Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit, BC

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.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

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.

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.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

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.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

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.

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.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

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!

Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

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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?

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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.

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.

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.

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my Purple Martin pair

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.

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.

 

A sunny summer getaway to the Gulf Islands: Pender Island, BC

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.

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Looking across the water back at Vancouver Island from Thieves Bay, Pender Island. Orcas and other whales have been seen from the shore here before as they pass through the Strait of Georgia, though we did not have any luck.

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!

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A Belted Kingfisher greeted us as our ferry arrived at the Otter Point terminal.

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 brilliant blue-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.

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Brooks Point Regional Park on South Pender Island looking towards Saturna Island

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.

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The view from Mt. Norman, Pender Island: Bedwell Harbour & North Pender Island (foreground) and Vancouver Island (background).

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.

On getting gifts from a cat & river otter spied in the sea

I have been cat sitting for a neighbour recently and she is a bit of a roamer and goes outside. While I would personally never let my own cat outdoors unsupervised, I have to respect the parental choices. This week, we passed a milestone of sorts.

I know now she is getting very fond of us as she brought us home a gift the other day…a spotted towhee. So I feel a little guilty looking at this photo of one I managed to snag the other day, but I do love cats, too, so I can’t be hard on them for doing what I know is only natural instinct. While I love and understand her sentiment, I am not too keen to receive another gift anytime soon.

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Spotted Towhee

Not only do I love cats and birds, but I love all animals and wildlife. Even the raccoon who are increasingly visiting my backyard and spooking me after dark. Although I admit I wasn’t very impressed when I found some of their worm-infested feces in the yard the other week. Anyway, onto nicer things…

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watching a river otter eating a crab

Recently, I was lucky enough to get to watch a river otter while I was at the beach. (Yes, that’s right, I recently learned river otter live in both fresh and saltwater!) Many people around me seemed either oblivious or indifferent to this beautiful creature tucked away on the rocky shoreline. While baffling to me, that was quite all right with me as I got to enjoy the moment myself. Its quite funny how some people don’t seem to notice these things around them. I sat watching for quite some time as he (or she) nibbled away on a crab and then deftly climbed down to the waterside and swam away quickly around the coastline.

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river otter on the coast

 

A few weeks before that, I was lucky enough to see a presumed family of three river otter at the inner harbour downtown. I first saw them on the shore and later saw them as I walked back around swimming down the channel and then climbing up onto the wall in the photo below. It was quite amazing to watch them gracefully climb over land and swim in the water.

Only river otter are found in the Salish Sea , although there have been a few rare sightings of sea otters around Victoria in the past. Here is a great page about the difference between sea and river otter. Sadly, in the 18th century, sea otter were hunted to extinction in the region for their pelts but have made quite an incredibly comeback since becoming a protected species. I feel very fortunate to be able to see such beautiful animals so close to home.

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Bald Eagle at the sea

The bald eagle is, of course, another example of a remarkable success story. They were also near the brink of extinction last century and now have soaring populations in BC. I can say that I have seen more bald eagles in one year living in BC than I have ever seen anywhere else and I have grown a real sense of appreciation for these raptors.

These animals serve as a reminder of our responsibility to be stewards to them and the earth. If we don’t, who will?