Exploring Denver’s nature & birds at Washington Park

I went on a trip to Denver in early September and managed to find a little time to explore in nature. Of course, there is almost always nature and birds around you to find no matter where you are, but my biggest day was visiting Washington Park which is just south of the downtown core.

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Washington Park, Denver, CO

I saw two new species while I was at the park – very exciting – and quite a few others I appreciated, too. The highlight, though, were the American White Pelicans, a first for me! A group of about six pelicans floated on the lake much to my surprise. I’d taken a peek at what I might expect to see while in Denver, but I honestly never expected to see pelicans in the middle of a city park!

I imagine they must be a somewhat regular visitor there as no one else seemed to be half as interested in them as I was. Or maybe they just aren’t bird people. I’ve always wanted to see pelicans and here they were! I took some time to really watch them. Paddling on the water and hunting together in a cooperative group. I was amazed I could actually see the fish as they swallowed! Even just their immense size amazed me that a bird so big could fly. They just mesmerised me.

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American White Pelican

The other new bird I saw was a Snowy Egret! What a beautiful bird… similar to a Great Blue Heron, I watched him patiently stand in the water waiting for a fish to pass by, then darting his head forward suddenly to catch unsuspecting prey. Not far away, another egret perched on a branch overlooking the water. What a peaceful place to rest.

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Snowy Egret
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It was all about the waterbirds that day as I spied another heron in the same tree; a Black-crowned Night Heron. My first adult sighting; I’d only ever seen a juvenile before.

Another highlight was a Barn Swallow colony at the boathouse. There were more Barn Swallows than I think I’d ever seen before. I was wary of distracting or disturbing them in any way, so I watched from the sidelines, though they didn’t seem to mind people walking by. Their swooping and diving antics and chitter-chatter could entertain me for hours. Sometimes, I wish I could sprout wings and become a swallow just for one day.

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One of many Barn Swallows at the boathouse colony!

I felt so happy and grateful to see a colony doing well from what I could tell after the trials I’ve been through with the colony I monitored this summer in Victoria. It became quite difficult for me to watch quite a few of them die and not know if it was something natural or not. I’d even tried to rescue one and send it to rehab, but unfortunately, the little bird had been starving.

Its strange how the animal world is so beautiful and sorrowful in congruence; the opposing forces of life and death as constant forces of joy and new beginnings versus loss and endings. I guess it keeps us engaged and reminds us to be grateful for every minute.

There is a garden at the park which is a replica of Martha Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon, which was uplifting. The garden was full of every colour imaginable; someone has tended it well and I don’t think my photos do it justice. The park is well worth a visit whether you are a Denver native or visitor from near or far.

I was quite taken by the little prairie dog communities strewn all over in random empty fields and lots off in the suburbs. I liked to imagine them as a happy family society, working together to dig tunnels and find food, alerting each other to danger, taking care of each other. It reminded me of a David Attenborough documentary in which prairie dogs faced a threatening snake and won, thus proving the underdog always has a chance.

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A prairie dog peeping his little head out to take a look! “Is it safe?” Sometimes I feel a little like this just leaving the house.

For someone who relishes quiet and solitude, I find there’s something I love about social animals and social birds. Some of my favourite animals and birds live in families, flocks or colonies for part of most of their lives: Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, Bushtits, ducks rafting together at sea, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, wolves, elephants and deer. I wonder what that says about me, if anything. Then again, I also dearly love solitary or paired animals like all kinds of wild cats (lions are the exception here), foxes, osprey, wrens, most woodpeckers, and of course hummingbirds.

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Denver, CO viewed from Red Rocks Ampitheatre

A quiet summer watching nestlings grow

Summer has been quiet, but busy somehow. I have a few other projects I’ve been working on and my bird-watching has been close to home for the most part with a couple exceptions.

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Scenes like this Western Tiger Swallowtail are few and far between now that we are in the depths of summer.

What was all green and lush and full of life in spring is now brown and golden with drought. This year marks the fourth summer in a row which has been a drought in Victoria. Yesterday it rained for the first time in months, but I don’t think it did much to alleviate conditions.

