Spring is late but welcome this year!

Since my last birding post, spring has sprung in Victoria at last! The last few years, the cherry blossoms have been out in February and warmer, sunny days became the norm in March. This year, spring seems to have arrived later. Just two weeks ago, we had another brief snowfall.

Not only are we humans enjoying the change, trading our winter coats for rain jackets, but the wildlife is, too. Our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds like true early birds have already mated and likely had at least one clutch of eggs so far. They started whirring and buzzing around after one another looking for to mate as early as January.

Anna’s Hummingbird

At the other end of the size spectrum, Bald Eagles have begun returning to their nests to raise their young. Bald Eagles mate for life and typically return to their previous nest sites if they were successful. I hope to see my neighborhood pair again this year, though I haven’t yet.

Bald Eagle pair

Between the smallest and largest birds are all those in between. In spring, things can get confusing in bird land with all the overlap, but each species has its own internal calendar. Its amazing how they find their way, year after year. Spring is a special time with wintering birds remaining while spring migrants arrive and they are all found amidst those familiar residents.

Some of our winter ducks are still here, like Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeons and lovely little Buffleheads.

Hooded Merganser pair (male left, female right)

Buffleheads (male)

While the ducks enjoy a good thaw, the warmer weather welcomes new arrivals to town, too. One of the most exciting spring arrivals for me are the swallows! This weekend I saw my first swallows of the season (a surprise for me), including Tree Swallows and Violet-Green Swallows. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching swallows swoop and dive, hunting insects in the air. I look forward to watching them for the next few months.

This Violet-green Swallow takes a rare landing on a perch long enough to snap this shot. They can be differentiated from the Tree Swallow by the bit of white that extends up behind their eye.

Another exciting group of spring arrivals are the warblers. Warblers were all new to me last year, though I got to know a few of them, but I know there are many out there I have not met, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler; my first new warbler of the year!

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), a first for me

As it turns out, there are two subspecies in North America – the Myrtle which tends to be more common in the east and the Audubon’s which is more common in the west. Although it seems they may be re-assessed as two different species after all. Either way, I am content to have seen one and learned a new bird I will be able to identify next time I see one!

Happy spring birding! I’m hoping the longer days give me more of a chance to get out there. Have you met any new birds recently?

Saying goodbye to the kitten who stole my heart

Just about a month ago, I said goodbye to my little foster kitty, Zip. She was my first one and she absolutely stole my heart. It was bittersweet saying goodbye between losing this little girlie I had come to know and love but happiness knowing she was going home to a wonderful family.

In fact, I am so grateful and overjoyed that she found a family who will look after her with love and care, and give her everything she needs. Because of her special needs, I worried she would never find a good home. Well, I was wrong, because obviously they could see how sweet and lovely she is!

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She’s positively angelic.

I spent lots of time with her while she was in my care. I got to know her different mews, where she liked to be scratched and what games and toys she liked the most. She cuddled up to me in bed every night, purring like a nonstop motor, sometimes licking my hair and wrapping herself around my head. She grew so much under my care and got a lot healthier being in a home.

She has such purr-sonality and she is so gentle, but equally very playful and excitable. Every night around bedtime, she’d get her energy and run back and forth and jump on all the furniture. She jumped like a fox on all fours, pouncing unseen prey.

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So bright and beautiful and always ready for the camera, my inquisitive little one.

Just like every other cat who seems to come into my life, I will love her forever. I think of her often, some days more than others. I will never forget her and cherish my memories. We celebrated her first Christmas and her 6 month birthday! Her family has updated me to say she is very happy and I think fondly of her at home with her family and new kitty brother, who is her newfound b.f.f.! She always loved other cats, it was a shame my own cat did not get along with her.

Looking back, I’d do it all again the same way even though it stressed out my poor Amber so much, she lost weight during the time I was fostering. The good news is, once Zipper went home, Amber gained her weight and returned to normal very quickly! I won’t be taking any more fosters for her sake, but if you are able, I highly encourage you to do so! Especially for those senior kitties or ones with special needs. They need you the most, and they often give the most love back in return. ❤

First time feasters at my new backyard bird feeder

On Friday afternoon, I walked into the backyard and saw something surprising and exciting – birds at my bird feeder for the first time! After nearly two months of patiently waiting, they had finally found my feeder! I was so excited I sat down and watched them for the next hour. Let’s go back to the start…

A Dark-eyed Junco sings from a snowy perch.

