The Cumberland Winter Bird Project is a community project focused on getting to know the winter birds in our backyard, forests, and wetlands over the months of December and January.

Did you know the Comox Valley is one of the most significant areas for wintering and migratory waterfowl and waterbirds in British Columbia? Yup!  Winters in the forests and wetlands of Cumberland is a wonderful time to get to know our neighbours in nature. 

 
This project is about observation, documentation and discovery, Whether you join in on CCFS citizen science projects like iNaturalist, observe as part of a peaceful walk in the forest, take photos or sketch drawings, or just learn more through books and websites – the Winter Bird Project is all about tuning in to the biodiversity of the Cumberland Forest in the winter months
 

In the forest, this is a big winter for cones on Douglas-fir, meaning it is also a great year to see massive flocks of seed-eating finches such as Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, and the more rare White-winged Crossbill. Pacific Wrens also stick around in deep forest cover and can be seen hopping around in dense undergrowth or heard giving their extremely long, musical song.  Higher in the canopy, you may see and hear Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a variety of woodpeckers. 

In wetlands or open water, look for Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, and Wood Ducks in “club kid” mating plumage, bobbing their strangely shaped heads as they cruise the ponds looking for mates. 

Steller’s Jays are now roving in flocks around alleys and backyards, as are Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, and big flocks of American Robins.In gardens, backyards, and around forest edges, listen for the raspy sound of the Anna’s Hummingbird and look for them visiting feeders all winter and chasing much larger birds from a prominent perch. 

For those of you who like to explore the forest at night, Owls are another group of birds that start pairing up in the winter. At any time of night, or near dusk, in patches of big trees you may start to hear Barred Owls beginning their mating “duets” that sound like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Barred Owls are Cumberland’s most common owl, but you may also hear Great Horned, or some of our tiny and “at risk” species such as Northern Saw-whet Owl or Western Screech Owl – especially around lakes or wetlands.

Here is some more info on a few of our favourite feathered friends!

American Dipper

We have American Dippers around all winter in Cumberland.  We found one in Perseverance Creek (lower area, between the bridge and Comox Lake).  American Dippers are just plain awesome… they dive into freezing cold water all day, all winter, as long as they have a bit of open water.  Also very connected to healthy waterways as they eat things like aquatic insects (big news stories yesterday on global insect decline) and fish eggs.

American Robin

The American Robin is the quintessential ‘Bird of Spring’ for most of North America, but we’re lucky enough to have them as year-round residents on eastern Vancouver Island. They’re common almost everywhere but are especially visible after rain (so, yeah, mostly in the winter months) chasing down worms that wriggle to the surface to avoid drowning in the soaked soil. They have a gentle call and a sociable nature, preferring to roam in flocks (almost herds at times), but will scold you if you get too close. 
 

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbirds are among the most common hummingbirds along the Pacific Coast, yet they’re anything but common in appearance. With their iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats, they are more like flying jewelry than birds.
 
Though no larger than a ping-pong ball and no heavier than a nickel, Anna’s Hummingbirds make a strong impression. In their thrilling courtship displays, males climb up to 130 feet into the air and then swoop to the ground with a curious burst of noise that they produce through their tail feathers.
 
Explore your gardens, backyards, and around forest edges and listen for the raspy sound of the Anna’s Hummingbird. Look for them visiting feeders all winter and chasing much larger birds from a prominent perch. Unlike the Rufuous Hummingbirds that show up in summer, Anna’s don’t migrate south for the winter, and start to nest in late winter/early spring.
 

Barred Owl

For those of you who like to explore the forest at night, Owls are another group of birds that start pairing up in the winter.  At any time of night, or near dusk, in patches of big trees you may start to hear Barred Owls beginning their mating “duets” that sound like “Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you all?” Barred Owls are Cumberland’s most common owl, but you may also hear Great Horned, or some of our tiny and “at risk” species such as Northern Saw-whet Owl or Western Screech Owl – especially around lakes or wetlands.

Bufflehead

A small, buoyant, large-headed duck that abruptly vanishes and resurfaces as it feeds, the tiny Bufflehead spends winters bobbing in estuaries, reservoirs, wetlands and lakes.

The Bufflehead nests almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers. Males are striking black-and white from a distance. A closer look at the head shows glossy green and purple setting off the striking white patch. Females are a subdued gray-brown with a neat white patch on the cheek.

Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years. Less sociable than most ducks, they are most often seen in pairs or small groups, and almost never in large flocks. They take wing easily from the water, flying with rapid wingbeats. Cool Fact? Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. One California fossil that resembles a modern Bufflehead dates to the late Pliocene, two million years ago.

 

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark Eyes Juncos are dark-headed sparrow with the white outer tail feathers is the most abundant sparrow in the province – and indeed in the country. It is a familiar winter bird in southern British Columbia, common in parks and around feeders. Dark-eyed juncos play important ecosystem roles by helping with seed dispersal and controlling insects. They also bring great joy to birdwatchers. In fact, dark-eyed juncos are often regarded as one of the most common feeder birds in Canada.

Golden-Crowned Sparrow

The large, handsome Golden-crowned Sparrow is a common bird of weedy or shrubby lowlands and city edges in winter along the Pacific coast. Though it’s familiar to many during winter, Golden-crowned Sparrows vanish for the summer into the north of BC, Yukon and Alaska.

