A quiet summer watching nestlings grow

Summer has been quiet, but busy somehow. I have a few other projects I’ve been working on and my bird-watching has been close to home for the most part with a couple exceptions.

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Scenes like this Western Tiger Swallowtail are few and far between now that we are in the depths of summer.

What was all green and lush and full of life in spring is now brown and golden with drought. This year marks the fourth summer in a row which has been a drought in Victoria. Yesterday it rained for the first time in months, but I don’t think it did much to alleviate conditions.

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This raccoon seemed to be feeling the heat on a hot morning

At least the roses in cultivated gardens do not seem to mind much, flowering still in beautiful, bright colours. Some songbirds, too, do not seem to mind, but I wonder how the hot weather affects them. House Finches and Bushtits have been abounding everywhere I go in little flocks, finches singing in berry bushes and bushtits gleaning insects off trees as they leap from branch to branch. I hope they can all find enough to eat.

Nests are busy places, too. At the osprey nest, I have still only seen one juvenile, but I am hopeful there is another there and I just keep missing it. Otherwise, I wonder what it means for the osprey if they only have one baby. Two years ago, they had three successful fledglings so I have high hopes for the family! I wonder if the hot, dry conditions somehow made it more difficult to rear all three young or if an egg or two was taken by a predator. I’ve seen the little one flapping his wings inside the nest a few times, strengthening the muscles and experimenting.

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Osprey with juvenile at the nest

I’ve been seeing more nesting birds this summer and I have been monitoring a Barn Swallow colony since their arrival in May. I watched as they buzzed about busily building and repairing nests, then watching and listening to the tiny babies in their nests. They grow up so fast; a mere week or so later, they have already left the safety of their nest and start flying.

I feel quite attached to them after watching them grow up and feel quite proud when I see the juveniles flying about on their own, but equally heartbroken when a few have not survived. My hope is that most of them can succeed despite the difficulties and threats they are faced with in today’s world. That goes for all the nestlings; birds have many obstacles to face in our constantly expanding world that makes me sometimes wonder if it will ever be enough for humanity? Or will we continue to crave for more? More money, more cars, more oil, more expansion, until we simply self-destruct?

But there is still beauty to be found. Last weekend, I found my first hummingbird myself! I’ve seen them pointed out by others before, but never seen an active one or found it on my own. I saw the little bird hovering around a tree with a bit of something in its beak and waited long enough to confirm my suspicions; she’s a breeding female as she landed in her nest.

Only seeing the nest in real life on a tree branch brings home just how tiny they are. She’s likely on at least her second brood of the year as Anna’s Hummingbirds start breeding early. It was quite exciting to find this and appreciate the pure beauty in something so small. Its moments like these that are like little beacons of light in the face of the destruction happening in the world. That the song and life of a single small hummingbird could mean so much is a good reminder of the beauty and love that persists.

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Anna’s Hummingbird nest

 

Happy birthday osprey!

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Osprey on her nest before the babies were born

Monday was a happy day! I checked on a local osprey nest I monitor from time-to-time and found a tiny little baby osprey head just poking up over the edge of the nest! He must have been born at least few days ago for his head to be peeping up now.

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Both parents attentive to their baby. This was my first glimpse of the new ospret as I like to call them.

I imagine its quite cozy in there right now, but by the end of summer, it will be cramped with at least one or two other young to share living quarters with. At this point, I have only seen a single head so I wonder if there are more babies on the way.

Both parents paid attention to the baby as dad brought in some fish to feed on for the family. I watched mum delicately tear off small bits of fish and feed it to the baby, his open mouth earnestly awaiting his lunch.

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Mum tears off smaller bits of fish to feed to baby

Competition is tough among osprey young, often leaving the third chick to die of starvation or being killed by its siblings. Last year, all three chicks successfully fledged, so it is possible to raise three young if good resources are available.

By about fifty days of age at the end of the summer, the chicks will have fledged and have to find food independently after their parents leave for warmer southern latitudes over the winter.

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Mum also has to keep a watchful eye out for predators
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Hopefully there are more scenes like this in the future for our osprey family

Osprey watch is on again

All month, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the local osprey! Finally, I saw them for the first time last week. I thought they might be a bit late this year due to our late start to spring, but maybe I was just late going to check.

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Osprey pair (female right, male left)

I’m happy to see them back again and I hope they have another successful year after 3 chicks successfully fledged last year. When I first visited the nest again, there was only the female on her own. But soon enough, the male showed up and they chatted together at the nest. I watched the male fly off for a time and return with nesting material already.

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Juvenile from a previous year

I imagine they are re-affirming their relationship after being apart for the winter, but according to the experts, osprey return to their nests sites out of attachment to the site rather than their mate (Bierregaard et al., 2016). Returning to their old nest is very beneficial to the success of their young as it allows the pair to save time and energy.

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The pair this year

They’ve continued to occupy the site and yesterday, I watched them as a Bald Eagle passed by overhead. Bald Eagles are a tough competitor for Osprey; they will steal their nests, steal their fish and prey on their young. They both flew up from the nest and circled over the area, but did not seem too perturbed by the eagle in the vicinity.

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Flying high overhead today

Today, they were quite boisterous and loud and I saw three Osprey circling overhead not far from the nest site. I wonder if they are competitive males or juveniles from previous years returning for their first summer in the north. Osprey in their first summer remain in the south while two-year olds make their first journey north, but often do not breed successfully yet (Bierregaard et al., 2016). I remember a third male hanging around last summer. I will have to continue watching and see what happens. I can only hope for the best for our pair!

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The pair this week

Resources

Bierregaard, R. O., A. F. Poole, M. S. Martell, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2016). Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.683

Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

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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…

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taking off for flight

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.

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my Dark-eyed Junco momma…
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White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

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.

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.

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Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song

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).

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Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!

 

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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…

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying
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Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
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Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
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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….

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Purple Martin

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

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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!

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Orange-crowned Warbler
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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.

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.

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

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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Dad returning to the nest area
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Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey
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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.

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Patiently waiting for lunch
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“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.

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!

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Bald Eagle nest

 

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!

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pileated Woodpecker

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.

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.

 

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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