Kimberley and area residents probably wondered what we were doing on the first Sunday of January. Ten of us, from Cranbrook, Fernie, Ta Ta Creek and Kimberley, were searching for wild birds because of the 115th annual Christmas Bird Count.
Our area, the standard sized 24 kilometer diameter circle, is centered at the junction of Highway 95A and the Lost Dog Ranch Road. The circle includes many of the diverse habitats which characterize this part of the Rocky Mountain Trench. The edges of the circle provide some of the best spots for birding; the St Mary River near Mark Creek, the Wycliffe-Clearview grasslands, Wasa Lake and Wolf Creek feeders, Ta Ta Creek woodlands and the urban areas of Kimberley and Marysville. We formed 4 groups to tackle the 4 quadrants as thoroughly as possible during the 9-5 p.m. session. It was cool, calm and grey, and at times it seemed that birds were scarce. Always on the lookout for surprises, we knew from experience that there would be ups and downs. An unexpected flock of Wild Turkeys or an American Robin perched on a spruce tip buoyed our spirits.
The American Goldfinch is a lovely creature indeed! During the winter, the male goldfinches are dull in color, like the females, and look like small, yellowish sparrows. They are gregarious, being found in small or medium-sized flocks. When spring arrives, the goldfinches move northward, but this time, the males have their bright lemon-yellow color, with black wings and tail, and black caps on their heads. The females remain dull in color, for natural protection. Except during the nesting season, it is a sociable bird that seeks it’s own kind with which to feed and fly. In winter, it mingles with its relatives – the redpolls and siskins – feeding in weedy fields and in orchards close to wooded areas.
You’d think these would be among our first birds to nest, but actually they are some of the last! The reason is because of thistles. They use the thistle down to line their pretty nests and thistle seeds to feed their young. One might easily learn a lesson in patience from the goldfinches, waiting patiently for the indispensible thistle, while seeing all the other birds on every side going ahead with the excitement of building their nests and raising their broods.
When nesting season arrives, the female selects a small tree or the outstretched branch of a larger tree. The tree may be in an open field, often along a brook, or along the edge of woods overlooking a field. She builds a neat cup of felted plant fibers and silvery milkweed bark lined with thistle down. The nest is similar to those of various warblers, but differs from them in being wider than it is tall. Altogether it is a beautiful work of art, woven so tightly that it can hold water. Usually the nest is shaded by clusters of leaves or needles from above, but often open and visible from below. Flying high in wide circles around the tree chosen for the nesting site, the male, upon alighting nearby, proceeds to pour forth his sweet canary-like song to the busily engaged female. She answers with a plaintive little phrase which has an indescribable charm.
Seven days are required in which to finish the nest, and then the 5 or 6 pale blue unspotted eggs are laid, one a day. The male feeds the female on the nest while she is setting, and when receiving food she flutters her wings like a young bird.
Goldfinches delight in bathing in rocky creeks and small streams where the water is shallow. They are exceptionally clean in all their ways. Curiously, Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of smaller songbirds like the goldfinch. However, this finch’s seed diet is insufficient to meet the demands of the growing cowbird young, most of which die within three days as a result. The presence of the cowbird does disrupt successful nesting.
Breeding bird surveys suggest that populations are stable or decreasing at about four per cent per year. Decreasing amounts of breeding habitat resulting from changing agricultural practices, and the expansion of urban centers, may be contributing to this decline. The Christmas Bird Count indicates an increase in the overwintering population of American Goldfinches. The results of the breeding bird surveys and the CBC are not necessarily contradictory. Increases in the overwintering population may be due to an increase in the number of bird feeders, while the total population may be declining. To understand these population changes, monitoring and study of the factors affecting populations are essential.
Northern Pygmy Owl
American Tree Sparrow
For more detailed information and to learn about naturalist activities go to www.rockymountainnaturalists.org
Submitted by Daryl Calder on behalf of Rocky Mountain Naturalists.