MY WORLDS AROUND WESTERN CANADA
MY WORLDS AROUND WESTERN CANADA
I have been fortunate to have travelled extensively around the world, and lived in a number of places for longer periods before settling in British Columbia, Canada. On the whole I do consider the western part of Canada to be among the most picturesque and wonderful place to stay from my point of view. This view does not always tally with other folks though. For example, Canada is not a very populous place. Its big cities are not as thick with people as say New York or Kolkata. So, for folks that need to hang out with lots of other people, British Columbia can be a lonelier place. There are times when I drive for a hundred miles without seeing a single house, or coming across a single vehicle or a person. Other times, I am standing alone by a large pond or a lake, while the fog is so heavy and dense on the ground that I breath it, and my pants are wet from it unto my thigh, and I peer at the tops of trees silhouetted against a bluish white sky at the far bank. I can hear unearthly calls of a Loon in the distance, or the ghostly image of a heron flying overhead. This is Canada for me, and I love it.
British Columbia and the rest of Canada has less people per square mile than most other countries on the planet. India has over 410 persons per square km, whereas Canada has only 3.3, in other words, Indian population density is more than hundred fold greater than in Canada. So, in Canada, human footprint is not so visible in the landscape. Another distinction for the province is, British Columbia has milder climate than the rest of Canada. These are factors that make the landscape more habitable for the flora and fauna – for more of nature to dig roots. And I like nature – more than I like human civilization and our footprints in the sands of time. Yes I know, I am a misfit in that sense. Tagore had written some on this idea, of staying outside the grid of what is commonly perceived as civilization, but we shall not go into that here.
I was living in Florida, USA, when I came to Montreal, in the province of Quebec, Canada for a project that took 4 months over the winter of 1996/1997. That was the season when the province had a referendum, to stay in Canada, or to secede into another nation. Quebec is the only province in Canada where the majority of people speak French, while the rest of Canada speaks English. I used to listen to the animated discussion among the people, both for, and against secession, during lunch breaks and after work, when I would drop into a cafe for a hot coffee or a beer, to keep away from the bitter cold outdoors. But on weekends, I would often brave the sub zero temperatures and marvel how deers could still be moving in chest deep snow. I did not have suitable camera that could take good pictures in those conditions, but I was going to be able to do that in later years, when I came to live in Canada and got used to the climate.
The vote had a razor thin decision. 50.1% voted to stay within Canada. 49.9% wished to separate. 98% of the eligible voters cast their ballot. I had never seen anything like it in my life. There were people dancing and singing on the street. There were people weeping and sobbing. There was no violence, but there was lots of joy and lots of sorrow. I was both amazed and emotionally touched by those scenes. And somehow, through those hectic days, I had fallen in love with Canada. It sort of grew on me. So, when I returned to Florida after a few months, I proceeded to apply for Canadian immigration. The rest, as far as my life goes, is history, but with a twist. Although it was Quebec on the eastern part of Canada that made me fall in love with this nation, it was British Columbia on the west coast that offered me the job and the lifestyle, allowing me to be adopted into the Canadian society.
The province of British Columbia is unique in many ways, but that would be outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the land was not part of continental north America, but got slapped on to it in bits and pieces. This also makes the place geologically rather active, since not all the pieces have fused and there are relative motions between them, especially around the coast line, which causes earth quakes and is a source of both volcanic activity as well as possible Tsunami. All this of course happens in geologic time, which spans a lot wider than the lifetime of a single human. This also happens to be the major travel route for migratory birds – the great American flyway – which allows people like us to see a huge variety of birds that pass through seasonally.
