Life in Oregon can be pretty grey and dreary during the winter. I don’t mind rainy days until it starts to feel like I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. The rain gives us our beautiful temperate rainforests: it feeds the thousand-year old trees that have lived for thousands of years and dusts the canopy with lichens and moss. Winter can often seem dull but little bright patches of colour can be found in almost every colour of the rainbow!
All colors can be seen in the forest and trees, birds and berries, if one takes a moment to look. Acorn Woodpeckers, as the purported clowns of the woodpecker world, are always very fun and uplifting to watch their antics with one another up in the oak trees!
A Ruby-crownd Kinglet overcame his shyness and danced among the raspberry brambles. I watched him for a while as he hovered like a hummingbird and flitted among thorny branches perhaps in search of a tasty meal. A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos skittered along the grassy edges of a path. When I hear their sweet, forlorn song “Oh dear me”, I look out for their bright sunlit crowns and bold black stripe.
Ducks are a splendid part of of winter, the sight and sound of them sure to cheer me up even on cloudy days. They are North America’s smallest dabbling duck and they have particularly beautiful plumage. The males (left, below) have gorgeous green and cinnamon colouring on their heads. Both male and female (right, below) have green patches under their wings but it really stands out remarkably bright on the females.
The sky is sometimes blue even in our rainy winter but the Steller’s Jay shines bright and proud of his cerulean plumage! This one was so unusually still and subdued, I nearly did not see him. He seemed too pre-occupied with preening his feathers and fluffing his mohawk to pay any mind to squawk at me.
In drafting this post of some photos from this past winter, purple eluded me. The closest thing I had a photo of was the iridescent violet-black heads of the European Starling. No matter what you think of these Shakespearean-inspired non-native songbirds, to me, they are quite beautiful. They cannot be all bad if Mozart kept a pet starling who may arguable have inspired snippets of his compositions.
I spent some time thinking back on the year 2020 we would all love to forget. When it started, I felt like the future was bright. I continued with my second semester of classes, the winter weather was gorgeous and had plans to travel later in the year. Little did I know, right?
In January and February, life was normal. I went to the Japanese Gardens in Portland (they are gorgeous and well-worth visiting when it is safe to do so again), my favourite spots on the coast and some usual haunts like the local wildlife refuge. In March, that all changed when Oregon began to enforce social distancing measures.
I tried to focus on the good – I was fortunate to be able to work safely from home and I searched for joy in the little things like the snowdrops popping up in my garden. Restrictions led me to explore new places closer to home and find there were still things to discover. I saw this little Pacific Wren in a small forest park in the middle of town. It was not really so bad even though there was so much suffering in the world.
Spring and summer came and brought some new adventures. I signed up to monitor bluebird nest-boxes for the local Audubon group. It was definitely morale-boosting to contribute one small positive thing to a bigger conservation effort even when I had to face the reality of life and death. My reward came when I got to see the juvenile bluebirds who fledged from one of my boxes flying around a farm and hunting for themselves while their parents worked on a second brood. I saw those birds when they were just little blue eggs, tiny hatchlings with not a feather on their heads and I watched them grow up into beautiful young birds who I hope will survive to breed more young of their own.
With late summer came the wildfires. Within days of going to hike and camp at a lake in the Cascades (the first trip of the year and only safe socially distanced thing I could think of), the fires that were burning in the mountains were raging. While I was out there, the smoke was settled in the distance, just a faraway thing until the winds changed. They surged westward down the valleys, bringing what seemed like unstoppable destruction…Marion Lake seems to have escaped but so much of the land and lives will never be the same again, at least not within our lifetime.
There were times I felt myself lost in a fog, crushed by the weight of all the things I cannot change…
…but nature and life marches on even when battered and broken.
Looking forward, I guess we all have to find some peace, whatever that means to us. One thing I know is that spending time in nature helps calm anxiety, promotes positive thinking and reminds us to appreciate the beauty in the little things. I hope you can find a small slice of nature (or whatever else enriches your spirit) this year and I hope and wish everyone (and the world) has a safe(r) and bright(er) 2021. Focus on the good but don’t drown your worries or negative feelings – it is important to acknowledge and feel them, too. Like in nature, all things must be balanced, and it is true for you and for me.
