Birding in Victoria, BC at Swan Lake

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If you want to bird in Victoria, Swan Lake is a great local birding hotspot and probably one of the most well-known in the region. Its a nature sanctuary centered around a small lake in the suburbs nestled right along a major highway. A trail wraps around the perimeter of the lake and marsh and passes through wooded areas as well as providing access to a native plant garden and nature house. Besides the trails, there is a lovely boardwalk that crosses the lake and lots of benches in great spots for watching birds. The boardwalk is in need of repair as of writing this post, and donations of any amount are needed. To donate or learn more, please visit the Swan Lake Give a Sheet Campaign.

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A bench along the trail at Swan Lake

It is quite amazing the wildlife that lives here, right in an urbanized area, and is probably underappreciated by many visitors. Not only have there been 220 recorded species of birds according to eBird, but there are also mink, otter and muskrats living along the lake, too.

Whether it is spring or fall migration, winter or summer, there are always interesting birds to see at Swan Lake. On Sunday mornings, guided bird walks are put on by the nature house for free each time. Its a great way to learn about species new and old or to spot a rarity with an experienced birder.

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Wood Duck at Swan Lake
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Double-crested Cormorant
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Pied-billed Grebe

The lake itself is a great spot for all kinds of birds attracted to water; from Marsh Wrens to Red-winged Blackbirds to Great Blue Herons, and especially for ducks in the winter. Its also a great spot to remember to look up; I’ve seen many raptors flying high in the skies over the lake and the rest of the sanctuary.

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Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
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Bald Eagle pair shortly after mating

Each spring, the lake is a reliable spot to see baby ducks and earlier this summer, I got to see a Bald Eagle pair mating. Anna’s Hummingbirds are sure to catch your attention with their speedy buzzing all year long while Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees will chatter loudly in the fir and oak trees. My favourite moment of spring at Swan Lake is when the swallows arrive with their aerobatics and high-pitched calls that strangely remind me of dolphins. Even in the way they are social and group together, they are like dolphins of the sky.

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Violet-green Swallow takes a rare rest

There are certain pockets of bushes and trees where warblers abound in the spring and summer, and other densely wooded areas where you may reliably see owls and hawks. Northern Flickers are common and there is a bench along the trail where I regularly see (or hear) at least one, if not more. One lucky day, I saw a pair of them foraging on the ground and noticed something different about one of them. I see these birds all the time, but I realised one of them was an intergrade Northern Flicker; the first I’d ever seen!

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Northern Flicker, intergrade (with red malar of the red-shafted and the red nape crescent of the yellow-shafted)
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Yellow-rumped Warbler

Besides neat and exciting surprises like intergrade Northern Flickers and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler, there are small moments I enjoy here, too. Among the tall grasses, I enjoy watching Bushtits hopping from grass stem to stem, leaving it trembling in their wake. Its here where I’d watch my Bewick’s Wren friend hopping busily about in the brush and dancing daintily up the branches of the garry oak trees crowded with Chesnut-backed Chickadees, who are always fun to watch.

These simple moments somehow mean more to me than seeing a new bird for the first time. I don’t know why, but maybe its the feeling of being connected with something other than yourself, other than another human being that makes it satisfying. Its even better when I know an area, and I see familiar birds, getting to know them and their habits. Sometimes I wonder if they ever start to recognize me, if they are ever as interested in me as I am in them. Probably not, but its fun to think about. Or do they ever think ‘oh its that girl back with her black box again.’ We’ll never know, and maybe its better that way.

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Bushtit in the grass
Bewick’s Wren

Resources

Swan Lake eBird Page
Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary
Swan Lake Bird Checklist

Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.

The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.

Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.

In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.

 

A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.

 

Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!

Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

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When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?

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I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.

I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.

In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.

I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.

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my Purple Martin pair

Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.

I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.

Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.

In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.

 

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?

An unforgettable experience seeing my first whale near Quadra Island

This summer, something very exciting that I will never forget happened… I finally saw my first whale. I say finally because I’ve been hoping to see one for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few small vessel ocean cruises in New Zealand and I also went on a whale watch tour there, but I never saw a whale on any of those trips!

Back in July, this all changed when I took a weekend trip up to Campbell River. The first day there, we decided to head over to Quadra Island for the day. Quadra Island is one of the Northern Gulf Islands which lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada and BC. Its a short ferry ride over from Campbell River across the Discovery Passage to Quadra Island.

Looking back toward Campbell River from Quadra Island

When we were about midway across the passage, all of a sudden off to our port side we saw it…a whale! We saw a small dorsal fin and a bit of body sticking up above the water. We watched for a few moments, fascinated, then it dove down and we saw the underside of its tail before the whale was submerged in the water once more. The underside of the tail had some white on the outer edges.

