There is a moment, when watching a bird, when everything else falls away and there is nothing in the world but you and that bird. Worries are forgotten. Hunger, cold, heat, rain are not felt. You are in tune, in harmony, with a little feathered creature and their habitat and you let it fill you up.
Joe Harkness said it best in his book Bird Therapy:
“… I had also started to recognise just how positive I felt when I was immersed in the world of birds. My worries seemed to fade into insignificance and when I was feeling stressed, if I counteracted it with some time outside, watching them, it drifted off like birds do, in a stiff breeze.”
This is the real reason I love watching birds. It took me a few years to realize what I was doing was a form of mindfulness. A moment where your attention is focused on nothing but the present. To seek a connection, no matter how fleeting, with another creature. and pull me out of myself and into the world around me.
It’s a wonder that such a small thing can make such a difference, a little thing with feathers. Birds have brought me so much joy since I started to really become aware of them and they were there when times were low. They are beautiful and charismatic, funny and entertaining, fascinating and full of surprises. I am grateful and love every one; the brightly-hued migrants, the little brown birds, the fierce raptors and the tiniest songbirds. Here’s to you, every member of the Aves class, but especially the ones who’ve graced me with their presence over the years and more recently.
Let it be known that spring means swallows! They are one of my most look-forward to birds of the season along with warblers and Osprey.
Normally when I go birding, I don’t set expectations or look for specific birds. But because I love swallows so much, today, I went out in search of some spots I know they favor. Though there were not as many Barn Swallows in my tried-and-true spot (maybe a little early still), I did find them!
I also saw lots of Tree Swallows swooping and searching for cavities in trees to use for their nests. Barn Swallows have a special place in my heart, I’m not even sure I can explain why. Maybe its a combination of their vibrant colors and behavior, their high-pitched chittering calls and the free and effortless way they fly and dive.
An unexpected surprise was the best view I’ve ever had of an American Bittern. They are experts at camouflage, blending in seamlessly with their environment. Probably why I almost never see them. It was a treat and privilege to see this heron close enough that I could see each individual toe spread out as he slowly stalked through the grass.
The Marsh Wrens were especially chatty and I even managed to spot one instead of just hearing one hiding in the reeds and cattails. He was singing his little heart out beneath the clatter of the Red-winged Blackbirds doing much the same.
If the birds are not enough to tell us that spring is here, the beautiful blooming camas is. There is still new life, new beauty, new sights and sounds waiting to be discovered in nature.
Life in Oregon can be pretty grey and dreary during the winter. I don’t mind rainy days until it starts to feel like I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. The rain gives us our beautiful temperate rainforests: it feeds the thousand-year old trees that have lived for thousands of years and dusts the canopy with lichens and moss. Winter can often seem dull but little bright patches of colour can be found in almost every colour of the rainbow!
All colors can be seen in the forest and trees, birds and berries, if one takes a moment to look. Acorn Woodpeckers, as the purported clowns of the woodpecker world, are always very fun and uplifting to watch their antics with one another up in the oak trees!
A Ruby-crownd Kinglet overcame his shyness and danced among the raspberry brambles. I watched him for a while as he hovered like a hummingbird and flitted among thorny branches perhaps in search of a tasty meal. A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos skittered along the grassy edges of a path. When I hear their sweet, forlorn song “Oh dear me”, I look out for their bright sunlit crowns and bold black stripe.
Ducks are a splendid part of of winter, the sight and sound of them sure to cheer me up even on cloudy days. They are North America’s smallest dabbling duck and they have particularly beautiful plumage. The males (left, below) have gorgeous green and cinnamon colouring on their heads. Both male and female (right, below) have green patches under their wings but it really stands out remarkably bright on the females.
The sky is sometimes blue even in our rainy winter but the Steller’s Jay shines bright and proud of his cerulean plumage! This one was so unusually still and subdued, I nearly did not see him. He seemed too pre-occupied with preening his feathers and fluffing his mohawk to pay any mind to squawk at me.
