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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Cowichan Bay and spent some time around the water, one of my favourite spots for watching birds. I’ve been there a few times, but it was only this trip when I finally discovered how to get to the estuary itself. There is a trail that starts from a small, gravel parking lot and then leads out onto the estuary itself to a nice viewing platform.
I’d been convinced it would be a good spot if only I could get there, but I’d never found the access point and thought it was off-limits. I was so excited to have finally found the way and it turned out even better than I expected.
I was there on a chilly, overcast November day, and there were ducks everywhere! Earlier that day, I’d finally seen my first Bufflehead of the season! I think it was so late because I hadn’t been to the beach in a while. At the estuary, Buffleheads abounded and large groups of American Wigeons floated close together or mingled on the shore. Almost hidden among the wigeons were a couple of Northern Pintails, the first of three birds with ‘Northern’ in their name we’d see that day.
It was a good thing the wigeons were so tightly packed. As we reached the viewing tower, we glimpsed a raptor flying low overhead. The wigeons picked up and moved almost as a unit, all of them flying in unison, aware of the looming threat. Soon, the silent hunter circled back around again, flying low over the water, gliding on outstretched wings.
The white rump patch gave it away; a Northern Harrier. Only my second, but this time I got to share it with my partner. We watched the drama unfold around us and saw a near-collision with an American Wigeon in-flight (photos below). These hawks usually hunt smaller prey, but are able to catch ducks and rabbits as well (Cornell).
There was more excitement still awaiting us at the Cowichan Estuary; we watched a Belted Kingfisher dive quickly into the water from its perch with barely a splash and come back up with a catch.
While returning along the same trail, I saw a bird land in a tree out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw it; a bird larger than a songbird, with a grey back and a distinctive black eye mask. My first Northern Shrike. I’d wanted to see one ever since I watched Planet Earth II and saw the fascinating segment on the butcherbird.
Northern Shrikes are predatory songbirds. They sometimes impale their prey (insects, small mammals or birds) on fences or spines. This must be how they got their scientific name Lanius excubitor, as it translates to “Butcher Watchman” (Cornell). Moments after I snapped a photo, it was gone.
The Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier and Northern Shrike have little in common but their shared environment and their name, but they are each distinctively interesting and beautiful in their own way. Each serves a purpose in the environment around them and each deserves to be appreciated and protected for years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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?
If you want to bird in Victoria, Swan Lake is a great local birding hotspot and probably one of the most well-known in the region. Its a nature sanctuary centered around a small lake in the suburbs nestled right along a major highway. A trail wraps around the perimeter of the lake and marsh and passes through wooded areas as well as providing access to a native plant garden and nature house. Besides the trails, there is a lovely boardwalk that crosses the lake and lots of benches in great spots for watching birds. The boardwalk is in need of repair as of writing this post, and donations of any amount are needed. To donate or learn more, please visit the Swan Lake Give a Sheet Campaign.
It is quite amazing the wildlife that lives here, right in an urbanized area, and is probably underappreciated by many visitors. Not only have there been 220 recorded species of birds according to eBird, but there are also mink, otter and muskrats living along the lake, too.
The lake, a Great Blue Heron on the left
boardwalk crosses the lake
Whether it is spring or fall migration, winter or summer, there are always interesting birds to see at Swan Lake. On Sunday mornings, guided bird walks are put on by the nature house for free each time. Its a great way to learn about species new and old or to spot a rarity with an experienced birder.
The lake itself is a great spot for all kinds of birds attracted to water; from Marsh Wrens to Red-winged Blackbirds to Great Blue Herons, and especially for ducks in the winter. Its also a great spot to remember to look up; I’ve seen many raptors flying high in the skies over the lake and the rest of the sanctuary.
Each spring, the lake is a reliable spot to see baby ducks and earlier this summer, I got to see a Bald Eagle pair mating. Anna’s Hummingbirds are sure to catch your attention with their speedy buzzing all year long while Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees will chatter loudly in the fir and oak trees. My favourite moment of spring at Swan Lake is when the swallows arrive with their aerobatics and high-pitched calls that strangely remind me of dolphins. Even in the way they are social and group together, they are like dolphins of the sky.
