Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.

As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…

Osprey at the nest back in April on one of my few visits

Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.

my Dark-eyed Junco momma…

I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.

White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.

The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).

Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song
Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!
Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying

So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.

Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…

Western Sandpiper (breeding) – rufous on crown and scapulars, spotted breast, seen in June
Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
Glaucous-winged Gull with pink legs and grey wingtips

With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….

Purple Martin

Spring is a busy time for birds with hunting, singing and nest-building to do!

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!

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler (the orange crown is just barely visible in this photo)

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.

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.

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.

Song Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Bewick’s Wren with a fly in his beak
Bewick’s Wren, fly on the ground
Bewick’s Wren with the fly once more

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.

Green-winged Teals (female left, male right)
Ring-necked Ducks (female left, male right)
Killdeer

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.

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!

Goodbye, osprey! until next year…

It was around this time last year that I first started  becoming seriously interested in birding. An osprey nest near my work had piqued my interest, and soon enough, I was moving onto all kinds of other birds! But osprey will always be special to me after inspiring me to really become more interested in birding.

This year, I was prepared for them. With the coming of spring, I eagerly anticipated their arrival back north. Sure enough, in early April they were back. When I had a chance, I watched them this summer and it was quite a journey…

I watched the parents work on their nest. I waited and hoped for the pair to mate, and they did. After that, I was hopeful they would have chicks! And they did better than I ever imagined: three chicks successfully fledged this year! Watching them grow and feed and learn to fly over these last couple of months has been such a special experience.

Two juvenile osprey (left) are almost as big as their parents! (Adult osprey right)

By mid-August, the chicks were almost unrecognizable from the adults. Soon, the mother left the nest for the south while dad stuck around a little longer to help feed the chicks.

Juvenile osprey tests her wings.
Juvenile osprey are growing up and testing their wings…
...but it would still be nice if you brought me some fish, dad!
“…but it would still be nice if you brought me some fish, dad!” The juvenile calls from the nest.

Knowing summer was ending and the osprey would be gone soon, I took some time out one day to go watch them and say goodbye. They certainly put on a good last show for me; two fledglings were on the nest and the third was on another light post at the stadium.

A fledgling spread its wings and took off…
made a short flight…
…before coming back in to the nest for a landing.
She looked to be in good shape for flying with all that practice!

I was so happy to see all three fledglings that day, and to get to see one of them fly. The two of them then perched on or near the nest for a while, calling out just like they did as chicks! I couldn’t have asked for a nicer goodbye to the osprey.

It was a joy watching them grow and learn this summer as I learned more about them and I hope to see our osprey pair back next year! I will miss their calls and their flying and diving and I will miss eagerly going to watch them under the summer sun. But for now, I say goodbye to the osprey, enjoy the sunny skies in South America…until we meet again in April!

Summertime nest observation: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron

Summer is in full swing here in Victoria – the cicadas are buzzing, the flowers have bloomed and many birds are caring for their young. Last week I was quite lucky to stumble upon a few new nests, as well as checking up on the old ones.

These are exciting times at the Osprey nest I’ve been watching on and off. Around mid-June, the chicks hatched and on June 22, I saw three wee heads poking out from the nest! I’m so excited to be watching them thrive and grow throughout the season this year after only discovering the nest late last summer.

Three little Osprey chick heads poke out from the nest while mum watches over

All the pair’s hard work repairing and working on the nest starting in April has certainly paid off. Three chicks also hatched last year, but only two fledged.  So far, this year’s three are doing well and I am very hopeful for them!

Last week I went to watch to find lots of action underway! A third Osprey was in the area, seemingly agitating the mother who continuously called out and eventually gave chase to the intruder. A third Osprey had been sighted periodically throughout the pair’s courtship and nest-building; I wonder if this was the same one.

Dad-Osprey finally returned to the nest area and settled on a nearby light-post. Soon, he was swooping and diving and calling loudly in an impressive flight display chasing off the third osprey, and the happy family was safely tucked into their nest once more.

Dad returning to the nest area
Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey
Osprey family all tucked in the nest

My second visit last week saw more activity – lunchtime! Mum and babies were calling out hungrily from the nest until dad swooped in with lunch – fish, of course! It must be very hard work fishing for four family members and yourself. Its no wonder only two chicks fledged last year.