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This raccoon seemed to be feeling the heat on a hot morning

At least the roses in cultivated gardens do not seem to mind much, flowering still in beautiful, bright colours. Some songbirds, too, do not seem to mind, but I wonder how the hot weather affects them. House Finches and Bushtits have been abounding everywhere I go in little flocks, finches singing in berry bushes and bushtits gleaning insects off trees as they leap from branch to branch. I hope they can all find enough to eat.

Nests are busy places, too. At the osprey nest, I have still only seen one juvenile, but I am hopeful there is another there and I just keep missing it. Otherwise, I wonder what it means for the osprey if they only have one baby. Two years ago, they had three successful fledglings so I have high hopes for the family! I wonder if the hot, dry conditions somehow made it more difficult to rear all three young or if an egg or two was taken by a predator. I’ve seen the little one flapping his wings inside the nest a few times, strengthening the muscles and experimenting.

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Osprey with juvenile at the nest

I’ve been seeing more nesting birds this summer and I have been monitoring a Barn Swallow colony since their arrival in May. I watched as they buzzed about busily building and repairing nests, then watching and listening to the tiny babies in their nests. They grow up so fast; a mere week or so later, they have already left the safety of their nest and start flying.

I feel quite attached to them after watching them grow up and feel quite proud when I see the juveniles flying about on their own, but equally heartbroken when a few have not survived. My hope is that most of them can succeed despite the difficulties and threats they are faced with in today’s world. That goes for all the nestlings; birds have many obstacles to face in our constantly expanding world that makes me sometimes wonder if it will ever be enough for humanity? Or will we continue to crave for more? More money, more cars, more oil, more expansion, until we simply self-destruct?

But there is still beauty to be found. Last weekend, I found my first hummingbird myself! I’ve seen them pointed out by others before, but never seen an active one or found it on my own. I saw the little bird hovering around a tree with a bit of something in its beak and waited long enough to confirm my suspicions; she’s a breeding female as she landed in her nest.

Only seeing the nest in real life on a tree branch brings home just how tiny they are. She’s likely on at least her second brood of the year as Anna’s Hummingbirds start breeding early. It was quite exciting to find this and appreciate the pure beauty in something so small. Its moments like these that are like little beacons of light in the face of the destruction happening in the world. That the song and life of a single small hummingbird could mean so much is a good reminder of the beauty and love that persists.

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Anna’s Hummingbird nest

 

Summer sun, sand & shorebirds at Sidney Spit

I took my annual summer trip to Sidney Spit a few weeks ago and it was just as good as it always is. It was nearing lunch time so I set off for the beach on the far side of the island and had a picnic, watching the gentle waves lap the shore and listening to their gentle rush upon the sand.

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Looking east from Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, BC with a BC Ferry en route in the centre. The feathery wispy clouds were incredible the day I was there.

The water is so clear and cool it was refreshing to dip my toes into the shallows. Nearby, in the trees behind me, I heard the loud call of a bird. It was a Bald Eagle. We would meet again later on my trip…

The tide was quite low when I arrived, though it was making its way back up with each passing moment, so after lunch I immediately set off for the spit itself. I was hoping to see some shorebirds, and I eventually did, but I also saw a few surprises.

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Looking north up the spit; the west side is sandier than the east side.

Passing a little tidal pool of leftover water, I heard a Killdeer‘s piercing cry. He was scurrying among the dead trees and rocks by the water’s edge. As I continued along the spit, the sandy bar narrowed and gave way to cobbles and rocks one the outer, eastern side of the island. Far ahead of me, I could see a huge mass of gulls gathered together, but closer was a group of Black Oystercatchers.

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Black Oystercatchers foraging in the tidal zone.

Usually I see them in pairs, never in such a large groups as this. I presumed they were together for either breeding or in preparation for migration. Either way, I gave them a very wide berth and tried my best not to disturb them.

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A Pelagic Cormorant offshore the island.

I made my way back down the spit, enjoying the many different cormorants flying overhead and a Pigeon Guillemot diving offshore. Meandering through the forest on my way to the lagoon, I listened to the wind in the trees, gently rustling leaves and the chit-chat of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the firs. Bushtits also chattered among their flock in the lower branches of small trees and bushes.

