Birding in Victoria, BC at Uplands Park & Cattle Point

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Sign at the eastern entrance to Uplands Park across from Cattle Point

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.

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a tree-lined path in Uplands Park in the summer

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.

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A bench overlooking the sea at Cattle Point in springtime

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.

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!

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August flowers in a field in Uplands Park

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.

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a garry oak meadow in Uplands Park in the spring

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.

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Song Sparrow. Their song can be heard year-round at Uplands Park, but more so in the spring.

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.

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Harlequin Duck, a common winter visitor at Cattle Point

This past summer, a group of American White Pelicans (a rarity for this region) were spotted offshore from Cattle Point on the Great Chain Islands, among other locations. While I am not normally a “twitcher”, I did spring for seeing the rare pelicans but did not have any luck! Other interesting birds I have seen here includes the Rhinoceros Auklet, Long-tiled Ducks, Horned Grebes and a baby Killdeer.

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sea meets rock at Cattle Point with Oak Bay in the background and the Olympic Mountains in the far background

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.

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Eastern Cottontail (?) in Uplands 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.

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Mt Baker in Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC
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Mt Rainier, Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC

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.

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Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

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When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?

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I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.

I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.

In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.

I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.

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my Purple Martin pair

Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.

I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.

Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.

In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.

 

Two days in Vancouver: finding nature in the city

I’ve been to Vancouver a few times now and each time, the idea of going there does not really enthrall me. With a population of 2.5 million people living on 2,800 square kilometers of sprawling condos, houses and high-rises, its just not my kind of city. I’ve never really been a big city kind of person. My favourite place are not usually cities I’ve visited.

The tall buildings make me feel closed in and claustrophobic, the constant noise day and night of trains, cars, people and sirens, the different smells, not to mention the crowds; its enough to wear me out after a mere two days. The lack of trees, green spaces, blue sky…it all makes me wonder how those 2.5 million people manage every day.

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looking south across English Bay towards Kitsilano from Stanley Park

All those noises and small spaces overwhelm my senses and it becomes too much. I can just feel my anxiety levels going up along with my heart rate. On a recent trip there, I actually managed to enjoy day one, though a good portion of it was spent at Stanley Park – that’s probably why. If I lived there, I decided, I’d have to go to there every day. After visiting most of downtown on other visits, this time we stayed out of the core and it was actually quite nice.

We’d visited only a portion of Stanley Park before, not having had time to see it properly so this time, we walked the seawall around the entire park and I decided Stanley Park is my favourite place in Vancouver. The seawall actually extends past the park, from Kitsilano (with its famous beach) around False Creek, all the way to downtown, creating a 22-long cycling and walking path. Much as I am opposed to seawalls for environmental reasons, I admit it has some great recreational value.

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A Great Blue Heron at Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park

The trail wraps around rocky and sandy beaches where cormorants, otter, eagles, ducks and geese are common sightings. Of course, no trip to Stanley Park is ever complete without seeing at least one of its famous raccoons.

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One of many raccoons of Stanley Park

For me, the highlight was Lost Lagoon, which is rather an apt name for what was once part of Burrard Inlet and probably was, in fact, a lagoon. Now, its actually a freshwater lake thanks to a causeway that highway 99 traverses to the north shore. Despite its past, Lost Lagoon still manages to be a great site for birds and wildlife.

The Wood Ducks were one of the most exciting sights! There were lots of these colorful little ducks swimming about the pond, with noticeably more males than females. These ducks are just undeniably gorgeous. And then, came the most exciting thing of all…

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Wood Duck chick – so tiny!

Wood Duck ducklings! I have never seen these tiny little ones before! Wood Duck babies leave the safety of their cavity nests carefully chosen by mom and dad at less than 3 days old! Sometimes, they have to jump from nests as high as 60 feet from cavities to meet their mom, who waits for them below (Cornell).

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Wood Duck mom and chicks

I considered their early life experience as I watched them flit across the pond, sometimes following mom in a line and sometimes dropping away to explore a world all new to them. Mom kept a watchful eye on them, and at one point, chased away a male who was getting a bit too close and was perhaps a bit keen.

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Wood Ducks ducklings with mom

It was a good spot for a nursery as there were also baby mallards and Canada goslings learning from their parents, too. I noticed the mallards stuck much closer to mum than the Wood Ducks; perhaps this is related to the brave early days of the Wood Duck. Does having to leave home at an early age make them more independent chicks than mallards?

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Mallard and ducklinsg
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Mallard and Ducklings

And those were the highlights of Vancouver, for me. Day two, I was exhausted! In the future, I will remind myself not to spend too much time in big cities if I can help it, find green spaces where I can and always take time for some rest for myself amid all the people and places. I will keep this in mind as I travel to Toronto, an even bigger city, this week.

