A distant summer of birds

Earlier this spring on a forest stroll, I spotted this American robin with a meal for her chicks. She was very careful to flit about on her way to her nest so as not to alert predators of her chicks’ whereabouts. They might be considered a common bird, but I still find them beautiful, especially their cheerful song.

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American robin

In an exciting first, I spotted my first and second Lazuli Buntings! I’ve seen them once before on a group bird walk, but I don’t tend to think it counts until I can spot and identify a bird on my own.

The first bunting was calling from a treetop and caught my attention because I didn’t recognize the sound. I spent a while watching and listening until I got a good look of his bright blue head and orange chest! Ah-ha! A Lazuli Bunting! The second one I saw was also singing from the near the top of a tree.

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Lazuli Bunting

On that same walk, not far away, I first heard a Common Yellowthroat tch-tch-ing and waited for a while to see if I could spot him. His dainty feet perched on tall weedy stems as he darted about and called from the grasses.

I heard a second call coming from away on my left and I had to be very patient and attentive to spot a female Common Yellowthroat, who I suspect was his mate. The female has always been much more elusive to me and this one was shy as she mostly hid among the lower branches of a tree.

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Common Yellowthroat (male; center)

Watching Western Bluebirds has been another summer highlight for me. Since I’ve been monitoring nestboxes (which I hope to write about soon), I’ve learned a lot more about them just by watching and listening. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these birds more intimately and watching their chicks grow up (though they don’t always make it).

 

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I’ve had quite a few reptile sightings on walks lately, too! I’m not an expert, but I think the first snake is a Pacific Gopher Snake. From my reading, because they look like rattlesnakes, they will hiss and shake their tail when threatened. The lower snake is a Garter Snake, my guess would be a Northwestern Garter Snake, but I am not really sure. They are pretty common around here though that was the first Gopher Snake I’ve ever seen!

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Gopher snake?
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Garter snake

I hope you have all been able to safely get out into nature and enjoy some birds, snakes, plants and everything else there is to see!

Notes of a distant spring & early summer

Well its hard to believe we are halfway through 2020 already. I find myself wondering where the time has gone…its been a bit of a whirlwind year. From January to March, I was busy with work and classes. Then the end of March hit and Oregon went into social distancing and everything slowed down for a little while.

While social distancing and closed parks have limited some of my bird-watching opportunities, you’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got! I’ve managed to see quite a few more spring and summer birds than I anticipated back in March.

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Pacific Wren

On a short walk around a small-ish forest park, I was lucky enough to photograph this lovely little Pacific Wren singing his little heart out! I am always amazed at how loud and how long the Pacific Wren can sing for as it echoes throughout forests with lots of old wood and fallen tree debris.

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Brown Creeper

The Brown Creeper is ever an elusive bird to me. I find they difficult to spot and I still remember how excited I was when I saw my first. This one soon disappeared from the moss, blending in with the tree bark as he crept up the tree.

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Orange-crowned Warbler

One of my favorite spring arrivals is the Orange-crowned Warbler! I think I spotted this one with a bit of luck (which is sometimes what you need watching birds) and by his somewhat indistinct song! At the beginning of every spring, I struggle to remember how to distinguish their song vs. the Dark-eyed Junco. Its a challenge I welcome.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow

Meanwhile, I saw the last of the Golden-crowned Sparrows until they return again in autumn and winter! I saw a whole flock of them filling up on seeds to prepare for their journey north to breed.

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White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrows were singing their songs across open woodland meadows, urban parks and parking lots and along the edges of forests. I am sure they must be busy now with chicks or fledglings to look after, possibly even onto their second brood already!

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invasive American Bullfrog

Of course, there is more to see than just birds. This American Bullfrog scared me as I nearly ran over it on my bike. They are incredibly loud and very invasive around these parts and he certainly seemed to think he owned this part of the path.

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Pacific Tree frog

The Pacific Tree frog is quite a bit smaller and definitely native. They can be found around the Pacific Northwest and occupy a variety of habitats including woodlands, backyard ponds, pastures, grasslands and can even be found in alpine zones!

Despite some limitations, which required some creative thinking to get out and about, I’ve been able to have some nice moments in nature which are always healing, restorative and energizing. They remind of of the small beauties in life when many things in the world are turning quite ugly.

