Winter is for the ducks

If you ask me, the best thing about winter is ducks. I may have mentioned before how much I love ducks, and the last two weekends I’ve had some really great duck-watching! I’m not sure if its something to do with the weather or if there are normally so many about, but I felt like I’ve seen a nice variety in species.

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a party of ducks down at Esquimalt Lagoon

Last weekend, I went down to the Esquimalt Lagoon (always an excellent duck destination) on a cold, but sunny day. There are usually quite a few ducks there, but I thought I saw more than usual last week. Perhaps it was because so many of them were clustered close to the shore.

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American Wigeons
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Common Goldeneye

Whatever the reason, there were heaps of American Wigeons (a large flock tends to hang out at the lagoon), their greens heads just brilliant in the sunlight, as well as Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Pintails and even a couple of Common Goldeneyes. As I walked along the shore, watching the big group, I also spotted a stray Eurasian Wigeon, his red head conspicuous in a sea of green and brown.

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American Wigeon and Northern Pintail – what a size difference!

 

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Eurasian Wigeon

Watching ducks just makes me happy; the way they waddle awkwardly onshore while moving so gracefully on the water with their various quacks and colours just makes me happy.

Besides enjoying the ducks, I also saw a group of shorebirds right on the edge of the water who I didn’t recognise. After much debate and consulting Sibley, I decided they were Dunlins, which would be a new bird for me. I find shorebirds tricky and I sometimes I’m still not sure just who I am looking at.

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Dunlins

Meanwhile, high up in the sky about as far from the shore as you could get, I saw a familiar bird soaring high and veering and tilting every now and again. Much to my surprise, a Turkey Vulture hovered overhead, another was perched in a tree and I later saw two others flying overhead.

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A winter Turkey Vulture

I thought it would be too cold for them by now and they must all have gone south already, but I suppose there’s always bound to be a few stragglers. I wonder if its harder for them to find food in the winter because they rely so much on their sense of smell to locate carrion. Besides all the ducks, unexpectedly seeing one of my favourite raptors was pretty exciting! It just goes to show you never know who you might encounter when you go outside bird watching.

Birding in Victoria, BC at Rithet’s Bog

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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.

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Rithet’s Bog in late August; in the winter, this is filled with water

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.

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House Finch snacking on blackberries

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.

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Red-winged Blackbird
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Mallard

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.

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Cedar Waxwing with prey

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).

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Cedar Waxwing in flight – note insects in the air (my only successful attempt at an in-flight photo!)

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.

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Turkey Vulture

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.


Resources

Rithet’s Bog eBird Page
Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society
Green, Valerie, 2006. An Eclectic History of Broadmead, Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter.

Birds at the rocky coast: a variety of species from Auklets to Vultures

Going down to my the rocky coast and nearby beach is one of my favourite places to go for a walk and watch birds. Last  week while near the shore, I heard a high-pitched “kill-deer kill-deer” repeating over and over. Carefully gazing among the rocks, I spotted the Killdeer at last. I find they blend in so effectively and move quickly, sometimes making them hard to spot if you aren’t paying attention.

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Killdeer very dutifully watching over its baby

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was a Killdeer chick running around and eating and being watcher over by its parent. What a tiny chick, he looks too small for his long legs, but soon enough he’ll grow into them. Killdeer typically lay 4-6 eggs per brood (Cornell), so I wonder if the others hatched successfully as I only saw the one. They live on Vancouver Island year-round (Sibley, 2016), but I’d never know it as I see them far more often in the spring and summer.

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Killdeer chick exploring the algae-laden rocks exposed by low tide

 

Further along, there were a number of non-native European Starlings, from juvenile to fully-fledged adults with their iridescent plumage.

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European Starling

I went through pages and pages of my Sibley guide and lots of googling photos before I finally identified the Juvenile European Starling. I would never have guessed these were the same birds, from drab gray to a beautiful glossy black that shimmers green, blue and purple in the sunlight. I’d love to see a molting juvenile halfway between each later in the season.

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Juvenile European Starling

As I moved a little further from the coast, perched in a nearby tree was a Brown-headed Cowbird. They just have lovely blue-green sheen to their feathers and a distinct brown head, thus their name.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

 

House Sparrows chattered and scurried about on the ground and perched in trees. Just like European Starlings, House Sparrows were introduced to North America and found great success in this opportunity, becoming especially common birds in urban areas. They often have a bad reputation because they take over nesting areas other native birds would use, such as Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (Cornell). Even so, I enjoy watching them flit about.

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House Sparrows

 

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House Sparrow at a nest box potentially taking over a potential nest site for native species like Tree Swallows.

Moving back toward the water again, I spotted an interesting diving bird floating on the surface who periodically dove underwater for minutes at a time. I spent a while sitting and watching this aptly-named Rhinoceros Auklet with his funny little horn. This was my first ever auklet, who just happened to be the largest of western auklets, living along the west coast of North America year-round (Sibley, 2016). Despite this, I was immensely surprised and excited to see one!

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Rhinoceros Auklet

Then I began to worry about the little Killdeer chick when I saw a large bird overhead, but breathed a slight sigh of relief to see a Turkey Vulture hovering above. As they primarily scavenge for food, I’m hoping a tiny Killdeer wouldn’t attract this raptor’s attention. Turkey vultures have to be one of my favourite birds to watch; they are simply amazing.

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First, they are HUGE with wingspans up to 6 feet (Sibley, 2016)! Second, I will never stop being fascinated by the way they hover and tilt, rocking unsteadily back and forth on their powerful wings as if floating on thermal updrafts high up in the sky. Finally, they are a crucial part of the ecosystem by cleaning up when they eat rotting carrion. Their biology is fascinating in that they can digest these carcasses without getting sick (Cornell). How clever is nature to have created such a well-working system?


References
House Sparrow, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A., 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.
Turkey Vulture, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.