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.
Life in Oregon can be pretty grey and dreary during the winter. I don’t mind rainy days until it starts to feel like I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. The rain gives us our beautiful temperate rainforests: it feeds the thousand-year old trees that have lived for thousands of years and dusts the canopy with lichens and moss. Winter can often seem dull but little bright patches of colour can be found in almost every colour of the rainbow!
All colors can be seen in the forest and trees, birds and berries, if one takes a moment to look. Acorn Woodpeckers, as the purported clowns of the woodpecker world, are always very fun and uplifting to watch their antics with one another up in the oak trees!
A Ruby-crownd Kinglet overcame his shyness and danced among the raspberry brambles. I watched him for a while as he hovered like a hummingbird and flitted among thorny branches perhaps in search of a tasty meal. A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos skittered along the grassy edges of a path. When I hear their sweet, forlorn song “Oh dear me”, I look out for their bright sunlit crowns and bold black stripe.
Ducks are a splendid part of of winter, the sight and sound of them sure to cheer me up even on cloudy days. They are North America’s smallest dabbling duck and they have particularly beautiful plumage. The males (left, below) have gorgeous green and cinnamon colouring on their heads. Both male and female (right, below) have green patches under their wings but it really stands out remarkably bright on the females.
The sky is sometimes blue even in our rainy winter but the Steller’s Jay shines bright and proud of his cerulean plumage! This one was so unusually still and subdued, I nearly did not see him. He seemed too pre-occupied with preening his feathers and fluffing his mohawk to pay any mind to squawk at me.
In drafting this post of some photos from this past winter, purple eluded me. The closest thing I had a photo of was the iridescent violet-black heads of the European Starling. No matter what you think of these Shakespearean-inspired non-native songbirds, to me, they are quite beautiful. They cannot be all bad if Mozart kept a pet starling who may arguable have inspired snippets of his compositions.
I spent some time thinking back on the year 2020 we would all love to forget. When it started, I felt like the future was bright. I continued with my second semester of classes, the winter weather was gorgeous and had plans to travel later in the year. Little did I know, right?
In January and February, life was normal. I went to the Japanese Gardens in Portland (they are gorgeous and well-worth visiting when it is safe to do so again), my favourite spots on the coast and some usual haunts like the local wildlife refuge. In March, that all changed when Oregon began to enforce social distancing measures.
I tried to focus on the good – I was fortunate to be able to work safely from home and I searched for joy in the little things like the snowdrops popping up in my garden. Restrictions led me to explore new places closer to home and find there were still things to discover. I saw this little Pacific Wren in a small forest park in the middle of town. It was not really so bad even though there was so much suffering in the world.
Spring and summer came and brought some new adventures. I signed up to monitor bluebird nest-boxes for the local Audubon group. It was definitely morale-boosting to contribute one small positive thing to a bigger conservation effort even when I had to face the reality of life and death. My reward came when I got to see the juvenile bluebirds who fledged from one of my boxes flying around a farm and hunting for themselves while their parents worked on a second brood. I saw those birds when they were just little blue eggs, tiny hatchlings with not a feather on their heads and I watched them grow up into beautiful young birds who I hope will survive to breed more young of their own.
With late summer came the wildfires. Within days of going to hike and camp at a lake in the Cascades (the first trip of the year and only safe socially distanced thing I could think of), the fires that were burning in the mountains were raging. While I was out there, the smoke was settled in the distance, just a faraway thing until the winds changed. They surged westward down the valleys, bringing what seemed like unstoppable destruction…Marion Lake seems to have escaped but so much of the land and lives will never be the same again, at least not within our lifetime.
There were times I felt myself lost in a fog, crushed by the weight of all the things I cannot change…
…but nature and life marches on even when battered and broken.
Looking forward, I guess we all have to find some peace, whatever that means to us. One thing I know is that spending time in nature helps calm anxiety, promotes positive thinking and reminds us to appreciate the beauty in the little things. I hope you can find a small slice of nature (or whatever else enriches your spirit) this year and I hope and wish everyone (and the world) has a safe(r) and bright(er) 2021. Focus on the good but don’t drown your worries or negative feelings – it is important to acknowledge and feel them, too. Like in nature, all things must be balanced, and it is true for you and for me.
Earlier this spring on a forest stroll, I spotted this American robin with a meal for her chicks. She was very careful to flit about on her way to her nest so as not to alert predators of her chicks’ whereabouts. They might be considered a common bird, but I still find them beautiful, especially their cheerful song.
