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.
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.
Henderson’s Shooting Stars
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.
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.
Orange-crowned Warbler in a garry oak tree
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Marzluff, John M., 2014. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Yale University Press.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The lake, a Great Blue Heron on the left
boardwalk crosses the lake
Swan Lake, BC
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I went out for a walk a couple weeks ago and paused at the top of the hill to enjoy the view when I saw a hummingbird zipping up high into the air and back down again, landing in the top branches of a small tree. Male Anna’s Hummingbirds display a similar sort of behaviour when attracting a mate; they zip up high into the sky and emit a very loud ‘Squeak!’ before zooming down and around in a great swoop and hovering in the air momentarily, their wings flapping so furiously they are a blur. Then they display their fabulously bright gorget at females to entice them (see photo below).
My hummer was showing this type of behaviour, and a couple of weeks ago in September, I watched two of them aggressively chasing one another around an apple tree. Its a bit early for mating behaviour (they mate as early as December), but I thought of another reason why they might be feeling extra-aggressive right now. Because, yes, small though they are, hummingbirds are aggressive, territorial birds. My theory? Here in Victoria, we have a good population of resident Anna’s Hummingbirds that stay here through the winter, but there are still some migratory birds among their number. I think our resident birds are defending their territories from the migratory population moving through.
And it is not only other hummingbirds that Anna’s Hummingbirds will move to boost from their area. The first thing I noticed about this little hummingbird was that he looked a little bit ragged. The second thing I noticed was how he zipped around madly each time another bird dared to land in his tree. He brazenly chased away a Hermit Thrush out of his tree soon after the unfortunate thrush decided to try landing there. He squeaked and zoomed and soon the thrush flew off to find a tree with a less noisy neighbour.
Not long after my hummer landed back on the top of his tree, presumably feeling quite satisfied and proud of his deeds, a Dark-eyed Junco dared to swoop in and pop a perch on the opposite side of the branches. It wasn’t long at all before the hummer chased him off, too, though he was a tad more stubborn than the thrush had been and eventually moved off to a nearby rock. Once more, my hummer was victorious, and he found a little bit of peace and quiet while no one else decided to invade his perfect tree. This just goes to show that the smallest birds can sometimes be the toughest, too.
I watched this beautiful bird at the beach the other day – a Greater Yellowlegs. He flew in from the south and landed right in front of me on the beach, apparently unperturbed by my presence. Usually, when I’ve seen these birds, they are somewhat skittish and wary of noises and people, typically flying away if approached. In fact, the Seattle Audubon states they are “often the first species to sound an alarm when a perceived threat approaches” and are more shy than other shorebirds.
I never want to disturb birds while watching or photographing them, so I was rather glad this was the perfect encounter. I was already sitting silently on a washed up log when he flew in, watching him as he at first stood in the shallow water, his yellow legs poking out of the surface. Then, he circled around, cheeping, and flapped his wings in the deeper water. He made quite the splash, literally! I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to, wondering if he was spooked or snagged on something. I watched to make sure he wasn’t caught on some piece of plastic litter or having other trouble, but he eventually settled down and preened his feathers for a while before flying off to the south.
I’ve been seeing quite a few of these birds recently as they stopover at rocky coasts and beaches on their way south for the winter. They are a type of sandpiper and can be difficult to differentiate from the Lesser Yellowlegs. Right now, they are making their way south from their breeding grounds in northern Canada where they breed in marshes. While they are not endangered and have a steady population (as far as we know), they are classified as Climate Threatened by Audubon due to predicted instability of their summer range in boreal Canada. However, their winter range is predicted to vastly expand, although I can’t help but wonder if they will displace other birds in doing so like Barred Owls?
Last week, I watched a few moving through the shallow water catching small crabs to eat. They move so gracefully and effortlessly through the water when I know there are lots of crags and rocks down there that I’d be slipping and sliding on. I still remember the first time I saw one last year up north on the island; I was very excited to meet an interesting new shorebird!
Encounters like this are what I most love about bird-watching. Quiet moments shared between just you and the bird. I often feel a connection deeper and more raw than one I might share with another human being. I feel grateful to get to watch them, even for just a little while. I wonder what they get up to when we’re not around and how much farther he has to go on his southward journey and if he’s going to make it there and back again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Before I moved here and started birding for real, I was unaware that Victoria is something of a haven for bird-watchers. Its a well-known destination for whale-watching and other wildlife, but Victoria is perched on the southern edge of Vancouver Island is a gem for birding. In the Annual Christmas Bird Count, Victoria regularly tops the list for species diversity in Canada. In 2016, Victoria had 141 species reported in the annual count. But maybe its just because we’re the warmest spot in Canada in December.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know some great birding spots around the region. One of my favourites is Uplands Park and the adjacent Cattle Point in the municipality of Oak Bay. Uplands Park is a 30.65 hectare park surrounded by expensive (and sometimes historic) homes on three sides and Cattle Point and the Haro Strait on the eastern side.
The park is easy to access from any side and has a myriad of trails to explore through groves of garry oak trees, thicker, younger deciduous trees, garry oak meadows and open, rocky uplands. It makes for a beautiful walk during any season at any time of day. And its a perfect example if you’re looking to explore the fading and native garry oak ecosystem.
Uplands Park path during a rare snowfall in Victori
the same Uplands Park path in August
Right now, after our record-setting dry Victorian summer, the park is very dry. The grass is yellow, the trails are dust. Some trees are losing their leaves with the lack of water, but the garry oaks are soldiering on, their leaves a marked green contrast with the ground beneath my feet. Right now, in late summer, the blackberry bushes are a bountiful source of food for birds in parts of the park. They make a good mid-walk snack for humans, too!
Most of the birds have finished their nesting season by now, but in the springtime, many birds choose to nest here, including Anna’s Hummingbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Bewick’s Wrens and Bushtits. Barred Owls likely nest in the park, too.
Spring arrivals from afar that are commonly seen at the park includes Turkey Vultures, swallows (Tree, Barn, Violet-green and Purple Martins), Chipping Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Cedar Waxwings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Spring rains bring wildflowers, green grass and muddy puddles to trudge through on your visit.
Meanwhile, the year-round residents I frequently see here at any time of year includes Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Northwestern Crows, American Robins, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Anna’s Hummingbirds and Chestnut-backed Chickdee. In fact, its a very rare visit if I don’t see an Anna’s Hummingbird on my walk through the park. To a lesser extent, other easy to spot birds here year-round are Bewick’s Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers.
In the winter, when the ground gets frosty and sometimes even snows occasionally, our year-round birds can be seen around Uplands Park, but nearby Cattle Point makes a great spot for shorebirding. Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Black Turnstones head to the Cattle Point shores for the winter. Great Blue Heron, Black Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Double-crested Cormorants and Mallards can also be seen during all four seasons at Cattle Point.
Aside from the birds, other wildlife living in the park you might encounter includes garter snakes, black-tailed deer, mice and rabbits. At Cattle Point, I’ve also seen River Otter and Harbour Seals in the water and a cougar was also spotted near Uplands Park last summer. The park also has a high concentration of rare native plants, but being clueless about most plant ID, I won’t try to list any of them. In the spring, I can identify the beautiful flowers of Henderson’s Shooting Star, White Fawn Lily, Camas and Wild Rose that grow in the park.
From Cattle Point, there are also scenic views of Mt Baker in Washington State and if you look southeast on a clear day, you can sometimes just make out Mt Rainier just off to the edge of the chain of Olympic Mountains. This makes it a popular photography stopping point for tourists, but many of them probably miss out on the rest of the beauty in the park.
If you’re heading to the Victoria region and you are a birder, check out Uplands Park and see what you find! Overall, there is a great variety of birds, wildlife and scenery to see at this suburban park. For more photos of birds at the park, follow the link.