More birds of Finley Wildlife Refuge

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.

finleyforest
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.

ringneckedducks
Ring-necked Ducks
northernshoveler
The Northern Shovelers were not cooperating for my photos or perhaps I was not patient enough!
yellowrumpedwarbler
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.
hoodedmerganser
Hooded Merganser pair
americankestrel
American Kestrel
northernharrier
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.

snowhills
Snowy hills in the distance
acornwoodpecker1
Acorn Woodpecker
acornwoodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
californiascrubjay
California Scrub-Jay
darkeyedjunco
Dark-eyed Junco
goldencrownedsparrow
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…

springbuds

That’s a gaggle of geese!

mcfaddenmarsh
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.

canadagoose
Dusky Canada Geese
canadagoose-3
Dusky Canada Goose marked with a red collar for tracking their movements.
canadagoose-1
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!

canadagoose-2
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

cowichanpano
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.

muteswan
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.

buffleheads
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.

commonmerganser
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.

greatblueheron
Great Blue Heron
surfscoter
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.

ospreynest
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.

sealions
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.

westernmeadowlark
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!

snowgoose

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

A snowy hike in Strathcona in June

Back in mid-June, when we weren’t in the grip of a heat wave and summer was still at its start, I finally went on a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park that I’d been hoping to do for some time. I wanted to hike part of the Forbidden Plateau lakes trail. My partner and I had thought about stopping to do it on our way back from the North Island last April, but decided the weather wasn’t quite right yet.

DSC02776
Path through the woods early on the Forbidden Plateau trails at Strathcona Provincial Park

Our original plan was to head up to Lake Helen Mackenzie then continue on to Kwai Lake, taking take a loop trail past a number of others lakes back to the start. We arrived early and were ready for a big day. It was nice to arrive up in the mountains, where it had to be about 10 degrees cooler and even the air smelled fresher. We set off on a very well-maintained trail through alpine marshes alternating with forest trails.

DSC02777
I imagine in a few weeks’ time, this marsh will be overgrown with beautiful wildflowers of all colours.

For the most part, it was quite silent in the still mountain air; a refreshing silence. But as we stepped onto one of the many boardwalks that cross the marshes along the trail, we heard a very loud cry in the distance.

DSC02782
An inquisitive Canada Jay (Gray Jay or whiskeyjack – a bird of many names).
DSC02784
A fledgling Canada Jay learning from parents.

Suddenly, a family of curious Gray Jays (or Canada Jays) landed in the trees around us and loudly advertised their, and our, presence to the whole forest. With them was a very demanding juvenile bird. I’m sure the whole family would have loved a nice treat from us. Once they seemed to understand that we weren’t those kinds of humans, they eventually moved off into the woods, hopping from tree to tree until they disappeared and silence reigned once more.

DSC02789
intelligence in the eyes of a Canada Jay

Crossing a creek, we glimpsed a lone Black-tailed Deer upstream, so different from the urban deer we frequently see. I wonder how many people this doe encounters in her daily life. After a pleasant walk, we reached Lake Helen Mackenzie, its calm, clear water stirred only by the gentle wind. On the far side of the lake, snow touched down to lake level and I could imagine this place snow and ice-covered in the winter.

DSC02795
Black-tailed deer in natural habitat.
DSC02807
Lake Helen Mackenzie

After lunching at the lakeside, we assessed our energy levels and opted to continue on to Kwai Lake. From here, the trail became less well-defined and more difficult, with roots and branches threatening to trip you underfoot and a steady uphill climb, sometimes across little ephemeral creeks.

DSC02809
Small cascade coming down the hillside along the trail

A loud chorus of frogs croaked in the near distance; I could glimpse just bits of a lake somewhere below us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard frogs quite so loud! We continued on until the path became even less defined and covered in more and more snow as we climbed up.

Thoughts of turning back began to creep into my mind as we kept going until we reached another hiker who opted to turn around because he lost the trail beneath the snow. He wished us luck and we kept on until we, too, lost all sign of the trail beneath the snow now blanketing everywhere. After a brief discussion on the pro’s con’s and possibilities of each choice, we decided to turn back for safety’s sake. We could have pushed on, but I felt safer and more comfortable turning back, knowing I’d be safe at my campground that night.

DSC02815
An early spring flower in the mountains

We passed by the loud chorusing frogs again and passed Lake Helen Mackenzie, now much busier than it was when we’d arrived earlier, and followed the trail loop back to the trailhead past Battleship Lake. As it turns out, we ran into another hiker who’d turned back and changed plans, too, which reassured me we made the right choice.

DSC02821
Battleship Lake and Mt Washington in the background

Though disappointed we didn’t make the full hike, it was still a beautiful trip. For me, it is more about the journey and what we see and experience along the way than the end destination.

After encountering more Gray Jays on our return, we made it safely to our campground for the night. By the river, it was much warmer and it was hard to believe that we’d been stopped by snow earlier in the day. But that is part of the fascination of the mountains; they are like a world apart.

That night, at our campground, I heard something that sounded like a raptor for sure. When I got up to investigate in the nearby trees, I found two Barred Owl owlets perched up high being watched over by their parent. Though our trip hadn’t gone quite according to plan, if you open your eyes and ears, and observe what’s around you, remember what’s important, you might not care so much about the unexpected.

DSC02831
juvenile and adult Barred Owls

 

Birding in Victoria, BC at Uplands Park & Cattle Point

DSC06394
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.

DSC06367
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.

DSC05050
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!

DSC06356
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.

DSC05070
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.

DSC03947
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.

DSC00114 (2)
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.

DSC06395
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.

DSC08000
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.

DSC05491
Mt Baker in Washington viewed from Cattle Point, Oak Bay, BC
DSC07990 (2)
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.

Continue reading

Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

29683405430_7f8d4bd620_o.jpg

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?

DSC06117.JPG

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.

DSC06103
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.

DSC04717
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.

DSC04733
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.

DSC04719
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…

DSC04740
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).

DSC04746
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.

DSC04763
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?

DSC04762
Mallard and ducklinsg
DSC04760
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

garryoak
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).

garryoak2
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.

muledeer
Black-tailed Deer thrive in garry oak habitat

 

garryoakmap
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.

DSC09020 (2)
garry oak grove in early autumn at dusk
uplandspark
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.

fantail
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.

paradiseshelduck2
Paradise Shelduck female (and chick just below her).
paradiseshelduck
Pair of Paradise Shelducks (and mallards) at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. (Male is left, female is on the right)

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!

 

yelloweyedpenguin
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
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.

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.

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.

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
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…