Just about two weeks ago here, we had some snow fall and the world was turned into a fleeting winter wonderland. The next couple of days could not have been more different with abundant sunshine and warm temperatures and the weather has not looked back since!
Spring officially sprung yesterday on the Spring Equinox according to the calendar, which is defined by the day and time the equator passes under the center of the sun. Of course, its only the northern half of the world that experiences spring while our southern neighbours enjoy the Autumnal Equinox.
Besides the calendar, everything around me seems to be showing its time for spring, too! I’ve heard the juncos and sparrows start singing their songs, Anna’s Hummingbirds have likely already been busy mating this year, and on Sunday I saw my first Tree Swallows of the season while gardening in my backyard!
A couple of weeks ago, I saw my first Violet-green Swallows of the season and I saw even more today! They are bringing spring on their wings, coming to feed on insects coming to life with the warmer temperatures and longer days. I’ve spied a number of Turkey Vultures flying overhead and even saw one in a ditch on the side of the road probably cleaning up roadkill. Migration has begun!
Trees and bushes are beginning to sprout buds and blooms, filling the fresh spring air with the early scents of flowers. Crocuses and daffodils add splashes of colour to the ground along sidewalks, trails, in gardens and beneath trees. Everywhere, new life is blooming around me while every day brings change.
Crocuses blooming in my garden
Primrose peeks through leaves
Daffodils about to spring brilliant blooms.
Spring is undeniably a time of change, new life and hope! Simply put, I hope you enjoy it as much as me when it comes wherever you are. Take time to literally smell the roses, and lilies, and lilacs and all your local natives, too! Sometimes I find myself wishing spring could last all year long as I think its my favourite season. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, beautiful world?
After we visited Haines, AK and saw the incredible Bald Eagles at the Chilkat River last November, we re-boarded the Alaska Marine Highway rode south down the Lynn Canal to explore Juneau, the state capital and the nearby Mendenhall Valley.
Our first day there, the weather was clear and cold with snow lingering on some of the lower hills, making for a nice wintry Alaskan scene. It was the perfect day to visit the nearby Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. Though it was a bit cold, it wasn’t too bad and the freshly fallen snow made the glacier look bigger, brighter and more impressive as we would later learn.
The glacier, like many others today, has been retreating for decades. The glacier’s terminus empties into Mendenhall Lake, depositing massive amounts of silt and clay into the lake and Mendenhall River that flow a few short miles into the sea. The glacier is part of the larger Juneau Icefield which extends into British Columbia to the east. On the east side of the lake, Nugget Falls flows into the icy water from the Nugget Glacier upstream.
There was no one else there and all was quiet except for the roar of the waterfall. With most of the lake frozen over and dusted with snow, it was as if the whole world could be sleeping, like time had stopped. But the sun kept moving higher in the sky and we started to feel the cold after our walk from the nearest public bus stop and spending some time admiring the view.
We headed back toward the visitor center to explore the riverside trails, but many of them were closed to allow bears safe salmon feeding access. I’m always all right with closing access down to protect species that need these resources to survive. On the short trail we did walk, we saw a few more Bald Eagles for good measure and an American Dipper bobbing along the icy stream!
The next day was quite rainy and we decided to explore Juneau city a bit, visited the Alaska State Museum where we learned a lot about Alaska’s history, explored the waterfront and hiked along Perserverance Creek to Ebner Falls, which I would recommend if you have time.
Our final day we re-visited the glacier and had a completely different experience. The temperature had risen, the snow had melted and turned to rain though the lake remained frozen. This time, we walked up the western side of the lake through rainforest to get a closer view of the ice.
It was a good walk through temperate rainforest, full of ferns and moss and the things that come with it; mud and rain! From this viewpoint, we got a lot closer to the glacier especially if we had continued along the whole trail. I found it less impressive despite the distance, due to the loss of all the fresh snow that had fallen a few days before. The glacier certainly looked more like a dying one to me. But the ice had the blue colour you expect to see in a glacier and now that was visible to us, so it was’t all bad. It was interesting to see it in such different circumstances.
Overall, Alaska definitely met my expectations in some ways and exceeded them in others! I did find it tough to cope with the short days as I found myself ready for dinner at 4pm a lot of the time. I guess that’s not so bad when you’re on a trip, but I have to hand it to those who live in Alaska and have to get through those short, dark days of winter. My thoughts were with them even more after the earthquake hit Anchorage shortly after our visit and I can say I am impressed with their resilience. I guess that’s what it takes to live in this kind of place. I’m glad we made the trip happen, but I definitely feel like I’ve got more Alaskan adventures in me!