There are certain pockets of bushes and trees where warblers abound in the spring and summer, and other densely wooded areas where you may reliably see owls and hawks. Northern Flickers are common and there is a bench along the trail where I regularly see (or hear) at least one, if not more. One lucky day, I saw a pair of them foraging on the ground and noticed something different about one of them. I see these birds all the time, but I realised one of them was an intergrade Northern Flicker; the first I’d ever seen!
Besides neat and exciting surprises like intergrade Northern Flickers and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler, there are small moments I enjoy here, too. Among the tall grasses, I enjoy watching Bushtits hopping from grass stem to stem, leaving it trembling in their wake. Its here where I’d watch my Bewick’s Wren friend hopping busily about in the brush and dancing daintily up the branches of the garry oak trees crowded with Chesnut-backed Chickadees, who are always fun to watch.
These simple moments somehow mean more to me than seeing a new bird for the first time. I don’t know why, but maybe its the feeling of being connected with something other than yourself, other than another human being that makes it satisfying. Its even better when I know an area, and I see familiar birds, getting to know them and their habits. Sometimes I wonder if they ever start to recognize me, if they are ever as interested in me as I am in them. Probably not, but its fun to think about. Or do they ever think ‘oh its that girl back with her black box again.’ We’ll never know, and maybe its better that way.
Panama Flats is a land area in Saanich, owned by the municipality as of 2017, which was previously used for agriculture and is now a park and a great place to go birding. The flats lie along the Colquitz River, which flows from Beaver Lake in the north down to Portage Inlet. The Colquitz River Trail starts at Tillicum Mall and runs along the creek through Panama Flats and to the Glendale Trail, which you can take to the Viaduct Flats (another nice birding spot!). Biking is allowed on this trail and it makes for quite a fun little ride. Its a bit of a hidden gem.
side trail at Panama Flats
the main trail, Colquitz River Trail
dried grass in September
Besides the main gravel trail through the flats, a number of smaller, less-maintained trails run around the perimeter of the flats. These trails are the real bird-watching gems. During the summer when I’ve been here, there is one pond regularly full of water accessible right off of the Colquitz River Trail, but in the winter and spring, the puddles and pools fill up, offering an optimal spot for all kinds of birds.
The pond and the marshy area around it is home to many Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups, American Wigeons, Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese. At the seasonal ponds and pools, I saw my first Green-winged Teal in the spring. Also at these ponds, I’ve seen Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, as well as Killdeer on the nearby grassy flat.
In the trees and bushes, there are Golden and White-crowned Sparrows while Savannah Sparrows forage on the ground. Bushtits chatter in flocks among the low bushes all year while Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings make noise during the summer. The tall grasses and low bushes and trees make for great spots to see warblers in the summer, from Common Yellowthroats to Orange-crowned Warblers. High in the sky, there might be a Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture or a bit lower down, a Cooper’s Hawk or Northern Harrier looking for their next meal. Not to mention, quite a few rarities have been sighted at this spot over the years, so you never know what you might find!
Rithet’s Bog is a nice little park in a suburban area right beside a highway with an interesting past. It is one of the few remaining peat bogs on Vancouver Island and was saved, luckily, by the Guinness Family. Yep, if you’re thinking of beer, you’re thinking the right family. They bought a large chunk of land in the region for development, and in the early 1990s, the family donated the bog land to the town for a nature sanctuary (Green, 2006). The sanctuary is quite the success story as it had been drained for agriculture and it took a lot of work to restore the bog to its current state.
A 2.8km gravel trail winds around the perimeter of the bog, along the edge of the bog and through woody groves. I especially enjoy coming here in the winter to watch the ducks and it makes for a great, short, rainy-day walk. I’ve only just been in late summer for the first time! It is a completely different place between winter and summer.
