April 18th, 2020: Another great day at Iona
It’s that time of the spring when there are plentiful migrants arriving, but the waterfowl haven’t departed yet. Though there will be even more in the coming weeks, I consider today’s 55 species at Iona to be a pretty good visit (eBird list).
I almost always time my arrival at Iona for relatively high tide and start with a bike ride to the tip of the south jetty. It’s clear that we’re still in April, as there are a lot of fowl and grebes yet to leave. A flock of Snow Goose even flew past me on the jetty.
At the tip I saw a lot of what I expected: Surf Scoter, tons of Red-breasted Merganser, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Pelagic Cormorant, and even two Osprey on the tower off the tip.
I thought I’d focus on Red-necked Grebe for this post because, well, I really like them. They’re in the sweet spot some birders talk about: they’re a widespread bird that you can see often (in the north at least). But you see them infrequently enough that you always think, “Oh! A Red-necked Grebe.”
Around here, Red-necked Grebes have some other grebe competition. We also have Horned Grebe, Western Grebe, and Pied-billed Grebe. Plus the much rarer Eared Grebe (much like Horned) and Clark’s Grebe (much like Western). There isn’t really another grebe to confuse with Red-necked Grebe though. Their red neck is diagnostic and conspicuous. But more than that, their posture and overall shape is unlike any of our other grebes.
Horned, Eared, and Pied-billed Grebe are all small, chunky, floating puff-balls. Western and Clark’s Grebe, however, are elongated, graceful-looking, and much larger. The Red-necked Grebe sits in the middle, but isn’t difficult to distinguish, even at the low light I seem to always seem them in (as my photos can attest). They’re medium-sized with a less upright, more elongated posture. Their sword-like and slightly loon-like bill also jumps out.
Can you tell which of the dark photos below is a Red-necked Grebe from the posture alone? (There are other identifiable traits that can help too.) Bonus points if you can also name the others. Post your guesses in the comments below.
Ready for your cool fact? Red-necked Grebe, like other grebes, eat their own feathers in pretty large quantities! They actually keep two large balls of feathers in their stomach and even feed feathers to their young. Scientists don’t really know why they do this, but a prevailing theory suggests the feather balls protect their intestines from potentially dangerous things like fish bones. Weird.
As I headed back from the tip of the south jetty, I saw a few hundred Dunlin in flight, some Black-bellied Plover, and lots of the usual ducks. Their balance is heavily skewed toward Green-winged Teal now though. Some ducks are already leaving, while these are presumably staging here for their imminent departure.
There were also plenty of spring arrivals, of course. The Osprey, for one. I also saw one early-ish Caspian Tern. And there were plenty of others: Rufous Hummingbird, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Marsh Wren (lots), Bewick’s Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.
There was definitely more birdsong at Iona than I’d heard there so far this year.
Additionally, the sparrows are starting to show up in force, with greater numbers of White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. These sparrows show best on the gravel paths around the inner ponds.
P. S. I got a great bonus later this week when a Red-naped Sapsucker showed up out at UBC in the same place I’d found one several years ago! Our fantastic local RBA coordinator (Melissa Hafting) reported it right away as usual. And I had a wonderful reward at the end of a nice bike ride to UBC.