IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID THAT FOR NATURE SEEKERS, EACH MONTH, EACH WEEK AND EACH DAY HAS ITS OWN SPECIAL REWARDS - AND WINTER IS NO EXCEPTION.
For birders, winter is a very special season on the North Shore - there's always plenty awaiting discovering no matter the weather.
By January, wintering birds have settled in for the winter.
It's a fact that the best time to enjoy of wonderful diversity of waterfowl is winter - on a good day you could find 20 or more species. In shallow water and tidal (mud) flats look for puddle ducks like the mallard, Northern pintail, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and rarities like the Eurasian wigeon.
Deeper waters like Burrard Inlet's are where you'll see diving ducks like scoters (three species), goldeneyes (two species), greater scaup and the red-breasted merganser.
Pond habitats such as at Ambleside and Maplewood Conservation Area are where you'll see two of the most colourful ducks - the hooded merganser and wood duck.
Two uncommon waterfowl species of local marine habitats are the harlequin duck (rocky shores) and the long-tailed
duck (deeper waters). Ducks are in their best plumages in winter - after all, for some, it's courtship time - don't be surprised to see them mating even in a snowstorm.
A variety of other water birds winter locally, including the common loon, horned grebe and cormorants. Puddle ducks (those who tip their bodies up to feed) are also found in good numbers on the tidal flats like at Maplewood Conservation Area. Here they can find a variety of foods like sea lettuce (seaweed), worms, molluscs and crustaceans (small crabs).
Tidal flats are not just mud, but in fact rich habitats for all kinds of wildlife like shorebirds, waterfowl, gulls and raptors - even deer patrol them.
Waves of migrating shorebirds passed through our area in the autumn, but a few species winter here including the greater yellowlegs, and sanderling. And, on the recent Christmas Bird Count (2012), a spotted sandpiper was seen at Maplewood, a rare winter occurrence.
Gulls are always a big identification challenge. Some, like the mew, ring-billed and glaucous-winged are easy, but hybrids can be confusing.
Identifying gulls is all about details like bill size, leg and back (mantle) and wing-tips. It always pays to watch for rarities like the December sighting of a little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) on the North Shore. This European species is described in the field guide Birds of North America (St. Martin's Press) as a rare straggler to North America; it is rarely seen in B.C.
Winter is also a prime time to enjoy raptors. December sightings include merlin (a small falcon), peregrine falcon, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk, and of course of the locally common bald eagle and red-tailed hawk. Watch for raptors perched on pilings, dolphins and power pylons.
Owls are getting ready for courtship, so it's not unusual to hear them hooting, screaming and barking in mid-winter.
"Small birds" have been active with large numbers of pine siskins invading our area. Red crossbills and white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks and common redpolls have also been reported from various locations on the North Shore. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers should watch for crossbills, redpolls and the pine grosbeak along mountain trails. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to find a flock of angry chickadees and kinglets scolding a Northern pygmy owl.
It has been a remarkable winter for Anna's hummingbirds with many sightings on the North Shore. Don't be surprised to see hummingbird courting - Anna's nest in winter. I was shown an Anna's sitting on her nest in late February - who could have imagined?
Enjoy our winter's wonderful diversity of birds - bundle up and keep safe.
Al Grass is a naturalist with Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which sponsors free walks at Maplewood Flats Conservation Area on the second Saturday of every month. The next walk is Saturday, Jan. 12. Meet at 10 a.m. at Maplewood Flats, 2645 Dollarton Hwy. (two kilometres east of the Iron Workers Second Narrows Memorial Crossing). Walks go rain or shine. wildbirdtrust.org.