Happy birthday osprey!

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Osprey on her nest before the babies were born

Monday was a happy day! I checked on a local osprey nest I monitor from time-to-time and found a tiny little baby osprey head just poking up over the edge of the nest! He must have been born at least few days ago for his head to be peeping up now.

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Both parents attentive to their baby. This was my first glimpse of the new ospret as I like to call them.

I imagine its quite cozy in there right now, but by the end of summer, it will be cramped with at least one or two other young to share living quarters with. At this point, I have only seen a single head so I wonder if there are more babies on the way.

Both parents paid attention to the baby as dad brought in some fish to feed on for the family. I watched mum delicately tear off small bits of fish and feed it to the baby, his open mouth earnestly awaiting his lunch.

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Mum tears off smaller bits of fish to feed to baby

Competition is tough among osprey young, often leaving the third chick to die of starvation or being killed by its siblings. Last year, all three chicks successfully fledged, so it is possible to raise three young if good resources are available.

By about fifty days of age at the end of the summer, the chicks will have fledged and have to find food independently after their parents leave for warmer southern latitudes over the winter.

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Mum also has to keep a watchful eye out for predators
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Hopefully there are more scenes like this in the future for our osprey family

A Surprise at Sandcut Beach

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Sandcut Beach falls

A few weeks ago, I got to see one of the most incredible things I think I’ve ever seen. I was at Sandcut Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island where a creek cascades down into a waterfall onto the beach. Yes, its very romantic. I’d explored the beach already and enjoyed the view of the waterfall flowing over the rock into a pool in the sand.

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Sandcut Beach falls

Looking up at the creek bed I couldn’t resist climbing up on top of it and checking out the view from on top of a waterfall. Maybe the geologist in me still likes to get up close and personal with rocks. But how often to you get to see a waterfall from the top?

The bottom of the creek bed is continuous, exposed sandstone full of little potholes and puddles. Its a totally different landscape from the one down on the beach. As I walked up the tree-lined creek, I began to hear a faint noise in the distance. I was sure it was a bird, but I didn’t know what I was about to find.

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The sandstone creek bed of Sandcut Creek
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Sandcut Creek

The highway crosses noisily above the creek and I thought maybe there was a bird nest with a hungry baby somewhere up high on the bridge. But as I got closer, I discovered the insistent, piping noise was a juvenile American Dipper!

He was puffed up and looked even bigger than his parent nearby as he begged for food, following his parent’s every step and demanding to be fed! The poor parent never got a rest, I imagine it must be exhausting work dipping around in the creek for delicious insects for your baby to eat. Can you imagine your child constantly following you around asking to be fed? It is hard work being a bird parent!

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American Dipper baby begging for food

It was just incredible to watch from a distance as I didn’t want to disturb a parent and baby. The baby’s mouth was still a bright, attention-catching yellow and he didn’t seem to like getting his feet wet. The juvenile tended to stay on drier rocks out of the faster-moving water. I imagine this was not actually out of a dislike of wet feet but rather a way to stay safe from the currents as a vulnerable young bird.

It was so unexpected, I really tried to cherish the moment. I don’t think I’ll see an American Dipper feeding its young again anytime soon, but I won’t forget this special experience. I feel grateful I was in the right place at the right time and that I followed my curiosity up the creek. To me, that’s the best way to watch birds and enjoy nature. Going outside without a defined plan and just see what comes along your way…you never know what you might stumble across.

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American Dipper juvenile – look at that bright yellow mouth!

 

Birds at a Canterbury estuary, New Zealand

Leaving the birds of the river from my last post behind, continuing along a bike trail in Canterbury New Zealand still revealed many new birds to be seen. The bike trail didn’t quite land us at the beach as we’d expected, but instead at the Ashley River estuary. The tide was quite low and there were shorebirds aplenty to be seen.

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Ashley River estuary

In one of the main channels of the river outlet were quite a few birds enjoying the calm flow of the inter-tidal estuary. A few familiars we’d already seen, including the Paradise Shelduck (a pair of course) and the Spur-winged Plover were among some new species. Sacred Kingfishers zipped by overhead, calling loudly, moving so fast they were impossible to photograph, must like the Belted Kingfisher I am familiar with in BC.

Pied Stilts roved along the sandy shore in search of critters to eat, their long pink legs and black-and-white colouring conspicuous among other birds, though the South Island Pied Oystercatcher has equally beautiful black-and-white colouring. They strongly reminded me of our own Black Oystercatchers with red eyes and pink legs.

