A distant summer of birds

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.

image007-b
American robin

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.

image008-b
Lazuli Bunting

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.

image006-b
Common Yellowthroat (male; center)

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).

 

image001-b

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!

image013-b
Gopher snake?
image002-b
Garter snake

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!

Notes of a distant spring & early summer

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.

image017-b
Pacific Wren

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.

image018-b
Brown Creeper

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.

image016-b
Orange-crowned Warbler

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.

image015-b
Golden-crowned Sparrow

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.

image012-b
White-crowned Sparrow

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!

image009-b
invasive American Bullfrog

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.

image003-b
Pacific Tree frog

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.

The sun and sea in O’ahu, Hawaii

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.

honolulu
Honolulu seen from Diamond Head

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.

diamondhead (1)
Lighthouse viewed from Diamond Head
diamondhead (2)
Sailing the Pacific Ocean

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.

bulbul
The Red-vented Bulbul is just one of many examples of invasive species in Hawaii.
mongoose (1)
Mongoose – ridiculously cute, ridiculously invasive and intentionally introduced. The first one I saw scared and surprised me as I nearly ran it over while driving on the highway. I was later told by a few people I should have run it over, but I’m just not comfortable intentionally killing something, even if its harmful to the native wildlife.
commongallinule
Native and endangered – the Hawaiian Gallinule or the ‘alae ‘ula.

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.

kualoaranch (3)
View looking east from the Kualoa Ranch

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.

kualoaranch (5)
Kualoa Valley – have you ever see anywhere more green?
kualoaranch (2)
Looking west back towards O’ahu’s iconic mountains
hibiscus
Beautiful hibiscus – one of my favourite things in Hawaii

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.

forestreserve
Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve
forestreserve3
A fragrant tree at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve

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.

northshorebeach
Enjoying the shade of the banyan trees at the beach
palmtrees
Palm trees at the shore
northshore
Sunset at the North Shore.

Birds in the Oregon summer

yellowflowerNow 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.

cloudsI 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.

barnswallow
Barn Swallow

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.

westernmeadowlark
Western Meadowlark

 

westernkingbird2
Western Kingbird
lessergoldfinch
Lesser Goldfinch

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.

pigeionguillemot
Pigeon Guillemot
brandtscormorant
Brandt’s Cormorant
seabirdcolony
Common Murre and Brandt’s Cormorant

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.

westernwoodpewee
Western Wood Pewee

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.

american-white-pelican
American White Pelicans
americanwhitepelican2
American White Pelican
egret_heron
Great Egret and Great Blue Heron

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.

osprey
Osprey
columbiariver
Down the Columbia River Gorge

The Tufted Puffins of Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR

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.

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.

haystockrock
Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR

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.

harlequinduck
Harlequin Ducks enjoying the rock as well

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.

tuftedpuffin (4)
Our first Tufted Puffin! The bright orange beak bright even beneath the overcast sky.

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.

tuftedpuffin (3)
Tufted Puffin taking flight from Haystack Rock

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.

commonmurre
Common Murres nest alongside puffins at Haystack Rock

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.

tuftedpuffin (2)
Two Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock
tuftedpuffin (1)
Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock

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.

crescentbeach
Crescent Beach north of Cannon Beach

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.


For more info:

Friends of Haystack Rock
Haystack Rock Awareness Program
Rediscovering Haystack Rock With An Assist From The ‘Puffin Man’ – NPR

Seabirds, sand and waves on the Oregon coast (Waldport to Newport)

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.

newportbeach2

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.

flowerpurple
flowers in January!

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.

waldportbeach
Path down to the beach in Waldport, OR
waldportbeach2
Another gorgeous beach near Waldport

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.

sealions
Sea lions in the Alsea River estuary, Waldport, OR

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.

greategret
Great Egret along the Alsea River near Waldport
commonloon
Common Loon in the Alsea River estuary, Waldport
blackoystercatcher
Black Oysstercatcher at a beach near Newport, OR
surfscoter
Surf Scoter pair at the South Jetty in Newport, OR
newportjetty
Dunes along the South Jetty,  Newport, OR

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.

waldport

The bridge heading to the north shore of Newport, OR. We’ll save that part for next time…

 

 

 

 

Juneau and Mendenhall Glacier in November

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.

mendenhallvisitor
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in the Tongass National Forest

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.

mendenhallglacier-2
Mendenhall Glacier and the frozen Mendenhall Lake
glacierice2
glacial ice

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.

nuggetfalls-1
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier

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.

mendenhalllake
icy Mendenhall Lake

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!

baldeagle
Bald Eagle
americandipper
American Dipper

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.

alaskastream
A miniature cascade along the trail.
nuggetfalls
Nugget Falls where we’d stood just a few days earlier.