I also passed across an open field along the way where Barn and Tree Swallows dove and swooped and a White-crowned Sparrow sung out from a tree. There is such a wide variety of habitats packed into such a small, walkable space here; one of the reasons I love visiting.

Coming down to the lagoon back into the bright, hot sunshine, I was rewarded with a flock of shorebirds at last. I sat and watched them for a while, scurrying along the sand and dipping their beaks beneath the sand to pull out prey. As one gave a shrill cry, they all up and flew away, perhaps spooked by a nearby Osprey who was out fishing. Soon after the peeps flew off, a great splash sounded and I looked over in time to see an Osprey hit the water to catch a fish.

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Flock of sandpipers down at the lagoon.
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Mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
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Least Sandpiper (middle) and a Western Sandpiper (left). My best, educated guesses – I don’t feel strong with my sandpiper ID yet.

Eventually, when I had my fill of watching these little shorebirds I don’t often see, I made my way back uphill through the trees to the dock. Along the way, I heard a familiar call. The juvenile Bald Eagle I’d heard while I ate lunch was perched in a tall tree overlooking the beach. I imagine he may have been begging his parents for food even though he certainly looked big enough to be taking care of himself, he was probably still learning how to hunt.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle

Back at the docks, I enjoyed watching some of my very favourite birds…Purple Martins. There are a number of nest-boxes on the docks, which I hope is helping their populations recover. I got to watch a female martin capture an insect on the wing and return to the nestbox to feed her young. I only saw the tiniest smidge of a baby’s head popping out from the box, where I hope and believe he was safe until he’s ready to fledge.

Happy birthday osprey!

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Osprey on her nest before the babies were born

Monday was a happy day! I checked on a local osprey nest I monitor from time-to-time and found a tiny little baby osprey head just poking up over the edge of the nest! He must have been born at least few days ago for his head to be peeping up now.

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Both parents attentive to their baby. This was my first glimpse of the new ospret as I like to call them.

I imagine its quite cozy in there right now, but by the end of summer, it will be cramped with at least one or two other young to share living quarters with. At this point, I have only seen a single head so I wonder if there are more babies on the way.

Both parents paid attention to the baby as dad brought in some fish to feed on for the family. I watched mum delicately tear off small bits of fish and feed it to the baby, his open mouth earnestly awaiting his lunch.

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Mum tears off smaller bits of fish to feed to baby

Competition is tough among osprey young, often leaving the third chick to die of starvation or being killed by its siblings. Last year, all three chicks successfully fledged, so it is possible to raise three young if good resources are available.

By about fifty days of age at the end of the summer, the chicks will have fledged and have to find food independently after their parents leave for warmer southern latitudes over the winter.

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Mum also has to keep a watchful eye out for predators
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Hopefully there are more scenes like this in the future for our osprey family

A Surprise at Sandcut Beach

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Sandcut Beach falls

A few weeks ago, I got to see one of the most incredible things I think I’ve ever seen. I was at Sandcut Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island where a creek cascades down into a waterfall onto the beach. Yes, its very romantic. I’d explored the beach already and enjoyed the view of the waterfall flowing over the rock into a pool in the sand.

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Sandcut Beach falls

Looking up at the creek bed I couldn’t resist climbing up on top of it and checking out the view from on top of a waterfall. Maybe the geologist in me still likes to get up close and personal with rocks. But how often to you get to see a waterfall from the top?

The bottom of the creek bed is continuous, exposed sandstone full of little potholes and puddles. Its a totally different landscape from the one down on the beach. As I walked up the tree-lined creek, I began to hear a faint noise in the distance. I was sure it was a bird, but I didn’t know what I was about to find.

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The sandstone creek bed of Sandcut Creek
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Sandcut Creek

The highway crosses noisily above the creek and I thought maybe there was a bird nest with a hungry baby somewhere up high on the bridge. But as I got closer, I discovered the insistent, piping noise was a juvenile American Dipper!

