Last week, I made a brief stop at a small suburban park on my way home from an errand. It might be easy to look at this small creek and green space as a little park without much to see. I think it takes a bit of luck, time and perspective to see deeper.
Where this park commonly has mallards, crows and gulls, all relatively common suburban residents, there also was a pair of Cooper’s Hawks up in the trees. I heard them calling from far away, they were the loudest I’d ever heard Cooper’s Hawks before.
I stopped and watched them for a little while, they perched on a branch side-by-side, preening their feathers. One took flight every now and again, calling out, gliding between the trees and branches like the branches weren’t even there. Now I can truly see how they succeed as woodland hawks.
Another great example of the Cooper’s Hawk really maximizing their forest-hunting skills was a couple of weeks ago when I watched one dive-bomb from a branch into a very dense thicket of bushes and trees. I never saw the hawk come back out again, but I heard lots of rustling within and was quite impressed with their ability to catch prey amid such dense bush. The things you find at small parks can be amazing and surprising!
I suspect my suburban park pair may have been a mating pair, and they’ve chosen a great spot. Before I’d spotted the hawks, I found the mallards and early ducklings! Sadly, I think some of the ducklings may end up being someone else’s meal in the near future. They are very exposed out on the water, but I suppose that’s why they have so many babies. Most of them are not likely to survive to adulthood.
This week, I went for a walk at the park in the late afternoon to watch birds and I was pleasantly surprised as I walked down a wooded path, looked to the side and saw a meadow awash with violet flowers! The camas flowers are in full bloom now and I have made some time this week to go out and enjoy them.
Camas flowers grow in plenty during spring in the garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, along with the strikingly bright pink Henderson’s Shooting Stars. Seeing them carpet the meadow floor and the flanks of hills is utterly stunning. Standing in the middle of this field of flowers, I felt like I was nowhere on earth.
Henderson’s Shooting Stars
White Fawn Lilies sprout up in wet, shady areas below trees where Orange-crowned Warblers, Chipping Sparrows and Spotted Towhees sing. Before the Victoria area was colonised and developed, Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks and Vesper Sparrows once thrived in the native garry oak habitat. Now, they have all virtually disappeared and are a rarity if seen. Some species need these habitats to survive. More species, from plants to insects to birds, could follow. To prevent further loss, we should protect these ecosystems and cherish them.
I had the joy of seeing my first Orange-crowned Warbler of spring today. They are one of my favourite birds and I’ve been hearing them in the trees all week, but I’ve not been able to locate one until today. I just love everything about them; their colour, their trill-y song, the way they blend in to the tree like a leaf.
Orange-crowned Warbler in a garry oak tree
Across the meadow, there was also a Chipping Sparrow singing in the top branches of a small tree. Garry oak ecosystems are one of the few places I most often see both of these birds. Garry oaks benefit the birds by providing food and habitat and they are also one of my favourite types of places to visit.
All month, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the local osprey! Finally, I saw them for the first time last week. I thought they might be a bit late this year due to our late start to spring, but maybe I was just late going to check.
I’m happy to see them back again and I hope they have another successful year after 3 chicks successfully fledged last year. When I first visited the nest again, there was only the female on her own. But soon enough, the male showed up and they chatted together at the nest. I watched the male fly off for a time and return with nesting material already.
I imagine they are re-affirming their relationship after being apart for the winter, but according to the experts, osprey return to their nests sites out of attachment to the site rather than their mate (Bierregaard et al., 2016). Returning to their old nest is very beneficial to the success of their young as it allows the pair to save time and energy.
They’ve continued to occupy the site and yesterday, I watched them as a Bald Eagle passed by overhead. Bald Eagles are a tough competitor for Osprey; they will steal their nests, steal their fish and prey on their young. They both flew up from the nest and circled over the area, but did not seem too perturbed by the eagle in the vicinity.
Today, they were quite boisterous and loud and I saw three Osprey circling overhead not far from the nest site. I wonder if they are competitive males or juveniles from previous years returning for their first summer in the north. Osprey in their first summer remain in the south while two-year olds make their first journey north, but often do not breed successfully yet (Bierregaard et al., 2016). I remember a third male hanging around last summer. I will have to continue watching and see what happens. I can only hope for the best for our pair!
