Juneau and Mendenhall Glacier in November

After we visited Haines, AK and saw the incredible Bald Eagles at the Chilkat River last November, we re-boarded the Alaska Marine Highway rode south down the Lynn Canal to explore Juneau, the state capital and the nearby Mendenhall Valley.

mendenhallvisitor
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in the Tongass National Forest

Our first day there, the weather was clear and cold with snow lingering on some of the lower hills, making for a nice wintry Alaskan scene. It was the perfect day to visit the nearby Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. Though it was a bit cold, it wasn’t too bad and the freshly fallen snow made the glacier look bigger, brighter and more impressive as we would later learn.

mendenhallglacier-2
Mendenhall Glacier and the frozen Mendenhall Lake
glacierice2
glacial ice

The glacier, like many others today, has been retreating for decades. The glacier’s terminus empties into Mendenhall Lake, depositing massive amounts of silt and clay into the lake and Mendenhall River that flow a few short miles into the sea. The glacier is part of the larger Juneau Icefield which extends into British Columbia to the east. On the east side of the lake, Nugget Falls flows into the icy water from the Nugget Glacier upstream.

nuggetfalls-1
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier

There was no one else there and all was quiet except for the roar of the waterfall. With most of the lake frozen over and dusted with snow, it was as if the whole world could be sleeping, like time had stopped. But the sun kept moving higher in the sky and we started to feel the cold after our walk from the nearest public bus stop and spending some time admiring the view.

mendenhalllake
icy Mendenhall Lake

We headed back toward the visitor center to explore the riverside trails, but many of them were closed to allow bears safe salmon feeding access. I’m always all right with closing access down to protect species that need these resources to survive. On the short trail we did walk, we saw a few more Bald Eagles for good measure and an American Dipper bobbing along the icy stream!

baldeagle
Bald Eagle
americandipper
American Dipper

The next day was quite rainy and we decided to explore Juneau city a bit, visited the Alaska State Museum where we learned a lot about Alaska’s history, explored the waterfront and hiked along Perserverance Creek to Ebner Falls, which I would recommend if you have time.

Our final day we re-visited the glacier and had a completely different experience. The temperature had risen, the snow had melted and turned to rain though the lake remained frozen. This time, we walked up the western side of the lake through rainforest to get a closer view of the ice.

alaskastream
A miniature cascade along the trail.
nuggetfalls
Nugget Falls where we’d stood just a few days earlier.

It was a good walk through temperate rainforest, full of ferns and moss and the things that come with it; mud and rain! From this viewpoint, we got a lot closer to the glacier especially if we had continued along the whole trail. I found it less impressive despite the distance, due to the loss of all the fresh snow that had fallen a few days before. The glacier certainly looked more like a dying one to me. But the ice had the blue colour you expect to see in a glacier and now that was visible to us, so it was’t all bad. It was interesting to see it in such different circumstances.

mendenhallglacier
Mendenhall Glacier from the other side.
glacierice
glacial ice

Overall, Alaska definitely met my expectations in some ways and exceeded them in others! I did find it tough to cope with the short days as I found myself ready for dinner at 4pm a lot of the time. I guess that’s not so bad when you’re on a trip, but I have to hand it to those who live in Alaska and have to get through those short, dark days of winter. My thoughts were with them even more after the earthquake hit Anchorage shortly after our visit and I can say I am impressed with their resilience. I guess that’s what it takes to live in this kind of place. I’m glad we made the trip happen, but I definitely feel like I’ve got more Alaskan adventures in me!

 

 

 

Bald Eagles in Haines, Alaska in November

Back in November, in between moving from Victoria to Corvallis, my partner and I made time to go on a trip to the final frontier…Alaska. This was something we wanted to do ever since we arrived in Canada and we decided to finally make it happen. An Alaskan cruise seemed like a cool thing to do, but we aren’t really the giant cruise ship, commercial types. So when we heard about the Alaska Marine Highway System, we thought that sounded like us.

alaskaferry
Aboard the MV Kennicott on the Alaska Marine Highway

From Bellingham, WA, the Alaska Marine Highway travesl to Skagway via the same inside passage cruise ships take at a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the amenities. We decided to “splurge” on the cheapest cabin and were happy to entertain ourselves with books, games, movies and enjoying the view.

alaskalynncanal
This was the sunniest view of the first two days of the sailing through the inside passage.

