Posted by: Anne Murray | July 29, 2013

Cruising the Salish Sea from Bellingham WA

Bridge over Deception Pass, WA

Bridge over Deception Pass, WA

Last Saturday, I joined a birdwatching cruise out of Bellingham Harbour along with five friends from the Delta Naturalists’ Society.  The cruise is run weekly through the summer by San Juan Cruises, leaving the Alaska Ferry Terminal at Fairhaven at 9.00 am and returning at 4.00 pm (they do whale watching and other cruises too).  We were fortunate in the weather, it was a cloudless, blue sky day, and the water was very calm.

Cruising through Bellingham Bay we observed Pigeon Guillemots and Glaucous-winged Gulls nesting on small islands, and Black Oystercatchers on the shoreline. These species were seen throughout the day, and many of the gulls had fluffy chicks. Glaucous-winged Gulls are the only nesting gull in the area, although we also saw many California Gulls, Heermann’s Gulls (beautiful red-beaked birds, up from Mexico where they breed on the Isla de Rosa) and a scattering of Ring-billed Gulls, Mew Gull and one Herring Gull.

Great Blue Heron day roost

Great Blue Heron day roost

Near the oil refinery at the south end of the bay, we saw hundreds of Great Blue Herons standing at the edge of the shore, as well as many Caspian Terns and  gulls. A small flock of Western Sandpipers skimmed the water’s surface.

Alcids were common as we headed south towards Swinomish Channel and La Conner. Flocks of Rhinoceros Auklets were the most numerous, while Pigeon Guillemots were common around the rocky islets, Once we were in the deeper water around Deception Pass and Lopez Island we saw pairs of Marbled Murrelets and even a solitary Tufted Puffin – an unusual sighting for the cruise!

Bird island in Bellingham Bay

Bird island in Bellingham Bay

A highlight of the trip was watching a pair of Ospreys bringing fish to a chick, and carefully feeding it. Their nest was on top of a channel marker.

Osprey nest with adults and a chick

osprey nest

Osprey pair at nest on channel marker

The scenery was very diverse, from the wide, open waters of Bellingham Bay, through the long, narrow passage of Swinomish Channel, with skittering Spotted Sandpipers, Cliff and Barn Swallows and two Northern Harriers soaring over the grasslands, to the rugged cliffs and waters of Deception Pass, Whidbey Island and Lopez Island.  We returned northward via the shores of San Juan Island.  Bird islands, covered in guano, had Black Turnstones, a couple of Surfbirds and dozens of nesting Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants.

View of Mount Baker

View of Mount Baker

I saw forty bird species on the trip, as well as many Harbor Seals and a few Harbor Porpoises.  Victor, the birdwatching guide has a blog of the year’s trips here.  They hope to run the tours next year, if demand warrants and the last trip this year is August 24.

Posted by: Anne Murray | May 9, 2013

The bright colours of nature

Blue is an unusual colour in the animal kingdom, especially in northern latitudes, where muted shades of brown or grey are more common.  Blue plumage in birds is not a result of pigmentation but a consequence of light refraction through microscopic bubbles in the feather structure.

A trio of blue songbirds  are among my favourite B.C. birds:  mountain bluebirds, western bluebirds, and lazuli buntings.  Male mountain bluebirds are a beautiful turquoise, while the westerns have vermilion red chests and a contrasting deep blue head and back.  Lazuli buntings are named for the semi-precious blue stone, lapis lazuli.  All three birds spend the summer in B.C.’s  sunny Interior.

Light refraction is the reason the Steller’s jay (the common blue jay of the west, and BC’s provincial bird) will often appear very dark or even black, until, in turning, its back and tail suddenly flash with rich blue tones.  Many species of birds and insects have such structural modifications that create dramatic iridescence. Butterfly wings have crystal nanostructures (think unbelievably small) that selectively scatter light, revealing breathtaking colours.

The glittering throats, or gorgets, of male hummingbirds are caused by a combination of refraction and pigmentation, as is the green plumage of many tropical birds.  Carotenoids are natural pigments that reflect specific wavelengths of light, and result in red and orange colours, like those suffusing the plumage of house finches and orioles.  As male house finches mature, their red colour intensifies.  Black or brown colours in animals are due to the pigment melanin, which is also found in humans. It is synthesized within the body, unlike carotenoid which animals cannot produce.  Birds with red or orange plumage must therefore obtain their pigment from consuming parts of plants, such as seeds and berries.