Snow geese are a good example. They breed in Siberia, in Russia. But in winter, when food gets scarce, they get together in huge flocks and travel east along the Aleutian islands, and then along the coastline of Alaska, down to British Columbia, and make their first major stop around where I live, the Fraser rive delta in the town of Delta and Richmond. On a good day you can see sixty or seventy thousand geese block out the sky above you. Their combined calls can sound as if a freight train is bearing down on you at full speed. And if they happen to like the field where you are sitting in the grass, they might decide to come in wave after wave and land right around you, giving you no mind, except to be puzzled by the click of your camera. Some day, I aught to plan on going to visit Siberia. Must be quite a place. Thats one part of the world I have not seen although I’ve seen some other parts of Russia.
Birds of prey are another fascinating group of feathered friends that I have often watched with keen interest. Unlike in India, the far east, or Florida, there are no kites in British Columbia. But, there are huge numbers of eagles, hawks, owls, ospreys, and falcons to make up for it. The red tailed hawk is one such, and perhaps the most common of hawks one can find here, though it comes in more than one variation of plumage. One can find them everywhere, including sitting on lamp posts by the road side, looking for something to catch on the ground. And among all the birds I get to click at, flying birds are my favourite, because then one gets to see the patterns on their wings and tail. Since I like taking pictures of birds on the wing, especially raptors, and since there are quite a few to be found hereabouts, this is one area that can keep me busy, as long as I am willing to walkabout in remote areas and swing a heavy lens up at the sky, following flight patters of eagles, hawks, merlins, owls and the like.
And then there are the herons. These large birds that often wade through shallow ponds or grassy banks of rivers, can be found right across the warmer belt of the planet. But one might not have expected so many of them in Canada. British Columbia has its share of resident Great Blue Herons that brave out the extreme cold and snow covered landscape, and still manage to find food. I remember seeing the Goliath heron in east Africa’s soda lakes, as well as Great blue heron in their white and blue morph in Florida, and loads of Egrets and herons in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Florida was a good place for herons too, including the tricolour heron. And in spite of all that, it has been in Canada, and British Columbia in particular, where I have been able to take most of my memorable pictures of the Great Blue Heron. A heron flies slowly. Its wing beats are slow too. It is quite easy to photograph a flying heron, as compared to say smaller birds that fly fast, change direction rapidly and beat their wings too fast for a camera, like a hummingbird. Then there are the birds that fall in the middle, like flying ducks, geese, falcons or woodpeckers and such.
I have seen great blue herons grab all kinds of prey – fish, frogs, lizards, mice and vole. It will eat anything it can catch and swallow. I am yet to see it catch a snake though. Then there are the lesser brothers of the family, such as a green heron, great egret, black-crowned night heron and even smaller incarnations like the bittern. I have seen all these heron like birds often enough, and have taken many pictures, in the Fraser valley near my home, in British Columbia.
Green herons are less frequently seen and therefore, a more exciting ‘catch’ for a photographer or bird watcher. These are smaller secretive herons, and can be seen in fresh water ponds and lakes that have extensive reeds and floating vegetation that provide cover. The bird will catch smaller fish, as well as frogs and lizards. I was fortunate to have seen quite a few, including one catching a number of small fish at a lake not far from my home. One needs a lot of time, patience and some luck.
Taking picture of such birds, when they do not offer an unobstructed view, and you peer at them through gaps in bushes and trees, can be challenging for the cameraman, since cameras often get fooled into focussing on the branches rather than into the gaps between the branches. I have had to manually focus on images through twigs and foliage often, to get at the bird.
British Columbia gets a lot of precipitation from the warm cloud bearing moist air coming off the north-easterly currents off the pacific ocean. These moist airs get trapped by the Cascade Mountains, and further east in the Rocky Mountain range which is more famous as a tourist spot. As far as mountain ranges go, the Cascades and the Rockies are not parts of each other and have separate roots. The cascades are part of the pacific ring of fire – a relatively more recent geologic development from the pacific plate grinding into the north American one. Most of the Cascade mountain volcano are two million or less years old. The mountain range itself started off less than 40 million years ago, about the time the island of India made contact with the rest of Eurasia. The Cascade mountain range forms the western arc of the pacific ring of fire, but the Rocky mountain range further east is not part of it.
