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.
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.
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!
Now that’s its September, I am looking forward to the start of fall and to me, its kind of already here. The temperatures are still warm during the day, but the evenings and nights are cool. There have been more perfect days of blue skies with puffy white clouds sailing overhead. I can feel a new chill on the afternoon wind and some leaves have already begun to turn yellow and crimson, falling from branches and crunching underfoot.
I can say in all honesty I am not sad to say goodbye to summer. Its been hot, the sun bright and intense, and I’m ready for something a little less extreme. I enjoyed seeing summer migrants of course, especially seeing Barn Swallows zipping about and tending their nestlings under gazebos, bridge and building eaves. There’s nothing quite like their zippy chittering that brings a smile to my face.
While on a trip to Denver on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, I saw a number of different birds I don’t see often in Oregon. Western Meadowlarks, the state bird of Oregon, sang beautiful melodies among the Ponderosa pine trees in the open grassy fields. Along a lakefront, it was impossible not to notice a number of Western Kingbirds in cottonwoods. I even saw a new bird in Denver while out for a hike: Lesser Goldfinches who flew and hopped along the hiking trail.
Back in Oregon on the coast in Waldport and off Cape Perpetua, I saw my first ever Brown Pelicans. I have always wanted to see one and they were quite rare in Victoria. They were quite unmistakable flying above the ocean’s swell and diving straight down head-first into the water to fish with a great splash. There is something really majestic about pelicans to me. Like Great Glue Herons, pelicans remind me of something ancient, out of another time or world entirely.
On the same trip, we visited the Sea Lion Caves on the coast and I had the chance to see a number of seabirds along the rocky coast. A host of Pigeon Guillemots appeared to be nesting in the caves, paying no mind to the seal lions they shared it with. Outside the cave and on the cliff face, Brandt’s Cormorants and Common Murres sat on their nests alongside one another.
Back in the Willamette Valley, I finally identified a bird I’d been frequently hearing in the trees around town and in the forests. The distinct call of the Western Wood-Pewee peals across the eaves of the forests and across the fields and now I know who it belongs to next time I hear it.
Last weekend, I saw a few more pelicans, this time American White Pelicans as they migrate south for the winter. There were just a couple perched on snags in a marsh, I remembered how beautiful they look when you see them in flight, the black tips on their wings in sharp contrast to their white feathers.
Of course, summer is never really complete without seeing Osprey! The Columbia River is the perfect place to see Osprey and I saw a number of them, even a few nests, along the river gorge. As the wind howled up the gorge from the faraway sea, Osprey, Turkey Vultures and ravens all soared, their wings outstretched.
Since moving to Oregon, something has been on my radar. That something was the breeding population of Tufted Puffins that nest at Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach. I’d read about them before moving here and thought I’d have to make a trip to the small beachside town south of Astoria to see them sometime.
Tufted Puffin statue in Cannon Beach, OR
Tufted Puffin statue in Cannon Beach, OR
Haystack Rock is one of the only places in the region where you can see Tufted Puffins from land at an accessible spot. They nest on offshore rocks and this is the only one close enough to see without getting on the water. The rock is a large, looming remnant of volcanic eruptions that is visible on your way into and around town. The rock makes for a good nesting spot not only for puffins, but also for hundreds of Common Murres, cormorants and gulls. Closer to the water, Black Oystercatcher and Harlequin Ducks were also seen. The rock is a little community neighbourhood of breeding birds.
Memorial Day weekend, my chance of the summer came and having seen the puffins returned as of April, I knew it was worth a try to make the trip. I did some research ahead of time, which indicated low tide and early morning were the best times for viewing, even better if the two coincide.
Sunday morning, we woke up early and made our way to the beach. We were on the sand by 7:30am although low tide was not until 1pm. We approached the rock from the north and watched as hundreds of birds flew in circles around and around the rock, out over the Pacific waves and back onto the rock again. At first, it was difficult to spot the puffins, but eventually, we spied the distinguishable orange beak and yellow tufts identify our first Tufted Puffin! He was sitting on a tuft of grass amidst bare-ish soil.