It was a cold, mid-December Saturday after a week of unusual snowfall in Victoria. I had recently been perusing the pages of various backyard birding books. One in particular (Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips: Hundreds of Easy Ways to Attract the Birds You Love to Watch by Debborah L. Martin) had got me thinking about bird feeders. It seemed suddenly not only plausible to keep up with the maintenance I had once thought too much, but also perfect for the birds given the weather. I always worried before about the cons of bird feeding: it would feel like cheating, it would spread disease and attract mice and I’d rather just get to see them by chance.

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee silhouette in the snow.

…and then I went birding for a year, read birding books and saw other feeders out and about and how cool it was to watch. So, after careful research on bird feeder care, what type of feeder and seed to get and how to position it in a safe, attractive spot, I went out and purchased my first bird feeder.

The first day I put it out in December, I watched and waited. I sprinkled some seeds on the ground to try to attract birds’ attention. A couple of Dark-eyed Juncos and Spotted Towhees took advantage of the fallen seeds, leaving little prints in the snow, but no one else came.

I was nearly ready to give up on my backyard feeding when suddenly the chickadees found my feeder on Friday! After another good snowfall earlier last week, things were thawing out. Maybe that’s what finally attracted the birds to my feeder.

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Last week’s snow at dusk.

I knew once the Chestnut-backed Chickadees showed up, everyone else would follow! At first, the chickadees monopolized the feeder, quickly flying in and out. Over time, they seemed more comfortable and spent more time on the feeder. They would often wait in line on nearby branches for the feeder to become available.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees were, not surprisingly, first at my feeder! Perhaps this one is loudly telling everyone else where the good food is at.

Soon enough, my second visitor was the Red-breasted Nuthatch. At first, he seemed shyer and more sensitive to disturbances and was very quick about visiting the feeder, but boy was I wrong! I read that they tend to rule the feeders, being small and mighty, kicking everyone else off! By day two, I was definitely seeing such behavior from him. He’d buzz in, chirping loudly, sometimes aggressively chasing away the chickadees before landing in for his mealtime.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch: tiny, agile and surprisingly, the king of the feeder as he rules over the other birds. I like his small but powerful attitude.

I cannot get enough of the nuthatch, who I believe is the same one who I’ve seen before living in a tree in the back. In fact, I saw him fly in and back from that very tree. He is difficult to photograph as he doesn’t tend to spend too much time on the feeder and seems to fly away every time I go to take a shot as if knowing he is eluding me.

Aside from the stars of my show so far, I’ve also had lots of beautiful Dark-eyed Juncos feeding off the seeds spilled onto the ground, as well as a lone Song Sparrow. Oh, and the squirrels of course…they like to come clean up the area after the birds have about finished.

Dark-eyed Junco feeding on fallen seeds.

Song Sparrow also eating fallen seeds.

This Eastern Grey Squirrel appreciate the seeds, too..

Now that I have my feeder, I don’t regret it for a moment! I still worry over spreading disease and attracting predators, but I take appropriate steps to prevent both. I am so excited to see what other birds come to visit and to continue watching my regulars, too! I’ve already noticed much I had missed about them before, like the flight pattern of the chickadee. The best surprise yet? Happening to spot two Varied Thrush in the backyard because I was watching my feeder. I probably would never have seen them had I not been looking that way already!

While watching my feeder, I spotted two Varied Thrush in the backyard! I’d heard them before and identified them by their distinct sound, but could never spot them to confirm. Guess I definitely know they are back there now and I feel so lucky to have these beautiful Pacific Northwest natives in my own yard!

A different kind of post: some ramblings of the inner mind…

Even on a cloudy day, Hobbiton looks a most appealing place to live a life in peace, surrounded by green grass, trees and cozy homes.

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” – Gildor, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Solitude. The woods. Silence. Golden. Words that run through my head. Sometimes I fantasize about running away to the woods. Living in a cabin. Off the grid. In harmony with nature, lush green trees surrounding me and the singing of birds to wake me as the sun lights up the room. Just me and my partner and my cat in the quiet and the calm, living slow and peaceful lives…wanting to fence the world out (like a hobbit).

To live beneath the earth, below a grand tree, to look out on a garden abounding with life!

“You cannot always be torn in two. [Frodo told Sam] You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.” – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

Other times, I feel the fire of the unjustness I see around me and I want to fight. To stand up and say: this is wrong, you are wrong, this is unjust. The system is corrupt. How can we fix it? What can I do? If I do nothing, will nothing change? But I feel so small.

How do I choose between the two halves and find balance? Like a hero of mine, I think of “Ultimate freedom. […] No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” (Chris McCandless, Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer)

Did Chris McCandless feel as immensely small as I did at the Grand Canyon? I was amazed at its never-ending reach and well, you couldn’t put it better, grand size. It is a place I will never forget!