In an exciting first, I spotted my first and second Lazuli Buntings! I’ve seen them once before on a group bird walk, but I don’t tend to think it counts until I can spot and identify a bird on my own.
The first bunting was calling from a treetop and caught my attention because I didn’t recognize the sound. I spent a while watching and listening until I got a good look of his bright blue head and orange chest! Ah-ha! A Lazuli Bunting! The second one I saw was also singing from the near the top of a tree.
On that same walk, not far away, I first heard a Common Yellowthroat tch-tch-ing and waited for a while to see if I could spot him. His dainty feet perched on tall weedy stems as he darted about and called from the grasses.
I heard a second call coming from away on my left and I had to be very patient and attentive to spot a female Common Yellowthroat, who I suspect was his mate. The female has always been much more elusive to me and this one was shy as she mostly hid among the lower branches of a tree.
Watching Western Bluebirds has been another summer highlight for me. Since I’ve been monitoring nestboxes (which I hope to write about soon), I’ve learned a lot more about them just by watching and listening. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these birds more intimately and watching their chicks grow up (though they don’t always make it).
I’ve had quite a few reptile sightings on walks lately, too! I’m not an expert, but I think the first snake is a Pacific Gopher Snake. From my reading, because they look like rattlesnakes, they will hiss and shake their tail when threatened. The lower snake is a Garter Snake, my guess would be a Northwestern Garter Snake, but I am not really sure. They are pretty common around here though that was the first Gopher Snake I’ve ever seen!
I hope you have all been able to safely get out into nature and enjoy some birds, snakes, plants and everything else there is to see!
Well its hard to believe we are halfway through 2020 already. I find myself wondering where the time has gone…its been a bit of a whirlwind year. From January to March, I was busy with work and classes. Then the end of March hit and Oregon went into social distancing and everything slowed down for a little while.
While social distancing and closed parks have limited some of my bird-watching opportunities, you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got! I’ve managed to see quite a few more spring and summer birds than I anticipated back in March.
On a short walk around a small-ish forest park, I was lucky enough to photograph this lovely little Pacific Wren singing his little heart out! I am always amazed at how loud and how long the Pacific Wren can sing for as it echoes throughout forests with lots of old wood and fallen tree debris.
The Brown Creeper is ever an elusive bird to me. I find they difficult to spot and I still remember how excited I was when I saw my first. This one soon disappeared from the moss, blending in with the tree bark as he crept up the tree.
One of my favorite spring arrivals is the Orange-crowned Warbler! I think I spotted this one with a bit of luck (which is sometimes what you need watching birds) and by his somewhat indistinct song! At the beginning of every spring, I struggle to remember how to distinguish their song vs. the Dark-eyed Junco. Its a challenge I welcome.
Meanwhile, I saw the last of the Golden-crowned Sparrows until they return again in autumn and winter! I saw a whole flock of them filling up on seeds to prepare for their journey north to breed.
White-crowned Sparrows were singing their songs across open woodland meadows, urban parks and parking lots and along the edges of forests. I am sure they must be busy now with chicks or fledglings to look after, possibly even onto their second brood already!
Of course, there is more to see than just birds. This American Bullfrog scared me as I nearly ran over it on my bike. They are incredibly loud and very invasive around these parts and he certainly seemed to think he owned this part of the path.
The Pacific Tree frog is quite a bit smaller and definitely native. They can be found around the Pacific Northwest and occupy a variety of habitats including woodlands, backyard ponds, pastures, grasslands and can even be found in alpine zones!
Despite some limitations, which required some creative thinking to get out and about, I’ve been able to have some nice moments in nature which are always healing, restorative and energizing. They remind of of the small beauties in life when many things in the world are turning quite ugly.
Way back in October last year, I went on a trip to Hawaii for the first time. It was also my first time travelling anywhere that can properly be considered tropical. Beforehand, I felt both excitement and trepidation as someone who does not enjoy or cope well with hot weather. Hawaii was never really at the top of my list of places to visit, but a good friend of mine was getting married, so it was time to go. Sure enough, when I first set foot outside Honolulu Airport, I felt like I’d set foot into a sauna! But I think after a few days, I began to adjust.
