Photojournal - 21 April 2009

A busy, eager morning

Yesterday was Tuesday the 21st of April and I was up in the morning. This would be surprising except for the fact that I had woken up at 7pm the night before after falling asleep several times in the day, so I had been up all night. Sometime around 7am I was looking out my window towards the river and saw some ducks flying past. I thought, as I often do, that I should buy myself another pair of binoculars so that I could have them inside and so be able to see details of things like ducks flying past. I have binoculars but I normally keep them in my car, in case I'm driving and I see something, like ducks flying past.

Being dressed and shod, and having just fortified myself with bok choy, I thought that I could solve this problem temporarily by actually going downstairs and getting my binoculars from my car. I had to take some things downstairs, anyhow. So soon I arrived back at my condo with my binoculars.

I gazed out the window, and saw something swimming across the river. I checked it out with my binoculars. And then I quickly got a camera, and I got a few shots of the beast before it disappeared.


No, that's not a dog making its way across, it's a big honkin' rodent. It disappeared behind some trees towards the empty (but fenced) lot next door.

I was pretty excited at this point, as I've rarely seen these guys in good light, and I wanted to get closer. So I headed out to the walk on the quay in front of my place, to see if there was a way to get over to where my rodent had headed.

It was not to be, unfortunately. But while I was down on the walk, I figured it wouldn't hurt to hang out and see who came by.

Mr. Mallard was the first to present himself.


But he was on his way to work, so he bade me only a curt good morning before heading on. I didn't try to stop him.

I proceeded over to the railing by the river and then felt like lightning had struck twice. Between me and the nearest dolphin, another tree-biting rodent swam.


That was an amazing swim-by. I got to see fabulous details on his face and fur. I was elated.

I was having a great morning, and it was quite comfortable (shirt-sleeve weather) out, so I decided to keep hanging out and watching. I got to see many other large mammals, including a lot of the domesticated kind, who were out dragging their people around.

One of the people who wasn't being dragged told me of some woodpeckers hanging out at the side of the building. It turns out that someone has a couple of suet feeders there. The woodpeckers were Hairy Woodpeckers; there was a male and a female but I only got good shots of the male.  

This is the first time I've seen a Hairy Woodpecker at home; often we get the smaller but very similar Downy Woodpeckers.

Back on the river side, a white-cheeked goose came swimming up to the shore. I've been studying a little on goose identification, and I think that the medium body size and long bill on this bird place him firmly in Branta canadensis parvipes—he's a Canada Goose, in the "Lesser" subspecies.


A goose this size with a square head and a short bill would be a Cackling Goose. The splitting off of Cackling as a separate species has many birders interested in goose identification again.

My next visitor was a Double-crested Cormorant, who landed in mid-river. After a few dives, he surfaced much closer to me.


I love the color on cormorants. They're quite decorative. I didn't quite catch this one with enough light on his eyes to really bring out the green there, though.

As I was photographing the cormorant, I heard someone singing a little tune. I searched a couple of trees for the singer and eventually found that it was a sparrow. After I first saw him, he flew over to another tree and began singing again.


He was a fine-looking male White-crowned Sparrow, and his song is used to mark his territory and to try to attract a mate. White-crowneds turn out to be the most extensively-studied sparrow when it comes to singing. A young male learns the songs of all of the males in his neighborhood, not just his father's song. Eventually, he'll converge on one or two of the songs to keep and use as his own. Through this mechansim, many of the White-crowneds in one area will settle on a common song, and different localities may have different songs. These different songs are referred to as dialects.

I listened to the local White-crowned dialect for a while, and wondered a bit about how different another dialect would be. I'd probably have to do a bunch of sound recording to figure that out, so I think I'll leave that investigation to the professionals for right now.

There were lots of swallows in the air, cleansing it of some of the hordes of insects that breed in and around the river. They darted and dashed through the air, in typical acrobatic swallow fashion. Sometimes one would chase another, and then the turns would be fast and extreme.

Finally a couple of them settled on the roof of my building, directly above my condo (but with two other condos between). When they settled, I could tell that they were Violet-green Swallows; the white showing above the eye is a sure field mark.


We get Violet-greens in the neighborhood every year; it was nice to see that they're back. I'd been seeing swallows for a while this year, but the only ones I'd been able to identify were Tree Swallows.

