Title photo - Over a 100 Bald Eagles perched around the shallows at low tide waiting for their midshipman snacks.
Sept. 27/17 - My apologies for the unexpected hiatus. I simply got busy in June and after 13 years of at least monthly journals I missed my self-imposed deadline, and it was ok. I felt guilty for a few minutes, but then realized that life would just go on, and it did. However, I started this website to help educate people about birds on Vancouver Island, and I still think that it is a good idea. Whether it is or isn't is another matter. That's for you to judge. I know that it's gotten very repetitious year after year, I but I think there is merit and value in letting you know that some things are continuing and some things have changed. I also hope to continue learning more about our birds and photographing new birds and new situations to provide some new material.
A few people have kindly asked about my lack of production. Thank you for asking and caring. I do appreciate your concern.
As the spring days lengthen and warm in the month of May, the synchronicity of nature produces a fascinating natural phenomena along the Pacific coast.
The protagonist of this real life drama is the innocuous but gallant male midshipman fish known to some as the remarkable humming fish and to others as the unattractive bottom-dwelling, bullhead. (It is really a toadfish and not related to the bullhead.) The name, midshipman, is attributed to the lines of photophores on the fish resembling the rows of buttons on a midshipman’s uniform. As for the humming, it is the unique ability of the male to produce vocalizations that may be annoying to humans but important to the male midshipman for attracting females.
During the winter the midshipman dwells in the depths off the Pacific coast from Alaska to the Gulf of California. While it may look prehistoric it has a very sophisticated method of attracting prey by emitting light from its photophores. As the long, dark days of winter finally give way to spring the midshipman begins its treacherous journey to the shallow waters of its nesting grounds which are typically shallow, rocky beaches that are covered at high tide and bare at low tide. When the midshipman reaches the nesting grounds it competes with other males for the best nest sites where it excavates a cave under a rock and proceeds to hum for a mate. The female comes in with the high tide and enters the cave of a suitable male where she lays her eggs then leaves with the outgoing tide. The proud male is left behind to fertilize and guard the eggs until they hatch. Many of the nests are under seaweed in shallow tide pools at low tide and some are even above the low tide line and dry, but that’s not a problem because the versatile midshipman can also breathe out of water.
Life seems good for the unsuspecting male midshipman as it has attracted a mate and is now fulfilling its final role in reproducing the species, but there are hazards it is not aware of. Above the thin veil of seaweed the enemy is lurking, perched on the protruding rocks of the tide pools and the surrounding trees watching for the slightest movement that would betray the midshipman’s presence. The main enemy is the Bald Eagle and midshipman time is tantamount to catching fish in a barrel – a veritable seafood banquet. Forget the images of our ferocious bird of prey soaring and diving to snatch a fish from the surface of the water. This is damp and dirty time where the eagle jumps in the murky shallow water to grasp a midshipman under the seaweed. Even the crows get into the act as they have learned to pull back the seaweed on the rocks in search of a land-locked fish, and the Great Blue Herons watch for their opportunity when the eagles are not around.
Besides providing sustenance for adult eagles the midshipman feast is also critical for nearby nesting Bald Eagles as it provides the main source of food for their young. Observations from the eagle cam on Hornby Island showed that the midshipman was the main source of food for the Hornby eagles. One study in White Rock observed that each Bald Eagle caught about 14 midshipman fish a day and many of those were for the nest. For the non-nesting eagles this is a time to build up their fat reserves before they migrate to their summer locations. When you consider that it isn’t unusual to see at least 100 eagles in any location for the duration of the month long midshipman season that’s a lot of midshipman meals.
While the midshipman male is the victim in this real life drama, it is also the hero. It has done its part in reproducing its species, and it has also played a role in the survival of the Bald Eagles and their young.
The waiting game - Patience is the key to a successful catch. First the eagles must wait for the tide to recede enough to expose the tide pools and rocks where the midshipman fishes are hiding. Then they must wait for the slightest movement that betrays the midshipman's presence. The exposed rocks are the favorite perching spots for the eagles, but with their super vision they can also watch from the trees.
Despite the seriousness of the event for the eagles and midshipman, there are also many humorous moments while the eagles jockey for position.
It's easy pickings if the midshipman is hiding beside the rock where the eagle is perched. The eagle simply reaches down with its vice-like claw and grabs the midshipman with nary only a few splashes of water for its trouble.
However, if the midshpman is in the middle of the tidepool, it's jump and dive time, and that's when the eagle can get covered with seaweed and muddy water.
The water is no impediment especially if a successful catch is the result. The midshipman is defenseless against the eagle. Its only chance was to remain completely still, but that was very difficult.
With the midshipman firmly in its grasp the eagle only has to decide what to do with the fish. If it's a local nesting eagle there are you the young to consider. If it's a non-nester the only decision is where to dine - on the rocks or in the trees.
In this case the eagle decided on to dine in the trees on one of its favorite branches.
