Birding in Victoria, BC at Cowichan Bay & estuary

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Cowichan Bay viewed from near the nature center where there are educational exhibits, microscopes and a spotting scope. Mt Tzouhalem (center) is a popular hiking spot.

One hour north of Victoria is Cowichan Bay; one of my favourite winter birding spots. Nearby, the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers empty out into the bay, spilling sediment and life into an estuary as the tide ebbs and flows. A Bald Eagle might fly overhead while the waters lap gently at the shore. Trumpeter and Mute Swans stand out in contrast with the blue water they float gracefully across. They arch their heads into the water, their long necks pronounced as they skim for food.

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Mute Swan

The water in the bay is calm and as blue as the sky reflecting in its surface. During the winter, the air is crisp on a cold day and frost sometimes etches the sidewalk and ground in the shade of the nearby hills. Looking out over the water, smaller bodies dot the landscape. Ducks.

For me, they are the main attraction. Small Buffleheads float in groups, diving one after the other underwater for food. Just when you’ve spotted one by the bright white head of the male or the small white spot on the females, they’ve disappeared below the surface which scarcely a splash.

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female Buffleheads

Plenty of other ducks congregate here as well. Mallards, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons and Hooded and Common Mergansers are all common visitors to these calm, cool winter waters. For those who have come south, it is a world away from the icy lakes and rivers of the north.

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Common Merganser

The bay isn’t just for the ducks, though. Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen flying by low over the water or with wings spread out to dry in the sun. Great Blue Heron hunt for fish in the shallows while Surf Scoters gather together in great rafts further offshore.

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Great Blue Heron
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a raft of Surf Scoters

As the weather warms up in the spring and summer, the bay changes, too. Days are longer and somehow it seems less quiet. Migratory birds arrive to bulk up, maybe find a mate and nest. Returning from the southern hemisphere and Central America, Osprey nest on old piers and Purple Martins make good use of nest-boxes placed throughout the area. Other swallows join the fun and the ducks grow quiet, having moved elsewhere for summer, some returning as far as the Arctic, where their breeding grounds have thawed.

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Osprey nest at Cowichan Bay

During autumn, Steller and California Sea Lions visit to feed on the abundant salmon as the fish make their way to the river to spawn upstream. If you visit the bay between October and December, they’re hard to miss as they are quite loud! Its fun to watch them both as they sun themselves on the dock in piles of bodies and as they swim the water with ease.

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Sea lions visit in the autumn

Not far from the bay is the Cowichan and Koksilah river estuary where a walking track follows a river channel out into the estuary toward a viewing tower. The estuary is a place full of life and it never disappoints. It was here I saw my first Northern Shrike and just recently, my first Western Meadowlark.

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Western Meadowlark (non-breeding)

I had always hoped to see one someday, but was not expecting it at the estuary. It just goes to show how wildlife can surprise you. You never know what you might see when you step out your door, and that is one of the best things about nature. Its never the same experience twice.

On one side of the track are active agricultural fields and on my most recent visit, another surprise was waiting to be found. A flock of Snow Geese flew overhead and landed in the field to forage, their white feathers bright in the sunshine. I’d only just seen Snow Geese for the first time in Delta, BC near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary where they overwinter. There were white bodies with black-edged wings almost as far as the eye could see; a spectacular sight!

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Snow Geese in Delta, BC

There will always be something interesting to see in nature, at the bay or estuary, or your own backyard or neighborhood park. Estuaries, wetlands, green spaces, open fields and forests are all critical resources for birds, mammals, insects and everything in between. Each creature has its place and purpose in maintaining balance. Small disruptions can cause a ripple-effect from one species to another; let us all do our part to protect these spaces and species while we can.


References

The Cowichan estuary is an Important Bird Area, and the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association is working to restore the estuary from its industrial past to its natural state.

Cowichan Bay nature center eBird
Cowichan Estuary Nature Center
Cowichan Bay estuary eBird

Related Post: Northern birds at the Cowichan Bay Estuary

Birding in Victoria, BC at Somenos Marsh in Duncan

While not technically in Victoria, one of my favourite birding spots in the region is north of Victoria in the Cowichan region at Somenos Marsh. The marsh is located just off the northbound TransCanada highway in Duncan, about an hour’s drive north of Victoria.

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Somenos Marsh, Duncan, BC

Initially, we found the marsh somewhat accidentally while driving by on our way somewhere else up island. It turned out to be a gem in the middle of the city. Thousands of migratory and overwintering birds depend on the marsh for its essential resources. The result? More than 200 species of birds have been sighted here.

