Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

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!

Meeting new and old birds in the east

I grew up in the eastern U.S. and I went on a trip to Toronto and home recently. It was the first time I’d been since I really got into birding. I remember watching the birds in our backyard as a kid, and at the nearby parks and nature preserves, especially in the summertime. I even had a mini Golden Guide to Birds of North America I enjoyed consulting on the birds I saw in the yard.

I was excited to return to the area and see some old birds I’d seen before, or never known I’d seen them before, and maybe even some new ones. I most hoped to see the popular cardinal and a blue jay, as well as a Tufted Titmouse White-breasted Nuthatch (being so different from our own Red-breasted ones here) and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. There was no logic to my list, really, but that was it. Through some kind of luck, I managed to see three out of five and a few surprises, too.

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Toronto, ON viewed from Davenport Hill, home of Casa Loma

Its a little bit harder birding where you don’t know all the locals. There are new songs and familiar ones, different subspecies and regional variations and not knowing the best places to go.

I met some Common Grackles pretty soon upon arriving in downtown Toronto. Barricaded by the Rocky Mountains, this blackbird does not live in western North America but they very much reminded me of Brewer’s Blackbirds, only louder. There were plenty of House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons flitting and cooing around the city, being the typical city-dwellers they are.

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trees fallen in a swamp

Once I got to the woods, there were some more interesting birds to be seen! The first day out at a marsh, I saw my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird and Grey Catbird. To top it off, I also saw my first Great Egret!

I also happened to see my first Common Terns on this trip. At first, I lumped them in with the gulls flying around the riverside, but when my partner pointed out they had different heads, I suddenly realized I was looking at Terns. They are quite a lot of fun to watch as they hovered in the air on the wind and then spiraled and spun downwards to the water’s surface in the hunt for fish.

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My only clear photo of a Common Tern

The next day was not quite as hot, making me happier to spend more time outdoors and I think we saw a lot more. Along the edge of a pond, I spotted movement and then saw a large-ish bird fly a short distance and land on a branch overlooking the water. I had a feeling and a hope that it might just be a Black-crowned Night Heron, and it turned out it was. He was a juvenile with very drab plumage compared to the adult, and almost looked like a Bittern. When we circled around the whole park and round the other side of the pond, I saw a second one, this time clearly an adult!

Another Great Egret gave us a quick flyby I only just managed to snap, slightly blurry. While I usually try to stay away from posting just photos, I think the rest of the story is better left to them as I somehow managed to get some really great shots of these birds…

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Great Egret
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Eastern Kingbird
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American Goldfinch
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American Redstart
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Song Sparrow (different from our Pacific NW variety)
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Tree Swallow
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Black-capped Chickadee
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White-Breasted Nuthatch
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Northern Cardinal

The most exciting of these, for me, were the White-breasted Nuthatch and Northern Cardinal. They had been one my hope-to-see list, after all, and they were fun to watch. I strongly suspect someone has probably been feeding the birds along the boardwalk where we saw them (and the Black-capped Chickadee) as they all descended upon us when we set foot on the wooden boards. The nuthatch was especially bold (typical nuthatch behaviour), landing right next to me a handful of times, probably hoping I had a handful of nuts. I can’t remember the last time a bird let me get that close!

Along with the exciting new birds were familiar faces, too, including Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, American Robins, Song Sparrows (though with different colouring!), Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Yellow Warblers and Killdeer. In fact, I was surprised by some of the birds seen and by the number of crossover species, it sort of made me wish I’d gotten into birding when I was younger though I know I’d seen some of these birds before.bir

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Northern Cardinal

Two days in Vancouver: finding nature in the city

I’ve been to Vancouver a few times now and each time, the idea of going there does not really enthrall me. With a population of 2.5 million people living on 2,800 square kilometers of sprawling condos, houses and high-rises, its just not my kind of city. I’ve never really been a big city kind of person. My favourite place are not usually cities I’ve visited.

The tall buildings make me feel closed in and claustrophobic, the constant noise day and night of trains, cars, people and sirens, the different smells, not to mention the crowds; its enough to wear me out after a mere two days. The lack of trees, green spaces, blue sky…it all makes me wonder how those 2.5 million people manage every day.

