Let it be known that spring means swallows! They are one of my most look-forward to birds of the season along with warblers and Osprey.
Normally when I go birding, I don’t set expectations or look for specific birds. But because I love swallows so much, today, I went out in search of some spots I know they favor. Though there were not as many Barn Swallows in my tried-and-true spot (maybe a little early still), I did find them!
I also saw lots of Tree Swallows swooping and searching for cavities in trees to use for their nests. Barn Swallows have a special place in my heart, I’m not even sure I can explain why. Maybe its a combination of their vibrant colors and behavior, their high-pitched chittering calls and the free and effortless way they fly and dive.
An unexpected surprise was the best view I’ve ever had of an American Bittern. They are experts at camouflage, blending in seamlessly with their environment. Probably why I almost never see them. It was a treat and privilege to see this heron close enough that I could see each individual toe spread out as he slowly stalked through the grass.
The Marsh Wrens were especially chatty and I even managed to spot one instead of just hearing one hiding in the reeds and cattails. He was singing his little heart out beneath the clatter of the Red-winged Blackbirds doing much the same.
If the birds are not enough to tell us that spring is here, the beautiful blooming camas is. There is still new life, new beauty, new sights and sounds waiting to be discovered in nature.
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.
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.
flowers paint the meadow pink in July
Boardwalk at Somenos marsh
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.
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.
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.
American Robin perched at the highest branch like a sentinel over the marsh
Cedar Waxwings explore the marsh feeding on insects and when they run out, switching to berries.
Rithet’s Bog is a nice little park in a suburban area right beside a highway with an interesting past. It is one of the few remaining peat bogs on Vancouver Island and was saved, luckily, by the Guinness Family. Yep, if you’re thinking of beer, you’re thinking the right family. They bought a large chunk of land in the region for development, and in the early 1990s, the family donated the bog land to the town for a nature sanctuary (Green, 2006). The sanctuary is quite the success story as it had been drained for agriculture and it took a lot of work to restore the bog to its current state.
A 2.8km gravel trail winds around the perimeter of the bog, along the edge of the bog and through woody groves. I especially enjoy coming here in the winter to watch the ducks and it makes for a great, short, rainy-day walk. I’ve only just been in late summer for the first time! It is a completely different place between winter and summer.
During the winter, there is a full on pond with ducks, geese and herons all making use of this ephemeral water source. In the dry summer, the only water around is in the ditch between the trail and the road.
If you want to see Red-winged Blackbirds, spend about 5 minutes here and you’ll see many! Their loud calls are hard to miss. In the winter, the pond is bustling with Mallards, American Wigeons, American Coots, Great Blue Heron, and the occasional Trumpeter Swan.
Among the branches, there are House Sparrows, House Finches, American Robins, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhee, Northern Flickers and Steller’s Jays here year-round. During the summer, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will thrill you with their acrobatics as will the swallows. With nestboxes generously installed for them, Violet-green and Tree Swallows are busy catching insects during the summer months before they head back south.
While I was here the other day, Cedar Waxwings burst into the air, their colours on show, and hovered like large hummingbirds before diving back into the trees again. As I watched them, I listened to their many-whistled calls as they bounced between berry bushes and cottonwood trees. Only in my photographs later was I able to see all the insects filling the air around them (see photo below).
Along with the waxwings performing acrobatics were Tree and Violet-green Swallows. They soared through the air, swooping and diving, leaving me amazed they don’t somehow collide. As I watched two of my favourite birds, they started flying more frantically, moving less at random and more together. Something was changing. Then I saw a hawk a glide through their group like a shark moving through a school of fish! Suddenly, the swallows disappeared, presumably taking refuge somewhere from their predator. I didn’t see the hawk again, either, as he disappeared behind some trees.
But I did see a Turkey Vulture perched at the top of a tree; something I have never captured on camera before, and I was fortunate enough to get to watch him take off, too.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit, there will likely be something interesting to see at Rithet’s Bog, a wetland oasis for birds right in the middle of suburban Victoria.
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!
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.
Bushtit and nest
Bushtit at nest (click for larger view)
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.
Dark-eyed Junco with nest materials in her beak
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.
Red-winged Blackbird (male)
Red-winged Blackbird (female)
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.
returning with another part of the nest
taking off for flight
back in a familiar nest
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!
Spring is here! Rejoice in the colours, the life, the smell of the fresh, crisp air and the sun on your skin. I am very excited! Its my first spring as a real birder. I am looking forward to babies, breeding plumage and new species I might have seen, but never really identified before.
One of my very favourite birds to watch and see is the Anna’s Hummingbird. They are the only hummingbirds to winter-over on Vancouver Island (although they didn’t always do so). I recently learned they have already bred for the season! They are true early birds, having bred at the end of January. I hope to see our other island hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird, arrive soon. Apparently they are already on their way north, embarking on the longest migration of any hummingbird species. How incredible of these tiny birds to migrate so far. Nature never ceases to amaze me.
I already identified some new birds just the other day! I went for a walk at a lagoon and what at first I thought was a group of all European Starlings at varying stages of life actually was not. When I caught them in the right lighting, it turned out they were European Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds all hanging out around the same bushes.
The European Starling is an invasive species and their presence in BC contributes heavily to the decline in Purple Martins because of competition for cavity nesting spaces. To make matters worse, the invasive starlings also have more than one set of babies each breeding season. I was lucky to see Purple Martins last summer on Sidney Island (part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve) and I adored watching them, but I can’t help but admire the Starlings and their colourful plumage, too. I guess I can’t help feeling something for all living things.
As I walked along the lagoon, I could hear the calls of the Red-winged Blackbird on the other side of the shore. This was a new bird for me a few weeks ago when I went for a walk around a bog. They were in and among the cattails and I stopped to watch and listen. The trill of their song stuck in my memory; something about it was distinct and even though I couldn’t see them in the wetlands across the lagoon, I knew they were there just by the sound of their call. Listen here from Audubon.
I’m hoping to start learning more birds by their song. I know the distinct song of the Anna’s Hummingbird very well now from hearing it so many times. I notice it often and immediately start looking around for my favourite little green bird.