The last few months have seen a lot of change. Endings and beginnings. We left Victoria and moved to Corvallis, Oregon. November was our last month in Canada. I’m still settling in here, a process that always takes longer than I anticipate. Two members of my extended family passed away and in the grey darkness of winter, it can be hard to see the light or the reason why some things happen.
“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” – The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
But now that the solstice is past and the days are getting longer, we have set up many of the basics here so we can focus on getting to know a new place. New plants and wildlife, new birds, new places to go. Moving is always exciting, but always involves challenges I often seem to underestimate until I’m in the thick of it.
Its a bit strange for me to move back to the United States again. I haven’t lived in this country since May 2011. In seven and a half years, a lot has happened. Both to this place and to me. When I left, I admit I never really wanted to come back, but sometimes opportunities come up and you go with them. Its all an opportunity for a learning experience anyway.
There’s a lot that I miss about Victoria. Starting my journey into bird-watching there made me feel more connected to the land and nature around me than I’ve ever felt before. But its not such a different environment here and I see many familiar birds that make me feel at home again.
Other familiar birds like Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Herons and Song Sparrows are kind of comforting while newer birds like the Black-capped Chickadee are exciting to get to know. There are many more new birds to meet just around the corner if I look. And just like bird-watching helped me while grieving my first cat’s death, I know it will help me feel at home in a new place if I just go out and look and listen. To remember that to feel a connection to another living thing is an important feeling that can bring joy to a small moment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Snow Geese in flight at Cowichan Estuary
Snow Geese at the Cowichan Estuary
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!
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.
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.
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.
flowers paint the meadow pink in July
Boardwalk at Somenos marsh
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.
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.
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.
American Robin perched at the highest branch like a sentinel over the marsh
Cedar Waxwings explore the marsh feeding on insects and when they run out, switching to berries.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is one of our smallest birds here in B.C. at just about 4 or 5in in length. That puts them around the same size as kinglets. However small they are in stature, however, they certainly make up for it by their presence.
I think of them as miniature woodpeckers of a kind. And if you’ve ever heard a nuthatch drumming on a tree like I have, you’ll know they can be surprisingly noisy. The first time I noticed a Red-breasted Nuthatch after hearing it pecking a tree, I felt surprised that something so small could make so much noise!
Its not only their thrumming that draws attention to them; if their pale orange breast isn’t enough to catch your attention, their sound sure will! Their song is quite distinct. To me it sounds like a series of nasal beep beep beep‘s (though the Cornell Lab is trying to tell me it is “yank“ – well, to each their own) that sound like a miniature trumpet. Have a listen here. They also make a chittery noise that sounds like friendly chatter to me, but I wonder if that’s how they boss around the other birds in their mixed flocks. They often group with chickadees and kinglets; easily getting along as they each feed at different heights or areas.
They thrive in coniferous forests and live year-round in much of western and northern North America, including here on Vancouver Island, though some populations are migratory. At feeders, they often aggressively chase out other bigger birds to have the best choice of seeds for themselves. Perhaps they are trying to eliminate competition for the best food as they prefer to take the heaviest seeds available (Ghalambor et al., 1999). This might explain why I often see Red-breasted Nuthatches lingering at my feeder longer than other birds, who tend to fly back and forth a bit more.
I love watching their movements whether in flight or up and down branches or drumming on trees. Their movements and short body shape remind me of darts the way they quickly move around with high energy. It amazes me how they are capable of moving vertically up the trunks of trees.
Like all nuthatches, they require cavities for nesting and will often excavate their own instead of using an abandoned woodpecker nest (Cornell). Even more fascinating is that they use sticks to apply resin around the outside of their nest holes (Ghalambor 1999). No one knows for sure what purpose it serves (theories include deterring predators or competitors), but it shows remarkable intelligence in a small creature that would surprise some people (Ghalambor, et al. 1999). Especially those who once arrogantly thought that tool-use was unique to humans. If you ask me, animals are a lot more intelligent than we are. Look at mixed flocks of birds co-existing peacefully together; a feat we humans have yet to truly achieve.
Their small-but-mighty attitude, energetic movements on trees, their beautiful colouring and their antics with other birds make the Red-breasted Nuthatch one of my favourite birds. Not only are they a joy to observe and listen to, but nuthatches, like everything in nature, can teach us a lot about our world and ourselves. If you’re feeling small and insignificant, remember the Red-breasted Nuthatch and how he makes himself heard! I always think of the nuthatch as being small, but mighty!
Ghalambor, C. K. and T. E. Martin (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the forest on Sidney Spit
a field on Sidney Spit
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.
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.
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.
Monday was a happy day! I checked on a local osprey nest I monitor from time-to-time and found a tiny little baby osprey head just poking up over the edge of the nest! He must have been born at least few days ago for his head to be peeping up now.
I imagine its quite cozy in there right now, but by the end of summer, it will be cramped with at least one or two other young to share living quarters with. At this point, I have only seen a single head so I wonder if there are more babies on the way.
Both parents paid attention to the baby as dad brought in some fish to feed on for the family. I watched mum delicately tear off small bits of fish and feed it to the baby, his open mouth earnestly awaiting his lunch.
Competition is tough among osprey young, often leaving the third chick to die of starvation or being killed by its siblings. Last year, all three chicks successfully fledged, so it is possible to raise three young if good resources are available.
By about fifty days of age at the end of the summer, the chicks will have fledged and have to find food independently after their parents leave for warmer southern latitudes over the winter.
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.
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.
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!
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.