The Rocky mountain range, also vertically aligned and to the east of the cascade mountains, are older, and its rocks formed from other geologic events before they got pushed up into various mountain segments that together form the Rocky Mountain range of today. As mountains go, they are perhaps twice as old as the cascade mountains, while the rocks within those mountains often go further into the past. I am not a geologist, if any of you that are interested, you might consider reading up on it. I did read a few books on Canadian geology, because I found the the geological history at least as interesting as the more recent history of the human beings of this planet. Anyhow, when it comes to precipitation, the warm moist airs get trapped by the twin mountain ranges of the Cascades and the Rockies, and shed their moisture on the hills and the valleys of British Columbia, which in turn were made by the passage of giant glaciers of the past ice age. So, whereas it snows a lot in the rest of Canada during winter, here in British Columbia, it rains more than it snows. And this milder climate makes the valley the most fertile, biologically diverse and good habitat for all kinds of birds.
Among the larger birds, sandhill cranes are another major attraction in the Fraser river delta area in British Columbia. It belongs to the family of Gruiformes that also include rails, gallinues, coots, and other marsh-adapted birds. Out of these, cranes are distinct as large birds with very long legs and neck with long tapered bill that are often longer than the head. While these birds are easier to find in the states, they are uncommon so far north in colder climate. British Columbia enjoys better weather than the rest of Canada, and therefore, in Westham island around the Reifel bird sanctuary, I have seen successive generations of sandhill cranes succeed in nesting and raising kids. Not unlike the Saurus cranes of India, these cranes too have a red skin patch on their forehead, and look somewhat similar. Their staccato drum like calls are unmistakable and can be heard miles away.
Owls are another kind of raptor, or bird of prey that are as fascinating as the eagles, hawks and falcons. Owls evolved differently. Scientists are not always in agreement about owl evolution and whether they all belong to one evolutionary branch or more. It is generally believed that owls are very advanced in evolutionary adaptation, perhaps more advanced than other kind of birds. Today all the owls are generally grouped in two separate branches – one belonging to the barn owl family and the other belonging to all other owls. It may well be that owls did not emerge from a single stock, but experience convergent evolution, while adapting to similar ecological pressures. Most of us are aware that owls have very distinct facial feathers, are keen in hearing and in night vision, are silent fliers and birds of prey that usually catch mammals and smaller birds for their meal. Most owls nest in holes in trees, but there are some that even nest in burrows in the ground. For me, British Columbia has been a better place for me to find and photograph owls.
Western Canada has been by far the best place for owls in my book. I have seen the great grey owl, the great horned owl, barred owl, barn owl, long eared owl, short eared owl, western saw-whet owl, Snowy owl, and Northern Hawk-Owl to name a few. Out of all these, the largest lot are the great grey owl, the great horned owl and the snowy owl. Only the great horned owls are year round residents of this place. The others are vagrants or seasonal visitors. Snowy owls come around in winter, down from the arctic. Great grey owls are more prevalent in Alberta and the hills, but can be seen in BC flatlands too.
In Alberta, I got to click a northern Hawk-Owl catch a mouse in the snow as pictured above. Hawk-owls are unique in the somewhat non-owlish face and their habit of hunting in broad daylight instead of at night, or at dawn and dusk. In the picture, it looks as if the mouse is a buddy of the owl. Actually it has already been killed and is about to get airborne, as the owl ferries it to a high tree, before eating it whole. Unlike hawks and eagles, who tear their prey to shreds and eat chucks of flesh but leave the skin, the fur and other undesirable parts alone, owls swallow their prey whole. Indigestible parts like the bones and fur, get dropped in pellets. Owl droppings are easy to find, unlike hawks and eagles, and give an indication of what the owl had been eating.
