Rare bird visit to Cranbrook sparks BC-wide interest

A female northern cardinal has made Cranbrook her home, and is drawing birders from all over BC

Barry Coulter and Daryl Calder

A unique visitor to British Columbia has made her home in Cranbrook, and caused a bit of a stir around B.C.

In the rarifed world of the B.C. birding community, the first recorded appearance of a Northern Cardinal to B.C. is news indeed, and has drawn interest from birders around the province.

The cardinal was first spotted in Cranbrook in early December, by Katrin Powell in her yard. Powell was quick enough to grab a photo of the bird, and she showed it Greg Ross, who identified it as the rare bird she is for these parts.

Both Powell and Ross are birders and members of the Rocky Mountain Naturalists. They put up the ID and the photo on ebird.org, a worldwide website for birders that among other things sends out rare bird notifications to members. Interest was interest.

“I almost fell over in my chair,” said Melissa Hafting from Vancouver, Principal Moderator of the BC Rare Bird Alert, when she first saw the Northern Cardinal posted on eBird in Cranbrook. “I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. People started emailing me and texting about it.”

“We probably had 20 birders come to our place [over the past month], from Vancouver, the Okanagan and Calgary,” Powell said. “They stayed in Cranbrook for a few hours, long enough to see and photograph her.”

“I went myself, as well,” said Hafting. ‘It was a long, 11-hour journey with some car trouble, but was worth it.

‘She was so beautiful; immediately as I stepped out of the car, I could hear her. I am very familiar with this species, having seen many in Arizona, Texas and the East Coast’.

The Northern Cardinal has since been named Miss NOCA (after birding nomenclature for Northern Cardinal).

The bird’s range is normally the southern and eastern United States. It can extend into Ontario, and occasionally further west. But for the Northern Cardinal to appear in B.C. is unprecedented. It’s estimated the bird is between one and two years old — relatively young.

“She’s pushing the limits,” Powell said, of the bird wandering so far outside the normal range. “But she’s all by herself, and without a doubt she’s the only one [in Cranbrook].

“Young birds are always pushing the limits,” Ross said. “They’re often unafraid to try new things.”

Powell and Ross live in a very bird-friendly property, a big space with lots of brush, and cat-free, with a history of feeding from previous property owners. An urban oasis for birds. Birders visiting to see the cardinal also spotted two other rarities — a brown thrasher and hoary redpoll.

Miss NOCA seems to have fallen in with a flock of common redpolls (a type of finch) that frequent the property. After a month at the property, Miss NOCA vanished.

“She disappeared in early December; several people looked and couldn’t find her,” Haftling said. “Some birders made a long drive but went back downtrodden and empty handed. Some thought she may have died from the cold or been killed by a hawk. This happens often with vagrants.

“Thankfully she proved us wrong. One day she showed up on Baker Hill, at a property with suitable feeders, a dense tangle of brush, and some protection from predators.”

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. It is a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a striking shade of red. The brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents.

With their affinity for dense tangles, cardinals tend to sit low in shrubs and trees, or forage on or near the ground, often in pairs. Within their range, they are common at bird feeders, but may be inconspicuous elsewhere, at least until one becomes familiar with their loud, metallic chip note.

Forests or bushes around residential areas are prime places for these birds to gather food. Their strong beaks help them dig for insects in bushes and to bite into tasty seeds, grains and fruits.

With assistance from the male, the female builds the nest using crushed twigs, leaves, bark and grasses. Built in the midst of thick bushes, the nests are somewhat protected from cats, dogs, snakes, owls, chipmunks, squirrels and the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. Both male and female give a shrill chirp to scare away predators. The female incubates 3 to 5 eggs while the male feeds her and deflects predators. One of the few female songbirds who actually sing, the female sings while on the nest. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and more complex song than the male.

The oldest recorded cardinal was a female almost 16 years old when found in Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, Miss NOCA is still calling Cranbrook home.

“Seen as recently as January 9,” Hafting said. “We’ll keep our eyes peeled.”

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