I love winter on my patch, although this year is testing my patience somewhat. For Canada, Vancouver Island is mild in winter, with temperatures and weather similar to that in the UK. But this year has been a different story, snowstorms and Arctic gales have consistently hit the island. This has meant that the usual enjoyable birdwatching trips around my patch have looked more like something out of March of the Penguins.
The reason I love winter here so much is because of all the birds. Yes, summer brings a number of smaller, brighter species, but on a good winter day at my local beach I can easily see 30-40 species without even trying, and this is about 5 minutes away from the city centre, perfect for any urban birder. Today the wind was the issue, gale-force Arctic winds coming straight off the sea; the birding can generally be quite good on windy days, as many birds move into the harbours for a bit of a shelter.
Walking down the street the ground was covered in American robins, I imagine that the cold weather further north from us has brought many into the city. American robins are a common species, different to the robins we see in the UK, they are a member of the thrush family, and act as so, they are often seen scuttling along the ground or up in the trees eating berries. An Anna’s hummingbird was buzzing away, perched on a phone line, it is amazing to see such a tiny bird braving the elements in winter. This individual had a bright pink front and was showing it off as I passed.
After reaching the harbour I ducked next to some rocks to get a bit of a break from the wind, the harbour was filled with the usual suspects. A male hooded merganser was showing off his impressive white hood to a group of seemingly interested females. A pied-billed grebe was foraging away further out, and a flock of common mergansers passed me by, keeping an eye on me in between dipping their faces in the water. I was also very lucky to see one of my favourite birds, is it ok to have favourites? Three harlequin ducks were resting on the far shore, two males, one female. The males are so beautiful, I know it is wrong to like a bird based on appearance, but with their sleek neat pattern, blue/grey feathers on the head and body, red/orange sides topped off with distinct white bars on their face, neck, around their breast and horizontally along their body, it is hard not to admire them.
Cormorants (I think double-crested cormorants, but I struggle to guess the species) were braving the wind, flying out of harbour. After a glimpse of some surf scoters in the distance, and a belted kingfisher bashing sticklebacks on the side of a boat, I decided to call it a day, my hands were basically frozen onto my binoculars at this point.
Walking back round the coast I noticed another birder watching something out at sea (top birdwatching tip, don’t always watch the birds, watch the people). I scanned where he was looking and spotted a marbled murrelet bobbing among the waves. This is a special species, a small seabird, the marbled murrelet is a member of the auk family, and is listed as endangered in BC. They spend winter on the ocean, but in spring they have a secret that eluded ornithologists for years. Unlike other seabirds you will not find marbled murrelets nesting on cliff faces or the rocky shoreline, they nest in the ancient old growth temperate rainforest along the coast, their nest can be as far as 45 miles inland. They make their nest within the giant mossy trees, travelling back and forth at dawn and dusk, like tiny ghosts of the forest. They are a remarkable link between land and sea and a great example of the connection between the cold seas and tall trees on Canada’s Pacific coast.