During the winter, there is a full on pond with ducks, geese and herons all making use of this ephemeral water source. In the dry summer, the only water around is in the ditch between the trail and the road.
If you want to see Red-winged Blackbirds, spend about 5 minutes here and you’ll see many! Their loud calls are hard to miss. In the winter, the pond is bustling with Mallards, American Wigeons, American Coots, Great Blue Heron, and the occasional Trumpeter Swan.
Among the branches, there are House Sparrows, House Finches, American Robins, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhee, Northern Flickers and Steller’s Jays here year-round. During the summer, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will thrill you with their acrobatics as will the swallows. With nestboxes generously installed for them, Violet-green and Tree Swallows are busy catching insects during the summer months before they head back south.
While I was here the other day, Cedar Waxwings burst into the air, their colours on show, and hovered like large hummingbirds before diving back into the trees again. As I watched them, I listened to their many-whistled calls as they bounced between berry bushes and cottonwood trees. Only in my photographs later was I able to see all the insects filling the air around them (see photo below).
Along with the waxwings performing acrobatics were Tree and Violet-green Swallows. They soared through the air, swooping and diving, leaving me amazed they don’t somehow collide. As I watched two of my favourite birds, they started flying more frantically, moving less at random and more together. Something was changing. Then I saw a hawk a glide through their group like a shark moving through a school of fish! Suddenly, the swallows disappeared, presumably taking refuge somewhere from their predator. I didn’t see the hawk again, either, as he disappeared behind some trees.
But I did see a Turkey Vulture perched at the top of a tree; something I have never captured on camera before, and I was fortunate enough to get to watch him take off, too.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit, there will likely be something interesting to see at Rithet’s Bog, a wetland oasis for birds right in the middle of suburban Victoria.
Before I moved here and started birding for real, I was unaware that Victoria is something of a haven for bird-watchers. Its a well-known destination for whale-watching and other wildlife, but Victoria is perched on the southern edge of Vancouver Island is a gem for birding. In the Annual Christmas Bird Count, Victoria regularly tops the list for species diversity in Canada. In 2016, Victoria had 141 species reported in the annual count. But maybe its just because we’re the warmest spot in Canada in December.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know some great birding spots around the region. One of my favourites is Uplands Park and the adjacent Cattle Point in the municipality of Oak Bay. Uplands Park is a 30.65 hectare park surrounded by expensive (and sometimes historic) homes on three sides and Cattle Point and the Haro Strait on the eastern side.
The park is easy to access from any side and has a myriad of trails to explore through groves of garry oak trees, thicker, younger deciduous trees, garry oak meadows and open, rocky uplands. It makes for a beautiful walk during any season at any time of day. And its a perfect example if you’re looking to explore the fading and native garry oak ecosystem.
Uplands Park path during a rare snowfall in Victori
the same Uplands Park path in August
Right now, after our record-setting dry Victorian summer, the park is very dry. The grass is yellow, the trails are dust. Some trees are losing their leaves with the lack of water, but the garry oaks are soldiering on, their leaves a marked green contrast with the ground beneath my feet. Right now, in late summer, the blackberry bushes are a bountiful source of food for birds in parts of the park. They make a good mid-walk snack for humans, too!
Most of the birds have finished their nesting season by now, but in the springtime, many birds choose to nest here, including Anna’s Hummingbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Bewick’s Wrens and Bushtits. Barred Owls likely nest in the park, too.
Spring arrivals from afar that are commonly seen at the park includes Turkey Vultures, swallows (Tree, Barn, Violet-green and Purple Martins), Chipping Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Cedar Waxwings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Spring rains bring wildflowers, green grass and muddy puddles to trudge through on your visit.
Meanwhile, the year-round residents I frequently see here at any time of year includes Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Northwestern Crows, American Robins, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Anna’s Hummingbirds and Chestnut-backed Chickdee. In fact, its a very rare visit if I don’t see an Anna’s Hummingbird on my walk through the park. To a lesser extent, other easy to spot birds here year-round are Bewick’s Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers.
