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…
Last weekend, there were more interesting ducks to be seen! For the first time ever on the island, I saw Ruddy Ducks! I’ve only seen these ducks once before (back in 2016 just outside Kamloops, BC) in the spring when they wore their bright breeding plumage. They are not quite as easy to recognise in their winter plumage, but they are still quite distinct from other ducks with their bi-colourd head, single face strip and upturned tail.
On the same lake not far away were Lesser Scaups, Mallards and Buffleheads. I was also excited to see a small group of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Northern Shovelers – two other species I don’t commonly see. While Ring-necked Ducks are distinguished from the very similar Lesser Scaup by the white ring around the base of their beak, their name actually refers to a rather difficult to see brown-coloured band around their neck.
I’ve only seen Northern Shovelers a handful of times, too, but they are immediately recognisable by their very large beak. To me, they look a little bit like over-sized Mallards. Why is their beak so large, like, well, a shovel? They use their large bill with little tooth-like projections on it to strain food from water. Anything from plants and seeds to crustaceans and other small critters get filtered and eaten (Cornell).
In a different part of the sanctuary, where water pools up in the winter and spring but is dry in the summer, were more mallards, a few American Coots (though not actually ducks) and a couple more Northern Shovelers. I find it fascinating that so many birds of different species can all be found on one small lake or pond. I suppose its because they each fill and rely on a different feeding niche that they can share a relatively small space.
Northern Shovelers dabble and filter along the surface while American Coots dive primarily for plants, but also the occasional insects. American Coots often capitalise on Mallards and other ducks who disturb plant and animal matter in shallow water with their feet, making it easier for the coot to feed. Meanwhile, the non-picky Mallards are pretty happy eating just about anything that’s around.
Perhaps we humans should take a cue from the animal world and learn to get along despite our differences. To mutually share spaces and resources and, while birds probably don’t do this, to maybe even try to appreciate others’ differences instead of judging them. I mean, if we egotistically think Homo sapiens are the smartest species on earth, why have animals been co-existing peacefully for years, something we have seemingly never been able to achieve since our earliest days?
Besides more sunshine and flowers, spring has brought other exciting things, too! I’ve had some lovely times out birding given the chance. Its been nice fitting in some adventures out and about on sunny or rainy days.
I saw my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the season, an absolute joy to see! Something about them brings a smile to my face watching them: with their yellow feathers and their lovely, cheery song! I listened to a pair of warblers sing to (or with?) each other in the trees. I wonder if it was a mating call or something else. Regardless, they’ve got to be one of my favourite birds to watch and I felt so lucky to see them!
Just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that caught my eye in the trees – a bushtit’s nest! The Bushtit was flitting to and from the nest, from a small opening at the top. Bushtits build hanging nests from tree branches out of plant material and spiderwebs to make it stretch down. The breeding pair sleeps in the nest each night along with other male adults who help build the nest! Seems like this nest would be quite cozy. See photos below…to avoid disturbing the nest (as I never want to displace or reveal a breeding pair), I only took photos from afar behind the cover of a cypress tree nearby.
Bushtit and nest
Bushtit at nest (click for larger view)
Its not just Bushtits working on raising young… I spied a Dark-eyed Junco between branches gathering nesting materials, her beak full of grass and moss. While Bushtits work together on nests, momma Juncos do it all on their own! Again, I watched carefully so as not to disturb her hard work.
Dark-eyed Junco with nest materials in her beak
Everyone else is busy, too. Song Sparrows have been particularly noisy lately belting out their variety of songs. While they tend to spend more of their time foraging in the brush on the ground, Spotted Towhees are out singing on their perches, too. Speaking of noisy birds, not many are noisier than the Bewick’s Wren.
I tend to bird a lot by ear, and I think I am finally able to identify this wren’s song reliably and they are much more common than I had thought! Walking a trail the other day, I heard a rustling on the ground and paused to watch and listen. After a few patient moments, out hopped a Bewick’s Wren with his lunch caught in his beak! At first I thought it was a seed but it turned out to be a fly. I watched him working hard, like a smaller, woodland version of gull dropping a crab on rocks, as he dropped the fly and repeatedly picked it up again. I imagine their down-curved beak helps them peck away at their prey.