Garry oak ecosystems: more than just an oak tree

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a garry oak tree with its mottled bark

Since moving to Canada and specifically Vancouver Island, I’ve learned a lot about the Pacific Northwest and its environments, ecosystems and geology. One of my favorite ecosystems and landscapes is the garry oak meadow or the garry oak ecosystem. As the name implies, the foundation of this zone is the garry oak tree (Quercus garryana). An ecosystem, however, by definition is not just a tree. Its a whole community of all the creatures living in the area and how they interact.

These meadows are unlike anything I grew up around out east or many places I’ve seen since. I think that’s why I like them so much; not to mention they are so full of life (especially birds)! Southeastern Vancouver Island is one of the only places in Canada to have the garry oak ecosystem. In the U.S., garry oaks are found along the western edge of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon and into northern California. The garry oak is the only native species of oak in this region.

Living in a rain shadow area with dry summers, the garry oak is drought-tolerant and fire-resistant and prefers well-drained soil (GOERT). The tree are often successful in areas with shallow soil and rocky outcrops; most remaining modern garry oak ecosystems are rockier sites (ICOR, University of Victoria).

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a garry oak stand in the summer

Because there is a variety of sub-environments in a garry oak ecosystem like woodlands, savannah, meadows and vernal pools, there is the potential for high biodiversity. Much of the Greater Victoria region was naturally a garry oak ecosystem, but with European colonization much of the landscape was lost for development in the last 200 years (see map). With the loss of much of the garry oak habitat with European settlement, some species like the Western Bluebird and Lewis’s Woodpecker became extinct on the island.

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Black-tailed Deer thrive in garry oak habitat
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Map of Greater Victoria with previous garry oak ecosystems in 1800 (green) and those remaining in 1997 (red). Map by Lea, T., Horth, D., Richards, D. and T. Brierly, retrieved from GOERT.

One of the best things about garry oak ecosystesm (okay, I’m biased) are all the birds! Birds are abundant in these areas during all four seasons. Common birds I see are Anna’s Hummingbirds, Spotted Towhees, sparrows (particularly Golden-crowned, White-crowned & Song), a wide variety of warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, woodpeckers, Bald Eagles and Turkey Vultures flying overhead, swallows (Barn and Tree) and Bewick’s Wrens. Invasive birds in garry oak meadows are European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which displace native cavity nesters.

Garry oak commonly co-exist among Douglas Fir trees and Arbutus trees (Canada’s only broadleaf evergreen tree). Other common plants in garry oak meadows I have learned are camas, fawn lilies, Henderson’s Shooting Star, wild rose and buttercups. Scotch broom (or gorse) and English ivy are two of the top invasive culprits taking over.

Some places to see a variety of intact garry oak ecosystems around Victoria includes: Mt. Tolmie, Uplands Park, Beacon Hill Park, Mt. Douglas and Little Mt. Douglas, Francis King Park and Fort Rodd Hill. Many of the Gulf Islands have beautiful areas of garry oak habitat as well.

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garry oak grove in early autumn at dusk
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garry oak meadow in the winter

Resources
Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
University of British Columbia Geography Department
University of Victoria Geography Department

Fantails and flightless birds of New Zealand

The New Zealand Fantail, also called piwakawaka, has to be one of my very favourites. These forest birds certainly live up to their name; spreading out their tail behind them and doing a memorable dance and singing a loud chattering song. For a little bird, they are extremely noisy and not shy of people at all!

On a walk one day, a fantail (in the photo below) tagged along with me and my partner, fanning his tail periodically squeaking and chirping as he flicked from branch to branch. This behaviour continued for quite some time! If you haven’t seen it, its worth watching. There is a great, short youtube video available here.

The New Zealand fantail

As a duck-lover, the Paradise Shelduck (putangitangi) is another one of my favourites. They are actually a type of goose and they are just as noisy. They have a very distinct call and are often found in pairs in wetlands and on ponds. The female has a brilliant white head while the male is a bit more drab with a mostly black body. The pairs mate for life and return each year to the same nesting sites (DOC). For a real treat, listen to their calls here.

Pair of Paradise Shelducks (and mallards) at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. (Male is left, female is on the right)
Paradise Shelduck female (and chick just below her).

New Zealand is also home to some unique species of penguins! Yes, I have been lucky enough to see both the Yellow-eyed Penguin (hoiho) and the Little Blue Penguin though I have no photos of the latter. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the largest resident penguin that breeds regularly in southeastern New Zealand. If you find the right beach at the right time of year, you can see them leaving their nests in the early morning to go fishing or returning to them around dusk for the night. Its a joy to watch them come ashore and clumsily make their way up the beach after swimming so gracefully in the sea; however, they do move more quickly on land than you might expect!

