Happy spring to the northern world!

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The green among the brown in early spring at Talking Water Gardens, Albany, OR

Just about two weeks ago here, we had some snow fall and the world was turned into a fleeting winter wonderland. The next couple of days could not have been more different with abundant sunshine and warm temperatures and the weather has not looked back since!

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Some very early buds I saw earlier in March
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green against brown – I believe this is native Indian Plum or Oso Berry
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But not everything is brown. Winter rain keeps forested areas green with moss and ferns through winter.

Spring officially sprung yesterday on the Spring Equinox according to the calendar, which is defined by the day and time the equator passes under the center of the sun. Of course, its only the northern half of the world that experiences spring while our southern neighbours enjoy the Autumnal Equinox.

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Song Sparrow
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Anna’s Hummingbird

Besides the calendar, everything around me seems to be showing its time for spring, too! I’ve heard the juncos and sparrows start singing their songs, Anna’s Hummingbirds have likely already been busy mating this year, and on Sunday I saw my first Tree Swallows of the season while gardening in my backyard!

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Native Oregon Grape flowers are beginning to show. This is the Oregon state flower and bees and hummingbirds can’t resist the flower’s nectar.
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More buds growing. These are unopened willow buds, though I’m not sure which type.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw my first Violet-green Swallows of the season and I saw even more today! They are bringing spring on their wings, coming to feed on insects coming to life with the warmer temperatures and longer days. I’ve spied a number of Turkey Vultures flying overhead and even saw one in a ditch on the side of the road probably cleaning up roadkill. Migration has begun!

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Large flocks of Canada Geese fly noisily overhead…
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…while American White Pelicans soar soundlessly, almost imperceptible against the clouds but for their bright yellow beaks.

Trees and bushes are beginning to sprout buds and blooms, filling the fresh spring air with the early scents of flowers. Crocuses and daffodils add splashes of colour to the ground along sidewalks, trails, in gardens and beneath trees. Everywhere, new life is blooming around me while every day brings change.

Spring is undeniably a time of change, new life and hope! Simply put, I hope you enjoy it as much as me when it comes wherever you are. Take time to literally smell the roses, and lilies, and lilacs and all your local natives, too! Sometimes I find myself wishing spring could last all year long as I think its my favourite season. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, beautiful world?

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I believe this is a flowering native Indian Plum or Oso Berry
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If this cheery bright yellow willow doesn’t make you feel hopeful, I don’t know what will!

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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That’s a gaggle of geese!

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McFadden Marsh at William L Finley NWR

Earlier this week, I went exploring William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis, OR. The refuge was established to protect the wintering grounds of the dusky Canada Goose, a subspecies of Canada Goose that spend winter here and breed in Alaska. I’d never even heard of these geese until I visited the refuge. Much of the refuge is closed over winter to protect their habitat, but there’s still plenty of birds to see at the spaces that are open.

The difference between dusky Canada Geese and others was not immediately clear to me, but after checking some references, I can say with confidence that these are dusky Canada Geese. They have a darker, almost brown breast.

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Dusky Canada Geese
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Dusky Canada Goose marked with a red collar for tracking their movements.
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Compare the dusky to the Canada Goose with a cleaner, whiter breast. This one is a truly Canadian goose from Victoria!

And I can see why the refuge is here because the geese love it. While I walked to one of the marsh overlooks, a sudden roar of goose honks sounded in the distance. I looked up to see a hundreds of geese flying noisily overhead and I thought, now that is a gaggle of geese! Further along, some of the fields were painted brown with huge numbers of geese, more than I’ve ever seen before!

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The geese in flight

Dusky Canada Geese were once the only population of over-wintering geese in the Wilamette Valley, but in the last fiftty years, Cackling Geese have moved in as well as a new resident group of Canada Geese. Perhaps this is yet another sign of the times in an ever-warming climate with other populations of birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and Red-shouldered Hawks creeping north and staying over the winter, too. Sometimes I think animals and people living closely to nature can tell us a whole lot about the status of our ecosystems if we just learned to pay attention.

 

New feathered faces in Oregon

Now that we’ve settled in our new place in Oregon and been here a couple months, I’ve had the chance to go explore my new territory. After living there four years and getting to know it well, its hard not to miss Victoria with its beautiful seaside and many gardens.

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An Oregon forest of ferns not unlike forests on the forests on Vancouver Island!

But there are lots of exciting new places to explore here, so I’ve met some new feathered faces already. The best part is that the local neighborhood birds have found my feeder at last! Its comforting to hear the peep-cheep of the chickadees and the chip-chip off the juncos in the backyard. Backyard birdwatching is probably my favourite way to watch birds and with a much less green backyard here, I was worried I wouldn’t have any birds come visit.

