Exploring the Great Trail on Vancouver Island

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a portion of the southern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, part of the Great Trail

This past summer in Victoria, a brand new walking/hiking/biking/horse-riding trail was finished and unveiled through an area that was not previously publicly accessible – the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. This trail also connected sections of the The Great Trail where there was no continuous link before. The Great Trail (previously known as the TransCanada Trail or TCT) is just that – a trail that can be walked or biked all the way across Canada, from St John’s, Newfoundland to right here in Victoria, BC and all the way up to the Northwest Territories. Its the longest trail in the world.

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Trees tower over you on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

The Trail was meant to be completed by Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, and though technically 100% completed, there are long sections that just travel alongside a road shoulder or busy highway. Some sections cross water (The Great Lakes and the Strait of Georgia) and can be crossed by kayak or canoe (or sometimes a ferry). So it all depends a little bit on your perspective.

 

In August, we went to check out the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, a 13km-long gravel trail that traverses over land that is part of the city’s water supply and forestry land. There’s some pretty steep terrain in this area so we checked it out on foot instead of bikes. Its a nice walk on a wide trail through tall Western Hemlock trees with a very Pacific Northwest feel. Not far down the trail is a viewing platform of Waugh Creek Falls, but in late-August after a hot summer when we went, it was a mere trickle. The uphill walkbpast the suspension bridge was a feat on a hot day, and I couldn’t ever see making it up on my bike.

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Dark-eyed Junco on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

A few weeks ago, we went to another section of the Great Trail near the north end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail and the southern end of the Cowichan Valley Trail. This part of the trail has a similar landscape with lots of hemlock trees, however, the history of forestry and logging is much more evident here with whole stretches of land mowed down to bare earth and soil. There are some lovely bridges over creeks and further north, a nice view looking south toward the Olympic Mountains.

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Scenes of forestry are seen from the northern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

In Victoria, The Great Trail travels along scenic portions of the city, including the inner harbour and the Gorge Waterway before heading west toward suburbs and eventually, the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. The urban portion is mostly flat and paved most of the way. There’s a lot to see if you stop and take some time to explore the Great Trail near your home. For a look at the Great Trail across Canada, check out the submissions from the 2017 Canadian Geographic Great Trail Photo Competition! If you live in Canada, what’s the trail like in your neck of the woods?

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Bridge over Shawnigan Creek

Birding in Victoria, BC at Swan Lake

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If you want to bird in Victoria, Swan Lake is a great local birding hotspot and probably one of the most well-known in the region. Its a nature sanctuary centered around a small lake in the suburbs nestled right along a major highway. A trail wraps around the perimeter of the lake and marsh and passes through wooded areas as well as providing access to a native plant garden and nature house. Besides the trails, there is a lovely boardwalk that crosses the lake and lots of benches in great spots for watching birds. The boardwalk is in need of repair as of writing this post, and donations of any amount are needed. To donate or learn more, please visit the Swan Lake Give a Sheet Campaign.

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A bench along the trail at Swan Lake

It is quite amazing the wildlife that lives here, right in an urbanized area, and is probably underappreciated by many visitors. Not only have there been 220 recorded species of birds according to eBird, but there are also mink, otter and muskrats living along the lake, too.

Whether it is spring or fall migration, winter or summer, there are always interesting birds to see at Swan Lake. On Sunday mornings, guided bird walks are put on by the nature house for free each time. Its a great way to learn about species new and old or to spot a rarity with an experienced birder.

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Wood Duck at Swan Lake
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Double-crested Cormorant
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Pied-billed Grebe

The lake itself is a great spot for all kinds of birds attracted to water; from Marsh Wrens to Red-winged Blackbirds to Great Blue Herons, and especially for ducks in the winter. Its also a great spot to remember to look up; I’ve seen many raptors flying high in the skies over the lake and the rest of the sanctuary.

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Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
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Bald Eagle pair shortly after mating

Each spring, the lake is a reliable spot to see baby ducks and earlier this summer, I got to see a Bald Eagle pair mating. Anna’s Hummingbirds are sure to catch your attention with their speedy buzzing all year long while Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees will chatter loudly in the fir and oak trees. My favourite moment of spring at Swan Lake is when the swallows arrive with their aerobatics and high-pitched calls that strangely remind me of dolphins. Even in the way they are social and group together, they are like dolphins of the sky.