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South Island Pied Oystercatcher and Pied Stilt

But no birds were as familiar as the Mallards that floated in the deeper water of the channel among a flock of Southern Black-backed Gulls. The mallard was introduced to New Zealand as early as 1870 and within 100 years populations really took off. Sadly, they have out-competed the native Grey Duck or parera in most areas of New Zealand, who can mainly only be seen in wilder regions.

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Pied Shag and Little Shag

Further along toward the sea was a pair of cormorants perched on a brush pile: a Little Shag and a Pied Shag. Further away and a lot more shy, I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Banded Dotterel. The Banded Dotterel, or Double-banded Plover, is endemic to New Zealand, frequenting estuaries and rivers. Northern populations winter in Australia while southern birds move north. They are unfortunately very vulnerable to the predators introduced to New Zealand, including cats, stoats, rats and weasels. This is yet another sad example of the dangers of introducing non-native species.

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Bar-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit is also known as the Eastern Bar-tailed Godwit, especially in North American where they breeds in Alaska. They tend to leave New Zealand in March and return in September. A female bird tracked by scientists was found to have made the longest ever nonstop flight by a bird – a whopping 11,500km in just nine days! Incredible. Meanwhile, humans spend thousands of dollars and tons of jet fuel to make the New Zealand Birds Onlinesame journey. If that doesn’t make you think nature is cleverer than humans, I don’t know what will.

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birdprints in the sand

References

Banded Dotterel, New Zealand Birds Online
Bar-tailed Godwit, New Zealand Birds Online
Grey Duck, New Zealand Birds Online
Little Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Mallard, New Zealand Birds Online
Pied Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Pied Stilt, New Zealand Birds Online
Southern Black-backed Gull, New Zealand Birds Online

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!

Camas flowers & cherishing our garry oak habitats

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Camas flowers at Uplands Park

This week, I went for a walk at the park in the late afternoon to watch birds and I was pleasantly surprised as I walked down a wooded path, looked to the side and saw a meadow awash with violet flowers! The camas flowers are in full bloom now and I have made some time this week to go out and enjoy them.

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Camas meadow at Uplands Park

Camas flowers grow in plenty during spring in the garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, along with the strikingly bright pink Henderson’s Shooting Stars. Seeing them carpet the meadow floor and the flanks of hills is utterly stunning. Standing in the middle of this field of flowers, I felt like I was nowhere on earth.

White Fawn Lilies sprout up in wet, shady areas below trees where Orange-crowned Warblers, Chipping Sparrows and Spotted Towhees sing. Before the Victoria area was colonised and developed, Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks and Vesper Sparrows once thrived in the native garry oak habitat. Now, they have all virtually disappeared and are a rarity if seen. Some species need these habitats to survive. More species, from plants to insects to birds, could follow. To prevent further loss, we should protect these ecosystems and cherish them.

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Camas flowers at Mt Tolmie

I had the joy of seeing my first Orange-crowned Warbler of spring today. They are one of my favourite birds and I’ve been hearing them in the trees all week, but I’ve not been able to locate one until today. I just love everything about them; their colour, their trill-y song, the way they blend in to the tree like a leaf.

Across the meadow, there was also a Chipping Sparrow singing in the top branches of a small tree. Garry oak ecosystems are one of the few places I most often see both of these birds. Garry oaks benefit the birds by providing food and habitat and they are also one of my favourite types of places to visit.

Go see what makes the garry oak habitat special. Get out and visit a local garry oak meadow today – you won’t regret it when you see the beauty of the flowers and the song of the birds! Support or contribute to a local initiative preserving these habitats, like the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, the Friends of Uplands Park, or the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society. Think about what you can do with your own land to help.

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There are a few garry oak ecosystems still remaining in Victoria. Here is a list of a few:

Larger garry oak parks:
Uplands Park, Oak Bay | Map
Mt Tolmie, Saanich | Map
Francis King Regional Park, Highlands | Map
Observatory Hill, Saanich | Map

Smaller gems worth visiting:
Knockan Hill Park, View Royal | Map
Little Mt Doug, Saanich | Map
Government House Gardens Woodlands, Victoria | Map
Fort Rodd Hill gardens, Colwood | Map
Bear Hill Regional Park, Saanich | Map
Vic Derman Park/Christmas Hill, Saanich | Map
Glencoe Cove – Kwatsech Park, Saanich | Map
Parts of Beacon Hill park, Victoria | Map
Moss Rock Park, Fairfield | Map

Beauty in the simple things

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singing Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have just started singing here in Victoria. I went out for a walk the other week and heard their sweet, tumbling song for the first time in months! It shone out at me distinctly among the robin’s whistling, the towhee’s cat-like calling and the chickadee’s chatter.