Yellow-eyed penguins returning to their nests after a long day out fishing. Bit blurry as these photos are taken on my old camera years ago.

They are extremely sensitive creatures, though, and must be watched in silence and with caution only under cover. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the predation from invasive species like cats, dogs (people walking them off leash down the beach), ferrets and stoats (NZBO). The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Penguin Place have both been set up to support these unique birds by putting in nest boxes, planting native plants and even rehabilitating sick and injured penguins back to health.

Little Blue Penguins are the world’s smallest penguin and as such, face similar threats. The West Coast Penguin Trust aims to help the little blue through research, education and restoring habitat to its natural state.

That is all for 2016, I hope you all have a wonderful new year full of feathers, nature and everything else you love. I will see you again in 2017!

Keas, kiwi and curious birds of New Zealand

You can’t mention New Zealand birds without mentioning the Kiwi. While I have never seen one in the wild (though I have heard them), I saw this one at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, where they have an excellent breeding program in effect to try to help the kiwi population. Because they are flightless, they are vulnerable to predation by species introduced from settlers including possums and stoats. Shy and nocturnal birds, they have a very strong sense of smell they use to feed on insects, worms and fruit under cover of night.

There are actually five different species of kiwi: the North Island brown kiwi, the Okarito brown kiwi, Southern brown kiwi, the Little Spotted kiwi and the Great Spotted Kiwi. In general, each species tends to inhabit a different geographic region.

Kiwi in center of photo at a nocturnal exhibit at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

Like the kiwi, the Weka is another flightless native bird of New Zealand and is also part of the rail family. These beautiful birds are not shy of people and this one walked right up to us and hung out with us for quite a while. It was quite entertaining to watch them walking around and exploring.

Weka checking us out in a parking lot
Not shy at all, the weka will approach people.

While on birds who are not shy, the Kea is one of the most inquisitive and raucous birds you’ll ever meet. Also known as the New Zealand mountain parrot, no one should ever visit this country without meeting one. They are lovely olive-green parrots that literally live in the Southern Alps, though they can also be found at sea level, they thrive in the alpine environment.

The New Zealand mountain parrot in the mountains.

Anyone driving through the Homer Tunnel en route to Milford Sound is likely to see a kea. They are not at all shy of people and in fact, are infamous around New Zealand for being so curious; they tear apart people’s hiking boots left outside tents, tents and backpacks, and especially cars. They really like anything rubber. If you don’t believe me, google it. Despite their troublesome nature to some people, I absolutely love them.

Kea spotted in Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps.

The Pukeko is also known as the Purple Swamphen (or purple Gallinule) and is another member of the rail family. In North America, you might find they bear a resemblance to the American Purple Gallinule. Unlike their close relatives, the Takahe (once thought to be extinct), the Pukeko can fly long distances with a running start to get in the air. They can also be found in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Pukeko

As a country with no native land mammals apart from the bat, New Zealand is full of interesting birds with more to come in Part 2 of this series…

October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

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Female and male Harlequin Duck dabbling for food together. They were synchronized in their bobbing up and down.

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

Horned Grebes non-breeding plumage (?)
Harlequin Ducks and my mystery grebe

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

the ever beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird perched in a little bush
Song Sparrow scurrying on the coastal rocks

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Cedar Waxwings fluttered among the treetops, identified by their distinctive black eye masks.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

Great Blue Heron at rest
Belted Kingfisher unfortunately looking right at me…
Moments later, a Northern Flicker touched down briefly after the Kingfisher flew away.
A large group of Black Oystercatchers

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

A juvenile European Starling hopped along the rocks with Brewer’s Blackbirds.

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Black Turnstones livin up to their name.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Finding salmon in Goldstream River’s annual salmon run

Douglas Fir trees at Goldstream Provincial Park

We went to Goldstream Provincial Park last weekend to check out the salmon run and the waterfalls (now that its rained a decent amount around here!). Goldstream Park is particularly noted for its 600 year old Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees, the popular hike up Mount Finlayson and, of course, the annual salmon run in the autumn.

First, we stopped briefly at Niagara Falls on Niagara Creek (though why it is named this I don’t know!) which was looking very nice after all the rain. Its much less impressive in the summertime during our usual drought.

Niagara Falls, Goldstream Provincial (BC) Park
Pacific Wren
a beautiful Belted Kingfisher (female)

Then, we headed off to Goldstream Falls, a much less-visited and quieter area with a longer walk to access the falls. Along the way, I heard and then spotted a Pacific Wren among the brush. As we walked along the rushing creek amid the green trees, a spot of blue moved through the branches and landed on a mossy tree branch. A Belted Kingfisher – she remained still long enough to photograph; a rare occurrence for the birds I like to call hummingbirds of the sea (okay or lake or stream) because they move so fast.