Spring and fall are the time when large flocks of migratory birds pass by. Shore birds arrive from the south in ever increasing numbers, before heading further north into the arctic region. Getting to see, photograph and appreciate the shore birds are a special treat for me. Getting to click them in flight, is a greater treat. Long billed dowitchers are distinct not just in the length of their bills, but also there sewing-machine like feeding action, constantly bobbing their heads into water to poke at the muddy bottom for food.
Where I live is what had been within the Delta of Fraser river. This is the soft soil over which past glaciers had reached the ocean. This is where the meltwaters from current glaciers and precipitation from the basins are carried by the Fraser river and dumped in the pacific ocean. A lot of the silt from inland has been deposited along the valleys and the delta area. The soil is therefore fertile. Combined with the milder climate this side of the Rocky Mountains, and high degree of rainfall, the region boasts a lot of habitats for birds, for deers, bears, moose, wolves, lynx, mountain lions and bison. Further north into the arctic circle one can find herds of reindeer, or caribou, arctic fox and musk ox. And among birds, one can see among the smallest of the small birds, such as hummingbirds, kinglets and wren, to the largest of them such as the swans, the cranes and the herons. Some are year round residents, while many others are seasonal visitors.
One can see over half a dozen different kinds of sparrow in different seasons. One such visitor is the savannah sparrow. The common house sparrow is the most numerous song bird in the whole planet. Then there are the Lincoln’s sparrow, the song sparrow, the white and golden crowned sparrow, as well as the fox sparrow, tree sparrow and others. Savannah sparrow happens to get its name from Savannah, Georgia, where this bird was first identified and classified. But in the warmer seasons, you can find them here in north-westerly province of British Columbia, diametrically opposite from the south easterly state of Georgia in the US.
While the Savannah sparrow is a smaller, lighter and more picturesque brother, the fox sparrow is a larger sparrow and, especially in the western part of Canada, are more sooty in colour, with very specific arrow-head shaped markings on its breast. Its name derives from a reddish hue it has in other parts of Canada, that reminded ornithologists of the red fox. Unlike the Savannah sparrow, a fox sparrow likes to scratch at the ground with its talons, not unlike a chicken, to see what is available after leaves and other debris have been disturbed. I often see a savannah sparrow sitting atop wild flowers, looking for seeds. I remember, over the years in British Columbia, getting to know the white crowned sparrows, golden crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow, tree sparrow, Savannah sparrow, white throated sparrow, and the common house sparrow, just to name a few.
Like the dowitcher, and scores of other shore birds that come up to the coastline of British columbia at Spring time, there are the pectoral sandpipers. One can find them at the shore line as well as inland along ponds and river banks, often walking in mud flats, and poking around for food. This bird straddles multiple continents. It breeds in North America and Eurasia but winters in South America and Oceania. It is also very similar to the Asian sharp tailed sandpiper that is absent in north America except as a vagrant. I have had the opportunity of finding sharp tailed sandpipers too, not far from my home and ten thousand miles away from where it should have been. It missed the bus big time. The differences between a pectoral sandpiper and its sharp tailed cousin is subtle for the untrained, but clear as day and night for those that know. I was the one that first noticed a solitary sharp tailed sandpiper in the ponds not far from my home. I took some pictures that showed the identifying marks and then placed them at various birding forums, with my comment that I thought it was a vagrant sharp tailed sandpiper, but am open to expert opinion. That started a mini rush of people from all around to come and look for that rare visitor. They even had bus loads of enthusiastic birders coming up from the US, armed with radio contact with each other, just to take a peek at the Asian sandpiper. I got my 15 minutes of fame – “Ahh so you are the Tony Mitra that first found the bird ! Glad to have met you, buddy!”
Among dowitchers, there are the long billed and the short billed species. The difference between them is so subtle, that one might not be able to identify them unless they were standing side by side. But here we see a lot many long billed version and a lot less of the short billed ones.
