Birding in Victoria, BC at Cowichan Bay & estuary

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Cowichan Bay, BC

One hour north of Victoria is Cowichan Bay; one of my favourite winter birding spots. Nearby, the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers empty out into the bay, spilling sediment and life into an estuary as the tide ebbs and flows. A Bald Eagle might fly overhead while the waters lap gently at the shore. Trumpeter and Mute Swans stand out in contrast with the blue water they float gracefully across. They arch their heads into the water, their long necks pronounced as they skim for food.

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Mute Swan

The water in the bay is calm and as blue as the sky reflecting in its surface. During the winter, the air is crisp on a cold day and frost sometimes etches the sidewalk and ground in the shade of the nearby hills. Looking out over the water, smaller bodies dot the landscape. Ducks.

For me, they are the main attraction. Small Buffleheads float in groups, diving one after the other underwater for food. Just when you’ve spotted one by the bright white head of the male or the small white spot on the females, they’ve disappeared below the surface which scarcely a splash.

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female Buffleheads

Plenty of other ducks congregate here as well. Mallards, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons and Hooded and Common Mergansers are all common visitors to these calm, cool winter waters. For those who have come south, it is a world away from the icy lakes and rivers of the north.

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Common Merganser

The bay isn’t just for the ducks, though. Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen flying by low over the water or with wings spread out to dry in the sun. Great Blue Heron hunt for fish in the shallows while Surf Scoters gather together in great rafts further offshore.

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Great Blue Heron
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Surf Scoter

As the weather warms up in the spring and summer, the bay changes, too. Days are longer and somehow it seems less quiet. Migratory birds arrive to bulk up, maybe find a mate and nest. Returning from the southern hemisphere and Central America, Osprey nest on old piers and Purple Martins make good use of nest-boxes placed throughout the area. Other swallows join the fun and the ducks grow quiet, having moved elsewhere for summer, some returning as far as the Arctic, where their breeding grounds have thawed.

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Osprey nest at Cowichan Bay

During autumn, Steller and California Sea Lions visit to feed on the abundant salmon as the fish make their way to the river to spawn upstream. If you visit the bay between October and December, they’re hard to miss as they are quite loud! Its fun to watch them both as they sun themselves on the dock in piles of bodies and as they swim the water with ease.

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Sea lions visit in the autumn

Not far from the bay is the Cowichan and Koksilah river estuary where a walking track follows a river channel out into the estuary toward a viewing tower. The estuary is a place full of life and it never disappoints. It was here I saw my first Northern Shrike and just recently, my first Western Meadowlark.

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Western Meadowlark (female/non-breeding)

I had always hoped to see one someday, but was not expecting it at the estuary. It just goes to show how wildlife can surprise you. You never know what you might see when you step out your door, and that is one of the best things about nature. Its never the same experience twice.

On one side of the track are active agricultural fields and on my most recent visit, another surprise was waiting to be found. A flock of Snow Geese flew overhead and landed in the field to forage, their white feathers bright in the sunshine. I’d only just seen Snow Geese for the first time in Delta, BC near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary where they overwinter. There were white bodies with black-edged wings almost as far as the eye could see; a spectacular sight!

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There will always be something interesting to see in nature, at the bay or estuary, or your own backyard or neighborhood park. Estuaries, wetlands, green spaces, open fields and forests are all critical resources for birds, mammals, insects and everything in between. Each creature has its place and purpose in maintaining balance. Small disruptions can cause a ripple-effect from one species to another; let us all do our part to protect these spaces and species while we can.


References

The Cowichan estuary is an Important Bird Area, and the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association is working to restore the estuary from its industrial past to its natural state.

Cowichan Bay nature center eBird
Cowichan Estuary Nature Center
Cowichan Bay estuary eBird

Related Post: Northern birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

Duck, Duck, Goose, Part 2: mergansers and the Canada goose

Continuing from my previous post on ducks, I’m moving on now to mergansers and yes, the goose.

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Common Merganser (male)
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Common Merganser (female)

Common Mergansers were tricky ones the first time I identified them especially in differentiating them from the Red-breasted Merganser. They swim through the water with amazing agility and such elegance! Larger than the other ducks I’ve talked about, the males have brilliant green heads and a bright orange, slender beak. Living year-round in the Pacific Northwest, they are said to live in mostly freshwater lakes and rivers while rarely being found in ocean or saltwater estuaries.1, 2 I have seen them on the coast here in sheltered waters on numerous occasions.

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Hooded Merganser

Hooded Mergansers are elegant little ducks that are one of my personal favourites. The males have a beautiful white crest which they can collapse with contrasting black colouring. Lucky for me, they live in the Pacific Northwest year-round and inhabit lakes, ponds, estuaries and rivers and nest in empty tree cavities.3, 4 The Seattle Audubon Society lists them as species of concern primarily due to loss of optimal nesting sites and the mature age at which they breed, resulting in smaller populations than many other ducks.5

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Lesser Scaup

A diving duck, the Lesser Scaup is found in freshwater environments more commonly than the Greater Scaup and are abundant across inland waters. They winter in coastal California, the Pacific Northwest through to Florida while mating in the interior BC to Manitoba and Alaska. They look very similar to the Greater Scaup, mainly varying in size so I took an educated guess mine was of the lesser type.6, 7

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Canada Goose

And the Canada Goose, sadly considered a pest in many places, thrives in suburban and urban areas where they often live in year-round despite their migratory roots. They were introduced to these areas by people for hunting as well as being introduced overseas to Europe and New Zealand (Environment and Climate Change Canada). The birds have been culled in Brooklyn and Oregon, New Zealand, Seattle and recently in Victoria, BC. Despite all the issues, I still love them and hope a more humane solution can be found.  For more reading about the Canada Goose, I found this blog post by a Vancouver Island University student to be very well-written and informative.