Birding in Victoria, BC at Cowichan Bay & estuary

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Cowichan Bay viewed from near the nature center where there are educational exhibits, microscopes and a spotting scope. Mt Tzouhalem (center) is a popular hiking spot.

One hour north of Victoria is Cowichan Bay; one of my favourite winter birding spots. Nearby, the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers empty out into the bay, spilling sediment and life into an estuary as the tide ebbs and flows. A Bald Eagle might fly overhead while the waters lap gently at the shore. Trumpeter and Mute Swans stand out in contrast with the blue water they float gracefully across. They arch their heads into the water, their long necks pronounced as they skim for food.

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Mute Swan

The water in the bay is calm and as blue as the sky reflecting in its surface. During the winter, the air is crisp on a cold day and frost sometimes etches the sidewalk and ground in the shade of the nearby hills. Looking out over the water, smaller bodies dot the landscape. Ducks.

For me, they are the main attraction. Small Buffleheads float in groups, diving one after the other underwater for food. Just when you’ve spotted one by the bright white head of the male or the small white spot on the females, they’ve disappeared below the surface which scarcely a splash.

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female Buffleheads

Plenty of other ducks congregate here as well. Mallards, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons and Hooded and Common Mergansers are all common visitors to these calm, cool winter waters. For those who have come south, it is a world away from the icy lakes and rivers of the north.

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Common Merganser

The bay isn’t just for the ducks, though. Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen flying by low over the water or with wings spread out to dry in the sun. Great Blue Heron hunt for fish in the shallows while Surf Scoters gather together in great rafts further offshore.

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Great Blue Heron
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a raft of Surf Scoters

As the weather warms up in the spring and summer, the bay changes, too. Days are longer and somehow it seems less quiet. Migratory birds arrive to bulk up, maybe find a mate and nest. Returning from the southern hemisphere and Central America, Osprey nest on old piers and Purple Martins make good use of nest-boxes placed throughout the area. Other swallows join the fun and the ducks grow quiet, having moved elsewhere for summer, some returning as far as the Arctic, where their breeding grounds have thawed.

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Osprey nest at Cowichan Bay

During autumn, Steller and California Sea Lions visit to feed on the abundant salmon as the fish make their way to the river to spawn upstream. If you visit the bay between October and December, they’re hard to miss as they are quite loud! Its fun to watch them both as they sun themselves on the dock in piles of bodies and as they swim the water with ease.

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Sea lions visit in the autumn

Not far from the bay is the Cowichan and Koksilah river estuary where a walking track follows a river channel out into the estuary toward a viewing tower. The estuary is a place full of life and it never disappoints. It was here I saw my first Northern Shrike and just recently, my first Western Meadowlark.

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Western Meadowlark (non-breeding)

I had always hoped to see one someday, but was not expecting it at the estuary. It just goes to show how wildlife can surprise you. You never know what you might see when you step out your door, and that is one of the best things about nature. Its never the same experience twice.

On one side of the track are active agricultural fields and on my most recent visit, another surprise was waiting to be found. A flock of Snow Geese flew overhead and landed in the field to forage, their white feathers bright in the sunshine. I’d only just seen Snow Geese for the first time in Delta, BC near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary where they overwinter. There were white bodies with black-edged wings almost as far as the eye could see; a spectacular sight!

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Snow Geese in Delta, BC

There will always be something interesting to see in nature, at the bay or estuary, or your own backyard or neighborhood park. Estuaries, wetlands, green spaces, open fields and forests are all critical resources for birds, mammals, insects and everything in between. Each creature has its place and purpose in maintaining balance. Small disruptions can cause a ripple-effect from one species to another; let us all do our part to protect these spaces and species while we can.


References

The Cowichan estuary is an Important Bird Area, and the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association is working to restore the estuary from its industrial past to its natural state.

Cowichan Bay nature center eBird
Cowichan Estuary Nature Center
Cowichan Bay estuary eBird

Related Post: Northern birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

Birding in Victoria, BC at Somenos Marsh in Duncan

While not technically in Victoria, one of my favourite birding spots in the region is north of Victoria in the Cowichan region at Somenos Marsh. The marsh is located just off the northbound TransCanada highway in Duncan, about an hour’s drive north of Victoria.