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Violet-green Swallow takes a rare rest

There are certain pockets of bushes and trees where warblers abound in the spring and summer, and other densely wooded areas where you may reliably see owls and hawks. Northern Flickers are common and there is a bench along the trail where I regularly see (or hear) at least one, if not more. One lucky day, I saw a pair of them foraging on the ground and noticed something different about one of them. I see these birds all the time, but I realised one of them was an intergrade Northern Flicker; the first I’d ever seen!

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Northern Flicker, intergrade (with red malar of the red-shafted and the red nape crescent of the yellow-shafted)
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Yellow-rumped Warbler

Besides neat and exciting surprises like intergrade Northern Flickers and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler, there are small moments I enjoy here, too. Among the tall grasses, I enjoy watching Bushtits hopping from grass stem to stem, leaving it trembling in their wake. Its here where I’d watch my Bewick’s Wren friend hopping busily about in the brush and dancing daintily up the branches of the garry oak trees crowded with Chesnut-backed Chickadees, who are always fun to watch.

These simple moments somehow mean more to me than seeing a new bird for the first time. I don’t know why, but maybe its the feeling of being connected with something other than yourself, other than another human being that makes it satisfying. Its even better when I know an area, and I see familiar birds, getting to know them and their habits. Sometimes I wonder if they ever start to recognize me, if they are ever as interested in me as I am in them. Probably not, but its fun to think about. Or do they ever think ‘oh its that girl back with her black box again.’ We’ll never know, and maybe its better that way.

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Bushtit in the grass
Bewick’s Wren

Resources

Swan Lake eBird Page
Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary
Swan Lake Bird Checklist

Birding in Victoria, BC at Panama Flats

DSC07595 (2)Panama Flats is a land area in Saanich, owned by the municipality as of 2017, which was previously used for agriculture and is now a park and a great place to go birding. The flats lie along the Colquitz River, which flows from Beaver Lake in the north down to Portage Inlet. The Colquitz River Trail starts at Tillicum Mall and runs along the creek through Panama Flats and to the Glendale Trail, which you can take to the Viaduct Flats (another nice birding spot!). Biking is allowed on this trail and it makes for quite a fun little ride. Its a bit of a hidden gem.

Besides the main gravel trail through the flats, a number of smaller, less-maintained trails run around the perimeter of the flats. These trails are the real bird-watching gems. During the summer when I’ve been here, there is one pond regularly full of water accessible right off of the Colquitz River Trail, but in the winter and spring, the puddles and pools fill up, offering  an optimal spot for all kinds of birds.

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the flats in April – gets a bit muddy so come prepared!
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the regular pool in September

The pond and the marshy area around it is home to many Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups, American Wigeons, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese. At the seasonal ponds and pools, I saw my first Green-winged Teal in the spring. Also at these ponds, I’ve seen Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, as well as Killdeer on the nearby grassy flat.

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Green-winged Teals
Killdeer

In the trees and bushes, there are Golden and White-crowned Sparrows while Savannah Sparrows forage on the ground. Bushtits chatter in flocks among the low bushes all year while Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings make noise during the summer. The tall grasses and low bushes and trees make for great spots to see warblers in the summer, from Common Yellowthroats to Orange-crowned Warblers. High in the sky, there might be a Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture or a bit lower down, a Cooper’s Hawk or Northern Harrier looking for their next meal. Not to mention, quite a few rarities have been sighted at this spot over the years, so you never know what you might find!

Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat

Resources

Panama Flats eBird Page
Saanich Panama Flats
Colquitz River Trail

Birding in Victoria, BC at Rithet’s Bog

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Rithet’s Bog is a nice little park in a suburban area right beside a highway with an interesting past. It is one of the few remaining peat bogs on Vancouver Island and was saved, luckily, by the Guinness Family. Yep, if you’re thinking of beer, you’re thinking the right family. They bought a large chunk of land in the region for development, and in the early 1990s, the family donated the bog land to the town for a nature sanctuary (Green, 2006). The sanctuary is quite the success story as it had been drained for agriculture and it took a lot of work to restore the bog to its current state.

