A snowy hike in Strathcona in June

Back in mid-June, when we weren’t in the grip of a heat wave and summer was still at its start, I finally went on a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park that I’d been hoping to do for some time. I wanted to hike part of the Forbidden Plateau lakes trail. My partner and I had thought about stopping to do it on our way back from the North Island last April, but decided the weather wasn’t quite right yet.

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Path through the woods early on the Forbidden Plateau trails at Strathcona Provincial Park

Our original plan was to head up to Lake Helen Mackenzie then continue on to Kwai Lake, taking take a loop trail past a number of others lakes back to the start. We arrived early and were ready for a big day. It was nice to arrive up in the mountains, where it had to be about 10 degrees cooler and even the air smelled fresher. We set off on a very well-maintained trail through alpine marshes alternating with forest trails.

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I imagine in a few weeks’ time, this marsh will be overgrown with beautiful wildflowers of all colours.

For the most part, it was quite silent in the still mountain air; a refreshing silence. But as we stepped onto one of the many boardwalks that cross the marshes along the trail, we heard a very loud cry in the distance.

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An inquisitive Canada Jay (Gray Jay or whiskeyjack – a bird of many names).
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A fledgling Canada Jay learning from parents.

Suddenly, a family of curious Gray Jays (or Canada Jays) landed in the trees around us and loudly advertised their, and our, presence to the whole forest. With them was a very demanding juvenile bird. I’m sure the whole family would have loved a nice treat from us. Once they seemed to understand that we weren’t those kinds of humans, they eventually moved off into the woods, hopping from tree to tree until they disappeared and silence reigned once more.

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intelligence in the eyes of a Canada Jay

Crossing a creek, we glimpsed a lone Black-tailed Deer upstream, so different from the urban deer we frequently see. I wonder how many people this doe encounters in her daily life. After a pleasant walk, we reached Lake Helen Mackenzie, its calm, clear water stirred only by the gentle wind. On the far side of the lake, snow touched down to lake level and I could imagine this place snow and ice-covered in the winter.

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Black-tailed deer in natural habitat.
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Lake Helen Mackenzie

After lunching at the lakeside, we assessed our energy levels and opted to continue on to Kwai Lake. From here, the trail became less well-defined and more difficult, with roots and branches threatening to trip you underfoot and a steady uphill climb, sometimes across little ephemeral creeks.

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Small cascade coming down the hillside along the trail

A loud chorus of frogs croaked in the near distance; I could glimpse just bits of a lake somewhere below us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard frogs quite so loud! We continued on until the path became even less defined and covered in more and more snow as we climbed up.

Thoughts of turning back began to creep into my mind as we kept going until we reached another hiker who opted to turn around because he lost the trail beneath the snow. He wished us luck and we kept on until we, too, lost all sign of the trail beneath the snow now blanketing everywhere. After a brief discussion on the pro’s con’s and possibilities of each choice, we decided to turn back for safety’s sake. We could have pushed on, but I felt safer and more comfortable turning back, knowing I’d be safe at my campground that night.

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An early spring flower in the mountains

We passed by the loud chorusing frogs again and passed Lake Helen Mackenzie, now much busier than it was when we’d arrived earlier, and followed the trail loop back to the trailhead past Battleship Lake. As it turns out, we ran into another hiker who’d turned back and changed plans, too, which reassured me we made the right choice.

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Battleship Lake and Mt Washington in the background

Though disappointed we didn’t make the full hike, it was still a beautiful trip. For me, it is more about the journey and what we see and experience along the way than the end destination.

After encountering more Gray Jays on our return, we made it safely to our campground for the night. By the river, it was much warmer and it was hard to believe that we’d been stopped by snow earlier in the day. But that is part of the fascination of the mountains; they are like a world apart.

That night, at our campground, I heard something that sounded like a raptor for sure. When I got up to investigate in the nearby trees, I found two Barred Owl owlets perched up high being watched over by their parent. Though our trip hadn’t gone quite according to plan, if you open your eyes and ears, and observe what’s around you, remember what’s important, you might not care so much about the unexpected.

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juvenile and adult Barred Owls

 

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.

Barred Owls in the evening woods

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Barred Owl

On a lovely summer evening last week, I went for a walk in a nearby park and had quite a pleasant surprise. Amid the heavy foliage, I saw a large bird swoop down from the trees across the path before me. I heard them before I saw them: a pair of Barred Owls.

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Barred Owl in the trees. With their striped brown and white plumage, they blended in well with the trees.

I have not seen owls since seriously starting birding, so I was quite excited! I last saw a Barred Owl about two years ago in my backyard. Now I wonder if they could have been the very same owl; they were typically have a small home range, staying within the same 10km radius (Cornell). They may be nesting in the area as I’ve seen them a few times since. I managed to keep quiet to avoid disturbing them, but I think my efforts were wasted as I am sure he knew I was there as he peered down at me.

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“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” is a common call of the Barred Owl

 

He looked around, seeming to be on alert. If he had ears, I imagine they’d have been twitching and moving around like a cat’s. The two of them swooped down from the trees a few times, and once flew right over my head from behind. I didn’t hear a thing and had no idea it was there! For a moment, I felt like a little mouse. They must have no idea what’s coming when an owl swoops down to prey on them. Like other owls, Barred Owls fly silently in the night using their keen eyesight and hearing to hunt small animals from mice and squirrels, to small birds, reptiles and amphibians (Cornell).

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The Barred Owl on alert at dusk, his head rotating in almost every direction.

The Barred Owl’s range spread to the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and ’70s where they now compete with the smaller Spotted Owl for habitat and resources. While Barred Owls are displacing many Spotted Owls in this region, the two species even occasionally inter-breed and hybridize (Seattle Audubon; Audubon).

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a silent hunter, the Barred Owl

Despite these challenges, both the Barred and Spotted Owl face habitat loss due to deforestation and the loss of old-growth trees. I hope the two will be able to co-exist peacefully someday.