There are many cultural depictions of black birds, such as ravens and crows, that associate these birds with ill omen and death. Clearly these are figments of peoples’ imaginations. Black birds are highly intelligent, uber cool, and ecologically important as they are ubiquitous, globally distributed and take on the roles of predator, prey and scavenger, all in one. This picture from Jasper National Park is emblematic of some of those darker cultural depictions that these birds sometimes are associated with. At first glance there may not be any apparent death or ill omen here, but upon closer inspection, the rust coloured needles of the surrounding pine forest, tell a different story. These “red tops” have succumbed to the mountain pine beetle. Over the last several decades this beetle has ravaged the pine forests of British Columbia, and more recently it has spread into Alberta. The underlaying reasons for this multi-decade epidemic are complex and multifarious with books written about it. Without getting into details, the ultimate causes of this cataclysmic epidemic can all be attributed human arrogance, misguided policies, science illiteracy and greed.
Enough doom and gloom. Black birds are not always associated with ill omen and foreboding. In Native American culture the raven is viewed as a creature of metamorphosis, symbolizing change or transformation. I like to view this lone black bird as exactly that, a sign of the ongoing metamorphosis of the forests of western Canada. Right now it might be difficult to see beyond the destruction, but nature will prevail and out of the ashes of the red tops ecological succession will create new ecosystems and new opportunities that only time will tell. Personally, I am looking forward to the wild flowers that are expected to be one of the early colonizer.
As far as this one particular black bird hanging out in a forest of mountain pine beetle killed trees. The question is, is it a crow or a raven? As in American Crow vs. Common Raven. Typically the movement and vocalizations would give it away, but this fellow did neither. It just sat there. My first though was that the “curved bill” suggests it would be a raven. A consult with the folks at Edmonton Nature Club zeroed in on the overall shape and proportions being more consistent with a crow. In the end I am on the fence with this one.
Swallows can be tricky to id and photograph. They are small, always seem to be airborne, skipping back and forth at breakneck speeds, never stopping and seemingly never landing. During a field trip in southern Chile in December I found these swallows flying around above a pasture. Despite visiting the same field almost every day over the next few weeks I never managed to catch one perching. As a result I never got a good look at one and, needless to say, I was not able to id or photograph them. Using the process of elimination all I was able to do was to narrow it down to two possible species, either the Chilean Swallow (Tachycineta leucopyga) or the Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca). Of course, this left me very dissatisfied but they were simply too small, too fast and the morphological differences between the two species were too subtle for me to be able to pinpoint the species. Fast forward 5 months and I spot my first swallow of the year at Heritage Wetland Park in Sherwood Park. As it turns out, Canadian swallows behave the same way as Chilean swallows. Skipping back and forth at breakneck speeds, never stopping, never perching and never sitting still. Even with a new camera and more birding and photography experience there was just no way for me to catch up with them. As I was standing at the edge of the pond pondering my conundrum I suddenly spotted a lonesome swallow sitting on a dead branch that was jutting out over the water surface. It only sat there for a few seconds before taking flight again. Now I had a lead, I immediately trained my camera on that branch; pre-focusing and adjusting all the settings. I waited and I waited. I lost my concentration and focus several times but after what appeared to be an eternity, there it was, a very pretty Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor, Lifer: #107, AB Big Year: #56). It landed at the exactly same spot as last time. I don’t know if it the same individual or a different one that just happened to land on the same place. I did not care, it was the closes look I have ever got of a swallow. The wait was worth it.
I came across a single Double-crested Cormorant at Heritage Wetlands Park in Sherwood Park a few days ago. Cormorants tend to hang out in colonies so this is likely an early bird. eBird records show that up to 16 cormorants were recorded at this location last summer (in May) and that they start arriving around mid-April and stay until the end of September. The Double-crested Cormorants appear black form a distance but upon closer inspection, particularly if the light is right, one can see a subtle beautiful pattern emerge on their wings. It almost looks painted. This particular individual, lets call him/her Early Bird, was perched at the very top of a tall tree, almost as he/she wanted to show everyone “Check me out, I got here first!”. One can also see that Early Bird has a bit of bad hair day, either that, or its a tad breezy way up there.