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Rithet’s Bog in late August; in the winter, this is filled with water

A 2.8km gravel trail winds around the perimeter of the bog, along the edge of the bog and through woody groves. I especially enjoy coming here in the winter to watch the ducks and it makes for a great, short, rainy-day walk. I’ve only just been in late summer for the first time! It is a completely different place between winter and summer.

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House Finch snacking on blackberries

During the winter, there is a full on pond with ducks, geese and herons all making use of this ephemeral water source. In the dry summer, the only water around is in the ditch between the trail and the road.

If you want to see Red-winged Blackbirds, spend about 5 minutes here and you’ll see many! Their loud calls are hard to miss. In the winter, the pond is bustling with Mallards, American Wigeons, American Coots, Great Blue Heron, and the occasional Trumpeter Swan.

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Mallard

Among the branches, there are House Sparrows, House Finches, American Robins, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhee, Northern Flickers and Steller’s Jays here year-round. During the summer, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will thrill you with their acrobatics as will the swallows. With nestboxes generously installed for them, Violet-green and Tree Swallows are busy catching insects during the summer months before they head back south.

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Cedar Waxwing with prey

While I was here the other day, Cedar Waxwings burst into the air, their colours on show, and hovered like large hummingbirds before diving back into the trees again. As I watched them, I listened to their many-whistled calls as they bounced between berry bushes and cottonwood trees. Only in my photographs later was I able to see all the insects filling the air around them (see photo below).

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Cedar Waxwing in flight – note insects in the air (my only successful attempt at an in-flight photo!)

Along with the waxwings performing acrobatics were Tree and Violet-green Swallows. They soared through the air, swooping and diving, leaving me amazed they don’t somehow collide. As I watched two of my favourite birds, they started flying more frantically, moving less at random and more together. Something was changing. Then I saw a hawk a glide through their group like a shark moving through a school of fish! Suddenly, the swallows disappeared, presumably taking refuge somewhere from their predator. I didn’t see the hawk again, either, as he disappeared behind some trees.

But I did see a Turkey Vulture perched at the top of a tree; something I have never captured on camera before, and I was fortunate enough to get to watch him take off, too.

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Turkey Vulture

No matter what time of year you choose to visit, there will likely be something interesting to see at Rithet’s Bog, a wetland oasis for birds right in the middle of suburban Victoria.


Resources

Rithet’s Bog eBird Page
Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society
Green, Valerie, 2006. An Eclectic History of Broadmead, Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter.

Birding in Victoria, BC at Uplands Park & Cattle Point

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Sign at the eastern entrance to Uplands Park across from Cattle Point

Before I moved here and started birding for real, I was unaware that Victoria is something of a haven for bird-watchers. Its a well-known destination for whale-watching and other wildlife, but Victoria is perched on the southern edge of Vancouver Island is a gem for birding. In the Annual Christmas Bird Count, Victoria regularly tops the list for species diversity in Canada. In 2016, Victoria had 141 species reported in the annual count. But maybe its just because we’re the warmest spot in Canada in December.

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a tree-lined path in Uplands Park in the summer

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know some great birding spots around the region. One of my favourites is Uplands Park and the adjacent Cattle Point in the municipality of Oak Bay. Uplands Park is a 30.65 hectare park surrounded by expensive (and sometimes historic) homes on three sides and Cattle Point and the Haro Strait on the eastern side.

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A bench overlooking the sea at Cattle Point in springtime

The park is easy to access from any side and has a myriad of trails to explore through groves of garry oak trees, thicker, younger deciduous trees, garry oak meadows and open, rocky uplands. It makes for a beautiful walk during any season at any time of day. And its a perfect example if you’re looking to explore the fading and native garry oak ecosystem.

Right now, after our record-setting dry Victorian summer, the park is very dry. The grass is yellow, the trails are dust. Some trees are losing their leaves with the lack of water, but the garry oaks are soldiering on, their leaves a marked green contrast with the ground beneath my feet. Right now, in late summer, the blackberry  bushes are a bountiful source of food for birds in parts of the park. They make a good mid-walk snack for humans, too!

