Winter is for the ducks

If you ask me, the best thing about winter is ducks. I may have mentioned before how much I love ducks, and the last two weekends I’ve had some really great duck-watching! I’m not sure if its something to do with the weather or if there are normally so many about, but I felt like I’ve seen a nice variety in species.

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a party of ducks down at Esquimalt Lagoon

Last weekend, I went down to the Esquimalt Lagoon (always an excellent duck destination) on a cold, but sunny day. There are usually quite a few ducks there, but I thought I saw more than usual last week. Perhaps it was because so many of them were clustered close to the shore.

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American Wigeons
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Common Goldeneye

Whatever the reason, there were heaps of American Wigeons (a large flock tends to hang out at the lagoon), their greens heads just brilliant in the sunlight, as well as Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Pintails and even a couple of Common Goldeneyes. As I walked along the shore, watching the big group, I also spotted a stray Eurasian Wigeon, his red head conspicuous in a sea of green and brown.

American Wigeon and Northern Pintail – what a size difference!
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Eurasian Wigeon

Watching ducks just makes me happy; the way they waddle awkwardly onshore while moving so gracefully on the water with their various quacks and colours just makes me happy.

Besides enjoying the ducks, I also saw a group of shorebirds right on the edge of the water who I didn’t recognise. After much debate and consulting Sibley, I decided they were Dunlins, which would be a new bird for me. I find shorebirds tricky and I sometimes I’m still not sure just who I am looking at.

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Dunlins

Meanwhile, high up in the sky about as far from the shore as you could get, I saw a familiar bird soaring high and veering and tilting every now and again. Much to my surprise, a Turkey Vulture hovered overhead, another was perched in a tree and I later saw two others flying overhead.

A winter Turkey Vulture

I thought it would be too cold for them by now and they must all have gone south already, but I suppose there’s always bound to be a few stragglers. I wonder if its harder for them to find food in the winter because they rely so much on their sense of smell to locate carrion. Besides all the ducks, unexpectedly seeing one of my favourite raptors was pretty exciting! It just goes to show you never know who you might encounter when you go outside bird watching.

Northern Birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cowichan Bay and spent some time around the water, one of my favourite spots for watching birds. I’ve been there a few times, but it was only this trip when I finally discovered how to get to the estuary itself. There is a trail that starts from a small, gravel parking lot and then leads out onto the estuary itself to a nice viewing platform.

I’d been convinced it would be a good spot if only I could get there, but I’d never found the access point and thought it was off-limits. I was so excited to have finally found the way and it turned out even better than I expected.

I was there on a chilly, overcast November day, and there were ducks everywhere! Earlier that day, I’d finally seen my first Bufflehead of the season! I think it was so late because I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. At the estuary, Buffleheads abounded and large groups of American Wigeons floated close together or mingled on the shore. Almost hidden among the wigeons were a couple of Northern Pintails, the first of three birds with ‘Northern’ in their name we’d see that day.

It was a good thing the wigeons were so tightly packed. As we reached the viewing tower, we glimpsed a raptor flying low overhead. The wigeons picked up and moved almost as a unit, all of them flying in unison, aware of the looming threat. Soon, the silent hunter circled back around again, flying low over the water, gliding on outstretched wings.

The white rump patch gave it away; a Northern Harrier. Only my second, but this time I got to share it with my partner. We watched the drama unfold around us and saw a near-collision with an American Wigeon in-flight (photos below). These hawks usually hunt smaller prey, but are able to catch ducks and rabbits as well (Cornell).

There was more excitement still awaiting us at the Cowichan Estuary; we watched a Belted Kingfisher dive quickly into the water from its perch with barely a splash and come back up with a catch.

While returning along the same trail, I saw a bird land in a tree out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw it; a bird larger than a songbird, with a grey back and a distinctive black eye mask. My first Northern Shrike. I’d wanted to see one ever since I watched Planet Earth II and saw the fascinating segment on the butcherbird.

Northern Shrikes are predatory songbirds. They sometimes impale their prey (insects, small mammals or birds) on fences or spines. This must be how they got their scientific name Lanius excubitor, as it translates to “Butcher Watchman” (Cornell). Moments after I snapped a photo, it was gone.

The Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier and Northern Shrike have little in common but their shared environment and their name, but they are each distinctively interesting and beautiful in their own way. Each serves a purpose in the environment around them and each deserves to be appreciated and protected for years to come.

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Bufflehead and American Wigeons
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Two Northern Pintails among American Wigeons
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Northern Harrier in flight
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Northern Harrier in flight
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near collision mid-flight
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Belted Kingfisher with her catch
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Northern Shrike, the butcherbird

A feast of fall colour

We had a nice break in the rain at the end of October with lots of sunny days and even some pretty warm ones! The sunshine really brings out the best in fall colours and its nice to enjoy a bit of it while it lasts. Its been a particularly cold fall here in Victoria and the sun was a welcome change.

