Camas flowers & cherishing our garry oak habitats

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Camas flowers at Uplands Park

This week, I went for a walk at the park in the late afternoon to watch birds and I was pleasantly surprised as I walked down a wooded path, looked to the side and saw a meadow awash with violet flowers! The camas flowers are in full bloom now and I have made some time this week to go out and enjoy them.

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Camas meadow at Uplands Park

Camas flowers grow in plenty during spring in the garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, along with the strikingly bright pink Henderson’s Shooting Stars. Seeing them carpet the meadow floor and the flanks of hills is utterly stunning. Standing in the middle of this field of flowers, I felt like I was nowhere on earth.

White Fawn Lilies sprout up in wet, shady areas below trees where Orange-crowned Warblers, Chipping Sparrows and Spotted Towhees sing. Before the Victoria area was colonised and developed, Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks and Vesper Sparrows once thrived in the native garry oak habitat. Now, they have all virtually disappeared and are a rarity if seen. Some species need these habitats to survive. More species, from plants to insects to birds, could follow. To prevent further loss, we should protect these ecosystems and cherish them.

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Camas flowers at Mt Tolmie

I had the joy of seeing my first Orange-crowned Warbler of spring today. They are one of my favourite birds and I’ve been hearing them in the trees all week, but I’ve not been able to locate one until today. I just love everything about them; their colour, their trill-y song, the way they blend in to the tree like a leaf.

Across the meadow, there was also a Chipping Sparrow singing in the top branches of a small tree. Garry oak ecosystems are one of the few places I most often see both of these birds. Garry oaks benefit the birds by providing food and habitat and they are also one of my favourite types of places to visit.

Go see what makes the garry oak habitat special. Get out and visit a local garry oak meadow today – you won’t regret it when you see the beauty of the flowers and the song of the birds! Support or contribute to a local initiative preserving these habitats, like the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, the Friends of Uplands Park, or the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society. Think about what you can do with your own land to help.

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There are a few garry oak ecosystems still remaining in Victoria. Here is a list of a few:

Larger garry oak parks:
Uplands Park, Oak Bay | Map
Mt Tolmie, Saanich | Map
Francis King Regional Park, Highlands | Map
Observatory Hill, Saanich | Map

Smaller gems worth visiting:
Knockan Hill Park, View Royal | Map
Little Mt Doug, Saanich | Map
Government House Gardens Woodlands, Victoria | Map
Fort Rodd Hill gardens, Colwood | Map
Bear Hill Regional Park, Saanich | Map
Vic Derman Park/Christmas Hill, Saanich | Map
Glencoe Cove – Kwatsech Park, Saanich | Map
Parts of Beacon Hill park, Victoria | Map
Moss Rock Park, Fairfield | Map

Notes on backyard birding with a surprise

The other morning, I found something exciting in my backyard just outside my window. I first noticed a bird flying around under the porch and around one of the posts. Then, I saw the nest – a Dark-eyed Junco nest!

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a Dark-eyed Junco nest under the porch

The day before, I’d sat watching the junco in the garden calling out chip notes as she moved from perch to perch. At the time, I didn’t notice the nest or it wasn’t there yet. After I noticed the nest, I watched the junco work on building it; flying over to a brush pile and collecting bits of grass in her beak.

I think she must be a female because, according to Cornell, the females build the nest and chooses the site. With a 12 to 13 day incubation period, I’ll have to keep my eyes out in a few days.

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Dark-eyed Junco

 

 

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Dark-eyed Junco building a nest

She never flew straight to the nest from the brush pile, but hopped onto nearby perches and branches as if scoping out the territory and ensuring it was safe to approach her nest. This pattern of work continued many times throughout the morning. I am so excited to have a nest in my yard – I am hoping it is successful, but we will have to wait and see! I can’t wait to watch and see what happens. I haven’t seen her since, but that’s because she is busy sitting on her nest. This story is to be continued…

One successful nester (or rather nest-ee?) is the Brown-headed Cowbird, who was also out in my yard that morning. This is the first one I’ve seen in my yard yet, which means some other bird has worked hard this spring to raise this juvenile cowbird, possibly in place of one of their own. In order to save energy for other pursuits, Brown-headed Cowbirds engage in nest parasitism – they lay eggs in other birds’ nests, sometimes displacing an original egg to do so.