I had my first-ever sighting of Green-winged Teals at a flood plain! They are just gorgeous and make the most interesting sounds! They were off on the side of the water doing their own thing while Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers paddled about on the more open waters. Just after spotting the teals, I saw a Killdeer in the grass. Along the edges of the water and among the cattails were quite a few Red-winged Blackbirds.
Red-winged Blackbird (male)
Red-winged Blackbird (female)
One of my most-anticipated spring arrivals just returned last week! Osprey have made their way back north to breed for the northern summer and our local pair have returned to last year’s nest. I went to watch them one afternoon but only saw one of the pair at the nest. She (I believe as she has mottled brown across the chest) was working on re-building and repairing the nest from last year and flew in and out, returning with new branches each time, then carefully placing them just so in the nest. She called out every now and again, I am guessing to stay in communication with her mate and became especially loud when a bald eagle flew far overhead. As predators of young Osprey, I have no doubt she was aware of the eagle’s presence.
returning with another part of the nest
taking off for flight
back in a familiar nest
It was inspiring to see them back again, like long lost friends, and I hope they raise successful fledglings again this year! I will be watching their progress again over the season and you can be sure there will be updates here like last year! The pair was successful at raising three fledglings last year and I watched them all the way from nest-building through to being awkward chicks to becoming proud juvenile sea-hawks! It is my hope I will get to see it all over again this summer!
After leaving Jasper, we headed south out of the Rocky Mountains and back toward home, leaving the most exciting parts of our trip behind. The trip home seemed somehow less scenic to me, but perhaps it wasn’t actually less scenic, it’s just that I had been spoiled by the beauty of Jasper National Park and our incredible grizzly bear and moose sightings there.
However, there were still some nice surprises in store for us. Near Mt Robson (the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies which was conveniently shrouded in cloud for us), we went to see Overlander Falls on the Fraser River. During the annual salmon run, those salmon who do make it past Rearguard Falls downstream only find the end of their run here at Overlander Falls.
When one thinks of the salmon run, the first image that come to mind (after salmon) is of a bear. While well before the salmon run in April, just outside of Mt Robson Provincial Park we spotted a black bear on the railroad tracks below the road. Many bears die in situations like this, often foraging along the brush eating plants like dandelions (a particular favourite of the black bear). I feared for the bear’s safety, but honestly did not know what to do or who to call…I sincerely hope this bear made it off the tracks alive. The problem is being addressed in the National Parks, but what about all the other kilometers of railway stretching across Canada in prime bear habitat like this?
My copy of The BC Roadside Naturalist, which I’d carefully studied in preparation for (and along) this trip, recommended a stop for birding opportunities at Cranberry Marsh, just outside of Valemount, BC . To my surprise, this stop was above and beyond my expectations. It was a good-sized marsh with nice walking trails and a viewing platform absolutely teeming with birds and other wildlife. There was so much to see at once, I could hardly take it all in! In fact, after 13 days of photographing the National Parks, my camera only reached its memory capacity at this stop…(much to my distress!)
There was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Cinnamon Teals, botha first for me at the time, as well as a Barrow’s Goldeneye pair. The Cinnamon Teals were especially sensitive to our presence and I hope we didn’t disturb them too much. While they all share a similar habitat, Cinnamon Teals and Barrow’s Goldeneyes are predominantly western birds while Ring-necked Ducks can be seen all across North America (Sibley, 2016). Interestingly, Barrow’s Goldeneye often lay their eggs in other cavity nests of other ducks or goldeneyes and the chicks are very independent from the minute they hatch (Cornell)!
Overhead, a stark white bird with a long neck flew gracefully above the marsh. At first it puzzled me until I realized what it was: a swan! I couldn’t determine what type in the semi-overcast lighting that still made me squint, but I am content with that. I have not seen swans flying overhead like this very often, though it must be either a Trumpeter or Tundra with the black bill.