 

The marsh features a nice, loop walkway with raised boardwalks and interpretive signs. There are currently plans to install a viewing platform in the future and the society is actively fundraising for it as of this post.

For me, Somenos really shines in the spring and summer! I’ll never forget watching diving and soaring Tree Swallows the first time I visited the marsh! Being one of my favourite birds, I was enthralled and impressed by the number of swallows here.

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Tree Swallow perched for a rare rest on a nest-box
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Tree Swallow pair at a nesting box

They use nest-boxes perched alongside the boardwalks to raise young, feeding them all the delicious insects available in the wetland. While Tree Swallows soar above your head and sometimes dive in front of you, Song Sparrows sing their familiar melodies. Common Yellowthroats tick and chick, singing witchety-witchety-witchety from within the tall grass, teasing you with their song. They are only visible by the twitching and moving stalks of grass except for the occasional glimpse of their bright yellow body and bold eye-stripe awarded to those who are patient.

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A parent Tree Swallow watches over nestlings at Somenos Marsh
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Tree Swallow perched for a rest in the sun.
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a female Red-winged Blackbird bringing food for her babies

While it promises birds abounding in spring and summer, Somenos shines any time of year! Wintering ducks and geese find shelter and food at the flooded marsh during the cold months. Bald Eagles can be seen soaring the skies and Spotted Towhees can be heard croaking and mewing from within the bushes at any time of year while Red-winged Blackbirds buoyantly flounce from cattail to nestbox giving out their familiar raucous calls. It is well-worth a visit on its own or on your way elsewhere up island.

 


Resources
Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society
Somenos Marsh eBird Page

The small, the mighty, the Red-breasted Nuthatch!

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is one of our smallest birds here in B.C. at just about 4 or 5in in length. That puts them around the same size as kinglets. However small they are in stature, however, they certainly make up for it by their presence.

I think of them as miniature woodpeckers of a kind. And if you’ve ever heard a nuthatch drumming on a tree like I have, you’ll know they can be surprisingly noisy. The first time I noticed a Red-breasted Nuthatch after hearing it pecking a tree, I felt surprised that something so small could make so much noise!

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The Red-breasted Nuthatch climbing along a garry oak tree. Their plumage is distinct with their orange breast, slate-blue back and black-and-white crown.

Its not only their thrumming that draws attention to them; if their pale orange breast isn’t enough to catch your attention, their sound sure will! Their song is quite distinct. To me it sounds like a series of nasal beep beep beep‘s (though the Cornell Lab is trying to tell me it is “yank – well, to each their own) that sound like a miniature trumpet. Have a listen here. They also make a chittery noise that sounds like friendly chatter to me, but I wonder if that’s how they boss around the other birds in their mixed flocks. They often group with chickadees and kinglets; easily getting along as they each feed at different heights or areas.

They thrive in coniferous forests and live year-round in much of western and northern North America, including here on Vancouver Island, though some populations are migratory. At feeders, they often aggressively chase out other bigger birds to have the best choice of seeds for themselves. Perhaps they are trying to eliminate competition for the best food as they prefer to take the heaviest seeds available (Ghalambor et al., 1999). This might explain why I often see Red-breasted Nuthatches lingering at my feeder longer than other birds, who tend to fly back and forth a bit more.

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I watched this bird move deftly up and down this tree for a while, impressed by his climbing skills before he moved onto another nearby trunk to repeat the process.

I love watching their movements whether in flight or up and down branches or drumming on trees. Their movements and short body shape remind me of darts the way they quickly move around with high energy. It amazes me how they are capable of moving vertically up the trunks of trees.

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How do they move vertically up and down trees with such ease? Check out their feet – the backward toe you see gripping the feeder tree is what enables them to climb trees.

Like all nuthatches, they require cavities for nesting and will often excavate their own instead of using an abandoned woodpecker nest (Cornell). Even more fascinating is that they use sticks to apply resin around the outside of their nest holes (Ghalambor 1999). No one knows for sure what purpose it serves (theories include deterring predators or competitors), but it shows remarkable intelligence in a small creature that would surprise some people (Ghalambor, et al. 1999). Especially those who once arrogantly thought that tool-use was unique to humans. If you ask me, animals are a lot more intelligent than we are. Look at mixed flocks of birds co-existing peacefully together; a feat we humans have yet to truly achieve.