With the wedding on the North Shore and not being city people, we opted to skip Honolulu and Waikiki and stay part-way up the east coast. Overall, as we began the drive out of Honolulu and east along the coast, the landscape and greenery reminded me a little of New Zealand (particularly the North Island), but not quite.
We hiked up Diamond Head (Le’ahi) the first thing to stretch our legs after the flight. Getting out of the city was relief; everywhere was green and blue. From the top of Le’ahi’s tuff cone, there are views of Honolulu to the west, the endless ocean below and the lush mountains in the background. There is an information display near the trail-head about the loss of native species and the introduced species who have unfortunately taken over much of the habitat around Hawaii. And despite all the new (native and invasive) birds there were, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at those that were familiar including Rock Doves, Mallards and House Sparrows.
This hike was about all we had time for day one, besides getting dinner and arriving at our accommodation for the next two nights for some much-needed sleep. I found myself exhausted after our early morning flight, the heat, the hike and driving in the dark. It was a strange thing for my to experience such an early sunset during summer weather. I’m used to the long southern days of the temperate latitudes, not the 12-hour days of the tropics.
The next day, I visited Kualoa Ranch as part of the wedding festivities, something I had mixed feelings about. It was not the type of thing I would normally do and in fact, would probably avoid as a tourist trap especially considering its film fame, though it also appears to be a working farm and nature preserve. Regardless, the Kualoa Valley was undeniably beautiful. As a big fan of Lost, it was neat to recognise some of the spots filmed in the show but the best part was seeing little sea turtles popping up from below the water’s surface on a boat ride and slowing down to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.
On Day three, we had free time to slow down and explore on our own. I’d read this before going, but it was tricky to find good day hikes that weren’t too short or too long. Given the island’s steep topography, it can be difficult to find a middle-level hike suited to our energy-levels and time commitment for the day.
However, we found a nice loop hike at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve just north of the Waimea Valley and while it still turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than we anticipated it, I really enjoyed soaking in and exploring the jungle and having the chance to do so. There were so many new plants to see and smell. I continued to smell a strong pepper scent and though we tried, we weren’t sure where it came from. This was the furthest we journeyed from the ocean so far, too, but there were still small glimpses of it from the top.
After that, it was pretty full on spending time reuniting with old friends and enjoying the wedding with a bit of time for the beach, exploring banyan trees and relaxing before we headed on to Hawaii, the Big Island to explore more new landscapes. Though I enjoyed our time on O’ahu and the beaches were beautiful and the people friendly, I was looking forward to the quieter atmosphere of the Big Island.
Now that’s its September, I am looking forward to the start of fall and to me, its kind of already here. The temperatures are still warm during the day, but the evenings and nights are cool. There have been more perfect days of blue skies with puffy white clouds sailing overhead. I can feel a new chill on the afternoon wind and some leaves have already begun to turn yellow and crimson, falling from branches and crunching underfoot.
I can say in all honesty I am not sad to say goodbye to summer. Its been hot, the sun bright and intense, and I’m ready for something a little less extreme. I enjoyed seeing summer migrants of course, especially seeing Barn Swallows zipping about and tending their nestlings under gazebos, bridge and building eaves. There’s nothing quite like their zippy chittering that brings a smile to my face.
While on a trip to Denver on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, I saw a number of different birds I don’t see often in Oregon. Western Meadowlarks, the state bird of Oregon, sang beautiful melodies among the Ponderosa pine trees in the open grassy fields. Along a lakefront, it was impossible not to notice a number of Western Kingbirds in cottonwoods. I even saw a new bird in Denver while out for a hike: Lesser Goldfinches who flew and hopped along the hiking trail.
Back in Oregon on the coast in Waldport and off Cape Perpetua, I saw my first ever Brown Pelicans. I have always wanted to see one and they were quite rare in Victoria. They were quite unmistakable flying above the ocean’s swell and diving straight down head-first into the water to fish with a great splash. There is something really majestic about pelicans to me. Like Great Glue Herons, pelicans remind me of something ancient, out of another time or world entirely.
On the same trip, we visited the Sea Lion Caves on the coast and I had the chance to see a number of seabirds along the rocky coast. A host of Pigeon Guillemots appeared to be nesting in the caves, paying no mind to the seal lions they shared it with. Outside the cave and on the cliff face, Brandt’s Cormorants and Common Murres sat on their nests alongside one another.