He was puffed up and looked even bigger than his parent nearby as he begged for food, following his parent’s every step and demanding to be fed! The poor parent never got a rest, I imagine it must be exhausting work dipping around in the creek for delicious insects for your baby to eat. Can you imagine your child constantly following you around asking to be fed? It is hard work being a bird parent!

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American Dipper baby begging for food

It was just incredible to watch from a distance as I didn’t want to disturb a parent and baby. The baby’s mouth was still a bright, attention-catching yellow and he didn’t seem to like getting his feet wet. The juvenile tended to stay on drier rocks out of the faster-moving water. I imagine this was not actually out of a dislike of wet feet but rather a way to stay safe from the currents as a vulnerable young bird.

It was so unexpected, I really tried to cherish the moment. I don’t think I’ll see an American Dipper feeding its young again anytime soon, but I won’t forget this special experience. I feel grateful I was in the right place at the right time and that I followed my curiosity up the creek. To me, that’s the best way to watch birds and enjoy nature. Going outside without a defined plan and just see what comes along your way…you never know what you might stumble across.

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American Dipper juvenile – look at that bright yellow mouth!

 

Birds at a Canterbury estuary, New Zealand

Leaving the birds of the river from my last post behind, continuing along a bike trail in Canterbury New Zealand still revealed many new birds to be seen. The bike trail didn’t quite land us at the beach as we’d expected, but instead at the Ashley River estuary. The tide was quite low and there were shorebirds aplenty to be seen.

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Ashley River estuary

In one of the main channels of the river outlet were quite a few birds enjoying the calm flow of the inter-tidal estuary. A few familiars we’d already seen, including the Paradise Shelduck (a pair of course) and the Spur-winged Plover were among some new species. Sacred Kingfishers zipped by overhead, calling loudly, moving so fast they were impossible to photograph, must like the Belted Kingfisher I am familiar with in BC.

Pied Stilts roved along the sandy shore in search of critters to eat, their long pink legs and black-and-white colouring conspicuous among other birds, though the South Island Pied Oystercatcher has equally beautiful black-and-white colouring. They strongly reminded me of our own Black Oystercatchers with red eyes and pink legs.

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South Island Pied Oystercatcher and Pied Stilt

But no birds were as familiar as the Mallards that floated in the deeper water of the channel among a flock of Southern Black-backed Gulls. The mallard was introduced to New Zealand as early as 1870 and within 100 years populations really took off. Sadly, they have out-competed the native Grey Duck or parera in most areas of New Zealand, who can mainly only be seen in wilder regions.

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Pied Shag and Little Shag

Further along toward the sea was a pair of cormorants perched on a brush pile: a Little Shag and a Pied Shag. Further away and a lot more shy, I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Banded Dotterel. The Banded Dotterel, or Double-banded Plover, is endemic to New Zealand, frequenting estuaries and rivers. Northern populations winter in Australia while southern birds move north. They are unfortunately very vulnerable to the predators introduced to New Zealand, including cats, stoats, rats and weasels. This is yet another sad example of the dangers of introducing non-native species.

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Bar-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit is also known as the Eastern Bar-tailed Godwit, especially in North American where they breeds in Alaska. They tend to leave New Zealand in March and return in September. A female bird tracked by scientists was found to have made the longest ever nonstop flight by a bird – a whopping 11,500km in just nine days! Incredible. Meanwhile, humans spend thousands of dollars and tons of jet fuel to make the New Zealand Birds Onlinesame journey. If that doesn’t make you think nature is cleverer than humans, I don’t know what will.

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birdprints in the sand

References

from New Zealand Birds Online:
Banded Dotterel
Bar-tailed Godwit
Grey Duck
Little Shag
Mallard
Pied Shag
Pied Stilt
Southern Black-backed Gull

Riverside birds in Canterbury, New Zealand

Back in March, I went on a trip to New Zealand for a couple of weeks. Most of the time I spent in and around Christchurch and it was gorgeous! I loved going back to visit and getting to watch birds there for real for the first time. I hadn’t really gotten into bird-watching yet when I lived there before.

With my Handbook of Common New Zealand Birds by Kinsky and Robertson that I picked up at a used book sale and my knowledge of a few birds that I’d seen there before, it was exciting and challenging to encounter some new birds!