It was our first time to Alaska! The first day on board, there was steady rain falling settling into a mist around the coast and islands of British Columbia. There wasn’t much to see beyond the mist, but it, too had a kind of beauty about it. The next day, we sailed into Alaska and the rain was still falling. Its southeast Alaska in November, what else can you expect? The final day we reached Juneau early in the morning and the weather was spectacular. Cold and windy, the sun came out in full force lighting up the newly fallen snow on mountaintops and hillsides.

alaskalynncanal-2

alaskamountains

As the ferry sailed through the Lynn Canal, it finally felt like we were really in Alaska. The ferry seemed mostly populated with local Alaskans or those just moving, but there were a few other tourists around energetically taking photos like me.

alaskamountains-1

alaskamountains-2

After two and a half days, we reached our first stop. Haines, Alaska. We accidentally timed it two days before the annual Bald Eagle Festival, which began after we left.  This time of year, thousands of Bald Eagles descend upon the Haines area, especially near the Chilkat River, because its some of the only water still flowing unfrozen and chockful of tasty salmon! While we missed the festival, we also missed the crowds of people descending on both the town and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. But most importantly – we did not miss the eagles.

chilkatriverpano
The Chilkat River at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
baldeagles
How many Bald Eagles can perch in one tree?
bearprint
Grizzly bears enjoyed the salmon, too. Their tracks ran all along the trail along the river, then down onto snow and into the water.

I didn’t know what to expect, especially given I don’t often trust hyped-up touristy things, but this was really amazing. I thought I’d seen a lot of Bald Eagles living in British Columbia and I even maybe got a little too used to seeing them that I stopped valuing it as much. But Haines…I’ve never seen so many Bald Eagles in one place. They were honestly everywhere you looked. In trees, on the ground, perched by the riverside, flying overhead. And they were noisy. Their high-pitched gullish calls echoed all around us.

baldeagles-3

baldeagles-2
Guarding catch from gulls and ravens looming on either side. But shortly after this, another Bald Eagle swooped in and stole the salmon.

It was just an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many Bald Eagles, to listen to them, to watch them, juvenile and adult, feeding on salmon and fighting each other off their catches. Its definitely something I’ll always remember to see such a great wildlife event unfold before me.

baldeagles-3

baldeagles-4

To round off our amazing Haines wildlife experience, there was also a bull moose just chilling on the front lawn outside our B&B and apparently there were northern lights that we missed. The wonders of Alaska!

alaskamoose
Moose chilling in a field in Haines, Alaska
alaskasunset
Sunset over the mountains of Haines, AK

Birding in Victoria, BC at Cowichan Bay & estuary

cowichanpano
Cowichan Bay, BC

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.

muteswan
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.

buffleheads
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.

commonmerganser
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.

greatblueheron
Great Blue Heron
surfscoter
Surf Scoter

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.

ospreynest
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.

sealions
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.

westernmeadowlark
Western Meadowlark (female/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!

snowgoose

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.

somenosmarsh
Somenos Marsh in 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.

treeswallow
Tree Swallow perched for a rare rest on a nest-box
treeswallow-1
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.

treeswallow-2
A parent Tree Swallow watches over nestlings at Somenos Marsh
treeswallow-3
Tree Swallow perched for a rest in the sun.

redwingedblackbird

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

Exploring Denver’s nature & birds at Washington Park

I went on a trip to Denver in early September and managed to find a little time to explore in nature. Of course, there is almost always nature and birds around you to find no matter where you are, but my biggest day was visiting Washington Park which is just south of the downtown core.

washingtonpark
Washington Park, Denver, CO
americanwhitepelican
American White Pelican

I imagine they must be a somewhat regular visitor there as no one else seemed to be half as interested in them as I was. Or maybe they just aren’t bird people. I’ve always wanted to see pelicans and here they were! I took some time to really watch them. Paddling on the water and hunting together in a cooperative group. I was amazed I could actually see the fish as they swallowed! Even just their immense size amazed me that a bird so big could fly. They just mesmerised me.