In drafting this post of some photos from this past winter, purple eluded me. The closest thing I had a photo of was the iridescent violet-black heads of the European Starling. No matter what you think of these Shakespearean-inspired non-native songbirds, to me, they are quite beautiful. They cannot be all bad if Mozart kept a pet starling who may arguable have inspired snippets of his compositions.
I spent some time thinking back on the year 2020 we would all love to forget. When it started, I felt like the future was bright. I continued with my second semester of classes, the winter weather was gorgeous and had plans to travel later in the year. Little did I know, right?
In January and February, life was normal. I went to the Japanese Gardens in Portland (they are gorgeous and well-worth visiting when it is safe to do so again), my favourite spots on the coast and some usual haunts like the local wildlife refuge. In March, that all changed when Oregon began to enforce social distancing measures.
I tried to focus on the good – I was fortunate to be able to work safely from home and I searched for joy in the little things like the snowdrops popping up in my garden. Restrictions led me to explore new places closer to home and find there were still things to discover. I saw this little Pacific Wren in a small forest park in the middle of town. It was not really so bad even though there was so much suffering in the world.
Spring and summer came and brought some new adventures. I signed up to monitor bluebird nest-boxes for the local Audubon group. It was definitely morale-boosting to contribute one small positive thing to a bigger conservation effort even when I had to face the reality of life and death. My reward came when I got to see the juvenile bluebirds who fledged from one of my boxes flying around a farm and hunting for themselves while their parents worked on a second brood. I saw those birds when they were just little blue eggs, tiny hatchlings with not a feather on their heads and I watched them grow up into beautiful young birds who I hope will survive to breed more young of their own.
With late summer came the wildfires. Within days of going to hike and camp at a lake in the Cascades (the first trip of the year and only safe socially distanced thing I could think of), the fires that were burning in the mountains were raging. While I was out there, the smoke was settled in the distance, just a faraway thing until the winds changed. They surged westward down the valleys, bringing what seemed like unstoppable destruction…Marion Lake seems to have escaped but so much of the land and lives will never be the same again, at least not within our lifetime.
There were times I felt myself lost in a fog, crushed by the weight of all the things I cannot change…
…but nature and life marches on even when battered and broken.
Looking forward, I guess we all have to find some peace, whatever that means to us. One thing I know is that spending time in nature helps calm anxiety, promotes positive thinking and reminds us to appreciate the beauty in the little things. I hope you can find a small slice of nature (or whatever else enriches your spirit) this year and I hope and wish everyone (and the world) has a safe(r) and bright(er) 2021. Focus on the good but don’t drown your worries or negative feelings – it is important to acknowledge and feel them, too. Like in nature, all things must be balanced, and it is true for you and for me.
Earlier this spring on a forest stroll, I spotted this American robin with a meal for her chicks. She was very careful to flit about on her way to her nest so as not to alert predators of her chicks’ whereabouts. They might be considered a common bird, but I still find them beautiful, especially their cheerful song.
In an exciting first, I spotted my first and second Lazuli Buntings! I’ve seen them once before on a group bird walk, but I don’t tend to think it counts until I can spot and identify a bird on my own.
The first bunting was calling from a treetop and caught my attention because I didn’t recognize the sound. I spent a while watching and listening until I got a good look of his bright blue head and orange chest! Ah-ha! A Lazuli Bunting! The second one I saw was also singing from the near the top of a tree.
On that same walk, not far away, I first heard a Common Yellowthroat tch-tch-ing and waited for a while to see if I could spot him. His dainty feet perched on tall weedy stems as he darted about and called from the grasses.
I heard a second call coming from away on my left and I had to be very patient and attentive to spot a female Common Yellowthroat, who I suspect was his mate. The female has always been much more elusive to me and this one was shy as she mostly hid among the lower branches of a tree.
Watching Western Bluebirds has been another summer highlight for me. Since I’ve been monitoring nestboxes (which I hope to write about soon), I’ve learned a lot more about them just by watching and listening. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these birds more intimately and watching their chicks grow up (though they don’t always make it).
