Snowbirds on the Beach
About a week and a half ago, we witnessed one of the greatest snowfalls in modern Ladysmith history. In less than 72 hours, we received over 20 inches of snow, and some places probably got closer to 26 inches. This region of coastal Vancouver Island generally sees a few minor snow events each winter, in which the snow melts off within a day or two. The last time Ladysmith saw snowfall close to this was in 1996.
Our snow was accompanied by a prolonged period of cold, with temperatures dropping into the teens some nights. And the result was a beautiful, wintry landscape: ferns entombed in ice, cedars drooping under the weight of snow, and icicles shimmering along the waterfalls that mark the streams.
When we planned our trip to Ladysmith, we envisioned a temperate climate far removed from the icy winters of the Midwest. And for the first few weeks on the island, that’s what we got; balmy 40s during the day, and around freezing at night. It all changed, however, when an arctic air mass parked itself over the island (along with much of the rest of the west coast), and proceeded to funnel cold air over us. Luckily we brought the full complement of winter gear with us, and were able to continue our daily hiking routine. Trudging through knee deep snow, however, gets to be a tad exhausting.
Our trials with the weather seemed minor compared with the challenges facing the local flora and fauna. Trees lost their branches (and sometimes toppled over themselves) as the snow piled higher on their boughs. Ferns and recently emerged bulbs disappeared under the accumulating snowpack. We watched as Pacific wrens and song sparrows turned into troglodytes, disappearing into snowcaves in search of insects and seeds, and wondered how much of the local wildlife would succumb to the weather.
But most organisms are generally equipped to deal with unusual or variable weather (to a degree). For some species, that means doing your food shopping in new places.
Two weekends ago I visited the Roberts Memorial Provincial Park, which is only about 25 minutes away from us. After a short trek through the forest, I arrived at the rock-ledge coastline. From the ledge I could just see a flock of American wigeon bouncing in the waves a little offshore. Closer by a Pacific wren popped up from behind a large log stranded on the rocks. The wren hopped its way along the log, and then disappeared into the granite cracks.
I walked along the ledge a little ways until my attention was drawn to some scrubby vegetation at the interface of rock and forest. A small group of golden-crowned kinglets emerged from the firs and cedars, and buzzed past me to land on the rock ledge near the gently lapping waves. Seeing these fluffy golf-ball-shaped birds in the intertidal was a first for me, so I stopped to watch them interact with this new habitat. The group of 3 birds hopped around, stooping every so often to peck at the rock. I followed one closely with my camera, trying to determine what it was extracting from the almost barren surface. It seemed they were pecking off bits of partially frozen algae or lichen. Kinglets usually eat insects and other small arthropods, although they will eat small seeds if necessary. The temperatures of the preceding few nights had been abnormally cold for the area, and I can only speculate that the kinglets at that park had learned that they could extract some nutrients or energy from the living bits on the rocks. (It’s also possible that this is normal behavior for those particular birds, and I just happened to be there to record it during a cold stretch.)
The kinglets were not the only unusual visitors to the intertidal zone. Between Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I observed three thrush species foraging below the high tide mark at our place: an America robin, two varied thrushes, and a lone hermit thrush. American robins are habitat generalists, so their presence wasn’t entirely surprising. But the other thrushes, especially the varied thrush, are typically denizens of the deep conifer forests, and their appearance on the coast coincided with the blanket of snow we received. It is possible, perhaps likely, that these three birds descended from their forested hillside because their normal food resources were covered under 2 feet of snow, and the intertidal was snow-free.
I noticed the robin on Tuesday during the afternoon snow. At first I didn’t think too much of it because I’ve occasionally seen robins along our seawall. This bird was foraging around the mouth of the nearby stream (the “otter stream” as I like to think of it), and walking on rocks exposed by the retreating tide. I was hiding behind some large rocks nearby, trying to photograph an otter eating (surprise) another crab. The robin was so striking that I averted my attention from the otter for a few minutes and captured the bird as it stood among the falling snowflakes.