 

 

The other new bird I saw was a Snowy Egret! What a beautiful bird… similar to a Great Blue Heron, I watched him patiently stand in the water waiting for a fish to pass by, then darting his head forward suddenly to catch unsuspecting prey. Not far away, another egret perched on a branch overlooking the water. What a peaceful place to rest.

snowyegret
Snowy Egret

 

 

Another highlight was a Barn Swallow colony at the boathouse. There were more Barn Swallows than I think I’d ever seen before. I was wary of distracting or disturbing them in any way, so I watched from the sidelines, though they didn’t seem to mind people walking by. Their swooping and diving antics and chitter-chatter could entertain me for hours. Sometimes, I wish I could sprout wings and become a swallow just for one day.

barnswallow
Barn Swallow

I felt so happy and grateful to see a colony doing well from what I could tell after the trials I’ve been through with the colony I monitored this summer in Victoria. It became quite difficult for me to watch quite a few of them die and not know if it was something natural or not. I’d even tried to rescue one and send it to rehab, but unfortunately, the little bird had been starving.

 

 

I was quite taken by the little prairie dog communities strewn all over in random empty fields and lots off in the suburbs. I liked to imagine them as a happy family society, working together to dig tunnels and find food, alerting each other to danger, taking care of each other. It reminded me of a David Attenborough documentary in which prairie dogs faced a threatening snake and won, thus proving the underdog always has a chance.

 

For someone who relishes quiet and solitude, I find there’s something I love about social animals and social birds. Some of my favourite animals and birds live in families, flocks or colonies for part of most of their lives: Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, Bushtits, ducks rafting together at sea, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, wolves, elephants and deer. I wonder what that says about me, if anything. Then again, I also dearly love solitary or paired animals like all kinds of wild cats (lions are the exception here), foxes, osprey, wrens, most woodpeckers, and of course hummingbirds.

DSC04119
Denver, CO viewed from Red Rocks Ampitheatre

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.

DSC02776
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.

DSC02777
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.

DSC02782
An inquisitive Canada Jay (Gray Jay or whiskeyjack – a bird of many names).
DSC02784
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.

DSC02789
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.

DSC02795
Black-tailed deer in natural habitat.
DSC02807
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.

DSC02809
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.

DSC02815
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.

DSC02821
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.

DSC02831
juvenile and adult Barred Owls

 

A Surprise at Sandcut Beach

DSC02697
Sandcut Beach falls

A few weeks ago, I got to see one of the most incredible things I think I’ve ever seen. I was at Sandcut Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island where a creek cascades down into a waterfall onto the beach. Yes, its very romantic. I’d explored the beach already and enjoyed the view of the waterfall flowing over the rock into a pool in the sand.

DSC02706
Sandcut Beach falls

Looking up at the creek bed I couldn’t resist climbing up on top of it and checking out the view from on top of a waterfall. Maybe the geologist in me still likes to get up close and personal with rocks. But how often to you get to see a waterfall from the top?

The bottom of the creek bed is continuous, exposed sandstone full of little potholes and puddles. Its a totally different landscape from the one down on the beach. As I walked up the tree-lined creek, I began to hear a faint noise in the distance. I was sure it was a bird, but I didn’t know what I was about to find.

DSC02713
The sandstone creek bed of Sandcut Creek
DSC02719
Sandcut Creek

The highway crosses noisily above the creek and I thought maybe there was a bird nest with a hungry baby somewhere up high on the bridge. But as I got closer, I discovered the insistent, piping noise was a juvenile American Dipper!

He was puffed up and looked even bigger than his parent nearby as he begged for food, following his parent’s every step and demanding to be fed! The poor parent never got a rest, I imagine it must be exhausting work dipping around in the creek for delicious insects for your baby to eat. Can you imagine your child constantly following you around asking to be fed? It is hard work being a bird parent!

DSC02727
American Dipper baby begging for food

It was just incredible to watch from a distance as I didn’t want to disturb a parent and baby. The baby’s mouth was still a bright, attention-catching yellow and he didn’t seem to like getting his feet wet. The juvenile tended to stay on drier rocks out of the faster-moving water. I imagine this was not actually out of a dislike of wet feet but rather a way to stay safe from the currents as a vulnerable young bird.

