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)

Winter is for the ducks

If you ask me, the best thing about winter is ducks. I may have mentioned before how much I love ducks, and the last two weekends I’ve had some really great duck-watching! I’m not sure if its something to do with the weather or if there are normally so many about, but I felt like I’ve seen a nice variety in species.

DSC00348
a party of ducks down at Esquimalt Lagoon

Last weekend, I went down to the Esquimalt Lagoon (always an excellent duck destination) on a cold, but sunny day. There are usually quite a few ducks there, but I thought I saw more than usual last week. Perhaps it was because so many of them were clustered close to the shore.

DSC00325
American Wigeons
DSC00330
Common Goldeneye

Whatever the reason, there were heaps of American Wigeons (a large flock tends to hang out at the lagoon), their greens heads just brilliant in the sunlight, as well as Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Pintails and even a couple of Common Goldeneyes. As I walked along the shore, watching the big group, I also spotted a stray Eurasian Wigeon, his red head conspicuous in a sea of green and brown.

American Wigeon and Northern Pintail – what a size difference!
DSC00344
Eurasian Wigeon

Watching ducks just makes me happy; the way they waddle awkwardly onshore while moving so gracefully on the water with their various quacks and colours just makes me happy.

Besides enjoying the ducks, I also saw a group of shorebirds right on the edge of the water who I didn’t recognise. After much debate and consulting Sibley, I decided they were Dunlins, which would be a new bird for me. I find shorebirds tricky and I sometimes I’m still not sure just who I am looking at.

DSC00354
Dunlins

Meanwhile, high up in the sky about as far from the shore as you could get, I saw a familiar bird soaring high and veering and tilting every now and again. Much to my surprise, a Turkey Vulture hovered overhead, another was perched in a tree and I later saw two others flying overhead.

A winter Turkey Vulture

I thought it would be too cold for them by now and they must all have gone south already, but I suppose there’s always bound to be a few stragglers. I wonder if its harder for them to find food in the winter because they rely so much on their sense of smell to locate carrion. Besides all the ducks, unexpectedly seeing one of my favourite raptors was pretty exciting! It just goes to show you never know who you might encounter when you go outside bird watching.

Winter birds in the yard and the beach

Christmas morning, Victoria woke up to a white Christmas. It had snowed the evening before as the sun fell, muffling the world in a crisp silence, the only sound the crunching beneath my feet when I went outside for a walk. When I first got up and looked out the window, a Barred Owl had landed in the trees in the backyard. I’ve seen this owl around a couple of times (presuming he is the same one) before and heard it call at night, but never managed to have my camera nearby at the right moment! I watched him in this different, snow-covered landscape until he flew away. What a wonderful way to start the day!

DSC00165
Barred Owl in the backyard Christmas morning

Later that day, after playing in the snow (a rare sight here), I went for a walk down to one of my favourite spots to bird and enjoy nature. There were quite a few ducks about: Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Common Mergansers. A lone Common Goldeneye swam unexpectedly close to shore not far from a pair of Western Grebes.

DSC00180
Bird prints in the snow
DSC00204
Hooded Mergansers
DSC00206
Western Grebes

Today, I went back again in a different atmosphere. The snow had melted and the sun was out, but the wind was up from the northeast. Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers crossed the water close together. I wondered if these diving and dabbling ducks had decided to group together for safety like a wintering flock of songbirds.

A Brandt’s Cormorant also passed nearby them, and I watched as he dove into the cold water and came back up more than once with a tasty morsel in his beak. A second cormorant had been nearby at first, but had taken flight straight from the water’s surface. Its pretty incredible if you stop and think about it, but then again, they are made for this.

DSC00250
Buffleheads

I cut through the woods on my way back to the sound of woodpeckers knocking on trees and chickadees tsee-ing and deedee-ing. I stopped in a muddy clearing to watch a flock of American Robins traipsing from tree to tree and eating berries and House Finches doing the same in the lower branches. House Finches are common backyard birds, but somehow, I have never seen one in my yard. I guess I mustn’t have the right habitat. So, I stop to enjoy them and watch as their bright pink feathers shine in the sunlight. These two types of birds bring a smile to my face; both have such cheerful songs and colouring.