Looking east toward the mainland of BC from Quadra Island:
Looking east toward the mainland of BC from Quadra Island:

Not being well-versed in whale identification, I am still unsure if it was a humpback or a minke as the dorsal fin and tail both look similar at least to me for the fleeting moment I watched. I did not get any photos, but I will remember it always! There is just something so special and amazing about whales. The very next day, I saw my first orcas (photos forthcoming), so it seems Campbell River is a bit of a hotspot for whale sightings…

There’s more to see than whales, too; Quadra Island and Campbell River are beautiful with wonderful views like this one below of the Coast Mountains of mainland BC.  Quadra Island especially had some lovely birding spots and good opportunities for seeing shorebirds and lots of bald eagles in Campbell River.

Another view east of the mainland of BC and the Coast Mountains from Campbell River. Mt Doogie Dowler is the distinct peak to the centre-left at 2076m.
Bald Eagle spotted on Quadra Island

A sunny summer getaway to the Gulf Islands: Pender Island

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.

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!

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.

At our campsite, we watched Canada Geese, Black-tailed Deer and nesting Purple Martins (male left, female right). The female Purple Martin had brought back food for her nesting babies as she tucked it away inside the nest-box upon her return. Click small images for larger view.

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.

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.

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.

River otter swimming at Hope Bay, Pender Island

This river otter keenly seemed to hear us every time we made a noise from across the water.

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.

Purple Martin at Hope Bay, Pender Island
Bald Eagle perched in a tall tree at Hope Bay, Pender Island

Birding highlights of the Rockies Part 3: Jasper to the Fraser Valley

After leaving Jasper, we headed south out of the Rocky Mountains and back toward home, leaving the most exciting parts of our trip behind. The trip home seemed somehow less scenic to me, but perhaps it wasn’t actually less scenic, it’s just that I had been spoiled by the beauty of Jasper National Park and our incredible grizzly bear and moose sightings there.

However, there were still some nice surprises in store for us. Near Mt Robson (the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies which was conveniently shrouded in cloud for us), we went to see Overlander Falls on the Fraser River. During the annual salmon run, those salmon who do make it past Rearguard Falls downstream only find the end of their run here at Overlander Falls.

Overlander Falls on the Fraser River near Mt Robson, BC

When one thinks of the salmon run, the first image that come to mind (after salmon) is of a bear. While well before the salmon run in April, just outside of Mt Robson Provincial Park we spotted a black bear on the railroad tracks below the road. Many bears die in situations like this, often foraging along the brush eating plants like dandelions (a particular favourite of the black bear). I feared for the bear’s safety, but honestly did not know what to do or who to call…I sincerely hope this bear made it off the tracks alive. The problem is being addressed in the National Parks, but what about all the other kilometers of railway stretching across Canada in prime bear habitat like this?

Black bear on the railway near Mt Robson, BC

My copy of The BC Roadside Naturalist, which I’d carefully studied in preparation for (and along) this trip, recommended a stop for birding opportunities at Cranberry Marsh, just outside of Valemount, BC . To my surprise, this stop was above and beyond my expectations. It was a good-sized marsh with nice walking trails and a viewing platform absolutely teeming with birds and other wildlife. There was so much to see at once, I could hardly take it all in! In fact, after 13 days of photographing the National Parks, my camera only reached its memory capacity at this stop…(much to my distress!)

There was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Cinnamon Teals, both a first for me at the time, as well as a Barrow’s Goldeneye pair. The Cinnamon Teals were especially sensitive to our presence and I hope we didn’t disturb them too much. While they all share a similar habitat, Cinnamon Teals and Barrow’s Goldeneyes are predominantly western birds while Ring-necked Ducks can be seen all across North America (Sibley, 2016). Interestingly, Barrow’s Goldeneye often lay their eggs in other cavity nests of other ducks or goldeneyes and the chicks are very independent from the minute they hatch (Cornell)!

a pair of Ring-necked Ducks
Barrow’s Goldeneye pair, Cranberry Marsh
Cinnamon Teal pair, Cranberry Marsh

Overhead, a stark white bird with a long neck flew gracefully above the marsh. At first it puzzled me until I realized what it was: a swan! I couldn’t determine what type in the semi-overcast lighting that still made me squint, but I am content with that. I have not seen swans flying overhead like this very often, though it must be either a Trumpeter or Tundra with the black bill.

swan, Cranberry Marsh

Like Reflection Pond back near Golden, BC, there were lots of American Coots swimming along with its funny little head bob. Despite their appearances, they are more closely related to Gallinule and Rails than ducks. They eat plants and insects by both dabbling and diving and build floating nests in shallow water, commonly in marshes (Cornell).

