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.

Birding in Victoria, BC at Uplands Park & Cattle Point

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Sign at the eastern entrance to Uplands Park across from Cattle Point

Before I moved here and started birding for real, I was unaware that Victoria is something of a haven for bird-watchers. Its a well-known destination for whale-watching and other wildlife, but Victoria is perched on the southern edge of Vancouver Island is a gem for birding. In the Annual Christmas Bird Count, Victoria regularly tops the list for species diversity in Canada. In 2016, Victoria had 141 species reported in the annual count. But maybe its just because we’re the warmest spot in Canada in December.

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a tree-lined path in Uplands Park in the summer

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know some great birding spots around the region. One of my favourites is Uplands Park and the adjacent Cattle Point in the municipality of Oak Bay. Uplands Park is a 30.65 hectare park surrounded by expensive (and sometimes historic) homes on three sides and Cattle Point and the Haro Strait on the eastern side.

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A bench overlooking the sea at Cattle Point in springtime

The park is easy to access from any side and has a myriad of trails to explore through groves of garry oak trees, thicker, younger deciduous trees, garry oak meadows and open, rocky uplands. It makes for a beautiful walk during any season at any time of day. And its a perfect example if you’re looking to explore the fading and native garry oak ecosystem.

Right now, after our record-setting dry Victorian summer, the park is very dry. The grass is yellow, the trails are dust. Some trees are losing their leaves with the lack of water, but the garry oaks are soldiering on, their leaves a marked green contrast with the ground beneath my feet. Right now, in late summer, the blackberry  bushes are a bountiful source of food for birds in parts of the park. They make a good mid-walk snack for humans, too!

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August flowers in a field in Uplands Park

Most of the birds have finished their nesting season by now, but in the springtime, many birds choose to nest here, including Anna’s Hummingbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Bewick’s Wrens and Bushtits. Barred Owls likely nest in the park, too.

Spring arrivals from afar that are commonly seen at the park includes Turkey Vultures, swallows (Tree, Barn, Violet-green and Purple Martins), Chipping Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Cedar Waxwings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Spring rains bring wildflowers, green grass and muddy puddles to trudge through on your visit.

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a garry oak meadow in Uplands Park in the spring

Meanwhile, the year-round residents I frequently see here at any time of year includes Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Northwestern Crows, American Robins, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Anna’s Hummingbirds and Chestnut-backed Chickdee. In fact, its a very rare visit if I don’t see an Anna’s Hummingbird on my walk through the park. To a lesser extent, other easy to spot birds here year-round are Bewick’s Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers.

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Song Sparrow. Their song can be heard year-round at Uplands Park, but more so in the spring.

In the winter, when the ground gets frosty and sometimes even snows occasionally, our year-round birds can be seen around Uplands Park, but nearby Cattle Point makes a great spot for shorebirding. Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Black Turnstones head to the Cattle Point shores for the winter. Great Blue Heron, Black Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Double-crested Cormorants and Mallards can also be seen during all four seasons at Cattle Point.

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Harlequin Duck, a common winter visitor at Cattle Point

This past summer, a group of American White Pelicans (a rarity for this region) were spotted offshore from Cattle Point on the Great Chain Islands, among other locations. While I am not normally a “twitcher”, I did spring for seeing the rare pelicans but did not have any luck! Other interesting birds I have seen here includes the Rhinoceros Auklet, Long-tiled Ducks, Horned Grebes and a baby Killdeer.

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sea meets rock at Cattle Point with Oak Bay in the background and the Olympic Mountains in the far background

Aside from the birds, other wildlife living in the park you might encounter includes garter snakes, black-tailed deer, mice and rabbits. At Cattle Point, I’ve also seen River Otter and Harbour Seals in the water and a cougar was also spotted near Uplands Park last summer. The park also has a high concentration of rare native plants, but being clueless about most plant ID, I won’t try to list any of them. In the spring, I can identify the beautiful flowers of Henderson’s Shooting Star, White Fawn Lily, Camas and Wild Rose that grow in the park.

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Eastern Cottontail (?) in Uplands Park

From Cattle Point, there are also scenic views of Mt Baker in Washington State and if you look southeast on a clear day, you can sometimes just make out Mt Rainier just off to the edge of the chain of Olympic Mountains. This makes it a popular photography stopping point for tourists, but many of them probably miss out on the rest of the beauty in the park.

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Mt Baker in Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC
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Mt Rainier, Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC

If you’re heading to the Victoria region and you are a birder, check out Uplands Park and see what you find! Overall, there is a great variety of birds, wildlife and scenery to see at this suburban park. For more photos of birds at the park, follow the link.

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October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

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Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

 

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

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Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Home again on familiar ground at sea level: some shorebirds and swallows

Being home again on Vancouver Island means being surrounded by the sea again…just how I like it! I love the mountains for the green expanse of trees, the varying landscape and little lakes, but there’s something about the sea that draws me like so many humans before me. The first time I saw the ocean at 18, I was amazed by its sheer expanse and the rolling of the waves on the shore. In short, it was everything I always dreamed of.

