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
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

Meeting new and old birds in the east

I grew up in the eastern U.S. and I went on a trip to Toronto and home recently. It was the first time I’d been since I really got into birding. I remember watching the birds in our backyard as a kid, and at the nearby parks and nature preserves, especially in the summertime. I even had a mini Golden Guide to Birds of North America I enjoyed consulting on the birds I saw in the yard.

I was excited to return to the area and see some old birds I’d seen before, or never known I’d seen them before, and maybe even some new ones. I most hoped to see the popular cardinal and a blue jay, as well as a Tufted Titmouse White-breasted Nuthatch (being so different from our own Red-breasted ones here) and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. There was no logic to my list, really, but that was it. Through some kind of luck, I managed to see three out of five and a few surprises, too.

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Toronto, ON viewed from Davenport Hill, home of Casa Loma

Its a little bit harder birding where you don’t know all the locals. There are new songs and familiar ones, different subspecies and regional variations and not knowing the best places to go.

I met some Common Grackles pretty soon upon arriving in downtown Toronto. Barricaded by the Rocky Mountains, this blackbird does not live in western North America but they very much reminded me of Brewer’s Blackbirds, only louder. There were plenty of House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons flitting and cooing around the city, being the typical city-dwellers they are.

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trees fallen in a swamp

Once I got to the woods, there were some more interesting birds to be seen! The first day out at a marsh, I saw my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird and Grey Catbird. To top it off, I also saw my first Great Egret!

I also happened to see my first Common Terns on this trip. At first, I lumped them in with the gulls flying around the riverside, but when my partner pointed out they had different heads, I suddenly realized I was looking at Terns. They are quite a lot of fun to watch as they hovered in the air on the wind and then spiraled and spun downwards to the water’s surface in the hunt for fish.

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My only clear photo of a Common Tern

The next day was not quite as hot, making me happier to spend more time outdoors and I think we saw a lot more. Along the edge of a pond, I spotted movement and then saw a large-ish bird fly a short distance and land on a branch overlooking the water. I had a feeling and a hope that it might just be a Black-crowned Night Heron, and it turned out it was. He was a juvenile with very drab plumage compared to the adult, and almost looked like a Bittern. When we circled around the whole park and round the other side of the pond, I saw a second one, this time clearly an adult!

Another Great Egret gave us a quick flyby I only just managed to snap, slightly blurry. While I usually try to stay away from posting just photos, I think the rest of the story is better left to them as I somehow managed to get some really great shots of these birds…

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Great Egret
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Eastern Kingbird
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American Goldfinch
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American Redstart
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Song Sparrow (different from our Pacific NW variety)
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Tree Swallow
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Black-capped Chickadee
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White-Breasted Nuthatch
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Northern Cardinal

The most exciting of these, for me, were the White-breasted Nuthatch and Northern Cardinal. They had been one my hope-to-see list, after all, and they were fun to watch. I strongly suspect someone has probably been feeding the birds along the boardwalk where we saw them (and the Black-capped Chickadee) as they all descended upon us when we set foot on the wooden boards. The nuthatch was especially bold (typical nuthatch behaviour), landing right next to me a handful of times, probably hoping I had a handful of nuts. I can’t remember the last time a bird let me get that close!

Along with the exciting new birds were familiar faces, too, including Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, American Robins, Song Sparrows (though with different colouring!), Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Yellow Warblers and Killdeer. In fact, I was surprised by some of the birds seen and by the number of crossover species, it sort of made me wish I’d gotten into birding when I was younger though I know I’d seen some of these birds before.bir

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Northern Cardinal

Frosty mornings & lessons in winter birding

While I am a lover of summer time, we are lucky here in Victoria when it comes to winter birding! Quite a few resident birds stay here throughout the year while many others head down from the north to enjoy our mild winter.

Lingering frost on a crisp winter’s morning.

Now that I’ve been through my first winter of birding, I know easily who the visitors are now and who I can expect to see. In the winter, I look forward to seeing lots of lovely seabirds and ducks come south to our region. From Harlequin Ducks to Surf Scoters and American Wigeons, they are all a joy to watch. I wonder if, for them, coming south is like a welcome vacation from the cold?

Harlequin Ducks paddle along rocky coasts and turbid waters.
Common Goldeneye prefer sheltered, calmer water.
Surf Scoters make Buffleheads look like the tiny ducks they are!
American Wigeons make walking on ice look easy, but they actually prefer to graze on land anyway.