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Not long after, I looked up to see a bird land on a wire, a Chipping Sparrow, and mere moments later, a male bird flew over and they mated. It was a quick affair, but I somehow got a couple of photos of them in the act. I’m not sure how creepy that is yet, but its neat to think there might be some Chipping Sparrow chicks somewhere in my yard soon, too!

Nothing really beats the joy of birding in your own backyard. Watching the residents year-round and the migrants arrive and leave again. Finding a nest is just a plus. Looking out the window and wondering who is that bird I see back there? After all, isn’t it how we all got started birding really?

Watching warblers, new sparrows & spring babies

My first spring as an official birder went by quickly, each day longer than the last and I’ve been striving to get out more. I am slowly learning new birds as I encounter them. I enjoy taking it at a slow, unhurried approach.

In April, I saw my first warbler while out on a walk. I was struck by the muted yellow, almost olive green, colouring and the decidedly happy song it was singing out. It took me quite some time to identify as the Orange-crowned Warbler. This little bird has quickly become something of a favourite of mine. Seeing as green and yellow are my favourite colours, I suppose its not surprising.

Since that day, I have now had the joy of seeing it countless times and even learned its happy little song. Despite their name, their orange crown is not commonly visible, and they are said to be the “drabbest” of warblers, though I find them beautiful (Seattle Audubon).

Populations tend to be more grey and varied in colour in the east of their range and more fully yellow in the Pacific populations (Cornell; Sibley, 2016). They are a summer bird on Vancouver Island and in much of western North America all the way up to Alaska, though they can be spotted year-round up the coast of California through Oregon (Sibley, 2016).

While not entirely new to me, the White-crowned Sparrow is one I am recently confident of identifying. I have seen them before foraging on the ground, but I’ve now seen them enough times to know how to recognise them in the future. White-crowned Sparrows live year-round on Vancouver Island, so are more familiar to me (Sibley, 2016). Sparrows are tricky, and I am learning new types slowly. I love the bold white and black crown of these sparrows.

Another sparrow new to my eyes is the Chipping Sparrow. With a distinct rufous-colored crown, grayish breast and black line through the eye, this is a fairly distinct sparrow. Chipping Sparrows are only on southern Vancouver Island during the summer while they can be seen year-round in parts of Mexico and the southern U.S. (Sibley, 2016).

While admittedly not entirely new to me, I first remember seeing a Killdeer and knowing what it was late last summer, this is still a new one to share with you. Because they nest on the ground, their young are vulnerable to predators, but the Killdeer have a clever defense mechanism. Named for the sound of their call, the parent will fake a wing injury and call out loudly to distract predators away from their nest. They will continue this acting effort until the predator takes the bait.

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Killdeer with distinctive black double-band around their chest and red eyes.

 

While they are part of the same family as plovers, killdeer are not restricted to living near the shore (Cornell). I was quite surprised to see a killdeer at the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in late April! I had no idea they could live so far from water and so high in altitude. I guess I never studied my range maps close enough!

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Killdeer blending in well with its surroundings at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper NP, AB. He blended in so well I only spotted him after hearing its call.

While not new to me, spring of course brings those who are new to the world! I am so pleased to have seen this doe and her pair of fawns in my backyard. The doe is a regular visitor and I can only hope both of her fawns make it successfully to adulthood with their mother’s care. Its tough being a deer in an urban environment with hazards around every corner.

One of my favourite parts of spring are watching ducklings and goslings. I look forward to seeing them each year and wind up spending some time trying to scope them out. How  can anyone not love these fuzzy little yellow-green goslings as they follow mum and dad around?

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Little Canada Goose goslings

They soon start to grow up fast into mini versions of their parents with pale plumage but still haven’t developed their chinstraps.

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Canada geese adult pair and juveniles being led across an open grassy field

Tiny yellow ducklings paddle along staying close to mum, peeping and exploring and learning how to be a duck. Soon enough, they’ll start venturing further away from their mother and start families of their own!

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Mallard mum and ducklings on a pond

These older four juveniles huddle close together for safety and warmth still under their mother’s careful watch. Soon, the babies will all be grown and I’ll have to wait until next spring to see more ducklings, goslings and fawns. Until then, I shall enjoy all the adult and new birds and other animals!

Mallard mum and four juveniles

References
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Orange-crowned Warbler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Orange-crowned Warbler, Seattle Audubon Society
Sibley, D.A., 2016. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.