The Flying Shingle
Just for the Birds
Summer Visitors
by Sharon McInnes
Monday, July 15, 2013
Click for larger photo
Red Crossbills. ~ Image courtesy Elaine R. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com

One of my favourite things about summer on Gabriola is the visitors – of the avian variety. Some come to breed and raise their families. Others stop by for a visit on their way back to Central or South America. Overhead, Turkey Vultures ride air currents as they sniff out carrion with their extraordinary noses. Rufous Hummingbirds drink from the flowers and feeders alongside our resident Anna’s. Several kinds of Warblers flit through the trees and eat from red-hot pokers. The striking Varied Thrush whistles from the trees and makes a regular appearance in the garden. Its drab-looking cousin, the Swainson’s Thrush, stays well-hidden as it sings its gorgeous melody. Violet-green Swallows swoop for insects over the house while Tree Swallows do the same thing near the water. American Goldfinches get ready to breed, just waiting for the thistles to bloom.
I haven’t seen (or heard) all the other birds I’ll mention here but someone on the island has. I know this from reading the Nanaimo/Gabriola Birding FaceBook page and from stories from islanders who stop me at Village Foods with an “I saw (or heard) a strange bird” story. I love these moments; so much more fun than buying butter.  
I have seen lots of Red Crossbills. These stocky finches are unmistakable because of their bills – which are (of course) crossed! This arrangement allows them to get at the seeds of conifer cones, their favourite dish. Crossbills stay in the Pacific Northwest year round but we see a lot more on Gabriola in the summer than the rest of the year. Unlike most species, the Red Crossbill breeds almost year round, always moulting afterwards. So you’ll see this finch in a variety of plumages depending on its sex, age, and where it is in the breeding cycle. I’ve seen orange, yellow, and red, but they can also be green, olive, or grey. Juveniles are dark and streaky with patches of colour.
We’ve had a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks in the yard since late spring. As with most songbirds, the female’s plumage is much less flamboyant than the male’s striking black and orange. But unlike most species, the female Black-headed Grosbeak sings along with the male. These birds are one of the few species that eat Monarch butterflies while wintering in Mexico because they can tolerate their toxins. While this species is common in the summer in Gabriola, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not. Rare west of the Rockies, it has been spotted on Gabriola and in Nanaimo this year. This grosbeak has a  bright rose-coloured breast. If you happen to see one, be sure to let the people at the Backyard Bird and Nature Store in Nanaimo know (email thebackyard@shaw.ca) or alert Russell Canning’s team (http://bcbirdalert.blogspot.ca) who track rare birds in BC.
So far this summer I haven’t made a definitive sighting of a Western Tanager but I’m pretty certain one has been visiting the yard. Several times I’ve caught a glimpse of one as I nonchalantly walk by the window, but by the time I pick up my binoculars to take a good look, the bird has always disappeared. (I hate that.) The breeding plumage of the male Western Tanager is unmistakable: bright red head, bright yellow belly, and mostly black wings with yellow wingbars. Very tropical-looking! This tanager breeds the farthest north (60 degrees) of all four tanager species.
And on the Facebook birding page one birder reported hearing lots of Olive-sided Flycatchers in the trees in early June. Their distinctive song is often described as “quick three beers” (the three is emphasised). Like all flycatchers, this large one sallies out to grab insects and bees on the wing, often returning to the same branch. Unfortunately, populations of the Olive-sided Flycatcher have declined to the point where it is now considered ‘near threatened’.
This same birder has also seen (or heard) Pacific Slope and Alder Flycatchers on the island. Such abundance.
Someone else has been having fun watching the aerial acrobatics of Common Night Hawks. If you’d like to see pictures of all these lovely summer visitors, please go to Summer Visitors on the Gabriola Bird Blog. Enjoy!  

Sharon is the author of “Up Close & Personal: Confessions of a Backyard Birder”, available at Village Foods. She also writes the Gabriola Bird Blog and is a monthly guest blogger on BirdCanada.com.

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