I’ve had quite a few reptile sightings on walks lately, too! I’m not an expert, but I think the first snake is a Pacific Gopher Snake. From my reading, because they look like rattlesnakes, they will hiss and shake their tail when threatened. The lower snake is a Garter Snake, my guess would be a Northwestern Garter Snake, but I am not really sure. They are pretty common around here though that was the first Gopher Snake I’ve ever seen!
I hope you have all been able to safely get out into nature and enjoy some birds, snakes, plants and everything else there is to see!
Well its hard to believe we are halfway through 2020 already. I find myself wondering where the time has gone…its been a bit of a whirlwind year. From January to March, I was busy with work and classes. Then the end of March hit and Oregon went into social distancing and everything slowed down for a little while.
While social distancing and closed parks have limited some of my bird-watching opportunities, you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got! I’ve managed to see quite a few more spring and summer birds than I anticipated back in March.
On a short walk around a small-ish forest park, I was lucky enough to photograph this lovely little Pacific Wren singing his little heart out! I am always amazed at how loud and how long the Pacific Wren can sing for as it echoes throughout forests with lots of old wood and fallen tree debris.
The Brown Creeper is ever an elusive bird to me. I find they difficult to spot and I still remember how excited I was when I saw my first. This one soon disappeared from the moss, blending in with the tree bark as he crept up the tree.
One of my favorite spring arrivals is the Orange-crowned Warbler! I think I spotted this one with a bit of luck (which is sometimes what you need watching birds) and by his somewhat indistinct song! At the beginning of every spring, I struggle to remember how to distinguish their song vs. the Dark-eyed Junco. Its a challenge I welcome.
Meanwhile, I saw the last of the Golden-crowned Sparrows until they return again in autumn and winter! I saw a whole flock of them filling up on seeds to prepare for their journey north to breed.
White-crowned Sparrows were singing their songs across open woodland meadows, urban parks and parking lots and along the edges of forests. I am sure they must be busy now with chicks or fledglings to look after, possibly even onto their second brood already!
Of course, there is more to see than just birds. This American Bullfrog scared me as I nearly ran over it on my bike. They are incredibly loud and very invasive around these parts and he certainly seemed to think he owned this part of the path.
The Pacific Tree frog is quite a bit smaller and definitely native. They can be found around the Pacific Northwest and occupy a variety of habitats including woodlands, backyard ponds, pastures, grasslands and can even be found in alpine zones!
Despite some limitations, which required some creative thinking to get out and about, I’ve been able to have some nice moments in nature which are always healing, restorative and energizing. They remind of of the small beauties in life when many things in the world are turning quite ugly.
The Big Island of Hawaii immediately felt different from O’ahu to me. Yes, it was quieter and less crowded just as I hoped and expected, but it was also bigger. Everything felt a bit more wild and expansive and even the air smelled different here.
We stayed a bit off the beaten path in Captain Cook on the west coast. On our first day, we drove eastward and upward past Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to Hilo in the east on what is known as Route 200 or the Saddle Road. It was absolutely breathtaking as we passed through a myriad of landscapes and environments.
In Captain Cook on the slopes of Mauna Loa, we were in lush rainforest where frogs sang a chorus by night and geckos clambered up our hotel walls and enjoyed leftover mango jam at our breakfast table. The ocean looked calm in the near distance, quite unlike the big waves and strength of the sea on O’ahu. There was a beautiful tranquility about this place that crept into your soul, where life seemed to move a little bit slower, but was a little bit more savoured. Birds sang in the trees but chickens clucked and roosters cawed at the early morning light, reminding us of man’s imprint on this place. This place felt much more like a place to be lived than one to be visited.
The road was steep out of Captain Cook, climbing up through rainforest and past small towns until the landscape changed, passing through grasslands until we found ourselves in an arid desert 6,000 feet up. The landscape was almost bizarre when I thought about where I came from just a couple hours earlier. There were scrubby bushes reminding me of the deserts of the American Southwest until I saw the cinder cones and dark, craggy lava beds dotting the landscape. The strange burning smell I couldn’t put my finger on, but first detected on the wind in Captain Cook was more prominent here. I presumed it was related to the volcanoes in some way.
