Endings and beginnings

The last few months have seen a lot of change. Endings and beginnings. We left Victoria and moved to Corvallis, Oregon. November was our last month in Canada. I’m still settling in here, a process that always takes longer than I anticipate. Two members of my extended family passed away and in the grey darkness of winter, it can be hard to see the light or the reason why some things happen.

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”  – The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

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Ducks in a row

But now that the solstice is past and the days are getting longer, we have set up many of the basics here so we can focus on getting to know a new place. New plants and wildlife, new birds, new places to go. Moving is always exciting, but always involves challenges I often seem to underestimate until I’m in the thick of it.

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Amber, newly an Americat, has settled in happily in her new home.

Its a bit strange for me to move back to the United States again. I haven’t lived in this country since May 2011. In seven and a half years, a lot has happened. Both to this place and to me. When I left, I admit I never really wanted to come back, but sometimes opportunities come up and you go with them. Its all an opportunity for a learning experience anyway.

There’s a lot that I miss about Victoria. Starting my journey into bird-watching there made me feel more connected to the land and nature around me than I’ve ever felt before. But its not such a different environment here and I see many familiar birds that make me feel at home again.

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While my new backyard isn’t anywhere as beautiful as the last one I was blessed with, this White-Crowned Sparrow was the first bird I saw out my window and it brought a smile to my face.

Other familiar birds like Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Herons and Song Sparrows are kind of comforting while newer birds like the Black-capped Chickadee are exciting to get to know. There are many more new birds to meet just around the corner if I look. And just like bird-watching helped me while grieving my first cat’s death, I know it will help me feel at home in a new place if I just go out and look and listen. To remember that to feel a connection to another living thing is an important feeling that can bring joy to a small moment.

 

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I saw my first ever American Kestrel and I think they might be one of my new favourites!

Summer’s ended, now comes the rain

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Although summer took its time in showing up this year, once it started, it was long, hot and dry. In just the last two weeks, temperatures have gone from 30 to 14. Fall has officially arrived with the first rainfall finally arriving after more than 50 consecutive days without rain. Before I know it, we’ll be getting October storms of wind and rain whipping through, but for now it makes for a nice change.

As I change from wearing shorts to pants, fall migration is already underway. I’m sad to see my favourite summer birds, namely the swallows and warblers (hmm and the Turkey Vultures…its so hard to choose) leaving, but excited for the different birds that may cross my path. I’m gearing up for possibly meeting some new birds, but also my old winter friends. Especially all the ducks! I just love ducks…

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taking off for flight

Looking back over my summer, though, I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked. I’m sad to say I didn’t go see my local Osprey nest more than a couple of times and I have no idea if they successfully mated or raised young this year. I think it was a by-product of being stuck working more than 40 hours most weeks and not getting reliable weekends off. Another stalling factor was my camera being out of commission for a couple of weeks getting repaired because I love photographing the osprey.

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my Dark-eyed Junco momma…
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White-crowned Sparrow (non-breeding)

I am not sure if my biggest disappointment is the Osprey nest I hardly visited or if the failure of my backyard nest is. Yes, the Dark-eyed Junco momma I watched building her nest for days back in June was unfortunately brought back to my door by none other than Amber…for the rest of the day, I watched another junco (presumably her mate) calling and calling, presumably for his lost mate. It broke my heart a little. No baby juncos and one more native bird gone.

It was a different kind of summer than all the nest-watching I got in last year. I met a lot of new birds out east as well as a few around here, and I got more confident at some of my identification skills. I learned the calls of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (“oh dear me”), the White-crowned Sparrow (“Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada”), the Common Yellowthroat (“witchity-witchity-witchity-wit” – the one I kept hearing but did not know which bird it belonged to for ages!), found a Wilson’s Warbler all on my own and learned how to differentiate the song of the Black-headed Grosbeak from an American Robin. Steady progress.

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Black-headed Grosbeak I spotted by its song

The more I bird, the more I realize I am much better at birding by sound than sight. I don’t have the best eyesight, but I am usually able to learn songs and calls and be able to remember who it belongs to (as long as I can actually find the bird when I hear it to match it up).

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Common Yellowthroat, small and likes to hide in the bushes!

 

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying

So, I am still getting better and learning lots! I’ve come a long way from the early days. This week, I’ve seen my first American Pipit and Northern Harrier I was able to identify. I’m still learning, and looking back, this summer wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been despite the setbacks. I even got away on a couple of nice trips.