Bierregaard, R. O., A. F. Poole, M. S. Martell, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2016). Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.683
The Dark-eyed Juncos have just started singing here in Victoria. I went out for a walk the other week and heard their sweet, tumbling song for the first time in months! It shone out at me distinctly among the robin’s whistling, the towhee’s cat-like calling and the chickadee’s chatter.
The junco’s warbler-like song stirs up memories of spring and summer. I’ve watched the world changing around me recently. Early buds have popped up on trees, new greenery emerges among the barren branches and twigs, and even a flower or two has appeared. The juncos have clearly noticed as well. But just the other day, it snowed. So I suppose they call them “the snowbird” for a reason; they don’t seem to mind. They sing on.
Juncos have always been endearing little birds to me, entertaining me in the suburbs and city parks and at my bird feeder. I wonder if many people truly appreciate these birds, which some might consider quite drab without any flashy, colourful feathers. But not to me.
The Oregon variety common in BC has soft rosy flanks grading into their white breasts in sharp contrast with their black heads. Their wings show a vast variety in shades of brown and black; and of course, their defining feature – the white outer tail feathers. The males flash around their white tails to attract females and defend their territory.
Interestingly, over the last 50 years, as they have embraced the suburban life, the junco’s white tail has faded. With feeders and ideal habitat available, suburban males have been found to stick around with their partners longer, lessening the need for the white colouring (Marzluff, 2014).
Sometimes the simplest things can bring the most joy, and Dark-eyed Juncos are certainly one for me. There aren’t many native birds simpler or more common (in North America anyway) than the American Robin. I’ve heard quite a few birders say the phrase “oh, its just a robin” as if a robin were not a creature worthy of appreciation or a thing of beauty.
American Robins are birds that I have been around my whole life. I remember their cheerful song often lasts long into the twilight of spring and summer evenings as the sun’s warmth fades away and the air smells fresh and cool. As a kid, I used to anticipate the return of migratory populations as a sure sign of spring.
I like to watch them now, in my backyard, hopping along the grass and eating worms. I observe how they cock their head to the side, lowered toward the ground as if listening for any vibration below the earth’s surface. And then – like many larger predators – they strike suddenly, and slurp up a worm from the ground.
Their song is one of the most beautiful, happy and warm songs that exists in the natural world. And their red breast is not something to be taken for granted. In the golden-orange light of dusk or dawn, if you catch the light on their breast just right, well, it speaks for itself if you ask me.
The fantastic and infrequent bird sightings are special, too, don’t get me wrong. But don’t forget to appreciate the little things, the simple things, that are all around and can be found if you take a moment to look.
Marzluff, John M., 2014. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Yale University Press.
Esquimalt Lagoon is due west of Victoria in Colwood and adjacent to the Fisgard Lighthouse & Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. The lagoon is a beautiful spot to stop at even if you’re not interesting in bird-watching. It sits right across from the Hatley Castle and Gardens and there is also a nice beach here. Aside from both Hatley Castle and the lagoon itself, there are beautiful views southward of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.
The lagoon is an excellent spot for birding from either the Ocean Boulevard side in the south or from the castle grounds in the north (which are now part of Royal Roads University). Ocean Boulevard crosses a narrow strip of land called the Coburg Peninsula on the ocean-side of the lagoon while the castle sits on the quieter side.
the lagoon looking south on a rainy November day
Fisgard Lighthouse near Esquimalt Lagoon
Canada Geese are a common sight at the lagoon
The entire saltwater lagoon was designated a Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBA) in 1931 and provides important habitat to both migratory and resident birds. It’s easy to access and its a flat stroll along the water, which probably also boosts its popularity for birding. Its also popular for running and dog-walking, although dogs are not permitted to be off-leash anywhere at the lagoon due its designation as an MBA.
