Archive for Visitors to the Queendom

Twitcher’s Delight

Twitcher – A birder, or bird-watcher, who is willing to go to great lengths to see any bird species he hasn’t previously recorded, even traveling extensive distances at great expense to see a new lifer.

Living here, in the Queendom, has many perks that we never anticipated. One of those perks is the incredible variety of bird species who stop in. We have the typical Pacific Northwest birds – like the Junco, Chickadee, Nuthatch and Red Finch. We also have many ducks who frequent our pond – Mallards, Buffleheads and Mergansers. Our bird of prey varietals are also plentiful – Bald Eagle, Red Tail Hawk and Turkey Vulture.

But occasionally, we are treated to something unusual; something that stumps us for a while. It is a treat to watch, research and eventually figure out who the latest visitor is. This month, a Great Grey Owl has decided to call our Queendom ‘home’.

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In certain light, her feathers look similar to a Barred Owl.

She is magnificent to watch. Although her slate blue plumage is stunning, she is a perfect chameleon, invisible among the mixed forest unless she turns her head.

She is perfectly camoflaged against this hemlock. Invisible!

She is perfectly camouflaged against this cedar bark. Invisible!

She appears small, for an owl, until she drops from her branch and spreads her 5+foot wing span. Her tail is long and her mustaches are white.

Her wing span is a window to her true size.

Her wing span is a window to her true size.

But the true treat of having been graced with her visit is that she is an uncommon sighting on Vancouver Island. Birders, or Twitchers as they like to be called, have been known to travel inland, over the Coastal Mountain range and North, towards 100 Mile House, (a 7 to 9 hour trip) in order to see this bird. From what we have read, a Vancouver Island sighting is exceedingly rare. Yet she has been hanging out at the Queendom for over a month now. Our chicken flock can spot her long before we can and they live in crazed anxiety much of the time. Since they are free-ranging chickens, she sees them but seems uninterested in them. Instead, she is feasting on smaller fare – mice or voles who live out in our wild area.

A look of true concentration

A look of true concentration before the kill.

My biggest concern is that our precious visitor will be discovered by some twitchers and our Queendom will become a twitching ground.

Only she knows how long she will stay with us. I hope she is enjoying her escape from routine as much as we are.

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Build It and They Will Come

Last year, we had a flock of swallows pass through the Queendom, but their stay was short. I really only remember them visiting for a day or two, swooping and eating thousands of bugs during their short visit. I was ever-hopeful that they would stay and eat pond insects all summer long. But alas, they carried on their migration and weren’t seen again.

Definitely a Violet-Green Swallow on the hydro wire.

Definitely a Violet-Green Swallow on the hydro wire.

This year, once again, they made their stop at the Queendom, but this time FM was ready to take action. The day that we noticed them darting around, FM headed into the shop with swallow nest box measurements and, as quickly as you can say “Are those Violet-Greens or Trees?”, he had produced the ideal nesting box and had mounted it at the roofline of the workshop.

Within an hour or two, a couple of pairs of Violet-Green Swallows were checking out the new digs. One would hang out on the exposed roof rafters while the other went inside and peeked out to report.

This is a one-bedroom fly-up loft with a fabulous view and its only a short flight to fine dining.

This is a one-bedroom fly-up loft with a fabulous view and it’s only a short flight to fine dining.

We were sure that our new neighbours had come to roost. But, unfortunately, they didn’t jump at the opportunity. A week went by with barely a sighting.

Swallows

Awaiting residents

Just yesterday, while having some quality Chick Time, I noticed that the swallows were back. And this morning, there is a flurry of nest-building going on inside the new house. In fact, it seems that two pairs of Violet-Green swallows are getting very territorial about the new real estate. FM has plans to build another nesting box to accommodate the other couple. We are very hopeful that a new crop of insect-eating machines will hatch just in time for mosquito season and that they will return for years to come. Stay tuned!

And we have take-off!

And we have take-off!

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Left For Dead (almost)

It was a glorious sunny Saturday and we spent the entire day outdoors, either reading and sipping coffee on the porch, admiring our free-ranging chicks or puttering about the Queendom. But all afternoon, we were bombarded by the screeching of two adult Ravens. The screeching seemed to be mostly taking place over the back fence of our property but these ravens circled and cried from a wide variety of treetops in the neighbouring properties as well.

Around 4 pm, FM went on a fact-finding mission. As he wandered along the back fence, the ravens’ cries became much more alarmed. As expected, we soon spotted a baby raven, a fledgling, hopping along a pile of fallen trees on the far side of our pond. Taking heed to its parents warnings, it hopped and attempted to fly away but ended up in the pond. With wings a-flapping, it managed to climb onto the shore and hid at the base of a tree. FM skirted widely around the fledgling and retreated to the house. We surmised that the little one must have either fallen out of her nest or was just a slow learner when it came to flying. The screeching calls lessened as the evening wore on and we didn’t give it much more thought.

