo Hearne

Two young Snowy Owls didn’t survive the trip to Haida Gwaii this year. They are beautiful, drifting owls that live on rodents and small birds. One found at Rose Spit had black flecks on its white feathers, probably this year’s young. Some years quite a few occur here, but there hasn’t been a fallout since 2013-2014. We are not far from Alaska; some Snowys appeared in Juneau this month as well. One was picked up, still alive, but soaking wet and starving. It survived after it was brought into the local wildlife centre.

According to a recent report from Alaska Fish & Wildlife News, “Raptors found in Interior Alaska or the Arctic, such as goshawks, rough-legged hawks, great grey owls and snowy owls leave the north if lemmings and the other small mammals they depend on for food become scarce. These movements are called irruptions; they’re not migrations because they are irregular and driven by food.” Snowys don’t do well in the wet and Juneau and much of northern Southeast Alaska were hit by a powerful rainstorm just two days earlier, the remnant of an Asian typhoon that dumped up to 152 mm of rain and high winds. We had similar weather here before the owls were found; they had left the Arctic to find food elsewhere and sadly didn’t survive.

There were other raptors around as well. While we were checking out the birds in Delkatla, especially the Snow Goose, there was a whirr and a rustle overhead and a large bird landed in the tree above us. We couldn’t quite make it out, it hidden as it was among the branches, but then it flew.

“It’s a goshawk!” said Peter. “Look at that. A beautiful, adult bird!”

It flew down Trumpeter Drive. A Sharp-shinned Hawk came out from somewhere to annoy it, then an eagle found itself being harassed by both of them before the raptors flew out over the sanctuary and caused all 600 or more ducks, which had been feeding quietly on the edge, to rush into the air in alarm. The ducks landed, the eagle landed, and the hawks disappeared.

Well, once we had hundreds of Thayer’s Gulls sitting along the wharf, now we have none. Did they disappear? No. The American Birding Association decided to change their name. They are no longer Thayer’s Gulls, now they are to be known as Iceland Gulls.

We’ve had a few Iceland Gulls here, lovely all-white birds with white wingtips that stand out from the crowd and add to the pleasure of being out and about. As one reviewer put it, “When someone shouts ‘Iceland Gull’ at the lake this winter, what does it mean? Does the speaker intend a purely white-winged bird as I would? It seems that Baffin Gull, Arctic Gull, Inuit Gull, Green-billed Gull and Silver-winged Gull could have been a workable and confusion-saving alternative for naming the more inclusive taxon.” We can only agree. Not only does it mean confusion for birders, but it means that Peter’s life-list has shrunk by one this week! Ouch.

Not one, but two, beautiful Mountain Bluebirds appeared on island this week. They flew with a blue flash from treetop to treetop. They were such an unexpected delight that it seemed like a dream. But they were real. They were also too far off for a decent photo in the fading light. It’s not the first time bluebirds have appeared here. Six flitted from bush to bush in Delkatla one December and Lawrence had two away up near a muskeg pond a few years ago. Nice.

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