Even experienced naturalists can be deceived by the colour of a bird’s plumage, if viewing conditions are difficult.  The speculum on a mallard’s wing can look green or blue, entirely depending on the angle, while even brilliant plumage can look all dark when seen against the light.  Identification becomes easier if one understands the nature of colours.

Posted by: Anne Murray | April 2, 2013

Boundary Bay’s sand dunes ~ a rare ecosystem

spit view 2 oct 31 06

Sand spit developing on Boundary Bay shore

Walk behind the South Delta Recreation Centre and you can sometimes see shells poking through the grass. The elevated ground here once marked the high tide mark at Beach Grove. A large midden, or ancient waste pile of discarded shells, dating back thousands of years, stretches across 16 Avenue and into the golf course. The ocean gradually retreated and new sediment was added, filling in the northwestern shore of Boundary Bay. The present beach is very dynamic, with new sand banks forming parallel to the shore and creating lagoons. Where houses abut the water in Beach Grove, very little sand dune remains, and the beach is mostly flat, whereas south of Boundary Bay regional park, there are more extensive areas of high, dry sand. Older dunes within the park have some interesting plant species and sand wasp colonies.

The provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations describe the sand dunes around Boundary Bay as rare and sensitive ecosystems. Staff recently undertook restoration work in Beach Grove, removing invasive plant species that have escaped from adjacent gardens. Within the regional park, many native and non-native plants grow on the sand dunes and in the salty, upper-tidal sand. One of the most striking in June and July is the saltmarsh dodder, whose tangled, orange stalks look like sprayed fluorescent paint or plastic string. It is parasitic on sea asparagus (Salicornia), has no roots and only stumps of leaves, and obtains its nutrients entirely from the host plant. The tiny white flowers are only visible on close inspection.

dodder 2

Saltmarsh dodder

Another strange plant is the big-headed sedge, which has brown spiky flowers and thin, grass-like leaves. It anchors the sand in place with its roots and helps stabilize the dunes. Female and male flowers (the former larger than the latter) are on different plants. Brilliant yellow flowers belong to the entire-leaved gumweed, a showy plant with sticky buds, at its best in mid-summer when it blooms in abundance. Sheep sorrel, a delicate, red-flowered plant, found on dry dunes, is one of many European plants that have infiltrated the delta over the years. Sea thrift, silver burweed, blue-eyed mary and Lomatium or Indian consumption plant are other sand-loving plants. Blue-eyed mary flowers in late March and early April. The seeds and leaves of Lomatium were a traditional herbal treatment for tuberculosis, also known as consumption. They taste of celery.

bigheaded sedge

Big-headed sedge

Boundary Bay’s special sand dunes are well worth a closer look; tread carefully!

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 27, 2013

Sea Lions in the Salish Sea

California sea lions

California Sea Lions

Ocean waters between the mainland and the Gulf Islands are home to many marine mammals, including whales, sea lions, porpoises and dolphins. Two species of sea lion, the California and the Steller sea lion, are present in southern B.C. waters at this time of year. They can sometimes be seen swimming in the sea or hauled out on rocky islets and jetties.

Seal lions are much larger and noisier than the more common harbour seals, which belong to a separate family. Even from a distance, one soon hears the barking calls of California seal lions or the loud growls and grunts of enormous male Steller sea lions. They can raise themselves on their front flippers and turn their rear flippers forwards, so they are quite agile on land. Underwater, they are sleek, fast predators, feeding on herring, hake, octopus or rockfish. They are not at the top of the food chain, however, as they are hunted by transient orcas.

Steller Sea Lions

Steller Sea Lions

The histories of Steller and California sea lions illustrate the significance of human predation and long term, oceanic climate cycles on marine mammals. Steller sea lions breed on the B.C. and Alaska coast and some disperse to the Salish Sea in winter. They were once aggressively culled through hunting and population control programs, but since 1970, the B.C. colonies have rebounded. This is not the case for the once abundant Gulf of Alaska populations, which have declined dramatically since the 1950s. The northeast Pacific Ocean has been undergoing significant ecological change and Steller sea lions, harbour seals and northern fur seals are all struggling to survive. With herring in short supply there, the sea lions feed on less nutritious fish, such as pollock.

Only male California seal lions spend the winter in B.C.. They often gather out on the 8 km Steveston jetty in spring. Until the 1960s, they were rarely seen locally. Their presence here now may be overflow from booming southern populations, or due to cyclical ocean conditions. California sea lions are recovering from nearly two hundred years of extermination in California and Mexico but are now thriving.