The next morning, I awoke from a lovely lie-in and looked out onto the pond just as FM, in his house coat, was walking purposefully across the island bridge, carrying a big black bird by one wing tip. It was the baby raven. FM had been trying to read on the front porch but those adult ravens were cawing so ferociously, it had caused one of our resident mama ducks to panic. FM went to investigate and found the baby raven completely submerged in the pond with only part of her head out of the water. He pulled her from the pond and found that she was completely stiff and most likely drowned.

As he set her on our kitchen porch, we tried to figure out what had happened. We looked for a wound or some indication that she had been killed by a mink or raccoon, but we could find nothing. She was completely rigid, as if rigor mortis had already set in. Her neck was at an unnatural angle, tilted up so high that her head lay on her back. We looked at each other, both thinking “what do we do with a dead baby raven?”.

And at that moment, her wing twitched. She wasn’t dead but she was well on her way. She must have accidentally flown back into the pond either last night or this morning. We can only guess how long she must have been stuck in the pond water, struggling to swim to the edge and eventually submerging with exhaustion with her wings fully spread. She had managed to keep her beak above the water level but that made her neck cramp and stiffen as she became hypothermic.

FM picked her up and we walked far away from the pond, onto a grassy section of our front yard. We set her down, got a micro-fibre towel and focused on drying her chest down as much as possible. Then we left her, upside-down, stiff and spread eagled, in the full morning sunlight in the middle of the grass.

For the next 30 minutes, we kept our distance, sipped our coffee, watched her and listened to the wild cawing of her parents. They were keenly aware that we were touching their baby but they never dive-bombed us. We looked up to see the baby on her back, still stiff and spread-eagled, but kicking and struggling to move. When we got closer, we could see her eyes looking sharp and bright. FM got a small cloth and covered her eyes in hopes of reducing her sense of panic. Her down had dried and she was looking much more bird-like. She had a bit of mobility in her wings and, with help, was able to fold them. Again we left her to warm up in the sun.

Soaking wet and completely stiff with cold, we set her down in the full sunlight. We towel dried her as much as possible and covered her head in an attempt to calm her while her feathers and down dried.

Soaking wet and completely stiff with cold, we set her down in the full sunlight. We towel dried her as much as possible and covered her head in an attempt to calm her while her feathers and down dried.

A while later when we checked on her, she was clawing at the air and flaring her tail. As we approached, she made her first noise – a loud and alarmed caw. She was unable to right herself and kept rolling onto her back. Her feet were flailing around, trying to get a hold of anything. I put my finger on her foot and soon found that her grip was very strong! I picked her up and repositioned her but she was still unable to hold herself upright. I tucked the various blankets under her breast and managed to prop her up, manually placing her feet under her. Her position wasn’t stable and I thought that she would probably topple over so we left her to get a larger towel that could support her.

45 minutes later, we found her mostly dry but upside down and panicky. She was unable to right herself so we propped her up on the towels and got her feet underneath her.

45 minutes later, we found her mostly dry but upside down and panicky. She was unable to right herself so we propped her up on the towels and got her feet underneath her.

From the kitchen, we could hear her calling out and soon her parents returned and began call back. Before we could even get a towel, she began hopping away.

As we watched her from the kitchen porch, she suddenly stood up, started calling out to her parents and hopped across the grass, down the driveway and across the road.

As we watched her from the kitchen porch, she suddenly stood up, started calling out to her parents and hopped across the grass, down the driveway and across the road.

She hopped towards taller grass and small shrubs and then began her trek down the driveway, with her parents encouraging her all the way. We last saw her at the end of our drive on her way towards the 25 acre property across our not-busy street.

What an amazing thing to witness! Surely she would have died if FM had not pulled her from the pond. Her miraculous recovery, from drowning and hypothermic to regular chick, took all of two hours. That’s another win for the Queendom!

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A Makeover for Our Pond

The pond is the crowning jewel of the Queendom. Our front room looks out over it and, from the comfort of our couches, we can watch the birds, ducks and other beasts who frequent its tranquil waters. It is approximately 1 acre in size and is home to salamanders, water scorpions, at least three species of frogs, thousands of aquatic bugs and, most recently, a red-eared slider turtle. FM and I have spent many a summer evening floating around it in our inflatable dingy, enjoying lemony G&Ts.

When we arrived, there was a pathetic-looking sunken dock that the previous owners built to encourage swimming and launch kayaks. The dock was fixed to the shore and could only be accessed by negotiating a steep, slippery bank. As the water level changed throughout the year, the dock varied in its level of submersion.