Well its hard to believe we are halfway through 2020 already. I find myself wondering where the time has gone…its been a bit of a whirlwind year. From January to March, I was busy with work and classes. Then the end of March hit and Oregon went into social distancing and everything slowed down for a little while.
While social distancing and closed parks have limited some of my bird-watching opportunities, you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got! I’ve managed to see quite a few more spring and summer birds than I anticipated back in March.
On a short walk around a small-ish forest park, I was lucky enough to photograph this lovely little Pacific Wren singing his little heart out! I am always amazed at how loud and how long the Pacific Wren can sing for as it echoes throughout forests with lots of old wood and fallen tree debris.
The Brown Creeper is ever an elusive bird to me. I find they difficult to spot and I still remember how excited I was when I saw my first. This one soon disappeared from the moss, blending in with the tree bark as he crept up the tree.
One of my favorite spring arrivals is the Orange-crowned Warbler! I think I spotted this one with a bit of luck (which is sometimes what you need watching birds) and by his somewhat indistinct song! At the beginning of every spring, I struggle to remember how to distinguish their song vs. the Dark-eyed Junco. Its a challenge I welcome.
Meanwhile, I saw the last of the Golden-crowned Sparrows until they return again in autumn and winter! I saw a whole flock of them filling up on seeds to prepare for their journey north to breed.
White-crowned Sparrows were singing their songs across open woodland meadows, urban parks and parking lots and along the edges of forests. I am sure they must be busy now with chicks or fledglings to look after, possibly even onto their second brood already!
Of course, there is more to see than just birds. This American Bullfrog scared me as I nearly ran over it on my bike. They are incredibly loud and very invasive around these parts and he certainly seemed to think he owned this part of the path.
The Pacific Tree frog is quite a bit smaller and definitely native. They can be found around the Pacific Northwest and occupy a variety of habitats including woodlands, backyard ponds, pastures, grasslands and can even be found in alpine zones!
Despite some limitations, which required some creative thinking to get out and about, I’ve been able to have some nice moments in nature which are always healing, restorative and energizing. They remind of of the small beauties in life when many things in the world are turning quite ugly.
The Big Island of Hawaii immediately felt different from O’ahu to me. Yes, it was quieter and less crowded just as I hoped and expected, but it was also bigger. Everything felt a bit more wild and expansive and even the air smelled different here.
We stayed a bit off the beaten path in Captain Cook on the west coast. On our first day, we drove eastward and upward past Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to Hilo in the east on what is known as Route 200 or the Saddle Road. It was absolutely breathtaking as we passed through a myriad of landscapes and environments.
In Captain Cook on the slopes of Mauna Loa, we were in lush rainforest where frogs sang a chorus by night and geckos clambered up our hotel walls and enjoyed leftover mango jam at our breakfast table. The ocean looked calm in the near distance, quite unlike the big waves and strength of the sea on O’ahu. There was a beautiful tranquility about this place that crept into your soul, where life seemed to move a little bit slower, but was a little bit more savoured. Birds sang in the trees but chickens clucked and roosters cawed at the early morning light, reminding us of man’s imprint on this place. This place felt much more like a place to be lived than one to be visited.
The road was steep out of Captain Cook, climbing up through rainforest and past small towns until the landscape changed, passing through grasslands until we found ourselves in an arid desert 6,000 feet up. The landscape was almost bizarre when I thought about where I came from just a couple hours earlier. There were scrubby bushes reminding me of the deserts of the American Southwest until I saw the cinder cones and dark, craggy lava beds dotting the landscape. The strange burning smell I couldn’t put my finger on, but first detected on the wind in Captain Cook was more prominent here. I presumed it was related to the volcanoes in some way.
Maybe most bizarre of all were the signposts to watch out for nēnē, the native Hawaiian goose. I just couldn’t understand how a goose could live in such an environment and I may have once slammed on the breaks on sighting a bird only to find out they were turkeys when I turned around.
According to the Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Birds and Their Habitats (by Pratt and Jeffrey) I picked up, the nēnē live so high up in volcanic rocks because it is where they found safety from human and introduced predators.