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looking south across English Bay towards Kitsilano from Stanley Park

All those noises and small spaces overwhelm my senses and it becomes too much. I can just feel my anxiety levels going up along with my heart rate. On a recent trip there, I actually managed to enjoy day one, though a good portion of it was spent at Stanley Park – that’s probably why. If I lived there, I decided, I’d have to go to there every day. After visiting most of downtown on other visits, this time we stayed out of the core and it was actually quite nice.

We’d visited only a portion of Stanley Park before, not having had time to see it properly so this time, we walked the seawall around the entire park and I decided Stanley Park is my favourite place in Vancouver. The seawall actually extends past the park, from Kitsilano (with its famous beach) around False Creek, all the way to downtown, creating a 22-long cycling and walking path. Much as I am opposed to seawalls for environmental reasons, I admit it has some great recreational value.

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A Great Blue Heron at Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

The trail wraps around rocky and sandy beaches where cormorants, otter, eagles, ducks and geese are common sightings. Of course, no trip to Stanley Park is ever complete without seeing at least one of its famous raccoons.

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One of many raccoons of Stanley Park

For me, the highlight was Lost Lagoon, which is rather an apt name for what was once part of Burrard Inlet and probably was, in fact, a lagoon. Now, its actually a freshwater lake thanks to a causeway that highway 99 traverses to the north shore. Despite its past, Lost Lagoon still manages to be a great site for birds and wildlife.

The Wood Ducks were one of the most exciting sights! There were lots of these colorful little ducks swimming about the pond, with noticeably more males than females. These ducks are just undeniably gorgeous. And then, came the most exciting thing of all…

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Wood Duck chick – so tiny!

Wood Duck ducklings! I have never seen these tiny little ones before! Wood Duck babies leave the safety of their cavity nests carefully chosen by mom and dad at less than 3 days old! Sometimes, they have to jump from nests as high as 60 feet from cavities to meet their mom, who waits for them below (Cornell).

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Wood Duck mom and chicks

I considered their early life experience as I watched them flit across the pond, sometimes following mom in a line and sometimes dropping away to explore a world all new to them. Mom kept a watchful eye on them, and at one point, chased away a male who was getting a bit too close and was perhaps a bit keen.

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Wood Ducks ducklings with mom

It was a good spot for a nursery as there were also baby mallards and Canada goslings learning from their parents, too. I noticed the mallards stuck much closer to mum than the Wood Ducks; perhaps this is related to the brave early days of the Wood Duck. Does having to leave home at an early age make them more independent chicks than mallards?

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Mallard and ducklinsg
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Mallard and Ducklings

And those were the highlights of Vancouver, for me. Day two, I was exhausted! In the future, I will remind myself not to spend too much time in big cities if I can help it, find green spaces where I can and always take time for some rest for myself amid all the people and places. I will keep this in mind as I travel to Toronto, an even bigger city, this week.

North Vancouver Island & San Josef Bay

Having lived on Vancouver Island for a few years now, we’ve had some time to travel the greater part of the southern half of the island as well as a good number of the Gulf Islands. However, with plans to move on in its initial stages, we decided it was time to visit part of the island we’d never been. To the top: Port Hardy and Cape Scott Provincial Park.

Nimpkish Lake made a good stopping point on the way, where we camped for a night beside the lake. Beside the gently lapping water, an American Dipper sang for us in the evening and in the morning, a Pacific Wren chattered to us over breakfast.

Past Nimpkish Lake, there is not much except forest and mountains. Much of the north island is logging land and there isn’t much to see (aside from lots of trees and some lakes) until you reach Port McNeill. I did see my first-ever island elk (Roosevelt Elk), a few deer and a couple of black bears along logging roads, though.

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A typical North Island alpine lake.
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Ruffed Grouse spotted along a logging road (a first)

Along the waterfront in Port McNeill near the ferry dock to Alert Bay and Sointula, I saw Surf Scoters, Common Loons, a Red-necked Grebe, and a Horned Grebe all within stone’s throw from each other and on the ferry crossing to Alert Bay, my first sure sighting of White-winged Scoters (think I’ve seen them before, but I don’t count it until I’m sure/get a good enough look!).