At Finley National Wildlife Refuge, the geese are just the beginning of what there is to see and enjoy. Even with winter closures in effect until March 31, there are a wealth of marshes, ponds, fields and forests to explore. As I really like to get to know my local birding spots, I’ve been trying to go there regularly. Each visit, the territory becomes more familiar, but the thing about nature is there can always be surprises. Within just one week, the refuge went from being dusted in snow to fields being flooded so much I was worried one of the bridges wound go underwater.
The ponds and marshes were teeming with ducks in the last few weeks. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons and a single pair of Hooded Mergansers all had plenty of space on the water to share. A flock of Northern Shovelers had an entire pond to themselves while an American Kestrel perched on a nearby tree, periodically taking flight and diving to hunt. A Bald Eagle and a Northern Harrier both flew over one very busy pond, spooking the ducks toward the opposite end while hundreds of noisy Canada Geese honked overhead.
Along the edges of one pond, a Black Phoebe fluttered between his perch on a log and the space above the pond to hunt insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the mud on the edges of a marsh, their golden spots striking on a cloudy day. In a large, grassy field, a Northern Harrier feasted on prey on the ground not far from a flock of American Robins hunting their own prey.
There’s life everywhere at the refuge if you pay attention. In a stand of white oak trees, which I have learned are the same as our old Canadian garry oak trees (Quercus garryana – the scientific name helps where common names confuse!), Acorn Woodpeckers call out their funny noises to match their supposed clown-like appearance. They’ve been in these trees each time I visit, so they must call it home.
In nearby trees, Northern Flickers joined the drumming, too, not to be drowned out by the harsh cries of California Scrub-Jays. Where a patch of brambly bushes met an open space, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos sang in a neat chorus around me. Little flashes of white tails flew before me as the juncos were spooked and left the open ground for cover.
On my last visit, there weren’t many ducks about the place, but I’m excited to watch the changes of spring come to life. I’ll certainly miss my overwintering ducks, but I know I’ll see them again later this year. I can already see signs of spring on the way…
Back in November, in between moving from Victoria to Corvallis, my partner and I made time to go on a trip to the final frontier…Alaska. This was something we wanted to do ever since we arrived in Canada and we decided to finally make it happen. An Alaskan cruise seemed like a cool thing to do, but we aren’t really the giant cruise ship, commercial types. So when we heard about the Alaska Marine Highway System, we thought that sounded like us.
From Bellingham, WA, the Alaska Marine Highway travesl to Skagway via the same inside passage cruise ships take at a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the amenities. We decided to “splurge” on the cheapest cabin and were happy to entertain ourselves with books, games, movies and enjoying the view.
It was our first time to Alaska! The first day on board, there was steady rain falling settling into a mist around the coast and islands of British Columbia. There wasn’t much to see beyond the mist, but it, too had a kind of beauty about it. The next day, we sailed into Alaska and the rain was still falling. Its southeast Alaska in November, what else can you expect? The final day we reached Juneau early in the morning and the weather was spectacular. Cold and windy, the sun came out in full force lighting up the newly fallen snow on mountaintops and hillsides.
As the ferry sailed through the Lynn Canal, it finally felt like we were really in Alaska. The ferry seemed mostly populated with local Alaskans or those just moving, but there were a few other tourists around energetically taking photos like me.
After two and a half days, we reached our first stop. Haines, Alaska. We accidentally timed it two days before the annual Bald Eagle Festival, which began after we left. This time of year, thousands of Bald Eagles descend upon the Haines area, especially near the Chilkat River, because its some of the only water still flowing unfrozen and chockful of tasty salmon! While we missed the festival, we also missed the crowds of people descending on both the town and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. But most importantly – we did not miss the eagles.
I didn’t know what to expect, especially given I don’t often trust hyped-up touristy things, but this was really amazing. I thought I’d seen a lot of Bald Eagles living in British Columbia and I even maybe got a little too used to seeing them that I stopped valuing it as much. But Haines…I’ve never seen so many Bald Eagles in one place. They were honestly everywhere you looked. In trees, on the ground, perched by the riverside, flying overhead. And they were noisy. Their high-pitched gullish calls echoed all around us.
It was just an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many Bald Eagles, to listen to them, to watch them, juvenile and adult, feeding on salmon and fighting each other off their catches. Its definitely something I’ll always remember to see such a great wildlife event unfold before me.