We passed more lava beds as we descended back into the coastal greenery on the windward side of the island and visited a few waterfalls, something we missed out on in O’ahu. We stopped to buy some locally-grown tropical fruit at a road stand and continued our way north, taking Highway 19 north toward Waimea before heading back around the west coast to Captain Cook.
Just north of Hilo on our way north, we paused for a mid-day walk at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It was well-worth the stop as we explored a myriad of plant species, many of which I’ve hardly seen before from coffee plants to banana and coconut trees, to every colour and kind of orchid and bromeliad imaginable.
After filling my senses with the wonders of the botanic garden, we drove back north as the sun fell in the sky and found amazing views of the coast below as the ocean battered volcanic rock, lava flows cut across grass and gained a great appreciation for the volcanoes that make up this island. The view driving south down the west coast truly put into perspective just how huge these volcanoes are, so unlike any others I’ve seen. Their slopes seem to go on endlessly and at angles that, to me, defied logic. I have never seen land that sloped quite like that before. There was so much to see on the Big Island, we could have spent more time there. The next big stop we made was at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
I often write about birds here, but there’s a whole host of other wildlife and natural wonders and beauty to behold, too! I enjoy getting out and experiencing and seeing them as well. Now that I’ve lived in Oregon for over a year now, I’ve had the chance to see some of the wildlife that lives here.
Here in Oregon, we have two species of elk: Roosevelt elk (same as those we had on Vancouver Island) and Rocky Mountain elk. The basic range divide is the Cascade Mountains with Roosevelt in and west of the Cascades and Rocky Mountain elk in the east. Around here, I most commonly see a herd out at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge during the fall. There are also Black-tailed deer about, but I don’t see them nearly as often as I did in Victoria since I don’t have them roaming about my neighbourhood anymore.
Beaver are strongly associated with the state of Oregon, but unfortunately, its common to see nutria in some places. Nutria, or coypu, are invasive rodents from South America. They are smaller than beavers and have long tails similar to a muskrat. Most of the time I see them in wetlands in the water or on the banks munching away on vegetation. They might be invasive, but I have to admit they’re still cute…
Another semi-aquatic mammal, I’ve only seen mink a couple of times in Oregon. They can be found just about anywhere with water in Oregon and I used to see them only rarely on Vancouver Island as well. If you ask me, I think there’s something beautifully sleek about them.
I am longing to see wolves in the wild and have yet to, but I don’t mind seeing their canine cousin the coyote sometimes. There seems to be at least one, if not more, that can be see around the agricultural land at Oregon State University. I’ve seen them fairly regularly especially near dusk and dawn. I watched this one hunting, intent and focused on its prey, then pouncing on it.
I’d only ever seen whales twice before I moved to Oregon. A humpback whale and orcas, though technically orcas they aren’t actually whales. Since then, my whale-spotting has increased significantly! While the grey whale migration includes the Oregon coast during the winter, a number of them spend their summer off our coast. They can often be seen from shore because they feed in shallow water. Its been pretty amazing each time I’ve seen these whales off the coast here and I was very excited to see one on my birthday last year!
Staying at the coast (my favourite place), we have Steller Sea Lions and Pacific harbour seals (as well as other seals and sea lions). Steller Sea Lions can be seen at the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, which could be seen as a tourist trap paying to access the caves, and of course, my wariness sets in immediately at such things. However, it seems they have the good of the sea lions at the heart of their mission. Is it better to pay to access the caves and watch the sea lions under the watchful eyes of staff and volunteers or to access the caves for free and potentially get too close? (You know there’s someone out there who would…).
With lots of forest in Oregon, we have lots of forest creatures, too, including a variety of squirrels, chipmunks, martens and wolverines. No, I have not seen half of those animals, but have seen a couple of these chipmunks in the Cascades and on the eastern foot of the mountains. I think this one might be a Yellow pine chipmunk, but I am no expert!
