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.
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.
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 went on a trip to Denver in early September and managed to find a little time to explore in nature. Of course, there is almost always nature and birds around you to find no matter where you are, but my biggest day was visiting Washington Park which is just south of the downtown core.
I imagine they must be a somewhat regular visitor there as no one else seemed to be half as interested in them as I was. Or maybe they just aren’t bird people. I’ve always wanted to see pelicans and here they were! I took some time to really watch them. Paddling on the water and hunting together in a cooperative group. I was amazed I could actually see the fish as they swallowed! Even just their immense size amazed me that a bird so big could fly. They just mesmerised me.
American White Pelicans hunting together
look at that fish!
The other new bird I saw was a Snowy Egret! What a beautiful bird… similar to a Great Blue Heron, I watched him patiently stand in the water waiting for a fish to pass by, then darting his head forward suddenly to catch unsuspecting prey. Not far away, another egret perched on a branch overlooking the water. What a peaceful place to rest.
A pair of Double-crested Cormorants
Another highlight was a Barn Swallow colony at the boathouse. There were more Barn Swallows than I think I’d ever seen before. I was wary of distracting or disturbing them in any way, so I watched from the sidelines, though they didn’t seem to mind people walking by. Their swooping and diving antics and chitter-chatter could entertain me for hours. Sometimes, I wish I could sprout wings and become a swallow just for one day.
I felt so happy and grateful to see a colony doing well from what I could tell after the trials I’ve been through with the colony I monitored this summer in Victoria. It became quite difficult for me to watch quite a few of them die and not know if it was something natural or not. I’d even tried to rescue one and send it to rehab, but unfortunately, the little bird had been starving.
I was quite taken by the little prairie dog communities strewn all over in random empty fields and lots off in the suburbs. I liked to imagine them as a happy family society, working together to dig tunnels and find food, alerting each other to danger, taking care of each other. It reminded me of a David Attenborough documentary in which prairie dogs faced a threatening snake and won, thus proving the underdog always has a chance.
For someone who relishes quiet and solitude, I find there’s something I love about social animals and social birds. Some of my favourite animals and birds live in families, flocks or colonies for part of most of their lives: Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, Bushtits, ducks rafting together at sea, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, wolves, elephants and deer. I wonder what that says about me, if anything. Then again, I also dearly love solitary or paired animals like all kinds of wild cats (lions are the exception here), foxes, osprey, wrens, most woodpeckers, and of course hummingbirds.
Summer has been quiet, but busy somehow. I have a few other projects I’ve been working on and my bird-watching has been close to home for the most part with a couple exceptions.
What was all green and lush and full of life in spring is now brown and golden with drought. This year marks the fourth summer in a row which has been a drought in Victoria. Yesterday it rained for the first time in months, but I don’t think it did much to alleviate conditions.
At least the roses in cultivated gardens do not seem to mind much, flowering still in beautiful, bright colours. Some songbirds, too, do not seem to mind, but I wonder how the hot weather affects them. House Finches and Bushtits have been abounding everywhere I go in little flocks, finches singing in berry bushes and bushtits gleaning insects off trees as they leap from branch to branch. I hope they can all find enough to eat.
rose at the Oak Bay Rose Garden
rose at the Oak Bay Rose Garden
Nests are busy places, too. At the osprey nest, I have still only seen one juvenile, but I am hopeful there is another there and I just keep missing it. Otherwise, I wonder what it means for the osprey if they only have one baby. Two years ago, they had three successful fledglings so I have high hopes for the family! I wonder if the hot, dry conditions somehow made it more difficult to rear all three young or if an egg or two was taken by a predator. I’ve seen the little one flapping his wings inside the nest a few times, strengthening the muscles and experimenting.
I’ve been seeing more nesting birds this summer and I have been monitoring a Barn Swallow colony since their arrival in May. I watched as they buzzed about busily building and repairing nests, then watching and listening to the tiny babies in their nests. They grow up so fast; a mere week or so later, they have already left the safety of their nest and start flying.
I feel quite attached to them after watching them grow up and feel quite proud when I see the juveniles flying about on their own, but equally heartbroken when a few have not survived. My hope is that most of them can succeed despite the difficulties and threats they are faced with in today’s world. That goes for all the nestlings; birds have many obstacles to face in our constantly expanding world that makes me sometimes wonder if it will ever be enough for humanity? Or will we continue to crave for more? More money, more cars, more oil, more expansion, until we simply self-destruct?
Barn Swalloe nest with nestlings
juvenile Barn Swallow with bright yellow beak still
But there is still beauty to be found. Last weekend, I found my first hummingbird myself! I’ve seen them pointed out by others before, but never seen an active one or found it on my own. I saw the little bird hovering around a tree with a bit of something in its beak and waited long enough to confirm my suspicions; she’s a breeding female as she landed in her nest.
Only seeing the nest in real life on a tree branch brings home just how tiny they are. She’s likely on at least her second brood of the year as Anna’s Hummingbirds start breeding early. It was quite exciting to find this and appreciate the pure beauty in something so small. Its moments like these that are like little beacons of light in the face of the destruction happening in the world. That the song and life of a single small hummingbird could mean so much is a good reminder of the beauty and love that persists.
Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.
As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…
Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.
I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.
It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.
The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).
So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.
Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…
With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….
When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?
I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.
I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.
a lone heron at the beach
fishing Great Blue Heron
fishing Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.
River Otter pair near the rocky shore
swimming River Otter pair
one of the river otter
I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.
Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.
I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.
juvenile Bald Eagle perched just outside the nest
Bald Eagle perching in the tree
Bald Eagle back at the nest to watch over the juvenile
Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.
In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.
“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).
“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)
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.
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.