Their small-but-mighty attitude, energetic movements on trees, their beautiful colouring and their antics with other birds make the Red-breasted Nuthatch one of my favourite birds. Not only are they a joy to observe and listen to, but nuthatches, like everything in nature, can teach us a lot about our world and ourselves. If you’re feeling small and insignificant, remember the Red-breasted Nuthatch and how he makes himself heard! I always think of the nuthatch as being small, but mighty!

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Small, but mighty! At my feeder, other birds tend to clear out when the Red-breasted Nuthatch arrives.

References

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Ghalambor, C. K. and T. E. Martin (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

A snowy hike in Strathcona in June

Back in mid-June, when we weren’t in the grip of a heat wave and summer was still at its start, I finally went on a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park that I’d been hoping to do for some time. I wanted to hike part of the Forbidden Plateau lakes trail. My partner and I had thought about stopping to do it on our way back from the North Island last April, but decided the weather wasn’t quite right yet.

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Path through the woods early on the Forbidden Plateau trails at Strathcona Provincial Park

Our original plan was to head up to Lake Helen Mackenzie then continue on to Kwai Lake, taking take a loop trail past a number of others lakes back to the start. We arrived early and were ready for a big day. It was nice to arrive up in the mountains, where it had to be about 10 degrees cooler and even the air smelled fresher. We set off on a very well-maintained trail through alpine marshes alternating with forest trails.

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I imagine in a few weeks’ time, this marsh will be overgrown with beautiful wildflowers of all colours.

For the most part, it was quite silent in the still mountain air; a refreshing silence. But as we stepped onto one of the many boardwalks that cross the marshes along the trail, we heard a very loud cry in the distance.

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An inquisitive Canada Jay (Gray Jay or whiskeyjack – a bird of many names).
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A fledgling Canada Jay learning from parents.

Suddenly, a family of curious Gray Jays (or Canada Jays) landed in the trees around us and loudly advertised their, and our, presence to the whole forest. With them was a very demanding juvenile bird. I’m sure the whole family would have loved a nice treat from us. Once they seemed to understand that we weren’t those kinds of humans, they eventually moved off into the woods, hopping from tree to tree until they disappeared and silence reigned once more.

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intelligence in the eyes of a Canada Jay

Crossing a creek, we glimpsed a lone Black-tailed Deer upstream, so different from the urban deer we frequently see. I wonder how many people this doe encounters in her daily life. After a pleasant walk, we reached Lake Helen Mackenzie, its calm, clear water stirred only by the gentle wind. On the far side of the lake, snow touched down to lake level and I could imagine this place snow and ice-covered in the winter.

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Black-tailed deer in natural habitat.
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Lake Helen Mackenzie

After lunching at the lakeside, we assessed our energy levels and opted to continue on to Kwai Lake. From here, the trail became less well-defined and more difficult, with roots and branches threatening to trip you underfoot and a steady uphill climb, sometimes across little ephemeral creeks.

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Small cascade coming down the hillside along the trail

A loud chorus of frogs croaked in the near distance; I could glimpse just bits of a lake somewhere below us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard frogs quite so loud! We continued on until the path became even less defined and covered in more and more snow as we climbed up.

Thoughts of turning back began to creep into my mind as we kept going until we reached another hiker who opted to turn around because he lost the trail beneath the snow. He wished us luck and we kept on until we, too, lost all sign of the trail beneath the snow now blanketing everywhere. After a brief discussion on the pro’s con’s and possibilities of each choice, we decided to turn back for safety’s sake. We could have pushed on, but I felt safer and more comfortable turning back, knowing I’d be safe at my campground that night.

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An early spring flower in the mountains

We passed by the loud chorusing frogs again and passed Lake Helen Mackenzie, now much busier than it was when we’d arrived earlier, and followed the trail loop back to the trailhead past Battleship Lake. As it turns out, we ran into another hiker who’d turned back and changed plans, too, which reassured me we made the right choice.

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Battleship Lake and Mt Washington in the background

Though disappointed we didn’t make the full hike, it was still a beautiful trip. For me, it is more about the journey and what we see and experience along the way than the end destination.

After encountering more Gray Jays on our return, we made it safely to our campground for the night. By the river, it was much warmer and it was hard to believe that we’d been stopped by snow earlier in the day. But that is part of the fascination of the mountains; they are like a world apart.

That night, at our campground, I heard something that sounded like a raptor for sure. When I got up to investigate in the nearby trees, I found two Barred Owl owlets perched up high being watched over by their parent. Though our trip hadn’t gone quite according to plan, if you open your eyes and ears, and observe what’s around you, remember what’s important, you might not care so much about the unexpected.