The bird feeder has gone back out again for winter and just in time for the snow, too. The birds and myself have been enjoying the feeder. After foraging the fallen seeds on the ground last year (my first year with a feeder), the Dark-eyed Juncos have now found their way onto the tray itself for better pickings! It’s certainly been a hopping place to be; with Chestnut-backed Chickadees perched in the nearby trees waiting in line and Red-breasted Nuthatches brazenly bossing the others around. I worry about disease and fighting, but I’m sure as long as I follow the bird feeder rules, all will be okay!

DSC00066
 Dark-eyed Juncos have found their way to the feeder tray this year.

Northern Birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cowichan Bay and spent some time around the water, one of my favourite spots for watching birds. I’ve been there a few times, but it was only this trip when I finally discovered how to get to the estuary itself. There is a trail that starts from a small, gravel parking lot and then leads out onto the estuary itself to a nice viewing platform.

I’d been convinced it would be a good spot if only I could get there, but I’d never found the access point and thought it was off-limits. I was so excited to have finally found the way and it turned out even better than I expected.

I was there on a chilly, overcast November day, and there were ducks everywhere! Earlier that day, I’d finally seen my first Bufflehead of the season! I think it was so late because I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. At the estuary, Buffleheads abounded and large groups of American Wigeons floated close together or mingled on the shore. Almost hidden among the wigeons were a couple of Northern Pintails, the first of three birds with ‘Northern’ in their name we’d see that day.

It was a good thing the wigeons were so tightly packed. As we reached the viewing tower, we glimpsed a raptor flying low overhead. The wigeons picked up and moved almost as a unit, all of them flying in unison, aware of the looming threat. Soon, the silent hunter circled back around again, flying low over the water, gliding on outstretched wings.

The white rump patch gave it away; a Northern Harrier. Only my second, but this time I got to share it with my partner. We watched the drama unfold around us and saw a near-collision with an American Wigeon in-flight (photos below). These hawks usually hunt smaller prey, but are able to catch ducks and rabbits as well (Cornell).

There was more excitement still awaiting us at the Cowichan Estuary; we watched a Belted Kingfisher dive quickly into the water from its perch with barely a splash and come back up with a catch.

While returning along the same trail, I saw a bird land in a tree out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw it; a bird larger than a songbird, with a grey back and a distinctive black eye mask. My first Northern Shrike. I’d wanted to see one ever since I watched Planet Earth II and saw the fascinating segment on the butcherbird.

Northern Shrikes are predatory songbirds. They sometimes impale their prey (insects, small mammals or birds) on fences or spines. This must be how they got their scientific name Lanius excubitor, as it translates to “Butcher Watchman” (Cornell). Moments after I snapped a photo, it was gone.

The Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier and Northern Shrike have little in common but their shared environment and their name, but they are each distinctively interesting and beautiful in their own way. Each serves a purpose in the environment around them and each deserves to be appreciated and protected for years to come.

DSC09441
Bufflehead and American Wigeons
DSC09445
Two Northern Pintails among American Wigeons
DSC09468
Northern Harrier in flight
DSC09469
Northern Harrier in flight
DSC09466
near collision mid-flight
DSC09480
Belted Kingfisher with her catch
DSC09481 (2)
Northern Shrike, the butcherbird

Spring is a busy time for birds with hunting, singing and nest-building to do!

Besides more sunshine and flowers, spring has brought other exciting things, too! I’ve had some lovely times out birding given the chance. Its been nice fitting in some adventures out and about on sunny or rainy days.

I saw my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the season, an absolute joy to see! Something about them brings a smile to my face watching them: with their yellow feathers and their lovely, cheery song! I listened to a pair of warblers sing to (or with?) each other in the trees. I wonder if it was a mating call or something else. Regardless, they’ve got to be one of my favourite birds to watch and I felt so lucky to see them!

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler (the orange crown is just barely visible in this photo)

Just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that caught my eye in the trees – a bushtit’s nest! The Bushtit was flitting to and from the nest, from a small opening at the top. Bushtits build hanging nests from tree branches out of plant material and spiderwebs to make it stretch down. The breeding pair sleeps in the nest each night along with other male adults who help build the nest! Seems like this nest would be quite cozy. See photos below…to avoid disturbing the nest (as I never want to displace or reveal a breeding pair), I only took photos from afar behind the cover of a cypress tree nearby.

Its not just Bushtits working on raising young… I spied a Dark-eyed Junco between branches gathering nesting materials, her beak full of grass and moss. While Bushtits work together on nests, momma Juncos do it all on their own! Again, I watched carefully so as not to disturb her hard work.