The puffins also nest on the grassy north side of the rock, so your best chance of spotting one is looking at that area. Once we spotted one, it was easier to see others. I began knowing what spots to look at on the rock and even what flights patterns to watch for. Puffins have quite a different flight style from some other birds; they don’t take off from stationary positions on the land by flapping their wings. They leap off the rock and catch flight that way, then flap their wings vigorously with faster, shorter flaps than other seabirds.
It was always a bit of a dream of mine to see a puffin. I was just so excited! I stayed there a while watching and admiring them, trying to remember it forever. Under the cloudy skies and wind, it got a bit chilly after a little while, and we decided to head back at low tide to see how much closer we could see them then.
When we came back at low tide, there was a lot less bird activity, but a lot more people! There weren’t so many birds flying in the sky overhead, but we could get much closer and see the puffins better. They also seemed more settled and I thought there were more sitting on their nests. I could even see their orange feet this time! I’m so glad we were able to go and see them. It turned out much better than I’d hoped as I worried we wouldn’t see any puffins. It definitely exceeded my expectations and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it! I’m so glad I got to go see these birds in the wild and hope their dwindling numbers turn around so others can enjoy them, too. This was a trip well-worth making.
Another attraction at Cannon Beach is the tide-pools at low tide. A group of dedicated volunteers come at low tide to setup a perimeter around the pools in order to protect the delicate marine life living there. They educate visitors on the life there and encourage them to view, but not disturb the creatures. I was too enraptured by the puffins to spend much time a the tide pools, but there were quite a few people around them.
We ran into another volunteer with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife who spends 20 hours a week on the beach monitoring the nests, number of puffins and successful pairs. The day we were there, he said he’d counted 19. He’s been doing this for a number of years. I was very impressed with his immense dedication! He had a spotting scope set up that we got to look through and see a puffin a bit closer than we had before. I’m so glad these people were spending their time educating the public.
Just about two weeks ago here, we had some snow fall and the world was turned into a fleeting winter wonderland. The next couple of days could not have been more different with abundant sunshine and warm temperatures and the weather has not looked back since!
Spring officially sprung yesterday on the Spring Equinox according to the calendar, which is defined by the day and time the equator passes under the center of the sun. Of course, its only the northern half of the world that experiences spring while our southern neighbours enjoy the Autumnal Equinox.
Besides the calendar, everything around me seems to be showing its time for spring, too! I’ve heard the juncos and sparrows start singing their songs, Anna’s Hummingbirds have likely already been busy mating this year, and on Sunday I saw my first Tree Swallows of the season while gardening in my backyard!
A couple of weeks ago, I saw my first Violet-green Swallows of the season and I saw even more today! They are bringing spring on their wings, coming to feed on insects coming to life with the warmer temperatures and longer days. I’ve spied a number of Turkey Vultures flying overhead and even saw one in a ditch on the side of the road probably cleaning up roadkill. Migration has begun!
Trees and bushes are beginning to sprout buds and blooms, filling the fresh spring air with the early scents of flowers. Crocuses and daffodils add splashes of colour to the ground along sidewalks, trails, in gardens and beneath trees. Everywhere, new life is blooming around me while every day brings change.
Crocuses blooming in my garden
Primrose peeks through leaves
Daffodils about to spring brilliant blooms.
Spring is undeniably a time of change, new life and hope! Simply put, I hope you enjoy it as much as me when it comes wherever you are. Take time to literally smell the roses, and lilies, and lilacs and all your local natives, too! Sometimes I find myself wishing spring could last all year long as I think its my favourite season. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, beautiful world?
After we visited Haines, AK and saw the incredible Bald Eagles at the Chilkat River last November, we re-boarded the Alaska Marine Highway rode south down the Lynn Canal to explore Juneau, the state capital and the nearby Mendenhall Valley.
Our first day there, the weather was clear and cold with snow lingering on some of the lower hills, making for a nice wintry Alaskan scene. It was the perfect day to visit the nearby Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. Though it was a bit cold, it wasn’t too bad and the freshly fallen snow made the glacier look bigger, brighter and more impressive as we would later learn.
The glacier, like many others today, has been retreating for decades. The glacier’s terminus empties into Mendenhall Lake, depositing massive amounts of silt and clay into the lake and Mendenhall River that flow a few short miles into the sea. The glacier is part of the larger Juneau Icefield which extends into British Columbia to the east. On the east side of the lake, Nugget Falls flows into the icy water from the Nugget Glacier upstream.