Goldstream Falls

I’d hoped to see some Bald Eagles and other raptors (or even a bear!) at the riverside waiting to feast on salmon, but mostly it was gulls and ravens. At Goldstream Falls, a surprise awaited us. In the pool below the cascade were hundreds of salmon who made it to their destination!

Salmon gathered in the pool at Goldstream Falls

They reached the end of the road. Some of them were trying to leap up the waterfall and continue upstream but to no avail! I wonder if it is discouraging to them to know they are going to become nature’s buffet but I suppose they are unaware…Check out the jumping salmon on video at Goldstream Falls below.

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Orcas in the Seymour Narrows at Ripple Rock in Campbell River, BC

Last week, I mentioned my first ever whale sighting as well as my first orcas, but I didn’t elaborate on the orcas yet. Up in Campbell River in July, my partner and I decided on a hike to Ripple Rock which overlooks the famous Seymour Narrows, a narrow shipping passage connecting Johnstone Strait in the north to the Strait of Georgia in the south.

It lies east of Vancouver Island and was once a dangerous passage due to shallow rocks lurking out of eyesight below the water’s surface which caused tidal eddies to form. There were many shipwrecks there until the undersea rocks were blasted in 1958 and is said to be the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Today, the hike to Ripple Rock is an enjoyable seaside hike through coastal forest. We were told that whales are commonly seen from the top, but did not dare to believe we would have such luck.

View of Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock: Menzies Bay to the right, narrows to the left.

But when we reached the top, we hardly even took in the view when we saw them…a pair of orcas, their tall dorsal fins distinguishable even from a distance off in the water coming from Menzies Bay on our right. I could not believe our luck! Just the day before, I saw my first whale ever and now, here were two orcas swimming down the channel in front of me. This time, I had a chance to grab my camera.

Two orcas in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River, BC

Slowly, they made their way closer to us and for a time, they seemed to be hardly moving at all; as if they were having fun just floating in the current. The pair moved further off closer to Quadra Island and then all of a sudden, another pair turned up right in the water in front of us!

Orca seen from Seymour Narrows

They were so close we could hear them breathe. This orca stayed floating almost still in the water below us for a while, before he suddenly disappeared beneath its dark surface. I will never forget what it sounded like, seeing the way they moved through the water so effortlessly with grace.

I always dreamed of being able to see whales from land, not because I don’t like boats because I love them, but because I never want to pay for a whale watch tour again. It feels wrong stalking them and tracking them the way they do; I’d rather see them for free, for real and by my own luck. And I finally did. I’d hoped to see wolves on our trip, but I never expected to see whales…note the plural! Somehow, that weekend was full of the magic of seeing whales and to me, Campbell River will remain in my memory as a hub for whale sightings. I feel so lucky we had the chance and the right timing to see these magnificent creatures.

Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock with Quadra Island across the passage

An unforgettable experience seeing my first whale near Quadra Island

This summer, something very exciting that I will never forget happened… I finally saw my first whale. I say finally because I’ve been hoping to see one for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few small vessel ocean cruises in New Zealand and I also went on a whale watch tour there, but I never saw a whale on any of those trips!

Back in July, this all changed when I took a weekend trip up to Campbell River. The first day there, we decided to head over to Quadra Island for the day. Quadra Island is one of the Northern Gulf Islands which lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada and BC. Its a short ferry ride over from Campbell River across the Discovery Passage to Quadra Island.

Looking back toward Campbell River from Quadra Island

When we were about midway across the passage, all of a sudden off to our port side we saw it…a whale! We saw a small dorsal fin and a bit of body sticking up above the water. We watched for a few moments, fascinated, then it dove down and we saw the underside of its tail before the whale was submerged in the water once more. The underside of the tail had some white on the outer edges.

Looking east toward the mainland of BC from Quadra Island:
Looking east toward the mainland of BC from Quadra Island:

Not being well-versed in whale identification, I am still unsure if it was a humpback or a minke as the dorsal fin and tail both look similar at least to me for the fleeting moment I watched. I did not get any photos, but I will remember it always! There is just something so special and amazing about whales. The very next day, I saw my first orcas (photos forthcoming), so it seems Campbell River is a bit of a hotspot for whale sightings…

There’s more to see than whales, too; Quadra Island and Campbell River are beautiful with wonderful views like this one below of the Coast Mountains of mainland BC.  Quadra Island especially had some lovely birding spots and good opportunities for seeing shorebirds and lots of bald eagles in Campbell River.

Another view east of the mainland of BC and the Coast Mountains from Campbell River. Mt Doogie Dowler is the distinct peak to the centre-left at 2076m.
Bald Eagle spotted on Quadra Island