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Watch for water birds wintering at Maplewood

AUTUMN is a busy time for birds with some migrating to sunny parts down south, with others coming down from the interior or north to settle in for the winter.

AUTUMN is a busy time for birds with some migrating to sunny parts down south, with others coming down from the interior or north to settle in for the winter.

Every day on Burrard Inlet, or the ponds of Ambleside and Maplewood Conservation Area, there's something new and wonderful to be discovered.

Common loons (of the loonie coin fame) breed on interior lakes in summer, spending their winters on salt water. By fall, however, loons lose their bright breeding colours, including the characteristic "necklace," thus reverting back to their basic (winter) plumage - which is still lovely. But the common loon (or Great Northern Diver as it is known in Europe) is not the only loon species found in local waters.

The red-throated loon is also seen here, and like the common loon, it loses its breeding plumage. When swimming, its bill is pointed up at an angle which is an excellent field identification characteristic. The Pacific loon is somewhat rarer in local waters, but more common in the Strait of Georgia (Salish Sea), especially in places like Active Pass between Galiano and Mayne Islands. (Watch for it from the Victoria ferry.)

Two locally very rare loons are the Arctic loon and yellow-billed loon. To identify these birds correctly takes a bit of studying because they can be tricky - but they should be watched for.

Grebes, like loons, are fishing birds and we have several species that are seen regularly. The largest is the black and white western grebe with its long neck. Clark's grebe is a very rare western look-a-like with bright yellow bill and white line over each eye. Red-necked grebe is a medium-sized grebe, ie. between Western and horned/eared in size that loses its red-neck but can be told by its peaked head and gray throat. The honed grebe is a small grebe that is basically black and white. It can be seen off the Maplewood Conservation Area and Ambleside pier quite regularly. The eared grebe, very rare in local waters, is sometimes confused with the horned grebe but has a darker throat and a bill that seems to point upwards (it does take some careful watching to be sure).

The little pied-billed grebe is usually seen in fresh water ponds like Maplewood's West Pond. It is sometimes said that the pied-billed grebe has a chicken-like look.

Some water birds such as geese, scaup, and scoters have arrived for the winter in good numbers locally. We have three scoter species to watch for: surf, white-winged, and black. Goldeneyes (Barrow's and common) and the related bufflehead have just begun arriving in early November. These diving ducks breed on freshwater lakes in BC's interior. They are cavity nesters utilizing old woodpecker (and often flicker) holes.

Local populations of dabbling ducks like mallards have their numbers supplemented by birds arriving from as far away as Alaska. Gradually, as the days of autumn roll on, green-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern pintail numbers will increase. Birders will be scanning through the American wigeon (baldpate of yore) to find the Eurasian wigeon which seems to be getting more common each winter. Sometimes you can also discover the old world version of the green-winged teal which is a common teal with the green wings.

Teal are tiny ducks with fast flight and a voice that sounds much like crickets chirping. It turns out that not all ducks "quack" - some whistle, some grunt, and others, like wigeon, sound like a child's rubber ducky. (Does anyone remember the "rubber ducky?") The point is, you can identify many ducks by their voices - it's a fun thing to do.

Look for great blue herons, cormorants and gulls lined up along the shoreline, or perched on dolphins and pilings. One of the real challenges of winter birding is sorting out the gulls. Thayer's, glaucous-winged, western, mew, ring-billed, and herring are to be expected. Rare gulls to be watched for include Franklin's (a prairie species), and glaucous (an Arctic species).

There have been a good number of white-throated sparrow sightings this fall. Watch too for slate-coloured juncos, yellow-shafted flickers and Anna's hummingbirds. Enjoy your birds.

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, Nov. 10. Participants will learn more about the migration at Maplewood. 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.