The usual flight route is along the tideline until it picks up enough speed to circle around and up the the trees on the beach.
A safe place to dine out of sight from any freeloading eagles who are too lazy to catch their own lunch.
I watched this eagle wait patiently for a half hour before he spotted some movement under the water. I waited because it was the closest I had managed to get to any eagle. Most eagles fly off as soon as you get withing 50 meters. The movement was on the other side of the tidepool so the eagle had to jump over to get in position.
Now the midshipman was right below the eagle. Lunch was only a grasp away.
With an unerring grasp the midshipnman was relieved of its guarding duties.
With lunch in claw the eagle took flight. At first it had the fish in its claw then transferred it to its beak.
The eagle looked like it was going to fly with the fish in its beak, but it changed its mind.
It was interesting to see the eagle switching the fish back to its claw. It had no problem and never missed a wingbeat.
Despite the powerful grip of the beak the fish was definitely more secure in the claw.
An eagle with prey is fair game for other eagles. Sneak attacks are common.
Gone With the Wind
The power of nature is awe-inspiring, terrifying, and destructive all at the same time. Recent examples include Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean and Florida, and the massive wildfires in California and BC. The destruction of human lives and property has dominated newscasts for the past month, but very little has been said about the devastation to birds, mammals, butterflies, and other invertebrates. Their casualties easily number into the billions. Unfortunately, nature plays no favorites and countless populations of have been eradicated either by a watery grave or a fiery inferno.
Every life is precious, and on a much smaller scale, locally gusts of wind up to 80 km/h on a fine May day left a trail of destruction that only a few noticed. Downed trees and power lines were obvious to the eye but many Rufous Hummingbird nests also felt the wrath of nature. I was aware of two nests at the end of tree branches. Both were intact with healthy nestlings on the Sunday (May 18) when I last checked, but on Wednesday after the wind they were gone without a trace. I also heard from others who knew of nests that vanished.
I was sad to see that the nests and nestlings were gone. There seems no doubt as to the fate of the nestlings. The parents probably survived, but I didn't know if they tried to nest again.
April 22/17 - Even while getting ready to lay eggs the female Rufous continued to fuss with her nest. Notice the piece of moss at the end of her bill that she wass just about to insert in the side of her nest. Also notice the fine threads of white spider webbing holding the nest together.
May 18/17 - Feeding time - There's no time to rest with two hungry beaks waiting for food. The nestlings are fed a mixture of insect and nectar that the mother regurgitates. Besides feeding the young she also has to find enough nectar and insects to feed herself.
Unfortunately, when I returned for progress photos three days later after a wind storm there wasn't a trace of the nest. I searched the area beneath the tree for any sign of the delicate nest but there was none.
Bird activity in the yard reaches its peak in late spring when the new arrivals augment the year-round residents. There is usually a steady parade to the suet and seed feeders with several different species at each station. Another popular facility is my hastily improvised bird bath constructed out of some spare cement that was sitting around.
The Orange-crowned Warbleris one of my earliest regular spring and summer residents. I usually see it in the garden foraging for insects in the apple and lilac trees or in the large holly trees by the feeders. This year was the first time that I noticed its frequent visits to the bird bath.
The White-crowned Sparrow is one of my year-round yard birds and spring nester. It usually stays around until the young are on their own then it disappears. I'm not sure it migrates and is replaced by an incoming fall migrant or just expands its range until the young are on their own.
This was another off-year for Pine Siskins. I hadn't seen any in the yard all winter so it was a treat to see one checking out the bird bath.
The presence of American Goldfinches always brightens up the avian landscape. The males and females arrive in the spring and stay long enough for the breeding season, but I have never seen the fledglings in the yard. I have seen the female harvesting fluff from the bulrushes I stick in the lawn for the hummingbirds so I assume that they nest in the area.
The Chestnut-backed Chickadees are year-round yard birds. I once had them trained to land in my hand for peanut treats, but had to wean them of the habit when they wouldn't leave me alone. The abundance of young chickadees foraging on the sunflowers in the garden indicates that it was a good breeding season.
Purple Finches are another common spring yardbird and one of the earlier nesting species. They disappear shortly after the young have fledged but usually return for the winter.
The latest and largest migrant yardbird is the shy Black-headed Grosbeak. The brown and pale orange female usually arrives later than the male and stays until the nesting season is over.
The orange and black male usually arrives a few days before the female. One day I counted 5 males in the tree behind the feeders, but most of them were just passing through.
Rufous Hummingbirds are generally considered to be most aggressive and feistiest of all hummingbirds, but someone forgot to tell the young Anna's that showed up in my yard on June 1. It spent the whole day sitting on a perch beside the hummingbird feeder and taking on all comers which, of course, were Rufous hummers. It was also there the next morning, but gone before the afternoon. I'm not sure if it finally realized that it wasn't supposed to be more aggressive than the Rufous, or it just got tired of flexing its muscles.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)