American Coot, Cranberry Marsh

Also enjoying the quiet marsh waters was a Northern Shoveler, of which I’d seen my first just the week before in Banff. They are dabbling ducks with long bills who happen to form monogamous pairs, a rarity in the duck world (Cornell). Meanwhile, overhead, a Bald Eagle soared above, likely looking for a meal in the flourishing marsh below. Cranberry Marsh was not only home to many birds, but also beavers and moose (whom we did not see), muskrats and squirrels.

Northern Shoveler (male), Cranberry Marsh
Bald Eagle, Cranberry Marsh
Muskrat at Cranberry Marsh
American Red Squirrel at Cranberry Marsh

We stopped in Kamloops halfway again (more briefly this time) and headed out early the next morning for home. Along the way, I saw my very first Ruddy Duck! This was at a wetland managed by Ducks Unlimited south of Kamloops along the more scenic highway 5A to the Coquihalla. I was so excited to see these diving ducks with their brilliant blue bills I’d seen so many photos of but never seen in person. My first sighting did not disappoint as this male was sporting his extra-bright blue bill for breeding season. Don’t be fooled by their cute colours, though, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“Ruddy Ducks are very aggressive toward each other and toward other species, especially during the breeding season. They are even known to chase rabbits feeding on the shore.” – Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ruddy Duck Life History

Ruddy Duck (male), Cranberry Marsh

From here, we zipped along the Coquihalla Highway (nicknamed “the Coq” by locals) with its speed limit of 120km/h through the Coquihalla Pass and meeting the Fraser River at Hope, BC, the site of the largest landslide in Canada (the Hope Slide). We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls not far from Chilliwack, BC for out last scenic stop before reaching Vancouver, the ferry and finally, home with the mountains and glaciers far behind us with the sea and sun waiting before us.

Bridal Veil Falls, which eventually joins the waters of the Fraser River

References
American Coot, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Barrow’s Goldeneye, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cannings, R. and S. Cannings, 2002. The BC Roadside Naturalist.
Northern Shoveler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ruddy Duck, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.

Related posts:
Birding of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys
Birding of the Canadian Rockies Part 2: Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley

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).

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.

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

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).

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.

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).

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.

Fire-scarred landscape at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB
Bald Eagle nest shows life among death at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB among wildfire damage from July  2015

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.

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!

Pileated Woodpecker at the Valley of Five Lakes trail, Jasper NP, AB

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.

 

Summertime nest observation: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron

Summer is in full swing here in Victoria – the cicadas are buzzing, the flowers have bloomed and many birds are caring for their young. Last week I was quite lucky to stumble upon a few new nests, as well as checking up on the old ones.

These are exciting times at the Osprey nest I’ve been watching on and off. Around mid-June, the chicks hatched and on June 22, I saw three wee heads poking out from the nest! I’m so excited to be watching them thrive and grow throughout the season this year after only discovering the nest late last summer.

Three little Osprey chick heads poke out from the nest while mum watches over

All the pair’s hard work repairing and working on the nest starting in April has certainly paid off. Three chicks also hatched last year, but only two fledged.  So far, this year’s three are doing well and I am very hopeful for them!

Last week I went to watch to find lots of action underway! A third Osprey was in the area, seemingly agitating the mother who continuously called out and eventually gave chase to the intruder. A third Osprey had been sighted periodically throughout the pair’s courtship and nest-building; I wonder if this was the same one.

Dad-Osprey finally returned to the nest area and settled on a nearby light-post. Soon, he was swooping and diving and calling loudly in an impressive flight display chasing off the third osprey, and the happy family was safely tucked into their nest once more.

Dad returning to the nest area
Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey
Osprey family all tucked in the nest

My second visit last week saw more activity – lunchtime! Mum and babies were calling out hungrily from the nest until dad swooped in with lunch – fish, of course! It must be very hard work fishing for four family members and yourself. Its no wonder only two chicks fledged last year.

Patiently waiting for lunch
“Fish again, dad?”

In a setting entirely different from the sports field, but still not far from human activity, I found a Bald Eagle nest hidden up a tree.

Bald Eagle nest

So far, I have seen no chicks, but it looked like they were busy building up the nest in preparation and giving it lots of attention. I’ve only ever once before seen a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, so I am very excited about this!

Carefully placing a branch in the nest (above) while their mate looks on, presumably supervising the nest-building

I really hope to see chicks here in the future. Bald Eagles are a rare creature out east where I grew up, but B.C. is home to a huge population of these sea-eagles. Sometimes I find it funny that I have seen far more of them here than I have in its iconic home to the south, the U.S. I saw one fly low over my backyard the other day; something I have never seen before and will not soon forget!