Like Reflection Pond back near Golden, BC, there were lots of American Coots swimming along with its funny little head bob. Despite their appearances, they are more closely related to Gallinule and Rails than ducks. They eat plants and insects by both dabbling and diving and build floating nests in shallow water, commonly in marshes (Cornell).
Also enjoying the quiet marsh waters was a Northern Shoveler, of which I’d seen my first just the week before in Banff. They are dabbling ducks with long bills who happen to form monogamous pairs, a rarity in the duck world (Cornell). Meanwhile, overhead, a Bald Eagle soared above, likely looking for a meal in the flourishing marsh below. Cranberry Marsh was not only home to many birds, but also beavers and moose (whom we did not see), muskrats and squirrels.
American Red Squirrel
American Red Squirrel
We stopped in Kamloops halfway again (more briefly this time) and headed out early the next morning for home. Along the way, I saw my very first Ruddy Duck! This was at a wetland managed by Ducks Unlimited south of Kamloops along the more scenic highway 5A to the Coquihalla. I was so excited to see these diving ducks with their brilliant blue bills I’d seen so many photos of but never seen in person. My first sighting did not disappoint as this male was sporting his extra-bright blue bill for breeding season. Don’t be fooled by their cute colours, though, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
From here, we zipped along the Coquihalla Highway (nicknamed “the Coq” by locals) with its speed limit of 120km/h through the Coquihalla Pass and meeting the Fraser River at Hope, BC, the site of the largest landslide in Canada (the Hope Slide). We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls not far from Chilliwack, BC for out last scenic stop before reaching Vancouver, the ferry and finally, home with the mountains and glaciers far behind us with the sea and sun waiting before us.
The Bow Valley of Banff NP, which today provides a rich habitat we are familiar with, was once covered by glaciers and ice 20,000 years ago during a period of time known as the Last Glacial Maximum. Glaciers carved through the mountains, creating a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom and steep sides. These glaciers disappeared from the Bow Valley by about 13,000 years ago, beginning the development of today’s modern montane valley (Reasoner and Huber, 1999).
Canada’s oldest national park (established in 1887), Banff lies in the heart of the Rockies and the town of 8,000 residents sits in Bow River valley. The Bow River is sourced from the Bow Glacier, part of the Wapta Icefield and flows into Bow Lake before joining the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow Valley provides important montane habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, from birds and small mammals like squirrels all the way up to grizzly bear and elk.
With wetlands, grasslands and open forest, an alpine montane ecosystem like the Bow Valley lies below the subalpine zone and is generally warmer and snow-free in the winter, providing habitat for a large range of animals (Parks Canada). Unfortunately, the montane is also an area humans prefer to occupy, putting constant pressure on wildlife in the region.
Across the Bow River from the Vermillion Lakes, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site marks where the Banff Thermal springs were discovered and the location of the original baths. The water from the thermal springs provides a niche habitat for species not found elsewhere in the area, including killdeer, garter snakes, introduced tropical fish and the endangered Banff Springs Snail (Parks Canada).
In the wetlands and lake below the cave, we were lucky to spy what we thought was a beaver in the water. Now I am not sure if it could be a muskrat. We spied his body moving through the water and then he climbed up on shore and began eating some twigs for a while before eventually moving away out of sight.
A beaver or muskrat (I am no longer sure!) in Banff NP, AB in the wetlands below the Cave and Basin Historic Site.
Among many other birds, I was pleased to spy a White-Winged Crossbill in the trees, a new bird and first sighting for me.
Around the town and the Bow Valley floor, Columbian Ground Squirrels were a common sight. Unlike tree-dwelling American Red squirrels, these ground squirrels dig burrows underground where they spend winter. Without the lush, warm habitat of the Bow Valley montane or the microclimate of the hotsprings, none of these animals would thrive in the cold Rocky Mountains.
Columbian Ground Squirrel, Banff NP, AB.
Columbian Ground Squirrel standing up attentively to warn others of potential threats (probably humans) Banff NP, AB.