Patiently waiting for lunch
“Fish again, dad?”

In a setting entirely different from the sports field, but still not far from human activity, I found a Bald Eagle nest hidden up a tree.

Bald Eagle nest

So far, I have seen no chicks, but it looked like they were busy building up the nest in preparation and giving it lots of attention. I’ve only ever once before seen a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, so I am very excited about this!

Carefully placing a branch in the nest (above) while their mate looks on, presumably supervising the nest-building

I really hope to see chicks here in the future. Bald Eagles are a rare creature out east where I grew up, but B.C. is home to a huge population of these sea-eagles. Sometimes I find it funny that I have seen far more of them here than I have in its iconic home to the south, the U.S. I saw one fly low over my backyard the other day; something I have never seen before and will not soon forget!

Bald Eagle pair at their nest

On the weekend, I spotted an Osprey nest at another sports field. Its so interesting that Osprey do not seem to mind the noise and boisterousness from the games going on below. I didn’t spy any chicks from the angles I could view from, but here’s hoping there are some more on the way!

Another Osprey nest found at another sports field.

Finally, I observed a Great Blue Heronry which used to house many more nests in the past until the nests were decimated by bald eagle predation.  It appears to be bouncing back, though, with a number of nests hidden in the boughs of trees with tall herons perched atop branches looking every bit as graceful as they are in the water.


Unlike Osprey, Great Blue Herons are incredibly sensitive to human disturbances and will abandon nests as a result. However, their chicks are also vulnerable to predators like bald eagles. While Bald Eagles and Osprey tend to mate for life, Great Blue Heron pairs remain together only for the season and will seek other mates in the following years.

Despite their differences, all three of these birds rely on fish as a huge part (or the only part) of their diet. That means the success of each species is intrinsically linked with the health of the ocean. While individuals may thrive in an ideal nesting site or decline from human disturbance or predators, as a whole, how will they survive challenges like dwindling fish from over-fishing, plastic pollution and ingestion or toxic chemicals moving up the food chain?

Did you notice the common link between these challenges are humans? Only we can change our habits, our behaviour, our society, in order to protect the environment from ourselves. Next time you reach for that plastic bottle of soda at the store, order fish for dinner or put pesticides on your garden or lawn, think about the impact of your actions and choices. Think about the Osprey, think about the Great Blue Heron. Remember Rachel Carson and DDT in Silent Spring. Think about the ocean. It belongs to all of us, human and creature alike, and as such each one of us is responsible for its well-being.


More reading and resources
Overfishing.org explains what overfishing is, why it is a problem and what you can do to help.
Participate in a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to remove garbage and debris from the coasts. Remember it is always better not to pollute, litter and use single-use plastics in the first place.
Observe a nest at OspreyWatch and log your observations to partake in citizen science.
Seven ways you can reduce ocean pollution right now

Back home in BC and observing some familiar backyard birds

Even though I love travelling and its often energizing and inspiring to me, I also love returning home. Besides those comforts of home, its good to be back near the ocean again, to be around familiar birds again and, of course, to see little Amber again.

DSC03606
Amber in a favored spot, likely watching the birds, too.

Though not technically in my backyard, before I left, I had been watching the osprey closely. They were appearing to have begun settling in and were spending more time at the nest despite some unwelcome visitors, including a third osprey and bald eagles.

Osprey, the sea-hawk (male), keeping watch over the area. He stayed here for a long time, possibly keeping watch out for that third osprey or other threats.

I saw them mate a few times and hopefully the female will lay eggs soon. I finally learned how to distinguish the male from the female osprey: a female has brown speckling across her breast where the male is fully white. I’d been puzzling over this for some time.

Osprey in flight

My backyard is full of both familiar and new birds and spring activity. Where months ago, I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker in a tree in the backyard numerous times, I heard a pecking on the tree and looked up. Instead of a woodpecker, I spotted a little Red-breasted Nuthatch in the very same tree.