Back in the Willamette Valley, I finally identified a bird I’d been frequently hearing in the trees around town and in the forests. The distinct call of the Western Wood-Pewee peals across the eaves of the forests and across the fields and now I know who it belongs to next time I hear it.
Last weekend, I saw a few more pelicans, this time American White Pelicans as they migrate south for the winter. There were just a couple perched on snags in a marsh, I remembered how beautiful they look when you see them in flight, the black tips on their wings in sharp contrast to their white feathers.
Of course, summer is never really complete without seeing Osprey! The Columbia River is the perfect place to see Osprey and I saw a number of them, even a few nests, along the river gorge. As the wind howled up the gorge from the faraway sea, Osprey, Turkey Vultures and ravens all soared, their wings outstretched.
Since moving to Oregon, something has been on my radar. That something was the breeding population of Tufted Puffins that nest at Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach. I’d read about them before moving here and thought I’d have to make a trip to the small beachside town south of Astoria to see them sometime.
Tufted Puffin statue in Cannon Beach, OR
Tufted Puffin statue in Cannon Beach, OR
Haystack Rock is one of the only places in the region where you can see Tufted Puffins from land at an accessible spot. They nest on offshore rocks and this is the only one close enough to see without getting on the water. The rock is a large, looming remnant of volcanic eruptions that is visible on your way into and around town. The rock makes for a good nesting spot not only for puffins, but also for hundreds of Common Murres, cormorants and gulls. Closer to the water, Black Oystercatcher and Harlequin Ducks were also seen. The rock is a little community neighbourhood of breeding birds.
Memorial Day weekend, my chance of the summer came and having seen the puffins returned as of April, I knew it was worth a try to make the trip. I did some research ahead of time, which indicated low tide and early morning were the best times for viewing, even better if the two coincide.
Sunday morning, we woke up early and made our way to the beach. We were on the sand by 7:30am although low tide was not until 1pm. We approached the rock from the north and watched as hundreds of birds flew in circles around and around the rock, out over the Pacific waves and back onto the rock again. At first, it was difficult to spot the puffins, but eventually, we spied the distinguishable orange beak and yellow tufts identify our first Tufted Puffin! He was sitting on a tuft of grass amidst bare-ish soil.
The puffins also nest on the grassy north side of the rock, so your best chance of spotting one is looking at that area. Once we spotted one, it was easier to see others. I began knowing what spots to look at on the rock and even what flights patterns to watch for. Puffins have quite a different flight style from some other birds; they don’t take off from stationary positions on the land by flapping their wings. They leap off the rock and catch flight that way, then flap their wings vigorously with faster, shorter flaps than other seabirds.
It was always a bit of a dream of mine to see a puffin. I was just so excited! I stayed there a while watching and admiring them, trying to remember it forever. Under the cloudy skies and wind, it got a bit chilly after a little while, and we decided to head back at low tide to see how much closer we could see them then.
When we came back at low tide, there was a lot less bird activity, but a lot more people! There weren’t so many birds flying in the sky overhead, but we could get much closer and see the puffins better. They also seemed more settled and I thought there were more sitting on their nests. I could even see their orange feet this time! I’m so glad we were able to go and see them. It turned out much better than I’d hoped as I worried we wouldn’t see any puffins. It definitely exceeded my expectations and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it! I’m so glad I got to go see these birds in the wild and hope their dwindling numbers turn around so others can enjoy them, too. This was a trip well-worth making.
Another attraction at Cannon Beach is the tide-pools at low tide. A group of dedicated volunteers come at low tide to setup a perimeter around the pools in order to protect the delicate marine life living there. They educate visitors on the life there and encourage them to view, but not disturb the creatures. I was too enraptured by the puffins to spend much time a the tide pools, but there were quite a few people around them.
We ran into another volunteer with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife who spends 20 hours a week on the beach monitoring the nests, number of puffins and successful pairs. The day we were there, he said he’d counted 19. He’s been doing this for a number of years. I was very impressed with his immense dedication! He had a spotting scope set up that we got to look through and see a puffin a bit closer than we had before. I’m so glad these people were spending their time educating the public.
Its safe to say after two trips, I’m in love with the Oregon coast. Or it could be because I have ocean-withdrawal after living inland for the first time in seven years. In which case, I guess I should consider myself lucky! And even more so, its possible to go to the beach for a day trip here.