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.

mendenhallglacier
Mendenhall Glacier from the other side.
glacierice
glacial ice

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!

 

 

 

More birds of Finley Wildlife Refuge, OR

At Finley National Wildlife Refuge, the geese are just the beginning of what there is to see and enjoy. Even with winter closures in effect until March 31, there are a wealth of marshes, ponds, fields and forests to explore. As I really like to get to know my local birding spots, I’ve been trying to go there regularly. Each visit, the territory becomes more familiar, but the thing about nature is there can always be surprises. Within just one week, the refuge went from being dusted in snow to fields being flooded so much I was worried one of the bridges wound go underwater.

finleyforest
A forest stream at  William Finley National Wildlife Refuge

The ponds and marshes were teeming with ducks in the last few weeks. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons and a single pair of Hooded Mergansers all had plenty of space on the water to share. A flock of Northern Shovelers had an entire pond to themselves while an American Kestrel perched on a nearby tree, periodically taking flight and diving to hunt. A Bald Eagle and a Northern Harrier both flew over one very busy pond, spooking the ducks toward the opposite end while hundreds of noisy Canada Geese honked overhead.

Along the edges of one pond, a Black Phoebe fluttered between his perch on a log and the space above the pond to hunt insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the mud on the edges of a marsh, their golden spots striking on a cloudy day. In a large, grassy field, a Northern Harrier feasted on prey on the ground not far from a flock of American Robins hunting their own prey.

ringneckedducks
Ring-necked Ducks
northernshoveler
The Northern Shovelers were not cooperating for my photos or perhaps I was not patient enough!
yellowrumpedwarbler
At one of the pond pull-outs, I watched Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding just on the edge of the pond from my bird blind/the car.
hoodedmerganser
Hooded Merganser pair
americankestrel
American Kestrel
northernharrier
Northern Harrier

There’s life everywhere at the refuge if you pay attention. In a stand of white oak trees, which I have learned are the same as our old Canadian garry oak trees (Quercus garryana – the scientific name helps where common names confuse!), Acorn Woodpeckers call out their funny noises to match their supposed clown-like appearance. They’ve been in these trees each time I visit, so they must call it home.

In nearby trees, Northern Flickers joined the drumming, too, not to be drowned out by the harsh cries of California Scrub-Jays. Where a patch of brambly bushes met an open space, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos sang in a neat chorus around me. Little flashes of white tails flew before me as the juncos were spooked and left the open ground for cover.

snowhills
Snowy hills in the distance
acornwoodpecker1
Acorn Woodpecker
acornwoodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
californiascrubjay
California Scrub-Jay
darkeyedjunco
Dark-eyed Junco
goldencrownedsparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow (and a Dark-eyed Junco)

On my last visit, there weren’t many ducks about the place, but I’m excited to watch the changes of spring come to life. I’ll certainly miss my overwintering ducks, but I know I’ll see them again later this year. I can already see signs of spring on the way…

springbuds

Bald Eagles in Haines, Alaska in November

Back in November, in between moving from Victoria to Corvallis, my partner and I made time to go on a trip to the final frontier…Alaska. This was something we wanted to do ever since we arrived in Canada and we decided to finally make it happen. An Alaskan cruise seemed like a cool thing to do, but we aren’t really the giant cruise ship, commercial types. So when we heard about the Alaska Marine Highway System, we thought that sounded like us.

alaskaferry
Aboard the MV Kennicott on the Alaska Marine Highway

From Bellingham, WA, the Alaska Marine Highway travesl to Skagway via the same inside passage cruise ships take at a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the amenities. We decided to “splurge” on the cheapest cabin and were happy to entertain ourselves with books, games, movies and enjoying the view.

alaskalynncanal
This was the sunniest view of the first two days of the sailing through the inside passage.