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Somenos Marsh, Duncan, BC

Initially, we found the marsh somewhat accidentally while driving by on our way somewhere else up island. It turned out to be a gem in the middle of the city. Thousands of migratory and overwintering birds depend on the marsh for its essential resources. The result? More than 200 species of birds have been sighted here.

 

The marsh features a nice, loop walkway with raised boardwalks and interpretive signs. There are currently plans to install a viewing platform in the future and the society is actively fundraising for it as of this post.

For me, Somenos really shines in the spring and summer! I’ll never forget watching diving and soaring Tree Swallows the first time I visited the marsh! Being one of my favourite birds, I was enthralled and impressed by the number of swallows here.

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Tree Swallow perched for a rare rest on a nest-box
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Tree Swallow pair at a nesting box

They use nest-boxes perched alongside the boardwalks to raise young, feeding them all the delicious insects available in the wetland. While Tree Swallows soar above your head and sometimes dive in front of you, Song Sparrows sing their familiar melodies. Common Yellowthroats tick and chick, singing witchety-witchety-witchety from within the tall grass, teasing you with their song. They are only visible by the twitching and moving stalks of grass except for the occasional glimpse of their bright yellow body and bold eye-stripe awarded to those who are patient.

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A parent Tree Swallow watches over nestlings at Somenos Marsh
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Tree Swallow perched for a rest in the sun.
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a female Red-winged Blackbird bringing food for her babies

While it promises birds abounding in spring and summer, Somenos shines any time of year! Wintering ducks and geese find shelter and food at the flooded marsh during the cold months. Bald Eagles can be seen soaring the skies and Spotted Towhees can be heard croaking and mewing from within the bushes at any time of year while Red-winged Blackbirds buoyantly flounce from cattail to nestbox giving out their familiar raucous calls. It is well-worth a visit on its own or on your way elsewhere up island.

 


Resources
Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society
Somenos Marsh eBird Page

Exploring Denver’s nature & birds at Washington Park

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.

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Washington Park, Denver, CO

I saw two new species while I was at the park – very exciting – and quite a few others I appreciated, too. The highlight, though, were the American White Pelicans, a first for me! A group of about six pelicans floated on the lake much to my surprise. I’d taken a peek at what I might expect to see while in Denver, but I honestly never expected to see pelicans in the middle of a city park!

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.

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American White Pelican

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.

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Snowy Egret
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It was all about the waterbirds that day as I spied another heron in the same tree; a Black-crowned Night Heron. My first adult sighting; I’d only ever seen a juvenile before.

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.

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One of many Barn Swallows at the boathouse colony!

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.

Its strange how the animal world is so beautiful and sorrowful in congruence; the opposing forces of life and death as constant forces of joy and new beginnings versus loss and endings. I guess it keeps us engaged and reminds us to be grateful for every minute.

There is a garden at the park which is a replica of Martha Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon, which was uplifting. The garden was full of every colour imaginable; someone has tended it well and I don’t think my photos do it justice. The park is well worth a visit whether you are a Denver native or visitor from near or far.

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.

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A prairie dog peeping his little head out to take a look! “Is it safe?” Sometimes I feel a little like this just leaving the house.

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.

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Denver, CO viewed from Red Rocks Ampitheatre

A snowy hike in Strathcona in June

Back in mid-June, when we weren’t in the grip of a heat wave and summer was still at its start, I finally went on a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park that I’d been hoping to do for some time. I wanted to hike part of the Forbidden Plateau lakes trail. My partner and I had thought about stopping to do it on our way back from the North Island last April, but decided the weather wasn’t quite right yet.

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Path through the woods early on the Forbidden Plateau trails at Strathcona Provincial Park

Our original plan was to head up to Lake Helen Mackenzie then continue on to Kwai Lake, taking take a loop trail past a number of others lakes back to the start. We arrived early and were ready for a big day. It was nice to arrive up in the mountains, where it had to be about 10 degrees cooler and even the air smelled fresher. We set off on a very well-maintained trail through alpine marshes alternating with forest trails.