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Common Loons

 

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Red-necked Grebe
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Horned Grebe
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Surf Scoters
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Just barely managed to catch this White-winged Scoter

Alert Bay is a very small village on Cormorant Island where the majority of the population are indigenous First Nations. You can walk around the entire island in a day and one of the main things to see is the ecological park. The swamp area of the park is other-worldly as new growth fills in amid the remains of burned husks of trees. Those hulking trees seemed to make good nesting habitat for some birds, like Violet-green Swallows that swooped through the sky and into little cavities in the trees.

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Whimbrel

After visiting Port McNeill and Alert Bay, we were back onto the road as it meandered through trees and eventually turned into logging roads en route to Cape Scott Provincial Park in the northwest corner of the island. Just north of Port McNeill, we stopped (or attempted to) at Cluxewe Salt Marsh, which had been listed as a good birding spot, but I suspect we did not end up at the right spot. However, I was still met with a surprise in seeing my first ever Whimbrel!

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North Island forests

So far, the weather had held out pretty well, but the rain picked up as we headed northwest. I knew to expect the weather to be dicey. Even in July, it can rain and storm with little warning up here. When we reached San Josef Bay, the wind was howling.

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San Josef Bay
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sea stacks, San Josef Bay

We fought against the wind to put up our tent under what cover we could find, and took a walk to the famous sea stacks before the tide came in. The stacks are formed by the erosive action of seawater crashing against the rock over thousands of years, removing softer rock and leaving behind the stacks made of harder rock.

Scurrying together through the sand, foraging beneath its surface was a group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, both firsts for me. According to Sibley (2016), Semipalmated Plovers commonly flock with other shorebirds, though more commonly with Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlins.

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A group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers
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Western Sandpipers
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Semipalmated Plover

The wind (and the sea) roared loudly all night, but in the morning the weather was more settled and the sun even peaked out for a few minutes. Despite the chilly weather (it was still April), I’m glad we finally made it. Now I can say I’ve seen the whole island, top to bottom, and feel satisfied with my efforts and experience living here.

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Sam Josef Bay in the morning

If you go to the North Island, be prepared for lots of logging roads and poor signage to get around. Even on the paved roads, some of the Provincial Parks were only signposted in one direction. To get to Cape Scott Provincial Park, it is a 60-km drive one-way on logging roads from Port Hardy (the nearest town of any note, i.e., grocery store and gas). The trailhead for San Josef Bay is also the starting point for the Cape Scott/North Coast Trail, which takes you to Cape Scott itself. I’d recommend going in the summer months.


References
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.

Gardens of Victoria: Government House Gardens & Finnerty Gardens

Victoria, B.C. is well-known for its gardens (its also known as the Garden City), but to me, some of the best ones around are not the expensive Buchart Gardens or the quaint Abkhazi Gardens you’ll often see advertised, but the ones that are free. Not only that, but they are also beautiful with fantastic flowers and tall trees.

Government House Gardens

Government House is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia and members of the royal family often stay here when visiting, including Will and Kate and the kids on their visit here last year. Visitors are only allowed to see inside the house on a guided tour (usually only a few times per year), but the gardens are open to the public every day for free. The grounds and house are located very close to downtown.

The house itself is perched on the top of a hill overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and downtown Victoria with gardens spreading out on the slopes below. The gardens feature a native plant garden, a garry oak meadow, rose gardens a duck pond and more! They are beautiful in every season, spring or fall, and I love them because there is always something nice to see there. I’ve also seen lots of birds, like bald eagles, warblers, hummingbirds and sparrows there, not to mention the ducks at the duck pond.

Finnerty Gardens

The University of Victoria is home to the 6.5-acre Finnerty Gardens which is open every day of the year for free. The gardens were originally started in 1974. The gardens make for a nice stroll on shady paths with 1,500 rhododendron and azaleas, as well as magnolias, cherry trees, roses, daffodils, ferns and much more! There are a couple of small ponds and meadows, too.