Everyone else is busy, too. Song Sparrows have been particularly noisy lately belting out their variety of songs. While they tend to spend more of their time foraging in the brush on the ground, Spotted Towhees are out singing on their perches, too. Speaking of noisy birds, not many are noisier than the Bewick’s Wren.

I tend to bird a lot by ear, and I think I am finally able to identify this wren’s song reliably and they are much more common than I had thought! Walking a trail the other day, I heard a rustling on the ground and paused to watch and listen. After a few patient moments, out hopped a Bewick’s Wren with his lunch caught in his beak! At first I thought it was a seed but it turned out to be a fly. I watched him working hard, like a smaller, woodland version of gull dropping a crab on rocks, as he dropped the fly and repeatedly picked it up again. I imagine their down-curved beak helps them peck away at their prey.

Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Bewick’s Wren with a fly in his beak
Bewick’s Wren, fly on the ground
Bewick’s Wren with the fly once more

I had my first-ever sighting of Green-winged Teals at a flood plain! They are just gorgeous and make the most interesting sounds! They were off on the side of the water doing their own thing while Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers paddled about on the more open waters. Just after spotting the teals, I saw a Killdeer in the grass. Along the edges of the water and among the cattails were quite a few Red-winged Blackbirds.

Green-winged Teals (female left, male right)
Ring-necked Ducks (female left, male right)
Killdeer

One of my most-anticipated spring arrivals just returned last week! Osprey have made their way back north to breed for the northern summer and our local pair have returned to last year’s nest. I went to watch them one afternoon but only saw one of the pair at the nest. She (I believe as she has mottled brown across the chest) was working on re-building and repairing the nest from last year and flew in and out, returning with new branches each time, then carefully placing them just so in the nest. She called out every now and again, I am guessing to stay in communication with her mate and became especially loud when a bald eagle flew far overhead. As predators of young Osprey, I have no doubt she was aware of the eagle’s presence.

It was inspiring to see them back again, like long lost friends, and I hope they raise successful fledglings again this year! I will be watching their progress again over the season and you can be sure there will be updates here like last year! The pair was successful at raising three fledglings last year and I watched them all the way from nest-building through to being awkward chicks to becoming proud juvenile sea-hawks! It is my hope I will get to see it all over again this summer!

Spring is late but welcome this year!

Since my last birding post, spring has sprung in Victoria at last! The last few years, the cherry blossoms have been out in February and warmer, sunny days became the norm in March. This year, spring seems to have arrived later. Just two weeks ago, we had another brief snowfall.

Not only are we humans enjoying the change, trading our winter coats for rain jackets, but the wildlife is, too. Our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds like true early birds have already mated and likely had at least one clutch of eggs so far. They started whirring and buzzing around after one another looking for to mate as early as January.

Anna’s Hummingbird

At the other end of the size spectrum, Bald Eagles have begun returning to their nests to raise their young. Bald Eagles mate for life and typically return to their previous nest sites if they were successful. I hope to see my neighborhood pair again this year, though I haven’t yet.

Bald Eagle pair

Between the smallest and largest birds are all those in between. In spring, things can get confusing in bird land with all the overlap, but each species has its own internal calendar. Its amazing how they find their way, year after year. Spring is a special time with wintering birds remaining while spring migrants arrive and they are all found amidst those familiar residents.

Some of our winter ducks are still here, like Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeons and lovely little Buffleheads.

Hooded Merganser pair (male left, female right)
Buffleheads (male)

While the ducks enjoy a good thaw, the warmer weather welcomes new arrivals to town, too. One of the most exciting spring arrivals for me are the swallows! This weekend I saw my first swallows of the season (a surprise for me), including Tree Swallows and Violet-Green Swallows. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching swallows swoop and dive, hunting insects in the air. I look forward to watching them for the next few months.

This Violet-green Swallow takes a rare landing on a perch long enough to snap this shot. They can be differentiated from the Tree Swallow by the bit of white that extends up behind their eye.

Another exciting group of spring arrivals are the warblers. Warblers were all new to me last year, though I got to know a few of them, but I know there are many out there I have not met, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler; my first new warbler of the year!

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), a first for me

As it turns out, there are two subspecies in North America – the Myrtle which tends to be more common in the east and the Audubon’s which is more common in the west. Although it seems they may be re-assessed as two different species after all. Either way, I am content to have seen one and learned a new bird I will be able to identify next time I see one!

