It was one of those perfect late spring evenings. On a whim one June day, I talked my mother into joining me on a post-dinner jaunt to Thomas Francis Regional Park in Victoria, B.C., in search of a reported Western Tanager nest.
We arrived in the park at 7:00 pm and found ourselves quite alone. However, I was still cursing the traffic noise from the nearby road which made birding by ear difficult. As we stood below a large Garry Oak tree at the parking lot, I soon heard the “brrrrdit” calls of a Western Tanager and found the female directly above us. She seemed agitated as she was calling continuously and moving about nervously.
At first, I though our presence near a nest was cause for her alarm. But my eyes were soon drawn by some movement in the oak tree above the tanager. Using my binoculars, I could see the distinctive shape of a nest and thought I had found the male tanager. But then my mother and I both discerned a chunky, brownish bird sitting on the edge of the nest, facing away from us. My first thought was that this was a fledgling tanager, followed immediately by the idea that it was, in fact, a Sharp-shinned Hawk. But then it turned toward us and we could see the glowering, yellow eyes and bloody beak. It was a Northern Pygmy-owl and it had just finished off the last of the tanager nestlings (which had been seen in their nest only a few hours earlier by other birders).
As if on cue, the female tanager bravely charged the owl, and chased it off the nest and out over the road into the forest. We could hear the alarm calls of robins, chickadees and finches as they flew after the departing owl.
Quivering with excitement, we recalled the experience to each other from our own perspectives. My mother was, quite frankly, dismayed by the incident but was perhaps more shocked at my apparent glee and enthusiasm! You see, I’d always wanted to see a Northern Pygmy-Owl in daylight, having seen many as either silhouettes at dusk or in the beams of flashlights. To top it off, the entire incident had taken place only 30 feet away.
The female tanager returned to the oak tree, calling constantly but never venturing too close to the nest itself. I soon became concerned that the male had perished as well because there were no signs of him. Finally, after twenty minutes, the resplendent male arrived with a very full crop and bill full of insects. Not that one should anthropomorphize, but he appeared to show great concern upon alighting at the edge of the nest.
We watched as the pair of tanagers continued to call and forage together in the oak and nearby trees before departing into the depths of the forested park.
While sad in one way, I recognized that the behaviour of the owl was natural, and surely this happens more often than we know. At least the young birds died for a reason (probably to feed young owls) and not at the greedy paws of some semi-feral cat. The Western Tanager nest was exposed, perhaps making it too inviting to numerous predators. In addition, it was early enough in the season for the pair to successfully re-nest.
Both of us left the park excited – I’d seen a desired species in daylight and my mother (herself a novice birder) was pleased to get two life birds is less than thirty seconds! We felt privileged to have been witness to such an event and were not quick to judge the actions of the owl. Birding is as much about observing behaviour as it is about identifying new or rare species. Despite all we know about birds, there remains as much yet to be understood. Both amateur and professional ornithologists can help add to the collective knowledge about birds by observing and documenting this kind of behaviour and the events in the natural history of our bird life.
David E. Allinson
Victoria, British Columbia