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August flowers in a field in Uplands Park

Most of the birds have finished their nesting season by now, but in the springtime, many birds choose to nest here, including Anna’s Hummingbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Bewick’s Wrens and Bushtits. Barred Owls likely nest in the park, too.

Spring arrivals from afar that are commonly seen at the park includes Turkey Vultures, swallows (Tree, Barn, Violet-green and Purple Martins), Chipping Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Cedar Waxwings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Spring rains bring wildflowers, green grass and muddy puddles to trudge through on your visit.

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a garry oak meadow in Uplands Park in the spring

Meanwhile, the year-round residents I frequently see here at any time of year includes Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Northwestern Crows, American Robins, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Anna’s Hummingbirds and Chestnut-backed Chickdee. In fact, its a very rare visit if I don’t see an Anna’s Hummingbird on my walk through the park. To a lesser extent, other easy to spot birds here year-round are Bewick’s Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers.

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Song Sparrow. Their song can be heard year-round at Uplands Park, but more so in the spring.

In the winter, when the ground gets frosty and sometimes even snows occasionally, our year-round birds can be seen around Uplands Park, but nearby Cattle Point makes a great spot for shorebirding. Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Black Turnstones head to the Cattle Point shores for the winter. Great Blue Heron, Black Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Double-crested Cormorants and Mallards can also be seen during all four seasons at Cattle Point.

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Harlequin Duck, a common winter visitor at Cattle Point

This past summer, a group of American White Pelicans (a rarity for this region) were spotted offshore from Cattle Point on the Great Chain Islands, among other locations. While I am not normally a “twitcher”, I did spring for seeing the rare pelicans but did not have any luck! Other interesting birds I have seen here includes the Rhinoceros Auklet, Long-tiled Ducks, Horned Grebes and a baby Killdeer.

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sea meets rock at Cattle Point with Oak Bay in the background and the Olympic Mountains in the far background

Aside from the birds, other wildlife living in the park you might encounter includes garter snakes, black-tailed deer, mice and rabbits. At Cattle Point, I’ve also seen River Otter and Harbour Seals in the water and a cougar was also spotted near Uplands Park last summer. The park also has a high concentration of rare native plants, but being clueless about most plant ID, I won’t try to list any of them. In the spring, I can identify the beautiful flowers of Henderson’s Shooting Star, White Fawn Lily, Camas and Wild Rose that grow in the park.

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Eastern Cottontail (?) in Uplands Park

From Cattle Point, there are also scenic views of Mt Baker in Washington State and if you look southeast on a clear day, you can sometimes just make out Mt Rainier just off to the edge of the chain of Olympic Mountains. This makes it a popular photography stopping point for tourists, but many of them probably miss out on the rest of the beauty in the park.

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Mt Baker in Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC
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Mt Rainier, Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC

If you’re heading to the Victoria region and you are a birder, check out Uplands Park and see what you find! Overall, there is a great variety of birds, wildlife and scenery to see at this suburban park. For more photos of birds at the park, follow the link.

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Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.

The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.

Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.

In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.

 

A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.

 

Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!

Meeting new and old birds in the east

I grew up in the eastern U.S. and I went on a trip to Toronto and home recently. It was the first time I’d been since I really got into birding. I remember watching the birds in our backyard as a kid, and at the nearby parks and nature preserves, especially in the summertime. I even had a mini Golden Guide to Birds of North America I enjoyed consulting on the birds I saw in the yard.

I was excited to return to the area and see some old birds I’d seen before, or never known I’d seen them before, and maybe even some new ones. I most hoped to see the popular cardinal and a blue jay, as well as a Tufted Titmouse White-breasted Nuthatch (being so different from our own Red-breasted ones here) and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. There was no logic to my list, really, but that was it. Through some kind of luck, I managed to see three out of five and a few surprises, too.

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Toronto, ON viewed from Davenport Hill, home of Casa Loma

Its a little bit harder birding where you don’t know all the locals. There are new songs and familiar ones, different subspecies and regional variations and not knowing the best places to go.