The sun and sea in O’ahu, Hawaii

Way back in October last year, I went on a trip to Hawaii for the first time. It was also my first time travelling anywhere that can properly be considered tropical. Beforehand, I felt both excitement and trepidation as someone who does not enjoy or cope well with hot weather. Hawaii was never really at the top of my list of places to visit, but a good friend of mine was getting married, so it was time to go. Sure enough, when I first set foot outside Honolulu Airport, I felt like I’d set foot into a sauna! But I think after a few days, I began to adjust.

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Honolulu seen from Diamond Head

With the wedding on the North Shore and not being city people, we opted to skip Honolulu and Waikiki and stay part-way up the east coast. Overall, as we began the drive out of Honolulu and east along the coast, the landscape and greenery reminded me a little of New Zealand (particularly the North Island), but not quite.

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Lighthouse viewed from Diamond Head
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Sailing the Pacific Ocean

We hiked up Diamond Head (Le’ahi) the first thing to stretch our legs after the flight. Getting out of the city was  relief; everywhere was green and blue. From the top of Le’ahi’s tuff cone, there are views of Honolulu to the west, the endless ocean below and the lush mountains in the background. There is an information display near the trail-head about the loss of native species and the introduced species who have unfortunately taken over much of the habitat around Hawaii. And despite all the new (native and invasive) birds there were, I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at those that were familiar including Rock Doves, Mallards and House Sparrows.

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The Red-vented Bulbul is just one of many examples of invasive species in Hawaii.
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Mongoose – ridiculously cute, ridiculously invasive and intentionally introduced. The first one I saw scared and surprised me as I nearly ran it over while driving on the highway. I was later told by a few people I should have run it over, but I’m just not comfortable intentionally killing something, even if its harmful to the native wildlife.
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Native and endangered – the Hawaiian Gallinule or the ‘alae ‘ula.

This hike was about all we had time for day one, besides getting dinner and arriving at our accommodation for the next two nights for some much-needed sleep. I found myself exhausted after our early morning flight, the heat, the hike and driving in the dark. It was a strange thing for my to experience such an early sunset during summer weather. I’m used to the long southern days of the temperate latitudes, not the 12-hour days of the tropics.

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View looking east from the Kualoa Ranch

The next day, I visited Kualoa Ranch as part of the wedding festivities, something I had mixed feelings about. It was not the type of thing I would normally do and in fact, would probably avoid as a tourist trap especially considering its film fame, though it also appears to be a working farm and nature preserve. Regardless, the Kualoa Valley was undeniably beautiful. As a big fan of Lost, it was neat to recognise some of the spots filmed in the show but the best part was seeing little sea turtles popping up from below the water’s surface on a boat ride and slowing down to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.

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Kualoa Valley – have you ever see anywhere more green?
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Looking west back towards O’ahu’s iconic mountains
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Beautiful hibiscus – one of my favourite things in Hawaii

On Day three, we had free time to slow down and explore on our own. I’d read this before going, but it was tricky to find good day hikes that weren’t too short or too long. Given the island’s steep topography, it can be difficult to find a middle-level hike suited to our energy-levels and time commitment for the day.

However, we found a nice loop hike at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve just north of the Waimea Valley and while it still turned out to be a bit longer and more strenuous than we anticipated it, I really enjoyed soaking in and exploring the jungle and having the chance to do so. There were so many new plants to see and smell. I continued to smell a strong pepper scent and though we tried, we weren’t sure where it came from. This was the furthest we journeyed from the ocean so far, too, but there were still small glimpses of it from the top.

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Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve
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A fragrant tree at the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve

After that, it was pretty full on spending time reuniting with old friends and enjoying the wedding with a bit of time for the beach, exploring banyan trees and relaxing before we headed on to Hawaii, the Big Island to explore more new landscapes. Though I enjoyed our time on O’ahu and the beaches were beautiful and the people friendly, I was looking forward to the quieter atmosphere of the Big Island.

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Enjoying the shade of the banyan trees at the beach
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Palm trees at the shore
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Sunset at the North Shore.

Connecting with wildlife from home

This post is as much for me as it is for you. I hope you are all coping as well as you can right now. With spring approaching, I had been looking forward to seeing spring arrivals and migrants in the bird world. The swallows, who are honestly my most looked-forward-to birds, osprey returning to their mates and nests and everyone else looking to breed this summer season. I’ve signed up to monitor bluebird nestboxes this summer and have been eagerly awaiting seeing and learning more about them while contributing to a long-term scientific study.