Maybe most bizarre of all were the signposts to watch out for nēnē, the native Hawaiian goose. I just couldn’t understand how a goose could live in such an environment and I may have once slammed on the breaks on sighting a bird only to find out they were turkeys when I turned around.
According to the Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Birds and Their Habitats (by Pratt and Jeffrey) I picked up, the nēnē live so high up in volcanic rocks because it is where they found safety from human and introduced predators.
We passed more lava beds as we descended back into the coastal greenery on the windward side of the island and visited a few waterfalls, something we missed out on in O’ahu. We stopped to buy some locally-grown tropical fruit at a road stand and continued our way north, taking Highway 19 north toward Waimea before heading back around the west coast to Captain Cook.
Just north of Hilo on our way north, we paused for a mid-day walk at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It was well-worth the stop as we explored a myriad of plant species, many of which I’ve hardly seen before from coffee plants to banana and coconut trees, to every colour and kind of orchid and bromeliad imaginable.
After filling my senses with the wonders of the botanic garden, we drove back north as the sun fell in the sky and found amazing views of the coast below as the ocean battered volcanic rock, lava flows cut across grass and gained a great appreciation for the volcanoes that make up this island. The view driving south down the west coast truly put into perspective just how huge these volcanoes are, so unlike any others I’ve seen. Their slopes seem to go on endlessly and at angles that, to me, defied logic. I have never seen land that sloped quite like that before. There was so much to see on the Big Island, we could have spent more time there. The next big stop we made was at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Way back in October last year, I went on a trip to Hawaii for the first time. It was also my first time travelling anywhere that can properly be considered tropical. Beforehand, I felt both excitement and trepidation as someone who does not enjoy or cope well with hot weather. Hawaii was never really at the top of my list of places to visit, but a good friend of mine was getting married, so it was time to go. Sure enough, when I first set foot outside Honolulu Airport, I felt like I’d set foot into a sauna! But I think after a few days, I began to adjust.
With the wedding on the North Shore and not being city people, we opted to skip Honolulu and Waikiki and stay part-way up the east coast. Overall, as we began the drive out of Honolulu and east along the coast, the landscape and greenery reminded me a little of New Zealand (particularly the North Island), but not quite.
We hiked up Diamond Head (Le’ahi) the first thing to stretch our legs after the flight. Getting out of the city was relief; everywhere was green and blue. From the top of Le’ahi’s tuff cone, there are views of Honolulu to the west, the endless ocean below and the lush mountains in the background. There is an information display near the trail-head about the loss of native species and the introduced species who have unfortunately taken over much of the habitat around Hawaii. And despite all the new (native and invasive) birds there were, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at those that were familiar including Rock Doves, Mallards and House Sparrows.
This hike was about all we had time for day one, besides getting dinner and arriving at our accommodation for the next two nights for some much-needed sleep. I found myself exhausted after our early morning flight, the heat, the hike and driving in the dark. It was a strange thing for my to experience such an early sunset during summer weather. I’m used to the long southern days of the temperate latitudes, not the 12-hour days of the tropics.
The next day, I visited Kualoa Ranch as part of the wedding festivities, something I had mixed feelings about. It was not the type of thing I would normally do and in fact, would probably avoid as a tourist trap especially considering its film fame, though it also appears to be a working farm and nature preserve. Regardless, the Kualoa Valley was undeniably beautiful. As a big fan of Lost, it was neat to recognise some of the spots filmed in the show but the best part was seeing little sea turtles popping up from below the water’s surface on a boat ride and slowing down to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.
On Day three, we had free time to slow down and explore on our own. I’d read this before going, but it was tricky to find good day hikes that weren’t too short or too long. Given the island’s steep topography, it can be difficult to find a middle-level hike suited to our energy-levels and time commitment for the day.