It was so unexpected, I really tried to cherish the moment. I don’t think I’ll see an American Dipper feeding its young again anytime soon, but I won’t forget this special experience. I feel grateful I was in the right place at the right time and that I followed my curiosity up the creek. To me, that’s the best way to watch birds and enjoy nature. Going outside without a defined plan and just see what comes along your way…you never know what you might stumble across.

DSC02737
American Dipper juvenile – look at that bright yellow mouth!

 

Birds at a Canterbury estuary, New Zealand

Leaving the birds of the river from my last post behind, continuing along a bike trail in Canterbury New Zealand still revealed many new birds to be seen. The bike trail didn’t quite land us at the beach as we’d expected, but instead at the Ashley River estuary. The tide was quite low and there were shorebirds aplenty to be seen.

DSC01188
Ashley River estuary

In one of the main channels of the river outlet were quite a few birds enjoying the calm flow of the inter-tidal estuary. A few familiars we’d already seen, including the Paradise Shelduck (a pair of course) and the Spur-winged Plover were among some new species. Sacred Kingfishers zipped by overhead, calling loudly, moving so fast they were impossible to photograph, must like the Belted Kingfisher I am familiar with in BC.

Pied Stilts roved along the sandy shore in search of critters to eat, their long pink legs and black-and-white colouring conspicuous among other birds, though the South Island Pied Oystercatcher has equally beautiful black-and-white colouring. They strongly reminded me of our own Black Oystercatchers with red eyes and pink legs.

DSC01176.JPG
South Island Pied Oystercatcher and Pied Stilt

But no birds were as familiar as the Mallards that floated in the deeper water of the channel among a flock of Southern Black-backed Gulls. The mallard was introduced to New Zealand as early as 1870 and within 100 years populations really took off. Sadly, they have out-competed the native Grey Duck or parera in most areas of New Zealand, who can mainly only be seen in wilder regions.

DSC01172.JPG
Pied Shag and Little Shag

Further along toward the sea was a pair of cormorants perched on a brush pile: a Little Shag and a Pied Shag. Further away and a lot more shy, I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Banded Dotterel. The Banded Dotterel, or Double-banded Plover, is endemic to New Zealand, frequenting estuaries and rivers. Northern populations winter in Australia while southern birds move north. They are unfortunately very vulnerable to the predators introduced to New Zealand, including cats, stoats, rats and weasels. This is yet another sad example of the dangers of introducing non-native species.

DSC01183.JPG
Bar-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit is also known as the Eastern Bar-tailed Godwit, especially in North American where they breeds in Alaska. They tend to leave New Zealand in March and return in September. A female bird tracked by scientists was found to have made the longest ever nonstop flight by a bird – a whopping 11,500km in just nine days! Incredible. Meanwhile, humans spend thousands of dollars and tons of jet fuel to make the New Zealand Birds Onlinesame journey. If that doesn’t make you think nature is cleverer than humans, I don’t know what will.

DSC01182.JPG
birdprints in the sand

References

from New Zealand Birds Online:
Banded Dotterel
Bar-tailed Godwit
Grey Duck
Little Shag
Mallard
Pied Shag
Pied Stilt
Southern Black-backed Gull

Riverside birds in Canterbury, New Zealand

Back in March, I went on a trip to New Zealand for a couple of weeks. Most of the time I spent in and around Christchurch and it was gorgeous! I loved going back to visit and getting to watch birds there for real for the first time. I hadn’t really gotten into bird-watching yet when I lived there before.

With my Handbook of Common New Zealand Birds by Kinsky and Robertson that I picked up at a used book sale and my knowledge of a few birds that I’d seen there before, it was exciting and challenging to encounter some new birds!

DSC01137
the Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ

The first bird I really saw after settling in was one of my absolute favourites – the Paradise Shelduck! These ducks are familiar to me, having seen them frequently before. I love the sounds they make – have a listen here. They are quite loud and distinct and being endemic to New Zealand, are quite special. These gorgeous and colourful ducks are almost always seen exclusively in their breeding pairs and can be found all across New Zealand in fields, along rivers, in parks and inland shores.

