Van Sun, May 2, 2014, Secret Lives of Birds

The secret lives of birds

 Stanley Park is home to huge variety of avian species
The secret lives of birds

Robyn Worcester is the conservation programs manager for the Stanley Park Ecology Society and one of a team of people involved in Vancouver Bird Week.

Photograph by: wayne leidenfrost , Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER — Robyn Worcester admits it: she’s a bird nerd. At this time of the year, she doesn’t think twice about getting up before dawn to head into the forest to hear the chorus of song for a bird survey.

Ask her a question on the Pacific great blue herons in Stanley Park and she explains how the metal flashing around the tree trunks has stopped raccoons from climbing up and eating the baby chicks. She is entirely believable when she says she could keep talking for two hours.

She can hear a bird call, quickly triangulate where it’s coming from, turn in the right direction, raise her binoculars to her eyes and find the avid chirper.

She knows really local and specific things such as where one bird — called a spotted towhee — sings from an upended tree root wad.

“I’ve been doing it for 12 years and I just feel like I’m getting a good handle on things,” said Worcester, 35.

“By the time I’m like 80, maybe I’ll be really good. It is a lifelong job to learn about birds. There is always something new to learn.”

Worcester is the conservation programs manager for the Stanley Park Ecology Society and one of a team of people involved in Vancouver Bird Week. Starting Saturday and continuing to May 10, bird week includes workshops on taxidermy and drawing birds, to talks on birding for beginners and on the importance of birds to an ecosystem.

On a birding walk through Stanley Park, Worcester explained it was where her romance with birds started as a student in BCIT’s fish and wildlife program. She has been able to continue her love affair by working for the ecology society for the last seven years.

“My job is pretty well the best job in the world,” she said.

“I get to come to the most awesome office in the world in Stanley Park. I get to bird every day.”

What makes Worcester excited about seeing birds? She compares it to a scavenger hunt.

“Even if you’ve already seen the same bird a whole bunch of times, it’ll be the first time I’ve seen it this year or in this habitat. Every day it’s pretty much new.”

Her personal passion for birds is matched by her passion for spreading the word about what she describes as the incredible diversity of birds in Vancouver.

On a walk of about an hour in the park earlier this week, we saw or heard a huge variety of species including herons, American robins, black-capped chickadees, yellow-rumpled warblers, spotted towhees, Pacific wrens, and nesting swallows. Over Lost Lagoon, a bald eagle was being harassed by northwestern crows and seagulls.

“I really nerd out this time of the year — I can’t help it,” she said. “You can’t see them really well but you can hear their songs. It’s fun when you do get to know the birds by sound.”

As we walked over a new boardwalk on Cathedral Trail, we came to a clearing caused by the 2006 windstorm. Park foresters have topped some of the trees for woodpeckers: the holes they leave behind are then used by flying squirrels or wood ducks as nests.

And those earthy root wads created when trees were uprooted and blown down? They’re one of the favourite spots for the Pacific wren to nest.

Near the meeting place where Cathedral, Lees and Bridle Trails meet, Worcester singled out a big Douglas fir. It’s estimated to be up to 600 years old and one of the oldest trees in the park.

Around its base were feathers. Worcester explained they were likely from the leftovers of gulls and crows eaten by the eagles that nest near the top of the tree.

The nest wasn’t visible from the base. Worcester suggested walking a little further east along the trail and looking up near the top with a pair of binoculars. A mass of debris was visible but nothing that looked like a nest. And no birds.

Worcester said the nest is so well hidden she can see it only when the chicks stick their heads up.

The increase in bald eagles in Stanley Park is a success story. Back in the 1960s, there was only one resident nesting pair; now there are five — one more than last year.

Worcester thinks that’s an anomaly. In a comparative area in a wilderness region on Vancouver Island, for example, there would be only one nesting pair.

She believes bald eagles have adapted to an urban setting and changed their diet. They’ve found a plentiful food supply to replace salmon: seagulls and crows.

“Old growth Douglas firs like this one are the best spots for eagle nests,” she said about the massive one by Lees Trail.

“This nest is one of the oldest in the park — it’s been here since at least 1989.”

Worcester said early spring is a rewarding time for birders because wintering birds haven’t left and some migratory birds have already arrived. Birds such as Barrow’s goldeneyes, surf scoters, western grebes and common loons are still hanging around after coming to the coast to spend the winter.

Because of Vancouver’s position on the Pacific flyway, birds such as the western sandpiper fly in from Panama and even further south as they migrate north to Alaska and Yukon to breed.

“This is a time when you’ll see the warblers and other neo-tropical migrants,” she said.

“They’ve come from South America or Mexico and are migrating through to the Interior to breed. They’re not here at all in the winter but they’re here in spring and fall as they pass through.”

As many as a billion birds a year will pass through the Vancouver area en route to other locations.

“The lower Fraser Delta and English Bay-Burrard Inlet is considered an important bird area of Canada,” she said.

“We should really be celebrating it. That’s really the whole point of Vancouver Bird Week: getting people aware of birds and of the incredible resource we have.”


Bird Week starts today with an official opening at 10:30 a.m. near the Pacific great blue heron colony by the park board’s head office.

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