Happy spring birding! I’m hoping the longer days give me more of a chance to get out there. Have you met any new birds recently?

Frosty mornings & lessons in winter birding

While I am a lover of summer time, we are lucky here in Victoria when it comes to winter birding! Quite a few resident birds stay here throughout the year while many others head down from the north to enjoy our mild winter.

Lingering frost on a crisp winter’s morning.

Now that I’ve been through my first winter of birding, I know easily who the visitors are now and who I can expect to see. In the winter, I look forward to seeing lots of lovely seabirds and ducks come south to our region. From Harlequin Ducks to Surf Scoters and American Wigeons, they are all a joy to watch. I wonder if, for them, coming south is like a welcome vacation from the cold?

Harlequin Ducks paddle along rocky coasts and turbid waters.
Common Goldeneye prefer sheltered, calmer water.
Surf Scoters make Buffleheads look like the tiny ducks they are!
American Wigeons make walking on ice look easy, but they actually prefer to graze on land anyway.

Meanwhile, resident birds get cozy in the cold with many of them forming flocks, like robins and chickadees. In fact, little chickadees are often the ringleaders of mixed species flocks, which will also include nuthatches, creepers and even the occasional woodpecker.

An American Robin illuminated by the morning light. A flock has been visiting my backyard regularly in recent weeks.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees, always fast and on the move, alert other birds to lurking dangers.
Pileated Woodpeckers remain year-round, drumming on dead trees.
Northern Flickers sound their familiar call and frequent the backyard.

Its not a bad idea to flock together in the winter – flocking helps them stay warm, find food and keep alert for danger. There’s safety in numbers and the raptors need a meal in the winter, too.

This Cooper’s Hawk was perched high above a small inlet where mallards, wigeons and goldeneyes paddled and dabbled in the water.

I have been enjoying the visitors and residents alike this winter. There will always be something special to me about birding in the winter here. Not only did I learn a lot about birding last winter, but it also helped heal the hole left in my heart after the loss of my beloved cat.  Winter can be a tough time at its best, and last year, birding made it all much better. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time for the things you love most in life.

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.

Iris
Forget-me-nots

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.

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.

Bufflehead (male)
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.

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.

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.

Black Oystercatcher with a meal
Look at those pink legs!

I shot a brief video of the Black Oystercatcher foraging among the rocks and eating. Its shot hand-held so a bit shaky, but the best I can do!

MAH05437

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

Duck, Duck, Goose, Part 1: delighting wigeons and beautiful buffleheads

Mallard Duck, a common resident of urban parks

Before the beginning of my birding days, I was always a big fan of ducks. While I can never decide what type of birds are my favourite, ducks will always be one of the contenders. There’s just something about their quacks and other noises, their webbed feet, the way they land on the water and how it beads on their feathers. And they are really cute, which helps. Each spring, I keenly look forward to baby mallard duck season and they will always be an old favourite. And despite the fact that mallard ducks are considered an invasive pest in New Zealand, when I lived there, I still loved them. They are, after all, what most people think of when you say ducks…but there are a lot more ducks out there than you think.

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon is a dabbling duck commonly found in western North American lakes, wetlands and ponds and increasingly further east. They commonly breed in the far northwest and winters in the Pacific Northwest to California, Texas and east to Florida.1  The male has a distinctive white crown and a green band across the eye.2, 3 Unlike many other dabbling ducks, the American Wigeon often grazes in fields as well as on water, where they often wait to steal meals off other ducks.4

American Wigeons (female, male)
Eurasian Wigeon

An occasional American Wigeon can sometimes be found across the pond in Europe among Eurasian Wigeons. Likewise, the Eurasian Wigeon is occasionally found in western North America commonly within groups of their American counterparts like the one I saw at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. While they look quite similar, the main difference I spot is the lack of a green eye band in the Eurasian species.5

Buffleheads (male)

Buffleheads are diving seaducks appearing on the Sidney, BC coat of arms where All Buffleheads Day is celebrated each year in October when the ducks arrive for their winter stay. 6 I better enjoy them while they last, it will be spring soon. They have a beautifully striking white patch on the back of the head and shiny green-purple plumage. Each year, they often mate with the same partner and nest in abandoned Northern Flicker holes.7, 8, 9

Bufflehead (female)

Coming up in part 2 will be some mergansers and the titular goose…