The whole time I was out, there was a European Starling who was building a nest on the roof two condos over from mine, shuttling materials there from around the trees on the side of the walkway. I caught him here a little ways away from his construction site. Male starlings do the primary nest-building.

Speaking of Tree Swallows, some of the swallows zipping around were Trees. They preferred dolphins for perching on, rather than the roof.  
A small boat zoomed past, reminding me that the Fraser is a working river, with lots of industrial traffic.  
I kept scanning the water for my rodent friends, and eventually saw one of them swimming away from the area that I had seen the others swimming to. This one went straight across the river to a little floating structure (and log raft) moored beside Poplar Island. He's the little brown thing on the left, leaving a small whitish wake.  

He sure seemed to be a busy fellow.

His appearance flushed a Great Blue Heron from the area; the heron flew a little ways down the island before settling back down.

I kept hearing a metallic "ding" sound, and finally my curiousity about it got the better of me. I walked a little ways down the riverside and saw that there was a gang out on the rail bridge, doing what rail gangs often do.  
A few minutes later, my flat-tailed friend was swimming back from the island. I caught him relatively close in great lighting.  

I had about six or seven encounters with those fellows, and not once, even when they dove, did they show me their trademark teeth or tails. I really hope to catch one of them on land one day, but these were by far the best photos I've ever gotten of them, so I was still pretty happy.

As I looked back towards my building, a sparrow flew across my line of sight. Soon I was focussed and shooting. He was an interesting fellow; he certainly had the jizz* of a Lincoln's Sparrow, but the lack of a buffy undercolor on the flanks seemed a bit odd.

*jizz: a birding term borrowed from the military. Originally stood for "General Impression of Size and Shape," or GISS. Refers to the overall impression of the bird.

I checked my books when I processed the photos, to see if I had a Lincoln's, or if it was the similar but more-common Song Sparrow. My general guides, like Sibley's and National Geographic, were no help, so I pulled out my sparrow book (Beadle and Rising). That helped a little, in that it noted and showed that fine streaking is indeed a feature of some western Song Sparrows, However, light wings are not such a feature. The wings on my bird, and the streaking, are a match for Lincoln's, but the white flanks aren't.

So this one I've filed under "I'm not sure," and I've contacted my birding friends for help, but I'm producing this photojournal entry quite quickly and they haven't had time to get back to me yet. It'd be nice to have a Lincoln's, as that would be a new species for me for my "around the condo" list.

Anyhow, the sparrow took off after posing for only two photos. As that happened, I was surprised that my usually not-good-for-birding ears picked up the flight calls of another bird.

Well, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised; one would have to be very hard of hearing to not hear and recognize the sound of flying Canada Geese. Even just a pair of them made quite a racket. Eventually they swooped in for a landing further up the island, where the Blue Heron had been a few minutes earlier.

update: my friend Ilya confirmed that this is a Lincoln's. So it's a new sparrow for the condo.

I had a few minutes without subjects, and then I spotted something across the way, in front of the townhomes. I learned that not everything brown sticking up out of the water is the head of a rodent. This brown thing was a small log, on its way downstream.  
And then I learned that not every flying thing that I can hear is a bird. We were in the flight path this morning.  

But that about did it for my outing. Somewhere in there, I saw some crows and gulls and even a robin or two.

I went in to my building's courtyard, and saw another sign of spring: some of the bulbs were in bloom. I decided I'd end my morning on a color note.


Aside from tulips, I saw some daffodils, pansies, and grape hyacinth. The rhodo blooms were also starting to show themselves.

It turned out that, although I had intended for it to, my morning photography didn't actually end there. When I got back to the condo, I went on the balcony and saw that the rail gang was still out on the bridge, doing that rail gang thing. It had to be photographed.


Well, to be fair, I guess the guy on the left is actually doing something. He's carrying a tool over towards the others.

And while I was out there, my White-crowned friend stopped by on a plant right below me. He sang his dialectical song for a little while, and then enjoyed the morning sun.


I had really enjoyed my time out in the morning sun, too.

Sometimes I start to think that I ought to move, to find a bigger place, or one where I can put up bird feeders, or to be in a more urban rather than suburban neighborhood...but then I'll have a morning like this, and remember why I love being where I am. Where would I find another place with so many friends?

Your eager aquatic rodent,



Return to 2009 Spring index

Return to Photojournal Main