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 15, 2013

Moles and Voles

Moles and Voles: the hidden life of small mammals

Townsends vole

A Townsend’s Vole from the Fraser Delta

Mole or vole? These two native mammals have confusingly similar names but play quite different roles in our local ecosystem. February is a good time of year to watch for signs of these small rodents. They are a seldom seen yet vitally important part of the food chain.

A sudden eruption of soil mounds on your lawn indicates the presence of coast moles. The wet winter season is an active time for moles and they will soon give birth to young, deep underground in their burrows. As they dig beneath the surface, you can sometimes see the mole hill moving as fresh earth gets pushed up from below. In early summer, the young moles disperse above ground and are vulnerable to predators such as barn owls and cats. Coast moles have soft black fur, pointed snouts, and strong, paddle-shaped front paws, used for digging. They eat many earthworms, slugs and other invertebrates.

Voles also live in tunnels, but they create intricate runways that meander mostly above ground, burrowing through the thick, matted grass of fields and marshes. These burrows are easy to find, especially in old field habitats that can hold up to 800 voles a hectare. Two species of vole are common locally: the Townsend’s vole and the smaller creeping vole. Both lead short lives and breed young, so populations of voles can increase rapidly. When this happens, coyotes and birds of prey will gather to feast on them, causing the vole populations to diminish, in an irregular boom-bust cycle. Townsend’s voles are a key dietary item for many of the resident and wintering raptors for which the Fraser delta is renowned, including northern harrier, short-eared owl, barn owl, rough-legged and red-tailed hawks. Even great blue-herons survive the winter by hunting voles. It is an amazing sight to see one of these stately birds spear and swallow one whole!

The high number of voles contribute to making the Fraser delta the best location in Canada for numbers and diversity of wintering birds of prey. Farmland, old fields and marshes are vital habitats for them.

Posted by: Anne Murray | November 18, 2012

Snowy Owls on Boundary Bay

Snowy Owl photographed from Boundary Bay dyke, January 2012, by Felicity Jenkins

Snowy Owls are once again wintering on Boundary Bay’s salt marsh and in fields and marshes near Brunswick Point, Roberts Bank. Last year, these birds proved to be a huge draw for photographers and the general public, not just birdwatchers. These spectacular birds are well worth a visit, but it is ESSENTIAL that some care and thought is given to their well-being. Last year, several of the Snowy Owls died, probably because they did not get enough to eat. In order to rest and hunt, these owls need to sit quietly for long periods of time, familiarising themselves with the terrain, listening to their surroundings, and conserving their energy. When people approach them too closely and surround them so that they have no obvious escape route, the owls can become stressed. This is true of most wildlife.

In many years of watching birds and wild animals, I have always found it best to wait quietly and allow them to approach. If there are many people watching at the same time, and the birds stay at a distance, there may be no option but to enjoy the view you have. Please use binoculars, a long camera lens, or a telescope if you have one. Please stay on the dyke, do not go into the salt marsh (where a number of other species live, that can also be disturbed) and do not go into neighbouring fields. Wonderful views can be obtained on the dyke, especially if you go a little earlier in the morning or stay later in the evening.  Photographers should be aware that Boundary Bay dyke is on the north side of the bay. This means that if it is sunny, you will be shooting straight into the sun, so it is better to visit on an overcast or cloudy day. 

The marshes around Boundary Bay and Roberts Bank are an Important Bird Area and some of the area has just been designated a Ramsar Site (Wetland of International Importance; actually all of it qualifies).  There are  many birds in both locations, although seeing them can depend on tides, weather and sharp eyes. Not only can you look for Snowy Owls, but also Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers (they used to be called marsh hawks – they have a white rump, conspicuous in flight), Western Meadowlarks, Northern Flickers, Northern Shrike, Merlins, Peregrine Falcon, Dunlin (sandpipers, that occur in huge flocks), Trumpeter Swans, Great Blue Herons, and several species of sparrows. There is lots to photograph from the Boundary Bay dyke which is 22 km long. Spread out from the crowds and enjoy the view.

Posted by: Anne Murray | November 13, 2012

Boundary Bay in November

A Short-eared Owl flying above the bay, Dunlin flock wheeling in background

Saturday was a gloriously calm, sunny day and perfect for birdwatching on Boundary Bay. Owls were present in abundance: we counted 13 Short-eareds between Beach Grove and 72 Street and also saw the first Snowy of the winter (a friend saw two out in the marsh). Huge Dunlin (sandpiper) flocks were doing their amazing aerobatics across the bay at high tide, easily avoiding the Merlin that was pestering them.  As the tide fell in late afternoon, the shorebirds descended to feed on the glistening mud.  Four Trumpeter Swans flew in, giving a nice contrast in size.

