Tag Archive | Birds

My favourite photos from Guyana

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Sometimes, a lucky circumstance presents itself, and you are ready to seize the opportunity. I got many wonderful photos on my trip up the Rewa River in Guyana this spring, but ironically enough, my favourite set of shots came within the first hour on the boat!

We spotted this hawk on the left bank of the river, and we quietly motored over to it. This was a Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris), a small, primarily insectivorous hawk found from Mexico to northern Argentina. It has quite a boring name, but it is actually quite lovely and unusual, with a body form akin to an accipiter rather than its Buteo cousins.

Anyway, these were some of the loveliest bird pics I got on the whole trip, so please enjoy them!

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The hawk was very obliging as a model, turning this way and that, and looking at us with curiosity.

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This view shows how close in body form they come to an accipiter. Short wings, long tail, fine barring on the breast, broad bars on the tail.

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In fact, other birds are convergent in form to accipiters, notably in America the forest falcons.

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Such a lovely hawk! For larger versions of these images, click here.

 

A Birthday Outing in High Park

20151117-111715IMG_9594So yesterday was my birthday, I am a little older and a little wiser, I think. Because the weather was fine, and I had not been out to take pictures recently, I decided to treat myself to a day of photography in High Park. The weather here in Toronto is getting much colder now, so it was a good thing that I got some awesome presents from Catherine to keep me warm.

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A thick, warm hat, a thinner lighter hat, a wonderful sweater and a cool mug!

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It was even personalized for me!

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This mug is based on a design I made for a t-shirt a few years ago. It derived from a photo, and I manipulated it in Photoshop to look like a woodcut. If you want one yourself, click here. All proceeds to the Caracara Research Foundation (actually most proceeds is profit for Zazzle). If we can sell 40,000 of these, we are in business!

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So there is still a little bit of colour in the trees, but they are looking mighty stark. A deciduous forest in winter is a place with very little shade and you can see into it quite fa. As for arthropods, I did not see many!

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I found four of these bald-faced hornet nests. I do not have the same rate of discovery in the summer, when there are actually hornets around!

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This is what the Eastern Gray Squirrel looks like when alive in its native habitat. There are an absolute ton of them in High Park, about evenly mixed between black and gray morphs. These rodents feed on seeds, primarily acorns, as well as handouts from people. I saw another one eating a tortilla. With this abundance of squirrels, there are also squirrel predators, such as Red-tailed Hawks and a few owls. I saw a hawk, but no owl, but I did find this:

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A raptor pellet comprised mainly of squirrel fur. I looked around in the few conifers nearby for hiding raptors, but did not see any. The way a still bird can hide against the bark though, makes me think one may have been there anyway.

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One advantage of winter is how low the sun stays all day. Even near noon you can find this slanting angle of light that is much more flattering to subjects than full sun in summer.

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The squirrels were the most abundant wildlife I saw, even outnumbering people on this cold Tuesday. I think Toronto could use a good crow population though, as I kind of miss them!

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At the southeastern end of the park, I came upon a small flock of chickadees and a couple cardinals. This is a female that appeared to be accompanying a male. I wonder if their pair bonds persist through the winter….

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The male remains pretty splendid, even in winter, and these birds are not very shy. They are certainly more brightly coloured than the cardinals I saw in French Guiana!

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So that about sums up my birthday walk in the park. It was not the most productive trip, and as winter sets in I would hope to have better photography days once in a while. One of the difficulties of Toronto compared to Vancouver is that Toronto is a place that animals migrate FROM rather than TO, as it is pretty much smack in the middle of a very cold continental region. There will be no winter hummingbirds, or loons or even many ducks. Just the hardy chickadees, nuthatches, jays and others that make this cold place their home year-round.

 

Symbiosis and inspiration in the jungle

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A large nest of Polybia liliacea. This is one you probably do not want to disturb!

 

Compared to my time in French Guiana, I found that travel by river offers a much greater volume of observations than walking in the forest. When I was in French Guiana travelling trails on foot, I was lucky to encounter one example of a particular habitat in a day, but on the boat I could see the same type of habitat many times over. Needless to say, this was a great natural history lesson in the making.

One of the particular habitats we saw a lot of was the meanders of the river, where the river loops and bends around long curves. These bends form spontaneously via the action of vortices along curves in the river, and on the inside of each curve there is high deposition of silt (on the outside is a high level of erosion).  This is the process by which oxbow lakes are formed. The result is that the inside curve is an area that was formerly river-scoured, but now has abundant new soil. Within these areas are a sparser forest, dominated by a few fast-growing tree species such as Cecropia and Triplaris (called “Long John” in Guiana). These are habitats that harbor a beautiful example of tropical symbiosis.

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Yellow-rumped Caciques (Cacicus cela) bathing together in the early evening. These are highly social birds with colonial nesting.