I met some Common Grackles pretty soon upon arriving in downtown Toronto. Barricaded by the Rocky Mountains, this blackbird does not live in western North America but they very much reminded me of Brewer’s Blackbirds, only louder. There were plenty of House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons flitting and cooing around the city, being the typical city-dwellers they are.

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trees fallen in a swamp

Once I got to the woods, there were some more interesting birds to be seen! The first day out at a marsh, I saw my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird and Grey Catbird. To top it off, I also saw my first Great Egret!

I also happened to see my first Common Terns on this trip. At first, I lumped them in with the gulls flying around the riverside, but when my partner pointed out they had different heads, I suddenly realized I was looking at Terns. They are quite a lot of fun to watch as they hovered in the air on the wind and then spiraled and spun downwards to the water’s surface in the hunt for fish.

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My only clear photo of a Common Tern

The next day was not quite as hot, making me happier to spend more time outdoors and I think we saw a lot more. Along the edge of a pond, I spotted movement and then saw a large-ish bird fly a short distance and land on a branch overlooking the water. I had a feeling and a hope that it might just be a Black-crowned Night Heron, and it turned out it was. He was a juvenile with very drab plumage compared to the adult, and almost looked like a Bittern. When we circled around the whole park and round the other side of the pond, I saw a second one, this time clearly an adult!

Another Great Egret gave us a quick flyby I only just managed to snap, slightly blurry. While I usually try to stay away from posting just photos, I think the rest of the story is better left to them as I somehow managed to get some really great shots of these birds…

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Great Egret
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Eastern Kingbird
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American Goldfinch
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American Redstart
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Song Sparrow (different from our Pacific NW variety)
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Tree Swallow
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Black-capped Chickadee
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White-Breasted Nuthatch
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Northern Cardinal

The most exciting of these, for me, were the White-breasted Nuthatch and Northern Cardinal. They had been one my hope-to-see list, after all, and they were fun to watch. I strongly suspect someone has probably been feeding the birds along the boardwalk where we saw them (and the Black-capped Chickadee) as they all descended upon us when we set foot on the wooden boards. The nuthatch was especially bold (typical nuthatch behaviour), landing right next to me a handful of times, probably hoping I had a handful of nuts. I can’t remember the last time a bird let me get that close!

Along with the exciting new birds were familiar faces, too, including Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, American Robins, Song Sparrows (though with different colouring!), Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Yellow Warblers and Killdeer. In fact, I was surprised by some of the birds seen and by the number of crossover species, it sort of made me wish I’d gotten into birding when I was younger though I know I’d seen some of these birds before.bir

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Northern Cardinal

Gardens of Victoria: Beacon Hill Park & the Hatley Castle grounds

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about the gardens of Victoria featuring the Finnerty Gardens at UVic and the Government House Gardens. There are two more gardens I think are worth mentioning that are probably a bit more on the tourist path than those previously mentioned. They are cheaper than, and as lovely as, Buchart Gardens.

Hatley Castle Grounds

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Hatley Castle has had quite the history to call its own; from its origins as the residence of the Dunsmuir family in the early 1900’s to its time as a military school up to its modern incarnation as part of Royal Roads University. Its even been a filming location for Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in various X-Men Films.

The castle itself makes for a nice visit though admittance to the interior castle is by guided tour only, the castle grounds and gardens are open year round every day for a small admission fee. The gardens were originally landscaped during the Dunsmuir Family’s time at the estate and still make for a pleasant stroll today.

Some highlights of the grounds are the Japanese Garden, Italian Garden and Rose Garden as well as garry oak and Douglas-fir native gardens. There is more than one pond and all of the grounds look out onto the Esquimalt Lagoon, which is an incredible spot for birding in Victoria as it is a migratory bird sanctuary. Lots of birds can be seen here, from Buffleheads to Swans, and Bald Eagles, herons and songbirds.

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Looking over Esquimalt Lagoon from Hatley Castle grounds

Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park is nestled between downtown Victoria and the neighborhoods of James Bay and Fairfield. Its a sizeable park at 200 acres considering the size of Victoria itself. There’s a lot packed into this area – there are rose gardens, Douglas Fir trees and native plant gardens, a garry oak meadow, multiple duck ponds, and a farm petting zoo (featuring baby animals)! Not to mention the sea cliffs and beaches overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Canada and the USA. There is so much to see in a variety of landscapes here and its very easy to get to from downtown.

