Bring Back the Bluebirds Project 2023 Report

Bring Back the Bluebirds Project – 2023 Summary Report

Executive Summary
So many bluebirds! Overall, this summer we had a population of 10 established adults and 38 young. Our translocation program was in full swing this year with a total of 10 adult and 12 nestling bluebirds brought over from Washington. Five bluebirds returned on their own, with two pairs establishing nests. Between nestlings brought over and nestlings hatched here, there were a total of 38 young bluebirds added to the population. Alongside supporting the bluebird pairs, we continued to improve, maintain and monitor the Nest Box trails established to replace lost nesting habitat. Our trail monitors and staff collected 1963 observations and found 127 nests of various native bird species using our boxes. We fostered stewardship of the Garry Oak ecosystems that bluebirds depend on through our outreach events.

Population Summary
Sightings:
• Five Western Bluebirds returned to the Cowichan Valley, one lone male and two pairs.
• Both returned pairs established nesting territories and raised two clutches each, adding 16 young to the population
• A flock of Mountain Bluebirds passed through the Valley in the spring, escorting our returned bluebirds on their way.
Translocations:
• Two pairs plus three families of Western Bluebirds were brought to the Cowichan Valley from a healthy population in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
• After release, two pairs of translocated adults successfully established territories and raised 10 young in addition to the 12 young brought with them.
• Supplemental mealworms were provided to the translocated bluebirds on a daily basis, for 7 weeks.
• For the first time in three years there were no border issues caused by Avian Flu or COVID outbreaks!    Post Editor’s note:  the original report includes a graph here, but it won’t copy into the post.  

Nestbox Stewardship and Citizen Science
The Bring Back the Bluebird Project has developed a keen and skilled community of volunteers to monitor nest boxes. Many of these volunteers are members of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society.
• Volunteers attend a monitoring workshop early in the spring and have regular access to project personnel for advice/support.
• Monitoring nest boxes is a huge component to this project. There are 268 nest boxes located throughout the Cowichan Valley. Over the breeding season of 2023, volunteers and staff collected 1963 data points on the occupancy and status of these nest boxes.
• Much of this dataset contains information on the breeding status of many native passerines, such as the Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and (of course) Western Bluebirds. This year the number of native species’ nests continued to rise! (see graph below) This data collection will be submitted to the Project NestWatch database.   Post editor Note:  the original report includes a graph here, but it won’t copy into the post.  

With the current population of Western Bluebirds, even small numbers of predation events can be extremely detrimental to the recovery of this species. Project personnel, nest box hosts and volunteers implement several predator-guarding techniques to deter carnivores and invasive species from accessing our nest boxes.
• 10 boxes had raptor guards added to discourage raptors from attacking nesting birds. 1 box was equipped with a hole plate to protect nest box occupants from House Sparrows and squirrels
• 7 boxes were equipped with a sealed PVC sleeve that prevents mammalian predators (raccoons, cats, squirrels, etc.) from climbing up and accessing the nest box. These efforts are critical in ensuring that our nest boxes provide a safe nesting habitat that will not increase the likelihood of predation.
• House Sparrows continue to pose a significant threat to nesting bluebirds and thus we encourage monitors to remove sparrow nests amidst construction. We are happy to report that the number of House Sparrow nesting attempts has continued to decline for three years in a row! (see graph above)
• When bluebirds are nesting, nest boxes are equipped with a Sparrow-spooker that flutters on the top of the nest box and deters sparrows from accessing the box and harassing the bluebirds.
There is an established network of nest box trails in the Victoria area, including individual trails in the Blenkinsop Valley, Cordova Bay Golf Course, Uplands Golf Course, Sidney Island Air strip, Highland Golf Course and Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture. Over 30 nest boxes were monitored throughout the breeding season by Victoria Natural History Society members.