Biking along a quintessential braided Canterbury river toward the sea, there were many more birds to encounter. Next, as I paused for lunch on the cobbled riverbed and looked across the water, I saw a tall, pale greyish blue bird standing along the river’s edge. It was striking how similar to the familiar Great Blue Heron this White-faced Heron appeared, yet they live half a world apart.

DSC01132.JPG
White-faced Heron

Meanwhile, swallows flew overhead, diving and swirling and a Swamp Harrier hovered above, searching for prey. I felt a sense of familiarity that these birds are akin to many I know here in BC. Yet I also felt in awe at the beauty of the landscape and wildlife surrounding me and the connectedness of all things in nature.

DSC01136
Looking toward the mountains

In the middle of the river where the water was flowing quickly, a shag (also called a cormorant) floated along. I watched him dive below the surface and bob back up before hopping ashore for a quick rest. After further study, I identified the cormorant as a Little Shag, or Little Pied Shag. They are native to all parts of New Zealand and live in fresh or coastal waters.

DSC01139
Little Shag

Not far from the heron, there was another interesting bird. This one was totally new to me and had a very interesting appearance with a white body, grey back and bright yellow face. I quickly found this bird in my book and had no doubts as to its species – the Spur-winged Plover. In Australia, this bird is known as the Masked Lapwing. I saw one again later on my trip in Picton on a sports field. Unlike many others birds of New Zealand, these plovers have coped very well with the presence of humans as they can thrive in agricultural and urban areas.

DSC01144.JPG
Spur-winged Plover

References
Handbook of Common Birds of New Zealand by F.C. Kinsky and C.J.R. Robertson.
Little Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Paradise Shelduck, New Zealand Birds Online
Spur-winged Plover, New Zealand Birds Online
White-faced Heron, New Zealand Birds Online

Exploring the Great Trail on Vancouver Island

DSC06429
a portion of the southern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, part of the Great Trail

This past summer in Victoria, a brand new walking/hiking/biking/horse-riding trail was finished and unveiled through an area that was not previously publicly accessible – the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. This trail also connected sections of the The Great Trail where there was no continuous link before. The Great Trail (previously known as the TransCanada Trail or TCT) is just that – a trail that can be walked or biked all the way across Canada, from St John’s, Newfoundland to right here in Victoria, BC and all the way up to the Northwest Territories. Its the longest trail in the world.

DSC06456
Trees tower over you on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

The Trail was meant to be completed by Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, and though technically 100% completed, there are long sections that just travel alongside a road shoulder or busy highway. Some sections cross water (The Great Lakes and the Strait of Georgia) and can be crossed by kayak or canoe (or sometimes a ferry). So it all depends a little bit on your perspective.

 

In August, we went to check out the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail, a 13km-long gravel trail that traverses over land that is part of the city’s water supply and forestry land. There’s some pretty steep terrain in this area so we checked it out on foot instead of bikes. Its a nice walk on a wide trail through tall Western Hemlock trees with a very Pacific Northwest feel. Not far down the trail is a viewing platform of Waugh Creek Falls, but in late-August after a hot summer when we went, it was a mere trickle. The uphill walkbpast the suspension bridge was a feat on a hot day, and I couldn’t ever see making it up on my bike.

DSC06464
Dark-eyed Junco on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

A few weeks ago, we went to another section of the Great Trail near the north end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail and the southern end of the Cowichan Valley Trail. This part of the trail has a similar landscape with lots of hemlock trees, however, the history of forestry and logging is much more evident here with whole stretches of land mowed down to bare earth and soil. There are some lovely bridges over creeks and further north, a nice view looking south toward the Olympic Mountains.

DSC09486
Scenes of forestry are seen from the northern end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail

In Victoria, The Great Trail travels along scenic portions of the city, including the inner harbour and the Gorge Waterway before heading west toward suburbs and eventually, the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. The urban portion is mostly flat and paved most of the way. There’s a lot to see if you stop and take some time to explore the Great Trail near your home. For a look at the Great Trail across Canada, check out the submissions from the 2017 Canadian Geographic Great Trail Photo Competition! If you live in Canada, what’s the trail like in your neck of the woods?

DSC09490
Bridge over Shawnigan Creek