Along the dyke trail, we saw plenty of other birds: a highlight was two American Tree Sparrows. Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows were common, there were numerous Northern Harriers, after the same prey (Townsend’s voles) as the Short-eared Owls, and the usual birds such as Northern Flickers, Great Blue Herons, American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eurasian Starlings and House Finches.  A Eurasian Wigeon was hanging out with some American Wigeon in the pond, where female Shovelers and some American Coots were also feeding. Offshore, the duck flocks were typically enormous, as every waterfowl in western Canada heads to the coast for winter.

I was so taken up by looking at all this beauty, I forgot to take photos!


Posted by: Anne Murray | September 21, 2012

Ice and fire beside the Salish Sea

Mount Baker rises above the still waters of Boundary Bay

Mount Baker is a beautiful, snow-capped peak that rises from the North Cascades range in Washington State, about a hundred miles south of Vancouver, B.C.

The 3,286m peak of Mount Baker, an active volcano, formed when eruptions disgorged flows of andesitic lava. This highly viscous, silica-rich lava is produced where the oceanic crust sinks under the continental crust in a subduction zone. Mount Baker is one of a string of such stratovolcanoes that includes Mount St Helens and Mount Rainier, in WashingtonState, and the extinct CoquihallaMountain in B.C. 


Mount Baker is a relatively young volcano and is intermittently active. The last notable eruption was about 5,900 years ago, when ash and rock were blasted into the air and debris flows of mud, ice, rocks and trees crashed down its slopes. Spanish explorers, Galiano and Valdez, heard distant rumblings from the volcano in June 1792, and debris flows occurred through the mid-1800s. In 1975, gas escaped from Sherman Crater but the mountain slept on.

Andesite lava cooled into hexagonal forms

The ice sheets of the Pleistocene Ice Age only covered the valleys and lower slopes of the mountains, but alpine glaciers carved the summits. The North Cascades are the most glaciated mountains in the lower forty eight states, and they experience heavy snowfalls due to their west coast location. In 1999, Mount Baker received a staggering 29 m of snow! It has thirteen glaciers on its summit, yet despite heavy snowfalls, all of them are now shrinking.

Paintbrush and other wildflowers in the alpine meadows

The alpine meadows of Mount Baker are an ecological treasure. Hoary marmots and mountain goats live on the rocky slopes and chipmunks scamper among the heather and wild blueberries. Wildflowers abound in the short summer season: blue lupines, red paintbrush, yellow arnica and magenta monkey flower. Fine weather brings spectacular vistas of surrounding peaks, and a chance to hike the alpine trails. At other times, the mountain disappears in mist, rain and snow, and the temperature plummets. It is a harsh environment and only hardy species can survive.

Above: Mountain goats grazing on the alpine meadows

Posted by: Anne Murray | August 29, 2012

Spotting grouse in Manning Park

We did not so much look for grouse in Manning Park as stumble upon them. They just stand around, quietly and unobtrusively, until you notice them.  The one in the picture above is a male Sooty Grouse, with a bit of Dusky Grouse in his ancestry if I am not mistaken. Both species used to be ‘lumped’ together as subspecies of Blue Grouse until a 2006 decision by the arbiter of such ornithological niceties, the American Ornithologists’ Union.  The Sooty Grouse is a darker, coastal forest bird, while the Dusky Grouse prefers the drier interior. However, in Manning Park these two habitats adjoin and some hybridisation occurs.

This particular grouse was seen quietly standing among the wild flowers and conifers of the alpine meadows on the north side of Highway 3, reached by a winding road opposite the Manning Park Lodge.

Spruce Grouse

A stroll with the Delta Naturalists’ Casual Birders through the lower elevation forests around Lightning Lake produced a different species of grouse: the Spruce Grouse. Once again, the adult, a female, was standing very quietly at the base of a tree, her mottled plumage blending in very well with the surroundings.  Close by was one of her well-grown chicks, and as we watched four more emerged and followed her as she walked calmly along the edge of the car park.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Other interesting highland species include Clark’s Nutcrackers and Grey Jays (both very tame in Manning Park) and various small animals, including yellow-pine chipmunks, golden-mantled ground squirrels and columbian ground squirrels and snowshoe hare. While black bear are often seen around Manning, the hot August day and the many visitors to the park must have sent them to higher, quieter altitudes.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk

The chipmunk and the golden-mantled ground squirrel can be confusing: the chipmunk is smaller and has a striped face.  The cascade subspecies is the one found in Manning Park.  I think it is a different subspecies in the Canadian Rockies, where they pester hikers at Lake Louise.

Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Posted by: Anne Murray | August 19, 2012

Bird Scientists flock to Vancouver

Delegates at the NAOC-V 2012 listening to Ian Davidson, Nature Canada

Conversations this week on the UBC campus were all about birds, as 1500 ornithologists from around the world congregated for the 5th North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC-V 2012). It was an amazing intellectual experience listening to dozens of presentations, viewing hundreds of posters, and meeting international bird scientists of all ages. The sheer number of topics was incredible: from the global impacts of climate change on neotropical migrants to the effect of ocean noise on Pacific wrens, and from the historical perspectives on warbler evolution to the use of radar in tracking tree swallow roosts. Younger scientists had conducted carefully thought out experiments to test their predictions, while their supervisors and elders synthesised studies and moved towards the big picture: what does this mean for the global future of birds?

B.C.’s Kathy Martin and her committee did a great job of organizing the conference. Each of the four days, Tuesday through Saturday, started with a plenary session in the Chan Centre that everyone attended, and after a coffee break there was a choice of ten concurrent sessions, each lasting 15 minutes, followed by another set of ten sessions and so on, through the day. The sessions were continuous and in three locations, so all the delegates had to earnestly study the program book to make their choices ahead of time and make sure that they were viable. I found myself breaking the woman’s speed walking record a few times as I tried to get between buildings in time. I found the sheer intellectual effort of listening almost non-stop to detailed presentations, even though they were all delivered with great interest and panache, stretched my brain to near breaking point!  So I occasionally took a break, strolled around the hundreds of posters displaying yet further bird studies or checked out the exhibits. There were social events, too, of course (baseball game – US vs Canada, 5km race, quiz night, bird band jam, opening reception and last night banquet), and for us early risers: early morning birding at Wreck Beach and Pacific Spirit Park.

Sofi Hindmarsh with her Lower Mainland Barn Owl research poster

After four intense days, I came away from the conference with an enormous appreciation for all the enthusiastic, smart, engaged students and scientists who are studying the world’s birds. I was impressed with the results coming form the many new technologies available for tracking, measuring and assessing bird populations and the integrity of the scientific method for delving deeper, answering questions, searching for the truth. It was good to see basic science being undertaken, funded by foundations, universities and non-profits, and untainted by commercial bias. I appreciated the concluding plenary of Peter Marra from the Smithsonian, stressing the cyclical nature of life and the need to consider all stages of the bird’s life cycle, a theme picked up and expanded on during one of the closing symposia. Ian Davidson of Nature Canada, gave the hemispheric perspective on neotropical bird conservation and challenged the scientists to work more closely with conservation activists, land managers and local communities to implement the results of their academic findings.

It was a fascinating conference. A pity the mainstream media failed to connect.

Posted by: Anne Murray | August 7, 2012

Sunshine on Saturna Island

The Brown Ridge hike on Saturna Island has terrific views of the neighbouring islands and waters, with a distant backdrop of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.  Feral goats clamber on the steep grassy slopes and Turkey Vultures, Ravens and Bald Eagles glide along the ridge.  Ancient Douglas-firs cling to the edge of the cliff, topped and bent by the prevailing westerly winds, their branches enlivened by Red Crossbills giving “gip gip gip” calls as they search for cones.  

Brown Ridge is part of the Southern Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Taylor Point, Saturna Island, Southern Gulf Islands National Park Reserve: another beautiful destination.

Posted by: Anne Murray | July 19, 2012

More views of the Itcha Mountains and Caribou

 Here are  a few more photos from my Bird Atlassing trip to Itcha Ilgatchuz Provincial Park in the Chilcotins, British Columbia (see previous blog).  The caribou were easier to photograph than the birds.

Caribou bulls

Mix of bulls, cows and young caribou

Posted by: Anne Murray | July 17, 2012

Bird Atlassing in the Itcha Mountains


Horses grazing at Six Mile Ranch, near Anahim Lake

I have just returned from a bird atlassing trip to the Itcha Mountains in the Chilcotin, British Columbia. The Itchas are part of the Itcha – Ilgatchuz provincial park, a remote, backcountry region of forest, swamp and snow-capped mountains of volcanic origin. In fact, the Ilgatchuz range was so snow-capped that access was not possible this month.

