Large Flakes?

Looking out the window this afternoon, I saw huge snowflakes. Or were they leaves? But they were floating so easily, like snow. More and more flakes came down, and yet, not enough to say, “It’s snowing,” and besides, it was just a tad too warm. Something didn’t feel right. I went to investigate.

I picked up some of the “snowflakes” and saw that they were feathers. They kept falling from the sky. I thought of the German folk tale about Frau Holle who shakes the featherbeds (goosedown duvets, in our modern western world) in the sky and makes it snow.

I traced the path of the feathers to their origin and strained my eyes to study the top reaches of a fir tree. For a few minutes I saw nothing, but at last I made the culprit nervous.

A huge eagle took off from the tree with its dinner in its talons.

I knew from the feathers that the eagle’s meal was a duck. The harsh reality of  life and death in the animal food chain always leaves me with mixed feelings. Both are beautiful birds, but why does one have to eat the other? Couldn’t they just eat pancakes instead?

 

 

Brant Time

The arrow in the photo below points at the roof of our house, just above the white house on the hillside. From there we can see, with the help of a spotting scope, that the black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) are on the far shore of the bay.

They come here every spring to rest and feed and gather their strength.

We drove around the bay to the beach where the brant are congregating. A friend had told us that the day before, there were many more, and we think some may have left already on their long migration to the north to nest.

Here they are, sitting at the edge of the water in a place where they can see danger approaching from land or the water.

They come from as far away as the Baja coast of Mexico, and will go all the way up the continent to Alaska where summer daylight hours are very long and the food is plentiful for raising their young in the short weeks of summer, so they will be ready to make the long migration back south in the fall, to winter in Mexico again.Here, in one of many staging areas on the east coast of Vancouver Island, they gather at first in small flocks, gradually joining up into bigger flocks as they are closer to leaving for the north.

I’ve often wondered how they decide when it is time for the flocks of thousands to lift off and begin the journey. Who says, “Okay folks, it’s time for liftoff”? Looks like plenty of discussion going on here. The widgeon in the background are being kept out of the loop. See them in the background with their pale heads?

Notice that these geese are similar to the Canada goose but they don’t have the white cheek patches or the long necks. If you saw them side by side you’d see they are quite different.

If you go walking on the beaches at this time of year, please be sure to keep your dog on a leash. When the brant are disturbed repeatedly, it prevents them from feeding. They need daylight hours and low tides to feed on the eel grass they prefer above most other food. If they can’t feed, their bodies will not have the reserves they need for the long flight ahead. Emaciated birds don’t have healthy clutches and this results in weaker young and lower numbers of brant.

You can do your bit to help keep the brant population healthy. Keep your dogs on a leash at brant time.

Ready for Action

In the previous post I told about the newly named “three lame ducks,” the old duck hunters who brought the duck blind they built out to the field. At the time I didn’t have a photo of the blind in its location with the final touches to have it blend in a little. Here it is, ready for action. Probably it will need a stormier day to work better, but for now it can sit out here and get used to its new surroundings.dscf2187a

The Duck Blind

Since time began, humans have hunted for their food, just as all living species did to stay alive. It wasn’t until animals were domestically raised in huge numbers to provide beef, pork, and poultry, that hunting began to fall out of favour. The masses of meat-consumers don’t want to know about the killing of the animals they  enjoy when they sit down to chicken, turkey, pork chops, or beef steak, and hunting came to be frowned upon even as chicken heads continued to roll.

I’m a realist and while I don’t want to see an animal get killed, I know it has to happen so I can enjoy that meat. I’ve had to accept that hunters are not murderers, but providers of my food.

It happens that the Captain has hunted ducks since he was a young man. He braved weather that only the obsessed would do, coming home after many a duck hunt, half drowned, and with  icy toes and fingers.

You’ve heard of the old German saying, “Vee get too soon oldt, unt too late schmardt”? Well, just in time, the Captain has decided to improve on his old duck blinds and go for comfort with a newer model. The duck blind will be set up at the edge of a field where ducks often come and go. It’s often a game of “wait a while,” being patient, and keeping quiet and still. It helps if you can be out of the worst of the weather while you wait.

This box built of plywood has a hinged wind flap that will help protect the hunter against some of the worst weather and also help to hide him from the “duck’s eye view.” On calmer days, the flap can be let down.

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A door on one end is wide enough to allow a man who is bundled up in old gray Stanfields and raingear to pass through.

The hunter’s mutt has a private entrance. This makes repeated opening of the big door for the dog unnecessary and helps keep the wind out. Also, it allows for less  movement that could scare off ducks. This is where Emma would come in with her new neoprene vest on.

There are times when the ducks are not flying, so the hunter can rest on the bench and maybe have a cup of coffee from his thermos, and eat the sandwich he brought from home.  dscn7760

These photos are of the unfinished duck blind. It is now painted a neutral colour and will most likely be spray-painted in camouflage  colours or be covered with tall grasses to disguise it.