During the winter, the lagoon is a haven for ducks…I love ducks! I saw my first-ever Northern Pintail here in March last year, but they are seen all winter. Lots of Buffleheads can be seen here starting in mid-October and November; I think they tend to hang out closer to the northern shore (or castle-side). American Wigeons flock together in big groups here and quite a few mergansers (Common, Hooded and Red-breasted) enjoy the calm waters, too.
The lagoon tends to be a great spot for spotting swans including Mute, Tundra and Trumpeter. Grebes, scoters and loons swim further offshore on the ocean-side of the lagoon while shorebirds like Black Turnstones and Killdeer creep along the rocky inner tide-line. Further above the tide-line, songbirds (including warblers, sparrows, grosbeaks and finches) find refuge in the bushes and tall grasses that grow where there should be more sand dunes. There is currently some dune restoration work ongoing at the lagoon.
Surf Scoter and Grebes
The lagoon is a reliable spot to see lots of Great Blue Heron and cormorants (Pelagic, Brandt’s and Double-crested can all be seen here). The cormorants have a rocky island they like to hang out on, drying their wings outspread after diving for fish. I’ve spotted Red-tailed Hawks and a Merlins perched in the trees that edge along the northwest end of the lagoon, looking for their next meal.
No matter what time of year you go, Esquimalt Lagoon is sure to be both a beautiful, scenic location and an interesting place to slow down, go for a walk to appreciate some local wildlife. Expect it to be a lot busier in the summertime than the winter and be sure to allow for the time to explore it from both sides.
Last year, I got my first bird-feeder and put it out for the winter. It took some time for birds to show up at first, but once they did, there was no going back! This winter, the birds have returned to it much more quickly! The last few weeks, there have been lots of visitors.
The Dark-eyed Juncos have discovered the tray to perch on and have started feeding on it. Last year, they never flew up and only fed on the fallen seeds on the ground below. Unlike the chickadees who are quickly in and out, the juncos seem to spend quite a bit of time at the feeder, sitting on the tray and eating seeds. I worry sometimes it makes them more vulnerable to potential predators, especially after I had a hawk flyover the backyard a few weeks ago.
I’m not sure if its the same junco every time, but there is a male junco who seems quite dominant. He has chased off other birds that land on, or approach, the feeder, including other juncos. He becomes quite vocal when other birds approach. In my observations, it seems the other juncos defer to him. I wonder about the flock dynamics of juncos and if they recognise an alpha male, who is allowed to spend more time on the feeder.
Last weekend, Pine Siskins visited my feeder for the first time! I’d literally just said the day before, “I wish I could see a Pine Siskin, I’ve never seen them before” and felt that I should have by now! At least four visited my feeder at once and they were quite gregarious! They took over the space and the Dark-eyed Juncos that had been feeding there before seemed quite perturbed by being pushed out although they seem content to share with the chickadees. From reading Sibley and other sources, it seems Pine Siskins commonly monopolise feeders from other birds.
The Pine Siskins have returned a couple of times since, and even managed to share some of the space with others a couple of times. The same day the Pine Siskins showed up, I also had a Downy Woodpecker land at the feeder for the first time! I can say I’d always dreamed of having a woodpecker at my feeder, but I never expected one to come to my tube feeder! Sadly, I did not manage a photograph in time, but it will always be in my memory!
It was quite the exciting the day in the world of backyard birding. Its so much fun to see these little surprises and also to get to know the more frequent visitors. Watching birds at my feeder taught me how to identify the flight pattern of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the little horn-like call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Which brings me to my favourite feeder-visitor (the Red-breasted Nuthatch), who darts quickly in and out, typically shoo-ing away any other bird, no matter how much bigger they might be. Nothing seems to daunt these tiny nuthatches. They seem to spend the shortest time at the feeder, quickly grabbing a seed and returning to the safety of their favourite tree.
Last weekend, there were more interesting ducks to be seen! For the first time ever on the island, I saw Ruddy Ducks! I’ve only seen these ducks once before (back in 2016 just outside Kamloops, BC) in the spring when they wore their bright breeding plumage. They are not quite as easy to recognise in their winter plumage, but they are still quite distinct from other ducks with their bi-colourd head, single face strip and upturned tail.