Gold-rush miners Miners in the Yukon at the turn of the twentieth century woefully referred to the Golden-crowned Sparrow as the “no gold here” bird, because its melancholic song resembled that depressing phrase. They also interpreted its song to say “I’m so tired,” prompting them to dub the bird “Weary Willie.” Check out this link to listen to their song https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-crowned_Sparrow/

Hooded Merganser

“Hooded” is something of an understatement for this extravagantly crested little duck. Adult males are a sight to behold, with sharp black-and-white patterns set off by chestnut flanks. Females get their own distinctive elegance from their cinnamon crest. Hooded Mergansers are fairly common on small ponds and rivers, where they dive for fish, crayfish, and other food, seizing it in their thin, serrated bills. They nest in tree cavities; the ducklings depart with a bold leap to the forest floor when only one day old.

Hooded Mergansers find their prey underwater by sight. They can actually change the refractive properties of their eyes to improve their underwater vision. In addition, they have an extra eyelid, called a “nictitating membrane,” which is transparent and helps protect the eye during swimming, like a pair of goggles.

Hooded Mergansers often lay their eggs in other females’ nests. This is called “brood parasitism” and is similar to the practice of Brown-headed Cowbirds, except that the ducks only lay eggs in nests of their own species. Female Hooded Mergansers can lay up to about 13 eggs in a clutch, but nests have been found with up to 44 eggs in them! 🐣

Pacific Wren

Pacific Wrens are tiny brown wrens with a song much larger than themselves. One researcher deemed them a “pinnacle of song complexity.” This tinkling, bubbly songster is more often heard than seen within the dark understory of old-growth evergreen forests where they live.

When Pacific Wrens sing they hold their tail upright and their entire body shakes with sound.  When you hear their sweet song, patiently look in the understory for mouselike movements along decaying logs and in upturned roots. Male Pacific Wrens build multiple nests within their territory. During courtship, males lead the female around to each nest and the female chooses which nest to use.

Red Crossbill

A fascinating finch of coniferous woodlands, the Red Crossbill forages on nutritious seeds in pine, hemlock, Douglas-fir, and spruce cones. Their specialized bills allow them to break into unopened cones, giving them an advantage over other finch species. Because conifers produce seeds unpredictably, Red Crossbills sometimes wander (or “irrupt”) far beyond their usual range. They nest wherever and whenever they find abundant food, sometimes even in winter. Several types of Red Crossbill exist; they each have different calls, feed on particular conifer species, and might represent distinct species.

These stubby little nomads are often first detected by their hard kip-kip call notes as they fly overhead in evergreen woods. Look and especially listen for Red Crossbills in coniferous forests. Their call notes are sharp and metallic, and the birds usually occur in chattering flocks near the tops of trees. In the morning, crossbills often come to the ground to consume grit along roadsides.

Spotted Towhee

The Spotted Towhee is a large, striking sparrow. When you catch sight of one, they’re gleaming black above (females are grayish brown), spotted and striped with brilliant white. Their warm rufous flanks match the dry leaves they spend their time hopping around in.  Spotted Towhees are likely to visit – or perhaps live in – your yard if you’ve got brushy, shrubby, or overgrown borders. If your feeders are near a vegetated edge, towhees may venture out to eat fallen seed. If you want to attract towhees to your feeders, consider sprinkling some seed on the ground, as this is where towhees prefer to feed. But watch out for cats.

Stellar's Jay

This crested bird has an attitude! Bold, intelligent, and noisy, Steller’s Jays are ‘generalist foragers’ who eat insects, seeds, berries, nuts, small animals, eggs, and nestlings. With large nuts such as acorns and pinyon pine seeds, Steller’s Jays carry several at a time in their mouth and throat, then bury them one by one as a winter food store. Steller’s Jays will also steal food from other birds or look for handouts from people.

Steller’s Jays move around with bold hops of their long legs, both on the ground and among the branches of conifers. They pause often to eye their surroundings, cocking their head with sudden movements this way and that. Jays also have incredible memories! They are very social, traveling in groups, sometimes playing with or chasing each other, or joining mixed-species flocks. One of the most vocal species, Steller’s Jays keep up a running commentary on events and often instigate mobbing of predators and other possibly dangerous intruders.

Wood Duck

The Wood Duck is one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl. Males are iridescent chestnut and green, with ornate patterns on nearly every feather; the elegant females have a distinctive profile and delicate white pattern around the eye. These birds live in wooded swamps, where they nest in holes in trees or in nest boxes put up around lake or wetland margins (you can see some of these from the Wellington Trail!). They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches.

After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of over 50 feet without injury. Look for Wood Ducks around the edges of wetlands, swamps and wood-fringed marshes. They’re less likely to be out on a large stretch of open water. They pick their way around vegetation growing out of the water or stand on tree branches or logs along the shorelines. Look for their distinctive oblong head shape. In flight they have a distinctive pattern: dark underwings and chest with a contrasting bright belly.

More Bird Info

Cool Winter Bird Links

Yellow Point Ecological Society – This  organization exists to appreciate, protect and restore the ecosystems and watersheds in the Yellow Point area of Vancouver Island, and to inspire and support local residents and visitors to do the same. They have great VI backyard bird content including audio clips for identifying!

Audubon – Check out this online field guide to North American Birds

Avibase –  Avibase is an extensive database information system about all birds of the world, containing over 37 million records about 10,000 species and 22,000 subspecies of birds. They have a specific page for Vancouver Island.

What Bird.com – Whatbird.com search engine used to identify birds of North America.

Comox Valley Nature –  they folks exist “to know nature, and keep it worth knowing” and offer workshops, walks (when covid allows), interest pages and more. They have a Nature Viewing Guide for the Comox Valley as well.