Outreach and Education
As over 95% of Garry Oak Ecosystems have been lost completely or significantly degraded (Lea, T. 2006), it is imperative that the remaining habitats are appreciated, studied and protected. The Western Bluebird is a very charismatic species that, through their conservation, draws attention to the many rare and often endemic plants, insects and other biota that thrive among Garry Oak Ecosystems.
This year’s outreach was a mixture of online and outdoors. By inspiring the public to become involved in Western Bluebird conservation, we hope to encourage the restoration and preservation of the remaining Garry Oak Habitat the Cowichan Valley is so fortunate to have. To do such, project staff and volunteers hosted (or presented at) 15 events in 2023 that include:
• Migratory Bird Day Event
• Cowichan Valley Naturalist Society Presentation
• Nature walks by Genevieve Singleton,
• Trail monitor gatherings
• Bluebird Banding Events
• Duncan Days Event
• End of Season Volunteer Appreciation event.
Discussions and presentations at these events focussed on avian conservation, natural history and the ecology of the imperilled Garry Oak Ecosystem. Through these events the bluebird project directly interacted with over 500 community members, all of whom met the project with support and interest.

Sharing Information:
Project staff wrote regular blog posts that discussed project updates and interesting information. These updates were distributed through our email list (230 individuals), Facebook (214 followers) and website (684 visitors over the year). Project personnel also published articles outlining recent project happenings that were featured in the Cowichan Valley Naturalist’s Newsletter. We have an Instagram page (cowichan_valley_bluebird) as well as a publicly available Facebook page (Bring Back the Bluebirds).

Project Partners
This project is an international and collaborative effort. The British Columbia Conservation Foundation takes care of the project administration, ensuring project funds are spent responsibly and accountably. Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society members make up most of our volunteer team. The Ecostudies Institute in Washington, and in particular ornithologists Gary Slater and Stephanie Stragier, perform the bluebird translocations and provide invaluable advice based on over a decade of avian reintroduction work.

A very special thank-you to our 2023 volunteers and supporters
In 2023 our volunteer community contributed 823 volunteer hours to the success of the Western Bluebird population. Additionally, 68 nest box hosts contributed to Garry Oak meadow stewardship. A huge thank-you to Gary Slater for his dedication and perseverance, to Stephanie Stragier for putting in long days to bring us bluebirds and to Genevieve Singleton for helping so much with advice and outreach. Thank-you to our entomologist, Ted Leischner, for his many hours culturing high-quality mealworms to feed our bluebirds. We greatly appreciate the Cowichan Valley Naturalist Society and our many trail monitors, aviary builders, mealworm feeders and other field-workers: Alison Rimmer, Bruce Coates, Gail and Steve Mitchell, Phil Cheffins, Larry White, Roger, Rhoda Taylor, Danika Taylor, Robert Taylor, Charles Taylor, Ashlea Veldhoen, Bob Veldhoen, Malcolm Taylor, Fiona Taylor, Angela Atkins, Gill Radcliffe, Robyn Radcliffe, Genevieve Singleton, Dave Polster, Deb Cleal, Jim and Lyn Wisnia, Jennifer Goodbrand, Ken Bendle, Stacey, Dave Brummit, Bary and Joy Beck, and Elaine and Bob Stacey. Thank you to our intrepid Bluebird Technician Francesca Wagner who braved all hours and weather to take care of our birds. Thanks to the Victoria Natural History Society and other Victoria volunteers who monitored their nest boxes and are helping us to expand our Victoria Trails including Ann Nightingale, Bryan Gates, John Costello, Jody Wells, Joan Richardson and others. Much gratitude as well to the bird banders that came out to help with baby bluebirds; Jannica Chick, Eric Demers, Heidi Van Vliet and Alicia.

Acknowledgements
We would like to extend sincere thanks to the following funders for their financial contributions that supported this project in 2023: Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, BC Nature, the
Province of BC, BC Conservation and Biodiversity Awards, BC Ministry of Transportation, and numerous private donors. Many local supporters donate supplies, storage space and in-kind support including: Polster Environmental Consulting, Ecostudies Institute, CopyCat Printing Ltd., Pacific Northwest Raptors, the Cowichan Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the North American Bluebird Society. Without such support, this project would not have been possible.