But I think, too, of another hero who said “We have the choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place–or not to bother.” (Jane Goodall) and I wonder is it ever enough? What I try to do to make the world better. Do I give enough every day, or does the exhaustion of the 9-5 overwhelm the soul until I become like all the other capitalistic monkeys driving to work and coming home and doing it all again every day?

How do we choose? How do you choose? Do you ever think about the world in such a way or am I alone in these ramblings? In times of these immensely overanalytical, over-sensitive and self-indulgent(??) thoughts, the beauty of nature helps find my center of balance.

The cheerful robin reminds me to always slow down to enjoy nature (even in the city), to always enjoy and treasure the little, lovely moments.

In watching a wild bird sing and dance and forage for food, I feel at once, connected to the world around me. Rooted to the ground beneath my feet. And yet, I feel free and entranced completely in watching, ignoring all other sounds, movements and people. Perhaps completely vulnerable to surprise, but centered on that one bird brings me more peace and clarity than anything else might.

Remember to rise above and be the best self you can be. Treasure the little moments of joy, immerse yourself in nature when you can and be kind to one another (whether they have 4 legs or 2!).

Frosty mornings & lessons in winter birding

While I am a lover of summer time, we are lucky here in Victoria when it comes to winter birding! Quite a few resident birds stay here throughout the year while many others head down from the north to enjoy our mild winter.

Lingering frost on a crisp winter’s morning.

Now that I’ve been through my first winter of birding, I know easily who the visitors are now and who I can expect to see. In the winter, I look forward to seeing lots of lovely seabirds and ducks come south to our region. From Harlequin Ducks to Surf Scoters and American Wigeons, they are all a joy to watch. I wonder if, for them, coming south is like a welcome vacation from the cold?

Harlequin Ducks paddle along rocky coasts and turbid waters.

Common Goldeneye prefer sheltered, calmer water.

Surf Scoters make Buffleheads look like the tiny ducks they are!

American Wigeons make walking on ice look easy, but they actually prefer to graze on land anyway.

Meanwhile, resident birds get cozy in the cold with many of them forming flocks, like robins and chickadees. In fact, little chickadees are often the ringleaders of mixed species flocks, which will also include nuthatches, creepers and even the occasional woodpecker.

An American Robin illuminated by the morning light. A flock has been visiting my backyard regularly in recent weeks.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees, always fast and on the move, alert other birds to lurking dangers.

Pileated Woodpeckers remain year-round, drumming on dead trees.

Northern Flickers sound their familiar call and frequent the backyard.

Its not a bad idea to flock together in the winter – flocking helps them stay warm, find food and keep alert for danger. There’s safety in numbers and the raptors need a meal in the winter, too.

This Cooper’s Hawk was perched high above a small inlet where mallards, wigeons and goldeneyes paddled and dabbled in the water.

I have been enjoying the visitors and residents alike this winter. There will always be something special to me about birding in the winter here. Not only did I learn a lot about birding last winter, but it also helped heal the hole left in my heart after the loss of my beloved cat.  Winter can be a tough time at its best, and last year, birding made it all much better. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time for the things you love most in life.

Exploring underground at Horne Lake Caves

Partway up the island, northwest of Qualicum Beach (well-known for its beaches and ban on national chain stores) are the Horne Lake Caves. The four official caves are part of the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park along the Qualicum River. The caves are part of a karst topography, which typically forms where acidic water (commonly rainwater) dissolves rock. Generally, most caves form in limestone because it is especially susceptible to anything acidic. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made of marine fossils (often micro-fossils). This tell us that millions of years ago, there was once a sea or ocean where there is now limestone rock.

Looking up from the depths of Andre’s Annex at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

In 1912, a geologist first wrote about and explored the caves hidden in the woods and tourists followed starting in the ’40s. Today, the park remains a tourist attraction and various tours are available during the warmer months of the year. Tours allow access to parts of the caves otherwise barred from public entry to protect the delicate calcite formations. We went on a short tour of the Main Cave, which was fun and involved a bit of climbing, sliding and scrambling through narrow passages and got to see nice calcite formations. After our tour, we walked around the forested park and explored the open caves on our own as well.

The beach at Horne Lake campground in the morning with smoke rolling over the water.

We camped at the nearby Horne Lake Regional Park perched on the western shore of the beautiful Horne Lake below the peak of Mt Mark. We had a nice time camping here in September, with a tent site well within view of the calm, blue water. As we drove the logging roads to the park, we really felt like we were living most of civilization behind. Besides the lake, the caves are the main attraction here and they can be reached on foot via a trail from the campground.