In January, the beach was a nice and welcome break from the grey, rainy days here in Corvallis. Seeing a sunny day in the forecast at the coast, we decided to get catch some rays. I have to say that a lot of people told me the coast here was beautiful, so I had some heightened expectations. And it delivered. To my amazement, there were even flowers blooming.
Besides basking in the feeling of the sun on my face and watching the waves crash into the shore, I was strongly reminded of New Zealand. And New Zealand is my happy place. There’s just something about its wild beauty and wide open spaces and hard-to-get-to places that I love.
Besides the beautiful views, the relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto shore and the smell of the sea in the air, there were plenty of birds and wildlife to see. In the Alsea River estuary, hundreds of sea lions rafted together in the shallows, or maybe there’s a dock under there, its hard to tell beneath all the blubber. They reminded me of the sea lions and seals I so often saw in Victoria.
More than the mammals, though, the seabirds and shorebirds reminded me of Victoria, too. I’ll probably always have some feeling of nostalgia when I see birds I saw often there that I no longer see. I feel connected to the place from all the experiences I had watching birds as its where I really began bird-watching.
Some of my earliest experiences bird-watching were at little beaches along the shore, spotting Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron and seaducks like Buffleheads and Harlequin Ducks. While I see the first three still in Oregon, its still a little bit strange because I’m so used to seeing them often by the ocean.
One day wasn’t enough to see everything and take it all in, so we went back again in February for a day with a lot less sunshine, but just as much fun and beauty, this time heading north from Newport.
The bridge heading to the north shore of Newport, OR. We’ll save that part for next time…
After we visited Haines, AK and saw the incredible Bald Eagles at the Chilkat River last November, we re-boarded the Alaska Marine Highway rode south down the Lynn Canal to explore Juneau, the state capital and the nearby Mendenhall Valley.
Our first day there, the weather was clear and cold with snow lingering on some of the lower hills, making for a nice wintry Alaskan scene. It was the perfect day to visit the nearby Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. Though it was a bit cold, it wasn’t too bad and the freshly fallen snow made the glacier look bigger, brighter and more impressive as we would later learn.
The glacier, like many others today, has been retreating for decades. The glacier’s terminus empties into Mendenhall Lake, depositing massive amounts of silt and clay into the lake and Mendenhall River that flow a few short miles into the sea. The glacier is part of the larger Juneau Icefield which extends into British Columbia to the east. On the east side of the lake, Nugget Falls flows into the icy water from the Nugget Glacier upstream.
There was no one else there and all was quiet except for the roar of the waterfall. With most of the lake frozen over and dusted with snow, it was as if the whole world could be sleeping, like time had stopped. But the sun kept moving higher in the sky and we started to feel the cold after our walk from the nearest public bus stop and spending some time admiring the view.
We headed back toward the visitor center to explore the riverside trails, but many of them were closed to allow bears safe salmon feeding access. I’m always all right with closing access down to protect species that need these resources to survive. On the short trail we did walk, we saw a few more Bald Eagles for good measure and an American Dipper bobbing along the icy stream!
The next day was quite rainy and we decided to explore Juneau city a bit, visited the Alaska State Museum where we learned a lot about Alaska’s history, explored the waterfront and hiked along Perserverance Creek to Ebner Falls, which I would recommend if you have time.
Our final day we re-visited the glacier and had a completely different experience. The temperature had risen, the snow had melted and turned to rain though the lake remained frozen. This time, we walked up the western side of the lake through rainforest to get a closer view of the ice.
It was a good walk through temperate rainforest, full of ferns and moss and the things that come with it; mud and rain! From this viewpoint, we got a lot closer to the glacier especially if we had continued along the whole trail. I found it less impressive despite the distance, due to the loss of all the fresh snow that had fallen a few days before. The glacier certainly looked more like a dying one to me. But the ice had the blue colour you expect to see in a glacier and now that was visible to us, so it was’t all bad. It was interesting to see it in such different circumstances.
Overall, Alaska definitely met my expectations in some ways and exceeded them in others! I did find it tough to cope with the short days as I found myself ready for dinner at 4pm a lot of the time. I guess that’s not so bad when you’re on a trip, but I have to hand it to those who live in Alaska and have to get through those short, dark days of winter. My thoughts were with them even more after the earthquake hit Anchorage shortly after our visit and I can say I am impressed with their resilience. I guess that’s what it takes to live in this kind of place. I’m glad we made the trip happen, but I definitely feel like I’ve got more Alaskan adventures in me!