Hearing the call of the birds, and counting them

The Alouette Field Naturalists conducted their 39th annual December bird count.

Jack Emberly

Jack Emberly

“Oh, this is sw-eet, this is different.”

Ken Thomson of the Alouette Field Naturalists has his scope aimed at a cottonwood on the north side of the South Alouette River, east of Jerry Salina Park.

“Northern goshawk, largest accipiter [forest hawk] we’ve got. Pretty plumage, lots of white.”

The bird’s body resembles snowy owls at Boundary Bay.

Today’s annual December bird count is the 39th for the AFN. I’ve joined Ken, his wife, Joan, and Kees Vandenberg in an area he and I counted 20 years ago.

I was eager to learn all I could from Kees and his wife, Duane, who’s counting on Codd Island. Both know birds by size, shape, color, or flight pattern, and can coax them from cover by imitating songs.

Thomson is equally skilled, but has gone high tech with a bird caller that he calls “generic.”

At Jerry Salina pond, Ken counts bufflehead ducks and hooded mergansers. “Smaller versions of the common merganser.”

Joan adds to her record book. “We may exceed last year’s total of 101 species,” she predicts.

“Have you been a birder for long?” I ask.

“I got into it when I met Ken,” she says. “It was his plan for our first date.”

That made sense. As a young teacher interested in deviant behaviour, I took my wife-to-be on a date – touring the old Haney Correctional Institute.

Thomson smiles before turning to a mass of small birds in flight. “Peregrine falcon scared the starlings. Swooped the ducks earlier. We used to call them duck hawks.”

At Neaves Road, Ken sets up his scope again to view a merlin, the only unsighted raptor except for kestrels, triangular shaped hawks found in cottonwoods. Kees taught me to recognize their shape, and spot a male marsh hawk by the white patch near the base of the tail. Later, I’ll see a kestrel, and report it to Joan.

Neaves Road is a disaster for birds. Once an expanse of grassy habitat, it’s now bare blueberry and cranberry fields from Dewdney Trunk past Swan-e-set.

“A crow has to carry his own provisions because of the cranberry fields,” Ken says. He also wonders why Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge don’t leave some blackberry bushes on the sides of the dikes and ditches.

“Humming birds love the wild rose bushes and blackberries. I don’t know why they have to cut them all down.”

Michael Sather, local MLA and this year’s bird count coordinator, also has concerns.

“Cranberries and blueberries are not bird-friendly farming,” he tells me, “but what broke my heart was seeing some nice big cottonwoods cut down near the ditches. They make great bird nesting sites.”

As I write this, Sather awaits a final count when volunteers from Coquitlam and Langley report in. He says numbers look good so far.

The AFN has tried to recruit young blood without success according to Kees. Members are aging. Kees is 84. It’s too bad young families haven’t grasped the opportunity to learn from folks like him. A walk along the dike is even more enjoyable when you learn the call of a bird you never noticed before, or watch one evade a peregrine falcon.


On the Ridunkulist:

“We’ve learned more about what works and what doesn’t,” Heritage Minister James Moore said last week, referring to a plan to speed Nexus card holders through Canadian customs.

Moore said holders will soon circumvent line-ups at YVR. “We want to make it easier for people to come up from the U.S.,” he said.

This hasn’t worked at the Pacific truck crossing into Canada, as agents recently turned off the lights for the Nexus line early. It runs along the duty-free shop. That definitely doesn’t work.

The Nexus lane was plugged by folks who zipped into the trucks-only lane to the right of Nexus. Rig drivers leaned on horns. The cheaters then budged into the Nexus lane, where they got a similar response.

Folks who’d legitimately visited the duty free shop got the same reception.

Insults were hurled – “don’t budge in, cheater.”

Luckily, no Texans with six guns in their glove boxes today.

This problem for Nexus, Mr. Moore, should have been fixed long ago. On the American side coming down, an agent directed traffic. On our side, chaos ruled freely.

When I finally reached the custom booth with my card in hand, the agent said things would improve next March, when Nexus was shifted far left.

“But if you visit the duty free shop, sir, you’ll have to cross all the lanes to Nexus.”

Who’s on first, Mr. Moore?  Could we move the duty free shop a few miles south so the smart shoppers could stock up before they reach the border lanes that begin as four, then narrow to two again just as the custom’s booth comes into view? Where the duty free stands now, we’d have four lanes all the time.

Finally, could you talk to the guy who turned off the Nexus lane lights before someone gets hurt?

The sign at the foot of 176th just before going up the hill to the Golden Ears Bridge exit reads, “Don’t follow too close.”

Adverbs end with ‘ly.’

Have a great New Year folks, and don’t follow too closely.


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.