Bald Eagle pair at their nest

On the weekend, I spotted an Osprey nest at another sports field. Its so interesting that Osprey do not seem to mind the noise and boisterousness from the games going on below. I didn’t spy any chicks from the angles I could view from, but here’s hoping there are some more on the way!

Another Osprey nest found at another sports field.

Finally, I observed a Great Blue Heronry which used to house many more nests in the past until the nests were decimated by bald eagle predation.  It appears to be bouncing back, though, with a number of nests hidden in the boughs of trees with tall herons perched atop branches looking every bit as graceful as they are in the water.


Unlike Osprey, Great Blue Herons are incredibly sensitive to human disturbances and will abandon nests as a result. However, their chicks are also vulnerable to predators like bald eagles. While Bald Eagles and Osprey tend to mate for life, Great Blue Heron pairs remain together only for the season and will seek other mates in the following years.

Despite their differences, all three of these birds rely on fish as a huge part (or the only part) of their diet. That means the success of each species is intrinsically linked with the health of the ocean. While individuals may thrive in an ideal nesting site or decline from human disturbance or predators, as a whole, how will they survive challenges like dwindling fish from over-fishing, plastic pollution and ingestion or toxic chemicals moving up the food chain?

Did you notice the common link between these challenges are humans? Only we can change our habits, our behaviour, our society, in order to protect the environment from ourselves. Next time you reach for that plastic bottle of soda at the store, order fish for dinner or put pesticides on your garden or lawn, think about the impact of your actions and choices. Think about the Osprey, think about the Great Blue Heron. Remember Rachel Carson and DDT in Silent Spring. Think about the ocean. It belongs to all of us, human and creature alike, and as such each one of us is responsible for its well-being.


More reading and resources
Overfishing.org explains what overfishing is, why it is a problem and what you can do to help.
Participate in a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to remove garbage and debris from the coasts. Remember it is always better not to pollute, litter and use single-use plastics in the first place.
Observe a nest at OspreyWatch and log your observations to partake in citizen science.
Seven ways you can reduce ocean pollution right now

On getting gifts from a cat & river otter spied in the sea

I have been cat sitting for a neighbour recently and she is a bit of a roamer and goes outside. While I would personally never let my own cat outdoors unsupervised, I have to respect the parental choices. This week, we passed a milestone of sorts.

I know now she is getting very fond of us as she brought us home a gift the other day…a spotted towhee. So I feel a little guilty looking at this photo of one I managed to snag the other day, but I do love cats, too, so I can’t be hard on them for doing what I know is only natural instinct. While I love and understand her sentiment, I am not too keen to receive another gift anytime soon.

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Spotted Towhee

Not only do I love cats and birds, but I love all animals and wildlife. Even the raccoon who are increasingly visiting my backyard and spooking me after dark. Although I admit I wasn’t very impressed when I found some of their worm-infested feces in the yard the other week. Anyway, onto nicer things…

watching a river otter eating a crab

Recently, I was lucky enough to get to watch a river otter while I was at the beach. (Yes, that’s right, I recently learned river otter live in both fresh and saltwater!) Many people around me seemed either oblivious or indifferent to this beautiful creature tucked away on the rocky shoreline. While baffling to me, that was quite all right with me as I got to enjoy the moment myself. Its quite funny how some people don’t seem to notice these things around them. I sat watching for quite some time as he (or she) nibbled away on a crab and then deftly climbed down to the waterside and swam away quickly around the coastline.

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river otter on the coast

A few weeks before that, I was lucky enough to see a presumed family of three river otter at the inner harbour downtown. I first saw them on the shore and later saw them as I walked back around swimming down the channel and then climbing up onto the wall in the photo below. It was quite amazing to watch them gracefully climb over land and swim in the water.

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river otter – check out those feet!
river otter

Only river otter are found in the Salish Sea , although there have been a few rare sightings of sea otters around Victoria in the past. Here is a great page about the difference between sea and river otter. Sadly, in the 18th century, sea otter were hunted to extinction in the region for their pelts but have made quite an incredibly comeback since becoming a protected species. I feel very fortunate to be able to see such beautiful animals so close to home.

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Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is, of course, another example of a remarkable success story. They were also near the brink of extinction last century and now have soaring populations in BC. I can say that I have seen more bald eagles in one year living in BC than I have ever seen anywhere else and I have grown a real sense of appreciation for these raptors.

These animals serve as a reminder of our responsibility to be stewards to them and the earth. If we don’t, who will?