Bird atlassing is the process of counting the number and species of breeding birds in a region; a BC Breeding Bird atlas has been underway for five years, and this is the final year of field work. The mostly volunteer work is coordinated by regional experts; our leader for this trip was Dr John Woods. Because of the remote terrain, our group of 13 – six birdwatchers, five outfitters (with an initial extra helper the first few days) and two other participants – went in on horseback. The outfitters, Wanda Dorsey and Roger Williams from Six Mile Ranch, Anahim Lake, wranglers Punky, Cara and Lydia and cook Jody, looked after the riding horses, the long string of packhorses and the incredible quantities of daily food consumed by the riders, while all the participants were responsible for their own tents, equipment and staying safely on their horse. Some mornings we got up at 4.00 am (daylight at that latitude) to do point counts – listening for every bird singing within earshot for a five minute period, then hiking to a spot 500 m further on in a grid line to listen again, and so on until breakfast at 8.00am.

The late spring, heavy snow and rainfall made progress slow and difficult in the lower altitudes. Horses got bogged down in thick mud and we struggled through willow thickets and the many hectares of dead, spiky pine trees, the result of the intensive mountain pine beetle epidemics suffered by BC forests in recent years. In some places, the forests had burned, and all that was left were charred stumps, scattered with golden blooms of arnica. Where the forests were still alive, Varied Thrushes, Dark-eyed Juncos and Yellow-rumped Warblers called. In the willow meadows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Wilson’s Warblers were often heard and sometimes seen.

Wildlife was scarcer than might be expected in such a remote area, largely unvisited by people. However, this harsh environment is tough for birds and wildlife, although native wildflowers abounded and mosquitoes were abundant.  As we moved deeper into the mountains and gained elevation, the weather improved and the views were phenomenal. Our patience in scouting the landscape was rewarded with outstanding views of Mountain Caribou, as well as the tracks of grizzly bear and wolf, though these predators stayed well away from our horse caravan. A few mountain goats, as well as red squirrels, chipmunks and other small creatures were also seen. Solitary Sandpipers were everywhere in the wet meadows, calling their urgent warnings, while the high peaks had Willow Ptarmigan, a fleeting view of White-tailed Ptarmigan, Horned Larks, American Pipit, Savannah Sparrows and remarkably, American Golden Plover (a bird I unfortunately missed seeing). Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sweet song from conifers on the very edge of the treeline and American Robins seemed to be able to survive at every elevation.  Olive -sided Flycatchers were also relatively common. Flocks of Grey-crowned Rosy-finches flew over the peaks. As we descended through the lower elevation forests we encountered singing Grey-cheeked Thrush, more commonly known as an eastern North American species, and flocks of Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills. 

This atlassing trip was a great experience and we were in great hands with Wanda, Roger and the crew from Six Mile Ranch.  The custom trek lasted for ten days: nine under canvas, plus a night before and after in the bunk house at the ranch, with all meals included.  Some horse-riding experience would be recommended, in my view, for a long trip like this – although the horses are incredibly calm and well trained, the conditions are rugged. It was an excellent adventure!



Posted by: Anne Murray | June 4, 2012

Black Out Speak Out

Thanks to all who supported Black Out Speak Out on June 4.

Posted by: Anne Murray | May 23, 2012

Pitt Lake after rain

We should have known when we saw the flock of Black Swifts swirling above our heads that it was going to pour with rain.  These scimitar-winged birds come whirling in with coastal depressions in late May and early June, chasing newly emerged insects under the looming clouds.  For a long time it was a mystery where swifts raised their young; turns out that they like to build their nests behind waterfalls on steep mountain slopes.  Swifts seldom come to land and have very short legs.  They only perch at the nest site, prefering a life on the wing. 

No sooner had the swifts swept across the sky than the rain began: big, heavy, drops quickly turning to a bona fide downpour.  I was birding with the Delta Naturalists’ Casual Birders – they don’t get put off by rain, so we carried on down the trail at Grant Narrows on the shores of Pitt Lake, looking for warblers, flycatchers and thrushes. 

Of course we didn’t see much while it poured with rain, other than a damp-looking Western Wood Pewee chasing flies near an old shed, but our patience was rewarded when an hour or so later, the sun emerged.  The hills were thick with mist – was that fresh snow across the water?  The sun galvanized the wildlife.  Frogs began croaking, Yellow Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers flitted around the bushes, pulling bugs off the leaves, and pairs of Wood Ducks lifted from the ponds and flew excitedly across the marsh. 