However, we found a nice loop hike at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve just north of the Waimea Valley and while it still turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than we anticipated it, I really enjoyed soaking in and exploring the jungle and having the chance to do so. There were so many new plants to see and smell. I continued to smell a strong pepper scent and though we tried, we weren’t sure where it came from. This was the furthest we journeyed from the ocean so far, too, but there were still small glimpses of it from the top.
After that, it was pretty full on spending time reuniting with old friends and enjoying the wedding with a bit of time for the beach, exploring banyan trees and relaxing before we headed on to Hawaii, the Big Island to explore more new landscapes. Though I enjoyed our time on O’ahu and the beaches were beautiful and the people friendly, I was looking forward to the quieter atmosphere of the Big Island.
This post is as much for me as it is for you. I hope you are all coping as well as you can right now. With spring approaching, I had been looking forward to seeing spring arrivals and migrants in the bird world. The swallows, who are honestly my most looked-forward-to birds, osprey returning to their mates and nests and everyone else looking to breed this summer season. I’ve signed up to monitor bluebird nestboxes this summer and have been eagerly awaiting seeing and learning more about them while contributing to a long-term scientific study.
A lot of these things, plus a trip to southern and south-central Oregon have been affected, but I know things could be a whole lot worse. I’m looking forward to rescheduling my trip and trying to remain optimistic in the meantime. Amid all the gloomy news barraging us each day, it can be hard not to get lost in anxiety. However, we can still connect with nature from home. We’re fortunate to have a number of webcams to watch life unfold before us and I thought I’d recommend a few.
If you want to watch Bald Eagle nests, I’ve found two excellent cams hosted by the Hancock Foundation in the Vancouver, BC area. For me, its nice to watch some webcams from familiar places; it makes me feel more connected to my region. There are cams in Surrey and Delta; both nests currently have eggs and should be hatching eagle chicks any day now! Remembering the plight Bald Eagles faced 30 years ago, its uplifting to see them able to successfully nest today.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a huge number of bird webcams from all around the world hosted on their site. My personal favourite is the backyard FeederWatch cam at the Cornell Lab in Ithaca, NY. I love the audio on this one, too. Today when I checked in, I spied Black-capped Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Hairy Woodpecker (I think!) and possibly a Rusty Blackbird, but I’m not totally up on the east coast birds which is part of the fun. I’ve seen nuthatches and cardinals before, too. My cat can enjoy watching this one, too. Bird-watching is one of her favourite past-times.
I was very excited to find a webcam at the Royal Albatross colony in Dunedin, New Zealand at the Cornell site. Being autumn there, the parents are currently feeding the chicks at the nest and I watched a chick begging their parent for food, who honestly seemed somewhat disinterested. Read about Royal Albatross lifecycles here. Its pretty amazing that we have the opportunity to watch something like this from afar, without disturbing the birds, giving us a chance to see a part of wildlife we would likely not otherwise have. For me, its extra special because Dunedin has to be one of my favourite places on earth and it makes me feel a little bit nostalgic and homesick for a city surrounded by such beauty and wildlife.
One of the most entertaining birds to watch at their nest, osprey, ought to be arriving soon. I’m not sure if the webcam on the nest I used to watch at the University of Victoria will be live or not, but I did find one from Cowlitz County Public Works in Washington state. I suppose we’ll have to stay tuned.
Back to B.C., we can watch the Great Blue heronry at Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver. It was hard to tell what stage they’re at and I haven’t seen any eggs, but it appears there are heron sitting on, or at, nests, so perhaps they’re still getting ready.
I also had fun checking in on the seabirds at the Oregon Coast Aquarium where you can watch Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres. Its nice to see what my neighbours to the west are up to. If you’re looking for something a little different and want an even more nautical experience (or perhaps feel like a James Bond villain) tune in to their fish and shark tank and forget all about pandemics and quarantine.
If you want something truly uplifting, check in with the rescue cats at the TinyKittens HQ streaming on YouTube. Also based in B.C., this group rescues feral cats. Pregnant cats are often featured and you can watch them give birth and see their kittens grow up, as well as some of the challenges they face along the way.
