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

Beauty in the simple things

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singing Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have just started singing here in Victoria. I went out for a walk the other week and heard their sweet, tumbling song for the first time in months! It shone out at me distinctly among the robin’s whistling, the towhee’s cat-like calling and the chickadee’s chatter.

The junco’s warbler-like song stirs up memories of spring and summer. I’ve watched the world changing around me recently. Early buds have popped up on trees, new greenery emerges among the barren branches and twigs, and even a flower or two has appeared. The juncos have clearly noticed as well. But just the other day, it snowed. So I suppose they call them “the snowbird” for a reason; they don’t seem to mind. They sing on.

Juncos have always been endearing little birds to me, entertaining me in the suburbs and city parks and at my bird feeder. I wonder if many people truly appreciate these birds, which some might consider quite drab without any flashy, colourful feathers. But not to me.

The Oregon variety common in BC has soft rosy flanks grading into their white breasts in sharp contrast with their black heads. Their wings show a vast variety in shades of brown and black; and of course, their defining feature – the white outer tail feathers. The males flash around their white tails to attract females and defend their territory.

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Observe the variety of colour in this Oregon Dark-eyed Junco’s feathers from head to tail.

Interestingly, over the last 50 years, as they have embraced the suburban life, the junco’s white tail has faded. With feeders and ideal habitat available, suburban males have been found to stick around with their partners longer, lessening the need for the white colouring (Marzluff, 2014).

Sometimes the simplest things can bring the most joy, and Dark-eyed Juncos are certainly one for me. There aren’t many native birds simpler or more common (in North America anyway) than the American Robin. I’ve heard quite a few birders say the phrase “oh, its just a robin” as if a robin were not a creature worthy of appreciation or a thing of beauty.

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American Robin, beautiful red breast on proud display.

American Robins are birds that I have been around my whole life. I remember their cheerful song often lasts long into the twilight of spring and summer evenings as the sun’s warmth fades away and the air smells fresh and cool. As a kid, I used to anticipate the return of migratory populations as a sure sign of spring.

I like to watch them now, in my backyard, hopping along the grass and eating worms. I observe how they cock their head to the side, lowered toward the ground as if listening for any vibration below the earth’s surface. And then – like many larger predators – they strike suddenly, and slurp up a worm from the ground.

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American Robin in the dawn light during winter.

Their song is one of the most beautiful, happy and warm songs that exists in the natural world. And their red breast is not something to be taken for granted. In the golden-orange light of dusk or dawn, if you catch the light on their breast just right, well, it speaks for itself if you ask me.

The fantastic and infrequent bird sightings are special, too, don’t get me wrong. But don’t forget to appreciate the little things, the simple things, that are all around and can be found if you take a moment to look.

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American Robin in the early winter evening light.

References
Marzluff, John M., 2014. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Yale University Press.

Winter birds in the yard and the beach

Christmas morning, Victoria woke up to a white Christmas. It had snowed the evening before as the sun fell, muffling the world in a crisp silence, the only sound the crunching beneath my feet when I went outside for a walk. When I first got up and looked out the window, a Barred Owl had landed in the trees in the backyard. I’ve seen this owl around a couple of times (presuming he is the same one) before and heard it call at night, but never managed to have my camera nearby at the right moment! I watched him in this different, snow-covered landscape until he flew away. What a wonderful way to start the day!

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Barred Owl in the backyard Christmas morning

Later that day, after playing in the snow (a rare sight here), I went for a walk down to one of my favourite spots to bird and enjoy nature. There were quite a few ducks about: Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Common Mergansers. A lone Common Goldeneye swam unexpectedly close to shore not far from a pair of Western Grebes.

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Bird prints in the snow
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Hooded Mergansers
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Western Grebes

Today, I went back again in a different atmosphere. The snow had melted and the sun was out, but the wind was up from the northeast. Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers crossed the water close together. I wondered if these diving and dabbling ducks had decided to group together for safety like a wintering flock of songbirds.

A Brandt’s Cormorant also passed nearby them, and I watched as he dove into the cold water and came back up more than once with a tasty morsel in his beak. A second cormorant had been nearby at first, but had taken flight straight from the water’s surface. Its pretty incredible if you stop and think about it, but then again, they are made for this.

