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!

 

American Dipper singing at Nimpkish Lake

A few months ago I went on a trip to the North Island, Vancouver Island and spent a night camping at Nimpkish Lake. That evening, while walking along the lakeside, I spotted an American Dipper strutting its stuff on a fallen tree out in the water. American Dippers are song birds, and the only aquatic ones in North America. They typically live and hunt near fast-moving rivers with rocky bottoms in the western U.S. and Canada; this is the first one I’ve seen at a lake. Listen to this one’s song and have fun watching him in my video below:

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North Vancouver Island & San Josef Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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Common Loons

 

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

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

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Whimbrel

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

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North Island forests

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

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San Josef Bay
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sea stacks, San Josef Bay

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

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

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

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

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Sam Josef Bay in the morning

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


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

The lost waterfall, ammonites & an American Dipper

On a search to find the hike to Benson Creek Falls and Ammonite Falls near Nanaimo, my partner and I walked through the forest listening for the sound of flowing water. After a summer of drought, the creek was running pretty low and the falls turned out to be only a mere trickle. We weren’t even sure we found the right waterfall.  Unfortunately, the trail signs at Benson Creek Falls Regional Park are not all that well marked and there is no signed map at the parking lot.

However, we still managed to have a nice walk and found some other surprising things instead. Its not the first time one of our hike hasn’t gone to plan for whatever reason, and for the most part, we tend to look on the bright side. Even if we miss what we came to see, its usually still an enjoyable walk and time spent outside.

 

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Falls run dry with little rain over the summer

Its a pretty steep descent heading down to the stream bed and at one point there are nice ropes to help you down. I could see it being very slippery after a good rain. Once we reached the creek, we soon found a small, dry rock outcrop where  a waterfall might be during the winter. The rocks here are part of the Cretaceous (145 to 65 million years ago) Nanaimo Group – basically a group of sedimentary rocks which were mostly deposited as a marine environment. That’s why there are so many marine fossils in the rock when you get further upstream in the creekbed.

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A little bit of waterfall cascading down into a lovely pool

In fact, that’s how Ammonite Falls gets its name – because of the ammonite fossils that can be found in the rock here. Ammonites were essentially ancient ancestors of cephalopods (think octopus or squid) that lived on earth 420 to 65 million years ago, some of them growing up 2m in size! At the end of the Cretaceous period, they went extinct along with the dinosaurs.

While I sat on the rocks enjoying the lovely pool at the waterfall’s bottom and geeking out looking at the fossils, we suddenly spotted an American Dipper at the bottom of the waterfall! My partner frequently sees these little songbirds while out paddling whitewater, for which I am insanely jealous of him, so I was very excited to see the dipper on my walk!

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Highlight of the day: an American Dipper skipped up the rocks on the outcrop

The dipper bobbed his head and skipped up the slippery rock wall nimbly and quickly. He reminded me of a chickadee because he almost never sat still for a photo! The comparison is fair, I suppose, since he is a songbird, after all.

 

We watched him for some time as he made his way up the waterfall, bobbing his head this way and that. I noticed his eye blinking frequently as it would go white and then black and then flash white again and the flashing of white really caught my attention. It turns out, the white is actually the Dipper’s eyelid and not its third eyelid as I (and many others) would assume given their aquatic nature.

 

But then, wildlife is so full of surprises and interesting new things to learn, it is one of the greatest joys in watching birds and other animals. So while we may not have reached the proper waterfall we set out to see, we still got to see some interesting things. To watch and enjoy the Dipper yourself at home, view my video below.

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Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys

As it is already August and I haven’t yet written anything on the birds I saw on my trip to the Rockies in April, I thought I would do so now in a short, fun post of mostly photos of some birds from the mountains and valleys of the main National Parks we visited (Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper).

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Red-tailed Hawk soars high above the Paint Pots in Kootenay NP, BC

On a lovely hike to Wapta Falls in Yoho NP, a stirring in the bushes on a trail spooked me. Fearing a bear or some other large animal, I turned back to see this lovely Spruce Grouse much to my relief and surprise (and embarrassment that he scared me)! This was a new bird for me and I was quite happy to watch him hang out on the edge of the trail.

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Spruce Grouse on the trail to Wapta Falls (below), Yoho NP, BC
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Wapta Falls, Yoho NP, BC

The trail to Wapta Falls is a good hike and it was a good alternative to Takakkaw Falls, which was still closed for avalanches back in April.

At Lake Louise, I delighted in watching a Clark’s Nutcracker among the Whitebark Pines and the people. To me, these birds are a symbol of the Rockies and I had high hopes of seeing one on my trip. Luckily, this one did not disappoint!

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Clark’s Nutcracker at Lake Louise, Banff NP, AB

At Athabasca Falls in Jasper NP, I saw an American Dipper hopping on the rocks along the river below me. I’d only ever seen one of these before on the Qualicum River on Vancouver Island, but at the time I didn’t know what it was. So, I like to count this as my first official dipper sighting. The dipper hunts underwater in fast-flowing streams and rivers and are North America’s only true aquatic songbird (Cornell).

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American Dipper at Athabasca Falls (below), Jasper NP, AB

Athabasca Falls is a must-see stop for any trip to Jasper NP and even in April, there were many tourist buses parked up. Its a short walk from the parking lot to see the main falls and along the limestone potholes below.

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Athabasca Falls, Jasper NP, AB

En route to the beautiful Maligne Lake in Jasper NP is Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake is a very interesting geological feature on the Maligne River: there is no channel visible at the surface draining the lake. This is because the water drains out through the ground beneath it through sinkholes and limestone caves until it re-emerges in Maligne Canyon (Parks Canada).

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Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB

Many of the trees surrounding Medicine Lake are blackened, crispy ghosts of a forest that once stood along this strange lake until a wildfire claimed it last summer. Among the charred remains of the forest, there is life. We spied a Bald Eagle nest in a tree just off the very left edge of my photo above. In the photo of the nest, you can see all the dead trees in the background.

Our second try hiking the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper NP after turning around for a grizzly bear was quite a success. Its a beautiful walk past lovely little kettle lakes, and as we’d started later than we planned due to our grizzly sighting we stopped for lunch on the way.

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Barrow’s Goldeneye (male, breeding plumage) on the Valley of Five Lakes Trail, Jasper NP, AB

As we sat beside the crystal clear waters of the first lake, a Pileated Woodpecker hopped down between the rocks to my side. He looked a bit curious about us, but he got on with his drinking and had a little bit of a bath and graced me with these photos before he flew away to a nearby tree. I just love these guys and seeing one up this close was such a treat!

 

 

Stay tuned for Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies: part 2 which will include some birds from the BC interior and other regions west of the mountains.