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I imagine in a few weeks’ time, this marsh will be overgrown with beautiful wildflowers of all colours.

For the most part, it was quite silent in the still mountain air; a refreshing silence. But as we stepped onto one of the many boardwalks that cross the marshes along the trail, we heard a very loud cry in the distance.

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An inquisitive Canada Jay (Gray Jay or whiskeyjack – a bird of many names).
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A fledgling Canada Jay learning from parents.

Suddenly, a family of curious Gray Jays (or Canada Jays) landed in the trees around us and loudly advertised their, and our, presence to the whole forest. With them was a very demanding juvenile bird. I’m sure the whole family would have loved a nice treat from us. Once they seemed to understand that we weren’t those kinds of humans, they eventually moved off into the woods, hopping from tree to tree until they disappeared and silence reigned once more.

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intelligence in the eyes of a Canada Jay

Crossing a creek, we glimpsed a lone Black-tailed Deer upstream, so different from the urban deer we frequently see. I wonder how many people this doe encounters in her daily life. After a pleasant walk, we reached Lake Helen Mackenzie, its calm, clear water stirred only by the gentle wind. On the far side of the lake, snow touched down to lake level and I could imagine this place snow and ice-covered in the winter.

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Black-tailed deer in natural habitat.
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Lake Helen Mackenzie

After lunching at the lakeside, we assessed our energy levels and opted to continue on to Kwai Lake. From here, the trail became less well-defined and more difficult, with roots and branches threatening to trip you underfoot and a steady uphill climb, sometimes across little ephemeral creeks.

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Small cascade coming down the hillside along the trail

A loud chorus of frogs croaked in the near distance; I could glimpse just bits of a lake somewhere below us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard frogs quite so loud! We continued on until the path became even less defined and covered in more and more snow as we climbed up.

Thoughts of turning back began to creep into my mind as we kept going until we reached another hiker who opted to turn around because he lost the trail beneath the snow. He wished us luck and we kept on until we, too, lost all sign of the trail beneath the snow now blanketing everywhere. After a brief discussion on the pro’s con’s and possibilities of each choice, we decided to turn back for safety’s sake. We could have pushed on, but I felt safer and more comfortable turning back, knowing I’d be safe at my campground that night.

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An early spring flower in the mountains

We passed by the loud chorusing frogs again and passed Lake Helen Mackenzie, now much busier than it was when we’d arrived earlier, and followed the trail loop back to the trailhead past Battleship Lake. As it turns out, we ran into another hiker who’d turned back and changed plans, too, which reassured me we made the right choice.

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Battleship Lake and Mt Washington in the background

Though disappointed we didn’t make the full hike, it was still a beautiful trip. For me, it is more about the journey and what we see and experience along the way than the end destination.

After encountering more Gray Jays on our return, we made it safely to our campground for the night. By the river, it was much warmer and it was hard to believe that we’d been stopped by snow earlier in the day. But that is part of the fascination of the mountains; they are like a world apart.

That night, at our campground, I heard something that sounded like a raptor for sure. When I got up to investigate in the nearby trees, I found two Barred Owl owlets perched up high being watched over by their parent. Though our trip hadn’t gone quite according to plan, if you open your eyes and ears, and observe what’s around you, remember what’s important, you might not care so much about the unexpected.

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juvenile and adult Barred Owls

 

Summer sun, sand & shorebirds at Sidney Spit

I took my annual summer trip to Sidney Spit a few weeks ago and it was just as good as it always is. It was nearing lunch time so I set off for the beach on the far side of the island and had a picnic, watching the gentle waves lap the shore and listening to their gentle rush upon the sand.

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Looking east from Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, BC with a BC Ferry en route in the centre. The feathery wispy clouds were incredible the day I was there.