It was our first time to Alaska! The first day on board, there was steady rain falling settling into a mist around the coast and islands of British Columbia. There wasn’t much to see beyond the mist, but it, too had a kind of beauty about it. The next day, we sailed into Alaska and the rain was still falling. Its southeast Alaska in November, what else can you expect? The final day we reached Juneau early in the morning and the weather was spectacular. Cold and windy, the sun came out in full force lighting up the newly fallen snow on mountaintops and hillsides.

alaskalynncanal-2

alaskamountains

As the ferry sailed through the Lynn Canal, it finally felt like we were really in Alaska. The ferry seemed mostly populated with local Alaskans or those just moving, but there were a few other tourists around energetically taking photos like me.

alaskamountains-1

alaskamountains-2

After two and a half days, we reached our first stop. Haines, Alaska. We accidentally timed it two days before the annual Bald Eagle Festival, which began after we left.  This time of year, thousands of Bald Eagles descend upon the Haines area, especially near the Chilkat River, because its some of the only water still flowing unfrozen and chockful of tasty salmon! While we missed the festival, we also missed the crowds of people descending on both the town and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. But most importantly – we did not miss the eagles.

chilkatriverpano
The Chilkat River at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
baldeagles
How many Bald Eagles can perch in one tree?
bearprint
Grizzly bears enjoyed the salmon, too. Their tracks ran all along the trail along the river, then down onto snow and into the water.

I didn’t know what to expect, especially given I don’t often trust hyped-up touristy things, but this was really amazing. I thought I’d seen a lot of Bald Eagles living in British Columbia and I even maybe got a little too used to seeing them that I stopped valuing it as much. But Haines…I’ve never seen so many Bald Eagles in one place. They were honestly everywhere you looked. In trees, on the ground, perched by the riverside, flying overhead. And they were noisy. Their high-pitched gullish calls echoed all around us.

baldeagles-3

baldeagles-2
Guarding catch from gulls and ravens looming on either side. But shortly after this, another Bald Eagle swooped in and stole the salmon.

It was just an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many Bald Eagles, to listen to them, to watch them, juvenile and adult, feeding on salmon and fighting each other off their catches. Its definitely something I’ll always remember to see such a great wildlife event unfold before me.

baldeagles-3

baldeagles-4

To round off our amazing Haines wildlife experience, there was also a bull moose just chilling on the front lawn outside our B&B and apparently there were northern lights that we missed. The wonders of Alaska!

alaskamoose
Moose chilling in a field in Haines, Alaska
alaskasunset
Sunset over the mountains of Haines, AK

That’s a gaggle of geese!

mcfaddenmarsh
McFadden Marsh at William L Finley NWR

Earlier this week, I went exploring William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis, OR. The refuge was established to protect the wintering grounds of the dusky Canada Goose, a subspecies of Canada Goose that spend winter here and breed in Alaska. I’d never even heard of these geese until I visited the refuge. Much of the refuge is closed over winter to protect their habitat, but there’s still plenty of birds to see at the spaces that are open.

The difference between dusky Canada Geese and others was not immediately clear to me, but after checking some references, I can say with confidence that these are dusky Canada Geese. They have a darker, almost brown breast.

canadagoose
Dusky Canada Geese
canadagoose-3
Dusky Canada Goose marked with a red collar for tracking their movements.
canadagoose-1
Compare the dusky to the Canada Goose with a cleaner, whiter breast. This one is a truly Canadian goose from Victoria!

And I can see why the refuge is here because the geese love it. While I walked to one of the marsh overlooks, a sudden roar of goose honks sounded in the distance. I looked up to see a hundreds of geese flying noisily overhead and I thought, now that is a gaggle of geese! Further along, some of the fields were painted brown with huge numbers of geese, more than I’ve ever seen before!

canadagoose-2
The geese in flight

Dusky Canada Geese were once the only population of over-wintering geese in the Wilamette Valley, but in the last fiftty years, Cackling Geese have moved in as well as a new resident group of Canada Geese. Perhaps this is yet another sign of the times in an ever-warming climate with other populations of birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and Red-shouldered Hawks creeping north and staying over the winter, too. Sometimes I think animals and people living closely to nature can tell us a whole lot about the status of our ecosystems if we just learned to pay attention.