To round off our amazing Haines wildlife experience, there was also a bull moose just chilling on the front lawn outside our B&B and apparently there were northern lights that we missed. The wonders of Alaska!
Earlier this week, I went exploring William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis, OR. The refuge was established to protect the wintering grounds of the dusky Canada Goose, a subspecies of Canada Goose that spend winter here and breed in Alaska. I’d never even heard of these geese until I visited the refuge. Much of the refuge is closed over winter to protect their habitat, but there’s still plenty of birds to see at the spaces that are open.
The difference between dusky Canada Geese and others was not immediately clear to me, but after checking some references, I can say with confidence that these are dusky Canada Geese. They have a darker, almost brown breast.
And I can see why the refuge is here because the geese love it. While I walked to one of the marsh overlooks, a sudden roar of goose honks sounded in the distance. I looked up to see a hundreds of geese flying noisily overhead and I thought, now that is a gaggle of geese! Further along, some of the fields were painted brown with huge numbers of geese, more than I’ve ever seen before!
Dusky Canada Geese were once the only population of over-wintering geese in the Wilamette Valley, but in the last fiftty years, Cackling Geese have moved in as well as a new resident group of Canada Geese. Perhaps this is yet another sign of the times in an ever-warming climate with other populations of birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and Red-shouldered Hawks creeping north and staying over the winter, too. Sometimes I think animals and people living closely to nature can tell us a whole lot about the status of our ecosystems if we just learned to pay attention.
Now that we’ve settled in our new place in Oregon and been here a couple months, I’ve had the chance to go explore my new territory. After living there four years and getting to know it well, its hard not to miss Victoria with its beautiful seaside and many gardens.
But there are lots of exciting new places to explore here, so I’ve met some new feathered faces already. The best part is that the local neighborhood birds have found my feeder at last! Its comforting to hear the peep-cheep of the chickadees and the chip-chip off the juncos in the backyard. Backyard birdwatching is probably my favourite way to watch birds and with a much less green backyard here, I was worried I wouldn’t have any birds come visit.
I’m going to have to improve my raptor identification skills, which are still sort of lacking, with all the new birds of prey that live here. There are fewer Bald Eagles than Victoria, but a noticeably wider variety of other raptor species. One of them is quickly becoming a favourite…the American Kestrel. I’d seen only one before we moved here and I’ve already learned what fields to reliably find them at.
With their graceful and fierce beauty and small size (for a bird of prey), how could I not love the kestrel? I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of listening to their calls or watching them hovering and diving. In reading about them, I learned that they can amazingly track voles via their urine which is visible with the kestrel’s ultraviolet vision! Isn’t nature amazing?
Another exciting new bird I’ve met is the Western Bluebird! Ever since I started birdwatching, I longed to see a bluebird! These thrushes aren’t common on Vancouver Island, where the loss of critical garry oak habitat and nesting cavities decimated their once flourishing populations. Some dedicated people have done great work to re-establish their populations in the Cowichan Valley and I hope they continue to succeed.
Of course, here in Oregon, the bluebird faces the same challenges and there is a lot of work being put in to help support their population. But somehow, they are more numerous here in the Wilamette Valley where they live year-round. I wonder if it is the abundance of agricultural fields that helps sustain them. Still, their populations have sharply declined here and I hope Oregon doesn’t have the same story as Vancouver Island someday.
The third new bird I’ve met is the Wrentit! These birds are very unique for North America; they have no relatives on the continent and they can only be found along a small strip of the west coast. I heard it rustling in the bushes and making an unfamiliar but somewhat wren-like call before I saw it. When I first saw this grey and brown bird, it reminded me of a cross between a wren and a Spotted Towhee. Let me know what you think based on my photo. Apparently, they can be very hard to spot among the bushes, rarely coming out from cover, so it was a lucky sighting I doubt I’ll find again anytime soon!
Other interesting birds to encounter here are the loud and raucous California Scrub-Jay, a sort of lowland and coastal compatriot of the Steller’s Jay. At a restored wetland pond, I heard a high-pitched tweeting I’d never heard before. I looked at the trees nearby for any sign of movement, I scanned the bushes and grass and finally, near the edge of the water I saw a small bird flitting up periodically with a flourish of black feathers. A Black Phoebe hunted for insects near the water’s edge, perching periodically on the nearby rocks.
As rainy winter turns to spring, I am sure I will have many more birdwatching adventures and new faces to meet while exploring Oregon!
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.