The last few months have seen a lot of change. Endings and beginnings. We left Victoria and moved to Corvallis, Oregon. November was our last month in Canada. I’m still settling in here, a process that always takes longer than I anticipate. Two members of my extended family passed away and in the grey darkness of winter, it can be hard to see the light or the reason why some things happen.
“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” – The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
But now that the solstice is past and the days are getting longer, we have set up many of the basics here so we can focus on getting to know a new place. New plants and wildlife, new birds, new places to go. Moving is always exciting, but always involves challenges I often seem to underestimate until I’m in the thick of it.
Its a bit strange for me to move back to the United States again. I haven’t lived in this country since May 2011. In seven and a half years, a lot has happened. Both to this place and to me. When I left, I admit I never really wanted to come back, but sometimes opportunities come up and you go with them. Its all an opportunity for a learning experience anyway.
There’s a lot that I miss about Victoria. Starting my journey into bird-watching there made me feel more connected to the land and nature around me than I’ve ever felt before. But its not such a different environment here and I see many familiar birds that make me feel at home again.
Other familiar birds like Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Herons and Song Sparrows are kind of comforting while newer birds like the Black-capped Chickadee are exciting to get to know. There are many more new birds to meet just around the corner if I look. And just like bird-watching helped me while grieving my first cat’s death, I know it will help me feel at home in a new place if I just go out and look and listen. To remember that to feel a connection to another living thing is an important feeling that can bring joy to a small moment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We went to Goldstream Provincial Park last weekend to check out the salmon run and the waterfalls (now that its rained a decent amount around here!). Goldstream Park is particularly noted for its 600 year old Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees, the popular hike up Mount Finlayson and, of course, the annual salmon run in the autumn.
First, we stopped briefly at Niagara Falls on Niagara Creek (though why it is named this I don’t know!) which was looking very nice after all the rain. Its much less impressive in the summertime during our usual drought.
Then, we headed off to Goldstream Falls, a much less-visited and quieter area with a longer walk to access the falls. Along the way, I heard and then spotted a Pacific Wren among the brush. As we walked along the rushing creek amid the green trees, a spot of blue moved through the branches and landed on a mossy tree branch. A Belted Kingfisher – she remained still long enough to photograph; a rare occurrence for the birds I like to call hummingbirds of the sea (okay or lake or stream) because they move so fast.
I’d hoped to see some Bald Eagles and other raptors (or even a bear!) at the riverside waiting to feast on salmon, but mostly it was gulls and ravens. At Goldstream Falls, a surprise awaited us. In the pool below the cascade were hundreds of salmon who made it to their destination!
They reached the end of the road. Some of them were trying to leap up the waterfall and continue upstream but to no avail! I wonder if it is discouraging to them to know they are going to become nature’s buffet but I suppose they are unaware…Check out the jumping salmon on video at Goldstream Falls below.
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.
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!
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.
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 brilliantblue-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.
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.
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.
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.