A lot of these things, plus a trip to southern and south-central Oregon have been affected, but I know things could be a whole lot worse. I’m looking forward to rescheduling my trip and trying to remain optimistic in the meantime. Amid all the gloomy news barraging us each day, it can be hard not to get lost in anxiety. However, we can still connect with nature from home. We’re fortunate to have a number of webcams to watch life unfold before us and I thought I’d recommend a few.

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juvenile Bald Eagle perched just outside the nest

If you want to watch Bald Eagle nests, I’ve found two excellent cams hosted by the Hancock Foundation in the Vancouver, BC area. For me, its nice to watch some webcams from familiar places; it makes me feel more connected to my region. There are cams in Surrey and Delta; both nests currently have eggs and should be hatching eagle chicks any day now! Remembering the plight Bald Eagles faced 30 years ago, its uplifting to see them able to successfully nest today.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a huge number of bird webcams from all around the world hosted on their site. My personal favourite is the backyard FeederWatch cam at the Cornell Lab in Ithaca, NY. I love the audio on this one, too. Today when I checked in, I spied Black-capped Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Hairy Woodpecker (I think!) and possibly a Rusty Blackbird, but I’m not totally up on the east coast birds which is part of the fun. I’ve seen nuthatches and cardinals before, too. My cat can enjoy watching this one, too. Bird-watching is one of her favourite past-times.

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Amber watching birds out the window

I was very excited to find a webcam at the Royal Albatross colony in Dunedin, New Zealand at the Cornell site. Being autumn there, the parents are currently feeding the chicks at the nest and I watched a chick begging their parent for food, who honestly seemed somewhat disinterested. Read about Royal Albatross lifecycles here. Its pretty amazing that we have the opportunity to watch something like this from afar, without disturbing the birds, giving us a chance to see a part of wildlife we would likely not otherwise have. For me, its extra special because Dunedin has to be one of my favourite places on earth and it makes me feel a little bit nostalgic and homesick for a city surrounded by such beauty and wildlife.

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Osprey will be busy rebuilding nests soon

One of the most entertaining birds to watch at their nest, osprey, ought to be arriving soon. I’m not sure if the webcam on the nest I used to watch at the University of Victoria will be live or not, but I did find one from Cowlitz County Public Works in Washington state. I suppose we’ll have to stay tuned.

Back to B.C., we can watch the Great Blue heronry at Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver. It was hard to tell what stage they’re at and I haven’t seen any eggs, but it appears there are heron sitting on, or at, nests, so perhaps they’re still getting ready.

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Common Murre juvenile at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

I also had fun checking in on the seabirds at the Oregon Coast Aquarium where you can watch Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres. Its nice to see what my neighbours to the west are up to. If you’re looking for something a little different and want an even more nautical experience (or perhaps feel like a James Bond villain) tune in to their fish and shark tank and forget all about pandemics and quarantine.

If you want something truly uplifting, check in with the rescue cats at the TinyKittens HQ streaming on YouTube. Also based in B.C., this group rescues feral cats. Pregnant cats are often featured and you can watch them give birth and see their kittens grow up, as well as some of the challenges they face along the way.

Again, not wild animals this time, but if you’re looking for an idyllic farm scene, check in with the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glens, NY to see what the alpaca, sheep and cattle are getting up to. When I checked in at the Cattle Pasture, a herd of White-tailed Deer greeted me instead.

nz newzealand sheepOf course, if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, spend some time in it! Get to know the locals and appreciate the little things you might normally overlook. If you want to bring some wildlife to your yard, put up a bird feeder (please read important tips before starting) and see who comes to visit. Take care of yourself and enjoy what nature you can right now!

Watching some of Oregon’s wildlife

I often write about birds here, but there’s a whole host of other wildlife and natural wonders and beauty to behold, too! I enjoy getting out and experiencing and seeing them as well. Now that I’ve lived in Oregon for over a year now, I’ve had the chance to see some of the wildlife that lives here.

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Roosevelt Elk at William L Finley NWR

Here in Oregon, we have two species of elk: Roosevelt elk (same as those we had on Vancouver Island) and Rocky Mountain elk. The basic range divide is the Cascade Mountains with Roosevelt in and west of the Cascades and Rocky Mountain elk in the east. Around here, I most commonly see a herd out at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge during the fall. There are also Black-tailed deer about, but I don’t see them nearly as often as I did in Victoria since I don’t have them roaming about my neighbourhood anymore.

