More birds of Finley Wildlife Refuge

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.

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A forest stream at  William Finley National Wildlife Refuge

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.

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Ring-necked Ducks
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The Northern Shovelers were not cooperating for my photos or perhaps I was not patient enough!
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At one of the pond pull-outs, I watched Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding just on the edge of the pond from my bird blind/the car.
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Hooded Merganser pair
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American Kestrel
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Northern Harrier

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.

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Snowy hills in the distance
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Acorn Woodpecker
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Acorn Woodpecker
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California Scrub-Jay
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Dark-eyed Junco
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Golden-crowned Sparrow (and a Dark-eyed Junco)

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…

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Northern Birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cowichan Bay and spent some time around the water, one of my favourite spots for watching birds. I’ve been there a few times, but it was only this trip when I finally discovered how to get to the estuary itself. There is a trail that starts from a small, gravel parking lot and then leads out onto the estuary itself to a nice viewing platform.

I’d been convinced it would be a good spot if only I could get there, but I’d never found the access point and thought it was off-limits. I was so excited to have finally found the way and it turned out even better than I expected.

I was there on a chilly, overcast November day, and there were ducks everywhere! Earlier that day, I’d finally seen my first Bufflehead of the season! I think it was so late because I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. At the estuary, Buffleheads abounded and large groups of American Wigeons floated close together or mingled on the shore. Almost hidden among the wigeons were a couple of Northern Pintails, the first of three birds with ‘Northern’ in their name we’d see that day.

It was a good thing the wigeons were so tightly packed. As we reached the viewing tower, we glimpsed a raptor flying low overhead. The wigeons picked up and moved almost as a unit, all of them flying in unison, aware of the looming threat. Soon, the silent hunter circled back around again, flying low over the water, gliding on outstretched wings.

The white rump patch gave it away; a Northern Harrier. Only my second, but this time I got to share it with my partner. We watched the drama unfold around us and saw a near-collision with an American Wigeon in-flight (photos below). These hawks usually hunt smaller prey, but are able to catch ducks and rabbits as well (Cornell).

There was more excitement still awaiting us at the Cowichan Estuary; we watched a Belted Kingfisher dive quickly into the water from its perch with barely a splash and come back up with a catch.

While returning along the same trail, I saw a bird land in a tree out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw it; a bird larger than a songbird, with a grey back and a distinctive black eye mask. My first Northern Shrike. I’d wanted to see one ever since I watched Planet Earth II and saw the fascinating segment on the butcherbird.

Northern Shrikes are predatory songbirds. They sometimes impale their prey (insects, small mammals or birds) on fences or spines. This must be how they got their scientific name Lanius excubitor, as it translates to “Butcher Watchman” (Cornell). Moments after I snapped a photo, it was gone.

The Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier and Northern Shrike have little in common but their shared environment and their name, but they are each distinctively interesting and beautiful in their own way. Each serves a purpose in the environment around them and each deserves to be appreciated and protected for years to come.

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Bufflehead and American Wigeons
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Two Northern Pintails among American Wigeons
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Northern Harrier in flight
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Northern Harrier in flight
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near collision mid-flight
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Belted Kingfisher with her catch
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Northern Shrike, the butcherbird