Meanwhile, resident birds get cozy in the cold with many of them forming flocks, like robins and chickadees. In fact, little chickadees are often the ringleaders of mixed species flocks, which will also include nuthatches, creepers and even the occasional woodpecker.

An American Robin illuminated by the morning light. A flock has been visiting my backyard regularly in recent weeks.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees, always fast and on the move, alert other birds to lurking dangers.
Pileated Woodpeckers remain year-round, drumming on dead trees.
Northern Flickers sound their familiar call and frequent the backyard.

Its not a bad idea to flock together in the winter – flocking helps them stay warm, find food and keep alert for danger. There’s safety in numbers and the raptors need a meal in the winter, too.

This Cooper’s Hawk was perched high above a small inlet where mallards, wigeons and goldeneyes paddled and dabbled in the water.

I have been enjoying the visitors and residents alike this winter. There will always be something special to me about birding in the winter here. Not only did I learn a lot about birding last winter, but it also helped heal the hole left in my heart after the loss of my beloved cat.  Winter can be a tough time at its best, and last year, birding made it all much better. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and take time for the things you love most in life.

October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

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Female and male Harlequin Duck dabbling for food together. They were synchronized in their bobbing up and down.

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

Horned Grebes non-breeding plumage (?)
Harlequin Ducks and my mystery grebe

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

the ever beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird perched in a little bush
Song Sparrow scurrying on the coastal rocks

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Cedar Waxwings fluttered among the treetops, identified by their distinctive black eye masks.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

Great Blue Heron at rest
Belted Kingfisher unfortunately looking right at me…
Moments later, a Northern Flicker touched down briefly after the Kingfisher flew away.
A large group of Black Oystercatchers

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

A juvenile European Starling hopped along the rocks with Brewer’s Blackbirds.

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Black Turnstones livin up to their name.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 2: Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley

Following my overview of some birds I saw on the Canadian Rockies trip I took in April, part 1 was the birds I saw in and around the parks themselves. Part 2 is what I saw en route from Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley including some birds and other sights. Driving from the chaos and traffic of Vancouver, we took the scenic route through the Coast Mountains via Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky Highway past Stawamus Chief and Mt Garibaldi.

Shannon Falls near Stawamus Chief (below) south of Squamish, BC

Standing out above Howe Sound and the highway, Stawamus Chief is a granite monolith akin to Half Dome in Yosemite. Nearby Mt Garibaldi is a 2,678m high stratovolcano. It is the northernmost volcano of the Cascade magmatic arc which also includes Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker (Mathews and Monger, 2005).

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Mt Garibaldi

Coming down from the snowy Coast Mountains and onto the flat dry interior, we arrived at our halfway point – Kamloops, BC. As part of a semi-arid region reaching down to the deserts of Nevada, it is a stark contrast to the green west coast.

It certainly brought back memories of the Nevada and Utah desert with prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, Ponderosa Pine and yes, even rattlesnakes (Yep, rattlesnakes in Canada). Along with these geographical changes came some different birds, including the Black-billed Magpie and the yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

Kamloops, BC sits on the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers in the semi-arid interior
Black-billed magpie, Kamloops, BC
yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, Kamloops, BC

East from Kamloops, we headed toward the Selkirk Mountains and Mt Revelstoke, passing through Glacier National Park and the Monashee Mountains via Roger’s Pass to come out at the Columbia River Valley. This valley is one of the few remaining mountain valleys where natural wetlands remain today and it is incredible. I could have stopped here for a few days to explore its rich wildlife. We passed more osprey nests along the river than I’ve ever seen in one area before!

Our first significant snow of the trip in Glacier National Park. We stopped to have a play for a bit. This is more snow than we’ve seen in all of our Victoria winters combined.

In the valley, we stopped at Reflection Lake just south of Golden, BC for a break and some dinner cooked on the camping stove. It was a lovely site to watch birds, with lots of American Coots, Canada Geese, Mallards, Buffleheads, Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds. It was a lovely and refreshing stop to watch the birds in the late afternoon as the sun began to fade behind the snow-flecked mountain peaks. That night, we would finally reach the Rocky Mountains proper, in Radium Hot Springs and Kootenay National Park.

American Coot at Reflection Lake
a Song Sparrow at Reflection Lake
Looking west toward the Monashee Mountains at Reflection Lake outside Golden, BC

Next up is the final Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 3 – heading home from Jasper to the Fraser Valley.


References
Mathews, B. and J. Monger, 2005. Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia.

Related posts:
Birding Highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys