American Dipper singing at Nimpkish Lake

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:

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The lost waterfall, ammonites & an American Dipper

On a search to find the hike to Benson Creek Falls and Ammonite Falls near Nanaimo, my partner and I walked through the forest listening for the sound of flowing water. After a summer of drought, the creek was running pretty low and the falls turned out to be only a mere trickle. We weren’t even sure we found the right waterfall.  Unfortunately, the trail signs at Benson Creek Falls Regional Park are not all that well marked and there is no signed map at the parking lot.

However, we still managed to have a nice walk and found some other surprising things instead. Its not the first time one of our hike hasn’t gone to plan for whatever reason, and for the most part, we tend to look on the bright side. Even if we miss what we came to see, its usually still an enjoyable walk and time spent outside.

 

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Falls run dry with little rain over the summer

Its a pretty steep descent heading down to the stream bed and at one point there are nice ropes to help you down. I could see it being very slippery after a good rain. Once we reached the creek, we soon found a small, dry rock outcrop where  a waterfall might be during the winter. The rocks here are part of the Cretaceous (145 to 65 million years ago) Nanaimo Group – basically a group of sedimentary rocks which were mostly deposited as a marine environment. That’s why there are so many marine fossils in the rock when you get further upstream in the creekbed.

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A little bit of waterfall cascading down into a lovely pool

In fact, that’s how Ammonite Falls gets its name – because of the ammonite fossils that can be found in the rock here. Ammonites were essentially ancient ancestors of cephalopods (think octopus or squid) that lived on earth 420 to 65 million years ago, some of them growing up 2m in size! At the end of the Cretaceous period, they went extinct along with the dinosaurs.

While I sat on the rocks enjoying the lovely pool at the waterfall’s bottom and geeking out looking at the fossils, we suddenly spotted an American Dipper at the bottom of the waterfall! My partner frequently sees these little songbirds while out paddling whitewater, for which I am insanely jealous of him, so I was very excited to see the dipper on my walk!

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Highlight of the day: an American Dipper skipped up the rocks on the outcrop

The dipper bobbed his head and skipped up the slippery rock wall nimbly and quickly. He reminded me of a chickadee because he almost never sat still for a photo! The comparison is fair, I suppose, since he is a songbird, after all.

 

We watched him for some time as he made his way up the waterfall, bobbing his head this way and that. I noticed his eye blinking frequently as it would go white and then black and then flash white again and the flashing of white really caught my attention. It turns out, the white is actually the Dipper’s eyelid and not its third eyelid as I (and many others) would assume given their aquatic nature.

 

But then, wildlife is so full of surprises and interesting new things to learn, it is one of the greatest joys in watching birds and other animals. So while we may not have reached the proper waterfall we set out to see, we still got to see some interesting things. To watch and enjoy the Dipper yourself at home, view my video below.

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Hunt of the Great Blue Heron

I took a walk to a nearby rocky beach on a sunny afternoon and spotted a Great Blue Heron along the rocky shoreline. While they have a loud, squawking call that has startled me in the past when a heron was hidden from view, this heron was silent and still. He was hunting. Or rather, fishing.

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Great Blue Heron, long legs beneath the water’s surface, hunting in the shallows

Standing still, towering over the calm surface of the water, the heron watches and waits. A silent hunter, he moves slowly and deliberately, with every step planned and taken with a ballerina-like grace. With impeccable eyesight, he scans the water below for any brief movement of fish and then strikes quickly. Their eyesight is so keen they can even hunt during the night if need be (Cornell).


I watched him repeat the process above a number of times, catching at least four or five of these what I believe are hagfish or an eel. After capturing a few small fish, he later managed a much larger one, though with it was a bit of a struggle as the fish kept winding itself around his beak. I recorded a video of the struggle and hunt you can watch at the end of this post. I wondered why he didn’t try piercing it with his beak or hitting it on the rocks. Perhaps he is a younger, less experienced heron.

 

In flight, Great Blue Herons are easily identified by their characteristic S-shape formed by their neck and their long, slow wing flaps as if they are never in a hurry to get anywhere. They are the largest wading bird in North America, standing at 1m tall (Species At Risk) but weigh only 2 to 2.5kg (SFU).

