Let it be known that spring means swallows! They are one of my most look-forward to birds of the season along with warblers and Osprey.
Normally when I go birding, I don’t set expectations or look for specific birds. But because I love swallows so much, today, I went out in search of some spots I know they favor. Though there were not as many Barn Swallows in my tried-and-true spot (maybe a little early still), I did find them!
I also saw lots of Tree Swallows swooping and searching for cavities in trees to use for their nests. Barn Swallows have a special place in my heart, I’m not even sure I can explain why. Maybe its a combination of their vibrant colors and behavior, their high-pitched chittering calls and the free and effortless way they fly and dive.
An unexpected surprise was the best view I’ve ever had of an American Bittern. They are experts at camouflage, blending in seamlessly with their environment. Probably why I almost never see them. It was a treat and privilege to see this heron close enough that I could see each individual toe spread out as he slowly stalked through the grass.
The Marsh Wrens were especially chatty and I even managed to spot one instead of just hearing one hiding in the reeds and cattails. He was singing his little heart out beneath the clatter of the Red-winged Blackbirds doing much the same.
If the birds are not enough to tell us that spring is here, the beautiful blooming camas is. There is still new life, new beauty, new sights and sounds waiting to be discovered in nature.
Esquimalt Lagoon is due west of Victoria in Colwood and adjacent to the Fisgard Lighthouse & Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. The lagoon is a beautiful spot to stop at even if you’re not interesting in bird-watching. It sits right across from the Hatley Castle and Gardens and there is also a nice beach here. Aside from both Hatley Castle and the lagoon itself, there are beautiful views southward of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.
The lagoon is an excellent spot for birding from either the Ocean Boulevard side in the south or from the castle grounds in the north (which are now part of Royal Roads University). Ocean Boulevard crosses a narrow strip of land called the Coburg Peninsula on the ocean-side of the lagoon while the castle sits on the quieter side.
the lagoon looking south on a rainy November day
Fisgard Lighthouse near Esquimalt Lagoon
Canada Geese are a common sight at the lagoon
The entire saltwater lagoon was designated a Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBA) in 1931 and provides important habitat to both migratory and resident birds. It’s easy to access and its a flat stroll along the water, which probably also boosts its popularity for birding. Its also popular for running and dog-walking, although dogs are not permitted to be off-leash anywhere at the lagoon due its designation as an MBA.
During the winter, the lagoon is a haven for ducks…I love ducks! I saw my first-ever Northern Pintail here in March last year, but they are seen all winter. Lots of Buffleheads can be seen here starting in mid-October and November; I think they tend to hang out closer to the northern shore (or castle-side). American Wigeons flock together in big groups here and quite a few mergansers (Common, Hooded and Red-breasted) enjoy the calm waters, too.
The lagoon tends to be a great spot for spotting swans including Mute, Tundra and Trumpeter. Grebes, scoters and loons swim further offshore on the ocean-side of the lagoon while shorebirds like Black Turnstones and Killdeer creep along the rocky inner tide-line. Further above the tide-line, songbirds (including warblers, sparrows, grosbeaks and finches) find refuge in the bushes and tall grasses that grow where there should be more sand dunes. There is currently some dune restoration work ongoing at the lagoon.
Surf Scoter and Grebes
The lagoon is a reliable spot to see lots of Great Blue Heron and cormorants (Pelagic, Brandt’s and Double-crested can all be seen here). The cormorants have a rocky island they like to hang out on, drying their wings outspread after diving for fish. I’ve spotted Red-tailed Hawks and a Merlins perched in the trees that edge along the northwest end of the lagoon, looking for their next meal.
No matter what time of year you go, Esquimalt Lagoon is sure to be both a beautiful, scenic location and an interesting place to slow down, go for a walk to appreciate some local wildlife. Expect it to be a lot busier in the summertime than the winter and be sure to allow for the time to explore it from both sides.
