Birding in Victoria, BC at Esquimalt Lagoon

DSC03662
Esquimalt Lagoon looking north towards Hatley Castle (centre) on a calm April day

Esquimalt Lagoon is due west of Victoria in Colwood and adjacent to the Fisgard Lighthouse & Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. The lagoon is a beautiful spot to stop at even if you’re not interesting in bird-watching. It sits right across from the Hatley Castle and Gardens and there is also a nice beach here. Aside from both Hatley Castle and the lagoon itself, there are beautiful views southward of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.

The lagoon is an excellent spot for birding from either the Ocean Boulevard side in the south or from the castle grounds in the north (which are now part of Royal Roads University). Ocean Boulevard crosses a narrow strip of land called the Coburg Peninsula on the ocean-side of the lagoon while the castle sits on the quieter side.

The entire saltwater lagoon was designated a Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBA) in 1931 and provides important habitat to both migratory and resident birds. It’s easy to access and its a flat stroll along the water, which probably also boosts its popularity for birding. Its also popular for running and dog-walking, although dogs are not permitted to be off-leash anywhere at the lagoon due its designation as an MBA.

During the winter, the lagoon is a haven for ducks…I love ducks! I saw my first-ever Northern Pintail here in March last year, but they are seen all winter. Lots of Buffleheads can be seen here starting in mid-October and November; I think they tend to hang out closer to the northern shore (or castle-side). American Wigeons flock together in big groups here and quite a few mergansers (Common, Hooded and Red-breasted) enjoy the calm waters, too.

The lagoon tends to be a great spot for spotting swans including Mute, Tundra and Trumpeter. Grebes, scoters and loons swim further offshore on the ocean-side of the lagoon while shorebirds like Black Turnstones and Killdeer creep along the rocky inner tide-line. Further above the tide-line, songbirds (including warblers, sparrows, grosbeaks and finches) find refuge in the bushes and tall grasses that grow where there should be more sand dunes. There is currently some dune restoration work ongoing at the lagoon.

The lagoon is a reliable spot to see lots of Great Blue Heron and cormorants (Pelagic, Brandt’s and Double-crested can all be seen here). The cormorants have a rocky island they like to hang out on, drying their wings outspread after diving for fish. I’ve spotted Red-tailed Hawks and a Merlins perched in the trees that edge along the northwest end of the lagoon, looking for their next meal.

No matter what time of year you go, Esquimalt Lagoon is sure to be both a beautiful, scenic location and an interesting place to slow down, go for a walk to appreciate some local wildlife. Expect it to be a lot busier in the summertime than the winter and be sure to allow for the time to explore it from both sides.

DSC00835
Bald Eagle perching above the lagoon
DSC08829
Merlin perches in the trees above the lagoon

Resources

Esquimalt Lagoon eBird Page
Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse eBird Page
Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Esquimalt Lagoon History (CRD)

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.

harlequinduck
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.

sealions
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.

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.

harlequinduck_25Dec15
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.

surfscoters_1Jan16
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

blackturnstone_5Nov2015
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

blackoystercatcher_31Dec15
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