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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Now that we’ve settled in our new place in Oregon and been here a couple months, I’ve had the chance to go explore my new territory. After living there four years and getting to know it well, its hard not to miss Victoria with its beautiful seaside and many gardens.
But there are lots of exciting new places to explore here, so I’ve met some new feathered faces already. The best part is that the local neighborhood birds have found my feeder at last! Its comforting to hear the peep-cheep of the chickadees and the chip-chip off the juncos in the backyard. Backyard birdwatching is probably my favourite way to watch birds and with a much less green backyard here, I was worried I wouldn’t have any birds come visit.
I’m going to have to improve my raptor identification skills, which are still sort of lacking, with all the new birds of prey that live here. There are fewer Bald Eagles than Victoria, but a noticeably wider variety of other raptor species. One of them is quickly becoming a favourite…the American Kestrel. I’d seen only one before we moved here and I’ve already learned what fields to reliably find them at.
With their graceful and fierce beauty and small size (for a bird of prey), how could I not love the kestrel? I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of listening to their calls or watching them hovering and diving. In reading about them, I learned that they can amazingly track voles via their urine which is visible with the kestrel’s ultraviolet vision! Isn’t nature amazing?
Another exciting new bird I’ve met is the Western Bluebird! Ever since I started birdwatching, I longed to see a bluebird! These thrushes aren’t common on Vancouver Island, where the loss of critical garry oak habitat and nesting cavities decimated their once flourishing populations. Some dedicated people have done great work to re-establish their populations in the Cowichan Valley and I hope they continue to succeed.
Of course, here in Oregon, the bluebird faces the same challenges and there is a lot of work being put in to help support their population. But somehow, they are more numerous here in the Wilamette Valley where they live year-round. I wonder if it is the abundance of agricultural fields that helps sustain them. Still, their populations have sharply declined here and I hope Oregon doesn’t have the same story as Vancouver Island someday.
The third new bird I’ve met is the Wrentit! These birds are very unique for North America; they have no relatives on the continent and they can only be found along a small strip of the west coast. I heard it rustling in the bushes and making an unfamiliar but somewhat wren-like call before I saw it. When I first saw this grey and brown bird, it reminded me of a cross between a wren and a Spotted Towhee. Let me know what you think based on my photo. Apparently, they can be very hard to spot among the bushes, rarely coming out from cover, so it was a lucky sighting I doubt I’ll find again anytime soon!
Other interesting birds to encounter here are the loud and raucous California Scrub-Jay, a sort of lowland and coastal compatriot of the Steller’s Jay. At a restored wetland pond, I heard a high-pitched tweeting I’d never heard before. I looked at the trees nearby for any sign of movement, I scanned the bushes and grass and finally, near the edge of the water I saw a small bird flitting up periodically with a flourish of black feathers. A Black Phoebe hunted for insects near the water’s edge, perching periodically on the nearby rocks.
As rainy winter turns to spring, I am sure I will have many more birdwatching adventures and new faces to meet while exploring Oregon!
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.
One hour north of Victoria is Cowichan Bay; one of my favourite winter birding spots. Nearby, the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers empty out into the bay, spilling sediment and life into an estuary as the tide ebbs and flows. A Bald Eagle might fly overhead while the waters lap gently at the shore. Trumpeter and Mute Swans stand out in contrast with the blue water they float gracefully across. They arch their heads into the water, their long necks pronounced as they skim for food.
The water in the bay is calm and as blue as the sky reflecting in its surface. During the winter, the air is crisp on a cold day and frost sometimes etches the sidewalk and ground in the shade of the nearby hills. Looking out over the water, smaller bodies dot the landscape. Ducks.
For me, they are the main attraction. Small Buffleheads float in groups, diving one after the other underwater for food. Just when you’ve spotted one by the bright white head of the male or the small white spot on the females, they’ve disappeared below the surface which scarcely a splash.
Plenty of other ducks congregate here as well. Mallards, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons and Hooded and Common Mergansers are all common visitors to these calm, cool winter waters. For those who have come south, it is a world away from the icy lakes and rivers of the north.
The bay isn’t just for the ducks, though. Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen flying by low over the water or with wings spread out to dry in the sun. Great Blue Heron hunt for fish in the shallows while Surf Scoters gather together in great rafts further offshore.
As the weather warms up in the spring and summer, the bay changes, too. Days are longer and somehow it seems less quiet. Migratory birds arrive to bulk up, maybe find a mate and nest. Returning from the southern hemisphere and Central America, Osprey nest on old piers and Purple Martins make good use of nest-boxes placed throughout the area. Other swallows join the fun and the ducks grow quiet, having moved elsewhere for summer, some returning as far as the Arctic, where their breeding grounds have thawed.
During autumn, Steller and California Sea Lions visit to feed on the abundant salmon as the fish make their way to the river to spawn upstream. If you visit the bay between October and December, they’re hard to miss as they are quite loud! Its fun to watch them both as they sun themselves on the dock in piles of bodies and as they swim the water with ease.
Not far from the bay is the Cowichan and Koksilah river estuary where a walking track follows a river channel out into the estuary toward a viewing tower. The estuary is a place full of life and it never disappoints. It was here I saw my first Northern Shrike and just recently, my first Western Meadowlark.
I had always hoped to see one someday, but was not expecting it at the estuary. It just goes to show how wildlife can surprise you. You never know what you might see when you step out your door, and that is one of the best things about nature. Its never the same experience twice.
Snow Geese in flight at Cowichan Estuary
Snow Geese at the Cowichan Estuary
On one side of the track are active agricultural fields and on my most recent visit, another surprise was waiting to be found. A flock of Snow Geese flew overhead and landed in the field to forage, their white feathers bright in the sunshine. I’d only just seen Snow Geese for the first time in Delta, BC near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary where they overwinter. There were white bodies with black-edged wings almost as far as the eye could see; a spectacular sight!
There will always be something interesting to see in nature, at the bay or estuary, or your own backyard or neighborhood park. Estuaries, wetlands, green spaces, open fields and forests are all critical resources for birds, mammals, insects and everything in between. Each creature has its place and purpose in maintaining balance. Small disruptions can cause a ripple-effect from one species to another; let us all do our part to protect these spaces and species while we can.