Horne Lake at dusk.

On our way out, we stopped at Spider Lake for a rest and a swim. It was a little chilly for a swim, but I enjoyed watching the ravens and ducks as I prepped our picnic lunch. It was a lovely, quiet spot, a nice change from listening to the loud motorized boats (and boaters) out on Horne Lake although it was absolutely swarming with wasps which cut our lunch a bit short.

Spider Lake

On the way home, we made a quick stop at Top Bridge on the Englishman River for a stretch and some sun. Its an impressive new suspension bridge linking two popular parks in the area via a regional trail, allowing access to foot or cycle traffic. I imagine it is a popular spot in the summertime for swimming!

Top Bridge over the Englishman River. I was not sure how I’d feel riding a bike over that bridge!

All in all, it was a great weekend getaway and the close proximity of the campground to the caves was nice so we could walk between the two. The lakes were beautiful and the surrounding hills were, too. I would definitely love to go  back another time and I bet it would be busy in the summer!

My first new bird of the new year: the prince of songbirds

I’ve had a ‘feather-ful’ new year so far; with time off work, its easier to get out and go for a walk see the birds. It was a gusty and cold but sunny day today and I was rewarded for my efforts with my first new bird of the year! And its only January 2nd! While I am not a big “lister” (in fact, my ebird account often collects dust…), I’m always excited to meet new birdies. Today’s star was the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and is, in fact, my first ever kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet - my first ever!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet – my first ever!

The little bird popped out at me among the foliage, his feathers bright olive-green in the direct light of the morning sun. He moved quickly, never made a sound and did not seem to mind my presence much, like many of the birds at the park. They must be accustomed to city life.

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Ruby-Crowned Kinglet: here you can really see the white eye ring.

The kinglet’s olive coloring reminded me of the Orange-Crowned Warbler so common here in the summer. And just like the warbler whose  orange crown is rarely seen, the kinglet’s ruby crown of his namesake is not always visible, either (Cornell).

Ruby-Crowned Kinglets look very similar to the Hutton’s Vireo and I was able to distinguish my kinglet by three things: the distinct white eye ring, bright yellow colouring on the wings and the black bar below the white wingbar. It also helps that the Hutton’s Vireo also has blue-grey legs which this bird clearly does not have.

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Ruby-Crowned Kinglet: notice the yellow on the wings and the orange legs as well as a black bar below the white whingbar.

These kinglets winter along a sliver of the Pacific west coast from southern BC down to Mexico and much of the southern U.S. Their breeding grounds are mostly in the boreal forests of the northern states and Canada where they can nest in the tops of old conifers (Cornell). I hope the new year brings you all kinds of birds, both new and old! Perhaps you will see a prince of songbirds, a kinglet!

Fantails and flightless birds of New Zealand

The New Zealand Fantail, also called piwakawaka, has to be one of my very favourites. These forest birds certainly live up to their name; spreading out their tail behind them and doing a memorable dance and singing a loud chattering song. For a little bird, they are extremely noisy and not shy of people at all!

On a walk one day, a fantail (in the photo below) tagged along with me and my partner, fanning his tail periodically squeaking and chirping as he flicked from branch to branch. This behaviour continued for quite some time! If you haven’t seen it, its worth watching. There is a great, short youtube video available here.

The New Zealand fantail

As a duck-lover, the Paradise Shelduck (putangitangi) is another one of my favourites. They are actually a type of goose and they are just as noisy. They have a very distinct call and are often found in pairs in wetlands and on ponds. The female has a brilliant white head while the male is a bit more drab with a mostly black body. The pairs mate for life and return each year to the same nesting sites (DOC). For a real treat, listen to their calls here.

Pair of Paradise Shelducks (and mallards) at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. (Male is left, female is on the right)

Paradise Shelduck female (and chick just below her).

New Zealand is also home to some unique species of penguins! Yes, I have been lucky enough to see both the Yellow-eyed Penguin (hoiho) and the Little Blue Penguin though I have no photos of the latter. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the largest resident penguin that breeds regularly in southeastern New Zealand. If you find the right beach at the right time of year, you can see them leaving their nests in the early morning to go fishing or returning to them around dusk for the night. Its a joy to watch them come ashore and clumsily make their way up the beach after swimming so gracefully in the sea; however, they do move more quickly on land than you might expect!

Yellow-eyed penguins returning to their nests after a long day out fishing. Bit blurry as these photos are taken on my old camera years ago.

