February 27th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 9
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Birds of a Feather
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Avid birder Merilyn Liddell contemplates the 2009 Rosy irruption
While living in Fernie, back in 2001, my back yard was invaded in late spring by a remarkable little creature known as "Leucosticte Tephrocotis". When I say invaded I upwards of 300 or more of them swarmed into the giant willow trees I had grown from discarded branches planted 20 years earlier. Once landed, they began working their way down branch by branch to three large feeders I used to maintain below. In a manner of minutes those ravenous Tephrocotis stripped them bare and then waited patiently for a refill. It took eight top-ups that day to satisfy them and was my first introduction to a massing of birds. The next day I cleaned out the last of the local supermarket’s stock of mixed seed to keep this finch circus going. I was told that as long as there is snow on the ground and lots of seed in the feeders: “they ain't budgin'.

Tephrocotis's regular name is Rosy Finch and in this case they were the 'gray-crowned" variety. Rosie’s are sparrow-sized, come from the high snow fields and walk instead of hopping like most birds. After each fresh snowfall that spring the yard was covered with thousands of cute little tracks going in every direction.

These gregarious seed crackers are dark brown or blackish with a pinkish wash on the belly, wings and rump and have a light grey patch on the backs of their heads. I had never seen one before the invasion.

They nest in alpine cliff crevices and lay their young in mid-June when snow-free patches are common in the alpine meadows. Both male and female Rosie’s develop a gular pouch in their throats in order to bring more food to nestlings. The male must be ever vigilant because there are typically six males to every female Rosy! There was a pretty good chance that ravenous flock that descended on my house back then would be spending their breeding season anywhere from the Yukon to the northern tip of Alaska.
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Rosie’s were the rage that year at my little mini-observatory of nature. The year before it was the evening grosbeaks with their spectacular black and yellow markings. They are really just an overgrown finch and their sweet call was immediately and perfectly mimicked by my African grey parrot Hawkeye. The year before that it was the battle of the jays with Blues and Stellars screaming through the yard with their raucous cries in search of more peanuts. I noted the 2018/2019 Southern Alberta Christmas Bird Count spotted just one Stellar Jay in the Crowsnest area. They are a lot more common on the BC side.

It is a wonderful world this world of wild birds. It was always exciting to spot a newcomer like a redpoll, a varied thrush or a red-shafted flicker when they drop by. I began tagging pages in my Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds for every new sighting and took great joy in spotting and identifying birds. It is nothing short of amazing that the birds of the Rockies manage to survive at all. It is such a hostile environment they are returning to or passing through on their way to breeding areas up north each spring.

When I moved back to the Pass in 2005 I restarted my feeder observatory and had a lot of enjoyment watching starlings swarm the suet balls that Sobeys used to make up. Then the Clarke’s Nutcrackers showed up one year and the peanut circus ensued. I marveled at how each bird, in a polite order, would fly down and lift up and drop every peanut for weight and eventually pick the best one. They call this optimal foraging. And then how they would go to great lengths to hide each peanut and mentally make note of reference points nearby for future retrieval.
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Then in 2009 the Rosie’s found me again, despite my forty five mile eastward relocation. This was more of an irruption than a swarm and it looked like thousands had descended on my house at the dead-end of 19th street. They turned the hillside black and the mass feedings began again. My wife suggested pouring sunflower in a circle on the road at one point which created a marvelous “crop circle.” I literally lay down on the pavement in front of them only a couple feet away to snap shots of these merry little creatures so unaffected by human presence.

So since that time the urban deer population has made feeding pretty much impossible for me and besides, important bylaws preclude this practice. The nutcrackers, starlings and small finches rarely come around anymore and sometimes I worry about their numbers. While the Southern Alberta bird count was one of the most successful species-wise I suspect that the overall actual numbers of certain birds have dropped drastically.

I noticed that the Christmas count in the Pass this year recorded no less than 370 Bohemian Waxwings. You’ll never find a prettier bird to photograph. This Sunday morning a large number of them swept into my neighbour’s mountain ash berry tree in my back alley and annihilated what little was left of its desiccated berries. It brought back memories of their frequent swarming in Fernie where mountain ash trees abound. It also reminded me of a profound poem I had come across.
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Back then I had met an interesting fellow bird watcher at the local laundromat. She looked up from her knitting needles that day and informed me matter-of-factly that she had conducted a drunken Bohemian Waxwing rehabilitation program in the South Country that winter. The reason for the debilitating intoxication of these berry-eaters has to do with cycles of freezing and thawing which apparently turns mountain ash berries into miniature ice wine containers. Then you get Bohemians trying to fly through your living room window with disastrous results. Windows act like perfect mirrors especially if they are north-facing.

To correct this dangerous behaviour that South Country AA co-coordinator had a couple of suggestions. One is to cut out a swooping bird outline from black construction paper and paste it to the top corner of the problem window. She claims it gives the appearance of a predator attack and keeps those juiced up crested beauties from bouncing off her big picture window. The other suggestion is to trim off all the mountain ash berries you can reach and keep them in the freezer. You minimize the alcohol build up and you can put them out on feeders at the appropriate time.
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That frantic flock of Bohemians whirled around my area throughout the morning desperately searching for something to eat and eventually swooped off in a looping mass, their high-pitched, rapid, and vibrato trill sounding similar to the rapid sputtering sound from a toy laser. I'll wrap up this bit of bird wandering with an amazing poem I came across in 2001 that was done by a young gifted boy by the name of Kai Tolley. He was 11 years old at the time he wrote it and it demonstrates a wonderful depth and sensitivity for a kid his age. It is entitled: Bohemian Waxwings
Watching
maybe a thousand birds
flocking like a rollercoaster,
up and down, around a bend,
makes me feel like I'm floating
in a vortex.
Birds like a blizzard
swirling and blowing in the sky
so close I am the wind.
They fly away
disappearing like bubbles in water.
Bohemian artists
drawing in the air
Waxwings melting
into the sky.
Suddenly I feel lonely.
Kai Tolley-1997
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February 27th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 9
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