Again, not wild animals this time, but if you’re looking for an idyllic farm scene, check in with the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glens, NY to see what the alpaca, sheep and cattle are getting up to. When I checked in at the Cattle Pasture, a herd of White-tailed Deer greeted me instead.
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, spend some time in it! Get to know the locals and appreciate the little things you might normally overlook. If you want to bring some wildlife to your yard, put up a bird feeder (please read important tips before starting) and see who comes to visit. Take care of yourself and enjoy what nature you can right now!
I often write about birds here, but there’s a whole host of other wildlife and natural wonders and beauty to behold, too! I enjoy getting out and experiencing and seeing them as well. Now that I’ve lived in Oregon for over a year now, I’ve had the chance to see some of the wildlife that lives here.
Here in Oregon, we have two species of elk: Roosevelt elk (same as those we had on Vancouver Island) and Rocky Mountain elk. The basic range divide is the Cascade Mountains with Roosevelt in and west of the Cascades and Rocky Mountain elk in the east. Around here, I most commonly see a herd out at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge during the fall. There are also Black-tailed deer about, but I don’t see them nearly as often as I did in Victoria since I don’t have them roaming about my neighbourhood anymore.
Beaver are strongly associated with the state of Oregon, but unfortunately, its common to see nutria in some places. Nutria, or coypu, are invasive rodents from South America. They are smaller than beavers and have long tails similar to a muskrat. Most of the time I see them in wetlands in the water or on the banks munching away on vegetation. They might be invasive, but I have to admit they’re still cute…
Another semi-aquatic mammal, I’ve only seen mink a couple of times in Oregon. They can be found just about anywhere with water in Oregon and I used to see them only rarely on Vancouver Island as well. If you ask me, I think there’s something beautifully sleek about them.
I am longing to see wolves in the wild and have yet to, but I don’t mind seeing their canine cousin the coyote sometimes. There seems to be at least one, if not more, that can be see around the agricultural land at Oregon State University. I’ve seen them fairly regularly especially near dusk and dawn. I watched this one hunting, intent and focused on its prey, then pouncing on it.
I’d only ever seen whales twice before I moved to Oregon. A humpback whale and orcas, though technically orcas they aren’t actually whales. Since then, my whale-spotting has increased significantly! While the grey whale migration includes the Oregon coast during the winter, a number of them spend their summer off our coast. They can often be seen from shore because they feed in shallow water. Its been pretty amazing each time I’ve seen these whales off the coast here and I was very excited to see one on my birthday last year!
Staying at the coast (my favourite place), we have Steller Sea Lions and Pacific harbour seals (as well as other seals and sea lions). Steller Sea Lions can be seen at the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, which could be seen as a tourist trap paying to access the caves, and of course, my wariness sets in immediately at such things. However, it seems they have the good of the sea lions at the heart of their mission. Is it better to pay to access the caves and watch the sea lions under the watchful eyes of staff and volunteers or to access the caves for free and potentially get too close? (You know there’s someone out there who would…).
With lots of forest in Oregon, we have lots of forest creatures, too, including a variety of squirrels, chipmunks, martens and wolverines. No, I have not seen half of those animals, but have seen a couple of these chipmunks in the Cascades and on the eastern foot of the mountains. I think this one might be a Yellow pine chipmunk, but I am no expert!
Of course, we can’t forget the unfurry animals, too! There are lots of snakes, frogs, lizards, salamanders and newts roaming Oregon but these are just a couple. I found this snake hanging out in a tree sunning itself at the Oregon Garden. I see Rough-skinned Newts while out hiking in the forests and can never get enough of seeing them. Its interesting to watch how they move, almost like they are swimming on land, paddling through mud with their webbed toes. They are toxic to eat (as advertised by their bright orange bellies), but a fun fact I just learned is that Barred Owls are somehow still able to eat them! Keep your eyes out on the trails around Oregon for them as they often blend in very well!
Oregon sure has a wealth of wildlife, from large to small, furry to scaled, coast to Casades. I’ve enjoyed meeting and learning about some of these animals and am always hopeful to meet more if I can!