They are extremely sensitive creatures, though, and must be watched in silence and with caution only under cover. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the predation from invasive species like cats, dogs (people walking them off leash down the beach), ferrets and stoats (NZBO). The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Penguin Place have both been set up to support these unique birds by putting in nest boxes, planting native plants and even rehabilitating sick and injured penguins back to health.

Little Blue Penguins are the world’s smallest penguin and as such, face similar threats. The West Coast Penguin Trust aims to help the little blue through research, education and restoring habitat to its natural state.

That is all for 2016, I hope you all have a wonderful new year full of feathers, nature and everything else you love. I will see you again in 2017!

The Bewick’s Wren in the bush

There’s a chatty little bird that chirps noisily as he hops around among the brush. He has a distinct, bright white eye stripe and a tail he holds aloft and flicks back and forth. His name is the Bewick’s Wren and he’s been a regular visitor over the last few months. Now I don’t know if he’s the same one or not, but I do think it could be; he is hopping along the same tree and the bushes every time I see him. I like to think its his established territory.

The first time we met, he was climbing up the mossy limb of a tall tree frequented by chickadees and the occasional hummingbird. It was one of those autumn Victoria days with spots of sunshine peeping out between intermittent clouds. His quick stop and go movements caught my eye, as well as his noisy song. He would move along quickly, stop and tap the tree, hunting for insects for a bit before moving along again.

He also hops along on the ground among the leaves and brush, hopping from cover to cover. I think he has a preferred little nook in between the low branches of a bush where he must stay warm and dry. I’ve seen him there a few times, and he always seems to hide there when other people walk by. Their footsteps crunching in the leaves and stones send him scurrying for cover. Looking at how tiny he is, fitting in his little alcove as small as a leaf, I wonder what it would be like to be that small. Would a blade of grass be like a tree and would a tree like a mountain?

Bewick’s wren in his little hiding nook, but clearly I haven’t hidden from him.

Since I started birding, I remember seeing my first Bewick’s Wren in my backyard. This little wren was once found widespread across North America; today, their refuge is the west coast and parts of the southwest. They can be found in shrubby and bushy areas, such as parks and gardens, as well as open woodlands like the garry oak meadows found on eastern Vancouver Island (Seattle Audubon; Cornell). These little birds are a joy to watch and I am always extra excited to see them in my own backyard.

I watch as he gracefully flits among the blades of grass, setting each one he lands on into a gentle sway.

Keas, kiwi and curious birds of New Zealand

You can’t mention New Zealand birds without mentioning the Kiwi. While I have never seen one in the wild (though I have heard them), I saw this one at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, where they have an excellent breeding program in effect to try to help the kiwi population. Because they are flightless, they are vulnerable to predation by species introduced from settlers including possums and stoats. Shy and nocturnal birds, they have a very strong sense of smell they use to feed on insects, worms and fruit under cover of night.

There are actually five different species of kiwi: the North Island brown kiwi, the Okarito brown kiwi, Southern brown kiwi, the Little Spotted kiwi and the Great Spotted Kiwi. In general, each species tends to inhabit a different geographic region.

Kiwi in center of photo at a nocturnal exhibit at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

Like the kiwi, the Weka is another flightless native bird of New Zealand and is also part of the rail family. These beautiful birds are not shy of people and this one walked right up to us and hung out with us for quite a while. It was quite entertaining to watch them walking around and exploring.

Weka checking us out in a parking lot

Not shy at all, the weka will approach people.

While on birds who are not shy, the Kea is one of the most inquisitive and raucous birds you’ll ever meet. Also known as the New Zealand mountain parrot, no one should ever visit this country without meeting one. They are lovely olive-green parrots that literally live in the Southern Alps, though they can also be found at sea level, they thrive in the alpine environment.

The New Zealand mountain parrot in the mountains.

Anyone driving through the Homer Tunnel en route to Milford Sound is likely to see a kea. They are not at all shy of people and in fact, are infamous around New Zealand for being so curious; they tear apart people’s hiking boots left outside tents, tents and backpacks, and especially cars. They really like anything rubber. If you don’t believe me, google it. Despite their troublesome nature to some people, I absolutely love them.

Kea spotted in Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps.

The Pukeko is also known as the Purple Swamphen (or purple Gallinule) and is another member of the rail family. In North America, you might find they bear a resemblance to the American Purple Gallinule. Unlike their close relatives, the Takahe (once thought to be extinct), the Pukeko can fly long distances with a running start to get in the air. They can also be found in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Pukeko

As a country with no native land mammals apart from the bat, New Zealand is full of interesting birds with more to come in Part 2 of this series…