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.

Harlequin Duck, male

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.

Thoughts and memories of Kaikoura

a rocky beach in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Since hearing about the big earthquake on the weekend, my thoughts have been drifting to New Zealand more frequently than usual. I was lucky enough to live there for a number of years, and I am so in love with the place – it has to be my favourite and most beautiful place on earth.

Town of Kaikoura, New Zealand on the east coast with the Kaikoura Ranges in the background

I visited Kaikoura a number of times while there, which is where the earthquake really hit hard. Its a small town on the north-east coast of the South Island perched along a beautiful area of coastline. Its renowned for whale watching because of a deep offshore canyon (Kaikoura Canyon) full of nutrients and fish, bringing whales closer to the shore than usual. Whale watching and tourism are economic staples for the town.

With an economy heavily reliant on tourism, many beautiful murals of whales and marine life can be found all over the town of Kaikoura.

After my first visit, it was very memorable and it stuck in my memory as one of my favourite places in New Zealand for a long time. It was here that I first went on a whale watching tour, though I did not see any whales, but lots of vomiting tourists!

Kaikoura beach

Kaikoura is also well known for its local seal colony where seals come to mate and can almost be seen relaxing on the rocky coastline. It was a delightful little spot just off the highway, popular with tourists, which I used to like visiting and taking visitors to see. Unfortunately, it looks like their favourite beaching area was buried under rockfall from a landslide induced by the earthquake. I hope not many seals were lost in the slide and that those that return find a new place to call home.

New Zealand fur seals at their colony in Kaikoura

the rocky Kaikoura coastline

I hope Kaikoura is able to recover from the damage from the quake – its a beautiful place everyone should visit when going to New Zealand and it would be a shame to miss out on. I hope people don’t let it stop them from visting. After 5 years, Christchurch is still recovering, and I hope all the residents of Kaikoura and other areas hit recover physically, mentally, emotionally and economically. I hope to go back again someday and enjoy the rocky coast and seal colony again… kia kaha, Kaikoura.

Kaikora beach with cliffs in the background

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

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 – he 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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First foster kitten and I’m in love

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Mutts Comics by Patrick McDonnell, Oct 31, 2016 (http://www.mutts.com/strips-archive)

Last week, I took home my first ever foster kitten. She was  a little bit sick for a while and stuck at the kitty hospital for some time, so coming to my house was the first time she got to run around in a while. She is a beautiful girl and a real lovebug!

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Zipper preparing to pounce…!

Its safe to say it didn’t take long for her to steal my heart. As playful and energetic as she is she is also every bit just as loving and cuddly. She has a pretty loud purr for such a small cat. Every night, she cuddles up with me in bed and one day I woke up in the morning to her grooming me.

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Cuddling up to me. She is not camera shy!

Its funny watching the differences and similarities between her and Amber. my senior kitty. They both like the same toys, but they move at different speeds. But they both kick the toy the same and chase after it, though Amber is only a little bit less exuberant about it. Having Zipper around is also distracting – I’d rather just hang out with her than do most other things!

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Amber is super sweet until she meets another cat. She was the original calico in this house.

However, she won’t be able to stay too long because Amber does not like other cats. She is a single cat home kind of girl. They’ve been separated but it does cause some logistical problems around the house so its only okay for short term, which is too bad because I really love this girl. It will be bittersweet when she finally gets a family to call her own.❤

 

The lost waterfall, ammonites & an American Dipper

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

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

Falls run dry with little rain over the summer

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

A little bit of waterfall cascading down into a lovely pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A lack of fall colour, coots, creepers & a cute raptor

For Thanksgiving here in Canada, I went out for a walk looking to see some fall colour. Unfortunately, the trees fell short of my expectations and were still quite green for the most part. However, I can’t complain because I enjoy the moderate climate Victoria has to offer throughout the winter months and I’m willing to compromise on a lack of fall foliage.

Elk Lake still looking very green in October

However, instead of colors, my walk delivered some other very exciting and wonderful things instead. First up, my very first Brown Creeper! For some reason, I felt like this was an important sighting for me in a way, like I wasn’t a real birder until I saw a Brown Creeper. I guess I felt this way because they are so common, but so hard to spot. Now I feel like I graduated in something; like I can call myself a real birder!