In the winter, when the ground gets frosty and sometimes even snows occasionally, our year-round birds can be seen around Uplands Park, but nearby Cattle Point makes a great spot for shorebirding. Harlequin Ducks, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, American Wigeons and Black Turnstones head to the Cattle Point shores for the winter. Great Blue Heron, Black Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Double-crested Cormorants and Mallards can also be seen during all four seasons at Cattle Point.
Aside from the birds, other wildlife living in the park you might encounter includes garter snakes, black-tailed deer, mice and rabbits. At Cattle Point, I’ve also seen River Otter and Harbour Seals in the water and a cougar was also spotted near Uplands Park last summer. The park also has a high concentration of rare native plants, but being clueless about most plant ID, I won’t try to list any of them. In the spring, I can identify the beautiful flowers of Henderson’s Shooting Star, White Fawn Lily, Camas and Wild Rose that grow in the park.
From Cattle Point, there are also scenic views of Mt Baker in Washington State and if you look southeast on a clear day, you can sometimes just make out Mt Rainier just off to the edge of the chain of Olympic Mountains. This makes it a popular photography stopping point for tourists, but many of them probably miss out on the rest of the beauty in the park.
If you’re heading to the Victoria region and you are a birder, check out Uplands Park and see what you find! Overall, there is a great variety of birds, wildlife and scenery to see at this suburban park. For more photos of birds at the park, follow the link.
A few months ago I went on a trip to the North Island, Vancouver Island and spent a night camping at Nimpkish Lake. That evening, while walking along the lakeside, I spotted an American Dipper strutting its stuff on a fallen tree out in the water. American Dippers are song birds, and the only aquatic ones in North America. They typically live and hunt near fast-moving rivers with rocky bottoms in the western U.S. and Canada; this is the first one I’ve seen at a lake. Listen to this one’s song and have fun watching him in my video below:
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.
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.
Great Blue Heron
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.
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.
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.
grassy field on the western island
Bald Eagle overhead
a White-Crowned Sparrow sings
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.
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!
The other morning, I found something exciting in my backyard just outside my window. I first noticed a bird flying around under the porch and around one of the posts. Then, I saw the nest – a Dark-eyed Junco nest!
The day before, I’d sat watching the junco in the garden calling out chip notes as she moved from perch to perch. At the time, I didn’t notice the nest or it wasn’t there yet. After I noticed the nest, I watched the junco work on building it; flying over to a brush pile and collecting bits of grass in her beak.
I think she must be a female because, according to Cornell, the females build the nest and chooses the site. With a 12 to 13 day incubation period, I’ll have to keep my eyes out in a few days.
She never flew straight to the nest from the brush pile, but hopped onto nearby perches and branches as if scoping out the territory and ensuring it was safe to approach her nest. This pattern of work continued many times throughout the morning. I am so excited to have a nest in my yard – I am hoping it is successful, but we will have to wait and see! I can’t wait to watch and see what happens. I haven’t seen her since, but that’s because she is busy sitting on her nest. This story is to be continued…
One successful nester (or rather nest-ee?) is the Brown-headed Cowbird, who was also out in my yard that morning. This is the first one I’ve seen in my yard yet, which means some other bird has worked hard this spring to raise this juvenile cowbird, possibly in place of one of their own. In order to save energy for other pursuits, Brown-headed Cowbirds engage in nest parasitism – they lay eggs in other birds’ nests, sometimes displacing an original egg to do so.
Not long after, I looked up to see a bird land on a wire, a Chipping Sparrow, and mere moments later, a male bird flew over and they mated. It was a quick affair, but I somehow got a couple of photos of them in the act. I’m not sure how creepy that is yet, but its neat to think there might be some Chipping Sparrow chicks somewhere in my yard soon, too!
Nothing really beats the joy of birding in your own backyard. Watching the residents year-round and the migrants arrive and leave again. Finding a nest is just a plus. Looking out the window and wondering who is that bird I see back there? After all, isn’t it how we all got started birding really?