Last weekend, there were more interesting ducks to be seen! For the first time ever on the island, I saw Ruddy Ducks! I’ve only seen these ducks once before (back in 2016 just outside Kamloops, BC) in the spring when they wore their bright breeding plumage. They are not quite as easy to recognise in their winter plumage, but they are still quite distinct from other ducks with their bi-colourd head, single face strip and upturned tail.
On the same lake not far away were Lesser Scaups, Mallards and Buffleheads. I was also excited to see a small group of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Northern Shovelers – two other species I don’t commonly see. While Ring-necked Ducks are distinguished from the very similar Lesser Scaup by the white ring around the base of their beak, their name actually refers to a rather difficult to see brown-coloured band around their neck.
I’ve only seen Northern Shovelers a handful of times, too, but they are immediately recognisable by their very large beak. To me, they look a little bit like over-sized Mallards. Why is their beak so large, like, well, a shovel? They use their large bill with little tooth-like projections on it to strain food from water. Anything from plants and seeds to crustaceans and other small critters get filtered and eaten (Cornell).
In a different part of the sanctuary, where water pools up in the winter and spring but is dry in the summer, were more mallards, a few American Coots (though not actually ducks) and a couple more Northern Shovelers. I find it fascinating that so many birds of different species can all be found on one small lake or pond. I suppose its because they each fill and rely on a different feeding niche that they can share a relatively small space.
Northern Shovelers dabble and filter along the surface while American Coots dive primarily for plants, but also the occasional insects. American Coots often capitalise on Mallards and other ducks who disturb plant and animal matter in shallow water with their feet, making it easier for the coot to feed. Meanwhile, the non-picky Mallards are pretty happy eating just about anything that’s around.
Perhaps we humans should take a cue from the animal world and learn to get along despite our differences. To mutually share spaces and resources and, while birds probably don’t do this, to maybe even try to appreciate others’ differences instead of judging them. I mean, if we egotistically think Homo sapiens are the smartest species on earth, why have animals been co-existing peacefully for years, something we have seemingly never been able to achieve since our earliest days?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
I cut through the woods on my way back to the sound of woodpeckers knocking on trees and chickadees tsee-ing and dee–dee-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.
House Finches (male)
House Finches (female)
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!
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.
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.
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.
The lake, a Great Blue Heron on the left
boardwalk crosses the lake
Swan Lake, BC
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Panama Flats is a land area in Saanich, owned by the municipality as of 2017, which was previously used for agriculture and is now a park and a great place to go birding. The flats lie along the Colquitz River, which flows from Beaver Lake in the north down to Portage Inlet. The Colquitz River Trail starts at Tillicum Mall and runs along the creek through Panama Flats and to the Glendale Trail, which you can take to the Viaduct Flats (another nice birding spot!). Biking is allowed on this trail and it makes for quite a fun little ride. Its a bit of a hidden gem.
side trail at Panama Flats
the main trail, Colquitz River Trail
dried grass in September
Besides the main gravel trail through the flats, a number of smaller, less-maintained trails run around the perimeter of the flats. These trails are the real bird-watching gems. During the summer when I’ve been here, there is one pond regularly full of water accessible right off of the Colquitz River Trail, but in the winter and spring, the puddles and pools fill up, offering an optimal spot for all kinds of birds.
The pond and the marshy area around it is home to many Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups, American Wigeons, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese. At the seasonal ponds and pools, I saw my first Green-winged Teal in the spring. Also at these ponds, I’ve seen Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, as well as Killdeer on the nearby grassy flat.
In the trees and bushes, there are Golden and White-crowned Sparrows while Savannah Sparrows forage on the ground. Bushtits chatter in flocks among the low bushes all year while Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings make noise during the summer. The tall grasses and low bushes and trees make for great spots to see warblers in the summer, from Common Yellowthroats to Orange-crowned Warblers. High in the sky, there might be a Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture or a bit lower down, a Cooper’s Hawk or Northern Harrier looking for their next meal. Not to mention, quite a few rarities have been sighted at this spot over the years, so you never know what you might find!
Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.
As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…
Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.
I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.
It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.
The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).
So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.
Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…
With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….