A beautiful location, after the rain.

Posted by: Anne Murray | May 14, 2012

Nature watching in the Gulf Islands

The beautiful southern Gulf Islands are just a ferry ride away from the big city lights of Vancouver and Richmond, yet they feel more remote than many distant parts of British Columbia.  The logistics of getting there can be challenging for those who do not regularly travel the ferries, not least working out routes and times. For the more remote Gulf Islands, such as Saturna, the trip from the Tsawwassen terminal on the mainland, generally takes between 2 and 3 hours, involving a change of ferry at Mayne Island.  The islands lie southwest of the lower mainland and are sheltered by the mountains of Vancouver Island.  Their climate is mild enough for growing grapes, and their sunny, rocky bluffs have Douglas-firs, Garry oaks and arbutus (madrone) trees, a scarce ecosystem in the Georgia Strait.  The Southern Gulf Islands National Park has significant holdings on many of the islands, with opportunities for walking and nature viewing.  Other ownership is mostly First Nations land or private residential and recreational properties.  Although the waters surrounding the islands are planned to be a designated marine conservation area, major channels are used as shipping routes.  Some ships waiting to head into DeltaPort and other terminals sometimes moor in sheltered Plumper Sound (photo above).

The islands are all hilly, so cycling or hiking on the narrow, winding roads can be pretty tiring, though the views and wildlife are rewarding.  Forested hillsides of dense Douglas-fir and western red cedar suddenly part to give glimpses of shining blue ocean, or distant snow-capped mountains.  Mount Baker, a 10,000 ft dormant volcano, rises as a snowy cone to the southeast, and to the south is the long line of the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Westward are the peaks of Vancouver Island, still snow-clad in May, and to the north are the coastal mountains, from West Vancouver, through Whistler and northward through BC.

The woods have small and very tame Columbian Black-tailed Deer, encountered with regularity around blind bends. The narrow valleys are thick with sword ferns, vanilla leaf and nettles.  Birds are numerous in summer, including the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures, breeding Bald Eagles, and numerous warblers, finches, flycatchers and vireos in greater diversity and abundance than many other areas of BC.  Some birds are absent – Black-capped Chickadees, common on the mainland, are replaced by Chestnut-backed Chickadees, while Northwestern Crows are scarce, their place taken by Common Ravens, an iconic bird for the First Nations along the coast.  A paddle along the shore reveals waterbirds such as the Pigeon Guillemot, Common Loon and Pelagic Cormorant.  River otters are regularly seen playing on the rocks or catching fish in the water, and in the wider straits bordering some of the islands, there is always the chance of whales, porpoises and sea lions.

This week we found coral root (pictured above), calypso orchids and chocolate lilies in their favoured places. Many wild flowers grow on the islands, although some species have been lost to the grazing of deer and to feral goats on Saturna.

Above: a young river otter explores the rocks

For the naturalist prepared to search diligently for small wildlife, there are red-legged frogs breeding in the streams, rough-skinned newts  in shallow ponds, and sometimes garter snakes and northern alligator lizards  basking on rocky outcrops.

Posted by: Anne Murray | April 13, 2012

Spring migration in full swing

This is an interesting time of year for bird watchers as summer visitors are arriving and not all the winter birds have gone.  This means you can hear a Fox Sparrow singing before it heads north, while surrounded by newly-arrived Savannah Sparrows.  Violet-green Swallows wing overhead above the lingering Snowy Owls.

I had not expected the Snowies to still be here, but it has been a cool spring and they have lingered on.  The pundits I spoke to earlier had all thought they would leave at the end of March, yet here they are in the second week of April.  I had reports of at least 10 at 72St and a couple at Brunswick Point this week. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers, a very abundant songbird, are arriving steadily and Orange-crowned Warblers have been seen in smaller numbers.  Any day now, Common Yellowthroats will be singing everywhere.  A few Mountain Bluebirds have been seen as they pass through the Boundary Bay area, punctual as usual, and I am on the watch for Townsend’s Solitaire, a scarce but regular migrant.  Lots of Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are on the move, and the local breeding race of White-crowned Sparrows have moved in from the south. 

Offshore there are grey whales and harbour porpoises to watch for, and the sea ducks and loons are still numerous. We saw huge flocks of Brant all around Point Roberts coast line on Wednesday. It was neat to hear them calling so much, as these geese never seem to be as noisy as the Canada’s and Snow Geese. 