BCCF 2023 Summary Report written by Jacquie Taylor

For additional information visit www.cowichanbluebird.ca or contact us at cowichanbluebird@gmail.com.
You can follow us at https://www.facebook.com/CowichanValleyBluebird and you can also donate to the project online at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/58165 To learn about the history of the project, visit: http://www.goert.ca/activities/bluebirds/ and to learn about the work of Ecostudies Institute, visit: https://www.ecoinst.org.
▪ Literature cited: Lea, T. 2006. Historical Garry Oak Ecosystems of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, pre-European Contact to the Present. Davidsonia 17(2):34–5

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Bring Back the Bluebirds Project 2022 Report

It is the Bluebird Project’s Tenth Birthday!

Three of last year’s translocated bluebirds returned to Vancouver Island and this year we brought two new pairs to the Cowichan Valley. These pairs have made a great start towards reviving the population, adding 12 new fledglings. Alongside supporting the bluebird pairs, we continued to improve, maintain and monitor the Nest Box trails established to replace lost nesting habitat. Our trail monitors and staff collected 1825 observations and found 75 nests of various native bird species using our boxes. We fostered stewardship of the Garry Oak ecosystems that bluebirds depend on through our outreach events.

As over 95% of Garry Oak Ecosystems have been lost completely or significantly degraded, it is imperative that the remaining habitats are appreciated, studied and protected. The Western Bluebird is a very charismatic species that, through their conservation, draws attention to the many rare and often endemic plants, insects and other biota that thrive among Garry Oak
Ecosystems. This year’s outreach was a mixture of online and outdoor as safety permitted. By inspiring the public to become involved in Western Bluebird conservation, we hope to encourage the restoration and preservation of the remaining Garry Oak Habitat the Cowichan Valley is so fortunate to have.

View the full 2022 report here: BCCF 2022 Summary Report

Learn more about the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project by visiting the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project website.

More than Waterbirds

On May 8th a group gathered at Cowichan Bay for the last Coastal Waterbird Survey until September.  The Waterbirds were scare – apart from Double Crested Cormorants and Glaucous- winged gulls, we only observed a  few Bufflehead and one female Common Merganser. The resident Mute Swans graced us with their presence.  Great Blue Herons were busy flying back and forth to the heronry which is perfectly located in maples at the edge of the estuary. Purple Martins are back occupying some of the nest boxes on the old pilings.

Those pilings also offer a site for Osprey to nest and they have been doing so for many years.  This year, however, a pair has chosen a different piling to build their nest.

Have you ever felt that you are being watched?  River Otters are a common site at Cowichan Bay.  This one was watching us as we watched for birds.  Thanks to Wilma Harvie, our photographer, extraordinaire!

Consoling by Derrick Marven

Hi Guys
On Sunday I was sat at my window with my daughter Sally and Irene when one of the few Purple Finch we have coming landed on one of my wooden props which I use for taking pictures. It was very obvious that this female Purple Finch was not well. I have taking down and no longer use silo feeders to help control the spread of this deadly decease, sadly I have several neighbors who still use this feeding method.
There was a small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds on the ground around 8 birds 4 males and 4 females when suddenly they were disturbed and most flew up into the Winter Honeysuckle bush, this one female flew up and sat right next to the sickly Purple Finch and began to cuddle up. This went on for all of 10 minutes with the cowbird rubbing it’s head against the finch’s back, it was almost like the cowbird was consoling the finch in her day of pain. They rubbed wings and the cowbird gave the finch a little nudge but then went back to touching and rubbing. Even a little bill touching was observed by the cowbird. What surprised me the most was that the finch perked up after a while and the female cowbird flew down to be with her flock.
I have never ever seen anything like this happen with any birds showing what appeared to be some sort of caring for another birds dilemma.
I will leave this with you with pictures to see what you think. I will also be loading a video up on Facebook for those who indulge.

 

Derrick

For the love of Amphibians

One of the most welcome signs of Spring is the chorus of frogs. If you are lucky enough to have a wetland area near where you live, you will know what I mean. The tiny Pacific Tree Frog (also called the Pacific Chorus Frog) is the one most common to me. The Scientific name for this frog is Pseudacris regilla.