Green, yellow, red, a stoplight of colour in the trees

While we don’t get nearly as much coloured fall foliage here as there is out east, there are still some lovely spots where you can find nice, bright pops of colour. There is just something so beautiful about these trees! I hope you all find some time to enjoy and appreciate them this autumn.

My favourite golden-yellow trees in fall. I’m not sure what type they are (I’m no good at all with trees or most plants in fanct) but I think they may be a type of aspen.
A closer view of the golden leaves

One of my favourite spots to go in the fall has these big, tall trees with leaves that turn a beautiful, warm golden-yellow. Watching them waver in the wind against a bright blue sky is a simple joy this time of year.  Yellow is one of my favourite colours; I guess its why I like these trees so much.

more yellow on blue…

Fall is such a fleeting thing, I spent some time out trying to capture it in photos. I had fun experimenting with my camera and practicing various angles and exposures. Of course, I also watched the birds along the way. How could I not?

A raft of American Coots

I happened to see a large raft of American Coots at a lake, bobbing their heads and keeping close. Another bird that likes hanging out in groups is the Bushtit. I watched them cheep and flit about from tree to tree, sometimes hanging upside-down like a chickadee. These cute little birds always put a smile on my face. They might not be flashy, big or colourful, but they sure are fun to watch and listen to.

American Wigeon – gazing at his own beautiful reflection?

Speaking of cheery birds, one of my favourites has arrived back in town! I am now seeing lots of American Wigeons about – at lakes, fields and the coast. I really love ducks, any kind of duck, so I am always excited to see them. I love the American Wigeon’s squeaky little sound, the fact that they hang out together and the male’s beautiful green face patch and white-ish crown. Other ducks may not agree with me, though, as they often steal food from diving ducks on deeper water as they are only able to dabble for food at, or near, the surface.

The distinctive Harleqin Duck is also back for the winter, strutting their stuff in pairs around high-energy rocky coasts.

Remember to cherish the beauty around you! Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of even a single tree of red leaves or the grass carpeted beneath a layer of orange. It doesn’t have to be a full forest of colour. Maybe its the trees lining your road or the sun glistening on the snow. A squirrel climbing a tree or a crisp morning fog. You might feel just a little bit happier, a little bit lighter and a whole lot more grateful.

Blackberry leaves are the most interesting colours in the fall!
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Although fall out here is different than where I grew up, I still think this is a simply beautiful palette of different colours. I think I couldn’t even name all the colours seen here.

Gardens of Victoria: Beacon Hill Park & the Hatley Castle grounds

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about the gardens of Victoria featuring the Finnerty Gardens at UVic and the Government House Gardens. There are two more gardens I think are worth mentioning that are probably a bit more on the tourist path than those previously mentioned. They are cheaper than, and as lovely as, Buchart Gardens.

Hatley Castle Grounds

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Hatley Castle has had quite the history to call its own; from its origins as the residence of the Dunsmuir family in the early 1900’s to its time as a military school up to its modern incarnation as part of Royal Roads University. Its even been a filming location for Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in various X-Men Films.

The castle itself makes for a nice visit though admittance to the interior castle is by guided tour only, the castle grounds and gardens are open year round every day for a small admission fee. The gardens were originally landscaped during the Dunsmuir Family’s time at the estate and still make for a pleasant stroll today.

Some highlights of the grounds are the Japanese Garden, Italian Garden and Rose Garden as well as garry oak and Douglas-fir native gardens. There is more than one pond and all of the grounds look out onto the Esquimalt Lagoon, which is an incredible spot for birding in Victoria as it is a migratory bird sanctuary. Lots of birds can be seen here, from Buffleheads to Swans, and Bald Eagles, herons and songbirds.

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Looking over Esquimalt Lagoon from Hatley Castle grounds

Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park is nestled between downtown Victoria and the neighborhoods of James Bay and Fairfield. Its a sizeable park at 200 acres considering the size of Victoria itself. There’s a lot packed into this area – there are rose gardens, Douglas Fir trees and native plant gardens, a garry oak meadow, multiple duck ponds, and a farm petting zoo (featuring baby animals)! Not to mention the sea cliffs and beaches overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Canada and the USA. There is so much to see in a variety of landscapes here and its very easy to get to from downtown.

The ponds are my favourite spot here where you will reliably see ducks (and ducklings in the spring), American Wigeons in the winter and Great Blue Herons year-round. In the spring, the herons gather together and form a heronry. There are also a number introduced of Indian Peafowl roaming around the park.

The park is well worth an afternoon visit at the very least, possibly with a picnic lunch in hand on a nice sunny day. From the little beaches along the shore to the duck ponds, rose gardens and garry oak meadows, there is something beautiful to see in every corner of the park and best of all, its free!

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Looking west at the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Dallas Rd side of Beacon Hill Park.

For more information:
Hatley Castle
Hatley Park at Royal Roads
Beacon Hill Park

Spring is late but welcome this year!

Since my last birding post, spring has sprung in Victoria at last! The last few years, the cherry blossoms have been out in February and warmer, sunny days became the norm in March. This year, spring seems to have arrived later. Just two weeks ago, we had another brief snowfall.

Not only are we humans enjoying the change, trading our winter coats for rain jackets, but the wildlife is, too. Our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds like true early birds have already mated and likely had at least one clutch of eggs so far. They started whirring and buzzing around after one another looking for to mate as early as January.

Anna’s Hummingbird

At the other end of the size spectrum, Bald Eagles have begun returning to their nests to raise their young. Bald Eagles mate for life and typically return to their previous nest sites if they were successful. I hope to see my neighborhood pair again this year, though I haven’t yet.

Bald Eagle pair

Between the smallest and largest birds are all those in between. In spring, things can get confusing in bird land with all the overlap, but each species has its own internal calendar. Its amazing how they find their way, year after year. Spring is a special time with wintering birds remaining while spring migrants arrive and they are all found amidst those familiar residents.

Some of our winter ducks are still here, like Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeons and lovely little Buffleheads.

Hooded Merganser pair (male left, female right)
Buffleheads (male)

While the ducks enjoy a good thaw, the warmer weather welcomes new arrivals to town, too. One of the most exciting spring arrivals for me are the swallows! This weekend I saw my first swallows of the season (a surprise for me), including Tree Swallows and Violet-Green Swallows. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching swallows swoop and dive, hunting insects in the air. I look forward to watching them for the next few months.

This Violet-green Swallow takes a rare landing on a perch long enough to snap this shot. They can be differentiated from the Tree Swallow by the bit of white that extends up behind their eye.

Another exciting group of spring arrivals are the warblers. Warblers were all new to me last year, though I got to know a few of them, but I know there are many out there I have not met, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler; my first new warbler of the year!

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), a first for me

As it turns out, there are two subspecies in North America – the Myrtle which tends to be more common in the east and the Audubon’s which is more common in the west. Although it seems they may be re-assessed as two different species after all. Either way, I am content to have seen one and learned a new bird I will be able to identify next time I see one!

Happy spring birding! I’m hoping the longer days give me more of a chance to get out there. Have you met any new birds recently?

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.

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?

Harlequin Ducks paddle along rocky coasts and turbid waters.
Common Goldeneye prefer sheltered, calmer water.
Surf Scoters make Buffleheads look like the tiny ducks they are!
American Wigeons make walking on ice look easy, but they actually prefer to graze on land anyway.

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.

An American Robin illuminated by the morning light. A flock has been visiting my backyard regularly in recent weeks.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees, always fast and on the move, alert other birds to lurking dangers.
Pileated Woodpeckers remain year-round, drumming on dead trees.
Northern Flickers sound their familiar call and frequent the backyard.

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.

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

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.

Duck, Duck, Goose, Part 1: delighting wigeons and beautiful buffleheads

Mallard Duck, a common resident of urban parks

Before the beginning of my birding days, I was always a big fan of ducks. While I can never decide what type of birds are my favourite, ducks will always be one of the contenders. There’s just something about their quacks and other noises, their webbed feet, the way they land on the water and how it beads on their feathers. And they are really cute, which helps. Each spring, I keenly look forward to baby mallard duck season and they will always be an old favourite. And despite the fact that mallard ducks are considered an invasive pest in New Zealand, when I lived there, I still loved them. They are, after all, what most people think of when you say ducks…but there are a lot more ducks out there than you think.

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon is a dabbling duck commonly found in western North American lakes, wetlands and ponds and increasingly further east. They commonly breed in the far northwest and winters in the Pacific Northwest to California, Texas and east to Florida.1  The male has a distinctive white crown and a green band across the eye.2, 3 Unlike many other dabbling ducks, the American Wigeon often grazes in fields as well as on water, where they often wait to steal meals off other ducks.4

American Wigeons (female, male)
Eurasian Wigeon

An occasional American Wigeon can sometimes be found across the pond in Europe among Eurasian Wigeons. Likewise, the Eurasian Wigeon is occasionally found in western North America commonly within groups of their American counterparts like the one I saw at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. While they look quite similar, the main difference I spot is the lack of a green eye band in the Eurasian species.5

Buffleheads (male)

Buffleheads are diving seaducks appearing on the Sidney, BC coat of arms where All Buffleheads Day is celebrated each year in October when the ducks arrive for their winter stay. 6 I better enjoy them while they last, it will be spring soon. They have a beautifully striking white patch on the back of the head and shiny green-purple plumage. Each year, they often mate with the same partner and nest in abandoned Northern Flicker holes.7, 8, 9

Bufflehead (female)

Coming up in part 2 will be some mergansers and the titular goose…