The next morning I noticed a pair of varied thrushes as they hopped around a narrow patch of exposed shoreline. The birds foraged for an extended period, passing back and forth along the beach, venturing further down as the tide ebbed. The pair was collecting small seeds that had been deposited on the beach by the receding water. I am not particularly well acquainted with varied thrushes, so I don’t know how much behavioral and habitat flexibility they exhibit, but to me they embody the spirit of the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests. Seeing them forage below the high tide mark along a developed patch of coastline in Ladysmith felt so incongruous with where I normally encounter them, and really accentuated how odd the snow event was.
That evening, as the sun made its descent, the hermit thrush appeared. It was low tide and I was out on the exposed flats photographing a gull trying to swallow a giant sea-star. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small brown bird hopping around not too far away. Realizing it was a hermit thrush, I watched as this third forest bird bounced around the beach looking for exposed invertebrates. It navigated around the exposed oysters, clams, and barnacle-covered rocks, and even hopped right past my rubber-booted feet. I was never able to tell what the hermit thrush was eating (if anything) but it tended to stay close to a small rivulet of fresh water, and would occasionally peck at things at the water’s edge. I watched until the light waned, and then headed back across the crunchy flats. The three thrushes remained in the area until the following morning, but I have not seen them since.
The final bird-in-snow vignette I will leave you with concerns our local great blue heron. This bird (I am pretty sure it’s the same bird) has a few preferred hunting and resting spots in the immediate vicinity, and one of those spots is near the mouth of “otter stream,” just to our east. Early last Wednesday morning, following an overnight snowfall of about 6 inches, the heron was perched on some rocks near the stream mouth. The incoming tide was lapping at the heron’s feet, and I thought a long exposure shot of the heron and the water might be interesting. Long exposure shots generally don’t work well with living animals (if they move at all during the exposure, they just become blurry blobs), but herons are adept at remaining motionless for long periods of time, so I figured it was worth a shot. I set up the camera and played around with different settings, eventually settling on a 2 second exposure as a compromise between the longer period I wanted and the duration of time the heron agreed to remain motionless.
I left the hunched heron after the photoshoot, and went inside to work. A little while later I looked out and saw the heron had been pushed off its rock by the rising tide, and had flown to the top of the nearby seawall. As I watched, the heron decided to traverse the wall.
Now, at this time, the seawall was covered in about 15 inches of snow and the heron was attempting to walk on top of the snow. Herons have long, extended toes that work reasonably well for distributing their weight out across a relatively broad area. But deep snow is not something herons are used to dealing with. Tara and I watched with guilty pleasure as this poor bird tried to walk on top of the snow, and failed. It was the perfect reenactment of every time I’ve walked on slightly crusted over snow; the heron would gingerly step forward, placing its foot into the snow, which would generally yield a few inches and then hold. The heron would then lift its other foot, at which point the supporting foot would suddenly punch down 6-12 inches into the snow, forcing the heron to open its wings to steady itself against toppling over. Once steadied, the bird would try the maneuver again with the other foot. We watched the bird slowly traverse the wall- step, lift, sink, flap, repeat-- until after going about 5 feet it decided that was enough, and it settled down for a well-deserved rest.
The snow is now mostly gone along the coast. Some places in the woods still have 6 inches or more in heavily shaded areas, but the snowpack that I was convinced would be here until we leave is dwindling rapidly. Temperatures have moderated, and most of the birds have resumed their normal activities. There is still snow in the forecast over the next week or two, but it feels as though we’ve turned a corner. The days are getting longer, and the sun has made a noticeable shift to the north when it emerges over the horizon. We have only one more week here in Ladysmith before we move to Quadra Island, located a few hours north. I am equal parts excited about the next leg of our adventure, and sad about leaving our wonderful home by the sea and all the friends we’ve made here, human and non-human alike. But anything can happen in a week—just ask the varied thrush.
Next time: Log-dump! The Log Boats of Ladysmith Habo(u)r and Adventures with Dippers
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About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.