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juvenile and adult Barred Owls

 

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

 

Summer sun, sand & shorebirds at Sidney Spit

I took my annual summer trip to Sidney Spit a few weeks ago and it was just as good as it always is. It was nearing lunch time so I set off for the beach on the far side of the island and had a picnic, watching the gentle waves lap the shore and listening to their gentle rush upon the sand.

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Looking east from Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, BC with a BC Ferry en route in the centre. The feathery wispy clouds were incredible the day I was there.

The water is so clear and cool it was refreshing to dip my toes into the shallows. Nearby, in the trees behind me, I heard the loud call of a bird. It was a Bald Eagle. We would meet again later on my trip…

The tide was quite low when I arrived, though it was making its way back up with each passing moment, so after lunch I immediately set off for the spit itself. I was hoping to see some shorebirds, and I eventually did, but I also saw a few surprises.

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Looking north up the spit; the west side is sandier than the east side.

Passing a little tidal pool of leftover water, I heard a Killdeer‘s piercing cry. He was scurrying among the dead trees and rocks by the water’s edge. As I continued along the spit, the sandy bar narrowed and gave way to cobbles and rocks one the outer, eastern side of the island. Far ahead of me, I could see a huge mass of gulls gathered together, but closer was a group of Black Oystercatchers.

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Black Oystercatchers foraging in the tidal zone.

Usually I see them in pairs, never in such a large groups as this. I presumed they were together for either breeding or in preparation for migration. Either way, I gave them a very wide berth and tried my best not to disturb them.

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A Pelagic Cormorant offshore the island.

I made my way back down the spit, enjoying the many different cormorants flying overhead and a Pigeon Guillemot diving offshore. Meandering through the forest on my way to the lagoon, I listened to the wind in the trees, gently rustling leaves and the chit-chat of Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the firs. Bushtits also chattered among their flock in the lower branches of small trees and bushes.

I also passed across an open field along the way where Barn and Tree Swallows dove and swooped and a White-crowned Sparrow sung out from a tree. There is such a wide variety of habitats packed into such a small, walkable space here; one of the reasons I love visiting.

Coming down to the lagoon back into the bright, hot sunshine, I was rewarded with a flock of shorebirds at last. I sat and watched them for a while, scurrying along the sand and dipping their beaks beneath the sand to pull out prey. As one gave a shrill cry, they all up and flew away, perhaps spooked by a nearby Osprey who was out fishing. Soon after the peeps flew off, a great splash sounded and I looked over in time to see an Osprey hit the water to catch a fish.

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Flock of sandpipers down at the lagoon.
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Mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers.
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Least Sandpiper (middle) and a Western Sandpiper (left). My best, educated guesses – I don’t feel strong with my sandpiper ID yet.

Eventually, when I had my fill of watching these little shorebirds I don’t often see, I made my way back uphill through the trees to the dock. Along the way, I heard a familiar call. The juvenile Bald Eagle I’d heard while I ate lunch was perched in a tall tree overlooking the beach. I imagine he may have been begging his parents for food even though he certainly looked big enough to be taking care of himself, he was probably still learning how to hunt.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle

Back at the docks, I enjoyed watching some of my very favourite birds…Purple Martins. There are a number of nest-boxes on the docks, which I hope is helping their populations recover. I got to watch a female martin capture an insect on the wing and return to the nestbox to feed her young. I only saw the tiniest smidge of a baby’s head popping out from the box, where I hope and believe he was safe until he’s ready to fledge.

Birding in Victoria, BC at Esquimalt Lagoon

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Esquimalt Lagoon looking north towards Hatley Castle (centre) on a calm April day

Esquimalt Lagoon is due west of Victoria in Colwood and adjacent to the Fisgard Lighthouse & Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. The lagoon is a beautiful spot to stop at even if you’re not interesting in bird-watching. It sits right across from the Hatley Castle and Gardens and there is also a nice beach here. Aside from both Hatley Castle and the lagoon itself, there are beautiful views southward of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.

The lagoon is an excellent spot for birding from either the Ocean Boulevard side in the south or from the castle grounds in the north (which are now part of Royal Roads University). Ocean Boulevard crosses a narrow strip of land called the Coburg Peninsula on the ocean-side of the lagoon while the castle sits on the quieter side.

The entire saltwater lagoon was designated a Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBA) in 1931 and provides important habitat to both migratory and resident birds. It’s easy to access and its a flat stroll along the water, which probably also boosts its popularity for birding. Its also popular for running and dog-walking, although dogs are not permitted to be off-leash anywhere at the lagoon due its designation as an MBA.

