Meeting new and old birds in Toronto & Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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trees fallen in a swamp at Tift Nature Preserve in Buffalo, NY

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

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

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My only clear photo of a Common Tern at the Buffalo River

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

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

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

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

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

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Northern Cardinal

A sunny summer getaway to the Gulf Islands: Pender Island, BC

The Gulf Islands lie between the mainland of BC and Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia and are one of my favourite summertime retreats. While they are a popular summer destination, but are equally as nice in the spring and autumn, especially during the rainy season elsewhere; these islands lie in a nicely protected rain-shadow and thus receive significantly less rain than the adjacent coasts.

This chain of islands is usually split into two sub-divisions: the Northern Gulf Islands east of and the Southern Gulf Islands. The Southern Gulf Islands contain parts of the Gulf Islands National Park, as well as privately-owned land and other provincial and regional parks. The islands are serviced by a number of ferries from either Vancouver Island or the mainland.

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Looking across the water back at Vancouver Island from Thieves Bay, Pender Island. Orcas and other whales have been seen from the shore here before as they pass through the Strait of Georgia, though we did not have any luck.

This summer, my spouse and I rode the ferry over to Pender Island from Swartz Bay for a weekend and camped at the brand new Shingle Bay campground on North Pender Island. It was a nice campground surrounded by trees right on a beach, although it was completely full!

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A Belted Kingfisher greeted us as our ferry arrived at the Otter Point terminal.

At our campsite, we watched lots of Canada Geese swim by and Black-tailed Deer rustled in the bushes and climbed out along the shore. To my delight, there were nesting Purple Martins we watched in the morning and evening as they chattered away in their high-pitched peeps to one another. There were nest-boxes attached to what I think were the posts that were the remains of an old dock.

I was so excited to see the martins as they are definitely one of my favourite birds! I remember seeing them on Sidney Spit last year and I’d been hoping to see them all summer season. Being swallows, their diving aerial acrobatics are a joy to watch and their squealing and chitter-chattering calls are a happy sound to my ears! Not to mention the brilliant blue-violet plumage of the males. Purple Martins can be seen on many of the Gulf Islands’ coasts, where their recovery continues in saltwater habitats over the last 30 years. Hopefully, we will see a greater return of Purple Martins at freshwater sites in the coming years.

Elsewhere on Pender Island, there are lots of smaller community parks among the patches of the National Park that are also worth visiting! I saw a number of Pacific Wrens at one of these as well as a large variety of birds at the George Hill Community Park, which was a hidden little gem of a walk with a surprisingly lovely view from the top. On this short but lovely walk, I saw my first American Goldfinch, Song Sparrows and Olive-sided Flycatchers as well as many Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Robins, warblers and more!

Pacific Wren (upper left), Song Sparrow (upper right), Olive-sided Flycatcher (bottom left) and an American Goldfinch (bottom right) seen on Pender Island. Click images for larger view.

Back by the sea, Brooks Point Regional Park is an interesting stop at a rocky shoreline with a lighthouse and views of Vancouver Island, Mt Baker and the Strait of Georgia.

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Brooks Point Regional Park on South Pender Island looking towards Saturna Island

One of the highlights was hiking Mt. Norman, the highest peak on Pender Island (North or South) at 244m. The hike is short, but steep and not all that scenic until you reach the nice viewing platform at the top upon which you can look out south across Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island and Vancouver Island.

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The view from Mt. Norman, Pender Island: Bedwell Harbour & North Pender Island (foreground) and Vancouver Island (background).

We later stopped at Hope Bay on North Pender Island and had lunch by the sea in the sun. Looking out on the water, a river otter swam by and climbed up onto a dock in the sun.

It was, as always, a delight to watch the otter as he rolled around and laid with his belly up, scratching his back on the dock and looking over at us every time we made a sound. Clearly, he knew we were watching him. Above the otter were more Purple Martins! They chattered and swooped and dove and I could have watched them all day if I had the time. Unfortunately, I did not and we headed back to Vancouver Island with warm, sunny memories of the wildlife and beauty of Pender Island.