 

One of the first things that I noticed about these meander forests is that they more often than not contained a large colony of nesting Icterid birds, either Green Oropendolas, or Red-rumped or Yellow-rumped Caciques, with the latter being the most common. All of these birds are known to preferentially nest in association with large, aggressive wasp species, such as Polybia rejecta and Polybia liliacea. This is thought to benefit the birds in two ways. Number one is that the wasps can help dissuade nest predators, such as monkeys. Number two is that populations of predaceous wasps may reduce the parasite burden (particularly parasitic Philornis flies) that the nestlings endure.

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A colony of Cacicus cela nesting in association with Polybia liliacea. We also saw them with Polybia rejecta and Epipona spp. wasps.

 

In turn, the wasps nest in these particular trees for a reason. They nest in trees that are occupied by Azteca ants, a type of dolichoderine ant that basically owns the tree, with large carton nests containing perhaps millions of moderately small workers and hundreds of queens. The wasps nest here because the Azteca repel one of the wasps’ worst enemies: army ants. Although army ants (Eciton burchellii and Eciton hamatum) vastly outweigh the Azteca individually, the Azteca, by virtue of their overwhelming numbers, can keep army ant columns from advancing quickly up the tree (Servigne 2003). As army ants are all about blitzkrieg, and quickly stripping an area of profitable prey (Kaspari et al. 2011), they have learned to avoid the Azteca trees, which would take a protracted guerilla campaign to overcome. It has been recently shown that the wasps in turn benefit the ants, helping to repel some of their predators, such as woodpeckers (Le Guen et al. 2015)!

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Nesting association between Azteca (left), Polybia (centre) and Cacicus (upper right).

 

In examining again and again the morphology and placement of the nests in these associations, I was struck by a thought: perhaps the birds are also a net benefit to the wasps and the ants as well! I know from my research how formidable Red-throated Caracaras are in destroying wasp nests….What if these large numbers of nesting caciques help protect the wasps from the caracaras? It is not so outlandish a hypothesis, as the large nesting aggregations of caciques have been shown to mob bird nest predators such as monkeys and Black Caracaras and drive them away (Robinson 1985). Perhaps the Red-throated Caracaras may be driven away as well by large numbers of defensive caciques.

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Could wasps derive protection from Red-throated Caracaras from cacique or oropendola colonies?

 

 

I was amazed by the numbers of large wasp nests we encountered at these sites, in stark contrast to the relatively low numbers I encounter in normal forests. It is not just the presence of ants which is keeping these nests safe, as Azteca occur in large numbers all over the forests. I think something else is going on here to help protect these wasp nests, and I bet it is the birds. Anyway, I would love to go and study this sometime, but this story just reinforces to me the inspiration that I only get by going to the field.

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The Black Caracara, a known predator of cacique nests, is sometimes mobbed and driven away by Yellow-rumped Caciques.

 

References

KASPARI, M., POWELL, S., LATTKE, J., and O’DONNELL, S. 2011. Predation and patchiness in the tropical litter: do swarm-raiding army ants skim the cream or drain the bottle? J. Anim. Ecol. 80:818–23

LE GUEN, R., CORBARA, B., ROSSI, V., AZÉMAR, F., and DEJEAN, A. 2015. Reciprocal protection from natural enemies in an ant-wasp association. C. R. Biol.

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., O’DONNELL, S., and GRIES, G. 2010. Nesting and Nest-Provisioning of the Red-throated Caracara (Ibycter americanus) in Central French Guiana. J. Raptor Res. 44:236–240. 

MCCANN, S., MOERI, O., JONES, T., SCOTT, C., KHASKIN, G., GRIES, R., O’DONNELL, S., and GRIES, G. 2013. Strike fast, strike hard: the Red-throated Caracara exploits absconding behavior of social wasps during nest predation. PLOS One 8:e84114.

ROBINSON, S. S. K. 1985. Coloniality in the Yellow-rumped Cacique as a defense against nest predators. Auk 102:506–519. 

SERVIGNE, P. 2003. L’association entre la fourmi Azteca chartifex Forel (Formicidae, Dolichoderinae) et la guepe Polybia rejecta (Fab.) (Vespidae, Polistinae) en Guyane Française. Universite Paris-Nord.

Caracara interlude #1: Camp scavenger

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A Black Caracara juvenile watches the camp from the safety of the trees. The juveniles can be recognized by lighter facial skin and black spotting on the undertail coverts.

 

Remember that Payara head we had left over from our meal? Well, we found a use for it!

We left it out for the Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) a small riverine caracara that often scavenges at human settlements and temporary camps. This behaviour seems pretty ingrained, and most times when we stopped along the river the caracaras would drop by in order to check whether we were cleaning fish or discarding waste.

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Black Caracara with a morsel

 

 

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When the head was relatively fresh

 

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And after some significant feeding! This head is now looking pretty grotesque.