The water is so clear and cool it was refreshing to dip my toes into the shallows. Nearby, in the trees behind me, I heard the loud call of a bird. It was a Bald Eagle. We would meet again later on my trip…

The tide was quite low when I arrived, though it was making its way back up with each passing moment, so after lunch I immediately set off for the spit itself. I was hoping to see some shorebirds, and I eventually did, but I also saw a few surprises.

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Looking north up the spit; the west side is sandier than the east side.

Passing a little tidal pool of leftover water, I heard a Killdeer‘s piercing cry. He was scurrying among the dead trees and rocks by the water’s edge. As I continued along the spit, the sandy bar narrowed and gave way to cobbles and rocks one the outer, eastern side of the island. Far ahead of me, I could see a huge mass of gulls gathered together, but closer was a group of Black Oystercatchers.

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Black Oystercatchers foraging in the tidal zone.

Usually I see them in pairs, never in such a large groups as this. I presumed they were together for either breeding or in preparation for migration. Either way, I gave them a very wide berth and tried my best not to disturb them.

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A Pelagic Cormorant offshore the island.

I made my way back down the spit, enjoying the many different cormorants flying overhead and a Pigeon Guillemot diving offshore. Meandering through the forest on my way to the lagoon, I listened to the wind in the trees, gently rustling leaves and the chit-chat of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the firs. Bushtits also chattered among their flock in the lower branches of small trees and bushes.

I also passed across an open field along the way where Barn and Tree Swallows dove and swooped and a White-crowned Sparrow sung out from a tree. There is such a wide variety of habitats packed into such a small, walkable space here; one of the reasons I love visiting.

Coming down to the lagoon back into the bright, hot sunshine, I was rewarded with a flock of shorebirds at last. I sat and watched them for a while, scurrying along the sand and dipping their beaks beneath the sand to pull out prey. As one gave a shrill cry, they all up and flew away, perhaps spooked by a nearby Osprey who was out fishing. Soon after the peeps flew off, a great splash sounded and I looked over in time to see an Osprey hit the water to catch a fish.

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Flock of sandpipers down at the lagoon.
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Mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
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Least Sandpiper (middle) and a Western Sandpiper (left). My best, educated guesses – I don’t feel strong with my sandpiper ID yet.

Eventually, when I had my fill of watching these little shorebirds I don’t often see, I made my way back uphill through the trees to the dock. Along the way, I heard a familiar call. The juvenile Bald Eagle I’d heard while I ate lunch was perched in a tall tree overlooking the beach. I imagine he may have been begging his parents for food even though he certainly looked big enough to be taking care of himself, he was probably still learning how to hunt.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle

Back at the docks, I enjoyed watching some of my very favourite birds…Purple Martins. There are a number of nest-boxes on the docks, which I hope is helping their populations recover. I got to watch a female martin capture an insect on the wing and return to the nestbox to feed her young. I only saw the tiniest smidge of a baby’s head popping out from the box, where I hope and believe he was safe until he’s ready to fledge.

A Surprise at Sandcut Beach

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Sandcut Beach falls

A few weeks ago, I got to see one of the most incredible things I think I’ve ever seen. I was at Sandcut Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island where a creek cascades down into a waterfall onto the beach. Yes, its very romantic. I’d explored the beach already and enjoyed the view of the waterfall flowing over the rock into a pool in the sand.

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Sandcut Beach falls

Looking up at the creek bed I couldn’t resist climbing up on top of it and checking out the view from on top of a waterfall. Maybe the geologist in me still likes to get up close and personal with rocks. But how often to you get to see a waterfall from the top?

The bottom of the creek bed is continuous, exposed sandstone full of little potholes and puddles. Its a totally different landscape from the one down on the beach. As I walked up the tree-lined creek, I began to hear a faint noise in the distance. I was sure it was a bird, but I didn’t know what I was about to find.

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The sandstone creek bed of Sandcut Creek
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Sandcut Creek

The highway crosses noisily above the creek and I thought maybe there was a bird nest with a hungry baby somewhere up high on the bridge. But as I got closer, I discovered the insistent, piping noise was a juvenile American Dipper!