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the Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ

The first bird I really saw after settling in was one of my absolute favourites – the Paradise Shelduck! These ducks are familiar to me, having seen them frequently before. I love the sounds they make – have a listen here. They are quite loud and distinct and being endemic to New Zealand, are quite special. These gorgeous and colourful ducks are almost always seen exclusively in their breeding pairs and can be found all across New Zealand in fields, along rivers, in parks and inland shores.

Biking along a quintessential braided Canterbury river toward the sea, there were many more birds to encounter. Next, as I paused for lunch on the cobbled riverbed and looked across the water, I saw a tall, pale greyish blue bird standing along the river’s edge. It was striking how similar to the familiar Great Blue Heron this White-faced Heron appeared, yet they live half a world apart.

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White-faced Heron

Meanwhile, swallows flew overhead, diving and swirling and a Swamp Harrier hovered above, searching for prey. I felt a sense of familiarity that these birds are akin to many I know here in BC. Yet I also felt in awe at the beauty of the landscape and wildlife surrounding me and the connectedness of all things in nature.

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Looking toward the mountains

In the middle of the river where the water was flowing quickly, a shag (also called a cormorant) floated along. I watched him dive below the surface and bob back up before hopping ashore for a quick rest. After further study, I identified the cormorant as a Little Shag, or Little Pied Shag. They are native to all parts of New Zealand and live in fresh or coastal waters.

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Little Shag

Not far from the heron, there was another interesting bird. This one was totally new to me and had a very interesting appearance with a white body, grey back and bright yellow face. I quickly found this bird in my book and had no doubts as to its species – the Spur-winged Plover. In Australia, this bird is known as the Masked Lapwing. I saw one again later on my trip in Picton on a sports field. Unlike many others birds of New Zealand, these plovers have coped very well with the presence of humans as they can thrive in agricultural and urban areas.

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Spur-winged Plover

References
Handbook of Common Birds of New Zealand by F.C. Kinsky and C.J.R. Robertson.
Little Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Paradise Shelduck, New Zealand Birds Online
Spur-winged Plover, New Zealand Birds Online
White-faced Heron, New Zealand Birds Online

A simple stop in a suburban park leads to bird surprises

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A poppa mallard watching over his ducklings at the park? However, science says male mallards don’t tend to stick around taking care of young.

Last week, I made a brief stop at a small suburban park on my way home from an errand. It might be easy to look at this small creek and green space as a little park without much to see. I think it takes a bit of luck, time and perspective to see deeper.

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Mallard ducklings learning how to ‘duck’! Or rather, to dabble.

Where this park commonly has mallards, crows and gulls, all relatively common suburban residents, there also was a pair of Cooper’s Hawks up in the trees. I heard them calling from far away, they were the loudest I’d ever heard Cooper’s Hawks before.

I stopped and watched them for a little while, they perched on a branch side-by-side, preening their feathers. One took flight every now and again, calling out, gliding between the trees and branches like the branches weren’t even there. Now I can truly see how they succeed as woodland hawks.

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Cooper’s Hawk pair

Another great example of the Cooper’s Hawk really maximizing their forest-hunting skills was a couple of weeks ago when I watched one dive-bomb from a branch into a very dense thicket of bushes and trees. I never saw the hawk come back out again, but I heard lots of rustling within and was quite impressed with their ability to catch prey amid such dense bush. The things you find at small parks can be amazing and surprising!

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Cooper’s Hawk pair

I suspect my suburban park pair may have been a mating pair, and they’ve chosen a great spot. Before I’d spotted the hawks, I found the mallards and early ducklings! Sadly, I think some of the ducklings may end up being someone else’s meal in the near future. They are very exposed out on the water, but I suppose that’s why they have so many babies. Most of them are not likely to survive to adulthood.

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Not only are the birds beautiful, but so are the trees, blossoms and plants in small suburban parks!

Osprey watch is on again

All month, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the local osprey! Finally, I saw them for the first time last week. I thought they might be a bit late this year due to our late start to spring, but maybe I was just late going to check.