Ducks and geese are commonplace in British Columbia. I had already mentioned the migratory snow geese. But among the most picturesque ducks there are the wood duck and the harlequin duck. While you can find wood ducks in inland waters and fresh water ponds, I have only seen harlequin ducks at sea shores. Harlequin duck is not closely related to the wood duck, In fact, a Harlequin duck stands all alone in its own family. It is a diver and strictly a sea duck. It has been called by various other names such as the painted duck, or the rock duck etc. In the above picture, the duck is running over water, beating its wings, to attain flight velocity. I get to see these ducks along the shore line of Vancouver island, just south of the border in USA as well as from Stanley Park near downtown Vancouver.
The wood duck has fantastic iridescent colours, especially on the male and outlandish facial markings. It is also about the only duck that is comfortable sitting on tree branches, having webbed feet with tows that can still curl around a branch. For this reason, it is also referred to as a perching duck. It in fact nests in holes within tree trunks. It is known for communally raising kids. I have seen a single female chaperone unto 23 ducklings once, while a northern goshawk was trying to attack them. The ducklings could not fly. So the nanny duck taught the ducklings to scatter and dive underwater every time the hawk swooped for them. I saw the hawk make four separate attempts and fail to grab a single chick or the mother duck. The hawk eventually gave up and went off searching for easier prey.
And then there is the loon. It is sort of a Canadian national bird – in the sense that it is depicted on the Canadian dollar coin, which is the reason the dollar coin is also called a loony. This large water bird can travel long distance under water, and often emerges very far from where it dived. It has a haunting call, and reminds me of the Hindu women of Bengal that often chant on ceremonial occasions that sounds like oo-loo-loo-loo-loo-loo.
I have already mentioned the great blue herons and the green heron. Here is a black crowned night heron, roosting in a tree. The bird is more common in warmer climate and endemic in India. I have seen this bird in Kolkata. As its name implies, it hunts at night and usually rests in the day up in a tree. That is how I usually find it in Reifel bird sanctuary, fifteen minutes from my home.
Mallard is perhaps the most common inland duck to be seen in British Columbia. Picture above shows wing patters of a mallard that has just gotten off the water, wings beating furiously to gain altitude.
A harbour seal is another fish eating mammal that can and will swim up river. It is the most common of the pinniped family that includes the Walrus and the eared seals. It is also called common seal by some. As heavy as a human, it is a true seal, and common to the northern hemisphere. I have seen them not just along sea shores, but miles inland in rivers, hunting for fish. This mammal is superbly adapted to life in water. it can stay a very long time under water before it needs to resurface for the next breath. It can travel so far underwater between each breath that once it goes down, I often found it impossible to see it again. In this picture, it emerged above water not far from the bank of the river where I was standing, before it disappeared again.
Here is another bird family that is well known in india – a cormorant. This particular one is a double crested cormorant that caught a flounder, or a flat fish, and is leaping out of water to help swallow the fish whole. Like all birds of this family, its feathers are not waterproof. As a result, the bird can often be seen sunning itself with wings spread, essentially drying its wings after extended stay in the water.
Mergansers are another group of large fish-eating ducks that dive and catch prey underwater. Unlike normal ducks, its bill is thin with sharp edges to grip wriggling and slippery fish, which it usually eats by swallowing head first, above water. A common merganser female flies fast over the water in this picture. Getting a fast flying bird in sharp focus is a treat for some of us, mainly because it is so difficult to get a good shot of them in this condition.
Mergansers are common in inland and coastal waters of North America. I saw them in Florida and all across the North American coastal marshes. British Columbia is a great place tow watch mergansers. In December, when the it is months before the spring thaw, you can see male hooded mergansers prancing around, displaying their rather striking head gear, and competing with other males for the attention of some nearby females. Mergansers usually have distinctly different plumage between the male and the female, which make them look almost like two different birds.