Black Caracaras are small raptors with light wing loading and graceful flight. They are both generalist predators and scavengers (and have been reported to fish!), and were once considered closely related to Ibycter americanus (Red-throated Caracaras). The Black Caracara is also associated with tapirs and capybaras, picking ectoparasites off of their skin. These seem to be the only animals that tolerate these birds, as most others chase them away (they are significant nest predators of other birds, such as oropendolas and caciques).

Nesting behaviour is virtually unknown in this species, with only a single reported nest being observed. I quizzed the locals I met on this trip and met very few who claimed to have seen a nest.

Watching these observant and seemingly intelligent birds is a true joy, and was very inspiring. The relative lack of study of these birds leads me to contemplate studying them in the future. The rivers of this region would be a great base of operations for comparative study of four species of caracara.

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These caracaras seem to have a small crest that they erect at certain times.

 

 

We eat fish

IMG_0805On an Amazonian river, the birds and mammals are impressive, but there is also a huge amount of nutrient cycling in the water. These rivers cover vast areas of forest where huge amounts of protein become available during the wet season.  Because of this, the predatory animals along the river are very often piscivorous, feeding on fishes occasionally or exclusively.  This post is a brief photo introduction to a few of the fish-eating animals commonly seen along these rivers.

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Fishing spiders (Pisauridae) were best photographed at night, as during the day they are extremely skittish and quick to hide. We did not see any giant examples, as I had in French Guiana, but I did not make a concerted search either.

 

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The Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) is an impressive kingfisher species also found in the Southern USA

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The related Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona), by contrast is even more robust and has a much larger bill.

 

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The White-necked Heron, Ardea cocoi, is the Amazonian equivalent to the Great Blue Heron. We saw a great many of these. They would often fly in front of the boat for may hundreds of metres.

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The Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias), despite its name, is not a bittern at all, but rather related to the gallinules.

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Here is a juvenile Rufescent Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum), one of the more magnificent of the Tiger Herons.

 

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The adult Rufescent Tiger Heron is a gem.

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Something familiar…Sort of. This is a Neotropical Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus).

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This one I remember from Florida. The Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), or snakebird is like a cormorant which swims with its body submerged. Interestingly enough they also soar  on thermals!

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Osprey down here are all migrants from elsewhere.

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Giant River Otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) were abundant along the Rewa, always travelling in groups. They cooperatively hunt for large fish and caiman, and have some real mustelid attitude!

 

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Giant otter snacking on a fish.

 

In addition to these avian, arachnid and mustelid predators, we also had to be predators in order to eat during the trip. I dislike catching fish for sport, but when it became clear that there was no other protein along for the ride, we turned to fish with gusto. The fish along the Rewa are diverse and abundant, and can be reliably caught with simple equipment. Under sustained commercial fishing, the larger fish would likely be wiped out completely, but since the Rewa has so few visitors, there are large stocks of big fish available. Catching fish in the dry season is especially easy, as all the fish which ordinarily would be foraging in vast areas of flooded forest are concentrated in the river.

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This black piranha will be our evening meal.

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Catch of the day: some peacock bass and something we will use as bait tomorrow.

 

 

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Peacock bass, grilled.

 

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Josy with the “vampire fish” or Payara, Hydrolycus scomberoides

 

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The long fangs of these fish are quite impressive, fitting into slots in the upper jaw.

 

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With direct flash, the fish looks even more scary!

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Nonetheless, the payara is good eating. We also used the head for a special project! Stay tuned for the next post!

 

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We did all our fishing with handlines, baited usually with pieces of small piranha. Here Brian and Rambo fish for tiger catfish

 

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Here I am with a tiger catfish, genus Pseudoplatystoma. This is a great fish for eating, and two of these fed us for 3.5 days. Photo by Jonathan Meiburg.

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The tiger catfish are absolutely gorgeous.

 

 

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Further upriver, we caught some aimara (Hoplias aimara), which I was familiar with from working in French Guiana.

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Brian and Jonathan with a big aimara. Jonathan is wearing Catherine’s home-made tubular headwear as protection from the sun, and maybe so this fish’s relatives don’t recognize him. All aimara claims for damages should be made to Jonathan’s record label, Sub Pop Records

 

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The day’s catch, with some to be dried to take home to Yupukari.

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Aimara drying in the sun.

 

 

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Stingless bees taking some of the aimara. Unlike other bees, meliponines feed scavenged meat to their larvae. Bees eat fish too!

 

 

 

 

Some spring shots from Victoria

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It is a popular pastime among us West Coasters to point out our gorgeous spring weather to those of you who are freezing back East. I think that’s just cruel. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice it is minus three in Toronto, snowing in Alberta and freezing in New Brunswick….Here in Victoria, the snakes are out, the flowers are blooming and we are expecting our first Rufous Hummingbirds any day now!