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Osprey pair (female right, male left)

I’m happy to see them back again and I hope they have another successful year after 3 chicks successfully fledged last year. When I first visited the nest again, there was only the female on her own. But soon enough, the male showed up and they chatted together at the nest. I watched the male fly off for a time and return with nesting material already.

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Juvenile from a previous year

I imagine they are re-affirming their relationship after being apart for the winter, but according to the experts, osprey return to their nests sites out of attachment to the site rather than their mate (Bierregaard et al., 2016). Returning to their old nest is very beneficial to the success of their young as it allows the pair to save time and energy.

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The pair this year

They’ve continued to occupy the site and yesterday, I watched them as a Bald Eagle passed by overhead. Bald Eagles are a tough competitor for Osprey; they will steal their nests, steal their fish and prey on their young. They both flew up from the nest and circled over the area, but did not seem too perturbed by the eagle in the vicinity.

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Flying high overhead today

Today, they were quite boisterous and loud and I saw three Osprey circling overhead not far from the nest site. I wonder if they are competitive males or juveniles from previous years returning for their first summer in the north. Osprey in their first summer remain in the south while two-year olds make their first journey north, but often do not breed successfully yet (Bierregaard et al., 2016). I remember a third male hanging around last summer. I will have to continue watching and see what happens. I can only hope for the best for our pair!

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The pair this week

Resources

Bierregaard, R. O., A. F. Poole, M. S. Martell, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2016). Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.683

Beauty in the simple things

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singing Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have just started singing here in Victoria. I went out for a walk the other week and heard their sweet, tumbling song for the first time in months! It shone out at me distinctly among the robin’s whistling, the towhee’s cat-like calling and the chickadee’s chatter.

The junco’s warbler-like song stirs up memories of spring and summer. I’ve watched the world changing around me recently. Early buds have popped up on trees, new greenery emerges among the barren branches and twigs, and even a flower or two has appeared. The juncos have clearly noticed as well. But just the other day, it snowed. So I suppose they call them “the snowbird” for a reason; they don’t seem to mind. They sing on.

Juncos have always been endearing little birds to me, entertaining me in the suburbs and city parks and at my bird feeder. I wonder if many people truly appreciate these birds, which some might consider quite drab without any flashy, colourful feathers. But not to me.

The Oregon variety common in BC has soft rosy flanks grading into their white breasts in sharp contrast with their black heads. Their wings show a vast variety in shades of brown and black; and of course, their defining feature – the white outer tail feathers. The males flash around their white tails to attract females and defend their territory.

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Observe the variety of colour in this Oregon Dark-eyed Junco’s feathers from head to tail.

Interestingly, over the last 50 years, as they have embraced the suburban life, the junco’s white tail has faded. With feeders and ideal habitat available, suburban males have been found to stick around with their partners longer, lessening the need for the white colouring (Marzluff, 2014).

Sometimes the simplest things can bring the most joy, and Dark-eyed Juncos are certainly one for me. There aren’t many native birds simpler or more common (in North America anyway) than the American Robin. I’ve heard quite a few birders say the phrase “oh, its just a robin” as if a robin were not a creature worthy of appreciation or a thing of beauty.

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American Robin, beautiful red breast on proud display.

American Robins are birds that I have been around my whole life. I remember their cheerful song often lasts long into the twilight of spring and summer evenings as the sun’s warmth fades away and the air smells fresh and cool. As a kid, I used to anticipate the return of migratory populations as a sure sign of spring.

I like to watch them now, in my backyard, hopping along the grass and eating worms. I observe how they cock their head to the side, lowered toward the ground as if listening for any vibration below the earth’s surface. And then – like many larger predators – they strike suddenly, and slurp up a worm from the ground.

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American Robin in the dawn light during winter.

Their song is one of the most beautiful, happy and warm songs that exists in the natural world. And their red breast is not something to be taken for granted. In the golden-orange light of dusk or dawn, if you catch the light on their breast just right, well, it speaks for itself if you ask me.

The fantastic and infrequent bird sightings are special, too, don’t get me wrong. But don’t forget to appreciate the little things, the simple things, that are all around and can be found if you take a moment to look.

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American Robin in the early winter evening light.

References
Marzluff, John M., 2014. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Yale University Press.