The junco’s warbler-like song stirs up memories of spring and summer. I’ve watched the world changing around me recently. Early buds have popped up on trees, new greenery emerges among the barren branches and twigs, and even a flower or two has appeared. The juncos have clearly noticed as well. But just the other day, it snowed. So I suppose they call them “the snowbird” for a reason; they don’t seem to mind. They sing on.

Juncos have always been endearing little birds to me, entertaining me in the suburbs and city parks and at my bird feeder. I wonder if many people truly appreciate these birds, which some might consider quite drab without any flashy, colourful feathers. But not to me.

The Oregon variety common in BC has soft rosy flanks grading into their white breasts in sharp contrast with their black heads. Their wings show a vast variety in shades of brown and black; and of course, their defining feature – the white outer tail feathers. The males flash around their white tails to attract females and defend their territory.

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Observe the variety of colour in this Oregon Dark-eyed Junco’s feathers from head to tail.

Interestingly, over the last 50 years, as they have embraced the suburban life, the junco’s white tail has faded. With feeders and ideal habitat available, suburban males have been found to stick around with their partners longer, lessening the need for the white colouring (Marzluff, 2014).

Sometimes the simplest things can bring the most joy, and Dark-eyed Juncos are certainly one for me. There aren’t many native birds simpler or more common (in North America anyway) than the American Robin. I’ve heard quite a few birders say the phrase “oh, its just a robin” as if a robin were not a creature worthy of appreciation or a thing of beauty.

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American Robin, beautiful red breast on proud display.

American Robins are birds that I have been around my whole life. I remember their cheerful song often lasts long into the twilight of spring and summer evenings as the sun’s warmth fades away and the air smells fresh and cool. As a kid, I used to anticipate the return of migratory populations as a sure sign of spring.

I like to watch them now, in my backyard, hopping along the grass and eating worms. I observe how they cock their head to the side, lowered toward the ground as if listening for any vibration below the earth’s surface. And then – like many larger predators – they strike suddenly, and slurp up a worm from the ground.

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American Robin in the dawn light during winter.

Their song is one of the most beautiful, happy and warm songs that exists in the natural world. And their red breast is not something to be taken for granted. In the golden-orange light of dusk or dawn, if you catch the light on their breast just right, well, it speaks for itself if you ask me.

The fantastic and infrequent bird sightings are special, too, don’t get me wrong. But don’t forget to appreciate the little things, the simple things, that are all around and can be found if you take a moment to look.

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American Robin in the early winter evening light.

References
Marzluff, John M., 2014. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Yale University Press.

Fun with feeder birds

Last year, I got my first bird-feeder and put it out for the winter. It took some time for birds to show up at first, but once they did, there was no going back! This winter, the birds have returned to it much more quickly! The last few weeks, there have been lots of visitors.

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male Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have discovered the tray to perch on and have started feeding on it. Last year, they never flew up and only fed on the fallen seeds on the ground below. Unlike the chickadees who are quickly in and out, the juncos seem to spend quite a bit of time at the feeder, sitting on the tray and eating seeds. I worry sometimes it makes them more vulnerable to potential predators, especially after I had a hawk flyover the backyard a few weeks ago.

I’m not sure if its the same junco every time, but there is a male junco who seems quite dominant. He has chased off other birds that land on, or approach, the feeder, including other juncos. He becomes quite vocal when other birds approach. In my observations, it seems the other juncos defer to him. I wonder about the flock dynamics of juncos and if they recognise an alpha male, who is allowed to spend more time on the feeder.

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male Dark-eyed Junco
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The Pine Siskins!

Last weekend, Pine Siskins visited my feeder for the first time! I’d literally just said the day before, “I wish I could see a Pine Siskin, I’ve never seen them before” and felt that I should have by now! At least four visited my feeder at once and they were quite gregarious! They took over the space and the Dark-eyed Juncos that had been feeding there before seemed quite perturbed by being pushed out although they seem content to share with the chickadees. From reading Sibley and other sources, it seems Pine Siskins commonly monopolise feeders from other birds.

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A Dark-eyed Junco and a Chesnut-backed Chickadee share the feeder peacefully

The Pine Siskins have returned a couple of times since, and even managed to share some of the space with others a couple of times. The same day the Pine Siskins showed up, I also had a Downy Woodpecker land at the feeder for the first time! I can say I’d always dreamed of having a woodpecker at my feeder, but I never expected one to come to my tube feeder! Sadly, I did not manage a photograph in time, but it will always be in my memory!

