The little hummingbird that could

I went out for a walk a couple weeks ago and paused at the top of the hill to enjoy the view when I saw a hummingbird zipping up high into the air and back down again, landing in the top branches of a small tree. Male Anna’s Hummingbirds display a similar sort of behaviour when attracting a mate; they zip up high into the sky and emit a very loud ‘Squeak!’ before zooming down and around in a great swoop and hovering in the air momentarily, their wings flapping so furiously they are a blur. Then they display their fabulously bright gorget at females to entice them (see photo below).

the bright pink iridescent gorget of the Anna’s Hummingbird – sometimes I like to think they’re showing it off just for me…

My hummer was showing this type of behaviour, and a couple of weeks ago in September, I watched two of them aggressively chasing one another around an apple tree. Its a bit early for mating behaviour (they mate as early as December), but I thought of another reason why they might be feeling extra-aggressive right now. Because, yes, small though they are, hummingbirds are aggressive, territorial birds. My theory? Here in Victoria, we have a good population of resident Anna’s Hummingbirds that stay here through the winter, but there are still some migratory birds among their number. I think our resident birds are defending their territories from the migratory population moving through.

the fierce Anna’s Hummingbird looking a little ragged, but maybe its just the wind?

And it is not only other hummingbirds that Anna’s Hummingbirds will move to boost from their area. The first thing I noticed about this little hummingbird was that he looked a little bit ragged. The second thing I noticed was how he zipped around madly each time another bird dared to land in his tree. He brazenly chased away a Hermit Thrush out of his tree soon after the unfortunate thrush decided to try landing there. He squeaked and zoomed and soon the thrush flew off to find a tree with a less noisy neighbour.

The Hermit Thrush who didn’t last long in the hummer’s tree

Not long after my hummer landed back on the top of his tree, presumably feeling quite satisfied and proud of his deeds, a Dark-eyed Junco dared to swoop in and pop a perch on the opposite side of the branches. It wasn’t long at all before the hummer chased him off, too, though he was a tad more stubborn than the thrush had been and eventually moved off to a nearby rock. Once more, my hummer was victorious, and he found a little bit of peace and quiet while no one else decided to invade his perfect tree. This just goes to show that the smallest birds can sometimes be the toughest, too.

The Dark-eyed Junco who was not afraid of the hummingbird
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The Dark-eyed Junco, 0-1 after his defeat.
Zipping back to resume his perch after playing defense
The victorious, the proud, the Anna’s Hummingbird

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?

October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

Harlequin Duck, male
Female and male Harlequin Duck dabbling for food together. They were synchronized in their bobbing up and down.

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

Horned Grebes non-breeding plumage (?)
Harlequin Ducks and my mystery grebe

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

the ever beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird perched in a little bush
Song Sparrow scurrying on the coastal rocks

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Cedar Waxwings fluttered among the treetops, identified by their distinctive black eye masks.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

Great Blue Heron at rest
Belted Kingfisher unfortunately looking right at me…
Moments later, a Northern Flicker touched down briefly after the Kingfisher flew away.
A large group of Black Oystercatchers

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

A juvenile European Starling hopped along the rocks with Brewer’s Blackbirds.

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Black Turnstones livin up to their name.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Bighorn sheep in Kootenay National Park

Our first major stop on our Canadian Rockies trip was in Kootenay National Park in BC, on the western side of the Canadian Rockies following the Kootenay and Vermillion Rivers. This park is probably a lot less famous than its eastern cousin, Banff National Park because it features fewer amenities and day walks and more backcountry opportunities.

The Vermillion River in Kootenay NP.
While hiking to Marble Canyon, we looked up to see a Red-Tailed Hawk flying overhead.

We took a short stop to see the emerald waters of Olive Lake where there is now a grizzly bear sow and her cubs foraging nearby, closing off the area. I can’t blame her; with the water nearby and lots of lush vegetation, its certainly great habitat for raising young.

Walking along the lake, we heard varied thrush singing its buzzy song high up in the trees and saw a kingfisher dash among the trees on the edge of the lake. I was pleasantly surprised to see both species living here, having no experience birding in the Rockies before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was the first of many emerald and other brilliantly coloured lakes we’d get to enjoy on our journey!

Olive Lake, Kootenay NP with patches of snow still clinging to the ground.

Just outside the southern edge of Kootenay NP lies the town of Radium Hot Springs, renowned for its slightly radioactive hot springs. We did not visit the springs, but we did see the town’s resident bighorn sheep, which was an exciting surprise.

They grazed on grass around the town much like our urban deer in Victoria. This was only the second time I’ve ever seen bighorns. When we travelled to the southwest USA, I kept reading about them and how elusive they were and how seeing one was rare. And yet, here they were walking around the middle of a town in BC!

Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC.

They haven’t always frequented the town, however. Bighorns typically migrate down to valley bottoms during the winter to escape deep snow and find reliable food sources. Their preferred habitats are grasslands and open forest and they require steep rocky terrain as escape routes from predators.