There was no one else there and all was quiet except for the roar of the waterfall. With most of the lake frozen over and dusted with snow, it was as if the whole world could be sleeping, like time had stopped. But the sun kept moving higher in the sky and we started to feel the cold after our walk from the nearest public bus stop and spending some time admiring the view.
We headed back toward the visitor center to explore the riverside trails, but many of them were closed to allow bears safe salmon feeding access. I’m always all right with closing access down to protect species that need these resources to survive. On the short trail we did walk, we saw a few more Bald Eagles for good measure and an American Dipper bobbing along the icy stream!
The next day was quite rainy and we decided to explore Juneau city a bit, visited the Alaska State Museum where we learned a lot about Alaska’s history, explored the waterfront and hiked along Perserverance Creek to Ebner Falls, which I would recommend if you have time.
Our final day we re-visited the glacier and had a completely different experience. The temperature had risen, the snow had melted and turned to rain though the lake remained frozen. This time, we walked up the western side of the lake through rainforest to get a closer view of the ice.
It was a good walk through temperate rainforest, full of ferns and moss and the things that come with it; mud and rain! From this viewpoint, we got a lot closer to the glacier especially if we had continued along the whole trail. I found it less impressive despite the distance, due to the loss of all the fresh snow that had fallen a few days before. The glacier certainly looked more like a dying one to me. But the ice had the blue colour you expect to see in a glacier and now that was visible to us, so it was’t all bad. It was interesting to see it in such different circumstances.
Overall, Alaska definitely met my expectations in some ways and exceeded them in others! I did find it tough to cope with the short days as I found myself ready for dinner at 4pm a lot of the time. I guess that’s not so bad when you’re on a trip, but I have to hand it to those who live in Alaska and have to get through those short, dark days of winter. My thoughts were with them even more after the earthquake hit Anchorage shortly after our visit and I can say I am impressed with their resilience. I guess that’s what it takes to live in this kind of place. I’m glad we made the trip happen, but I definitely feel like I’ve got more Alaskan adventures in me!
At Finley National Wildlife Refuge, the geese are just the beginning of what there is to see and enjoy. Even with winter closures in effect until March 31, there are a wealth of marshes, ponds, fields and forests to explore. As I really like to get to know my local birding spots, I’ve been trying to go there regularly. Each visit, the territory becomes more familiar, but the thing about nature is there can always be surprises. Within just one week, the refuge went from being dusted in snow to fields being flooded so much I was worried one of the bridges wound go underwater.
The ponds and marshes were teeming with ducks in the last few weeks. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons and a single pair of Hooded Mergansers all had plenty of space on the water to share. A flock of Northern Shovelers had an entire pond to themselves while an American Kestrel perched on a nearby tree, periodically taking flight and diving to hunt. A Bald Eagle and a Northern Harrier both flew over one very busy pond, spooking the ducks toward the opposite end while hundreds of noisy Canada Geese honked overhead.
Along the edges of one pond, a Black Phoebe fluttered between his perch on a log and the space above the pond to hunt insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the mud on the edges of a marsh, their golden spots striking on a cloudy day. In a large, grassy field, a Northern Harrier feasted on prey on the ground not far from a flock of American Robins hunting their own prey.
There’s life everywhere at the refuge if you pay attention. In a stand of white oak trees, which I have learned are the same as our old Canadian garry oak trees (Quercus garryana – the scientific name helps where common names confuse!), Acorn Woodpeckers call out their funny noises to match their supposed clown-like appearance. They’ve been in these trees each time I visit, so they must call it home.
In nearby trees, Northern Flickers joined the drumming, too, not to be drowned out by the harsh cries of California Scrub-Jays. Where a patch of brambly bushes met an open space, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos sang in a neat chorus around me. Little flashes of white tails flew before me as the juncos were spooked and left the open ground for cover.
On my last visit, there weren’t many ducks about the place, but I’m excited to watch the changes of spring come to life. I’ll certainly miss my overwintering ducks, but I know I’ll see them again later this year. I can already see signs of spring on the way…