There is such a flourish of color at the gardens, with lots of green and splashes of yellow, pink, purple and white. There is colour in every direction. The gardens attract lots of birds, too, of course. I’ve seen Song Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, American Robins, Orange-crowned Warblers, Bald Eagles, Pileated Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Varied Thrush. I see an Anna’s Hummingbird just about every time I visit the gardens!

Aside from Finnerty Gardens, the University of Victoria is a beautiful campus with lots of green spaces. Just outside the gardens is a trail that loops around the western edge of campus skirting garry oak meadows and going through little woody groves of trees with streams. On this trail, I’ve seen lots of birds from Dark-eyed Juncos and Bushtits to Pileated Woodpeckers, Rufous Hummingbirds, Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks. On the other end of campus is Mystic Vale, a forested ravine with tall Douglas-fir trees and lots of birds to be seen and heard.


For more information:
Government House Gardens
Friends of Government House Gardens
Finnerty Gardens

The rushing cascades of rainy Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Park is the biggest park on Vancouver Island and the oldest provincial park in all of British Columbia. The park is in the central island, west of Campbell River and encompasses the Elk River Mountains. At 250,000 hectares, there are lots of opportunities for hiking and other outdoor adventures.

Lady Falls in Strathcona Park

I took a trip there in the fall last year after the busy summer season was over and despite the rain, it was a beautiful trip. The park is home to the alpine centre of the island and a large remnant of preserved old forests of fir and hemlock. Wildlife in the park includes the Vancouver Island marmot, Roosevelt Elk and the Vancouver Island wolf as well as cougars and black bears (though we didn’t see any!).

A stream meandering through the forest

As a mountainous park, Strathcona is home to countless waterfalls and lakes, large and small. We stayed in Gold River as it was a bit cold for camping and it was a nice scenic drive to the park from there. With all the rain, it was not great weather for birding, but it was great for the waterfalls!

The main road through the park hugs the shore of Buttle Lake, the source of the Campbell River. Much of the landscape, including Buttle Lake was carved by glaciers 20,000 years ago with the exception of the mountain peaks. At 120m deep, Buttle Lake is a classic glacially carved lake; longer than it is wide, over-deepened in the middle and lying in a U-shaped valley.

A highlight of the trip was Myra Falls, both upper and lower, which lies on Myra Creek and flows into Buttle Lake. Its a short walk to Lower Myra Falls from the parking area, but its a spectacular view of the fall that will leave you wondering what the upper falls could possibly look like. I can only imagine how nice it would be in the summertime, too. The falls were just roaring when we were there; I imagine beautiful cascades in the summer. (A quick google search will show you the falls at a lower flow.)

Lower Myra Falls at high flow in November

The hike to upper Myra Falls is quite a bit longer. The trailhead is at the end of the road after passing a surprising and conspicuous copper mine (it started operations before the park). The trail takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to the waterfall, and is rewarding once you reach the end even in the rain!

It was an enjoyable trip I’d recommend to anyone coming to Vancouver Island. There are a lot of different things to see and I’d love to go back and explore the Forbidden Plateau in the future, as well as visit Della Falls, the tallest waterfall in Canada.

Exploring underground at Horne Lake Caves

Partway up the island, northwest of Qualicum Beach (well-known for its beaches and ban on national chain stores) are the Horne Lake Caves. The four official caves are part of the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park along the Qualicum River. The caves are part of a karst topography, which typically forms where acidic water (commonly rainwater) dissolves rock. Generally, most caves form in limestone because it is especially susceptible to anything acidic. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made of marine fossils (often micro-fossils). This tell us that millions of years ago, there was once a sea or ocean where there is now limestone rock.

Looking up from the depths of Andre’s Annex at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

In 1912, a geologist first wrote about and explored the caves hidden in the woods and tourists followed starting in the ’40s. Today, the park remains a tourist attraction and various tours are available during the warmer months of the year. Tours allow access to parts of the caves otherwise barred from public entry to protect the delicate calcite formations. We went on a short tour of the Main Cave, which was fun and involved a bit of climbing, sliding and scrambling through narrow passages and got to see nice calcite formations. After our tour, we walked around the forested park and explored the open caves on our own as well.