Barely Afloat

Barely Afloat (no surprise, considering the downpour!)

Sometimes it appeared to float, tempting you to venture out onto it, only to have your weight cause the entire far-end to sink and cast you off balance. From quite early on, FM and I decided that the dock was a hazard and we chose not to use it.

Neither useful or beautiful, this dock had to go.

Neither useful nor beautiful, this dock had to go.

But the dock had one redeeming feature – ducks and birds love it. A mama Mallard taught her brood of 13 to clamber up onto it and preen in the sun.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A kingfisher used it to spot salamanders.

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A female Kingfisher rests between feedings.

A Lesser Yellowlegs rested there during a migration.

A sandpiper stopped by on his migration in 2012 and 2013

A Lesser Yellowlegs stopped by on his migration in both 2012 and 2013

An enormous American Bullfrog sunned himself there (until he was humanely evicted).

This is an invasive species of frog that is descimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

This is an invasive species of frog that is decimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

The fact that the dock was water-logged, sat barely at the water level and a bit of an eye-sore made it useless to us but enticing to many others.

On a sunny day in the fall, when the pond level was low, FM somehow managed to pull the dock out of the pond. We let it sit on the bank and dry out for sometime. Next, the decking boards were removed from the frame in the beginnings of a complete demolition. But, as it sat there on the shore and we kept looking at it through the winter rains, we realized that the dock frame was the right length to make a perfect bridge over to our inaccessible island.

By using a number of round pencil posts, I was able to roll the whole dock frame over to the narrowest crossing and, together, we were able to muscle it into place without falling in. The decking boards were reattached and *alakazam* we finally had access to the island.

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

In no time at all, we were digging up that colony of alders, tending a bonfire and making plans for an island sitting area.

But what about the ducks and birds that used the dock? FM had the ingenious idea of building a waterfowl viewing platform that we could see from inside the house. Initially he attempted to pull out the one post that had secured the dock but he was not able to extricate it from the muddy clay bottom of the pond. He decided to build a simple cedar plank platform with a hole in the center which fit over that post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

Et voila – the waterfowl viewing platform came to be. Already we have had a family of wood ducklings and another family of Merganser ducklings snuggle and sleep there under their doting mothers.

A female Wood Duck with 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

This female Wood Duck with her 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

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And Then There Was One

Four days ago, early on Saturday morning, FM and I gazed over the pond while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and we noticed a new brownish lump on the far side. Upon closer inspection with the birding scope and binoculars, we discovered that a Mama mallard duck was snoozing on the bank with ten ducklings beneath her.

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom (apologies for the blurriness)

Snoozing on the shore

Snoozing on the shore

Needless to say, the rest of the weekend was taken up with watching the little ones jump, swim, snooze and eat. By our estimates, these ducklings were about a week old. They had probably hatched by the pond next door and were out on their first field trip. Already quite independent and given a wide range, they could often be seen at the opposite end of the pond from Mama.

The brood doing laps of our island

The brood doing laps of our island

Late on Sunday afternoon, the new family trekked back over the bush to their old pond and FM watched as a bird of prey, perhaps a hawk, swooped down in their direction. He could hear the panicked squawking of the Mama duck but couldn’t see what was happening. After the main ruckus had ended, he could hear Mama duck making a new sound – a pained or injured kind of quack. FM quietly climbed over the back fence and began a stealthy bushwhack through the brambles and marshy gloop that edges our property. Eventually, he was able to see the Mama duck hunkered down in the brush with a number of ducklings around her. His guess is that she got injured while trying to protect her brood.

Meanwhile back at the Queendom, there was one duckling swimming alone on our pond. Having ignored Mama’s call to head back home, he had continued swimming circles in our pond, oblivious to the drama happening to his family. After a time, his plaintive peeping could be heard, but there was no answer. Mama duck didn’t return for him and, as night fell, we could no longer see or hear him.

Not a duck or duckling was seen on Monday and we both feared that Little Gaffer had not survived the night. Although temperatures have risen a bit over the past few days, we were scraping frost off our cars less than a week ago and we have not yet reached the frost-free date of the Farmer’s Almanac. It would have been a cold night to be out there alone, dressed only in fluffy yellow down.

You can only imagine the delight I felt this morning when FM hollered, with a mouth full of toothpaste, something that sounded like “He’s back!”. Sure enough, there was Little Gaffer, scooting around the pond, hunting bugs and jumping clear out of the water. Somehow he has survived two nights on his own. There is still no sign of Mama duck and his nine siblings and he continues to appear oblivious to their absence.

Little Gaffer's Big Adventure

Little Gaffer’s Big Adventure

But, just as I have been writing this, our resident pair of Mallards – childless this season – have flown in and begun their ritual of dabbling and preening. Maybe they will take pity on Little Gaffer, adopt him and teach him the ways of the duck. (Or maybe they will become all territorial and chase him off). Either way, today is a day to celebrate survival in the wild!