On the same lake not far away were Lesser Scaups, Mallards and Buffleheads. I was also excited to see a small group of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Northern Shovelers – two other species I don’t commonly see. While Ring-necked Ducks are distinguished from the very similar Lesser Scaup by the white ring around the base of their beak, their name actually refers to a rather difficult to see brown-coloured band around their neck.
I’ve only seen Northern Shovelers a handful of times, too, but they are immediately recognisable by their very large beak. To me, they look a little bit like over-sized Mallards. Why is their beak so large, like, well, a shovel? They use their large bill with little tooth-like projections on it to strain food from water. Anything from plants and seeds to crustaceans and other small critters get filtered and eaten (Cornell).
In a different part of the sanctuary, where water pools up in the winter and spring but is dry in the summer, were more mallards, a few American Coots (though not actually ducks) and a couple more Northern Shovelers. I find it fascinating that so many birds of different species can all be found on one small lake or pond. I suppose its because they each fill and rely on a different feeding niche that they can share a relatively small space.
Northern Shovelers dabble and filter along the surface while American Coots dive primarily for plants, but also the occasional insects. American Coots often capitalise on Mallards and other ducks who disturb plant and animal matter in shallow water with their feet, making it easier for the coot to feed. Meanwhile, the non-picky Mallards are pretty happy eating just about anything that’s around.
Perhaps we humans should take a cue from the animal world and learn to get along despite our differences. To mutually share spaces and resources and, while birds probably don’t do this, to maybe even try to appreciate others’ differences instead of judging them. I mean, if we egotistically think Homo sapiens are the smartest species on earth, why have animals been co-existing peacefully for years, something we have seemingly never been able to achieve since our earliest days?
If you ask me, the best thing about winter is ducks. I may have mentioned before how much I love ducks, and the last two weekends I’ve had some really great duck-watching! I’m not sure if its something to do with the weather or if there are normally so many about, but I felt like I’ve seen a nice variety in species.
Last weekend, I went down to the Esquimalt Lagoon (always an excellent duck destination) on a cold, but sunny day. There are usually quite a few ducks there, but I thought I saw more than usual last week. Perhaps it was because so many of them were clustered close to the shore.
Whatever the reason, there were heaps of American Wigeons (a large flock tends to hang out at the lagoon), their greens heads just brilliant in the sunlight, as well as Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Pintails and even a couple of Common Goldeneyes. As I walked along the shore, watching the big group, I also spotted a stray Eurasian Wigeon, his red head conspicuous in a sea of green and brown.
Watching ducks just makes me happy; the way they waddle awkwardly onshore while moving so gracefully on the water with their various quacks and colours just makes me happy.
Besides enjoying the ducks, I also saw a group of shorebirds right on the edge of the water who I didn’t recognise. After much debate and consulting Sibley, I decided they were Dunlins, which would be a new bird for me. I find shorebirds tricky and I sometimes I’m still not sure just who I am looking at.
Meanwhile, high up in the sky about as far from the shore as you could get, I saw a familiar bird soaring high and veering and tilting every now and again. Much to my surprise, a Turkey Vulture hovered overhead, another was perched in a tree and I later saw two others flying overhead.
I thought it would be too cold for them by now and they must all have gone south already, but I suppose there’s always bound to be a few stragglers. I wonder if its harder for them to find food in the winter because they rely so much on their sense of smell to locate carrion. Besides all the ducks, unexpectedly seeing one of my favourite raptors was pretty exciting! It just goes to show you never know who you might encounter when you go outside bird watching.
Christmas morning, Victoria woke up to a white Christmas. It had snowed the evening before as the sun fell, muffling the world in a crisp silence, the only sound the crunching beneath my feet when I went outside for a walk. When I first got up and looked out the window, a Barred Owl had landed in the trees in the backyard. I’ve seen this owl around a couple of times (presuming he is the same one) before and heard it call at night, but never managed to have my camera nearby at the right moment! I watched him in this different, snow-covered landscape until he flew away. What a wonderful way to start the day!
