More birds of Finley Wildlife Refuge

At Finley National Wildlife Refuge, the geese are just the beginning of what there is to see and enjoy. Even with winter closures in effect until March 31, there are a wealth of marshes, ponds, fields and forests to explore. As I really like to get to know my local birding spots, I’ve been trying to go there regularly. Each visit, the territory becomes more familiar, but the thing about nature is there can always be surprises. Within just one week, the refuge went from being dusted in snow to fields being flooded so much I was worried one of the bridges wound go underwater.

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A forest stream at  William Finley National Wildlife Refuge

The ponds and marshes were teeming with ducks in the last few weeks. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons and a single pair of Hooded Mergansers all had plenty of space on the water to share. A flock of Northern Shovelers had an entire pond to themselves while an American Kestrel perched on a nearby tree, periodically taking flight and diving to hunt. A Bald Eagle and a Northern Harrier both flew over one very busy pond, spooking the ducks toward the opposite end while hundreds of noisy Canada Geese honked overhead.

Along the edges of one pond, a Black Phoebe fluttered between his perch on a log and the space above the pond to hunt insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the mud on the edges of a marsh, their golden spots striking on a cloudy day. In a large, grassy field, a Northern Harrier feasted on prey on the ground not far from a flock of American Robins hunting their own prey.

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Ring-necked Ducks
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The Northern Shovelers were not cooperating for my photos or perhaps I was not patient enough!
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At one of the pond pull-outs, I watched Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding just on the edge of the pond from my bird blind/the car.
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Hooded Merganser pair
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American Kestrel
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Northern Harrier

There’s life everywhere at the refuge if you pay attention. In a stand of white oak trees, which I have learned are the same as our old Canadian garry oak trees (Quercus garryana – the scientific name helps where common names confuse!), Acorn Woodpeckers call out their funny noises to match their supposed clown-like appearance. They’ve been in these trees each time I visit, so they must call it home.

In nearby trees, Northern Flickers joined the drumming, too, not to be drowned out by the harsh cries of California Scrub-Jays. Where a patch of brambly bushes met an open space, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos sang in a neat chorus around me. Little flashes of white tails flew before me as the juncos were spooked and left the open ground for cover.

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Snowy hills in the distance
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Acorn Woodpecker
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Acorn Woodpecker
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California Scrub-Jay
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Dark-eyed Junco
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Golden-crowned Sparrow (and a Dark-eyed Junco)

On my last visit, there weren’t many ducks about the place, but I’m excited to watch the changes of spring come to life. I’ll certainly miss my overwintering ducks, but I know I’ll see them again later this year. I can already see signs of spring on the way…

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Winter birds in the yard and the beach

Christmas morning, Victoria woke up to a white Christmas. It had snowed the evening before as the sun fell, muffling the world in a crisp silence, the only sound the crunching beneath my feet when I went outside for a walk. When I first got up and looked out the window, a Barred Owl had landed in the trees in the backyard. I’ve seen this owl around a couple of times (presuming he is the same one) before and heard it call at night, but never managed to have my camera nearby at the right moment! I watched him in this different, snow-covered landscape until he flew away. What a wonderful way to start the day!

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Barred Owl in the backyard Christmas morning

Later that day, after playing in the snow (a rare sight here), I went for a walk down to one of my favourite spots to bird and enjoy nature. There were quite a few ducks about: Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Common Mergansers. A lone Common Goldeneye swam unexpectedly close to shore not far from a pair of Western Grebes.

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Bird prints in the snow
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Hooded Mergansers
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Western Grebes

Today, I went back again in a different atmosphere. The snow had melted and the sun was out, but the wind was up from the northeast. Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers crossed the water close together. I wondered if these diving and dabbling ducks had decided to group together for safety like a wintering flock of songbirds.

A Brandt’s Cormorant also passed nearby them, and I watched as he dove into the cold water and came back up more than once with a tasty morsel in his beak. A second cormorant had been nearby at first, but had taken flight straight from the water’s surface. Its pretty incredible if you stop and think about it, but then again, they are made for this.

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Buffleheads

I cut through the woods on my way back to the sound of woodpeckers knocking on trees and chickadees tsee-ing and deedee-ing. I stopped in a muddy clearing to watch a flock of American Robins traipsing from tree to tree and eating berries and House Finches doing the same in the lower branches. House Finches are common backyard birds, but somehow, I have never seen one in my yard. I guess I mustn’t have the right habitat. So, I stop to enjoy them and watch as their bright pink feathers shine in the sunlight. These two types of birds bring a smile to my face; both have such cheerful songs and colouring.

The bird feeder has gone back out again for winter and just in time for the snow, too. The birds and myself have been enjoying the feeder. After foraging the fallen seeds on the ground last year (my first year with a feeder), the Dark-eyed Juncos have now found their way onto the tray itself for better pickings! It’s certainly been a hopping place to be; with Chestnut-backed Chickadees perched in the nearby trees waiting in line and Red-breasted Nuthatches brazenly bossing the others around. I worry about disease and fighting, but I’m sure as long as I follow the bird feeder rules, all will be okay!

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 Dark-eyed Juncos have found their way to the feeder tray this year.

Spring is late but welcome this year!

Since my last birding post, spring has sprung in Victoria at last! The last few years, the cherry blossoms have been out in February and warmer, sunny days became the norm in March. This year, spring seems to have arrived later. Just two weeks ago, we had another brief snowfall.

Not only are we humans enjoying the change, trading our winter coats for rain jackets, but the wildlife is, too. Our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds like true early birds have already mated and likely had at least one clutch of eggs so far. They started whirring and buzzing around after one another looking for to mate as early as January.

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

At the other end of the size spectrum, Bald Eagles have begun returning to their nests to raise their young. Bald Eagles mate for life and typically return to their previous nest sites if they were successful. I hope to see my neighborhood pair again this year, though I haven’t yet.

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Bald Eagle pair

 

Between the smallest and largest birds are all those in between. In spring, things can get confusing in bird land with all the overlap, but each species has its own internal calendar. Its amazing how they find their way, year after year. Spring is a special time with wintering birds remaining while spring migrants arrive and they are all found amidst those familiar residents.

Some of our winter ducks are still here, like Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeons and lovely little Buffleheads.

While the ducks enjoy a good thaw, the warmer weather welcomes new arrivals to town, too. One of the most exciting spring arrivals for me are the swallows! This weekend I saw my first swallows of the season (a surprise for me), including Tree Swallows and Violet-Green Swallows. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching swallows swoop and dive, hunting insects in the air. I look forward to watching them for the next few months.

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This Violet-green Swallow takes a rare landing on a perch long enough to snap this shot. They can be differentiated from the Tree Swallow by the bit of white that extends up behind their eye.
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Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), a first for me

 

Another exciting group of spring arrivals are the warblers. Warblers were all new to me last year, though I got to know a few of them, but I know there are many out there I have not met, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler; my first new warbler of the year!

 

As it turns out, there are two subspecies in North America – the Myrtle which tends to be more common in the east and the Audubon’s which is more common in the west. Although it seems they may be re-assessed as two different species after all. Either way, I am content to have seen one and learned a new bird I will be able to identify next time I see one!

Happy spring birding! I’m hoping the longer days give me more of a chance to get out there. Have you met any new birds recently?

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.