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Black-tailed Deer at the Hoyt Arboretum, Eugene
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Nutria at Sunset Park, Corvallis
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Young nutria at Sunset Park, Corvallis

Beaver are strongly associated with the state of Oregon, but unfortunately, its common to see nutria in some places. Nutria, or coypu, are invasive rodents from South America. They are smaller than beavers and have long tails similar to a muskrat. Most of the time I see them in wetlands in the water or on the banks munching away on vegetation. They might be invasive, but I have to admit they’re still cute…

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Mink at Talking Water Gardens, Albany

Another semi-aquatic mammal, I’ve only seen mink a couple of times in Oregon. They can be found just about anywhere with water in Oregon and I used to see them only rarely on Vancouver Island as well. If you ask me, I think there’s something beautifully sleek about them.

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Coyote at OSU

I am longing to see wolves in the wild and have yet to, but I don’t mind seeing their canine cousin the coyote sometimes. There seems to be at least one, if not more, that can be see around the agricultural land at Oregon State University. I’ve seen them fairly regularly especially near dusk and dawn. I watched this one hunting, intent and focused on its prey, then pouncing on it.

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Grey whale at Boiler Bay
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Grey whale at Boiler Bay
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Grey whale at Boiler Bay

I’d only ever seen whales twice before I moved to Oregon. A humpback whale and orcas, though technically orcas they aren’t actually whales. Since then, my whale-spotting has increased significantly! While the grey whale migration includes the Oregon coast during the winter, a number of them spend their summer off our coast. They can often be seen from shore because they feed in shallow water. Its been pretty amazing each time I’ve seen these whales off the coast here and I was very excited to see one on my birthday last year!

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Steller Sea Lions (and a cormorant)
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Steller Sea Lions
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Steller Sea Lions in the water

Staying at the coast (my favourite place), we have Steller Sea Lions and Pacific harbour seals (as well as other seals and sea lions). Steller Sea Lions can be seen at the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, which could be seen as a tourist trap paying to access the caves, and of course, my wariness sets in immediately at such things. However, it seems they have the good of the sea lions at the heart of their mission. Is it better to pay to access the caves and watch the sea lions under the watchful eyes of staff and volunteers or to access the caves for free and potentially get too close? (You know there’s someone out there who would…).

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Harbour seals at Yaquina Head, Newport

With lots of forest in Oregon, we have lots of forest creatures, too, including a variety of squirrels, chipmunks, martens and wolverines. No, I have not seen half of those animals, but have seen a couple of these  chipmunks in the Cascades and on the eastern foot of the mountains. I think this one might be a  Yellow pine chipmunk, but I am no expert!

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Chipmunk in the Cascades
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Watchful ground squirrel mama and young at Fitton Green Natural Area, Corvallis

Of course, we can’t forget the unfurry animals, too! There are lots of snakes, frogs, lizards, salamanders and newts roaming Oregon but these are just a couple. I found this snake hanging out in a tree sunning itself at the Oregon Garden. I see Rough-skinned Newts while out hiking in the forests and can never get enough of seeing them. Its interesting to watch how they move, almost like they are swimming on land, paddling through mud with their webbed toes. They are toxic to eat (as advertised by their bright orange bellies), but a fun fact I just learned is that Barred Owls are somehow still able to eat them! Keep your eyes out on the trails around Oregon for them as they often blend in very well!

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Garter Snake at the Oregon Garden, Silverton
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Rough-skinned Newt on the forest floor

Oregon sure has a wealth of wildlife, from large to small, furry to scaled, coast to Casades. I’ve enjoyed meeting and learning about some of these animals and am always hopeful to meet more if I can!

The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Denver, CO

Back in June, I went on another trip to the Denver area and I’ve gotten wildly behind on blogging this year with other things happening. I’ve been wanting to write about the Wild Animal Sanctuary east of Denver, CO. I am quite skeptical about animal and wildlife-related tourist attractions. And just after my trip, I read a stirring and depressing account on wildlife tourism in a National Geographic article while waiting in a doctor’s office.

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Lion in the grass at the sanctuary

 

But while contemplating things to do in Denver and seeing the wildlife sanctuary, I thought I’d go see what it was all about. We went to visit with my skepticism fully switched on but pretty soon after arriving, it was quickly replaced with appreciation and inspiration. My appreciation was not only for the animals themselves, but for the sanctuary itself.