He was puffed up and looked even bigger than his parent nearby as he begged for food, following his parent’s every step and demanding to be fed! The poor parent never got a rest, I imagine it must be exhausting work dipping around in the creek for delicious insects for your baby to eat. Can you imagine your child constantly following you around asking to be fed? It is hard work being a bird parent!

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American Dipper baby begging for food

It was just incredible to watch from a distance as I didn’t want to disturb a parent and baby. The baby’s mouth was still a bright, attention-catching yellow and he didn’t seem to like getting his feet wet. The juvenile tended to stay on drier rocks out of the faster-moving water. I imagine this was not actually out of a dislike of wet feet but rather a way to stay safe from the currents as a vulnerable young bird.

It was so unexpected, I really tried to cherish the moment. I don’t think I’ll see an American Dipper feeding its young again anytime soon, but I won’t forget this special experience. I feel grateful I was in the right place at the right time and that I followed my curiosity up the creek. To me, that’s the best way to watch birds and enjoy nature. Going outside without a defined plan and just see what comes along your way…you never know what you might stumble across.

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American Dipper juvenile – look at that bright yellow mouth!

 

Riverside birds in Canterbury, New Zealand

Back in March, I went on a trip to New Zealand for a couple of weeks. Most of the time I spent in and around Christchurch and it was gorgeous! I loved going back to visit and getting to watch birds there for real for the first time. I hadn’t really gotten into bird-watching yet when I lived there before.

With my Handbook of Common New Zealand Birds by Kinsky and Robertson that I picked up at a used book sale and my knowledge of a few birds that I’d seen there before, it was exciting and challenging to encounter some new birds!

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the Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ

The first bird I really saw after settling in was one of my absolute favourites – the Paradise Shelduck! These ducks are familiar to me, having seen them frequently before. I love the sounds they make – have a listen here. They are quite loud and distinct and being endemic to New Zealand, are quite special. These gorgeous and colourful ducks are almost always seen exclusively in their breeding pairs and can be found all across New Zealand in fields, along rivers, in parks and inland shores.

Biking along a quintessential braided Canterbury river toward the sea, there were many more birds to encounter. Next, as I paused for lunch on the cobbled riverbed and looked across the water, I saw a tall, pale greyish blue bird standing along the river’s edge. It was striking how similar to the familiar Great Blue Heron this White-faced Heron appeared, yet they live half a world apart.

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White-faced Heron

Meanwhile, swallows flew overhead, diving and swirling and a Swamp Harrier hovered above, searching for prey. I felt a sense of familiarity that these birds are akin to many I know here in BC. Yet I also felt in awe at the beauty of the landscape and wildlife surrounding me and the connectedness of all things in nature.

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Looking toward the mountains

In the middle of the river where the water was flowing quickly, a shag (also called a cormorant) floated along. I watched him dive below the surface and bob back up before hopping ashore for a quick rest. After further study, I identified the cormorant as a Little Shag, or Little Pied Shag. They are native to all parts of New Zealand and live in fresh or coastal waters.

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Little Shag

Not far from the heron, there was another interesting bird. This one was totally new to me and had a very interesting appearance with a white body, grey back and bright yellow face. I quickly found this bird in my book and had no doubts as to its species – the Spur-winged Plover. In Australia, this bird is known as the Masked Lapwing. I saw one again later on my trip in Picton on a sports field. Unlike many others birds of New Zealand, these plovers have coped very well with the presence of humans as they can thrive in agricultural and urban areas.

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Spur-winged Plover

References
Handbook of Common Birds of New Zealand by F.C. Kinsky and C.J.R. Robertson.
Little Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Paradise Shelduck, New Zealand Birds Online
Spur-winged Plover, New Zealand Birds Online
White-faced Heron, New Zealand Birds Online

Birding in Victoria, BC at Esquimalt Lagoon

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Esquimalt Lagoon looking north towards Hatley Castle (centre) on a calm April day

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 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.

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.

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Bald Eagle perching above the lagoon
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Merlin perches in the trees above the lagoon

Resources

Esquimalt Lagoon eBird Page
Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse eBird Page
Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Esquimalt Lagoon History (CRD)

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
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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
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Bewick’s Wren

Resources

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