The ponds are my favourite spot here where you will reliably see ducks (and ducklings in the spring), American Wigeons in the winter and Great Blue Herons year-round. In the spring, the herons gather together and form a heronry. There are also a number introduced of Indian Peafowl roaming around the park.

The park is well worth an afternoon visit at the very least, possibly with a picnic lunch in hand on a nice sunny day. From the little beaches along the shore to the duck ponds, rose gardens and garry oak meadows, there is something beautiful to see in every corner of the park and best of all, its free!

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Looking west at the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Dallas Rd side of Beacon Hill Park.

For more information:
Hatley Castle
Hatley Park at Royal Roads
Beacon Hill Park

Two days in Vancouver: finding nature in the city

I’ve been to Vancouver a few times now and each time, the idea of going there does not really enthrall me. With a population of 2.5 million people living on 2,800 square kilometers of sprawling condos, houses and high-rises, its just not my kind of city. I’ve never really been a big city kind of person. My favourite place are not usually cities I’ve visited.

The tall buildings make me feel closed in and claustrophobic, the constant noise day and night of trains, cars, people and sirens, the different smells, not to mention the crowds; its enough to wear me out after a mere two days. The lack of trees, green spaces, blue sky…it all makes me wonder how those 2.5 million people manage every day.

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looking south across English Bay towards Kitsilano from Stanley Park

All those noises and small spaces overwhelm my senses and it becomes too much. I can just feel my anxiety levels going up along with my heart rate. On a recent trip there, I actually managed to enjoy day one, though a good portion of it was spent at Stanley Park – that’s probably why. If I lived there, I decided, I’d have to go to there every day. After visiting most of downtown on other visits, this time we stayed out of the core and it was actually quite nice.

We’d visited only a portion of Stanley Park before, not having had time to see it properly so this time, we walked the seawall around the entire park and I decided Stanley Park is my favourite place in Vancouver. The seawall actually extends past the park, from Kitsilano (with its famous beach) around False Creek, all the way to downtown, creating a 22-long cycling and walking path. Much as I am opposed to seawalls for environmental reasons, I admit it has some great recreational value.

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A Great Blue Heron at Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

The trail wraps around rocky and sandy beaches where cormorants, otter, eagles, ducks and geese are common sightings. Of course, no trip to Stanley Park is ever complete without seeing at least one of its famous raccoons.

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One of many raccoons of Stanley Park

For me, the highlight was Lost Lagoon, which is rather an apt name for what was once part of Burrard Inlet and probably was, in fact, a lagoon. Now, its actually a freshwater lake thanks to a causeway that highway 99 traverses to the north shore. Despite its past, Lost Lagoon still manages to be a great site for birds and wildlife.

The Wood Ducks were one of the most exciting sights! There were lots of these colorful little ducks swimming about the pond, with noticeably more males than females. These ducks are just undeniably gorgeous. And then, came the most exciting thing of all…

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Wood Duck chick – so tiny!

Wood Duck ducklings! I have never seen these tiny little ones before! Wood Duck babies leave the safety of their cavity nests carefully chosen by mom and dad at less than 3 days old! Sometimes, they have to jump from nests as high as 60 feet from cavities to meet their mom, who waits for them below (Cornell).

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Wood Duck mom and chicks

I considered their early life experience as I watched them flit across the pond, sometimes following mom in a line and sometimes dropping away to explore a world all new to them. Mom kept a watchful eye on them, and at one point, chased away a male who was getting a bit too close and was perhaps a bit keen.

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Wood Ducks ducklings with mom

It was a good spot for a nursery as there were also baby mallards and Canada goslings learning from their parents, too. I noticed the mallards stuck much closer to mum than the Wood Ducks; perhaps this is related to the brave early days of the Wood Duck. Does having to leave home at an early age make them more independent chicks than mallards?