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Jaguar among the grass

Because it is just that. It is not a zoo. It is not a tourist attraction. Its truly a safe haven for these animals after some of them faced a lifetime of abuse, neglect and mistreatment. The enclosures are large, grassy expanses with sun and shade, trees and tunnels and all kinds of habitat enrichment. There are enclosures for all kinds of bear, large cats (tiger, lions, cougars, jaguars and leopards) and small (bobcats and lynx), foxes, coyote, wolves and hyenas. There are also camels, emus, ostrich, porcupines, raccoons, alpacas and horses.

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A lion having a well-deserved nap in the sun
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Grizzly bear also enjoying a cozy snooze

But where do these animals come from? Their stories are heartbreaking. Countless animals were brought into homes as pets when young and soon shuffled to sheds or small cages, never to see the sun or feel the touch of grass beneath their paws. Film industry lions who no longer obeyed their Hollywood trainers and bears used for bear baiting by hunters. Tigers were rescued from breeders who kept kittens alive only as long as they remained cute subjects for tourist photos. Animals were evicted from closed zoos that could no longer house them. Each animal’s story is available to read here.

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Rescued black bear at the sanctuary

The sanctuary really seems to know what they’re doing. They provide veterinary care, often much -needed when the animals first arrive. They have a special tiger facility used to ease them into a new environment individually, then with other tigers. They give animals the time they need to adjust and monitor their progress. Every animal has shade and shelter. Bears and tigers get pools and even man-made waterfalls to play in since water is so essential to them. Wolves live in family packs like they would in the wild.

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Wolf at the sanctuary

These animals are lucky to have a better life than they had before being rescued by the sanctuary. But I still wish there was no need for such a sanctuary to even exist. If legislation restricted the ownership of exotic animals and no one kept bears, tigers or wolves as pets anymore and people followed the law, the Denver Wildlife Sanctuary could happily shut its doors. These wild animals are not pets, movie characters or photo props. They are living, breathing, beautiful beings and they should live in the wild, undisturbed and truly be wild.

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This wolf was howling to the others

Seabirds, sand and waves on the Oregon coast (Waldport to Newport)

Its safe to say after two trips, I’m in love with the Oregon coast. Or it could be because I have ocean-withdrawal after living inland for the first time in seven years. In which case, I guess I should consider myself lucky! And even more so, its possible to go to the beach for a day trip here.

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In January, the beach was a nice and welcome break from the grey, rainy days here in Corvallis. Seeing a sunny day in the forecast at the coast, we decided to get catch some rays. I have to say that a lot of people told me the coast here was beautiful, so I had some heightened expectations. And it delivered. To my amazement, there were even flowers blooming.

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flowers in January!

Besides basking in the feeling of the sun on my face and watching the waves crash into the shore, I was strongly reminded of New Zealand. And New Zealand is my happy place. There’s just something about its wild beauty and wide open spaces and hard-to-get-to places that I love.

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Path down to the beach in Waldport, OR
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Another gorgeous beach near Waldport

Besides the beautiful views, the relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto shore and the smell of the sea in the air, there were plenty of birds and wildlife to see. In the Alsea River estuary, hundreds of sea lions rafted together in the shallows, or maybe there’s a dock under there, its hard to tell beneath all the blubber. They reminded me of the sea lions and seals I so often saw in Victoria.

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Sea lions in the Alsea River estuary, Waldport, OR

More than the mammals, though, the seabirds and shorebirds reminded me of Victoria, too. I’ll probably always have some feeling of nostalgia when I see birds I saw often there that I no longer see. I feel connected to the place from all the experiences I had watching birds as its where I really began bird-watching.

Some of my earliest experiences bird-watching were at little beaches along the shore, spotting Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron and seaducks like Buffleheads and Harlequin Ducks. While I see the first three still in Oregon, its still a little bit strange because I’m so used to seeing them often by the ocean.

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Great Egret along the Alsea River near Waldport
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Common Loon in the Alsea River estuary, Waldport
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Black Oysstercatcher at a beach near Newport, OR
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Surf Scoter pair at the South Jetty in Newport, OR
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Dunes along the South Jetty,  Newport, OR

One day wasn’t enough to see everything and take it all in, so we went back again in February for a day with a lot less sunshine, but just as much fun and beauty, this time heading north from Newport.