Brown Creeper, my very first and no wonder! They are difficult to spot these small, cute birds.

My first glance thought he was a Bewick’s Wren, but the coloring and shape was all wrong. As he skittered quickly up the vertical tree trunk, I was reminded of a nuthatch. And then I realised, without consulting Sibley, that this was most certainly a Brown Creeper. And I was right! How proud I was. How cleverly their feathers blend in with the tree; how small and quick they are. Now I have learned that Brown Creepers commonly travel up tree trunks while nuthatches climb downward – potentially a helpful clue for the future. This is because they start at the bottom of the tree when hunting for insects and probe the bark with their long, curved beak as they make their way up (Cornell).

American Coots out on the lake

Out on the lake was a codgery of American Coots. When we first arrived, we only spied them in the distance, but as we circled the lake, we saw them closer up to the shore and I was able to identify them as coots. I’ve never seen so many in one place before! It was a delight to watch them bob their heads back and forth as they swam along the surface of the water.

The most color I could find along the Elk Lake trail. I think these leaves will turn gold in a few weeks’ time, though.

Further along the trail, through the barely golden-twinged leaves, a hummingbird and a sparrow were noisily hovering and hopping around a branch of a tree; and there, camouflaged in the tree was a sleeping Northern Saw-Whet Owl who did not seem to notice the buzz of the hummingbird at all. What a contrast between birds: noisy, fast and zipping around or silent, suave and swooping.

Northern Saw-whet Owl: another first!

I have been hoping to see one of these tiny owls one day and was surprised to spot on in the middle of the day quite unexpectedly! The Northern Saw-whet Owl can be found in the Pacific Northwest year-round. Over winter, their range expands across all of North America except the high Arctic. These tiny owls prefer to live in old-growth coniferous forests where they predominantly prey on mice although mine was in a stand of younger deciduous trees (Cornell).


I wish I’d gotten to see his face when he was awake, but I’d never want to disturb the creature in its slumber, so I made great efforts not to make noise. Despite all the noise the hummingbird had been making as well as passing joggers, the tiny owl snoozed on peacefully, resting for the night’s hunt.


References
Brown Creeper, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Northern Saw-whet Owl, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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

Goodbye, osprey! until next year…

It was around this time last year that I first started  becoming seriously interested in birding. An osprey nest near my work had piqued my interest, and soon enough, I was moving onto all kinds of other birds! But osprey will always be special to me after inspiring me to really become more interested in birding.

This year, I was prepared for them. With the coming of spring, I eagerly anticipated their arrival back north. Sure enough, in early April they were back. When I had a chance, I watched them this summer and it was quite a journey…

I watched the parents work on their nest. I waited and hoped for the pair to mate, and they did. After that, I was hopeful they would have chicks! And they did better than I ever imagined: three chicks successfully fledged this year! Watching them grow and feed and learn to fly over these last couple of months has been such a special experience.

Two juvenile osprey (left) are almost as big as their parents! (Adult osprey right)

By mid-August, the chicks were almost unrecognizable from the adults. Soon, the mother left the nest for the south while dad stuck around a little longer to help feed the chicks.

Juvenile osprey tests her wings.

Juvenile osprey are growing up and testing their wings…

...but it would still be nice if you brought me some fish, dad!

“…but it would still be nice if you brought me some fish, dad!” The juvenile calls from the nest.

Knowing summer was ending and the osprey would be gone soon, I took some time out one day to go watch them and say goodbye. They certainly put on a good last show for me; two fledglings were on the nest and the third was on another light post at the stadium.

A fledgling spread its wings and took off…

made a short flight…

…before coming back in to the nest for a landing.

She looked to be in good shape for flying with all that practice!

I was so happy to see all three fledglings that day, and to get to see one of them fly. The two of them then perched on or near the nest for a while, calling out just like they did as chicks! I couldn’t have asked for a nicer goodbye to the osprey.

It was a joy watching them grow and learn this summer as I learned more about them and I hope to see our osprey pair back next year! I will miss their calls and their flying and diving and I will miss eagerly going to watch them under the summer sun. But for now, I say goodbye to the osprey, enjoy the sunny skies in South America…until we meet again in April!