Pileated Woodpecker in the backyard

I then regularly spotted the nuthatch in the tree. I wonder if perhaps he was using an old nesting cavity from the woodpecker? He seemed to be working hard every day, though, so maybe he was building his own. I love watching these little nuthatches scurry up and down the tree trunks as if gravity didn’t exist.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Its exciting to spot new birds and explore new territory, I also find a great joy in seeing regular visitors and observing their behavior and patterns. I like getting to know the locals.

The Bushtit was a new bird for me and was tricky to photograph as she looked very busy out gathering nesting materials before the threaten of looming rain came in the afternoon. I found her challenging to identify because of her rather non-descript, or drab, plumage.

Bushtit, a new bird for me
The Chestnut-Backed Chickadee, in usual fashion, moves quickly in search of food.
This Spotted Towhee gave itself a bath in a nearby pool of water and then perched in the low branches of a tree.

Not only birds, but other animals are preparing for and taking care of young as well. I watched this Eastern Gray Squirrel nimbly climb from the ground, up a tree trunk, then across tiny branches across to another tree only to hang upside-down in order to dine on some flowers. She’d seemed to plot out the safest path to her food-source, avoiding exposing herself on open ground for too long. She was very efficient about it, which is not at all surprising considering this invasive species has found great success here.

Eastern Grey Squirrel foraging in the trees

I am sure spring will bring other interesting wildlife and beauty, birds new and old alike, and greater opportunity to get outdoors with longer and warmer days. There is much to look forward to!

The osprey are back!

Today, I have very exciting news – the osprey are back!

I almost feel a little bit like Gandalf at the end of The Return of the King Book 6 during the battle at the Field of Cormallen, when he exclaims “The eagles are coming!”

“As if to his eyes some sudden vision had been given, Gandalf stirred; and he turned, looking back north where the skies were pale and clear. Then he lifted up his hands and cried in a loud voice ringing above the din: The Eagles are coming! “ – The Return of the King, Book 6 Chapter 4, The Field of the Cormallen by J.R.R. Tolkien

Osprey pair

Yes, I am that excited! Last summer, when I really started getting into bird-watching, I went to watch the osprey whenever I had the chance. I may even be guilty of doing extra errands just so I could get a chance to spot them. I have been looking forward to this moment for the last few weeks, and just this past Monday, the second of the pair arrived back.

Osprey are beautiful birds of prey whose diet consists mainly of fish. That’s why they build their nests close to freshwater bodies or the ocean. During the northern winter, osprey migrate to South America before returning north around April to mate and typically stay until September or October.

migration-paths-IUCN
Migration paths of osprey from the IUCN Red List (image from Osprey Watch)

Osprey typically mate for life and often return to the same nest site each year. They like to nest on high-up platforms, including man-made structures, and some parks have designated osprey platforms. They have a single brood of chicks each year. Once the chicks are hatched, the pair share parenting duties; the female remains at the nest protecting the chicks while the male goes fishing. Even after the chicks fledge, the parents stay on and both go hunting (or fishing), bringing back fish for the chicks to eat. I like this cooperative parenting method.

You can watch the pair live online at the University of Victoria’s osprey webcam. There are other pairs in the area, but this is the only one I know of with a webcam. This nest has been active since 2005 with two out of three chicks successfully fledging last year.

the pair

Yesterday when I went to watch our osprey, they were working on building their nest. One of them typically stayed back at the nest while the other flew off for a bit and returned each time with a branch which was then carefully added to the nest. While one was away, the other would sometimes call. I am guessing that is maybe the two of them keeping in touch, but I’m not sure. This all went on for quite some time.

I think this pair have got a head start because much of their nest from previous years was leftover. I am hoping this gives them an advantage later to have more time to spend hunting, mating and raising healthy chicks.

getting ready for take-off
waiting patiently and calling out
returning with a branch
carefully building the nest

I hope there will be many more osprey photos (and babies) and observations to come over the spring and summer. They are very intelligent creatures, so I take every precaution that I can not to disturb them. I remember last year if I accidentally wandered too close, they would start calling out in alarm.

There could be a nest near you. Check out Osprey Watch to see if there is.


Sources:
Friends of the Osprey
Ospreys.org
Osprey Watch