Later that day, after playing in the snow (a rare sight here), I went for a walk down to one of my favourite spots to bird and enjoy nature. There were quite a few ducks about: Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Common Mergansers. A lone Common Goldeneye swam unexpectedly close to shore not far from a pair of Western Grebes.
Today, I went back again in a different atmosphere. The snow had melted and the sun was out, but the wind was up from the northeast. Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers crossed the water close together. I wondered if these diving and dabbling ducks had decided to group together for safety like a wintering flock of songbirds.
A Brandt’s Cormorant also passed nearby them, and I watched as he dove into the cold water and came back up more than once with a tasty morsel in his beak. A second cormorant had been nearby at first, but had taken flight straight from the water’s surface. Its pretty incredible if you stop and think about it, but then again, they are made for this.
I cut through the woods on my way back to the sound of woodpeckers knocking on trees and chickadees tsee-ing and dee–dee-ing. I stopped in a muddy clearing to watch a flock of American Robins traipsing from tree to tree and eating berries and House Finches doing the same in the lower branches. House Finches are common backyard birds, but somehow, I have never seen one in my yard. I guess I mustn’t have the right habitat. So, I stop to enjoy them and watch as their bright pink feathers shine in the sunlight. These two types of birds bring a smile to my face; both have such cheerful songs and colouring.
House Finches (male)
House Finches (female)
The bird feeder has gone back out again for winter and just in time for the snow, too. The birds and myself have been enjoying the feeder. After foraging the fallen seeds on the ground last year (my first year with a feeder), the Dark-eyed Juncos have now found their way onto the tray itself for better pickings! It’s certainly been a hopping place to be; with Chestnut-backed Chickadees perched in the nearby trees waiting in line and Red-breasted Nuthatches brazenly bossing the others around. I worry about disease and fighting, but I’m sure as long as I follow the bird feeder rules, all will be okay!
A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cowichan Bay and spent some time around the water, one of my favourite spots for watching birds. I’ve been there a few times, but it was only this trip when I finally discovered how to get to the estuary itself. There is a trail that starts from a small, gravel parking lot and then leads out onto the estuary itself to a nice viewing platform.
I’d been convinced it would be a good spot if only I could get there, but I’d never found the access point and thought it was off-limits. I was so excited to have finally found the way and it turned out even better than I expected.
I was there on a chilly, overcast November day, and there were ducks everywhere! Earlier that day, I’d finally seen my first Bufflehead of the season! I think it was so late because I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. At the estuary, Buffleheads abounded and large groups of American Wigeons floated close together or mingled on the shore. Almost hidden among the wigeons were a couple of Northern Pintails, the first of three birds with ‘Northern’ in their name we’d see that day.
It was a good thing the wigeons were so tightly packed. As we reached the viewing tower, we glimpsed a raptor flying low overhead. The wigeons picked up and moved almost as a unit, all of them flying in unison, aware of the looming threat. Soon, the silent hunter circled back around again, flying low over the water, gliding on outstretched wings.
The white rump patch gave it away; a Northern Harrier. Only my second, but this time I got to share it with my partner. We watched the drama unfold around us and saw a near-collision with an American Wigeon in-flight (photos below). These hawks usually hunt smaller prey, but are able to catch ducks and rabbits as well (Cornell).
There was more excitement still awaiting us at the Cowichan Estuary; we watched a Belted Kingfisher dive quickly into the water from its perch with barely a splash and come back up with a catch.
While returning along the same trail, I saw a bird land in a tree out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw it; a bird larger than a songbird, with a grey back and a distinctive black eye mask. My first Northern Shrike. I’d wanted to see one ever since I watched Planet Earth II and saw the fascinating segment on the butcherbird.
Northern Shrikes are predatory songbirds. They sometimes impale their prey (insects, small mammals or birds) on fences or spines. This must be how they got their scientific name Lanius excubitor, as it translates to “Butcher Watchman” (Cornell). Moments after I snapped a photo, it was gone.
The Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier and Northern Shrike have little in common but their shared environment and their name, but they are each distinctively interesting and beautiful in their own way. Each serves a purpose in the environment around them and each deserves to be appreciated and protected for years to come.