Ducks are smarter than you think. For example, look at the town crier below.

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The hardest part was probably getting the heavy box out to the field. It had to be loaded into a utility trailer for the drive to the fields. Three duck hunters, friends for decades, muscled the blind into the trailer. You have to give the old men credit for their successful effort, as one has had his knees replaced, another has had a hip replaced, and the third has a broken leg. That’s dedication.

Baby it’s cold outside

The first snowfall of the season has dusted the tops of our local hills at last. This year it’s a welcome sight, not only for the skiers, but for the townspeople who have been under a “Boil Water Advisory” off and on for weeks, due to the heavy rainfall and flooding.

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The sun even came out for a few minutes to highlight the cool hilltops.

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Everyone is talking about it, even the ducks, dscn7445a

 

With all the rain that’s fallen here,

We ducks don’t cry, but rather cheer.

But as the chill turns rain to snow,

We start to wonder where to go.

Maybe we will be in luck

And fields won’t turn to frozen muck.

The corn and grain in farmers’ fields

Is filling for the strength it yields

But if it freezes, in our strife

We’ll have to eat aquatic life.

 

A Beach Too Far

“Stopstopstopstopstop!” I called. I rolled down the truck window and snapped a few pictures. The smell of the sea wafted in. Not that awful iodine smell of low tide, but the salty aroma of sea grasses and wet logs. A couple of pairs of mallards gabbled in duck-talk and waddled their duck-walk. A great blue heron stayed out of zoom range near the Canada geese who held a honking good conversation at the distant water’s edge.

I would have missed all this if I hadn’t insisted on capturing this photo. As I rolled the window up, the Captain said, “I could live here.”

“Me too,” I said, “but remember about 30 years ago we almost bought a place near here? We’d have peace and quiet and all this beauty, but it’s twenty miles to town if I ran out of cream for my coffee.”

“Or coffee for your cream.”

“Yeah.” We sighed. “Too far….”

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The Estuary

Between  Comox and Courtenay, the road runs along the estuary. I always see at least one interesting thing when I pass by there.  It is a place where many species thrive, and a refuge for them when the weather is extreme. 124

From Comox Bay, boats sometimes (not often) come partway up the river. In old times they might have been going to the ways to be hauled out, or they might be going to the small government wharf in Courtenay. The Town of Comox has the much bigger facility, with easier access from the Strait of Georgia. Markers and pilings in the river mouth help to guide boats along the deeper river channels. Many a boat has run aground here, for lack of better navigation aids.

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Birdlife is everywhere. Here are two kinds of ducks.  I’m ashamed to admit that a long time ago, I thought all ducks were brown and their ducklings were always yellow.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Duck plumage is as varied as that of other bird species.

Drake mallards are immediately identified by their green heads, but look more closely and you’ll see other markers. Yellow bills, chestnut breast feathers, a hint of a white collar on the neck, beige sides, darker brown on top, dark blue wing speculum outlined by white bars. Flashy little devils, aren’t they? Their wives are dull for camouflaged safety when nesting, but in spite of the boring mottled brown, they do have the same dark blue wing speculum bordered in white. Oh, and notice the bright orange of the feet. Both male and female have these cool boots.

Beyond the mallards a flock of widgeons are milling around. Again, the drakes are the flashy ones with their white head stripe and black and white rump feathers. A slash of white under the wing takes the boredom out of the brown body colour. The hen widgeons, again, are dull, dull, dull. And in this case, neither drakes nor hens have those cool booties like the mallards have. The widgeon boots are a more modest greeny-gray.

I find it interesting that the two kinds of ducks are together here and yet they are keeping to their own groupings by species.

Most likely they are here in the estuary because there is snow on the fields just now. Usually, the widgeons visit grain fields where they are like lawnmowers when a group of them get together, nipping the tops of the grass. A new planting of grain can be devastated by a huge flock of widgeon grazing for a few hours.

The mallards, on the other hand, will forage for other things. They don’t mind eating rotten potatoes left in the field, or kernels of corn left behind. If they are hungry enough, you might see mallards snacking on a rotten salmon on the shore, something that is beneath the dignity of the widgeon.116

But see (below) who has moved in from the frozen fields and the mist of the last blog post. The Canada geese!

And if you look closely, in the distance, you’ll see another visitor, sitting on a branch on the island in the estuary (maybe click to enlarge the photo). He’s watching for anything edible, be it fish or fowl. The bald eagle seems to sit a lot, but his “eagle eye” is watching for any sick or crippled ducks that would be easy pickings. Barring that, there may be a careless fish in the shallows. You never know what might wash up. Just now it is a hard time for eagles. The spawned out salmon  are almost gone and it is a bit early for the herring to show up. But they are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

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The estuary is full of life.You never know what you’ll see but there is always something of interest.