Pacific Tree Frog photo by Barry Hetschko
The genus name for the Pacific Tree Frog has changed quite recently. It used to be Hyla regilla and I could remember that name, because a well-known Herpetologist at UVic told a story that if you were ever unfortunate enough to see one squashed on the road, it would look “highly irregula”. Dark humour to be sure, but this leads to our concern about the migration of amphibians – often crossing roads. Add in the fact that this often happens on dark, rainy nights, it means hundreds of amphibians are killed by automobiles.
It is fun to catch a toad, frog or salamander and have a close look at it, but please remember that these animals are ectothermic. That means they pick up the heat from your hand and their body temperature may rise to a dangerous level for them.

Young Western Toad Anaxyrus boreas photo by Steve Mitchell
If you want to study them for a while, put them into a plastic container, like a margarine or yogurt container. Some of these amphibians actually breathe through their skin, so it is very important not to handle them for long periods. After your look, put them back where you found them. Most amphibians need water to reproduce, but once hatched and metamorphosed from tadpole to adult, they may travel long distances through forests, away from water – always returning to water to lay their eggs. The fact that they require different habitats at different times of the year means fragmentation of wilderness areas leads to the demise of these animals. Continuous areas from wetland to forest are necessary for their survival.
One exception I know on Vancouver island is the very small, fully terrestrial Western Red-backed Salamander Plethodon vehiculum. These beautiful little salamanders are found under fallen logs or within decomposing logs in the forest. They depend on these fallen logs – “Nurse Logs” which provide habitat and nutrients for many species of plants and animals.
Whereas the little Pacific Tree Frog is vociferous, you will likely never hear a croak from the Red-legged Frog, Rana aurora, (so-called for the reddish colour on the ventral surface of their hind legs), because they only call under water.

Red-legged Frog photo by Barry Hetschko
Another amphibian I have had the pleasure of knowing is the Rough-skinned Newt, Taricha granulosa. As it name suggests, this salamander has rough skin, chocolate brown on the back and brilliant orange on its belly. As a Park Naturalist, many years ago, I remember having one in a mossy terrarium in the Nature House where I worked. It was my job to feed it meal-worms. Now, I would not recommend keeping such an amphibian long enough to have to feed it. While holding this Newt and trying to persuade it to take the mealworm, it started to exude a white material behind it’s jaw. It turns out that this is a potent, poisonous toxin – a defense against predators, and I was the predator. I wisely washed my hands and advise anyone who does pickup a Rough-skinned Newt to do the same. It is much better to watch them without disturbing them. I guess that is good advice for all amphibians.
It is well known, that many amphibian species are in decline and we must do all we can to save their habit. Let’s do all we can to protect them – especially saving their habitats – even the smallest wet area may be a spot they depend on – including those wet areas that dry up in the summer.

Another Year

Here we are in January of 2022!  My last Blog was months ago and I cannot offer a good excuse for my silence.

Members of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists continue to be involved in Citizen Science Projects: Bird Surveys; Invasive Plant removal; Planting of Native plants and Fish Forage sampling for some examples. In cooperation with CERCA and two of the industrial groups in the estuary we installed several excellent nature interpretive signs along the old rail line trail at Cowichan Estuary.

Fieldtrips, although infrequent at this time, are still in the offing.  Presentations by a variety of Speakers are taking place twice a month via Zoom.

Throughout 2021 the unprecedented weather events in this province have surely brought the majority of us to the realization of our Climate Change Emergency. Therefore my wish for 2022, is that we do take action in as many ways as we are able.  With credit to Kathleen Dean Moore, the author of  “Great Tide Rising”,  if you are concerned that you cannot do much as one person, then stop being one person.  Join one of the many groups that are working toward a healthy future for all life on earth (including us).

CVNS offers a chance to learn about the biodiversity and natural ecosystems of the Cowichan Valley.  We would be happy to have you join us.  Email cvns@naturecowichan.net for a complimentary copy of our latest newsletter.

September Waterbird Survey

It has been a while since I have written anything here.  Who knows where the time goes?

The long dry summer seemed to cause me to draw into my shell.  Now we have had some rain, although  I am still hoping for more.  I do love this time of year – so much colour and thankfulness for the harvest.

