Birding in Victoria, BC at Panama Flats

DSC07595 (2)Panama Flats is a land area in Saanich, owned by the municipality as of 2017, which was previously used for agriculture and is now a park and a great place to go birding. The flats lie along the Colquitz River, which flows from Beaver Lake in the north down to Portage Inlet. The Colquitz River Trail starts at Tillicum Mall and runs along the creek through Panama Flats and to the Glendale Trail, which you can take to the Viaduct Flats (another nice birding spot!). Biking is allowed on this trail and it makes for quite a fun little ride. Its a bit of a hidden gem.

Besides the main gravel trail through the flats, a number of smaller, less-maintained trails run around the perimeter of the flats. These trails are the real bird-watching gems. During the summer when I’ve been here, there is one pond regularly full of water accessible right off of the Colquitz River Trail, but in the winter and spring, the puddles and pools fill up, offering  an optimal spot for all kinds of birds.

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the flats in April – gets a bit muddy so come prepared!
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the regular pool in September

The pond and the marshy area around it is home to many Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups, American Wigeons, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese. At the seasonal ponds and pools, I saw my first Green-winged Teal in the spring. Also at these ponds, I’ve seen Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, as well as Killdeer on the nearby grassy flat.

Ring-necked Duck
Green-winged Teals
Killdeer

In the trees and bushes, there are Golden and White-crowned Sparrows while Savannah Sparrows forage on the ground. Bushtits chatter in flocks among the low bushes all year while Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings make noise during the summer. The tall grasses and low bushes and trees make for great spots to see warblers in the summer, from Common Yellowthroats to Orange-crowned Warblers. High in the sky, there might be a Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture or a bit lower down, a Cooper’s Hawk or Northern Harrier looking for their next meal. Not to mention, quite a few rarities have been sighted at this spot over the years, so you never know what you might find!

Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat

Resources

Panama Flats eBird Page
Saanich Panama Flats
Colquitz River Trail

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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Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.

The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.

Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.

In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.

 

A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.

 

Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!

Spring is a busy time for birds with hunting, singing and nest-building to do!

Besides more sunshine and flowers, spring has brought other exciting things, too! I’ve had some lovely times out birding given the chance. Its been nice fitting in some adventures out and about on sunny or rainy days.

I saw my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the season, an absolute joy to see! Something about them brings a smile to my face watching them: with their yellow feathers and their lovely, cheery song! I listened to a pair of warblers sing to (or with?) each other in the trees. I wonder if it was a mating call or something else. Regardless, they’ve got to be one of my favourite birds to watch and I felt so lucky to see them!

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler (the orange crown is just barely visible in this photo)

Just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that caught my eye in the trees – a bushtit’s nest! The Bushtit was flitting to and from the nest, from a small opening at the top. Bushtits build hanging nests from tree branches out of plant material and spiderwebs to make it stretch down. The breeding pair sleeps in the nest each night along with other male adults who help build the nest! Seems like this nest would be quite cozy. See photos below…to avoid disturbing the nest (as I never want to displace or reveal a breeding pair), I only took photos from afar behind the cover of a cypress tree nearby.

Its not just Bushtits working on raising young… I spied a Dark-eyed Junco between branches gathering nesting materials, her beak full of grass and moss. While Bushtits work together on nests, momma Juncos do it all on their own! Again, I watched carefully so as not to disturb her hard work.

Everyone else is busy, too. Song Sparrows have been particularly noisy lately belting out their variety of songs. While they tend to spend more of their time foraging in the brush on the ground, Spotted Towhees are out singing on their perches, too. Speaking of noisy birds, not many are noisier than the Bewick’s Wren.

I tend to bird a lot by ear, and I think I am finally able to identify this wren’s song reliably and they are much more common than I had thought! Walking a trail the other day, I heard a rustling on the ground and paused to watch and listen. After a few patient moments, out hopped a Bewick’s Wren with his lunch caught in his beak! At first I thought it was a seed but it turned out to be a fly. I watched him working hard, like a smaller, woodland version of gull dropping a crab on rocks, as he dropped the fly and repeatedly picked it up again. I imagine their down-curved beak helps them peck away at their prey.

Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Bewick’s Wren with a fly in his beak
Bewick’s Wren, fly on the ground
Bewick’s Wren with the fly once more

I had my first-ever sighting of Green-winged Teals at a flood plain! They are just gorgeous and make the most interesting sounds! They were off on the side of the water doing their own thing while Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers paddled about on the more open waters. Just after spotting the teals, I saw a Killdeer in the grass. Along the edges of the water and among the cattails were quite a few Red-winged Blackbirds.

Green-winged Teals (female left, male right)
Ring-necked Ducks (female left, male right)
Killdeer

One of my most-anticipated spring arrivals just returned last week! Osprey have made their way back north to breed for the northern summer and our local pair have returned to last year’s nest. I went to watch them one afternoon but only saw one of the pair at the nest. She (I believe as she has mottled brown across the chest) was working on re-building and repairing the nest from last year and flew in and out, returning with new branches each time, then carefully placing them just so in the nest. She called out every now and again, I am guessing to stay in communication with her mate and became especially loud when a bald eagle flew far overhead. As predators of young Osprey, I have no doubt she was aware of the eagle’s presence.

It was inspiring to see them back again, like long lost friends, and I hope they raise successful fledglings again this year! I will be watching their progress again over the season and you can be sure there will be updates here like last year! The pair was successful at raising three fledglings last year and I watched them all the way from nest-building through to being awkward chicks to becoming proud juvenile sea-hawks! It is my hope I will get to see it all over again this summer!

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

House Sparrows
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!

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.

Turkey Vulture

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.

Watching warblers, new sparrows & spring babies

My first spring as an official birder went by quickly, each day longer than the last and I’ve been striving to get out more. I am slowly learning new birds as I encounter them. I enjoy taking it at a slow, unhurried approach.

In April, I saw my first warbler while out on a walk. I was struck by the muted yellow, almost olive green, colouring and the decidedly happy song it was singing out. It took me quite some time to identify as the Orange-crowned Warbler. This little bird has quickly become something of a favourite of mine. Seeing as green and yellow are my favourite colours, I suppose its not surprising.

My very first Orange-crowned Warbler sighting and identification. They rarely display the orange crown of their namesake, but this one appears to have a slight hint of orange.

Since that day, I have now had the joy of seeing it countless times and even learned its happy little song. Despite their name, their orange crown is not commonly visible, and they are said to be the “drabbest” of warblers, though I find them beautiful (Seattle Audubon).

MAH05529

Populations tend to be more grey and varied in colour in the east of their range and more fully yellow in the Pacific populations (Cornell; Sibley, 2016). They are a summer bird on Vancouver Island and in much of western North America all the way up to Alaska, though they can be spotted year-round up the coast of California through Oregon (Sibley, 2016).

While not entirely new to me, the White-crowned Sparrow is one I am recently confident of identifying. I have seen them before foraging on the ground, but I’ve now seen them enough times to know how to recognise them in the future. White-crowned Sparrows live year-round on Vancouver Island, so are more familiar to me (Sibley, 2016). Sparrows are tricky, and I am learning new types slowly. I love the bold white and black crown of these sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow with an inchworm

Another sparrow new to my eyes is the Chipping Sparrow. With a distinct rufous-colored crown, grayish breast and black line through the eye, this is a fairly distinct sparrow. Chipping Sparrows are only on southern Vancouver Island during the summer while they can be seen year-round in parts of Mexico and the southern U.S. (Sibley, 2016).

Chipping Sparrow pair (juvenile left, adult breeding plumage right)
Chipping Sparrow (breeding plumage)

While admittedly not entirely new to me, I first remember seeing a Killdeer and knowing what it was late last summer, this is still a new one to share with you. Because they nest on the ground, their young are vulnerable to predators, but the Killdeer have a clever defense mechanism. Named for the sound of their call, the parent will fake a wing injury and call out loudly to distract predators away from their nest. They will continue this acting effort until the predator takes the bait.

Killdeer with distinctive black double-band around their chest and red eyes.

While they are part of the same family as plovers, killdeer are not restricted to living near the shore (Cornell). I was quite surprised to see a killdeer at the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in late April! I had no idea they could live so far from water and so high in altitude. I guess I never studied my range maps close enough!

Killdeer blending in well with its surroundings at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper NP, AB. He blended in so well I only spotted him after hearing its call.

While not new to me, spring of course brings those who are new to the world! I am so pleased to have seen this doe and her pair of fawns in my backyard. The doe is a regular visitor and I can only hope both of her fawns make it successfully to adulthood with their mother’s care. Its tough being a deer in an urban environment with hazards around every corner.

Black-tailed deer doe and fawn
Mealtime for mom and baby. Nursing must be hard work for mom, so she has to keep full, too!

One of my favourite parts of spring are watching ducklings and goslings. I look forward to seeing them each year and wind up spending some time trying to scope them out. How  can anyone not love these fuzzy little yellow-green goslings as they follow mum and dad around?

Little Canada Goose goslings

They soon start to grow up fast into mini versions of their parents with pale plumage but still haven’t developed their chinstraps.

Canada geese adult pair and juveniles being led across an open grassy field

Tiny yellow ducklings paddle along staying close to mum, peeping and exploring and learning how to be a duck. Soon enough, they’ll start venturing further away from their mother and start families of their own!

Mallard mum and ducklings on a pond

These older four juveniles huddle close together for safety and warmth still under their mother’s careful watch. Soon, the babies will all be grown and I’ll have to wait until next spring to see more ducklings, goslings and fawns. Until then, I shall enjoy all the adult and new birds and other animals!

Mallard mum and four juveniles

References
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Orange-crowned Warbler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Orange-crowned Warbler, Seattle Audubon Society
Sibley, D.A., 2016. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.