It was quite the exciting the day in the world of backyard birding. Its so much fun to see these little surprises and also to get to know the more frequent visitors. Watching birds at my feeder taught me how to identify the flight pattern of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the little horn-like call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Which brings me to my favourite feeder-visitor (the Red-breasted Nuthatch), who darts quickly in and out, typically shoo-ing away any other bird, no matter how much bigger they might be. Nothing seems to daunt these tiny nuthatches. They seem to spend the shortest time at the feeder, quickly grabbing a seed and returning to the safety of their favourite tree.

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Last, my favourite feeder bird, the Red-breasted Nuthatch

Exploring the Great Trail on Vancouver Island

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a portion of the southern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, part of the Great Trail

This past summer in Victoria, a brand new walking/hiking/biking/horse-riding trail was finished and unveiled through an area that was not previously publicly accessible – the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. This trail also connected sections of the The Great Trail where there was no continuous link before. The Great Trail (previously known as the TransCanada Trail or TCT) is just that – a trail that can be walked or biked all the way across Canada, from St John’s, Newfoundland to right here in Victoria, BC and all the way up to the Northwest Territories. Its the longest trail in the world.

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Trees tower over you on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

The Trail was meant to be completed by Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, and though technically 100% completed, there are long sections that just travel alongside a road shoulder or busy highway. Some sections cross water (The Great Lakes and the Strait of Georgia) and can be crossed by kayak or canoe (or sometimes a ferry). So it all depends a little bit on your perspective.

 

In August, we went to check out the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, a 13km-long gravel trail that traverses over land that is part of the city’s water supply and forestry land. There’s some pretty steep terrain in this area so we checked it out on foot instead of bikes. Its a nice walk on a wide trail through tall Western Hemlock trees with a very Pacific Northwest feel. Not far down the trail is a viewing platform of Waugh Creek Falls, but in late-August after a hot summer when we went, it was a mere trickle. The uphill walkbpast the suspension bridge was a feat on a hot day, and I couldn’t ever see making it up on my bike.

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Dark-eyed Junco on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

A few weeks ago, we went to another section of the Great Trail near the north end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail and the southern end of the Cowichan Valley Trail. This part of the trail has a similar landscape with lots of hemlock trees, however, the history of forestry and logging is much more evident here with whole stretches of land mowed down to bare earth and soil. There are some lovely bridges over creeks and further north, a nice view looking south toward the Olympic Mountains.

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Scenes of forestry are seen from the northern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

In Victoria, The Great Trail travels along scenic portions of the city, including the inner harbour and the Gorge Waterway before heading west toward suburbs and eventually, the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. The urban portion is mostly flat and paved most of the way. There’s a lot to see if you stop and take some time to explore the Great Trail near your home. For a look at the Great Trail across Canada, check out the submissions from the 2017 Canadian Geographic Great Trail Photo Competition! If you live in Canada, what’s the trail like in your neck of the woods?

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Bridge over Shawnigan Creek

Birding in Victoria, BC at Swan Lake

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If you want to bird in Victoria, Swan Lake is a great local birding hotspot and probably one of the most well-known in the region. Its a nature sanctuary centered around a small lake in the suburbs nestled right along a major highway. A trail wraps around the perimeter of the lake and marsh and passes through wooded areas as well as providing access to a native plant garden and nature house. Besides the trails, there is a lovely boardwalk that crosses the lake and lots of benches in great spots for watching birds. The boardwalk is in need of repair as of writing this post, and donations of any amount are needed. To donate or learn more, please visit the Swan Lake Give a Sheet Campaign.

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A bench along the trail at Swan Lake

It is quite amazing the wildlife that lives here, right in an urbanized area, and is probably underappreciated by many visitors. Not only have there been 220 recorded species of birds according to eBird, but there are also mink, otter and muskrats living along the lake, too.

Whether it is spring or fall migration, winter or summer, there are always interesting birds to see at Swan Lake. On Sunday mornings, guided bird walks are put on by the nature house for free each time. Its a great way to learn about species new and old or to spot a rarity with an experienced birder.

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Wood Duck at Swan Lake
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Double-crested Cormorant
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Pied-billed Grebe

The lake itself is a great spot for all kinds of birds attracted to water; from Marsh Wrens to Red-winged Blackbirds to Great Blue Herons, and especially for ducks in the winter. Its also a great spot to remember to look up; I’ve seen many raptors flying high in the skies over the lake and the rest of the sanctuary.