September is the restart of our Coastal Waterbird Surveys.  I participate in the Cowichan Bay zone.  I am thankful for the people who come out to help.  Willie Harvie is one of them.  She is an outstanding photographer and the big lens she has on her camera, often helps us identify a bird that is some distance away, as she can quickly take a shot that we can view and compare to the Bird Guide.

One never knows what one will find on a survey.  Here are a couple of shots from Willie taken on our September count:

  1. Determining species of gulls is always a challenge!
  2. Sometimes it is good to look down!

Heat Dome Devastation

The recent, record-breaking heat-wave, described as a heat dome, caused shocking devastation on some many fronts.

Our Violet-Green Swallows abandoned their nest. We watched four adults swirling around in front of the birdhouse on one of the hot afternoons and then they were gone.  I knew that no young had fledged as I had been keeping an eye and ear on the birdhouse ever since the adults started nest building.  There had been lots of activity, but no sound of hungry, young birds.

It took a day before I realized they were definitely gone, and it was with dread that I opened the nest box.  Luckily, there were no dead chicks or even eggs.  But I found a beautiful, feather-lined nest which had taken so much work.  What a waste of valuable energy.  Others had even worse results. Neighbours grieved for dead chicks, one which had managed to pull itself out only to die under the bird house with its siblings dead in the nest.

Another tragedy came to light when I learned that our Eel-grass transplant project was cancelled (or hopefully just postponed).  The extraordinarily high levels of E.coli in Cowichan Bay made it unsafe for the divers to enter the water.  There are likely several causes for this huge increase in the bacterial count in the Bay, but one contributing factor could be the rotting invertebrates that were cooked at low-tides during the heat wave.  Thousands of mussels, clams and other invertebrates perished during the heat dome.  These would have been the food source for seabirds and other marine predators. The chain reaction is frightening.

Will more of us now realize that climate change is real, and do whatever possible to try to turn the tide?

Bats on a Solstice Evening

It was nearing 21:45h on June 20th.  Steve and I were visiting Bruce and Adele with several other friends.  The sun had set behind Mount Prevost an hour earlier.  Adele disappeared and then I heard her call, Gail, come here quickly! Through the twilight, I spotted her sitting on a beautiful old wooden bench at the edge of the trees.

We all hurried over and I sat beside Adele. Look, just up, right in front she whispered. Suddenly a bat darted right in front of me.  Then another, a pause and then another.  Bill attached his ultra-sonic microphone (from Wildlife Acoustics) to his iPhone via the data port.  Immediately, signals appeared on the screen, accompanied by intriguing high pitched calls.

Bats can be identified by the frequency of their calls.  Bill’s microphone picked up four different calls which were instantly identified by an app on his phone.

The Little Brown Myotis – image taken from the Missouri Department of Conservation website.

The Silver haired Bat image taken from the University of Wisconsin website

Adam Mann, Environmental Solutions and Innovations.

The Hoary Bat image taken from Animal Spot website

The Mexican Free-tailed Bat image taken from the Arizona Highways website

Bruce and Adele’s property has several good sites for bat roosts. Bill suggested that high in the tall Douglas Firs – with their thick, coarse bark  – would likely be a place for bats to find a roosting spot.

Bill is working on a Bat project with CERCA.  These data can be added to the project.  Thank you Bill for sharing this amazing technology.  Thank you Bruce and Adele for inviting us to be there. What a way to celebrate Solstice!

