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.

Birds at the rocky coast: a variety of species from Auklets to Vultures

Going down to my the rocky coast and nearby beach is one of my favourite places to go for a walk and watch birds. Last  week while near the shore, I heard a high-pitched “kill-deer kill-deer” repeating over and over. Carefully gazing among the rocks, I spotted the Killdeer at last. I find they blend in so effectively and move quickly, sometimes making them hard to spot if you aren’t paying attention.

killdeer
Killdeer very dutifully watching over its baby

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was a Killdeer chick running around and eating and being watcher over by its parent. What a tiny chick, he looks too small for his long legs, but soon enough he’ll grow into them. Killdeer typically lay 4-6 eggs per brood (Cornell), so I wonder if the others hatched successfully as I only saw the one. They live on Vancouver Island year-round (Sibley, 2016), but I’d never know it as I see them far more often in the spring and summer.

killdeerchick
Killdeer chick exploring the algae-laden rocks exposed by low tide

 

Further along, there were a number of non-native European Starlings, from juvenile to fully-fledged adults with their iridescent plumage.

europeanstarling
European Starling

I went through pages and pages of my Sibley guide and lots of googling photos before I finally identified the Juvenile European Starling. I would never have guessed these were the same birds, from drab gray to a beautiful glossy black that shimmers green, blue and purple in the sunlight. I’d love to see a molting juvenile halfway between each later in the season.

europeanstarling2
Juvenile European Starling

As I moved a little further from the coast, perched in a nearby tree was a Brown-headed Cowbird. They just have lovely blue-green sheen to their feathers and a distinct brown head, thus their name.

brownheadedcowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird

 

House Sparrows chattered and scurried about on the ground and perched in trees. Just like European Starlings, House Sparrows were introduced to North America and found great success in this opportunity, becoming especially common birds in urban areas. They often have a bad reputation because they take over nesting areas other native birds would use, such as Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (Cornell). Even so, I enjoy watching them flit about.

housesparrow
House Sparrows

 

housesparrow2
House Sparrow at a nest box potentially taking over a potential nest site for native species like Tree Swallows.

Moving back toward the water again, I spotted an interesting diving bird floating on the surface who periodically dove underwater for minutes at a time. I spent a while sitting and watching this aptly-named Rhinoceros Auklet with his funny little horn. This was my first ever auklet, who just happened to be the largest of western auklets, living along the west coast of North America year-round (Sibley, 2016). Despite this, I was immensely surprised and excited to see one!

rhinocerosauklet
Rhinoceros Auklet

Then I began to worry about the little Killdeer chick when I saw a large bird overhead, but breathed a slight sigh of relief to see a Turkey Vulture hovering above. As they primarily scavenge for food, I’m hoping a tiny Killdeer wouldn’t attract this raptor’s attention. Turkey vultures have to be one of my favourite birds to watch; they are simply amazing.

turkeyvulture
Enter a caption

First, they are HUGE with wingspans up to 6 feet (Sibley, 2016)! Second, I will never stop being fascinated by the way they hover and tilt, rocking unsteadily back and forth on their powerful wings as if floating on thermal updrafts high up in the sky. Finally, they are a crucial part of the ecosystem by cleaning up when they eat rotting carrion. Their biology is fascinating in that they can digest these carcasses without getting sick (Cornell). How clever is nature to have created such a well-working system?


References
House Sparrow, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A., 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.
Turkey Vulture, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Spring brings new things: birds & blossoms

cherryblossoms

Spring is here! Rejoice in the colours, the life, the smell of the fresh, crisp air and the sun on your skin. I am very excited! Its my first spring as a real birder. I am looking forward to babies, breeding plumage and new species I might have seen, but never really identified before.

annashummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird

One of my very favourite birds to watch and see is the Anna’s Hummingbird. They are the only hummingbirds to winter-over on Vancouver Island (although they didn’t always do so). I recently learned they have already bred for the season! They are true early birds, having bred at the end of January. I hope to see our other island hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird, arrive soon. Apparently they are already on their way north, embarking on the longest migration of any hummingbird species. How incredible of these tiny birds to migrate so far. Nature never ceases to amaze me.

brewersblackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird

I already identified some new birds just the other day! I went for a walk at a lagoon and what at first I thought was a group of all European Starlings at varying stages of life actually was not. When I caught them in the right lighting, it turned out they were European Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds all hanging out around the same bushes.

The European Starling is an invasive species and their presence in BC contributes heavily to the decline in Purple Martins because of competition for cavity nesting spaces. To make matters worse, the invasive starlings also have more than one set of babies each breeding season. I was lucky to see Purple Martins last summer on Sidney Island (part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve) and I adored watching them, but I can’t help but admire the Starlings and their colourful plumage, too. I guess I can’t help feeling something for all living things.

redwingedblackbird
Red-winged Blackbird

As I walked along the lagoon, I could hear the calls of the Red-winged Blackbird on the other side of the shore. This was a new bird for me a few weeks ago when I went for a walk around a bog. They were in and among the cattails and I stopped to watch and listen. The trill of their song stuck in my memory; something about it was distinct and even though I couldn’t see them in the wetlands across the lagoon, I knew they were there just by the sound of their call. Listen here from Audubon.

I’m hoping to start learning more birds by their song. I know the distinct song of the Anna’s Hummingbird very well now from hearing it so many times. I notice it often and immediately start looking around for my favourite little green bird.

annashummingbird3
Anna’s Hummingbird