I’m going to have to improve my raptor identification skills, which are still sort of lacking, with all the new birds of prey that live here. There are fewer Bald Eagles than Victoria, but a noticeably wider variety of other raptor species. One of them is quickly becoming a favourite…the American Kestrel. I’d seen only one before we moved here and I’ve already learned what fields to reliably find them at.

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American Kestrel perched in a tree, though the shadows make it hard to tell, you can just make out the white markings on the face.

With their graceful and fierce beauty and small size (for a bird of prey), how could I not love the kestrel? I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of listening to their calls or watching them hovering and diving. In reading about them, I learned that they can amazingly track voles via their urine which is visible with the kestrel’s ultraviolet vision! Isn’t nature amazing?

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A clearer view of one of the smallest raptors; this one was about to take flight.
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A beautiful view up close and personal with an American Kestrel at the Duncan Raptor Center in Duncan, BC

Another exciting new bird I’ve met is the Western Bluebird! Ever since I started birdwatching, I longed to see a bluebird! These thrushes aren’t common on Vancouver Island, where the loss of critical garry oak habitat and nesting cavities decimated their once flourishing populations. Some dedicated people have done great work to re-establish their populations in the Cowichan Valley and I hope they continue to succeed.

Of course, here in Oregon, the bluebird faces the same challenges and there is a lot of work being put in to help support their population. But somehow, they are more numerous here in the Wilamette Valley where they live year-round. I wonder if it is the abundance of agricultural fields that helps sustain them. Still, their populations have sharply declined here and I hope Oregon doesn’t have the same story as Vancouver Island someday.

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Western Bluebird perched in a tree on an overcast day. There were quite a few around, alternating perching and feeding on the ground.

The third new bird I’ve met is the Wrentit! These birds are very unique for North America; they have no relatives on the continent and they can only be found along a small strip of the west coast. I heard it rustling in the bushes and making an unfamiliar but somewhat wren-like call before I saw it. When I first saw this grey and brown bird, it reminded me of a cross between a wren and a Spotted Towhee. Let me know what you think based on my photo. Apparently, they can be very hard to spot among the bushes, rarely coming out from cover, so it was a lucky sighting I doubt I’ll find again anytime soon!

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The Wrentit, the only member of the Chamaea family.

Other interesting birds to encounter here are the loud and raucous California Scrub-Jay, a sort of lowland and coastal compatriot of the Steller’s Jay. At a restored wetland pond, I heard a high-pitched tweeting I’d never heard before. I looked at the trees nearby for any sign of movement, I scanned the bushes and grass and finally, near the edge of the water I saw a small bird flitting up periodically with a flourish of black feathers. A Black Phoebe hunted for insects near the water’s edge, perching periodically on the nearby rocks.

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The California Scrub-Jay, almost as blue as the sky.
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Black Phoebe taking a brief rest from hunting insects above the water’s surface

As rainy winter turns to spring, I am sure I will have many more birdwatching adventures and new faces to meet while exploring Oregon!

Endings and beginnings

The last few months have seen a lot of change. Endings and beginnings. We left Victoria and moved to Corvallis, Oregon. November was our last month in Canada. I’m still settling in here, a process that always takes longer than I anticipate. Two members of my extended family passed away and in the grey darkness of winter, it can be hard to see the light or the reason why some things happen.

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”  – The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

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Ducks in a row

But now that the solstice is past and the days are getting longer, we have set up many of the basics here so we can focus on getting to know a new place. New plants and wildlife, new birds, new places to go. Moving is always exciting, but always involves challenges I often seem to underestimate until I’m in the thick of it.

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Amber, newly an Americat, has settled in happily in her new home.

Its a bit strange for me to move back to the United States again. I haven’t lived in this country since May 2011. In seven and a half years, a lot has happened. Both to this place and to me. When I left, I admit I never really wanted to come back, but sometimes opportunities come up and you go with them. Its all an opportunity for a learning experience anyway.

There’s a lot that I miss about Victoria. Starting my journey into bird-watching there made me feel more connected to the land and nature around me than I’ve ever felt before. But its not such a different environment here and I see many familiar birds that make me feel at home again.

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While my new backyard isn’t anywhere as beautiful as the last one I was blessed with, this White-Crowned Sparrow was the first bird I saw out my window and it brought a smile to my face.

Other familiar birds like Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Herons and Song Sparrows are kind of comforting while newer birds like the Black-capped Chickadee are exciting to get to know. There are many more new birds to meet just around the corner if I look. And just like bird-watching helped me while grieving my first cat’s death, I know it will help me feel at home in a new place if I just go out and look and listen. To remember that to feel a connection to another living thing is an important feeling that can bring joy to a small moment.

 

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I saw my first ever American Kestrel and I think they might be one of my new favourites!