Due to the prevention of forest fires in recent years, forests in the area are more dense and widespread. Forest fires are a natural phenomena and once provided much-needed grasslands to species like the bighorn sheep. The bighorn sheep learned that the town of Radium Hot Springs and the surrounding area provides perfect grazing opportunities and they now spend their winters there.

However, there has been promising efforts underway to restore bighorn habitat in the park through prescribed fires.

Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC. Just one example of how humans shape and influence the ecosystem with forest fire intervention.

As we continued north, we climbed upward in elevation as well until we reached the Continental Divide and the boundaries between Kootenay and Banff National Parks. The Continental Divide is the boundary between drainage basins: here, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which also happens to be the Alberta-British Columbia border. This was the first of many times we crossed the Continental Divide on our journey through the Rockies. After entering Alberta, we had more time to explore Banff National Park.

The continental divide at the Kootenay/Banff NP boundaries, also the British Columbia/Alberta border.

Spring brings new things: birds & blossoms

Spring is here! Rejoice in the colours, the life, the smell of the fresh, crisp air and the sun on your skin. I am very excited! Its my first spring as a real birder. I am looking forward to babies, breeding plumage and new species I might have seen, but never really identified before.

Anna’s Hummingbird

One of my very favourite birds to watch and see is the Anna’s Hummingbird. They are the only hummingbirds to winter-over on Vancouver Island (although they didn’t always do so). I recently learned they have already bred for the season! They are true early birds, having bred at the end of January. I hope to see our other island hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird, arrive soon. Apparently they are already on their way north, embarking on the longest migration of any hummingbird species. How incredible of these tiny birds to migrate so far. Nature never ceases to amaze me.

Brewer’s Blackbird

I already identified some new birds just the other day! I went for a walk at a lagoon and what at first I thought was a group of all European Starlings at varying stages of life actually was not. When I caught them in the right lighting, it turned out they were European Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds all hanging out around the same bushes.

European Starling
European Starlings

The European Starling is an invasive species and their presence in BC contributes heavily to the decline in Purple Martins because of competition for cavity nesting spaces. To make matters worse, the invasive starlings also have more than one set of babies each breeding season. I was lucky to see Purple Martins last summer on Sidney Island (part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve) and I adored watching them, but I can’t help but admire the Starlings and their colourful plumage, too. I guess I can’t help feeling something for all living things.

Red-winged Blackbird

As I walked along the lagoon, I could hear the calls of the Red-winged Blackbird on the other side of the shore. This was a new bird for me a few weeks ago when I went for a walk around a bog. They were in and among the cattails and I stopped to watch and listen. The trill of their song stuck in my memory; something about it was distinct and even though I couldn’t see them in the wetlands across the lagoon, I knew they were there just by the sound of their call. Listen here from Audubon.

I’m hoping to start learning more birds by their song. I know the distinct song of the Anna’s Hummingbird very well now from hearing it so many times. I notice it often and immediately start looking around for my favourite little green bird.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Why I don’t bird competitively: am I a non-traditional birder?

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Steller’s Jay

I am not a competitive person in the traditional sense. I never have been. In fact, I once played on a sports team for a few years that won once every season at best. To be honest, I didn’t really mind, I was only playing for fun (looking back, maybe that was the problem?). When I stopped playing music competitively, I started enjoying it even more. My teachers could never understand why I didn’t want to compete, but I just wanted to play. I’m either missing a gene or I just know how to appreciate things without needing someone to tell me I am “the best”. Must be the same reason I don’t bird competitively or even aim to see “X” number of species in a year…

Dark-eyed Junco

There is something about driving two hours to see a bird just to add it to a list that rubs me the wrong way. For me, birding is a special personal quiet time I spend surrounded by nature. I find it calms my mind and spirit, and it brings me a sense of peace. The world is so loud to me sometimes that I relish the quiet. I recently watched A Birder’s Guide to Everything and the main character says there are three kinds of birders: feeder fillers, listers and watchers. I don’t think I’m any of those.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

What I love about birding is that it gets me outdoors and provides a great opportunity to learn something new. I get so excited when I see a new bird I haven’t learned yet, but I get equally excited to see ones I now know and can identify! Learning something new must be great for my brain and it likewise gives me a great feeling of accomplishment when I finally work out what bird I am looking at.

Call me a non-traditional or not serious birder, but I don’t aim to tick every species off my list or plan to embark on a Big Year anytime soon. To me, these things practically make birding a commercial venture, which to me, completely takes away from the experience.

I am not saying there is something wrong with being a list-fulfiller, we just have different styles. I’m just choosing not to make a special trip to see “rare bird Y” two hours away from me, but instead to enjoy and observe what is around me already wherever I happen to be.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

So I guess I am more of an accidental birder. I don’t always go seeking them out, I just like to observe what I see where I already am. I don’t even own binoculars. I’m sure many other birders would be aghast to hear that, but I enjoy my simple style of peaceful, modest and green bird-watching and that’s all that really matters.

I’d like to encourage you to embrace the idea of green or backyard birding in whatever way works for you. Especially if you are more serious about birding than I am. Take a look around your neighbourhood and you will find more life than you may have thought possible! Put down your smartphone and open your eyes; beauty can be found all around you if you just look for it.