The Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis)is more often heard than seen here at Leaning Oaks. It's call a distinct upslurred "seewit" is a common sound of spring in our mixed woods of Douglas-fir, Big-leaf Maple and Garry Oak. a It is a summer breeder here, with our earliest records in the first week of May and the latest birds lingering until the second week of September. Empidonax flycatchers are difficult to identify, although for us the Pacific-slope is the yellowest of the flycatchers here and the only one with a tear-drop shaped eye ring. Elsewhere however, the Pacific-slope is very difficult to distinguish from the Cordilleran Flycatcher and in recent trips to western Mexico where both species winter, we were reduced to recording them as "Western" Flycatchers, unless they were calling.
Wilson's Snipe(Gallinago delicata) is an uncommon fall or winter visitor to Leaning Oaks, in fact we have only two observations here in the 19 years we have been here. Snipe however are difficult to see if they don't move, so its likely we have overlooked some. This is a species that has had an uncertain taxonomic history. My earliest bird books had it as a separate species from the one found in Europe, but for a long time it was lumped with the old world Common Snipe. Recently it was re-split off as its own species, due to differences in morphology and the "winnowing" display sounds it makes during courtship flights. "Snipe" is derived from the word "snite" or "snout" and refers, of course to the extremely long bill of this species.
The eyes of a snipe are set far back on its head, which allows it binocular vision both fore and aft, handy when you spend a good deal of your life "snite-deep" in mud!
For us, the Osprey is a summer resident, and we have records of Ospreys spanning the period from mid-April until the end of September. The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, occurring on all continents except for Antarctica. As one might guess from some of their other common names, Fish Hawk or Fish Eagle, their diet is mostly fish. That being said, the pair that use nearby Viaduct Flats spend a lot of their time taking large American Bullfrog (#203) tadpoles to feed their young. Watching foraging Ospreys has high entertainment value, both in watching their impressive dives to the water to grab fish just below the surface, and seeing them interact with Bald Eagles (#51) that often steal their catch from them.
Up until a few years ago, we had always taken the presence of Olive-sided Flycatchers(Contopus cooperi ) here at Leaning Oaks as a given. They reliably arrived the second week of May and lingered until mid September. Their presence was usually announced by their strident piping calls, or their loud and often repeated "Quick! Three Beers" song. In 2014 however, all of May passed without us hearing anything from an Olive-sided Flycatcher, nothing in the first week of June either. Finally a single - and distant calling male on the 10th of June.
Olive-sided Flycatchers declines are widespread. In 2008 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Widllife in Canada (COSEWIC) looked at Olive-sided Flycatcher and found that Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data indicate significant and widespread declines in Olive-sided Flycatcher populations throughout North America. Canadian populations experienced a 4.0% annual decline for the period 1968-2006, 3.3% annual decline for the period 1996-2006, total decline over that decade of 29%.
The cause of the decline is not clear. Declines have been seen in many birds that make their living taking insects in flight including the Olive-sided Flycatcher. Suggestions range from loss of wintering habitat, to shifts in timing of insect emergences, the use of pesticides and poor reproductive success in logged over habitats - but so far, the research hasn't been done to determine if it is one or more of these factors working in concert against the flycatchers.
This year we do have a pair using the property once again and we have been hearing "Quick! Three Beers" since the end of May. We didn't take it for granted this year.
We get Barn Swallows flying high over Leaning Oaks, and sadly never stopping by or raising a family like this group from the Okanagan! And even flyovers are not frequent.
What one thinks of as a ubiquitous swallow, one that is found nesting on human buildings (...like barns!) , and found over a large range is actually a swallow in trouble. COSEWIC has assessed Hirundo rustica as "Threatened" and it is S3S4 (Blue listed) provincially. Like many other birds that feed on insects, Barn Swallows are experiencing significant and long term declines. that began, seemingly inexplicably in the mid-1980s. There was a 76% decline recorded between 1970 to 2009 across Canada based on Breeding Bird Surveys across Canada! Factors thought to be contributing to the declines are declines or changes in insect populations, pesticides and loss of habitat in the wintering grounds, and changes in farming techniques that may affect foraging and nesting sites. It would be very interesting to know what the historical numbers were as there are some estimates that approximately 1% of all Barn Swallows use natural nesting sites! (Erskine 1979; Man’s influence on potential nesting sites and populations of swallows in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 93:371-377)
(This is for you Lisa!)
Despite the fact that Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are not uncommon on southern Vancouver Island we only have a single record of this species at Leaning Oaks, a pair of birds on migration in April. It is very likely we have overlooked "fly over" Tree Swallows. Like the much commoner Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallows are cavity nesters, using woodpecker holes, rotted cavities in trees and nest boxed to raise their families. Here on southern Vancouver Island they are more closely associated with water than Violet-green Swallows, which uses a wider variety of habitats.
California Quail (Callipepla californica) are noisy, visible parts of the avifauna of Leaning Oaks. We have several pairs using the property this breeding season. Some years they disappear for the winter months, and some years we have large groups visiting the bird feeders throughout the year. They almost always successfully hatch chicks here, but some years the chicks succumb to wet weather and other years they are preyed on extensively by Cooper's Hawks.
California Quail are introduced species here, brought onto Vancouver Island as a game bird.
Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina ) are the smallest sparrows that visit Leaning Oaks. They are uncommon summer visitors here, and to our knowledge have not bred on our property, although we have seen newly fledged young very close by. This year provided our earliest spring record, with a pair on the lawn eating dandelion seeds on 23 April. Our latest record in the year is the 2oth of July, so they don't linger here very long. I have spent a lot of time listening to recordings and searching for calling Chipping Sparrows, some of which sound an awful lot like (some) Dark-eyed Juncos. Despite diligent study, I still make mistakes and feel far more sure of an identification when I see the bird involved. Small, dapper and pale with a bright rufous cap, they don't look anything like a junco - fortunately.
Yellow-rumped Warblers are found here at Leaning Oaks in the spring and early summer and then essentially disappear for a month and then make an appearance on fall migration from mid-August until the end of September. They may well be here, only silent in the canopies of the Douglas-fir or perhaps they move up in elevation during those months. The Yellow-rumped Warbler has two distinct colour forms that used to be considered separate species: the "Myrtle" Warbler of the east and "Audubon’s" Warbler of the mountainous West. The Audubon’s has a yellow throat; in the Myrtle subspecies the throat is white. Female Audubon's have less boldly marked faces, lacking the dark ear patches of the "Myrtle" Warbler. We get both forms on migration, but the form that lingers here to breed is the "Audubon's" form.
Most years, Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) is an occasional visitor to Leaning Oaks, but a few times over the years this species has been on the property for extended periods and over the breeding season. Sapsuckers (there are 4 species in BC) feed on tree sap that they harvest by drilling net arrays of holes through the bark and into the cambium of a tree. Here the tree of choice is Douglas-fir and one of our trees has an large area of sapsucker wells on the trunk about 8 m off the ground. The sap attracts insects, which are also used as food by the sapsucker. Some winters, especially those with pronounced cold snaps, we have an influx of Red-breasted Sapsuckers.
Two biologists on a beautiful property armed with cameras, smart phones and a marginal knowledge of websites took up the challenge of documenting one species a day on that property. Join along! Posts and photographs by Leah Ramsay and David Fraser (unless otherwise stated; started January 1, 2014.