Nevertheless, I am hoping to get out more during the fall, especially with migration, and not miss out as much as I did this summer! A new job with regular hours and weekends should help my efforts. I’ve been working on learning gulls and raptors, and had the chance to spot shorebirds this summer, too. Please feel free to correct my IDs below if you have other thoughts! Its not always easy trying to totally self-teach myself birds, but there is also great satisfaction in finding and identifying them on your own…

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Savannah Sparrow I think I now feel confident identifying
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Western Sandpiper (non-breeding) – I think? seen in August
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Least Sandpipers with greenish legs distinguishing them, seen in August
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Glaucous-winged Gull with pink legs and grey wingtips

With fall, the birds are stocking up on high-calorie food like berries, preparing to migrate while others build up caches of food for the winter. Its strange that I am more excited for winter than I ever used to be since becoming a birder. With La Nina this year, its shaping up to be another cold and snowy one (well, for Victoria, anyway…), but the winter ducks and putting up my feeder again will make it easier to bear! For now, I say goodbye to summer and one of my favourite summer birds, the Purple Martin….

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Purple Martin

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!

Watching warblers, new sparrows & spring babies

My first spring as an official birder went by quickly, each day longer than the last and I’ve been striving to get out more. I am slowly learning new birds as I encounter them. I enjoy taking it at a slow, unhurried approach.

In April, I saw my first warbler while out on a walk. I was struck by the muted yellow, almost olive green, colouring and the decidedly happy song it was singing out. It took me quite some time to identify as the Orange-crowned Warbler. This little bird has quickly become something of a favourite of mine. Seeing as green and yellow are my favourite colours, I suppose its not surprising.

Since that day, I have now had the joy of seeing it countless times and even learned its happy little song. Despite their name, their orange crown is not commonly visible, and they are said to be the “drabbest” of warblers, though I find them beautiful (Seattle Audubon).

Populations tend to be more grey and varied in colour in the east of their range and more fully yellow in the Pacific populations (Cornell; Sibley, 2016). They are a summer bird on Vancouver Island and in much of western North America all the way up to Alaska, though they can be spotted year-round up the coast of California through Oregon (Sibley, 2016).

While not entirely new to me, the White-crowned Sparrow is one I am recently confident of identifying. I have seen them before foraging on the ground, but I’ve now seen them enough times to know how to recognise them in the future. White-crowned Sparrows live year-round on Vancouver Island, so are more familiar to me (Sibley, 2016). Sparrows are tricky, and I am learning new types slowly. I love the bold white and black crown of these sparrows.

Another sparrow new to my eyes is the Chipping Sparrow. With a distinct rufous-colored crown, grayish breast and black line through the eye, this is a fairly distinct sparrow. Chipping Sparrows are only on southern Vancouver Island during the summer while they can be seen year-round in parts of Mexico and the southern U.S. (Sibley, 2016).

While admittedly not entirely new to me, I first remember seeing a Killdeer and knowing what it was late last summer, this is still a new one to share with you. Because they nest on the ground, their young are vulnerable to predators, but the Killdeer have a clever defense mechanism. Named for the sound of their call, the parent will fake a wing injury and call out loudly to distract predators away from their nest. They will continue this acting effort until the predator takes the bait.

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Killdeer with distinctive black double-band around their chest and red eyes.

 

While they are part of the same family as plovers, killdeer are not restricted to living near the shore (Cornell). I was quite surprised to see a killdeer at the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in late April! I had no idea they could live so far from water and so high in altitude. I guess I never studied my range maps close enough!

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Killdeer blending in well with its surroundings at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper NP, AB. He blended in so well I only spotted him after hearing its call.

While not new to me, spring of course brings those who are new to the world! I am so pleased to have seen this doe and her pair of fawns in my backyard. The doe is a regular visitor and I can only hope both of her fawns make it successfully to adulthood with their mother’s care. Its tough being a deer in an urban environment with hazards around every corner.

One of my favourite parts of spring are watching ducklings and goslings. I look forward to seeing them each year and wind up spending some time trying to scope them out. How  can anyone not love these fuzzy little yellow-green goslings as they follow mum and dad around?

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Little Canada Goose goslings

They soon start to grow up fast into mini versions of their parents with pale plumage but still haven’t developed their chinstraps.

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Canada geese adult pair and juveniles being led across an open grassy field

Tiny yellow ducklings paddle along staying close to mum, peeping and exploring and learning how to be a duck. Soon enough, they’ll start venturing further away from their mother and start families of their own!

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Mallard mum and ducklings on a pond

These older four juveniles huddle close together for safety and warmth still under their mother’s careful watch. Soon, the babies will all be grown and I’ll have to wait until next spring to see more ducklings, goslings and fawns. Until then, I shall enjoy all the adult and new birds and other animals!

Mallard mum and four juveniles

References
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Orange-crowned Warbler, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Orange-crowned Warbler, Seattle Audubon Society
Sibley, D.A., 2016. Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.