Here are a few shots from the past couple days in sunny Victoria!

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A springtime cove from high above on windy Mt. Douglas.

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This plump Gnaphosa didn’t mind the wind in a rocky retreat (thanks to Laura P. and Lynnette Schimming for the ID!)

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This elaterid is a bit of a cheat, as I had to flip a stone to find it.

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The first snakes are always how I have registered springtime…This one was just neonate sized.

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A cormorant fishing in Swan Lake.

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A Cooper’s Hawk from yesterday morning.

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Red-tailed Hawk about to bug out!

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Weekend Expedition 42: White Christmas in Vancouver?

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A female harrier scarfs down her Christmas sparrow.

Vancouver is generally known for its green wintertime conditions, but sometimes we do get a bit of snow. We had a 10-15 cm dump on Friday morning, which made getting around a bit difficult. I was running errands on the weekend, but brought my camera out anyway, and managed a decent haul of bird pictures out in Delta.

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A harrier on the hunt.

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The birds were not the only ones hunting at Boundary Bay, as about 20 people were out on the mud blasting away at ducks with shotguns, It is more than a little ironic that the place is full of signs telling folks not to disturb wildlife, but shooting at them is A-OK.

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Heron on the prowl for voles.

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A nice little Red-tailed Hawk/

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The eagle disapproves, as usual.

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I was a bit shocked to see a live caterpillar moving along the snow, but I figure it may have been dislodged by a foraging bird.

Weekend Expedition 41: Reifel Sanctuary with Wild Research

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I realize that the Weekend Expedition is getting a bit repetitive, and I resolve in the New Year to shake things up a bit. In fact, I make you a promise. Starting in January, things will be different around here!

I did get away again this weekend, and it was back to Reifel Bird Sanctuary, again with Wild Research.This time, it was not as productive WRT raptors as previous visits, but we did see a Peregrine, some eagles, a Cooper’s Hawk, and a Rough-legged Hawk. The main attraction of Reifel is the ridiculously human-acclimated birds. Cranes feeding from your hand, chickadees landing everywhere…It is like a meetup group for bird flu lovers!

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The cold winter air has moved on, and the canals and ponds are melting. The atmosphere was very much like standing in front of a cool mist humidifier.

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Mike Hrabar captured this shot of some artistic use of the GoPro to record feeding pigeons.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx9q6L5-vK4&w=720&h=405]

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Mike shooting with his new 300!

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The reflection from the ice really makes these ducks pop.

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Paul Levesque channeling Steve Zissou.

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incoming cranes!

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I just love the calls of these elegant birds.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qAQqsPMSBU&w=720&h=405]

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After Reifel, Mike and I headed down to 64th St. (On Boundary Bay) to check out some Long-eared Owls. This one was the only one there, and not very active. Pretty though!

Weekend Expedition 39: Winter begins at Burnaby Lake Park

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Breeding season is long over, but the eagles still hang out at their nest on the south shore.

I have been super busy this weekend, up at the lab doing work. The semester is coming to an end and I still have so much to do! This weekend expedition was just a couple hour jaunt to Burnaby Lake before heading up to the lab. I hope you enjoy the shots!

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We are down to the winter bird fauna now, and Song Sparrows are hanging tough.
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This female Wood Duck adds a splash of colour to the wintry scene.

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The remains of spawned-out salmon were pretty common out at the mouth of the creek.

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Goose bath!

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A scaup was diving down and scavenging on dead fish, as were the mallards.

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Another Song Sparrow, who was feeding on seeds near the lake.

Weekend Expedition 28: Nature outing with Hastings Park Conservancy

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This Weekend, I joined local naturalist Istvan Orosi and members of the Hastings Park Conservancy for a guided walk around the pond at Hastings Park, my local greenspace. While Istvan kept an eye out for birds (he is master of the Audubon Bird Call!) I mainly scanned the foliage for insects and spiders.

This week was big for the Conservancy, as the Vancouver City Council heard arguments for the transfer of governance of the park from the PNE corporation (which is not doing that great a job for the wildlife) to to the Parks Board.  The Council will decide the issue in a special session Aug. 1, but I am not really hopeful the governance will change.

In the meantime, here are the pictures I took on Saturday!

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An impressive male Tetragnathid, or Long-jawed Orbweaver, which seem common near bodies of water.

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Green Lacewing resting in the shade.

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A bird-dropping mimic caterpillar, which I believe is that of a swallowtail butterfly.

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We spotted a Golden-rumped Warbler, which was a treat.

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A nice Ichneumonid.

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A crazy looking nymph, which I believe to be Heterotoma planicornis, an odd member of the Miridae.

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The star of the show, out in the middle of the pond was a Green Heron, a rare bird in the Vancouver region.

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Behold the Green Heron!

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