Mid-April is also the main shorebird migration time on Boundary Bay.  Check the shoreline for plovers, sandpipers and rarities. Just before or just after high tide is a good time to view them, as it brings the birds closer to shore.

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 22, 2012

Fewer Snowy Owls on Boundary Bay

Update to this blog: though many had moved on, a few Snowy Owls lingered until early May – the last one was seen about May 8!  We had a cool spring in the delta so they obviously didn’t get the urge to head north.

Snowy Owl; photograph Felicity Jenkins

There were not too many Snowy Owls on Boundary Bay this last Sunday (March 18).  Just six owls were seen at the 72 Street location, Delta, mostly sitting on logs near the dyke.  This is quite a reduction from the 35 or so we saw here in December but the last week has seen increasingly mild temperatures and sunshine.  Time for them to head north.

Sadly, not all the Snowy Owls made it through the winter, with about five or six fatalities known about.  Many of the visitors were juvenile birds and their ability to hunt and find food may not have been the greatest.  Disease and stress have also been hypothesized as causes. 

This winter, many visitors ‘found’ Boundary Bay and its dyke trail for the first time.  It is a great place to visit at any time of year, even when the owls are not here.  Northern Harriers will be nesting in the marsh, shorebirds passing through on the mud flats and beaches, and there are big flocks of Brant (geese) at the Beach Grove end of the Bay.  The dyke trail is 22 km long and on the west side of the bay there is the main part of Boundary Bay Regional Park to explore.  The entrance to the dyke at 104th Street, Delta (parking at the Heritage Air Park) allows access to the east end of the bay, which is a good location in late March – April for migrating shorebirds en route to the north. 

Spring is also the time to look for grey whales in Boundary Bay. They are best seen from the Crescent Beach to White Rock stretch of coast.

Posted by: Anne Murray | March 6, 2012

Sojourn in Sooke

The view from the shore looked across the Juan de Fuca Strait to the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in WA  although rain and mist kept sweeping in and hiding them. Seals bobbed among the kelp but there was no sign of any grey whales yet. It was intermittently misty, sunny, windy and lashing with rain – typical for a winter weekend in southwestern Vancouver Island. Streams ran full through the dark, cedar-forested gorges, splashing over the rocks. The moss was an unbelievably vivid green.We looked for, and found, a Dipper, teetering on the rocks midstream.  

Further west, Whiffen Spit shelters the water of Sooke Harbour, and is a great place to see Harlequin Ducks, Black Oystercatchers and dozens of Buffleheads. These small ducks seemed to be very abundant all along the coast. The males sport bright black and white heads and pink feet; the females are brown with a white spot on their faces. At this time of year, males were still grouped with other males and females hung around with other females. We watched five females doing synchronized swimming as they dove for small crustaceans off the rocky shoreline of Sooke Regional Park. It was difficult to focus on all five at once, so I only have four in my photo.

Posted by: Anne Murray | February 4, 2012

A sunny afternoon at Reifel Bird Sanctuary

The sea mist rolled away and the sun came out during an amble around Reifel Bird Sanctuary today. The Sandhill Cranes were calling constantly to one another; there seemed to be at least 9 although since they kept flying from one pond to another it was difficult to keep track. The cranes have become very tame because of all the grain handed out by enthusiastic visitors.

Hordes of Mallard followed me down every trail, convinced I was going to feed them.  Instead, I enjoyed a picnic of my own, sitting on a warm bench on the outer dyke trail. Facing the sun, it felt like April rather than February.  A female Mallard just couldn’t cope with the concept of a human who didn’t have a store of seed for her.

There were about 100 Northern Shoveler in the west ponds, scattered in small groups. This was a good number of this dabbling duck, which is not as common in the delta as the Mallard, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal (the big four). The males looked lovely and bright in the sunshine.

All the waterbirds are looking very spiffy in their clean new plumage, particularly the pintails, Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers. No sign of courtship behaviour yet, they were all intent on feeding. However, the Red-winged Blackbirds were all singing near the entrance, so they obviously think spring is here. One of the four Black-crowned Herons woke up and took a brief bath. These birds are a favourite with the photographers, but all too often have their heads tucked away. This one showed off the two thin white plumes on the back of his head.

I don’t have a long lens camera, just a point and shoot with a 12 x zoom, but it was fun to stroll around for a couple of hours, watching all the familiar winter birds and taking a few photos in the beautiful light. No rare birds showed up but there was plenty to see. The trees were looking particularly fine.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »