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!

Getting along with ducks

Last weekend, there were more interesting ducks to be seen! For the first time ever on the island, I saw Ruddy Ducks! I’ve only seen these ducks once before (back in 2016 just outside Kamloops, BC) in the spring when they wore their bright breeding plumage. They are not quite as easy to recognise in their winter plumage, but they are still quite distinct from other ducks with their bi-colourd head, single face strip and upturned tail.

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Ruddy Duck

On the same lake not far away were Lesser Scaups, Mallards and Buffleheads. I was also excited to see a small group of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Northern Shovelers – two other species I don’t commonly see. While Ring-necked Ducks are distinguished from the very similar Lesser Scaup by the white ring around the base of their beak, their name actually refers to a rather difficult to see brown-coloured band around their neck.

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Lesser Scaup and Ruddy Duck
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Ring-necked Ducks

I’ve only seen Northern Shovelers a handful of times, too, but they are immediately recognisable by their very large beak. To me, they look a little bit like over-sized Mallards. Why is their beak so large, like, well, a shovel? They use their large bill with little tooth-like projections on it to strain food from water. Anything from plants and seeds to crustaceans and other small critters get filtered and eaten (Cornell).

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Northern Shoveler

In a different part of the sanctuary, where water pools up in the winter and spring but is dry in the summer, were more mallards, a few American Coots (though not actually ducks) and a couple more Northern Shovelers. I find it fascinating that so many birds of different species can all be found on one small lake or pond. I suppose its because they each fill and rely on a different feeding niche that they can share a relatively small space.

Northern Shovelers dabble and filter along the surface while American Coots dive primarily for plants, but also the occasional insects. American Coots often capitalise on Mallards and other ducks who disturb plant and animal matter in shallow water with their feet, making it easier for the coot to feed. Meanwhile, the non-picky Mallards are pretty happy eating just about anything that’s around.

Perhaps we humans should take a cue from the animal world and learn to get along despite our differences. To mutually share spaces and resources and, while birds probably don’t do this, to maybe even try to appreciate others’ differences instead of judging them. I mean, if we egotistically think Homo sapiens are the smartest species on earth, why have animals been co-existing peacefully for years, something we have seemingly never been able to achieve since our earliest days?

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Northern Shovelers feeding on the pond

Winter is for the ducks

If you ask me, the best thing about winter is ducks. I may have mentioned before how much I love ducks, and the last two weekends I’ve had some really great duck-watching! I’m not sure if its something to do with the weather or if there are normally so many about, but I felt like I’ve seen a nice variety in species.

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a party of ducks down at Esquimalt Lagoon

Last weekend, I went down to the Esquimalt Lagoon (always an excellent duck destination) on a cold, but sunny day. There are usually quite a few ducks there, but I thought I saw more than usual last week. Perhaps it was because so many of them were clustered close to the shore.

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American Wigeons
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Common Goldeneye

Whatever the reason, there were heaps of American Wigeons (a large flock tends to hang out at the lagoon), their greens heads just brilliant in the sunlight, as well as Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Pintails and even a couple of Common Goldeneyes. As I walked along the shore, watching the big group, I also spotted a stray Eurasian Wigeon, his red head conspicuous in a sea of green and brown.

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American Wigeon and Northern Pintail – what a size difference!

 

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Eurasian Wigeon

Watching ducks just makes me happy; the way they waddle awkwardly onshore while moving so gracefully on the water with their various quacks and colours just makes me happy.

Besides enjoying the ducks, I also saw a group of shorebirds right on the edge of the water who I didn’t recognise. After much debate and consulting Sibley, I decided they were Dunlins, which would be a new bird for me. I find shorebirds tricky and I sometimes I’m still not sure just who I am looking at.

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Dunlins

Meanwhile, high up in the sky about as far from the shore as you could get, I saw a familiar bird soaring high and veering and tilting every now and again. Much to my surprise, a Turkey Vulture hovered overhead, another was perched in a tree and I later saw two others flying overhead.

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A winter Turkey Vulture

I thought it would be too cold for them by now and they must all have gone south already, but I suppose there’s always bound to be a few stragglers. I wonder if its harder for them to find food in the winter because they rely so much on their sense of smell to locate carrion. Besides all the ducks, unexpectedly seeing one of my favourite raptors was pretty exciting! It just goes to show you never know who you might encounter when you go outside bird watching.

Birding in Victoria, BC at Rithet’s Bog

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Rithet’s Bog is a nice little park in a suburban area right beside a highway with an interesting past. It is one of the few remaining peat bogs on Vancouver Island and was saved, luckily, by the Guinness Family. Yep, if you’re thinking of beer, you’re thinking the right family. They bought a large chunk of land in the region for development, and in the early 1990s, the family donated the bog land to the town for a nature sanctuary (Green, 2006). The sanctuary is quite the success story as it had been drained for agriculture and it took a lot of work to restore the bog to its current state.

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Rithet’s Bog in late August; in the winter, this is filled with water

A 2.8km gravel trail winds around the perimeter of the bog, along the edge of the bog and through woody groves. I especially enjoy coming here in the winter to watch the ducks and it makes for a great, short, rainy-day walk. I’ve only just been in late summer for the first time! It is a completely different place between winter and summer.

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House Finch snacking on blackberries

During the winter, there is a full on pond with ducks, geese and herons all making use of this ephemeral water source. In the dry summer, the only water around is in the ditch between the trail and the road.

If you want to see Red-winged Blackbirds, spend about 5 minutes here and you’ll see many! Their loud calls are hard to miss. In the winter, the pond is bustling with Mallards, American Wigeons, American Coots, Great Blue Heron, and the occasional Trumpeter Swan.

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Red-winged Blackbird
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Mallard

Among the branches, there are House Sparrows, House Finches, American Robins, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhee, Northern Flickers and Steller’s Jays here year-round. During the summer, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will thrill you with their acrobatics as will the swallows. With nestboxes generously installed for them, Violet-green and Tree Swallows are busy catching insects during the summer months before they head back south.

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Cedar Waxwing with prey

While I was here the other day, Cedar Waxwings burst into the air, their colours on show, and hovered like large hummingbirds before diving back into the trees again. As I watched them, I listened to their many-whistled calls as they bounced between berry bushes and cottonwood trees. Only in my photographs later was I able to see all the insects filling the air around them (see photo below).

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Cedar Waxwing in flight – note insects in the air (my only successful attempt at an in-flight photo!)

Along with the waxwings performing acrobatics were Tree and Violet-green Swallows. They soared through the air, swooping and diving, leaving me amazed they don’t somehow collide. As I watched two of my favourite birds, they started flying more frantically, moving less at random and more together. Something was changing. Then I saw a hawk a glide through their group like a shark moving through a school of fish! Suddenly, the swallows disappeared, presumably taking refuge somewhere from their predator. I didn’t see the hawk again, either, as he disappeared behind some trees.

But I did see a Turkey Vulture perched at the top of a tree; something I have never captured on camera before, and I was fortunate enough to get to watch him take off, too.

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Turkey Vulture

No matter what time of year you choose to visit, there will likely be something interesting to see at Rithet’s Bog, a wetland oasis for birds right in the middle of suburban Victoria.


Resources

Rithet’s Bog eBird Page
Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society
Green, Valerie, 2006. An Eclectic History of Broadmead, Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter.

Gardens of Victoria: Beacon Hill Park & the Hatley Castle grounds

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about the gardens of Victoria featuring the Finnerty Gardens at UVic and the Government House Gardens. There are two more gardens I think are worth mentioning that are probably a bit more on the tourist path than those previously mentioned. They are cheaper than, and as lovely as, Buchart Gardens.

Hatley Castle Grounds

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Hatley Castle has had quite the history to call its own; from its origins as the residence of the Dunsmuir family in the early 1900’s to its time as a military school up to its modern incarnation as part of Royal Roads University. Its even been a filming location for Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in various X-Men Films.

The castle itself makes for a nice visit though admittance to the interior castle is by guided tour only, the castle grounds and gardens are open year round every day for a small admission fee. The gardens were originally landscaped during the Dunsmuir Family’s time at the estate and still make for a pleasant stroll today.

Some highlights of the grounds are the Japanese Garden, Italian Garden and Rose Garden as well as garry oak and Douglas-fir native gardens. There is more than one pond and all of the grounds look out onto the Esquimalt Lagoon, which is an incredible spot for birding in Victoria as it is a migratory bird sanctuary. Lots of birds can be seen here, from Buffleheads to Swans, and Bald Eagles, herons and songbirds.

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Looking over Esquimalt Lagoon from Hatley Castle grounds

Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park is nestled between downtown Victoria and the neighborhoods of James Bay and Fairfield. Its a sizeable park at 200 acres considering the size of Victoria itself. There’s a lot packed into this area – there are rose gardens, Douglas Fir trees and native plant gardens, a garry oak meadow, multiple duck ponds, and a farm petting zoo (featuring baby animals)! Not to mention the sea cliffs and beaches overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Canada and the USA. There is so much to see in a variety of landscapes here and its very easy to get to from downtown.

The ponds are my favourite spot here where you will reliably see ducks (and ducklings in the spring), American Wigeons in the winter and Great Blue Herons year-round. In the spring, the herons gather together and form a heronry. There are also a number introduced of Indian Peafowl roaming around the park.

The park is well worth an afternoon visit at the very least, possibly with a picnic lunch in hand on a nice sunny day. From the little beaches along the shore to the duck ponds, rose gardens and garry oak meadows, there is something beautiful to see in every corner of the park and best of all, its free!

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Looking west at the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Dallas Rd side of Beacon Hill Park.

For more information:
Hatley Castle
Hatley Park at Royal Roads
Beacon Hill Park

Two days in Vancouver: finding nature in the city

I’ve been to Vancouver a few times now and each time, the idea of going there does not really enthrall me. With a population of 2.5 million people living on 2,800 square kilometers of sprawling condos, houses and high-rises, its just not my kind of city. I’ve never really been a big city kind of person. My favourite place are not usually cities I’ve visited.

The tall buildings make me feel closed in and claustrophobic, the constant noise day and night of trains, cars, people and sirens, the different smells, not to mention the crowds; its enough to wear me out after a mere two days. The lack of trees, green spaces, blue sky…it all makes me wonder how those 2.5 million people manage every day.

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looking south across English Bay towards Kitsilano from Stanley Park

All those noises and small spaces overwhelm my senses and it becomes too much. I can just feel my anxiety levels going up along with my heart rate. On a recent trip there, I actually managed to enjoy day one, though a good portion of it was spent at Stanley Park – that’s probably why. If I lived there, I decided, I’d have to go to there every day. After visiting most of downtown on other visits, this time we stayed out of the core and it was actually quite nice.

We’d visited only a portion of Stanley Park before, not having had time to see it properly so this time, we walked the seawall around the entire park and I decided Stanley Park is my favourite place in Vancouver. The seawall actually extends past the park, from Kitsilano (with its famous beach) around False Creek, all the way to downtown, creating a 22-long cycling and walking path. Much as I am opposed to seawalls for environmental reasons, I admit it has some great recreational value.

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A Great Blue Heron at Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

The trail wraps around rocky and sandy beaches where cormorants, otter, eagles, ducks and geese are common sightings. Of course, no trip to Stanley Park is ever complete without seeing at least one of its famous raccoons.

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One of many raccoons of Stanley Park

For me, the highlight was Lost Lagoon, which is rather an apt name for what was once part of Burrard Inlet and probably was, in fact, a lagoon. Now, its actually a freshwater lake thanks to a causeway that highway 99 traverses to the north shore. Despite its past, Lost Lagoon still manages to be a great site for birds and wildlife.

The Wood Ducks were one of the most exciting sights! There were lots of these colorful little ducks swimming about the pond, with noticeably more males than females. These ducks are just undeniably gorgeous. And then, came the most exciting thing of all…

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Wood Duck chick – so tiny!

Wood Duck ducklings! I have never seen these tiny little ones before! Wood Duck babies leave the safety of their cavity nests carefully chosen by mom and dad at less than 3 days old! Sometimes, they have to jump from nests as high as 60 feet from cavities to meet their mom, who waits for them below (Cornell).

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Wood Duck mom and chicks

I considered their early life experience as I watched them flit across the pond, sometimes following mom in a line and sometimes dropping away to explore a world all new to them. Mom kept a watchful eye on them, and at one point, chased away a male who was getting a bit too close and was perhaps a bit keen.

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Wood Ducks ducklings with mom

It was a good spot for a nursery as there were also baby mallards and Canada goslings learning from their parents, too. I noticed the mallards stuck much closer to mum than the Wood Ducks; perhaps this is related to the brave early days of the Wood Duck. Does having to leave home at an early age make them more independent chicks than mallards?

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Mallard and ducklinsg
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Mallard and Ducklings

And those were the highlights of Vancouver, for me. Day two, I was exhausted! In the future, I will remind myself not to spend too much time in big cities if I can help it, find green spaces where I can and always take time for some rest for myself amid all the people and places. I will keep this in mind as I travel to Toronto, an even bigger city, this week.

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

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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!

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Orange-crowned Warbler
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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.

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.

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

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.

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).

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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.

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).

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.

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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!

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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.

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?

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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.

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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!

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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.

Duck, Duck, Goose, Part 1: delighting wigeons and beautiful buffleheads

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Mallard Duck, a common resident of urban parks

Before the beginning of my birding days, I was always a big fan of ducks. While I can never decide what type of birds are my favourite, ducks will always be one of the contenders. There’s just something about their quacks and other noises, their webbed feet, the way they land on the water and how it beads on their feathers. And they are really cute, which helps. Each spring, I keenly look forward to baby mallard duck season and they will always be an old favourite. And despite the fact that mallard ducks are considered an invasive pest in New Zealand, when I lived there, I still loved them. They are, after all, what most people think of when you say ducks…but there are a lot more ducks out there than you think.

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American Wigeon

The American Wigeon is a dabbling duck commonly found in western North American lakes, wetlands and ponds and increasingly further east. They commonly breed in the far northwest and winters in the Pacific Northwest to California, Texas and east to Florida.1  The male has a distinctive white crown and a green band across the eye.2, 3 Unlike many other dabbling ducks, the American Wigeon often grazes in fields as well as on water, where they often wait to steal meals off other ducks.4

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American Wigeons (female, male)
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Eurasian Wigeon

An occasional American Wigeon can sometimes be found across the pond in Europe among Eurasian Wigeons. Likewise, the Eurasian Wigeon is occasionally found in western North America commonly within groups of their American counterparts like the one I saw at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. While they look quite similar, the main difference I spot is the lack of a green eye band in the Eurasian species.5

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Buffleheads (male)

Buffleheads are diving seaducks appearing on the Sidney, BC coat of arms where All Buffleheads Day is celebrated each year in October when the ducks arrive for their winter stay. 6 I better enjoy them while they last, it will be spring soon. They have a beautifully striking white patch on the back of the head and shiny green-purple plumage. Each year, they often mate with the same partner and nest in abandoned Northern Flicker holes.7, 8, 9

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Bufflehead (female)

Coming up in part 2 will be some mergansers and the titular goose…