Of course, we can’t forget the unfurry animals, too! There are lots of snakes, frogs, lizards, salamanders and newts roaming Oregon but these are just a couple. I found this snake hanging out in a tree sunning itself at the Oregon Garden. I see Rough-skinned Newts while out hiking in the forests and can never get enough of seeing them. Its interesting to watch how they move, almost like they are swimming on land, paddling through mud with their webbed toes. They are toxic to eat (as advertised by their bright orange bellies), but a fun fact I just learned is that Barred Owls are somehow still able to eat them! Keep your eyes out on the trails around Oregon for them as they often blend in very well!
Oregon sure has a wealth of wildlife, from large to small, furry to scaled, coast to Casades. I’ve enjoyed meeting and learning about some of these animals and am always hopeful to meet more if I can!
Its safe to say after two trips, I’m in love with the Oregon coast. Or it could be because I have ocean-withdrawal after living inland for the first time in seven years. In which case, I guess I should consider myself lucky! And even more so, its possible to go to the beach for a day trip here.
In January, the beach was a nice and welcome break from the grey, rainy days here in Corvallis. Seeing a sunny day in the forecast at the coast, we decided to get catch some rays. I have to say that a lot of people told me the coast here was beautiful, so I had some heightened expectations. And it delivered. To my amazement, there were even flowers blooming.
Besides basking in the feeling of the sun on my face and watching the waves crash into the shore, I was strongly reminded of New Zealand. And New Zealand is my happy place. There’s just something about its wild beauty and wide open spaces and hard-to-get-to places that I love.
Besides the beautiful views, the relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto shore and the smell of the sea in the air, there were plenty of birds and wildlife to see. In the Alsea River estuary, hundreds of sea lions rafted together in the shallows, or maybe there’s a dock under there, its hard to tell beneath all the blubber. They reminded me of the sea lions and seals I so often saw in Victoria.
More than the mammals, though, the seabirds and shorebirds reminded me of Victoria, too. I’ll probably always have some feeling of nostalgia when I see birds I saw often there that I no longer see. I feel connected to the place from all the experiences I had watching birds as its where I really began bird-watching.
Some of my earliest experiences bird-watching were at little beaches along the shore, spotting Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron and seaducks like Buffleheads and Harlequin Ducks. While I see the first three still in Oregon, its still a little bit strange because I’m so used to seeing them often by the ocean.
One day wasn’t enough to see everything and take it all in, so we went back again in February for a day with a lot less sunshine, but just as much fun and beauty, this time heading north from Newport.
The bridge heading to the north shore of Newport, OR. We’ll save that part for next time…
Just about two weeks ago here, we had some snow fall and the world was turned into a fleeting winter wonderland. The next couple of days could not have been more different with abundant sunshine and warm temperatures and the weather has not looked back since!
Spring officially sprung yesterday on the Spring Equinox according to the calendar, which is defined by the day and time the equator passes under the center of the sun. Of course, its only the northern half of the world that experiences spring while our southern neighbours enjoy the Autumnal Equinox.
Besides the calendar, everything around me seems to be showing its time for spring, too! I’ve heard the juncos and sparrows start singing their songs, Anna’s Hummingbirds have likely already been busy mating this year, and on Sunday I saw my first Tree Swallows of the season while gardening in my backyard!
A couple of weeks ago, I saw my first Violet-green Swallows of the season and I saw even more today! They are bringing spring on their wings, coming to feed on insects coming to life with the warmer temperatures and longer days. I’ve spied a number of Turkey Vultures flying overhead and even saw one in a ditch on the side of the road probably cleaning up roadkill. Migration has begun!
Trees and bushes are beginning to sprout buds and blooms, filling the fresh spring air with the early scents of flowers. Crocuses and daffodils add splashes of colour to the ground along sidewalks, trails, in gardens and beneath trees. Everywhere, new life is blooming around me while every day brings change.
Crocuses blooming in my garden
Primrose peeks through leaves
Daffodils about to spring brilliant blooms.
Spring is undeniably a time of change, new life and hope! Simply put, I hope you enjoy it as much as me when it comes wherever you are. Take time to literally smell the roses, and lilies, and lilacs and all your local natives, too! Sometimes I find myself wishing spring could last all year long as I think its my favourite season. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, beautiful world?
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.
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.
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.
