There is a moment, when watching a bird, when everything else falls away and there is nothing in the world but you and that bird. Worries are forgotten. Hunger, cold, heat, rain are not felt. You are in tune, in harmony, with a little feathered creature and their habitat and you let it fill you up.
Joe Harkness said it best in his book Bird Therapy:
“… I had also started to recognise just how positive I felt when I was immersed in the world of birds. My worries seemed to fade into insignificance and when I was feeling stressed, if I counteracted it with some time outside, watching them, it drifted off like birds do, in a stiff breeze.”
This is the real reason I love watching birds. It took me a few years to realize what I was doing was a form of mindfulness. A moment where your attention is focused on nothing but the present. To seek a connection, no matter how fleeting, with another creature. and pull me out of myself and into the world around me.
It’s a wonder that such a small thing can make such a difference, a little thing with feathers. Birds have brought me so much joy since I started to really become aware of them and they were there when times were low. They are beautiful and charismatic, funny and entertaining, fascinating and full of surprises. I am grateful and love every one; the brightly-hued migrants, the little brown birds, the fierce raptors and the tiniest songbirds. Here’s to you, every member of the Aves class, but especially the ones who’ve graced me with their presence over the years and more recently.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the forest on Sidney Spit
a field on Sidney Spit
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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…
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….
One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.
The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.
Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.
At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.
In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.
Great Blue Heron
A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.
Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.
From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.
Sidney Spit, BC
Bald Eagle overhead
a White-Crowned Sparrow sings
Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.
With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!
When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?
I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.
I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.
a lone heron at the beach
fishing Great Blue Heron
fishing Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.
River Otter pair near the rocky shore
swimming River Otter pair
one of the river otter
I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.
Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.
I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.
juvenile Bald Eagle perched just outside the nest
Bald Eagle perching in the tree
Bald Eagle back at the nest to watch over the juvenile
Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.
In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.
The Gulf Islands lie between the mainland of BC and Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia and are one of my favourite summertime retreats. While they are a popular summer destination, but are equally as nice in the spring and autumn, especially during the rainy season elsewhere; these islands lie in a nicely protected rain-shadow and thus receive significantly less rain than the adjacent coasts.
This chain of islands is usually split into two sub-divisions: the Northern Gulf Islands east of and the Southern Gulf Islands. The Southern Gulf Islands contain parts of the Gulf Islands National Park, as well as privately-owned land and other provincial and regional parks. The islands are serviced by a number of ferries from either Vancouver Island or the mainland.
This summer, my spouse and I rode the ferry over to Pender Island from Swartz Bay for a weekend and camped at the brand new Shingle Bay campground on North Pender Island. It was a nice campground surrounded by trees right on a beach, although it was completely full!
At our campsite, we watched lots of Canada Geese swim by and Black-tailed Deer rustled in the bushes and climbed out along the shore. To my delight, there were nesting Purple Martins we watched in the morning and evening as they chattered away in their high-pitched peeps to one another. There were nest-boxes attached to what I think were the posts that were the remains of an old dock.
I was so excited to see the martins as they are definitely one of my favourite birds! I remember seeing them on Sidney Spit last year and I’d been hoping to see them all summer season. Being swallows, their diving aerial acrobatics are a joy to watch and their squealing and chitter-chattering calls are a happy sound to my ears! Not to mention the brilliantblue-violet plumage of the males. Purple Martins can be seen on many of the Gulf Islands’ coasts, where their recovery continues in saltwater habitats over the last 30 years. Hopefully, we will see a greater return of Purple Martins at freshwater sites in the coming years.
Elsewhere on Pender Island, there are lots of smaller community parks among the patches of the National Park that are also worth visiting! I saw a number of Pacific Wrens at one of these as well as a large variety of birds at the George Hill Community Park, which was a hidden little gem of a walk with a surprisingly lovely view from the top. On this short but lovely walk, I saw my first American Goldfinch, Song Sparrows and Olive-sided Flycatchers as well as many Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Robins, warblers and more!
Pacific Wren (upper left), Song Sparrow (upper right), Olive-sided Flycatcher (bottom left) and an American Goldfinch (bottom right) seen on Pender Island. Click images for larger view.
Back by the sea, Brooks Point Regional Park is an interesting stop at a rocky shoreline with a lighthouse and views of Vancouver Island, Mt Baker and the Strait of Georgia.
One of the highlights was hiking Mt. Norman, the highest peak on Pender Island (North or South) at 244m. The hike is short, but steep and not all that scenic until you reach the nice viewing platform at the top upon which you can look out south across Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island and Vancouver Island.
We later stopped at Hope Bay on North Pender Island and had lunch by the sea in the sun. Looking out on the water, a river otter swam by and climbed up onto a dock in the sun.
It was, as always, a delight to watch the otter as he rolled around and laid with his belly up, scratching his back on the dock and looking over at us every time we made a sound. Clearly, he knew we were watching him. Above the otter were more Purple Martins! They chattered and swooped and dove and I could have watched them all day if I had the time. Unfortunately, I did not and we headed back to Vancouver Island with warm, sunny memories of the wildlife and beauty of Pender Island.