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Mallard and ducklinsg
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Mallard and Ducklings

And those were the highlights of Vancouver, for me. Day two, I was exhausted! In the future, I will remind myself not to spend too much time in big cities if I can help it, find green spaces where I can and always take time for some rest for myself amid all the people and places. I will keep this in mind as I travel to Toronto, an even bigger city, this week.

North Vancouver Island & San Josef Bay

Having lived on Vancouver Island for a few years now, we’ve had some time to travel the greater part of the southern half of the island as well as a good number of the Gulf Islands. However, with plans to move on in its initial stages, we decided it was time to visit part of the island we’d never been. To the top: Port Hardy and Cape Scott Provincial Park.

Nimpkish Lake made a good stopping point on the way, where we camped for a night beside the lake. Beside the gently lapping water, an American Dipper sang for us in the evening and in the morning, a Pacific Wren chattered to us over breakfast.

Past Nimpkish Lake, there is not much except forest and mountains. Much of the north island is logging land and there isn’t much to see (aside from lots of trees and some lakes) until you reach Port McNeill. I did see my first-ever island elk (Roosevelt Elk), a few deer and a couple of black bears along logging roads, though.

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A typical North Island alpine lake.
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Ruffed Grouse spotted along a logging road (a first)

Along the waterfront in Port McNeill near the ferry dock to Alert Bay and Sointula, I saw Surf Scoters, Common Loons, a Red-necked Grebe, and a Horned Grebe all within stone’s throw from each other and on the ferry crossing to Alert Bay, my first sure sighting of White-winged Scoters (think I’ve seen them before, but I don’t count it until I’m sure/get a good enough look!).

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Common Loons

 

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Red-necked Grebe
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Horned Grebe
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Surf Scoters
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Just barely managed to catch this White-winged Scoter

Alert Bay is a very small village on Cormorant Island where the majority of the population are indigenous First Nations. You can walk around the entire island in a day and one of the main things to see is the ecological park. The swamp area of the park is other-worldly as new growth fills in amid the remains of burned husks of trees. Those hulking trees seemed to make good nesting habitat for some birds, like Violet-green Swallows that swooped through the sky and into little cavities in the trees.

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Whimbrel

After visiting Port McNeill and Alert Bay, we were back onto the road as it meandered through trees and eventually turned into logging roads en route to Cape Scott Provincial Park in the northwest corner of the island. Just north of Port McNeill, we stopped (or attempted to) at Cluxewe Salt Marsh, which had been listed as a good birding spot, but I suspect we did not end up at the right spot. However, I was still met with a surprise in seeing my first ever Whimbrel!

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North Island forests

So far, the weather had held out pretty well, but the rain picked up as we headed northwest. I knew to expect the weather to be dicey. Even in July, it can rain and storm with little warning up here. When we reached San Josef Bay, the wind was howling.

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San Josef Bay
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sea stacks, San Josef Bay

We fought against the wind to put up our tent under what cover we could find, and took a walk to the famous sea stacks before the tide came in. The stacks are formed by the erosive action of seawater crashing against the rock over thousands of years, removing softer rock and leaving behind the stacks made of harder rock.

Scurrying together through the sand, foraging beneath its surface was a group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, both firsts for me. According to Sibley (2016), Semipalmated Plovers commonly flock with other shorebirds, though more commonly with Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlins.

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A group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers
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Western Sandpipers
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Semipalmated Plover

The wind (and the sea) roared loudly all night, but in the morning the weather was more settled and the sun even peaked out for a few minutes. Despite the chilly weather (it was still April), I’m glad we finally made it. Now I can say I’ve seen the whole island, top to bottom, and feel satisfied with my efforts and experience living here.

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Sam Josef Bay in the morning

If you go to the North Island, be prepared for lots of logging roads and poor signage to get around. Even on the paved roads, some of the Provincial Parks were only signposted in one direction. To get to Cape Scott Provincial Park, it is a 60-km drive one-way on logging roads from Port Hardy (the nearest town of any note, i.e., grocery store and gas). The trailhead for San Josef Bay is also the starting point for the Cape Scott/North Coast Trail, which takes you to Cape Scott itself. I’d recommend going in the summer months.


References
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.