The beach at Horne Lake campground in the morning with smoke rolling over the water.

We camped at the nearby Horne Lake Regional Park perched on the western shore of the beautiful Horne Lake below the peak of Mt Mark. We had a nice time camping here in September, with a tent site well within view of the calm, blue water. As we drove the logging roads to the park, we really felt like we were living most of civilization behind. Besides the lake, the caves are the main attraction here and they can be reached on foot via a trail from the campground.

Horne Lake at dusk.

On our way out, we stopped at Spider Lake for a rest and a swim. It was a little chilly for a swim, but I enjoyed watching the ravens and ducks as I prepped our picnic lunch. It was a lovely, quiet spot, a nice change from listening to the loud motorized boats (and boaters) out on Horne Lake although it was absolutely swarming with wasps which cut our lunch a bit short.

Spider Lake

On the way home, we made a quick stop at Top Bridge on the Englishman River for a stretch and some sun. Its an impressive new suspension bridge linking two popular parks in the area via a regional trail, allowing access to foot or cycle traffic. I imagine it is a popular spot in the summertime for swimming!

Top Bridge over the Englishman River. I was not sure how I’d feel riding a bike over that bridge!

All in all, it was a great weekend getaway and the close proximity of the campground to the caves was nice so we could walk between the two. The lakes were beautiful and the surrounding hills were, too. I would definitely love to go  back another time and I bet it would be busy in the summer!

Fantails and flightless birds of New Zealand

The New Zealand Fantail, also called piwakawaka, has to be one of my very favourites. These forest birds certainly live up to their name; spreading out their tail behind them and doing a memorable dance and singing a loud chattering song. For a little bird, they are extremely noisy and not shy of people at all!

On a walk one day, a fantail (in the photo below) tagged along with me and my partner, fanning his tail periodically squeaking and chirping as he flicked from branch to branch. This behaviour continued for quite some time! If you haven’t seen it, its worth watching. There is a great, short youtube video available here.

The New Zealand fantail

As a duck-lover, the Paradise Shelduck (putangitangi) is another one of my favourites. They are actually a type of goose and they are just as noisy. They have a very distinct call and are often found in pairs in wetlands and on ponds. The female has a brilliant white head while the male is a bit more drab with a mostly black body. The pairs mate for life and return each year to the same nesting sites (DOC). For a real treat, listen to their calls here.

Pair of Paradise Shelducks (and mallards) at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. (Male is left, female is on the right)
Paradise Shelduck female (and chick just below her).

New Zealand is also home to some unique species of penguins! Yes, I have been lucky enough to see both the Yellow-eyed Penguin (hoiho) and the Little Blue Penguin though I have no photos of the latter. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the largest resident penguin that breeds regularly in southeastern New Zealand. If you find the right beach at the right time of year, you can see them leaving their nests in the early morning to go fishing or returning to them around dusk for the night. Its a joy to watch them come ashore and clumsily make their way up the beach after swimming so gracefully in the sea; however, they do move more quickly on land than you might expect!

Yellow-eyed penguins returning to their nests after a long day out fishing. Bit blurry as these photos are taken on my old camera years ago.

They are extremely sensitive creatures, though, and must be watched in silence and with caution only under cover. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the predation from invasive species like cats, dogs (people walking them off leash down the beach), ferrets and stoats (NZBO). The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Penguin Place have both been set up to support these unique birds by putting in nest boxes, planting native plants and even rehabilitating sick and injured penguins back to health.

Little Blue Penguins are the world’s smallest penguin and as such, face similar threats. The West Coast Penguin Trust aims to help the little blue through research, education and restoring habitat to its natural state.

That is all for 2016, I hope you all have a wonderful new year full of feathers, nature and everything else you love. I will see you again in 2017!

