Well, if the rocket goes up it will be 14 minutes from now: just enough time to enjoy the birds.
Reader Ed Kroc sent a bunch of swell bird photos and informative commentary. Enjoy!
I pass along to you the residents of a gorgeously sunny and cold afternoon at Tsawwassen Spit in Delta, BC, just south of Vancouver.
First, a Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala) resting among the kelp washed ashore by the tides. This was one of two I encountered before the sun fully broke through the clouds, so the lighting isn’t as vibrant as in the other photos. Still, you can tell these guys are friendly, though also quite shy.
As soon as the last bits of clouds were pulverized by the November sun, I caught sight of the ostentatious orange bill of a Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) spying on me from the breakwater. He/she crept up to the top of the rocks for a clearer look, and then stayed for the sunlight. These are definitely one of my favourite shorebirds. They make loud, flute-like alarm calls when you venture too close, and continue these calls as they fly away in irritation if you linger.
But of course their most distinct feature is the colour of the bill (and eyes and eye-ring). Why are these things such bright orange? Why are they in such stark contrast to the rather discreet plumage? As far as I know, this is a universal feature among Oystercatchers the world over, for example the American (H. palliatus) and Eurasian (H. ostralegus) species. Is there a selective advantage that these colours confer? Sexual selection seems unlikely to me since both sexes look essentially the same (although interestingly, females do tend to be a bit bulkier and possess larger bills). I’m hard-pressed to think of many other plovers that exhibit such stark contrasts in the colouration of their features.
Onto the gulls. Sitting alone on the glassy waters surrounding the spit was a single Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), a first winter juvenile. These guys pass through BC on the way to their wintering homes on the US Gulf Coast. Note the different genus from the customary Larus that contains most gulls. Like this Bonaparte’s, species in Chroicocephalus tend to be on the small side for members of the Laridae family. Meanwhile, standing atop a lamppost, high above the spit, the shore, and the sporadic ferry traffic, a female Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) watched the world move along.
A trio of Passeriformes to end the afternoon. First is a juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla). About a dozen juveniles were socializing and feasting on the withered bits of what looks like some kind of chrysanthemum that lined a relatively protected part of the spit. You can just barely see the beginnings of the eponymous golden crown emerging on this juvenile’s forehead.
Sitting alone on a piece of driftwood, a Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) soaked up the sun.
Not too far away, a female Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) gave me some curious looks as she hopped through the grasses and picked through the pebbles of her winter home. These birds nest in the high Arctic and winter across most of southern Canada and the northern US (also northern Europe and Russia). Like most birds that breed in the Arctic, these guys moult into a more earthy plumage when they make the trip south for the winter, a convenient adaptation and also one that I believe is highly convergent across different lineages.