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I admit I see Great Blue Herons all the time around Vancouver Island, but they still fascinate me as much as the first time I saw one. They weren’t always so common, though. Like their top predators, the Bald Eagle, heron populations suffered from the effects of DDT (SFU) and they are still vulnerable to other pollutants in the marine environment. Although they have recovered somewhat, they remain a species of special concern on Canada’s Species At Risk List.

Another factor in their decline is that their young are particularly at risk to Bald Eagle predation (SFU). While they are usually solitary creatures, Great Blue Herons form large nesting colonies high up in trees, hopefully hidden well away from prying eyes and predators. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and sadly, often nest in areas near bustling human activity which leads to nest abandonment (Species At Risk). A good example is the Great Blue Heron colony in downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park which you can quietly watch from home live on webcam.

My video below shows my experience observing the heron hunting described at the beginning of my post.

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References
The Great Blue Heron, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Great Blue Heron Species At Risk Profile
Simon Fraser University’s Heron Working Group

Home again on familiar ground at sea level: some shorebirds and swallows

Being home again on Vancouver Island means being surrounded by the sea again…just how I like it! I love the mountains for the green expanse of trees, the varying landscape and little lakes, but there’s something about the sea that draws me like so many humans before me. The first time I saw the ocean at 18, I was amazed by its sheer expanse and the rolling of the waves on the shore. In short, it was everything I always dreamed of.

I’m lucky to live where I am and I try to enjoy the local shore as much as possible while I can. Spring was well underway when we returned with new flowers were blossoming upon our return.

I saw, once again, a large group of birds far from the shore all clustered together. I’d seen them twice just before we left and could not work out what they were. The distance from shore certainly didn’t help. They were black and white with distinct white patches around their eyes.

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Long-tailed Duck far from shore stretching the limits of my camera’s zoom!

 

Yesterday, at last, I worked it out – they’re diving seaducks, the Long-tailed Duck! To add to the confusion, they were previously called Oldsquaw. I guess I found the downside to buying used field guides. As a beginner, I was uncertain as some of the population range maps I’d seen didn’t include the Long-tailed Duck in my region, or only “rare” or in winter. However, I’ve seen others report them in the area as well, which is reassuring.

Now that I know them, they are quite distinct. As I watched them, they all dove  underwater at once, moving as one fishing unit. It was really quite fascinating! They breed in the Arctic and winter further south (though every map I look at is different), so I suspect they were passing through on their way north.

Despite another early spring this year, the wintering-over Buffleheads are still in town. I had expected them to move on before I returned, but I suspect they won’t linger much longer. I’ll miss these little ducks but I look forward to their return again in the winter.

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Bufflehead (male)
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These female Buffleheads I managed to photograph while landing reminded me a bit of the courting display of the grebe.

I spotted two Marbled Murrelets, a new species for me and I knew they were a murrelet right away by their body shape and size, though at first glance from afar my first thought was loon. The distinguishing feature, for me, is the neck is white all the way to the nape.

This seabird, a relative of the puffin, breeds along the cost of the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska. Interestingly, unlike other seabirds, they nest far from the coast in the branches of old-growth conifer trees and are threatened by the loss of old-growth forests.

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Marbled Murrelet

Swallows are some of my favourite birds and I get very excited anytime I see them. The way they dive and flit about so quickly while feeding in the air is so entertaining  and interesting to observe. It makes it very difficult to photograph them, however and I just managed to get one good photo of this Barn Swallow I saw the other day.

I didn’t see any before I left on my trip, so I guess they returned from South America to breed while I was away. Barn Swallows have, overall, adapted well to human occupation and now almost exclusively nest in man-made sites where they previously nested in caves.

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Barn Swallow mid-flight with distinct forked tail

Finally, I happily watched a Black Oystercatcher quietly foraging among the rocks for mussels and other intertidal shellfish while being badgered and followed by a crow on the shore. As if they don’t have enough to face with loss of good habitat and pollution. I almost never see oystercatchers alone and, sure enough, once I looked around I found another just downshore.

I shot a brief video of the Black Oystercatcher foraging among the rocks and eating. Its shot hand-held so a bit shaky, but the best I can do!

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Resources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds Pages on the Long-tailed Duck, Marbled Murrelet, Barn Swallow and Black Oystercatcher