I’m lucky to live where I am and I try to enjoy the local shore as much as possible while I can. Spring was well underway when we returned with new flowers were blossoming upon our return.

I saw, once again, a large group of birds far from the shore all clustered together. I’d seen them twice just before we left and could not work out what they were. The distance from shore certainly didn’t help. They were black and white with distinct white patches around their eyes.

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Long-tailed Duck far from shore stretching the limits of my camera’s zoom!

 

Yesterday, at last, I worked it out – they’re diving seaducks, the Long-tailed Duck! To add to the confusion, they were previously called Oldsquaw. I guess I found the downside to buying used field guides. As a beginner, I was uncertain as some of the population range maps I’d seen didn’t include the Long-tailed Duck in my region, or only “rare” or in winter. However, I’ve seen others report them in the area as well, which is reassuring.

Now that I know them, they are quite distinct. As I watched them, they all dove  underwater at once, moving as one fishing unit. It was really quite fascinating! They breed in the Arctic and winter further south (though every map I look at is different), so I suspect they were passing through on their way north.

Despite another early spring this year, the wintering-over Buffleheads are still in town. I had expected them to move on before I returned, but I suspect they won’t linger much longer. I’ll miss these little ducks but I look forward to their return again in the winter.

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Bufflehead (male)
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These female Buffleheads I managed to photograph while landing reminded me a bit of the courting display of the grebe.

I spotted two Marbled Murrelets, a new species for me and I knew they were a murrelet right away by their body shape and size, though at first glance from afar my first thought was loon. The distinguishing feature, for me, is the neck is white all the way to the nape.

This seabird, a relative of the puffin, breeds along the cost of the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska. Interestingly, unlike other seabirds, they nest far from the coast in the branches of old-growth conifer trees and are threatened by the loss of old-growth forests.

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Marbled Murrelet

Swallows are some of my favourite birds and I get very excited anytime I see them. The way they dive and flit about so quickly while feeding in the air is so entertaining  and interesting to observe. It makes it very difficult to photograph them, however and I just managed to get one good photo of this Barn Swallow I saw the other day.

I didn’t see any before I left on my trip, so I guess they returned from South America to breed while I was away. Barn Swallows have, overall, adapted well to human occupation and now almost exclusively nest in man-made sites where they previously nested in caves.

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Barn Swallow mid-flight with distinct forked tail

Finally, I happily watched a Black Oystercatcher quietly foraging among the rocks for mussels and other intertidal shellfish while being badgered and followed by a crow on the shore. As if they don’t have enough to face with loss of good habitat and pollution. I almost never see oystercatchers alone and, sure enough, once I looked around I found another just downshore.


Resources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds Pages on the Long-tailed Duck, Marbled Murrelet, Barn Swallow and Black Oystercatcher

New birds for a new year: winter visitors from the north

As I walk the path of beginner birding, I am frequently viewing, identifying and learning new birds! I thought I would share with you some of my more recent sightings of some special visitor wintering over around BC and the Pacific Northwest. I find marine birds are sometimes a bit easier as a beginner, while sometimes they can be tricky to identify, at least they tend to stay still a bit more than songbirds.

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Harlequin Duck

The Harlequin Duck…what a beauty! Though I am particularly partial to all kinds of ducks. But this one caught my attention with its distinct white, black and brown plumage. Sadly, this beautiful diving sea duck is on Canada’s Species at Risk List for the Atlantic population and as such are protected by the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act1.

Their Northwestern counterpart seems to be faring better. In the Pacific Northwest, they typically spend the winter in turbid coastal waters and migrate inland toward mountain rivers in the warmer months.2, 3, 4 I had to patiently wait to snap this one in-between dives.

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Surf Scoter

These visiting diving sea ducks from the sub-Arctic regions spend winter along temperate coasts down to Mexico. Warmer months are spent breeding as far north as Alaska and across the continent east to parts of Newfoundland. With beautiful multi-coloured beaks, Surf Scoters seem to have been given an unfair nickname of “skunk-headed coots” due to the white spots the males bear in resemblance of a skunk.5, 6

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Black Turnstone

Blending in on dark rocky coasts, the Black Turnstone is another winter visitor from the north. They breed in coastal Alaska and migrate south along rocky coasts as far as Baja California. They look especially striking when in flight with their contrasting black and white colouring. They were named “Turnstone” for their feeding behaviour – funnily enough, they turn over rocks and pebbles and other objects to look for food (crustaceans, barnacles and limpets) underneath.7 Not surprisingly given their similar body shape and habitat, they are in the same family as sandpipers.8

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Black Oystercatcher

While not technically a winter visitor, but a year-round resident, I was excited to come across the Black Oystercatcher recently! I used to see Variable Oystercatchers all the time in New Zealand, and had been wondering where their North American relatives had been hiding. This was my very first Black Oystercatcher sighting! They live along the Pacific coast from Alaksa down to California year-round.9 They are especially vulnerable to pollution and habitat disturbance due to their specific inter-tidal niche where they like to feed.10