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The bridge heading to the north shore of Newport, OR. We’ll save that part for next time…

 

 

 

 

More birds of Finley Wildlife Refuge, OR

At Finley National Wildlife Refuge, the geese are just the beginning of what there is to see and enjoy. Even with winter closures in effect until March 31, there are a wealth of marshes, ponds, fields and forests to explore. As I really like to get to know my local birding spots, I’ve been trying to go there regularly. Each visit, the territory becomes more familiar, but the thing about nature is there can always be surprises. Within just one week, the refuge went from being dusted in snow to fields being flooded so much I was worried one of the bridges wound go underwater.

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A forest stream at  William Finley National Wildlife Refuge

The ponds and marshes were teeming with ducks in the last few weeks. Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons and a single pair of Hooded Mergansers all had plenty of space on the water to share. A flock of Northern Shovelers had an entire pond to themselves while an American Kestrel perched on a nearby tree, periodically taking flight and diving to hunt. A Bald Eagle and a Northern Harrier both flew over one very busy pond, spooking the ducks toward the opposite end while hundreds of noisy Canada Geese honked overhead.

Along the edges of one pond, a Black Phoebe fluttered between his perch on a log and the space above the pond to hunt insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the mud on the edges of a marsh, their golden spots striking on a cloudy day. In a large, grassy field, a Northern Harrier feasted on prey on the ground not far from a flock of American Robins hunting their own prey.

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Ring-necked Ducks
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The Northern Shovelers were not cooperating for my photos or perhaps I was not patient enough!
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At one of the pond pull-outs, I watched Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding just on the edge of the pond from my bird blind/the car.
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Hooded Merganser pair
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American Kestrel
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Northern Harrier

There’s life everywhere at the refuge if you pay attention. In a stand of white oak trees, which I have learned are the same as our old Canadian garry oak trees (Quercus garryana – the scientific name helps where common names confuse!), Acorn Woodpeckers call out their funny noises to match their supposed clown-like appearance. They’ve been in these trees each time I visit, so they must call it home.

In nearby trees, Northern Flickers joined the drumming, too, not to be drowned out by the harsh cries of California Scrub-Jays. Where a patch of brambly bushes met an open space, Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhee, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos sang in a neat chorus around me. Little flashes of white tails flew before me as the juncos were spooked and left the open ground for cover.

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Snowy hills in the distance
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Acorn Woodpecker
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Acorn Woodpecker
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California Scrub-Jay
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Dark-eyed Junco
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Golden-crowned Sparrow (and a Dark-eyed Junco)

On my last visit, there weren’t many ducks about the place, but I’m excited to watch the changes of spring come to life. I’ll certainly miss my overwintering ducks, but I know I’ll see them again later this year. I can already see signs of spring on the way…

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That’s a gaggle of geese!

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McFadden Marsh at William L Finley NWR

Earlier this week, I went exploring William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis, OR. The refuge was established to protect the wintering grounds of the dusky Canada Goose, a subspecies of Canada Goose that spend winter here and breed in Alaska. I’d never even heard of these geese until I visited the refuge. Much of the refuge is closed over winter to protect their habitat, but there’s still plenty of birds to see at the spaces that are open.

The difference between dusky Canada Geese and others was not immediately clear to me, but after checking some references, I can say with confidence that these are dusky Canada Geese. They have a darker, almost brown breast.

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Dusky Canada Geese
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Dusky Canada Goose marked with a red collar for tracking their movements.
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Compare the dusky to the Canada Goose with a cleaner, whiter breast. This one is a truly Canadian goose from Victoria!

And I can see why the refuge is here because the geese love it. While I walked to one of the marsh overlooks, a sudden roar of goose honks sounded in the distance. I looked up to see a hundreds of geese flying noisily overhead and I thought, now that is a gaggle of geese! Further along, some of the fields were painted brown with huge numbers of geese, more than I’ve ever seen before!

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The geese in flight

Dusky Canada Geese were once the only population of over-wintering geese in the Wilamette Valley, but in the last fiftty years, Cackling Geese have moved in as well as a new resident group of Canada Geese. Perhaps this is yet another sign of the times in an ever-warming climate with other populations of birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and Red-shouldered Hawks creeping north and staying over the winter, too. Sometimes I think animals and people living closely to nature can tell us a whole lot about the status of our ecosystems if we just learned to pay attention.

 

Birding in Victoria, BC at Cowichan Bay & estuary

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Great Blue Heron
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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