The story cannot be told without including Bald Eagles. Considered a sea eagle, it is very commonly seen across Canadian and Alaskan coast line and all over the interior. It is an opportunistic feeder, and although its primary diet might be fish, I have seen the eagle grab live ducks and other prey too, as well as eat carrion, or food that is dead and rotting. These eagles are particularly numerous where I live in the Fraser river delta in British Columbia. This particular eagle was resting on a wooden pole when I happened by. It got concerned about my presence and was aiming to take off when I clicked it. But the bird eventually decided I was no threat, and settled down, allowing me many more pictures, before I myself moved off.
Another group of hawks that are perhaps as numerous as the red tailed hawk, are the northern harriers, or hen harriers. In India, I had seen often its Asiatic cousin, the Eurasian Marsh Harrier. This is one of the few bird of prey where the male and female look distinctly different. The female is also more often seen than the male. In this picture, a female harrier is tearing into its rodent prey in the grass. I have often watched this tireless hunter gliding low over the marsh and reed beds, head pointed straight down, scanning the ground for small prey, such as mice, vole, frogs, small birds and lizards.
Among the smallest of the raptors is the Kestrel. Here an American Kestrel is being mobbed and driven off by a black bird. Such birds will often mob or chase off a bird of prey from areas where the passerines are nesting, to prevent hatchlings being taken by the raptors. A Kestrel is among the prettiest looking bird of prey in America, even as it is among the smallest. It used to be called a sparrow hawk, and will take small prey, even a grasshopper, a moth or dragonfly, if it can.
Among water birds, Grebes are another unique group. I had often admired how they were about the only birds I had seen that could not just swim under water, but actually sink gradually while still swimming forward, like a submarine. All other diving birds went down head first. A grebe could do that too, but at times it would lower itself gradually in water while still swimming, maintaining its upright position, till its body was fully submerged and only the neck and head remained above water. it would then continue to swim and sink, till only the head was above water, and then even the head would disappear. I had never seen any other water bird able to do this trick. I actually had to read up on it and found the grebes have specialized waterproof belly features and muscles that can inflate and deflate the belly area like a buoyancy tank of a submarine, thus slowly submerging while still maintaining its metacentric height, or the relative position of its centre of gravity and centre of buoyancy, and its upright position, while gradually sinking under water. Out of the many kinds of grebe one can find in British Columbia, only two are included in this article. The picture above is of the horned grebe, whose feathered horns are not so visible.
The larger and longer necked western grebe is less commonly seen along the shoreline in British Columbia. It is an interior bird of the south that only winters along the coastline of western North America including the shoreline of British Columbia. It has been seen in large flocks at a distance from shore, but I have also found it in rivers around British Columbia in winter. Here, it has caught a fish and is taking its time with it.
Turnstones are wading birds that you can see along pebbled sea shores, walking along the line where the ocean breaks on the stones. I find them to be photogenic birds, especially when flying low over the surf.
Scoters are odd looking bunch of sea birds. Surf Scoters is one of them. I see them often on the pier at White Rock in high tide. These birds, along with white winged scoters, are very odd sea birds that like to eat star fish and molluscs. I have seen them dive and come up with muscles and other crustaceans and swallow them whole without crushing the shells. I wonder how their throats could accommodate the food without damaging the throat or stomach lining. I also wonder what happens to the shells when they get in the stomach. Does their stomach juice dissolve the shells, or do they have stones in their gizzard to grind and break the shells and extract the nourishment within? I have not found the answer to these questions yet. The recent BP oil spill in the US gulf area is reported to have killed about half the world population of these surf scoters. It remains to be seen how long it takes for their numbers to bounce back, or if it at all will bounce back. I have seen flocks of a thousand or more while crossing between Vancouver island and the mainland on a boat, along the sounds (fjords) where I had gone looking for salmon catching grizzly bears.
And that brings me to a close. There are far too many kinds of birds, animals, habitats, sceneries, landscapes, and stories than can be fitted into a single article. So this is a miniature sampler of the world I live in. I hope a bit of that will rub off on the reader.
You are welcome to send me any comment – at email@example.com.