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Cooper’s Hawk
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Cooper’s Hawk

 

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Bald Eagle pair shortly after mating

Each spring, the lake is a reliable spot to see baby ducks and earlier this summer, I got to see a Bald Eagle pair mating. Anna’s Hummingbirds are sure to catch your attention with their speedy buzzing all year long while Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees will chatter loudly in the fir and oak trees. My favourite moment of spring at Swan Lake is when the swallows arrive with their aerobatics and high-pitched calls that strangely remind me of dolphins. Even in the way they are social and group together, they are like dolphins of the sky.

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Violet-green Swallow takes a rare rest

There are certain pockets of bushes and trees where warblers abound in the spring and summer, and other densely wooded areas where you may reliably see owls and hawks. Northern Flickers are common and there is a bench along the trail where I regularly see (or hear) at least one, if not more. One lucky day, I saw a pair of them foraging on the ground and noticed something different about one of them. I see these birds all the time, but I realised one of them was an intergrade Northern Flicker; the first I’d ever seen!

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Northern Flicker, intergrade (with red malar of the red-shafted and the red nape crescent of the yellow-shafted)
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Yellow-rumped Warbler

Besides neat and exciting surprises like intergrade Northern Flickers and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler, there are small moments I enjoy here, too. Among the tall grasses, I enjoy watching Bushtits hopping from grass stem to stem, leaving it trembling in their wake. Its here where I’d watch my Bewick’s Wren friend hopping busily about in the brush and dancing daintily up the branches of the garry oak trees crowded with Chesnut-backed Chickadees, who are always fun to watch.

These simple moments somehow mean more to me than seeing a new bird for the first time. I don’t know why, but maybe its the feeling of being connected with something other than yourself, other than another human being that makes it satisfying. Its even better when I know an area, and I see familiar birds, getting to know them and their habits. Sometimes I wonder if they ever start to recognize me, if they are ever as interested in me as I am in them. Probably not, but its fun to think about. Or do they ever think ‘oh its that girl back with her black box again.’ We’ll never know, and maybe its better that way.

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Bushtit in the grass
Bewick’s Wren

Resources

Swan Lake eBird Page
Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary
Swan Lake Bird Checklist

A feast of fall colour

We had a nice break in the rain at the end of October with lots of sunny days and even some pretty warm ones! The sunshine really brings out the best in fall colours and its nice to enjoy a bit of it while it lasts. Its been a particularly cold fall here in Victoria and the sun was a welcome change.

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While we don’t get nearly as much coloured fall foliage here as there is out east, there are still some lovely spots where you can find nice, bright pops of colour. There is just something so beautiful about these trees! I hope you all find some time to enjoy and appreciate them this autumn.

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My favourite golden-yellow trees in fall. I’m not sure what type they are (I’m no good at all with trees or most plants in fanct) but I think they may be a type of aspen.
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A closer view of the golden leaves

 

One of my favourite spots to go in the fall has these big, tall trees with leaves that turn a beautiful, warm golden-yellow. Watching them waver in the wind against a bright blue sky is a simple joy this time of year.  Yellow is one of my favourite colours; I guess its why I like these trees so much.

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more yellow on blue…

Fall is such a fleeting thing, I spent some time out trying to capture it in photos. I had fun experimenting with my camera and practicing various angles and exposures. Of course, I also watched the birds along the way. How could I not?

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A raft of American Coots

 

I happened to see a large raft of American Coots at a lake, bobbing their heads and keeping close. Another bird that likes hanging out in groups is the Bushtit. I watched them cheep and flit about from tree to tree, sometimes hanging upside-down like a chickadee. These cute little birds always put a smile on my face. They might not be flashy, big or colourful, but they sure are fun to watch and listen to.

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American Wigeon – gazing at his own beautiful reflection?

 

Speaking of cheery birds, one of my favourites has arrived back in town! I am now seeing lots of American Wigeons about – at lakes, fields and the coast. I really love ducks, any kind of duck, so I am always excited to see them. I love the American Wigeon’s squeaky little sound, the fact that they hang out together and the male’s beautiful green face patch and white-ish crown. Other ducks may not agree with me, though, as they often steal food from diving ducks on deeper water as they are only able to dabble for food at, or near, the surface.

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The distinctive Harleqin Duck is also back for the winter, strutting their stuff in pairs around high-energy rocky coasts.

 

Remember to cherish the beauty around you! Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of even a single tree of red leaves or the grass carpeted beneath a layer of orange. It doesn’t have to be a full forest of colour. Maybe its the trees lining your road or the sun glistening on the snow. A squirrel climbing a tree or a crisp morning fog. You might feel just a little bit happier, a little bit lighter and a whole lot more grateful.