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Buffleheads

I cut through the woods on my way back to the sound of woodpeckers knocking on trees and chickadees tsee-ing and deedee-ing. I stopped in a muddy clearing to watch a flock of American Robins traipsing from tree to tree and eating berries and House Finches doing the same in the lower branches. House Finches are common backyard birds, but somehow, I have never seen one in my yard. I guess I mustn’t have the right habitat. So, I stop to enjoy them and watch as their bright pink feathers shine in the sunlight. These two types of birds bring a smile to my face; both have such cheerful songs and colouring.

The bird feeder has gone back out again for winter and just in time for the snow, too. The birds and myself have been enjoying the feeder. After foraging the fallen seeds on the ground last year (my first year with a feeder), the Dark-eyed Juncos have now found their way onto the tray itself for better pickings! It’s certainly been a hopping place to be; with Chestnut-backed Chickadees perched in the nearby trees waiting in line and Red-breasted Nuthatches brazenly bossing the others around. I worry about disease and fighting, but I’m sure as long as I follow the bird feeder rules, all will be okay!

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 Dark-eyed Juncos have found their way to the feeder tray this year.

Frosty mornings & lessons in winter birding

While I am a lover of summer time, we are lucky here in Victoria when it comes to winter birding! Quite a few resident birds stay here throughout the year while many others head down from the north to enjoy our mild winter.

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Lingering frost on a crisp winter’s morning.

Now that I’ve been through my first winter of birding, I know easily who the visitors are now and who I can expect to see. In the winter, I look forward to seeing lots of lovely seabirds and ducks come south to our region. From Harlequin Ducks to Surf Scoters and American Wigeons, they are all a joy to watch. I wonder if, for them, coming south is like a welcome vacation from the cold?

Meanwhile, resident birds get cozy in the cold with many of them forming flocks, like robins and chickadees. In fact, little chickadees are often the ringleaders of mixed species flocks, which will also include nuthatches, creepers and even the occasional woodpecker.

Its not a bad idea to flock together in the winter – flocking helps them stay warm, find food and keep alert for danger. There’s safety in numbers and the raptors need a meal in the winter, too.

 

I have been enjoying the visitors and residents alike this winter. There will always be something special to me about birding in the winter here. Not only did I learn a lot about birding last winter, but it also helped heal the hole left in my heart after the loss of my beloved cat.  Winter can be a tough time at its best, and last year, birding made it all much better. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time for the things you love most in life.

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This Cooper’s Hawk was perched high above a small inlet where mallards, wigeons and goldeneyes paddled and dabbled in the water.

Why you should start winter birding (especially if you are a beginner)

You might think winter is a barren season with little life thriving, but if you take a look around, you will begin to see life everywhere. Despite the shorter days and cold weather, winter birding is becoming a favourite time of mine. While it may seem counter-intuitive, it is a great time for beginners like me. I only started seriously bird-watching this past summer, and I am finding the winter easier. Here’s why:

  • There are fewer species out and about, so it is easier to both spot and identify local birds.
  • One of the best things is the birds are much easier to see perched in the trees on bare branches rather than flowering, green ones in the spring or summertime.
  • Many migrating birds and birds of prey show up in the winter depending on where you live.
  • Its got to be good for your health to get out and about in the fresh air from time to time in the winter!
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Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Just start out in the backyard and take it from there. Local parks, along streams or ponds and nature sanctuaries are all great places to get started. Birds can be found in even the biggest of cities. Look at the Painted Bunting that recently created a huge stir appearing in New York City earlier this month! You’ll never know what you might find until you open your eyes and start looking around.

Many people choose to bring out the bird feeders over the winter. This is especially important if you live in an area where bears will be attracted to the food so it is safer for both them and you if you limit your bird-feeding to the winter. This is very important as bears who successfully get bird food will continue to come back to a reliable food source and this often ends badly for the bear. Besides, food is less plentiful during this time anyway. (Read some useful tips on feeding birds in bear country from the Five Valleys Audubon Society. WildSafeBC also has other great information on tips for limiting bear attractants and more bear safety information.)

Personally, I choose not to feed birds as I prefer watching them in natural habitat rather than drawing them in with food. However, if you do wish to put out bird food (I can understand the appeal), I’d recommend these tips from the Audubon Society. Its important to remember that birds congregating at feeders can sometimes spread disease, so its important to feed right!

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American Robin

I am lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest where temperatures don’t plummet very far compared to much of the rest of North America at my latitude or further north. Birds I have been seeing frequently this winter around my backyard or neighbourhood so far include Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees (pictured top), Stellar’s Jay, American Robins (pictured above), Spotted Towhees, various sparrows and Anna’s Hummingbirds.