Gail

Grosbeaks and Aspens

Thanks, again to Kerry Finley for the following delightful account – including a bird and a tree – a perfect story for a Nature Blog!
Also thanks to Mike Yip for the photos of the male and female Grosbeaks.  Mike’s latest book: “a beginner’s guide to the common VANCOUVER ISLAND BIRDS” is one I am often browsing through to learn more. GM
A Drunken Robin in Macoun’s Aspen ?
Early June is a rich time to be born at the height of verdure and bloom. Today on my daily walk to McDonald Park swamp, headwaters of Tsehum Harbour, I was thinking of John Macoun, Dominion Naturalist, who thoroughly explored this small drainage with its giant Black Cottonwoods and its understory of Macoun’s Trembling Aspen, and its distinctive plant community. I forget which native culture called it the Happiness Tree because it was always chattering in the wind. Unfortunately the ferry traffic passes nearby so bird song is diminished so when I heard an unusual alarm call – a high clear beerk, I stopped and waited some time before it began singing from the rustling aspens. It was worth it. I was transported into the aspen canopy with one of the cheeriest singers I have heard. A new bird ! Try as I might I could not spot the singer in the fluttering leaves. This is always exciting, so I hurried back and called Bob Peart, a birder, and he played back several songs from vireos and warblers but none matched. He suggested the Black-headed Grosbeak but then his app broke down, so I checked out the Cornell Labs site, and in a moment I recognized it. Bob said that they occurred on a few wet sites on the peninsula where Black Cottonwoods are found.
Macoun’s Vancouver Island aspen is a glacial relict. It has larger leaves and a different phenology of bloom than the prairie aspen. The aspen’s trembling is attributed to its long stem and leaf design which allows it to withstand strong winds by whiffling, but the incessant rustling and dancing of the leaves also create a special acoustic environment where certain species can hide and sing in the canopy. So maybe the rustling Aspens evolved its noisiness to conceal those songbirds that could best protect it against infestations. Just thinkin.
Like Bob, we are more bird listeners than bird watchers. We may not know them by their English names, but certainly by their distinctive songs. Many native names mimic the songs of species.
Gone away is the Blue Bird, here to stay is a New Bird.
Listen here :
In western North America, the sweet song of the Black-headed Grosbeak carolling down from the treetops sounds like a tipsy robin welcoming spring.

Swallow Time

I am enjoying visits from a pair of Violet Green Swallows as they perch on our deck railing above their nest box.  Their presence always makes me smile and I hope the aerial insect population is healthy this year.  Therefore it was timely when this came into my inbox recently.  Thanks to Kerry (kj finley) an IBA caretaker for Roberts Bay Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary. GM

Swallow Time

26 May, 2021

Rough-winged Swallows are so-called because the leading edge of their primary feathers have hooks and projections, the purpose of which is unknown.

Yesterday was a spectacular day in North Saanich with towering cumulus after a refreshing and welcome light rain. These conditions evidently gave rise to a large release of aerial insects which attracted a considerable flock consisting of all three species of swallows over my field and over the Garry Oak copse.

I estimated that there were about 35 at one time, most Violet-green, two Barn Swallows and two Rough-winged Swallows. I spent much of an enjoyable afternoon watching them with their spectacular movements and grace. Each of them seems to have their particular maneuver but the Rough-wing seemed to me to have the edge on grace.

There is a world of difference between here on the farm and Roberts Bay, just 2 km away. Seldom do the swallows ever appear around the bay; their prime habitat is the fields and Garry Oak meadows of North Saanich, as well as the snags and deadwood that provide them ( Violet-greens ) nest cavities. All the swallows are on the decline thought to be due to the loss of aerial insects. It was really interesting to watch the mixed feeding flock shift from a position over my house to just above the Garry Oak canopy, shifting back and forth in their foraging patterns.

With the towering cumulus, backlit, the grace of the swallows against them, and the towering Garry Oaks, it was heaven on earth.

Birds are essential to human health and well-being.

KJF

Mating moths

Thank you Katharine Staiger for this photo of mating Sphinx moths (Smerinthus ophthaimica) found on a peony in their garden. This is likely one of the largest moths that can be found in the Cowichan Valley. I am guessing the large one is the female, measuring about two inches.  The hind wings, which have the striking eye spots are not opened here.  I guess they were not trying to attract attention.  Gail

Nesting time

Bruce Coates and his friend Dan have been keeping an eye on this Common Bushtit’s nest.

These little balls of feathers with long tails build the most distinctive nests in this region.

The Common Bushtit is a delight to watch when they swoop down on a suet feeder in the winter.  A whole flock of 20 or more can arrive, covering the whole feeder, and taking turns getting a spot.  Then they leave as quickly as they arrived.

Now they are paired up and raising families.  The male and female can be distinguished by eye-colour: males being completely dark and females with a striking yellow ring around a small dark centre.

Gail