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So Long, Stumpy

Blacktail Deer are a daily sighting out here at the Queendom. In fact, I would dare guess that the deer population of the Courtenay/Comox area is equal to the human population. Some people lament the damage that deer do to their flower and veggie gardens, spending exorbitant amounts of money on deer-fencing. But most people don’t mind the deer and even catch themselves smiling when they spot one in the woods or by the road.

The Queendom is a deer haven and we like it that way. Our property is an open clearing which allows our  hoofed buddies to roam around and graze. But if danger is sensed, the deer easily hop our 4 ft fence and are able to disappear in the thick forest that surrounds us on three sides.

On our first morning as new caretakers of the Queendom in April, we met three of the permanent residents. We deduced that this was a mama deer with two of last years fawns.

Mama Deer with her two yearling fawns in April

Stumpy and sister and mama

We could spot these three every morning at first light and every evening at twilight. They were initially frightened of us but, over the months, they became only slightly wary of our presence.

We play a daily game of Where’s Waldo with our deer

Soon we could see the personality of Stumpy emerging. He was definitely a young buck and he spent much of the early summer tormenting his sister and playing ‘king of the castle’ with the dirt piles during our excavation work. He would tirelessly chase and run and kick before collapsing for a snooze under his mama’s watchful eye.

Stumpy earns his name with his mismatched, two-prong antlers

Soon enough we could see his fuzzy antler buds and noticed that his left antler was stunted. The name Stumpy seemed fitting and it stuck. More and more throughout the summer, we saw Stumpy on his own, as his mama distanced herself and forced him into independence.

In September, things began to change. We spotted Stumpy standing at the edge of the pond, glassy-eyed and foaming at the mouth. He stood in the same spot, statue-like, for hours and his stance was awkward. His belly was bloated and his rear-end was tucked under. You could almost feel his abdominal pain just by watching. He had a racking cough. It was a wet, mucus cough that made his whole body convulse. It was terrible to watch.

Stumpy’s painful stance with his distended belly, glassy eyes, foamy mouth and heavy head. We have named this section of the pond ‘Stumpy’s Beach’.

For about two weeks, we surveyed him and the only change was for the worse. Soon, he began to bed down at the very edge of the pond so that he could drink without having to get up or move.

Not knowing what to do, I made some inquiries with the local animal rehabilitation centre  After describing his symptoms, a veterinarian wrote to me with a diagnosis of ‘high lungworm loads and pneumonia’. She said that there was no treatment for this and that he needed to be put down. She told me to contact the local Conservation Officer who would come and euthanize Stumpy.

Feeling absolutely sick, I called the Conservation Officer. When I described the situation and the diagnosis, he laughed at me. He told me that one sick deer was hardly a concern for him with a local population of +/- 50000 deer. He wasn’t going to come all the way out to the Queendom unless the animal was practically dead. “Call me when he can no longer get up and no longer has a fear of humans” he said. I asked him, if Stumpy dies, would his department come and collect a dead deer. “Nope,” he said.  “If he dies on your property, then you would be the proud owner of a dead deer”.

And so. Let nature run its course. We kept a daily watch on Stumpy and occasionally we would walk close to Stumpy’s Beach. Each time, Stumpy would slowly get up and hobble away from us, showing that his fear of humans and his will to live were both still strong. He even hopped (ungracefully) over the fence once when I got too close.

About a week later, I noticed that Stumpy had moved to a different area and he was grazing! He started to bed down in different areas and returned to his regular pattern of early morning/early evening visits. His body stance changed back to normal and he was far more alert. He had survived his illness and was on the mend!  I felt such relief, knowing that winter weather was around the corner and he needed to be strong to survive this first winter on his own.

Stumpy sightings became scarce. I always kept an eye out for him but only saw him once or twice over the past month.

Yesterday, FM told me that there was a deer lying on the side of the main road into town – about a kilometre from our place. As we returned from some errands in town, we stopped and had a look at the road-killed deer. It was Stumpy.

The two-pronged antler and the stumpy antler were enough proof for me. Recovering from a terminal illness doesn’t mean you’re invincible.

It is a sad day indeed. Stumpy has lived on the Queendom longer than we have. He was probably born there and spent much of his youth playing there. He could have waited out his sickness anywhere but he chose the Queendom as a safe place that had all he needed with no imminent dangers.

FM and I have never had pets together. Although we each had a dog when growing up, our spontaneous travel lifestyle and FM’s allergies have prevented us from jumping on board the pet owner train. This is the closest we have come to taking on a pet.

Peace Out, Good Buddy!

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