Keas, kiwi and curious birds of New Zealand

You can’t mention New Zealand birds without mentioning the Kiwi. While I have never seen one in the wild (though I have heard them), I saw this one at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, where they have an excellent breeding program in effect to try to help the kiwi population. Because they are flightless, they are vulnerable to predation by species introduced from settlers including possums and stoats. Shy and nocturnal birds, they have a very strong sense of smell they use to feed on insects, worms and fruit under cover of night.

There are actually five different species of kiwi: the North Island brown kiwi, the Okarito brown kiwi, Southern brown kiwi, the Little Spotted kiwi and the Great Spotted Kiwi. In general, each species tends to inhabit a different geographic region.

Kiwi in center of photo at a nocturnal exhibit at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

Like the kiwi, the Weka is another flightless native bird of New Zealand and is also part of the rail family. These beautiful birds are not shy of people and this one walked right up to us and hung out with us for quite a while. It was quite entertaining to watch them walking around and exploring.

Weka checking us out in a parking lot
Not shy at all, the weka will approach people.

While on birds who are not shy, the Kea is one of the most inquisitive and raucous birds you’ll ever meet. Also known as the New Zealand mountain parrot, no one should ever visit this country without meeting one. They are lovely olive-green parrots that literally live in the Southern Alps, though they can also be found at sea level, they thrive in the alpine environment.

The New Zealand mountain parrot in the mountains.

Anyone driving through the Homer Tunnel en route to Milford Sound is likely to see a kea. They are not at all shy of people and in fact, are infamous around New Zealand for being so curious; they tear apart people’s hiking boots left outside tents, tents and backpacks, and especially cars. They really like anything rubber. If you don’t believe me, google it. Despite their troublesome nature to some people, I absolutely love them.

Kea spotted in Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps.

The Pukeko is also known as the Purple Swamphen (or purple Gallinule) and is another member of the rail family. In North America, you might find they bear a resemblance to the American Purple Gallinule. Unlike their close relatives, the Takahe (once thought to be extinct), the Pukeko can fly long distances with a running start to get in the air. They can also be found in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Pukeko

As a country with no native land mammals apart from the bat, New Zealand is full of interesting birds with more to come in Part 2 of this series…

Thoughts and memories of Kaikoura

a rocky beach in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Since hearing about the big earthquake on the weekend, my thoughts have been drifting to New Zealand more frequently than usual. I was lucky enough to live there for a number of years, and I am so in love with the place – it has to be my favourite and most beautiful place on earth.

Town of Kaikoura, New Zealand on the east coast with the Kaikoura Ranges in the background

I visited Kaikoura a number of times while there, which is where the earthquake really hit hard. Its a small town on the north-east coast of the South Island perched along a beautiful area of coastline. Its renowned for whale watching because of a deep offshore canyon (Kaikoura Canyon) full of nutrients and fish, bringing whales closer to the shore than usual. Whale watching and tourism are economic staples for the town.

With an economy heavily reliant on tourism, many beautiful murals of whales and marine life can be found all over the town of Kaikoura.

After my first visit, it was very memorable and it stuck in my memory as one of my favourite places in New Zealand for a long time. It was here that I first went on a whale watching tour, though I did not see any whales, but lots of vomiting tourists!

Kaikoura beach

Kaikoura is also well known for its local seal colony where seals come to mate and can almost be seen relaxing on the rocky coastline. It was a delightful little spot just off the highway, popular with tourists, which I used to like visiting and taking visitors to see. Unfortunately, it looks like their favourite beaching area was buried under rockfall from a landslide induced by the earthquake. I hope not many seals were lost in the slide and that those that return find a new place to call home.

New Zealand fur seals at their colony in Kaikoura
the rocky Kaikoura coastline

I hope Kaikoura is able to recover from the damage from the quake – its a beautiful place everyone should visit when going to New Zealand and it would be a shame to miss out on. I hope people don’t let it stop them from visting. After 5 years, Christchurch is still recovering, and I hope all the residents of Kaikoura and other areas hit recover physically, mentally, emotionally and economically. I hope to go back again someday and enjoy the rocky coast and seal colony again… kia kaha, Kaikoura.

Kaikora beach with cliffs in the background