We had a nice break in the rain at the end of October with lots of sunny days and even some pretty warm ones! The sunshine really brings out the best in fall colours and its nice to enjoy a bit of it while it lasts. Its been a particularly cold fall here in Victoria and the sun was a welcome change.
While we don’t get nearly as much coloured fall foliage here as there is out east, there are still some lovely spots where you can find nice, bright pops of colour. There is just something so beautiful about these trees! I hope you all find some time to enjoy and appreciate them this autumn.
One of my favourite spots to go in the fall has these big, tall trees with leaves that turn a beautiful, warm golden-yellow. Watching them waver in the wind against a bright blue sky is a simple joy this time of year. Yellow is one of my favourite colours; I guess its why I like these trees so much.
Fall is such a fleeting thing, I spent some time out trying to capture it in photos. I had fun experimenting with my camera and practicing various angles and exposures. Of course, I also watched the birds along the way. How could I not?
I happened to see a large raft of American Coots at a lake, bobbing their heads and keeping close. Another bird that likes hanging out in groups is the Bushtit. I watched them cheep and flit about from tree to tree, sometimes hanging upside-down like a chickadee. These cute little birds always put a smile on my face. They might not be flashy, big or colourful, but they sure are fun to watch and listen to.
Speaking of cheery birds, one of my favourites has arrived back in town! I am now seeing lots of American Wigeons about – at lakes, fields and the coast. I really love ducks, any kind of duck, so I am always excited to see them. I love the American Wigeon’s squeaky little sound, the fact that they hang out together and the male’s beautiful green face patch and white-ish crown. Other ducks may not agree with me, though, as they often steal food from diving ducks on deeper water as they are only able to dabble for food at, or near, the surface.
Remember to cherish the beauty around you! Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of even a single tree of red leaves or the grass carpeted beneath a layer of orange. It doesn’t have to be a full forest of colour. Maybe its the trees lining your road or the sun glistening on the snow. A squirrel climbing a tree or a crisp morning fog. You might feel just a little bit happier, a little bit lighter and a whole lot more grateful.
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.
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.
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.
Uplands Park path during a rare snowfall in Victori
the same Uplands Park path in August
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I walk the path of beginner birding, I am frequently viewing, identifying and learning new birds! I thought I would share with you some of my more recent sightings of some special visitor wintering over around BC and the Pacific Northwest. I find marine birds are sometimes a bit easier as a beginner, while sometimes they can be tricky to identify, at least they tend to stay still a bit more than songbirds.
The Harlequin Duck…what a beauty! Though I am particularly partial to all kinds of ducks. But this one caught my attention with its distinct white, black and brown plumage. Sadly, this beautiful diving sea duck is on Canada’s Species at Risk List for the Atlantic population and as such are protected by the Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act1.
Their Northwestern counterpart seems to be faring better. In the Pacific Northwest, they typically spend the winter in turbid coastal waters and migrate inland toward mountain rivers in the warmer months.2, 3, 4 I had to patiently wait to snap this one in-between dives.
These visiting diving sea ducks from the sub-Arctic regions spend winter along temperate coasts down to Mexico. Warmer months are spent breeding as far north as Alaska and across the continent east to parts of Newfoundland. With beautiful multi-coloured beaks, Surf Scoters seem to have been given an unfair nickname of “skunk-headed coots” due to the white spots the males bear in resemblance of a skunk.5, 6
Blending in on dark rocky coasts, the Black Turnstone is another winter visitor from the north. They breed in coastal Alaska and migrate south along rocky coasts as far as Baja California. They look especially striking when in flight with their contrasting black and white colouring. They were named “Turnstone” for their feeding behaviour – funnily enough, they turn over rocks and pebbles and other objects to look for food (crustaceans, barnacles and limpets) underneath.7 Not surprisingly given their similar body shape and habitat, they are in the same family as sandpipers.8
While not technically a winter visitor, but a year-round resident, I was excited to come across the Black Oystercatcher recently! I used to see Variable Oystercatchers all the time in New Zealand, and had been wondering where their North American relatives had been hiding. This was my very first Black Oystercatcher sighting! They live along the Pacific coast from Alaksa down to California year-round.9 They are especially vulnerable to pollution and habitat disturbance due to their specific inter-tidal niche where they like to feed.10