During the winter, the lagoon is a haven for ducks…I love ducks! I saw my first-ever Northern Pintail here in March last year, but they are seen all winter. Lots of Buffleheads can be seen here starting in mid-October and November; I think they tend to hang out closer to the northern shore (or castle-side). American Wigeons flock together in big groups here and quite a few mergansers (Common, Hooded and Red-breasted) enjoy the calm waters, too.

The lagoon tends to be a great spot for spotting swans including Mute, Tundra and Trumpeter. Grebes, scoters and loons swim further offshore on the ocean-side of the lagoon while shorebirds like Black Turnstones and Killdeer creep along the rocky inner tide-line. Further above the tide-line, songbirds (including warblers, sparrows, grosbeaks and finches) find refuge in the bushes and tall grasses that grow where there should be more sand dunes. There is currently some dune restoration work ongoing at the lagoon.

The lagoon is a reliable spot to see lots of Great Blue Heron and cormorants (Pelagic, Brandt’s and Double-crested can all be seen here). The cormorants have a rocky island they like to hang out on, drying their wings outspread after diving for fish. I’ve spotted Red-tailed Hawks and a Merlins perched in the trees that edge along the northwest end of the lagoon, looking for their next meal.

No matter what time of year you go, Esquimalt Lagoon is sure to be both a beautiful, scenic location and an interesting place to slow down, go for a walk to appreciate some local wildlife. Expect it to be a lot busier in the summertime than the winter and be sure to allow for the time to explore it from both sides.

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Bald Eagle perching above the lagoon
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Merlin perches in the trees above the lagoon

Resources

Esquimalt Lagoon eBird Page
Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse eBird Page
Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Esquimalt Lagoon History (CRD)

Fun with feeder birds

Last year, I got my first bird-feeder and put it out for the winter. It took some time for birds to show up at first, but once they did, there was no going back! This winter, the birds have returned to it much more quickly! The last few weeks, there have been lots of visitors.

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male Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Juncos have discovered the tray to perch on and have started feeding on it. Last year, they never flew up and only fed on the fallen seeds on the ground below. Unlike the chickadees who are quickly in and out, the juncos seem to spend quite a bit of time at the feeder, sitting on the tray and eating seeds. I worry sometimes it makes them more vulnerable to potential predators, especially after I had a hawk flyover the backyard a few weeks ago.

I’m not sure if its the same junco every time, but there is a male junco who seems quite dominant. He has chased off other birds that land on, or approach, the feeder, including other juncos. He becomes quite vocal when other birds approach. In my observations, it seems the other juncos defer to him. I wonder about the flock dynamics of juncos and if they recognise an alpha male, who is allowed to spend more time on the feeder.

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male Dark-eyed Junco
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The Pine Siskins!

Last weekend, Pine Siskins visited my feeder for the first time! I’d literally just said the day before, “I wish I could see a Pine Siskin, I’ve never seen them before” and felt that I should have by now! At least four visited my feeder at once and they were quite gregarious! They took over the space and the Dark-eyed Juncos that had been feeding there before seemed quite perturbed by being pushed out although they seem content to share with the chickadees. From reading Sibley and other sources, it seems Pine Siskins commonly monopolise feeders from other birds.

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A Dark-eyed Junco and a Chesnut-backed Chickadee share the feeder peacefully

The Pine Siskins have returned a couple of times since, and even managed to share some of the space with others a couple of times. The same day the Pine Siskins showed up, I also had a Downy Woodpecker land at the feeder for the first time! I can say I’d always dreamed of having a woodpecker at my feeder, but I never expected one to come to my tube feeder! Sadly, I did not manage a photograph in time, but it will always be in my memory!

It was quite the exciting the day in the world of backyard birding. Its so much fun to see these little surprises and also to get to know the more frequent visitors. Watching birds at my feeder taught me how to identify the flight pattern of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the little horn-like call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Which brings me to my favourite feeder-visitor (the Red-breasted Nuthatch), who darts quickly in and out, typically shoo-ing away any other bird, no matter how much bigger they might be. Nothing seems to daunt these tiny nuthatches. They seem to spend the shortest time at the feeder, quickly grabbing a seed and returning to the safety of their favourite tree.

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Last, my favourite feeder bird, the Red-breasted Nuthatch

Getting along with ducks

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.

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Ruddy Duck

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.

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Lesser Scaup and Ruddy Duck
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Ring-necked Ducks

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).

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Northern Shoveler

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?

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Northern Shovelers feeding on the pond

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