A simple stop in a suburban park leads to bird surprises

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A poppa mallard watching over his ducklings at the park? However, science says male mallards don’t tend to stick around taking care of young.

Last week, I made a brief stop at a small suburban park on my way home from an errand. It might be easy to look at this small creek and green space as a little park without much to see. I think it takes a bit of luck, time and perspective to see deeper.

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Mallard ducklings learning how to ‘duck’! Or rather, to dabble.

Where this park commonly has mallards, crows and gulls, all relatively common suburban residents, there also was a pair of Cooper’s Hawks up in the trees. I heard them calling from far away, they were the loudest I’d ever heard Cooper’s Hawks before.

I stopped and watched them for a little while, they perched on a branch side-by-side, preening their feathers. One took flight every now and again, calling out, gliding between the trees and branches like the branches weren’t even there. Now I can truly see how they succeed as woodland hawks.

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Cooper’s Hawk pair

Another great example of the Cooper’s Hawk really maximizing their forest-hunting skills was a couple of weeks ago when I watched one dive-bomb from a branch into a very dense thicket of bushes and trees. I never saw the hawk come back out again, but I heard lots of rustling within and was quite impressed with their ability to catch prey amid such dense bush. The things you find at small parks can be amazing and surprising!

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Cooper’s Hawk pair

I suspect my suburban park pair may have been a mating pair, and they’ve chosen a great spot. Before I’d spotted the hawks, I found the mallards and early ducklings! Sadly, I think some of the ducklings may end up being someone else’s meal in the near future. They are very exposed out on the water, but I suppose that’s why they have so many babies. Most of them are not likely to survive to adulthood.

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Not only are the birds beautiful, but so are the trees, blossoms and plants in small suburban parks!

Birding in Victoria, BC at Swan Lake

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If you want to bird in Victoria, Swan Lake is a great local birding hotspot and probably one of the most well-known in the region. Its a nature sanctuary centered around a small lake in the suburbs nestled right along a major highway. A trail wraps around the perimeter of the lake and marsh and passes through wooded areas as well as providing access to a native plant garden and nature house. Besides the trails, there is a lovely boardwalk that crosses the lake and lots of benches in great spots for watching birds. The boardwalk is in need of repair as of writing this post, and donations of any amount are needed. To donate or learn more, please visit the Swan Lake Give a Sheet Campaign.

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A bench along the trail at Swan Lake

It is quite amazing the wildlife that lives here, right in an urbanized area, and is probably underappreciated by many visitors. Not only have there been 220 recorded species of birds according to eBird, but there are also mink, otter and muskrats living along the lake, too.

Whether it is spring or fall migration, winter or summer, there are always interesting birds to see at Swan Lake. On Sunday mornings, guided bird walks are put on by the nature house for free each time. Its a great way to learn about species new and old or to spot a rarity with an experienced birder.

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Wood Duck at Swan Lake
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Double-crested Cormorant
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Pied-billed Grebe

The lake itself is a great spot for all kinds of birds attracted to water; from Marsh Wrens to Red-winged Blackbirds to Great Blue Herons, and especially for ducks in the winter. Its also a great spot to remember to look up; I’ve seen many raptors flying high in the skies over the lake and the rest of the sanctuary.

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Cooper’s Hawk
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Cooper’s Hawk

 

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Bald Eagle pair shortly after mating

Each spring, the lake is a reliable spot to see baby ducks and earlier this summer, I got to see a Bald Eagle pair mating. Anna’s Hummingbirds are sure to catch your attention with their speedy buzzing all year long while Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees will chatter loudly in the fir and oak trees. My favourite moment of spring at Swan Lake is when the swallows arrive with their aerobatics and high-pitched calls that strangely remind me of dolphins. Even in the way they are social and group together, they are like dolphins of the sky.

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Violet-green Swallow takes a rare rest

There are certain pockets of bushes and trees where warblers abound in the spring and summer, and other densely wooded areas where you may reliably see owls and hawks. Northern Flickers are common and there is a bench along the trail where I regularly see (or hear) at least one, if not more. One lucky day, I saw a pair of them foraging on the ground and noticed something different about one of them. I see these birds all the time, but I realised one of them was an intergrade Northern Flicker; the first I’d ever seen!

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Northern Flicker, intergrade (with red malar of the red-shafted and the red nape crescent of the yellow-shafted)
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Yellow-rumped Warbler

Besides neat and exciting surprises like intergrade Northern Flickers and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler, there are small moments I enjoy here, too. Among the tall grasses, I enjoy watching Bushtits hopping from grass stem to stem, leaving it trembling in their wake. Its here where I’d watch my Bewick’s Wren friend hopping busily about in the brush and dancing daintily up the branches of the garry oak trees crowded with Chesnut-backed Chickadees, who are always fun to watch.

These simple moments somehow mean more to me than seeing a new bird for the first time. I don’t know why, but maybe its the feeling of being connected with something other than yourself, other than another human being that makes it satisfying. Its even better when I know an area, and I see familiar birds, getting to know them and their habits. Sometimes I wonder if they ever start to recognize me, if they are ever as interested in me as I am in them. Probably not, but its fun to think about. Or do they ever think ‘oh its that girl back with her black box again.’ We’ll never know, and maybe its better that way.

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Bushtit in the grass
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Bewick’s Wren

Resources

Swan Lake eBird Page
Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary
Swan Lake Bird Checklist

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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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.

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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?

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.

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.

 

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.

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