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…
Earlier this week, I went exploring William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis, OR. The refuge was established to protect the wintering grounds of the dusky Canada Goose, a subspecies of Canada Goose that spend winter here and breed in Alaska. I’d never even heard of these geese until I visited the refuge. Much of the refuge is closed over winter to protect their habitat, but there’s still plenty of birds to see at the spaces that are open.
The difference between dusky Canada Geese and others was not immediately clear to me, but after checking some references, I can say with confidence that these are dusky Canada Geese. They have a darker, almost brown breast.
And I can see why the refuge is here because the geese love it. While I walked to one of the marsh overlooks, a sudden roar of goose honks sounded in the distance. I looked up to see a hundreds of geese flying noisily overhead and I thought, now that is a gaggle of geese! Further along, some of the fields were painted brown with huge numbers of geese, more than I’ve ever seen before!
Dusky Canada Geese were once the only population of over-wintering geese in the Wilamette Valley, but in the last fiftty years, Cackling Geese have moved in as well as a new resident group of Canada Geese. Perhaps this is yet another sign of the times in an ever-warming climate with other populations of birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and Red-shouldered Hawks creeping north and staying over the winter, too. Sometimes I think animals and people living closely to nature can tell us a whole lot about the status of our ecosystems if we just learned to pay attention.
Now that we’ve settled in our new place in Oregon and been here a couple months, I’ve had the chance to go explore my new territory. After living there four years and getting to know it well, its hard not to miss Victoria with its beautiful seaside and many gardens.
But there are lots of exciting new places to explore here, so I’ve met some new feathered faces already. The best part is that the local neighborhood birds have found my feeder at last! Its comforting to hear the peep-cheep of the chickadees and the chip-chip off the juncos in the backyard. Backyard birdwatching is probably my favourite way to watch birds and with a much less green backyard here, I was worried I wouldn’t have any birds come visit.
I’m going to have to improve my raptor identification skills, which are still sort of lacking, with all the new birds of prey that live here. There are fewer Bald Eagles than Victoria, but a noticeably wider variety of other raptor species. One of them is quickly becoming a favourite…the American Kestrel. I’d seen only one before we moved here and I’ve already learned what fields to reliably find them at.
With their graceful and fierce beauty and small size (for a bird of prey), how could I not love the kestrel? I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of listening to their calls or watching them hovering and diving. In reading about them, I learned that they can amazingly track voles via their urine which is visible with the kestrel’s ultraviolet vision! Isn’t nature amazing?
Another exciting new bird I’ve met is the Western Bluebird! Ever since I started birdwatching, I longed to see a bluebird! These thrushes aren’t common on Vancouver Island, where the loss of critical garry oak habitat and nesting cavities decimated their once flourishing populations. Some dedicated people have done great work to re-establish their populations in the Cowichan Valley and I hope they continue to succeed.
Of course, here in Oregon, the bluebird faces the same challenges and there is a lot of work being put in to help support their population. But somehow, they are more numerous here in the Wilamette Valley where they live year-round. I wonder if it is the abundance of agricultural fields that helps sustain them. Still, their populations have sharply declined here and I hope Oregon doesn’t have the same story as Vancouver Island someday.
The third new bird I’ve met is the Wrentit! These birds are very unique for North America; they have no relatives on the continent and they can only be found along a small strip of the west coast. I heard it rustling in the bushes and making an unfamiliar but somewhat wren-like call before I saw it. When I first saw this grey and brown bird, it reminded me of a cross between a wren and a Spotted Towhee. Let me know what you think based on my photo. Apparently, they can be very hard to spot among the bushes, rarely coming out from cover, so it was a lucky sighting I doubt I’ll find again anytime soon!
Other interesting birds to encounter here are the loud and raucous California Scrub-Jay, a sort of lowland and coastal compatriot of the Steller’s Jay. At a restored wetland pond, I heard a high-pitched tweeting I’d never heard before. I looked at the trees nearby for any sign of movement, I scanned the bushes and grass and finally, near the edge of the water I saw a small bird flitting up periodically with a flourish of black feathers. A Black Phoebe hunted for insects near the water’s edge, perching periodically on the nearby rocks.
As rainy winter turns to spring, I am sure I will have many more birdwatching adventures and new faces to meet while exploring Oregon!